Monday, October 25, 2010

Have We No Right to Our Sort of Protest Songs?

It took me three weeks instead of one, but I’ve assembled my ideas about the problems of the affluent white person’s gesture of protest. It’s going to sound very cynical, but I actually consider my perspective on this quite optimistic, in a strange sort of way. All will, I hope, become clear by the end of the analysis.

So my loyal readers (or anyone who scrolls down to October 5) will know that I first began this stream of blogging with a saddening critique of an internet-based breast cancer awareness meme. People could put a joke in their statuses, mildly amusing at best, that would raise awareness of breast cancer among those who have already had this very opaque gesture explained to them. Here is the first, and in my view, the most superficial problem with the protest gestures of affluent white people. Quite a few of the things we get angry about – global poverty, disasters, disease, religious extremism, wars – are easily understood. And when people hang out in a public square holding signs that describe how much they hate war and cluster bombs, that’s easily understood. I look at a person with a sign that reads, “Stop the War in Iraq!” and I assume correctly that they very much want to stop that war in Iraq I’ve heard so much about. This is an effective protest because people, while they may not agree with you, will know what you’re talking about.

But some gestures of protest are very symbolic, and difficult to understand at first glance. In my breast cancer example from earlier this month, I found it very hard to understand. Cancer is a terrible disease, and we should raise money to research to cure cancers cheaply and effectively, and encourage people to self-examine and be mindful of their bodies, in case they develop tumours. A great way to spread awareness of this among your facebook friends is to post a status update like, “It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month!” and embed a link to a reputable research charity or a web guide to self-exams. You could sponsor someone in a fundraising marathon, or some other kind of pledge drive. This would be an easily understood way of voicing your opinion and productively aiding the cause through the infrastructures that exist.

A terrible way to achieve a goal like this is to make your status an ambiguous joke about sex, writing “Athena Peterson likes it on the kitchen counter!” Really, you’re talking about ‘where you lay your purse when you come home,’ and in a long, elaborately detailed private message from the friend who’s been spreading this 21st century chain letter, explaining the symbolism that connects women’s sexual exploration, the attention that a kinky-sounding status garners, and the eroticization of the female breast to genuine concern about breast cancer. None of this deep and complicated meaning was at all present in the initial joke, which is the only part of this gesture that 95% of your friends will see! To them, your cause is lost in confusion and opaque symbolism.

I think this kind of protest is dreamt up by well-meaning people who simply have too much time on their hands, so they can ponder oblique connections between gestures, jokes, and political issues, then assemble a convincing pitch for their protest idea. Patton Oswalt has some wonderful jokes about this, his old routines about why hippies annoy him so much. But this kind of protest that defeats itself through its own opacity is the symptom of a much deeper problem with being a socially progressive affluent white person. Most of us in protest movements are affluent enough that we don’t have to work for a living. We do this because we’re bored.

Now, I don’t want to disparage the good intentions of many people, and I certainly don’t want to describe all progressive activists in my country as ivory tower academic types and trust fund kids who haven’t even seen poor people before. Most of the people I’ve known in activist communities have been on student loans, have staggering debt, and worked one or two wretched part-time jobs (fast food, gas stations, tour guides), to put themselves through school. But they could go to school, and university. They’re functionally literate. They have opportunities. They lived in decent neighbourhoods where you couldn’t just walk to the corner one block down to buy coke, meth, oxy, and heroin. They weren’t physically abused or molested. Their families usually had enough money to feed everyone and make the mortgage payments.

The people who actually understand from experience what it means to be poor, are poor, and they stay poor. Not by choice, but because poor people have to stay poor if capitalism is going to work. And communism only works for four or five decades before collapsing from the absurd weight of a bureaucracy big enough to plan (with minimal effectiveness, if that) an economy for an entire nation. We middle class liberals have the time to protest because we don’t have to worry much where our next meal is coming from. But because we aren’t poor, we can easily lose touch with the people we’re trying to help.

This is why moronically opaque, over-intellectual protest events happen: we have enough leisure time to come up with them, but actual poor people are too busy trying to survive to care. An affluent white person lives at a disconnect that the power of conscience alone can’t always bridge. That disconnect makes such a person a cartoon, and it makes the objects of their charity regard them with contempt and resentment. A poor person can legitimately say to the affluent white person who wants to help them, “You are an ignorant fool who understands nothing of my life. My life is hard and I work hard. I don’t need your fucking pity.”

Now for the most profound part of my analysis of the affluent white conscience: expand this scenario to the entire globe. Now colonialism is part of the picture, a massive system of economic exploitation that spread over the entire Earth and lasted centuries. We affluent white people exist because of the enormous effort our ancestors put into creating the massively unequal share of wealth among humanity today. If you think the resentment of a Canadian poor person toward a rich person who doesn’t understand their life can be powerful, imagine how someone who lives on the equivalent of a few Canadian coins each day would feel.

Even if affluent Western governments actually donated all the money in their foreign aid budgets to actual foreign aid, it is still an utter pittance. We live as we do today because for hundreds of years, our ancestors destroyed the economies of entire continents for their own gain. Today, we feel guilty about it. So we pity the poor of the world, and send some pocket change to them so they can buy an extra chicken and we can feel better. But it’s nothing more than our pity, which demeans and dehumanizes the people who are pitied. If an affluent Western person thinks they can restore the world to peace, harmony, and brotherhood with a few gestures of contrition about our society having reduced their societies to mud, she’s in for a rough surprise.

The global economy is an enormous crime against humanity. And I’m not even talking about the ecological destruction. That’s another post, and my PhD thesis.

There’s a beautiful and terrifying film that expresses the emptiness of the affluent’s contrition very succinctly. It’s called Cobra Verde, and it’s about the last gasp of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1880s. There’s a scene, included in the trailer, where Klaus Kinski, playing Cobra Verde, the head of the slave trading port, takes a visitor to choose a slave woman to screw that evening. The women live in cramped quarters, in an underground hole. The chosen woman climbs out of a ladder. The visitor asks who these woman are, and Cobra Verde responds, with clear understanding of everything he’s done, “Our future murderers.”

Kinski plays a slave trader who understands exactly the horrifying criminal nature of the slave trade. He does it anyway because he is a criminal. He doesn’t pity his slaves either. He knows that one day the slave trade will end, and those who are oppressed now will take a place of dominance. He doesn’t call the slave woman an avenger, someone who will bring justice. He calls her a murderer. In this way, he understands that the only way to escape a system built on terror and injustice is not charity or contrition, but destruction.

But that’s not how the movie ends. The movie ends with a song by an African choir of young girls, singing in Akan, dancing in their own style, wearing their own clothes, and smiling. It’s an act of creation and celebration of life. The resentment engendered by pity, the confusion of a desperate conscience, the never-ending guilt of restitution, the ridiculous charity of affluent boredom; these are all forgotten. The scales of justice are thrown away, and we are left with dancing and laughter.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gastronomical Exploration: I Search for Bacon and Cheese Congeals

Tonight, my good friend Jeremy and I ate KFC Double Downs. We will never do so again. But we do know that if we ever have grandchildren, and live long enough to interact with them (having sworn off KFC Double Downs, this is much more likely), we will be able to tell them that we grappled with the most legendary product the fast food industry produced in the early years of this century.

With the amount of hype – no, mythology – already surrounding the Double Down, it was impossible for one aggregate of meat to live up to it. A healthy aura of comedy does surround this edible matter, however. Indeed, aside from the fact that there is protein in chicken, the Double Down is not healthy in any way at all. It is a creation of pure grease, metaphorically speaking. So why am I typing this blog post and not in an ambulance getting my stomach pumped?

Actually, it really isn’t that bad. The entire product was quite hot when it was first delivered. I let it sit in its box for a moment while I ate a few fries. Of course, the grease sticking to the paper wrapper made me very glad to have as many moist towlettes as I did. The chicken itself had a mild spice reminiscent of peppercorn. The bacon, while crisp, was barely noticeable, overpowered by the surrounding chicken. The bacon was too thin, while the chicken was too thick. The something-like-mayonnaise left much to be desired, reacting with the swiftly melting cheese to create an orange-yellow gloop that congealed quickly, and much to my distaste, as the sandwich cooled in my hands. I think the Double Down could be greatly improved if this something-like-mayonnaise sauce was switched for a simple chipotle, or perhaps ranch dressing, if you want it to be even more blatantly unhealthy.

I left one small fragment of the Double Down uneaten. It was a large, rectangular crumb consisting of equal parts, chicken, chicken batter, and congealed cheese. Probably the only unappetizing part of the Double Down was the cheese after it had congealed with the something-like-mayonnaise. If they used a better quality cheese, a different sauce, or had an option for not having cheese at all, the Double Down could be a much better dining experience.

I don’t want my readers to think that the KFC Double Down is an entirely negative experience. It definitely has its flaws, but the chicken itself tastes good, and the cheese is quite pleasurable while it’s in that perfect middle period of melting, when it has melted just enough to liquify onto the surface of the chicken, but before it cools into a congealed gel.

The only genuinely negative aspect of the KFC Double Down arrives long after one eats it. I am not a man with a weak stomach, but as I type, I am taking breaks to pop a couple of antacids, make some tea, and otherwise keep my stomach in proper working order. I am extremely glad that my class schedule this year allows me to take Tuesdays off, because I will likely need to spend the day making sure the Double Down works its way out of my digestive tract without increased discomfort. And I do predict some measure of increased discomfort. If you already have stomach problems, this is assuredly not for you.

I will readily admit that the best part of the KFC Double Down is its inherent ridiculousness. As Jeremy and I were waiting for our food at the neighbourhood KFC, the kitchen employee was preparing three of them in a row on the stove. As she laid them in their cardboard boxes, she clearly spat out the words, “This is fucking ridiculous.” I was eating a bacon, cheese, and something-like-mayonnaise sandwich, with fried chicken instead of bread. And I paid money for this. I paid an extra dollar to an anti-poverty charity. None of this makes any sense.

One of Patton Oswalt’s most legendary comedy routines revolves around the KFC Famous Bowl: chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, fries, and a breadstick piled artlessly into a bowl that you can shovel indiscriminately into your mouth. The creative minds at KFC don’t just inspire utterly unhealthy food that will shorten the collective lifespan of the American people by at least a decade. They also unintentionally inspire some of the greatest comedy of the new century. I’m looking forward to a polished and perfected routine of Patton’s take on this infamous and hilarious sandwich.*

*I should clarify that the KFC Double Down is very much more like a cordon bleu than a sandwich proper.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cover Without a Mother

I had a very curious idea about songwriting that I might eventually turn into some kind of academic article, though at this point, I have no idea how to do that. I may eventually ask my cousin, who is now a tenure-track professor of jazz performance at University of Victoria’s music school. The story of how I came to this idea is just as interesting, or at least funnier, than the idea itself.

Last weekend, I went with several close friends to Oktoberfest in Kitchener, the largest Oktoberfest outside Germany. I was told to expect utter ridiculousness, and I was not disappointed. After an hour of far too rapid pre-drinking, we took a short taxi ride to the auditorium where our Oktoberfest tickets were. Yes, it was an auditorium, with the hockey ice removed and a series of long red tables cris-crossing the cement floor. The auditorium was ringed with drink ticket booths, bars selling mediocre mass-produced beer (Molson Canadian was the lesser of the two evils), and pretzel and sausage stands. I knew my stomach was unable to handle giant sausages at that point in the night, but I spent $3.50 on the best pretzel I have ever eaten in my life.

At the centre of all this ridiculous insanity was a stage where, about an hour after we arrived, a band started to play. The band was composed of middle aged men, some of whom wore the hairstyles of 1980s hair metal bands whose hairspray was confiscated at customs as deadly weapons. The first song they played was Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and as they worked their way through a variety of songs that night, I realized that they were all radio rock from the 1980s, and with few exceptions they were all Bon Jovi songs. I was at an Oktoberfest in Ontario where the best beer was Molson Canadian and the headlining act was a Bon Jovi cover band. I think I spent about a total of almost two hours laughing hysterically.

I’ll forgo the morning after and the car ride back, during which my travelling companions rediscovered their inner Robert Downey Jr circa 1997. The philosophical insight came to me a few days later, as I walked home on a productive evening of thinking. A mediocre song, like most of the songs in the Bon Jovi catalogue, almost always sounds even worse when a cover band plays it. But most Beatles songs still sound excellent when a cover band plays them. As long as they’re competent with their instruments and can sing reasonably well, a genuinely great song will always be covered well. A song that always sounds so good has a greater likelihood of being played by other people, because the quality doesn’t typically degrade, as in Bon Jovi or KISS covers.

Before the invention and mass production of recording technology, almost every song anyone ever heard was a cover song: someone playing a song that somebody else wrote, sometimes decades or even centuries ago. Today, when someone plays a cover song, we think of it as the player’s version of the writer’s song. And we can refer back to a definitive version of that song to compare the writer’s and the player’s: the album track.

But there isn’t really anything essentially different from the album track and a live reproduction and a cover version. The instrumentation may change, the quality of play may be different, but every iteration of that song is the same song. We’ve come to fetishize the recording to the point that the recorded version is often understood as the essence of the song. The album version is the theme, and all live performances and covers are variations. But by the 17th century, someone playing a song from the 16th century has no idea how it might have originally sounded. Without some definitive recorded version, that musician only has the basic structure of the song and his own skill to play it. There’s no battle between some new version of the song and its pure original.

It made me consider the idea that this understanding of the record as the essential version of the song is a kind of mistake. The musicians can be much more meticulous about the creation of a song in the studio, add effects or instrumentations that are only possible in the studio, and then rearrange everything in order to play the song live. Sometimes, the live version will be completely different from the recorded version.

Coroner ran into this problem a lot, because they created songs with gigantic numbers of guitar tracks all integrated with incredible complexity. But they only ever played live as a three-piece: the guitarist could never, with his single instrument, capture the same power and complexity as a studio version with twenty or more tracks. Their live performances lacked the necessary power that the studio could give them. Meanwhile, KISS only really broke through with their live album: the studio was too clinical an environment to produce the spontaneous, party-like energy of their live performances. KISS thrived on that energy of the concert, and they could never bring that energy to the meticulous construction of the studio.

The studio is just one set of ways of producing the song. It’s a very different set of tools than live performance, so there are very different things you can do. But the studio version is just one more iteration of the song itself, one more variation without a theme. It’s just that the studio version, being the one on record, is most easily referred back to. It’s the version of the song that most people will hear. They can play it at their leisure. They’ll hear it first, they’ll hear it most often, and they’ll probably hear it exclusively. So they think of this version that they hear most often, the most likely become ubiquitous in one’s experience of the song, as the essence of that song, and all other versions judged in reference to it. But the studio is one way among many of organizing musicians and instruments.

The song itself is the organizing principle of all its performances, whether that performance happens in a studio with the instruments recorded weeks apart and assembled on a mixing board, in the middle of an arena stage, or on an acoustic guitar half-drunk at a party.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I Like It When People Feel Good About Themselves By Hitting Keyboards

In the past week or so, I’ve seen facebook statuses of some of my female friends that have confused me. “I like it in the closet.” “I like it on the back of my chair.” And so on. I knew there was some new meme creeping around, and when I did eventually discover what it was, I was even more disappointed than I had expected to be. I found out through this article, which I also discovered through a friend’s facebook link.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means there are going to be commercials and memes telling me that breast cancer exists, and that it is a problem. I, and the vast majority of people, have known this for some time. But in the “I like it” meme, women are asked to change their status to say where they like to ‘leave their purse’ when they come home. The use of pronouns lets them feel naughty, as if they were talking about sexual intercourse (but not really, because that would be weird, wouldn’t it?). They send a message to a few of their friends explaining it, and the meme spreads, making lots of people aware of breast cancer.

Just when I think Christine O’Donnell or Bill Maher are the most disappointing features of Western humanity, this happens. As Stephanie Fusco explains in the linked article above, the only person who knows that the “I like it” status is actually about breast cancer is the writer of the status update. They have fallen for an increasingly common delusion of affluent Westerners with high-speed internet: thinking they can bring genuine social and political change with a status update or a tweet. They are deluded about their own significance in the world.

Before I go off on my major rant, Fusco mentions another terrible aspect of this meme: reinforcing moronic sexual mores. She, and her friend Amanda quoted in the article, say it better than I can.

“The whole idea that putting something so ‘provocative’ in your Facebook status will gain attention relies on the notion that women speaking openly about sex is both slutty and shocking. This may come across as feminist drivel, and I may be accused of having too many feelings, but it’s true. As my super-star feminist friend Amanda Judd explained, ‘This whole thing was really an exercise in using the associated shame of sluttiness to supposedly draw attention to a good cause. It wouldn’t have been provocative if slut shaming weren’t so big. So it was slutty, it was totally meant to be. Women were supposed to sacrifice their reputation for a moment to grab the attention of others.’”

Congratulations ladies, for your trip back to 1953.

And now for my own major point. I have long had a suspicion, which has since become a conclusion, that the most contemptible kind of activist today is the affluent white person who thinks they can make a difference to those worse off than they are. Isn’t this the basic principle of charity? Yes. Yes it is. But I’m talking about a very specific version of the principle of charity, which I think is perfectly exemplified by this “I like it” meme. An affluent person with no real problems in her life wants to make a difference to people who actually do have problems. She feels affinity with breast cancer as a cause because she’s a woman, and breast cancer is the most stereotypically feminized cancer in the world. Its ribbon is even a stereotypically feminized colour, pink. She is told about this meme with a message explaining it to her, feels slightly giddy because it’s also a sex joke, and posts the status.

Now she feels like she’s done something to help those less fortunate. Of course, she hasn’t. She’s just put a cryptic sex joke in her facebook status. But she knows exactly what the status update means. So, as her reasoning goes, ‘If I understand it, then its meaning was obvious.’ Of course, the meaning is only obvious to her because she was told explicitly what it means. To anyone, like myself, who hasn’t heard this explanation, this is just another confusing meme travelling around the internet. But the people updating their status this way get to feel good about themselves. They’ve done a good thing! Now pat yourself on the back, affluent little white person, while actual cancer research and treatment continues unhelped and unhindered by your complete lack of a contribution.

So much time and effort is wasted in the affluent West on protest campaigns like this that achieve nothing. The only thing that’s accomplished is that someone who normally does nothing to improve the world feels slightly better about themselves. Some of the people I know who joined the “I like it” meme are genuinely politically involved people, and actually work to correct injustices in the world. But I’ve seen many protests like this that exist solely to assuage the guilt of the affluent.

Another post will follow in the next week or so where I discuss what I think are the larger political and social trends revolving around the guilty feelings of the affluent and the decline of Europe and North America relative to China, India, and Brazil.