Saturday, March 29, 2014

#CancelColbert? OMG WTF

All things being equal, the Left tends to have a far better sense of humour than the Right. The best comedy tends to be that which is poking fun at the powerful rather than the weak, and making observations that are at odds with what would be considered traditionally normal and proper.

The paradox is that while the Right's reactionary nature is what makes it less well-suited to comedy, the Left has its own very reactionary side, determined to stand up for the powerless against the powerful at all times. This fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, able-ism and the like doesn't always sit well with the comedic modus operandi of bucking against the boundaries what is normally considered polite conversation. It's a fine line to tread. Louis CK has been strongly criticized for, among other things, repeatedly referring to Sarah Palin as a "c**t"; yet he is nonetheless very popular on the left for the the liberal underpinnings of his philosophical outlook (he's one of few people who can discuss male privilege and white privilege and be hilarious at the same time). Indian-Canadian Russell Peters became a worldwide star for stand-up routines that are little more than a collection of racial stereotypes, which would get lesser comedians into trouble, yet the underlying theme is that cultural diversity is wonderful and fascinating. Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle was attacked by the PC police for using the words "Paki" and "nigger" in a joke about casualties of war, yet he used the terms to illustrate the callous indifference the West has towards dark-skinned people killed in far-off places. Clearly however, a lot of people heard those two incendiary terms and chose to disregard any other contextual considerations.

So to this week's fiasco of left-wing activists vs Stephen Colbert, whose popular show The Colbert Report is a satire of right-wing news. From the Washington Post:

If you’re making fun of someone else’s racism, is it still possible to be racist? Stephen Colbert found himself in quite the mess after his “Colbert Report” tweeted a quote from his Wednesday night show, making fun of Washington football team owner Daniel Snyder:
“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” the Colbert Report posted in a March 27 tweet that was later taken down. The Report later clarified that the account is a publicity account run by the Comedy Central network, not Colbert, nor his show.
Snyder was pilloried by the online Native American community Monday night after releasing a four-page letter saying that he would be creating the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Many were outraged by what they felt was an ersatz show of support from the man who refuses to change the team’s name, which many consider a slur.
But things didn’t go much better for Colbert, who became the target of a #CancelColbert Twitter hashtag started by those who found the tweet offensive. Suey Park, the hashtag activist responsible for #NotYourAsianSidekick, said she would continue calling for Colbert’s job until he issued an apology. 

Following this, Suey Park appeared on Huffington Post Live, in which her exchange with host Josh Zepps ends in fairly uncomfortable circumstances:

There are a couple of ways to look at this. On one hand, it shows two male white liberal journalists shutting down dismissively a woman of colour because her opinions challenge theirs. It's a demonstration of white male privilege in action. Alternatively, you could judge that regardless of the fact that she is non-white and a woman, her opinion is being treated that way because, as Zepps says, "it's a stupid opinion".

Unsuprisingly, people retweeting #CancelColbert chose to take the former perspective. And they may well have a point. It does raise something worth discussing though; is calling out someone else's privilege just another way of playing the race or gender card? When Zepps argues with her, Park basically says that as a white male, he is incapable of seeing the issue from the perspective of a person of colour, and thus his opinion is effectively irrelevant. Now, I won't deny that there are lots of instances of white people being unable to see things from a non-white perspective. White privilege is a real thing, as is male privilege. But Park's argument boils down to this: I'm right, because I'm a woman of colour.

How does anyone argue with that?

Let's bear in mind that "people of colour" (a term I really hate hearing, to be honest, but let's not dwell on that for now) are not an amorphous mass and the #CancelColbert mob do not speak for all POCs. As an example, Korean-American actor Stephen Yeun had a civil debate over Twitter with Park, defending Colbert's satire. However many POC found Colbert's segment offensive (or more pertinently, found the out-of-context Tweet offensive), there were clearly plenty who didn't. As a POC (ugh) myself, let me say that I don't think it's offensive at all and think it's perfectly legitimate satire. But then again, I'm half-white too so maybe that's just my white privilege talking.

My worry is that this is representative of the way that left-activism is going. People like Park might think they are raising awareness of how Asian-Americans and others are marginalized by the mainstream, but they are simultaneously entrenching the divide by making POC a sort of privileged class who alone can dictate what is offensive to them, regardless of whether it is reasonable or not. And if you are white and offend a POC, there is no way to prove that they may have misunderstood, so only an apology will suffice. I just don't think this will be acceptable to white people as a whole, and so this is the kind of approach that will merely alienate whites who would otherwise be allies.

One inevitable side effect of this controversy was that Park received lots of offensive tweets, with racist and sexist comments as well as death threats and rape threats (unfortunately to be expected for women in social media these days). This sort of abuse is completely unjustifiable, but it does show that Park is right in a sense - white liberals (the primary Colbert audience) may see themselves as progressive, but their ranks do contain many who will show an ugly sexist and racist side when the shit goes down.

Who wins out of all this? The Right, of course. Which is probably why whacko Asian-American conservative Michelle Malkin jumped on board to support #CancelColbert. When you are being supported by a right-wing nut who is on record as thinking the WW2 internment of Japanese-Americans was a good thing, perhaps its time to reconsider your direction. Jezebel has a good take on all of this.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hari Kondabolu on Letterman

Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu is the sort of comedian beloved by many a left-wing thinker - the nerdy brown guy critiquing issues of race and identity. But first and foremost it's got to be funny, and fortunately he's got just enough good jokes so that it doesn't just feel like a sociology lecture. It's not really everyone's bag though, and you can sort of sense that at least some of the Letterman audience (somewhat older and whiter than say, the Jimmy Fallon or Conan O'Brien audience) is feeling a wee bit uncomfortable.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Someone has made Malaysia's own version of "Happy"

Pharrell Williams hit Happy is just about my favourite track of the last few months: fun, infectious but not horribly cheesy. Its video has been a big part of its appeal, and it has spawned a few montages of people grooving to the song. This one is shot in and around Kuala Lumpur, and some of the streetscapes are recognisable even to an occasional visitor like myself. It could have been lame, but fortunately it's not.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This week on the Youtubes

This surreal German supermarket commercial may just be this years Gangnam Style. See Slate for some context.

For some reason I can never get sick of people finding new ways to play the Super Mario Brothers theme.

This clip is from Scottish reality-documentary show thingy "The Street", showing the lives of regular people living and working around one of Glasgow's main entertainment hubs. Angolan immigrant Melo is busking when he is accosted by a couple of racist thugs. It's a fascinating encounter, particularly due to the admirable way Melo manages to maintain his cool in the face of aggression. It's odd that this encounter would occur on camera, but I guess now that everyone is constantly filming everything, and the equipment needed to shoot a TV show is getting smaller and less obtrusive, the thugs probably didn't think too much about it.

Hotel. Motel. Holiday Inn.
"Say what?"

According to my African peeps, this is a pretty realistic depiction of what would happen if they were in this situation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 - the year in music

I have complained a lot over the years to anyone who would listen that popular music is getting worse. And in some ways that is justified. Hip-hop has been only intermittently interesting since the mid-90s, while alternative rock hasn't been much good for about 10 years. But the pop music in the charts seems to be actually getting a bit better. Oh, there's still some utter dross out there, exemplified by Pitbull's continued appearance on the charts, or RedFoo's execrable Let's Get Ridiculous. But I've just looked over the year-end charts of the biggest hits in the US and Australia, and most of it is not terrible. Some of it is actually pretty good, and some of it is actually really good. I mean, I don't really ever want to hear Katy Perry's Roar or Miley Cyrus' We Can't Stop ever again, but to give them their due, they are pretty well-constructed pieces of pop music.
If we view music in terms of the mainstream and the alternative or underground streams, there is sometimes a huge disconnect between the "good" music being made on the margins to some critical acclaim but little commercial success, and the trashiness of commercial pop. Every serious music fan knows of countless brilliant artists who barely register a blip on the mainstream's radar, while the likes of the Vengaboys and Nickleback rake it in. (Consider that Ke$ha has apparently sold 55 million records in less than 5 years, while Nas' Illmatic album, which pretty much everyone agrees is the greatest hip-hop album every released, took 7 years to scrape together a million copies sold.) Going back a few years, I couldn't listen to commercial radio or music video channels without being assailed be horrible cheesiness and music that has clearly been made to expressly appeal to horny stupid teenagers.

But yeah, something was a bit different this past year. There was a lot of music around that both mainstream and underground could get down to. Maybe it's that mainstream hitmakers started trying harder to make good music, maybe the people who would have been marginalised have been welcomed into the mainstream. Maybe mainstream audiences are sick of dross and are ready to welcome some better music. Or maybe my whole theory is bullshit and it's just that I've become too accustomed to bad commercial pop that I'm no longer disgusted by it.
But to me, the new mood in music is exemplified by songs like Icona Pop's riotous I Don't Care or Sky Ferreira's You're Not the One, two extremely sugary pop hits yet which have enough spike to them to have a non-mainstream appeal. Lorde, the teenager from New Zealand whose songs are a smarter take on the teenage experience, also straddled that line.

I can see it in the realm of popular electronic dance music, where the meathead-house of David Guetta seems to have gone out of fashion, replaced by the slightly classier likes of Avicii and Calvin Harris, while acts like Disclosure and Rudimental can create hits while still doing interesting things in the realm of UK garage and drum n' bass. Daft Punk renewed our interest in the classier side of the disco era.

2013 was also the year of Pharrell. I noticed last year that Pharrell Williams' career had gone quiet since being anywhere and everywhere in the early noughties. But the producer/vocalist roared back in a huge way in 2013, being involved in three of the year's biggest hits. He helmed Robin Thicke's unavoidable Blurred Lines, sang on Daft Punk's Get Lucky, and shone as a solo artist on Happy, which to me is probably the best song of the year. It's fun without being dumb, doesn't dive too deep into the well of cheesiness, and has a video that perfectly captures its vibe of carefree dance and celebration.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Far Right and Nelson Mandela

Amidst the outpourings of grief and respect that have followed the recent death of Nelson Mandela, you'd be forgiven for thinking that these tributes reflected a universal regard for one of the great figures of the 20th century. But sample a bit of what the right-wing news and blogosphere has to offer, and you'll find that some are happy to offer an unfashionable (read: incredibly ignorant) opinion. A great example is WorldNetDaily, where editor Joseph Farah seems to hold Mandela responsible for every violent act committed towards whites by anyone loosely involved in the resistance to apartheid.
He was not Martin Luther King Jr. He was not Mahatma Gandhi. And he was certainly not George Washington, as Barack Obama claimed.
(George Washington owned slaves, by the way, so he is right. Nelson Mandela certainly never did that.)
He was a committed member of the South African Communist Party. He was a leader of the revolutionary African National Congress, which he helped to radicalize into an organization sworn to armed, violent attacks.
Also at WND, Diana West attempts to nullify Mandela's legacy by pointing out his association with Communists.
If we attempt quantify the crimes of apartheid in brief, we can point to some 7,000 “political deaths” of South African citizens over four decades of white minority rule. The ANC struggle against apartheid, meanwhile, was sponsored by the Soviet Union, conservatively estimated to have killed some 20 million citizens to preserve its totalitarian dictatorship and to force Marxism-Leninism on the rest of us. This global movement, according to “The Black Book of Communism,” resulted in 100 million deaths.
( So just so we're clear, apartheid was only bad because of a few political deaths, rather than the systematic oppression of the majority of South Africans because of their race.) 

What jumps out at me from this quote is: the Soviet Union was a horrible totalitarian regime, yet they backed the struggle of black South Africans, while the freedom-loving United States did not. That is quite an indictment on the US. It's a common tactic in the US for the Right to use the word "Communist", "Marxist" or "Socialist" as a universal term to place someone in the box marked "irrevocably bad person". They've also done it with Barack Obama, and they're even doing it with the current Pope who has had the nerve to criticise the culture of capitalist materialism. 

It might seem obvious, but I'll point it out anyway: a LOT of people thought Communism was a good idea for a while, and most of them had no idea that some of its exponents in some countries were into mass murder. And for people who had to endure oppression under fascistic capitalist and democratic governments, it's not hard to see how Communism seemed like it might have been a better alternative. In any case, the kill count racked up by Christianity over the centuries is pretty damn high too, but most of us don't hold individual Christians responsible for that. 

As Salon points out, many more-or-less reasonable people on the conservative side politics have spoken favourably of Nelson Mandela following his passing, only to receive blowback from their supporters. At Renew America, Cliff Kincaid asks: "Is Mandela the biggest liar in history?" That's quite a challenge to throw down. How does one determine history's biggest liar, by the way? How thoroughly would Madiba's pants have to be on fire for him to win this one? 

Meanwhile, Rodney Atkinson, British political economist and embarassing brother of comedian Rowan Atkinson, says: “His legacy is a murderous one, comparable, in its racist and economic persecution of a minority, to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. And, like the Jews in Germany, whites, especially the young and well-qualified, have been leaving South Africa for years.” Of course in order to make the Mandela-Hitler comparison work, you would have to ignore substantial differences in death tolls (Hitler is up by around 6 million), and justification for their actions (I'm not sure whatever hardship those nasty Jews were inflicting on poor Adolph and his peeps was quite as bad as what black South Africans had to deal with). 

Now, you might have heard it said that "One man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist", and it would not be unreasonable to debate whether the non-violent philosophies of Gandhi or Martin Luther King were better or more effective than the armed resistance advocated by Mandela's ANC, at least for part of their history. But when it comes to the Far Right's condemnations of Mandela as a "terrorist" for engaging in armed resistance, bear in mind one thing: These are the very same people who constantly trumpet the right to bear arms, not merely for self-defence but as a safeguard against tyranny. Except the apartheid state was not sufficiently tyrannical in comparison to the very real spectre of tyranny that right-wing Americans face today under Barack Obama. I mean, socialist health care? The possibility of having to pay slightly higher taxes? Having to put up with gay people getting married? Having a black head of state whose name sounds kinda Muslim-y? If Nelson Mandela had fought against THAT kind of horrific oppression, THEN he might be considered a hero.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pop singer dating Asian guy leads to teenage racist brain explosion

I know it's not entirely shocking that there are racist people on Twitter. And neither is it entirely shocking that teenagers can be horrible, superficial and judgement at times. So we shouldn't be surprised when these things converge, but this particular case is interesting because it tells you a lot about the racist attitudes that are prevalent in our society about Asian men.
For those of you living under a rock that is impervious to popular music, Lorde is a white singer/songwriter from New Zealand who has made a big splash globally with smart electro-indie-pop songs that are smarter and better crafted than would normally be expected from one so young (she's just turned 17). Lorde also happens to be in a relationship, if a few photos that have leaked over Twitter would suggest, and her boyfriend is a slightly geeky looking Asian guy named James Lowe.
Normally one would think this a fairly unremarkable fact, but not so. A legion of One Direction and Justin Bieber fans took it upon themselves to unleash a torrent of tweets calling Lowe ugly and making the most unimaginative of racial put-downs. The stimulus for this was apparently Lorde referring to Bieber and 1D as "ugly", although there is no evidence for this actually happening. Rumour was enough. Below are just a selection of the many, many tweets on the subject.

There are even some tweets that clearly mean well, and attack the racist bullying tweeters, yet display racist assumptions about the attractiveness of Asian men.

Note the equivalence of "Asian" with "ugly" in those above tweets.

First of all, by the standards of regular people, James Lowe is not ugly. He's sort of nondescript looking, and doesn't look like someone who could successfully audition to be in One Direction. If you saw him on the street or in a social situation, outside the context of him dating a pop star, you wouldn't think he was ugly at all. All of which is probably irrelevant anyway, since ugly or not, it's just possible that he's a really cool nice guy who is interesting to talk to and knows how to treat a girl with respect. But it's not like those are important qualities in a relationship, right...?

I'm not going to claim that Asian males are the greatest victims of racism in the world, but they do suffer from a particular kind of racism. A great many people view them as incapable of being sexy or attractive, and assume that every Asian man is a maths nerd. In the US, African Americans face worse racism than Asians, yet there is no shortage of black athletes and entertainers portrayed as desirable - Beyonce, Denzel Washington, Tyson Beckford, to name but three. Where Asians are concerned, Asian women are quite often portrayed as desirable, although there is frequently a fetishistic aspect to this. Asian men just do not register on the radar of popular culture in terms of desirability. There are no Asian leading men on American TV. When an Asian-American man did blaze his own trail into national consciousness through sports - basketball star Jeremy Lin - the small-dick jokes were not far behind.

 If you're thinking, "Yeah, but... Asian men just aren't all that hot", you are entitled to your opinion. But bear in mind that physical attraction has a great deal to do with cultural conditioning. Asian men are so invisible in popular culture that many people (such as many of the above) seem not even to have considered the idea that they might be date-worthy. By contrast, there are people in the world who might never have seen a white man in the flesh, but who could decide that white men are handsome based on the ubiquity of Brad Pitt or Justin Timberlake. Same goes for black Americans. If Westerners were constantly exposed to images of say, Godfrey Gao or Takeshi Kaneshiro or Johnny Tri Nguyen, there would be a huge change in perception. Sure, there are still a whole host of Asian guys out there whose physical appearance is underwhelming, but you could say the same about white guys too. No one has convinced me that Tom Hanks or Nicholas Cage are any better than average looking, yet they have played romantic leading men in countless movies.

By the way... since no one can actually find any evidence of Lorde calling either Justin Bieber or One Direction "ugly", it might be puzzling that the rumour could become so prevalent as to elicit this kind of response. But it's actually not so surprising. She has criticised some artists before, including Bieber, of whom she said in an interview: "I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it's like to be a young person." For the kind of fans who like Justin Bieber and his ilk, the physical attractiveness of pop stars is inseparable from whatever musical talents they have. No one got successful making teen pop without being conventionally attractive to some degree. So implying that Justin Bieber is not a very good artist may as well be the same as saying he is ugly, since his image is at the root of his appeal.

Bear in mind as well that the typical teenager is riddled with anxieties about their own appearance and how it compares with other people, so disparaging someone else for being "ugly" has a sort of cathartic effect, and enables the bully to feel a little better about his or herself by placing themselves slightly higher on the attractiveness hierarchy than someone else. I can't imagine it feels all that good for someone like James Lowe however, who has been vilified as an ugly freak by hundreds or strangers, all for the heinous crime of dating someone who happened to be famous.

Aamer Rahman on "Reverse Racism"

Melbourne comedian Aamer Rahman has been getting a lot of exposure for this one bit of his act about the concept of Reverse Racism. (As in, non-white people being racist towards white people). It's not necessarily the funniest thing you'll see today, but it's really nicely put together.

It's something of a masterclass in explaining why not all racisms are necessarily the same. White racism has hundreds of years of baggage that makes it a lot worse in general than the racism of the assorted browns and yellows and blacks of the world. It may be a double standard, but it's one that is at least partly justified.

But I also think that this perspective on things is problematic as well. It's not easy to convince white people to take racism towards non-whites seriously, if they feel that no one takes racism towards them seriously at all. There is a large section of the left side of the socio-political spectrum who are hypersensitive to the pain or perceived pain of non-white people, often to the point of ridiculousness; yet the same people will make blanket statements about white folks which would be considered outrageous if they were made about non-white people. As I mentioned before, the double standard is justified... but only too a point.

I've seen Rahman perform a couple of times; I actually know him from my university days and he's a cool guy. White racism is the primary theme that runs through his act, but he definitely gets into territory that seems uncomfortably close to being actually racist to white people.

And at the end of the day, I have to wonder; does that help to bring us together, or does it merely divide? Most white people would feel alienated by Rahman's act, while non-white people may well leave feeling more contemptuous of white people than they did before. With the West experiencing deeply troubling divisions between white and non-white, Muslim and non-Muslim, I just don't know if all this stuff helps.

By contrast, someone like Dave Chappelle (to be fair, a very different style of comedian) makes comedy that constantly touches on race, and is also quite ruthless in making fun of white people and scathing towards racism. But I don't find it to be divisive.

It's important - no, essential - to identify and challenge those aspects of society and history that enshrine inequality. And the success of most Western societies cannot be separated from their legacy of criminal behaviour towards the people of the rest of the world, the extent of which most white people don't fully comprehend. They do need to be told. But there is a tipping point at which lecturing about the evils of white people simply becomes counter-productive. White and non-white need to work together if any kind of equitable and harmonious multi-ethnic society is to be achieved. This can't happen if non-white people live in constant suspicion about the motives of white people, and it can't happen if white people refuse to engage because they feel they won't be given the benefit of the doubt.

In an ideal world in which many radical anti-racists dwell, whites would cop to their privilege and properly make right the litany of injustices perpetrated so that they could enjoy the most advantageous position they enjoy in the scheme of things today. But since that's not really going to happen, I don't think that constantly telling white people how racist they are is going to reap the desired reward.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Must-see Indian satire of male excuses for sexual violence

You really have to watch this. It's from India, but most of it applies equally to any society, because you'll hear the same blaming of the victim no matter where you go.


It's really heartening to see an increased willingness to speak up amongst Indian women about sexual violence in their culture. I've seen comments from men saying that this video unfairly labels men in general, rather than men who commit rape, as the problem. But that would miss the point. In the words of male anti-violence activist Jackson Katz, "It takes a village to rape a woman". Incidents of rape are tied to the broader culture that surrounds them, that creates men with a sense of entitlement to have sex, a resent for women exercising their free will, and a hunting mentality rather than a sharing mentality towards the act itself. This is true in any country in the world, but South Asian societies tend to be some of the most patriarchal in the world.
Of course, it is possible to make the critique that the rate of sexual violence in liberal permissive societies such as the US is much higher than in places like India or the Middle East. But in the latter regions, that low rate has a lot to do with women's freedom being curtailed, either by law or by cultural mores. While it is probably true to a certain extent that women dressing very conservatively is one way to reduce the likelihood of rape, it also has the effect of removing the sense of responsibility from men. Focusing on women's dress and behaviour propagates the myth that men just cannot help but rape women if they get a bit too excited, which in turn perpetuates a culture in which rape is more easily excused and thus perpetrated.

Racist Movember

I used to joke that Movember was racially discriminatory, since as a person of East Asian ancestry it's just too hard for me to grow a moustache that is even remotely convincing.

But someone has actually written an article like that and apparently they are not joking. Arianne Shahvisi writes in the New Statesman that "The slogan is as misguided as its campaign: Movember is divisive, gender normative, racist and ineffective against some very real health issues."

Yep you heard right. To go into further detail:

For the most part, sponsored activities (day-long silences, sponge-throwing, public waxing) depend on the extreme, the outrageous, the ridiculous. Friends and family are, apparently, only willing to part with money to witness something odd, humorous or downright unpleasant. So what message does Movember convey to those whose moustaches are more-or-less permanent features? With large numbers of minority-ethnic men—for instance Kurds, Indians, Mexicans—sporting moustaches as a cultural or religious signifier, Movember reinforces the “othering” of “foreigners” by the generally clean-shaven, white majority. Imagine a charity event that required its participants to wear dreadlocks or a sari for one month to raise funds—it would rightly be seen as unforgivably racist. What is the difference here? We are not simply considering an arbitrary configuration of facial hair, but one that had particular, imperial connotation to British men of our grandfathers' generation and currently has a separate cultural valence for men from certain ethnic groups. Moustaches, whether or not “mo-bros” mean theirs to be, are loaded with symbolism. We often wonder how our fathers (both life-long moustached men) must feel each November, when their colleagues' faces temporarily resemble theirs, and are summarily met with giggles and sponsor-money. No doubt they draw the obvious conclusion, that dovetails with many other experiences of life as an immigrant: there are different rules for white faces.

One of the major weaknesses in the cultural Left is giving any shrift at all to articles like these; that focus on grasping at any possible reason to find some aspect of popular culture guilty of racism or other -isms. The "First World Problems" of anti-racism. And it takes something most everybody agrees is a positive thing - a movement that raises awareness and funding for prostate cancer - and tells us all how it is actually quite hateful.

Indeed, if you were a conservative and wanted to write a parody article highlighting Left-wing ridiculousness, you would probably write something like this.