Monday, August 6, 2018

ABBA and Socialism

I mentioned in a previous post my recent shift in how I view socialism.

 Socialism and "The Swedish Model" came up last week during a camping trip because there were a few Swedes on the trip who had benefited from growing up in a "socialist" country but had some interesting insights to offer about it.  The most fascinating, by far, revolved around ABBA.  But I'll get to that in a second.  First, let's talk about socialism.

The "s-word" is one often said in a negative way, particularly by those who are more financially conservative.  They point to failed socialist countries like Venezuela or North Korea (which, I would argue, failed due to the totalitarian government and political corruption, not socialism, but tomatoes, tomahtoes).  

But socialism is a fairly poorly understood concept, perhaps because it's so incredibly broadly defined.  Socialism is any structure featuring social ownership.  In this sense, social security is a socialist entity.

Governments should serve people and not vice versa.

FDR's "New Deal" in the 1930s created both social security and unemployment insurance.  Unemployment payments, like social security, is another example of socialism in America.  Public works projects created by the New Deal were likewise socialist in nature.  If you rely on the fire department, post office, or public schools, you are already enjoying socialism.  We all pay into these programs and we all benefit from them, either directly or indirectly.

Yet people are still scared of socialism, so much so that being labeled as a socialist in America politics is something of a slur.  At least, it is among conservatives and the prior generation; more and more millennials are coming around to socialism as more and more jobs become automated and the market becomes less and less able to accommodate its workers.

The example young Americans like to point to when lauding socialism's benefits is usually some Scandinavian nation, such as Norway or Sweden.  Interestingly, though, Sweden is not a socialist state; it is merely a state run by the Socialist Democratic party and has never declared itself socialist.  It remains a democracy; the rise of its far left political powers in the mid-sixties was peaceful and without fatalities, making it markedly different than, say, the USSR or East Berlin, in which socialism paved the way for violent totalitarianism.

Here is one excellent article on why Sweden isn't a true socialist state (and arguably never was).  Sweden isn't a socialist country because it has maintained private ownership of productive assets.

Since the 1930s, Sweden has been controlled by a socialist party.  Interestingly, by the way, in 1936, Marquis Childs wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, in which he argued that the "Swedish Model" of government and economics was one that combined the safety net of economic socialism with the rewards of capitalism, and it was this book that helped influence Roosevelt's New Deal.

The Swedish model of socialism is one in which there exists a social welfare state, ensuring that people have access to healthcare and educations, but it remains an open market.  Sweden's capitalism has remained strong and, unlike other socialist or Marxist states, Swedish socialism has failed in its attempts to control cultural aspects of the state such as media or music.

The funniest example of Swedish socialism's failure to create a true communist state is probably ABBA.  That's right, the band.

See, Swedish socialism tried really, really hard to infiltrate education and culture in the 1970s and 1980s without much success.  RUM (The Swedish Federation of Young Musicians) was established in 1973 to try to drive cultural unity.  The government pushed, for example, Swedish jazz to be a cultural export, and it was jazz and classical music that was taught in the schools.  But without the heavy-handed approach of a totalitarian government, instead, they got death metal and pop bands... ones that were wildly financially successful and really threw a wrench into the whole "socialism" thing, because, in a perfect socialist model, super-fame, stardom, and windfalls of money don't have a place.

Attempts to rein ABBA in proved unsuccessful; having won Eurofest in 1974 with their hit song "Waterloo," ABBA's fame was bigger than Sweden's attempts to achieve true socialism.  The Swedish people loved ABBA and they were proud of having a rock band that represented their tiny country of then about 8 million people.  ABBA was popular in America and West Germany, capitalist countries, with multiple top singles on the Billboard charts in the late '70s.

The lyrics of many of their songs flew in the face of Sweden socialism: songs like "Money Money Money" and "Winner Take All" saturated Swedish culture and proved impossible to root out.

Sweden purposefully tried to achieve socialism in the late 1970s and early 1980s with 85% tax rates and formal laws aimed at redistributing ownership.  The result?  They lost ABBA, who dissolved in 1982.  ABBA had a British manager; one member of ABBA ended up moving to the UK, while another ended up moving to Switzerland.  (Note that the divorce of two of ABBA's members played a huge role in their break-up, and it might have occurred even without the pressure of new Swedish tax law.)

Sweden also lost Björn Borg, the world's top tennis player, who moved to Monte Carlo, although, hilariously, he later moved back to Sweden to buy an island and create a private fashion label that is only slightly less popular there than Calvin Klein.

Another point for the free market.

The attempts to rein in superstars like ABBA not only failed but in some ways influenced some of the popular aspects of the band.  For example, declaring "fantasy" outfits as deductables to their income, claiming that it wasn't possible to wear the same outfits onstage as in their normal lives, ABBA ended up with increasingly more extravagant outfits for their performances, which became a signature style of the band.

Tax attorney (shielding his eyes): "Okay, okay, I'm deducting, I'm deducting!"

Nowadays, Sweden's tax is around 50-60%, making it one of the highest in the world but allowing the country to keep some semblance of an open market.  So it would be fairer to say that Sweden is more socialistic than purely socialist.

Sweden's not perfect, but their model of government-- a democracy with a lot of heavy-handed social programs-- has led to their country being among the happiest in the world.  

So where do I stand on socialism?  Clearly, true socialism doesn't work and has too much room for corruption.  But having social programs and a big safety net for the citizens of a country seems to be a good thing.  ABBA sings about how winners take it all, and losers have to fall.  But maybe that isn't the case.  Maybe the "Swedish Model" proves that social programs can be instituted in a way that protects a country's most vulnerable citizens while allowing an elite few to achieve financial greatness.  Socialism as a government may not work, but socialist programs might.  And maybe it's about time that we took a chance.

"I work all night, I work all day / to pay the bills I have to pay.
Ain't it sad?  
And still there never seems to be/ a single penny left for me.
That's too bad.
Seize the means of production and abolish private ownership of property." 
- ABBA lyrics, probably

(Side note about me: I am not a politician, a historian, or an economist, so I am writing this from the perspective of a largely uninformed person who talked to a couple of Swedes last week and thought that our drunken, half-remembered conversation made for an interesting think-piece.  I could be way off-base here; I've done my best to cite sources but take everything written here with a grain of salt and, as always, do your own research.)

(Side note about ABBA: The band has said as recently as 2010 that they will never allow their music to be used politically and that they had absolutely no interest in supporting any party or position.  Sorry, ABBA.)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Pennsyltucky: World's Worst Vacation Spot

((AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is not an especially fun or interesting post but, for posterity, I wanted to write about my trip to Pennsylvania this last weekend.  It's also a chance for a photo dump.  If you prefer good content, feel free to skip; written while still jetlagged, I make no apologies for this sub-par post.  Hey, they can't all be winners.))

Last weekend I went to Erie, PA, named for the Great Lake on which it borders.  Known for its wineries, Erie is something of a vacation spot, for those who want to know what it feels like to go back in time.

I say this because Erie apparently has no internet, phone service, or even grounded outlets in which to plug computers or phones into.

But I should backtrack and explain why I was in Erie in the first place.  Andrew's friend Marge was getting married and we were there for a few days for a wedding, following which there was a camping trip.  I immediately knew we were in for a treat when we came to the hotel, which had claimed to have WiFi and had nothing of the sort.  Just down the street was a dilapidated farm house flying a Confederate flag.  (Note: Pennsylvania is a northern state.)

To be honest with you, I'm a bit of a homebody, and besides that, I do not have a fantastic relationship with the state of Pennsylvania.

Also I hate flying.

But part of being married is, you know.  Being there for your partner.  I wanted to come along because there's something unsettling to me about the idea of Andrew's Pennsylvanian friends and family being isolated from me.  (I am already not especially welcome in his family and I don't want that to be the case with his friends.)  Coming to the wedding of one of his high school friends felt like a way of legitimizing us, sort of.

The trip began auspiciously enough in the sense that I got so ragingly drunk it's hard to understand how I even got on a plane in the first place.  I think I had a layover but don't even remember, to be honest.  We landed in Erie, PA, and I went to the motel I was sharing with Jack and Andy to drop off my things before going to the pre-wedding reception and bonfire.  It was at Marge's parents' lake house.

I felt that the fact that Marge's family was the kind that owned a lake house should have been something of a red flag for me.  I don't get along with most "old money."  But Marge and Zeke themselves were very hospitable and everyone was in good spirits and very welcoming so at this time, I was fairly confident we were about to have a good trip.

The following day was the wedding.

The wedding was, like the bonfire on the lake, full of good cheer.  Everyone was united by their friendship with Marge and Zeke so everyone was getting along great.

This looks like I'm very isolated but trust me it filled out.

The wedding, like the lake house bonfire, had a lot of red flags for me.  It was at a winery and had an open bar.  There were rustic elements like string lights everywhere and I got the sense a lot of money had been spent, which was even more baffling considering there was no day-of coordinator or DJ.  (Andrew was asked to step in for this duty.)

Nonetheless, my anxieties were assuaged because I found myself at a table with a group of awesome people and we formed fast friendships.  Hotel room situation aside, I was having fun.

We formed a gang, with gang signs and everything.

Half of us got them backwards.  We were not a good gang, although our turf war with Table 11 went pretty well.

Open bar aside, I behaved myself.  (Take that, Andrew's Mom, who was worried I might "embarrass myself.")

Recovering the day after, Andy and I went wine tasting.  The open bar at the winery hadn't, apparently, been enough.  You have to understand, though, there's nothing else to do in Erie, PA. 

lEgAl BeVEraGeS

Pennsylvania being Pennsylvania, it rained for four of the five days I was there.  This was unfortunate because aside from being there for the wedding, we had come to go on a camping trip with Marge and her friends.  The rain was unrelentingly heavy and flooded the streets and saturated the ground.  We took refuge downtown in a tavern called "The Skunk and Goat."  We poked our nose into an antique shop and we shooed away for loitering.  Yes, really.

This was when the trip started to take a turn for the worse.

Like the wedding, which lacked a coordinator, the camping trip was ill thought-out.  There were cabins that had been rented but other details, like food, were not, and the group arrived late after taking the World's Longest Shopping Trip in a grocery shop that unironically sold Shania Twain CDs.  Yes, CDs.

The cabins were cute and vaguely reminiscent of our hotel rooms, the main difference being that our cabins didn't claim to have WiFi.

I knew only Jack, Andrew, Marge, and Zeke.  (And then, I only knew Marge and Zeke passingly.)  The other six people on the trip were strangers to me.  Of course, if you go into the woods to drink and gamble, then you typically click with strangers.  Except that these strangers, as I mentioned, were of the upper-middle-class variety, and I quickly discovered I had nothing in common with them.

They were all within my age group but they were not my peers.  Every last one was a doctorate or post-doctorate who was studying something obscure and inscrutable; they were snobby intellectuals of the worst kind.  None had ever seen a Marvel movie (a grave sin, in my humble opinion), none had a sense of humor, and no one asked me at any point where I was from, what I do, or anything else about me.  I felt very alone.


Having given up on making friends with people who mostly wanted to talk about the economics of post-Rennaissance Sweden or whatever Very Smart™ and Better Than You™ topic they could think of, I busied myself with making friends of the forest.

 Hi nature.  *boop*

One of the "intellectuals" told me I was going to get sick from touching a toad, which was poisonous.  I laughed my head off.  The Eastern American Toad is only "poisonous" to yellow perch and it's basically completely harmless to humans.  The guy in question explained to me that they have poison sacs and I explained, wryly, that I was not putting the toad in my mouth and therefore would be juuust fine.  He replied with something like, "You'll see..."

Andrew led me away before I could deck him.  I may not know a thing about Nigerian etymology or the metaphysics of horse polo, but I know my toads.  If they'd asked they'd know I kept these species of toads as a kid, worked with them in a lab during my professional career as a biologist, and am, to this day, a hobbyist herpetologist.  I know my toads.  Small "creepy-crawlies" have always been of interest to me and having someone pretend to know more rubbed me the wrong way, like so much really-not-poisonous toadskin.

I retired early, wanting the trip just to end already, because I'd failed to make a real human connection with anyone.  I had hoped that the camping trip would be like Table Number 10.  I had thought we'd all be swapping stories and laughing, not trying to outwit each other with obscure, useless knowledge.  These were the kind of people you see on /r/iamverysmart, the kind of people who peaked in college and then refused to move on with their lives.  None of them had a sense of humor and all of them were self-absorbed.

(Side note: I want to cut some slack for 3 of the people on the trip who were Swedish.  They seemed very cool and I think there was a language or cultural barrier preventing us from developing a closer repertoire.  This post is really about the Americans on the trip, who, perhaps intimidated by the European presence, spent a lot of time talking about all the amazing international conferences they went to, to present their highbrow but ultimately inconsequential research.)

The next day we visited a skywalk at Kinzua Bridge State Park, which was cool; an old railroad bridge had been destroyed by a tornado in 2003 and made into something of a land mark.  I wandered into the woods to eat berries while the rest of the group chatted animatedly (well, not really, they weren't an animated bunch) about various Intellectual topics.  I got some great shots of the forest (see above) but generally found that the money I'd paid to take off work, get a plane ticket, board the dogs, and so forth had not been worth the trip.

I arrived home with my left leg aching and my mood sour.  Basically, I paid $1,000 to hold a (totally not poisonous) toad.  I'd rate the trip a 2.5/10, giving points for getting to see a toad, rain, and a Confederate flag, things we don't have here in Los Angeles.

I'm glad I went if only because it was a good exercise in holding my tongue, but I wouldn't do it again, because, hey, who knows, my tongue might be poisonous.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Is cultural appropriation real?

In recent years you might have begun hearing about cultural appropriation.  It's not a new complaint.  People have been bitching about it for years, probably since 1933, when George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston Braves, made the inexplicable decision to change their name from the Braves to the Redskins.

Since then, there has been growing awareness that maybe we like, shouldn't treat people as if they are cartoony mascots like Chomps the Dog or Roary the Lion.

Steely McBeam is a human being with feelings, damn it.

There's a been a pushback against costumes that demean cultures and I think that's a good thing.

This picture of a Chiricahua Apache man confronting a man in "red face" should make you feel very, very uncomfortable, 
for obvious reasons.

Certainly, I think there's an issue with an NFL team using an ethnic race as a mascot.  I also think there's an issue with people dressing up in caricature Halloween costumes.


But I'd like us to take a step back for this post and ask ourselves: is all cultural appropriation bad?  I'm here to argue that, no.  There's frankly not even such a thing.  There's only cultural misappropriation, in which the imitation or recreation of racial stereotypes is used to demean them.

Let's talk about how we define cultural misappropriation.

Most cultural appropriation comes from the imitation of races or ethnic traits or cultural elements in a mocking manner, without respect for the culture.  The last part of that sentence is key.  The lack of respect makes cultural appropriation distinctive from multiculturalism, which is the mixing of races and cultures in a way that is open and sympathetic and respectful.  Instead of calling cultural appropriation "cultural appropriation," we should just call it cultural disrespect or cultural mockery.

Just look at what multiculturalism has done.

The concept of "cultural appropriation" being a bad thing is part of identity politics and value-signalling that I consider extremely problematic.  It's an exclusionary position and it prevents the sharing of cultures.

When people say something has been misappropriated, I get it.  I do.  But to say appropriation is inherently a bad thing is getting dangerously close to telling races of people to "stay in their lanes."

For example, there are people who lose their damn minds anytime a white pop star wears a kimono to Japan.  (There's a very insightful article about this controversy in The Japan Times.)  There was a recent Twitter freak-out when a white women wore a qi-pao-styled dress to prom.  (Note that mostly white people were upset, not the Chinese.)

In the above USA Today article (linked), one Chinese commenter stated, "It is not cultural appropriation, it's cultural appreciation."

This is the most succinct way for me to explain my position on "cultural appropriation."  It's not a bad thing.  It's a way to reach out to other races, bridge cultural gaps, and learn.

The people who tend to complain about appropriation come from a place of privilege.  In this society of "woke" people trying to be the wokest, there's a push to constantly outdo each other to prove how woke they are.  The result is focusing on a teenager in a Chinese prom dress instead of, say, changing the name of the Washington Redskins.  Since fighting for the Redskins to change their name is a common and well-understood stance, many people have abandoned it, thinking that the desired outcome is inevitable and they should get working on identifying the next big thing.

Speaking of Native Americans, I have a "friend" on FaceBook who is constantly one-upping everyone else with her "social progressiveness" and her most recent campaign is against a plastic straw ban.  She found a way (well, not really) to tie it into the plight of indigenous lands being destroyed, thereby really minimizing both issues.  Talk about value-signalling.

I wish the first commenter had used the "Why not both?" girl from the Old El Paso taco commercials, 
because it would have really helped tie together this post about cultural appropriation.

Anyway, my point is, talk of "cultural misappropriation" seems to mostly come from ultra socially progressive white people who are trying to shame and/or call out other white people, and I think the whole thing has become nothing but value signalling that has lost its original intention.  The original intention, of course, was to tell people to stop wearing blackface and mocking other cultures as caricatures.

What it sounds like to me

Part of the reason I've been thinking of this is because of a recent documentary on Netflix about Rachel Dolezal.  I watched it about 65% because of its insanely clever pun title, The Rachel Divide.  In short, it's about a woman who has committed racial fraudulence, passing herself off as black.  To me, the issue was not her self-identity but that she profited from it.  She was using blackness as a prop for her own identity politics and was heavily involved in movements such as Black Lives Matters.  She was an ally who had taken away the voice from those who she claimed to be championing.  That, in a nutshell, is "cultural appropriation" at its worst.

Sampling other cultures is fine as long as you're not stepping over anyone in the process or taking away their voice.  We need to get rid of the term "cultural appropriation" altogether and start calling it what it really is: racism.

People who sample elements from other cultures because they like the look of it (for example, white people in cornrows) are not mocking the culture or taking anything away from it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.  It's only when that imitation is used to mock, profit, or deceive that it becomes an issue. (Full disclosure: I have a Mohawk.)

Now, don't get me wrong.  There's a fuzzy gray area.  For example, I had a white friend who went to a Japanese culture festival in Little Toyko and wore a yukata that she had received as a gift from a friend who went to Japan.  She was hesitant to wear it because of "cultural appropriation."  Except that a yukata is the accepted thing to wear in those circumstances.  If you're a guy at a Jewish wedding, you put on a yarmulke even if you aren't Jewish, right?  In these instances, it's a matter of respect, and knowing enough about the culture to know what is and is not appropriate.  It's more respectful to wear a yukata to a celebration of Japanese culture than, say, jorts and a Daddy's Lil' Monster t-shirt (the cultural uniform of the basic white girl).

On the other hand, when I went to see Black Panther (shout-out to the last two memes!), I sure as hell didn't dress up.  It just wasn't my place to do so.  That movie wasn't made for me and that character wasn't made for me, and while I enjoyed it thoroughly, drawing attention to myself and taking it away from others would have been wrong.

Subtle, quiet support.
I wore a knit cap and a necklace that were both from Africa.
No cosplay.

I guess what I'm saying is, the burden of ensuring that one doesn't accidentally do something shit-headed really falls on the individual.

As for the rest of us, we need to stop focusing on stupid, tiny issues to make ourselves feel superior.  And by "rest of us," I mostly mean white people, honestly.  The ancestry of Americans is such a mash-up of other cultures that I see no reason why we can't celebrate them and borrow stylistic elements.

Without cultural appropriation, we wouldn't have The Village People.

If you're the type of person who feels uncomfortable wearing clothes from other cultures, then don't.  But don't police others and tell them that they can't pay tribute to other cultures.  The dissemination of culture is fundamental to Americans.

 We're culturally appropriating the Borg.

It's time to stop focusing on microaggressions and start focusing on macroaggressions.  There is no such thing as cultural appropriation.  There's cultural misappropriation, aka cultural mockery or cultural disrespect, which is racism.  And there's multiculturalism, which is the respectful sharing and blending and celebration of cultures, which is not racism.

Multiculturalism benefits our society and strengthens us as human beings.  Shaming white people for wearing dreads doesn't actually help society; it's activism without any teeth, bark with no bite, shameless, self-aggrandizing value-signalling without purpose.  (Side note: white people, dreads look bad on you.  Please stop.)

We have a lot to learn from each other, and that means sharing and mixing culture.  And that's not appropriation.

A great man once said, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”  

And that man's name?  

King T'Challa.  Aka, Black Panther.