Monday, June 15, 2015

Independence? That's middle class blasphemy. We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth.

- George Bernard Shaw

One of the things that is often quite front-and-center when it comes to the current Republican talking points is the myth of the self-made man, which seriously rejected the notion that "it takes a village to raise a child" and cheered the idea the "I built that." It was the idea of independence - especially against the federal government - that made a Nevada rancher's self-initiated stand-off with federal officials into a short-lived hero. It is the idea of independence that keeps electing Republicans who apparently have a mission in stripping apart government, and then complaining that it isn't functioning properly.

Conversely, it is this idea of independence that casts people who are - for whatever reason - dependent upon government assistance as "unworthy," bringing about the language of "makers vs. takers" and one that seeks to castigate the poor through unnecessary drug testing, seek to humiliate single mothers, and curtail the independence of people's use of welfare (among  many others).

It is this idea of independence that brings people to politically cut off their nose to spite their face. It is a form of independence that seeks to cut funding for expansions to "Obamacare", despite such cuts deeply affecting opponents of Obama and the Democratic Party. It is a form of independence that opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership, despite it being popular to many Republicans, merely because Obama supports it (even as almost all Congressional Democrats oppose it). It is a form of independence that opposes same-sex marriage, because... "reasons" (despite it being an increase in independent choices to get into that social institution).

This idea of independence also embodies a shallow form of patriotism, bordering on nationalism, with debates over whether a presidential candidate wore a flag pin, over whether Obama castigated a Marine corporal for wearing a flag pin upside down, or whether Palin won her debate because she wore a bigger flag pin. Or even if the flag pin is worn correctly! Seriously, all this focus on flag pins - in some strange linkage with independence and the greatness of the US - reminds me of these panels from the graphic novel Pyongyang:

Seriously, the importance of flag pins shouldn't be associated with the idea of independence. It should (and is) associated with those nations that seek to implement patriotism-through-spectacle.

So, is it like GB Shaw said? Is independence a "middle class blasphemy"? Well, I would argue that it can turn into one, and without robust social institutions to push back against the conformist nature of human beings, what may start off as independence in deed may easily turn into independence as a necessary part of daily rhetoric in order to show dependent allegiance to a larger identity.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Shifting social politics in the US

The saying, "This ain't your father's Republican Party," can likely now be extended to the Democratic Party as well.

Arguably, the election of the first not-White President has done a lot to visibly shake up the right (especially the authoritarian right), and the massive recession and perceived slow recovery also shook up people all over the spectrum. It's inevitable that left-wing politics (associated primarily with the Democratic Party) is being shaken up as a result (with one of the major changes being an increase in the vocality of an "authoritarian left").

I think that there were a number of social issues that have reached "tipping points" during the period leading up to Obama's election, including LGBT rights, legalization of marijuana, gun regulation, global warming, changes in religious affiliation, and the role of religion in politics. Although I have no evidence for this, I do believe that the election of a POTUS perceived to mark the transition of an era in the country gave so many groups an impetus to push their cause over that stalled tipping point. (And although not definitive evidence, a lot of social polling seem to show that a number of these social issues started to move since 2008; some showing increased oscillation, others showing opposition, and still others showing acceleration.)

As a president who continues to be touted by the left and the right as a symbol of the US' capacity to change (whether that change is seen as "good" or not), I think that POTUS' public endorsement (or lack of one) on a number of social issues only helped speed some issues beyond their tipping points while stalling others. For example, his endorsement of SSM only accelerated the public perception in favor of the issue, and his lack of endorsement of clear cuts to carbon emissions has stalled that debate.

I would say that when people look back on the Obama years, it will be to note how quickly so many social norms just gave way after decades of stalling. Of course, the determination of whether this was a "good" or "bad" thing for the nation can only be made in hindsight.

It is undoubtedly true that (a) these past six years have witnessed major shifts in the socio-political spectrum and (b) realignment will be inevitable (possibly making your political affiliations no longer as valid as before, just like those of today don't match those of your parents or that of your grandparents). An important thing for each person to recognize is how they shouldn't keep ties to the political party of their past, solely out of habit or a feeling of loyalty, even as the general policies of that party shift away from your own.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

More inconsistency in thinking about race

I'm almost surely never going to watch Aloha, which stars Emma Stone in the role of a Hapa on Hawai'i. But there is such a great backlash over this film, focusing primarily upon the race of Emma Stone and how it doesn't match the race of the character. However, I noticed something about this coverage: most of the coverage about how badly matched the actress was with the character's race gets the character's race wrong.

Emma Stone's character is supposed to be 1/4 Chinese, 1/4 Native Hawaiian, and 1/2 European mutt. But this is how Entertainment Weekly discussed the casting problem:
Accepting Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Aloha requires a certain suspension of disbelief and no small amount of magical thinking. In the Hawaii-set romantic comedy-drama, she portrays Allison Ng: an aggressively peppy Air Force fighter pilot of Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish decent who falls for an existentially angst-y military contractor played by Bradley Cooper.

But in order to process this idea of Stone as a bi-racial character, as someone whose genetic lineage can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom by way of Polynesia, you must first get past the obvious stumbling blocks: her alabaster skin and strawberry blond hair, her emerald eyes and freckles—past the star’s outwardly unassailable #Caucasity—if only because the movie hammers home her cultural other-ness in just about every other scene.
And EW isn't alone in this, either. Social-justice/femenist website Jezebel doesn't do much better:
Emma Stone Playing a Half-Asian Character in Aloha: Literally Why
NBC News' coverage of the controversy shouts:
Cameron Crowe Apologizes for Casting Emma Stone as Asian American
 The Guardian's news story on this states:
Emma Stone: the whitest Asian person Hollywood could find
You get the idea.

The problem is, of course, that "Asian" in this case means someone of Asian racial ancestry. And in that sense, the character of Allison Ng is "Asian." But the character is also "Hawaiian." And the character is also "European." The mix is even explained - again and again - by the various stories that are breathlessly saying how horrible it was that the actress didn't even come close to matching the ethnicity of the character. But then they all do the easy thing and just label the character "Asian" or "Half-Asian."


Why not label her "White" or "Half-White"? Indeed, why not label her "Hawaiian" or "Half-Hawaiian"?

The US remains stuck in a discussion and conceptualization of race that revolves primarily around a "White/Black" axis. Sure, there is a recognition that there are more races than "White" and "Black," but the rules of discussing them and assigning someone to them remains effectively the same as the rules that still remain about assigning race within the "White/Black" context: you are either fully White or you are Black. Therefore, we call Barack Obama "the first African American President," despite the fact that he's half-White.

In the same vein, since the character of Allison Ng not 100% White, Allison Ng is not - and cannot be - "White." This then leaves us with determining whether she's "Asian" or "Hawaiian."

I would hazard a guess that most mainland Americans have no idea about what a Native Hawaiian looks like, what Hawaii's culture actually consists of, or even what Hawaii's history entails. I doubt that most mainland Americans can name two Hawaiians from history or even name two Hawaiian traditional dishes. In short, most mainland Americans have next to no idea about anything relating to Hawaii other than (possibly) that it's one of the States of the United States, that it's in the Pacific Ocean, it's where Pearl Harbor is located, and it's got hula dancers. But ask most mainland Americans to describe how a Native Hawaiian is different from an Asian, and I would hazard a guess that most wouldn't be able to give a straight answer (except - perhaps - a circular one, like, "A Native Hawaiian is a native of Hawaii"). Indeed, I would hazard the position that Native Hawaiians are completely absent from the minds of almost all mainland Americans.

Add to this invisibility the comparative visibility of Asian Americans, especially in TV shows that are supposed to take place in Hawaii, such as all the Asians in Hawaii Five-O (which even cast an Asian American as a Native Hawaiian!!!). Add to this the way in which official census forms have the lumped-together category of "Asian Pacific Islander." That lumping effectively extends the geographic range of this "racial category" from Turkey to Hawaii. (As if Turkey to Japan wasn't large enough.)

... and so - for a variety of reasons, her Hawaiian-ness gets completely subsumed, her Whiteness gets disqualified, and she is left as "Asian" (or "half-Asian").


If you're going to write an article excoriating Crowe for casting lily-White, Northern-European-descent Emma Stone in the role of Allison Ng, you must get the race of the character right and you must never get it wrong. The simple truth is that the character of Allison Ng is more White than she is Asian. The character of Allison Ng is as Hawaiian as she is Asian. Referring to her character as "Asian" (or even "half Asian") in these articles is just so stupidly wrongheaded that it beggars belief.

The US (heck, most of the world) needs to get past the idea that 50% White, 50% Black makes you Black. They need to get past the idea that 50% White, 50% Asian makes you Asian. There needs to be a greater recognition that