When my friend Nick asked me if I wanted to go to the bush dance in Canberra, I gave him a blank stare. I had no idea what Canberra was like nor what this thing called a “bush dance” was, but it sounded quite native and I imagined some sort of Aboriginal purification ritual. I am always up for something new and novel, so I responded with a hearty yes. Turns out it was very similar to an American country square dance, but for gay people, and it was great fun. Canberra, for the uninitiated, is Australia’s capital. It is a fairly new city set up in its current location so as to avoid bitter rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney. Nick and I took about a 3.5 hour bus ride to get there, where we were welcomed by one of Nick’s lovely friends, Jason, who we stayed with for the weekend. As Canberra is the capital, a number of significant cultural institutions have been setup there, including Parliament House and The National Gallery of Australia, both of which we visited over the weekend. It was pretty interesting to learn about the Australian parliament setup, which shares many similarities with the American and British (surprise surprise). And the National Gallery has a very nice collection of modern and aboriginal works, and is likewise well worth a visit.
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The above phrase is salam alaikum, the traditional greeting in Arabic which means “peace be upon you”. I am back in Morocco for work once again, and it struck me yesterday that I should really be learning some Arabic phrases and words to use while here. I realize that I fell into a little bit of a mind trap by assuming that because I was already speaking a language that was not native to me (French), I was already making the appropriate effort. But that is not a good way to really engage with a culture, especially since the fact that French is so widely spoken here is a result of colonialism. That said, I suppose you could consider modern standard Arabic somewhat of an import as well, since in Morocco they speak an Arab dialect known as Darija. I am told that the dialect is not especially intelligible to people from, say, Egypt, although everyone that speaks the dialect can easily understand the standard version spoken in other parts of the Arab world. In any event, I am going to set a goal for myself of a few, well-pronounced phrases before I leave.
You forget how many little peculiarities go into making a culture what it is. They way someone orders in a restaurant, the way they get someone’s attention, stand in a queue, express mild exasperation or amusement, etc. Walking around Paris yesterday I was noticing once again all the little habits that make the French French, but also that which makes the Parisian Parisian. I realized how easy it is to stand out in a culture where the most subtle of actions are performed slightly differently. There was a time living here when I had really mastered them, and not a single person would ever suspect that I was foreign. It was all a great game to me, trying to see how long I could fool people into believing that I was from here. But after so many years away, it is obvious to anyone now that I am once again a foreigner, and it makes people behave slightly differently in your presence, despite themselves. This is just human nature. I think it would be fun to come back and spend a couple of months here to brush up on my language skills and relearn some of the cultural tics. And to stuff my face with croissants and pastry, which, let’s be honest, no one in the world can do as well as the French.
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I have been fortunate to meet some really great Turkish people here, and on more than one occasion when they told me they wanted to take me to a really great restaurant they loved, I was a little crestfallen upon arrival to see that the menus were very similar to what I would find in any midrange American restaurant. To my new friends, these places must seem somewhat exotic and a welcome break from the regional foods they are so familiar with. To me, it is a step up from visiting McDonalds. While the quality of the food in these places is pretty good, and the company always great, I am always hoping while here to try things that I can’t get back in my homeland. It would be as if they came to visit me in New York and I took them to whatever Turkish restaurant I thought was really good.
What is really fascinating to me about this is how similar it shows us all to be at a certain level. Especially the people I have been meeting, who are reaching out to people like me from other cultures. They, and I, want to bridge this divide. We want to know about other cultures, and we are charmed by the difference and newness. We all look for the exotic, not only because we are novelty-seeking, but because we want to connect with our common humanity.
I am currently working on the archive site of deceased filmmaker (my friend Andrew in fact), and as I have been uploading his films to YouTube for embedding, I have noticed some very strange automated censorship at work:
With a number of the films, it appears that YouTube has some fairly sophisticated content scanning happening. So, for instance if it detects some song playing in the background of a scene, it will notify you that you may be in violation of copyright or something similar. In some cases, they will actually block your video automatically with a claim from some large company (in my case it was EMI), effectively judging you guilty of violation first, and making you prove your innocence to them to get it unblocked. WTF, who needs SOPA if private companies will censor for you? And it is always the huge corporations that have the power here, YouTube won’t be blocking and filtering just anyone’s content.
We have a big big problem with copyright and patent law run amok. Fair use is practically non existant, and shrinking more every day. The original intent of laws to protect copyright were limited and in the common interest. Not so any more, we are destroying our culture’s ability to create, which is always based on prior work and its appropriation and reinterpretation. Without free creative reign, our culture is weakened and stagnant. While a few people get very rich, the rest of us get screwed.
A guy named Kirby Ferguson deals with these issues clearly and eloquently in his excellent series, “Everything is a Remix“, I highly recommend watching all four parts (but if you watch only one, please see part 4 as it really brings it all home).
I was watching a short video segment on the NY Times website this morning. It was about the drug “Paco” which is causing a lot of problems in Argentina. One of the things that struck me was the voice of the interpreter. It was much more a voice you would hear on the street and much less one out of academia. I never really thought much before about the voices that they use in voiceover when people are talking, except on the rare occasions when they would use a woman’s voice over a man’s talking or vice versa. In this particular case, they were profiling a drug user who was living in a shanty town. He was very poor, without work, a father trying to pull his life back together after coming out of a treatment program. Sadly, he had relapsed into serious drug use, unable to escape. As he spoke in Spanish during the interview, the voice and the words of the translator were very jarring to me. This wasn’t the voice of some remote, calm professor they had drudged up. This was the voice and words of someone more “street”, more what you would hear in normal life in my old neighborhood in Manhattan, for example. When I thought about it, it seemed that this voice actually fit the subject better than some rarefied social science expert, and it made me wonder about the choices news organizations use in picking these people and what sorts of cultural messages they are reinforcing by these choices. The basic idea, in news reporting is to be as “detached” and as “objective” as possible in the reporting, a cool distant eye on the subject. The use of soporific, detached voices when doing translations could be thought to add to this effect. Or it could be simply that, being used to always hearing the same kind of voice, we tend to think of it as standard, and so it fades into the background, letting the story speak for itself. But does it really? Do these voices convey the identity they are translating better or worse? That is to say are they more or less “authentic”? Do they add or remove barriers to our understanding? How about to our empathy?
Regular readers of this blog know that I go on at length about the corrosive aspects of conspicuous consumption, and how our stuff takes a far too important place in our lives. While it is true that I sometimes talk about how this is destroying our planet, my main focus has been more about the prison we put ourselves in emotionally and spiritually by being so tied up and obsessed with our stuff. Of course, that is only part of the story, and a New York Times article this morning pointed me to an absolutely amazing video called “The Story of Stuff“, that details the ins and outs of the cycle of consumption, and makes some excellent points about the lack of sustainability in our current culture.
The maker of the video, Annie Leonard, is a former Greenpeace activist, and there are a few rather indelicate ways she describes some parts of the system in the video. At times, she makes some rather blanket statements about using resources that leave out some nuance. But overall, I heartily agree with her main points that this system can not continue indefinitely as is, and that we fundamentally need to change our relationship to consumption so that the true costs are put in evidence. Continued life on our planet depends on it. The video is only 20 minutes long, and WELL worth watching. Check it out here.
Just finished reading a great book by Sheila Suess Kennedy called “Distrust American Style” (full disclosure: The author is well known to readers of this blog and to me as “Mom”). In it, Kennedy discusses widely held beliefs and recent studies that seem to show that increasing amounts of diversity within a culture are correlated with increasing amounts of distrust within that culture or those communities. As correlation is not causation, Kennedy clearly lays out a case for the causes of that distrust. Ultimately that distrust comes from a lack of trust in our collective institutions, caused by years of abuses of power and ineptitude within those institutions. Kennedy sees the lack of trust as a logical and self protective result of these abuses, and argues powerfully for ways to restore that trust. Especially fascinating are the sections that deal with the founding of this nation, and the attempts to limit the power and potential for abuses by government by carefully constructed checks and balances. Kennedy discusses at length how these arose from the Enlightenment and how they were an effort (having just broken free of a monarchy) to limit the power of the state over free citizens. By carefully insuring that no one branch had absolute power, the Founders were hoping to insulate the populace as much as possible from the abuses of potentially flawed or power hungry office holders. That is why the shift of power during the Bush years to the Executive Branch was so corrosive to trust in our governing institutions. These shifts allowed power and lawlessness to be concentrated at the highest levels, and led to serious abuses. It is for precisely this reason that even though I love most of what president Obama is doing in office, the one area that concerns me is in his administration’s defense of some of the executive privileges claimed by the Bush administration. It matters not who wields this power, it should be curtailed to prevent abuse by anyone. Kennedy understands that in order to trust in our governing institutions and the power they wield, we have to be able to trust in their basic fairness and application. Her proposals (at the end of the book) for improving this trust are sensible and in my opinion, necessary.
And on a personal note: Good job, Mom!
Last night I attended a birthday party dinner for my friend Fabian at a Belgian restaurant called Markt. I have to admit to being really surprised by how good the food was (I had the Carbonades, which is kinda like a beef bourguignon, but made with beer and tastier). Two of the people at our table (my friend Truike and some guy whose name escapes me) are of Belgian background and got all haughty about their national cuisine, feeling the need to disparage French cuisine in the process. It struck me again how similar the relationship is between them to Canada and the US. The larger, more culturally influential neighbor to the south always ignoring the neighbor to the north. The belief by just about everyone, upon speaking with a northern neighbor, that they are from the larger country to the south. These are some of the slights that both Canadians and Belgians suffer from, and it generally causes them to strongly declare how superior their culture is in a sort of reverse chauvinism. They usually toss out a mix of things that supposedly make them better, like lower gun violence or universal health care, which I totally agree with.
But the imp in me just can’t help but respond with things like “Cory Hart” and “Brussels“.
I have been in a large number of countries in the last few years, and I have seen an absolutely astonishing variety of behaviors in those cultures. Often times the very same action considered good form in one place will be considered quite rude in another. I have learned that context is everything, and that knowing what is appropriate sometimes depends on a keen understanding, and sometimes is easily inferred. Even within an ostensibly single culture, there can be a great deal of variety, and mores and values will change overtime, precipitating new behaviors.
That said, I was fairly surprised to witness what I consider to be quite rude behavior at the Brooklyn location of my gym this evening. I had just finished my workout and shower and was getting dressed when I heard a click click sound. I looked over in horror to see a guy sitting on the bench next to me, clipping his nails gingerly over the bench, paying close attention to his fingers but seemingly none at all to the clippings themselves. I watched and listened as the clip, clip clip went on for several minutes, shrapnel flying every which way. When he was done he admired himself for a few moments in the mirror, then went to shower, leaving this lovely present for the rest of the members and staff. Convinced I was being Punk’d, I looked around for the camera crew, but alas, this was no TV show. I thought back carefully to the look of this guy. He didn’t appear to be missing a chromosome or from some (very) far away place, but clearly there was something amiss. Where exactly was he raised and by whom? I wondered if this was just his secret, shameful locker room activity, or if perhaps he did this in other places. Maybe over a bowl of soup at a nice restaurant in front of his girlfriend. Perhaps in church while his pastor bored him with something lofty. Whatever. I am just thankful that this isn’t my home gym, and it does push me ever so slightly to look for an apartment in Manhattan over Brooklyn.