One Prom Dresses and Cultural Appropriation

The news is chockfull of important stuff these days, from the “Russia thing” to the recently sluggish stock markets to the suddenly hopeful but still risky Korean peninsula, yet we couldn’t help noticing the big media brouhaha about a teen girl from Utah’s high school prom dress.
The headlines probably caught our eye because last Saturday we had a fine meal at the swank Larkspur Restaurant in the fashionable Old Town area of Wichita to help our folks celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary, and the joint was filled with elegantly attired and undeniably gorgeous young women and the hilariously ill-fitted and conspicuously dorky-looking old boys who were taking them to the prom. Back in our high school days we considered ourselves too cool for a prom, even though an elegantly attired and undeniably gorgeous cheerleader who was also a straight-A student had made it clear she would be happy to escort us, and we were so precociously self-aware that realized how ridiculous we’d look in retrospect, so for hard to explain reasons we’ve taken a wistfully nostalgic interest in prom stories the last few years.
This prom story involves “cultural appropriation,” too, which is one of those cockamamie convolutions of the cultural left that always gets us riled up. If you’re not hep to the cutting edge of social justice, “cultural appropriation” is the deadly secular sin that white people commit whenever they find something appealing in a non-white culture and use it in their own lives. This ridiculous theory has condemned James MacNeil Whistler’s extraordinary Japanese-influenced paintings, Bix Beiderbecke’s lyrical contributions to jazz, Fred Astaire’s glorious tap-dancing, Elvis Presley’s most bad-ass rhythm-and-blues, countless admittedly tasteless fraternity parties, and now the prom dress of a Utah high school girl named Keziah Daum.
Daum posted some prom-night pictures of herself on “Twitter,” as teens seem to do these days, and by the time the photos went up to the big back east papers and then down to us they were what the kids call “viral.” What we saw from our faraway and thoroughly disinterested middle aged perspective was an elegantly attired and undeniably gorgeous young woman standing next to a relatively dorky-looking old boy, but what the more cutting-edge social justice warrior types saw was an undeniably gorgeous non-Asian woman elegantly attired in an Asian dress. That’s the sort of sort of thing that gets them riled up, and it was a social media contrempts that spilled over into the more old fashioned sort of media.
At the risk of sounding like the Trumpian sort of Republicans, it all strikes us as damned stupid. Both the anti-racist right and left used to agree that almost every culture had come up with at least some good idea or another, and that everyone should make whatever use they can of the best ideas, and that anyone who didn’t do so was being a racist. This sensible idea not only gave us those great Whistler paintings and searing Bix solos and show-stopping Fred numbers and rockin’ Elvis records, but also the great Asian-American and African-American musicians who have not only revived but reinvigorated the great European classical tradition, not to mention some pretty bad-assed black country-and-western performers. We’re grateful that Western Civilization adopted the Arabic numeral system, which makes our tax returns so much easier, and we hope the Arab world will eventually adopt some of our more sensible fading western traditions.
At any rate, we thought the young Daum looked quite elegantly gorgeous in her prom dress, and we’d proudly stand by her even in our disheveled and middle-aged dorkiness for a “selfie.”. We were born in the Phillippines while our Pop served in the Air Force and our Mom also served as military wife, and while they were there they travelled all over Asia and sort of went native. We grew up in a house filled with rattan furniture from the Philippines, the gorgeous sorts of Japanese prints that inspired Whistler, and our Mom had a wok in her kitchen long before any of the cutting-edge “foodies” did, and we have photographic evidence of how stunning she looked in the Asian dresses she used wear on special occasions.
Our advice to all our non-white readers is to help yourself to automobiles and electronics and democracy and whatever good ideas our crazy-assed people have somehow come up with, and not mind if we avail ourselves of the best that your crazy-assed people have somehow come up with. We also hope that gorgeous high school girl and her dorky-looking date in Utah both long remember their prom as a one of those great teenaged nights.

— Bud Norman

Appropriating Culture, While There’s Still Some Left

Although our day was largely occupied by a glum early morning chore and some evening amateur theatrical rehearsals and the latest slap-the-forehead sort of news from the presidential primaries, we found a moment’s bemusement from one of those “viral videos” that routinely invade our daily reading of the news. This one didn’t involve any cute cat shenanigans, but rather captured a confrontation between an angry black social justice warrior and a dreadlocked white hipster, which might not be so cute but is at least as hilarious.
Someone who happened to be standing on a nearby stairwell with one of those ubiquitous cell phone video cameras caught the aforementioned black social justice warrior, an employee of San Francisco State University, telling the aforementioned white hipster student who happened to pass by that he had no right to be wearing his hair in a dreadlocked fashion. Anyone familiar with the latest academic jargon knows that this is a matter of “cultural appropriation,” and even the obviously stupid black social justice warrior and the obviously stupid white hipster know that, and the ensuing conversation and inevitable reality-show scuffle about this utterly stupid concept is more ridiculous than even our crazy cat can come up with.
If you haven’t been keeping abreast of the latest academic hilarity, “cultural appropriation” means that if you’re white and Western you’re not supposed to enjoy much less make use of anything that some non-white or non-western culture ever came up with. Western mathematics should have stuck with the Roman Numeral system rather than the simpler Hindu-conquered-by-Islamic system, James McNeill Whistler should have never done those beautiful Japanse-influenced paintings, Elvis Presley should have never done that much-improved cover of “That’s Alright, Mama,” a very alluring yet very white friend of ours shouldn’t be doing her belly-dancing, and the Nazis were at least polite enough to eschew the “Jewish physics” of Werner Heisenberg and his notions of an atomic bomb. We’re not sure how such strict standards would have improved the world, but we’d sure hate to miss that Elvis recording and those Whistler paintings, and our friend is a pretty good belly-dancer and in any case she’s got a right and we’d hate to be struggling with our bills at the end of the month with Roman numerals.
We’re not sure how this post-racist concept would have worked out for our non-white and non-western friends as well. That angry black social justice warrior employed by San Francisco State University was probably intending to drive home after work in an automobile, which is a product of white and western culture, and probably expected to see herself celebrated on the Internet, which is a product of an industry that is oft criticized for being insufficiently non-white and non-western, and she seemed to be wearing pants, which is another white and western invention. We also notice that no one objects when such outstanding African-American musicians as Wynton Marsalis and Kathleen battle do their much-improved performances of classical Baroque music, which is about as white and western as you can get, and we’re at least grateful for that.
That dreadlocked white hipster by no means strikes us as an exemplar of white and western culture or or whatever third-world fashion he’s trying to state, and his bizarre rant about ancient Egyptian culture is as stupid as what his harasser is talking about, and his haircut is every bit as ridiculous as the current Republican party’s presidential front-runner’s, but we figure he’s also got a right, too. Our meanderings around the internet turned up a more frank and jive-talking black fellow who came to pretty much the same conclusion, so at least there was some bemusement.

— Bud Norman

When the Music Stopped

A television was on Sunday evening at one of the locally owned stores we frequent, and as we made our purchase we caught a glance of what looked like Madonna cavorting in a skimpy outfit among a chorus line of beefy fellows in what looked like minotaur costumes. We momentarily assumed it was a Super Bowl half-time show before recalling that a Super Bowl had recently been played, with some other scantily-clad chanteuse doing the half-time honors, and we figured there probably wouldn’t be another one until next winter, so we asked the clerk and he explained that it was the annual Grammy awards ceremony honoring the best of the recording industry. That was all we saw of the show, and the snippet of the forgettable song being performed was the most we’d heard of the recording industry’s latest offerings in a long while, and we didn’t worry that we’ve been missing out on anything.
The next day’s news was full of stories about the event, however, with some of them spilling over into the political pages that usually command our attention. This led us to wonder if we were blissfully ignorant of some important cultural phenomenon blasting through everyone else’s car stereos while we’re listening to the monophonic sounds of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee on the old folks’ station, and if we might soon arrive at some social event and find ourselves in the embarrassing position of being the only ones there not wearing a minotaur costume. Then we headed out to a writer’s meeting for the upcoming Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch fund-raiser that is our annual amateur theatric experience, and were confounded by all the unfamiliar titles of songs that the younger members of the ensemble wanted to parody. We had thought that popular music was no longer a significant influence on the broader culture, not like in the days when shaggy-haired, shirtless rockers were exhorting the youth of America to burn to their draft cards and speak truth to power and do it in the road and all the rest of that youthful rebellion schtick, but apparently one is still expected to have some familiarity with the sort of music that is being played on those newfangled FM stations and performed at the Grammy’s.
Judging by the breathless coverage of that extravaganza, studded with stars whose names we vaguely recognize, it hardly seems worth the effort. The big brouhaha of the evening involved someone named Kanye West interrupting one of the winner’s acceptance speeches to protest that the award should have gone to someone named Beyonce, which is apparently his habitual practice at these sorts of affairs, although there was also scandalized talk of the outfit Madonna wore off-stage that revealed her 56-years-old but still shapely buttocks. At the edges of the conservative media there was worry that prominent Democrats Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz were in attendance and might have been there on the taxpayers’ dime, and others were mocking the president’s video-taped statement made the dubious claim that one-in-five American women have been raped and urged the audience to knock it off, but at this point it hardly anyone seems to find it worth mentioning that the entirety of the recording industry except for a few studios in Nashville is outspokenly associated with the Democratic party. If these people do exert an influence on the broader culture, all the more reason they should be ignored. This Kanye West fellow strikes us as merely rude rather than revolutionary, even the most callipygian fifty-something should have acquired some sense of dignity and decorum, and with no draft cards left to burn and speaking truth to power no longer required during a Democratic administration all that seems to be left of the youthful rebellion schtick is doing it in the road, which seemed to be the Big Profound Message of that Madonna number we happened to catch at the store, and so far as we’re concerned the Democrats are welcome to it.
We console ourselves with the belief that the popular culture isn’t so popular as it used to be, and that the recording industry’s influence in particular has waned along with its rapidly declining sales. That’s largely because the music streaming freely through the internet has dismantled the industry’s old model of pitching music through a limited number of radio stations and then selling it on long-playing albums or cassette tapes or compact discs or MP3 downloads or whatever the tech guys have lately come up with, but we suspect it’s also because no one thinks it is worth paying money to have the music permanently. The plethora of terrestrial and satellite and internet radio stations has fragmented the market, which happily allows listeners to indulge a taste for doo-wop or Dixieland or polka or Hawaiian slack key guitar or techno-house whatever other obscure genre they might prefer, and no one seems to have a truly mass appeal even if the marketing schemes for them existed. A handful of highly publicized acts still dominate free streaming audience at sites such as YouTube, and cash in with concerts full of elaborate choreography and high-tech stagecraft that fill huge arenas at exorbitant ticket prices, but none are nearly so ubiquitous as Glenn Miller in ’41 or Elvis Presley in ’56 or The Beatles in ’64, and even the most hyped of them will likely have little effect on the sizable chunk of the country that won’t shell out for the over-priced shows.
Although we’re heartened that the likes of Kanye West aren’t a particularly pressing problem, it’s kind of a drag that there isn’t a popular American musical culture. In a golden age that ran from about the early ’20s to the early ’70s there was a flood of great of music pouring out of America’s radio speakers, from low down blues to up-tompo swing to rough-hewn country laments and sophisticated pop standards to fervent gospel and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll straight from the garages, and sharing the experience of the best of it with everyone else was one of the cultural advantages of being an American. We’d love to see that old American musical inventiveness revived, and a new generation of performers emerge who will cover up their buttocks and ditch the elaborate showmanship and share some lovingly hand-made music at reasonable ticket prices, and we’d even shell out for a vinyl record or compact disc or whatever else it takes to put it permanently on our shelves to share with posterity. In the meantime, we’ll be tuned into the old folks’ station.

— Bud Norman

A Good Week for Conspiracy Theories

Others might prefer a good old-fashioned whodunit, but for purely recreational reading we relish a good conspiracy theory. They have plots as carefully contrived as any mystery novel, feature villains and heroes every bit as clearly cut, and offer the same refuge from reality with the same reassuring implausibility.
The past week, however, has brought forth more conspiracy theories than even the most avid buff would want. Bombings at the Boston Marathon, ricin-laced letters sent to a senator and the president, an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant, and the culmination of the gun control debate in a series of Senate votes on Wednesday all had the conspiracy theorists working overtime. There is no reason to believe that any of these events are related, but their unlikely confluence in the span of a few days seems to have heightened the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists nonetheless. Coincidences do no occur in conspiracy theories, a strict convention of the genre, and even the most random dots can somehow be connected.
A quick arrest in the ricin-laced letters case has blunted much of the speculation about the case, although any details that emerge might yet inspire more conspiracy theorizing. The suspect is an Elvis impersonator, a plot twist that the most ingenious mystery novelist could not invent, and thus far it is unclear what motives he might have for his alleged crime. He is reportedly a registered Democrat, which will no doubt come as a disappointment to those eager to blame such events on right-wing extremism, but the choice of a staunchly Republican senator and President Obama as victims suggests a bi-partisan sort of craziness that does not easily lend itself to conspiracy theories. Other reports suggest that the suspect is a conspiracy theorist, however, so perhaps his views will eventually spawn a good legend.
An accident is always a more probable explanation for an explosion at a fertilizer plant than a terrorism attack, especially when the plant is located in such an unlikely target as the small town of West, Texas, but that has not stopped the conspiracy theorists from all sorts of suspicious speculation. That the explosion occurred so soon after the Boston Marathon bombings fueled the speculation, as did the town’s proximity to Waco and it’s upcoming anniversary of the tragic conflagration that resulted when federal agents conducted a raid on a religious cult there, and within hours of the explosion there were several web sites dedicated to the possibility of terrorism.
Terrorism clearly occurred at the Boston Marathon, so all of the conspiracy theorizing has been devoted to identifying a possible culprit. Some are openly hoping that it turns out to be white people with extremist right-wing views, while others are assuming that Islamist radicals are to blame, and thus far neither camp has any real evidence for their theories. Photographs of two possible suspects released Thursday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are a sort of Rorcshach test for conspiracy theorists, grainy and indistinct enough that one camp will look and see two white men while the other will immediately spot two men of Middle Eastern appearance, and in any case the men are only suspects and their ethnicity provides no proof of their motives. For what it’s worth the men’s rather hip-hop style of clothing strikes us as incongruous with right-wing extremism, but perhaps the right-wing extremists in Boston are more fashion-conscious than the ones we encounter here in the heartland. The debate will rage until some definitive proof emerges, and even then the true believers will continue to insist on their original suspicions.
As with every tragedy of this sort, allegations of a “false flag” government theory are also proving popular. The FBI news conference where the photographs were released was constantly interrupted by one of the more prominent peddlers of this theory, which is based solely on the usual wild conjecture and fevered fear of a government conspiracy behind anything bad that happens, and the notion is also gaining currency on some of the more fanciful talk radio programs. It’s a comforting notion that a nefarious cabal is secretly running the world, at least when compared to the sobering reality that the world is far too vast and complex for even the most diabolical genius to successfully run and tragedy is therefore beyond anyone’s control, and conspiracy theories of this sort will always appeal to the anxious people at both ends of the ideological spectrum. The side that is out of power, as the largely forgotten “9/11 Truth” movement demonstrates, will always be more prone to such conspiracy theories.
Which is not to say that people do not conspire with one another to achieve their common goals, a point that was acknowledged by both sides of the recent gun control debate, but these are usually limited conspiracies conducted in plain view and without any cloak-and-dagger conduct. In a petulant and peevish speech in the White House rose garden Obama seemed blamed the Senate’s failure to pass any of his pet proposals on the “gun lobby” convincing the public that his “common sense” measures were part of a government conspiracy to disarm the citizenry, which is a sort of conspiracy theory itself, and his vice president mocked anyone who doubted his good intentions as a paranoid gun nut and member of the “black helicopter crowd.” There are plenty of politicians and activists who do wish to disarm the citizenry, however, and there are reasons to suspect that Obama is among them, so it isn’t paranoid for those who cherish their gun rights to organize against an organized effort to do away with the Second Amendment.
Guarding against a government’s natural inclination for more power is not the same as suspecting a government plot behind every tragedy, and doing so through the democratic process as in the defeat of the gun control proposals is patriotic rather than treasonous. All these crazy conspiracy theories, alas, tend to discredit the valid ones.

— Bud Norman