Sunday, May 28, 2017

Calling Out Cultural Plagiarism

Identifying instances of celebrity cultural appropriation has become increasingly published mainstream fodder. The good intentions of politically recognizing and reconciling power relations evaporated when cultural appropriation became a profitable context to write about the arbitrary actions of celebrities - when it became fashion.

Like globalization, cultural appropriation is a neutral process that has both good and bad implications. It has always and will always be happening. The argument that cultural appropriation is an inherent evil inadequately/incorrectly defines culture as a product owned by a group determined by biological descent.

Marxist and essentialist theories define culture for the zealous opponents of cultural appropriation. Marxism suggests that culture is a good that is produced and owned, and essentialism adds that cultures self-reproduce by creating immutable stereotypes of themselves. Cultural appropriation is always bad if you believe culture should be owned by its "rightful" creators, who are "authenticated" by stereotypes.

Post-modern theories offer a more accurate account of culture as a set of practices that characterize a distinct group of people. There is no division between culture and knowledge; culture is language, music, dance, dress, food, storytelling, political traditions, sports, and relationships with animals and environments.

Calling cultural appropriations injustices also misrepresents consensus on what injustice means. The dominant narrative of injustice is an understanding that an unacceptable rights infraction has occurred and requires remedy. If you can't directly replace the words "cultural appropriation" with "racism" in your pop cultural critique, you're probably missing the point.

Speaking of all cultural appropriation as injustice proverbially throws the baby out with the bathwater. The effort to curb injustice incidentally commits injustice through heavy-handed cultural policing.

Cultural policing is a censorship phenomenon with roots across the political spectrum. Conservatives eschew sex, violence, and non-traditional values in TV, film, and video games. Meanwhile, progressive factions have taken to policing 'insensitive' cultural elements. Regardless of motivational divergence, all practices of cultural policing present relative moral narratives as justification for challenges to free expression.

An instance of cultural policing can be of net benefit when it's motivated by the correction of injustice. I do not write "the pursuit of justice" because the tense of cultural policing is the point where the practice pivots between corrective and intrusive. Using a flawed method to correct a flawed world is reasonable, but using a flawed method to create an ideal world is illogical. Cultural policing is either corrective (justified) or moralizing (intrusive).

The corrective capacity of cultural policing is assumed in the project of political correctness. Political correctness is a commitment to correct injustices that language conventions (re)create. Solidarity across immeasurable difference and individual accountability for words spoken into reality are the desired outcomes of political correctness. The cultural policing of political incorrectness is justified because it corrects unequal power relations actively and passively entrenched in language.

Moralizing instances of cultural policing from progressives are motivated by the movement toward empathetic correctness, a doctrine that asserts that individuals should take responsibility for the emotional reactions to their free expression. Empathetic correctness is an approach to build a specific and contested vision of justice at the cost of civil liberty. Empathetic correctness values a non-offensive character to culture over the critical consumption of freely produced culture.

There's just one glaring problem with empathetic correctness. Hurt feelings are not injustices.

The power relations that need to be critiqued between privileged and underprivileged cultural producers is legitimate in a context of plagiarism. Plagiarism sets cultural critique in the paradigm of intellectual property rights. Imitation within reason is acceptable, but there are economic rights protecting intellectual property. Where rights are infringed, there is injustice.

Cultural plagiarism affords us outrage when Navajo designs are printed onto Urban Outfitters t-shirts, but tells columnists that Justin Bieber's corn rows aren't worth writing about. If we talk about cultural appropriation like we talk about fashion, we make discussion indivisible from the socio-economic relations of production. The privileged produce and reproduce cultural elements for personal gain too often without the due diligence of credit or payment to original creators.

Definitively, it is within your rights right to both culturally appropriate and police, but I implore you to consider why exactly you're doing so. The world would be a better place if people stopped to ask themselves "is my costume fetishizing or trivializing anyone?" or "is my public confrontation/keyboard call-out based on a subjective moralizing argument?"

Reflection is better than judgement.

Friday, May 26, 2017

John Campbell is Right About Pride

But he could have explained himself so much better...For readers out of the loop, Toronto city councilor John Campbell introduced a motion to strip Pride Toronto of their city grant for a decision to restrict the dress and conduct of police officers in attendance of the festival.

Censorship is a tool of oppression. It cannot be used to create anti-oppression.

I am a realist. Pride Toronto is a private entity. As much as they'd like to claim they represent Toronto's immeasurable diversity, they don't. Private entities have the right to organize themselves as they see fit. However, private organizations who take public funds are bound to the conditions of public opinion.

Let's get some facts straight about Toronto Pride.

Fact: Many community groups, businesses, and non-profits run events that contribute to the overall economic impact of the Pride Festival. Giving all of the credit to Pride Toronto is a beat up strategy non-profits use to lure funders.

Fact: Taking away $260 000 hurts not a single queer person. It forces a very problematic organization to examine their conduct and realign their policies and expenditures within a financial reality that does not sponsor their censorship of parade participants based on occupation.

Fact: Pride Toronto is a white, gay, capitalist institution. There's no rational disagreement with these descriptors. Pride Toronto is not entitled to public money.

Fact: Legally, a university couldn't censor event participants like Pride Toronto plans to.

Fact: We can give the money to more deserving applicants.

Propping up Pride Toronto and saying "well, if you have a problem, get involved" is asking the oppressed to save themselves. Why should more people need to get involved when funding can just be given to less problematic recipients?

The non-profit industrial complex is an axis of evil until it's something you like, right?

Friday, May 5, 2017

For Clarity: A Biopolitical Diary Entry

I haven't written in so long that it actually disappoints me. I accept my struggle with balance; I tend to pick one thing and do really well at it alone, and for the last six months that was working 40 exhausting hours a week at Cannabis Culture in Toronto's Church-Wellesley Village.

An early November afternoon, I handed Marc Emery a resume tailored to the Prince of Pot. Unexpectedly, I was hired for a trial shift that day and spent the next six months selling cannabis for recreational use in open defiance of prohibition laws.

Officially, I was a budtender, though that's getting punched up to "CSR for special retail" on the resume. I can't tell you how many times I heard "you have the coolest job ever".  Straight up though: budtending is exactly like bar tending, sub weed for booze. I don't love customer service, but I like weed and money! It was my most memorable job to date, certainly.

I know a lot of words, and none of them in any combination can speak to how much my life changed over the course of my employment at 461 Church Street. I landed in Toronto June 30 on the final leg of what would be a two year stint informally housed. With stable income and welcoming work family, Toronto became home. Do not take any of this as a love letter to Toronto; the feeling is tenuous.

Comforts of home burnt out for me a while ago. It hasn't been New Brunswick for years; I doubt I'll spend more than a few weeks in Sussex the rest of my life. Ottawa lost its luster after 9 years too. As I hit my late 20's, I fell out of love with Ottawa's double lives, zealous partisans, and golden handcuffs.

Working at Cannabis Culture was unique. I was day staff and immediately realized the stream of humans at the LCBO was as diverse as the stream of our customers. Blatant wealth and poverty were on display at 461 Church, as was every other facet of life. Being nimble at working across class and cultural differences made some of us better at budtending than others.

I need not recount the history of dispensary raids that put me out of work, but know that I've had some time to consider my options the past couple weeks.

Clarity is priceless. I learned this young. Thinking an option through is far more important than acting immediately, despite any pressures otherwise. Without a job, I was imploding trying to figure out my next move. For the first time in my adult life, I have enough money saved that I can comfortably investigate self-employment prospects.

These prospects were dizzying. I don't mean that in a self-congratulatory sense; I mean that I made myself sick with consideration. The pressure I was putting on myself to act quickly was too much. Days of stressorexia preceded me getting worst stomach flu of my adult life. Through the anxiety and illness, I researched a cannabis business proposal that would have made me a millionaire quite quickly, and then I decided against the whole plan.

The level of completion at which I walked away from the proposal frustrates a lot of people. It felt familiar to me, but more imortantly, it felt right. The other time I felt this was withdrawing my PhD acceptance. Something, in this case horrible physical illness, prompted me to identify and purge disingenuous internalized classism.

So how much had I done? I took an online cannabis studies program, I incorporated & trademarked, I did all the sales projections, I listed all the community partners, I found the site's investment package from it's receiver, and I shortlisted three of my most trusted friends to ask in on it. I did everything short of typing it up.

The pitch was to re-purpose the abandoned Sussex Mall in Sussex, New Brunswick for licensed cannabis production. Conservative sales estimate was 16 million dollars per year. I still get a pang of excitement thinking about the potential of the idea, but I need to smother that shit with reality.

I would be rich, but would I be happy? The answer was: not for a few years. Life would suck until I could walk away and just cash cheques.

Minus one: my relatives are batshit crazy, and I'm not in regular contact. If I was going to pursue this opportunity, I would be in town just in time to see my brother stand trial for assaulting my mother. Uhhhhhhhhhh.

Minus two: I'd have to give up film school in September. Check myself. I'm already on the path to the life I want. It took one of these fucking epiphanies to get here.

What's my best life?

It sounds like an MTV commercial, but it's a really useful consideration. I'm an artist. I want to create until I die. I would rather die making culture than making money. I can figure out wealth after I figure out happiness.

Working in weed is the first time I've ever been tempted to "sell out". By "sell out", I don't mean "environmentalist takes job at Shell". I mean on an existential deviating from my intended path to happiness for money. I have path, and I flirted with a less certain possibility of happiness via wealth.

Wealth can buy a lot of things, but time isn't one of them. I have dreams and creative goals that money doesn't advance. I've always wanted to be a meaningful force in cultural production and a lawyer, specifically a jurist. My dream job is at Netflix, and I plan to combine my interests practicing entertainment law later in my career.

I love weed, and I love working in weed, for now. I don't have the technical skills for the life I want, but I will.


Monday, October 31, 2016

The Politics of Halloween

For us theory nerds, Halloween illustrates conflict between essentialist and post-modern ideals. The politics of Halloween challenge the limits of free expression with moral claims against cultural appropriation. If you want to skip the next 800 words, you totes can wear an insensitive costume, but I don't personally understand or recommend it.

Decrying cultural appropriation is rooted in Marxist and essentialist theories. Marxism offers that culture is owned, rather than participated in, and essentialism adds that cultures self-reproduce by creating immutable stereotypes of themselves. 'Cultural appropriation is always bad' because culture is a product of labour that can/should be owned by it's "rightful" creators, who are "authenticated" by stereotypes. "This is what X people and do and look like, and you are not X people. You don't have the right to look or act like X people."

Post-modern theory defines culture as a set of practices that defines a group. More accurately than other ideas, post modernism states that culture is participated in, not owned.

Critics of cultural appropriation invoke the 'everything is blackface' approach, which, in the most ironclad irony, is culturally appropriated. Let's take a second to talk about the uniqueness of blackface. Blackface was a performance element that culturally maintained black subjugation. The practice has a specific North American history, and it is widely understood as a glorification of black slavery and suffering.

Transposing the history of blackface onto other imitations is both inaccurate and insensitive. "Redface", "yellowface",  and "brownface" are not at all the same as blackface. These imitations are not tied to the history of transatlantic disenfranchisement and slavery that black people survived. If these imitations offend your sensibilities, articulate why without appropriating the unique context of black North American history for your convenience.

Lest we forget that race is a white idea that is/was carved into 'truth' by colonial violence. It seems people are easily offended by the performance of race because they are uncomfortable with the idea that race is a performance.

Halloween costumes are created and worn to elicit three reactions: sex appeal, respect for artistry, and humour. North American obsession with 'the funny costume' is likely a result of humour being the least embraced motivation of dress in everyday life. With the broad uptake of 'the funny costume', humour's relativity manifests in a vicious politics of Halloween.

Costuming that mocks social characteristics (race, gender, religion, ability, poverty, etc...) is not acceptable. Neither are costuming practices that re-create themes of historical racism and disadvantage. Difference and disadvantage are not fodder for jokes. "Drunk Indian" and "suicide bomber" are obviously racist costumes because they mock race, religion, and idigeneity. But what about when a costume falls short of mocking and only imitates? And what if that imitation is specifically to represent a fictional or historical figure?

Ellen DeGeneres as  Nicki Minaj.

Culture as costume is a shitty costume. I may not call you racist, but I would call you lazy. "French" or "Japanese" or "Native" costumes that aren't satirized or fetishized just state stereotypes with no punch line. It's like walking into a new mixed crowd and saying "so, I hear Asians are good at math". You're likely not a bad person, but you might be hella awkward.

I have absolutely no problem with character costumes (cosplay). If you love Mulan, be Mulan, but again do so in a respectful way that doesn't mock or fetishize an entire group of people.

Cultural appropriation is a neutral process wherein discourses are re-created without concern of origin by and between distinct groups of people. There are both positive and negative outcomes from the spread of democracy to corporate plagiarism of indigenous designs. The clandestine nature of cultural appropriation is why the intent of a costume must be interrogated, and why I choose to zero in on culture costumes that mock and fetishize.

Zealous critics of cultural appropriation overreach and end up committing the 'isms' they decry. Caitlyn Jenner and "transface" drive the problem home.

In 2015, the Caitlyn Jenner costume call out misplaced transphobia. The camp saying you just shouldn't do it refuses the possibility that anyone could want to dress as CJ without out intentionally mocking her. While I don't really like CJ, I assume someone must. Ignoring this possibility reduces the inaccurate context to "dressing as Caitlyn Jenner is de facto transphobia". 

Further, It's totally OK to mock celebrities for their own shortcomings. There's a line, however, when celebrities are mocked for their arbitrary social characteristics. If you genuinely appreciate CJ, or if your costume is smart enough to mock CJ for something other than her gender diversity, give'r.

Caitlyn Jenner being mocked as a Republican and wealthy evader of vehicular manslaughter charges.
CJ has said herself that she's not offended by the costume kits that were sold. So we have a situation where the group of people denouncing transphobia are actually enacting it. Activists denied CJ full participation in her celebrity status solely because of her transness.

The difference between a lazy costume and a racist costume is intent. Culture costumes are not carte blanche for toxic call outs; they are a starting point for a complex dialogue about colonialism and power relations.

Halloween is rife with offence. People offended by costumes. People offended by censorship. People offended by public displays of bodies and sex. On Halloween and in life, we need more understanding and less judgement.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Merge or Bust

Justin Trudeau's ongoing popularity is sucking the air of out the Canadian left. Internal conflict has ripped open wounds in both the Green and New Democratic Parties of Canada, and it's time we solve two crises in leadership with one leader.

After their devastating loss in 2015, the NDP tossed Mulcair and set the stage to battle for the social democratic soul of the party. The Leap Manifesto was accepted for study by the federal NDP, much to the chagrin of their centrist governing Alberta wing. The celebrity-endorsed Leap Manifesto is a non-partisan policy doctrine that articulates a succinct socialist and ecologically conscious direction for Canada.

Notley New Democrats are ardent that a party of gradualism is the only way forward. The Leapers want a party of principle.

In Alberta, New Democratic centrism means electability, but there's no air in the centre of the federal political spectrum. Notley New Democrats are sandbagging the federal party's grasp on relevance. The New Democrats are having a hard time finding a leader. The race to replace Stephen Harper has eight candidates; eight more than the NDP has. Speculations of the NDP's collapse have been published in the Globe and Mail and on Steve Paikin's TVO blog.

The Green Party also finds itself plagued by internal conflict. Greens are fuming about Elizabeth May's audacious resistance to a democratically enacted party position to support the BDS campaign. Elizabeth's May's leadership is flailing.

With the adoption of the Leap Manifesto looming, The NDP will wade into Green Party policy. The Greens are already consistent with the majority of Leap Manifesto.

The present is the best set of conditions organizers have ever had to unite the left in Canada. Two parties are in disarray and a cohesive set of common ground policies gaining traction. For the good of progressive movements in Canada, we need to break up with centrist New Democrats and unite the Green and New Democratic partisans under the principles of the Leap Manifesto. 

The Green Democratic Party has a nice ring to it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Drag is not Impersonation

Unless it's cosplay, drag is not impersonation.

Stop saying it. Stop thinking it. It doesn't come from a good place.

Drag is a performance - of femininity, androgyny, masculinity, sexuality, raunch, comedy, dance, theater, makeup, and costume. Drag makes the illusion of gender visible and undeniable.

The "drag as impersonation" mentality shows how shameful discrimination and flagrant hypocrisy live in queer communities. Drag queens do not "impersonate" women (or even worse "females" - gag), who are not a homogeneous immutable set of stereotypes.

To impersonate, there must be a person to imitate. Be Xena or Harley Quinn or Lady Gaga. That's impersonation.

Zayn Malik in drag - Best Song Ever Video
Drag as impersonation insists that the gender binary is a useful tool reestablishing hierarchy anew. Men who impersonate women and women who impersonate men have the grandest titles of Queens and Kings. These social status markers are the product of exclusivity via exclusion. Who gets to call themselves a drag queen or king is policed like the G20.

When drag events exclude cis/trans women and gender non-conformists for ideological reasons, an unreasonable demand of information about the contestants bodies is (im)posed. Drag as impersonation justifies event organizers insisting on their right to "sex test" their participants.

Drag as impersonation is gay rape culture that perils mostly women. Once again, men are determining the value of women's bodies and doing so by insisting on their authority to know about them.

It takes concerted sexism to choose to enforce a definition of drag that (re)creates binary gender. In each instance, equality is actively chosen against, rationalized by a logic of rape culture. The proponents of drag as impersonation preclude gender diversifying drag as an art form and cleave queer communities by choosing tradition unreasonably over equality.

Let's just all get along? K.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Case for a Pride Toronto Foundation

There's a pink elephant in the room every time criticism is raised about Pride Toronto; the organization is structured to serve white gay men’s agendas. All the forays into diversity it has achieved have been tangential to pleasing this core demographic. 

Legitimate claims of racism, ableism, and corporatism marred 2016's festivities, but how couldn't they? The idea that a committee of directors, staff, and volunteers can meet the demands of Toronto's diverse queer communities is ludicrous.

Blinded by ego and good intentions, Pride Toronto suffers a crisis of representation. A small group believes they can represent a vast population across immeasurable difference. 

Pride Toronto would have to spend half, if not more, of its resources on community consultations attempting to be representative, and it would still likely fail. Please see Pride Toronto's latest community update following a most contentions town hall meeting. Denying this reality will only lead to more conflict, protest, and dejection. 

Let's raze the institution of Pride Toronto, and in its place, resurrect a Pride Toronto Foundation. Devolve the bulk of event planning to community groups through a generous granting program, and empower communities to represent themselves. This approach is inherently a better community relationship than trying and failing to achieve representation on behalf of marginalized people.

I doubt I'm alone in the suggesting we burn it down, and built it back better.