Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Fighting Words

December 10, 2010 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Core, Seeking

If I say blue, are you confused?  But I might be thinking cobalt while you are thinking cornflower. Maybe the person next to you is colorblind and can’t tell blue from green. Maybe the person next to them is completely blind and can’t understand color.  Maybe we weren’t talking about color at all. Maybe we were talking about emotion.

Words are less precise than we think.

Am I a Jew?  I probably wasn’t born Jewish.  I was raised to be Jewish.  I have cultural experiences that are Jewish.  I identify with Jewish history.  I don’t subscribe to the religious beliefs.  I don’t practice Judaism.  There are people who will dislike me because of my Jewishness, regardless of how I feel about the religious beliefs.  If the question relates to religion, I am an atheist.  If I am accused of being Jewish, then I am a Jew.

Words are contextual.

Why do we call people Latino whose origins go back to long before Columbus stumbled upon the Americas?  What is “Latin” about Latin America?  Thousands of languages have been spoken in the Americas, yet we refer to people as Hispanic. Why should a Quechua speaker be called Hispanic?  Why should a Guarani whose second language is German be called Hispanic?  Why do we even call that language Spanish?  Lots of languages are spoken in Spain, Castilian is only one of them.

Words have history.  Words erase history.  Words categorize.

In the old movies I used to watch with my father, they used the word gay all the time. But I’m pretty sure The Gay Divorcee with Fred Astaire was not a coming out of the closet story. When the Flintstones told us to have a “gay old time” they probably weren’t suggesting we all go out and attend a pride parade.

A word’s meaning, use and significance changes over time.

Lots of people have defined themselves as libertarians.  Do Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul mean the same thing when they refer to themselves as libertarian?  No. Not exactly. Two people who know each other well may know exactly what kind of libertarian they mean and can use the word and continue on their merry way.  People who don’t know each other will have to clarify if they want to be sure they are talking about the same thing.

Words are shortcuts.  Sometimes a shortcut will get you there faster. Sometimes a shortcut will get you lost.

It may seem like we are just fighting over words.  But it isn’t because of words that we fight. Words are just the imperfect tools we have to express the conflicts that are an inherent part of being human.

As humans, we fight to self identify rather than having other people label us.  We want to have our histories included and not obfuscated by the narrative of the “winners.”   We struggle with our desire to be understood.  We feel connections with people who have similar experiences to us. We try to find ways to honor the things we value most in life. We struggle to differentiate ourselves from people who don’t seem to value the things we do, even though that struggle is often just a reflexion of our own self hatred and self doubt. We use words to imagine how things might be.

Some words are more loaded than others.  The more complex the meaning of a word, the more care we should take when using it.  But when even a word as simple as blue can be misunderstood, is it really possible not to use loaded language?  How long would every conversation be if we removed every word that represents years of history and philosophical discourse?

We can’t stop fighting over words.  All we can really do is keep questioning and clarifying, both our own thoughts and the thoughts of those around us. We can keep in mind that words are understood through the lens of our experiences.  We can respect the history of words.  We can respect other people by allowing them to define themselves in the way that feels right to them. We can remember that words are sometimes weapons. And we can wield them with care.

Does Culture Disappear?

April 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Core, Culture, Religion

I often hear people express fear of losing their culture.  Sometimes, I sympathize with them.  I sympathize with indigenous people who are fighting for their dying languages.  I sympathize with the French farmer who led a revolt against McDonalds.  And I sympathize with Jews who – after surviving inquisitors, pogroms, and the holocaust – fear losing their culture to secularism and intermarriage.

But more often, the people who fear losing their culture don’t invoke much sympathy in me at all.  I have little sympathy for those who see immigration as a threat to their culture.  I have little sympathy for those who want to hang confederate flags to celebrate their culture.  I have little sympathy for people who defend misogynist, homophobic, racist or other hateful practices in the name of culture.

When I ponder the question of whether or not culture can disappear, my first response is – damn, I hope so.  I hope the culture of racism disappears.  I hope the culture of patriarchy disappears.  Rape culture, homophobic culture, materialistic culture…I hope all of it disappears. Of course, pondering those cultural relics just goes to show how difficult culture is to get rid of.  Culture, good and bad, is pernicious.

Culture mutates like a virus.  And it is that infinite mutability of culture that makes arguments about protecting culture completely nonsensical.  The fear that people have of losing their culture depends upon the belief that culture is isolated and stagnant.  It depends upon a belief that what you practice as your culture today is what it was yesterday and what it should be tomorrow.

Not true.

What is Jewish culture?  To my mother it means having Friday night dinner and celebrating the high holidays.  To my friend it means making obligatory visits to the holocaust museums and eating lox at kosher delis.  But to Hasidim on Miami Beach it means wearing the same clothes Jews wore in the Eastern European ghetto.  They have decided that preserving their culture means freezing it in a moment in time.  Why that moment?  Jesus was a Jew.  Why not wear loose robes?  It would make a lot more sense in Miami.  I mean wool in 90 degrees, oy vey.

What is authentic culture?  Is pizza authentically Italian when tomatoes are indigenous to the Americas?  Is apple pie authentically American when apples are indigenous to Central Asia?  Is the horse culture of the Plains Indians authentic, even though they only had horses after the Spanish brought them?

When I visited the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, our guide felt the need to explain to us why the pueblo houses had modern looking windows and doors on some of them.  “We shop at Home Depot too,” she said.  Clearly, some previous visitors had been disappointed that the Acoma people were unwilling to forgo modern conveniences so tourists could have an “authentic” experience.

When people try to hang on to culture, they are trying to hang on to culture caught in a moment in time, as interpreted through their memories or imaginations.  It isn’t real.  It isn’t possible. It isn’t desirable.

Don’t get me wrong.  It saddens me when I hear about lost cultures.  It saddens me to know that people in Tierra del Fuego only have a few native speakers left and that their language is dying.  But what is sad about lost culture is not that it is lost, per say.  What is sad is that, all too often, culture is lost because of force.  When the Navajo adopted the horse and changed their culture of their own volition, it was not sad.  When the Navajo were sent to schools to beat the Navajo out of them, that was not just sad, it was criminal.

The difference is force.  It is power.

Each individual must be free to chose which cultural things they think are useful and which they don’t think are useful.  If the things you are hanging on to are seen to be valuable by others, they will stick around.  Otherwise you just have to accept that not everyone shares your loves and values.  It’s a difficult thing to accept, but what else can you do?  Force acceptance down the barrel of a gun?

Of course, when people talk about losing their culture, what they often mean is they fear losing their identity.  They fear losing a label.  They fear losing a connection to a group and history that makes them special.  I can understand that fear.  But who you are is not so fragile.  Culture is not so fragile.

Here is the truth.  Many of the things that you cherish today will not be cherished, or even remembered, by future generations.  Many of the beliefs that people hold today will someday seem as strange and archaic as believing the world is flat.  You cannot stop that process.  That’s just life.  New cultural beliefs will form and their production will require cultural destruction.

But culture often survives in some small way despite itself.  In Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, there are many families descended from Spanish conversos.  There are Northern Mexicans who have been lighting candles on Friday nights for years, unawares that their tradition has roots in their Jewish heritage. And some of these people are rediscovering that heritage.  Hundreds of years of oppression and silence and yet a little flame remained.

Culture is stubborn.

The Myth of the Latino Vote

May 21, 2008 By: Mel Category: Politics

It seems like pundits do almost nothing but slice and dice the electorate into what they wish were neatly organized and predictable groups – white voters, black voters, old voters, young voters, men, women, extra terrestrials…

I didn’t think I could be more disgusted with the whole process until Richard Wolffe showed up on MSNBC talking about how Obama needed to court the Latino vote in Florida. Wolffe suggested that Obama was going to have to go down to Florida “speak their language” and “eat tacos.” Eat tacos!!! Argh!!! His statement is ignorant and offensive on so many levels I hardly know where to begin.

Not all “Latinos” eat tacos. I challenge Mr. Wolffe to head over to the Cuban restaurant Puerto Sagua on Miami beach and try to find a taco on the menu.

Not all people from Latin America speak Spanish. There are hundreds of indigenous languages still spoken and some immigrants from Latin America have never spoken Spanish. That doesn’t even begin to look at Portuguese, French and various creoles. Even Latinos in the U.S. whose families speak Spanish often don’t speak Spanish themselves.

In fact, growing up in South Florida, the majority of my friends barely spoke enough Spanish to converse with their abuelas. As media executives Jeff Valdez and Jose Cancela explain in an interview with Hispanic Magazine, the vast majority of Latinos speak English and only about a quarter are considered “Spanish dominant” – and that’s coming from the people trying to sell Spanish language ad space.

The idea of Latinos or Hispanics as a group is a creation of statisticians and advertising executives. If you don’t believe me, check out Arlene Dávila’s book Latinos Inc. In short, advertising executives convinced advertisers that there was this huge group of “Latinos” out there who all shared the same characteristics and could be advertised to as a group, on Spanish language television of course.

The truth is that a wealthy, white, educated, fervently anti-communist, Cuban revolution-era exile in Miami doesn’t have the same political interests as a migrant laborer from Mexico picking strawberries in Watsonville, California.

A Spanish, African, and Taino descended Puerto Rican musician who splits her time between New York and the island does not have the same political interests as a Californio politician whose Spanish descended ancestors have been living on the same land since the 1700s.

“Latinos” covers every conceivable background, history, economic status, and educational level. Trying to figure out how Latinos are going to vote based on the fact that they come from some place in the non-anglo dominated Americas is absurd.

A Cuban friend of mine once told me that she was a Republican because John F. Kennedy screwed up the Bay of Pigs and Cubans have never forgotten that betrayal. Some Mexican Catholics, on the other hand, are known for having pictures of JFK prominently displayed in their homes right next to Jesus and the pope. Are you trying to tell me they are going to vote the same?