Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Appropriate appropriation?

I recently read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, of which Neil Gaiman has said "I have no doubt that within a year it will both be winning awards and being banned." It's a semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a kid who lives on an Indian reservation but attends an all-white school outside of it. The book pulled me into this reality that is miles away from anything I've ever known, but that I could relate to on just about every level. I recommend this book so hard.
There's this scene in the end of the book, in which a character's grandmother has just died and pretty much the whole reservation shows up to mourn her. She was so beloved and well-known that they have to hold her memorial at the high school football stadium. People stand up and tell great stories as a tribute to her memory, but it's this one white guy, the narrator says, whose story was most important of all.
His name's Ted, and while he's not an Indian, he feels Indian in his soul (just like every other white person the narrator's ever met). Ted proceeds to give this long resume of all the ways he respects Native people, all the arrowheads and art and blankets in his collection. But the most beautiful item he owned by far, he said, was a powwow dance costume. The dance costume, he tearfully confessed, he knew had been stolen, and now he'd searched for ages to find the original owner - the very woman being mourned that day. 
Only they didn't belong to the grandmother at all. Ted didn't even have the right tribe. He'd shown up and derailed this old woman's funeral, made himself the center of attention, no doubt hoping for a big tearful display of forgiveness, and he was on the wrong damn reservation. 
And that's the first time I really understood the concept of cultural appropriation. I knew the term, of course, and I knew it was supposed to be bad, but I never actually got why it was. I mean, melting pot, right? And it's not like culture's a limited resource. It's not like tourist shops are in any danger of running out of dream catcher keychains.
But old white guy Ted made me get it. He wasn't just a pretender, he was a thief. He stole a funeral. He stole a family's grief. He paid money for a thing he didn't understand or have any right to own, and then he thought his crisis of conscience entitled him to steal glory away from a dead woman. This guy had everything, and the old woman, well, she'd lived her whole life in the shitty slum that was all that was left of her people's ancestral homeland. Yet he was the one stealing from her.
But I'm bordering on whitesplaining; lots of people of color have explained the concept better than me. 

But it's not just Native American culture that gets appropriated.
I do kind of take issue with some of what she says about hair. There are ancient Greek statues rocking dreadlocks*, and lots of cultures throughout the centuries have used intricate braids. The baby curls Katy Perry (who is, admittedly, an awful human being) got flack for wearing... my Irish grandmother called those spit curls, and she used to put them in my hair just like her mom had done for her. But Amandla Stenberg has a counter-point.
In my mind, the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is respect. And I kind of think that if a person can't see the line between cultural exchange and perpetuation of offensive stereotypes, it's probably safest to just not go anywhere near the line. 
And if you're like me, and are still not really cool with anybody telling you what you can wear or do with your hair, some perspective might be useful: while we're indignant over being told what we can't wear, the American government still tells Native Americans they can't have running water - many reservations still lack the infrastructure to support it - in fact, a full 40% of Navajo Americans aren't able to get water in their damn homes. The government has also told Native Americans on reservations that they can't have adequately funded healthcare. Medical facilities on reservations are so drastically and shockingly underfunded that you get to live like, five years longer than Native Americans, on average.
Be mad about being told what you can't wear, but save your righteous indignation for stuff that matters.

* By the by, you know that viral video of a person of color attacking a white guy for having dreads? Please stop treating individual crazy people as representatives of their race as a whole. I once had a white lady (who happened to have schizophrenia) beat me up because I offered her a sandwich. This was not some white schizophrenic uprising aimed at oppressing people with sandwiches, it was one unstable lady being unstable. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The half-blood princess

The Kindle app has this "popular highlights" feature, wherein you can see text that other Kindle users have highlighted. In academic books, this could be super useful. In the romance novels (aka Lady Porn) I consume like potato chips this allows for a new, weird form of voyeurism. 
It's weird to get that little glimpse inside the heads of the other folks who read this stuff - it's weird to hear what really turns them on. Like, you'd think people would highlight the filthy bits for future reference. That's what we're in it for, right? Only that's generally not the case. They highlight the lovey dovey crap. They highlight the sweet things the men say in the cuddling afterglow. The parts where the men assure them that their curves are sexy and that their imperfections only make them more perfect, or whatever. They highlight the funny bits, they highlight the bits they think are deep. In the Fifty Shades books, hundreds of other readers highlighted the wedding vows. Which I have to assume means that at least some of those readers actually used those wedding vows.
Which reminds me, random aside, of this interview I saw with the artist Sting. Sting wrote this song Every Breath You Take, which has lyrics like this:
Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you
Every single day and every word you say
Every game you play, every night you stay, I'll be watching you

Oh, can't you see you belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take
Some people think these lyrics are super romantic and super sexy.  Sane people think this song is super creepy and stalker-y. Which makes sense, since Sting wrote the song about the absolute nutter who was stalking him. There's an interview in which Sting talks about people who think the song is romantic. He says fans are always telling him how romantic the song is, and how many fans have told him that they'd used Every Step You Take in their wedding. Sting says whenever he hears that, he sort of cringes and thinks "ugh... good luck." But I digress as usual.
My 8th grade English teacher kept a little library of books at the back of the classroom, several of which were her college English books. I remember reading this book of Frost poetry one day, and her annotations in it. Isn't it funny the things we remember? I can't remember a single thing I learned in math in 8th grade, but I can remember precisely her tight penciled cursive in the lining of that book. Anyway, I remember in the poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, next to "Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though," she'd written God's house. Now, throughout my many years as an English major I've heard many interpretations of Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, including one surprisingly cogent essay arguing that the speaker of the poem is, in fact Santa Claus. But I don't remember anybody saying it was about God. It seems kind of like a Poetry 101 interpretation, honestly. 
Or I thought so, until just the other day that scribble popped into my head and I rethought it. Actually, Robert Frost had an interesting relationship with religion. His mom practiced a sort of mysticism called Swedenborgianism, which was quite obviously made up by the Muppets' Swedish Chef. 

Frost called himself an "Old Testament Christian," but rarely went to church or wrote about God. However, read through Frost's catalog, and you'll find his primary preoccupation to be nature, the natural world. Acquainted with the Night, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, The Road Not Taken - they all take place out of doors, immersed in creation. So it's not much of a leap to conclude that nature was Frost's church, that creation was what he held most sacred. And so it might well be that the line his house is in the village though is a cheeky little dig at the folks who think to find God inside a church inside a village, rather than out in the wilds of his creation. Or it might be that Robert Frost once trespassed in some guy's woods and wrote a poem about it. I tend to think that most poems are about what they are about, and that attempts to find secret meanings in great works of poetry are like dissecting a frog expecting to find Swedish fish inside. 
But how cool is it that a pencil scribble in a book you read more than 20 years ago can like, out of the blue give you a different understanding of a poem you've read a million times since? 

In college I always used to get to the bookstore early, in hopes of getting used books with the least amount of other people's crap in them. Now I kind of gravitate towards other people's highlights and scratches in the margin. How rare it is in real life to be able to read over another person's shoulder and hear what they're saying in their mind.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

If only

I travel back 20 years sometimes, to find my teenage self. She was so thin, yet and half my current size, she believed herself morbidly obese. She spent all her daylight clowning and chattering, frantically hiding the misery that fell when everyone was asleep; the gasping and clutching of sleepless hours of panic and self-injury and the soothing plotting of the end of my life.
School's not easy with the screaming in your brain drowning out everything else. That's certainly not the only reason I was terrible at school; even with the benefit of drugs, I'm a world champion slack artist. Still, I've spent a lot of years wondering what if and what if and what if.

It's actually not that I'm not super happy with my life. I'm an English major with a job in her field - I'm living the dream. And if not for all the stumbles and falls, I'd have never met Jeremy. But haunted by the what ifs, I decided it was time.
This July I start in an MFA program at Ashland University. An MFA's not exactly the most practical thing to pursue, but it's not about finding a different job or making more money. It's about finding out what if.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Men are from Mars

Advice columns can be useful, such as a recent Dear Abby column that gives some great advice about how to not get yourself raped
See, this teenage virgin agreed to get together with a boy and study, and even though she was explicit about not wanting to have sex, he drove her to a secluded area and raped her. Well, she wasn't sure he'd raped her. One of her friends said he had and another said he hadn't, because she hadn't told him no forcefully enough. Luckily, Dear Abby was there to break the tie - see, the guy decided to have sex with her against her will because of a miscommunication. See he interpreted Uncertain in Illinois' willingness to make out as an invitation to shove his penis into her and keep going when she told him it hurt and begged him to stop. Uncertain's folks should have talked with her about the dangers of her irresponsible behaviors. Luckily, Abby had some advice: go to the police. Just kidding, Uncertain should go see the school shrink.
But I wonder if Abby's attitude toward rape - a lot of people's attitudes about what constitutes rape - aren't due to something of a "miscommunication." 
The minute boys are born we start telling them how their worth is defined by their ability to get women. From birth they're ladykillers and heart breakers. Stores sell baby clothes that say things like Lock up your daughters and I'm here to steal your girl, and Ladies, I have arrived. We live in a world where many different manufacturers are willing to make and sell clothing that declares your infant boy a pimp.
But then on the other hand, we tell girls just the opposite from birth. We joke that infant girls will have to beat the boys off with a stick, but that their dads will have to lock them up when they're older. Young girls must be pretty to have worth, but they must not wear clothing that's "distracting" to the boys. We teach girls that a good girl keeps her legs together, doesn't send out "confusing" signals, and that their parents will protect their virtue with violence if need be. Girls who remain virgins are good girls and we praise them for it.
Boys who have sex with a lot of partners are players; women who do are sluts. Average-looking men who pursue women relentlessly are pickup artists; women who do are swamp donkeys and slam pigs (except for average looking girls under 13, who are slampiglets and I do not want to live on this planet anymore).  
So we've set up this situation where a male's worth rests in his ability to have sex, and a woman's worth rests in her refusal to have it. 
But does that cognitive dissonance make rapists of men who otherwise wouldn't be? That sounds a bit like making excuses. And surely rapists are horrible monsters, a species apart from we decent human beings, right? I'm not so sure. Repeated studies over the course of decades have found that otherwise normal people will usually perform actions that they believe to be morally wrong - up to and including murder - if an authority figure tells them to. So if society tells men over and over that they have to have sex with women in order to have worth, maybe they start to think that no doesn't have to mean no. It's not an excuse - not in the case of those experiments and not in the case of rapists. But maybe society deserves a slice of the blame too.   
And another thing. We say rape and sexual violence are wrong, but the language we use when it comes to boys and sex is pretty violent. From the moment they're born, we tell them they're ladykillers and heart breakers. Women make love, but men bang and nail and hammer and screw and plow and pound and bag her and hit that. 
But those are just words, words that nobody actually takes literally. Surely they couldn't make people think rape's okay, right? Well not according to Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University. In their paper "Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning," they posit that the metaphors we use can shape our actions. In one experiment, they asked people to propose a solution to crime in the city of Addison. The facts they gave to each group were the same, but the metaphors they used were different - one group was asked to imagine crime as a virus infecting the city, while subjects in the other group were asked to imagine it as a beast ravaging the city. The people who got the virus metaphor were more likely to focus on prevention and rehabilitation, where people who got the beast metaphor advocated stepping up law enforcement and delivering more severe punishments. So maybe using violent language when we talk about sex influences folks to see sex and violence as things that go together. 
Maybe. I don't know. Despite all this research, I can't really believe that decent people will do horrible things under the right conditions. I'm far from a moral absolutist, but I really believe that people who torture others are bad people, regardless of their reasoning; I'm not comfortable with the idea that most people become, by that definition, bad people if someone in a white coat tells them to be. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Under the wire and out of steam

I've always found the expression you can't judge a book by its cover funny, because that's kind of how bookstores work. Between the title, author, critic quotations, illustrations, and blurbs, you may not be able to tell everything about a book from its cover, it's certainly a good place to start.
Gary Busey is one book you can
most certainly judge by its cover.
Of course, when the phrase first got popular, in mid-eighteen hundreds according to, books had a lot less information on their covers. And yet, according to the Google Books Ngram viewer, the phrase is more popular in print than ever. But don't judge a book by its cover isn't the only popular phrase coined in a very different time.
With a face like this, what was
Martin Shkreli gonna do? Join the
Peace Corps?
It's your dime comes from when pay phones existed, and calls from such dinosaurs cost a dime. Mattresses aren't made from sacks of hay anymore, but we still hit they hay or hit the sack when we're tired. People who stay up late these days tend to prefer electric lighting, but they're still said to burn the midnight oil. Carnivals tend not to give out tobacco products as prizes anymore, but we still say close but no cigar. We don't use steam to power our vehicles anymore, yet when we're tired, we say we've run out of it. We left behind the human-limb-based economy at least a decade ago, but things still cost an arm and a leg
Robert Durst may have accidentally
confessed to murder back in 2015,
but the cold dead eyes have been
confessing his sins all along.
Riding shotgun refers to the guy on a stagecoach whose job it was to deter highway robbery. The practice dates back to the 1800s, at least, the the expression, according to, is 20th century. We're not sure who coined the term - it appeared to have been around a while when it first appeared in print back in 1920. The old Westerns popularized the term, and by the 1950s, kids were using the term to refer to riding in the front seat of the family car. The term peaked in popularity back in the '60s, but it's still in wide use today.