Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mother, May I?

Last week I talked about Cosby, Consent, and Cricket. There was more I wanted to say on the issue of consent, but I really wanted to keep the piece down to about 600 words; so I decided to break my thoughts up into two pieces.

This is the second piece.

Let me begin with two oft-cited statistics, which may or may not have any solid basis in fact. The first is one that is very pertinent to the discussion of consent:

1 in 5 women will be the victim of some sort of sexual assault.

Now one from my 19 years of teaching:

5% of the students cause 95% of the problems.

What does this mean? Far from meaning that 20% of all guys are assholes, it means the 5% who are, are causing all the problems, messing up the lives of millions of women, and giving the rest of us guys a bad name.

And let's examine that first statistic one more time. It's not saying that 20% of all sexual encounters a woman has is some sort of assault. That's something completely different. But maybe we'll talk about that math some other time.

Besides, that’s not what I want to talk about yet. I want to get back to talking about consent.

…and overreacting.

It used to be that the catchphrase was “No Means No.” That was enough for 95% of us. We got it. Of course, there were a few “maybes” in there that got people confused and caused a lot of trouble…a lot of what one friend once called “felony stupidity”, but for the most part, we got it.

But some people didn’t, and as a result, New York is the latest state to enact a “Yes Means Yes” law. This law means that “She didn’t say ‘no’,” isn’t enough. There has to be an active and enthusiastic “Yes!” “Well, OK” doesn’t cut it. Not even a “Well OK” with a twinkle in her eye that would seem to indicate that this was where she wanted things to end up in the first place. There has to be an active and enthusiastic “Yes” at each step of making out.

My response to this is twofold. The first is: You gotta be kidding me! Instead of two people making out and negotiating non-verbally what they want to do as they go along, this turns everything into the following rather unromantic game of “Mother May I?”

Pat: May I kiss you?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I kiss you again?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I put my hand on your butt?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I unbutton your shirt?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I undo your pants?

Chris: Yes.

You will notice that I didn’t state what sex either Pat or Chris were. Either one could be male…or female…or they could both be male…or female. It’s not always a case of the guy putting the moves on the girl.

This new rule puts what has traditionally been an improvised dance, with nonverbal cues being understood by most people, into a game of legal contract. 95% of the guys out there understand that if you try to unzip a girl’s pants and she gently moves your hand away, then you should stop. They also understand that if she responds by unzipping yours, then you can try to move further. And the key word here is “try.” If at any point she brushes your hand away, you know not to try again.

But because of the 5% of guys who wouldn’t understand “No” if they were hit over the head with an anvil with the words painted all over it, a new rule has been put in place that says that everyone has to play “Mother May I?”

As for my second response…well, since I’m running out of room again, you’ll just have to wait another week for that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Cosby, Consent, and Cricket

Well, it’s been quite the month in terms of the issues of consent, rape, how we view consent, and how our changing view of consent changes the way we view rape.

Let’s start with the huge elephant in the room…Bill Cosby. This month damning evidence came to light about his sexual activities with one woman, and this evidence gives credence to the accusations of countless others. There’s a lot of fallout from this, but one of the pieces of fallout I want to address here is that a lot of guys who didn’t want to believe that Cosby had done anything wrong unless they had video footage of it…and they were operating the camera at the time…now have to face up to the fact that these accusations are probably credible.

Why did it take them so long to believe the accusations? It wasn’t that they were insensitive, misogynistic pigs. It was fear, pure and simple. It was the fear of a false accusation against them. It only takes a moment for a false accusation to ruin a reputation, and years to gain it back…even after it’s been proven that the accusations were spurious. It’s not that these guys didn’t feel for any woman who had gone through what these women claimed to have, it’s that without any solid proof, they didn’t want to condemn the man, because they were afraid of someone doing that to them…and they all seemed to know someone who knew someone that that had happened to.

They didn’t understand why the women would keep quiet for so long…and yet many of these guys who gave Cosby the benefit of the doubt were the first to jump all over the Catholic Church for the actions of a few priests (and the resulting cover up) and the actions of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, even though the victims in these two cases came forth with their accusations years, and even decades later.

The Cosby case is a part of our recent redefining of what rape is by making it an issue of consent and not necessarily violence. It’s no longer a matter of having a knife to your throat or a gun to your head, if you did not consent…or were not in a position or condition to consent…it’s rape. Period.

And based on this new and improved definition, Bill Cosby could very easily be charged with rape if any of the incidents happened before the statute of limitations expired.

Based on this new and improved definition, many things that we previously considered simply “not cricket”, not quite right, not the way a gentleman would behave, but not wrong, now are; and now count as rape. What was once seen as simply unethical is now illegal. And this is as it should be. Any use of alcohol or drugs to get the other person into a condition where they’re incapable of saying “no”, isn’t just “taking advantage of them”, it’s rape. Of course, there is a difference between intentionally getting someone stinking drunk so that they can’t say “no” and everyone having a drink or two so that they’re more comfortable saying “yes.” At least there is to me…and Jimmy Buffett.

Next week I’ll talk about how New York’s new “Yes Means Yes” law fits into this.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mawage and the State

Mawage. Mawage is wot brings us togeder today. Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam…

I can’t tell you how many times I saw that line from The Princess Bride quoted after the recent Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges…you know…the marriage equality case. But I’m not here today to talk about marriage equality, even though I believe strongly in it. As one of millions who have benefitted from the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v Virginia, I feel that I have no honest choice but to support it. But that’s another issue for another time.

No…today I come to talk about the state’s legitimate interest in marriage.

I emphasize “legitimate” because just as I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard that quote from The Princess Bride, I also can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard some cretin complain that they don’t see why the government has to get involved in what is essentially a private decision between them and their beloved. They don’t see why the government has any business getting mixed up in what is a religious arrangement between them and their beloved. And I have known people, straight people, who rather than spend the $40 to just get married already, spent hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars to have lawyers draw up contracts that would give them the same rights and protections as married people…all because they didn’t think the government had any place in their personal business.

I’ve joked that I’ve replied to this complaint so many times on Facebook that I might as well just save my response as boilerplate that I could paste in whenever someone said it; so that I didn’t have to write it from scratch every time. This is my boilerplate, and from now on, I’ll just be able to paste in the link to this blog entry and be done with it.

Before I say what I have to say, I’m going to recommend that anyone with an opinion on marriage, what it is, what it’s been, and what it should be, should immediately get a copy of the book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. If you are able to have your mind changed by facts, you’ll find that this book is full of facts that will change your mind about what a “traditional” marriage is and was, how “tradition” has changed over the centuries, and how “tradition” is not the same all over the world. I know that I learned a few things from it. But more germane to my boilerplate here, is the fact that you’ll find out that marriage has always been the concern of the community.

Let me state that again: Marriage has always been the concern of the community.

Whether it be the tribe, the village, the province, the religious group, or the country, marriage has always been the concern of the community, and hence the state or the government. Why? Because it’s how things like inheritances are sorted out, and how property is divided and custody is decided in the event of a divorce. When you get right down to it, a marriage is a legal contract between two people, giving each of them certain rights and protections, and outlining certain expectations.

I’ll admit that in an era when we’re so accustomed to seeing church weddings that we can hardly imagine anything else, it’s easy to think that religion “owns” weddings, but despite what the Catholic Church may say, it doesn’t. The community does, and religion has the option to put its own seal of approval on what the state has formalized.

There are places in Europe where you have two weddings. The first is the one in the city clerk’s office, that gets all the official recordkeeping done. The second is the one at the church or synagogue or mosque, that adds the religious veneer to it. But you can’t have the second without the first.

Here in the States, the religious and civil communities often overlap, and this is why you only need to get married once here. Clergy are but one group of people…along with mayors, judges, and justices of the peace…who are authorized under the various state laws to marry people. In fact, I know of a pastor who says that when he performs a wedding, he is acting as an agent of the State of New York, which gives him the legal authorization to marry people.

So now that I’m done with my boilerplate on the issue, I expect to use it often…and much more easily.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Two Words this Music History Student Never Wants to Hear Again

As a former Music History student, I learned a lot about…well…music history. And music history is in many ways an easy way to follow history in general. One of the most important things I learned in all my music history classes was also one of the most obvious ones, and that is that everyone borrows from and is influenced by everyone.

This doesn’t just mean that Bach, from Germany is also influenced by Buxtehude, who is also from Germany; it means that he was also influenced by Vivaldi, from Italy. All over Europe, composers were traveling and hearing music from other countries, and bringing back those styles to be used with the music of their own countries.

To borrow a term from botany, that’s the way cross-fertilization works. Georg Friedrich Handel, a German, moves to England, where he becomes George Frederick Handel, and influences English music for generations to come. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, from Austria, becomes known for Italian music, and greatly influences its style. Oh, and he also wrote a Turkish rondo, while Beethoven wrote a Turkish section to his 9th Symphony.

People from one culture are hearing things in another, bringing it back, and working it into what was native to them, and no one complained. It’s the way that music works.

It was also the way that fashion worked. You didn’t have to be French to wear French-styled clothes. Those styles made their way to Germany and England just as styles from Germany and England made their way to France.

Worth noting is that this cross-fertilization often happened even while those countries were at war with each other…which seemed to be fairly often.

So with this in mind, what are the two words I never want to hear again?

Cultural appropriation.

The way I’ve heard it used lately, it’s the idea that white people are illegitimately taking and profiting from things from black culture. They’re taking what is “ours” and using it when they really have no right to. This refers to everything from “our” music to “our” hairstyles, and even “our” way of speaking.

How do you say “bullshit” in Swahili?

Is it cultural appropriation when white people play “our” music, wear “our” hairstyles, and use “our” slang?

I don’t know…is it cultural appropriation when Scott Joplin uses the European diatonic and chromatic scales, the AABBACCDD compositional structure, and the distinctly Italian fortepiano to create ragtime? Is it cultural appropriation when musicians like Louis Armstrong use European instruments like the trumpet and saxophone to create jazz? Is it cultural appropriation when black women straighten their hair, and avail themselves of the additional style choices that come with it? Or when they dye it colors not found in nature? Is it cultural appropriation when a black person uses Yiddish terms like klutz or chutzpah? Or are all of these simply more cases of the cross-fertilization that happens when one culture meets another?

And lest you try to say that those cases are different because we were simply absorbing what was in the culture we were brought into against our wills, consider Hawaii. Was it cultural appropriation when Hawaiians took the ukulele that was brought over by Portuguese traders, and made it their own? And what about Asia? Is it cultural appropriation when young people in Japan, China, and Korea copy American or European music and styles? And is it cultural appropriation when we copy theirs?

My answer is “no.”

Sometimes we see something in another culture that we hadn’t thought of before, and like. That’s normal cross-fertilization. We’re not Monsanto here, trying to make sure that no one else uses our patented genetically modified soybean seeds. This is the way it is…we get ideas from others, they get ideas from us, and we spread them around like manure, helping new things grow.

So the next time I hear someone use the term “cultural appropriation”, I’m going to appropriate a 2x4 and smack them upside the head with it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Confederate Flag Conundrum

In the wake of this week’s shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, the call has come once again, for the Confederate flag at the state capitol to come down. This is not an easy thing by any stretch of the imagination, and if you are at all able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, you can understand why. But for those of you who can’t, let me explain why it’s not quite a slam dunk in either direction.

And then let me propose a solution.

Let me start out by saying that as a kid…or at least a teenager…the Confederate flag was the symbol of a region. Yeah, sure, it was also the symbol of those people during the Civil War, but those people lived in a specific region, and that region had its own flag. New England didn’t have a flag that could be used as an identifying symbol like that. Nor did the Midwest, the West Coast (which is really just California, so I guess it does), the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, or my own Middle Atlantic States. The South actually had a symbol, and that flag was it.

You could be pretty sure that car with a Confederate flag symbol on it was from the South. What you couldn’t be sure of was that the person driving it was a white racist redneck. After all, even black Southerners have a sense of regional pride.

So there’s that.

But there’s something else, and it comes up every time someone talks about getting rid of that flag. It’s called “honoring your ancestors.” I’m betting that just about every white Southerner worth their accent has ancestors who fought on the side of the Confederacy, and it’s not an easy thing to say that your great-great-grandfather fought on the wrong side or for the wrong ideals. It’s not an easy thing to say that the flag that your great-great-grandfather fought under should be treated with contempt.

And yet, today’s Germans do that all the time with their ancestors and the Nazi era flag.

Let me add one more point, and then I’ll propose my solution. This point is that in many cases, that flag made a resurgence in the mid 20th century as a form of “in your face” passive-aggressive resistance to the changing Civil Rights scene. It was sort of like, “You can make us change our laws, but you can’t make us change our hearts. So take our flag and stick it up your…” It’s this more recent resurgence of the use of any form of the Confederate flag which has been the source of many of the issues surrounding it.

And now it’s time for a solution.

My original idea for a graceful solution was that they should go back to the historical state flag from before the Civil War, just as the Germans did with the Nazi flag after WWII.

And then I found out that this isn’t even the state flag. The actual state flag would be perfectly fine.

So how then to solve this problem gracefully, without anyone feeling like they were backed into a corner, and needing to save face?

Fly the current flag, the Confederate flag, at half-mast for 30 days, treating each of the people killed on Tuesday night as fallen heroes, not of the Confederacy, but of the South…the New South…the South that South Carolina wants to be a part of. Will it make certain people’s ancestors spin like turbines? I don’t know. On the one hand, I’d like to think that they’re beyond caring. On the other hand, I’d really like to think that if they do care, what they care about is rectifying what they now understand are the grievous wrongs that they played a part in trying to prolong.

Yes, fly the current flag at half-mast for 30 days, and when those 30 days are over, take it down, and replace it forever with the official state flag. The flag that stands, in no uncertain terms, for all of South Carolina’s residents.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Bowtie, a Plaid Jacket, a Paisley Tux, and Flip Flops at the White House

There’s a picture on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday” of me receiving my National Achievement Scholarship award from Western Electric back in 1974. The first thing most of my friends noticed was the tie I was wearing…it was a huge white bowtie. After that, they noticed the jacket. It was plaid…boldly plaid.

When the comments started coming in, the first thing I did was to remind them of the era that photo was from. But then I remembered my prom…and Susan Ford’s prom…and realized that other factors were involved here…one that might explain the infamous White House “Flip Flop Flap” of 2005.

The missing factors were culture and socioeconomic class.

I grew up among people for whom a jacket and tie were not everyday wear, but something you put on when you got dressed up. These were postal workers, teachers, hairdressers, retail workers, librarians, autoworkers, and such. Solid middle-class or working-class citizens who took pride in how they looked when they got dressed up. And when they got dressed up, they put on their best…and fanciest…clothes. We didn’t have a distinction between business clothes and formal wear – anything that involved wearing a jacket and shiny shoes was getting dressed up.

This leads me to my prom. There’s another Throwback Thursday photo of me, from that same year, at my senior prom, wearing a black and white paisley print tux with a powder blue ruffled shirt, and a big black bowtie. I recall reading that same year that a President Ford’s daughter Susan’s prom, the big question was “black tux or white tux?”

“Black tux or white tux?” How boring! How totally lacking in imagination and style! What was wrong with these people?

Little did I realize that I was laughing at how “tastefully boring” their prom attire would be, people in the social class of the Fords (both the Geralds and the Henrys) would be laughing at the tacky “costumes” that my friends and I chose for our prom attire…even though it was fancier than what we would wear on a regular basis.

I figured this out somewhere during the next 10 years, as I left the people I knew in East Orange, and met other people from other places, and saw how people in other cultures and different socioeconomic classes did things. It was then that I learned the difference between dress (or business) clothes and fancy ones. It was then that I learned, to my horror, that despite the fact that they were shiny and black, and not suede, loafers were not considered dress shoes; and that the “proper” shoes to wear for such occasions would be wingtips, which I thought were among the ugliest shoes known to mankind. Not to worry though, I wore loafers to my wedding anyway…after all, it was my wedding.

And this brings us to the Flip Flop Flap of 2005. For those of you who don’t remember, this was when members of the Northwestern University Women’s Lacrosse Team were taken to task for wearing…gasp…flip flops to a White House ceremony in their honor. Now I’m not talking the cheap little rubber things you buy to wear at the beach. I’m talking really nice…really fancy…shoes, that just happened to have descended from that lineage, and had the little strap between the toes. The Fashion Police, accompanied by people of certain social classes, went out with their riot gear on over this one. “How could they possibly wear…gasp…flip flops…to the White House?”

Um…probably the same way that I’d wear nice black loafers.

But there are two important things to consider here. The first is that, at the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, there is probably not a straight male anywhere who saw the photo of those girls at the White House, and noticed their shoes. I doubt that President Bush himself even noticed. Guys tend to know four types of women’s shoes: flats, heels, sandals, and sneakers. Anything else is a subset that we don’t really need to know about.

The second is that the people who got bent so horribly out of shape about the flip flops…the really nice flip flops that some members of the team were wearing…are…wait for it…snobs. These girls dressed up in their nicest clothes and nicest shoes for a very special occasion, and these people decided to go ballistic over a fashion rule that many of them probably didn’t even know existed, because they didn’t grow up with it.

I look back at those pictures of me in that plaid jacket with that huge bowtie, or my paisley print tux for the prom, and I laugh. But I look at the picture of the Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse Team, and I still don’t see anything wrong with their shoes.

At least they weren’t wearing wingtips.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Having Children

Oh Francis, you blew it. At least for me you did. I really like most of what you’ve done and said so far since you’ve been Pope, and I’m not even a Catholic. Of course, that’s been the big thing about you…you’ve been getting non-Catholics…even a few Southern Baptists out there…to take a look and say, “Hey, this guy seems to be legit! What else does he have to say?”

And I recognize that for as much as you’ve done so far, you haven’t moved fast enough for many Catholics…and too fast for others. But I understand that you can’t please everyone. Heck, even Jesus himself wasn’t able to do that.

However, back in February, you blew it big time as far as I was concerned, with your comment about couples who choose not to have children being selfish.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who once said that unless you’re doing “something important” with your life, like setting up a hospital in Africa, building houses for Habitat for Humanity…or being the Pope, those who didn’t want to have children were just selfish little people who didn’t want to think outside of themselves…for 18 or so years. This friend maintained that children are an intrinsic good, and that everyone should have them as a result. When I asked about those people who knew they wouldn’t be good parents, this same friend said that they should have children anyway…it would teach them how to think of someone besides themselves, and build character.

When I heard that, my brain exploded. If children are good in and of themselves, wouldn’t she want the best for them, rather than just using them as a character building tool for someone else? And what about all those children who don’t end up improving the characters of the people she insisted have them, and who go through horrible, and sometimes even extremely short, lives as a result?

It’s not as if there are people out there consciously saying to themselves “I could’ve had children, but I chose the fancy vacations every year instead.” There are people out there who honestly never really ever had a desire to have children, and the fact that they have a little more freedom and money than the rest of us is just an added bonus. Really. It’s not something that they felt and are suppressing in order to have more material things, it’s just a desire they never had; and we’ve finally reached a point in society where a couple isn’t pressured to have kids, and it’s OK to not want them.

Or so I thought until you came out laying this guilt trip on these people who often make absolutely wonderful aunts and uncles precisely because they don’t have the constant responsibility for children of their own; these people who love their nieces and nephews in small doses, but are also more than happy to send them back to their parents.

Rather than looking at children as an “intrinsic good” and something that everyone should have, whether they want them or not, how about focusing on having every child be wanted? After all, aren’t there enough people out there who want three, four, or eight children that we don’t need to insist that everyone have one or two?

For that matter, aren’t there enough people, period? I think of the ongoing water crisis in California, and think that it’s only going to get worse as more and more people there have children. Do we really need more people competing for the same limited resources?

Sometimes we’re so caught up in our own feelings, that we can’t begin to understand those of others. I believe that was the case with my friend. She wanted children, and a lot of them, so intensely that she assumed that everyone did, and should; and that anyone who said that they didn’t was indeed repressing the same intense desire that she felt…and doing so for selfish reasons.

But you know what, Francis…children aren’t for everyone. The large family that you found so joyful when you were a child can be stifling to others. And many people who have children spend their final years in more intense loneliness than people who have none.

So how about a little live and let live here? I won’t criticize the people who have five or more children if you won’t criticize those who have none at all. After all, when you average out the “nones” and the “manys”, we’re still looking at an average of 2.58 children…at least in this country.