Tag Archives: activism

An Open Letter to The Piano Guys

Dear Piano Guys,

I don’t listen to your music anymore. This is not a boycott, though it did begin with the inauguration. A boycott would be an intentional decision to avoid some business in order to make a point. I don’t have a point here, nor a desire to convince others to stand with me. It’s only that your beautiful music lost something, and I’m writing this to try to explain why, to myself as much as the world.

At the time of the inauguration, many celebrities saw that Donald Trump was A. dangerous in an unprecedented way and B. prone to seeing their presence at his events as an affirmation of what he stood for. Therefore, most of them refused to appear at the inauguration. Many others cancelled after outcry from fans. You, when you fans objected, wrote your own open letter. When I first read it, it actually made me feel better. You said a good deal about your positive message of love and you affirmed the rights of women and immigrants. I interpreted this as a subtle hint that you were were going to use the performance to engage in active outreach, rather like how the cast of Hamilton had respectfully engaged Mike Pence earlier that year. Perhaps you would point out how many of your hit videos have featured singers who were immigrants, or mention how, as Mormons, your people have a history of religious oppression and you believe no one should be denied freedom of religion.

I don’t think the Trump administration would have listened to that outreach, but I still think the effort to reach out publicly has merit, if only because it inspires other people to stand up. Also, his reactions tend to highlight his temperamental flaws and make it difficult for the media to normalize him. I think that there are many forms of resistance, all with advantages and disadvantages, and the movement as a whole is best if we all do our best at the type of resistance we are most suited to. I might not have chosen to perform, even with outreach, at that inauguration, but I could respect someone’s decision to accept and then use that platform.

But of course, that wasn’t your plan at all. You did nothing newsworthy. You just played for a man who has raped women, incited others to violence and is under investigation for treason. Then you went home with your check.

There is a difference between outreach and validation. Outreach is when you see a person doing something wrong, call them out, but don’t let their wrong behavior stop you from talking to them as fellow humans. It’s hard to do, and not always received well, but when it works the results can be incredible. Validation, on the other hand, is when you prioritize the wrongdoer’s comfort, and refuse to call them out even when your conscience tells you that you should. Your letter indicated to me that you did see and understand all the reasons why the bigoted, hateful rhetoric of Trump’s campaign needed to be called out, but instead you chose the actions that he would see as validating.

This letter comes a long time after the inauguration. This is because part of me has been waiting to see you prove that this validation came from lack of understanding, rather than lack of a desire to affect change. I’ve been waiting for evidence of this. You specifically said you support immigrants and women. If you want to fight xenophobia, why not give a benefit concert for the ACLU? Why not donate a portion of your proceeds to a women’s group, or an interfaith event, or something to benefit refugees? Why not perform for a candidate you actually do believe in? It’s too late to say you don’t want to be political; we all know performing for a politician’s act is at least a partially political act, and you knew that going into this situation. So why not be political in a truly bipartisan, healing spirit? I would still disagree with your choice to perform at the inauguration, but I would at least trust that your letter was honest; that you were flawed, but not disingenuous. At this particular moment, it does not feel like you genuinely care for women and minorities the way you claimed to.

As I’ve re-read your letter, searching a reason to stay a fan, I only see more gaps in your understanding.

You compared yourself to Marian Anderson, who performed at a time when neither party could claim to be supporting Black Americans. But that’s exactly why her situation was different. She knew that to perform at an inauguration at all would be a slap in the face to racists, regardless of their political affiliation. Simply by singing, as a Black woman, she was engaging in outreach to both parties. You performed for a man who spent over a year actively insulting every type of a minority to a degree that even members of his own party would not ordinarily stoop to. You did so as fellow straight cisgender white men. Your presence did not challenge him in any way.

You compared your choice to Barack Obama’s dignified handling of the transition. He only did what he was legally required to, and he did not let democracy’s need for a smooth, peaceful transition stop him from imposing sanctions on Russia, protecting scientific data on climate change and preventing the new administration from erasing all evidence of their Russian ties. You accepted a paying gig that you could have easily turned down. These are not comparable decisions.

Worst of all, you compared the inaugural performance to one you gave in an unnamed country that you perceived as hostile to the USA. Do you not understand the difference between a nation’s leaders and their people? Do you paint a whole nation with their leader’s actions? Performing for the ordinary people of a country we are at odds with should not be different from performing for the people of any other nation. But in your description of this show, you seemed to think that A. the people who showed up were your enemy and B. because your music was so good you had some kind of transformative global impact. No. You played for regular human beings, and it was a good show. That is all.

You used that show to indicate that music changed hearts, and implied that, therefore, it was your duty to perform even for people you disagreed with. I agree that music is powerful and can bind us, but you’re painfully naive if you literally thought an admittedly brilliant mashup of Vivaldi’s Winter with Frozen’s Let it Go could magically un-racist a white supremacist. And if you didn’t actually think that, then your letter was a lie.

But why do I care? Why did the impulse to write this open letter not leave, even after five months? Well, I’m really angry because, to quote the song, you give love a bad name. There’s been plenty of great talk about the power of love to crush hate, and I believe in that power wholeheartedly, but if when fellow activists distrust it, that distrust always seems to originate in the false notion that love is synonymous with pleasantness. The two have nothing to do with each other. Love is a burning force within that drives you; depending on the individual and the circumstances, it can drive you to laugh or cry, embrace or bare your teeth. It can take almost any form, but the one thing it never does is stand by passively when the beloved is harmed or threatened. It might take subtle action, it might bide its time for the opportune moment, but it does not make nice to abusers in the interest of keeping things superficially friendly, then turn it’s back on the abused.

Pleasantness is not a virtue at all. It is something we earn with work, with love, and with willingness to challenge those who would say, “tolerate oppression of others, or I will make your lives unpleasant.” When we skip the unpleasantness of difficult love, in a rush to get to superficial niceness, only the bullies benefit.

You said you wanted to show love. So I waited, but in the end I saw no signs that you were willing to fight, in any way, for me or the people you claimed to support. I saw willingness to co-opt the language of the warriors of love, but no willingness to fight alongside them.

That’s why I no longer listen to your music. It’s not a political statement. It’s only that, where I once heard joy and beauty, I only hear empty pleasantness.

Activism, Self-Care and the March for Science

A confession; although I’ve been looking forward to this for months, I nearly did not go. Lately I’ve been low on spoons, and I kept asking myself what I could really contribute. One more body? If I showed up and there was a massive turnout, I would not be necessary. If I showed up and there wasn’t, I would not be enough to fix it. On the other hand, I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I showed up. History is always happening, but these days it is happening at a rather more grueling pace.

Still, couldn’t I make up my absence with more concrete action, some other day?

In the end, what convinced me to get out and brave the rain wasn’t thoughts of what I could do. It was the realization that I needed the march more than the march needed me. In the first hundred days, the liberals have won more battles than they’ve lost. But they have had to fight hard, there have been losses, and there’s still plenty of time for the tide to turn. I want to take a break. I’m scared that if I do, that means everyone else will be too, and we will all be blindsided by the next move. I needed to get out there and see clear evidence that my people are still out there.

So I showed up, meandered, listened to speeches and read people’s signs. I’m an introvert with an anxiety disorder; I don’t much like having to interact with people. But I do like being around them. I’m a passionate crowd watcher. At the march, I was surrounded by xkcd shirts, brain hats, Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes, Lorax references and political math puns (apparently if you’re pro-choice, you vote Banach-Tarski in 2020… I was barely geeky enough to get that). There were buttons proclaiming that trans is beautiful and black lives matter. Some people blew bubbles in the rain, and watching them shimmer against the grey sky was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever seen.

And so many beautiful, dorky, incredible signs. I jotted down a few of my favorites;

  • “I only seem liberal because I think hurricanes are caused by barometric pressure, not gay marriage.”
  • A wordless portrait of Rosalind Franklin framed with plastic tube double helixes
  • (under a dead on Oregon Trail pixel drawing) “You have not died of dysentery. Thank science.”
  • “Donald, you’ll learn soon that Mar-a-lago is only 10 feet above sea level.”
  • “The earth is enormous and fragile, just like your ego. The difference is we can live without your ego.”

And my personal favorite…

  • “Science matters. Unless it’s energy. Then it equals matter times the speed of light squared.”

When I came home, I felt lighter. I also felt empowered, not least because I signed up for email lists to get more ideas for anti-fascist, pro-science and environmentalist activism. I got a reminder of just how many awesome weirdos are out there to fight ignorance and bigotry with me.

Take care of yourselves guys. Pace yourselves, join a team, sign up for a mailing list, and don’t be afraid to show up without knowing what exactly you’ll do for the cause, or how long you’ll even be able to stay. It’s okay. Just be there, to remind yourself that we aren’t doing this alone.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

persepolis

  • Genre
    • Non-fiction, Memoir, Autobiography, Graphic Novel
  • Plot summary
    • The life of a young punk growing up in Tehran, Iran, during an unending series of revolutions. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Autobiographies have an advantage when it comes to reader empathy, because the author already empathizes with themself. The real test is whether someone writing their memoirs can make you empathize with the people who surrounded them, even those who played the role of antagonist in their life. Marjane Satrapi passes this test perfectly. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It reminded me of another non-fiction graphic novel; Maus, by Art Spiegelman, which recounts his father’s stories surviving the Holocaust. Comics are an interesting medium for describing atrocities, because they simultaneously create distance and intimacy. Distance, because comics are allowed to sketch and suggest, without getting too graphic. Intimate, because that slight veil gives the author the safety to be brutally honest, and because the seamless mixture of written, realistic depictions and symbolic imagery feels very much like the way our brains naturally process and remember events. I think it’s a medium that more authors should use for serious stories, especially ones like these.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • It’s one thing to know about the political factions and conflicts in the Middle East. It’s another thing to live them. Stories are human’s ways of inviting each other into our heads. They are the best way we have to make each other not just know about each other, but understand. If you care about the global politics, refugees or immigration, this is required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • Violence, including references to people she knew who were tortured
  • Quotes

It only seems right to post a full panel, as the art is every bit as important to the story as the writing.  Description below for those who have trouble reading the text in the bubbles.

persepolis-quote-two

First Panel: Marjane and her parents walking. Caption reads “nonetheless, my parents were puzzled.” Father says, “So tell me, my child, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Marjane thinks, “a prophet.”

Second Panel: Marjane says out loud, “a doctor.”

Third Panel: Marjane’s mother pats her shoulder and says, “That’s fine, my love, that’s fine.”

Fourth Panel: Marjane lies in bed talking to God, who says, “you want to be a doctor? I thought that…” Caption reads “I felt guilty towards God.”

Fifth Panel: Marjane stands up and says, “No no, I will be a prophet, but they mustn’t know.”

Sixth Panel: Caption reads “I wanted to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one.” Three images of Marjane in her nightgown. One holds scales, one raises her hand in a peace sign, and one brandishes a sword and shield.

Long Hidden, Edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older

long-hidden

  • Genre
    • Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Alternate History
  • Plot summary
    • This isn’t just any short story collection featuring authors of some minority or other. These are the stories that, for so long, people in Western Society haven’t been able to tell. These are the stories of the resistance, of the people who had to hide their identities in the margins, of the ones who were too busy surviving to write and who, if they had, would have had their voices muzzled by the colonizer’s need to only see narratives that paint them as heroes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Varies by author, but on the whole, these are stories unafraid to make you empathize with characters who are dirtied, broken, and ready to fight with nothing to lose. 
    • The focus is on protagonists of color, but you also get protagonists who are trans, disabled and political dissidents. If you’ve always hungered to see yourself in a story, odds are there’s someone like you here.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • These stories will make you feel fierce. There is always a heartbreaking element to them. Some characters survive and triumph. Others are broken, but take their oppressors with them. But whatever happens to them, they are wild, they are angry, and they are free. 
    • In short, if you liked the way Rogue One made you feel, get this anthology.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • If you want to sample a lot of award winning authors of color at once, this is a great option. 
    • An encyclopedia of East African ogres
    • Gangsters squaring off against sirens
    • Baba Yaga teaming up with striking coal miners
    • Enchanted soldiers rising to challenge the conquistadors
    • In short, all the cool monsters and fierce fairies you could ask for
  • Content Warnings
    • Not for the faint hearted. Blood, guts, violence, dark magic and scary monsters, the scariest of which are often human.
  • Quotes
    • “I dream in shades of green. The dusty hue of swallow herb; the new growth of little hand flower; the deep forest shade of cat’s claw. Plants are my calling and, as in waking life, they sprawl across boundaries.” – The Dance of the White Demons, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    • “Out in the middle of the Cross River there is an island. It appears during storms or when the river’s flooding or sometimes even on clear summer days. And sometimes it rises out the water and floats in the air. The ground turns to diamond and you can hear the women playing with the sparkling rocks. I call them women, but they are not women. So many names for them: Kazzies. Shuantices. Water-Women. The Woes. I like that last name myself.” – Numbers, by Rion Amilcar Scott
    • “You got to sell your heart for freedom… I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run – well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are as cold as ice.” – Free Jim’s Mine, by Tananarive Due

Why You Need to Watch Sonita

About an hour and a half ago, I was flipping through Netflix’s new releases, looking for something to keep me company while I tackle the lasagna dishes that I put off yesterday. I saw a documentary from a couple years ago, about a young Afghani woman who aspires to be a rapper, and thought “oh, that looks interesting.”

sonita

Goddamn.

God. Freakin’. Damn.

First of all, I seriously want to be Sonita’s real life friend. In her every action, this beautiful blend of gentleness and tenacity comes through. She’s someone who has lived through more than her own share of hardships, and still is fueled artistically as much by the desire to help others as herself. In her world, she defies both traditions and rules to be a voice for the unheard. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a documentary.

Second, speaking of real life being as good as fiction, her story is gripping. It feels wrong to praise the narrative structure of real events that are being captured, rather than imagined, but the crew got incredibly lucky with their material, and put it together masterfully.

Third, and you knew it was coming to this, this is a story that needs to be watched right now.

sonita-red-scarf

I don’t just mean that this is a story that people need to be aware of. I do happen to think that, even when you are fairly well educated about the issues, there’s some things you can’t grok until you see a human story dramatized. But right now, the need for stories like this goes beyond the need for the viewer to understand someone like Sonita. It’s about the world knowing that viewers want to understand someone like Sonita. It’s about the media being encouraged to spend their time and effort supporting women’s rights and immigrant’s rights and human rights. It’s about turning our backs on the bigots and white nationalists who want to control the conversation, and instead saying to each other, “have you heard about that Afghani immigrant who made a music video even though it was technically illegal in her country? How she raps about social justice? She is so epic I kind of can’t stand it.”

Fourth, it is so full of hope. In addition to the amazingness Sonita herself, there are so many beautiful moments of love and empowerment. It was sad, and scary, but also warm and lovely and ultimately so happy. Trust me, you need to feel the way this film will make you feel.

Go, watch it! It’s amazing.

sonita-smiles

Activist Audiences

I really enjoyed this video on whitewashing. It’s by Philip Wang, one of the geniuses behind Wong Fu Productions, a company that publishes comic and romantic short films on Youtube. All of the owners are Asian, as are most of the actors they work with. I highly recommend them.

Philip Wang makes the point that there have been many good conversations about whitewashing, what it is and why it is bad, but not enough done to actually correct it. It’s not just about complaining. We also need to create, and support creators. He talks largely about the fomer, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about the latter.

These days activists talk a lot about paying attention to where our money is going. Are we supporting fair trade, ecologically sustainable practices, humane treatment of animals, human rights? Or are we inadvertently telling companies that child labor is awesome? Sometimes, because of our budgets and time, we can’t help but buy something that’s a little less ethical than we would like, but being aware at least lets us maximize the choices we have. When we choose to watch all of the Avengers canon movies, and then complain about Black Widow, our money means a lot more to the executives than our articles. When we choose to spend money on quality stories with diverse casts, like the new Star Wars films, the recent Jungle Book adaptation, and Dope, we tell those who are financially motivated that such things are worth their time to support.

Who we pay attention to also matters. Nowadays our eyeballs are practically money. Views determine who gets ad revenue, as well as who moves up the ranks of the publishing business. I follow a number of artists (musicians, comedians, short film creators etc) on Youtube. Many of them have stories about gigs and deals they got largely because of their internet followings.

None of that is revolutionary. I also think reinforcing creators can be complicated, because creators themselves are imperfect. I can’t think of many who are flawless social justice masters. I’m not even sure such a thing can exist. The conversation about what social justice is and how we can best create it is, itself, an ever evolving discussion. For me, supporting diversity is less about trying to find someone who is perfectly attuned to the current consensus on Tumblr, but about supporting creators who want to participate in the conversation. Whose work evolves over time? Whose portrayals of women are getting more nuanced, and who is still writing one token sexy action chick? Who is apologizing and actually trying to do better? Who is making promises and carrying them out?

In a way, this is an umbrella introduction to a number of posts I have in the pipeline. I want to write more about how I make decisions on what to read, watch and spend money on. And I want to hear about how you make those decisions, as well as your recommendations of works for me to check out and review.

Until next time, thanks, as always, for reading.

Who Do We Honor?

I’m stretching the definition of the writerly blog for today. Bear with me.

Harriet Tubman has been in the news lately. Specifically, her relationship to the $20 bill. And also Andrew Jackson. XKCD sums the issue up nicely (actual newspaper link for those who want it).

It puts me in mind of this Stephen Fry interview, in which he makes many points that I think are intelligent, then illustrates them with examples that I think are terrible. He claims that people often seek simplistic solutions and black and white views of a world that is really very complex. He illustrates this with, among other things, the movement to take down the statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes. Stephen Fry doesn’t want a society where the bad things someone does are enough to erase the good they do, and I agree. But I think he is missing the point with that particular figure, just like those who moved Jackson to the back instead of removing him entirely.

He is right that historical figures are complicated. If we don’t have records of them doing a problematic thing, its because we don’t have very comprehensive records. Flaws are a side effect of being human. The women and queer folk and POC who I would like to see getting more honor all have their flaws too, and that’s okay. The problem is that for some of the great white men, if you stack their good sides up next to their bad sides, one tends to dwarf the other.

For example…

Andrew Jackson

Good; He was the first president to come from a fairly humble background, which is cool. Reformed some government policies that were tending towards cronyism and corruption. Generally kept the economy from tanking, which is good. It’s a thing presidents should do.

Bad; He was singlehandedly responsible for the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears.He used his power as commander-in-chief to march thousands of people, including children, into barren deserts. Over ten thousand human beings died along the way, because of him.

Cecil Rhodes

Good; He was very good at being a bureaucratic government-type person. Also set up a scholarship; not for people who are broke or anything, just Americans who want to study in the England and vice versa.

Bad; That bureaucratic talent was dedicated to colonizing Africa. He was a huge racist, so all of his policies were aimed at making sure whites had it better than blacks, and he considered that to be a great, humanitarian effort. Because, you know, Africans were too sub-human to effectively govern themselves. Even the Rhodes Scholarship had some icky racist elements in its founding.

If you look at the historiography of these men, its clear that their fame was not based in good things done despite their human failings. Historians of the past considered their crimes a positive good, and so they were lifted up. Similarly, historians of the past dismissed the achievements of those who weren’t straight white men whenever possible. We have only so much room for statues. We have only so many types of currency. We have no shortage of unrecognized heroes whose good sides aren’t inextricably tangled with oppressive ideologies, or whose bad sides don’t involve the deaths of any children at all.