Gaugin too evil to be shown?

I am reminded of the time a century or so ago, when actors and many other artists were not accepted in polite society.  Sounds harsh, but at least people could admire the work someone did without feeling the need to accept their behavior. “We don’t speak to him.” I think we need a dose of that in the modern world.
Currently there’s a question about whether museums should continue displaying Gauguin’s art since he slept with his underage models- and they were ‘savages’.
We can accept the good someone did, while rejecting their moral choices- especially when they are dead and gone. In no way does admiring Gauguin’s colors and composition condone his participation in colonialism or sexual abuse (or colonialism and sexual abuse themselves). Has it been proven to have been abuse, or is that simply an interpretation laid over it by current attitudes? Do we know that the women he slept with were coerced? That culture had different attitudes toward sex than we have, and they had at the time. Would it have been OK had they been French? or over 16? Or is it simply that the balance of power was very unequal?

Should we reject, or even destroy a work of art (as the Taliban does), because it was inspired by a faith we reject? Certainly if knowing something that renders the art on your wall a constant reminder of a situation that makes you uncomfortable, get rid of it. But destroying a work of art because it bothers you may not be admired by others who it doesn’t bother.
I compare this to the issue Science Fiction cons faced recently that authors they wanted to come and speak about their work were taking sexual advantage of susceptible fans, and the con organizers had to decide whether they would bar sexual predictors in order to protect the attendees. Does the enjoyment of the many outweigh the trauma of the few? I’d say not.

Anytime there is a power imbalance, whether it’s adult/minor, teacher/student, employer/employee, or celebrity/fan, there will be some people who will use that to take advantage of others. Whether threats are made or pressure brought to bear, the simple power imbalance lays a greater responsibility on the person with the power. So I can acknowledge that Gauguin may have been out of line. We don’t know that, but I accept the possibility, simply because of what we know about Colonialism.
Does this mean we “don’t accept them into polite society”? I’d say yes because they have betrayed the trust of their greater responsibility.  I think we can say to them “Sorry, you’re a great artist/ player/ teacher, but your behavior is not acceptable. You are not welcome here.” Some will make fun of this. Some will suggest hypocrisy. But I think we need to decide what we find acceptable and what we don’t.
That said, do we extend this exclusion to their works? I suppose that depends on whether you feel that since they are profiting by your patronage, that patronage makes you complicit in their bad behavior. If they are dead, does that still hold?
If we say that Gaugin’s art wasn’t powerful because he was an asshole, we are lying ourselves. While the Science Fiction Cons- or schools- arguably need to provide a safe place for attendees, do Art Museums have an obligation to share every bit of dirt possible on their exhibitors and inform their patrons? (Maybe only the live ones?)
Do you require other establishments with whom you do business to do the same about the source of their services and products? I know that we avoid chocolate and other products made by companies whose labor practices approach slavery. Boycotting grapes in the 60’s dramatically showed the producers that we were willing to pay more to not be part of their abuse of farm workers. We boycotted Nestlé in the 70s for pushing powdered formula in Africa, and now we do for their appropriation of water sources. (Really, could their business model be more evil?)
For me the question is whether the behavior to which I object is still going on, and can I do anything about it? You make your own decision on this.

Defining Ages- coal in your stocking

Everyone knows that “Frosty had a corn-cob pipe, a button nose and two eyes made out of coal” but we don’t think about it much. When Gene Autry released the song, it was already evocative of a earlier, simpler time, probably the Depression era when kids made their own fun with stuff that didn’t cost their parents anything.I have seen ‘snowman kits’ sold with plastic coal and carrot- sort of a cold weather “Mr. Potato-head”. (Come to think of it, when I was a kid, you only got the features and limbs and poked them into a potato. That shows how cheap potatoes were, I guess.) Similarly, the coal in your stocking was something with no value (as opposed to the rotten potatoes in kids shoes in Iceland- a much better motivator IMO).

When I was a kid we had a coal bin in the cellar, even though we had an oil burner for heat. On really nasty weather days, Mama would let us put on our play clothes (does that concept even exist any more?) and go down and play in it. You could get poked by sharp pieces, but we enjoyed it. Even so, I don’t remember using coal for our snow men’s eyes. The pieces were too big, and since the bin was full, I expect anything the right size was down at the bottom. When we moved to Winchester, there was a section of the cellar in the new house that I realized had been the coal-bin, although there was no coal, when our parents let us take it over to use it as a hang-out. It was probably when we painted it that I saw the wooden slots for boards that would be removed to access the coal to put it into the furnace.
These coal bins were on the street side of the house, and I think I found where the chute for loading the coal into the bin from the delivery truck was in one of them. It now occurs to me that they probably had locks, as bulkhead doors did, to keep anyone from using them to get into the house.

Time passes. Coal bins were a fixture of houses built in the 20th century, but by mid century, they were on their way out. I assume the dwindling coal industry serves electricity manufacturing plants. I’ve read stories of other kids playing in coal bins, or dealing with furnaces that needed feeding (seems to have required a handyman to do it). Those stories preserve that aspect of normal life, just as we accept that there’s a coal car and a stoker behind the locomotive in old fashioned trains. We don’t expect it now, but we understand the tradition (back in the days when controlling power represented by the ability to pull a hundred heavy cars made being an engineer a romantic idea for kids). I now wonder what aspects of our daily lives children reading stories set in the early 21st century will find odd or romantic. Even now, if I watch an old crime show I have to remind myself that DNA analysis isn’t available to them, or that in an old horror movie, they can’t just use their mobile phones to call for help. (Frankly, even in modern movies and books, the idiots rarely think to call for help. Some authors do give an explanation of why they can’t- but you’d think anything written in the last ten years, they’d think of it!)

I love that the old songs and books and movies do keep reminding us that things used to be different. I think we’d lose something valuable if we forget that change. I could define childhood as when you don’t realize that life hasn’t always been the way you experience it, youth as when you learn about the differences (I remember teens who mock earlier periods), and adulthood as when you accept it. This is probably because you’ve seen changes in your own life. Old age would be when you start missing the things the way they used to be.
While there may be some forgetting the inconveniences that led to the technological changes, with old age we can also observe the social changes that accompany them, and start to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages. I am definitely old. This means that I get to pick which technological level I prefer, and frankly, I like picking and choosing. I like computers for accessing information, but think of mobile phones as emergency communication. I like cooking with gas, and electric lights, but I like having candles and a wood stove so I am not helpless if the power goes out.

I also see how cost dictates which aspect of technology is available to people intensifies the class inequities, and this is a disturbing issue. When Monsanto pressured the farmers of India to use their hybrid grain, with promises of better yields, they were taking away the option of saving and planting some of the previous year’s crop to grow next year. Like Nestle’ giving African new mothers just enough formula to allow their milk to dry up so they’d be forced to keep buying it, or a drug pusher giving away enough product to create an addiction… “good” business practice, but a vile thing for one human to do to another. (happy postscript: when it turned out that the yields were not better, the farmers are going back to their old seeds- when they can find them!)
By all means let us use new technologies when they improve our lives, but we should never give our very survival or that of our culture into the hands of those who have shown that they care nothing for us, or culture, the environment or anything but their own profit. An animal who has no ability to care for itself is a pet if it’s relationship to humans benefits both, but if it is under the control of the human, and only the human gets benefit, it’s livestock. This may be an over-simplification, but it looks like corporations are setting modern humans up to be their livestock. We live as they allow us. I am old, and what’s more, I am an historian. I have seen what happens when people give away their ability to survive to make their lives easier. I love indoor plumbing and heating, but I’d rather chop wood and carry water sometimes, maybe even all the time, than not have the option to do so.

Distinguish the Part from the Whole, and drawing a line

Social media is all about the most impact in the least words, but that often sacrifices accuracy for impact. But as frustrating as that is, we can’t simply blame those editing the headlines, We do it in our heads all the time. What is prejudice, after all, but pre- judging a whole group by the small sample from it that you have already seen?

Think about groups you are in and the people in them that you wish weren’t. Are they, and their bad behavior the ones who seem to get the most attention? What do you do about it? If you’re like most people, you try to ignore them. Isn’t that what your parents and teachers taught you to do? If you ignore them, they’ll stop. (really, does that EVER work?) What they’ve done is reduced the total amount of noise and nastiness they have to deal with by silencing the reasonable, the kind, the cooperative folks. The ones who have learned that they get their own way by being nasty, uncooperative, and unreasonable, just get louder and nastier because they know that people will give in to get some peace.

Sadly, each concession is on top of previous ones, so, in the case of the bratty kid they all started out as, it moves from “I want a treat now” to “I want treats all the time”, and from “if they get a treat (for their good behavior), I want one because it’s not fair that they have one and I haven’t!” While you can indeed repeat that the other kid earned theirs, screaming about fairness and acting like a victim usually gets audiences who know none of the background on their side, and their caretakers gave in because being judged (misguidedly) as unfair or mean made them uncomfortable. If you are a caretaker of a child embrace the confidence that you are doing well by the one who has not yet learned to keep the social contract. If you are watching someone else, give them the benefit of the doubt (when there is no actual danger involved). Cumulative concessions move the line to where you don’t want it. Letting the line creep sets you up to be accustomed to accepting things we don’t find acceptable when we look at what is important to us. Keep an eye on where YOU draw your lines.

We need to be careful to not judge whole groups by the “squeeky wheels”. The Westborough Baptist Church and other such extreme groups don’t speak for all Christians. Just because Heathens use runes doesn’t make them Neo-Nazis. Even all Germans weren’t Nazis, they were simply afraid once they had allowed the system to get too much power (learn from their lesson). Not all those from the Middle East are terrorists. Not all Hispanics are illegal immigrants. Few on welfare want to be on it, most would rather work, and most get off. Not all computer nerds are hackers…. the list could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. Don’t judge a whole group by the ones who are in the spotlight. As they say about news, news is the unusual happening, not the normal stuff.

But when you decide where to draw the line- hold it there. As the Germans found out, as the Church found out when it started to support those looking for heretics and ended up with the witch hysteria, you can’t give power to those who you don’t want to have it. If you don’t stop the boys from saying that they can’t help grabbing a girl if they think she’s pretty, you are going to end up with rape. You have to call out the people who are verbally abusing strangers over their religion, their race, their looks or some imagined defect, before it progresses to physical abuse. Somewhere some people get to feel better about themselves by putting other people down, and you have to stop it. I’m not saying that the verbal abuse is not harmful, because it is. The people who insult others were taught by someone what a powerful weapon that was, and that’s why they are using it to get power for themselves. Insults hurt, they damage, and can create a cycle of harm. Step in whenever you can and stop it.

As kids, most of us are taught to avoid conflict. Our parents probably cautioned us to not challenge our older relatives on bigotry they were raised with. Arguing with them wasn’t going to change their minds, so why create a fuss? But people DO change their minds when talked to respectfully, and encouraged to question why they do some things they have been doing since they were children. Admittedly, a teenage self righteously challenging Uncle Joe or Granpa is more likely to set them up to be offended about how kids are not brought up well these days than to question their own early upbringing. But the pre-holiday dinner parental caution might be to suggest the possibility of real communication if done quietly, slowly, privately, and reasonably, rather than as a public challenge over mashed potatoes, so too those closer to the pater familia or matriarch in power to step in when elders behavior is so unconscionable that it would be challenged by anyone else. At very least, it can be good behavior modeling for how to calmly say “that’s not acceptable in this house”.

We MUST argue with people who use the language of hate in front of us, even when they are friends or relatives.  If they are friends or loved ones, the chances are that they aren’t bad people, they may simply have been raised to think of things in a way that they wouldn’t if they thought about it. As a child I absorbed from my parents that anyone who kept goats was “white trash”. When I decided goats was something I wanted in my life, I had to recognize that in my upbringing and say “That’s stupid!”.  My grandmother was raised in Tennessee at the turn of the last century; she referred to African Americans as “coloreds” (or “negros” if she respected them, like Doctor King.) But if I suggested that they were the same as us, she assured me that I’d never lived with them, as she had (I didn’t even ever see a black person until we went down to meet our southern relatives), and she knew that they weren’t as bright or as motivated as white boys. Once I hit my teens I recognized this for the prejudice it was, and I think had she not also accepted the safety of cigarettes from the same misguided culture, she would have lived to have recognized that she’d been taught wrong. You don’t question anything that doesn’t come up. If no one challenges you when you talk about Jews or Injuns or PRs, or ‘towel heads’, you are going to assume that everyone around agrees with you. Kids learn that language from other kids, who learned it from adults. They admire the self assurance and confidence of the older kids, and imitate them, in order to be admired.They make suggestive comments about girls, and disparaging comments about whoever is their local target. “Everyone” says it, so they figure it must be true.

I had a friend once who taught me an extreme version of this. Fitz spend a lot of time on the internet and shared many outrageous stories. He was very knowledgeable, and not a bad person, but he had a tendency to ‘improve’ stories, and seemed to have a fondness for conspiracy theories. The path of least resistance when speaking to a conspiracy theorist is to let them go on and on, say “uh, huh” and “isn’t that interesting” periodically, and ignore the apparent evidence that your otherwise intelligent friend seems to have fallen for this foolishness. If you try to talk them out of it, they take that as proof that whoever the ‘evil empire’ is, has subverted your information stream. But gradually I started hearing from third sources that I was a proponent, and apparently what was going on was Fitz was telling people that I believed this crapola. I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t tell Fitz “No, that’s BS.” “That’s ridiculous.” “I don’t believe that for a minute.” he would assume that silence indicated assent, and thus agreement. So he’d tell other people that I believed it.  I believe in enough ridiculous things all on my own, I didn’t need to add his on top of it, so I learned the value of challenge.

And that’s what we have to do. Any time someone suggests that women are not as able as men, that handicapped people are slackers, that fill-in-the-blank race is untrustworthy or lazy, that members of a different religion are an affront to God and all right-thinking-people,… you have to say no. Say it calmly, say it clearly, and don’t for a minute let them think that the other people listening would support them. Depending on the situation, they may or may not. (You may want to use some judgement, depending on the audience.) But in a random store, restaurant, street, or subway, the average person is good, not particularly bigoted, and also probably doesn’t want to get drawn into defending the victim. They may be protecting their income, or kids, or may be afraid that the jerks will turn on them. That’s their issue to deal with. Or they may be just as happy to support you when you support the victim. They may have been one themselves once, and wish someone had stood up for them.The one making the remarks may only be making them because he’s miserable about something else in his life, and wants to prove to himself that at least he’s not at the bottom of the pecking order. He may be (privately) thrilled to have his suspicion that the people who taught him to hate were wrong, but he’s going to accept it since acceptance of it proves that “everyone feels that way”. If he threatens you, that means he knows he has nothing to back up his hate. Give him an out, so he can walk away with some vestige of his dignity intact, because his worldview has just been called into question, and that’s hard on one’s self esteem. You reassure the intended victim, and remind yourself you’ve done a good thing. You know what’s right, and you did it. Maybe you aren’t satisfied with how you handled it, but you can do better next time. This time you showed how many people are around that hate speech isn’t acceptable, and whether they seemed to be involved, you changed their world too. You showed them what is possible. Go you.


Keep the Christ in Christmas

Someone asked today whether either Yule or Solstice get commercialized? I would really hate to imply that Pagans are more spiritual in their holiday practices than Christians, because the lack of merchandising to them makes it seem that they aren’t as commercialized.
I know that Solstice, or at least the Saturnalia, was “commercialized” in Rome. Parties, presents, social silliness. But remember that in the city of Rome proper, the labor was done by slaves, captured for that purpose through incessant warfare. Thinking ahead to New Years Day, during the time of the Republic Roman New year was in March, and they’d have their elections of the new consuls, who’d go out and run the wars. But as they expanded their territory, they had to to farther and farther from the city to reach non-Roman lands to conquer. That made it hard for the newly elected consuls to get to the front at the start of campaign season. Rather than move the elections back (no, they HAD to be on New Years!), they moved New Year’s Day back to the end of December, thus allowing the new consuls time to get out to the legions (and keep sending back conquered slaves and loot). It does show an odd relationship with their holidays that they could change when the year started, but not when elections were held.

Neither Yule nor Christmas could be commercialized as they are now until there was Capitalism, not just the accumulation of wealth, that’s pretty much a constant with human societies, but when gaining and exchanging capital became the way of ‘keeping track’ of power, competitive spending was attached to the holiday. We were no longer simply sharing food with friends, decorating, and giving gifts, but “keeping up with the Joneses”.  When prestige was gained by generosity from your own stores (however they may have been filled), Yule was a time of celebrating what you had, and sharing with those who had less. Massive consumption and distribution of excess proved to everyone how powerful you were. This led to the customs of the poor visiting the rich, caroling, mumming, wassailing, souling, hunting the wren, many excuses to go get a handout. The taxes may have been as stiff, but giving to the poor was how being rich was justified. In the earliest times, they provided the military protection, but later also provided financial protection. And these customs strengthened community ties. It’s not that people forgot the spiritual occasion of Christmas, they remember that, however they are living in a world that has embraced the idea that if you are rich, it’s because you are favored by God, and therefore whatever gets you money, must be His will. The good of the people who work for and with you is no longer a consideration. Part of this is probably also that people follow the jobs wherever they may be, so you don’t have a multi-generational relationship with the land and the people around you.

Once again I think that they have missed something because their grasp of history is so poor.  If the culture doesn’t change, as soon as people with stuff to sell realize there is a market, there will be Solstice and Yule things being pushed at us, with ads to convince us that if we aren’t doing it with their stuff, we aren’t doing it right. We have to avoid accepting the underlying premise that we can judge a person by how much he makes, not how much good he does.

Thinking about the pronouns in that last line, when we look at how much woman are often undervalued because they are so much better at valuing raising children and making a home a safe and welcoming place, not simply trying to ‘make more money’. But don’t let me confuse the issue- men were sucked into the same trap when they moved off their homesteads where they raised the food and built the shelters. Like women, they were and are trying to provide safety and security for their children, so they won’t be cold, hungry, and scared, but they are only offered the option of working for a wage to achieve this worthy goal, and have been gulled into tracking security with larger numbers.
It’s a huge change in how we see the world, and until we can change that perspective, any holiday is at risk of commercializing. If we can help change our societies attitudes toward money and people, it won’t matter what name we give gods or which day we celebrate what they give us. Let us all help each other celebrate that which feeds our souls, and we’ll get through the long winter, the days will get longer, and we’ll all make it to spring together.

I yelled at a telemarketer

I yelled at a telemarketer and I feel badly about it. I try to be nice to them. After all, who would take that job if they had any other option? I know they are trying to pay their own bills, care for their own kids, just make ends meet, but I’ve tried the lightbulbs that are supposed to save you money (Never buy another lightbulb! Only they short out just as easily, and sure, they replace it “free”, but it costs $5 to mail it back!); I’ve bought the cheaper toner (my printer objects every time I put one in, and reads it as empty when it isn’t and refuses to print anything until I’ve changed the half full cartridge), I believe that micro-organisms in your septic tank will keep it healthier and put off costly mechanical maintenance…. But even if these things do save some money, I don’t freaking have the money to get them! Just stop freaking calling me!

I don’t need to be reminded that anything they can afford to discount that much is out of my price range. I’m pretty sure most of the 99% understand. (There’s probably a small percentage left under the rich 1% who aren’t hurting…yet.) It’s too easy to simply clump all Republicans with Mitch McConnell and the millions he’s made in the last few years, vs. the Democrats and Cortez who couldn’t afford a place to live in Washingon DC, but if you don’t have to pick between food and utilities, you aren’t going to understand, and if you support your party to the detriment of the environment and health and safety of the people, clearly you have no idea what it’s like to have to make that sort of choice- you’re living in la la land. My parents once went to visit a friend in Guatamala. He lived in Maine, but his family and money came from there, and his lovely home was surrounded by a 10 foot wall, with an armed guard every 20 feet. They didn’t even think about it because that’s simply how they lived. When you surround yourself with others like you, you’ll never understand.
So I am sorry I yelled at the poor guy who was just trying to make a living, because he is forced to try to make it off me. We need to get together and say NO. It’s not fair for us to fight each other for scraps while you use your excess Capital to make more excess, simply as a way to score points. Good people don’t do that to others, and I don’t have to feel sorry for someone who isn’t good.

The American Dream

I’ve been trying to figure out why and how current trends toward empowering bigots came from, and watching the steps as this administration . As an historian, I see that there is no turn-around where the American Dream failed. What we are going through is the cumulative effect of many influences from the Columbian Exchange onward.
The fairy tale of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” we believed as kids was never “reality” it was always “the Dream”, the American Dream (financial security and social justice), what we hoped we could make happen. I think those goals of equality and freedom are still worth attempting, even if the past doesn’t consist of the stories our parents told us as kids.
Those stories of pilgrims, and cowboys, inventors, and pioneers, and entrepreneurs are are myths, and a myth is a story that is not factual, but has a core of truth that explains our culture to ourselves. Yes, the people of America have always been bigotted, mysogenistic, and have chosen to fight for the best for our families, or our groups. This means we required stories that told our children that we did the awful things we did for them, and tried to justify them, while, sadly, putting on them the burden of making them a part of those wrongs. We were trying to build a new Rome, it needed slaves; we were trying to fined a place to build our own little farm, we were told and believed that the Indians were dangerous and we were protecting ourselves; we believe that the only way to save souls is to force anyone who doesn’t to worship as we do. The justification is that if the information on which the actions were based was wrong, it was sincerely believed. No one wants their children to judge them and decide that they were the “bad guys”.
There have always been those who wanted Liberty for all- except the Jews, the “coloreds”, women, the Catholics, the Injuns, the Micks and Wops and Chinks and everyone else that’s not “us”. We need them to work for us in order to create and maintain our intended status quo, …but they don’t need freedom, they aren’t smart enough, they’d abuse it (by which they mean abuse us, by which they mean treat usas we did them). This country was founded by people who didn’t want to raise their children with their neighbors in case tolerance might develop, those and the ones who thought they could get free land that the indigenous people “weren’t using anyway”.
I think we can be a bit more honest with our kids, yet still tell them stories of an Ideal America where people are all free and equal. We certainly can’t make it happen if we don’t imagine what it would be like.
We do have to soothe the fears of those who worry about what giving others the same rights as themselves will mean. The older I get, the more wisdom I see in the Truth and Reconciliation movement in South Africa. No, you aren’t forgiving the wrongs done, we need to acknowledge them, put them in the past, and move forward to something better.
We are like a child who was raised in an abusive home. Yes, it’s too easy for them to perpetuate those patterns, but not all do. We can hope to rise above the fear and the hate that it creates, and show that it doesn’t have to be that way. The only way to soothe the fear that women, or blacks or Native Americans will ‘get back at’ those who have abused their power in the past is to establish and enforce equal rights for all, and have those who have been pushed down show them that they have nothing to fear from equality.
There will be some people who will try to use physical strength, money, and other power to get more than others, but that’s what laws are for. We teach it to children all the time. “No Billy, we don’t hit. You have to take your turn. Everyone has the same size piece.” We can get it. Not everyone, and we’ll need to create outlets for those who are more competitive, but I think it can be done.