Category Archives: Media

On Cultural Appropriation

The Yelp page for Kooks Burritos in Portland, Oregon, appears to be dealing with a wave of opinionated folks who haven’t bothered to actually try the food. The monitoring process at Yelp tries to ferret out reviews that aren’t based on the experience of eating at their pop-up food truck. As of this moment, they have settled on a respectable 4.5 stars, but there are several posts remaining that seem to reference recent news stories.

I haven’t tried the food either. The place is closed as of this writing. The reason given in various news accounts is the backlash from a Willamette Week article profiling their establishment. The article included accounts from the proprietors about how they learned some tricks from tortilla ladies on a trip to Mexico. They picked up basic recipes along with superficial and observable techniques from their interactions. These observations apparently included peeking into windows to get new insights.

For some reason, this came across to many readers as a confession of some sort of theft. If it wasn’t the theft of intellectual property (recipes), it was the theft of cultural artifacts and repurposing them to make a buck. Needless to say, the comment section of the Willamette Week went haywire. People took to Yelp as well and Kooks became famous enough to shut down. Some of the scorn seemed to be connected to the fact that these women are white, while the people they learned things from are brown.

I’m going to go out on a limb for you, though. I don’t think this was really about race. Well, it is, but only obliquely. The WW readers were outraged, but I am not sure that they, themselves fully understood why. The upshot: “This seems wrong.” The most concise characterization of why it seemed wrong, invoked the words “cultural appropriation.” This is, apparently, what they were angry at.

Incidentally, cultural appropriation isn’t illegal. Disaffected suburban teenagers appropriate rap culture in their parent’s car as the cruise by the strip malls. Clothing designers do it, music producers, ad agencies. bloggers… it happens every day.

Restaurants in America, especially chains, are breeding grounds for it. Seriously, “Yo quiero Taco Bell?” Qdoba? Chipotle? The are supposed to represent Mexican cuisine. However, the atmosphere of these places consists of a meaningless melange of artifacts that no more reflect real, Mexican culture than Chuck-E-Cheese reflects Sicily.

So why the outrage against these two women? Did people judge these individuals to have obtained their knowledge unethically? Perhaps, but I don’t see it as the whole reason. I think part of the answer lies in a vague sense of lost authenticity. Something about their perception of Kooks changed when people read the story.

Let’s assume that anyone who is upset by cultural appropriation would never eat at a Chevy’s. Let’s say, instead, that you eat at a little hole-in-the-wall place you know called Pablo’s. You’ve been eating there for years now and you know Pablo. He barely speaks English, but he makes the best Tamales! He says his recipes were his grandmother’s, only he doesn’t use lard so much.

Now, suppose you forget they are closed, and show up there on a Sunday (Domingo Cerrado). As you drive up, you see Pablo walking a well-dressed white guy in his 50’s out to a BMW. As they walk, Pablo is speaking perfect English and you overhear him discussing franchise opportunities and saying something about “keeping it real in the dining room.”

It has been a charade. Where are you going to eat now? How do you feel about the last 20 times you went there?

Kooks Burritos didn’t pretend to be Pablo’s. In this way, they weren’t trying to be an “authentic” Mexican food truck. They did tell WW a small secret about the way they learned some of their techniques though. Suddenly, real, brown-skinned Mexican women involved who learned their skills the hard way from their abuelas. it seemed unacceptable that these white American women were doing this for a living. It was unforgivable.

By the time we eat something in a restaurant, we don’t know very much about where the recipe came from. Was it a test kitchen in Niskayuna, NY, or was it a 100 year old family heirloom that was lost when a pie cabinet was sold at a garage sale? Usually, we don’t know.  I might suggest that we don’t want to know. We want to believe our narratives and enjoy our lunch.

Look how annoyed a customer gets when she first learns that there is no “Ancient Chinese Secret.” It was something she could buy at the grocery store all along. This commercial ran for a long time when I was a kid. It’s horrifying, enjoy.

13 Infuriating Reasons Why

This is my blog, so I can express my indignity at something as silly as a television show if I want to.

I don’t know why I got tangled up in “13 Reasons Why”, but I’m sorry I did.

Everyone has their taste in television. All genres have their quirks and indulgences. Every Sci-fi show I have ever seen has had its share of lousy dialog and plot contrivances, it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the entertainment – or at least enjoying the recognition of those very flaws. For me, what saves a show with sometimes deep flaws, is that it tells some truth that is worth telling and delivers a payload of satisfaction that makes it worthwhile.

I actually make the assumption that entertainment is supposed to do this. Truths are supposed to be the same, more or less; the contexts are merely delivery vehicle. At first, I thought my dissatisfaction was something along those lines, simply not liking the context. However, over the course watching the show, my relationship with each character, including Hanna, the main character, became weaker and weaker and not stronger.

My least favorite type of show – typically a type of movie – is what I call “The Good Son.” It’s where the bad guy looks like the good guy to every other character. Only you, the viewer, and the main character know the truth. Only we know that this bad person is hurting people and ruining everything. Such a plot is excruciating. It feels untruthful. This show has a little bit of that vibe to it, and it’s poison for me.

Speaking of poison. Was anyone else vaguely reminded of “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie fantasized about going blind from soap poisoning? Obviously, the series had a less comical outcome, but the whole collection of episodes seemed like a revenge plot for suicidal people who dream about making everyone else suffer when they are gone.

High school certainly sucks for everyone – even if on the whole most escaped without too much damage. Every one of us who has been in that environment has grappled with the struggle of defining themselves in the eyes of their peers. There is no perspective in that world; feelings over inconsequential events can run incredibly deep.

Through those years and beyond, we can simultaneously exist as sympathetic victims and cruel perpetrators. The people around us invariably judge us as happier and better adjusted than they are themselves, and in so doing, they aren’t seeing the whole picture.

Hanna confessed to mistakes, but she didn’t seem to feel that her worst, most unforgivable mistake was the vindictiveness of those tapes. Sure, a lot of people failed her in varying degrees. The punishment she delivered seems uniform at face value, but the impact was more severe for the people who cared about her most.

Now nobody can apologize to her; she withdrew her participation in the most selfish way possible.

My personal feelings about suicide are known to those around me. I have said many times that if they find my body, don’t believe the suicide note; look for the killers. I suppose I am lucky in this respect. In our modern society, there is a drug to help you quit smoking which can alter your brain and leave you entertaining thoughts of suicide. This is the most horrifying side-effect of any drug I can imagine. Cigarettes might literally kill you, but at least you won’t *want to die.

At any rate, I have nobody to blame but myself. I knew how this show would end from the first few minutes of episode one; I was hoping for more, but I got less. Hanna’s death didn’t achieve anything that her life couldn’t have achieved far more effectively, and beautifully.

APB and the Promise of Public Safety

How many of our problems are technical, resource-related? How many are social, constitutional, all of the above? The premise of this new Fox series called APB has the potential to explore some of these questions.

Television is an interesting medium; partly because it doesn’t have to deal with things like the 4th amendment. It doesn’t have the limitations of existing technology and it has the advantage of being driven by a script where the writers know how everything fits together before things even get started.

The best shows, however, do certain things for us. They show us a vision of what might be and allows us to think about what it might mean to us if the world were so. I don’t know if this is going to be one of those shows, but I will tell you that there are a couple of interesting ideas that are worthy of discussion.

Though not directly addressed in the pilot episode, we have the real, cost-effective technology today to do some pretty amazing things. One of these concepts is to post a drone at 17,000 feet and monitor everything that takes place on surface streets of a typical city in real time. What is more, the technology allows for long-term storage of this feed so that we can trace events in either direction from the time and place of a crime. If criminals are on the street, they would be captured moving from place to place and their movements would be potentially exploitable. The obstacle to every municipal police department deploying one of these things, is the 4th amendment.

One of the things that were addressed in the pilot episode was the introduction of more effective non-lethal weapons. The standard issue appears to be a taser that is as easy to aim at close range as a semiautomatic pistol. The effectiveness of tasers in terms of range and their ability to efficiently subdue a suspect must be improved in order for them to effectively replace lethal firearms, but I personally believe that this is the wave of the future.

With the proper gear, we don’t need to execute suspects on the street even if they are armed and pose a legitimate threat. The solutions that technology like this would solve are immeasurable. It is the mission of the police to apprehend suspects. Even if those suspects are in the act of attempted murder, it would not be necessarily to kill them if they could be disabled and neutralized as effectively or even more effectively than with a bullet.

The relations between the police and the people they serve would be immensely improved especially in places where high-profile mistakes are made leaving unarmed civilians dead.

At any rate, a show like this has potential, but especially if it spends significant time addressing social issues around technology within reach over the coming decade or so. Improvements to the criminal justice system can change the future to one where public safety is preserved as police force effectiveness gets even better.