Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why Chris Brown is hard to forgive

R&B star Chris Brown has a new album out called Fortune, and one particular review by a Chad Taylor of the Des Moines Cityview has gone viral for its brilliant simplicity.

The women, or woman, in question is obviously his singer ex-girlfriend Rihanna, and while this is a few years ago now, lots of people are in no hurry to forgive Brown. Yet on the other side of things, there are plenty of people, notably young women, who seem determined not just to forgive him for beating and choking her, but to justify his behaviour on account of him being hot and talented, or something like that. If you wanna know what I mean, check here and here.

But is Chad Taylor's 6-word "album review" a justified critique of Chris Brown?

Brown is not the first celebrity to be guilty of heinous violence against women, and he won't be the last. This recent article in the LA Times suggests that his race may be a factor in many people's reluctance to move on and see past his behaviour, since other white stars have done arguably worse yet not been shunned in the same way.

There is possibly an element of truth in that. More of it, I'd argue, is that the women assaulted by Campbell and Sheen are not nearly as well known as Rihanna, who is arguably the biggest singing star in the world right now. That's not right but it's the way the world works.

But there's another layer to it. Like most people, I believe that even the best of us can make terrible mistakes, and shouldn't necessarily be condemned for life because of them. Most people seem willing to forgive a celebrity's sins, to a certain extent, if certain conditions are met.

Firstly, it helps if they are exceptionally talented.Again, it may not be right, but people are more than happy to overlook the domestic violence perpetrated by the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (no relation), largely because James has contributed a phenomenal amount to music in a way that Chris will never do. Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were sufficiently talented and compelling rappers that most of us will overlook the evidence that indicates they were rather shitty human beings (2Pac did time for serious sexual assault and Biggie for dealing crack cocaine). Michael Jackson may well have been guilty of one of our society's greatest taboos - child molestation - yet millions still worship him.

Suffice to say, Chris Brown the artist is not on a level anywhere near MJ, JB, 2Pac and Biggie, no matter what his record sales might say.

Secondly, we want some contrition from the artist. And while Brown has seemingly said all the right things about that incident with Rihanna, his actions can't help but make us think he's not really all that sorry. Where he originally sang typically innocuous commercial R&B, Brown has increasingly embraced the image of the playa, the bad boy. He was involved in that big nightclub brawl with the entourage of rapper Drake. He and his fans - "Team Breezy", as that pack of idiots call themselves - rail endlessly about "haters". He released the execrable single Look at me now which is all about how much money he is making and how everyone is on his dick. Compare that to James Brown, whose music was always fuelled by positivity and social conscience, regardless of what he might have been doing in his private life.

So given that the album is almost certainly a piece of crap anyway, I think Chad Taylor's review is a legitimate comment on the Chris Brown phenomenon. People don't become megastars without the backing of the mass media, and the mass media is still pushing Chris Brown's worthless music on us like it's gold. I do believe that people make mistakes and can redeem themselves, and as celebrities go, Brown is hardly the worst perpetrator of undesirable acts. But he's still out there trying to act like a badass, and the industry is still foisting him upon us anyway. So to me, this reviewer is in effect saying, "Enough of this shit", and I too have had enough.

From around the interwebs...

Links to things that are interesting me this week...

Michelle Bachmann's unholy crusade against Huma Abedin
Bachmann, a cocktail of self-righteousness mixed with vitriol and a dash of bitters, has suggested that Huma Abedin, a close adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Tea Party-aligned congresswoman would be laughable if she were not so dangerous. And she is. Former presidential candidate Bachmann, someone who did not know the difference between John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy, joined with four other House Republicans in signing a letter sent to the inspector general of the State Department that suggests the State Department may be influenced by people with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, people like Abedin. Abedin's parents — her father is deceased — and her brother may have known people who knew people who knew someone associated with a terrorist organization. It is a Kevin-Bacon-many-degrees-of-separation theory being used to destroy a person's reputation.

Swearing: Very much lost in translation
Translating swear words is hard. Often there is a literal equivalent. But some words are strictly taboo in one language, used only by the roughest of characters in their angriest moments, while the exact same word in another language might be pretty mild. For example, For Satan! is one of the harshest curses in Danish. The devil! is a silly old-fashioned thing only Monty Burns would say in English.

People with Norman names wealthier than other Britons
Research shows that the descendants of people who in 1858 had "rich" surnames such as Percy and Glanville, indicating they were descended from the French nobility, are still substantially wealthier in 2011 than those with traditionally "poor" or artisanal surnames. Artisans are defined as skilled manual workers. Popular names of the medieval elite who were descended from Norman families include Balliol, Baskerville, Bruce, Darcy, Glanville, Lacy, Mandeville, and Venables. Popular artisanal names that emerged in the 14th century include Smith, Carpenter, Mason, Shepherd, Cooper and Baker.

Anderson Cooper's coming out rattles China's closet
One particular area of concern, Mr. Zhang said, is the large number of Chinese women unwittingly married to gay men. (Due to traditional patriarchal attitudes that value a son’s offspring more than a daughter’s, it is somewhat easier for a woman to dodge marriage and reproduction. A gay woman may be less likely to marry against her will.) Mr. Zhang estimates that more than 90 percent of China’s gay men bow to pressure and marry women — without revealing their homosexuality. “There are over 10 million women married to homosexual men, perhaps 16 million,” he said.

Why do they hate us?
So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many "Western" countries (I live in one of them). That's where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women. But let's put aside what the United States does or doesn't do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I'll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt -- including my mother and all but one of her six sisters -- have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating "virginity tests" merely for speaking out, it's no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband "with good intentions" no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why men are funnier than women

It's a discussion that's been thrashed out countless times: are men funnier than women?

There's an interesting article up at Street Carnage (a web magazine that seems to be targeted at right-leaning hipsters, a weird niche if there ever was one) written by Kyria Abrahams, entitled A Woman Explains Why Women Aren't Funny. Abrahams, who herself is a humorist of sorts, takes the novel tack of documenting the subject matter covered by a selection of male and female comedians. She comes to the conclusion that female comics tend to make jokes that centre roughly around themselves, while male comics cover a far wider range of material, much of which is not really connected to their own lives. One might suggest that her research method is not exactly scientific, but it's an interesting perspective.

The "who's funnier?" debate is something I've been thinking about for a while, and I have to admit that I just don't think women are as funny in general as men are. Some of you might get angry to read that, so let me make a few things clear. There are lots of very funny women; comics, writers, and people who I know in my own life. And there are lots of really unfunny men as well. But on average, men are just better represented in the humour stakes. While that could be accused of being a sexist thing to say, I don't think it's any more sexist than saying that on average, men tend to be physically stronger than women, and women tend to have better emotional intelligence than men.

And of course, as Abrahams also points out, it can be a matter of taste. If I think of the comedians who are funniest to me, it's a very male-dominated list. Let's see... Louis CK, Hannibal Buress, Jo Koy, Russell Peters, Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais. All men so far. There are female comedians I find funny: Kristen Schaal, Wanda Sykes, Sarah Silverman, Gina Yashere... but I doubt any of them would make my top 20. Of course, that's just me, and I'm no universal arbiter of what's funny. Even if it were pointed out that the most successful comics are predominantly male - thus indicating the tastes of greater numbers of people - that doesn't mean all that much really. Funniness, like musical quality, is extremely subjective, and mass popularity does not mean a comedian is correspondingly funny any more than Britney Spears' huge record sales make her a brilliant musician.

So if we just go with the assumption that men are funnier, the next question to ask is: Why?

I've always figured it was a sort of evolutionary thing. You know the way male rams bang heads for establish dominance, and male peacocks have those outrageously long tails? Most behaviour of male animals boils down to two things: attracting the attention of females, and establishing status amongst other males, which in turn leads to attracting females. The females themselves don't need to do that much to get attention aside from look pretty good and make themselves seem available. But not all of us males can rely on looking good, so we need some other tools in our arsenal. And being able to make people laugh with your rapier wit and collection of fart jokes is a pretty powerful tool.

And of course, women do possess a sense of humour, often in spades, which is not the same as actually being funny. The evolutionary theory above probably wouldn't work if women didn't appreciate jokes.

But then there are social and cultural factors, and perhaps typically for someone with a social science background, it is these I tend to find more pertinent than any Darwinian-type imperatives.

Abrahams might have a point with her idea that it is about the sort of jokes they tell, but that just poses more questions. Why are men thinking further outside the box to come up with their material? And if men tackled the same subject matter as women do in their jokes, is it possible that they might even be better at that?

Of course, as within most fields of human endeavour in which men outperform women, the issue of sexism arises. Do male comics have greater success than females because of sexism? You could probably argue that sexism does play a role at some levels. But in a field that is rife with unfunny wannabes, and in which even the best comedians tend to toil away on the standup circuit for years and years before somehow making it big, you'd have to think that if a female comic is truly good enough, she'd get some sort of break eventually.

But getting away from the business of comedy and to a more universal idea of funniness, is it possible that we are sexist in the way we perceive women's attempts at humour, when compared to men? Given that the very foundation of our society is male-dominated, it could be argued that the nature of what we find funny is skewed towards male humour and male joke-telling styles. I'm not going to argue that, but I'm sure someone could.

I would argue rather that gender construction, rather than sexism per se, has most to do with it. Women pretty much everywhere face extreme social pressure to be the upholders of the tribe's moral decency. Men can sleep with numerous women, and burp and fart and urinate in public, and it is generally tolerated. By contrast, women are expected to be more chaste, to be prim and proper, and to consider certain things "unladylike". So from an early age, males are given greater permission to be loud, brash and demonstrative, to talk about bodily functions and express aspects of their sexuality, while women are not. And all these things are conducive to being funny, or at least being recognised as such.

It's no coincidence that when we talk about "Dad jokes", we are talking about fathers making terrible unfunny jokes as some way to get approval or attention. Whereas "Mother jokes" are usually the things males say to other males about each other's mothers, as if to attempt to claim dominance over the other via degrading humour. I'd even posit the idea that men's comparative weakness at emotional connection gives us an incentive to be funny; when you are struggling to empathise or to feel certain softer emotions, one of the easiest ways to avoid these things is through mockery or levity.

Male identity is just conducive to being funny. Or at least attempting to be funny.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Jimmy Fallon, The Roots and Carly Rae Jepsen - "Call Me Maybe"

One month on and I still haven't got sick of this. Jepsen's original track is already a worldwide number one mega-hit, a disco-influenced pop earworm which I don't really like that much, yet find myself humming anyway. But this version from Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is just perfect. I've watched this over a dozen times, and aside from its cuteness, it's interesting as a study in musical arrangement. But mostly it's funny for the little details; Black Thought (tambourine) trying not to lose his shit, Frank Knuckles (bongos) and his little head movements, and Questlove playing the guiro with an afro pick.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Taking on an English name (@ Peril Magazine)

I've got another post up at Peril, the Asian-Australian Arts and Culture Magazine. It's about something that is prevalent among Asians in the English speaking world - adopting an English name. Check it here.

I think it’s sad that we allow some people to wallow in their laziness. Because calling yourself a Jim when you’re really a Dmitri, just so some Anglo-Aussies won’t be weirded-out by it, not only caters for that laziness, but also sets a low bar.
 “Oh no, this foreigner has a name which does not match any of the standard 30 names I have stored in my mental databanks, whatever will I do? I think my brain might explode.”
By making someone learn to pronounce your name properly, you’re actually doing them a favour by broadening their mind. But as I said with my own name, sometimes there’s only so much you can take of hearing your name mangled before you rename yourself “Bob” in a fit of frustration.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sorry, I didn't mean to racially abuse those Indians, I meant to racially abuse THOSE Indians...

If you happened to see episode 3 of ABC2's Dumb, Drunk and Racist, you would have noticed a particularly nasty incident that occurred while filming in the streets of Melbourne's CBD. As two of Joe Hildebrand's Indian guests go for a walk around to get a sense for whether Melbourne was as hostile and dangerous as had been portrayed in the Indian media, they are accosted by a drunken individual who swears at them, calls them racists and tells them to go back where they came from, ending with "White pride, motherfuckers!"

You can see it here from about 3:45 onwards.

It's an odd exchange that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but is noticeable for how coolly Amer handles the whole thing. (Amer is consistently awesome throughout this series, by the way.) It certainly makes it seem like random drunk racists are just waiting to come out of the woodwork on central Melbourne's main street.

The show's website features a page that puts it in a bit better perspective, and is disturbingly hilarious in its irony. It's a written apology from the drunken racist douche, who explains that it's all a case of mistaken identity:

To whom it may concern On the way home from a night out I walked past a group of people with a camera crew who I thought, at that particular time, to be the provocative Indian comedy duo "Fear of a Brown Planet". My comments were aimed at this comedy group solely, not the people who I have recently found out were Indian tourists from overseas.At the time I had had a disagreement with my fiancé and was not in a good frame of mind and had been out having a few drinks watching a band. I said some ridiculous things which I would not normally say. I live and work in a very multi-cultural area and associate with many cultures including Indians. This incident has strained relationships between myself and my family. I do sincerely apologise for what I said and the way I acted which is very out of character.
I apologise to the Indian tourists and want them to know I had no idea it was a documentary on racism and acted out of my dislike for the comedy group. I am extremely worried and stressed how I come across in the program. I am very embarrassed about my actions on this evening and am remorseful of any hurt I have caused. Thankyou.

Note the obligatory "Some of my best friends are Indians" line he sticks in there, which is the standard disclaimer you make when you've said something racist and you want people to think you are not racist.
I guess he wants us to think, "Ah, that's not so bad, he wasn't just abusing random Indians, he was abusing what he thought was a controversial comedy duo who some regard as being anti-white."

Of course, this "controversial Indian comedy duo" are not actually Indian - the Fear of a Brown Planet guys are Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan, but whatever, it's all the same, right? And considering this chap basically saw two young South Asian guys with a camera crew and immediately assumed they were FOABP and began abusing them... well, that's understandable I guess. I mean, it's an easy mistake to make, right? Why, just the other day, I went to buy some curry and naan from my local Indian restaurant, when I thought the woman behind the counter was the provocative Indian duo "Fear of a Brown Planet". So obviously, I racially abused her, as one does in those situations. How embarassing for me!

Essentially, he is giving his own answer to the question posed by the show's title; he's not really racist, he was only dumb and racist because he was drunk. Ok then.

If you are wondering about who these Fear of a Brown Planet fellows are that seem to inspire such antipathy from random passing drunken douchebags, I've blogged about them here before.

Recently ABC1 featured them on Australian Story, which each week does a somewhat mushy profile of interesting Australian people. There was also a 2 hour special on ABC2 recently which featured their whole act. The guys, Aamer Rahman and Nazeem Hussain, are a couple of young Muslims whose act focuses primarily on racism, and the experience of being South Asian and Muslim in Australia. There has been an ongoing debate going on in Australian politics about the alleged left-wing bias of the ABC (the government-funded broadcaster), and this sympathetic profile of an act that tends to make white people a little uncomfortable is more grist to that mill. 


In any case this profile is interesting to look at how South Asian Muslims balance their identity with an Australian one, and how the two guys balance their humour and decidedly liberal activist views with a religion that is both rather illiberal and not especially known for its humour.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Asian people problems

And here I am, worried about whether I'm going to scrape past 50% on one of my subjects.

A STUDENT at an elite Sydney private school who scored a uni admissions rank of 99.95 out of 100 in 2008 has lost an appeal alleging discrimination stopped her getting full marks. Abbotsleigh student Sarah Hui Xin Wong’s mother Eileen complained to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that the Board of Studies had unlawfully discriminated against Sarah because they didn't provide her with adequate special provisions to help her write her exam essays. Ms Wong, 21, has hyper joint mobility of the wrist. She received some rest breaks during the exam. The family told the tribunal that Ms Wong would've got much higher marks if she had access to a computer or extra rest time during exams. Ms Wong's marks won her a place in a medicine degree at Sydney University and she came fifth in the state in chemistry. She was offered a writer to dictate her essays to but chose not to do that. [Source]

It's great to strive for excellence and all that, but sometimes you need to be happy with what you have. Particularly when a student has got one of the highest marks possible, all while dealing with a disability. And has got into the course she wanted at one of Australia's best universities.
It's one thing to want recognition for a great achievements, but now that Sarah Wong has become the butt of jokes, the extreme personification of the Asian-overachiever stereotype, let this be a warning to all those Asian mothers out there with Tigerish tendencies.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Euro 2012 reflects a new multi-ethnic Europe

If you were following this year's European football championships, one thing you may have noticed was that some of the team line-ups are starting to reflect the shifting demographics of 21st-century European nations. Most teams, including some you wouldn't expect, feature players of "non-indigenous" backgrounds. This is notable at a tournament in which racism from fans has been an ongoing concern.

Portugal's Silvestre Varela
Of course, some countries have been reflecting this for a while. Black players have been a ever-increasing feature of the English team since the late 70s. The Netherlands too has featured many players of Moroccan, Indonesian and notable Afro-Caribbean roots: fully a third of the Dutch squad that came 4th in the 1998 World Cup was of Surinamese descent. The French team that won that same World Cup was well-known for its diverse lineup that included numerous black African and Caribbean players, two players with Armenian surnames, and was led by the ethnically Algerian maestro Zinedine Zidane. Around half the players in the current squad have a black or North African background. Portugal too has long featured players of African and Brazilian descent in its national teams, from the great Eusebio (born in Mozambique) in the 60s, to the likes of Nani and Silvestre Varela (Cape Verdean), Pepe and Bruno Alves (Brazilian) today.

Of course, that ethnic mix is largely a result of the colonial endeavours of those four nations. Interestingly, Spain is an outlier here - it has been a far greater exporter than importer of people from its former colonies, so black Spanish players have been few and far between. Their current squad does however include David Silva, who has Japanese ancestry on his mother's side.
Germans Sami Khedira (left) and Jerome Boateng (right)

Over the last decade, a few other European nations have featured players from immigrant backgrounds. The two stars of Sweden's national team in this time have been Henrik Larsson (whose father was Cape Verdean) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (with Bosnian and Croatian parents). Germany's squad looks radically different to that of 20 years ago; it's current members claim ancestry from Turkey (Mesut Ozil), Ghana (Jerome Boateng), Poland (Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose), Spain (Mario Gomez) and Tunisia (Sami Khedira). Switzerland did not appear at this year's Euros, but its current team features numerous ethnic Albanians, Africans and others.
Mario Balotelli (centre)

Now we are seeing this diversity entering the lineups of other nations which have traditionally not been as diverse.

One of the best-known figures in the Italian squad is the gifted but temperamental young striker Mario Balotelli, who was born to Ghanaian immigrants but adopted at a young age by an Italian couple. But also in the squad is the defender Angelo Ogbonna, born in Torino of Nigerian parentage.
Greece features Jose Holebas, a left midfielder who was born in Germany to a Greek father and Uruguayan mother.
Theodor Gebre Selassie of the Czech Republic
One player whose performances at the tournament attracted attention is right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie of the Czech Republic. His mother is ethnically Czech, and his father an Ethiopian who visited the country when both were under Communist rule.

Croatia has a Brazilian player in its ranks - striker Eduardo da Silva -but he represents a different kind of non-indigenous player, the professional footballer who has adopted another nationality as an adult. Spain, Italy and Germany have also featured nationalized Brazilians before, and a cynic would say that such players are motivated less by love for their adopted country and more by the opportunity to play international football that they would not get for the footballing powerhouse that is Brazil.