Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Friday, August 08, 2003  

Off the Web

Listening: Loving the artist, hating the song

I was strolling along listening to my iPod last night when I suddenly found myself facing a quandary. The album playing was Billie Holiday's Greatest Hits. The selection was "It Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." Some of the lyrics make me really uncomfortable.

If my man ain't got no money
And I say, "Take all of mine, honey"
Ain't nobody's business if I do.

If I give him my last nickel
And it leaves me in a pickle
Ain't nobody's business if I do.

Well I'd rather my man would hit me
Then for him to jump up and quit me
Ain't nobody's business if I do.

I swear I won't call no copper
If I'm beat up by my papa
Ain't nobody's business if I do
Nobody's business
Ain't nobody's business,
Nobody's business if I do.

There's no saving grace. The delivery of the words is defiant. The speaker means what she is saying. She's the stereotypical working-class gal who will stand by her man no matter what. She is asking to be made a doormat of. Those of you have read Silver Rights for a while know domestic violence is one of the much too common societal practices I take exception to. Yet, there I was, listening to a woman declare herself a willing candidate and almost singing along with the chorus. Loving the artist, but hating the song. What's a fan to do?

Some of the lyrics to Ry Cooder's cover of "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)" also set my teeth on edge, though Bop Till You Drop is still a favorite.

My father told me, lying on his bed of death,
"Boy," he says, "woman she's gonna make it, don't fool yourself
'Cause she's got something to make a man lay that money,
Uh, right in her hand
And the very thing that makes her rich will make you poor.

The narrator believes women are inherently exploitive. We supposedly have 'something' we use to entice men and take advantage of them. It isn't difficult to guess what he thinks that something is. So, should I consign Bop to the dustbin?

"Sweet Home Alabama," which applauds massive resistance to desegregation, is an easier call.

In Birmingham they love the governor
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth.

Sweet home Alabama
Oh sweet home baby
Where the skies are so blue
And the governor's true
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you
Yea, yea Montgomery's got the answer.

As much as I appreciate a hot guitar riff, that song has got to go. There will be no racist sentiments in my house or on my 'Pod.

As an indefatigble reader and listener, I expose myself to plenty of art that expresses opinions not considered progressive. I've read blatant racists like O'Henry and Jack London. The reason I am willing to overlook, or at least not dwell on the racism in the work of, say, Willa Cather, is because she had gifts worth experiencing some unpleasantness to observe.

When it comes to music, I find myself being more exacting, though I am more likely to tolerate music I already own than not. I will continue to listen to a song with an offensive point of view if it is clear the songwriter or singer is telling a story or enabling a character, not agreeing with the sentiments being expressed. Convenience enters into the decision-making process, too. If I'm listening to a CD on the stereo, it is easier to ride out a song I don't like than to go to the trouble of skipping it. Then there is the matter of flow. Interrupting a CD can destroy the mood the album creates.

Most of my rejection of music for socio-political reasons occurs at the purchasing stage. I buy next to no rap because of the misogyny and violence enthusiastically described in the lyrics. There are also artists I will not buy the works of, but have CDs of because I've received them as gifts. Miles Davis is in that category. Despite his prodigious talent, he was one hell of a woman hater.

I have no magical formula to offer in regard to this issue. Indeed, the answer may be that one learns to tolerate a degree of imperfection in artists one admires and each individual decides where to draw the line. I'll delete "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" from my iPod because I find the song too irritating to continue listening to it. Other decisions about lyrics that make me uncomfortable will be made on a case-by-case basis. In some of them, I will keep right on loving the artist and hating the song.

posted by J. | 6:40 PM

Wednesday, August 06, 2003  

People are saying: Gay high school is not a bad idea

Two bloggers, a conservative and a centrist, take issue with my position in regard to New York City opening a high school for gay students.

I am skeptical about the Harvey Milk School for the same reasons I am wary of segregation by gender and race. Segregation implies difference so significant that people cannot interact without harm. I don't believe that is true in regard to gays and straights, men and women or persons of different 'races.' It also implies that one group is better than another. In addition, there is no proof that students perform better academically or socially in segregated environments. Several large studies of female-only schools revealed no difference in educational achievement for girls despite expectations otherwise. Last, but not least, adults must live in non-segregated environments. They should learn to cope with diversity while children instead of being isolated.

Cobb, on the Right, says I've gotten it wrong.

J. at Silver Rights wrongly assumes that the 'new' Harvey Milk highschool is an affair of segregation. It is rather, an alternative school for gays who have been literally bashed out of the system. If it wasn't for Milk, these kids would not recieve an education. It's very existence is proof of the failure of assimilation for some, but not by choice, but because of the hostility of bashers.

Centrist Rick Heller believes I've not been pragmatic.

In general, I don't like the polarization that comes about when people see each other as members of a group, rather than as individuals. But there are times when physical separation does ease security concerns. I expect New York schools have a tough enough time enforcing basic safety concerns related to drugs and street crime that they are not very successful in protecting gay students from harassment by students in the general population.

In an email to Rick, I said I would stop short of asserting the lamb should lie down with the lion. So, I must be somewhat pragmatic, eh? The sticking point in a situation like this for me is the notion of segregation, or, if you prefer, separation, as a solution. Racial separation did not solve any problems. Nor does gender separation, as far as the research has revealed so far. I would need to see proof that segregation of homosexuals and other sexual minorities from heterosexuals is likely to yield some positive results before I could approve of it.

I have heard again and again from gay activists that gay students are more likely to be singled out for harassment in schools. However, I am unaware of any objective evidence proving that. My guess is that the barnyard syndrome, in which people establish hierarchies and pick on those they consider 'different' applies to all kinds of students -- not only gays. As I said previously, the solution is to enforce disciplinary rules, not to separate students based on various considerations.

A couple weeks ago, I read a short story by Jonathan Lethem, a writer I consider very talented, in The New Yorker. It focuses on the experiences of one of a handful of white children growing by in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in New York City. From pre-school age on, the boy is regularly stolen from and beaten up. If we apply the reasoning of the Harvey Milk School advocates to the situation in the story, we find ourselves supporting segregated schools to protect whatever group is in the minority. Surely, that can't be an acceptable resolution for either harassment based on race or gender preference.

The law has yet to reach this issue because it does not extend heightened scrutiny to the classification 'homosexual' as it does to race and gender. Even if it did, I would be hard put to come up with a fact situation in which segregation of gays by the government in an educational context is justified. (Because Harvey Milk is a public-private joint venture, government action is involved.) Even without a track record in the area, it is possible the far Right will raise the issue of equal protection if additional public resources are being allocated to the Milk program.

In his entry, Rick raises another aspect of the topic that is grounds for concern. According to a newspaper article, the activists intend to steer gay students toward certain careers.

The new school's principal, William Salzman, said the school will be academically challenging and will follow mandatory English and math programs. It also will specialize in computer technology, arts and culinary arts.

I hope that does not express itself in the form of encouraging, for example, gay boys to study cooking or interior decoration while frowning on other kinds of work. A gay boy who wants to be a fireman or mechanical engineer should receive the same encouragement as one who seeks a 'traditional' gay role. There is a risk of allowing stereotypical thinking to influence what career choices are acceptable in what could become the school system's gay ghetto.

Here's hoping the Milk school does not cause more problems than it solves.

posted by J. | 7:13 PM

Monday, August 04, 2003  

Off the Web

Reading: Mixed grill

People are often surprised that I read some so-called genre fiction because they have me pegged as an 'intellectual.' Actually, I don't perceive a conflict. The best of the genre fiction I read, usually science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction, has the same merits as the literary fiction I read and write. Writers such as Connie Willis, Greg Bear and Octavia Butler are as capable as some of the 'serious' writers I admire. Their plots and characterization are as complex as that of any writer worth his or her salt.

In the last few days, I've finished reading Greg Bear's new books, Darwin's Children and Vitals. The first is sci-fi and the second a thriller with a sci-fi background. Bear won the Nebula Award, the Endeavor Award, and was nominated for a Hugo Award for its precursor, Darwin's Radio. Both Darwin books are premised on a, shall we say, novel, idea: What if a new species of human being presented itself on Earth? How would people respond? Considering how many people respond to minor differences such as skin color, hair texture or eye shape, it is obvious the new children would be in for it.

Darwin's Children, Greg Bear's follow-up to Darwin's Radio, is top-shelf science fiction, thrilling and intellectually charged. It's no standalone, though. The plot and characters are certainly independent of the previous novel, but the background in Darwin's Radio is essential to nonbiologists trying to understand what's going on. The next stage of human evolution has arrived, announced by the birth of bizarre "virus children." Now the children with the hypersenses and odd faces are growing up, and the world has to figure out what to do with them. The answer is evil and all too human, as governments put the kids in camps to protect regular folks from imagined dangers.

To find how just how far people, both the powerful and the hoi polloi, might go to destroy a perceived threat to homo sapiens, read Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children.

In Vitals, Bear relaxes his writer's vigilance. The characters don't measure up to the standards of his better works. The protagonists, twin brothers Hal and Rob Cousins, who are biologists, are too young for their supposed achievements, at 29. Trite language slips in, such as the overuse of the phrases "young man" and "young woman." Some characters are not differentiated enough to make them memorable. The book is saved by its premise. Biologists know bacteria communicate with each other and can alter organisms. "I'm going to live forever, I'm going to learn how to fly," Irene Cara sang in her only hit song. The Cousins share that penchant for immortality and have discovered that deep sea bacteria are the key to it.

If Hal Cousins could finish his expensive research and sell the serum he would develop for immortality to the super rich, his goals in life, a very, very long life, would be achieved. But, the brothers are not the first people to discover the secrets of immortality. A shadowy group that began in the Soviet Union seventy years ago called Silk knows the alpha and the omega of immortality. It will stop at nothing, including murder, to maintain control of the key to immortality and its other secrets.

Hal Cousins is anything but philosophical, but before the novel's end, even he is forced to reconsider whether eternal life for human beings is a good idea.

I haven't been neglecting literary fiction. I am currently reading Rohinton Mistry's Swimming Lessons: Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. Minstry, an Indian writer, is also the author of the Booker Award nominated novel, A Fine Balance. Like Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, an admirable collection of short stories, Swimming Lessons consists of an interconnected tales about people who live in the same environment. The residents of Firozsha Baag are middle-class Indians, mainly Parsi, who reside in the three buildings of the complex over a period of half a century.

A short story you will not want to miss is Edward P. Jones' "A Rich Man" in this week's edition of The New Yorker. Jones is a virtuoso when it comes to catching people with their pants down -- literally and figuratively. The main character in the story, Horace Perkins, is a retired bureacrat in his 70s. He prides himself on being the victor in the mutual contempt he and his recently deceased wife came to hold each other in. Horace decides to up the ante from serial affairs with women in his retirement community after she dies. He begins keeping company with streetwise viragos in their 20s. Horace may have skills in middle-class marital hijinks, but he is not remotely prepared to match wits with the hardened riffraff of the mean streets of Washington, D.C. Join him for a wild ride that will leave you laughing and shaking your head at human folly simultaneously.

"A Rich Man" is from Jones' new book, The Known World, to be released by Amistad Press August 19.

posted by J. | 9:45 PM