Tag Archives: cultural anthropology

Difranco as human ‘hipster’ paradigm?

Beyond what’s already been said about Ani Difranco’s reaction to finding out that a former plantation was the planned locale for her company’s retreat, I think there’s something to discern from it about so called “hipsters” — a quality of which seems to be priding one’s self as being enlightened when it comes to issues surrounding race and class, though one’s background frequently leads to a life separate from the majority of those who have historically lacked much in the way of privilege.

Criticism about hipsters is, of course, rife throughout all of blogdom — but it’s often frivolous stuff about the way they dress (I would not include the wearing of clothes that mock someone else’s culture in this arena).  Also, people seem to pick up on a self-righteousness that comes with defining one’s self as thoroughly counter-culture while being obsessed with culture-as-a-lifestyle.  But most of the people doing the criticizing — and certainly the ones whose criticisms are on the noteworthy venues that, inherently, cater to the at least somewhat privileged  — are perhaps finding fault with those trying to live a romanticized version of their own upwardly mobile lives.  In short, they’re a scapegoat for people who don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that they systematically have more stock than others.

These others are people that hipsters and the upwardly mobile can’t generally seem to connect with — sure, they can do so with people of color whom are associated with the coolness that acts as cultural currency among hipsters, and also occasionally people of color whom they can be self-righteous about (an idea of) equality with.  With the upwardly mobile more generally, they seem to connect more easily with people of color who’d prefer to disassociate with that color — with with what can make you less than not so old-fashioned notions of what a normal guy or gal looks like.  So there you have a fine melting pot,  just not with anyone who really challenges people’s notions of themselves in hierarchies.

Away from that, there’s criticism about hipster re-emergence into the urban world where they frequently define areas in the cultural zeitgeist that had been defined as being “bad (but culturally rich) neighborhoods.” You know — all of those cities, with all of their scary people of color; these were the places fine upstanding people didn’t have to live — not when there’s a perfectly good suburb you can drive comfortably to.

Difranco wrote a song about an element of this.  It’s called “Subdivision,” and it starts with the line, “White people are so scared of black people . . .”   It’s a good song, and much more in the vein of Bob Dylan’s song about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter than “Ebony and Ivory.”  I learned from a documentary that Dylan’s song is one that the great Sam Cooke respected on one level, but on another Cooke seemed to lament that someone who hadn’t experienced racism firsthand hadn’t come out with that song first.   I empathize with the feeling because the simple politics of the music business — certainly even more so during Cooke’s heyday — was such that a black artist couldn’t speak his or her truth forthrightly.

Difranco’s initial response to finding out about the plantation as a setting for a retreat noted that she didn’t pick it as a venue, but, once she she knew, it seems she thought it could be an opportunity for healing.  I have a lot of respect for Difranco as a writer and musician, but I could never listen to her sing about race at length without feeling like it was nice enough — and not hollow, but just on some other planet where people leave their suburbs, or mini-suburbs, to go on things like retreats.

You see, frequently hipsters may live in urban areas, but they’re areas that have been turned into mini-suburbs that cater to them — this is the general downside of a place becoming what we generally think of as being livable.  You can live in a place that’s associated with being some great urban place where people of color managed to get by in hard times, but really it’s separate from the heart of that — the part that knows about what the pain of being in the “less than” part of town added up to.

I’m not someone who thinks Difranco should be demonized (there’s a component of her detractors who salivate over this sort of thing and have no personal regard for black pain otherwise), but it’s worth noting that maybe knowing about subdivisions doesn’t make one as aware of the pain of being “less than” as some people might like to think.


Not Fade Away

© Robert Pinero and me

I recently saw a homeless man hovering on a stone bench in a transit hub . . . While unfortunately something like that is not a rare occurrence, the guy looked more disoriented than one would typically expect.  With this being glaringly obvious, in fact, I had to wonder why I was the only one who looked at him for more than a split-second.

Skinny as heck, with a Styrofoam platter of food next to him, the guy was trying to stay upright but waning somewhere between dozing and restlessness.   Just going to sleep did not seem like an option for him, which is probably easily understandable.  Yeah, he might have had a drug problem.  But even if that old, so-called truism was accurate, it’s a pretty flimsy reason to discount the intrinsic nature of someone’s value.  In order to let people be what are essentially phantoms, we tend to tell ourselves they pretty much deserve it.  They’re not good.  But it’s as likely as anything that he was a bit broken, and he couldn’t pull himself together and had no place to rely on so that he could keep trying.

I’m sorry to say that I didn’t do anything for him.  I didn’t really know what to do, but be on my way.  I suppose one of the reasons people don’t see folks like that is because there are often no easy solutions, and no one really wants to dwell on circumstances like that.  There’s probably about a million apps that you could dwell on instead.  But take those away, and I’m not sure people wouldn’t just ignore letting that guy fade away then, too.

More than once I’ve heard people from scenic, lovely places talk about the coldness of people that are not acclimated to their particular surroundings.  It’s a sentiment I always find ridiculous.  One of the things people expect of scenic places is to be away from having to so closely see people hover on the edge of existence.  If it takes something extraordinary to not let one’s sense of empathy atrophy as they get older, it’s a whole lot easier to just buy into something that has a nice looking roster.

The hardest and best thing about life is probably other people (Take whatever else you enjoy about life and imagine yourself doing it on a planet devoid of everyone else, and it’ll likely lose its luster).  Generally, it’s as easy to focus on the negative as it is to take the positive for granted, but, really, navigating the world of people is, from its least privileged vantage point, very challenging.

Where the living could be easy (?)

Taken from Wikipedia Commons, a scenic travel photo by Adam Baker.

The worlds portrayed visually in pharmaceutical commercials are almost always idyllic:  big, wide open spaces tempered by the reach of long branches with the greenest leaves; a starlit night above the open window of a large home in a valley full of other large homes, with just enough space between them so that they collectively make up a nice view (for the panning shot); a sunny day at a pier where fishing is the natural, picturesque thing to do.  And wouldn’t you know it?  The only thing preventing people from enjoying these surroundings is an ailment or condition that a calm, dull voice relays a possible remedy for, followed by the listing of lots of potential side effects with images of people not experiencing any of them.  By the end of the commercial, they’re enjoying life where it’s beautiful again.

Sometimes it seems like the handful of people in these commercials are the only folks around for miles.  And the people themselves–they’re usually the kind of people associated as a given for idyllic places.  Maybe, every once in a while, there’s an old, black couple whose passing presence in such places probably wouldn’t be too bothersome.

I guess that’s a presiding kind of idyllic, anyway.


For some interesting history about pharmaceutical advertising (apparently most prominent in the US and New Zealand), see this piece at io9.