Lately, a lot of people have started having some much-needed conversations about white privilege. Unfortunately, many of these conversations have been generating more heat than light. Nobody likes to be told that they are ignorant, and people whose own families have only barely escaped from grinding poverty (and who are at risk of sliding back in) resent being told that they have had it easy at someone else’s expense. Thus, the discussions about white privilege could easily serve as a way to divide black people from the working class white people who should be their natural political allies. So I suggest that progressive activists think carefully about how they frame these discussions. Rather than carelessly accusing strangers of being ignorant exploiters, we might try to talk about what it means to be cool, why so many black people are so effortlessly cool, and how a white person can become somewhat less uncool.
One of the characters in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice warns us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Many Bible verses and Bible stories have been used for bad purposes. The worst example of this was the story of the Curse of Ham from the book of Genesis (Gen. 9:20–27). This story has been used to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, the original meaning of the story had nothing to do with Africans or the slave trade. Originally, the story was probably about a scandal that erupted within a king’s harem. However, the story involves a figure of speech whose meaning is not immediately obvious, and the story itself was inserted into the Biblical narrative at a point where there were not yet any kings. This insertion probably resulted from an editing process that occurred late in the development of the Bible text (possibly as late as the third century BCE) and served a political purpose. Fortunately, the Bible gives us another clue that helps us discover the original meaning of the story.
Documentaries are movies that are intended to teach us lessons about something real. In contrast, horror movies are about things that are clearly not real. Nevertheless, horror movies can teach us important lessons, if we are willing to learn. On the simplest level, horror movies allow us to experience fear in a safe setting so that we can observe our own fear and learn how to recognize and manage it. On a deeper level, horror movies teach us that reason is the way to deliver ourselves from needless fear. As the Spanish Enlightenment painter Francisco de Goya put it, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” If we are to battle monstrosity, our reason must be fully awake and engaged.
Many people think that Billy Joel’s song Always a Woman is about a dysfunctional relationship: about a woman who is cruel to her lover. They think that it is about loving a woman despite her flaws. It’s not! The song is really Billy Joel’s mockery of people who underestimated the business acumen of his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, who was also his business manager. Pay careful attention to the pronouns in the lyrics. He talks about how deceptive and cruel “she” can be to “you.” He then contrasts that with the statement “she’s always a woman to me.” Notice that the song never says that she was cruel to “me,” only to “you.”
Always a Woman was released in 1977, which was in the heyday of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Back then, many men still assumed that the woman’s role was simply to type up contracts, not to negotiate them. Evidently, some music industry executives expected that Joel’s wife would be a pushover. Perhaps some of them thought that Weber’s toughness was unwomanly. Joel thought otherwise.
Photo by Mark Morgan Trinidad B