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Subject: Where does cultural borrowing become disrespect?

Forum: Where does cultural borrowing become disrespect?
A month ago, Wes Anderson released his latest film, Isle of Dogs. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it involves a Japanese mayor’s conspiracy to banish all of his city’s dogs, and a young boy’s subsequent attempt to rescue his pet from a quarantine zone. The movie is set in a fanciful version of Japan, where drumming punctuates the soundtrack, glass buildings dominate the skyline, and haiku illustrate the action.

Some critics claimed that Anderson was guilty of “cultural appropriation,” a disrespectful exploitation of Japanese culture. They cited his unrealistic depiction of Japan, his use of a heroic American exchange student, and the fact that the dogs in the film all spoke English and were voiced by American actors.

Admittedly, Japan is a far cry from the preppy-infused, Norman Rockwell-accented world of most of Anderson’s movies. But one could argue that Isle of Dogs delves deeply into central aspects of Japanese culture and literature, using them to tell a very Wes Anderson movie. In many ways, it raises the question of where cultural appreciation becomes cultural appropriation.

In some ways, this goes to the heart of American culture. After all, most truly “American” things come from somewhere else: our hamburgers owe a lot to Germany, our pizza is an adaptation of Italian food, and our all American apple pie comes from England. Rock music traces its roots to Africa, surf music borrows from the Middle East, and guitar can be traced back to Spain. For centuries, we’ve borrowed from countries around the world to create a culture of our own.

Your Challenge

Where do you draw the line between borrowing and stealing? Between appropriation and exploitation? Does “Despacito” cross the line? What about the Lucky Charms Leprechaun? Can we draw a list of attributes that separate respectful borrowing from disrespectful theft? Or is it something that we feel, but can’t explain? Should we all endeavor to stick only to our own “native” cultures, or are there some rules of engagement we can apply to our own cultural explorations -- and borrowings?

Subject: Celebrities in Politics

Forum: Celebrities in Politics
Does anyone out there remember Miranda from Sex and the City?

On Monday, Cynthia Nixon, the actress who played her, announced that she’s planning on running for Governor of New York. Nixon hasn’t previously run for office, but she’s got a bit of political experience: she’s worked for years as a marriage equality activist, and served on an advisory committee for New York City’s Mayor DiBlasio. What’s more, given the dysfunction between Albany and New York City, it seems that she might have a real chance against Democrat governor Andrew Cuomo.

Celebrities in politics aren’t anything new: we’ve seen a Congressman who previously starred on the Love Boat, a Senator who was on Saturday Night Live, a Governor who got his start in pro wrestling and a President who rose to fame in movies where his costar was a chimpanzee. And now, of course, the man in the Oval Office is probably most famous for his role on a reality show.

When it comes to effectiveness, those celebrities have been a mixed bag: some were great communicators, but lacked a deep understanding of policy. Others were solid on policy, but were plagued by the scandals related to their earlier years in entertainment. Some were great, and many were mediocre. Across the board, though, it’s pretty clear that the ability to understand an audience and the ability to understand policy are two very different skill sets.

This difference in abilities is likely to become even more important over the next few years, as we seem to be entering a new era of political celebrities. The merest hint that Oprah Winfrey was considering a Presidential run — despite her repeated denials — has led to an insane amount of speculation. And celebrities from Duane Johnson to Kid Rock to Caitlin Jenner are allegedly considering running for office. Far from disappearing, it seems likely that celebrity politicians are going to become an increasingly important part of our political landscape.

Your Challenge

What do you think of this trend? Are you excited by the ability of celebrities to reach voters and bring attention to political issues? Concerned by their often-limited understanding of policy? Do you see this as a positive trend for democracy in America, or a further lurch toward the consolidation of power by the wealthy and prominent? Are you eager to vote for President Winfrey or worried that professionalism in politics is disappearing?

Subject: Why Are You Watching the Olympics? Why not?

Forum: Why Are You Watching the Olympics? Why not?
It often seems like the Olympics are more of a metaphor than a real-life competition. In 1896, the first modern Olympics in Athens were a metaphor for international relations and cooperation. Forty years later, Adolf Hitler tried to make the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a metaphor for racial superiority, only to have Jesse Owens and several other black athletes turn them into a metaphor for the value of diversity. In 1980, the US snubbed the Soviet Olympics, turning them into a metaphor for the Cold War.

And athletes have gotten involved in the metaphor making. In 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their hands in the black power salute, the gesture became a metaphor for rising ethnic pride in America — and their subsequent banishment became a symbol of how much work remained to be done. The 1988 Jamaican bobsled team became a metaphor for creativity and determination, while the 1994 showdown between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan became a metaphor for everything from social class to feminism to the 24-hour news cycle.

Now it’s 2018, and it’s time to ask what this year’s Olympics symbolizes. When North and South Korean athletes marched together, did it become a metaphor for repairing the rifts created by the Cold War? Did the banning of Russia’s Olympic team make it a metaphor for an international commitment to law and order? Or did the emergence of “OARs” — Olympic Athletes from Russia — make it a metaphor for yet another international body caving in to Vladimir Putin?

How about America’s team? Do the US athletes taking the field in their matching Ralph Lauren uniforms make it a metaphor for Americans joining together despite our internal political divisions? Do the young athletes tweeting from the sidelines during their competitions make it a metaphor for a new generation for whom every moment must be memorialized on social media? Does the recent Larry Nassar sexual abuse trial make it into a metaphor for society’s abuse of women? Is it a symbol of everything that draws us together? Everything that pulls us apart?


Your Challenge

Why are you watching the Olympics? Why not? Are you interested in the stories of the athletes or the behind-the-scenes political maneuverings underlying the competition? What do these stories mean to you? What do they tell you about the state of the world or about the internal divisions and politics rippling across the US today? How do you think future generations will characterize this Olympics?

Subject: Is Silence a Statement?

Forum: Is Silence a Statement?
This year’s Golden Globe awards have been lauded as both a victory and a failure. For women, they were an unquestionable victory: across the audience, women wore black in solidarity, and many brought women’s rights advocates as their dates. Throughout the night, women commented about this watershed moment in Hollywood’s fight for gender equality, culminating in Oprah’s speech tying her award to the civil rights struggle. Paired with Natalie Portman’s comment about the all-male nominees for best director, Oprah’s speech put the #MeToo year in the context of a larger historical movement, while showing that the struggle is far from over.

But for men, the impact of the evening was a little cloudy. Many showed support by wearing all black, but when it came to words, they were almost universally silent about harassment. For many, their silence spoke volumes.

Many critics have argued that the male silence at the Golden Globes was shameful, but some have pointed out that it’s also part of a larger question of how men should men approach the #MeToo movement. Should they share their own #MeToo moments, or should they stay silent? Should they make statements of solidarity, or should they step aside and let other voices be heard? Should they apologize for their behavior, or just resolve to improve it?

These aren’t simple questions: it easy to condemn male silence, but there have also been recent articles criticizing men for trying to weigh in on a topic that they don’t understand. Men who tell their #MeToo stories have been criticized for making the issue entirely about sexual harassment, and missing the larger context of the gender struggle. And men who have come forth to apologize for their poor behavior, like Morgan Spurlock, have also been criticized for the manner in which they did so.

At the height of the Civil Rights struggle, a woman approached Malcolm X at a college campus and asked what she could do to help. He told her “Nothing,” and passed her by. Years later, writing in his autobiography, he said that he regretted his words, and wished they had been more productive.

Your Challenge:
What do you think men should do in response to #MeToo? Should they remain silent, in respect to other voices? Share the stories of their own struggles? Apologize for their actions? Work with other men, but remain silent in public? What is the best way for a gender that is often the villains in the harassment struggle to help promote change?

Subject: When it comes to harassment, what is your role?

Forum: When it comes to harassment, what is your role?
I recently came across a pair of articles that, together, give an interesting glimpse into how the sexual harassment environment is changing. One covered Billy Bush’s appearance on the Late Show, where he reiterated that Donald Trump bragged about sexual harassment on the Access Hollywood bus. But when it came to explaining why he didn’t push back against Trump, Bush faltered, lamely pointing out that he thought Trump’s comments were a comedy routine.

The other article recapped a public disagreement between John Oliver and Dustin Hoffman that occurred during a panel discussion about one of Hoffman’s movies. Oliver surprised the actor by bringing up the sexual harassment allegations against him, and the discussion became heated. Members of the audience criticized Oliver for going off topic, but he explained that he felt it was important to bring it up, as “No one stands up to powerful men.”

Rather than focusing on sexual harassers and victims, these events put the spotlight on bystanders. Billy Bush chose not to speak out about Trump’s sexist comments, while Oliver chose to shift from a movie discussion — which his audience had paid to see — to a harassment discussion that many of them didn’t want to witness. But for all their differences, Oliver and Bush both made a decision about their values, their responsibility, and their willingness to create an uncomfortable environment in order to address a larger point. Faced with sexual harassers, they chose either to face the problem or to turn away.

It’s an issue that resonates: to a great extent, we’re all bystanders, and we’re all being forced to figure out where we stand on these issues. Knowing what we now know, can we still see “The Graduate” the same way? Do the events of this year change the way hear a Louis CK set, or see a Pixar film, or watch George Takei? Does Billy Bush’s failure change the way we react to our friends when they say something offensive? Where do we draw our lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

Your Challenge

Our culture is in the midst of redefining many of its rules, and we are all part of that discussion. Where do you stand on the changing rules and perspectives around sexual harassment? Are we too insensitive? Are we oversensitive? What do you consider an appropriate punishment for a harasser? How about a bystander? Do you have a story about a time when you stood up to harassment…or failed to do so?

Subject: What Do the Stories We Watch Say About Us?

Forum: What Do the Stories We Watch Say About Us?
In the movie “It,” there’s a scene in which a boy, Ben, is being terrorized by older kids. A car passes by and Ben looks up, desperately hoping for help. But the driver turns back to the road, ignoring the horror right before his eyes.

When King wrote “It” in the 1980’s, today’s political climate was clearly not on his mind. But over thirty years later, the scene resonates. The evil in Derry, Maine - the “It” that the children face - infuses the town, and everyone is complicit in what is happening. Watching the scene play out on a big screen today, in a society that uses cellphones produced in inhumane factories, wears clothes made in sweatshops, and votes for politicians tainted by moral compromise, it’s not hard to relate to a society permeated with evil.

Art and culture have always gone hand in hand, but over the last few years, it seems like they’ve become almost impossible to untangle. The antifeminist dystopia of “The Handmaid’s Tale” dovetails against some very real recent attacks on women’s rights, while the racial terrors of “Get Out” seem especially nightmarish when viewed through the lens of Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, the moral, brilliant outsider President of “Designated Survivor” contrasts sharply with the outsider President who currently occupies the Oval Office.

Your challenge:

Which cultural messages in movies and TV resonate for you? Do you feel yourself drawn to - or repelled by - any of the cultural messages embedded in the programs you watch? Which shows and movies do you think are doing the best job of commenting on our society? And what do the stories you watch tell you about the society you’re living in?

Subject: What Are We Pledging Allegiance To

Forum: What Are We Pledging Allegiance To
As part of the naturalization process, new US citizens must pledge to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. Soldiers and many members of government make the same pledge.

Have you ever made that pledge? I haven’t.

I’ve pledged allegiance to the flag, but pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth is a bit different than pledging allegiance to the values of your country. Pledging to the flag seems simple, at least as long as we don’t question what our flag represents or who has a right to determine its meaning. It’s clear, as long as we don’t question whether we can honor our country’s values and burn its flag at the same time.

Pledging to the Constitution is a lot harder. The Constitution - especially the Bill of Rights - is a legal contract promising to defend several of our rights, including free speech, the free practice of religion, free press, and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. It tells us what rights we have, and who gets to enjoy them.

Over two centuries after the Bill of Rights was ratified, these rights are still controversial, and we are still fighting over them. Issues ranging from free speech zones to taking knees at football games, black lives matter to body cams, can easily be traced back to the question of what the Constitution means and who it protects.

Many of the historical figures we honor today - including people like Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez - fought to extend the Constitution’s protections to more US citizens. But, while we honor them, many of us also attack other people - like Colin Kaepernick - who are similarly engaging in dignified, nonviolent protest aimed at extending civil rights. To a great extent, this dissonance is likely a matter of historic hindsight - after all, it’s a lot easier to honor a historical figure than a current firebrand. Still, I wonder if some of it also might be the question of what, exactly, we are pledging allegiance to.

Your Challenge:

How would pledging allegiance to the Constitution change the way we view our place in this country? How would it change our relationship to our government? Would it affect the way we see voting? Would it change the way we see protesters or our fellow citizens? Would it change our understanding of our shared nation?

Subject: Honoring the Good and Bad in Our History

Forum: Honoring the Good and Bad in Our History
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for American history and for the way that we memorialize it. But rather than rehashing last week’s events in Charlottesville, VA, I’d like to find out what you think about our shared history and the way that we address it.

For me, this is a complicated question -- my family fought for the North in the Civil War, but I grew up in the South. As a kid, I spent hours camping out on battlefields, listening to mythical tales about the South, yet still very much aware of my own relatives who fought for the other side. Growing up, I never had a problem with statues honoring Confederate soldiers - I saw them as an attempt to heal the wounds left behind after the war.

I later learned that I was wrong: most of those statues were built in the 1920’s, long after the majority of Civil War soldiers were dead. Memorials to a mythical South that never really existed, they were a rallying point for a host of racist groups - including the KKK - that were in the process of gaining power. In that context, it’s hard to defend their inclusion in our public parks or shared spaces.

But what about statues that honor other flawed leaders? As President Trump pointed out, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - men that we associate with liberty - also held slaves. In fact, 18 Presidents - including Ulysses S. Grant - were slaveholders at some point or another, as were Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and many other founding fathers. For that matter, as some have pointed out, the White House and the Washington Monument were both built with slave labor. Does that history affect the way we see these monuments and the men they honor?

Recently, two people attacked America’s oldest memorial to Christopher Columbus, citing it as a tribute to America’s genocidal heritage. Given Columbus’ association with slavery, it’s a difficult point to argue against. In fact, the further we dig into our national heroes, the more it becomes clear how broadly, and deeply, the stain of slavery and racism goes.

Your Challenge:

Where do you stand on America’s memorials? Should we tear down monuments to our flawed and racist founding fathers? Should we keep some and destroy others? Should we ignore the flaws of our leaders? Or does doing so somehow make those flaws seem like virtues?

Ultimately, what criteria should we use for destroying or maintaining our monuments?

Subject: Wonder Woman and Yesterday's Stupidity

Forum: Wonder Woman and Yesterday's Stupidity
On its opening weekend, Wonder Woman became the highest-grossing movie ever directed by a woman. Two weeks in, it’s the fifth-highest grossing movie of 2017, and its numbers are only growing. It’s a huge victory, not least because studio execs have argued for years that a Wonder Woman movie would be a disaster, claiming that boys would be uninterested in a female hero and girls would be uninterested in a comic book movie. Obviously, they were desperately wrong on both counts.

It’s a hell of a time for being wrong. If you’d asked most people a decade ago about the chances of gay marriage happening - or, for that matter, transgender bathrooms or a TV personality becoming President or renewable power becoming the fastest growing energy segment - the answer might have been not in my lifetime. Yet here we are.

This morning, I read an essay by a man whose uncle argued against interracial marriage in the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case. The author, whose politics are vastly different from his uncle’s, tried to understand how a beloved family member could have defended such an indefensible position. Looking back across the decades, he was struck by his uncle’s blinders, his inability to see where history was headed.

To put it another way, it’s amazing to see how yesterday’s obvious truth becomes tomorrow’s equally obvious stupidity. How the social advance that was never going to happen happened, or how the movie that was never going to get made became a blockbuster. And it’s gotten me thinking: what will tomorrow’s obvious stupidity be?

Your Challenge:

Imagine yourself 20 years in the future. Which of today’s truths do you think will be upended? What unimaginable advancement or social change will come to pass? In short, which of today’s realities will seem unreal to the people of tomorrow?

Subject: How Should We Fight the Next World War?

Forum: How Should We Fight the Next World War?
In the list of international crimes, most people rank political tampering far below invasion, assassination, or other acts of war. Then again, there's not always a hard line between these crimes.

Take the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the event that sparked World War I. On one level, it was an assassination; on another it was external interference in the internal politics of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In later decades - domestic political manipulation through assassination, vote tampering, outside funding, or other means became a key tool of Soviet/American conflict.

Vladimir Putin has pretty clearly dusted off this gem from the Cold War playbook. At this point, we’ve moved past arguing about whether Russia interfered in the last US election; now we’re just arguing about how much Russian hacking undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And, in the wake of Macron’s win over LePen in France, it’s come out that Putin was messing around in that election, too. In fact, experts argue that Russian hacking is actually increasing, and worry that Putin is already laying the groundwork to sway German and British elections.

So we’ve basically got an authoritarian leader using an army of highly-trained experts to exert influence on the internal politics of foreign countries. He has specifically targeted the countries and political leaders that most clearly threaten his plans to expand his influence in Europe and Central Asia, and his moves, in general, are encouraging the rise of similarly authoritarian, undemocratic leaders.

In one context, Putin’s moves are reminiscent of Stalin, Mao, and other dictators from the last century. The rise of authoritarianism, the slow spread of provocations, the lack of a firm response from the Democratic west…it all seems strangely, disturbingly familiar to students of World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, and other 20th century conflicts.

Your Challenge

If history is any indication, you will be called upon to fight this war, and its economic and political impact will fall most heavily on your shoulders. With that in mind, what do you think the West should do? Should we amp up our own tampering efforts? Should we fund resistance movements in Russia and Ukraine? Should we attack Russia in the UN? Invade it? Blockade its ports? Should we follow the rules of old wars? Create new ones? If you had a voice in choosing the rules of cyberwar, what would they be?

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