The Vipers are Winning

From the 1920’s on, certain jazz musicians were known to smoke cannabis before playing, as it is a performance-enhancing drug for musicians. It reduces creative inhibition to some extent, opens up the flow of emotion, allows for a richer experience of sound, and most crucially, it slows the perception of time, allowing for quicker or more considerate improvisation.

The musicians who relied heavily on cannabis were called “vipers,” and you can get a great look at their culture by reading Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow. He was a Jewish convert to Blackness, about equally well-known for his clarinet playing and for selling joints in jazz clubs. (Youtube, of course, is populated with viper songs probably posted in violation of copyright, for which reason I would never, ever encourage you to listen to them.)

Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, kept a file on “Musicians and Marijuana” and persecuted jazz vipers to the best of his ability. He ran into certain areas of resistance, such as a unionized Hollywood that refused to narc out its people, and a flood of hate mail that resulted when he told the U.S. Senate that he needed more agents to hunt musicians — “And I don’t mean good musicians — I mean jazz musicians.”

The war on marijuana has never been anything but cultural: waged by people who don’t like the music, don’t like Mexicans and “Negroes,” don’t like tie-dye or long hair on men, etc. Other prohibited drugs are known to cause problems for their users and neighborhoods, but marijuana is conspicuously safer than alcohol or even caffeine. Many people have been imprisoned or had careers ruined over an argument about which cup of tea.

The futile fight against the vipers is breaking down today. The curtains are closing on the culture of sneering at pot.

The mainstream and wildly popular Hollywood gossip news agency TMZ has a history of following celebrities around, “catching” them smoking pot, and snickering about it. Sometimes a celebrity catches punishment for some stupid blunder like trying to take weed on the plane, and then TMZ’s staffers will blame the victim. (It adds insult to injury, but they also mean to discourage stupidity in this way.)

Yesterday, May 28 2014, marked a major breakthrough in the struggle for marijuana acceptance (and thus legalization.)

TMZ ran a sad story regarding a video leak of clean-cut boy-band One Direction smoking a blunt in their SUV as they drove to the airport to leave Peru. At one point Louis passed the blunt to Zayn and said “One very very important factor of Zayn’s warm up of course is Mary J, herself.” (Confirmed: Zayn, at least, is a viper.) The sad part of this story is that One Direction slammed the leaker but had no comment on their recreational and artistic use of marijuana. To paraphrase, “How dare you expose us for behavior that is perfectly moral and healthy?”

When a caller to “TMZ Live” said that medical marijuana laws were to blame for young people like One Direction smoking pot, the TMZ staff cut her off the line. Host Harvey Levin declared that in 10 years pot will be fully legal and the fans who are upset at One Direction now will probably be smoking down themselves.

In an awesome story, Linkin Park’s staff called a local sheriff to report that their fellow musicians Sublime with Rome were in possession of marijuana. (Sublime with Rome is the band Sublime with a new front-man, following the death of Bradley Nowell. Their music in influenced by rock, rap, and reggae, all of which embrace cannabis.) Sublime returned backstage after their set and found their weed and rolling papers confiscated. The sheriff left a note telling them to come down to the station to pick it up –“P.S. — it’s a trap!”

Rome explained that Sublime plays their shows after consuming at least a half a joint each, making them true vipers. TMZ’s staff took the tone that the narcing was the outrage — how could any rock musician betray the rock culture of smoking pot? Levin declared, “it’s like wine!”

Brad Delson, Linkin Park’s guitarist who wears a giant sound-deadening headset on stage, apparently complained about Sublime’s weed smoking to his security crew, who called the sheriff. Linkin Park claims that they offered to replace the weed but Rome Ramirez claims that all they want is either an apology or their weed back.

This is the first marijuana controversy ever to revolve around the question of whether someone will have their weed returned.

About TMZ: TMZ is more progressive than any other news program in both their editorial views and their format, which allows contribution from the drones in the background on their computers and takes some meaningful comments from viewers. I’m sure that they are only able to get away with this because they are “not serious.”

Cannabis is part of music, and among the many reasons that persecuting it is wrong, this is a free speech issue. People need to be free to change the texture of their consciousness in order to think and act freely. When people identify with the artists instead of the cops, we are getting close to ending the long and pointless war on vipers.

Swear Proudly

It was not until 1972 that the Oxford English Dictionary finally included the words “fuck” and “cunt.” The National Campaign for Real Swearing issued a statement: “We’d be a bunch of lying cunts if we didn’t say that we were totally fucking delighted.”

Why wouldn’t scholars of English acknowledge these two words from the OED’s origins circa 1895 until 1972?

Because they were scared. Someone who hated swearing would open up the dictionary, go straight to the entry for “cunt,” and then become terribly angry at the cartographers of the English language because they, too, had an interest in this word “cunt.” There would be a campaign for censorship, and the British parliament might well be pressured into shutting the dictionary down. There could be book burnings. All because some people get off on hating the words “fuck” and “cunt” (apparently, many, many people hate the human body. Not only sexual but even excretory words can be outcast into the cussing category.)

“Cunt” and “fuck” are two of the most ancient swears in English, with cognates in the Germanic and Scandinavian languages. At first, they were neutral or slightly vulgar words with no power to shock.

In the year 1230, with Europe locked under the control of an anti-fornication Catholic Church, many English towns featured a street named “Gropecunt” or “Gropecuntlane.” That is where the prostitutes were to be found, due to the economics of neighborhoods and downtowns, or because local law restricted them to one street. Now, this may not be a utopian dreamworld of sexual freedom, as some of the hookers were doubtless poor women with no other options, but still…

1) Gropecunt Lane is a decidedly more pleasant street than Shite-burn Lane or Pissing Alley.

2) If you visited a town where the street signs said things like “Grab-a-titty Avenue,” you’d relax knowing that it was safe to use any kind of language.

Over the late medieval period, a few new Gropecunt Lanes were established, but others had their names censored to Grape Lane and the like. A long stretch of sexual tightening-up was happening, culminating in the Victorian Era, when piano legs were covered up as maybe too sensual and anti-masturbation devices were a boom industry. Half a century before the Victorian Era even got started, Francis Grose wrote “A Classical Dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue” (1785) and listed the c-word as “C**T: a nasty name for a nasty thing.” This revulsion is utterly irrational, as even strict Bible adherents accept that cunts may be a source of pleasure inside the bounds of God-and-church-approved marital bliss.

Yet, revulsion for all that lies below the waist cannot explain all the swears. In her book “Holy Sh*t,” Melissa Mohr explains how harmless words like “bloody” were imbued with the power to shock and offend:

The 18th and 19th centuries’ embrace of linguistic delicacy and extreme avoidance of taboo bestowed great power on those words that broached taboo topics directly, freely revealing what middle-class society was trying so desperately to conceal. Under these conditions of repression, obscene words finally came fully into their own. They began to be used in nonliteral ways, and so became not just words that shocked and offended but words with which people could swear…

From Farner and Henley’s 1890-1904 “Slang and its Analogues:”

[“Bloody” is] an epithet difficult to define, and used in a multitude of vague and varying senses. Most frequently, however, as it falls with wearisome reiteration every two or three seconds from the mouths of London roughs of the lowest type, no special meaning, much less a sanguinary one, can be attached to its use. In such a case it forms a convenient intensitive, sufficiently important as regards sound to satisfy those whose lack of language causes them to fall back upon a frequent use of words of this type.

The lower-class British were swearing up storms to make their language more intense and offensive to higher-class Brits. This was a period in which workers had to be polite to their bosses, but bosses could be rude to their employees. Thus, rudeness was a way of letting off steam, even a comfort (“I’m amongst my own people and I don’t have to watch my mouth.”). The upper classes assumed that the lower classes swore because they were mean and stupid, as illustrated by Julian Sherman’s 1884 “Cursory History of Swearing” and its commentary about “bloody”:

We cannot disguise to ourselves that there is much in its unfortunate associations to render its occurrence still exceedingly painful. Originating in a senseless freak of language, it has by dint of circumstances become so noisome and offensive … Dirty drunkards hiccup it as they wallow on ale-house floors. Morose porters bandy it about on quays and landing-stages. From the low-lying quarters of the towns the word buzzes in your ear with the confusion of a Babel. In the cramped narrow streets you are deafened by its whirr and din, as it rises from the throats of the chaffering multitude, from besotted men defiant and vain-glorious in their drink, from shrewish women hissing out rancour and menace in their harsh querulous talk.

Well, fuck Julian Sherman and the bloody, bloody horse he rode in on. When the medievals were renaming their Gropecunt Lanes, they were merely trying to downplay the prostitution in their towns, not especially objecting to the word “cunt.” But when such words were being freely used by the working class and poor, consciously flouting middle-class conventions, that really burned people up and established certain words as worse than vulgar: profane or obscene.

It’s also popular to use words that annoy the pious. You can take the Lord’s name in vain or wish damnation on someone. I try to avoid the blasphemous swears, because I am not Christian and so I’m blaspheming someone else’s religion (but anyone who had to go to church as a kid has good reason to use the blasphemous curses.)

All in all, swearing represents a defiant recognition of human sexuality and other aspects of the body; it represents class awareness and struggle; and it represents rebellion against repressive church influence. Supporting sexuality, the lower classes, and spiritual liberation with the magic words is against “civility,” in the sense that civility means deference to one’s oppressors. Of course, there are times to protect the haters with euphemisms, but remember that the problem is with their snobbish ears, not your sailor’s tongue.

Thanks to the intense disapproval of the wealthy, pious, and body-hating, swearing relieves acute pain and presumably other stresses. In a karmic twist, those looking down their noses imbued the words of the downtrodden with true power. (But, the effect is more powerful the less frequently you swear.) Swearing is not just good for self-expression, it’s good for your entire body.

Swearing is healthy and in all cases expresses support for liberty against repression. So swear proudly. Swear for your sanity, swear for your love of humanity. Fuck yeah.

Avril Lavigne crossed the White Line (and must be punished)

Everyone take a huff off of your helium tank, here comes Avril Lavigne with “Hello Kitty”:

So, of course, she was accused of racism. This caught my attention while watching “TMZ Live,” the greatest news program on cable television. At first I heard that she had faked a Japanese accent, which struck me as perhaps racist caricaturing. But upon watching the video, I realized that the Japanese accent was applied only to the Japanese lyrics. So she is merely guilty of being a crappy Japanese speaker, which is definitely not racist.

The second charge of racism is that the Lavigne is using caricatured Asian background dancers as mindless props. Apparently those making the charges are almost completely unaware other pop music videos, whose background dancers are generally dressed in absurd costumes (one might say “caricatures,”) are sometimes expressionless or masked, and act as mindless props to glorify the singing star (like the triangle of dancing zombies behind Michael Jackson in “Thriller.”) This charge of racism is weak, although I cannot definitively disprove that Avril Lavigne might harbor subconscious fantasies of being flanked by Asian sidekicks.

Thirdly, Lavigne is accused of co-opting or appropriating Japanese culture. Lavigne-detrator Amanda Duberman refers to a Lauren Duca piece for an explanation of cultural appropriation: “Cultural appropriation refers to picking and choosing elements of a culture by a member of another culture without permission. This includes traditional knowledge, religious symbols, artifacts or any other unauthorized use of cultural practice or ideation.” Lest we  not understand that cultural appropriation is a sin, Duca asks “Is it always racist?” and answers herself “Of course, racism varies in extremity… Borrowing from another culture is most problematic when it plucks from a minority group (especially one that has been exploited or otherwise oppressed). Using aspects of another culture from a position of privilege is a means of additional exploitation in that it disregards the shared experiences that led to the development of the culture in question and uses ideas and traditions for their benefit.”

I can appreciate wanting to avoid cultural appropriation as far as ripping off the specifically sacred, like religious symbols. Don’t use other folks’ sacred stuff without enough knowledge to be sure you are doing so in a respectful way — otherwise you might offend somebody. Also, don’t promote racist caricatures, like Cleveland Indians paraphernalia. Sometimes minority artists have not gotten their share of the accolades and/or money. There are some legitimate concerns around this idea of cultural appropriation.

However: Because some whites have enjoyed privilege over some people of just about every other race on this planet for some time over the last 500 years, cultural appropriation as Duca has defined it draws a line around white people, who are effectively banned from using any cultural elements from beyond the line. If we use memes from beyond the line, we are automatically using racist privilege to exploit the Other, unless we have somehow obtained authorization from the minority group in question (perhaps by requesting permission from each and every member of the group).

This rule calls for whites or other privileged groups to maintain ethnic purity in their culture. A white is singing the blues? Cultural appropriation, stealing music from the Blacks with no respect for your shared history (even though black and white musicians have been trading licks since before slavery ended). A white is doing Indian cooking at home? Who gave you permission to pick and choose amongst India’s many cuisines? That’s racist, to some degree. Better stick to classical music and homestyle cooking. Remain within the white line.

Avril Lavigne was self-consciously putting together an homage to Japanese pop culture and her Japanese fans. According to Duberman and Duca, this was a doomed mission, as any use of ideas circulating in Japanese pop culture would be an exertion of racist privilege. I am curious as to how the Huffpost authors perceive the culpability of the video’s Japanese choreographer and director. Are they merely pimping their culture to the more powerful (because white) Lavigne? Apparently their authorization was not sufficient to permit Lavigne’s use of Japanese memes.

If white people sometimes act in non-white ways, that would seem to aid the survival of memes that did not originate in a white culture. A rule that automatically labels whites acting in non-white ways as racists is decidedly contrary to such a purpose. Let’s not throw Avril Lavigne in the stocks just for crossing the white line; I don’t believe that that is aiding the development of the world’s cultural mix or doing anything for Japanese people, either. I don’t see a demand for ethnic conformity as a real challenge to white privilege, for that matter.

You may still be thinking that Avril Lavigne is being racist by making Japanese pop culture out to be something cartoonish and ridiculous. This is an innocent mistake, and further exposure to the culture in question will reveal to you that it can be cartoonish and ridiculous all on its own (also note the dehumanized background dancer):