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.

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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):