— Alistair Wood

I’m on home territory for this self-inflicted book report. So this one is even less of a reflection of the actual contents of the book than these usually are.

Things Ralph is Right About

The Best Tuning is aDF#B

Every ukulele sounds better in this tuning. You get a little bit of extra pop when you tune your strings up a tone. My pre-Uke Hunt videos are mostly in D-tuning (I think). And it handles the key of E more easily than C tuning.

The downside is that it’s a pain in the arse to play in the key of C on a D-tuned ukulele. That makes learning theory much more tricky. And, of course, all modern ukulele instruction material is written for C tuning.

Read: How to Tune Your Hammock


By far the most neglected aspect of ukulele playing. And it’s so simple to achieve. I should talk about this much more often.

Read: Make Your Ukulele Into a Piano-Forte

Teaching Kids to Love Music

Kids should be discouraged from making any sort of art and mocked for any attempt at self expression. And for the love of God keep ukuleles out of schools.

Read: Getting Kids Interested in Music.

Ukuleles Aren’t ‘Plinky’

Or they shouldn’t be. If you’re ukulele sounds plinky it means you’ve got a crappy ukulele or you’re playing it in a plinky manner.

Read: How John Keats Would Choose a Ukulele

Tune Your Bloody Ukulele

Read: Tuning Avoidance Techniques


Ralph proposes ‘Sithee’ as the Yorkshireman’s alternative to ‘Aloha’. This, I like a lot. I don’t feel comfortable using Hawaiian language and pronunciations. I would be much less self conscious using phrases inherited from my dad like ‘sithee’, ‘ey up’ and – the baffling to me – ‘See you anon‘.

I have toyed with the idea of using more Yorkshirisms on the blog. But the Americans that visit are already thrown by many of the English-isms I use.

Read: Sithee – the Yorkshire Aloha

From Blog to Book

I’ve regularly referred to Ralph’s blog as the best ukulele blog on the internet. And The Ukulele Entertainer is a collection of Ralph’s blog posts. So I should have loved it. But I didn’t. I found it very hard to read.

I – like most people who’ve done a blog for any amount of time – have thought about sticking a bunch of them together and calling it a book. But reading this had made me think it’s going to take a whole lot more effort than that to get something worthwhile.

Here are some things that are different in the two media:

Pacing and Rhythm

I think this is what made the book so hard to read.

A blog post has its own rhythm over, usually, a few hundred words. There are a few general formulas for writing blog posts – like Problem-Cause-Solution-Implementation – that are very effective. They make for a short read that solves a small problem quickly. You read one and you feel like you’ve learned something useful in a short time.

Ralph uses structures that will be familiar to anyone following blogs. And it works very well in blog format. But when they’re together in a book it feels like being bombarded.

Idea Size and Arc

I don’t think there’s any problem with a book that is split into blog-sized chunks. But they do need to work together to provide some momentum towards understanding a bigger idea.

That’s why Andrew Dubber’s 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online works. Even though it was a collection of blog posts, it was conceived as a whole and each of the pieces fit within the overall theme and argument of the book.

But Ralph’s book doesn’t have anything that connects the various bits on the various subjects. It didn’t really feel like you’re progressing. While it makes for a good blog, it felt a bit unfocussed as a book.

With either a blog or a book you need an idea you can take away with you. Having lots of little ideas bundled together doesn’t add up to one big idea. I think if there had been a philosophy that stretched across all the areas it would have felt more satisfying.

Read More

I’ve long been a fan of Seth Godin’s books and – despite having no intention of having kids – am very interested in alternative schooling. He’s hit on the topic in passing a few times before, so I was very excited when he put out a book on the subject. And he is giving it away free. You can download it in various formats here.


The ideas in Stop Stealing Dreams follow on from Seth’s books We Are All Weird and Brainwashed. These few quotes from those set up the main thrust of Stop Stealing Dreams very nicely.

Our culture needed compliant workers, people who would contribute without complaint, and we set out to create as many of them as we could. And so generations of students turned into generations of cogs—factory workers in search of a sinecure. We were brainwashed into fitting in, and then discovered that the economy wanted people who stood out instead. When exactly were we brainwashed into believing that the best way to earn a living is to have a job? I think each one of us needs to start with that.

If you have to educate four million new students every year you really have no choice but to see them at a distance… They deal with this by optimizing for normal.

Don’t waste a lot of time and money pushing kids in directions they don’t want to go. Instead find out what weirdness they excel at and encourage them to do that. Then get out of the way.

What I care a great deal about though is each human’s ability to express her art. To develop into the person she is able to become… I care about freedom. The ability to express yourself until it impinges on someone else’s happiness.

Where I Start

Being a big fan of Seth Godin, John Taylor Gatto and Ken Robinson, I don’t need any convincing that schools are dangerously out of step with the modern world and have to change.

I’m a big fan of unschooling (or autodidacticism if you want a fancy, more OFSTED-pleasing way of putting it). That isn’t necessarily incompatible with a school environment but is incompatible with any sort of coercion into how, what and whether a child studies.

What I really need convincing of is that it’s possible for schools to be reformed. And if it is possible whether that would be preferable to homeschooling.

Why do Schools Promote Conformity?

I completely agree with Seth that the major outcome of school isn’t creating brighter people who take joy in learning and developing but more compliant, average and docile workers.

One of my clearest memories of school was from when I was 8 or 9. The class was doing some sort of cut-and-paste art project and the bad kids were being punished with maths. I pointed out – to my friends – that I’d rather be maths. The teacher overheard and got very angry with me. Much more angry than he was with the kids who had misbehaved. It took me a long time to figure out what was going on there but that is the moment that shaped my opinion on schools.

Carter G Woodson put it best in The Mis-Education of the Negro

When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.

So we on agree on what schools have become. But I’m not convinced by his argument that they were started with that goal in mind. Seth, like John Taylor Gatto, firmly believes that schools were set up with the goal of conformity in mind. But they don’t present enough evidence to convince me that’s how it happened in the US.

And that’s not how it seems to have happened in the UK. In the early days industrialists were keen to keep workers stupid. Here are the thoughts of Tory (surprise) MP Davies Giddy in 1807 (quoted by Derek Gillard in Education in England):

However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching them the virtue of subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as is evident in the manufacturing counties; it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors…

The Board of Education in the UK was surprisingly enlightened when it was first set up. This from 1918 (again from Derek Gillard in Education in England):

The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire to see in the teaching of Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable. But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use.

I think the school system started out with the best of intentions but has ossified and inevitably moved towards uniformity. Catering towards the average and ensuring a minimum standard (and no more). It came about because it’s the most efficient way of processing such a huge number of children in mass.

This is part of the reason I’m skeptical about the ability of schools to reform in the huge way that Seth is proposing. Government will never be able to cope with teaching children on an individual basis. It’ll always need to rely on the aggregate. It’ll always need test scores to check which schools are doing well and which aren’t.

What Should Schools and Teachers Be For?

If children are going to be setting their own path in education, then what are teachers and schools for? I think the best thing a school could ever do is give a child the courage to risk doing their best work and putting it out into the world. Or as Seth puts it:

A teacher can also serve to create a social contract or environment where people will change their posture, do their best work, and stretch in new directions.

But at the moment schools don’t trade in courage but in fear:

The shortcut to compliance, then, isn’t to reason with someone, to outline the options, and to sell a solution. No, the shortcut is to induce fear, to activate the amygdala. Do this or we’ll laugh at you, expel you, tell your parents, make you sit in the corner. Do this or you will get a bad grade, be suspended, never amount to anything. Do this or you are in trouble.

I know when I finished education I was completely crippled by fear. It took me nearly a decade for me to be able to start doing my own thing the way I thought it should be done. Even that I only did it because I didn’t have any other choice.

Can things be done differently?

Can risk-taking be taught? Of course it can. It gets taught by mentors, by parents, by great music teachers, and by life.

Being a bit slow and someone who has never had someone teach them risk-taking, I’d have liked a bit more explanation than, “of course it can.”

If You Want Kids to Be Passionate, You Don’t Get to Decide What They’re Passionate About

This quote got me so angry I actually went on a run and ran rather than my usual stumbling jog:

We can teach kids to engage in poetry, to write poetry, and to demand poetry—or we can take a shortcut and settle for push-pin, YouTube, and LOLcats.

What sort of bollocks is that?

I understand it’s metaphorical. But still I can’t fathom what it’s doing in this book.

I would be very happy for a child to spend a year reading LOLcats if they chose to. If anything, humour requires a more complex thought process to appreciate than poetry. To understand LOLcats a child would have to be confident enough with language to decode the LOLcat dialect, and they’d need an exceptionally deep knowledge of popular culture and, what do you know, poetry. And LOLcats and YouTube practically demand that you get involved in them yourself. I’ve always found poetry too intimidatingly intellectual to do it myself.

I’m pretty skeptical of the idea of a great teacher who can turn up and Dead Poets’ Society an entire classroom. It might be because I never had one of these great teachers. I had plenty of good teachers who could make me interested in a subject. But never one that could make me passionate about something I didn’t already care about. I did have a fair few that could kill passion, though.

I think a great teacher can awaken a passion within a student. But I don’t think they can put one there when there isn’t one. And I think it’s much more powerful when people discover their own passions and are able to follow them. Whether that passion is regarded as high art, low art or not art at all.

School or Homeschooling?

I think this is the best argument Seth has for actively interfering in a child’s development:

What we can’t do, though, is digitize passion. We can’t force the student to want to poke around and discover new insights online. We can’t merely say, “here,” and presume the students will do the hard (and scary) work of getting over the hump and conquering their fears. Without school to establish the foundation and push and pull and our students, the biggest digital library in the world is useless.

He puts forward three reasons why this is better done in school than in the home.

1. The learning curve. “Without experience, new teachers are inevitably going to make the same mistakes, mistakes that are easily avoided the tenth time around… which most home educators will never get to.”

2. The time commitment. “The cost of one parent per student is huge — and halving it for two kids is not nearly enough. Most families can’t afford this, and few people have the patience to pull it off.”

3. Providing a different refuge from fear. “This is the biggest one, the largest concern of all. If the goal of the process is create a level of fearlessness, to create a free-range environment filled with exploration and all the failure that entails, most parents just don’t have the guts to pull this off. It’s one thing for a caring and trained professional to put your kids through a sometimes harrowing process; it’s quite another to do it yourself.”

I have to concede number two is true. I realise I’m in the unusual position of my job being to wake up in the morning and do whatever I want all day. Most people don’t have the flexibility to homeschool.

Number one I think isn’t true. It makes the mistake this book is supposed to be banishing. It assumes the the tenth time is going to be like the ninth time, which was like the eighth time. What’s a mistake for one child isn’t a mistake for another. Parents will make mistakes but they will learn from them much more quickly and be flexible enough to change. This article talks about how parents usually start homeschooling by recreating school in the home but quickly move to a more suitable way of teaching.

Number three is a tricky one. It’s not at all clear to me that parents are lacking the guts to, “create a free-range environment filled with exploration and all the failure that entails.” There are no shortage of examples of parents who are willing to test a child’s ability by expecting great things from them. And there are no shortage of teachers who are not willing to test a child beyond putting a piece of paper in front of them and making them regurgitate facts.

What Would a Good School Look Like?

Seth doesn’t go into much detail about how he’d like schools to function. This is one of his more concrete proposals:

Some courses I’d like to see taught in school: How old is the Earth? What’s the right price to pay for this car? Improv. How to do something no one has ever done before. Design and build a small house. Advanced software interface design.

I still have an issue with the idea of ‘teaching’. Of those only, “How to do something no one has ever done before,” and improv would I happily see courses in (UPDATE: I’m reliably informed that improv classes are more likely to instill fear than help overcome it). Both are focused on building courage in the face of fear. The others are all fine pursuits but not suited to being taught in courses. They’re better tackled by the student following their own course and asking for expert guidance where they need it.

On a more organisational level, he proses this:

One option is smaller units within schools, less industrial in outlook, with each unit creating its own varieties of leaders and citizens. The other is an organization that understands that size can be an asset, but only if the organization values customization instead of fighting it.

He also mentions a few schools including Sudbury Valley School. This and similar schools like the Brooklyn Free School are based on the Summerhill School (an independent school set up in the UK in 1921).

Summerhill has not had a happy ride with the government. After a savage OFSTED report in 2000 the government tried to close it down and was only stopped by a High Court ruling. But it did get a much more positive report in 2007 which gives hopes to the idea schools not fitting the strict criteria of OFSTED will be allowed to survive.

I do like these schools. Watching the video on the Sudbury Valley site I would almost be willing to send a child of my own there. Whether schools like these – barely tolerated outside the state system – could ever become accepted within the system I’m not sure.

Where I Finish

There’s a lot I agree with in this book. And plenty that’s got me thinking.

There’s still no way I’d be willing to send a child of mine to a state-run school. But I have come around slightly to the idea that schools have a place and purpose in helping a child tackle their own fear and encouraging to face up to these and do what they want to do.

I do hope reform of school is possible. I do think the state will become more relaxed about allowing variety in teaching outside the state system. But I’m very worried that mainstream schools are just going to stay as they are. Leaving them most harmful for the children who most need them to be helpful.

John Taylor Gatto in Dumbing Us Down:

Discovering meaning for yourself as well as discovering satisfying purpose for yourself, is a big part of what education is. How this can be done by locking children away from the world is beyond me.

Read More

It’s hard to move in music without coming into contact with some form of cultural appropriation. But I only starting thinking seriously about it while I was writing Ukulele for Dummies. Part of the Dummies style is to include a bit of musical stereotyping in the intro to each chapter (the classical chapter includes, “So put on your best suit or classiest frock because you’re going to the concert hall!). That’s not my style so it was all added by the editors. I was fine with it in most chapters but when the Hawaiian chapter started talking about grass skirts I got decidedly uncomfortable and made sure it was taken out.

But it made me realise that I had taken part in cultural appropriation and included Hawaiian tunes in the book. And made me wonder whether that was harmful as well.

So the subject of cultural appropriation in music has been on my mind a lot lately.

Being a bit slow and generally insensitive, I looked round for a book to educate me and Cultural Appropriation and the Arts by James O. Young fitted the bill. Plus it’s published by Wiley who have a history of hiring handsome authors who know what they’re talking about.

This isn’t a proper overview of the book. I’ve taken the sections that I found interesting and thrown in thoughts of my own and examples from music that came to mind.

The Definition of Cultural Appropriation Used

Even the definition of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a thorny area. Here I’ll stick to the one Young uses. He uses a broader and more objective definition of cultural appropriation than some do. Letting it be any act where use is made of something from a different culture. He doesn’t require that it be a dominant culture taking from a minority culture. And he doesn’t separate out ‘bad’ cultural appropriation and ‘good’ cultural exchange or cultural borrowing.

Types of Cultural Appropriation

One of the most useful aspects of the book is his division of appropriation into these categories:

1. Object Appropriation

Taking a physical object from a culture. The most famous example in this country would be the Elgin marbles. Taken from the Parthenon in Athens and winding up in the British Museum.

But object appropriation isn’t always by theft. If you buy a locally-made souvenir on holiday and bring it home, that’s object appropriation. There’s also an issue here of how important a particular work is to the culture. The Parthenon sculptures obviously being a culturally more important work.

Since music isn’t a physical object, this one isn’t a big consideration. But – at a stretch – the northern soul collectors from England buying up second-hand records in the US and taking them home would be object appropriation. Not much of a consideration for records where thousands of copies are available. But perhaps more of a consideration when there are only one or two original copies in existence such as Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). Even so, the music is available to anyone on CD or on the net (and I highly recommend you take advantage of that in this case).

2. Content Appropriation

When an artist makes, “significant use of an idea first expressed in the work of an artist of a different culture.” There’s no shortage of examples in music. Whenever an act covers a song from a different culture, it’s content appropriation.

Like object appropriation, this can be done while crediting the original author or without (for example, when Malcolm McLaren pilfered the Boyoyo Boys’s Puleng on Double Dutch or Led Zeppelin ripping off any number of blues songs). That makes a difference legally and morally but both are content appropriation.

3. Style Appropriation

Producing, “works with stylistic elements in common with the works of another culture.” Plenty of examples of this in music too. Anyone who isn’t African American who writes a blues song or who isn’t Caribbean and writes a reggae song is using style appropriation.

Style appropriation is always legal but can still cause a big ruckus. For example, indigenous Australians are very protective of their style of painting and its symbols. As demonstrated by the fallout when Prince Harry appropriated aboriginal art for his A-Levels. There isn’t the same level of offense accorded to musical appropriation, even religious works – I don’t think anyone gets upset about rugby fans singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. But music by outsiders in genres like blues and hip-hop is often accused of being less ‘real’.

4. Motif Appropriation

Not working in the style of another culture but being influenced by it and using basic motifs. Like rock and roll using similar elements to blues.

There’s a blurry line between style appropriation and motif appropriation. For example, Fool’s Gold’s Surprise Hotel wears its Afropop influence so heavily it could almost have been made by an African band. Vampire Weekend’s Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa is very much in the Kwassa Kwassa style but contains elements you wouldn’t hear in an insider song. And their song Cousins contains some Afropop guitar motifs but couldn’t have been made by anyone but hipster kids.

5. Subject Appropriation

When another culture is included in a work of art. So the depiction of Native Americans in westerns to take a particularly egregious example.

In music, subject appropriation often goes together with style appropriation. The mock Hawaiian songs Tin-Pan Alley produced such as Ukulele Lady spring to mind.

Strictly speaking, it’s not cultural appropriation at all since nothing is taken from another culture. That’s not to say it isn’t harmful. Negative portrayal of a different culture can be more harmful than any of the other forms of appropriation.

Does Cultural Appropriation Always Suck?

There’s no denying that a great deal of culturally appropriated art sucks. And the suck ratio tends to be much higher than the suck ratio of inside artists. But it’s far from always the case. It’s common for insiders to acknowledge the talent of outsiders in their own music.

Miles Davis thought highly enough of, white pianist, Bill Evans to include him in his band including on the cornerstone album Kind of Blue. There’s an interesting article here about the tensions and harmony between those two. In contrast, it’s hard to imagine a more friendly meetup than the one between Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King.

Harm vs. Offense

The books sets out a very useful distinction between harm and offense.

People who have been harmed are unable to pursue their interests and projects to the same extent as they could prior to being harmed. When one is offended, one is in a state of mind that one dislikes.

That’s a useful rebuke to the ‘political correctness gone mad’ types who insist people shouldn’t get offended so easily. Perpetuating stereotypes isn’t taking offense, it’s causing actual harm.

Does Cultural Appropriation Cause Harm?

Harmful Misrepresentation

When another culture is misrepresented in a way that is harmful – usually perpetuating stereotypes. There’s a lot of this goes on and I do think it can be genuinely harmful.

This is the type of appropriation that was the subject of the ‘We’re a culture, not a costume’ posters. There’s a difference here between the costumes in those posters and people appropriating styles of dress from other cultures (e.g. wearing a feather in their hair or moccasins) which isn’t a representation of the culture and so doesn’t harm it in this way.

In music, harmful misrepresentation is often the result of mockery (joke-rap springs to mind) but attempts to celebrate another culture can be just as harmful. Tiki culture is supposed to be a celebration of the islands but if you listened to the music you’d expect Hawaii to be entirely populated by enticing, nubile women.

The majority/minority dynamic makes a difference here. A minority culture misrepresenting a majority culture isn’t going to do much harm – people are going to have more direct experience of the majority culture and that culture is more able to rebuff misconceptions. When a majority culture misrepresents a minority culture, the harm is going to be much greater.

Another way artists can misrepresent a culture is by sucking so badly it makes people think less of that culture. So, for example, the first time someone hears jazz it’s a Kenny G record and they decide they hate all jazz. Young argues this:

If they are so incompetent, it is unlikely they will have much of an audience. If they are incompetent, and still have a large audience, likely the audience members do not think very poorly of the culture from which the artist appropriates.

Which suggests he isn’t familiar with Vanilla Ice. Audience members aren’t the only ones who will hear the act (and it ignores those whose enjoyment is ironic). I think a shitty outsider artist can reflect badly on a genre and put people off (although so can shitty insider artists and it’s hard to see a lack of talent as a moral failing). But on the whole I think everyone can accept that are talentless performers in any genre and are particularly ready to distinguish between insider artists and outsider artists.

Economic Opportunity

The argument here is that appropriating artists can crowd out the insider artists. So the audience for a culture will shift and the insider will be left with no audience. This argument is very spurious. This isn’t a zero-sum game. One person in a genre gaining a fan doesn’t mean another artist in the genre loses a fan.

He says that artists aren’t entitled to an audience (which is true) and also that acts get the audience they deserve (which is less true). An act from a majority culture is likely to have a much easier time getting their music promoted.

He’s right that record sales aren’t a zero-sum game, but aspects of the music industry are. Awards are a zero-sum game. Last year’s MOBO awards were dominated by white stage-school girls. Hawaiian musicians campaigned for an end to the Hawaiian Grammy after it was won every year by Daniel Ho (who was born in Hawaii but not of Hawaiian decent and living in LA).

Nevertheless, experience shows that appropriation is likely to increase rather than decrease the fortunes of insider artists. The book gives the example of Paul Simon who undoubtedly brought acts like Ladysmith Black Mambazo to much greater attention.

Sometimes outsiders allow a cultural practice to continue after it has fallen out of favour in its home culture. As soul music fell out of fashion in the US it became massively popular on the Northern Soul scene in the UK. So much so musicians like Edwin Starr and Geno Washington moved here. And probably the most passionate archivist and promoter of soul music was the English Dave Godin. Godin himself though was passionate against appropriation saying of the Rolling Stones, “We were working on behalf of black America and it seemed that they were working on behalf of themselves.”

Minority cultures do face larger barriers to reaching an audience. For example, there’s a huge unwillingness to promote music that isn’t sung in English. But these restrictions are rarely placed there by people appropriating the music.


The argument here is that a minority culture can get swamped by a majority culture’s appropriation. So much so that it destroys the minority culture. There are no shortage of instances of majority cultures destroying minority cultures. And often appropriation of these cultures is going on at the same time. But the idea here is that the appropriation itself degrades the culture as those in the minority culture take on the mutations that the majority culture introduces and the minority culture loses its distinctive traditions.

This put me in mind of Jimi Hendrix who started as a blues and soul guitarist. He was heavily influenced by the psychedelic edge that The Beatles brought to soul and Cream brought to the blues. He absorbed those influences back into his music much to the distaste of some more traditional blues musicians.

I tend to agree with Young that this argument underestimates the strength of minority cultures and their ability to maintain their own tradition. And if the worst example of this I can come up with in music is Jimi Hendrix that’s hardly a damning indictment.

It’s much more common for the appropriating culture to lose touch with its traditions.

Advantages of Cultural Appropriation

The harm of neglect

Ignoring a culture also does harm to a culture. History gets written by the dominant culture and will tend to exclude minority cultures.

It’s this that pissed me off when they printed a list of the top 100 guitarists that included just one person from a non-English speaking country. I find it infuriating that a list can exclude so many of the greatest guitarists ever because they’re from a different culture.

The passion and popularity that an appropriating artist can bring to a minority culture can go a long way to ensuring that culture and its artists are properly recognised.

Appropriation as a counter to colonialism and globalisation

Colonialism in the past, and now globalisation, have resulted in the world-wide erosion and even extinction of cultures… the best artists set up a counter current to these forces.

Many artists who appropriate from a culture are also passionate (and sometimes powerful) advocates for that culture.

Cultural understanding

Cultural appropriation can promote greater understanding between cultures. The mixed race soul and jazz bands in the US were decades ahead of much of the society. Here’s the Wall Street Journal on jazz and the civil rights movement. Appropriation necessarily means finding common ground between two cultures. Finding that common ground will lead to a greater understanding between the cultures.

Profound offense

The most famous cases of profound offense are the reaction of some Muslims to Salman Rushdie’s Santanic Verses and the cartoons of Mohammed printed in a Danish newspaper. The book mentions a follow on from the cartoon saga that I wasn’t aware of. The paper went on to print cartoons of the Holocaust from Iran. The response of Copenhagen’s rabbi was an admirable case of not feeding the trolls: “You know, I’ve seen worse.”

In music, too, offense is usually based in religion. But this is usually restricting insider’s music rather than music in general. For example, the Taliban’s complete restriction on music and Pope Pius XII declaration in the Musica Sacrae of 1955:

Its purpose is to express in human works the infinite divine beauty of which it is, as it were, the reflection. Hence that outworn dictum “art for art’s sake” entirely neglects the end for which every creature is made. Some people wrongly assert that art should be exempted entirely from every rule which does not spring from art itself. Thus this dictum either has no worth at all or is gravely offensive to God Himself, the Creator and Ultimate End.

But there are people who are deeply offended when their music is appropriated. When I mentioned the Hawaiian Grammy bruhaha on Uke Hunt Cyril Pahinui (scion of a family of native Hawaiian musicians) left a comment taking deep offense at Daniel Ho’s appropriation without due respect. Young calls this – using a part of another culture without permission from that culture – ‘consent offense’ and it’s a tricky area. It’s hard to say who has the authority to outsiders to use cultural products.

The problem I see with the offense argument is that – unlike with harm – an entire culture isn’t offended. A culture doesn’t have one mind. The book mentions that some indigenous Australians find women playing the didgeridoo offensive. But certainly not all. The sensibilities of which part of the culture should be respected?

I wouldn’t go as far as Stephen Fry and dismiss taking offense as, “simply a whine.” I’d say, if you’re going to appropriate, be aware of offense you might cause into account and don’t be a dick about it.

What’s My Culture?

I didn’t expect it when I started reading the book, but it really made me consider what my own culture is. Like anyone, I have a lot of cultural affiliations (English, Yorkshireman, Midlander, generation X, nerd). But I identify most strongly with these:

Rock music: When it comes to music, rock music is my culture. I grew up listening to it, it’s strongly linked with the Midlands and it’s what I feel most comfortable playing. Despite some heavy appropriation from blues, jazz and country music, it’s very much its own culture.

Beyond the music, there is a culture beyond it. Even if it doesn’t extend much beyond rebellion and hedonism, it has certainly been an influence on my thing. And so has the Gen X nihilism that was in the rock music around when I was growing up.

Indie culture: I’ve been influenced a great deal by the DIY idea that you should make your own thing without waiting for permission from a corporation or an exam body. And I blame indie culture for me not acting like a profit-maximising entity despite my economics training. Another important aspect of indie culture – which often gets overlooking – is an eagerness to help out and include others who are part of the culture.

Cyberculture: Cyber culture stretches a long way beyond knowing your GGG from FBF and your smh from your fml. There is a way of thinking behind it and a code of ethics.

I haven’t much thought about it before but my morality is closer to cyberculture ethics than anything else. The main tenets of hacker ethics as listed by Steven Levy are:

  1. Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degress, age, race, or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

I think that’s something for a future self-inflicted book report.

Final Word

Young condemns outright the theft of artworks but comes out supporting other areas of cultural appropriation:

Artists from almost every culture are constantly borrowing styles, stories, motifs, and other content from cultures not their own but this borrowing is only rarely wrongfully harmful.

I’d broadly go along with that. This is a useful caveat:

Presumably artists who appropriate content from a culture do so because they find something of value in that culture. This ought to be apparent in all they say and write about the culture from which they borrow.

And, I’d add, the people in that culture. An appropriating artist needs to educate themselves on the culture and its history. They should also acknowledge the debt they owe by supporting the minority culture against external threats to it and promoting funding for this culture’s artists. It also helps if they don’t suck but you can’t have it all.

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Revolutions are exciting and sexy. The Arab Spring has been held up as an example of the democratic spirit triumphing. But the real triumph of democracy is when an election is lost and the previous ruler leaves without a fuss. It’s a surprise it happens at all. And it does happen in Africa. According to the Economist, governments have changed peacefully at the ballot box more than 30 times, “since Benin set the mainland trend in 1991.”

But not in Zimbabwe.

Philip Barclay worked for the British Embassy in Zimbabwe and was an observer of the 2008 election where Mugabe and Zanu-PF were challenged by Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC. Zimbabwe: Years of Hope and Despair follows the run-up to and fall-out from that election.

Did Mugabe Think He Could Win?

It’s a cliche that dictators – sheltered from criticism – start to believe their own hype. But they rarely believe it strongly enough to hold a fair election.

The 2008 election couldn’t be described as ‘fair’ but it was a lot fairer than anyone expected. Barclay is full of praise for the election officials:

Election officials had done much more than simply count votes at individual polling stations. They had totalled up the figures at collation centres and announced the results of local council and House of Assembly elections to the candidates and their agents. So the results in the lower chamber of Parliament were semi-public before the regime had any chance to assess or alter them.

So it was at least fair enough that Mugabe could lose it. And lose it he did.

The most surprising part of the book to me was Mugabe’s reaction to the result:

Mugabe wobbled. He told his advisers he was ready to go, as the people did not want him any more. For two days at the beginning of April he was on the brink of resigning the Presidency.

Mugabe isn’t the only with an interest in staying in power. Those around him have even more to lose. They’ve directly carried out atrocities and – unlike Mugabe – don’t have the option of running to China and living a comfortable life. So they stalled the announcing of the Presidential election results until they could reflate Mugabe.

The Second Election

Although Morgan Tsvangirai won by a clear margin, he didn’t have an overall majority (47.9% to Mugabe’s 43.2%).

Both party’s votes had been split. The MDC split into Tsvangirai’s MDC-T and Mutambura’s MDC-M. While a more moderate ZANU-PF member, Simba Makoni, ran as an independent candidate for President.

The lack of a majority allwed to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to declare a run-off election between the two. This election would not be fair. The violence increased massively. It’s the most difficult to read part of the book. The violence, torture and fear is described in brutal detail.

The violence reached a point that Tsvangirai pulled out of the race acknowledging that voters risked their lives voting for him. But the violence continued to ensure a good turnout for the one-man election.

Power Sharing

Mugabe finally managed to win an election. But no one was willing to accept the result. The African Union – not always critical of Mugabe – called for a, “government of national unity,” and Thabo Mbeki – who had long been supportive of Mugabe – mediated talks between ZANU-PF and the MDC (and later between the two men themselves).

After much wrangling, it was agreed that Mugabe would remain as president and Tsvangirai would be Prime Minister. The various cabinet positions divided between the two. But not always sensibly. Gideon Gono remains Governor of the Bank of Zimbabwe despite causing runaway inflation, destroying Zimbabwe’s economy and becoming most incompetent financial manager in history.

The MDC has won a few victories and shaken up Mugabe’s plans. The earliest was the election of Lovemore Moyo as Speaker of the House. But it’s not all good news:

… being in government is dragging the MDC down towards ZANU-PF’s level. It is hard to tell sometimes whether the MDC is changing the nature of the state, or whether the ZANU–state continuum is slowly absorbing its most potent critic.

The situation reminds me of the UK’s own power-sharing agreement and the way Nick Clegg is wheeled out as an apologist for the Tories less-popular policies. Barclay notes:

The MDC is also talking up Zimbabwe’s status so as to convince ZANU-PF that it is a reliable partner. Sadly this effort too is misguided. ZANU-PF calculates on the basis of strength, not merit… The MDC is playing the unity game as if a win-win outcome were possible. ZANU-PF knows only zero-sum games and always plays to win them absolutely.

Mugabe and the White African

Near the beginning of the book I was shocked to read the sentence, “At the end of 2006, I took a party of friends to Rupurara for a mock-colonial New Year’s Eve,” tossed out without comment. It seems a remarkably offensive – and in the context dangerous – choice of theme.

But later in the book he does acknowledge the racist aspects of white Zimbabweans. As well as pointing out their stoicism in the face of state-backed violence, he also talks about their attitudes:

…In no time they were happily talking about niggers and kaffirs. With a change of accent, they would have fitted right into 1950s Mississippi… I once asked a farmer if he had thought of training any of his black staff for managerial work. He was astonished that I could imagine such a possibility… But the farmers I have met operate a colour-coded working culture. Whites are farm owners and managers. Blacks are labourers.

And he makes the astute point that had the white farmers been more progressive in their opinions a black middle class would have been a much stronger opposition to Mugabe than poor manual workers.

One of the upshots of the wrangling over positions is that the Deputy Minister of Agriculture Roy Bennett is white and had his farm violently taken by ZANU-PF.

What Should Be Done?

On what people can do as individuals, Barclay is frank:

Readers of this book often ask me what they can do to help Zimbabwe, to which my usual answer is ‘little or nothing.

And Western nations are in a similar position. We certainly don’t have the moral authority to act after the way we treated them while we were in charge. Any impetus gained after interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone was lost in Iraq. Mugabe’s favourite topic of conversation is the UK and our supposed attempts to retake the nation by secretly backing the MDC and launching chemical warfare in the form of a cholera epidemic.

So it’s hard to conceive of any military intervention without the support of Southern African nations.

But there is one immediate action the UK could take unilaterally: reinstate Zimbabwean’s right to travel to the UK without a visa (a right that was taken away in 2002), accept that anyone coming from Zimbabwe has a, “well-founded fear of persecution,” and grant them asylum and full working rights.

Is There Any Hope?

There is some cause for hope. There’s always the hope that MDC’s power will be able to – if not prevent violence – at least restrain it.

And Southern African leaders have been more ready to stand up to Mugabe. Mbeki has been replaced by Jacob Zuma. Who has been willing to piss off Mugabe (and pretty much every other world leader – Cameron didn’t even send him a Christmas card).

And there has been criticism of the passive institutions such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Botswana’s Foreign minister, Phandu Skelemani, had this to say:

SADC have failed the people of Zimbabwe. We have simply failed to tell the leadership . . . that what they are doing is wrong . . . SADC has virtually achieved nothing in respect of Zimbabwe . . . Too many of the leadership in SADC feel some kind of obligation towards Mugabe.

But Zimbabwe’s economy is still on the border of non-functioning and the cholera epidemic is ongoing. There’s little violence for now but that’s no guarantee that it won’t happen when the next election rolls around.

Barclay’s postscript isn’t optimistic. He concludes, whilst talking about the persecution of Owen Maseko:

While Zimbabweans remain unable to discuss the events of thirty years ago, the prospects of an election which allows them freely to debate and decide their future must remain poor.

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