Cultural Appropriation

“Write what you know,” wisdom conventional,
Threatens to morph into ironclad law.
Fearing aggressions unintentional;
The best lack all conviction in its claw.
Sympathy is nice; empathy divine,
But you’d better think twice (or more), you cad,
If you think your words can ever touch mine;
If you, you WASP, you geezer robed in plaid,
Dare deign to make artist’s gestures this way!
What you know (not much!), keep it over there,
While I sit here and type, to my dismay
Using all your best English words with care.
Forsooth! Never could I more clearly see
That your culture appropriated me.

Photo: Feeding Time, Tracy Aviary, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 2016.

Why Write?

Why do we attach such significance to the written word? What is there on the page that is not in the mouth?

Speech is living, is fellowship, powerful and fleeting. Writing is two-dimensional, durable, lying there unmoved until read. What works in one ought to work in both, but different streams from the same spring develop distinctive tastes.

Talk at its best is considerate, shifting tone and meaning in a dance with the perceptions of its audience (whether of one or one thousand). A stroke of the pen can only be ever so mindful of who pays attention. Saying something of consequence in a conversation happens often enough that we don’t notice, but finding true meaning in permanent words is a rare gem. Lives are changed daily by a quip, a word of advice, a confidential aside. To read something and take it to heart requires time, a slow ferment to the bloom of understanding.

Somehow, I’m never satisfied with giving voice to ideas; they aren’t real until they’re on paper. E. M. Forster was not merely being coy when he asked, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Therein lies the danger, though. It is too easy fake knowledge in person, so much simpler to eat words spokeBenton Fallsn in haste. What we write (what we truly think, if Forster is to be believed) lives on, returning to us for good or ill years later, unchanged yet never the same. Solomon warned us of this much: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:11-12).

I’ve only recently taken to telling people I want to be a writer. Looking back it seems so obvious–from starting a school broadside (rendered with dot-matrix éclat) in fifth grade to spending seven semesters on the student newspaper in college to taking a job that requires me to think on paper all the time. Ever in thrall of professions that seem to be waning in their ability to feed a family, I dreamed for years of sticking with journalism to become the lone voice of reason at a big-city mainstream newspaper (in other words, being Ross Douthat) and now I’m carving up time and resources chasing after the novel(s) in my head. It’s bad enough to want to spill the contents of your mind on others, much worse to plumb and plunder the depths of other minds also.

At times, articulating a vision for telling stories with excellence for the glory of God almost makes sense. At others, it seems like a petty grasping after the privilege of being paid for my thoughts, as though there are things that must be said which no one else could say. For better or for worse, this is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a calling. Even so, it is always intermingled with craven pursuit of recognition. O, to be sought after, to be thought wise.

Having something to say and saying it somewhat originally, though, tampers with strong magic. It’s one thing, I suppose, to unfold your own troubled soul to the world, but quite another to play the observer. Anything of worth necessarily touches nerves, and the stories that make up our stories aren’t ours alone, but belong to children, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends. What does it cost to set a life in text? What if that work is accursed rather than acclaimed?

Teasing out that which will not let you go demands both obscene arrogance and humble fear. And so we write.

Ten Theses on Surveillance

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a camera. Not one of those “gotcha” traffic light cameras, just a guy on his cell phone recording the world going by from behind the wheel (no comment on the insane hazard he made himself). I have no idea what he wanted to accomplish, and his recording is none of my business…or is it?

Maybe he was simply trying to share a nice sunset with (given his driving choices) his soon-to-be-bereaved family, but now he’s got a bunch of license plate numbers (including mine) eternally residing in iCloud or Google Drive. Privacy these days is a relative thing, to be sure, and I seriously doubt anyone will ever find any relevant use for Mr. Steer-and-Shoot’s artistry. Still, it has prompted some further reflection on the ubiquity of surveillance exercised on citizens of the modern world and the lack of attention most of us pay it.

When we each voluntarily post hundreds (or thousands) of photos and videos bearing our likeness in public spaces, being recorded is as human an experience today as breathing. We may grouse a bit, depending on who is behind the camera, but mostly we don’t even notice anymore. Why worry? What do we have to fear if we’re doing nothing wrong? In the main, very little. On consideration, everything.

He's watchin' you...
He’s watchin’ you…

I am neither a Luddite nor the son of a Luddite, but responsible wariness is the better part of wisdom. That said, here are, in no particular order, some thoughts on the subject.
1) God sees all and knows all. This seems the foundation stone of any discussion on surveillance. All things private or public, down to the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Rev. 2:23), are alike an open book before our Lord. Seeking protection for parts of our lives from the eyes and ears of others is right and natural, but nothing is hidden from His sight. Privacy exists to protect virtue, not to conceal vice.

2) Man will always only ever know in part. This is the counterpoint to the previous observation, underlaying our moral standards (rejecting gossip, for example) and jurisprudence (requiring multiple witnesses for conviction of crime). We are not God and must weigh our knowledge and actions accordingly. Continue reading