Cultural Critics: Who Are They And Why Do We Need Them?

Those of you who know me realize I love to dissect issues and challenge existing norms. I suppose the motivation for such behavior rests in the fact I believe culture to be a socially constructed phenomena built on many faulty assumptions while richly embedded in various mythology.

As I think about it, this is somewhat the common thread throughout all my blogs at their core.

Therefore, be it politics, religion, education, materialism, capitalism, etc…we design symbols (think the American flag, star of David, cross, academic degrees, fashion labels, etc…) to inspire and lend meaning to an otherwise existential existence. We need cultural critics to come along and challenge these meanings, ask questions and be what Neal Postman refers to as, “culture watchers and worriers” -I love to surround myself with such folk.

It is for this reason that I love to read/listen from cultural critics whom I believe to be thoughtful and honest in their approach to examining underlying assumptions about life and culture. Today I offer you five cultural critics I believe to be intellectually honest, who question nearly everything and, again, who I believe, most importantly, to be genuine and without an agenda (insofar as human beings can be without an agenda)…meaning they will not necessarily tow a political line even if it means not conforming to the group who holds many of their own ethical/political beliefs. In other words, intellectual honesty drives their conclusions rather than political expedience.

Some on this list are liberal and some, two in particular, are quite conservative. Liberal or conservative does not concern me as I hold intellectual honesty up as the highest ethical standard to which a cultural critic must hold. I love to read and listen to those I fundamentally disagree with first and foremost. As the famous utilitarian John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his side of the argument, knows very little of that.” And besides, simply because one’s intellect drives them to one side or the other on any given issue, perhaps I can be persuaded toward that side as well.

So, as I present five culture critics that I appreciate, please know that though these five hold a huge diversity of beliefs and are all on both ends of the political spectrum, I still fully realize all these people are quite male, quite white and even quite around my age. If you are reading this blog and follow other culture critics that do not fall into this demographic, please share! I do follow others who do not fit this demo, namely Neal deGrasse Tyson and Glenn C. Loury, yet I find these men to be more science and economics, respectively.

Sam Harris. Love me some Sam Harris and his devout atheism. Yes, there are other atheists who I greatly admire, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, yet I believe Harris, a Phd in Brain Neuroscience, is more forthright in his approach -even if it means being very unpopular among many of his own ilk. Many years ago -when I did subscribe to a particular rigid form of faith- I read his book, “The End of Faith,” and I recall one of my fellow believers asking me why I would read such a book. tumblr_m8wxjvFNtq1rb8qy1o1_500I knew at that moment he did not get me nor my approach to life. Even as a person of faith I would much rather read a book from one who honestly challenges my belief system rather than a book cheerleading my existing belief structure from someone on the same team. Please note that to this day I am NOT an atheist yet concurrently still very much admire this guy’s brain and brilliant reasoning. Please check out his podcast, “Waking Up With Sam Harris.” Do not expect a lot of bells, whistles and sound effects. He is smart man with a mic who not only challenges prevailing norms, but your vocabulary as well.

Dennis Prager. Ok. Full disclosure. I do not want to include Dennis Prager, from an emotional perspective, as he rubs off on me as a very arrogant, pretentious and abrasive religious intellectual snob slash asshole. But, damn, this guy is extremely bright, very articulate and one of the best debaters I have ever heard…perhaps some people deserve to be arrogant? Do I agree with him on the majority of issues? No. Not even close. Yet, I need to give the man a lot of credit for well reasoned and brilliant arguments while taking callers who disagree with him as priority on his radio show. I may completely disagree with him on a conclusion -for example he is supporting Donald Trump (actually he would argue he is not supporting Donald Trump as much as not supporting Hillary Clinton) yet, he will offer a very reasoned and insightful argument as to why….which, again, I do not agree with  yet, when one gives thoughtful and reasonable explanation-in a democracy continuing to be plagued by unwarranted emotional idiocy over reason- I must say, well done. As brilliantly as Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have argued for atheism, Prager has argued equally as powerfully for the existence of God. You can get a feel for his views here.

Leonard Shlain. God rest his soul. Shlain, an amateur historical anthropologist and a world class brain surgeon, is, in my view, a one-of-a-kind cultural critic as he examines contemporary culture through the lens of history, the function of the human brain and technology. His book, “Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light,” creatively connects great advances in science as coinciding with great advances in art; relating the different regions of the brain working in a type of yin/yang harmony.  My favorite book of his, “The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image,” is a one-of-a-kind examination of the role human evolution plays with the role of emerging technologies and the resulting cultural unintended consequences. Sadly, Shlain is no longer with us, though I do look forward to reading his final book, “Leonardo’s Brain,” an examination of the brain of arguably one of the most intelligent human beings to ever live, Leonardo Da Vinci, soon. I also currently follow his daughter Tiffany, who I find to be a provocative feminist documentary filmmaker, among other talents.

Cal Thomas.One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s objective. Election and power are.” Thomas is an unabashed conservative who is not afraid to take some pretty serious potshots at his evangelical brethren. I was first drawn to Thomas with his 1999 book, “Blinded By Might: Why The Religious Right Can’t Save America,” where he criticizes the church for caring more about political power than personal pious living. I love the way comedian Jay Leno summarizes Thomas, “You know that old curmudgeonly uncle everyone ignores at holiday time and then someone asks him a question and you realize he knows what he’s talking about? That’s Cal Thomas.” It is difficult for me to endorse any cultural thinker who has Sean Hannity write his forward or be endorsed by Rush Limbaugh, yet I sense Thomas is very genuine and forthright in his ideas and is not afraid to go strongly against the flow of his own political affiliation at times. Anyone who can be critical of their own political ideology is a respectable cultural critic in my economy.

Eric Schlosser. Schlosser is certainly not as well decorated as any of the above cultural critics, yet this reasonable liberal voice has provided a couple of somewhat recent cultural cornerstone books with his well-known, “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side Of The American Meal,” and the book that really inspired me to put him on this list, “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, And Cheap Labor In The American Black Market.” In this work, Schlosser discusses three of the strongest black markets in the country that, if collapsed, would undermine the entire American economy: The sex industry, illegal immigration and cannabis. This 2003 book has had a tremendous effect on my feelings toward immigration as he literally goes out into the strawberry fields of central California (known to migrants as “la fruta del diablo) to see first hand the plight of the immigrant workers. Schlosser is not afraid to get his hands dirty and presents some compelling arguments concerning the dark side of America’s economics.

There are a few others that came close to this list of five. Those who know me well might wonder why Neal Postman is not on this list -this is due to my opinion that Postman, though legendary in his critique of mediums, namely television, is not always intellectually honest and does have an unabashed agenda in many of his works, most specifically, “The Disappearance of Childhood” and “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”  I really respect an “oldie but goodie” like Marshall Mcluhan and even more recent stuff from Malcom Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers), yet I find the former somewhat dated and the latter not a true critic of culture rather one who observes and opines on human psychology.

So everyone, let us never stop questioning cultural norms, conventions and assumptions -and this will never happen if we always surround ourselves with the like-minded. To my religious friends, go out and hang with an atheist for a while, and for my atheist friends, get your ass to a church, mosque or synagogue and see what it is all about. You might just be surprised…

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The 5 Things I Learned While Wearing A Dress All Day As A Man

I love to challenge my students in regards to beliefs, societal norms, and cultural expectations.  As a strong proponent of new experiences and change, I frequently find myself encouraging others to try something different in order to gain new perspectives.  I believe this to be of particular importance the older we get—as opening ourselves up to new information and experiences truly helps to keep our minds fresh and challenged.

So, this past week when I challenged a particularly effeminate male student, who basically despises everything masculine, to open himself up to new “macho” experiences in which he may feel uncomfortable, going to an NFL game for example, he cringed.  It occurred to me that perhaps that could be too much, too soon. So I reconsidered.

“Ok, Jack,” I stated, “if you wear an NFL football jersey to class on Thursday, I will wear a dress…all day.”

As a man who has no interest in wearing women’s clothing, I somewhat instantly regretted my offer as he quickly took me up on it. However, I also have no interest in being a hypocrite. If I challenge my students to take on new experiences that go against their natural inclinations, why shouldn’t I?

It turned out to be one of the better ideas I have had in my life

So, the next day, I went with my daughter Tessa dress shopping (at The Good Will…. I knew I would likely never wear it again) who helped me pick out a nice red and black paisley with matching sleeves and a delicious plunging neckline.

And what did I learn from my day dressed as a woman?  5 things. 5 things I already knew at some superficial level, though experiencing it firsthand solidified and greatly deepened my understanding. I realize these lessons are very specifically from the United States perspective of cultural norms.

  • Wearing a dress all day gave me an unusually high level of awareness concerning my, ah, “junk.” A dress provides extremely easy access to the genital area while having to work fairly hard all day ensuring you are not the victim of public upskirt porn or the Marilyn Monroe style blown up dress.  Could it be that we made dresses for women the, essentially, cultural norm in a society that hyper-sexualizes them? I do not claim to be a student of fashion history, yet dresses certainly make women more easily sexually available from a practical, “let’s make this as accessible as possible” perspective. In the little bit of research I performed for this blog, it does appear that the voracious male sexual appetite has always played a central role in determining clothing norms.  Call me crazy, yet when you have to work all day ensuring your genitals do not fall out, a much greater cognizance of their presence is the natural result. As a man with pants we just tuck that bad boy away, zip up, and move on.
  • Wearing a dress all day made me feel somewhat scared and vulnerable.  As I walked through campus and endured the laughs, the dirty looks and even taunts (one young man said, “you wearing that dress makes me want to kiss you,” in jest, to be sure, though it still crossed his mind) I was not sure if I was even safe. Now I am quite certain if I did wear a dress everyday my level of sensitivity would decrease, yet this experience offered me a very small, yet profound insight into the vulnerability some disenfranchised others—such as the handicapped, effeminate males, “bull dike” lesbians or certain out-of-place ethnicities, may feel on a daily basis. Wow. I just wore a dress one day at a college campus as a stunt…while certain people have to live this as a way of life. This experience was surprisingly insightful and has given me a new perspective of cultural outliers.
  • Wearing a dress all day caused me to reach a higher level of critical understanding concerning cultural norms and practices. Why shouldn’t men wear dresses? It is just fabric that covers the body—which is really the entire purpose of clothing. Why have we attached such strong gender specific identification to clothing? It is just…CLOTHING. Who gives a flying f? Who was the council that got together and declared what is for men and what is for women… and what was the logic behind it? It makes absolutely no sense from a strictly “do things rationally for a valid reason” perspective. I realize that some men wear dresses as official garb, such as priests and supreme court justices, yet that is designed to place dress over existing clothing as to not let the outfit you are wearing underneath play any form of distraction in official proceedings. What other bullshit cultural norms do we we buy into everyday? This experience really has me thinking at a higher level of consciousness concerning what we do and why we do it.
  • Wearing a dress all day made me realize society has a double standard: Women can dress like men and it is socially acceptable though men cannot dress like women. Ok, my daughter, Tessa (the one who likes to go dress shopping for her dad)  disagrees with me on this one and I understand her point and do not necessarily disagree with it.  Her understanding is that this double-standard really is not a double-standard at all.  Men are the powerful in society and to emulate one through dress is acceptable; to emulate the less powerful is unacceptable—and perhaps this is true, yet, it still creates the same result —there is a stigma against males dressing as females, whatever the reason. Ruth Greyraven, a card toting member of the “female who dresses as male” club and biology professor at Crafton Hills College, had this to say about gender and clothing on Facebook:

Since 1968, I’ve been participating in a social experiment where I wear “men’s” clothes. I got sent home from school and threatened with expulsion the first few times, even when the outfit was a girlie-colored and femme-cut pantsuit. Times changed for women, but not as much for menwomen don’t get arrested for cross-dressing in this country. And a butch woman is far less likely to be beat to shit by queer bashers than a cross-dressing guy.

Agreed Ruth. In my courses, most female students do not wear dresses, rather, mostly, jeans and a t-shirt…traditional guy clothing. However, to my point above, why does this double-standard even exist? Clothing should not be an issue in the first place. Wearing a dress all day reaffirmed my commitment to continually challenge myself and others to test all cultural norms. Why? Not to be different, arrogant, unwilling or defiant—rather for the purpose of assisting the evolution of culture to be more loving and accepting of others, and, secondly, for the purpose of personal growth. As mentioned above, what else are we doing in 2016 that is traditional though not logical; unacceptable but with no basis; insensitive and for no good reason? Clothing is likely just one cultural contradiction of many.

So there you have it, my day dressed as a woman, in a dress. I had absolutely no idea the profound impact this would have on my psyche.

I dare you. Step out and explore new realms.  You will have no idea of the effects it may have on you, the individual, and culture, the collective. Jack did it…so can the rest of us.

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Reflections On Culture From A Travaholic

Traveling is a drug and I suppose I am a mild addict.  The thrill of the unknown, the independence, the not knowing all the whens, wheres, whys and hows; the challenges, the adventure…my name is Jimmy and I’m a travaholic.

I am actually afraid to go back home.  Seriously. It will be a forced sobriety for which I am not prepared. I fear ruts. I fear mundane. I fear the known. I fear certainty.

I keep wanting to push my departure date back yet I know I am just putting off the inevitable: The support group called Reality and facing my addiction.

Please do not get me wrong—traveling can be very stressful and difficult, particularly when you are among non-English speakers. I happen to be in Italy at the moment where the people are quite understanding and help you as much as they linguistically can—as they withstand my fumbling ciaos, gratzes and the occasional arivederrcis (I am quite certain I am not spelling those words correctly but I don’t say them correctly either and I appreciate consistency).

I find the best part about travel is watching people and observing how they live.  I am not a “places person” rather I am a “people watching person.” I would rather watch the people going in and out of, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, than actually go into the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

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When you watch people who live quite differently than you do it provides a point of comparison and contrast. For many years now I have understood the concept of culture as a somewhat arbitrary system of customs and rituals that are neither inferior nor superior to others—culture is just a way to do things and then we call that way of doing things “normal”—which is our bad. Nothing about a culture is truly normal. In fact, no social behavior is totally normal.

When you travel it brings this reality much more into focus.

Hence, I cannot separate out the “cult” in culture.  Back in my religious days I threw the term “cult” around with reckless abandon. Essentially, any doctrine that was not consistent with my own was essentially a cult. Was I really once that narrow-minded? Yes.  And call me whatever derogatory slang you will today though I highly doubt narrow-minded would be one of them. Traveling not only expands us in a geographical sense, it opens and expands our minds as well.

I am coming to realize now that EVERY culture is a cult.  It manipulates and brainwashes one into believing what is “right” and what is not. In fact, if  you were to examine the Latin roots of each word, cult and culture, you would find the same basic idea –CULTivating and tilling while preparing to be grown.  Each and every culture provides a basis for meaning, relevance and importance for each of our lives and then we come to really believe in these things as truthful.  It is as if we are the growing seeds in the fields of culture and come to expect a certain way to be watered, tilled, pruned and nurtured. The fields of culture and its farming rituals then permeate us as we become one with the field of culture. It is then not difficult to understand why our own culture can be so invisible to us as it is us and our everyday reality.

Anthropologist Ernest Becker went so far as to say culture is a complex symbolic creation of humanity to distract us from our awareness of our ultimate demise.  In other words, we create a bunch of bullshit (please understand my definition of this word)—and assign importance to it—to help us forget the fact that all of us are going to die and no one knows what happens next.  Thus, we create religious systems, designer jeans, status cars, entertainment, athletics, consumerism, etc…for the simple sake of helping us momentarily forget the fact we are all going to die—and dying frankly sucks.

Culture provides a background and narrative that offers meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence.  I observe this all the time when I see, read or hear of an untimely demise and the survivor’s struggle to find a meaning as to why this may have happened.  Scholarships, trust funds, “Amber Alerts,” or even “Megan’s Laws” are created to provide a context and framework for these types of deaths. Yet, the reality is this: The person just died.  No rhyme. No reason.  It’s going to happen to all of us eventually. And if there is a purpose? We could not possibly know it so what would be the point of trying to figure it out?

Death happens. So don’t smoke and wear your seatbelt…hedge your bets so we can make this thing called life happen for a while.

The creation of culture is actually a rather elaborate and reasonable strategy to help humanity cope with this problematic issue.  Culture can distract us and soothe us. We can get lost in movies, athletics, and entertainment and come to believe it actually means something – the fact is it’s just all bullshit – that is, it appears and acts to be something much more than what it actually is.

“Wow Jimmy, so cynical.”

Not at all. Not even close. When you travel and watch how others live and realize it is all just one big arbitrary system of ways to do things, you are now FREE from the shackles of culture. You can recognize what is important and what is not for yourself.  You can fully appreciate each and every moment like you never have before.  You can appreciate your loved ones like you never have before. You can take advantage of what cultures have to offer while realizing the ultimate meaningless of it all.

I am quite certain we are all familiar with the term “ethnocentrism,” meaning one believes his/her own culture is superior to all others.  I would love to declare a new word in the English language that is defined as, “Believing all cultures to be human creations designed to assign value and meaning to our lives, with all being both equally effective in some respects, as well as problematic.

I am accepting suggestions.

Afterward: I am now back from Italy in the lovely confines of Santa Clarita dealing with my domestic sobriety and traveling addiction. However, this travaholic looks forward to squeezing out every last drop of adventure and pleasure all the different cultures have to offer in the very near future.

Ciao…for now.