Clash of Civilizations in Norway

A country is torn apart and the rest of the world, confused, can do nothing but stand aside and wonder how it will all play out.

Can the menace be contained to just one country?
Can the menace be contained to just Norway?

If you are Norwegian, you may as well stop reading now. I have learned how sensitive this topic is to your people and how it can result in uncontrollable fits of rage directed at the opposition. I would hate to rehash a topic already covered by the NY Times about which you have undoubtedly formed a zealous opinion.

While Americans continue to debate the fundamental role of government, god and guns in our lives, Norwegians are divided by the nuances of stacking and burning wood. Yes, firewood. The most recent outbreak of discourse is rooted in the publication of Lars Mytting’s book Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning.

The book, which is currently atop the best seller list in Norway, inspired a television show watched by some 20 percent of the country. Considering that two-thirds of the program’s twelve hours consists of footage of a log being burned, the show stands as a testament to the dedication and emotional commitment on the part of Norwegians to their wood chopping, stacking and burning heritage. Continue reading “Clash of Civilizations in Norway”


Europe’s Enlargement Fail

European leaders prove once again that they have no clue on how to proceed with enlargement, integration and overall identity.

What is America? Who is an American? These are difficult questions that demand a certain level of nuance and a willingness to listen to people with whom you disagree. We often don’t agree, but something tells me that everything will be OK in the long run. When I think of Europe, I’m not so sure. I’ve recently come across two advertisements that have been in the news, both of which capture a certain mood and cultural outlook.

The first is the Chrysler spot entitled “Halftime in America” that ran during the Super Bowl. It features Clint Eastwood (life-long Republican) arguing that even though “division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead…after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one”. The commercial, in spite of its cheesiness and aggressiveness, has been well received – some Republicans have come out against the ad, claiming that it gives credit to the Obama administration’s auto industry bailout. Also, you can’t get much cooler than Clint Eastwood. Halftime was created by the same company (Wieden+Kennedy) that made a similar and equally famous ad with Eminem for last year’s Super Bowl. 

That brings up our next ad, called “Growing Together”, which was released by the European Commission (EC). The ad was taken down almost as quick as it was put up. See if you can spot why. 

Where to begin? Did they all make up in the end? Did she defeat them? Does it matter that it’s a woman and a bunch of aggressive non-white men? Are the men foreigners or immigrants? Is the EC rallying support for an invasion of China and India? Does Quentin Tarantino know about this? Is it OK that I find it ridiculously hilarious?

My initial feeling was that it was a hoax, but according to this official statement on the EC’s website, it’s the real deal. Part of me still doesn’t believe that the ad could be real, but assuming that it is, it unintentionally captures the anxiety and awkwardness of European identity as it expands, in spite of it’s already shaky foundation. It’s halftime in America, and in Europe, it’s the halftime show – zing!

At the end of the day though, these are just two commercials. Europe’s road ahead is much more challenging than America’s because the latter is already a politically integrated entity. It’s unfair to use these commercials, or any others as exemplars of American or European culture. On the one hand, it’s easy and fun to jokingly poke across the Atlantic, but on the other, I think a bigger and more integrated Europe is in everyone’s interest – if only the EC could figure out better ways to market it.

Missing: Beautiful, Black Women

Hollywood is eager to showcase dark-skinned beauties, just not too dark. Colorism is more subtle than racism, which makes it dangerous in a totally different way.

Maybe it’s because Europeans and their descendants took over the world. Or maybe it’s because for thousands of years, the wealthy and powerful avoided hard labor in the sun. For one reason or the other, fair skin is a common standard of beauty across the world. In the United States, it is certainly possible to be black and beautiful, just not too black. The problem is especially onerous for dark women.

People of color are still reduced to ethnic/racial tropes.  Men of color, typically black men, are often macho action stars (Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson) or wise “magical negros” (Morgan Freeman, Michael Clark Duncan). Black women have an even narrower window of opportunity. For women, the archetype of the plump, sassy, god-fearing matriarch has given way to a more contemporary sexual object.

Plenty of black women are considered beautiful, but the most famous ones almost always conform to white standards of beauty. Who are generally considered to be the icons of black beauty in the 21st century? Halle Berry, Beyonce and Alicia Keys? How about Tyra Banks? Rihanna? Even when Beyonce rocks an afro, it’s a tongue-in-cheek comedy throwback to the 70s when it was normal to see Pam Greer sport one.

Of course these women are all gorgeous, but imagine how many darker complexioned women get ignored. Imagine how many little dark girls grow up thinking that there may be something wrong with them. It would be difficult for them to dismiss the pattern as racism because, after all, there are clearly black women on the screens. We must stop thinking of colorism as a word made up by complainers and the politically correct. It is a real and harmful practice.

And yes, Oprah may be one of the more popular and powerful women in the world, but she was never renowned for her beauty. This preference for lighter skin minorities can be found in the newsrooms as well where a disproportionate number of minority anchors are light-skinned.

To achieve mainstream success in Hollywood, one must still be able to pass a brown paper bag test – unless you have a penis and can fire a gun while looking cool.

The Rise of the Ironic White Rapper

Self-deprecation and irony are pushing the boundaries of the rap world, but only among white artists. Where are the weird black rappers?

White rap has come a long way from Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark. Whereas Eminem has been successful in achieving underground and mainstream praise, as well as universal credibility, a new breed of white rappers has emerged. They are extremely gifted but use humor to propel their music.

To call them rappers at all would be to miss the point; they are more entertainers, or rather, stand-up comedians who know how to freestyle and tell jokes to a beat. The most prominent example would be the boys of Lonely Island ( Akiva “Kiv” SchafferJorma “Jorm” Taccone, and David Andrew “Andy” Samberg), who used Saturday Night Live as a launching pad for their over-the-top songs concerning oft forgotten topics. Their first hit (on Youtube at least) was Lazy Sunday in which the members of the group watch the Chronicles of Narnia and then eat cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery – the polar opposite of the typical rap fare. Their breakout moment came just before Christmas 2006 with the release of Dick in a Box, which went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. The hits kept on coming with Jizz in My Pants, I’m on a Boat, I Just had Sex and the sequel to Dick, Motherlover (featuring Patricia Clarkson and Susan Sarandon). The group’s second album, Turtleneck & Chain, was at one point the best-selling rap album in the country in 2011.

North of the border, Canadian comedian Jon Lajoie has been producing similar tunes for years, most notably with his hit Everyday Normal Guy, which is in many ways the antithesis of the ego-inflated chauvinism found in mainstream rap music. The first verse of the song goes:

I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
Nothing special about me Mother Fucka
I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
When I go to the clubs I wait in line Mother Fucka

I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
I got 600 dollars in the bank Mother Fucka
I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
And my sexual performances are average.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Lajoie’s craft is that he’s actually got good songs, i.e. they would make for great radio play as long as one were to ignore the lyrics.

Mac Lethal even went viral while rapping about making pancakes. The current generation is running confidently in the tradition of the Beastie Boys and Weird Al Yankovic, who are no strangers to silly rap and poking fun at themselves.

But where are the strange black rappers? Granted, there’s Andre 3000, who is about as strange and as talented as any rapper out there, but he is not a running parody of the genre. What is unique about Lonely Island and Lajoie is that they are making fun of rap culture itself. Is it that white rappers have a hard time being taken seriously as tough thugs? Or is it that black rappers are pigeonholed as such and prevented from exploring more tongue-in-cheek personas? Or is all of this merely a coincidence?