The best things I’ve read recently (08/01/15)

Fake news stories, Sunnis and Shias, and cultural appropriation.

10 Ways to Spot a Fake News Story by Melanie Radzicki McManus (How Stuff Works)

#1 the story makes you angry

Ever read a story that really made you mad? Or that seemed to tap into your innermost insecurity or fear? Maybe it was about the government secretly spying on you. Don’t automatically believe what you just read and pass it on. Many false news stories purposely play on our fears and anxieties, knowing that doing so will make people follow their emotions and not their brains.

One example of such a story concerned a Texas family of five diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus. Because of the family’s diagnosis, the story said, the entire town where they lived was under quarantine. The fake story, published on a site called National Report during the height of the Ebola crisis, took off on Facebook, where hundreds of thousands of people read it, “liked” it and passed it on . Whether these are satirical sites or websites run by people with an ax to grind, if you find yourself getting pretty steamed, take a step back and re-evaluate.

Why Saudi Arabia escalated the Middle East’s sectarian conflict by Marc Lynch (Washington Post)

The Saudi escalation is above all driven by its fear of the potential success of the U.S. deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Saudi Arabia views Iran’s reintegration into the international order and its evolving relationship with Washington as a profound threat to its own regional position. Mobilizing anti-Shiite sectarianism is a familiar move in its effort to sustain Iranian containment and isolation. The Saudis have been opposed to virtually every major American policy initiative in the Middle East over the last five years — not only the Iran deal, but also American support for Egyptian democracy and Obama’s resistance to intervening in Syria. The sectarian escalation likely is meant to undermine America’s primary strategic objectives in the region such as the Iran deal and a negotiated end to the Syria war by inflaming tensions in ways that make diplomatic progress impossible.

Oberlin’s Food Isn’t “Cultural Appropriation.” That Doesn’t Mean the Students Are Wrong by Aaron R. Hanlon (New Republic)

….academics, activists, and an outrage-driven media climate have failed students by using “cultural appropriation” so broadly as to dilute its effectiveness as an anti-colonialist term. Intuitive and intelligent students at Oberlin are searching for language to describe their disappointment with institutional choices to prize international students while accommodating them in name only, but they’re working with confused terminology.

These mistakes tend to happen when terminology moves from academic to popular discourse, which is why it’s so important for academics to take some responsibility for what becomes of our specialist language. For this reason I offer a clarification that I prefer when teaching about hegemony and colonialism. In the case at Oberlin, “cultural appropriation” would be the value-neutral practice of making a fusion dish that draws from Vietnamese ingredients among others; “cultural expropriation” would be making an authentic bánh mì and calling it the “Oberlin Sandwich,” without attribution for the Vietnamese tradition from which it was pilfered; and attempting to make a bánh mì without caring or understanding what that sandwich requires—which is what actually happened at Oberlin—is indeed a form of cultural insensitivity, but hardly a form of theft. If anything, the food controversy at Oberlin is more about savvy students catching the dining vendor—not the kitchen staff—in a halfhearted attempt to do the right thing by making respectable international dishes suitable for a diverse student body.

If we want fine distinctions between concepts—and we should—we need fine distinctions in our descriptive language. At this point, cultural appropriation is a meaningless term that allows no differentiation between innocuous or incidental appropriations and stealing. Cultural expropriation—stealing exploititavely from a marginalized culture—is the term we should be using to describe things like theWashington, D.C. professional football team, the “ghetto fab” halloween costume, or the performance style of Iggy Azalea (as opposed to the performance style of Eminem). Removing the baggage of “appropriation” helps us focus more clearly on a real problem at Oberlin: not that cultures are being stolen from or exploited through food, but that the institution is not serious enough about providing (and providing for) the cultural diversity it rightly values in its mission statement.


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