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Ebony and Ivory - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 10:57 am
Ebony and Ivory

"We all know," goes the song I hate more than all songs ever written, "that people are the same wherever you go, there is good and bad in everyone". Already it offends me, this lyric. Paul McCartney (for it is he, and the song is his duet with Stevie Wonder, "Ebony and Ivory", for those lucky enough not to have heard its one million radio iterations) does not seek my consent for his idea that we are all the same. No, he deems my consent already given; we all know. No fewer than four totalising, reductive tropes appear in that introductory statement: 100% of us know that 100% of us are 100% the same in 100% of the world. Admittedly it would have been more difficult to sing "some of us think that there are significant differences—individual, cultural, racial, and geographic in origin—between the peoples of the world, but that these differences should not be the cause of conflict, anxiety or denial, and that it should always be remembered that moral notions like "good" and "bad" are culturally bound, varying from one society to the next". I'm sure the versatile McCartney-Wonder team, though, with their differing but complementary skills, could have found a way to set that to music.

And then comes the chorus, with its powerfully foolish metaphor. "Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?" Now, I know Paul McCartney is a bass player, and that bass players don't play chords, but didn't he once sing backing vocals in harmony with John Lennon? Surely he knows that two notes which are the same cannot be in harmony? Harmony depends on difference, yet McCartney has already told us that people all over the world are the same. A piano keyboard in which all the keys played the same note would be incapable of harmony, and yet that's exactly what "Ebony and Ivory", with its concern to erase the anxieties of racial difference, is proposing.

There are good reasons why racial difference causes anxiety. History is not exactly choc-a-bloc with heartwarming tales in which racial or cultural differences become the source of lovely harmony. Genocides have more often been the result. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that cultural difference in itself does not lead to genocide. It's intolerance of cultural difference that does. And this makes "Ebony and Ivory"—a song which denies difference rather than trying to improve our attitude to it—part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Two more factors make us anxious about highlighting cultural differences, and especially cultural differences that correlate with racial differences. One is the dominance of the United States, a relatively recent and synthetic society in which place and race have far less connection than they do in other nations. In America people tend to have a dual identity; they're Italian-American, or Chinese-American. In Italy or China, the vast majority of people still have a single ethnicity; they're Chinese, or Italian. Now, it's not as if Americans don't use racial-cultural characterisation. They're likely to make statements like "My Italian blood makes me impulsive, passionate, argumentative..." But because the US is a pot pourri of racial types, they don't make racial-cultural statements about being American. It wouldn't make much sense to say something like "My American blood makes me polite, pragmatic, imperialist..."

The other thing making us anxious about correlating racial and cultural differences—especially with science—is the psychic scar we bear from the conflicts of the 20th century: our thinking is dominated by Nazism and its spurious science of eugenics, established to prove "objectively" the racial superiority of the Aryan type and prepare the way for the genocide of the Jews. Because the Nazis lost, and history is written by the winners, cautionary tales tend to feature losers rather than winners, and eugenics, or anything superficially resembling it, is the villain of a scientific cautionary tale. But again, because there was bad science determined to establish racial differences for bad reasons, it doesn't mean that all science examining racial difference must be bad. Again we have to remind ourselves that the denial of difference is part of the problem, not the solution. It's not difference itself which is genocidal, but our attitude to difference. If things are to improve, we have first to admit that difference exists, and then work on adopting and spreading a more positive attitude to it.

Science has only recently begun to recover from the taboo on research into racial-cultural correlations which has been the Nazis' long legacy — the peculiar anti-Midas touch losers have to sully by association all they ever touched, and turn it to muck. But the world has changed since the 1940s. In the 1990s, in response to the topical theme of globalisation (which you could call the optimally non-genocidal way for different cultures to interact, a contact based on trade, respect and even a certain exoticisation of the other), universities like Stanford and Berkeley began to appoint academics like Hazel Markus to study Cultural Psychology.

Hazel Markus is particularly interested in differences between Americans and Asians. She gives more weight to cultural than racial factors; Latinos or Asians entering America, she says, will quickly start to think, act and even die like Americans. Research has shown that Chinese living in America will start to look at an individual dominant figure in a picture, in contrast to Chinese in China who tend to look at the relationships between all the elements in the picture. The rate of clinical depression amongst immigrating Latinos will rise from 3% of the population, the rate in Latin America, towards 17%, the rate in North America. Dietary and lifestyle changes will bring Japanese cancer mortality rates up to American levels for Japanese who relocate to the US. Other Cultural Psychologists, though, make explicit racial-cultural arguments. James M. Jones of the University of Delaware argues that "some" black Africans differ from "some" white Europeans in their conception of time, rhythm and orality, for instance. And here the eugenics-anxiety (and also, no doubt, some individualist fear of collectivist understandings) is still evident in his careful use of the caveat-word "some". He's not yet willing to assert, McCartney-style, that we all know that people are all different in different parts of the world in the same way.

Because people are always fighting yesterday's battles instead of today's (yesterday, of course, Japan was fascist, and yesterday, of course, any connection between race and culture was the handmaiden of imperialism, eugenics, and genocide), I'm often accused of being some kind of Nihonjinron Nazi for suggesting that there are distinctively Japanese ways of being, feeling, seeing, thinking. But the Nazis are dead and gone, and their fake science of eugenics is buried deep in the history of quackery and sham. Meanwhile, a new danger has appeared in the world: the danger of a reductive, evangelical, totalising monoculture. It's the New World Order in which we all wear blue jeans and all listen to a radio station playing "Ebony and Ivory", the song in which 100% of us know that 100% of us are 100% the same in 100% of the world. It's not a harmonic world but a monophonic one.

Ironically, since Microsoft is entirely symptomatic of this new monocultural threat which I'm comparing, not-so-implicitly, to Nazism (for its global ambitions, its utter vilification of difference), I'm now going to ask you to use a piece of Microsoft software. Please open Windows Media Player, go to "Open URL" in the file menu, and paste in this address:

http://www.learner.org/vod/vod_window.html?pid=1523

You'll find a 25 minute introduction to Cultural Psychology from WGBH/Annenberg's "Discovering Psychology" series, featuring Stanford's Hazel Markus and others. Watch it yourself, and, if you like what it says, talk about it and encourage others to watch it. By establishing cultural and racial difference as something mentionable, valid and worthy of serious academic study, Cultural Psychology shows us that there's nothing to fear from the recognition of differences, even racially-rooted ones. In fact, the discipline gives us the intellectual ammunition we need to slay the dragons which stalk the world today, helping us establish a genuine harmony — one that involves (*gasp*) different notes. Remember, the most famous song by the man who wrote "people are the same wherever you go" says "I believe in yesterday".

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sodzilla
sodzilla
lady looks like a dude
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 09:53 am (UTC)

Hmmmm...

As a biologist, I'm very well aware of the cultural/location differences you mention, and also some genetic ones such as the greater propensity of black people to develop certain kinds of anemia. So that part of the argument flies.

So does the part about attitude, not difference, being the breeding ground of racial hatred. 100% in agreement with that, and you express it very well.

However, you bring up things like "'good' and 'bad' are culturally determined" and that's a statement that scares me.

In some ways - hell, in many ways - I do agree with it. What makes me a "good" and productive member of society in Linköping, Sweden is probably different from what makes my friends such in New Mexico, or Singapore, or even Austria. However, the scary part comes in that there are some cultures in this world who actively encourage the attitude you're speaking against.

Note that I'm not accusing you of being some kind of moral apologist, or trying to blacken the name of any one culture. Contempt of the poor shows up in US culture as clearly as contempt of women does in many Islamic ones, and both those things are very much present here in Sweden as well despite the rabidly egalitarian face we present to the world.

However, I think the extreme of saying that no behavior can ever be wrong if the originator's culture sees it as right does global understanding as much harm as the openly censorious ones. After all, prejudice is one of the things that is culturally conditioned into the vast majority of people.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 10:06 am (UTC)

You've raised the best objection there is to cultural relativism, which is that it seems to have no moral fibre and be incapable of condemning anything — the rather tired example being, of course, genital mutilation.

My answer to that is that Cultural Psychology implies situatedness. We are situated in cultures, and we are situated as individuals. There's no shame in admitting that. Our situatedness determines our outlook on the world. That's something the video I link says very clearly. And having a situated outlook on the world implies having opinions, views, judgements. It's perfectly okay to pass judgement on practises, as long as you don't claim your judgements are objective, or claim they transcend culture and are universally valid.

Philosopher John Simpson has called this admission of situatedness "speaking Azza". We need to speak "as a..." (fill in blank), and when we do that we speak with appropriate humbleness. This is why I'm constantly asking Marxy, over on Neomarxisme, to include more personal details about his life in Japan, his relationships with Japanese people, and so on. These details situate us, and remind us that truth is always tied up with concrete particularities, context, cultural ways of seeing, personal motivations, the unconscious. It's when we try to abstract and universalize ideas like justice and even human rights that the problems—and the ethnocentricity—really begin.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 10:02 am (UTC)

Isn't the very existence of something like "cultural psychology" proof that the differences are accessible to one universal language, that of science? "universalism without uniformity", as the slogan goes.

And, if two people sing the same melody (the same notes), they are not in harmony?

der.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 10:11 am (UTC)

Isn't the very existence of something like "cultural psychology" proof that the differences are accessible to one universal language, that of science? "universalism without uniformity", as the slogan goes.

I tried to make it clear that I think Cultural Psychology is rooted in 1990s globalisation. Just like Western science, it is itself a culture, localised and not universal, although it's one I share. And one which may, like science, "work", even when we're not quite sure why. In the case of Cultural Psychology, the "work" done is the adoption of a more positive attitude to cultural difference.

And, if two people sing the same melody (the same notes), they are not in harmony?

Only if they're out of sequence, ie in a canon. In which case, they're not singing the same notes at the same time.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 10:57 am (UTC)

To be serious I don't think I've heard "Ebony and Ivory" so far...

However, eeerrr, it is really ridiculous to see each and everyone as persons who are indifferent to yourself, like thinking everyone is a mirror of yourself.

I for sure, for sure, know that I am different from alot of people in my class, for example, but tend to look for people that have the same interests as me but perform them in a different way. When doing so I know that I will have a chance to find someone who can understand my interests but also someone who I can "trade differences" with.

Football is a sport that combines groups of individuals, I've noticed. But people who like the same sports are also different.

So, can you say that there is always something we have in common with a few as well we don't?

Oh, and talking about cultural assimilation. Is it the opposite of cultural imperialisation?

What about this idea of making people living in countries in Europe to see us as Europeans?(Or it doesn't belong here perhaps).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 11:17 am (UTC)

Oh, and talking about cultural assimilation. Is it the opposite of cultural imperialisation?

I think assimilation is the import version and cultural imperialism the export version. But in some cases cultural imperialism is welcome, especially if the people on the receiving end can pick and choose, mix and match. Of course, after a certain point this very process of hybridisation begins to break down the very identities it depends on.


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Yen a des biens - (Anonymous) Expand


deansgate
Deansgate, Manchester
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 11:07 am (UTC)

apparently the price for Macca's midas touch was the softening of his brain...

and by the way, have you contemplated suicide by the time Mull of Kintyre reaches its coda?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 29th, 2005 06:19 pm (UTC)

dont do drugs


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 11:27 am (UTC)

Interesting. Can you suggest any books I could read for more information?

H.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 11:35 am (UTC)
Feel the vibes

I am the same as everyone else and everyone else is like me. Maybe i'm just blessed with the birds eye view, like Macca. Probably why he is one of the most successful songwriters of all time. Now Kafka as a cockroach thats much more interesting. When are we going to start harmonising with different species.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 02:38 pm (UTC)

Man, you are the most self-involved, whiny little shit that I believe I've ever had the misfortune of reading. Your "ideas" betray a first year community college understanding of the world.

In a word or two: shut. up.


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happylantern
happylantern
eric
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 04:41 pm (UTC)

Wrong.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 04:13 pm (UTC)

How about reading the lyrics as containing a colon, rather than a comma: "We all know that people are the same wherever you go: there is good and bad in everyone"?
I.e., "we all know that, w.r.t. the property of containing good and bad, people are the same everywhere". (But nooo, good and bad are different everywhere!)

Also, I don't see how you get that all keys on that metaphorical keyboard are meant to play the same note. (But they surely aren't tuned well-tempered, because there it's exactly the neighbouring keys that are *not* in harmony.)

But of course that's just the humorous introduction. The Cultural Psychology stuff, especially as presented in that PBS video, I find pretty muddled. It is either trivial ("we behave differently, and some behaviours are conditioned by cultural traditions") or non-sense ("we *are* in some fundamental way different"). It's always the tendency to overgeneralise, to take results and go for a run with them, that makes the popular reception of these things so tendentious (and often wrong). What's that supposed to mean, "determine our outlook on the world"? Determine the interpretation of events? Sure, why not? Determine what is true or not? Whoa, hold it, cowboy.

der.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 04:34 pm (UTC)
You are my amigo, negro, let's not fight!

If "harmony depends on difference" as you say, then your understanding of musical harmony (and by the metaphor you are distending cultural harmony) isn't much better than that bass player (what was his name, anyway?) you crit. Harmony depends not on sheer difference, but a special class or category of hierarchies of differences (octaves, fifths, thirds, etc. and these functioning within an overall system of tuning, itself not beyond modification), as you should well know.

Another potentially rewarding nuance to this metaphor that you fail to explore (or are unaware of) is that we can have musical 'order' without 'harmony' as such. The dodecaphonism of Schoenberg would be one obvious example, but since you have tipped your hat in his direction in the past with your "Pierrot" tune, I suppose non-inclusion of this kind of thinking in your essay is simply based on the fact that this fact of the issue of 'order' when extrapolated to fit a social idea, might result in affirming some totalitarian systems, which would obviously be contrary to your argument.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 08:16 pm (UTC)
Re: You are my amigo, negro, let's not fight!

Harmony depends not on sheer difference, but a special class or category of hierarchies of differences (octaves, fifths, thirds, etc. and these functioning within an overall system of tuning, itself not beyond modification), as you should well know.

I don't see how that changes my argument one bit. McCartney says people are the same, then wants them to be in harmony. Harmony requires difference.


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llll111lll1l1ll
---
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 05:32 pm (UTC)

Admittedly it would have been more difficult to sing "some of us think that there are significant differences—individual, cultural, racial, and geographic in origin—between the peoples of the world, but that these differences should not be the cause of conflict, anxiety or denial, and that it should always be remembered that moral notions like "good" and "bad" are culturally bound, varying from one society to the next".

A touch more difficult, yeah, but MANOHMANOHMAN I hope someone reading this takes that as this statement as a dare.


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kattullus
kattullus
Kári Tulinius
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 06:13 pm (UTC)

I have a similar relationship to the song Imagine. As far as I can tell its message: "Let's destroy difference and then we can all be a homogenous blob." How do you feel about that song?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 08:33 pm (UTC)

No, I like "Imagine" a lot. It's quite different to say "The world is like this" (as "Ebony and Ivory" does) and to say "Imagine a world like this", as "Imagine" does. "Imagine" is more utopian.

Of course, you could say that the "Oh Lord, why don't we?" suggests that McCartney's song too is a "what if" song. But it's a pretty tame and bland one. We all forget our differences and act nicey nicey and blandy blandy. Acceptance of your brothers based on disregarding their difference from you, what kind of acceptance is that really? He's not advocating pluralism, but unity and integration.

Plus, of course, there's the "Oh Lord" versus the "imagine no religion".


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 06:38 pm (UTC)

The writer qualifies what he means by "people are the same wherever you go" when he follows this with "there's good and bad in everyone".

No controversy really.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Sep. 11th, 2005 06:47 pm (UTC)

Unless one believes that some people are all good or all bad.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Sep. 12th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC)
paradox

consider these two phrases
1. 'ah well, (deep down) we're all the same'
2. 'ah well, everyone's different'

while appearing opposites, paradoxically they communicate the same idea. in everyday usage both phrases fulfill very similar purposes, i.e., to soothe conflict, to transcend prejudice, to reduce anxiety about difference and promote acceptance of difference as a reality.

both statements choose harmony

intrinsic to both statements is a kind of 'live and let live' idea


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Sep. 12th, 2005 02:44 am (UTC)

you realize that what you're doing here is exactly what marxy does to you (eg. the keitai saga).
picking on mccartney's poetic spiel (it's point was absolutely elsewhere) then download all your logical, scientific and pseudo-the-above knowledge to further your arguement -- and incidentally riducule the person who favoured artistic, ambivalent, limited and prone to misunderstanting by definition over logical/scientificaly accurate expression.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Sep. 13th, 2005 12:55 am (UTC)

what the hell is this pontificated mess?????


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d_g_m
Insert
Mon, Sep. 12th, 2005 03:01 am (UTC)

"I'm sure the versatile McCartney-Wonder team, though, with their differing but complementary skills, could have found a way to set that to music."
I know, I know, they could sing something along the lines of...
"Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard, oh Lord, why don't we?"


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