the slowdown: To the Benefit of Whom?

slowdown podcast benefit

About two months ago I had the thought to explore what a podcast might look like if I made one. The idea, as best I could nail it down, for it was to concentrate on a singular focus amid quarantine days that were flying by with too many issues and too many messages to absorb, let alone understand. That’s why I wanted to call it “the slowdown,” because I felt lost among the fast pace of incoming information.

That’s sort what the idea behind reopening my blog was supposed to be, too. I called it something of a garden, back in March, at the time writing that my intention was to plant ideas and see how they sprouted.

That was a good place to start, but things haven’t really evolved that way. Fortunately so, I’d say. As I was in between semesters in grad school then, and with safer-at-home orders in place, I had extra time on my hands so I tried on several different creative hats, writing about music, and film, and local news, but once the summer semester got rolling all of that again took a back seat, while the incoming stream of information only further intensified.

Taking a break this weekend, I was reading some Calvin and Hobbes cartoons and one stuck out to me. Calvin’s mom and dad are seen in a panel together, and his mom asks “Any good mail today?” “Mmm, not really,” the dad replies. “Here’s a ‘you’re not covering the cost of these mailings’ charity request,” he says, continuing, “You’ve got a ‘you’re not attractive enough’ women’s magazine with an article on swimsuits that minimize all your body flaws.” “Here are some ‘you’re not stylish or ostentatious enough’ catalogs… and coincidentally, an invitation to go deeper in debt from a credit card company.” “And here’s our news magazine to identify the trend of the week we’re missing… and I got a hobby magazine featuring new equipment I ought to have. Yikes! Why do I get the feeling that society is trying to make us discontented with everything we do and insecure about who we are?” “I suppose if people thought about real issues and needs instead of manufactured desires,” his mom says back,” the economy would collapse and we’d have total anarchy.” “So pitching this junk would make me some kind of terrorist, huh” the dad said back. “Yep,” adds the mom, “It’s our patriotic duty to buy distractions from a simple life.” And at the bottom of the final panel we see Calvin enter the room, “Hey mom, I saw a bunch of products on TV that I didn’t know existed, but I desperately need!”

After reading this it hit me that this is how I’m feeling, but with information.

Like pretty much all of my friends, I’m focused on nothing in particular at any particular moment, but still feel overloaded by the sum of it. Everything is demanding our attention and it’s impossible to give any of it enough energy because the incoming torrent is endless. Just looking at the past day’s social news feed, the outcry is rampant over schools tentatively being re-opened next month despite no guidelines for how to do so safely. It feels really important to learn about how we’re continuously fumbling our collective action against the virus in this country because of an inability to take decisive action, so I read on and on and on.

Now, absolutely, this is important and will affect us all, but how much of the surrounding narrative and commentary and opinion and feedback of this sort falls under the products on TV that we—all of us Calvins—didn’t think to consider prior, but find vital to explore today. Did you hear the guy who owns Wayfair.com is into sex trafficking and we should boycott the website because of it? Better go explore that for an hour.

Speaking of the torrent of information, I read an interview piece last week that struck me in some kind of way that has to do with how I’m feeling right now. It was a profile of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter, producer, director and novelist. In the article, which focused on a months-long phone conversation, Kaufman says,

“I feel like I’ve been spinning my wheels and wasting my time and looking at stuff online that I shouldn’t be. It’s making me very anxious. I feel like I’ve got some kind of obligation that I’m not meeting right now, an obligation to do something, to not waste time—to find the world and not have it delivered to me.’’

If that doesn’t embody a modern take on the Calvin and Hobbes strip, I don’t know what does.

Part of the problem is that there is so much happening right now that isn’t just junk-food media fire-hosing information into our consciousness, but real, pressing topics that genuinely feel like they deserve consideration. Like, racism, police brutality, and what broader implications a statement such as “defund the police” might have on our public health and safety policy. Those are not inconsequential. I got an introduction to these topics during Ferguson, but like most, went back to my daily life shortly thereafter without making any changes.

One of the changes that I’ve incorporated into my life this time around has been attending an anti-racism group, where every Monday night for the past several weeks we’ve discussed action items and learnings over video chat. I’m not moving mountains, but this stuff has been worthwhile. I’ve been reading articles to learn how to begin to correct my own individual path as it relates to racism, and that’s meant upping my media diet with articles, documentaries, videos, and other readings to help educate myself on my blind spots dealing with race. I’m trying to learn more about recognizing unconscious bias, understanding what white privilege really means, and how I can become a better ally or co-conspirator when it comes to racial and cultural injustice. I’ve donated money to bail funds and community organizations, and several weeks back I marched with a friend, but as I’ve tried to find entry points to anti-racist action beyond the symbolic.

This is where I wanted to pick up from after the last podcast I did where I got to the end and was like, well, turns out I’ve done some really racist things, but I’m not really too sure where to go from here. Well, I’ve figured out a couple of ways to take action. Professionally, I’m about two thirds done with my masters degree in clinical mental health counseling. I started by reaching out to my mentor, then my school advisor about ways to get involved in a broader subject of advocacy. I joined the Tennessee Licensed Professional Counselors Association and sat in on a meeting where I met the association’s student representative, and this week I’ll be applying to become my school’s rep. I joined the Tennessee Counseling Association, and applied for an open TCA Graduate Student Representative position which is now being put to vote by its members. This weekend I sent a message to the TCA’s Human Rights Chair and I will be looking deeper into the Counselors for Social Justice organization this week.

I say this just to share that I was able to find some ways that I feel will help me become involved in anti-racist action within my lane, which makes it feel like I might have a better chance of having an impact, but in following this great article published on Reductress, I don’t want this audio space to turn into a soap box where I just end up talking about how I’m doing at accepting and amplifying my own virtues, after analyzing and flaunting my own flaws. That article, by the way, is called “Why I’m Using My White Privilege To Talk About My White Privilege” and it communicates the point so much better than I ever could.

Over the course of the past couple of months I’ve returned to a video several times called “Woke Brands.” I recommend watching the entire video, but the premise revolves around how brands use cultural cache to gain exposure…

The biggest takeaway for me deals with how brands have coopted social movements to align themselves with cultural events as a form of marketing, and the reason the video has been in my mind recently relates to how the Black Lives Matter movement has been rallied around by companies across the entire spectrum of industry. One of my favorite commentaries on this was a parody of the SpaghettiOs guy who just popped in to let us to know that Black Lives Matter, but in reality it’s all been hard to follow the lot of it without competing feelings of skepticism and optimism. It’s great that companies are supportive of a justice movement and pushing for social change, but besides amplifying messaging via marketing campaigns and social media posts, it doesn’t mean much without any systematic change being implemented within the companies themselves.

And somehow that’s how we get to the country band Lady Antebellum, which are their own kind of brand taking their own kind of stance among everything that’s been going on. When I first moved to Nashville in 2010 I saw the tall guy in the band at the Station Inn once, and I only knew he was in Lady Antebellum because my friend told me so. Besides that, I can’t tell you a thing about the group, so I’m not exactly well informed about the band or their music, but in the past weeks they’ve made news by scratching “Antebellum” from their name and rebranding themselves as “Lady A” to detach any connotation from the antebellum south. Which is probably a good move, even if people still just recognize that “A” is short for Antebellum, so long as no one else is using that name… Turns out there’s a problem there.

Andrea Williams has a great article in the Vulture about the lawsuit that has since come up between the band and the Seattle-based soul and funk singer songwriter Anita White, who has been performing as Lady A for the past twenty-some years. The band approached Ms. White about using the name, arguing that since they’ve had the copyright on it since 2010 that they should both be allowed to perform as Lady A. Which is fine, but what about disregarding the importance of Ms. White’s use of the name, which she has built for herself and continues to rely on for her income as an active musician? Lady A the artist recognized that they couldn’t both exist as Lady A so she made suggestions of how to brand each individually, which the band wasn’t interested in, so they just went ahead and claimed the name. End of story. Now Lady A is suing Lady Antebellum, and the band of three white country musicians is in turn suing the black singer. All of this wouldn’t be remotely funny, except this public legal battle comes on the heels of the band claiming that “We can be better allies to those suffering from spoken and unspoken injustices” and “We are committed to examining our individual and collective impact and marking the necessary changes to practice antiracism.” As Andrea writes in that article, “Here we go again with another white person trying to take something from a Black person, even though they say they’re trying to help.” More on that in a moment…

Bill Watterson is the artist who drew Calvin and Hobbes. He’s notorious for the lengths he went to to reduce the comics’ reach as a marketable brand, instead attempting to ensure the sanctity of the work by not flooding the market with Hobbes stuffed animals, or whatever else might have followed. As I was reading comics yesterday I came across a quote from Watterson, which read,

“Creating a life that reflect your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential—as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them all.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

I’ll balance that with the other quote from Kaufman’s interview that stuck out to me, from when he was asked why he hasn’t ever tried to cash in on a Hollywood blockbuster idea rather than push and push and push to sometimes get nowhere with his creative projects. To this he responded,

“There’s lots and lots of garbage out there that isn’t honest and isn’t trying to help clarify or explore the human condition in any way […] and it sends people down the wrong road—skews our perceptions of our own lives, and each other—and it’s mind-numbing and it’s toxic, and I don’t want to have that on my résumé. I don’t even mean my professional résumé, but my résumé as a human being.”

So there’s a lot going on here, and it’s going to be difficult to braid each topical thread together, but stick with me. The broader concept of slowing down and being more careful about the messaging that I allow in is one thing in theory and another in practice. In the first episode of this series I found myself thinking about the “water” that surrounds us all—what are these invisible forces that impact our lives—telling myself I would make an effort to try to pay closer attention to what surrounded me. But the closer I look the less simplistic everything gets. In my pursuit to find an outlet for social justice I can’t help but think of the “Woke Brands” video and wonder if I’m not in a way doing something similar, strengthening my own marketability by way of public action.

I follow Andrea Williams on Twitter, the woman who wrote the Lady A story I mentioned, and when I sent a note her way in appreciation of her article, I felt something complicated within me that I hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t just send back a comment, but I quoted a line that stuck out from the piece, and in doing so it felt weird commenting as a white person on something so racially complicated… the consideration being that maybe just being quiet rather than taking space to redirect any attention back might have been the better thing to do than look for a validation cookie. As a writer, it’s nice to hear positive feedback, and this is probably all in my head, but also maybe it’s not. Then I was thinking about how much Bill Watterson’s comment about simple living was a product of white privilege—in that such a position is representative of an individual who has had the creative space and freedom to explore concepts around why careers and identities are so intertwined within our capitalistic society. It’s hard to pursue the path he’s suggesting if the system isn’t structured to allow you to do so. And that Watterson, in shutting out merchandising of his work, he was also solidifying his own brand, and strengthening the publicly perceived values of the product he had produced. Holding anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian values was part of the brand’s identity. People connected with it a certain way and put their dollars behind it in buying books rather than dolls. Brands continue to position themselves in ways relative to cultural conversations that will affect their bottom line, and we’re going to keep seeing things like this Lady Antebellum issue come up as brands become deeper involved in social justice discussions. Even in doing what feels like the right thing, reverberations carry on that are out of our control, and a lot of times those benefiting from righteous acts benefit more themselves than anyone their claiming to support. That’s not news, by any means, but it’s also just something I need to keep in mind for myself as I continue to walk forward into this space. If I am a “helper,” who am I helping?

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Notes:

  • This episode features the song “Self Driving” by Smo, used under a Creative Commons license from the Free Music Archive.
  • The clip from “Woke Brands” is taken from hbomberguy’s February 2019 video which can be viewed above or at YouTube.