April 24, 2008

Noses Up: Boycotts and the Politics of Culture

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Thank you to those who have read Noses Up and put up with my brief, self-indulgent attempts to talk about music this year. Looking over my columns, it seems that my bias towards the Middle East as a topic for discussion was perhaps more obvious than I had thought. At the same time, I have tried to keep my political attitudes toward the region outside of the Arts section.
Overall, I think that this separation mirrors the climate at Cornell. We have, purposefully or not, made an effort to separate our political beliefs — explored during the week in classes and outside lectures — from our celebration of other cultures on the weekends. Sure, we might go to a politically charged speaker or discussion, but, in the end, the multicultural dance party always wins out. If we attend a lecture on China and the Olympics, we won’t consider it remotely connected to an evening of Chinese dance, even if they are held on the same day.
This might be because we treat cultures as timeless and unchanging, outside of the rapidly changing world of politics, or because one seems contentious and the other innocent. A club would likely not both celebrate a country’s culture and bring a speaker who criticizes that country’s government, (though I am sure there are exceptions).
It might be that our isolated college environment allows us to separate these two realms of culture and politics, but I think that our interest in keeping these worlds separate is indicative of a larger universal truth: People care more about dancing than they do about arguing and fighting.
This is not always the case, however. In the 1960s, the British Musicians Union, as well as several organizations of playwrights and actors, publicly declared that they would not perform in South Africa so long as apartheid was in practice. Today, increasing numbers of artists are calling for a cultural boycott of Israel, skipping it on their tours as they decry the government’s action. On the flip side of that coin, a California theater decided to not allow Palestinian-Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife to perform, stating that an Israeli musician would need to be featured alongside him to provide “balance.” Making these musicians sound like debaters may seem ridiculous, but it is indicative of some people’s inability to separate culture and politics. Calls for boycotts of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in China this year are similar, the difference being that they are aimed only at one event, rather than an entire country’s culture, and are therefore less absurd.
I wondered initially why Israel and South Africa were the only examples I could find of calls for a boycott of an entire country, but then I realized how strange it would seem to call for a cultural boycott of Sudan — a country whose culture no one pays attention to — or of France or America, both countries with some unconscionable political dealings, but with cultures no one could logically claim to boycott. So why Israel and South Africa? There seems to be an implicit assumption in both cases that there is something, for lack of a better word, “worth” boycotting. These are westernized, economically advantaged countries with cultural forms recognizable to us (as seen in how easy it was to dance to Israeli DJ Yahel last week). We cannot imagine boycotting Sudan, because few of us have actually witnessed Sudanese culture.
I suggest we remember that there are some groups of people whose reputation internationally has become so incredibly politicized that they rarely get the “innocent” cultural attention they might deserve. I am talking about the Darfuris, Palestinians, Iraqis and others who only exist in our collective minds, via the New York Times, within a discourse of human rights, politics, and oppression. It is not as if there are not people from these regions at Cornell, and it is not as if there is not “culture” in these places, as seen for example in the recent film Slingshot Hip Hop, which chronicles Palestinian rappers.
In light of the continued atrocities in Darfur, the occupation of Iraq and Palestine, and the exploitation of countless other countries, some might say it would be trite to worry about these regions’ art, music and food. I would argue, however, that the best thing we can do, so removed geographically and mentally from places like Darfur is to humanize these groups with our eyes, ears and tastes. What allows horrific political acts and human rights violations to occur is the reduction of a group of people to simple political wants and needs. By exploring the unacknowledged cultural dimensions of these people and regions, we can ideologically combat the sort of thinking that makes people callous enough to perpetrate occupation, exploitation, and even genocide. It is not a huge difference to make in the grand scheme, but the alternative is far worse.