2014/06/09

Ambassadors


I sent a veteran buddy of mine a piece on an official military honor guard joining a Gay Pride march in Washington DC. His reaction:

Fantastic, unbelievable there is a feeling of respect in the gay community
which I originally relayed about gay veterans. I will always say the stereo-type does not
always fit reality. Like I said before it's not always about pink poodles

No, it's not. Pink poodles are certainly part of the gay image, but no, they became a focus because people outside of, and in many cases, people who were hostile to, the LGBT community, made that the gay image.

That exchange reminded me of a book I read back in junior high (Nowadays called middle school). It was about the struggle between Northern and Southern Italians. The Northerners were exploiting the South by extractng their resources, largely farm produce. Southerners launched a rebellion in the 1800s. Northern Italians in Rome sought to understand what was going on and looked around to speak with the only Southern Italians they knew, the aristocrats who collaborated with the North to send food from the South to the North. Naturally, because it was hardly in their interests to truly illuminate how the situation was so bad for Southern Italians in general, the Southern Italian aristocrats gave the Northerners bad advice and the situation got worse.

It's important then, for countries and cultures to have at least works of art to act as ambassadors to the culture that's in a dominant position. I've seen a number of works that have done this. I paid attention to the struggles in Central America that came to my attention as a college student in the late 70s, with conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua. But it wasn't until the comic book Love & Rockets was put out that I had more than a one-dimensional image of the larger Latino community as doing and being more than just fighting, dying and cursing the gringo. Reading it gave me a more complex picture, one that emphasized both the differences and similarities between them and us white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, both the things that made us all human and the things that made our groups distinct from each other.

What was the first artistic ambassador that explained one world to another? My guess would be Uncle Tom's Cabin. It described a society and a way of life that Northerners lived next to, but most of them had no personal experience of. As the University of Virginia concedes, Harriet Beecher Stowe drew an essentially accurate portrait of what it was like to be a slave in the South. The minstrels of the era tried very hard to present their own version of slavery as a benign institution, but their efforts didn't make much headway.

During the Iraq War, an educated young Iraqi woman who named herself River wrote a blog that captured the imaginations of at least the people who opposed the war there. In 2013, she added a post taking a look back. Her writings emphasized both how different the Iraqi culture was (She generally didn't like Saddam Hussein, didn't wear one herself, but was well-disposed towards wearing the hijab, was strongly opposed to the American invasion and documented how it hurt the Iraqi people) and, by adding lots of personal touches and mentions of people she knew (Always as pseudonyms), emphasized the common humanity of Iraqis and Americans.

Probably the most well-known comic that did the same thing for the gay community was Desert Peach. Pfirsch (Peach) Rommel was General Erwin Rommel's fictional gay younger brother, a colonel who was in command of the “469th Half-Track and Grave-Digging Battalion” that generally stayed in the background of the war in Northern Africa from 1941 to 1943. And yes, like the real-life Erwin Rommel, Pfirsch was a complex character who tried to do the best he could in a situation that didn't allow for a whole lot of humanity or decency.

A fellow straight person commented on Facebook on how much he appreciated the TV show Will & Grace that ran from 1998 to 2006. A gay person replied on how that was a show that he never paid much attention to. He regarded it as a bit of fluff that had nothing important to say. I agreed that it probably had little to say to gays themselves, but thought and still think that the show provided a good introduction to gay life for straights. Jack sort of, kind of resembled the old stereotypes, but Will most certainly didn't. I can see Jack walking a pink poodle, at least in his much younger days. Can't see it for Will at all. The effect of that is to assure people that the stereotype is not entirely wrong, it's at least based on truth, but that it's a terribly cramped and limited way of viewing gay people.

Making contact with a larger, dominant culture can be a very useful thing for a less dominant culture to do and no, it's not necessary for members of the less dominant culture to say to themselves “Someone else is doing the cultural outreach, so I don't have to.” You never know what exactly will spark the interest of people in the dominant culture, so it's best to take an "all hands on deck" or "full court press" approach, to just try everything.