Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Ethics trumps aesthetics."

"...that make the pathway glow..."
(Image from Wikipedia)

From articles such as this one, "Cameron's bag raises a few eyebrows" (, June 23, 2003), most readers have by now learned that a bag carried by Cameron Diaz on a publicity tour in Peru offended perhaps more than a few Peruvians:
Actress Cameron Diaz appears to have committed a major fashion crime in Peru.

The voice of Princess Fiona in the animated Shrek films may have inadvertently offended Peruvians. They suffered decades of violence from a Maoist guerrilla insurgency by touring there on Friday with a bag emblazoned with one of Mao Zedong's favourite political slogans. While she explored the Inca city of Machu Picchu high in Peru's Andes, Diaz wore over her shoulder an olive green messenger bag emblazoned with a red star and the words 'Serve the People' printed in Chinese on the flap, perhaps Chinese Communist leader Mao's most famous political slogan.

While the bags are marketed as trendy fashion accessories in some world capitals, the phrase has particular resonance in Peru. The Maoist Shining Path insurgency took Peru to the edge of chaos in the 1980s and early 1990s with a campaign of massacres, assassinations and bombings. Nearly 70,000 people were killed during the insurgency.

A prominent Peruvian human rights activist said the star of There's Something About Mary should have been a little more aware of local sensitivities when picking her accessories. "It alludes to a concept that did so much damage to Peru, that brought about so many victims," said Pablo Rojas about the bag's slogan. "I don't think she should have used that bag where the followers of that ideology" did so much damage. (© Copyright Press Association Ltd 2007, All Rights Reserved.)
Diaz has since expressed regrets:
Cameron Diaz said she was sorry for carrying a Maoist handbag in Peru.... "I sincerely apologize to anyone I may have inadvertently offended. The bag was a purchase I made as a tourist in China and I did not realize the potentially hurtful nature of the slogan printed on it," Diaz said in a statement e-mailed to the Associated Press. (Ray McDonald, "Actress Cameron Diaz Apologizes to Peru for Fashion Faux Pas," VOA News, June 25, 2007)
Diaz has more extenuating circumstances in her case than I did for a similar fashion crime, a false step that I took way back in my Berkeley days. In the spring of 1985, my friend Carla Koop and I took a Saturday excursion by way of the BART subway system from Berkeley to San Francisco, and in our walk out from Chinatown heading beyond the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue, we hiked uphill in the direction of Telegraph Hill's Coit Tower, perhaps to see the feral Red-Masked Parakeets that inhabit that area.

Along the way, we encountered a fellow from the Communist Party, I suppose, who had a table set out on the sidewalk and covered with books and badges. Since the two of us were relaxed and at our leisure, we stopped to chat and look. The man wasn't getting much 'business' -- which may have been personally disappointing if ideologically more correct -- so he seemed happy to indulge our political tourism. At the time, I was reading Karl Marx's Capital -- working my way through all three volumes, though I confess that I couldn't finish volume 3 -- so I was familiar with Marx and had come to see some of the problems in his system. Still, I was curious about the left and what sort of analysis it had to offer, but I didn't know much about the various Marxist splinter groups, so I drew a blank when I saw a colorful badge that announced Sendero Luminoso! The fellow selling the badges told me that "Sendero Luminoso" meant "Shining Path" and that it was a Maoist revolutionary group in South America. Aesthetically, the badge was appealing to the eye, and the name "Shining Path" sounded cool, so on a whim, I purchased one and tried it on. A few days later -- as I recently told Kate Marie in my reminisence about this experience -- I was sorry that I had taken one:
In my younger, far more naive days, I actually tried on a badge by the Shining Path. Whoever designed it had an eye for color, so I kept it on -- knowing nothing about the group beyond vaguely being aware that it was 'Maoist' (whatever that meant).

I was later confronted by a student -- half Swede, half Greek -- who asked me if I really supported a terrorist organization that had killed thousands of Indios. I read up on the Shining Path and took the badge off.

And learned a valuable lesson: Ethics trumps aesthetics. Also: Know what you're 'endorsing.'
Kate Marie commented on this:
I like the lesson you learned. Ethics trumps aesthetics. I wonder if part of the problem for intellectuals and artists (of either the real or the Cameron Diaz variety) in the twentieth century was that so many of them came to believe that aesthetics trumps *everything,* no matter how they tried to dress up -- or dress down, as the case may be -- their aesthetic enthusiasms in ethical garb.
Cameraon Diaz can perhaps be more easily forgiven than I can, for all that she did was purchase a bag in China, whereas I knowingly bought a political badge from a Marxist vendor and wore it despite not knowing what the badge actually stood for. Lucky me that I wasn't a celebrity. And I suspect that more than aesthetics was involved. There was also a bit of the politics of revolt in my action, an irrational desire to feel myself a rebel.

But I see that I've left my friend Carla standing at that table on the slope up Telegraph Hill, so I'd better attend to her. I should note that in her natural beauty, Carla needed to make no artificial fashion statement -- nor did she feel an unreasonable compulsion to rebel -- and so declined to buy anything from our Marxist fellow, who seemed a bit put off by her lack of revolutionary fervor ... or perhaps more from missing out on an extra buck.

We didn't, however, trouble ourselves to find out which, but continued on our blitheful, youthful way up toward Coit Tower and the rumor of feral parrots.

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At 2:40 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I recently had to explain to my son what the red star on my his cap meant. The military style cap was in vogue last year. Sometimes a cap is just a cap. Unfortunately too many make symbols more powerful than words and deeds.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Unfortunately, so many symbols are 'owned' already. Symbols may be 'arbitrary', but they're often already taken.

I had to learn that in a personally embarrassing and even distressing way when I realized the message that I'd been sending.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I understand Cameron (and your)'s faux-pas, part of me thinks it's a big hullabaloo over nothing. But then again, I'm not particularly sensitive to Maoist regimes.

Aesthetics play a huge part in how we interpret symbols; if it's visually appealing it becomes more powerful. The ethics we attach to these symbols, and the emotions they provoke, demonstrate that looks really do matter.

It's why the Canadian flag will never, ever, ever be considered a considerable threat. To anyone.

At 2:32 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...


Your point about many symbols being already owned is an excellent one. Once a symbol is owned by a particular political group or ideology, it's very difficult to reclaim it as a fashion statement.

Lexiphanic, with all due respect, may I ask whether part of you would consider it a "big hullabalo over nothing" if Diaz had worn a T-shirt with a swastika on a trip to Israel, or a white hood and robe on a trip down south?

At 3:23 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

P.S. to Jeffery,

This was a lovely blog entry.

At 4:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lexiphanic, in Cameron's case, you're perhaps correct, and I'll cut her some slack. But in my case, things are more problematic. A handbag isn't ordinarily considered a political statement -- though in certain readings, it could be. But a problematic political badge used as an aesthetic pose, that's troubling. I should have known better. I'm just glad that I learned my lesson quickly.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, of course, you're right that if Cameron had worn a swastika or a KKK outfit, the hullabaloo would have definitely been about something, and the ethics over aesthetics would certainly apply.

But I think that her explanation makes sense. She bought a bag in a market in China. The bag had a nice-sounding slogan, "Serve the People." It sounds innocuous, even to me, and I can easily understand her inability to make a connection.

If I, however, had worn that badge in Peru, an outcry and even condemnation would have been appropriate, for I couldn't have justifiably claimed ignorance. I had bought a political statement even if I had intended to use it as an aesthetic accoutrement to my clothing.

I think that there's a difference in these two cases.

Hmmm ... if I keep analyzing what I did, I'm going to end up making myself look quite bad.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

At least the experience made for "a lovely blog entry" -- and without trying to make aesthetics trump ethics.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:08 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Jeffery, I believe Cameron Diaz when she pleads ignorance about the symbol and the slogan, and for that reason I don't really blame her for the faux pas. I don't believe she knew that her fashion statement might be deemed offensive by the people of Peru, and I think her apology is sincere.

On the other hand, I don't blame the Peruvian people for being offended, either.

Maybe what's most offensive about the whole Cameron Diaz thing is that the "fashion industry" continues to peddle totalitarian chic (Maoist symbols and slogans, CCCP jackets, the ever-popular Che T-shirts, etc.) to a reliably ignorant public.

"At least the experience made for 'a lovely blog entry' -- and without trying to make aesthetics trump ethics."

-- Precisely.

At 5:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, it is very odd that the height of fashion would be such symbols of recent atrocities. How long before the Nazi swastika is appropriated for aesthetic effect?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admit, I have become rather desensitized to symbols; even my brief study in the history of symbols has shown that the emotions attached to them will shift and morph according to history, politics and religion. The swastika wasn't always what it means now. Isn't it a Sanskrit symbol?

Now if Cameron wore what you suggest? It would mean that she's probably taking some very bad advice from a publicist or she's totally gone off her rocker.

Seriously though, it's the hyperbole surrounding celebrity incidents that I find just a little bit overblown. It's a very different thing for someone in a position of real power to provoke with symbols, and another completely to attach such importance to a fashion accessory worn by an actress. Even as cute as she is.

At 8:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lexiphanic, I mentioned the swastika with a bit of unintended irony -- though I was conscious of the irony anyway, for I see swastikas around me every day. Here in Northeast Asia, the swastika is a Buddhist symbol.

Incidently, on an Antisemitic website that I looked at some months back (during the controversy over Antisemitism in a Korean comic book), I happened to see a photo of a Buddhist monk with a swastika. The Antisemite who had posted the photo had also written, "You see, the Chinaman knows the score" -- as if the Buddhist monk were a Nazi sympathizer!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ethics trumps aesthetics"--

Could this be a paraphrase of something Kierkegaard wrote?

At 5:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dave, it does sound vaguely Kierkegaardian.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, i want to apologize for my bad writting, I only speak french, my english is very weak.

I think that cameron diaz can be very clumsy, taking with her these kind of bag, but don't you think, thar there is offesive also, to the peruvian people to see the american flag on Tv, or any where in their contry ? ( I lived in Colombia, and i often see the american flag).

The americans have been a cancer for a long time for the third world, particulary for South america, beacause it's the back yard of the USA, but no one spoke against that. They have Stole the cultural heritage, of Peru, but no one talk about it.

People talk about the bad things of comunism, but I think, thah we must talk more about wath capitalism have done to all the cultures in the world... the perfect example is that the revolution is now fascion...

People die, cultures die, and i'm supose to belive that Sendero Luminoso haven been a terrible thing for peru...

How many peaple have been killed by hungry or by a clod in peru...
In South america, the only goal of all gouvernments is to have a good relation ship with the USA, but they never proctec there people...

SENDERO LUMINOSO, can't killed as much as all the gouvernements of the history of peru.

At 9:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comment.

My understanding was that the people of Peru hate Sendero Luminoso -- thus their angry reaction to the bag that Cameron Diaz had.

Communism had a pretty miserable record in the 20th century, so far as I can see. It broke a lot of eggs but never produced that promised omelette. No wonder those who have experienced it first-hand hate it.

As for much of your comment, I don't see that it has a lot to do with the topic of my blog entry, which was about my own learning process, particularly the lesson that taught me to put ethics ahead of aesthetics and to accept responsibility for knowing what a symbol really means before appropriating it as a fashion statement.

Jeffery Hodges

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