William James once wrote:
The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. "I am no such thing," it would say; "I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone."
What did he know anyway? He was just an old white dude.
One of Beverly Hills's most venerable institutions knows better and has taken the lead once again.
In response to the threats of Oscar boycotts among the likes of Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, and under the social media storm hashtagged as #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences took a dramatic decision to address institutional racism last week. It committed to diversify its ranks by doubling the number of women and minority members and by limiting the voting rights of its most veteran members, most of whom are crustaceans, umm, I mean old white dudes. As producer and former Academy Board of Governors member Bill Mechanic remarked about the deeply deliberative recent rule changes (with apologies to the Oscar nominated Trumbo): "Mainly, the thing to me that's good is purging the active member rolls."
Full disclosure: I am not nor have I ever been a member of the Academy, though I have spent most of my life working in the film industry. But as an American-Swedish-Canadian-Jewish ukulelist, I am appalled at the lack of representation of this group among the current and past nominees, not to mention the Academy Board of Governors.
I did, however, previously sit on the Swedish Academy Award selection committee, which was responsible for selecting the Swedish contribution to the Academy's "Best Foreign Language" film category. Despite my best efforts, even that committee was marked by a lack of diversity, as it never selected a non-Swedish film for Academy consideration (sadly negating my advocacy for the Swedish dubbed version of A Night at the Roxbury).
Notwithstanding its current crisis-control efforts, it seems clear that the Academy did not go far enough in its attempts to diversify. Even with a female CEO and a female minority president, the Academy could not ensure a diversity of nominations in this year's monotone slate of nominees.
The answer is pretty clear and it's also pretty simple: Academy Award nominations, as well as the ultimate awarding of the Oscars themselves, should be allotted on a pro rata quota system to reflect the diversity of America and the world at large. In conjunction with the Mechanical purging of the voter rolls, additional rules should be instituted which ensure that no individual can be awarded two Academy Awards until all those eligible have received one. #OscarFairnessMatters.
As Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs made clear, the Academy should pro-actively take the lead in diversity equity. Once more it has the ability to pioneer in our postmodern world by helping to redefine the concept of minorities, pluralism and inclusion. Traditional ethnic classifications no longer seem valid: how does it, for example, make any sense that the children of an Italian emigrant would be considered "Hispanic" if she had moved to Argentina, but "White" if she had moved to Australia?
These days the concepts of race and ethnic classification have become both fluid and confusing; when we talk about "people of color," we should probably remember that none of us are translucent (though some may, in fact, be more transparent than others, usually having nothing to do with race or ethnic background). In fact, we are all "people of color." Some of us may have different shades of skin color, and, again, old classifications hardly seem to be useful these days. I know individuals of Persian, Israeli, French and Swedish backgrounds who have darker skin hues than other individuals in the traditional "minority" classes. There has to be a better way than relying upon these fusty, ambiguous categories.
Just as celluloid has been supplanted by digital, just as CGI has replaced matte paintings, we can look towards new technology to solve the enduring questions of color in Tinseltown's multi-racial rainbow world.
Perhaps with sponsorship from Technicolor, the Academy could pioneeringly enact a new system of membership classification to promote true diversity by developing new ISO 15076 color standards, which would encode the actual nuances of Academy members' skin colors, with eye and hair colors being secondary considerations. Various classifications could be developed to determine eligibility for Academy membership, individual Academy committees, as well as awards, ensuring true and meaningful diversity of people of color for all Academy activities.
The Academy's pioneering postmodern quota system could represent another instance of Hollywood's leading the way in equality and civil rights. A fair and balanced quota system for and within the Academy could lead to more postmodern solutions in other fields which are in desperate need of diversity. Everything from Wall St. to the NHL, the NBA and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awards the Grammys, could adopt similar quota systems to ensure social justice, equality, safe spaces and unruffled feelings.
While some might suggest the Academy's recent actions disadvantage the Academy's senior members, let's remember that while some of their voting rights may indeed be revoked in the purge, these non-voting members will be given the honorific "emeritus." No, that is not a euphemism for "second class members," it means they will be entitled to go to Academy screenings and won't even have to pay membership dues. Who needs to vote with such perks?
In fact, the Academy's actions towards their most senior members may provide a model for other aspects of society beyond mere trade and professional organizations.
Let's look at government. How often have we heard that government lacks diversity, is out of step, out of touch, and suffers from old fogyism? While some may applaud older people's unique perspectives, experience and institutional wisdom, aren't these people ultimately collectively responsible for the current lack of diversity our society is suffering from? Isn't this ultimately their mess?
Since not only veteran Academy voters are the only ones out of touch, maybe we should consider adopting the new Academy rules within our governmental electoral system. Heck, our seniors have already had their days of privilege and they're going to be dead soon anyway. In the name of diversity, and in line with Bill Mechanic's bravely tooled new world, why not just purge them from the national, state and local election voter rolls? Let's call them "emeritus citizens," allow them to keep collecting Social Security, organize bingo tournaments for them and be done with it.
Because diversity matters. Social media matters. Hashtags matter.
Just ask the Academy.
The above article originally appeared in The Beverly Hills Courier on Jan. 29, 2016.