Tuesday, February 26, 2013 2:24 PM
Most of us think of dolls as children's playthings, but they have a story to tell about race, culture, heritage, and history.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Collectors Weekly.
As a little girl, Samantha Knowles didn’t stop to consider why
most of her dolls—her American Girl dolls, her Cabbage Patch Kids, her Barbie
dolls—were black like her. But black dolls were not common in her upstate New York hometown, whose
population remains overwhelmingly white. So when Knowles was 8 years old, one
of her friends innocently asked “Why do you have black dolls?” And she didn’t
know quite what to say.
But that question stuck with her, and in college, she started to consider
how she would answer as an adult. Finally, as an undergraduate film student at
Dartmouth, she connected with a small but passionate group of black doll
enthusiasts who gather at black doll shows around the country, and for her
senior honors thesis, Knowles, now 22, completed a documentary called Why Do You Have Black Dolls? to articulate the answer.
What the Brooklyn filmmaker didn’t know was that her mother felt so strongly
that her daughters, Samantha and Jillian, have dolls of
their own race, that she would stand in line at stores or make special
orders to make sure they got one of the few black versions. “My parents
made sure to get us a lot of black dolls in a wide variety of hues and shapes,”
Samantha Knowles says. “We didn’t have exclusively black dolls, but we had
mostly black dolls. After I started working on the film, I had a lot of
conversations with my mom, and she would say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what I had to
go through to get some of those dolls!’”
Many black doll enthusiasts, like Debbie Behan Garrett, the
author of “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and
Experiencing the Passion,” feels the same way as Knowles’ mother.
“I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,”
Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking
being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to
understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are
force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then
they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’”
Why Do You Have Black Dolls? debuted in October at the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival
in New York City,
where it won the Reel Sisters Spirit Award. It has also been selected for
the Martha’s Vineyard African-American
Film Festival and the Hollywood Black Film
Festival in Beverly Hills.
In the film, doll maker Debra Wright says when little girls see her dolls,
they’ll exclaim happily, “Look at her hair! It’s just like mine.”
In fact, Knowles says that Wright gave a quote that best sums up her answer
to the question posed by the film: “I think women know that they’re beautiful,”
Wright says. “But when you see a doll, it’s such a wonderful reminder of that
beauty—because somebody took the time to make a doll in your likeness.”
Among Knowles interviewees were Barbara Whiteman, a longtime black doll
collector who runs the 25-year-old Philadelphia
Doll Museum where she has a rotating display of 300 of her collection of
1,000 black dolls. On Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, Knowles’ documentary screens as
a part of the Black History Month programming at the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
Five black-doll collecting sisters Debra Britt, Felicia Walker, Celeste Cotton,
Tamara Mattison, and Kareema Thomas opened that museum in the summer of 2012 to
teach black history and showcase their collection of 6,200 dolls.
The only black girl at her school in 1950s Dorchester, Massachusetts,
Debra Britt grew up carrying the vinyl white Baby Bye-Lo doll. “I didn’t have a
lot of self-esteem with it.” Britt says. “I had big issues because I was black
and fat, and kids were teasing me. And I had to ride a bus with nobody on it.
When I would get to school, the other kids shook my bus every day and called me
Britt’s grandmother stepped in and started dip-dying store-bought dolls
brown for her granddaughter, and she also taught Britt how to make African wrap
dolls from a gourd, an apple, and vines. These dolls were also made by slaves
on plantations in the South, who would have their children put in a pebble to
represent each fear or worry and relieve them of the burdens. “My grandmother
kept saying, ‘You don’t know where you’re coming from and you need to.’” Britt
says. “And so she made this African wrap doll and gave me the history.”
Read the rest of this article and see more photos of black dolls through history at Collectors Weekly.
Image (top): Jillian Knowles, Samantha’s younger sister, sits with their doll collection from childhood in a still from Why Do You Have Black Dolls?
Thursday, February 02, 2012 10:47 AM
Honesty has ceased to be seen as a virtue, and with its decline “our society risks a future of moral numbness,” writes William Damon in Defining Ideas, a journal published by the Hoover Institution at Harvard University. Damon is well aware that the little deception is sometimes morally justifiable, but he posits that “a basic intent to be truthful, along with an assumption that people can be generally taken at their word, is required for all sustained civilized dealings.”
And that’s not what he’s seeing out there in our schools, businesses, and institutions. Writes Damon in “The Death of Honesty”:
Although truthfulness is essential for good human relationships and personal integrity, it is often abandoned in pursuit of other life priorities.
Indeed, there may be a perception in many key areas of contemporary life—law, business, politics, among others—that expecting honesty on a regular basis is a naïve and foolish attitude, a “loser’s” way of operating. Such a perception is practically a mandate for personal dishonesty and a concession to interpersonal distrust. When we no longer assume that those who communicate with us are at least trying to tell the truth, we give up on them as trustworthy persons and deal with them only in a strictly instrumental manner. The bounds of mutual moral obligation dissolve, and the laws of the jungle reemerge.
Damon singles out schools, with their laxness toward cheating, as a large part of the problem behind slipping ethics. But he makes no specific mention of the legions of business leaders whose base dishonesty led to the spectacular financial collapse and ongoing recession that has plagued the country for several years. Maybe it’s because Damon is too humble to suggest that they didn’t read his 2004 book: The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing.
Source: Defining Ideas
Monday, November 28, 2011 4:14 PM
Sleek, clutter-free modernist homes are not for everybody. In fact, sometimes they’re not even for modernist architecture writers. Design critic Adele Weder writes in The Walrus about leasing a modernist Vancouver house—the type of dwelling she has written about for two decades—only to find her minimalist ideals clashing with the messy realities of domestic family life.
“Like a surprising number of my peers in this glamorous industry, I’m a slovenly sort,” she confesses, allowing that “we do our jobs as diligently as we can, but we can’t tell you what a house is like to live in. After all, we rarely prepare a meal or spend the night, let alone settle down to live there.”
In Weder’s rented home, fingerprints and possessions easily marred the gleaming kitchen surfaces, a lack of interior walls led to a lack of privacy, and a step in the middle of the kitchen floor “triggered a series of spectacular wipeouts” for family members. “Our daughters started calling our place the hurty house,” she writes. Eventually she was forced to face a hard truth:
Sometimes we need hiding places; sometimes we yearn to dissolve into the woodwork, to blend into the wallpaper. As the postmodernist writer J.G. Ballard once observed, “Most people, myself included, find it difficult to be clear-eyed at all times and rise to the demands of a pure and unadorned geometry. Architecture supplies us with camouflage.”
When you don’t need camouflage, the modernist house can be the most beautiful dwelling on earth. Like any digital medium, though, it’s either on or off—either pristine or a pigsty—with no in-between. That bowl of leftovers or that empty pizza box, any bit of human residue, shatters the illusion of purity. The conventional house, filled with nooks and crannies, may look dumpier, but it is more forgiving of human entropy.
Source: The Walrus
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Thursday, August 18, 2011 5:29 PM
Doctors cut off newborn boys’ foreskins less and less these days. Once upon a time, more parents than not chose to have their sons circumcised; today, the U.S. circumcision rate is just 30 percent. The practice is so out of favor that San Francisco has been discussing banning circumcision outright.
An activist group collected enough signatures to get a male genital mutilation bill listed on the city’s November ballot, although a judge recently ordered the bill off the ballot, citing the illegality of voters regulating medical procedures. The proposed ban would have turned snipping foreskins into a misdemeanor and subjected MDs who perform the act to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
All this talk of criminalizing circumcision dismisses its very real health benefits, argues pediatrician Edgar Schoen in The Bay Citizen. For many medical professionals, the infections and diseases that can plague those with intact foreskins make circumcision the most sound decision. Eliminating this tricky fold of skin results in “tenfold protection against severe infant kidney infections [and] lifetime prevention of foreskin infections [and] retraction problems,” Schoen explains. “Penile cancer is found almost exclusively in uncircumcised men and cervical cancer is more common in women with uncircumcised partners.” A foreskin also makes men more vulnerable to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
On the other side of the blade stand activists such as Lloyd Schofield, who led the campaign to ban circumcision within San Francisco city limits, as well as ordinary parents who choose not the circumcise their kids for a variety of compelling reasons, such as: It’s natural to keep your child’s penis intact. The surgery itself can be botched. Sexual sensation is increased because penile nerves are preserved. Some argue that health problems can largely be kept at bay with adequate cleansing, which is accessible to most middle-class Americans.
Schofield is considering an appeal of the judge’s ruling. Ultimately, though, with good reasons for and against, circumcision belongs squarely in the “choice” category. As Dr. Emily Blake says to The Jewish Daily Forward:
It is anathema to me that a city as open as San Francisco would begin to discriminate and limit options for anybody. If the person who started the movement wanted to initiate discussion or a thoughtful engagement, that would be wonderful. But an outright ban is just an infringement on everybody’s rights.
Source: The Bay Citizen, The Jewish Daily Forward
Image by Franco Folini
, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 29, 2011 4:08 PM
In New York City, an intense battle over new bike lanes has erupted into a fierce cultural war. But New York Press reminds us that this isn’t the first time a new mode of transportation has opened a schism in the city’s social fabric. Aaron Napartek, who founded the bike advocacy site Streetsblog, writes:
The tabloid ravings, harsh police tactics and political posturing aimed against bikes and bike lanes may seem intense today. In a historic context, however, the Bike Backlash of 2011 is nothing compared to the battle that took place during the decade after World War I when organized “motordom” carved out its place on New York City streets. …
University of Virginia professor Peter Norton details the early history of the car and the city in his wonky but fascinating book, Fighting Traffic. He describes the “blood, grief and anger in the American city” and the “violent revolution in the streets” of New York and other U.S. cities as automobile owners bullied their way on to city streets, literally leaving a trail of mangled children’s bodies in their wake.
In the 1920s, motor vehicle crashes killed more than 200,000 Americans, a staggering number considering how many fewer cars actually existed in those days. These days, 35,000 or so Americans are killed in car wrecks annually. Most of the dead are drivers and passengers on highways and in rural places. In the 1920s, most of the dead were kids living in cities. In the first four years after the Armistice of World War I, more Americans were killed in car wrecks than had died in battle in France.
Some critics of the time called the automobile “a pagan idol demanding sacrifice,” according to Norton, and street mobs sometimes set upon reckless motorists who’d hit pedestrians.
Now, the body count in today’s bike lane wars is admittedly no comparison. But the tenor of the rhetoric is often just as shrill. “Bike lanes have gone from simple strips of pavement festooned with green and white paint to sponges for a sea of latent cultural and economic anxieties,” writes New York magazine in a dispatch from the front lines, “Is New York too New York for bike lanes?”
Naparstek is ultimately hopeful about the outcome in Gotham: “Minds will change and the Great Bike Backlash will soon come to an end. … We’re just waiting for the culture to catch up to the infrastructure.”
UPDATE 8/9/2011: A new poll shows two out of three New Yorkers support the new bike lanes, the New York Observer reports—but only 27 percent believe more lanes should be added.
Source: New York Press, Streetsblog, New York, New York Observer
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Wednesday, June 08, 2011 11:01 AM
Criticizing any aspect of hip-hop culture is a task fraught with danger. If you’re white, you might be called a racist. If you’re black, you might be called Bill Cosby. And if you’re over 30, you might just be called old.
Author Thomas Chatterton Williams—30 years old, black, and a fan of hip-hop music—is unafraid to enter the fray. His book Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, recently released in paperback, lays down a strong critique of the disturbing messages behind the beats. Marc Smirnoff of the Oxford American interviewed Williams in a Q&A with the baiting title “Is Hip-Hop Evil?”
Williams contends that thug-life fantasies are sold because they are profitable commodities—follow the money, follow the money—not because they capture the totality of the black experience. These fantasies distort reality in order to confuse children and get their money—in so doing, hip-hop is toying with heavy consequences.
Here are some of Williams’ most provocative lines from the interview:
• “[In hip-hop] the material side of life has been so overemphasized, so glorified over the intangible, over the intellectual, over the spiritual, even over the artistic. This is a shame. This is why Jay-Z can say, ‘I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars’ and his listeners, far from being offended, actually respect him all the more for it!”
• “So many have been taught to define themselves and one another as niggas and bitches, thugs, goons, hustlers, pimps, dealers, gangstas, hoodlums … If you believe, as I do, that how you describe and present yourself has any correlation with how you feel about yourself, then it’s hard not to see some self-hatred going on here.”
• “Even in the upper-middle classes, it’s amazing the degree to which blacks buy into an idea that intellectual development is not cool. … And that is why Barack Obama said we must ‘eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.’ It was incredible that the president had the bravery to address the issue, but he can’t do it alone. Too many of our black academics—and white academics—today are content to spend their time making the case on television that rappers are really our modern-day philosophers and bards. What I wish they would do instead is make the case that all of us should be reading more philosophy and literature.”
Source: Oxford American
Image by Luke Abiol, courtesy of The Penguin Press.
Thursday, May 12, 2011 1:10 PM
A yak prances across the stage, tossing its horns playfully, led by a wide-eyed boy with a dranyen guitar slung across his back. Together they’re journeying to Lhasa, the “place of the gods,” one of the epicenters of Tibetan spiritual life. The boy—named Tenzin—has recently left the familial comforts of village life to focus his mind at a monastery. He’s quite afraid, yet courageous.
Tenzin’s coming-of-age story is the subject of “KIPO!: A Circus of Spirit, Song, and Dance from Tibet, the Land of Snow,” a richly cultural production playing in Minneapolis, Minn., in coordination with the recent visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The ongoing performance is a collaboration between the Minneapolis-based TigerLion Arts troupe and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, an organization founded by the current Dalai Lama to “preserve the rich cultural heritage of Tibet.” Education is a primary mission of both organizations, and during KIPO! the audience gets a primer on the diversity of Tibetan culture and spirituality.
As Tenzin travels through the countryside, he encounters every stripe of Tibetan society: He helps plant crops with barley farmers, follows a band of highland wanderers, and prostrates himself beside an elder monk. All of these interactions are colored by traditional songs and dances, many taught to him by the strangers he meets on his path. Tenzin stomps along to the Drum Dance Festival of central Tibet, lends his voice to the poly-harmonic ballad at a marriage celebration, and looks on with awe at the uncannily spiritual Black Hat Dance. After crossing the Himalayan mountain range with some 80,000 other Tibetans in 1959 after the Chinese army’s invasion, Tenzin sadly watches the Skeleton Dance, a burial ritual meant to help shuttle the souls of the dead into the next life.
Tibet’s loaded wardrobe is also on display throughout Tenzin’s quest. The short pants, embroidered boots, and fur-lined tunics meant for day-to-day wear share the stage with women’s tasseled, vibrant aprons and elaborate, ceremonial headgear.
KIPO! (which means “happy”) ends on an uplifting note. After trudging through snowy mountain passes and losing family members to the invading army, Tenzin and his fellow Tibetans find a new home in Dharamsala, India. Here he puts his guitar-plucking skills and freshly learned dance moves to good use by joining the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (for a straightforward production, it gets a little meta at the end). He spends the rest of his days teaching others about his culture that was almost lost. If you’re in the Minneapolis area through Saturday, May 22, it would be worthwhile to hear his tale.
Images courtesy of TigerLion Arts.
Friday, April 01, 2011 4:22 PM
America loves superheroes. Britain, not so much. Nick Harkaway at the British magazine Prospect points out that “John Constantine, the brutal magus anti-hero of DC Comics’ Hellblazer, once observed that Britain is a country where no one would have the nerve to wear a cape in public, even if they did have powers far beyond those of mortal men.”
Meanwhile, Americans, having flocked to films about Iron Man, Spiderman, and the Hulk, will likely do the same this spring and summer for movies featuring Thor (May), the X-Men (June), and Captain America (July).
What’s the attraction? Harkaway suggests America’s fascination with firearms plays a key role in our love for caped crusaders:
The gun, of course, is the elephant in the room in all superhero stories. Despite—and because of—the central position occupied by guns in American culture, superheroes exist in a space where conventional firearms are the tool of lesser men. Superman simply ignores them—in the latest movie, a bullet impacts with the lens of his eye and shatters—and Batman is so adept in his control of situations and martial artistry that he is immune. Iron Man’s armour is impervious, likewise Captain America’s shield, Green Lantern’s ring, the car in Green Hornet. X-Men’s Wolverine heals instantly and has an indestructible skeleton. Their refusal to take up the gun shows their superhuman natures, and sanctions their non-lethal actions. If Batman is going to disadvantage himself in this way, it’s only fair that he break a few arms and legs. Mundane concerns melt away, leaving only extraordinary ones, which are vehicles for questions of identity and about what such power means.
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Thursday, January 06, 2011 12:53 PM
Is it possible to understand how an entire society thinks, to objectively examine the sum of a culture’s obsessions and anxieties, its fetishes and fascinations? And if so, could we extrapolate some deeper historical truth from the exercise, or just a mass of superficial conclusions? Cultural anthropologists write ethnographies, urban planners crunch demographic statistics, and media watchdogs sniff out trends and biases in mainstream media with the hope of gleaning some understanding the zeitgeist, be it past or present. But the various fields of study, due to their inherent specificity, can’t help missing the bigger picture. Even the shrewd, data-driven analysis of the urban planner is imperfect; it misses the nebulous, unquantifiable nuances of human experience. How do you statistically account for a heightened fear of foreigners, or infatuation with celebrities, or changes in artistic aesthetics? Assuming that we even want to know the contours of our national culture from an outside perspective, we’ll need to form an uncommon alliance: between scholars in the humanities and the arbiters-of-all-knowledge Google.
One of Google’s latest gifts to the Ivory Tower is Ngrams, an easy-to-use interface that pulls word-frequency data from the company’s massive database of books and plots them against a timeline. By agglomerating the text of as many books as possible from every conceivable field of writing, the theory behind Ngrams goes, one can begin to form a more comprehensive idea of what our culture is (and has been) all about.
This type of broad, numbers-based study of texts (called corporal studies in academia) isn’t entirely new, but computer-accelerated applications like Ngrams lend the practice an unprecedented computational power. A recent article in The Chronicle Review guardedly appraises this new scholarly field of “culturomics.” (Culturomics is meant to rhyme with genomics and carries the same assumptions: that culture can be quantified and then decoded, just like the human genome.) The article’s author, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, frets that anyone with an internet connection can become an armchair-statistician-cum-cultural-critic. “I think that [Yale comparative literature scholar Katie] Trumpener is quite right to predict that second-rate scholars will use the Google Books corpus to churn out gigabytes of uninformative graphs and insignificant conclusions,” writes Nunberg. “But it isn’t as if those scholars would be doing more valuable work if they were approaching literature from some other point of view.”
People poking around on Ngrams will ultimately be beneficial to scholarship. “Whatever misgivings scholars may have about the larger enterprise, the data will be a lot of fun to play around with,” writes Nunberg. “And for some—especially students, I imagine—it will be a kind of gateway drug that leads to more-serious involvement in quantitative research.”
So here’s a bit of armchair scholarship. I plotted the use of two phrases (above) that mean a lot to us at Utne Reader—“alternative press” and “mainstream media”—from year 1900 to 2000. Both phrases don’t come into use until about 1970. Although “alternative press” enjoys more of a presence in written discourse for the following 15 years, “mainstream media” begins to skyrocket into our consciousness in 1985. What inferences can we draw? Perhaps the accelerated use of “mainstream media” is a symptom of an expanding cable news network or growing academic interest in the subject. Might the stagnation of “alternative press” be indicative of suppression of fringe opinions? And should this inflate our underdog ego? Admittedly, it’s hard to conclude anything from these graphs. After all, I was just playing around on Google.
Source: The Chronicle Review
Image by Carlos Luna, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 15, 2010 2:20 PM
It seems that extraverts increasingly rule the world: People tell all on reality shows, long to be the next American Idol, and rush to share everything about their lives via phone, e-mail, and the Internet. But psychotherapist and Introvert Power author Laurie Helgoe reminds us in Psychology Today that introverts haven’t gone away. We’re just quietly dealing with the demands of living in a loud, in-your-face society that doesn’t understand us—even in its insistence that it just wants us to be happy:
Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation. To digest it, they do best in quiet environments, interacting one on one. Further, their brains are less dependent on external stimuli and rewards to feel good.
As a result, introverts are not driven to seek big hits of positive emotional arousal—they’d rather find meaning than bliss—making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture. In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health. As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge—not to feel like misfits in their own culture.
If you’re saying “Right on!” then you too are probably an introvert, whose ranks compose a full half of the populace but whose behavior still seems suspect to many—including mental health professionals, apparently. The World Health Organization still pathologizes introversion, and the American Psychiatric Association is “considering a proposal to include introversion in the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5),” Helgoe wrote with Nancy Ancowitz on the Psychology Today website:
In the United States giddy and garrulous are good, and quiet and contemplative are suspect. The WHO’s definition and APA’s proposed definition of introversion align with that rigid Western bias.
It seems that things haven’t gotten a whole lot better for introverts since Jonathan Rauch wrote his short essay “Caring for Your Introvert” for The Atlantic in 2003, a deftly written manifesto that was widely circulated.
Helpfully, Psychology Today drops a few tips on what not to say to introverts:
• “Why don’t you like parties? Don’t you like people?”
• “Surprise, we’ve decided to bring the family and stay with you for the weekend.”
• Above all, says one life and leadership coach, “We hate people telling us how we can be more extraverted, as if that’s the desired state.”
Sources: Psychology Today, The Atlantic
Friday, October 01, 2010 3:18 PM
Lots of Americans say they’re religious, but a new poll finds many of them don’t actually know that much about world religions—their own included. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum found that U.S. atheists and agnostics, along with Jews and Mormons, are actually more conversant than Christians in many faith-related facts.
While that basic takeaway is rich with irony—some of the least religious people know the most about religion—it confirms what some atheists have long suspected, and a few of them are bursting with pride about the results (which for them is not a sin, of course). Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, told Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times:
“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
That’s not to say that believers don’t know anything about their own faiths, but rather that atheists and agnostics are well versed in a wider range of religious topics. Mormons and evangelical Protestants, for example, are very knowledgable on questions specifically relating to the Bible and Christianity, and atheists and agnostics aren’t far behind. According to the survey results:
On questions about Christianity—including a battery of questions about the Bible—Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.
Jeffrey Weiss at Politics Daily quibbles with the survey’s approach—“Too many [of the questions] read to me as if they were taken from a religion version of Trivial Pursuit,” he writes—but he notes that the results line up in a way with previous surveys that reveal a related phenomenon:
Academics call it the Religion Congruence Fallacy: In survey after survey, year after year, Americans who say they belong to a particular religious tradition tend not to act like it.
To take an easy set of examples: Conservative Protestants are no less likely than other Protestants to have been divorced, to have seen an X-rated movie in the last year, or to be sexually active even if they aren’t married. Even though their church teaches strongly that all three practices are wrong.
Maybe that’s because many of us don’t know all that much about the faith tradition we say we profess—or what makes it distinctive from any other.
Ignorance about our own or other religions is not necessarily an American tradition: As Ted Widmer recently reminded us in the Boston Globe, even the men who wrote the Constitution were quite familiar with the Koran:
As usual, the Founders were way ahead of us. They thought hard about how to build a country of many different faiths. And to advance that vision to the fullest, they read the Koran, and studied Islam with a calm intelligence that today’s over-hyped Americans can only begin to imagine. They knew something that we do not. To a remarkable degree, the Koran is not alien to American history — but inside it.
Meanwhile, Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century suggests that atheists, agnostics, and Jews shouldn’t get too uppity about their good marks on the religion exam:
Atheists/agnostics and Jews didn’t actually do better on the Christianity questions than Christians did, just nearly as well—and considerably better on all the others. This is perfectly intuitive: minority groups know more about the majority than vice versa, because majority culture tends to define what counts as general knowledge. So most Jews know where Jesus was born, even though few Christians know much about Buddhism. Jesus makes the cover of one general-interest magazine or another ever month or so, and it only takes a couple shopping trips between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to accidentally memorize the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
What do you know about religion? Take the Pew Forum’s 15-question religious knowledge sample quiz and find out.
Sources: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, New York Times, Politics Daily, Boston Globe, Christian Century
Utne Reader editorial intern Will Wlizlo contributed to this post.
Image by dottorpeni, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:42 PM
Many American Indian tribes across the nation hold powwows that are basically megaconcerts, with tickets sold to the nontribal general public. Visitors often come away from these events thinking that they’ve gotten an authentic glimpse into Indian traditions and spirituality, a perception fueled by some tribes’ marketing. “It is truly an honor to attend a powwow,” states the web page of the Northern Colorado Intertribal Pow-wow Association Inc.—an honor, incidentally, that’s available to anyone with ticket money.
But what exactly is a powwow, and what are its ties to Indian tradition? Ojibwe historian Anton Treuer sets the record straight in the book Ojibwe in Minnesota, which was recently published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press:
Powwow itself is new. It did not exist seventy years ago. It is a pan-Indian combination of Omaha grass dance ceremonies, Dakota war dances, Ojibwe dreams about the jingle dress, and rodeo customs, where dancers who used to parade into army forts in tribal war regalia now parade into the powwow arena in dance regalia for grand entry. There are many types of powwows. But [many powwows] involve singers and dancers competing for money. Participants’ abilities to sing and dance are highly valued, supplanting older cultural ideals of community cohesion, inclusiveness, and respectful generosity. The modern powwow is a welcome, healthy gathering of people from many communities. It is a joyous social event and source of community pride. But it is not a substitute for traditional Ojibwe religion or ways of life.
Treuer points out that powwows have become big business. Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota spends more than $100,000 for prize money on its Labor Day powwow alone, not to mention the many smaller powwows it presents:
The powwow budget for Leech Lake completely eclipses tribal expenditures on traditional culture and Ojibwe language revitalization. Tribes and tribal people are agents of their own cultural change.
So remember that if you attend a large commercial powwow, you are more likely watching a sort of American Indian Idol than a sacred and ancient ceremony. It may be fun, and entertaining, and spectacular, but it’s probably no more traditional than the fry bread they’re selling at the food stands.
Because Minnesota has been at the epicenter of many Indian sovereignty, treaty rights, and social justice issues, Treuer’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in Indian history. From the fur trade and Ojibwe-Dakota relations right up through ugly public skirmishes over spearfishing and casinos, Ojibwe in Minnesota is a clear, candid, and authoritative overview of a people whose epic history is still unfolding.
Source: Ojibwe in Minnesota
Image by Nic's events, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, May 13, 2010 10:02 AM
“An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book—any unread book—could change your life.” So begins Kristy Logan’s essay for The Millions, Confined by Pages: The Joy of Unread Books.
It’s a beautifully expressed sentiment. And for Logan, it’s justification for the 800 unread books on her shelves. “Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right,” she writes. “But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories.”
I'm reminded of something the essayist Gabriel Zaid once wrote: “The truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.” Responding to Zaid, the British writer Nick Hornby wrote: “That's me! And you, probably! That's us! … With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”
What about you? Is there joy in the unread books on your shelves? Or is it all just noise?
Source: The Millions
Image by gadl, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, April 22, 2010 3:04 PM
Our library contains 1,300 publications—a feast of magazines, journals, alt weeklies, newsletters, and zines—and every year we honor the stars in our Utne Independent Press Awards. We’ll announce this year’s winners on Sunday, April 25, at the MPA’s Independent Magazine Group conference in Washington, D.C., and post them online the following Monday. We’re crazy about these publications, and we’d love it for all of our readers to get to know them better, too. So, every weekday until the conference, we’ll be posting mini-introductions to our complete list of 2010 nominees.
The following eight magazines are our 2010 nominees in the category of environmental coverage.
American environmentalists would be wise to look to Canada’s Alternatives Journal for cogent, well-informed reporting and commentary on green issues. The official publication of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada puts topics from climate change to local food into clear-eyed perspective. www.alternativesjournal.ca
Audubon rightly believes that if you care about birds, you care about the environment. The Audubon Society’s magazine is a must-read for nature watchers of all kinds, digging into its subjects with a keen eye for both natural beauty and the forces that threaten it. www.audubonmagazine.org
Published by the Society for Conservation Biology, Conservation transcends its modest roots with intellectual depth. From profiling “the mushroom messiah” to asking “Is a warmer world a sicker world?” it gets to the environmental stories that demand our attention. www.conservationmagazine.org
A publication of the Earth Island Institute, the group founded by activist legend David Brower, Earth Island Journal reports from the front lines of the environmental crisis. Its global focus and eagerness for stimulating debate make it a must-read for greens. www.earthisland.org/journal
The footnotes in Environment magazine say “academics at work”—but the stories will have you asking “Why isn’t anyone else writing about this?” This publication covering “science and policy for sustainable development” goes in-depth but never gets out of reach. www.environmentmagazine.org
The Western United States is a key battleground for many environmental issues, and High Country News is your experienced and knowledgeable correspondent from the front lines. Its watchdog coverage of mining, ranching, logging—and simply Western life—is unmatched. www.hcn.org
The quarterly journal of the Natural Resources Defense Council, OnEarth keeps tabs on what’s happening to our land, air, water, and wildlife. It’s a pretty nature magazine, but it also brings a keenly analytic eye to the societal and political dimensions of environmentalism. www.onearth.org
The most literary of environmental magazines, Orion takes a big view, touching on spirituality, philosophy, and the arts in its gorgeous pages. Thoughtfully provocative columnists keep it from drifting off into the rapidly warming atmosphere. www.orionmagazine.org
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 3:30 PM
Our library contains 1,300 publications—a feast of magazines, journals, alt weeklies, newsletters, and zines—and every year we honor the stars in our Utne Independent Press Awards. We’ll announce this year’s winners on Sunday, April 25, at the MPA’s Independent Magazine Group conference in Washington, D.C., and post them online the following Monday. We’re crazy about these publications, and we’d love it for all of our readers to get to know them better, too. So, every weekday until the conference, we’ll be posting mini-introductions to our complete list of 2010 nominees.
The following eight magazines are our 2010 nominees in the category of arts coverage.
A celebration of handmade objects and the people who create them, American Craft brings to life the work of glassblowers, woodworkers, jewelry makers, and artisans of all stripes. Published by the American Craft Council, it covers its inspiring subjects from workbench to gallery. www.americancraftmag.org
An arts magazine with a decidedly literary bent, The Believer covers books, film, music, and pop culture with barely contained intellectual glee. Part of the McSweeney’s empire founded by author Dave Eggers, it constantly finds new ways to showcase the creative impulse. www.believermag.com
The arts, culture, and fashion of the Middle Eastern region are fertile ground for the writers and artists of Bidoun, who traverse their territory with wit and irreverence. Whether they’re living in the region or are part of the diaspora, their dispatches are crucial intelligence. www.bidoun.com
Each issue of Creative Review is eye-popping, showing some of the best work from worldwide advertising, design, and visual culture. Its articles add depth to this dazzle, profiling scenes, people, and creative work that you wouldn’t hear about any other way. www.creativereview.co.uk
Esopus is a visual feast, showcasing the work of contemporary artists alongside critical writing, fiction, poetry, interviews, and even a themed CD. The very definition of “labor of love,” it comes out only twice a year, but it’s always worth the wait. www.esopusmag.com
Forget box-office battles and vapid celebrity chatter: Film Comment focuses its lens on cinema’s substance. Drawing on a deep, experienced pool of critics and feature writers, the magazine gets off the red carpet to explore the wonderfully diverse film omniverse. www.filmlinc.com/fcm/fcm.htm
Published in Ireland but covering the entire world of music, The Journal of Music uses actual musicians as writers. The resulting coverage, which runs the gamut from folk to classical to pop, is arresting reading for both casual fans and aficionados. www.journalofmusic.com
Poets & Writers is targeted at wordsmiths, yet appeals to anyone who loves to get lost in a bookstore. And if you’re yet another hopeful unpublished author—come on, admit it—you’ll find good advice on finding an agent and a deal. www.pw.org
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 9:25 AM
From the New York Timestoday:
At least 14 radio stations here in the capital stopped broadcasting music on Tuesday, heeding an ultimatum by an Islamist insurgent group to stop playing songs or face “serious consequences.”
The threat left radio stations scrambling to scrub even the briefest suggestion of music from their daily programming. "Bam! Bam! Bam!"—the sound of gunshots that Somalis in Mogadishu have grown accustomed to hearing—was played by Radio Shabelle on its news broadcast to replace the music it usually uses to introduce the segment.
Similarly odd sounds—like the roar of an engine, a car horn, animal noises and the sound of water flowing—were used to introduce programs on some of the other radio stations that stopped playing music.
"We have replaced the music of the early morning program with the sound of the rooster, replaced the news music with the sound of the firing bullet and the music of the night program with the sound of running horses," said Osman Abdullahi Gure, the director of Radio Shabelle radio and television, one of the most influential stations in Mogadishu.
I dug up a listing of Somali radio stations online at Radio Station World and I'm listening now.
Source: New York Times, Radio Station World
Thursday, April 08, 2010 2:14 PM
Does the WikiLeaks video released this week, showing U.S. Blackhawk helicopter crew members boasting and congratulating each other as they gun down unarmed journalists and children, reveal that U.S. military personnel take glee in killing?
Well, if it doesn’t, these bumper stickers spotted on the Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune Marine bases in North Carolina—and posted on the right-wing blog One Man’s Thoughts—will help anyone with doubts round out the picture. If you don’t live near an armed forces base or socialize with soldiers, this is the noble and morally conscious military culture you’re missing out on:
“Waterboarding Is Out So Kill Them All!”
“Interrogators Can’t Waterboard Dead Guys”
“U.S. Marines—Travel Agents to Allah”
“When in Doubt, Empty the Magazine”
“The Marine Corps—When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Be Destroyed Overnight”
“Marines—Providing Enemies of America an Opportunity to Die for their Country Since 1775”
“Happiness Is a Belt-Fed Weapon”
“Artillery Brings Dignity to What Would Otherwise Be Just a Vulgar Brawl”
“A Dead Enemy Is a Peaceful Enemy—Blessed Be the Peacemakers”
“Marine Sniper—You Can Run, But You’ll Just Die Tired!”
“What Do I Feel When I Kill a Terrorist? A Little Recoil”
Let me be clear: I know people who serve in the U.S. military. I admire their resolve, their courage, and their sense of duty. They do not have stickers like this on their vehicles.
Source: One Man’s Thoughts
Tuesday, March 02, 2010 5:13 PM
It’s at the root of the familiar phrase breaking bread: Sharing food is one of the most powerful rituals we perform as communities. Which is why the abundance of foods named for President Obama is worthy of a closer look, Mark Morton writes in Gastronomica.
Morton isn’t interested in glib corporate-level promotions—like a German frozen food company’s processed chicken “Obama Fingers”—rather the profusion of small diners, delis, and restaurants that have added Obama dishes to their fare: Obama burgers, sandwiches, fried chicken, cones, and fries. “In Cairo, Egyptian fruit sellers gave the name “President Obama” to their best fresh dates during the month of Ramadan,” he writes. “The honor is not trivial, considering that Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ended each day of fasting by eating dates.”
Eating an Obama sandwich—however suspect it might sound to a cycnic—is a form of social communion, Morton argues, not unlike consuming a piece of birthday cake decorated with a name or a slice of wedding cake topped with figurines of the happy couple. These restaurant owners “are trying to . . . reinvent a familiar custom,” he writes, “namely, the gathering of a community around an individual in order to bestow their collective support as he or she begins a new stage in life’s journey, and at the center of this custom is food.”
“If it were somehow possibly for Obama to share a meal for every one of his millions of supporters, there would be, I suspect, no profusion of homespun foods named after the President,” Morton writes. “But in the absence of that kind of personal opportunity to pledge support by breaking bread with their Commander in Chief, eating an Obama Burger might be the next best thing.”
Seeing as last month President Obama established a task force on childhood obesity and Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move campaign—a conflux we commemorated on Utne.com with a week of Cafeteria Chronicles blogging—perhaps we’ll see a renewed wave of presidential foods. This time, perhaps, instead of meaty, fried, and sugary fare, an Obama salad?
Image by justafoo, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, October 29, 2009 5:51 PM
Is kimchi that doesn’t stink really kimchi? KoreAm Journal reports that “Koreans everywhere were stunned” when the Los Angeles Times reported that an odorless type of kimchi had been patented. “Isn’t the pungent aroma precisely what makes kimchi, well, kimchi?” the magazine asks.
In the spirit of celebrating other fetid foodstuffs, KoreAm Journal walks readers through “a breakdown of the smelliest edibles from Asia.” Here are some of our favorite descriptions:
Dried squid: Koreans gnaw on dried squid while drinking beer and soju [a distilled spirit akin to sake]. Too bad the rubbery strands smell like dead mice.
Chungookjang: It’s the amino acid breakdown that gives this soybean paste its foot odor-like fragrance.
Its hellish aroma is caused by uric acid-soaked flesh that has been left out in room temperature for days.
The spiky shell should be warning enough. When cracked open, the fleshy, creamy interior emits a scent not unlike gasoline or rotten onions.
Source: KoreAm Journal
Image by Go 4 It, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009 11:06 AM
America has been a nation of sports nuts for even longer than you might imagine—a thousand years, in fact. In “America’s First Pastime,” Archaeology magazine (Sept.-Oct. 2009) writes about the early Native American game of chunkey, which involved throwing spears or sticks at a rolling, hockey-puck-size stone disk. The game was an important tradition in the culture that sprang up around the great prehistoric city called Cahokia, which existed near where St. Louis, Missouri, now lies. And apparently it was much more than just a game, being used to win converts, settle scores, and spread culture:
The people of Cahokia practiced human sacrifice, incorporated obelisk-like timber posts into their worship, told stories of superhuman men and women, used Mesoamerican-style flint daggers, and understood the cosmos in ways similar to Mesoamerican notions. They then spread this new way of life, which included intensified maize agriculture, across the Midwest and into the South and Plains with a religious fervor. Archaeologists refer to the culture as Mississippian, after the river that flows by many of its known sites.
One of the primary vehicles for the growth of this new civilization may have been Cahokian envoys who carried chunkey stones in one hand and war clubs in the other as they ventured into the hinterlands with the purpose of making peace or political alliances. These emissaries seem to have established and enforced a region-wide peace of sorts, a veritable Pax Cahokiana, an important element of which may have been the game of chunkey.
The article describes the biggest chunkey contests as great spectacles taking place on large town plazas with a 30- or 40-foot-tall obelisk or wooden post in the center on a raised mound. And if you think things get crazy when Manchester plays Liverpool or the Packers play the Vikings, consider that other nearby posts were used to exhibit enemy scalps, skulls, and recently captured foes who would soon be killed. “Not only was chunkey an important event,” the magazine writes, “but there were other possible associations, direct or indirect, with warfare and enemy executions.” Suddenly, burning a Brett Favre effigy seems almost tame by comparison.
The story of Cahokia itself, with its cultural undercurrents of brutality and power, is an incredible tale in its own right. The author of the Archaeology story, Timothy Pauketat, writes more extensively about it in his book, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, which is the subject of a recent Salon article, “Sacrificial Virgins on the Mississippi.” “Some of Pauketat’s ideas,” writes Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “are both speculative and controversial”—but with characters like “He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings,” they certainly are fascinating.
Source: Archaeology (abstract only online), Chippewa Valley Newspapers, Salon
Image by TimVickers, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, August 27, 2009 1:04 PM
For today’s coffee connoisseur steeped in the finer points of French presses and Italian espresso machines, the latest trend in coffeemaking may seem a bit déclassé: drip brewing. That’s right, the brewing method that our moms used is back, but this time it’s not Folgers in a Mr. Coffee machine: It’s of course being presented as an artisanal experience.
The August 12 Chicago Reader profiles the Asado Coffee Company, where proprietor Kevin Ashtari serves up manual-drip coffee. He roasts his own beans in-house and then practices his patient craft:
For each order of drip, he grinds half a cup of beans somewhere between fine and coarse. He then wets an unbleached, conical Melitta filter, to wash away any potential paper taste that could pollute the coffee. He inserts the filter into a porcelain dripper, set on a rack above a cup, then pours in the coffee and a dollop of hot water, just under the boiling point. Grounds bloom up in the filter and he stirs, slowly adding more water, still stirring and scraping the grounds down from the side of the filter. In about two minutes he’s made a bright, full-bodied, perfect cup of coffee, without a trace of bitterness. … Manual drip is probably most primitive and inconvenient way to make a cup of coffee, but because it allows absolute control over water temperature, proportion, and extraction, in the right hands, it can be dangerously good.
Ashtari become a drip-brew disciple after a 2005 visit to the San Francisco’s Blue Bottle Coffee Company, where baristas served up a cup of drip coffee whose body and clarity blew him away. But don’t expect the trend to spread to every java hut in the land: The Reader points out that Ashtari gets only about seven cups of coffee out of each pound of beans. Despite charging “two bucks a pop” for 12 ounces, “the only reason he makes any money is that he’s roasting his own.”
Retailers are already catering to newly reconverted drip brewers. Bee House sells Japanese-made porcelain coffee drippers, and the “liquid culture” magazine Imbibe writes in its September-October issue about the “coffee sock pot” that will make you a great cup of drip coffee—or should I say “maintain greater control over your coffee extraction”?
Sources: Chicago Reader, Imbibe (article not available online)
Image by biskuit, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:14 PM
Last weekend, my two young sons and I attached twin booster rockets to their Burley bike trailer and shot like a comet through the streets of Minneapolis. Actually, the rockets were tomato cages encased in wrapping paper, with red streamers serving as flames. And when I say “shot” I mean we traveled at 2 to 3 miles per hour. We were part of the bike parade in the Tour de Fat, a traveling bike festival with a carnivalesque atmosphere sponsored by the New Belgium Brewing Company.
We had the only twin booster rockets in the parade, but we weren’t the silliest bikers by any stretch. There were cowboys, Vikings, a green bumblebee, an Elvis, and men in dresses. Propellers whirled atop beanies, crazy wigs struggled to stay on heads, at least one toga got caught in rear brakes, and a sound system in a bike trailer pumped out cheesy hits from the ’80s. A good half of the riders had taken to heart the suggestion to “come as a participant, not a spectator” in this “costumed celebration of human-powered transportation.” We looked ridiculous, and we had a blast.
It was a refreshing change from past mega-bike rides I’ve been in, notably the now-infamous Critical Mass, which I sampled more than a decade ago. In the Tour de Fat there were no hyper-aggressive “corkers” blocking traffic at intersections and holding their bikes in the air like triumphant WWF champions. It didn’t feel like a hipster clique, even though there were plenty of trendy bike fashions on parade. Bikers of all ages, sizes, and abilities were welcome. And it didn’t matter what kind of bike you were on, as long as it had pedals. For once I didn’t feel as if the twitchy, track-standing dudes on meticulously color-coordinated fixies were looking down their noses at my ancient Trek mountain bike repurposed as a commuter ride. (I’ve been riding since you were in training pants, punks.) Again, the atmosphere was written right into the guidelines: “Honor all other bikes: All bikes are good bikes, and all those who ride them are good people.”
As we circled Minneapolis’ Lake of the Isles, it was amusing to see bystanders’ reactions to this rolling mass of weirdness. Most of them couldn’t resist a smile, and even the lines of drivers roadblocked to let the parade pass seemed less hostile than drivers held up by Critical Mass—though I admit I saw one unmoved SUV driver wearing that unmistakable “I hate bikers and all they represent” scowl. Looping back to the Tour de Fat venue, we engaged in more silliness: neo-vaudeville stage shows, a ring full of crazy bikes for people to ride, afternoon beer drinking, a funeral for a car (which had been given up by the lucky winner of a deluxe bike).
It struck me that perhaps this was a better approach to promoting bike power than the in-your-face confrontation of Critical Mass. By dressing in crazy costumes, encouraging diversity, and discouraging testosterone-charged grandstanding, we disarmed our potential foes and robbed them of any good reasons to tell us to get back on the sidewalks or, worse, back in our cars. Because, as more than one T-shirt proclaimed, Cars R Coffins. Long live bikes!
Sources: New Belgium, Critical Mass, Cars R Coffins
Image by dustinj, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, July 20, 2009 4:18 PM
Twitter will not single-handedly save journalism. It’s also not silly and dumb. “The single greatest export on the internet—greater, even, than information—is hyperbole,” Paul Constant writes for the Stranger, and the reactions to Twitter have dolled out hyperbole with gusto. Constant, a former Utne Reader contributor, dissects the Twitter phenomenon, the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, in messages of fewer than 140 characters. He also includes some great insights into internet culture. Here are some excerpts:
A great deal of time on the internet is spent finding different ways to say, "Oh, you didn't know that already? Huh. I've known for ages."
Here's another truth: Nobody has any clue what's going on. That's why sneering at Twitter is worse than blindly loving Twitter.
Historically, very little has been accomplished by being cynical (maybe some broken hearts have been prevented, but at what cost?).
Source: The Stranger
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 11:00 AM
On San Francisco’s Haight Street, “the Wal-Mart of bongs” is squeezing out good old-fashioned mom-and-pop head shops, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The city has responded to this double-pronged hippie-capitalist threat by enacting a three-year ban on new head shops in the Haight Ashbury district.
The paraphernalia behemoth in question is Goodfellas, which is described as an “uber-giant bong shop” by Joey Cain, president of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council. Cain says Goodfellas, with shelves of bongs that stretch from the floor to the rafters, is “what set everyone off.” Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius tallies the damage and the paradoxes at work here:
There isn’t any question that the bulk bong folks are hurting business for the old timers. Distractions has a for-sale sign over the door—“legendary head shop for sale”—and other stores admit to feeling the pressure. …However, the irony of head shops campaigning for regulation of head shops isn't lost of some of the residents.
Praveen Madan, co-owner of the Booksmith store on Haight, asks, “Do you really want the government to step in and decide which is a good business and which is bad?”
Image by Stallio, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, July 02, 2009 3:13 PM
Fireworks: Who could hate them? Plenty of people, it turns out:
Chris Conway hates fireworks for their “toxic consequences to our personal and environmental health.”
Troy Patterson at Slate hates fireworks for their “pomposity, aggression, triumphalism, and hubris.”
The U.K. campaign Ban the Bang hates fireworks because “all kinds of wild and domestic animals, but also children, the elderly and those of a nervous disposition can be seriously affected by modern, excessive fireworks.”
And finally, the blogger TexasLiberal hates fireworks because they’re dangerous, there’s a drought in his area (Houston), and you ought to be reading a book instead.
Or making fireworks out of yarn.
Happy Fourth of July. Kaboom!
Sources: Toxic Fireworks, Slate, Ban the Bang, TexasLiberal, Craft
Image courtesy of Chris Conway.
Sunday, April 05, 2009 11:04 PM
Alt Wire is a morning digest of links and information collected and explained by a different guest blogger every weekday. Today's guest is Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man. We asked him for five links and here's what happened:
Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives: An extensive, comprehensive online collection preserving the photographs, letters, art and oral histories of the Japanese American internment experience. Fascinating, beautiful, and sometimes haunting, it's an invaluable resource for the kind of American stories I never got to read about in my high school history textbook.
A Song For Ourselves: DJ Phatrick's companion mixtape to Tad Nakamura's short documentary 'A Song For Ourselves.' The film is a tribute to the life and legacy of revolutionary folk singer Chris Iijima, an early titan in the Asian American activist movement. Blending Iijima's songs with the music of conscious hip hop statesmen Blue Scholars and Native Guns, the mixtape drops a serious soundtrack for a new generation of APA activists.
I Know Where Bruce Lee Lives: I can't really explain this, except that this "Ultraineractive KungFu Remixer" takes my favorite cinematic icon and lets you mash up music, sound effects and flashy graphics to make your own little visual/aural Bruce Lee symphony. I came across it years ago, and it still provides ridiculous loads of fun.
Disgrasian:Jen Wang and Diana Nguyen are the smart and sassy ladies behind this ingenious, hilarious spin on the Asian American issues blog. Taking on politics, pop culture and current events with thoughtful wit and a healthy dose of snark, they often say the things I can never quite muster up the courage to say myself. And they're damn funny.
Secret Identities: The first ever Asian American superhero comic book anthology, due out this month from The New Press. Co-editors Keith Chow, Jerry Ma, Parry Shen and Jeff Yang have assembled stories from an impressive array of the comic book industry's Asian American talent. These are the superhero stories I always wanted to read as a kid. Instead, I was stuck with the stereotypical Samurai from the old "Superfriends" cartoon.
Previous Alt Wire Guests: Matt Novak, Jason Marsh, David LaBounty, Jen Angel, Will Braun, Regan Hofmann, Josh Breitbart, Andrew Lam, Jessica Valenti, Jessica Hoffmann, Noah Scalin, Rinku Sen, Paddy Johnson, Melissa Mcewan, Fatemeh Fakhraie , Joe Biel, Anne Elizabeth Moore
Monday, January 19, 2009 2:52 PM
Mountaintop removal coal mining isn’t just destroying Appalachia’s landscape. It’s also also fracturing the region’s culture, including its traditional music. The "faith, politics, culture" magazine Sojourners reports on the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in eastern Kentucky, which trains youngsters to play—and be proud of—the old-time music that has been losing its foothold in the hollers.
“East Kentucky is a very poor area, and it gets the short end of the stick in a lot of ways,” school founder Beverly May tells Sojourners. “There are terrible problems of environmental devastation and economic devastation from the strip-mining of coal. The kids see all this, and they know where they stand in the American scene. They’re hillbillies. The Cowan Creek School counters that. It says you have a heritage that is honored all over the world and is one of the main sources of all American popular music. Saving this music is a part of saving this regional community.”
Banjo player Randy Wilson, who teaches at the school, tells Sojourners that coal mining is still a touchy subject in the area: “We got some flak last summer because so many of our music school teachers publicly voiced opposition to strip-mining and mountaintop removal. Some people said we needed to be aware that many of the local people at our events also work for a coal company. It is a shame that we have to pit jobs against honoring our heritage, but that is how it is here in Appalachia.”
This internal conflict is also the thread running through the forthcoming book Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, which will be published in April by the University Press of Kentucky. The authors, Silas House and Jason Howard, both grew up in families with coal-mining backgrounds, and in the introduction they describe the pressure exerted on those who dare to speak out: “Many Appalachians find it difficult to oppose this practice because of the coal industry’s long history of convincing people that to protest any form of mining is to oppose an industry that has long been a major supplier of jobs within the region.”
The book goes on to both puncture that argument—mountaintop removal actually doesn’t provide many local jobs—and give voice to 12 courageous local witnesses to the devastation, including many who also draw connections between coal and culture. One is 86-year-old songwriter Jean Ritchie, sometimes called the “mother of folk,” whose music was recorded by famed musicologist Alan Lomax. In a song that still rings true, she sings of “black waters run down through the land” and says, “The memories, they just push right down on me sometimes.”
Look for more coverage of the book at Utne.com closer to April.
Image courtesy of Cowan Creek Mountain Music School.
Monday, December 08, 2008 3:01 PM
When we reflect on evil events of the past and present, it's natural for us to relegate the perpetrators into categories separate from ourselves. We often believe that something innate in these perpetrators’ personalities inclines them toward evil, something neither we nor anyone we know possesses. By placing these individuals outside ourselves, we do not have to think about whether we would be capable of despicable acts.
Photographs recently unearthed from historical obscurity perfectly encapsulate this inner struggle of capability. According to an essay in the latest issue of Culture (pdf available online), a publication of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, an American soldier last year anonymously donated a photo album found in an empty German apartment to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. At first glance, the photos from the album appear to depict summer camp or a corporate retreat; the subjects are laughing, eating, and relaxing. They are on a retreat of sorts, but not from the daily grind of a corporate office. Instead, the smiling faces are decompressing from their duties as SS personnel at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Writer Jennifer L. Geddes points specifically to Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” and thoughtlessness as a “moral failing of the highest order,” applying these concepts to those in the photos:
“We are given a chilling vision of this ‘strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil,’ of the ways in which these SS personnel refused to think about what they were doing, failed to be reflective about the evil in which they were thoroughly engaged, and were able to enjoy a good time together with bowls of fresh blueberries and accordion music, even as they took part in mass murder.”
Nothing about the people in the photos signifies an innate evilness. One can easily imagine themselves and their own friends lounging on a porch or laughing in the rain. With context, however, the photos assume an ominous, eerie sheen. Taken less than 20 miles from the killing center, during a time when Auschwitz was working over capacity, the photos show the “interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil” better than words could ever tell.
Friday, February 01, 2008 9:28 AM
The film documentary Czech Dream, recently reviewed in Utne Reader, chronicled an audacious prank in which a fake superstore was created, working a bunch of shopaholic Czechs into an opening-day frenzy. Now a different bunch of Czech tricksters, the art collective Ztohoven, has seized the limelight by hacking into a public TV weather broadcast and inserting a mushroom cloud into a panoramic shot of the Krkonose mountains. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times places both hoaxes into a long tradition of Czech “tomfoolery.”
Tuesday, January 22, 2008 3:06 PM
In an insightful piece for the U.K.-based Prospect magazine, David Goldblatt laments professional sports’ absence from the high culture canon of Western society: art, theater, music, and literature. In an attempt to explain our collective confusion about where sports belong in the cultural hierarchy, Goldblatt describes sports as, among other things, “a religion without a god.” On a whim, I typed “Michael Jordan is god” into Google, and almost a half-million results came up. Keep in mind that Jordan reached the apex of his career more than a decade ago. If Google had existed in 1996, when he led the Chicago Bulls to an NBA-record 72 wins and a championship, I suspect the same search would have easily brought up a million hits. So in the arena of public opinion, at least, sports and professional athletes are a vital, perhaps even sacrosanct, part of our cultural identity.
Renowned musicians sing the national anthem at baseball games, followed by the traditional presidential first pitch of the season. Sports are the subject of award-winning novels and plays. Countless famous pieces of visual art feature athletes. Think of the iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over Sonny Liston. Maybe the idea of sports as being too “common” to truly be art is a uniquely European conceit, as Goldblatt suggests. Yet it seems—when flipping through a history book or strolling the halls of a museum—that this dichotomy of art about sports but never as sports is part of the way Americans view culture as well.
Goldblatt exhorts us to treat sports with “the same seriousness that is accorded to the performing arts.” Although this approach would certainly bring a breed of blue-blooded respectability to such tarnished organizations as the NFL, NBA, and MBL, in practice, it would ultimately damage the accessibility of the game. And as any sports fan will tell you, it’s the game that really matters.
Friday, December 28, 2007 9:56 AM
My, how time flies. It’s been 20 years since Dr. Dre first invited us to “witness the strength of street knowledge” on NWA’s seminal sophomore album Straight Outta Compton. The group’s raw appeal and trailblazing history has kept the album fresh, even two decades after it was first released. To honor the anniversary, and calling attention to the album’s recent re-release, Hannah Levin writes for Seattle Weekly about Dr. Dre, Eazy E, and Ice Cube’s wide-reaching impact. Levin waxes nostalgic about the first time she heard Straight Outta Compton on cassette tape, the group’s place in the musical canon, and what it says about American culture that an album about selling crack, abusing women, and dissing police still resonates so strongly today.
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