Who is Kamamboamamla?

Senator David Purdue

This week, Georgia Senator David Purdue, warming up the audience for a Trump rally, in Macon, Georgia, pretended he didn’t know how to pronounce the first name of the Democratic vice presidential candidate: “Ka-MA-la, KA-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever”

Perdue then warned the crowd of a potential liberal takeover of government with “Bernie and Elizabeth and Kah-mah-la or Kah-ma-la or Kamamboamamla or however you say it.” It should be pointed out that Senator Perdue has served with Kamala Harris in the Senate for 3 years, in fact on the same committee. So he clearly knows how to say her name, but through pretending to have trouble with the pronunciation, he wanted to draw attention to fact that she does not have a familiar first name, from a white American perspective.

In fact, both Harris’ parents were immigrants to the US, with her mother coming from India. They gave her a name that in the original Sanskrit (कमला) means “lotus” or “pale red”. For Harris, her name is a reminder of her heritage. For Purdue, it points to her foreignness, implying through the mocking way he played on her name that there was something not quite right about her. In other words, his words were a clear racist dog whistle, a signal his audience understood quite well, as they laughed along with Purdue.

This is not the first racist action from the Senator. He recently ran an ad, increasing the size of the nose of his Democratic opponent in November, Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish. Purdue has also accused Ossoff and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of trying to “buy Georgia.” In embracing the caricature of Jews with large noses and leveling the scurrilous accusation that Ossoff and Schumer – both Jewish – are trying to buy influence and power, Perdue invoked two of the world’s oldest antisemitic tropes.

This is another troubling sign that open racism has unfortunately become mainstream in many segments of the US population.

Free academic speech or racial slur?

USC Professor Patton, removed from course

Earlier this month, the University of Southern California removed business professor Greg Patton from his classroom. His offense? In a lecture on linguistics, he used a Chinese word as an illustrating example of filler words (“um” or “like” in English). So far, so good, but that Chinese expression, 那个, or ne ga sounds a lot like a racial slur in English (the N word). That word is one that I have found to be tremendously useful when I’m in China. It means “that one” and comes in handy ordering in a restaurant when you can just point at a picture of a dish and say “ne ga”, i.e. I’ll have that one. Additionally, native speakers of Mandarin use it in conversation as a filler, as the USC professor was trying to illustrate, making the point that such words or sounds are common across languages. He made clear that the expression was Chinese (not English). Despite that, several African-American students took offense and complained. They wrote a letter to the dean of the School of Business, describing Patton as insensitive and suggested he be removed from his post. They wrote,

There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community. The negligence and disregard displayed by our professor was very clear in today’s class.

In fact, the letter sent by the students is incorrect, in that the Chinese term is not a “a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, ” in fact not a synonym at all, i.e. a word with the equivalent meaning. It is at most a homonym (words sounding alike), but that is not normally seen as significant or meaningful when you are dealing with two different languages.

As reported in Inside Higher Education, the complaint and removal have been controversial with a petition for Patton’s reinstatement stating:

For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting. It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.

The professor himself apologized to those students offended, but also reported to Inside Higher Education, “Given the difference in sounds, accent, context and language, I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.”

In a report on the incident in The Atlantic, a fellow professor (from UCLA), Eugene Volokh, suggested how the Business School Dean should have replied:

This should go without saying, but of course many languages have words that sound vaguely like English epithets or vulgarities, and vice versa … Naturally, USC students are expected to understand this, and recognize that such accidents of pronunciation have nothing to do with any actually insulting or offensive meaning. To the extent that our first reaction to hearing such a word might be shock or upset, part of language education (or education of any sort) is to learn to set that aside. The world’s nearly one billion Mandarin speakers have no obligation to organize their speech to avoid random similarities with English words, and neither do our faculty (or students or anyone else) when they are speaking Mandarin.

On the other hand, as the article discusses, this kind of reply, as reasonable as it sounds, does not take into account the real feelings of the USC students who were upset by the incident.

Cancel culture and shifting power

D. Trump Jr. at the Republican Convention

One of the expressions current in the media is cancel culture, a term heard many times at the Republican Convention in the US last week. At that event it was used as a political weapon against the Democrats; according to buzzfeed:

A few weeks ago, most Americans either hadn’t heard of “cancel culture” or were quite unfamiliar with the term. And then President Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention began. Since Monday night, primetime convention speakers repeatedly have warned of a future where conservative patriots are silenced and vilified as a nation led by Joe Biden descends into lawlessness. Democrats and the media, they’ve argued, are canceling your beloved founding fathers and will cancel you next if you don’t adhere to their politically correct point of view.

In fact, President Trump’s administration has been active in suppressing speech from opponents, labeling as “fake news” not false reporting, but any news item not supporting the President’s views or actions.

The term cancel culture has been around for a while and has little to do with any conventional understanding of what a “culture” is. Instead it references a social practice, principally on social media, involving ostracizing or shaming someone for their behavior,  thereby “cancelling” their participation in human society, making them social outsiders. There have been famous cases in which social media attacks, for perceived or real transgressions, such as offensive tweets in the past (the film director, James Gunn) or calling the police on a black bird watcher (Amy Cooper), have resulted not only being “cancelled” in the media, but actually losing their jobs.

The phenomenon has been interpreted as indicating a shift of power in society (at least in the US), giving more weight to social media over official government authorities such as the courts or police. As reports of incidents or transgressions turn viral online, immense pressure is placed on those connected to the “cancelled” (employers, landlords, associates) to disassociate themselves from those individuals. The NY Times has run a number of stories on cancel culture, including several by Jonah Engel Bromwich. In one recent piece he commented:

People tend to see cancellation as either wholly good — there are new consequences for saying or doing racist, bigoted or otherwise untenable things — or wholly bad, in that people can lose their reputations and in some cases their jobs, all because a mob has taken undue offense to a clumsy or out-of-context remark. Personally, I think it’s best viewed not as either positive or negative, but as something else: a new development in the way that power works — a development brought about by social media.

The views on whether this is a good development vary.  Harper’s Magazine published an open letter, signed by a number of influential public figures, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which decried the development. The letter received some negative feedback, with the signers being accused of fearing that their own power and influence would be lost. However one might judge cancel culture, it seems undeniable that the power of social media it demonstrates is unlikely to go away any time soon.

“Karens”: women only?

Today a “Karen” was criminally indicted. The woman’s name is not Karen, but Amy, Amy Cooper. She appeared as “Karen” in the tweet seen here, posted by Melody Cooper (no relation), the brother of a bird watcher, her brother, Christian. Amy was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park, but contrary to the regulations in that area, her dog was not leashed. Christian asked her to use a leash, to keep the dog from scaring away the birds. She responded by threatening to call 911, telling Christian that she was going to tell the operator that she was being threatened by a black man. She did in fact call, saying “There is a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog…please send the cops immediately!”. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said today, in announcing the prosecution, “Our office initiated a prosecution of Amy Cooper for falsely reporting an incident in the third degree. We are strongly committed to holding perpetrators of this conduct accountable.”

So why is Amy Cooper a Karen? “Karen” has in fact become a popular online meme, typically used as shorthand for a white, middle-aged North American woman, reeking of privilege (whiteness, class, wealth) and selfishness (I matter more than you) who asserts her own rights over those of (racial, cultural, financial, political) others in confrontations captured on video and posted online. Many of those encounters in recent weeks deal with women asserting the right not to wear a face mask, even in environments in which that is required. Also reported have been women protesting stay-at-home orders, demanding the right to have nails done or to visit a hair salon. But Karens are not new. A recent report from the NPR program “On the Media” listed a host of Karen types, often with names linked to the activity they reported or the context of the encounter: Barbecue Becky, Bus Berator Brenda, Lawnmower Lucy, Pool Patrol Paula, Racist Roslyn, Walmart Mary, Airline Amy. In that report, the host, Brooke Gladstone, explored with Apryl Williams, a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan, the origins of the Karen meme.

Interestingly, these annoying individuals seem to always be women. In that sense, the phenomenon resembles the complaints about speech patterns like vocal fry (use of a deep, creaky, breathy sound), upspeak (rising intonation applied to all utterances, not just questions), or use of hedges (disclaimers, tag questions), all associated with women. It’s not that these speech habits do not exist, it’s that social censure rarely is directed to particular male speech patterns like self-assertiveness, insensitivity, or excessive volume. Why the difference? In the US there is been lately a growing awareness of the reality of institutional racism in this society, but the same power structure, favoring white males, also tilts in favor of men.

BTW, the incident in Central Park occurred on May 25, the same day that George Floyd died in police custody. In the discussion on “On the Media” on Karens, Professor Williams emphasized that racism is at the core of Karen behavior:

It is the primary motivating factor for placing that call to the police. I’m not sure that if these incidences were happening to white people that they would feel the need to call the police at all. If they were, we would hear about it, as we have recently with COVID, where white people are being kicked out of stores because they refuse to wear a mask. So, if it were the case that white people were calling the police randomly on other white people, I think we would hear about it. The fact that these incidents keep happening to black people, black men in particular, says that we are still grappling with the same type of racism that we were dealing with under Jim Crow era segregation. And that’s central to these memes.

It may be that the US is at a turning point in race relations. Some recognition of male privilege, as well as white privilege would be welcome as well.

Potent symbolism: Knees, Bibles, Statues

George Floyd being killed

Symbols are powerful. They can hold meaning that is intensely felt by members of a group and can be a way to identify who is and who isn’t accepted as a member of the group. That symbolism might come in the form of dress/appearance. As I commented recently, face masks in the US have become such a symbol, signaling for many political affiliation. Recently we have seen symbolic action surrounding race relations in the US. In this case, the act of kneeling has come to be imbued with powerful meaning. This has been triggered by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes despite Floyd’s pleading that he couldn’t breathe. The symbolism of white suppression is highlighted by the nonchalant posture of the officer, with his hands in his pockets.

This individual incident adds to a large number of similar deaths of black men at the hands of the police, leading to wide-spread protests against racism and police brutality throughout the US, as well as in other countries.

Protesters kneeling

Often the protesters will collectively “take a knee”, kneeling in solidarity with Floyd and with black and brown citizens generally. This in turn recalls the actions of American footballer Colin Kapernick in 2016 who famously kneeled during the playing of the US national anthem before games started, as a protest against the treatment of African-

Houston Chronicle

Americans by the police. The front page of the sports section of the Houston (Texas) Chronicle newspaper recently reflected that fact: rather than reports on game results, the page borrows from John Lennon’s Imagine, here applied to the death of George Floyd.

In response to the protests, and to the violence that has ensued in some cities, President Trump this week had the square in front of the White House cleared of protesters with tear gas, despite the fact that they were lawfully and peacefully protesting. That happened so that the President could walk across to St. John’s Church so he could have his picture taking holding a Bible. He did not pray nor kneel. Apparently, the action was intended as a signal that the President was upholding Christian values, but how that related to the protests or to police misconduct is not clear. However, as the holy script of Christianity, founded on the life of Jesus Christ, the Bible most evidently represents the values Jesus exemplified: love of one’s neighbor, solidarity with the downtrodden, leading a life of virtue and humility. It’s not evident that President Trump had those values in mind, but was more likely using the Bible to signal his belonging to politically conservative US Americans and perhaps to show his ability to use his power to disperse unwelcome protests.

Lee Statue and protesters

A very different reaction to the protests generated by Floyd’s death occurred here in Richmond, Virginia, where there have been mass protests this past week. The governor announced that the statues of figures from the Southern Confederacy, located along Monument Avenue, would be taken down. The statues were erected as a sign of pride in the Southern “lost cause” of the Confederacy, a state that separated from the Union in order to preserve slavery. This has made the statues symbols of the Jim Crow era of overt racism and therefore a frequent source of concern that they glorify racial injustice. Now they are coming down.

We will see if these symbolic actions will have lasting consequences in terms of race relations in the US, but certainly in the short term there are significant changes happening.

Face masks vs. MAGA hats

Anti-mask sign in Illinois store

One might expect that in a pandemic, a public consensus would arise on how people should protect themselves and others from catching the disease. However, in the US, the spread of COVID-19 has led to very different behaviors, that are divided along political lines. That is translating currently into different camps regarding the need to wear face masks in public. Rather than considering the practical health benefits, some refuse to wear a mask as a signal of solidarity with President Trump and his call for the country to open back up. This has turned into a face mask becoming a partisan symbol, as described in US News:

While not yet as loaded as a “Make America Great Again” hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown.

That resistance to masks has been stoked by President Trump. Rather than wearing a mask to model desired behavior among the public, he didn’t wear a mask during an appearance at a facility making them. Vice President did the same when visiting the Mayo Clinic.

Vice President Pence without a mask

Wearing a mask, on the other hand, can be seen as an endorsement of the advice of medical personnel and public health officials, namely that wearing a mask protects oneself as well as those around us. In that way it is also signaling social solidarity. Not wearing a mask might be seen as a sign of selfishness – or, from others’ perspective, as an assertion of individual freedom.

In the US, this is a radical change from popular opinion on mask-wearing before the pandemic. While wearing a face mask has long been common practice in many East Asian countries, that has not been the case in the US. Indeed, wearing a mask was often seen negatively; as reported in National Geographic, “masks signaled ‘disease,’ as if the wearer had something to hide”. Not being able to see someone’s face automatically made them suspicious. We are used to reading faces as a way to evaluate others’ actions, attitudes or intentions, so not being able to see facial expressions can be disturbing in a culture not used to seeing face masks. The article points out that people may use other non-verbal cues to make up for the absence of facial expressions, such as excessive, energetic waving or extra-explicit friendly language. It may be that as more US Americans don masks, behaviors will adjust. For now, however, there remains a strongly political symbolism to face masks.

Virus shutdown: All in this together?

The line at a Job Center in Jackson, Miss [NY Times]

It’s too early to tell just what the changes in our lives will be due to the Coronavirus pandemic, some likely to be short term (face masks?), others more permanent (fewer handshakes?). One of the outcomes already clear is that the pandemic has shined a light on socio-economic disparities. In the US, those who are able to keep their jobs and work from home tend to be upper-income and white.  Those with lower-paid jobs tend to be black or Latinx and face likelier job loss or they may be “essential” workers (grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, fast-food workers) who have a greater risk of infection but are forced to keep working due to economic necessity.

Economic inequality is of course nothing new, and is widespread throughout the world, but as a recent article in the NY Times points out, the virus has exacerbated that inequality:

Workers who are college educated, relatively affluent and primarily white able to continue working from home and minimizing outdoor excursions to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. Minorities [are] suffering both higher death rates and more financial harm. In New York City and across the country, black and Latino Americans are dying at higher rates from the virus than whites. Economic polling data shows they are also losing their jobs and income to an outsize degree.

Those who are affluent are able to isolate themselves and suffer little economic pain. That might mean moving to a second home in a secluded area or even renting an entire hotel for family and friends, and flying to those locations on a private jet. On the other side of the income gap, many people in the US are applying for unemployment (now over 30 million) and waiting in long lines at food banks.

This disparity has not gone unnoticed, particularly as rich or famous Americans express their solidarity with their fellow citizens in social media, leading to considerable backlash. Hollywood billionaire David Geffen, for example, posted an Instagram photo of the sun setting behind his 454-foot yacht in the Caribbean, captioning the photo: “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.” He soon after made his account private. The backlash was similar when Madonna posted a video on Instagram of herself in a milky bath sprinkled with rose petals, with the comment that the coronavirus is “the great equalizer.”

Ellen’s “jail”

Ellen Degeneres, broadcasting from her mansion, compared the situation to being “in jail” – many comments ensued, with people wishing for a similar jail cell.

States in the US, following the urging of President Trump, are starting to re-open businesses. As the NY Times article points out, this is likely to accelerate disparities:

Those who are lower paid, less educated and employed in jobs where teleworking is not an option would face a bleak choice if states lift restrictive orders and employers order them back to work: expose themselves to the pandemic or lose their jobs.

Not all economists are convinced that re-opening will necessarily result in swift economic recovery. Until therapeutic treatments or a vaccine are developed or testing has ramped up much higher than is currently the case, it seems unlikely that many will have the confidence to resume their previous shopping, eating out, travelling, or other activities. Meanwhile, it is those most at risk for infection (members of minorities, lower-income whites) who will bear the burden of having to put themselves and their families in danger by going back to work in conditions that often preclude effective social distancing or wearing protective equipment.

Social distancing: Cultural perspectives

Human beings are social animals. That makes social distancing very difficult, the practice of keeping ones distance from others in order to slow the spread of disease, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. Each one of us is of course different in terms of sociability but it’s likely that almost everyone needs some degree of regular social contact. That can come through being together person-to-person individually or in groups with friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, club members, etc. Often language will play a major role in our connections with others, in that one of its major functions is to negotiate social relations. Non-verbal communication too plays an important role in relating to others. With the arrival of COVID-19 pandemic, we still have language (more and more mediated electronically) but we have largely lost personal contact, while non-verbal behaviors have changed significantly.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the aftermath of the pandemic, whether social conventions, work arrangements, and educational delivery systems will experience long-term changes, i.e. more folks working remotely, increased use of online learning, and shifts in behaviors involving such phenomena as greetings and physical interactions. Will social distancing become engrained behavior, by default keeping our personal distance from others greater than has been the social norm in the past? Will we no longer go into automatic handshaking mode in particular situations, such as meeting someone new? If the pandemic were short-term, or likely to be a once in a lifetime event, one would not expect such changes, but neither seems to be the case. Instead of weeks, the pandemic looks like it will play out for months, maybe longer, and may be with us as a recurring event. Nor is it likely the last coronavirus we will see.

One might suspect that cultures labeled “collectivistic” would have a harder time with social distancing, given communal orientations. However, cultures generally associated with that label, namely China and South Korea, have been quite successful in fighting the virus. Keeping to cultural stereotypes, one might argue that, in fact, the willingness of individuals to forego direct social contact is in line with expectations, in that they are sacrificing in the name of the greater social good, namely slowing the spread of the virus. A recent piece in the Atlantic magazine discusses the cultural difficulties many Americans have in adjusting to social distancing. The argument is that “America’s individualistic framework is deeply unsuited to coping with an infectious pandemic”. The author, Meghan O’Rourke, asserts that the North American cultural frame of self-reliance makes it more difficult for individuals to consider the common good. Similarly, the cultural theme of individual freedom of action runs counter to the need for the restriction of movement through self-quarantining. She points out that the mania for individual responsibility has resulted in the US in a lack of universal health-care system and a weak social safety net, situations which are likely to make it more difficult to deal with the pandemic and its economic aftermath. She finds it unlikely, that the pandemic will bring a change “from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos”.

One should always approach broad-brush cultural characterizations with caution. That’s called for here, as the US is culturally very diverse, with significant regional, ethnic, and socio-economic differences, despite the undoubted presence historically of the themes of freedom and individualism in the US. It may be that the pandemic will bring about different mindsets and behaviors. It seems clear at this point that not everyone will weather the storm under the same conditions. While in some professions, work at home is doable, that’s not the case for many jobs, typically low-wage work. In an opinion piece for CNN, a group of sociologists from UCLA discuss the need to offer help to those in that position:

We must be particularly supportive of those among us who are vulnerable to contagion — unable to “physically distance”– precisely because of the work they do. This includes not only health care workers but also service and delivery workers, domestic and home care workers, cashiers, sanitation workers, janitors, store clerks, farm workers, and food servers who quietly but vitally sustain our collective lifestyles, even in a pandemic.

These are jobs for which the workers cannot afford to be absent from work, cannot work remotely, and often do not have health insurance. In parts of the US, those workers are likely to be immigrants, already suffering from discrimination and unequal treatment. The authors urge that instead of using the term “social distancing” we refer to “physical distancing” to encourage the practice of maintaining physical spacing, but not being distant socially. That involves practicing solidarity with those suffering more from the pandemic, as well as using technology to maintain social connections. In the process, they write, “Just as physical distancing can give us a fighting chance of combating this virus, finding creative and socially responsible ways to connect in crisis can have positive and long-lasting effects on our communities.” So long-term changes may be on the horizon; we’ll see.

The coronavirus and globalization

The President of the United States today labeled the Novel Coronavirus outbreak a “new hoax” from the Democratic party. It’s far from being a hoax, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 has continued to mount, particularly in countries other than China, where the disease originated. Particularly worrisome are outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, and Iran. Numerous cases in the US are reported as well, including some representing community transmission, i.e. not connected with known travel to infected areas or contact with others already infected. Today the first death in the US was reported.

The virus has led to understandable concern everywhere and to draconian measures to contain its spread in infected areas. Less rational are reported incidents in currently unaffected areas in which individuals perceived to be Chinese – or just Asian – are being singled out for prejudicial treatment or even abuse. CNN reported recently on a number of such incidents, demonstrating that “rampant ignorance and misinformation [about the virus] has led to racist and xenophobic attacks against fellow Americans or anyone in the US who looks East Asian”. A byproduct of those misinformed views is that Chinese-American businesses are losing customers, particularly Chinese restaurants. Normally popular and busy restaurants have become virtually empty. One response on Twitter recommended a possible response:

Air travel has been severely affected by the virus, with wide-spread reduction or cancellation of flights to and from affected areas. Global trade has been disrupted as well, with suppliers and manufacturers not being able to sustain normal supply chains. Apple, for example, has warned that its revenues will be down due to Chinese factories being shut down. While these developments result from one specific event, the virus outbreak, its repercussions point to the vulnerabilities of the massively globalized economic world in which we live. An article in the NY Times this week speaks to that phenomenon:

Even before the virus arrived in Europe, climate change, security concerns and complaints about unfair trade had intensified anxieties about global air travel and globalized industrial supply chains, as well as reinforcing doubts about the reliability of China as a partner.

Globalization has been under attack from various directions, especially through populist and nationalist views that blame international commerce, mass migration, and global cooperation for a loss of local jobs and perceived threats to established ways of life. The likely impact of the COVID-19, especially should it become a pandemic, is likely to strengthen those sentiments. As the NY times’ article put it:

The virus already has dealt another blow to slowing economies, and emboldened populists to revive calls, tinged with racism and xenophobia, for tougher controls over migrants, tourists and even multinational corporations.

That crisis of confidence in China extends beyond China’s ability to handle the virus, said Simon Tilford, director of the Forum New Economy, a research institution in Berlin. The lack of trust “will only reinforce an existing trend among businesses to reduce their dependency and risk,” he said.

But the spread of the virus to Europe will also have a significant impact on politics, likely boosting the anti-immigrant, anti-globalization far right, Mr. Tilford said. “We already see a lot of populist concern about the merits of globalization as benefiting multinationals, the elite and foreigners, not local people and local companies,” he said.

Politicians who insist on control over borders and immigration will be helped, even as the virus transcends borders easily. “Their argument will be that the current system poses not only economic but also health and security threats, which are existential, and that we can’t afford to be so open just to please big business,” Mr. Tilford said.

That argument may attract voters “who hate overt racism but fear loss of control and a system vulnerable to a distant part of the world,” he added. The virus also allows people to express hostility to the Chinese that they may have felt but had been reluctant to articulate, said Mr. Tilford. “There is already an undercurrent of fear of the Chinese in Europe and the United States because they represent a challenge to Western hegemony,” he said.

Instead of bringing peoples from different cultures together to fight the virus cooperatively, it looks like instead there will be a game of misplaced blame and an ongoing process of accelerated racism. Our leaders need to play the roles only they can play to warn against both panic and against xenophobia. We will see in the coming weeks to what extent that occurs.

Working within or dismantling institutions: Miss America vs. the Presidency

Both serve as national icons, the President of the US and Miss America, but they represent institutions not normally brought together, although President Trump does have a history with beauty pageants. 

Miss America, Camille Shrier

Both figures were in the news this week. It so happens that the recently crowned Miss America, Camille Schrier, is a VCU student, working towards a doctorate in pharmacy. Her talent in the contest was doing chemistry experiments, with eye-popping results. She was back at VCU this week as part of her national tour to promote medication safety and to prevent drug misuse. She has said that her mission was also to promote science careers for girls, stating in an interview, “I’m trying to be like Bill Nye [the science guy]…That’s what I’m going for. I want to get kids excited, but I don’t want it to be boring.” Although in the pageant, Schrier wore a white lab coat and safety goggles for the talent performance, it’s clear that if she were not an attractive woman, she would not have earned the crown. However that may be, she is leveraging the exposure and publicity she is receiving to engage in public service, something in fact that is expected of every Miss America. In that sense she is working within normal institutional parameters.

That is hardly the case recently for many US politicians, including not only the President, but members of Congress as well. Their behavior in the impeachment process has been largely dictated by personal political interests, not by a concern to strengthen the institutions they represent. That’s not true of all those in Congress, but it’s a pattern that we’re seeing more often, and not just in politics. Self-interest rather than institutional support has become a driver of actions and attitudes, leading to wide-spread distrust of institutions in the US.

That’s laid out in a new book by Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, recently discussed with the author on NPR. In the interview Levin points out that many members of Congress “think about the institution as a way to raise their profile”, for example, Senator Ted Cruz after every session of the impeachment trial hosting a podcast commenting on the session. While Levin comments that it is legitimate “for important public figures to also have a profile in the culture”, doing so excessively and making that one’s major focus, “makes it much harder for the institution to function and much harder for us to trust it”:

When members come to think of Congress as a platform for themselves, it becomes much harder for them to see how working within the institution cooperating and bargaining is really what Congress is for…What happens in most congressional hearings now is basically a bunch of individuals producing YouTube clips to use later in campaigns.

One can make the same argument for President Trump, who has used the institution of the presidency as a platform, through Twitter, to promote himself:

President Trump is the first of our presidents who has not been formed by any of the institutions of public service in our country. President Trump has been a performer his entire adult life, and he’s been a performer as president, too. He uses the office of the presidency as a platform from which to comment on the government.

In the process, he is debasing the institution of the Presidency, leading to growing public mistrust. This is all the more disturbing given the power of that office. Levin sees this as a lesson for us all:

All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that’s our family or community or workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. As a as a parent, as a neighbor, as a member of the PTA, as a member of Congress, as a CEO, what should I do in this situation? Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.

In other words, in the institution in which we are involved, we should all be focused on civic engagement. Our current Miss America can function as a model. While she had participated in pageants as a girl, she stopped on starting college, as she wanted to focus on her interest in science (she has undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and systems biology). When she was a graduate student, she heard that the Miss America pageant had been revamped — eliminating the swimsuit competition and emphasizing professionalism and social impact. That provided an opportunity for her to showcase her own interest in science and potentially to serve as a role model and mentor for girls, demonstrating that, in her words,  “Miss America can be a scientist and a scientist can be Miss America”. She is using the institution, as she found it, to further goals of inclusion and acceptance, not self-interest.

From the Capital of the Confederacy:  “Rumors of War” points to change

Rumors of War

This week in Richmond, Virginia, the Capital of the Confederacy a monumental shift took place, literally, with the erection of a new statue, a young black man astride a horse. That statue by Kehinde Wiley, entitled “Rumors of War”, installed in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,  is located a short distance from a famous row of statues of Confederate war heroes and generals along Monument Avenue. Those statues, installed in the early 20th century, celebrate the Southern “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Confederacy, rather than being a defender of slavery, was a just and heroic effort, bolstered by the primacy of states’ rights. The era when the statues were erected was also the time of the Jim Crow Laws, which institutionalized segregation and the inferior status of African-Americans in all spheres of public life.

JEB Stuart monument

One of those statues, of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was, according to Wiley, the inspiration for his own statue. The Stuart statue was the first to be erected on Monument Avenue, in 1907. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, when Wiley, on a visit to Richmond, first saw Stuart’s statue, it “filled him with dread”. As an African-American artist, that reaction is quite understandable. As a White Northerner, coming to Richmond in the 1970’s, I had a less visceral reaction to the Lost Cause iconography, one of surprise. In civics class in Illinois (“Land of Lincoln”) in the 7th grade, we understood that the South not only lost, but did so defending the cruel institution of slavery. My assumption was that folks in the South would much rather just forget that whole episode of American history. Imagine my surprise on seeing huge statues of the folks who were on the wrong side of history.

“Rumors of War” is of the same monumental scale as those of Stuart and the other Confederate heroes. The black man featured is no shrinking violet. He boldly sits astride his powerful horse, with looks that celebrate the contemporary young black American male: dreadlocks, ripped jeans, hoodie. In that way, the statue is not just a counterpoint to Stuart, it is a defiant celebration of young black men, a group not widely celebrated in the US today. As cited in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Wiley wanted to suggest through the statue that US society “say yes to black men”.

A Christmas market heralds the Great Replacement

I was in Germany last week and, among other cities, I spent some time in Nuremberg (Nürnberg), the second largest city in the state of Bavaria. For US Americans, the likely association of the city is with Nazi Germany, as it was there where the war crimes against top Nazis were held after World War 2. It was, in fact, a favorite city of Hitler’s, where the huge Nazi party rallies were held every year and where the infamous Nuremberg Race Laws against Jews were announced in 1935.

For many Germans, the association is likely to be different, namely, connecting the city to traditional arts and especially to Albrecht Dürer, a native son and one of the greatest artists during the transition from medieval art to the modern era. The city had one of the best-preserved medieval town centers, until leveled during the war. Another – and possibly the strongest association – many Germans have with the city is its Christmas Market (Christkindlesmarkt). Many cities, large and small, throughout Germany have such markets, which provide street food (most prominently sausages) and drink (Glühwein = mulled wine), as well as traditional artisan products, gifts, and local specialties.

Nuremberg Christmas market

Nuremberg’s market stands out due to the number and quality of artisan products and its reputation as the center of production of Lebkuchen, a traditional gingerbread-style cookie. It also has a long tradition which includes a competition each year for a young girl to play the role of the official representative (Christkind) of the market. Her role is to open the market in a formal speech (and fancy costume) the opening day and to serve for 2 years as a goodwill and publicity ambassador for the market and the city

Benigna Munsi of Nuremberg

This year there was some controversy in the choice of the Christkind, Benigna Munsi, the local daughter of a father from India and a mother from Germany. After her selection was announced, a member of the far-right AFD Party (“Alternative for Germany”) posted on Facebook, along with a picture of the 17-year old girl, the comment, Nürnberg hat ein neues Christkind. Eines Tages wird es uns wie den Indianern gehen.” (“Nuremberg has a new Christkind. One day we will suffer the same


Benigna Munsi as the Nuremberg “Christkind”

fate as the American Indians”). The comment evokes the anti-immigrant and nationalistic “replacement theory“, the idea that whites are being systematically (and with support from Western governments) winnowed out of majority status due to mass immigration and low birth rates among whites. The comment was roundly denounced in Germany, but its racist tone is reflected in commonly heard remarks from far-right politicians in many European countries today. The white genocide conspiracy theory of the “Great Replacement” (title of a book by French writer Renaud Camus in 2011) was also on display in the US in the Charlottesville alt-right march in 2017.

The irony of making this racist statement in – of all places in Germany – in Nuremberg was surely lost on the Bavarian AFD Party. But the rest of us should make the connection between such dangerous racist remarks and Nazi ideology, which lead to real, not imagined, genocide.

A beloved McDonald’s…in France?!

McDonald’s in Marseille, France, under threat of closure

The popular view of French food veers toward the gourmet side – fine wines, superb cheeses, elegant sauces, local specialties – enjoyed at a leisurely pace, with rich social interactions. One of the delights of being in France is the high quality of dining at neighborhood bistros and cafes, with a surprising variety of dishes on offer. In other words: the opposite of American fast food, epitomized by McDonald’s, with its uniform, mass-produced food, designed to be consumed quickly, often on the go. 

France has its own fast-food traditions and street food, including croque-messieurs, crepes, and baguette sandwiches. But those foods seem more sophisticated and in tune with French culture than what you get at Mickey D’s. No surprise that McDonald’s has a checkered history in France, with its first restaurant in Paris in 1971 closing soon after opening. Over the years, as more McDonald’s franchises have opened throughout France, the company has experienced more success, but also continued resistance – not only to its non-French approach to food preparation and consumption, but also because for the French the company represents globalization, Americanization, and unfair trade and labor practices. In 1999 a group of protesters led by farmer José Bové destroyed a half-built McDonald’s restaurant in Millau.

So why is there a passionate campaign in Marseille to keep a McDonald’s threatened with closure? It’s not the food, it’s the community role that particular restaurant plays, according to the New York Times:

A group of workers and their union leaders in Marseille are fighting tooth-and-nail to save a McDonald’s from closing in a working-class, largely immigrant neighborhood. A so-called “Festival of Dignity” protest was recently organized by the McDonald’s employees in an effort to save their roughly 70 jobs. Even though McDonald’s was once seen as a cultural menace to a glorious French tradition, the workers say this particular McDonald’s, in its quarter-century of existence, has played a vital role as a social integrator in one of France’s most troubled districts — providing employment and shielding local youth from pervasive drug-dealing, getting them out of jail and helping them stay out.

The article chronicles a number of personal stories of neighborhood youth, all from economically disadvantaged families with migrant backgrounds, who were hired by the McDonalds, giving them an initial foothold in life and keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. That has been particularly important for Muslim youth, often facing employment discrimination. The restaurant is the second largest employer in that part of Marseille.

Ironically, the current owners of the McDonald’s want to sell the restaurant to a Muslim halal food operator who wants to open a new restaurant serving Middle Eastern food.  The reaction of McDonald’s employees to that plan, most of them Muslims, as reported in the NY Times has been anger: “’This is an insult. We’re fighting for laïcité here,’ said Salim Grabsi, a local schoolteacher and former employee, referring to France’s official credo of secularism. ‘The republic is one and indivisible’.” That perspective seems to echo the reaction from France decrying some comments on the African origins of the families of many French players on the French national soccer (football) team’s which won the World Cup in 2018 (for example, Trevor Noah’s “Africa wins the world cup!”). The point made was that in France, everyone is “French”, no matter their heritage (i.e., no hyphenated identity descriptors, as in the US).

Here’s another irony of the Marseille McDonald’s story: There was a controversy in Marseille in 2017 on a city government crackdown on street vendors of kebabs. Given that the owners of those establishments are overwhelmingly North Africans, most of them Muslim, this action was decried as “gastronomic racism”. As far as the closure of the McDonald’s is concerned, a French court for now has blocked the sale of the outlet – so that location will for now continue to offer the “Royale with Cheese” (McD’s quarter-pounders; see Pulp Fiction), not kebabs.

Treetop Barbie: Ecological girl power?

Treetop Barbie working

Barbie was launched in 1959 by the US Mattel toy company and over the years the doll has accumulated a boyfriend (Ken) and many accessories. Barbie dolls have been a controversial figure, as an embodied example of the media-propagated version of the ideal female figure, tall, blonde and white, with an exaggeratedly thin waist and disproportionally large breasts. This led to what has been termed “Barbie syndrome” among pre-teen and teenage girls, namely the desire to have Barbie’s “unattainable body proportions” (Lind, 2008), leading in some cases to eating disorders such as anorexia or even plastic surgery. Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, the “living Barbie doll,” is an example of such fetishism.

The Barbie doll series has also been criticized for its lack of diversity and stereotyping of women as “dumb blondes”. Over the years, Mattel has responded to such criticism with the introduction of black and Hispanic dolls, as well as Barbies engaged in a variety of professions. On the other hand, in 2014 Mattel published Barbie: I can be a computer engineer. As I reported at the time in a blog post:

 In the opening pages we see Barbie working on developing a game: “I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”

That sounds great, but when Barbie’s sister asks to play the game, here is Barbie’s response: “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

That’s right, Barbie of course can’t actually write the code – she needs boys to do that. As a blog post from Pamela Ribon details, things get worse from there. It turns out that Barbie has infected her own and her sister’s computers with a computer virus and that she has little clue what to do, or other basics of how to work with computers.

So is Treetop Barbie in a similar mode? The idea is that Barbie is an engaged ecologist, working as a forest canopy researcher, just like her creator, Nalini Nadkarni. Nadkarni is a biology professor at the University of Utah and is well-known for her work unraveling the secrets of rain forest ecologies by climbing trees and investigating the nature of “canopy soils” (a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches) and “aerial roots” (above-ground roots growing from branches and trunks). In working in the field, Nadkarni saw few other women. To encourage girls to consider ecology as a profession, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of Treetop Barbie. Mattel was not interested in the concept, so Nadkarni carried out the project on her own, buying used Barbies, dressing/equipping them as canopy researchers, and selling them at cost. After the project started to attract attention (New York Times), Mattel tried to shut her down over brand infringement, but eventually relented, and, given the publicity and marketing benefits, decided to partner with National Geographic to roll out this year a a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science, with Nadkarni as an advisor.

Nadkarni realizes that using Barbies is controversial, as she admitted in a recent NPR interview:

My sense is yes she’s a plastic doll. Yes she’s configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped. But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber… It’s never perfect. But I think it’s a step forward.

Nalini Nadkarni at work

Interestingly, Nadkarni herself is far from being a Barbie type. Her skin and hair are brown, her father is from India. From videos of her working in the rain forest, it is clear she is rugged, daring, and independent, not characteristics one associates with the doll. The initial idea of Treetop Barbie was made in fun, but then she and her colleagues decided it could be an effective way to get young girls thinking that being a scientist or researcher might be a doable future career. The transition from appearance-obsessed glamor girl to working ecologist is laid out in an “interview” with Treetop Barbie published in the Seattle Times. Nadkarni gives voice to the doll and mentions the importance of tying back your hair when climbing trees, including her habit of using a “very attractive red bow”. After all, Treetop Barbie/Nadkarni remarks, “There’s no reason why scientists have to look messy or unattractive.”

Lind, Amy (2008). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Gestures: Context is everything

A recent media account discusses the addition of a number of hate symbols to the Anti-Defamation League’s database, “Hate on Display” . Those include images and logos used by white supremacist groups, such as the  Rise Above Movement from Southern California or the recently-formed American Identity Movement. The surprising addition to the list, however, was a commonly used hand gesture, the “ok” sign, forming a circle by connecting the index finger to the thumb, with the other fingers spread out. In some communities, especially online, that gesture has become associated with white supremacy and the far right (outstretched fingers as “W”, the circle and hand as “P”, for “White Power”). That apparently had its origin in a prank by users of the 4chan website in 2017, then consolidated by the use of the gesture by the Christchurch, NZ shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in March.

That certainly does not mean that anyone using the gesture is a white supremacist.  The usage and cultural context will determine both intent of the user and the message received. In the US in most contexts, the gesture will likely continue to be understood as “that’s fine” or “a-ok”. However, in other countries that gesture has had different meanings. In Germany, for example, the gesture has a vulgar meaning (representing the human anus) traditionally equating to “you’re an asshole”. In Japan and other cultures, the gesture is used to symbolize money (i.e. representing a coin), or to ask for a bribe. In France, the symbol has been interpreted as zero, thus transmitting the meaning as worthless. In some Arab cultures, it represents the evil eye, therefore used as a curse. Complicating those meanings, however, is the wide influence of US culture through popular media, so that in some cases, especially among younger people, the gesture may be used in accordance with US mainstream culture. That phenomenon has been seen in the spread of other gestures as well, such as the middle finger as an insult gesture. How the gesture is intended will likely be signaled through other indicators, such as facial expressions or body language.

Another interesting hate symbol added to the ADL’s list is a hair cut: the “bowlcut“, a style that looks like a bowl was used in cutting someone’s hair, as in the early Beatles’ look. In this case, however, the reference is to another white supremacist, Dylann Roof, responsible for the attack at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Other white supremacists have referenced Roof’s haircut by using screen names that incorporate the world “bowl” or use the word in catch phrases. According to the ADL,

Roof promoters also create and share Roof-related memes across the Internet, including depictions of Roof as a saintly figure with a halo around his head.  Even more common are memes featuring Roof’s bowl haircut, either by itself or digitally affixed to other people’s heads. In one shared image, Roof’s haircut has been superimposed on a shield designed to resemble the divisional insignia of Waffen SS military units of Nazi Germany.

Other hair styles have been associated with white supremacy as well, namely mohawks and especially shaved heads, known as skinheads. That shows the importance for members of groups (especially traditionally outlier groups) to show group adherence through explicit symbols, dress, or other aspects of personal appearance.