Angry White Men

I was recently at a conference at the University of Oregon and while waiting to give my presentation at the Student Center there, I walked around and noticed a “Men’s Center” located on the same floor. The existence of a student organization dedicated to men was in itself surprising to me – it seemed to me the only thing more superfluous than a “men’s center” (which after all equates to US society as a whole) would be a “white, heterosexual men’s center”. Surprising to me as well were the posters and messages on the door and outside the walls of the Men’s Center, which voiced support for all kinds of marginalized, disadvantaged, or traumatized groups: Native Americans, LGBTQ+, the disabled community, African-Americans, non-gender-binary individuals, and rape victims. Nothing in support of men’s rights.

It turns out that this Center was established in 2002, according to the university website, to address issues of male behavior in general in the US, and specifically at the University of Oregon (UO):

The development of the Center occurred in response to concerns raised by UO staff, faculty and students about men on campus…nationally, college-aged men were having serious problems: committing over 70% of the major conduct violations, engaging in sexism, sexual assault, and other bias incidences. Additionally, men are responsible for the overwhelming majority of shootings that have occurred on college and high school campuses nationwide…UO staff, faculty and students recognized that UO men were in crisis and wanted to take action. These pioneers decided to open the UOMC, the first center of its kind in the USA.

The mission of the Center, according to their website, is to fight “toxic masculinity”, defined as “the current configuration of practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women”. So the Center is not at all about supporting “angry white men” upset at the prospect of losing their dominant place in US society. The book by Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, documents that perspective through interviews with men from around the US. Kimmel introduces the idea of aggrieved entitlement in the book, namely that for white men social equality means not equality, but a loss of social position. They are aggrieved because they expect life to be the same as it was for their fathers or grandfathers. The book was published in 2013 and republished recently, as the election of Donald Trump has shown that those grievances have been widespread enough in the US to lead to the election of someone who rejects social equality and the declining role of white males in US society. The slogan of “taking back our country” represents well this idea of going back to a time when white males had undisputed primacy in society.

Kimmel has a new book, Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into And Out Of Violent Extremism, in which he looks at how aggrieved white males have become neo-nazis, extreme right-wing skinheads, or adherents to the Alt-Right in the US, Sweden, and Germany. He documents in the book stories of men growing up isolated or abused and who turn to right-wing extremism for social acceptance. The book also shows that such men can go in different, healthier directions if they can find fulfilling relationships with women or within other groups. In fact, small numbers of men who have not had successful relationships with women have turned to aggrieved violence. These are the so-called Incels, short for “involuntary celibates,” a largely online group who have been in the news in recent years through violent attacks as retaliation against women. It may be that a group such as available through the University of Oregon’s Men’s Center, which sponsors weekly discussion groups, can be helpful in showing young white men another avenue towards social acceptance and group solidarity.

Civility: Necessary or stifling?


President Trump mocking asylum seekers / Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock

NPR has been broadcasting recently a series on civility, mostly centered on the increasing lack of civility evident in public/political life in the US. While there have been many calls for toning down belligerent and ultra-partisan speech, there are also concerns explored in the series that the advocacy of civility may be in essence an attempt to stifle minority voices.

The opening broadcast defines civility as the “baseline of respect” that we need to show one another, a kind of social contract not to step over certain lines in the ways we address others, particularly those with whom we disagree. Those lines of behavior represent unwritten, but presumably widely shared (within a culture) social norms. Many blame President Trump for breaking those norms and being largely responsible for the nastiness in the public debate in the US, with his wide use of disparaging names and nicknames for opponents. The name calling tends to create bitterness, hardening positions on each side and making it more difficult to reach consensus. Social media spreads vitriol quickly, and services like Twitter make it easy to make and spread inflammatory comments.

On the other hand, calls for civility can be seen as attempts to limit the public discourse on important issues, as a way to silence particular groups. Historically in the US incivility has been a charge leveled against those flighting inequality or injustice, as in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th-century or the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. The story cites Lynn Itagaki from the University of Missouri: “Civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent.” To bring about social change, groups have found that it is necessary to demonstrate and disrupt, to be uncivil, in order to garner the public’s attention so as to have their arguments for change be listened to and acted on. The series gives as examples the ACT UP AIDS activists of the 1980’s or Colin Kaepernick inspired kneeling during the playing of the national anthem (to protest police violence against Blacks).

An interesting case study in the debate on civility is the Charlottesville City Council, just down the road from me here in Virginia. That’s the city in which the violent “Unite The Right Rally” was held in 2017. The local authorities were blamed for not doing enough to prevent the bloodshed. As a result, the meetings of the city council became free-for-all shouting matches. The mayor at the time tried to set ground rules for how long people could speak along with prohibitions on heckling, harassment or foul language. However, this was seen by some, especially African-Americans, as a means to exclude voices. Jalane Schmidt, a Charlottesville organizer for Black Lives Matter comments:  “Civility is actually used to shut down discussion. It is often a way to ‘tone police’ the folks that don’t have power and that don’t speak in four-syllable words.” The current major, a Black woman (Nikuyah Walker) has not enforced those rules of civility, allowing citizens to speak freely and at length. This has resulted in very long council meetings. According to Council member Wes Bellamy, there is now in the Council meetings a more inclusive view of civil discourse:

I could have a conversation with you and because my vernacular is not the same, and because a topic makes me more emotional and I’m more passionate about it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not being quote-unquote civil. It could just mean that when I was talking to you in a way that you may deem civil, you refused to listen to me.

The Charlottesville City Council may be an example of how messy and inefficient it may be to allow for a wide-ranging exchange of views. Democracy is often untidy and aggravating, but in the end it should still allow all voices to be heard. By the same token, I would argue that it is the responsibility of those in power to provide an example to others of helpful ways to define ones views and address disagreement. That means not belittling others and certainly not stooping so low as to mock those fleeing violence and injustice in their home countries, as unfortunately President Trump has done recently.

Black faces in Virginia

Freeman Gosden, in blackface, as Amos

The current crisis in the government of Virginia is full of ironies. The three men at the top, all Democrats, are each facing scandals and calls to resign. That started with Governor Ralph Northam last week when a picture from a yearbook surfaced showing a man in blackface and another in KKK garb (Klu Klux Khan, the violent white supremacist group) on his personal page. Northam first admitted he was one of the men in the picture, then the next day denied it, but did admit to wearing blackface at a dance contest, where he imitated Michael Jackson. Should Northam resign, he would be replaced by Justin Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor, who is African-American. But Fairfax faces 2 allegations of sexual assault. Third in line is Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted that he too wore blackface as a student at the University of Virginia. Should all three be forced out of office, the governorship would go to…a Republican! House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox. That fact has led to some recent support for Northam to remain Governor, after near universal calls for him to resign early on, including from both local and national Democrats.

The ironies abound. Justin Fairfax, just over a week ago, stepped aside from his usual duty as Lt. Governor, of chairing the State Senate, in protest over the celebration of the birthday of Confederate Leader, Robert E. Lee. Richmond, the Capital of Virginia, was of course also the Capital of the Confederacy, the defender of slavery. Richmond is also the home of Freeman Gosden, Bojangles Robinson, and Charles Gilpin. Gosden, a white man from a socially prominent family whose members had included high-ranking officers in the Confederate Army, played a black man, “Amos”, in the Amos n’ Andy radio show of the 1920’s and 1930’s, which was hugely popular. He voiced Amos, as well as other Black characters such as Kingfish and Lightnin’ in an imitation of Black Vernacular English. He became very wealthy, moved to California and played golf frequently with the President of the United States (Eisenhower). The other two Richmond-born entertainers, Charles Gilpin, a famous actor, and Bojangles, a celebrated dancer/singer, both Black, each died penniless and forgotten. Gilpin became well-know from playing the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, but his career when downhill when he insisted that O’Neill remove the word “nigger” from the play. Bojangles paired with Shirley Temple in many popular films but died so impoverished that Ed Sullivan stepped in to pay for his funeral. A statue of Bojangles was erected in Richmond in the 1970’s

Statue of Bojangles in Richmond, VA,

but it pales in comparison to the huge statues of Confederate heroes along Monument Avenue. Gilpin also is remembered in Richmond through Gilpin Court, the oldest and largest public housing project in the city, but notorious today for its high rate of crime and decrepit condition.

The supreme irony may be that while the three Virginia politicians are facing strong pressure to resign, at the federal level, the President of the United States faces no such pressures, despite having been implicated in many instances of racial insensitivity, misogynistic actions, and voiced support for white supremacists.

A rush to judgement

Confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial

“Hot takes left behind a hot mess.” This was the assessment in this week’s “On the media” episode from NPR of the incident in Washington, D.C., involving a Native American elder (Nathan Phillips), playing a drum and chanting, and a group of high school students from Kentucky. The initial reporting of the encounter resulted from a shared video clip that showed a white young man (subsequently identified as Nick Sandmann) wearing a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat and standing very close to Phillips and smirking. The high schoolers were in D.C. for the anti-abortion March For Life, while the American Indians were part of the Indigenous People’s March. Given the apparent disrespectful and mocking attitude of Sandmann and his fellow high-schoolers, there was immediate condemnation of their behavior on Twitter and other online platforms. This was largely tied to the non-verbals being communicated by Sandmann’s dress (MAGA hat showing support for President Trump), his facial expression (expressing amusement/disdain), body language (standing too close, seemingly challenging Phillips), eye contact (direct, non-blinking, possibly threatening), and skin color (together with the political views shown through the hat, signaling a sense of superiority over a member of a minority group). The incident carried more significance due to where it took place: in front of the Lincoln Memorial, on the same steps where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. called for racial harmony in the U.S. with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

The reaction to the video went viral and led to many immediate actions, such as an apology from the students’ Kentucky high school and calls for the students involved to be named and shamed. However, since then, other videos and narratives have emerged that give more context and nuance to the confrontation. Most people assumed that the high schoolers had taken the initiative to approach the Native Americans. But, as Phillips explained, it was he who approached the high school group, because he feared a confrontation between them and a third group present, the Black Hebrew Israelites, who had been taunting the students earlier as “dirty cracks”, “incest babies,” and “pale-faced terrorists”. As discussed in the “On the media” broadcast, this changes the dynamics and interpretation of the interaction. It shows the problematic nature of our instant news and social media world, in which it has become commonplace to see immediate and strong reactions to events that have reported from a single perspective or without full context. That includes exposing identities of purported shooters or other individuals identified as being involved in crimes. Often such information is reported without the necessary words of caution or tentativeness, with the individuals reporting the information as absolutely factual. In too many cases, that certainty turns out to be misplaced.

Voluntary simplicity?

Black Friday shoppers: Fewer this year

It’s Black Friday in the US, and surprisingly, in European countries as well, despite not celebrating US Thanksgiving. I guess retailers are quick to find an excuse to hawk their goods, no matter the cultural significance. I’m wondering if Canadians also observe Black Friday today, given that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. Although today is a celebration of buying stuff, it appears that overall we are becoming less materialistic. That is according to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an economic geographer at the University of Southern California, who recently published The Sum of Small Things. In the book, according to the Princeton University Press advert, Currid-Halkett argues, that “the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge.” Members of this new class, which she labels the aspirational class, have moved away from conspicuous consumption: “Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast.”

In a recent interview on NPR (wow, I must be a member of the aspirational class), Currid-Halkett asserts that in fact US Americans are becoming less interested in owning more and more: “As a society, we are getting less materialistic. So we can see that in a cultural way in just the way we talk about things. We can see that in movements like voluntary simplicity.” She backs up her assertion with data she has been collecting on spending patterns. In fact, one of those patterns is less interest in spending the Thanksgiving break shopping. Fewer stores opened this year on Thanksgiving. That contrasts with recent years in which retailers were opening on Wednesday at midnight and all day Thanksgiving. It appears as well, that the violence that occurred in the past, as shoppers battled one another over the few extra cheap TVs, has not happened this year. Maybe we are moving in the direction of voluntary simplicity – giving up the pursuit of happiness through material goods, to focus on living with less and growing spiritually. Or maybe we just have now accumulated all we can fit in our homes/apartments – or that we can afford.

No more strangers

Max Hawkins

A story recently through NPR’s Invisibilia team provided an intriguing look into the filter bubble we all tend to be in these days – that is encountering online or in person only those who are similar to us in views, socio-economic status, or general preferences for everyday living. The story was about a method for breaking out of the bubble through random encounters, or “bubble hoping”.

A software engineer, Max Hawkins, living in San Francisco felt that his life had gotten stale:

I just started thinking about these loops that we get into. And about how the structure of your life…completely determines what happens in it…There was something that just made me feel trapped. Like I was reading a story that I’d read before or I was playing out someone else’s script.

So, he created an app which randomly selected local events, activities, or group meetings listed as public events in Facebook for him to attend. The story recounts the variety of experiences resulting from following the randomizing algorithm in the app, ranging from drinking vodka with a small contingent of Russian expats to celebrating Christmas with a group of total strangers. The encounters were, by his account, initially disturbing and frightening, but in the end liberating and expanding.

In essence, following this method of living means that for Hawkins there were no longer strangers – only those people he had not yet encountered. It’s unlikely that many of us would want to go this far in stepping out of our “preferences prison”, as the NPR story puts it, but it may provide encouragement for us to try to find different people to encounter.

Another disaster in Magdeburg

AfD-Demonstration in Magdeburg

2016: Local Leader of the AfD, André Poggenburg

1631: Sack of Magdeburg

1631: Sack of Magdeburg by Imperial troops

For anyone who has studied German history, mention of the capital city of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt brings to mind its significant history. Founded by Charlemagne in 805 as Magadoburg, it was one of the largest cities in the time of the Holy Roman Empire, a member of the Hanseatic League, and the city where young Martin Luther went to school. Under Luther’s influence, the city sided with the Protestants in the 30 Years War, leading to the event known as the the sack of Magdeburg, the massacre in which Imperial troops ravaged the city; out of 30,000, only 5,000 survived. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the city’s population stood at 450. In the 20th century, the city suffered another disaster, being almost totally destroyed in the course of World War II. Adding insult to injury, the city found itself on the wrong side of the dividing line after the war, becoming part of the Soviet occupation zone, then incorporated into communist East Germany.

The latest disaster? This past Sunday, when the extremist Alternative for Germany party (AfD – “Alternative für Deutschland”) won 24% of the vote in the election for the Landtag, the regional parliament for Saxony-Anhalt, which meets in Magdeburg. It came in second to the Christian Democratic Union (29%). While that fact has been widely reported (and lamented), what is less well known is that if one were to add in the votes for smaller, right-wing parties such as the NPD (the neonazi party which is currently under threat to be outlawed) winning 2%, the “Free Voters” (a highly nationalistic party) at 2%, the “Alliance for Progress and Renewal” (a splinter group of the AfD) at 1%, and other smaller parties such as the scary “Die Rechte”, the percentage of far-right leaning groups is likely higher than for any other party. Unfortunately, the rise of the AfD is not limited to this state, they did well in other state elections on Sunday as well. This is the party that is strongly anti-immigrant, anti-EU, and generally anti-establishment. While the general consensus (see the Economist’s analysis) seems to be that the election results are not disastrous for Chancellor Merkel or for Germany generally, it’s worrisome for anyone familiar with the history of the Weimar Republic to see such movements gain significant popular support. Of course, Germany is not the only country seeing xenophobic, populist politics on the rise. The primary elections today in several large states in the US might help determine if the US sees a similar trend prevail in one of its major political parties.

Binge Eating Stars

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

Rachel Ahn, a Korean binge eater [NPR]

I have written before about “slow TV”, exemplified by Norwegian television, with shows on stacking firewood and watching slow-moving ships. Another country with interesting video productions is South Korea. Well-known are the video productions of contests of online gaming, which have a substantial viewership outside the country. Recently NPR had a story on the popularity of eating shows, or mukbang. It profiles one of the better known binge eaters, Rachel Ahn, who goes by “Aebong-ee”. Every weeknight, she gathers a huge amount of food — noodles, dumplings, seafood — in front of her and starts to eat and broadcast. Her fans expect not just a large volume of food to be devoured at a sitting, but also to have it done in a particular way:

The demands on Ahn and other mukbang stars like her are high — she can’t just eat, she must eat ferociously. As she devours noodles, loud slurping is a must. Audiences offer feedback on a live stream, asking how spicy the noodles are, suggesting she move dumplings closer to the camera or do a dance in excitement. The stream continues for three hours every night.

The most successful binge eaters can make a lot of money and become quite famous. It may be that such shows offer a way for Koreans living alone to have a kind of companionship, even if it’s virtual. According to Ahn, most of her fans are women, many of whom are on a diet; she speculates that the eating shows are popular as a way for those women to eat vicariously. A professor of Asian Studies at UC-Irvine, Kyung Kim, has a different explanation:

Eating is something one activity that is strongly identified as being natural, and spontaneous…You think about K-pop or K-drama [and] they’re very artificial, they’re all about makeup and plastic surgeries. And a lot of people find this — mukbang — to be the exact opposite of all the things right now Korean popular culture really stands for.

Of course, describing the huge volumes of food consumed in the eating shows as “natural” might seem a stretch. I’d be curious if the binge eaters ever include a strangely popular food in Korea, Spam, the U.S. processed pork product from the 1930’s, which is particularly used to make a spicy soup known as budae jjigae, or army stew.

3 miles apart and worlds away

hallwayThe current story in the radio show This American Life illustrates through an individual experience the reality of the gap between rich and poor in the United States as played out in education. It tells the story of New York city high school students participating in an exchange in which they visited each other’s schools. Both schools were in the Bronx and just 3 miles apart, but as put in the story, it took the equivalent of a foreign exchange program to bring them together. One school, University Heights High School, is a public school and is 97% black and Hispanic. The other, Fieldston, is one of New York City’s elite private schools, 70% white with an annual tuition rate of $43,000. The story follows several students who participated in the exchange visits and in particular one girl, Melanie, from University Heights, who reacted to the visit to Fieldston with shock and dismay. She was a bright student who seemed sure to go on to college and be successful in whatever career she would take up. But after managing to track Melanie down 10 years after the exchange between the schools, Chana Joffe-Walt, the producer of the episode, discovered that she had in fact not followed that path. In conversations with Melanie, we learn of the dream she had to attend a prestigious university and her struggles to get by working in a grocery store and her profound shame over her situation. Melanie had been close to winning a scholarship to attend an elite college (Middlebury) but was not selected. A student who did win a scholarship through that same program is also followed in the episode. The young man, Jonathan, attended Wheaton College, but dropped out. Although he had a full scholarship, he had no money to buy his textbooks, and felt out of place among the other students. Their stories demonstrate in poignant ways how difficult is to cross socio-economic boundaries, even with the support both students received from teacher-mentors.

In interviewing Melanie, Joffe-Walt went back to that initial visit to Fieldston and her shock at seeing the radically different environment:

It was just like, OK, this is private. So everything kind of is a fucking lie that you see your whole life growing up on TV shows or movies. It’s like, OK, this is not free. This is not available for kids of color. This is something that only privileged or the elite can have. I know I looked at it and I said, well, I know that we’re only being taught to flip burgers in Burger King or McDonald’s or to hold doors for students like them that will probably live in those buildings on Madison Avenue, and we’ll be wearing the uniform, servicing these people.

Joffe-Walt comments:

So that’s what she found so upsetting. It seemed that the people around her must believe that this was the natural order of things. Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we’re all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability, she just didn’t know what to do with the idea that she might be alone in seeing that.

Homophobia & Colonialism

uganda-anti-gayAmong the legacies of colonialism are habits and attitudes brought by the colonizing powers and which persist beyond the colonial period. That may be in some cases a taste for particular foods or styles of preparation – for example, the Portuguese treats I remember enjoying in Macau (at a casino food court, no less). The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is another example (although pho may or may not be related to pot-au-feu). Even more evident is of course language, with India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Hong Kong taking advantage of the historical role of English to foster wide use of that language in business and education. But the few instances of positive colonial legacies pale in comparison to the pernicious cultural, economic, and political legacies of the colonial powers.  That includes suppression of native languages along with countless other acts of cultural imperialism.

What we are witnessing now in Uganda is just such a sad legacy. As discussed in a piece in the Think Africa Press, one of the sources of homophobic attitudes in that and other African countries is a holdover from imported and imposed Victorian concepts of sexuality.  There are of course other factors involved as well, one being the anti-Western backlash against what can be seen as neo-colonial pressure for Ugandans not to pass anti-gay legislation.  Another being the possible influence of American evangelicals. Uganda is by no means alone, According to the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are at least 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Many have colonial histories as well but by no means all, and not all former colonies have Victorian attitudes to blame.  Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its wide-spread popular support seem sadly to be home-grown.

Uganda’s President indicated recently that he will not sign the anti-gay bill passed by the legislature.  His explanation – homosexuals are “abnormal” and “sick” and need to be rehabilitated. His views join a long list of world leaders making unfortunate remarks about gays in their countries, from Putin to former Iranian President Ahmadinejad who famously stated that there were no gays in Iran.

Beer and democracy

singhabeerIf you see beer being poured over someone’s feet, what would be your reaction?  In Thailand, this is disparaging action and part of a protest against a prominent beer brand, Singha.  It’s not a protest concerning the quality of the product – Singha is a well-known brand.  It concerns comments from Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, 28, the Singha beer heiress who was quoted last month in a widely circulated article saying that many Thais lack a “true understanding” of democracy, “especially in the rural areas.” This comes from a NY Times article published this week-end.  She was reacting to the continued support for the current government, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, brother of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, from Thais in the poor, rural areas of the country. The Singha heiress is part of the group trying to oust the Prime Minister.  In contrast to what one normally expects from protests – namely a call for more democracy, the rich and powerful in Thailand are calling for less democracy, “The demonstrators want a hiatus from democracy, replacing it with rule by a ‘people’s council’ selected from various professions in the country. Many say they yearn for a return to the absolute monarchy because Thailand is not ready for democracy.”

The Thai protest against the government is reminiscent of last year’s action in Egypt, ousting a legally and democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Morsi.  Of course, the situation in Thailand and Egypt are quite different, but they do point to a worrisome trend, away from changing leaders through elections, and instead forcing them out through a military coup or other actions.

Pasta not rice

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil  & her parents

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil & her parents

“I ate pasta, family ate rice,” says Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil, who comes from a Filipino-American family and wrote that phrase as a contribution to the Race Card Project and as a way of characterizing one aspect of her cultural identity. As a girl Melanie was embarrassed that she couldn’t offer visiting school friends main-stream American snacks like hot dogs or Tater Tots – such things weren’t to be found in her family kitchen.  Melanie’s friends were mystified (and she was mortified) by the huge rice dispenser which was the centerpiece of her family kitchen. Her family ate Filipino food, and rice was served with every meal.  In middle school Melanie told her family she wasn’t going to eat rice any more and her accommodating mother made her pasta instead.  Her story is not unusual for immigrant families.  Fortunately, Melanie’s subsequent story is common these days as well.  In her 20’s she came to discover that her Filipino heritage made her special, and she has since embraced Filipino cooking. Ironically, as she told NPR, she is now making sure Filipino traditions are kept alive in her extended family, making sure the young people in her family know how to make the traditional dish of lumpia, (similar to an eggroll):

“I would prepare my grandmother’s lumpia recipe and kind of set up a lumpia sweatshop, if you will,” Ramil says. “For each of my cousins’ children … there are about 25 or 30 of them — I would put a place mat in front of them, lumpia wrappers … a little bowl of raw meat.”

Melanie is making sure such traditions have some permanence and extend beyond her family, writing a blog, Lola’s Journal, based on her grandmother’s life (and cooking).

For many of us food is an important part of our cultural identity, which may or may not be tied to ethnic backgrounds. Melanie’s story shows us that sometimes that connection is complicated and changes over time.  I’m writing this on Thanksgiving and I’m looking forward to a new tradition my family started last year:  the 10-minute instant Thanksgiving dinner, consisting of a purchased roasted chicken (how great that our main grocery store is open on Thanksgiving), boxed stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and gravy, heated-up rolls. No gourmet feast, but it does allow more time for socializing, games, and emptying my growler, not to mention eliminating the 5 a.m. turkey preparation – a tradition I’m willing to pass up.

Women: Incorruptible

copsInteresting story recently from Mexico about women being used exclusively as traffic cops.  The reason?  To fight corruption in the police force, a chronic problem in Mexico.  The assumption is that women are less likely to take bribes to forgo issuing traffic citations or to strong-arm motorists into forking over cash instead of being arrested.  Ecatepec Police Chief Carlos Ortega Carpinteyro, cited in a story on NPR, says women are much better suited for traffic duty: “When a man is approached by a female cop, even though he is the stronger sex, he calms down and will listen to her…women are more trustworthy and take their oath of office more seriously. They don’t ask for or take bribes.” So far the women traffic cops in the Mexico State don’t have full police authority – they can only issue warnings.

Are women really less corruptible.  Tania Lombrozo points out in her blog that the results are mixed.  In a recent study from Rice University, researchers found that corruptibility of men versus women depends on the kind of government in place: “We find strong evidence that a gender gap in corruption attitudes and behaviors is present in democracies, but weaker or non-existent in autocracies.” According to the article, this correlates as well with the role of women in politics – in democratic countries having a larger number of women participating in government lessens corruption, but not in autocratic regimes.  They provide an interesting explanation of why women are different from men in terms of corruptibility:

Women are more powerfully subject to social norms because systematic discrimination against them makes their position more tenuous. Insomuch that sex discrimination means holding women to a different (higher) standard than men for the same reward, it is riskier for them to flout the formal and informal rules of political culture because transgressions are more likely to invite retaliation. Thus, if a political culture discourages corruption, women will avoid corrupt activities more and profess greater aversion to it (compared to men) because they anticipate suffering more severe consequences than their male counterparts.

Whether the new approach will work for Mexico remains to be seen.  Mexico ranks high in the corruption index of Transparency International (105 out of 174 most corrupt).  It’s interesting to note that the countries that are listed as the least corrupt are also among those that in the recent World Happiness Report rank as the “happiest”, namely the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada.

I’m allowed to wear a hoodie

istock_000008235676largeIn an interview yesterday, a member of the George Zimmerman trial jury stated that race did not enter into their deliberations and that she did not think the situation would have been different had it been a white young man walking down the street of Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Given that perspective, it’s not surprising that Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trevon Martin. We all tend to categorize unknown individuals based on appearance, including dress, skin color, gender, age, demeanor, walking style. This is normal human behavior in dealing with the unknown – we put things and people into groups based on previous encounters, learned values, and media messaging. This kind of processing does not normally have deadly consequences, but it becomes problematic and potentially dangerous if we assume our initial categorizing corresponds to reality in every case and in every context, without trying to ascertain the nature of an individual beyond outward appearances. This is profiling – associating the stereotyped individual with assumed negative behavior.

It’s clear that Zimmerman’s actions were based on profiling, following Treyvon Martin because he was black, male, young, and wearing a hoodie. On NPR this morning as part of the “race card project” (creating 6-word statements about race) there was discussion about what message is sent by someone wearing a hoodie:

A woman named Bethany Banner of Kalamazoo had this ah-ha moment when she was out shopping one day. It starts raining. She pulls her hoodie, and her six words were: ‘I’m allowed to wear a hoodie’. Because she realized in that moment that no one would ever look at her, as a petite white woman, and assume that she was someone dangerous because she had this hood up over her head.

Treyvon Martin made the mistake of thinking he too would not be looked at askance when wearing a hoodie.

Another jolting quote came yesterday from George Zimmerman’s brother, who was complaining that his brother was afraid of retribution : “There are people that would want to take the law into their own hands as they perceive it, or be vigilantes in some sense”. I think he missed the irony of George Zimmerman fearing someone acting outside official channels and taking matters into his own hands.

Gaelic unites

gaelicsignsAPRecent story in the Atlantic about the interest in the Irish language, a Celtic language, also called Irish Gaelic (as distinct from Scottish Gaelic) in Northern Ireland, the majority Protestant region of Ireland that is part of the UK, separate from the majority Catholic Republic of Ireland.  The Irish language has long played an important cultural role in the Republic, but not so traditionally in the North, where it has often been associated with the Catholic South. Now efforts are underway to try to use the Irish language as a way to bring Protestant Republicans and Catholic Unionists in Northern Ireland together.  There are still smoldering feelings of resentment and injustice there, going back to the “Troubles”, the 40-year violent confrontation between the two sides over the political future of Northern Ireland.

One of the surprising facts about Irish is the role that Protestants played in keeping the language alive at a time when its continued existence was threatened. This is a fact that Linda Ervine, a Protestant helping to organize Irish language classes in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, uses to recruit fellow Protestants:

 “The language was almost lost by the end of the 19th century because Irish became associated with poverty and Catholicism (particularly during the potato famine, which hit the poor the hardest). During the famine, about 3 million Irish emigrated. But what few Protestants in the neighborhood know, Ervine says, is that Irish, or Gaelic, was saved by a small group of Presbyterians, many of whom were steadfast loyalists.”

 The interest in Irish in the North corresponds to an initiative there called Líofa 2015, or “fluent” 2015, which seeks to promote Irish as a means of reconciliation through interest in a common cultural heritage. It’s not only in Ireland that languages which seemed destined to die out as living languages have been revived and used as a way to bring groups together.  The role that Hebrew has played in shaping modern Israel is perhaps the best-known example.  In the U.S. Native Indian tribes such as the Navajo are emphasizing the importance of learning their language as a way of cementing cultural identity.