Quiet quitting or bringing your whole self to work?

Bartleby, the first quiet quitter?

Recently there has been a flood of media accounts and TikTok videos of “quiet quitting” – meaning not that folks are actually quitting their jobs, but rather that they are doing the minimum at work, putting in just enough effort to keep their jobs. The idea is that one should develop a healthy work-life balance and not overdo the commitment to one’s work world. The term may be newly popular but the concept is not. For Germans the idea may conjure up “Beamten” (civil servants), who have guaranteed positions from which they are very difficult to dislodge. Civil servants in many other countries may have a similar status. Students of American literature may make another connection, namely to Bartleby the Scrivener (by Hermann Melville), who when asked to do a work task responds, “I would rather not”. Some have pointed out that the refusal to go above and beyond minimum work duties is a product of the pandemic (and work at home environments) and the ensuing glut of job openings, allowing workers to be choosier in employment situations.

On the other hand, there has been a workplace practice that points in a quite different direction, namely “bringing your whole self to work”, the idea that we should be fully present in all our personal traits and preferences at work (our “authentic” self). As pointed out in a recent column in the New York Times, this is an idea popularized by corporate consultant and TED talker Mike Robbins and celebrated at companies such as Google. The idea is that workers feel more comfortable at work if they are able to express aspects of their personal identities. The column asserts that the “whole self” movement has become popular in part because it aligns with calls for instituting more diversity and inclusion in the workplace. From that perspective, employees don’t have to hide who they really are in order to be accepted in the workplace.

Cynics, looking at my own field of employment, might say, quiet quitting? In academia, it’s called getting tenure. Tenure is supposed to guarantee academic freedom, so that professors aren’t fired for controversial or unpopular opinions they may voice. But for some, it may mean that the job security tenure brings amounts to a sinecure, a job for life that one keeps even if performance is problematic. A friend of mine from graduate school on the day he received tenure, went down into his basement and started converting it to a man cave, anticipating a different lifestyle in his future. Of course, for many workers, those in low pay environments such as fast-food or factory workers, the work environment is such that neither quiet quitting nor “whole self” engagement is applicable – the jobs simply don’t allow for much in the way of personal investment. At the same time digital tracking devices are being employed for white collar workers, keeping watch on their every move and thus restricting what leeway they have at work.

Monuments, cultural identity, and language

Soviet-era obelisk in Latvia recently demolished

Where I live, Richmond, Virginia, has in the US been a center of the recent movement to remove public monuments to individuals or movements associated with causes on the wrong side of history. In the case of Richmond, the monuments were statues of figures representing the breakaway Confederate States, determined to maintain the slavery of Blacks. The impetus to examine the appropriateness of public monuments celebrating racism came from the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Now in the Baltic states public monuments associated with Russia or with the Soviet Union are coming under increasing scrutiny and in some cases being removed. It is a phenomenon based largely on the Russian war on Ukraine.

However, the situation in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is complicated by language issues. While the majority of inhabitants of those countries support Ukraine in the war, each country has a sizable number of native Russian speakers. Many of those people, ethnic Russians, support Russia in the war and do not approve of the removal of Soviet-oriented monuments. In Latvia, one third of the population speak only or primarily Russian. Recently, the Latvian government dismantled a tall obelisk erected in 1985 as a memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. According to a story in the New York Times, that obelisk was important to the Russian minority, with Russian speakers gathering at the obelisk each May 9 to commemorate the Soviet victory over the Nazis. It’s not just the ethnic Russians in Latvia who were upset over the demolition of the monument, the Kremlin accused European countries of attempting to rewrite history and disregarding Russia’s role in World War II.

According to the NY Times piece,

Latvia is not alone in seeking to dismantle symbols of the Soviet era: Other nations critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including Poland, have said they will do the same. Estonia recently removed a Soviet-era tank from a World War II memorial, prompting a wave of cyberattacks from a Russian hacking group.

We can’t know how the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine (and its possible outcome) will affect Russia’s neighbors, especially the former states belonging to the Soviet Union. We do see now Russian citizens becoming less and less welcome in many parts of the world or in particular domains such as sports competitions. The European Union is currently debating whether to prevent Russian tourists from visiting EU countries.

You don’t like kimchi? You’re not really Korean.

Katianna Hong cooking soup.

As I wrote recently in this blog, for those from mixed ethnic backgrounds, one avenue to reclaim what feels like a lost heritage from one of the parents is to learn that parent’s language. The feeling that one does not fit into a personally linked ethnic group has sometimes been labeled racial imposter syndrome. It’s the sense that some individuals may have that their lives are in a sense inauthentic because they don’t conform to key aspects of the ethnic heritage with which they identify.

A current piece in the New York Times describes a different way to connect with that less dominant side of ones family cultural heritage, namely through food. The article, “Food Is Identity. For Korean Chefs Who Were Adopted, It’s Complicated”, explores how adoptees in the US from Korea (a large group) have learned to cook Korean food, with some becoming professional chefs. The situation is described as “complicated” for several reasons. The cooks have grown up in non-Korean environments and often have had little exposure to Korean cuisine until later in life. They tend not to cook straight traditional Korean dishes, but rather integrate Korean cooking techniques and ingredients into many dishes they prepare. One woman in the article, Katianna Hong, is described as “a Korean woman adopted and raised by a German Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother.” She makes matzo ball soup, a traditional Jewish food, in an unconventional way:

Instead of the mirepoix of carrots, celery and onions her grandmother called for, Mrs. Hong opts for what she calls “Korean mirepoix” — potatoes and hobak, a sweet Korean squash — cooked slowly in chicken fat until translucent. She dribbles a spoonful of the mixture around a hulking matzo ball surrounded by swollen sujebi, the hand-torn Korean noodles, all floating in a bowl of chicken broth as creamy and cloudy as the ox bone soup Seolleongtang.

The article describes the soup as “a tribute to her adoptive family’s background and her own heritage”. While for the adoptees, the experience of cooking Korean may bring personal fulfillment, the chefs may face backlash from other Korean Americans that their cooking isn’t Korean enough. Here again, the situation is complicated. Kim Park Nelson, an associate professor of ethnic studies at Winona State University, herself a Korean adoptee is quoted in the article on the complexity involved:

The most common example I hear, and what I have experienced, is being asked if I like kimchi. I do, but not all adoptees are crazy about kimchi. There is almost a nationalistic connection between kimchi and Korea.  It’s like a test question: Are you actually Korean?

Adoptees learn to cook Korean from different sources, but often from social media such as YouTube. The experience of starting to make Korean food can prove to be emotional: “For a Korean adoptee, eating Korean food can be a reminder of the loss, grief and disconnection they’ve experienced. Cooking may intensify those feelings.” It may be scray to assert ones identity as “Korean” if one has not grown up eating Korean food:

Feelings of self-doubt — the impostor syndrome — can turn into fears of cultural appropriation. Many adoptee chefs say they feel like outsiders looking in, wondering not only if they have permission to cook the cuisine of their heritage, but also if what they’re doing could taint it.

As one Korean adoptee chef stated in the piece: “In some ways, Korean food becomes a marker of what you aren’t.”

Cultural themes in US society and their deadly consequences

White flags on the National Mall representing deaths from COVID

In the US in recent weeks there has been a disturbing milestone – over 1 million deaths from COVID-19 – and several tragic events, i.e., mass shootings in New York and Texas. Although quite different in nature, these developments, I believe, highlight central cultural themes in contemporary America related to individual freedom of choice and to attitudes towards authorities, particularly as represented in science and the government. The events are disturbing and tragic but also worrisome in that the power of these cultural themes appears to be growing, with potentially catastrophic future impacts on public health and safety.

A recent article in the NY Times highlighted the fact that Australia’s Covid death rate has been one-tenth of that in the US. The article points to a “lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor, and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.” That trust, present in Australia, absent in the US, was “fundamental in getting people to change their behavior for the common good to combat Covid, by reducing their movements, wearing masks and getting vaccinated”. While Australians followed community rules, sharing a mutual concern for others (“mateship”), many Americans insisted on their personal freedom not to wear a mask or to get vaccinated. For many in the US that individual freedom of choice trumped all other factors, including social responsibility.

That obsession with personal freedom to act, despite potential dangers to others, is a cultural theme that carries over to gun ownership in the US. There is strong evidence that the widespread lack of restrictions on owning firearms of all types, including military-style assault weapons, leads to more and more gun deaths, including suicides. Efforts at the federal level to institute restrictions have failed repeatedly over the years. At the recent convention of the NRA (National Rifle Association), NRA leaders and attendees responding to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, were, according to an article in the Texas Tribune, “unified in their belief that the shooter’s access to guns was not to blame”. Instead they pointed to cultural issues:

They attributed this attack and others to a broader breakdown in society wrought by the removal of God from public schools, the decline of two-parent households, a perceived leniency toward criminals, social media and an increase in mental illness. They described feeling ostracized for their beliefs, and not just those on guns. For their refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. For their objections to gay people serving as teachers. For their belief in disciplining children through spanking.

Instead of restricting sales of guns, NRA adherents focused on cultural issues and “framed any attempt at curtailing gun rights as chipping away at their freedoms”. But just like refusing to be vaccinated puts others at risk, the insistence on the absolute freedom to own guns makes them so widely available that it seems inevitable that public safety is at risk, as the raft of mass shootings has shown.

“I’m a fraud within my own identity”: Racial Impostor Syndrome

Emily Kwong at age 2 with her grandparents

There was a compelling story this week on NPR dealing with individuals from families with mixed ethnic backgrounds.  In the story, Emily Kwong discusses her decision to learn Mandarin Chinese at the age of 30. Her Dad had grown up speaking Chinese as his first language, but when he started school, he started learning English, and soon switched over completely. When she was little, Emily had learned some Chinese from her grandmother but had not retained any. As an adult, she started to feel increasingly that she needed to try to reconnect with the Chinese side of her identity and decided that necessitated learning the language of her father.

The feeling that Emily has of “feeling that I’m not Chinese enough” has sometimes been labeled racial imposter syndrome, the sense that individuals may have that their lives are in a sense inauthentic because they don’t conform to key aspects of the ethnic heritage with which they identify. That might be related to a lack of knowledge about traditional customs or aspects of the way of life, or be connected to the individual’s appearance. But quite likely there will be a language component. For Emily, learning Chinese has proven to be a challenge, as it is for many native English speakers, particularly if one starts later in life. However, the difficulties she has had with the language pale when compared to the shame she feels in not being able to connect at all with her Chinese-speaking relatives:

I’ve decided that any shame I might feel about imperfect pronunciation, fumbles with grammar is nothing compared to the shame I felt about not knowing the language at all; the shame I feel as my older relatives rattle off dim sum dishes and I stare down the menu pictures, feeling like a fraud within my own identity, missing something I never had in the first place.

This sense of feeling like a fraud within one’s own identity is likely felt by many individuals from immigrant families or those with connections to multiple cultures. NPR a few years ago did a series on such cases, which are increasing as American identities become more mixed. The accounts of experiences are revealing. A woman whose mother is Panamanian and father a white American recounted:

When I was young (20s) and living in the city, I would get asked multiple times a day where I was from, where my people were from, because Allentown, Pennsylvania, clearly wasn’t the answer they were looking for … It always felt like the undercurrent of that question was, “You aren’t white, but you aren’t black. What are you?” But truthfully, I don’t feel like I fit with Latinas either. My Spanish is atrocious and I grew up in rural PA. Even my cousin said a few weeks ago, “Well, you aren’t really Spanish, because your dad is white.” Which gutted me, truly. I identify as Latina.

Another individual featured was a light-skinned biracial woman:

White people like to believe I’m Caucasian like them; I think it makes their life less complicated. But I don’t identify as 100% white, so there always comes a time in the conversation or relationship where I need to ‘out’ myself and tell them that I’m biracial. It’s a vulnerable experience, but it becomes even harder when I’m with black Americans. It may sound strange — and there are so many layers to this that are hard to unpack — but I think what it comes down to is: they have more of a claim to ‘blackness’ than I ever will and therefore have the power to tell me I don’t belong, I’m not enough, that I should stay on the white side of the identity line.

Emily’s effort to retrieve a heritage through language learning may not apply to everyone, but for many it may be an important tool for feeling less like a “fraud”. The experiences in her family illustrate a frequent pattern in immigrant families, namely that the first generation may give up their first language, as Emily’s Dad did, in order to assimilate into mainstream US society. That was widely the case throughout the 20th century in the US. Second or third generation children, like Emily, discover often that not speaking the language of their immigrant parent or parents leaves a void in their sense of who they are.

Is Ukraine a country?

Russian troops in Ukraine

One of the issues in the war between Russia and Ukraine is the insistence by President Putin of Russia that in fact Ukraine is not a “real” country but historically and culturally belongs to Russia. That is part of his stated rationale for the war, along with the concern he continually expresses that Ukraine will join NATO and thus become an enemy on Russia’s doorstep.

Many have debunked the idea that Ukraine does not have a right to be an independent nation. The historical, cultural, and linguistic reasons are laid out nicely in a recent piece by Keith Gessen in the New York Times Magazine. He cites the conversation from one of the posted videos from the war showing a Ukrainian citizen confronting Russian soldiers after their tank runs out of gas on the road to Kyiv. The Ukrainian asks in Russian, “Can I tow you back to Russia?”

Beyond the courage and the sense of humor on display, Gessen comments that the fascinating aspect of the encounter was not so much how it documented the incompetence of the Russian invasion, but rather that the Ukrainian could communicate so easily, so freely, with the Russian soldiers. Not only do many Ukrainians speak Russian, often as their native language, but they switch easily between Russian and Ukrainian, depending on the context and the situation. Although Russian war propaganda makes much of the minority status of Russian speakers in Ukraine, that does not ring true in the everyday life of most Ukrainians:

Russian propaganda claims that the language is discriminated against, and there are people in Russia who believe that you will get shouted at, or even attacked, for speaking Russian in Kyiv. Yet in the videos now emerging from Ukraine, over and over again, people are speaking Russian. Soldiers speak Russian as they fire rocket-propelled grenades at Russian tanks. Locals speak Russian as they survey annihilated Russian columns.

Gessen points out that Americans are likely to associate war with countries far away, where a foreign language is spoken. He points out that this war is altogether different: “Russia invading Ukraine is less like our wars in Iraq or Vietnam and more like the United States invading Canada.”

The President of Ukraine himself, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, switches easily between the two languages. In a speech rebutting Putin’s claim of the shared identity of Ukraine and Russia, he switched to Russian in order to address the Russian people:

Responding to the Kremlin’s claims that it was protecting the separatist regions from Ukrainian plans to take them by force, Zelensky asked whom, exactly, Russia thought he was going to bomb. “Donetsk?” he asked incredulously. “Where I’ve been dozens of times, seen people’s faces, looked into their eyes? Artyoma Street, where I hung out with my friends? Donbas Arena, where I cheered on our boys at the Eurocup? Scherbakov Park, where we all went drinking after our boys lost? Luhansk? The house where the mother of my best friend lives? Where my best friend’s father is buried?”

Zelensky was making the argument that Ukraine is indeed a nation, formed not by history or by language, but by the histories and memories of its people and through personal connections among its citizens. Zelensky continued his speech: “Note that I’m speaking now in Russian, but no one in Russia understands what I’m talking about. These place names, these streets, these families, these events — this is all foreign to you. It’s unfamiliar. This is our land. This is our history. What are you going to fight for? And against whom?”

It is a powerful and effective argument that he is making, insisting that Ukraine is not Russia, but instead its own nation, multiethnic and multilingual, and rooted to a particular place, culture, and history. And one whose continued existence is worth fighting for.

Rewriting history: The Soviet Union, the Confederacy, January 6th

Lee statue time capsule being opened

Recent events highlight attempts to whitewash history and to place past regimes in a positive light. In Russia, the civic organization, International Memorial Society, has just been banned. That organization is dedicated to educating the public about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. They have worked to document the Gulag system of forced labor, the imprisonment of dissidents, and the waves of executions that took place in the USSR. The campaign to shut down Memorial is in line with (and possibly at the instigation) of Russia’s President. Putin is intent on glorifying the Soviet Union, whose break-up Putin sees as one of the great catastrophes of world history. In the narrative of the greatness of the USSR, there is no place for historical accounts of injustice and atrocities.

Meanwhile, this week here in Richmond, Virginia, insight into another whitewashing of history was on display. A time capsule was opened yesterday that had been found in the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue, placed there in 1887 when the monument to the Confederacy was erected. As expected, the documents in the time capsule celebrate the break-away state established to preserve slavery in the Southern states. Most of the 60 or so documents reference the Confederacy and are in line with the message of the statue itself, namely glorifying the state and one of its heroes. The statue itself was removed this year, as have been many other memorials celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. Not surprisingly, the time capsule contained no documents related to slavery or to Black people (or to any people other than Whites). That stands in sharp contrast to the graffiti messaging on the Lee statue and on its pedestal from last year’s protests against racism, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Finally, the attempted coup this year in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, to prevent the official recognition of Joe Biden as President elect is also being whitewashed by those loyal to Donald Trump and to his “big lie” that he won the election in 2020. That and other attempts to rewrite history are dangerous, as they deny the validity of documented historical facts. Spreading false accounts of historical events can have profound cultural repercussions, as we are witnessing now in the US, with a substantial proportion of the population convinced that the Trump account is true. Such developments, as many have pointed out, represent a serious threat to democratic systems, as they can destroy faith in civic institutions.

What? Scones with fried chicken?

Today is Thanksgiving in the US, with many families enjoying the traditional meal of roast turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, pies, etc. While the food is important, Thanksgiving is a social event, bringing extended families back together, an especially appreciated opportunity this year after the COVID lockdown last November. While the collective meal represented by Thanksgiving is seen as special is the US, in most parts of the world, it is a regular occurrence. I’m reminded of an interview on NPR a few years ago with a Yemeni photographer. She was invited to a family Thanksgiving and was asked afterwards her impression: she responded that it was “like every day in Yemen”.

Popeyes in London

While Thanksgiving celebrates the 17th century migration of Europeans to North America, a story this week in the NY Times described a food migration in the opposite direction, back to Europe, actually to Great Britain, from the US. The first Popeyes fast-food chicken restaurant opened recently in London. Popeyes is known for its fried chicken, and recently made a splash with its very popular chicken sandwich (also seen as one of the unhealthiest fast-food options ever). Beyond chicken, another essential component of a Popeyes meal are its buttermilk biscuits, flaky, buttery, and tender. But when Popeyes set up a focus group to assess how Brits might view Popeyes, the reaction, according to the article was, “Why are you giving me a scone with chicken? I have no idea what you are doing.”

A buttermilk biscuit does look similar to a British scone, although scones are denser, drier and crumblier. But scones are not served with chicken or with meals generally, but rather with tea as a light snack, for example, for “cream tea” in the mid-morning or with afternoon tea. Hence the confusion on the part of the British diners. Interestingly, the word “biscuit” also is used in Britain, but refers to what is called a “cookie” in North America. Interesting as well is the socio-cultural significance of the terms. “Biscuits” in the US are considered a staple of Southern cooking and an essential part of “down-home” comfort food. In contrast to the blue-collar aura around biscuits, “scones”, if they are at all familiar to US folks, are likely seen as upper-crust and a symbol of privileged wealth.

As is the case with other fast-food outlets, Popeyes has made adjustments to cater to local conditions:

The chicken is halal to cater to the area’s Muslim population. Almost all of the ingredients are sourced from Britain, including baby gem lettuce, which is harder to find in the United States. The menu also includes the chain’s first-ever vegan burger, which is made of fried red beans, a nod to the strong demand for plant-based food in the British market

So far, the reaction to Popeyes and its strange version of scones seems to be quite positive. According to the article, the company is planning to open 10 to 15 new Popeyes locations next year.

Freedom, a statue and a transition

Two weeks ago, here in Richmond, Virginia, the huge statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue was removed. It was the last symbol of the Southern Confederacy remaining on a street which once was lined with tributes to the heroes of that cause. The statues, erected during the Jim Crow South, celebrated the “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery and that slavery was a benevolent institution. Those reminders of the fight to maintain human slavery started to come down last summer, in the wake of the movement centered around the murder of George Floyd.

Today, a new statue was unveiled in Richmond, this time on Brown’s Island on the James River. It is entitled “Emancipation and Freedom” and features 3 African-Americans. A black man is depicted with whip marks on his back and chains falling off him. A black woman is shown with a determined look, holding up in one hand the Emancipation Proclamation and a baby in the other. Below the figures is the word “Freedom”, along with images and life stories of 10 representative African-American Virginians. That provides the kind of rich context missing from the Confederate statues.

It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. It is also a long overdue recognition and representation of the real history of the American South, far different from that represented for over a century on Monument Avenue.

Germany: What once were virtues are now vices?

Chancellor Merkel

With apologies to the Doobie Brothers for the title (dates me badly, I know), there has been considerable press lately, in Germany itself, and elsewhere about the intriguing turn-around in the country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days, Germany’s success fighting the disease and persuading Germans to follow mitigation measures was hailed widely, especially when compared to the lackluster and ineffective efforts in the US. The explanation frequently given: Germans’ reputed respect for authority and obedience to rules. Chancellor Merkel was given credit for clarity and consistency of messaging, with her science background considered a major plus. The German government was seen as acting with the Gründlichkeit often seen as characteristic of Germans, i.e., thoroughness/rigor and a need to understand and consider all aspects of an issue.

But now, as a headline in the Guardian recently put it, that positive trait seems to be a liability: “Heroes to zeros: how German perfectionism wrecked its Covid vaccine drive. The same thoroughness that made Angela Merkel’s government a pandemic role model is now holding it back.” Gründlichkeit brings with it the need to know the truth, to get to the bottom of things, before making decisions. That aligns with Merkel’s well-known penchant for caution and deliberation before acting. While the US went ahead and ordered millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines without knowing at the time whether any of those vaccines would actually work, Germany held back, wanting to see what the clinical trials would reveal. In fact, it wasn’t just Germany’s decision, but the joint decision of the European Union, of which Germany is a leading voice. The German authorities set up central vaccination sites with great organizational efficiency, only to discover that they went largely unused, because no vaccines were available. Now that vaccines are becoming available, the mixed messaging about the most widely available vaccine in Europe, AstraZeneca, has led many Germans to be wary. First that vaccine was for those under 65, then it was pulled entirely (fears over blood clots), then yesterday it was announced it would be available again, but this time for those over 65.

A substantial part of the problem in Germany is federalism, which, as in the US, has resulted in different Covid strategies in each German state, made more complicated by the fact that it is an election year and several state prime ministers are jockeying for position to replace Merkel. Meanwhile, Merkel issued this statement recently: “Wir wollen, dass die sprichwörtliche und im übrigen auch bewährte deutsche Gründlichkeit um mehr deutsche Flexibilität ergänzt wird” [We are going to supplement the proverbial and well-established German Gründlichkeit with more German flexibility.] Part of that newly-discovered “German flexibility” apparently will be something many have called for, namely allowing family doctors to administer the vaccine.

Auschwitz and politics

Samuel Pisar and the cities from which Auschwitz inmates were sent

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 75 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s interestingly the first day of work for the new US Secretary of State (= Foreign Minister), Antony Blinken, who was confirmed by the US Senate yesterday. At the event announcing his nomination to the position, Blinken spoke movingly about his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and two other camps. From his school in Poland which had 900 students, he was the sole survivor, and also the only member of his own family to survive the war. He escaped from the camp at the age of 16 and hid out in the Bavarian forest.

Blinken spoke at the event about how his stepfather, hiding in the forest, heard a rumbling and saw a tank coming towards him, but not with the Swastika insignia, but rather showing a 5-pointed star, the indication that it belonged to the US army. Seeing the youngster, the driver of the tank opened the hatch; it was an African-American soldier. Pisar spoke the only English words he knew (taught to him by his mother): “God bless America”. The soldier hoisted him into the tank.

Blinken spoke of that episode as an indicator of the idea of “America” as the last best hope for humanity. His stepfather, Pisar went on to become a celebrated diplomat and international lawyer, with the goal of achieving world peace through ongoing conversation among all countries, both friend and foe.

Blinken intends to follow his stepfather in terms of fostering multilateral relationships and international agreements, a direction opposed to that of the Trump administration. He also announced that his intention as Secretary of State was to run the office with “confidence and humility”. If he follows through with “humility”, that will be a stark contrast to the Trump Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who entered into the position announcing that his approach would be characterized by “swagger”, something he repeated recently as he was leaving office.

Finally, the current Foreign Minister of Germany, Heiko Maas, presents a very different perspective. When interviewed in 2018 when he took on that position, he stated, “Ich bin wegen Auschwitz in die Politik gegangen”, i.e., I got into politics because of Auschwitz. He acknowledges Germany’s guilt and the responsibility it bears “for all time”, as Maas has repeatedly stated. That represents again a contrast to the Trump administration, which in its 1776 project, insisted on downplaying the US history of slavery and of systemic racism.

Our plague year

Scene from the 1918 pandemic

Few of us are likely to regret the passing of the plague year 2020 (see the comprehensive New Yorker piece on the catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 virus in the US). Just a few thoughts here on the last day of the year on what has changed in our lives.

1) Human lives
My grandmother died in the 1918 “Spanish flu”. That had a profound effect on my father’s life, growing up without a mother, forming habits, tastes, personality traits that surely would have been different had his mother not died. I’m sure it contributed to my grandfather being taciturn and withdrawn. My Dad had trouble expressing emotion, as did many men of his generation, and was rather coarse in his habits (eating, for example) and abrupt in his dealings with others. No one can tell if having had a mother would have made a difference, but it seems like it could have. In turn, I see many aspects of my father mirrored in my own personality, and likely passed on to my children, and now, quite possibly to my grandchildren.

One death and many ripple effects. In the US we are approaching 350, 000 dead from the virus, many more world-wide. Unbelievable real-life repercussions on lives and families everywhere. Grieving now and long, long-term effects.

2) Cultural practices
For friends and families losing loved ones: So sad not to be able to say good-bye in normal and meaningful ways and to engage in rituals that can be tremendously meaningful to many. It seems likely that end of life practices will slowly come back, but for other culture-related practices changes may be longer-lasting.

Handshakes, hugs, standing close to others: They have disappeared this year. Will they come back or is physical distancing of one kind or another here to stay? Will it be different depending on the culture? In some parts of the world, the adjustment may not be a big deal, but if you’re used to cheek kissing as a normal greeting ritual, that’s a big change. Elbow bumps don’t seem like a satisfactory replacement.

Work cultures seem certain to have changed. Many more folks likely to continue to work remotely. That in turn brings changes to everyday lives, more time at home, more options for cooking, gardening, other homebody activities, maybe more pets?

Changes in education are equally profound. Distance learning is not likely to go away. But just as in employment opportunities, this trend will not affect us all equally. The divide between those with white collar jobs, able to work from home, and those in the service sectors, exposed to the virus, has led in the US to disproportionally high number of black and brown infected and dead Americans. Similarly, well-off parents can afford the better computing set-up and higher-speed Internet crucial to effective online learning. Those are some of the many ways the virus has brought into sharper contrast the stark inequalities in US society.

3) Trust in science (and in each other)
Another dividing line in the US (and elsewhere) has been the extent to which individuals have changed their public behavior to protect themselves and others from the spread of the virus. That has exposed the extent to which many people deny the findings of science and medicine (i.e., masks work) and show blind faith in voices of leaders and media figures, with no science expertise, but with plentiful political goals. Those skeptical of science, or even of the reality of the virus, have shown that they are not reachable through objective, factual information. Their beliefs in areas related to the virus have become part and parcel of their identities, of their personal life histories, and thus are nearly impossible to dislodge by logic or by any other means.

Sad to say, it seems unlikely that 2021 will bring meaningful change in that area.

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.

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.

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”.