Last statue down

Statue of A.P. Hill being removed

This month the last remaining statue of a Confederate War hero, A.P. Hill, was removed in Richmond, Virginia. That concludes a movement that started with the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, with the series of statues on Monument Avenue being taken down one by one. The last statue on that street, of Robert E. Lee, was removed last year. 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. The A.P. Hill statue took longer to remove because he was buried under the monument and Hill’s descendants filed a lawsuit against its removal. According to Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, “Over two years ago, Richmond was home to more confederate statues than any city in the United States. Collectively, we have closed that chapter. We now continue the work of being a more inclusive and welcoming place where all belong.”

The hope expressed by Stoney that Richmond (and the US as a whole), had turned a chapter on racism with the reaction to the death of Geoge Floyd has not been fully realized. It was perhaps naïve to think that long established views embedded in willful ignorance and prejudiced worldviews could be changed by clear evidence of the institutional mistreatment of African-Americans, most obviously by the police. But perhaps the removal of statues celebrating slavery and white privilege can help move the needle somewhat. At the least, in Richmond, African-Americans from 2023 on no longer need live among monuments that celebrate their history of enslavement.

What we need now? Cultural responses

Sports and the pandemic

This weekend in Virginia, high school sports matches will be able to be held in almost “normal” conditions, with large numbers of spectators. Our Governor has loosened rules for in-person gatherings, as more residents of the Commonwealth have gotten vaccinated, and the virus infection rate has fallen. That the Governor made a point of allowing larger gatherings right now – when league championships are being determined – is a sign of the important cultural role played by sports in schools and society in general in the US. Friday nights in the fall in many US states, the place to be is the local high school (American) football game.

Other countries have other priorities, often culturally determined. India has experienced severe upticks in viral spread following many Indians congregating together for religious festivals. One of the difficult issues in India, as elsewhere, has been whether to be impose lockdowns country-wide or allow individual regions to make the rules based on local conditions. Federalism has been a tricky topic in countries like Germany or the USA, where traditionally individual states have control over public health measures.

The cultural issues are not just related to national cultures, but also to generational groupings. For young people, not being able to get together is not just related to losing entertainment venues, but also to the greater importance of socialization for that age group. It has been interesting to follow this past year, just which institutions and services are seen as important, depending on individual and group characteristics. That doesn’t reference just those deemed of “essential” importance (health care workers, grocery store clerks, etc.), but rather those services individuals are used to having available: gyms, hairdressers, church services, arts events. Which are truly essential, many have experienced firsthand, finding ways to exercise at home, cut ones own hair, etc.

The fascinating question is this: what will represent temporary changes and which are long-term? It seems lasting effects might be changes in greeting rituals and more remote working opportunities. Uncertain from my perspective is whether masks will become a new normal in countries other than those, for example in Asia, where masks have been widely used for some years. I think many folks assume that this pandemic is a once in a generation event; I’m skeptical on that; it seems inevitable that we will see more viruses appear. That may bring more culturally determined differences.

A new anti-racist icon: Robert E. Lee

A photograph of Breonna Taylor, projected onto the statue of Robert E. Lee in July, 2020

As this tumultuous year comes to an end, the partisan polarity in the US remains and may even have intensified in the wake of the election this month. Just today, a lawyer for President Trump, Joe diGenova, called for the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Chris Krebs to be “drawn and quartered” and then to be taken out and shot. His crime? He had declared the election to have been secure and legitimate.

On the other hand, the massive protests from this summer in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other African-Americans at the hands of police officers seem to have subsided. However, here in Richmond, VA, there remains a strong visual reminder of the inequity between Blacks and whites in the US and of the racist history going back to slavery and the Civil War. The NY Times has named that reminder, namely the massive Robert E Lee statue on Monument Avenue, the most influential work of American protest art since World War II. The statue is one of the last remaining monuments of Confederate figures left in the city, the former capital of the Confederate States of America, after almost all others have been either toppled by protesters or ordered removed by the Richmond mayor. Since this summer, the statue has been transformed. No longer a towering reminder of the Confederate “Lost Cause” and of the Jim Crow era of enforced segregation, it is now covered with graffiti, much of it supporting “Black Lives Matter”, protesting police brutality, and evoking the names and faces of Blacks unjustly killed.

Whether the statue will be removed is uncertain. A judge has ruled that the city may remove the statue, although it is on state-owned land. Opponents of removal have vowed to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. It seems to me a shame to remove the statue now, as it is currently configured. It has been argued convincingly that the problem with the Confederate statues is that they provide no historical context and imply by their size and prominence that these men so honored are heroic figures, whose actions are to be celebrated. Nothing about the statues indicates they were defenders of slavery. But now there is plenty of context around the Lee statue. It’s not just the messages and art on the statue itself; there are signs and objects that have been placed all around the statue. Images have been projected on the statue that feature Breonna Taylor and others. The intersection where the statue is located has been popularly renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle, in reference to a man who was shot and killed by police in Richmond in 2018 during a mental health crisis.

So the context of racism – and anti-racism – the newly transformed statue represents is abundantly clear.

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.

Two world leaders on climate change

Greta Thunberg striking, Stockholm, Aug, 2018

Today is the United Nations Summit on Climate Change. That follows on the Youth Summit which was held last week. Leaders from around the world are participating in the summits, which are designed to draw public attention to the issue of global warming and to generate action for change in environmental policies and measures before irreversible damage is done to our planet. Ordinary citizens are participating in the summits as well, including large throngs of protesters in the streets of cities in many countries. If there were ever a need for an embrace of the notion of global citizenship, this must surely be it. One country alone cannot change the pace of degradation of the earth, it will take a sense of responsibility and stewardship from citizens and leaders from all countries.

9/20/2019, Berlin: Fridays for Future movement

On the other hand, one person can make a huge difference. That is the case for Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swede behind the “Fridays for Future” movement, calling on her generation to skip school on Fridays to protest inaction on climate change. Her campaign started last August, as a solitary protest in front of the Swedish parliament. In time others joined her, at first in Sweden, then in other European countries, and now world-wide. For this cause, it makes perfect sense that there be youth leaders, as they will be the ones inheriting the earth we are in the process of damaging. Studies have shown that polluted air and exposure to toxins is not just bad for our planet’s health, it can have a devastating impact on human health as well, especially on children, because their immunity systems are weaker than those of adults. Magdalena Burton comments in a blog post:

The environmental question is about the present as much as the future. It concerns our daily wellbeing as well as our long-term health, the dignity of human life and our ultimate survival as a species. It impacts on everyone currently living on planet earth and anyone who is yet to arrive here. Today, we are not even able to guarantee fair access to clean air to anyone born on this planet, whether in high- or lower-income countries. This is precisely what Thunberg’s call not to steal her and all our futures is all about – and the reality we all need to wake up to.

Greta Thunberg may seem at first blush an unlikely world leader on climate change. She is not a scientist or a politician. She is small, shy, and self-effacing. She comes from a small country. But she is determined and persistent. She herself has aligned her single-mindedness to the fact that she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the autistic spectrum. She is asking the public not to listen to her, but rather to the overwhelming consensus of scientists on climate change.

She offers a sharp contrast to a figure we might expect to be a world leader on climate change, the President of the United States of America. Anyone in that position not only has an immense influence on public opinion, but can also take advantage of the tremendous power of the office, to gather the best and brightest minds in science and policy making, in order to be well-informed and therefore be in a position to offer reasoned and evidence-based public statements on the topic. President Trump has dismissed global warming as a Chinese hoax. He is skipping the UN Summit today. Leadership is not likely to be forthcoming from that direction.

Update.  President Trump did after all attend the Climate Change Summit – for 15 minutes, later mocking Greta Thunberg in a tweet. Her testimony today:

Apps for refugees

The “Ankommen” app from the Goethe Institute

A newly created app, “Finding Home”, created by the advertising firm Grey Malaysia, together with the United Nations, gives some insight into what refugees experience, allowing users, according to the AP, to “walk a mile in a refugee’s shoes” by simulating the daily struggles of a fictional Rohingya Muslim, 16-year old “Kathijah,” forced to flee her home in Myanmar and striving to set up a new life in Malaysia. Through the app, users simulate her experience by peeking in on Kathijah’s phone conversations.

For real-life refugees, using phones for communication and for cultural integration can be a real lifeline. I’m currently writing a piece for Language Learning & Technology on smartphones (given the 10th anniversary this year of the iPhone) in which I discuss this topic:

While language learning may not be an issue of central importance in the lives of many of our students, learning a second language, along with the cultural framework that comes with it, is a matter of crucial importance to one population – migrants and refugees. For these groups, mobile phones are a powerful instrument in potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) situations, as reported by the European Union Institute for Security Studies:

Migrants are linking up online to cross borders and meet their basic needs. They are using smartphones to share tips and geo-positional data as they cross North Africa. They rank and rate Afghan people-smugglers, trying to hold the criminals accountable for the safe transport of family members. On Google they share tips, such as to avoid exploitative Istanbul taxi drivers or evade new EU border controls.

The kind of device migrants use will vary with the individual and place of origin. One account has shown that among young Syrian refugees, 86% owned a smartphone. A number of mobile apps have been developed by NGOs and government agencies to help migrants in a variety of areas, including language learning, cultural integration, and practical day-to-day living. Some apps aid in the process of migrants making their way through intermediate countries to their final destination. InfoAid helps refugees in Hungary, while Gherbtna is aimed at Syrians newly arrived in Turkey. The Mobile Legal Info Source helps navigate Turkey’s legal system. The Crisis Info Hub offers support for new arrivals in Greece.

In Germany, the hoped-for destination of many refugees, a number of apps have been created targeting the immigrant population. The Goethe Institute, along with federal agencies dealing with immigration and employment, have created “Ankommen” (Arrival), available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, and German. As do other such apps, it is designed with minimal technical requirements, so as to be usable on older phones. It features three branched areas: German language study, German asylum procedures, and tips on living in Germany. Integreate offers a similar service for refugees in Germany. It’s available in five languages and features information specific to one of the 80 German cities targeted. Daheim (At Home) offers a meeting platform for new arrivals and German natives, designed for language learning and intercultural exchange. The ReDi School of Digital Integration in Berlin is developing “Bureaucrazy” to help refugees make their way through German bureaucracy, featuring language help and practical information on filling out forms in German. The school also has started a program teaching refugees how to code and create mobile apps.

Of course, not all refugees have smartphones, but we are seeing costs coming down dramatically for Android phones. At the same time, feature phones are becoming “smarter”, with features that used to be reserved for expensive smartphones. As those developments continue, it is likely that phones will represent an ever greater lifeline for those finding their way to a new home and for those seeking resources to help them establish a footing linguistically and culturally in their new homes. Vice news has a recent story on this topic.

The perils of digital illiteracy



The strange twists of the US presidential campaign continue. On Friday, the FBI notified members of the US Congress that the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails would be re-opened. It seems that the Bureau found through an unrelated investigation emails on a laptop which may be related to the Clinton case. In another bizarre twist, that laptop was shared between Clinton top aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, notorious sexting enthusiast Anthony Weiner. The incident raises a host of questions, beginning with why the FBI would release this information 11 days before the election, therefore at a time when such a bombshell could affect the outcome. For me, one of the intriguing questions is why would the couple have been sharing a laptop. These are well-to-do folks who are likely heavy users of the Internet and social media. Couldn’t they manage to have their own laptops? Given Weiner’s unsavory use of online media, wouldn’t he want to keep his partner from having access to his messages? And given his history, wouldn’t she want that as well? It could be that, although using the same laptop, they may have had separate user accounts, requiring individual logins – but that is not really a foolproof way to secure privacy.

There has been speculation that Abedin may have had Clinton emails on the shared laptop because Clinton wanted her aide to print them for her to read. A number of media reports have indicated that Clinton is far from tech savvy. In some cases, it may be that Clinton has asserted ignorance of tech in order to protect herself, for example, when she took literally the “wiping” of her hard drive. But other stories seem to indicate a woeful ignorance of tech-related issues. Abedin apparently had a quite difficult time, for example, getting Clinton to understand how to use the telephone for faxing. Printing emails is a bad idea on a number of counts, not least of which is the possibility of having print copies of sensitive information lying around. In fact, the whole email controversy which has so dogged her campaign has been execrated by Clinton’s failure to explain clearly how her email was set up. That failure may derive from Clinton’s tendency to want to keep her affairs private, but it’s even more likely to be related to her not taking the time and effort to understand.

When I teach courses in intercultural communication, one of the reasons I list for having students become sensitive to issues of how to communicate effectively with representatives of other cultures is that we want potential leaders to have those skills and knowledge. I would argue as well that we want our future leaders to be digitally literate – that’s important not only so as to avoid snafus like the Clinton email problem, but also to serve as role models. President Obama participated in a coding workshop in which he learned to write JavaScript. We probably don’t want the US President spending a lot of time writing code, but knowing what’s involved in that process can lead to more informed decisions involving technology.

A living goddess

Nepal's Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9 Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

Nepal’s Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9
Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

In the US – and probably elsewhere where the movie Frozen has been popular – little girls are dressing up as princesses (and buying lots of princess-related merchandise). There was a reminder this week that there are in fact parts of the world where young girls get the royal treatment, namely through a story on NPR about one of Nepal’s “Living Goddesses”, the Kumari Devi, age 9. The story of her experience during the recent earthquake offers a mirror on Nepalese culture as well as insight into how the natural environment is seen in that country. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists, considered the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga. She’s selected as a young child and lives an isolated and secretive existence and is rarely seen in public. According to the story, “Last month’s earthquake brought much of Kathmandu’s historic Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site, tumbling to the ground. Nepal’s showcase temples and palaces were reduced to ruins. But save for a few cracks, the home of the city’s Living Goddess remained intact.” According to the goddess’s caretaker Gautam Shakya, the building’s square shape stabilized it, but a priest cited in the story claims it was nothing so mundane: “It’s the power of the goddess; it’s about faith…It’s been the home of Kumaris for ages and we believe the force of that goddess made the house safe.” This is in keeping with an attitude towards the natural environment at odds with mainstream Western views, which maintain a secular perspective informed by modern environmental science. Whether the Nepalese view makes it any easier to deal with the devastation and loss of life caused by the earthquake is yet to be seen.

Nepal is majority Hindu country, with about 80% of the population, and around 10% Buddhist. But the Kumari Devi transcends and integrates the two religions:

Kumaris are drawn from the Newar community, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley for whom planets, karma and an array of gods play a vital role in day-to-day life. Gautam Shakya, in the eleventh generation of Kumari caretakers, says they are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and embody harmony. “One doesn’t discriminate against the other. We Newars are Buddhist. The Kumari is from a Buddhist family — but she is a Hindu goddess,” he says.

That makes the Kumari Devi not only a divine being, but a symbol of religions coming together, something the world could use more of these days. The life of the Kumari is led mostly in private, with most of her time spent with priests, with only rare public appearances. People strive to see her, as that is considered to bring good luck. When she does appear in public, her feet never touch the ground, being carried in a golden palanquin. She always wears red and has a “third eye” painted on her forehead. But the princess life does not last. The Kumar devi keeps her divine position only till puberty, at which time another young girl is selected through an elaborate and mostly secretive process.

A documentary in 2007 chronicled the life of Kumaris in Nepal:

Returning to roots

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

There’s an interesting new series on NPR called Invisibilia which “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions”. A recent show dealt with categories, with an interesting story about someone who alternates between male and female personas and has as a consequence a much harder time than transgender individuals, who at least can be put into a category. The story that I found particularly interesting was about a retirement community in Florida – nothing unusual about that, but in this case it is dedicated to individuals from India, or their descendants. The community is set up to make retirees feel like they are back in India, with not just Indian food and Bollywood movies, but houses arranged to imitate an Indian village with low houses and a big courtyard. The big attraction, however, is the opportunity to be with other Indians. The concept proved to be very successful, with the condos selling out quickly. The fact that it is a gated community may raise concerns about excluding others, but the organizers insist anyone is welcome, it’s just that non-Indians were not interested. One of the retirees expressed in the piece how comfortable she felt in the Indian environment created in the community, with the comment that “it can be exhausting to live in a culture as an outsider”. In the retirement community, she was no longer a member of a minority group. One of the commenters on the story put it well:

I can definitely sympathize with the people in the news story. Their culture is even more dissimilar and there’s only so much that a first generation immigrant can adapt. It’s no surprise that the elderly would seek to remove some of that stress from their lives. And it’s the simple things that make the difference. The neighborhood will serve authentic Indian food, and you don’t have to drive miles to the nearest art-house theater to watch the new Bollywood movies. Furthermore, I do believe that there is a great deal of difference between individual racism and institutional racism. A white person might experience isolated incidents regarding racism, but racism pervades every aspect of life for a minority.

One of the points made in the story was that as we grow older, we tend to want to be with others like us in fundamental (cultural) ways:

According to Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, if you raise the specter of death in a person’s mind, Christians like Christians better; Italians like Italians better. Even Germans, who are usually pretty lukewarm about other Germans, if you get them to contemplate their own mortality, suddenly they really like Germans. “If you interview Germans near a funeral home, they’re much more nationalistic,” Greenberg says. And the reverse is also true: We like people outside our group much, much less. “People become more negative toward other cultures,” Greenberg says. “Because death haunts us as it does, we have to do something about it.”

According to Greenberg, being around people not like you makes you in some sense feel invisible, and that’s a feeling that increases significantly towards the end of life. Being with others like you, particularly late in life, gives you the impression of being significant. I have to say that this has not been my experience personally in growing older and facing retirement. I find myself thinking more and more about the attractions of living abroad (Ireland!).

Abiding Traditions

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The winner of the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition

The annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers was held recently, an event that has been going on for over 50 years but has recently surged in popularity, according to an article in the NY Times. The competition aims to find the best phone answerer in terms of politeness, voice (a high pitch is preferable), and efficiency in providing the information sought. Almost all the competitors are women.  According to the article:

Organizers of the event, which now draws over twice the number of contestants as it did a decade ago, attribute that popularity to the enduring importance of politeness here, as well as a growing concern among some employers that younger Japanese are forgetting their basic manners…Formal phone answering is serious business in Japan, with many rules intended to head off offensive or awkward moments. A search on Amazon’s Japanese website found more than 60 books specifically on phone manners, and dozens more on business etiquette in general. Most appeared to be aimed at women, like “How to Talk Like a Workplace Beauty.”

The competition highlights the role of politeness in Japanese society, but also the position of women in the workplace.  Despite a 1986 gender equality law, women hold just 11 percent of managerial jobs in Japan.

Meanwhile, in England, folks are glued to the radio to hear the shipping forecast from the BBC, even if they live nowhere near the coast, or have no relationship to ships. It’s a tradition that points to a core value of English culture derived from being an island nation, an abiding concern for maritime weather — or, for that matter, just the weather.

NPR had a series of broadcasts this week featuring the shipping forecast and highlighting coastal communities.  Also discussed was the cultural significance of the shipping forecast.

It is a bizarre nightly ritual that is deeply embedded in the British way of life. You switch off the TV, lock up the house, slip into bed, turn on your radio, and begin to listen to a mantra, delivered by a soothing, soporific voice. “Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger ….” says the voice. You are aware — vaguely — that these delicious words are names, and that those names refer to big blocks of sea around your island nation, stretching all the way up to Iceland and down to North Africa. Your mind begins to swoop across the landscape, sleepily checking the shorelines, from the gray waters of the English Channel to the steely turbulence of the Atlantic. Somewhere, deep in your memory, stir echoes of British history — of invasions from across the sea by Vikings, Romans and Normans; of battles with Napoleon’s galleons and Hitler’s U-boats.

Japan and Britain share not only a respect for traditions (many more than the ones listed here), but also the reputation for politeness, perhaps inherent in island nations with relatively dense populations. In a fast changing world, it’s comforting to know that some things stay the same. It’s great too to have cultures like these that have traditions that seem unaffected by the tides of globalization and successfully resist the tendency towards homogenization.


Selfie Society?

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

The word of the year for 2013:  selfie, according to Oxford Dictionaries, as well as linguist Geoff Nunberg, speaking today on NPR. Selfie (i.e., self-portrait) describes a picture taken of oneself with a phone camera. The word has been in the news recently in connection with the picture Danish prime minister took of herself together with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron.  The picture excited comment due to the fact that it was taken during the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela, maybe also for the disapproving expression from Michele Obama. The term — and the practice it describes — have been seen as symptomatic of what ails modern society, from the cutesification of English to an obsession with sharing everything one does. It does seem to point to something that a wildly popular mobile app such as Snapchat can exist principally to enable sharing of selfies. A columnist in the New York Post pointed to the narcissism inherent in the practice and commented that the picture taken by the Danish prime minister “symbolizes the global calamity of Western decline.”  It’s not just in the U.S. that such concerns have been raised, as evident in the Telegraph’s (U.K.) article, Family albums fade as the young put only themselves in picture.

On NPR today there was another story that struck me in terms of language use.  It was in a story describing the high cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay area.  The reporter struggled to find a way to describe the housing arrangement of a group of unrelated young people living together in a large house.  He suggested the term “commune” but it was rejected as too heavily burdened with free love associations from the 1960’s.  The inhabitants of the house use the term “co-living” to describe their arrangement.  I found the difficulty finding a term interesting because of how easily and conventionally such arrangements are described in German-speaking countries: Wohngemeinschaft (living community), often shortened to WG.  This is not only a word widely used, but so too is the practice of doing what NPR thought was newsworthy in the Bay area, unrelated young people living together. Americans tend to think of houses as single family dwellings, which is far from how they are viewed in most of the rest of the world.

Norway’s joy

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

If you happen to be in Oslo this week-end, don’t try to buy a chess set – they’re likely to be sold out. Norwegian Magnus Carlsen has defeated the defending champion, India’s Viswanathan Anand, to be crowned chess world champion.  In Norway it’s not just a personal triumph but a heroic achievement that a small country would produce such a champion. It’s what small Iceland dreamed of when it almost made it to the 2014 Soccer World Cup, but was upended this week by Croatia, which got the ticket to Brazil instead. For Norway, it’s a bit of good news to displace the story that still haunts the country known for tolerance and slow TV, the mass murders committed by right-wing extremist and Islamophobe Anders Behring Breivik, who was sentenced last year to 21 years in prison for the murder of 77 people in 2011.

Norwegians were glued to the TV to watch the deciding chess match.  It must have been a welcome bit of excitement compared to other Norwegian TV fare such as real-time knitting or firewood stacking.  It’s so rare that we in the U.S. get any news from the Nordic countries and when we do, it does make the way of life there seem quite different from ours.  The only other big story this year from Norway in the U.S. media has been about the village that installed a huge mirror up on a mountain so that they could have at least a little reflected sunlight in winter. More evidence that Norwegians and other Scandinavians have to adapt to an environment that doesn’t always make life easy. It may not be surprisingly that Greenland has the world’s highest suicide rate.  All the more reason for the Norwegians to celebrate their chess hero.

What’s beauty?


Miss America 2013

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is determined by the beholder’s cultural values.  Beauty pageants have been in the news lately.  The selection of the first Indian-American woman as Miss America is a clear signal of the diversification of US society but as well a demonstration of the wide-spread prejudices that still exist against Americans of color.  Racist tweets abounded after news of her selection.  The new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is not the first woman of color to win the crown.  There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001. Interestingly, it’s been pointed out that Davuluri would not have been likely to win the Miss India title:  her skin is too dark.  Bollywood beauties tend to have whiter skin. In fact, Davuluri performed a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest.

Also in the news recently was the winner of the World Muslimah 2013 contest, a Muslim-only beauty pageant in Jakarta, where according to the Guardian, participants were judged not just on their looks but their ability to recite verses from the Qur’an and their philosophy on modern-day Islam. The comment by the winner, Nigerian Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola, after the contest:  “We’re just trying to show the world that Islam is beautiful.”

Finally, there’s also the news that the French Senate has voted to ban child beauty contests.  Reportedly, the law was prompted by an infamous photo spread in the French Vogue in 2010 of then-10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau in sexy poses and heavy make-up. It seems Honey Boo Boo won’t be moving to France any time soon.

Uncover the face


Graphic by the Quebec government showing one example of a banned public dress under a proposed Charter

In the news recently there have been reports on initiatives in various countries to restrict how Muslim women may dress, specifically to ban clothing in public that covers the face.  That means outlawing the burqa and the hijab.  Most recently, there is a proposed law for Quebec as well as for the Canton of Ticino in Switzerland. Most of the initiatives now and in the past (in France and Belgium, for example) have been made with justifications centered around security (not being able to recognize the identity of someone with her face covered), safety (lack of peripheral vision when driving), or the maintenance of laity (strict separation of church and state, particularly in schools). Xenophobia, particularly towards Muslims, is never mentioned.  In some case, parallel movements pretty clearly point in this direction. In Switzerland, for example, a law was passed in 2009 banning the building of minarets, despite the fact that there are very few mosques in the country. The Quebec government’s proposed “Charter of Values,” would prohibit public servants from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols, thus insuring a “religiously neutral state.”  Yet, the province’s minister for democratic institutions, Bernard Drainville, told TIME Magazine “Quebec is not a blank page…Building our future shouldn’t come at the expense of our past, our heritage.”  What he meant by that statement is clear:  Christianity as part of the Quebequois culture will continue to enjoy privileged status.

The promoter of the initiative in Ticino is quite explicit in his goals, according to the Wall Street Journal:

[The law] is being spearheaded by Giorgio Ghiringhelli, a 61-year-old political activist and former journalist. Although burqas are rarely seen in Ticino, where less than 2% of the roughly 340,000 inhabitants identify as Muslim, Mr. Ghiringhelli said his ban could help curb Islamic extremism before it takes root, and would be “a strong signal for Switzerland and maybe for other countries” to follow suit.

Identifying Muslim dress as an indicator of political fanaticism is an attack on Islam as well as a strike against religious freedom. It’s ironic that we in the West often rail against mistreatment of Christians in Muslim countries, yet don’t see that with such initiatives we are just as guilty of intolerance and blind prejudice.

Heavymetal fans: Go learn Finnish

made-in-finland-2008I’ve been working for a number of years to get to the point in Russian that I can read one of my favorite authors, Leo Tolstoy, in the original. For stylistic masters like Tolstoy or Proust, a lot gets lost in translation.  Apparently for some fans of Finnish heavy metal band Hevisaurus, it’s just as important to learn the language to appreciate the subtle nuances in their lyrics. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of Nordic heavy metal bands has led a number of young people to learn Finnish or Norwegian, the native tongues of many heavy metal bands.  According to one U.S. fan cited in the article, Michael Brown,

Finnish bands perform with a “dark woodsy resonance” that he has come to love, he says, and “the poetic and obscure nature of the Finnish tongue really gave it a unique wave.”

It’s not that Finnish is an easy language to learn.  It’s not part of the Indo-European family of languages but rather belongs to the Uralic group, along with Hungarian and Estonian. As a consequence there are fewer recognizable cognates for English native speakers and the grammar has a notoriously steep learning curve, being heavily inflected, with its 15 (!) cases. Norwegian (an Indo-European language), in comparison, is a piece of cake, with a very simple grammar, similar to its Scandinavian cousins, Danish and Swedish. Heavy metal fans would be well advised to keep that difference in mind and try to find Norwegian bands to like.

The article speculates that there is a connection between the often apocalyptic nature of heavy metal lyrics and Nordic culture:

Olivia Lucas, a Harvard doctoral candidate who is working on a dissertation about Nordic metal, said people “simply want to understand what the culture is like that has produced this music.” It doesn’t take long, she said, to draw a parallel between the melancholy and gloom that underpins Finnish metal and the wider Finnish psyche. “Finns are comfortable with this feeling, and don’t feel pressure to be cheerful all the time,” Ms. Lucas, 25, said. Their music “embraces this view of the world.”

According to the article, Norwegian “black metal” is even darker in tone and was long tainted by an association with violence.  Nowadays, however, it has gone mainstream, with the Foreign Ministry of Norway giving its trainees seminars on black metal because there are so frequently questions about it raised at Norwegian embassies throughout the world.

The article brought to mind for me an interview earlier this year on NPR with a black woman, Laina Dawes, a fervent heavy metal fan, who wrote a book on her struggle to find acceptance as an African-American woman in the mostly male and white heavy metal scene.