Monday, February 28, 2011

Books Yay!: Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam

This book was all over the pop-culture-o-sphere when it came out, and I never got around to reading it until it was assigned for my American Politics seminar.  I'm glad that the professor assigned it, because it adds statistical weight to something I've felt but been able to really qualify other than "dude that totally happens."

The idea in Bowling Alone is that a serious degradation of our social structure is taking place as we drift away from the community we once knew, which put people in continual, direct contact with one another.  It's really support for Tocqueville's praise for American civic engagement, complete with charts and graphs.  As a big fan of Tocqueville's, I was reading this all "YEAH!  Everyone needs to sign up for a bowling league!  Go Girl Scouts!" This is a smart, well argued analysis of the effects of civic engagement - and its decay - on society.  It made me want to go out and join as many civic organizations as I could.

I think that this book highlights our unwillingness to put up with even a low level of inconvenience in our social lives, as well as the costs and benefits of putting up with it.  Anyone who has ever joined a social group understands the irritation that can come along with it.  Every group in the history of the planet has had its blowhard, its foot-dragger, its socially-impaired, and every other kind of exasperating person or quality that is drawn to social interaction like a moth to a fire at a candle store.  It can be draining, but the payoff is worth it.  Unfortunately, people seem less and less willing to put up with even the most minimal social discomfort, and this reduces the opportunities we have to build local and extended social community. 

I would be interested in seeing what Putnam has to say about Facebook and other social media sites.  I don't think they are an automatic social boon, but they do represent a new avenue for social connection.   That said, we all know how much can be lost when conversations happen over the internet, and that phenomenon carries into all aspects of communication that take place online.  The internet also allows us to take our social circles worldwide, which can be at the expense of local contacts.  I'm not sure where to place these modes of communication, and I'd really love to see Putnam's graph-fu laid down on them.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Feel Personally Victimized by Regina George.

A while back, I was reading Feministing every day, and it was great. It was truly satisfying to have a place where you could check out some feminist dialogue without someone inevitably bringing up some idiot-tastic "but what about reverse sexism, did you ever think of that?" point, and to see a site that highlighted women's issues in politics, the media and society.

And I had to stop reading it.

I had to stop reading because I was seeing potential sexism everywhere and defaulting to the "must be" position. It's not that the sexism wasn't there, but I was interpreting pretty much all of is as egregious and intentional, rather than resting on a sliding scale and being accidental. Even if I read an article and went "well that's a reach," I'd still have it bouncing around in my head. The thing is, sexism IS everywhere. It's all over the place and it should not be minimized. However, I also think that the bulk of sexism is institutional and social; I do believe that most people can identify overt, intentional sexism as douchetastic behavior. The problem is when no one feels inclined to speak up - that's the insidious effect of passive sexism. It's actually much harder to eradicate, which is why feminism is still relevant and important.

Unfortunately - what with it being 2011 and all - it's getting increasingly important and relevant right this very moment. A Republican House majority* was voted in this cycle on a platform focused primarily on reducing unemployment and government spending. I think these are great goals, although my assessment of Obama's work on both differs significantly from the GOP. However, instead of starting the legislative session off with bills geared towards reducing unemployment or government spending, the GOP has been bringing bills to the floor that work to reduce...access to abortion and women's health services.

HR 3 includes a heinous limitation of public abortion funding for cases of rape to "forcible" rape, which is the least common and least underreported type of rape. This provision says that if you want to be able to get an abortion because you were raped, you'd better make sure you get beat up, too, and that your rapist isn't your husband, or your date, or your relative. This kind of language is predicated on the simple belief that women lie about rape, that it's not "REAL rape" unless you're brutalized by a stranger, that rape is just a scare word women use because they regret their sexual experience from the night before. Because, you know, women can't handle sex and need to be protected from it. This infantilizes women and begins with the assumption not that the rapist is innocent until proven guilty, but that the victim is full of shit until proven violated. We do not take this stance towards any other kind of crime...but we take it towards a crime that happens predominantly to women.

Speaking of victims, Georgia has a charming bill on the floor of THEIR House - HB 14 - that would change the term "victim" to "accuser" in criminal proceedings pertaining to rape and domestic violence. Again, we have crimes in which the victims are predominantly women, and again, there is legislation that attempts to reduce the status of the victim. The argument in this bill is that before conviction, the criminal activity has not been proven, which makes a certain amount of gender-neutral sense...IF the statute related to all crimes. But it doesn't, because again, fairness is not the point or the objective. This bill is another discounting of women's ability to "handle" full rights in society, based on the presumption that women are lying or overstating their accusations of violation.

Returning to the national stage, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) has been continuing his assault on Planned Parenthood, and his efforts - shot down in 2009, but now renewed - are now paired with a recommendation from the GOP that all Title X funding be eliminated. Title X concerns funding for family planning, which by the way is the BEST way to reduce the number of abortions, since more information about sexual health helps people make better choices and avoid unplanned pregnancies, NOT that this will ever completely eliminate the need for abortion, since birth control has a failure rate and there will always be devastating birth defects and pregnancy complications. The real target here is Planned Parenthood, of whose services only 3% are abortion, while the other 97% of those services are cancer, STI and HIV/AIDS screenings, birth control provision, gynecological exams and other sexual health services for women in a safe space. This particular item has a nice little side of classism, since PP is most important for poor women who cannot afford these services otherwise. (In case you're wondering, yes, it's expensive. I have insurance, and my birth control - NuvaRing - is still $30. I can afford that - barely - but for women in lower income brackets, $30 is food for a week or a utility bill.). Never mind that taxpayer funding for abortion is ALREADY restricted to cases of rape - does that sound familiar? Oh right, it sounds familiar because HR 3 is trying to restrict that it's own right. - so taxpayer money is mostly going to the 97% of services that have nothing to do with abortion.

I'm sure I sound like a broken record by now, but this attempt to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood once again shows that the GOP at best does not care about women's health and at worst wants to restrict their access to it all together. What it shows clearly regardless of your take on the preceding array of priorities is that their desire to keep women from abortion trumps any consideration of women's health. That this is even up for public debate shows that we do not trust women to make moral judgments about their health. While I understand that some consider a fetus an independent human being even from the moment of conception, we have to consider that we do not simply give access to parts or the use of our bodies simply because another human wants them; we have to consent to donate organs, for instance. But most importantly, the anti-abortion argument tends to be predicated on a bevy of presumptions about what drives women to seek abortions and their consequences - that people who get abortions use it as birth control, that abortion is always more emotionally draining than giving birth, that women wait through most of their pregnancies before suddenly deciding to get a late term abortion for shits and giggles...the list goes on and on, and not one of those items on the list is anyone's business but the woman's and her doctor's. It all comes down to thinking women are not responsible, smart or competent enough to engage in moral considerations and make decisions about their own health.

Let's also be clear about this - no one thinks abortions are awesome. No one WANTS an abortion, and no one hopes for an abortion, and no one wants to force abortions on anyone else. However, as I mentioned above, there will always be a need for some abortions. They need to remain legal so that women have a way to obtain them when they are necessary. Of course, to see that realized in legislation, people first need to accept that women are fully capable of making decisions about their health.

In the couple days between my starting this post and it's publication, one more charming bill has come up at the state level, this one in the lovely state of South Dakota, home of mandatory scripts for doctors that include outright lies about women's emotional health after an abortion. This bill - HB 1171 - adjusts the definition of justifiable homicide to include an allowance for the defense of a fetus. Though the proponents of the bill are putting out some rigamarole about "oh no, it's so super not about making it easier to kill abortion doctors," this is once again a case where the intent is shown clearly in what it DOESN'T apply to, or in this case, its superfluousness. There are generally provisions accounting for the death of a fetus in the murder of a woman, but this bill goes a step further and separates the death of the fetus from the death of the mother, using an "or" clause rather than an "and" clause, thus making it possible for a person to kill another person in defense of the fetus exclusively, without necessity of a threat to the mother as well.

Legislators are not going after men's right to have a vasectomy, nor do they consider men's reproductive behavior so needing of regulation that it trumps men's overall health. Men's health is largely a non-issue for legislators, and it certainly does not involve the hostile debate that women's health does. So yeah, I interpret this trend of aggressive attempts to restrict women's access to healthcare as an assault on women generally. The premium placed on abortion restriction at the cost of women's health shows just how little the GOP is concerned with the rights of women, and the Democrats' lukewarm defense of these rights is almost as bad. I agree that we should strive towards less abortions, but the way to do that is not by banning them or making them wildly difficult to obtain, but by increasing our sexual education, providing access to birth control, by researching MALE birth control (which has been chronically difficult to obtain funding for; drug companies have cited a marked lack of interest from men, because surprise, having to take a pill daily or get a shot quarterly that screws with your hormones is a pain in the ass), by allowing women easy access to pre-natal and gynecological care, and generally creating a healthier sexual dialogue in our society. Women will always need abortions, and desperate women WILL find a way to end their pregnancies. Adopting bans of abortion will not be the end of abortion; it will only be a decree that we would rather have women resort to dangerous terminations that put their lives in danger. In short, it's saying that we care less about women's established lives than the potential and uncertain lives of fetuses. I want no part of any political party that would put my life secondary to anyone else's - particularly not a possibly non-viable anyone else - nor of a party that thinks I can't make decisions about my own sexual health. I feel personally victimized by this legislation, and so should all women.

Call your Representatives and Senators, and let them know that you are not a feeble-minded idiot who needs supervision and constant direction, but that you are an autonomous human being with the capacity for ethical thought and personal action.

* Could I also ask Democrats to stop acting like such moody children about this, since Dems still have control of the Senate, and, you know, the Presidency? Stop acting like someone kicked your puppy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Books Yay!: The Apothecary's Daughter, by Julie Klassen

I ran across Comm Ave on a class break a while back to grab a Cubano latte* at Espresso Royale, and while I was there I had to run to the bathroom.  The stall was decorated with various quotes, and one person had written "Those who rely on quotes cannot speak for themselves."  I wanted to high five the stall, because they perfectly summed up my irritation with people who spout quotes all the time.  When I was younger, I certainly used quotes and even kept a little notebook of them, but the better I learned to express myself on my own merits, the less I cared about having a bunch of quotes to refer to.  Drawing inspiration from quotes is a different thing, and we should study the thinkers that came before us so we can build on the best of their thought, but if all you can do is spout quotes, you need to work on your own thought.

The same goes for books.  The Apothecary's Daughter didn't have the same "feel-good" kinds of quotes you run in to commonly, but it was stuffed with quotes about apothecaries and early medicine.  It's not a scientific book or a history of the apothecary trade, it's a semi-cute, fluffy story about a woman in a man's trade who is wooed by various men but must stand by her family in the face of the Evil Apothecary Board who are not down with her handling the family business.  This makes the quotes annoying as hell.  I think Klassen is trying to add an air of legitimacy to her description of the apothecary business, but the quotes are completely superfluous and add very little.  One or two might have been used to good effect, but they litter the book and disrupt its flow.

I don't mean to excoriate this book or damn it for its use of quotes, which are useless but not the ultimate literary sin, but this quote thing seems more and more prevalent and I'm getting sick and tired of the technique.  This was a reasonably diverting read and I enjoyed it.  The story follows Lillian Hasswell, the titular daughter, and her progress through young life.  She begins life at her father's side, helping with his apothecary shop and learning the trade, before being whisked off to London by wealthy relatives to be presented in society.  While she keeps her common sense grounding and intellect, she cannot avoid entanglements with various dashing young men.  When she must return to her home to help her ailing father, she cannot escape said entanglements, and must balance her family life, the business and her love life all at once.  The book is full of interesting characters and lovely landscapes, and the presence of a doctor suitor allows Klassen to explore the tension between apothecaries and doctors that existed during the period.

This isn't a perfect book.  The story is cute and it handles relationships with a subtlety that's often lacking in this kind of "Regency" writing, giving people more credit for being human than you often see.  The book's main problem is a lack of editing.  One preliminary chapter is written in the first person, which is meant to give us insight into Lilly's thoughts, but because we see so much of her thoughts and sensibilities throughout, the actual benefit of the chapter is minimal.  The quotes are so much static, adding little.  I think more than anything, this work could have used a better editor, but in the end, it's a diverting little beach read that will appeal to period readers and fans of romance.

* How do Cubans keep any teeth in their head with all the delicious, delicious high octane sugar they consume?  I love the sugar content but man, some of it is so sweet it'll turn your face inside out.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Homage: Christian Dior and John Galliano

I posted a link to the latest Christian Dior couture collection on Facebook, and in the course of conversation, my friend Katy mentioned that she'd be interested in a write up about how Galliano references Dior history in his modern day collections.  She'd gotten excited about the 40s and 50s references in the collection and I crushed her dreams a little by mentioning that it was probably more a product of Galliano's references to the New Look than a trend for the coming season.  However, the way Galliano references the house's history is an interesting wormhole to the way designers working in design houses that do not bear their names function and produce a cohesive look that fits the brand's history and future.  I personally think that Galliano is exceptionally good at this.

The following is an amateur analysis of connective threads between Dior's most iconic collection and Galliano's current work.  It's not intended to be complete nor authoritative, but I think it's an interesting illustration.  All modern images are pulled from, and the older images of the 1947 Corelle collection are from this wonderful blog post entitled "Dior's ring of petals: 'Flower women'" on A White Carousel, which talks about the game-changing Corelle collection.  There are several other lovely photos on that post, and the whole blog is well worth a read.

Wasp Waists and Full Skirts
The Corelle line was Christian Dior's first, and it came out in 1947.  It was immediately hailed as a revolution in fashion, not only for the styling but also because of the use of fabric.  Fabric had been at a premium during the war and fashion had not yet returned to extravagant use.  When you think of the 40s and 50s, you probably think of something like this:
I'd like to live in this ad.
These are both from Dior's Corelle collection, and they defined the era. At the time, of course, it was distinctively Dior and the house used the silhouette as a focal point in its advertising, as you can see in this vibrant ad. When a house defines itself both incidentally and by choice with a certain look, those who design under its label have to decide whether to continue the look, evolve it, or break away from it completely.  If you want to make a clean break, you'd better be sure you have something that will be embraced just as enthusiastically by the fashion world and be just as visually definitive.  Since Dior developed this look with a desire to emphasize a certain understanding of femininity, it's easy to understand why he would choose to evolve the look rather than scrap it and start anew.  He continued working with variations on this theme for years.

When a new designer comes to the helm of a house, the house gets another chance to consider the direction of their design.  A new designer can reinvigorate a house, but generally, unless it is somehow imperiled, they'll want to retain some reference to the genesis of the house, presuming of course that it has a recognized image and style (not all houses have what you'd call a trademark or signature style).  It can also be hard to update a house's style if that style was established in and is definitive of a certain era.  I think Galliano's use of the wasp waisted silhouette with a full skirt manages to do this successfully, though of course it's hard to say whether the update works for everyday wear - try sitting down in your cubicle in one of these babies!
Body Modification and Re-Shaping
Dior's philosophy on the female form also manifested itself in adaptations to it.  I'll leave the feminist analysis out of this for the time being, though there's plenty to discuss there (and not with Dior, but with the predominance of male fashion designers directing the way the female form "should" can probably see what a worm hole that topic is), but I think that Dior's modification is particularly interesting for the way it  worked.  In the pictures above, you can see that Dior's modification is not necessarily about traditional methods of emphasizing "classic female curves" or a standard concept of a woman's silhouette, but rather playing with those classically feminine areas in a way that prompts the viewer to consider them in a new way.
Dior also made use of the a-line silhouette in his later design life, which also changes the way a woman's body is framed.  You can see both of these approaches in Galliano's designs; the silhouettes change the woman's body, but demand consideration of the more traditional form.

Details, Details, Details.
Galliano also uses little nods to details of past collections in his current ones, from construction to fabrics to references.  I've included a couple notables below.
Tinkering with tailoring details; here manifest in a backwards facing neckline.
Consistent shape of ball and formal gowns; a continuation of the wasp waist with a classic full skirt.
Reference to a famous fishscale print (right); Galliano has made numerous adaptations of this print.
References to Dior's lingerie history; Galliano created an entire couture collection that was based on lingerie (as seen above), an innovative way to incorporate the brand's history.
And of course, there are the flowers.  Dior loved his garden, named his first collection after a circlet of blossoms, referred to his models as flowers, and spoke endlessly of floral influences on his work.  One of my favorite recent couture shows at Galliano's hand was an ebullient display of flowers, with some quirky nods and updates, like the Dr. Seuss hair and the cellophane-looking headpieces reminiscent of a florist's wrappings.  I'll close the post out with some of my favorite images from that show.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Books Yay!: The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Pötzch

This was another book I read on my iPad, and for those keeping track of my opinion on the eReader front, I've mostly been using the Kindle app on the iPad simply because I have been able to find more books I want on it. I like the iBooks reader too, and I have used both for reading and annotating. I find both the iBooks reader and Kindle app for iPad to be superior to my Dad's Kindle, but he also has a fairly early generation of the Kindle, so that preference may be overstated in regard to newer generations of the Kindle. I have NOT used - nor encountered - a Nook, so I can't comment on how that might compare.

The Hangman's Daughter is an intriguing little story set in a weird little enclave of society. Apparently, in the 1600s, executioners were not necessarily shunned, but were kept slightly aside from "polite society," and did not intermarry or intermingle with most of the people in the community. This book focuses on the Kuisl family, whose patriarch is well respected in his community for his skill as an executioner. When a child is killed and is found marked with a "witch's symbol," the local midwife is accused of witchcraft and thrown in jail to be tortured until she confesses her crimes. The aldermen of the town are anxious to have her hung to put the matter to rest, but their efforts are blocked both by Kuisl's sympathy and the continuation of crimes even after her imprisonment.

Kuisl, the local physician, and the midwife all share a knowledge of herbs and medicines, and this shared knowledge bolsters the hangman's faith that the midwife has nothing to do with the disappearance of those children. He and the physician team up to get to the bottom of the mystery, and find themselves in the middle of a political intrigue that runs much deeper than they ever could have expected.

This was a good, tight little mystery, with some interesting facts about medieval medicines and society, and a vibrant cast of characters with just enough weirdness to add interest without seeming forced. The story itself could easily have branched off into a pile of superfluous information, as historical fiction is occasionally wont to do, but Pötzch limits himself well and the book is all the better for it. In my opinion, most historical fiction goes off the rails when authors discount the ability of their characters to relay information about the period they're exploring on top of whatever stated facts are presented. Pötzch allows his characters to carry the water here, and that leaves the writing nimble and light enough to be both entertaining and illuminating.

I have only two complaints about this book, and one of them is shared by the next book I'll be reviewing, which was a far more egregious offense, so I'll discuss it more in depth there. That problem is the overuse of quotes. This is Pötzch's only violation of the "don't tell, show" rule. The book is full of quotes about physicians' medicines or drubs and drabs about the executioner's trade, and they are simply not necessary. A quote here and there can add interesting context to a piece of historical fiction, but they are overused here. My second complaint is somewhat more complicated. Some of the language in the book seems too modern for the time period. Language changes LESS over centuries than we usually presume, but in ,this case it does seem jarring in some places. Thanks to The Lucy, I now know that there are in fact era-appropriate dictionaries and resources for modern writers to check their language for consistency (I also know fro The Lucy that doing these checks can drive one to madness), so I am less willing to let this complaint go. That said, this book was also translated from the original German, so it's somewhat unclear whether this is a problem of Pötzch's or his translator's.

This is a nice little mystery with a unique voice. I enjoyed it and I felt like learned a lot about the period and about the unusual lives of executioners, which I'd never had real cause to consider before. I would definitely recommend this one, not only to history buffs, but to anyone looking for a good mystery in an unusual setting.

Crossposted at The Outpost

????? Profit?

I love Worcester, and I've lived here most of my life, but sometimes it takes on the eerie feeling of living in an Internet meme. Since I'm newly unemployed, I now take the commuter rail out of Worcester's gorgeous Union Station rather than the Westborough stop, because I don't have to go from class to work. This means parking in the Union Station parking garage.

Let's start with the basic issue. Parking at Westborough costs me $4 a day and they have this magical thing called Parkmobile, which allows you to pay your parking from your mobile phone or computer. This is good if you make a habit of catching the train by mere seconds or if you're going to be parked for several days. On the other hand, it costs $8.75 per day to park at Union Station or, somehow, $22.50 to park overnight. I'm not averse to a convenience charge for parking in a garage, but DOUBLING the cost of parking seems a bit much. That said, a lost ticket costs $14.95, so I feel like I'm going to be "losing" a lot of tickets this semester.

This seems to be part of Worcester's Big City Complex, wherein they know they could be like a Boston or a Providence, but aren't quite sure how to get there and thus adopt the most irritating parts of the big city experience, like overpricing everything. Thus the meme in which we Worcesterians reside goes something like this:

1. Remind selves we're second biggest city in New England.
2. Decide to be "more cosmopolitan."
3. ??????
4. Profit

The sad thing about this is that Worcester is a very cool place to il e and visit, with lots of music and art galleries and great restaurants and neat stuff to do, but I feel like the city's movers and shakers are so busy being all "we should like, get people to come here and stuff" that they can't get out of their own way, and instead of marketing the city better, they adopt a weird If You Charge Three Times The Normal Rate, They Will Come approach, which is bizarre and does not work at all because as it turns out, people don't like the parts of cities that involve the violent and unsettling emptying of one's wallet before even getting to the fun.

This is all before we get to the biggest problem of all, that being the outstanding incompetence of REPUBLIC PARKING, the company that operates the city garages. I'll admit that I have never given much thought to the difficulty level of operating a parking garage, but it seems like a reasonably simple enterprise - let people in, take money at some point, let people back out. Apparently there is some kind of nuance I am missing here, because going by the behavior of said parking garage operators, it is VERY hard and requires a phenomenal amount of intellect and wisdom. I have been stuck in the garage. My friends have been stuck in the garage. I have had to hunt people down at 11:30p on a Saturday night because I parked in the Major Taylor Garage for a hockey game and then - shockingly - went out for a beer afterwards. I have assaulted one of the garages. I have been met at the gate by someone who needed assistance making change for a $10 bill. I've seen people drive through the barriers because they could not rouse anyone from whatever Rip van Winkelian sleep they were in while they were supposed to be, you know, letting people out of the garage. Using the REPUBLIC owned garages is almost always an ordeal, because they are terrible.

All of this brings me back to the ????? meme. $22.50 is not, in the grand scheme of things, a ton of money for parking - I've certainly paid more in Boston, DC, New York, etc., but it IS a lot of money to pay for abject incompetence, and it IS a lot of money to pay when you're trying to convince people to come and visit your city and prove it has got just as much to offer as other major cities. The city is still paying off the Union Station garage, and I get that, but I hope they consider dropping prices when they are able, and booting Republic as soon as possible. Overpriced, incompetent and aggravating is no way to go through life, son.

Books Yay!: Journey into America, by Dr. Akbar Ahmed

Most people have belts of life events, when everyone you know is getting married, or having a kid, or buying a house/condo, etc.  For nerds, there’s an occasional Publication Belt, and this is one of my favorite instances of said phenomenon.  I went to American University with Frankie Martin, who worked as a researcher on Dr. Akbar Ahmed’s Journey into America project, which resulted in this book.  I’ve followed the press and the team as they’ve progressed through this project, and I believe that they are doing essential work.  I also appreciate that Dr. Ahmed was wise enough to pick someone so level-headed and rational as Frankie to work on this project.  I cannot imagine a better team member and truth be told, the more I think about it, the more I rue the absence of projects in my life into which I could rope Frankie.  Besides being a top notch academic, he’s also a wonderful friend with a high tolerance for weirdness, which is essential in my relationships.  I remember one day when we were going to a Baltimore Orioles vs. New York Yankees game with him at Camden Yards, and when he met me at my apartment, I was decked out in head to toe Red Sox gear and drinking milk out of a martini glass because all my normal glasses for milk were in the dishwasher (and also because I am super, super classy).  Frankie was completely unfazed by all of this, and still went to the game with me, which turned out to be an eventful one since an End of the World style thunderstorm came up in the middle of the game and we stayed in the stands, watching the water drain off the field before the game resumed.  This is the kind of academic you need – one who stands with his demented friends even in the face of alarming weather and against all sanity.  Perhaps this is why the resulting book is so compelling.

Journey into America seeks to create an anthropological profile of Muslims in America and to pair it with a brief, relevant history of Muslim immigration and origins.  To do this, the team went to over seventy-five cities and more than a hundred mosques, interviewing Muslims, neighbors, other religious leaders, and other “men on the street” to better understand how individuals and communities approach their relationship with Islam.  The depth of this study provides a true portrait of how Muslim life in all its iterations proceeds.  No branch of Islam is left unexplored, and no environment is missing.  The inclusion of non-Muslim voices adds to the work as well, and adds significantly to the cultural and social study of the Muslim community.  After all, no one lives in a vacuum, and it would be a poor anthropological study indeed if it was limited to Muslims alone.

The resulting view of Muslim life is both surprising and completely predictable: Muslims come in all stripes and shades, and they all have complex relationships with their American identity.  Some are traditionally devout, some are devout in a more modernized way.  Some are inclusive, some exclusive.  This is not, however, to say that their Muslim identity is irrelevant.  In all of the cases shown, the subjects showed some tension between their Muslim identity, in which their religious identity stretches into their cultural life, and the American society, which is overall much more morally inclusive and undisciplined.  I think that this would probably be the case for most religious groups; America’s inclusive nature means that pulling out any one group will show that the group has different codes of conduct and ethics, which would generally seem more strict than American society at large.

I do feel that this book suffers from a slight shading of personal morality from two of the main players, Dr. Ahmed and researcher Hailey Woldt.  Dr. Ahmed obviously feels that there are serious moral deficiencies in American society, particularly amongst women, and I do feel that this comes through in some of the writing in an nonconstructive way.  These sentiments are often backed up by agreement from Woldt, an adult convert to Catholicism, whose more conservative Catholic views mirror Dr. Ahmed’s sentiments on American moral consequences.   I think this is a simple consequence of the reality I mentioned above – that any religious group will appear morally disparate from American morality at large – but it is a bit unfortunate that this comes through in the presentation at times.  It makes it a bit jarring for the reader.

I have high hopes for this book, because I think its description of Muslim America can go a long way in normalizing and “de-villifying” Muslims for Americans suffering from post-September-11th Islamophobia.  Dr. Ahmed also emphasizes the importance of dialogue in healing the wounds and misunderstandings that cut both ways.  Indeed, when Dr. Ahmed and his team interacted with more isolated Islamic communities, a clear detriment to their relationship with their immediate community and larger environment could be seen.  This is an important book and an important perspective, and I hope that it comes to occupy a place in our public discourse.

Crossposted at The Outpost


Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Whatever!: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The last installment of the Hunger Games trilogy was my favorite.  In it, Katniss is called upon to become the face of a revolution, all the while becoming increasingly aware that there are many people, previously unnoticed, who want to be the actual force of the revolution.  I loved this because it was such a beautiful portrayal of leadership, with all the bumps and bruises involved in the process.  It also does a great job examining the way political maneuvering springs up in a power vacuum, even when the people in the system are ostensibly on the same side.  Most of all, though, I like that Suzanne Collins has bundled all of this into this trilogy intended for young adults, on top of all the other themes and questions she packs into the books.

After Katniss’ second turn in the Hunger Games, she emerges into chaos.  The Districts are in disarray and open revolt, and refugees have been moving towards District 13, which was previously thought to be bombed out of existence.  It takes her time to shake the fog of the Games, but when she does, she begins to understand the immensely complex political maneuvering she now finds herself amidst.  She must decide whether she actually wants to assume a leadership role – her public face to date having sparked a revolution – in the resistance.

This last installment of the book was particularly resonant for me for its look at political leadership and the responsibility involved therein.  I’ve been a political junkie since I was about 12, and people have always just assumed that I should and would run for office some day.  For a long time I thought I wanted to, but the older I get and the more I see our political discourse get simplified and impoverished, the less I think that’s what I actually want to do.  I think that’s because I understand the insane amount of responsibility it takes to run for and hold office.  A lot of people are upset and frustrated now, and that’s prompting many of them to consider running for office, but angry ideas and frustration do not create good leaders.  Mockingjay does a great job of laying bare the challenge of leadership and that’s why it resonates with me.

For the musical theatre junkies, it also reminded me of “The Dance of the Robe” from Tim Rice and Elton John’s Aida (lyrics below):

Aida: It’s knowing what they want of me that scares me,
It’s knowing having followed that I must lead.
It’s knowing that each person there compares me
To those in my past whom I now succeed.
But how can whatever I do for them now
Be enough?
Be enough?

Nubians: Aida! Aida!
All we ask of you
Is a lifetime of service, wisdom, courage
To ask more would be selfish,
But nothing less will do
Aida! Aida!

Crossposted at The Outpost

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Why Reagan's Not Being SuperConservative Is Really Just Fine

Reagan would have turned 100 today, and of course there have been a lot of tributes and accolades presented to celebrate the occasion.  Reagan has also been in vogue the past couple years, as a kind of rally figure for both mainstream and less dominant conservatism.  The problem is that the Reagan of speech does not quite match up with the whole of Reagan as a political figure.  A lot of public figures get this treatment - we all want to remember the best of our heroes while letting the less sparkling attributes or behaviors fade into the background.  However, I think this tendency is extremely problematic, because it gives us the idea that we can and should recreate these burnished histories.  It removes our ability to appropriately appraise history and create policy moving forward. 

ThinkProgress compiled a ten item list of Reaganalia that doesn't usually get mentioned and in many cases directly opposes the conventional portrait of his Presidency, and I'm including it below because I think it highlights some important things about Reagan's reality, but also because I think it shows Reagan to be a much more complex and ethically nuanced figure.  That latter part is important.  We should be looking for people who have complex thought and are capable of consideration and compromise to represent us in our government.  I encourage you to click through all the links and check out this information.  It's interesting and well put together.

[NB: I am not entirely on board with #10 because I believe the formation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda was way more complex and US-independent than is portrayed here, though the points mentioned certainly do not help eradicate either body.]

1. Reagan was a serial tax raiser. As governor of California, Reagan “signed into law the largest tax increase in the history of any state up till then.” Meanwhile, state spending nearly doubled. As president, Reagan “raised taxes in seven of his eight years in office,” including four times in just two years. As former GOP Senator Alan Simpson, who called Reagan “a dear friend,” told NPR, “Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times in his administration — I was there.” “Reagan was never afraid to raise taxes,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s memoir. Reagan the anti-tax zealot is “false mythology,” Brinkley said.

2. Reagan nearly tripled the federal budget deficit. During the Reagan years, the debt increased to nearly $3 trillion, “roughly three times as much as the first 80 years of the century had done altogether.” Reagan enacted a major tax cut his first year in office and government revenue dropped off precipitously. Despite the conservative myth that tax cuts somehow increase revenue, the government went deeper into debt and Reagan had to raise taxes just a year after he enacted his tax cut. Despite ten more tax hikes on everything from gasoline to corporate income, Reagan was never able to get the deficit under control.

3. Unemployment soared after Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts. Unemployment jumped to 10.8 percent after Reagan enacted his much-touted tax cut, and it took years for the rate to get back down to its previous level. Meanwhile, income inequality exploded. Despite the myth that Reagan presided over an era of unmatched economic boom for all Americans, Reagan disproportionately taxed the poor and middle class, but the economic growth of the 1980′s did little help them. “Since 1980, median household income has risen only 30 percent, adjusted for inflation, while average incomes at the top have tripled or quadrupled,” the New York Times’ David Leonhardt noted.

4. Reagan grew the size of the federal government tremendously. Reagan promised “to move boldly, decisively, and quickly to control the runaway growth of federal spending,” but federal spending “ballooned” under Reagan. He bailed out Social Security in 1983 after attempting to privatize it, and set up a progressive taxation system to keep it funded into the future. He promised to cut government agencies like the Department of Energy and Education but ended up adding one of the largest — the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which today has a budget of nearly $90 billion and close to 300,000 employees. He also hiked defense spending by over $100 billion a year to a level not seen since the height of the Vietnam war.

5. Reagan did little to fight a woman’s right to chose. As governor of California in 1967, Reagan signed a bill to liberalize the state’s abortion laws that “resulted in more than a million abortions.” When Reagan ran for president, he advocated a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited all abortions except when necessary to save the life of the mother, but once in office, he “never seriously pursued” curbing choice.

6. Reagan was a “bellicose peacenik.” He wrote in his memoirs that “[m]y dream…became a world free of nuclear weapons.” “This vision stemmed from the president’s belief that the biblical account of Armageddon prophesied nuclear war — and that apocalypse could be averted if everyone, especially the Soviets, eliminated nuclear weapons,” the Washington Monthly noted. And Reagan’s military buildup was meant to crush the Soviet Union, but “also to put the United States in a stronger position from which to establish effective arms control” for the the entire world — a vision acted out by Regean’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, when he became president.

7. Reagan gave amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants. Reagan signed into law a bill that made any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty. The bill was sold as a crackdown, but its tough sanctions on employers who hired undocumented immigrants were removed before final passage. The bill helped 3 million people and millions more family members gain American residency. It has since become a source of major embarrassment for conservatives.

8. Reagan illegally funneled weapons to Iran. Reagan and other senior U.S. officials secretly sold arms to officials in Iran, which was subject to a an arms embargo at the time, in exchange for American hostages. Some funds from the illegal arms sales also went to fund anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua — something Congress had already prohibited the administration from doing. When the deals went public, the Iran-Contra Affair, as it came to be know, was an enormous political scandal that forced several senior administration officials to resign.

9. Reagan vetoed a comprehensive anti-Apartheid act. which placed sanctions on South Africa and cut off all American trade with the country. Reagan’s veto was overridden by the Republican-controlled Senate. Reagan responded by saying “I deeply regret that Congress has seen fit to override my veto,” saying that the law “will not solve the serious problems that plague that country.”

10. Reagan helped create the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. Reagan fought a proxy war with the Soviet Union by training, arming, equipping, and funding Islamist mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan. Reagan funneled billions of dollars, along with top-secret intelligence and sophisticated weaponry to these fighters through the Pakistani intelligence service. The Talbian and Osama Bin Laden — a prominent mujahidin commander — emerged from these mujahidin groups Reagan helped create, and U.S. policy towards Pakistan remains strained because of the intelligence services’ close relations to these fighters. In fact, Reagan’s decision to continue the proxy war after the Soviets were willing to retreat played a direct role in Bin Laden’s ascendency.