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You May Find Yourself In Another Part Of The World*

Judy&Mickey

We are all creatures of our environment, often to a degree not realized until we step out of that environment. It is tempting and predictable to assume that one’s small sliver of the world is an accurate sample of a larger reality. It is only when we step away, even briefly that we have a “Yowza!” moment. If you’ve ever spent time in Times Square you’ve seen the “Yowza” expression synchronized on hundreds of faces. Many of those people have never seen anything so brash, so bright and so ludicrous in one place. They will go home & tell their friends how overwhelming New York City is. And they’d be right; for them NYC is overwhelming. For a New Yorker the equivalent experience would be traveling anywhere that is not NYC.

For many the disorientation starts with food. We all know that seafood should not be eaten in landlocked areas, and that Chinese food is best prepared by those who’ve eaten it. A decent bagel or thin crust slice of pizza can be challenging to find between coasts. However seeking something as mundane as skim or soy milk for a good cup of coffee can also take on mythic proportions. (The holy grail of morning beverage can become all-consuming and sometimes it’s best to just switch to tea for the duration.) Familiar foods are very important to people; it’s why there are McDonald’s and TGIFridays in Times Square. But eventually a traveler adjusts (an average adult can go for three weeks without food) and can take a good long look around.

Much of what we know about the mood of the nation is through what we read or watch. We might be tempted to cherry pick stories and developments that suit our own political agenda. We might be lulled into thinking that people think as we do (a dangerous and narcissistic assumption if there ever was one.) It is by traveling out of our comfort zone that we discover how discomforting the world really is. It is embarrassing to discover how ignorant we really can be about our fellow Americans. There are few issues in America that are as topical a gauge as race and gay rights. It is tempting to assume that we’re rounding a corner and headed towards a finish line of sorts. Popular culture and media would have us believe that gay is the new, well, the new black. And black? Well black has been beautiful for almost fifty years, no? No.

One person’s experience in a Midwestern area (right outside of a major city) is hardly scientific, but it is illuminating nonetheless. Walking through downtown areas, socializing at large events, dining out and taking in culture, I was struck by the racial divide. Beyond the staff & entertainment there were few if any faces of color. I saw only heterosexual couples (which is barely anecdotal let alone scientific.) Far more telling were the conversations I overheard. If any reference was made to homosexuality it was in regards to entertainment. (Some readers might recall a time when African Americans were often only discussed in terms of entertainment.) I overheard an educated woman discuss attending a Halloween party in black face. It was so popular amongst the party guests that she did it again the following year. Twenty years ago Ted Danson, at the very height of his popularity, almost lost his entire career because of a similar antic. Twenty years ago.

I’ve no doubt that many of the people I encountered would find my way of life confusing if not abhorrent. Without question people are entitled to live the way they wish. It is imperative however that we all realize there is a larger world. We may choose to live amongst people who are like us (i.e., of like mind, religion or skin color) but we must stay conscious of the bigger picture. We cannot lose sight of the fact that not everyone views human rights as progress. We cannot discount what may very well be the majority sentiments of this country. It is far too tempting to look around our mini universes and slide towards complacency. Yes, it’s comforting to be surrounded by what seems “right” to us. But it’s important to keep in mind the larger reality. Taking that decaf cap with skim for granted is one thing (we can always get tea) but we should never take progress for granted.

*Once In A Lifetime (1981) – Talking Heads

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Travel

 

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Modern Family

Music

“De Blasio Takes His Modern Family On The Campaign Trail” blares the headline. My heart skipped as I searched for the photo (or at least mention) of Rosie the Robot. After a sip of coffee I came to my senses and instead sought mention of adult children living at home, or surrogate, biological and adoptive parents living as one big happy family. Finding none of these, I briefly considered that perhaps the newspaper was sensationalizing a large family filled with triplets, quadruplets or more! Blurry eyed but caffeine fueled, I found none of these.

It would seem that the newspaper of record considers a family of more than one race/ethnicity to be “modern”. In 2013. Mr. De Blasio appears to be of European descent (with a name that backs up that theory) and his wife appears to be African-American. His son, featured in a recent ad, sports (brace yourself) an old school, pick in the back pocket, Afro. How terribly terribly modern! In 1963.

This is a New York City political season (and race) filled with more marital horror stories than ever. On a local level we’ve transcended Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, in the lying, adultery and arrogance. And there are the wives, one of them a protege (in apparently every sense of the word) of Mrs. Clinton. They stand by their husbands (at least while the cameras are rolling) and sport huge bubbles of balance sheets (of what’s most important to them,) over their heads.

Perhaps this is what makes the De Blasio family so modern? Look a married couple in which the wife hasn’t endured public humiliation! Perhaps De Blasio’s family is modern compared to his strongest competitor; Christine Quinn? Ms. Quinn’s wife is a lawyer (snore.) They were married by a judge in the most traditional of ceremonies (yawn.)

This headline is not unfortunately just the result of some “old white guy” on the editor’s desk. Other major and generally liberal, media have remarked on De Blasio’s son’s hairstyle. A more optimistic person would think these comments stem from enjoying the throwback of a fluffy symmetrical Afro. It would be nice if newsreaders were flashing back to The Mod Squad and the uber coolness of Link. But even if that was the case, why don’t we look at women with their ubiquitous stick straight blown-out hair and flashback to Julie? And why don’t shaggy haired Caucasian young men remind us of Pete? It is much more likely that these newsreaders view the Afro as some sort of statement.

This is New York City not Sweden (which by the way is not entirely made up of pale blondes.) Every color, size, shape, religion and orientation resides here. For decades this city has, if not welcomed, than sheltered, people and families who did not fit their hometown mold. This is one of the places racially mixed couples flocked to in the early days (when it was still illegal in some places.) So how in the world could there be anything modern about an interracial couple in NYC in 2013?

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Taking A Shot At Racism

Stop

Race matters. It always has and it always should. People have a great affection and interest in celebrating their race and/or ethnicity. Pretending that differences don’t exist is absurd and offensive. But attributing value according to race/ethnicity is abhorrent. We have a long history of doing this in this country and anyone thinking that it is only historic is kidding themselves (or lives under a rock); the shade of one’s skin and often the branch of one’s religion still dictates where you can go and how far. One need only look at celebrities for proof. While the music industry has always been more liberal in whom they will exalt, movies and television have not. Anglo features (particularly in women) are a prerequisite for stardom. Fundamentalist Christians are acceptable, but observant Jews or Muslims are best served to keep it on the down low. Scientologists of course are always welcome.

Hollywood is hardly a relevant sample set, but it is an indication of a nation’s preferences. We could easily get down into the weeds and point out to the lack of Asians in leading roles (or roles that don’t involve a lab or mathematical prowess.) But suffice it to say that we are a people a bit flummoxed. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to dictate mindset. We can certainly address behaviors and have done so forever. We can write Declarations, laws, and policies to control behaviors. But we can’t change how people think or feel. We also can’t ever know how people think and feel. We can know what they say (which may correlate to their feelings) and we can know what they do. The very thought of attempting to change how people think or feel is overwhelming and disheartening; it is the equivalent of digging in loose sand. We could be at it forever and never know if we’ve gotten anywhere. But we can look around and spot where we can make a quantifiable difference in behavior.

We know that African Americans are victims of violence at a much higher rate than any other group. According to the FBI, the homicide rate for “blacks” is three times what it is for “whites”. Of these homicides, 82% were shot and killed with guns. These are astronomical numbers and yet where is the outrage? When 20 children are gunned down in their rural school we are outraged (and send money.) Of the over 7,000 African Americans shot to death (in 2007) over 600 were under the age of 18. Yet we are relatively silent. Where are our community and national leaders on this subject? How is gun control not being framed as a race issue?

No matter how strongly one feels about gun rights, there is no disputing the numbers. Guns kill and disproportionately do so with African Americans. We have a society in which anyone can get their hands on a gun (and anyone really can) and we’ve enacted laws which allow for using them on people. Knowing people as we do, this is ludicrous. We will never entirely change how people think or feel but we can make it very hard for them to act on those feelings. It is intolerable that the NRA has more influence than the NAACP in this country. It is unacceptable for us to not demand real and meaningful change. All the grandstanding and tepid gun laws and initiatives are a slap in the face to those of us who fervently want to believe that all men are created equal.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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The Epitome Of Class

etonboys1936

The BBC has taken it upon themselves to redefine class. ‘Well of course’ you say ‘and we do love Downton Abby, Call The Midwife and Mr. Selfridge.’ Yes, those decadent and indulgent shows are lavish examples of the British class system in play. But I refer instead to the questionnaire the BBC posted online that over 160,000 completed. Ignoring for a moment the completely unscientific method of this ‘survey’ and also putting aside the very stark reality of who completes online surveys, let us instead consider this tricky terrain.

The British have always been quite transparent about their views and demarcations of class. What (and where) one is born into is often where one stays. There are examples of upward mobility in British society (beyond that of Eliza Doolittle.) But for the most part, where you started is where you’ll stay. If for no other reason than the British are wonderfully observant of clues. (Hello? Sherlock, Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, anyone?) The slightest hint of a flat ‘a’ or the improper wearing of wellies, and they’ve got you pegged. They have graciously exported this gift to previously colonized locales. You could probably travel the globe and identify where the United Kingdom has ruled simply by observing the (seemingly) arbitrary ‘you’re in’ you’re out’ class systems.

Americans have always prided themselves in eschewing this structure. We still like to fancy ourselves the little rebels who fled from the tyranny of such structure. The truth is that what we do is less honest and more destructive. We pretend that social class doesn’t exist. Oh, we’re happy to discuss real dollars and sense. We take great comfort (or distress) in determining if we economically fall into the middle-class. Politicians love to talk about the middle class. We don’t talk of the lower class or even working class anymore however. No, we call it ‘working families.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s just one person in that ‘family’ or twenty. It’s funny how liberal we can be discussing families in terms of poverty levels but not in terms of legal union.

Taking pains to never associate class with anything but money creates problems. To discuss class in terms of values and cultural proclivities is anathema to Americans. We discuss education and achievement in terms of poverty which is often a thin guise for race. We discuss poverty and race as if they have anything whatsoever to do with achievement, which of course they don’t. There is nothing about any race that impacts learning. There is nothing about how much money a household has which impacts learning. Underfunded and improperly staffed schools impact learning, as do households in which learning is not a priority. We avoid discussing public health and lifestyle behaviors in terms of class. We think nothing of imposing middle values on lower class people, but we’ll never admit that’s what we’re doing. Our entire social and child services structure is built on that very premise.

It’s important to Americans to ignore the real differences of class. But yet we’re wedded to creating a very us vs. them culture. We’re much more comfortable attributing our opposing outlooks and proclivities to religious or political ideals. Sociologists (versus online questionnaires) often explore the gravitation of like-peoples. (Think: lunchroom table configuration studies.) Much more often than not the ‘like-people’ means people of our own religious and ethnic group. But outside of laboratories and research studies what you’re most likely to find in the real world, is that people gravitate towards those of their own class. Being of the same racial/ethnic/religious group is less of an indicator of our shared values than that of class. Would the Rothschilds understand the seder at Sadie’s on Orchard Street? Of course, but after the seder (at 2:00 AM) what in the world would they talk about? If you take a look around at the people with whom you feel most connected they are those with similar values and cultural proclivities. They don’t have identical incomes, they don’t worship in the same way, and their complexions vary in hue. But you all share a similar outlook and a view of the world. That’s class.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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College Affirmative Action

Higher education affirmative action is in the news again. It’s not all that surprising that in recent years people are more comfortable discussing its merits. It has been (almost exactly) fifty years since Ole Miss first integrated and fifty years is a long time. It’s enough time for people to forget and it’s enough time for generations to come of age free of the first hand effect of segregation. Add to that a shift in our collective attitude about college being for everyone; and it’s no doubt the subject of parity crops up. The continued need and efficacy of affirmative action is often discussed in academic circles. Lately, it is also often played out in the courts and media.

The lawsuits (or protests) that bubble up often have to do with a perceived lack of fairness. Thwarted students compare their own applications and numbers (i.e., test scores, grades, rankings) against those who were admitted. The would-be (white) students compare their own larger (or equal) numbers to that of a non-white student and feels there has been discrimination. All issues of affirmative action aside, that understanding of the admission process is deeply flawed.

Straightforward scorekeeping is the determinate in plenty of endeavors. When you play sport, or lose weight; numbers are all that matter. But most of life’s external accomplishments are much more subjective than a numbers game. The skyrocketed costs, four-star amenities, and assumption that college is for every high school graduate, has created a sense of a transactional relationship. There are thousands of four-year colleges/universities in this country. Before a student applies he/she has presumably poured over websites and determined; “Yes, I’d be a good fit.” The student knows the requirements for admission, knows the average SAT/ACT scores and class rankings, and knows they fit the bill. Rejection stings, and many struggle with trying to get past the hurt. Parents and children will rattle off admitted high school classmate’s rankings, and GPAs in their struggle to understand the rejection. Resentments and overall icky behavior often ensues. No one wants to be told; “Thanks but no thanks” particularly when the rejected was set to pony up (potentially) over six-figures for the privilege of acceptance.

But what these parents and their children might not realize is that those numbers are simply how one gets to beĀ considered. Creating an incoming class involves much more than comparing numbers. The goal of creating a class is generally two-fold; the students should be able to succeed and the students should be able to add to their classmates’ educational experience. “Succeeding” can mean many things and varies according to schools and programs. What a student can add to the experience is dependent upon the historic nature of the school, the location, the discipline, and many other elements.

Whether our country is in need of creating equal opportunity for all based on ethnicity and race is a subject for another day. When we do engage in that conversation we should think long and hard about economic class and first generation students when we talk about equal opportunity. But until then let’s be crystal clear about college admissions. It is not simply a numbers game; (hint: that’s why there are essay components and pages of extracurricular activities on the application.)

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Education

 

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