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Category Archives: Cultural Critique

A Tough Act To Follow

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There’s an election headed our way and depending on how you feel about your state/city/town it could be exciting. Here in New York City we’re poised to have our first new mayor in 12 years. Whether you’re relieved at that prospect or leery, the fact remains that change is never all that easy. Neither of the two viable candidates has anywhere near the celebrity status that Mike Bloomberg had/has. Mayor Bloomberg has the star power that comes with great wealth. He is able to exert influence on a national if not international level. That power impacts the local constituency if in no other way, than in that of confidence. A mayor that can buy his way in and out of just about anywhere and anything is not likely to be told to drop dead by any leader anytime soon.

There are New Yorkers who felt Bloomberg as mayor was a bully or at least too paternalistic for their taste. Some felt him too liberal (anti-gun) or too conservative (pro-business.) It’s probably safe to say that he is all of those things and a bit bombastic to boot. He stuck like super glue to his convictions/beliefs and if you happen to agree with those beliefs that was good. Some of his best moments have been fighting to preserve the separation of church and state. NYC is filled with many different cultures and religions and it would be ridiculous to even suggest that they all get along or want the same things. Each religion is defined by how it differs from other beliefs and those beliefs sometimes make their way to City Hall. You may remember the brouhaha over the Muslim Cultural Center built on the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory. Mayor Bloomberg supported the center and its message of religious tolerance, amidst fear based propaganda and bigotry. The Mayor has been on the side of inclusion but shied like an abused horse in the face of preferential treatment. He has resisted several requests from religious groups over his tenure, presumably in an attempt to keep religion out of government and vice a versa.

It’s unlikely the next mayor will do the same. There is already much being made of the candidates’ positions on religious issues. Those issues most cited are; Muslim holidays included in the school calendar, ultra-orthodox circumcision practice, and churches using schools for worship. On the surface this appears to be a nice little trifecta. These are the religions most discussed in the media (though not necessarily an accurate representation of NYC residents.) We’ve got a Muslim issue (check!) a Jewish issue (check!) and a Christian issue (check!). Of course ultra-orthodox anything is by definition not representative of the larger religious group and Christian anything rarely includes Catholic something. But never us mind. It makes for a nice little “we are the world” media package. Any religious holiday that precludes a student or teacher from working should be included in the school holiday calendar. There is no religious reason for anyone to not attend school/work on Christmas, but public schools have always been closed on that day. There are many holidays outside of Christianity that are to be spent in religious worship. That should be the determining factor. Many religious festivals and holidays allow for work, they should not be included in the calendar. It’s that simple. The orthodox (or fundamentalists) of any religion enjoy a certain degree of autonomy. They intentionally live outside society but often avail themselves of societal services. If a religious practice causes harm to anyone (herpes in the case of ultra orthodox circumcision) it should be regulated. As a society we believe in protecting the health and well being of others. There are ways to regulate the procedure (no need to get graphic here) that would limit exposure to disease.

These issues, though somewhat novel are not that complicated. They address equity and health and don’t infringe upon anyone else’s freedoms or beliefs. (A mohel or two might be bent out of shape, but they’ll come around.) However holding religious services in a public school infringes upon the rights of just about everyone except the worshippers. Imagine just for a moment that it was a collective of imams wanting to hold Muslim prayer services in the public schools. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying; “eh what the hell, the school is empty anyway.” Public school is just that: public. It is in theory a safe haven and a place in which everyone is presumed equal. Being part of a minority, which in America is anyone who isn’t Christian, is challenging enough. No kid, or teacher needs to be reminded that Christianity is normative. Seeing your local school used as a church is disheartening. We attach an awful lot of importance to the buildings in which children learn. We even tear them down when something awful happens within the walls. To transform a school into a church can be alienating and even feel threatening. On top of the very real emotional response is the fact that schools are government buildings and have no business being used for religious practice.

It is not clear, from anything they’ve said, that either mayoral candidate sees the church and state issue at play. Granted there are actual life and death issues at stake in NYC with which a mayor must contend. But how we regard religion and walk that line between inclusion and separation says loads about us. How we view and treat each other is at the heart of almost everything else that there is and ever will be.

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Posted by on November 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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First They Came For The Poor Women

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Wisconsin is imprisoning pregnant women who admit to using drugs. This is being done under the guise of “protecting the fetus.” Before we discuss how stressful and unwholesome prison life is for a fetus(!) let us be crystal clear; we’re only talking about women who admit to using drugs of which the court does not approve. We are not talking about psychotropic medication or even prescription pain medication. What is really at issue is that illegal drugs are being used. It is not clear that there is any medical data that even posits let alone confirms that illegal drugs are more damaging to a fetus than prescription drugs. But what is clear is that vulnerable and/or poor women are an easy target.

There is no ignoring, no matter how hard the media tries, that women’s reproductive rights are dissolving in front of our eyes. Bit by bit access to health care and choice is slipping away, particularly for the poorest women in this country. It might not be an organized and coordinated effort but there’s definitely a sophisticated marketing machine at work. Who is going to argue with “protecting the fetus?” It’s right up there with “it’s for the children” or the flag, motherhood and apple pie. Treacly sentiment aside, no one is interested in protecting the fetus. If they were there would be free and excellent healthcare for all reproductive aged women. Nobody would be poor and/or hungry in this country either. Every woman would have a safe wholesome environment in which to gestate and raise her children. There would be no slums, or crime-ridden housing developments. Violence against women and children would be treated like the hate crime it is. In short, it wouldn’t be such a lousy world to be a woman or a child.

We live in a society that screams on the top of its lungs about the unborn, but doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass once they arrive. Everyday children go hungry, are neglected and abused and have access to weapons, alcohol and drugs. Every year another batch of children fall through the public education cracks and don’t graduate high school, or worse, graduate illiterate. Fifty years ago we waged a war on poverty in this country and we lost. We now are in the midst of a long drawn out war against women. It is not a coincidence that this attack is occurring as women make groundbreaking progress in almost every traditionally male bastion. Women must shake off the Barbie mantel that’s been thrust upon them in recent years. We need to shift our focus from physical perfection, put down all things pink and pick up this fight. We must recognize media pandering (e.g., television channels, websites, and merchandising directed to women, as if we were a separate species) for what it is, offensive and distracting. Creating women centric genres could be positive if the ones being created weren’t so damn insipid. The “chicklit” section in your chain bookstore are not shelves filled with; Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir, Shirley Chisholm and Our Bodies Ourselves. Nope. It’s shelves of light romantic “beach” reading. The television channels and (the majority) of websites designed for women are not for anything remotely serious (or even good.) There has been a steady pervasive patronizing campaign underway as women’s rights have been chipped away. Color me a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe it’s a coincidence.

We needn’t lose our sense of humor or even stop enjoying a good An Affair To Remember viewing. But we do need to resist buying into the 1950s model of womanhood we’re being sold. We have become a serious threat to those in traditional power positions. A woman came this close to being the democratic nominee for President! If that doesn’t scare the pants off the status quo I don’t know what does. We cannot tolerate the chipping away of our progress. We may not feel that a pregnant Wisconsin woman in handcuffs has much to do with us or is a feminist issue, but we’d be very very wrong. They are coming after her because they can. First it’s the poor and disenfranchised, that’s the way it always works. Those women who do have a voice must use it. We must recognize that the Spanx, push-up bras, Botox, and body sculpting are the corsets, garters and pointy bras of the 1950s. Those instruments of torture, popularized after women took men’s jobs during World War II, are a symbol of something insidious afoot. This is not a call for bra burning (heaven forbid!) but merely an urging to recognize what we’re being sold and how it’s being used to distract us from a much more serious issue.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Let Your Heart Be Light*

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The days are getting noticeably shorter and carbohydrate cravings are growing stronger. By mid-October there’s no denying that there’s a change a coming. The first scattering of little costumed people and dogs have appeared (either going to pre-Halloween celebrations or having trick-or-treating dry runs.) By this weekend the streets will be alive with all manner of elaborate costume. Children will take on the mantle of popular movie, cartoon and video game characters. Young (and not so young) women will dress as slutty; nurses, waitresses, devils and angels. It will all build to the crescendo that is the Village Halloween Parade, an event that celebrates wit, witticism, irony and drag. And then ladies and gentlemen the party really gets started.

Before the last candy corn has been eaten (or tossed) it will be time for “the holidays.” As you pull the fake cobwebs down from your walls you will be implored (by television, radio, podcast, website, magazine, and newspaper) to perfect your turkey. Every year the “experts” come out to tell us the failsafe way to remedy our annual poultry failings. Personally I have never known any Thanksgiving that hinged upon the perfection of the bird. There is way too much family drama (not too mention side dishes) to really focus on grading the turkey. Besides, isn’t gravy’s job to democratize and flavor? But never us mind, the airwaves will blast with brining, frying, boning promises. Tips for new and exciting ways to invent old favorites will appear. As if Thanksgiving is a cocktail party not a holiday celebrating tradition and very specific foods. Let’s face it the only help any of us need, short of an invitation to someone else’s house, is the Butterball hotline. Those little holiday angels make up for every bad customer service phone bank everywhere. We love you Butterball!

While all this media “filler” (or should we call it “stuffing?”) occurs, the rumbling of the real “holidays” train can be heard. The “holidays” as we now seem to call Christmas, begin to be feverishly pitched earlier and earlier, but still subscribes to a certain; Thanksgiving first, etiquette. At 11:58 AM EST Thanksgiving Day, Santa Claus heads into Herald Square signaling that it is now polite to discuss his special day. (By the way, if there is any confusion over the overt euphemism of “the holidays” pay close attention this year. Chanukah will be over on December 5th yet dollars to donuts the talking heads will still be referring to last minute “holiday” shopping and “holiday” gift ideas until December 24th.) There is actually much to be said of this time of year. People’s spirits (outside of shopping malls and large toy stores) are lifted and light. Everything looks prettier as Christmas wreaths and trees pop up in even the most secular of locations. If you’re lucky, invitations and chances to dress up increase and there may even be presents.

For some however, it’s mostly frenzy. Even if you don’t work as a Christmas elf, chances are your workload dramatically increases before “the holidays.” Deadlines and meetings get squished into that apr├Ęs Thanksgiving, pre-getting the hell out of town, period. People (and by people we mean mostly women) who feel it’s their responsibility to create the holiday, don’t necessarily bask in the sights and sounds of the season. There are many people whose activity or responsibilities don’t seasonally increase, but their loneliness or sadness does. Even those not mired in loss or illness, may find this time of year triggering a short-term discrete melancholy. Memories can be haunting as can unfulfilled dreams. Whether we’re leading the holiday charge or feeling the parade is passing us by, it’s important to keep in touch with how we’re feeling. For people who love nothing more than a 4-page to-do list and arms filled with shopping bags, there’s not much internal checking in that needs to occur this time of year. But those little Santa’s helpers are in a great position to check-in on those around them. Everyone knows someone who’s suffered a loss or is naturally fragile. This time of year provides ample opportunity to reach out. Issue invitations or drop by with small gifts or treats. All that matters is that you connect. For those who have a hard time, know your triggers. Step away from the television, especially when It’s A Wonderful Life comes on. Stay away from places that feel overwhelming or lonely. Do less that you don’t enjoy and more that you do. Plan lovely things for yourself. Is there a book you’ve been meaning to read, a place you’d like to visit, a food you’d like to try? Now is the time to plan gifts for yourself. It may seem as if the whole world is trimming a perfect tree, clinking egg nog glasses and singing carols. But the truth of the matter is that very few people actually live in a fantasy world. Most of us struggle in one way or another, and knowing that can be a great comfort.

The best we can do, this time or anytime of year, is to not get ahead of ourselves. Christmas and the New Year are four days of celebration two months away. There are over 60 days worth celebrating until then.

*Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1943) – Ralph Blane & Hugh Martin

 
 

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What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear*

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Fifty years ago, on November 22nd, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a nationally televised horror that marked the start of turbulent times. The years that followed were tumultuous to say the least. Three and a half years later both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were gunned down. During this time the Vietnam War escalated, the civil rights movement gained momentum and carnage, and all of it was televised. In families rooms across our nation the evening news showed people burning in an obscure Asian country and American cities burning. It was a chaotic and troubling time in which the status quo (those over 30, non-minority and male) lost their footing. The world they helped to build and were promised by their parents was slipping away.

Throughout the devastation, or maybe even because of it, good things began to grow. Tiny saplings such as ecology, feminism, and reproductive rights began to appear amongst the ruins. The civil rights act did get signed, after a shamefully long wait and unforgivable amount of violence. There were strides in the women’s rights movement, though not a passage of the E.R.A. (Equal Rights Amendment.) The E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Act) went into effect in 1970 (as did Earth Day.) There was enough momentum to assume that the tide had turned somewhat. This progress happened in a very visible and even audible way. Fashion followed what was happening on the streets. Shirts and home decor featuring “protest posters” were for sale. Slogan T-shirts began to appear. All of this to the background of some rockin’ protest themed music. Even the softer rock songs were dotted with anti-war or anti-establishment themes. Their sound told you there was something going down.

It seems (from the distance of 50 years) that it all stopped as suddenly as it started. It’s tempting to look to Watergate as what doused the fire. Leaders being assassinated in their prime causes hurt and fear, leaders abusing power and lying causes disgust and apathy. The equation was probably a bit more complex than that. Those who were directly impacted by the events of the early 1960s (and of an age to take it to the streets) had gotten older and perhaps had moved on. Some, no doubt saw their fights as having been won and moved on. Others kept up the fight but within the system and off the streets and out of the spotlight. Whatever the exact formula the result was that the counter culture dissipated and the protests petered out. Nothing of that fevered pitch can last. But isn’t it odd that it’s never returned?

Surely there has been enough horror and inequity to stir rebellion. A 10-year war in Iraq? How about protesting that unlike Viet Nam it’s never been televised? The erosion of reproductive freedoms, the rise of poverty and unemployment and racial unrest (which is what the immigration debate really is) seems suitable for protest. We’ve never had more tools for organizing and yet we seem so disorganized. There are energetic and impactful demonstrations that happen all the time. But they are fragmented and you’d be hard-pressed to identify leadership by name. You’d have to really strain to come up with a popular song with political themes. There have been great political strides made, most notably in gay rights, in recent years. But that victory was over 40 years in the making. Trends come and go, life ebbs and flows, but do people really change? There has been so much violence, corporate corruption and political deceit in the last decade to spark something, no? Or was the outpouring of political engagement and protest of the 1960s a moment in time? Was it tantamount to the Industrial Revolution or the Roaring Twenties? It’s something to think as we approach a dark anniversary.

*For What It’s Worth (1966) – Stephen Stills

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Remember The Smoking!

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Grab your guns; we’re heading for the Alamo! On October 19th gun enthusiasts will be participating in a “Line In The Sand” armed rally in St. Antonio, Texas. Participants are encouraged to carry their “long guns” and the event is billed as family friendly. It is not a protest in the traditional sense, as Texas has some of the most lenient gun laws in the land; it’s more of a show of arms if you will. The assumed intent is to create a powerful visual of gun slinging American families. To encourage a wholesome atmosphere participants are asked to remove bullets from chambers before marching.

Once one gets past the image of a John Wayne (or Mel Brooks) movie, the conceit is not that strange. People often march to express strong feelings, and clearly people feel very strongly about their guns. What is strange is that as a nation we seem to have bought into that sentiment. We continuously elect representatives who hold gun rights sacred. It’s challenging to conjure any other “right” that directly impacts the rights of others as dramatically as gun rights. We think nothing of restricting individual rights that have little if any impact on larger society. We set restrictions on; who can marry, female reproduction, child safety, and the right to die. In the past few decades we have begun to set limits on individual rights which affect the public. You can no longer drink and drive with impunity. Smoking is so restricted as to be unrecognizable as the American pastime it once was.

Smoking was once ubiquitous. People smoked in movie theaters, buses, planes, and even elevators! Ashtrays were everywhere! Freestanding ashtrays were in doctor’s offices, factories, office buildings, and schools. The smoke cloud emerging from most teachers’ lounges rivaled that of a nuclear test. Once upon a time cigarette smoke was everywhere. About twenty-five years ago C. Everett Koop (U.S. Surgeon General) published a report equating the addictive nature of nicotine to that of heroin. You’d be forgiven for not considering this a “Eureka!” moment. But keep in mind that the tobacco industry was (if not is) one of the more powerful lobbying groups in the country. Shortly after the report’s publication cigarette packaging had to include a warning box. Dr. Koop later published a report regarding the hazards of “secondhand smoke.” The first restaurant smoking sections then cropped up. Some readers might remember the bizarreness of smoking sections; everyone seemed to pretend that smoke doesn’t move. But as behavior change motivation goes, baby steps are often the way to go. Fast-forward to 2013 and most of us live in a practically smoke-free environment. Smoking is considered a private behavior and as such cannot infringe upon the larger population.

So why haven’t we been able to treat gun ownership this way? Secondhand smoke couldn’t possibly kill more people than guns. Why have we not set limits on how many firearms a registered, licensed and certified owner can possess? Where are the laws about which kind of weapons are allowed outside of a registered, licensed and law abiding gun club and which must stay secured? Why do we tolerate gun show loopholes? How can a household that includes children be allowed guns, but apartment residents with children must have window guards? There are gun enthusiasts in favor of reasonable restrictions. Not all gun fans cling to the 2nd amendment like it was an out of context bible passage. Not every person who enjoys guns holds fast to rhetoric and flag waving. So where are those voices? Where is our C. Everett Koop?

People will show up to the Alamo with their guns and children. Even if the showing is paltry the imagery will be startling. Once again we will be lulled into thinking that gun owners are monolithic. Once again the issue will be framed as all or nothing. Color me a pessimist, but once again our capital will be noticeably silent.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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