Earth Day Is a Sham

by Matt McKinnon

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I am very fond of the earth. I live here, and have now for almost five decades. It’s the only home I have ever known, and I plan on retiring here and someday giving back to the earth by, well, decomposing and becoming dirt.

Ashes to ashes and all that.

I also love to garden. I love the feel of dirt between my fingers: the rich, dark stardust that collected after the Big Bang and has nourished the origin and descent of our species, of all species, since the beginning of life.

In fact, my favorite part of gardening is not the planting, which is a close second. Or the harvesting, though I enjoy the fruits of my garden immeasurably. No, my favorite part is composting: Meticulously collecting all the bits and scraps from the kitchen as well as the garden to supply generous amounts of “greens” for nitrogen, shredding junk mail (and when I taught face-to-face, unclaimed papers) to add the proper amount of “browns” for carbon, assembling them all in my composter, and religiously turning and stirring to get the desired result of rich, black, humus.

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The good stuff.

(The sweet smell of a properly-proportioned compost pile is actually quite intoxicating.)

So my favorite part of gardening is not just sticking my hands in the earth, but making it.

I have always loved the earth, literally, for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories is getting home from church on Easter Sunday, brightly arrayed in my new pastel-colored Easter suit, and making a mad dash for the dirt, new plastic bulldozer in hand to play in my beloved earth.

I must have been maybe five years old.

And all through my childhood the place my friends and I played most regularly was a lower, barren part of my neighbor’s backyard that we endearingly called “down in the dirt.” As in: “I’ll be back later mom; we’re going down in the dirt.”

And when my wife was a teacher, I would happily assist her in making the annual “Earth Day Cake,” complete with crushed Oreos and gummy worms. Not too dissimilar from the mud pies I used to make in my own backyard.

So it is with much pain and anguish that I proclaim Earth Day to be a sham. A fraud. A ruse. Perpetrated by both well-meaning environmentalists (like myself) and corporate interests with ulterior motives.

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The problem, of course, is not the idea or intent: Celebrating the earth that sustains all that we are, as well as raising awareness of exactly what we humans are doing to our planet.

No, the problem is that Earth Day, far from being a rousing success, has actually been an abject failure.

Though this, of course, depends on how you look at it.

From a PR perspective (is there any other where public policy is concerned), Earth Day has been wildly successful. First proposed in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell to honor the earth as well as peace, and celebrated annually on April 22nd, Earth Day has grown from its initial celebration mostly in schools and colleges across the United States to become the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by some one billion people in over 192 countries.

But from a practical perspective, the movement has not had the desired effect of meaningfully arresting the manner in which we are still destroying the earth. Even more so than in 1970. Heck, it hasn’t even managed to convince most Americans that we are experiencing an ecological crisis.

Though perhaps it makes us feel better about it, at least one day a year.

And therein is the problem. Couched in terminology of honoring the earth, and even cleaning it up a bit, Earth Day domesticates what is arguably the greatest catastrophe to ever befall humanity: the impending collapse of an environment that is hospitable to human survival.

There have, of course, been other extinction events before—five in fact, with the largest being the “Great Dying” (or Permian-Triassic extinction event for all those biogeeks out there), some 252 million years ago, which resulted in the extinction of an estimated 90% of all species. The most famous, arguably, is the last major extinction, the Cretacious-Paleogene extinction event around 66 million years ago that resulted in the loss of 75% of all species, including everyone’s favorite—all those non-avian dinosaurs. This of course was followed by the rise of mammals (and birds) as the dominant land vertebrates. Which has ultimately led us to the precipice of a sixth extinction event.

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Many scientists (PBS reports 70% of all biologists) predict that we are now in the beginning of another extinction event, the first (and probably last) ever to be caused by humans. (The same humans, incidentally, who celebrate Earth Day every year.) The result of this current extinction may compete in magnitude with the Great Dying, resulting in the extinction of nearly 90% of all living species. And potentially in a much quicker manner than the previous five extinction events of the past.

Of course, the data is not conclusive and the consensus is not unanimous, as it rarely is in science, or anything else for that matter.

But what is clear is that, regardless of what the population believes about “climate change” or “global warming,” we humans have polluted and destroyed parts of the earth to the extent that they may never recover—at least not in terms of being able to support life as we know it. (And by that I mean human life as well as those things that support human life.)

More so than the recent coal ash spills in our own neighborhood or the release of toxic chemicals in West Virginia, the oceans are perhaps the best example of how much humans have destroyed and are continuing to destroy the earth’s environment.

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Floating islands of trash in the Pacific Gyre.

So let’s be clear in a manner that climate change or global warming cannot: the oceans are dying at an alarming rate. And by “dying” I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean literally. As in, studies suggest that all of the world’s corals may be extinct by the end of this century due to the acidification of the oceans caused mostly by the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity. And once the oceans die, well, human survival becomes more than a little tenuous.

And yet instead of debating what best to do about the great damage we have already caused to the earth, we are instead debating how to regulate fracking (if at all), whether to institute a “carbon tax,” and whether or not to build a pipeline from the oil sands in Canada to refineries in the United States. Rest assured: such debates are moot. For if we succeed in burning all of the oil available in those sands as well as the natural gas and coal we extract from the ground here in the US, then our fate is sealed. Along with that of anywhere upwards of 90% of the species who inhabit earth along with us.

6Oh, I almost forgot:

Have a Happy Earth Day.

 

The Hidden Cost of War

by Carrie Levesque

© Airborn Guy

A shadow of a soldier contemplating suicide (photo © Airborne Guy).

I haven’t been able to get the statistic out of my mind: 22 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States. How can such a number not rattle us all? How would we respond if 22 teachers a day were committing suicide? Or doctors? Or police officers?

I think we would want answers. We would talk about this daily in our communities. We would seek action. Do we? Are we?

Not including veterans.

…and that’s not including veterans.

At this rate, every four and a half months, veteran suicides exceed the death toll from 9/11, the event that triggered our two most recent wars. What will it take to get the same leave-no-stone-unturned, spare-no-expense commitment from our government to address this tragedy?

It’s important to clarify that the numbers on military suicides are not easy to interpret. With PTSD so much in the news due to the recent shootings, it’s easy to assume that most of these cases are those recently traumatized by their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A soldier in Iraq.

A soldier in Iraq.

Yet according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (PDF), 69% of veterans who have committed suicide are over 50, and have presumably been out of the military for some time. According to the LA Times, “Many older veterans are killing themselves for the same reasons that other civilians in the same age group kill themselves: depression and other mental health problems coupled with difficult life circumstances.”

Nevertheless, other studies estimate that among younger veterans and active duty personnel (the other 31% in that VA study), the suicide rate is twice that of the civilian population. While it’s true that studies on this issue have many limitations, one thing they all agree upon is the high likelihood that suicide among young veterans and active personnel is underreported.

In addition, many young veteran fatalities that would not be included in this statistic involve those who survive combat only to perish through alcoholism, drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Between 2006 and 2011, young veterans in California “were twice as likely to be a victim of a fatal motor vehicle crash and a quarter more likely to suffer other deadly accidents,” a pattern also seen in a 1987 study of veterans who had served in Vietnam and again in the mid-1990s among Gulf War veterans (LATimes).

Whatever the age of these veterans, however recent or distant their service, these numbers are alarming. No one disputes that our nation has a serious problem. “An epidemic,” Senator John Walsh has called it.

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

So why do we tolerate this problem? My guess is, its invisibility. Most of us don’t see soldiers every day, like we see teachers, doctors, policemen; soldiers are out, isolated elsewhere, doing what they do. Deployed to faraway lands or secluded on bases, behind well-guarded fences. As veterans’ advocate Jeff Hensley explains in “The High Cost of Doing Nothing,” these victims “were men and women who stood watch while our nation went about its business, blissfully unaware of their sacrifice.”

If soldiers are invisible, their families are even more so. Beyond the drama of “Army Wives” is a world we civilians have little genuine understanding of. In large part, we have no understanding of this world and its suffering because it is so taboo for them to talk about it.

A soldier and his daughter.

A soldier and his daughter.

In my class Women, War and Terror, we discuss Carol Cohn’s theories about “the ways in which gender discourse intertwines with and permeates” our thinking about war. “The impact of gender discourse…is that some things get left out.”

“What is it that cannot be spoken?” Cohn asks. “First, any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction.” When we talk about war, “Weapons’ effects may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with her skin hanging down in strips…. Psychological effects—on the soldiers fighting the war or on the citizens injured, or fearing for their own safety…all of these are not to be talked about…. What gets left out, then, is the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity—all of which are marked as feminine in the binary dichotomies of gender discourse” (“Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War”).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Soldiers, regardless of their sex, more than any other group, have it ingrained in them to take their suffering silently, “like a man.” The same is expected of their families.

“Be strong. Don’t complain. Never worry or distract your warrior when he’s on deployment. Defend the home. Liz [Snell] doesn’t remember anyone telling her how a good military spouse behaves. It was just understood,” goes the story in CNN’s “The Uncounted,” a powerful, in-depth look at the issue of suicides among military family members. It’s worth reading every word.

Snell and her daughter in "The Uncounted"

Snell and her children in “The Uncounted”

We are currently preparing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan that may or may not materialize, and are somehow always on the lookout for more conflicts to get involved in to keep our military-industrial complex going. But there is no more urgent conflict for our military to take on than the one of its own making: reinforcing an inadequate and overwhelmed system for providing desperately needed services for our servicemen and women and their families.

Flight 370 and the Fear of Flying

by Doug McCarty

The search for Malaysia Flight 370.

The search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

I am a little scared. Why? Well, it so happens that my two dearest and closest relatives are flying almost simultaneously on long trips. My oldest daughter is flying to Portugal in early April, and my younger daughter flies to Orlando a few days later for her first Disney visit. And, why am I concerned, you may be thinking?

It has been in the news, in our faces, night and day, the fate of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. I am excited for my daughters, but I am, much like any other parent, worried over the trustworthiness of the system of flight into which I must place them. Now, I have made many long flights myself, have flown for many hours on large jets towards foreign destinations, yet I have never been at ease with these journeys. Nor have others—I only had to look around me to see my fellow passengers downing alcoholic beverage after alcoholic beverage to realize that my lack of comfort was shared by many. Not terribly reassuring. I recall looking out at the deep, dark Atlantic from my window seat on one flight, a thousand miles yet to go, and, I thought, “Don’t go down.”

And, what do I think when I conceive my children miles above open water flying? The same thoughts that I always had for myself during my flights to other countries, other experiences, cultures. There is that feeling, that innermost twisting, the unexplained feeling of dread, of loss. Certainly, those who had ties to the passengers and crew of Malaysian Flight 370 know it well, accompanied by that tragic knowledge of the irretrievable in the aftermath of what little we now know of the plane’s demise in or over the Indian Ocean.

My Girls.

My Girls.

In our contemporary culture, we demand so much information, promptly delivered. We require that moment of instant gratification, that sense of closure, fulfillment, a quick peace. My father (who is approaching 80) observed while I was writing this blog that, 30 years ago, when he was about my age, a plane could go down in the ocean, and we would not expect to find it. That is hardly true today, 3 weeks plus after Flight 370 vanished. The 24-hour news channels feed us non-stories about what may have occurred, much of it pure speculation. The rather silly theory of terrorism that made its frantic way through the news has largely been abandoned. Granted, terrorist links are still being investigated, chiefly by the U.S., which is focusing on two Iranian citizens who boarded the plane using stolen Austrian and Italian passports. Interpol, however, does not believe that either of the two Iranians were terrorists, a view shared by other countries investigating this possibility. At present, it seems most likely that the two planned to migrate to Europe. That early knee-jerk reaction is interesting, as it heaped fuel upon the speculative flame. Too often, we look for answers without considering the evidence we have before us, or even waiting for the evidence to arrive. As I write, I am watching a CNN discussion of the black box, pingers, sophisticated equipment on the way from the U.S. and China, and I get the sense of urgency as they talk about the 30-day battery life of the black box.

The Black Box.

A “Black Box” Flight Recorder.

I guess one of the problems is that the whole episode makes so little sense that it is almost impossible to contrive a reasonable explanation for whatever happened to Flight 370. There is that talk going on now of possible mechanical failure causing the pilots to speed up, maybe in an effort to get back to the airport, but that explains nothing about why the plane flew over land and back into the ocean. And, no communication is another issue. Why would a pilot in peril not communicate?

Thinking on how safe it is to fly versus to drive, I looked up a few statistics. It turns out that the odds of dying by car per mile are 1 in 100,000, by plane, 1.6 in 100,000,000,000. In other words, one is 625,000 more times likely to die in a car driven per mile than in a plane flown per mile. Now, that seems fairly reassuring news, but when taken into account how many car trips are taken each year (300 billion) versus flights, the numbers become less reassuring. The odds become, then, of dying by car one in 10,000,000, by plane, one in 720,000,000. So, that means one is only 72 times more likely to die by car than by airplane. One would wish a more comfortable margin. Of course, this data is from just one website, and there are many disparities between statistics. I did find one that says, “When we fly, we have a one one-hundred-thousandth of one percent chance of dying.” That is comforting to me, personally, although I know it is not to the families and friends of those lost on Flight 370.

Debris in the ocean.

Debris in the ocean.

At this point, debris and objects retrieved from the Indian Ocean have proved to be unrelated to the flight. There are dozens of ships and planes in the area from a multitude of countries. One wonders if these amassed forces will be sufficient to unravel the mystery surrounding this plane’s disappearance. The intensity and scale of the search is increasing hourly, and it has been said that, if this mystery has a solution, then the searchers will find it. I hope for the sake of those left behind that this is true.

Renewal

by Susan Thomas

renewal1

Snowdrops and crocuses heralding spring.

As spring struggles to take hold and overcome the last vestiges of our stubborn winter, the budding leaves and emerging flowers hold the promise of renewal for the natural world around us. The lighthearted feeling that warm sunshine and chirping birds induces within us reflects how these changes can bring us out of the doldrums, lift our sagging spirits, and sometimes inspire us to smile despite our problems.

But renewal from without can be limited and ephemeral, especially in today’s world where the frenetic pace and our overloaded schedules loom like a cloud over us daily. We worry constantly that we’ve forgotten something. And when we remember, we worry that there is not enough time to accomplish whatever we’ve finally recalled. We need renewal from within.

Finding sources of personal renewal can be challenging. Hardly anyone goes anywhere these days without some technological device tethered to them, and new wearable devices will exacerbate the problem being connected presents for us. Overuse of cell phones can be dangerous, of course, and we’ve all seen people of all ages misusing their devices, motorists texting while driving, swerving in their lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of oncoming cars. A few years ago, someone talking on their phone while driving sideswiped my car.

Family time?

Family time?

Even when we share meals with one another, we are constantly checking in to see what we may have missed, sometimes to the extent of ignoring the person across the table. But it isn’t so much the rudeness or the lack of safety that such use represents, it is how it limits our opportunities to engage, learn, and grow from each other and from tech-free activities. It prevents us from living in the moment.

Admittedly, it is not always possible to cut ourselves free of the daily grind. Reports still have to be submitted, email still has to be answered, phone calls still have to be made, evaluations still have to be conducted, and the list goes on. Both personally and professionally, our time is seldom our own. But even a few moments can make a difference. The key is to consciously think about small ways to free your mind. I’m not advocating that everyone should take up meditation or practice yoga. Just find something that works for you. It could be a beautiful image or meaningful music, or even deep breathing. Life is too short to neglect what’s most important.

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Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916.

Pornography For—and As—Education?

by Ann Millett-Gallant

"Belle Knox."

“Belle Knox.”

As a college professor and a resident of Durham, NC, I have been following the stories in the local, national, and even international press about the Duke University student known as “Belle Knox” (or “Lauren” in some articles)* who has been performing in pornography to pay her tuition. If you’re interested in reading along, you can check out these articles from The Duke Chronicle, WNCN, The News and Observer, The Washington Post blog, The Huffington Post, Gawker.com, and UK’s Independent.

I am fascinated by the articles written about and by this, shall I say “candid,” young woman, who declares her rights to own and display her sexuality. She is repeatedly quoted as saying she does the work to make money to pay for her $60,000+ per year tuition to Duke.

She wrote this blog about her experiences for XOJane, and as a follow-up article, she addresses the responses she received from the first article. In these pieces, Belle Knox asserts her rights to participate in pornography and to own her sexuality. She also responds to the criticism and harassment she has received in response to her story, saying that no one has the right to judge or vilify her.

The issues raised by this case relate directly to two of my BLS classes, Photography: Contexts and Illusions (BLS 345) and Representing Women (BLS 348).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

In Photography, we study the work of Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in the guises of stereotypical film characters (the housewife, the femme fatale, and the victimized girl of horror movies, for examples), women in art historical portraiture, and mythological, monstrous female forms to critique and parody the representation of a “Woman” across visual culture, specifically as a fantasy persona constructed through the male gaze. Sherman’s strategic role playing in the images articulates the artificiality of her staging and asserts ideas that identity is a performance.

Sherman also makes works that critique the pornography industry specifically. She photographs herself in excessive compositions or uses prosthetic or mannequin bodies to recreate explicit porn-like poses. Her images attempt to frame how these images are staged and strategically non-lifelike.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

(Follow this link to see more of Sherman’s work at MOMA).

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

In Representing Women, we analyze the work of Renee Cox, who also photographs herself in the poses and costumes of various dubious roles for woman. These works satirize and critique the ways women, particularly black women, have been objectified in visual culture historically.

(See more of Renee Cox’s work at her website here).

Renee Cox, Olympia's Boyz, 2001.

Renee Cox, Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

These classes debate how effective Sherman and Cox are in their postmodern parodies. Many students feel these artists are simply contributing to the profusion of visual culture that objectifies women’s bodies. I wondered about the Duke student’s actions and whether they could be thought of as performative acts. Maybe she is working within the system of pornography to expose its problematic history. Perhaps she is acting in the traditions of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was employed as a Playboy Bunny in New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Steinem then wrote a two part article for Show Magazine exposing how women were treated in the clubs. Here are links to a scanned PDF copy of her essay on the subject and an article about her acts in the New York Times from 1985.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Is Belle Knox doing research for an exposé? Is she gaining experience for the future career goals that she claimed on ABC’s The View, where she stated that she plans to pursue a law degree to advocate for Civil Rights, and particularly women’s rights? Is she a Feminist?

I still have these questions, and found this provocative article, written by Duke professor Robin Kirk, which raises more issues.

In the article, Kirk underscores the role pornography has played in the objectification and abuse of women, historically and specifically on the Duke campus. Pointing to more distinctly Feminist forms of pornography, she questions what is Feminist or even avant-garde about the student’s performance in this media.

My questions mount! I was particularly moved by seeing Belle Knox speak on ABC’s The View on Monday March 17, as she was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, Sherry Shepherd, Jenny McCarthy, and Barbara Walters. I was disappointed that no one on the show spoke of Barbara Walters’ own experiences with pornography, or the display of women’s bodies. In 1962, in an act similar to Gloria Steinem’s, Walters was a Playboy Bunny for a day and reported for NBC’s Today Show. Here is an article about the event with a clip of the story.

On The View, the 18 year old student reported that she has made 25-30 films, for which she was paid $1000-$1500 each, and that her parents supported her positions. She also spoke about the hostile reactions of others when her story was exposed: People have declared she should be expelled from Duke, or even raped; she has received thrash thrown at her and numerous death threats. I found her to be very intelligent and eloquent in speaking about her beliefs and defending her actions, as well as every woman’s right to ownership of her sexuality.

Belle Knox on The View.

Belle Knox on The View.

The co-hosts were varied in their reactions. Whoopi Goldberg said she understood why the student has said she felt “empowered” by doing the films. Sherry Shepherd, who tends to be the most morally conservative of the group, was almost in tears as she said that her heart broke for the girl and expressed how she would feel if any of her female family members “sold” their sexuality. And although I respect and support many of the Duke student’s positions, I shared Shepherd’s sadness, not from personal or familial experiences of my own, but from thinking about the woman (as well as men, AND children) who have been and continue to be exploited, degraded, and abused in venues of pornography. I would advocate the rights of the Duke student’s and other artists’ and Feminists’ participation in these venues, most especially when their projects intervene on and critique the traditions within they work. And as an educator, I see these acts as stimulating material for conversations and debates about key contemporary issues.

———

* Editor’s note: “Belle Knox” is the name under which she performs, and “Lauren” was a pseudonym assigned by a journalist before she went public with her performing name. Neither is her actual name, which is known, but will not be used here because it is not clear that she has given consent for that name to be circulated.

The One State

by Carrie Levesque

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

It was that time of year again, when my Russian Novel of Conscience class was discussing possible areas of overlap between the futuristic society in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We and contemporary American culture. In Zamyatin’s highly regulated One State, citizens (known as “numbers”) live in ecstatic conformity and “mathematically infallible happiness,” having abandoned the “savage freedom” that we know today to happily accept the “beneficent yoke of reason” and blissful “unfreedom.” Their lives, lived in glass houses, are watched over by an omnipotent Benefactor and ordered by a Table of Hours that keeps everyone moving in “million-headed unison” all day, every day. When a group of rebels seeks to bring down the totalitarian state with dangerous reminders of the numbers’ humanity (emotion! individuality!), the state takes drastic steps to inoculate its citizens against the most dreaded contagion: Imagination.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in another dystopia that looks much like I imagine Zamyatin's to look.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in a dystopia styled after Zamyatin’s We.

While this novel easily calls to mind our current concerns about the modern American surveillance state or our uncritical conformity to various media’s ideas of perfection, this time around it also made me think about experiences I’ve had here in Norway (once called “the last Soviet state” by a Swedish finance minister who thought he was off-mic). You see, my child has recently been diagnosed with the disease of “imagination.”

A few months after starting kindergarten here, my older daughter was having some trouble adjusting. From time to time, she would act out in disruptive and silly ways, and she was making up stories about our family that raised the staff’s concern. Through a parent-teacher strategizing session, we discussed how to help her feel less overwhelmed socially and linguistically, and my husband and I clarified that we did not really share our home with her “brothers” James, Logan, Kendall, and the prone-to-biting Baby Carlos. As many parents of tweens may recognize, my daughter was not being abused by a voracious, unsupervised baby; she was just obsessed with the television boy-band Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

While they were mostly satisfied with this explanation, at the end of our meeting, there were lingering concerns. “But aren’t you worried that she has imagination?” they asked delicately, cringing slightly, as if asking about an embarrassing disorder she had. Though we explained that in the US, it was normal for children her age to make up stories during play like our daughter did, they seemed unconvinced. “We think you should keep on eye on it,” they concluded soberly.

Nearly a year later, I would interpret this strange encounter through the pervasive Janteloven lens of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is, as defined pretty succinctly by this blogger, “a principle which places importance on equality and egalitarianism while discouraging individuality and personal success or in other words, standing out.”

Being like everyone else—in one’s appearance, in one’s behavior—is prized above all else in Norway because it makes everyone comfortable, or so the thinking goes. When people behave in unexpected or “imaginative” ways (say, singing to yourself, doing a little happy dance when you receive some good news, basically any “excessive” show of positive emotion), it makes people uncomfortable because you are standing out. You are out of step with the five-million-headed unison of Norwegian life. It is believed that people who act differently and do not conform to the norm do so because they think they are “better” in some way, even if there’s nothing arrogant about the “aberrant” behavior.

The crowd. Don't stand out.

The crowd. Don’t stand out.

In few places is this law more strongly enforced and engrained than in Norwegian schools. Here there is strong pressure from both peers and teachers to meet—but not exceed!—expectations. Excelling academically only makes others feel bad and makes you look like a jerk. There is no tracking, no grades, no gifted classes, and things move along rather slowly at the elementary level to keep everyone on the same page. It’s March of my daughter’s first-grade year and they just wrapped up discussion of the letter B (though I should explain that the letters are taught out of order, in what appears to be a manifestation of Alphabet Janteloven: why should Z always come at the end? A, B and C must learn that they cannot always come first!).

The Norwegian One State may not have a Table of Hours, but they do have a rather amusing Table of Days. Should we take the reckless step of making tacos on a day other than Taco Friday, we keep the windows closed, so as not to arouse the disapproving curiosity of our neighbors. If we are caught allowing our children to enjoy a dessert or some candy on a day that is not Saturday, when Norwegian children get to indulge in a bag of candy after a week of self-denial, we are sure to invite stares, comments and questions.

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

My (American) mother-in-law tells a great story from when she was living with her Norwegian mother-in-law and decided one fine day that she felt like baking a cake. “On a Wednesday?!” her horrified mother-in-law asked. Tense debate ended in compromise: My mother-in-law could bake the cake on Wednesday, but her mother-in-law insisted it be placed in the freezer until Saturday, a more acceptable day for such indulgences.

For decades, anthropologists have classified societies according to how strictly they hold members to certain norms. “Tight societies are formal and disciplined, have clearly stated social norms, and rebuke individuals who stray from the norm. Loose societies are informal, have weak or ambiguous norms, and tolerate deviant behavior” (Psychology Today). When an international team of social scientists recently surveyed nearly 7,000 people in 33 countries to rank the world’s tightest and loosest societies, Norway ranked 6th tightest, behind countries like Pakistan, India and Singapore (and ahead of Turkey, Japan and China). “A shocking surprise!” said no expat living in Norway, ever.

Tomoko Sawada's face 41 times in a shot from her book School Days; a commentary on conformity in Japan.

From Tomoko Sawada’s School Days, a commentary on conformity in Japan
(look closely; the teacher and each of the forty students is Sawada herself).

There is no marching to your own drummer here. There is no letting your freak flag fly. Oh, how we miss our American brethren and their freak flags! People who burst into song in public, who don’t hesitate to engage a stranger who looks like they’re feeling down and in need of a mood lightener. There is a street performer here who’s often out in the city center playing peppy Russian folk songs on his accordion, and my girls and I always give him money simply because he’s “the guy who brings the joy,” something few Norwegians would dream of doing in a public space. Joy is to be kept under wraps!

I hope this musician keeps bringing the joy. I hope it spreads, wildly.

¿Habla American?: Why English as an Official Language is Blatantly Un-American

by Matt McKinnon

We the People...

Nosotros, el Pueblo…

I’m no fan of corporations.  In fact, I am often critical of them and the too-big-to-fail capitalism that has come to dominate global economics. But I am willing to congratulate them on the off-chance that they do something good or get something right.

Like the Cheerios commercials featuring a multi-ethnic girl with her family that prompted racist hate-speech from trolls everywhere. Or the recent revelation that multinational corporations are taking climate change seriously, since it poses a real economic threat to them.

Or when Coca-Cola broadcast this advertisement during the Super Bowl:

(Coke doubled-down amidst much criticism to play it again for the Winter Olympics.)

Now, I’m no dummy, and I’m certainly not naïve. I realize that the folks at Coca-Cola are first and foremost interested in their bottom line, and that means selling more Coke. And as we are all aware by now, the United States is undergoing a considerable demographic shift, so much so that white people will no longer be the majority by 2043. And more to the point: white kids will no longer make up a majority of youth in five or six years. Yes, five or six years! Which is why companies like Coca-Cola are so interested in multicultural approaches to advertising.

So yes, I know all this, and yet still find it laudable (1) that Coca-Cola produced the commercial, and (2) that they stood by it despite heavy criticism.

But enough about Coke. My real interest is the criticism that was generated by having non-white U.S. citizens sing a patriotic song in a language other than English. And the next logical step that many critics make: viz., that English should be the official language of the United States.

This impulse is nothing new. Nor is the fear and prejudice behind it.

Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin.

Our brilliant and esteemed Founding Father Benjamin Franklin railed against the unwanted influence of what he called “swarthy German” immigrants with surprisingly racist overtones:

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. “

(Indeed: Who knew that only the English were truly white?)

Of course, Franklin was wrong then, as those who criticize the Coke ad and call for English as our official language are wrong now. They are wrong for a practical reason based in historical fact: the new German immigrants did not “Germanize” the English, despite the fact that more Americans now claim German ancestry than any other ethnic or national group. No, they learned English because it was practical to do so, though some retained the use of their native tongue well into the 20th century.

Likewise, studies show that recent immigrants are assimilating in similar fashion, just as immigrants have been doing since, well, the original English came over and ironically did not assimilate into existing native cultures.

And this means that they are learning English.

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

A Pew study found that 91% of second-generation children from Hispanic families speak English “very well or pretty well” and that the number rises to 97% of third-generation children. Indeed, other studies show that not only are second and third generations learning English, they are more likely than not to learn only English—and not the language of their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland.

But there is another—deeper and more essential—reason why English is not and should not be the official language of our land. And while this argument could be made from the liberal and progressive “love-for-all-things-multicultural” perspective worthy of this “liberal studies” blog, the stronger argument is actually one more conservative in nature, rooted as it is in the very fabric of our democracy, in what it means to be American.

The argument is simple: making English, or any language, the Official Language of the United States is blatantly Un-American at its core.

In fact, the late conservative writer Joseph Sobran made a similar argument some thirty years or so ago, to the chagrin of some whose conservative principles only went as deep as their nationalism. (This was the same Joe Sobran whom Pat Buchanan called “perhaps the finest columnist of our generation” and Ann Coulter named “the world’s greatest writer” and the “G.K. Chesterton of our time.”)

Joseph Sobran.

Joseph Sobran.

The point is twofold: First, from a conservative perspective, government should be limited and should only be about the business of governing—not social engineering. Mandating that Americans learn and use English is as absurd from a conservative viewpoint as mandating that they learn and use French, or that they eat their vegetables and lay off the Supersized fries and soda. This, argues conservatism, is simply not the purview of government, and it doesn’t matter whether learning English or eating broccoli are good ideas or not (as I think they both are). What matters is that this is not the government’s responsibility to decide or dictate.

And second, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” should, as much as is possible, reflect the majority of the people, while safeguarding the rights of the minority. But such a reflection, like the people it reflects, is in a constant state of change.

So in this case, what could be more basic than the right to express oneself in the language of one’s choice? And what could be more democratic than a government committed to accommodating that language—those languages—and to understanding and communicating with its own citizens?

For what right is more basic than the choice of language? Freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? All of these are secondary, at least temporally, to the choice of language whereby one speaks, or publishes, or prays aloud to their God.

Indeed, the only act synchronous to that of speaking is the forming of one’s very thoughts. And yet, even here, do we really decide what language we use to form our thoughts? Or does our language shape our thoughts and even ourselves?

If so, what would it mean that for some U.S. citizens, their very thoughts are formed in an unofficial language?

Government should not be in the business of constraining either the free thought or the free expression of its citizens.

"We speak English."

“We speak English.”

Furthermore, the fact of English as our common language is an accident of history. Not only are we the largest English-speaking nation in the world, we are also the second largest Spanish-speaking nation (second only to Mexico). And what is more democratic than a common language that actually resonates with the voice of the people? If Spanish, or French, or Chinese should one day become the preferred language of a majority of U.S. citizens, how undemocratic would it be that their free and common expression would be constrained by the short-sightedness of having made English the Official Language?

To extrapolate from James Madison’s argument against the state establishment of Christianity in his Memorial and Remonstrance: any government that can today make English the official language can tomorrow replace it with Spanish or Arabic.

***

This is what it means to be American: to have the right to choose whatever language one wishes to express oneself, be it for business, or entertainment, or religion, or school—ever mindful of the need to balance this with the necessity of being understood.

As Americans, we lack an ethnic identity. And we lack an established religion. And we lack an official language.

But we are united as a people precisely because we lack these. Since our ethnic identities and religions and languages are plural. As are we.

But in this plurality there is strength.

And from this plurality there is unity.

Or, as our Founding Fathers put it,

Dean Bryant Johnson, "E Pluribus Unum" (2012), detail.

Dean Bryant Johnson, “E Pluribus Unum” (2012), detail.

E pluribus unum.

(And that ain’t English.)