Author Archives: The BLS Program at UNCG

The Phantom Wind

by Matt McKinnon

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It’s hard to imagine how a 25-year old man can be handcuffed and put into a police van, seemingly in reasonable health, and then emerge 30 minutes later barely breathing, almost unable to walk, with three cracked vertebrae, a crushed voice box, and a nearly severed spine.

Hard to imagine how he had no other broken bones or even visible signs of trauma—other than those fatal injuries to his neck, injuries normally associated with a high-speed car accident.

It must have been some phenomenal force that did such damage to those three neck vertebrae and nearly severed his spinal cord and yet had no effect on the van itself or the officers safely strapped in their seats.

It must have been some supernatural force that hyperextended his neck, backwards and forwards, and caused those vertebrae to fracture and crush his spinal cord.

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It must have been some invisible ghostly force that mysteriously left no trace on the metal cage that housed him or the van that transported him or the officers who arrested him.

A phantom wind that blew across the Charm City on that breezeless Sunday morning, capable of such selective destructive force—tornadic almost in the way it chose a victim there in the back of the van but left those in close proximity untouched, secure in their gentle fate.

No high gale warnings that still spring day, the waves on the harbor lazy, unconcerned, unaware of the hurricane wind with sniper precision that passed, unseen by human eye, untraced by Doppler radar, unyielding through the city streets and touched down there at only one place, only one time, only one victim.

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Like some violent demonic wraith called forth from the aether itself, or out of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.

That chilling wind.

That killing wind.

That specter wind that blew before in Baltimore.

There are names for the ride it takes you on—names that some in Baltimore know all too well:

A rough ride. A cowboy ride. A nickel ride.

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Its ghosted trace is known well enough by courts and juries too, and by police departments whose “official policies” betray its shaded existence and try in vain to soften its deadly blow.

But somehow still it howls.

In 1997 that same wind blew Jeffrey Alston, arrested for speeding in his BMW, handcuffed, shackled, and supposedly strapped to a bench in the back of a police van, but, officers later claimed, in Houdini-like fashion, was able to free himself and leap headfirst into the partition, breaking his neck and leaving him a quadriplegic, later to die from complications. A jury disagreed with this “official” account to the tune of 39 million dollars.

But the wind remained aloof.

In 2005 that same wind blew Dondi Johnson, arrested for urinating in public and also placed, handcuffed but not in a seatbelt, in the back of a police van. It likewise blew him clear across the vehicle, breaking his neck and snuffing out his life. A jury awarded his family 7.4 million dollars.

But the wind escaped notice.

It blew again just two years ago, though this time the victim, a young white woman named Christine Abbot, survived to tell her story…and to sue the sue the City of Baltimore. Since, well, you cannot sue a phantom wind.

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It has also blown in Philadelphia, paralyzing two in similar fashion.

Undoubtedly it has blown elsewhere before, outside of public gaze, this astral gust that appears briefly from nowhere, mysteriously tracks only police vans, and then is gone, leaving only the broken bodies of handcuffed detainees in its wake.

It’s hard to image such a phantom wind.

It must make for one hell of a rough ride.

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Fifty Shades of Grey, and Eroticism in Film and Literature

by Ann Millett-Gallant

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Over Winter break, I had a lot of free time to read. I decided to try Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James, 2012), because I was curious about it, and because the movie version was coming out on Valentine’s Day weekend. I remember the fervor the book caused when it was released. Many television shows and magazine articles discussed what a sensation the book was, particularly for many passionate and eager female fans. It was considered shocking, not just because of its content, but also because it seemed to have the power to release women from any chastity belts they might be forced to wear by their own shame or society’s standards for “appropriate” behavior and desires. While reading the book, I was, shall we say, underwhelmed. I was more than just not excited, I was somewhat repulsed by it, and not because it was graphic or shocking, but because it seemed so cliché. In early January, I posted the following Facebook status update in response:

I just finished reading 50 Shades of Grey, and it was ridiculous. A 22 year old, white bread virgin is attracted to a dashing, powerful billionaire, who was starving and abused as a child and, as an adult, only participates in short term, S&M relationships. She allows him to deflower and dominate her, and he releases his inner demons, falls in love with her, and calls her his girlfriend. It’s such horse shit!

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This was my off the cuff response. I was not turned on by the veiled violence, nor by scenes in which Christian forces his virginal concubine to eat in order to “keep up her strength,” despite what might have turned on many women. Was this the portrayal of a passionate relationship for women? And if so, who are these wanton “women” who love the book?

I was not alone in my reaction. In a “Frank and open discussion” by Laci Green, whose YouTube broadcast series “Naked Nation” is supported in part by Planned Parenthood, Green purports BDSM (a form of S&M, which she says is popular today, in part, because of book, Fifty Shades), as a new, liberating, and pleasurable form of sexual play:

However, in a later broadcast devoted to her analysis of the book Fifty Shades, Green says it does a “poor job of portraying BDSM,” and is indeed not only clichéd, but also abusive. She raises the notions of sexual consent and sexual violence, considering that Christian makes Ana, an inexperienced virgin, sign a contract about their liaison before she evens sees his “Red Room” of bondage equipment:

Green’s accusation that Fifty Shades glorifies sexual abuse places the book, and the film, in a dark context. Even if the book wasn’t exactly sinister, it’s poorly written, and bondage and dominance just don’t turn me on. I began to think about other novels or movies that have created comparable reactions among their audiences, and their points of comparison to Fifty Shades.

the-awakening-smFirst, I picked up The Awakening, an 1899 novel by the trailblazing feminist, Kate Chopin, which was considered quite scandalous in its day. I loved it! The writing style has been compared to Impressionism, and the novel is very visual and sensual in its detail. The title captured my immediate attention. I had the idea that it might be a sexual awakening, and it was, but it was more. The heroine, Edna, escapes her family, domestic life, and responsibilities. She has a few extra-marital affairs, but does not end up in a new relationship. Instead, she begins making art and discovers her own subjectivity and embodied perspective. In the end of the novel, she dramatically dives into the ocean and swims away, a conclusion that has been read as a suicide, but I read it more abstractly. In her dive, as in her adventures in the book, she discovers true freedom. There are a many scenes with water running throughout the book, including themes of swimming. As a child, Edna loved and then feared swimming, because she associated it with an unwantednot to mention criminalsexual advance by one of her father’s peers. In the book, part of her awakening involves her relearning and re-enjoying swimming again, as an adult. Water entails, and in the book symbolizes, diverse acts such as floating, drowning, and swimming. When Edna swims, she also floats, as she experiences a freedom in and an escape from the socialized world; she doesn’t see, hear, or feel the world above the water. She is figuratively and literally immersed in her own senses. Swimming causes a feeling of weightlessness, but when swimming, Edna propels herselfa physical act, a form of exercise, and also a forceful movement. I don’t think she drowns at all, but rather, she escapes. Immersing one’s self in water, wherein one is subsumed in one’s own sensory environment, specifically free from external stimuli, could also be a metaphor for masturbationperhaps the ultimate act for of self stimulation and self gratification.

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Stimulated by my interpretations (pun intended), I then wanted to explore other literary and film examples that were considered shocking for their time periods. I remember, as a young girl, the sensation that arose surrounding the film Nine and a Half Weeks (1986, dir. Adrian Lyne). Watching it as an adult, I was blown away by the beauty of the film. It had striking visual detail and was rich in color, texture, and atmosphere. In one of my favorite scenes, the male lead, John (Mickey Rourke) “feeds” the female protagonist, Elizabeth (Kim Basinger), by blindfolding her and offering samples of foods that vary in texture and flavorcherries, jalapeño pepper, milk. The camera creates a multi-sensual encounter, as Elizabeth experiences the food and the sensuality of the offerings. To commence the scene, John squirts sweet, sticky honey in her mouth (suggestive, perhaps, of semen) and then on her body, as he lays her down, kisses, and embraces her. Light floods the darkened set design, as the viewer experiences their own senses being overwhelmed. Another scene features Elizabeth, who works in an art gallery, masturbating as slides of provocative art works flash on the screen. She moves in harmony to the changing of the slides, which becomes more rapid as she sits on the remote and eventually climaxes. Throughout the film, visual art interacts with erotic life. “Nine and a Half Weeks” was released in 1986, when I was 11 years old. I didn’t see the film at the time, because of my age, and I was happy to rediscover what I now consider a classic.

9-and-a-half-weeks-a-memoir-of-a-love-affairThe film is based on Australian writer Elizabeth McNeill’s Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair (1978). The book is a diary, with first person narration, incomplete sentences, visual and narrative impressions, and a chain of consciousness writing style. This memoir is more graphically violent than its film version. In one entry, McNeill writes: “The nights were palpable and fierce, razors, outlines so clearly as to be luminous. A different country, its landscape and currency plain: heat, fear, cold, pleasure, hunger, glut, pain, desire, overwhelming consciousness” (42). This quote demonstrates the erotic and violent actions in the book, as well as writing style I described above. Upon reading this passage, I felt simultaneous intrigue and revulsion to the brutality. During moments of the violence inflicted upon her, Elizabeth, the real woman, conflictingly feels simultaneous pain and desire. She ultimately writes of feeling disembodied, as if she experiences her sensations virtually. The 1986 film is indeed almost a watered-down version of the explicit diary. The memoir is beautifully, indeed poetically written and much more philosophical and psychological than the film.

I then turned to what was one of my favorite movies of my hormone-infused teenage years, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, dir. Philip Kaufman). Based on the novel by Milan Kundera (1984), the film centers on the relationship between a heterosexual couple, as well as the man’s many sexual conquests, and is set during the 1968 occupation of the Czech Republic (wiki).

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The narrative follows an attractive, introverted, and womanizing (not unlike Christian Grey) surgeon named Tomáš (Daniel Day Lewis), and his conflicted relations with the woman who becomes his wife and proves to be his “true love,” Tereza (Juliette Binoche), as well as his many lovers, most prominently, the self-possessed artist, Sabina (Lena Olin). The novel and film are set in an artistic and intellectual class in Prague, which in 1968 was invaded by the Soviet Union. With her rosy cheeks and pageboy haircut, Tereza is childlike in the film, as she is in the novel. She matures through her relationship with Tomas and her discovery of her own perspective, similarly to The Awakening, yet, in this film, it is behind the camera lens. The film includes scenes (shot in black and white) that capture the confusion and violence of the 1986 invasion of Prague on the streets, with dramatic movements and angles.

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Compared with the book, the film is not as detailed about the results of the invasion and following Soviet occupation; for example, on p. 67 of the book, Kundera graphically describes specific murders and deportations. In both the book and the film, Tereza photographs the atrocities on the streets, commencing her photography passion and career with street photography, which is similar to the work we discuss in the Documentary unit of BLS 345: Photography: Contexts and Illusions. Street photography crosses the boundaries or genres of photography as art and as historical document. Tereza’s street photographs get published and lead to work in commercial photography, although she is seduced more by the idea of art photography and explores the genre by photographing Tomas’s lover, Sabina. In a Communist era of Social Realism, Sabina does defiant abstract art, or “drip painting” like Jackson Polluck (63). I do especially appreciate the images of Sabina’s artwork in the film, consisting of erotic photographs and body images cut from mirrors.

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Although the book and the film are both artistic, the book is decidedly more psychological and philosophical, similarly to the book Nine and a Half Weeks. Kundera’s novel is also more political. On pages 213-214, Kundera narrates Tomas’ political acts, such as writing leftist editorials for papers, which leads him to be asked to sign a document protesting the treatment of Czech political prisoners. The novel is not in first person narration like Nine and a Half Weeks, but the narrative point of view is not completely omniscient either. Rather, Kundera’s narrator is poetic and like a storyteller, telling the narrative as if he or she know the characters personally and can see literally into their lives, as well as their consciousnesses. Interestingly, I learned from Wikipedia that Kundera disliked the film so much that he has resolved never again to have one of his novels made into a film. Reading the book encouraged me to check some more of Kundera’s books from the library.

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The final example I was overjoyed to discover was another film with a literally graphic basis, the 2013 French film Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche),which is based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh. In both the film and the book, a somewhat naïve and self-abdicating young woman, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), searches for her sexuality and subjectivity in a world she finds repressive, specifically to young, heterosexual women. One day, she spots and subsequently seeks out a striking, young, somewhat tomboyish and seemingly lesbian woman, Emma, (Léa Seydoux) with dashing blue hair. The graphic novel composes mostly black and white images with striking hints of bluein the forms of Emma’s hair, as well as the protagonists’ diary. Again, a diary communicates the embodied perspective of its narrator. The two women become zealous lovers, and lengthy, strikingly dynamic scenes depict their passion-filled lovemaking, in both the film and the book. The graphic novel was inspired by The Life of Marianne, an eighteenth-century, French, erotic graphic novel.

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In contemplating the symbolic significances of blue, I thought about its association with masculinity, or at least the gender of a male baby, similarly to how pink represents femininity. One of the readings in my course BLS 345: The Art of Life, Rebecca Solnit’s  poetic and philosophical A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006) came to mind. In this manuscript, every other chapter is titled “The Blue of Distance,” and blue, throughout the text, is the color of desire. Solnit meditates on how blue is more intense in the distance, in art (with the examples of landscape paintings, Yves Klein’s artwork, and many more) and in life (with the examples, among others, of road trips). For Solnit, distance increases desirability, reiterating how unrequited love may be most fervent and how absence makes the heart grow fonder.

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Throughout the book and the film Blue is the Warmest Color, Emma’s hair gets less and less blue. It finally transforms back to its natural color, the pair split up, and Adela must find herself outside her role as Emma’s muse. In the graphic novel, the main character dies. Again, death! In The Awakening, Edna supposedly drowns, and in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas and Tereza have a suspicious “car accident,” which the book relates to their political leanings. Going back to my analysis of Edna’s “death” as an orgasm, in literary theory, an orgasm is referred to as “the little death.” For a more detailed analysis of this metaphor, see the Wikipedia entry “La petite mort.

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More broadly than in its many literary associations, the notion of an orgasm as a “little death” can refer to a spiritual release, a short period of melancholy or transcendence, and a natural “high” in the anatomical release of the feel good hormone oxytocin that occurs after orgasm. The not so “little” deaths in these films may then be over-signified, or over-stimulating with their multiple meanings and associations.

This blog has itself become overwhelmed with stimulating references! Now, back to Fifty Shades

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On Feb 6, NBC’s The Today Show broadcast live from the New York City premiere of the film at Ziegfeld Theater. As the camera scanned the screaming and cheering crowd, I searched for even one man amidst the group. All I saw were enthusiastic and, indeed, excited women. Newscaster Carson Daly said there were 98 women in attendance; Daly and the star of the film, Jamie Dornin, were the only men. The episode also featured an interview with Dornin and his co-star, Dakota Johnson, by newscasters Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, in which Johnson said she strategically played Anastasia as a woman of strength and self-worth.

On Feb. 12, Ellen Degeneres aired a clever spoof of the interviewa clip that her crew had edited and that featured anchor Matt Lauer bearing a harness and whip:

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Ellen’s spoof was the beginning of the themes of satire that were raised in news sources about the film. The website Rotten Tomatoes says the film is too tame in comparison with the book. In agreement, Time asks “Where’s the whiplash?” Durham’s Independent newspaper expresses disappointment in the film’s “bad erotica.”

In a video posted on the website of the Pulitzer Prize-winning British journal, The Guardian, film critics discuss the absurdity, and even satirical humor of the, what one critic calls “soft core porn,” that he says seems like “the S&M had been directed by Martha Stewart.” These highbrow, somewhat stuffy critics state that the film never had a chance and they “couldn’t take it seriously” because it was based on a poorly written, trashy novel.

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Reading through this summary of diverse reviews on this CNN.com, some of which are positive, made me want to see the film more. Further, similarly to how she discussed her role as Ana in her appearance on the Today show, Johnson has affirmed in numerous interviews that she chose the role specifically because it intimidated her and because she believes that women who own and direct their own self-crafted sexual experiences and sexual identities are definitively empowered. But I wondered, is Ana empowered in book? I would say, no. How will she be different in the film?

Fifty Shades of Grey opened where I live in Durham the Friday before Valentine’s Day, and I could not see it then because my husband and I had big plans: we had to take our 20 pound orange tabby cat, Sunny (aka “The orange beast”), to the vet and my husband’s new Fiat needed additional computer programming at its dealership in Cary. I thought I had missed the perfect opportunity to see the film and witness its already ardent fans, but after reading reviews, I thought perhaps the optimal time to see it would be on April Fool’s Day. Many others did see it the opening weekend; the film broke records for Valentine’s Day and President’s Day releases.

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I finally saw it two weeks after it opened. In general, it was not a good movie. The sets, costumes, and dialogue were nothing special and even silly. The character of Ana is girlish and mousy; her big blue eyes, which first capture Christian’s attention, are framed by unevenly cut bangs and hair that escapes from a messy ponytail. She does talk back to Christian in a Lolita-like manner, but I would hardly call her an empowered character. In the first meeting with Christian, she wears an old fashioned, flowered blouse and a matching cardigan and skirt set. Throughout the film, she dons dresses and outfits that are too short and too young for her, as if she shops in the junior’s department at the stores. She is somewhat childlike, similar to the immature Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Ana’s adolescent body, with a sprinkling of fair pubic hair, is often on display in the film, while Christian’s body is strategically concealed; in one scene, he unbuttons his fly, and the viewer sees a hint of blond pubic hair, but otherwise, only his unclothed backside is shown. In contrast to Ana, Christian wears signature, stone colored suits and one of his fifty ties, all of which, of course, are shades of grey. Christian is good-looking, with a strong face and muscles, but he is hardly suave or debonair. Rather than looking like a millionaire entrepreneur and Casanova, he resembles an attractive college athlete. Christian lives in an austere apartment, similar to his clothing and to the steely residence of John in Nine and a Half Weeks. In one scene, Christian tempts Ana with an ice cube down her naked torso, an act like that of John and Elizabeth, but the former is much less sensual than the latter, for the viewer, and seemingly, for the female subjugate.

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Forty-five minutes into Fifty Shades, Christian and Ana “consummate” their agreement, and Ana is “de-virginized” (or deflowered, as I strategically called it above), in an intimate scene that involves kissing, touching, and, assumedly, at least two orgasms. I am hardly an expert, but I would say that when a woman loses her virginity, the experience is usually more awkward and potentially painful, rather than sexy and pleasurable; however I have never heard of a woman having had her first time with anyone experienced. Let’s just say, the scene is, at best, idealized. Unlike in the book Fifty Shades, the couple in the film are paired intimately quite often, embracing and even bathing together, and Ana has met many members of the Grey family before Christian even introduces the contract and the red room to her (the only room in his apartment that displays any color). The first scene in which the couple performs in the red room is almost one and a half hours into the two hour film and shows Christian “whipping” (or should I say, “tapping”) Ana with a tassel-like “whip.” This action causes a light snapping sound and leaves no wounds on Ana’s skin. It is hardly terrifying. At the end of the film, when Ana challenges Christian to give her the full treatment, or to do the most brutal thing he would ever do to her, he again whips her, this time with a fashionable leather belt. The sounds are more convincing and remind me of the whipping scenes of Twelve Years a Slave, (2013, dir. Steve McQueen), but again, they leave no marks on Ana’s perfectly white, pristine back. The couple parts in the end, and as Ana exits his apartment by elevator, there is an emphasized lack of closure, or a cliffhanger, enticing viewers to seek out the sequel.

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Again, I was amused, but underwhelmed. I don’t think I’ll bother to read either of the other Fifty Shades books in the trilogy, nor will I waste my time following the film series. I am, however, very much looking forward this summer’s release of Magic Mike XXL (the satirically titled Magic Mike 2), which will feature more antics of an ostentatious, performing, and chiseled brigade of leading men, performing for and in service to clowning and lascivious female fans. This film will be much more my speed.

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Life as Art: In Front of the Class

by Linda Levanti, Asheville, NC, senior in Humanities

linda-levantiI have a great vantage point from my position in the back of the classroom. Seated near the large picture window, with a glorious view of the massive walnut trees planted during the golden days of the Biltmore Era, I’m quite content. The wall to my back encloses this pleasant space, where like a cat curled on a sunny window ledge, I’m more or less out of sight. I don’t often speak, satisfied to watch the activity from my sanctuary in the corner. Who’d have thought that one day I’d decide to become a teacher? Certainly not I.

It was the unconditional patience and encouragement of my kindly neighbors in a tiny, old-world village in central Mexico that set me on my path to teaching. It’s a constant challenge to communicate even simple thoughts when faced with a language barrier, something we rarely experience in the United States. Accepting me into their beehive of daily activities, these aproned Madonnas were as happy to teach me some Spanish as I was to share a few words of English. I’m humbled and grateful for the many good humored teachers who helped me along the way. Nonetheless, there were still many times I felt terribly isolated by language, and a stranger in a strange land, in spite of the warmth of my Mexican family.

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Shortly after my return to the United States I started volunteering at the local community college in an adult education class to satisfy certification requirements to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). My experience had fostered a desire to help those living in the United States whose struggles with a foreign language are likely a great deal harder than mine had been in Mexico. I want to make a difference in the lives of those who are committed to learning their new country’s language. After completing my training program, I stayed on at the college; I like helping in the classroom. And, the opportunity to quietly observe the instructor, while reinforcing my novice teaching skills, fit in with my predilection for staying out of the spotlight. That is, up until last week.

The class began quite as usual. As students filtered in, I handed out worksheets, and Monica, the level 4 instructor, began to teach. The lesson for discussion was subject-verb agreement. And so, Monica taught English and I helped Monica, that is until her phone rang mid-lecture, and the baby-sitter informed her that her infant daughter was ill…could she come home right away? Monica’s eyes sought mine, pleadingly, as if to say, you do have your certification. Other than the one evening I had student taught an adult class many months before, an experience replete with sweaty palms and horrible stage-fright, I had not taught a class on my own. I wasn’t feeling inclined to do so any time soon. But under the circumstance what could I say? Monica left for home, and I was on! And on my own.

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It was performance time, and I flashed back on the frightened five year old I’d been at my first dance recital. The delicate pink ballet slippers I’d laced onto my feet, when told it was time to go on stage, no longer felt as enchanting as I’d imagined them. I was scared silly. All the wisdom and life experience I’d gained in nearly fifty years was reduced to the size of a quivering child. Thrust in front of the classroom, with the students’ inquiring eyes focused on me, I felt a vulnerability that caused every fiber in my body to scream “run”, which is what I had done at that first ballet recital. Not a pretty picture when you want to be a teacher. But I was no longer five years old, and fleeing was not an option. My saving grace is that age and hard won experience has provided me with an unwavering resolve, and so I stayed put and opened my mouth.

At a total loss for words, the immediate need to say or do something was bewildering. Quite unexpectedly, I felt as if a stranger had taken control of my senses and I began to dance. Not literally, but in a way that expressed my individuality. Performing as both marionette and marionettist, I was acutely aware of the tension in the strings that propelled my initial movements as an imperfectly executed pirouette spun me from the front of the room toward the large table that was the students’ shared desk. As I drew a chair closer to my audience, inviting them to join me, I remembered how much I had loved my ballet slippers; how good it felt to lace the ribbons and twirl across the polished wooden floor. Without a script, I listened to myself conduct the class. The words flowed and the teacher in me sounded so confident. She was enjoying herself! In getting on stage, I was introduced to a part of me I had never met, someone who seemed to like dancing for an audience. I’d caught an astonishing glimpse of my potential self in those moments in front of the class.

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Art critic, Michael Kimmelman, wrote in The Accidental Masterpiece that “Life itself might be an art.” If my experience was any indication, I agree. Good art, when real and not contrived, fuels a deep and lasting impression upon viewer and artist alike. It can do that when we let go, and get out of our own way. I believe that this sentiment is essentially what Gunter Berghaus wrote about in the “Happenings and Fluxus” chapter of his book Avant-garde Performance. Based on the idea of unconventional and spontaneous artistic expression that compels the interaction of performer and audience, art is created that shatters life as we know it, effectively changing who we are into something new. The certainly unplanned accident of my performance in the classroom that day exemplified what both “Happenings” and “Fluxus” stand for. Reflective of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s portrayal of the “characteristics” of Happenings, it became a moment of “breaking down the barriers between art and life…[to] transform human beings, and make them change their old ways of seeing, feeling, and being.” It was terrifying and exhilarating.

Initially, my performance fell flat on its face. I wasn’t like Monica. My audience was confused by this unsure presentation of a teacher. I’ve since learned that many students see their teachers, myself included, as if we’re all cut out of the same academic “fabric”, and whether it’s Monica or myself at the head of the class, we are “all knowing” and greater in stature than the students there to learn English. In part, this is a cultural issue and likely a misinterpretation of Americans in general, but nonetheless, it makes for a very tough audience. I was faced with a chasm I had no idea how to bridge. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure they recognized my fear. Those sorts of things speak clearly in any language. Did they realize the degree to which my teaching had become the performance of my life? Probably not, but I do think they recognized themselves through the cracks in the perfect image they had constructed of me as an “American” teacher.

Unexpectedly presented with an instructor they were not accustomed to, the students initially responded to me by withdrawing. My discomfort increased and I felt myself teetering on the edge of the stage, an abyss between myself and the students huddled in the audience. They were reticent to speak; our previous interactions had been minimal. I experienced something that my instructors at NCSU had said about teaching foreign language classes, something that applied to me as well. Students are often afraid to speak for fear of looking foolish or making mistakes. Student or teacher, we all want to do well and look our best. There were moments during that two hour class when I stumbled. I recovered, the world didn’t come to an end, and I kept going. When I performed for that class, it wasn’t perfect. I was nervous at times, and lost my way. And then art happened in one spontaneous moment of laughter.

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I’d laughed out loud at how much fun I was having in spite of it all. I couldn’t be frightened any longer. It was just too silly. The students thought it was tremendously funny, and so did I. At that moment the feeling in the room transformed each of us. The “American” teacher, who fell off the stage, wasn’t really any different than they were, and they gladly joined me in my dance. I had their attention. The chasm disappeared, and my students got that it was OK to try, and it was acceptable to make mistakes. We laughed, exchanged ideas, and as we became partners on that stage, no longer separated by perceptions of culture or class, we were performers and audience alike. I reflect that it was much more than just the subject-verb agreement of English grammar that we learned about that day. The art of authentic communication became a Happening. The Happening became the universal language of human interaction. I’ll never know who learned more that day, me or them. I do know that together we created an accidental masterpiece that will remain a vivid image in my mind for years to come.

My son, who is a wonderful artist believes that art should exist only for the moment and then be gone, to allow for other inspirations to take its’ place. My performance in the classroom reflects that sensibility. I’ve learned that art is not the result of paint and brush, nor is teaching, simply the rules of English grammar. They are only the tools we use to express the essence of who we are. When I teach, the art itself is ethereal, but its’ effect lingers on. Like any artist who performs for an audience, I’m sure there’ll be wonderful experiences as I teach and those that may not inspire great art. Either way, it will remind me that life, if lived as art, is its own accidental masterpiece.

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* This essay was originally written for an assignment in Ann Millett-Gallant‘s class The Art of Life, in which the students are asked to create and partake in an act of performative art, then write about their inspirations, their interactions with their audience, the performance itself, and the results. The fortunate timing of Linda’s unplanned teaching stint as this assignment was approaching led to this “accidental masterpiece.”

Regarding my choice of the kitchen photo from among many possibilities, Linda writes, “of all the photos, you pick the staged photo my husband took of me with a large beer bottle “caguama” and mug! My husband thinks that it’ll make me look like a borracha! (drunkard) which is really funny as I rarely drink.”

Mere Murder?

by Jay Parr

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A month ago, around 5:15 PM on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 10 (right about when our transfer information session was getting underway here at UNCG), about 50 miles down the road from here in a neighborhood adjacent to the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, 46-year-old Craig Hicks entered the condo of his twenty-something newlywed neighbors Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, and firing seven or eight shots, murdered them both and Yusor’s younger sister Razan Abu-Salha. I will not use the word “allegedly” here because Hicks turned himself in just hours later, and readily confessed to the killings. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’re well aware of this incident by now. It’s not even news anymore.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these shootings ever since.

Mr. Hicks’ that’s-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it is that it was all over a parking dispute. It is pretty widely known by now that Hicks was in ongoing conflict with any number of his neighbors, about the use of limited parking spaces in the complex and other similarly-urgent matters, but murdering three people over it seems—well—just a tad disproportionate to me. There’s obviously more going on here, even if Hicks really does think it’s that simple.

More importantly, there’s more going on here even if Hicks is just a nutjob.

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The problem here is that the dead are three observant young Muslims, while the killer is a white man who, in the end, represents mainstream America as a whole. That is to say that, for the vast majority of us, gentle reader, Craig Hicks ultimately represents you and me. That being the case, this senseless killing spree—carried out by one unstable individual, with no evidence of any real forethought or planning—can’t help but be much, much more than just one senseless killing spree by an unstable individual.

Let’s take a look at the players here. The dead are Deah Barakat, a 23-year-old second-year dental student at UNC Chapel Hill and and an active participant in an international charity working with displaced refugees; Barakat’s wife of six whole weeks, Yusor Abu-Salha, a 21-year-old graduate from NC State, who had been admitted to begin the same dental program in the fall and who was heavily involved in the same charity work; and her younger sister Razan Abu-Salha, a 19-year-old sophomore in architecture and environmental design at NC State, active in a charity for deaf advocacy.

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They were kids. A married couple in the first third of their twenties, and her younger sister who was still a teenager. I don’t consider myself all that old (my firstborn is only two and a half), but I was already married and getting divorced when Mr. Barakat was born, so it wouldn’t be a bit of a stretch to say that I could have been their father. For that matter, so could Hicks.

They were achievers—if not overachievers. At 23, Deah was already in the second year of dental school. I can’t tell you how many students I’ve advised who at that age had yet to figure out that if they couldn’t handle general bio, general chem, and calculus in the same semester, maybe they shouldn’t plan on going to medical school. This guy had already been in dental school—no less rigorous than med school—for a year and a half. His new bride was no less of an achiever, having finished her bachelor’s degree and been accepted into the same dental school at the ripe old age of 21. I know less about her younger sister, but being a sophomore in architecture at 19 is nothing to sneeze at. They were clearly dedicated students, and they came from families that obviously valued education. Among the few things I know about their families are the facts that Deah’s sister has a doctorate degree and that the girls’ father is a psychiatrist (i.e., an M.D.).

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They were also very giving people. Deah was heavily involved in a charity that provided dental care and support to refugee children. Yusor gushed on her Facebook page about the time they had spent in Turkey, and the people they met and the work they did while they were there. Razan was also involved in charity work, at an age when most mainstream-American teenagers are routinely and utterly self-involved. I guess what I’m saying here is that, had these kids been Christian instead of Muslim, other students their age would have been openly making fun of what pious goody-goodies they were. I mean really, married in their early twenties? Don’t drink at all? Up to their eyeballs in charity work? What are you guys, some kind of evangelicals?

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Those are the dead. Three overachieving, charitable youths, who also happened to be observant Muslims.

From what I can find of the killer, he’s a paradox in many ways: Skeptical of all forms of religious extremism, loudly in favor of marriage equality and women’s equality and access to reproductive healthcare including abortion when needed (all of which I can get behind), but also kind of an extremist in his anti-theism and apparently rather belligerent about running around intimidating folks with his firearms, both of which I have problems with. I took a look at the public postings on his Facebook page. Once you get past all the clickbait it’s an interesting glimpse into his anti-theistic views.

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But here’s the thing: For all his paradoxes, and for all the ways in which some of us may find his opinions distasteful and his actions reprehensible, in this case he represents all of white mainstream America. He’s the old white boy with the Midwestern background and the revolver on his hip. The one who shot three young Muslim students to death in their own home.

Sure, he’s not exactly a shining example of the mainstream American. I mean, he is in his mid forties and was studying for an associate of applied science, so not exactly an outstanding scholar. He’d had a series of crappy jobs and a couple of failed marriages, and a daughter who didn’t really want anything to do with him. He seemed to have had frequent altercations with any number of his neighbors, more than one of whom had complained about him, and it would seem he had a penchant for showing up armed to air his grievances. Apparently that wasn’t the first time he had shown up at his neighbors’ door over parking or noise, and he’s also reputed to have mocked the young women over their hijab on several occasions. So not exactly a friendly neighbor. And not exactly someone I want representing me as a white male mainstream American. But the fact remains: He’s the white dude here. He’s the “American,” regardless of where any of his victims were born or raised.

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Hicks also had a collection of guns. Something on the order of a dozen of them. That does not make him exceptional among gun owners in the United States. However, it has been established that among developed nations, the US has considerably more guns per capita—and considerably more gun deaths per capita—than pretty much anyplace else. That alone puts every single one of us at greater risk for gunshot-related injuries or death, just by virtue of being in the United States.

But it goes beyond that. Despite what the fear-mongering portion of the media might have you believe, most of the people with those guns are not minorities. In fact, most of them are conservative, rural, white males. Even fewer of the open-carry activists (I prefer “bullies”) are minorities. Brown people in this country seem to learn that brown people carrying guns in this country are a bit more likely to get shot on sight, so you’re not going to find a lot of brown open-carry activists. No, the open-carry crowd is almost exclusively white. In fact, I would argue that strutting around in suburban shopping centers while openly loaded down with military-grade weaponry takes a level of hubris that is almost exclusively associated with white privilege.

That was Hicks. The white guy with the guns. In a country that has an exceptionally high percentage of white guys with guns.

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For the record, I’m not completely opposed to guns, personally. I have on occasion enjoyed shooting targets at firing ranges and shooting cans out in the country. I won’t have one in my house, but that’s partly because I have a toddler who isby mere virtue of being a toddlera very unpredictable variable. However, when she is of an appropriate age, I do want her to learn to handle and use a firearm, if for no other reason that when she inevitably stumbles across one she will be able to handle it safely and confidently. If I did own a firearm, I can tell you that when it was not at the target range it would be stowed in a secure and locked gun safe, empty, maybe even partially disassembled, with any ammunition (if there was any ammunition in the house) locked up in a separate location. I sure as hell wouldn’t want it out and loaded and on my person on a daily basis. There’s just way too much to go wrong there, and for my personal anxiety level the risk of an accidental shooting outweighs any security I might gain by walking around armed.

The other problem with having firearms around constantly is that, put simply, people get angry. We all have irrational moods. Granted, some of us have them more often than others, but we all, without exception, get into moods when we are tempted to do things—or maybe we actually do things—that we wouldn’t do in a levelheaded state of mind. As a friend of mine, a writer and generally placid person, pointed out in a discussion on this topic, “I have been angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face.” If we’re all honest with ourselves, I think most of us have been there at some point or other in our lives.

The problem becomes when a bunch of usand inevitably the more belligerent among usactually have handguns strapped to our hips, because that’s when it becomes a matter of mere impulse control between “angry enough to want to shoot someone in the face,” and someone (or as it were, three someones) actually getting shot in the face.

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Compound an overly-well-armed America with an Islamophobic America, and the odds get even worse for these victims. And before we start saying we don’t live in an Islamophobic culture, let’s take a look at the major spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the last few years, much of it seemingly related to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to violence by Muslims—even if it’s a video of a single murder by ISIS extremists, specifically designed to be a spectacle, and the media are playing right into the terrorists’ hands by lavishing it with attention. Let’s take a look at the disproportionate attention given to the fact that the perpetrators of that violence are Muslim—not that they’re off-the-deep-end radicals, or that the vast majority of their victims are Muslim, but that they themselves are Muslim. Let’s take a look at the fact that any time a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, every single Muslim in the Western world is suddenly at a higher risk of a retaliatory attack.

Seriously, how much anti-agnostic rhetoric did you hear after Tim McVeigh blew up a huge chunk of downtown Oklahoma Citykilling well over a hundred people and well over a dozen children—in the largest terrorist attack in the United States before 9/11? I was loudly agnostic at the time, and I don’t remember getting so much as a second glance. How much did the US media shout that the IRA were Catholic terrorists? And how many pundits did we hear shouting that we should ship all the Catholics back to Rome or wherever they came from, or that we should ship all the agnostics back to I-don’t-know-istan?

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But two radicalized young brothers blow up a trash can in Boston, killing the same number of people that Hicks did last month (yes, a lot more were injured), and they’re terrorists, and even though they weren’t affiliated with any Islamist terror organizations, a lot of attention is given to the fact that they’re Muslim. They’re Muslim Terrorists. And while yes, the rest of us are reminded that extremist violence can affect our lives at any given moment, every Muslim in America is at higher risk of being attacked just for being Muslim.

Two shooters representing a very radicalized arm of al-Qaeda storm into the headquarters of an irreverent Paris publication and shoot most of the editorial staff, and almost all of the attention focuses on the fact that they were Muslim, and that the publication had published images mocking The Prophet (pbuh). Not that they were Muslim extremists, mind you, but that they were Muslim. And they get presented by some particularly loudmouthed pundits as representing the entire Muslim world. And suddenly every Muslim in the Western world has to actively and loudly disavow the attack to avoid being associated with it. Because the assumption is that, as Muslims, they’re complicit. And even with all that disavowal, innocent Muslims all over Europe and the U.S. face a resurgence of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and mosques and schools are vandalized, and Muslims are harassed and attacked on the street, and the hate sites have a field day, and most of us don’t hear a word about any of that, because it’s not what sells advertising space.

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And the end result of all this attention is that being identifiably Muslim in the United States (or much of the Western world, really) means constantly being under a heightened level of scrutiny from all directions. And it means being a lot more likely to encounter microagressions, intentional aggression, and even outright violence. In fact, on a daily basis a Muslim in the United States is five times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than before 9/11.

Despite Hicks’ professed equal-opportunity anti-theism and despite his claim that it was all about parking (and maybe noise), I have trouble believing that the fact that these young students were Muslim had nothing to do with it. Had they been something a little less Other in the American zeitgeist, some plain-dress Christian denominationsay, Mennonite for sake of argumentwould Hicks have been so compelled to murder them in their own home? I kinda doubt it.

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Maybe in Hicks’ mind it really wasn’t about them being Muslim. Much like in various law enforcement officers’ minds (or in one particular wannabe law enforcement officer’s mind), maybe the decision to shoot really wasn’t about their victims being black. Not on the conscious level, anyway. However a lack of conscious motivation on the part of the shooter doesn’t make those victims any less black, or any less dead. Just as Deah, Yusor, and Razan are no less Muslim, and no less dead.

Maybe somewhere in Hicks’ mind this killing really was all about a parking dispute. It begs the question of how a mere parking dispute got so ridiculously out of hand that three innocent people ended up being ruthlessly executed in their own home (and clearly I don’t buy it anyway). But regardless of Hicks’ motivations in the momentand regardless of whether or not he intended to make any statement larger than that of an enraged neighborhis actions, in the wider context of our gun-toting and Islamophobic culture, make him the face of American terrorism: An armed, entitled, angry white male attacking an unarmed brown innocent (or three) because he felt threatened in some way or another. An attack which ultimately reminds everyone in that Other demographic that on some level they are outsiders, that they will always be outsiders, that they are hated, and that at any moment that hatred could blow up in their faces and end their lives, or the lives of their dearest loved ones.

That is not a mere murder. That is an act of terrorism.

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Science in a Postmodern Age

by Matt McKinnon

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I am not a scientist.

Just like many prominent, mostly Republican, politicians responding to the issue of climate change—trying their best to refrain from losing votes from their conservative constituencies while not coming across as being completely out of touch with the modern world—I am not a scientist.

Of course, if you ask most people who are in fact scientists, then somewhere around 87% of them agree that climate change is real and that it is mostly due to human activity (or at least if you ask those scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as reported by the Pew Research Center).

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Then again, if you ask average Americans (the ones who are not scientists), then only about 50% think that human activity is the largest cause of climate change.

That’s quite a disparity (37 points), especially since getting 87% of scientists to agree on anything is not all that easy and arguably represents what we could call a scientific consensus.

This, of course, provides much fodder for comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart as well as many liberals and progressives, who have come to see the problem of science and a skeptical public as a characteristic of contemporary American conservatism.

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And this characterization is buttressed by the even more overwhelming discrepancy between the public and scientists on the question of evolution. A 2009 study by Pew found that only 54% of the public believe in evolution (22% of whom believe that it was guided by a supreme being) versus 95% of scientists (where only 8% believe it to be guided by a supernatural power). And that more recent 2014 Pew study bumped the public percentage up to 65% and the scientific consensus up to 98%.

That’s a gap of 33 points, a bit less than the 37 points on the issue of climate change. Sure there’s something to be said for the idea that contemporary conservatism is at odds with science on some fundamental issues.

But not so fast.

For while there is a large discrepancy between scientists and the American public on these core conservative questions, there is also a large and seemingly growing discrepancy between the public and science on issues that cross political lines, or that could even be considered liberal issues.

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Take the recent controversy about immunizations.

Just as with climate change and evolution, a large majority of scientists not only think that they are safe and effective, but also think that certain immunizations should be mandatory for participation in the wider society. That same 2014 Pew study found that 86% of scientists think immunizations should be mandatory, compared to 68% of the public.

And the very liberal left is often just as vocal as the conservative right on this issue, with folks like Jenny McCarthy who has claimed that her son’s autism was the result of immunizations despite clear scientific evidence that has debunked any link. At least one study by Yale law professor Dan Kahan shows that those who fear childhood immunizations are pretty much split between liberals and conservatives.

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Still, with an 18-point gap between scientists and the public on this issue, that leaves a lot of progressives seemingly in the same position as those conservatives denying the role of human activity in climate change.

Just as interesting, however, is the discrepancy between scientists and the public on building more nuclear power plants—a gap that is greater (20 points) though scientific opinion is less certain. Pew found that 45% of the public favors more nuclear power compared to 65% of scientists.

But what is even more intriguing is that all of these gaps between scientific consensus and public opinion are far less than the discrepancy that exists on the issue of biomedical science, from the use of pesticides to animal testing and the most controversial: genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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That same Pew study found that a whopping 88% of scientists believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, a larger consensus than agree on human activity and climate change, compared to public opinion, which languishes very far back at 37% (a disparity of 51%!).

And 68% of those scientists agree that it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared to 28% of the public (a gap of 40 points).

But you won’t find many liberal politicians wading publicly into this issue, championing the views of science over a skeptical public. Nor will you find much sympathy from those comedians either.

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It seems that when the proverbial shoe is on the other foot, then it is either not problematic that so many plain old folks diverge from scientific opinion, or there is in fact good reason for their skepticism.

Which brings me to my point about science in a postmodern age. For while it is true that there are good reasons to be skeptical of the science on the use of pesticides and GMOs, as well as some of these other issues, the problem is: who decides when to be skeptical and how skeptical we should be?

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That is the problem of postmodernism, which strives for a leveling of discourse and has more than a bit of anti-clerical skepticism about it. For if postmodernism teaches us anything it’s that the certitude of reason in the modern age is anything but certain. And while this makes for fun philosophical frolicking by folks like Heidegger, Foucoult, and Habbermas, it is problematic for science, which relies completely on the intuition that reason and observation are the only certain means of discovery we have.

But in a postmodern age, nothing is certain, and nothing is beyond reproach—not the government, or business, or think tanks, or even institutions of higher learning. Not scientific studies or scientists or even science itself. Indeed, not even reason for that matter.

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The moorings of the modern era in reason have become unmoored to some extent in our postmodern culture. And this, more than anything else, explains the large gaps on many issues between scientific opinion and that of the public.

And in the interest of full disclosure: I believe human activity is causing climate change and that immunizations are safe and should be required but I am very skeptical of the use of pesticides and eating GMOs.

But what do I know? I’m not a scientist.

R.I.P. Joan Rivers

by Ann Millett-Gallant

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There were many tragic celebrity deaths in 2014, and I feel the most personally sad about the death of Joan Rivers. My husband and I loved watching her host the show Fashion Police. In response to her witty and often naughty comments, we would exclaim “Oh, Joan!” On Fashion Police, she critiqued stars’ outfits with bawdy and sometimes dirty humor.

Many considered Joan a nuisance, or a foul-mouthed “bitch,” names Joan would have reveled in. She was an unapologetic trailblazer; similarly to anti-conventional comediennes such as Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller, she was decidedly not self-deprecating. Because she defied stereotypes and social mores for female comics, female performers of any genre, and women in general, Joan could be called a nonconformist feminist. She relates to many examples we study and critique in my course BLS 348: Representing Women.

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Contrary to other female comics of the past and of today, she didn’t put herself down, but also didn’t quite put others down either. She “made fun” of others, always in the spirit of humor. Her critiques were never harsh, although some of her comments, especially on Fashion Police, quite literally hit below the belt. Following her death, the E! Channel showed a marathon of Joan’s greatest Fashion Police episodes, culminating in a tribute episode of the show in which her co-hosts, Giuliana Rancic, George Kotsiopoulos, and Kelly Osborn as well as the executive producer of the show, Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, shared their memories of Joan and of the show, with laughter and tears. There was a series of clips from over the years of Joan’s characteristically vulgar pussy jokes. Another humorous montage was of clips in which Joan struggles to get her jokes out, as she cracks herself up. She made herself and others laugh. She also laughed at herself, making unashamed jokes about the effects of aging and her many cosmetic surgery procedures.

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Throughout the footage about Joan’s death on TV, countless celebrities have said she not only made them smile, but that she was generous with her time, resources, and advice; many likened her to a mother, grandmother, or confidant. Fashion designers also called Joan a friend and an advocate. She coined the red carpet question “Who are you wearing?,” sharing the attention given to the dolled up celebrity with the designer of their garb.

I had seen the fascinating documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), a few years ago and was compelled to watch it again when I heard she had died.

The film underscores that Joan was a pioneer for female comics. In 1983, she became the first comedienne on The Tonight Show. She left in 1986 because she was offered the chance to host her own show, The Late Show with Joan Rivers. The show only lasted for 1 season, due to poor ratings and lack of sponsorship. Her husband, Edgar Rosenburg, served as a producer, and according to the documentary, other executives working on the show blamed him for the problems and told her to get rid of him. She refused, the show was cancelled, and the couple eventually separated. A few months later, Rosenburg committed suicide. The film doesn’t suggest that Joan or her failed show was the direct cause of this, and his Wikipedia page states that he suffered from clinical depression.

Following the end of her show and the loss of her estranged husband, Joan’s career tanked. She continued to do any stand up she could and eventually made a huge television comeback by winning on the show Celebrity Apprentice. She proved herself a shrewd business woman, who took charge of her career and later created a line of fashion, jewelry, and beauty items for QVC.

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At the time of her death at 81, she lived with her daughter and grandson in New York City, where she filmed a reality show and made appearances on QVC to market her line, traveled all over the country for stand up performances and appearances, and flew to Los Angles each week to film Fashion Police. Giuliana Rancic said Joan got to the set at 3 AM (they filmed at 8 AM) and would routinely have her special beverage during filming – a paper coffee cup with a straw, filled with white wine.

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In September of 2014, Joan had had a routine, outpatient procedure, an endoscopy, which involved the insertion of a tiny camera to look down her throat into her digestive system. During the procedure, she went into cardiac arrest, was taken to the hospital, and was put into a medically-induced coma to allow her brain to repair itself. She never came out of the coma. Considering the high level of activity in her life, it seemed like a tragedy, similar to the recent and untimely deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. She hadn’t been slowing down, and her death was sudden. It made me sad. Then I realized that maybe this was the best way for her to go. She was at the top of her game, and her death was painless, without suffering or the knowledge of her impending demise.

I will miss seeing Joan on Fashion Police and red carpets. In her honor, I just purchased a Fashion Police t-shirt with the name for her team of fans, “Joan Rangers,” on the back. I will wear it proudly.

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The Madness of the Middle Class

by Matt McKinnon

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Politicians love to talk about the Middle Class. It’s easy to see why: Depending on how one defines it, the “middle class” makes up somewhere around 55% of the electorate. A clear majority that acts as a barometer in national elections: When a majority of the middle class votes one way or another, that side wins.

Politicians also love to talk about how bad the middle class has it, or how bad the other side’s policies have been for the middle class. Few actually stop to define what they mean by the “middle class” or to question what others mean. And even fewer ever discuss the reasonableness of the definition itself.

After all, most everybody wants to be middle class, it seems. And most people consider themselves middle class, regardless of the criteria used or the evidence to support it. So it makes sense for politicians and the media to fawn all over this group, since even those who might not be middle class still consider themselves as such.

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A cursory glance at the term’s usage these days tends to settle on a definition of earning anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. Setting aside the huge differences in this range (do folks who make $100,000 have much in common with those who make $30,000?), the definition itself denotes a shift in meaning when compared to more historical uses of the term.

After all, the term’s origins in the 18th century attempted to describe the class of people somewhere between the nobility and peasantry of Europe: a collection of professionals like doctors and lawyers, business owners, bankers, etc… Folks, in essence, who lived in the city (the bourgeoisie) and had as much (if not more) money than the aristocracy, but with none of the family history, class rank, or titles to go along with it.

By the 20th century, after the Industrial Revolution had shaken up the demographics considerably, the “middle class” came to mean that group of folks between the upper class and the working class. The bourgeoisie gets further split with the rise of small family businesses—the petite bourgeoisie and the term “middle class” grew to include the growing number of “white collar” workers brought about by the modernization of the economy. We see this in the distinction today between the “upper” middle class and the “lower” or “working” middle class, though even here, there is no clear differentiation.

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The post-World-War-II boom of the American economy completed the shift of the average worker from agriculture to industry that had begun earlier in the century, and precipitated the growth of the American Middle Class, that bastion of political intrigue and, so it seems, economic doom.

Two controversial points strike me: That the growth of the American Middle Class is basically the result of government programs in the wake of World War II and the economic boom that accompanied them, and that, in the long run, many of our problems are not the result of the decline of the Middle Class, but because of its rise—and the sort of people we have become as a result.

As to the first, it is no doubt that the economic growth of the private sector following World War II drove the material success of the burgeoning middle class, but it cannot be ignored that this included on the one hand the growth of “big government” in building highways and other infrastructure as well as the rebuilding of war-torn Europe and the rise of the military-industrial complex. Thus, economically speaking, government spending had a considerable influence in the growing economy. Couple that with the specific government programs in the GI Bill that included college loans, mortgages, and low-interest business loans, and you have the makings of the American Middle Class.

The point is simple: The government, and specifically government spending, had much to do with the creation of the middle class. Far from being its enemy, historically at least, it has been its greatest patron.

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Now to the second and more controversial point: That perhaps it is the rise of the middle class—and not its decline—that has precipitated many of our nation’s current social woes. Granted, the decline of the middle class is directly related to the growth of income disparity in this country and is itself the result of our economy’s shift from being production oriented to a service-driven one. The American Middle Class, I submit, is not responsible for this decline; nor is it directly responsible for the shipping of production jobs overseas.

And yet, it is not entirely free of blame either.

The growth of the middle class has meant, among other things, certain material benefits and opportunities. With the rise of technology, it has offered us essential benefits—like modern health care, housing, and transportation—as well as some not as essential, like Xboxes, iPhones, and flat-screen televisions.

In short, it has provided us with a lifestyle of reasonable comfort and incredible ease at the expense of outrageous consumption. We eat more (way more than we need) but we also eat worse. We buy things we cannot afford because we think we deserve them (and because credit is ridiculously accessible, albeit with usury-like interest). We demand services for things that our parents and grandparents (who, for the vast majority of us, did not grow up middle class) did for themselves—or did without. We don’t grow our own food, or make our own clothing, or even change the oil in our own cars.

No, instead of making us better, the rise of the Middle Class has made us, for the most part, a bunch of privileged, over-fed, under-exercised, spoiled whiners who blame government and business for shipping our jobs overseas, and yet flock to Wal-Mart and Target to buy cheap goods that are the result of those jobs going overseas.

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Now this is not to excuse government and business for their considerable part in all of this, but, for better or worse, we in the middle class are the ones whose lifestyles can only seem to be sustained with cheap goods from even cheaper labor. It’s not that we won’t work (though I do contend most of us won’t do certain jobs anymore); it’s that it costs so much to employ us. Things like job safety, employment benefits, minimum wages, and health care are all important ideas that we take for granted, but they are also costly. It is simply cheaper to employ someone in China or Taiwan, where these safeguards are not as strongly regulated. And in fact, as many Chinese become more middle class and demand the same sorts of benefits and safeguards that we do, it has become cheaper to employ folks in a country like Vietnam or Honduras.

It seems everybody loves capitalism until it does what it always does—finds the cheapest way to manufacture a good (like it did this when the textile mills moved from New England to the South, and again when they moved from the South to Asia and Central America).

This is not to attack the Middle Class, but rather to remind us that the middle class did not build this country. The working class did. The middle class did not survive the Depression. The working class did. The middle class did not fight and win World War II and subsequently build this nation into a military and economic superpower. That was the working class as well. But, in doing so, the working class also built itself into the middle class, and now finds itself unable or unwilling for the most part to do those things that were built into working class values but that seem to be lacking in middle class ones.

vacant-lowes

And this includes the present company as well.

My children are growing up middle class, as did I. The difference is that I was raised by folks who grew up working class while they are being raised by two people who grew up middle class and with all the entitlement that comes with that. Sure, I had my needs met and enjoyed many technological benefits that my parents did not. But not to the extent that I and my wife provide to our sons.

My father grew up in High Point, NC (a city) in the 30’s, yet had an outhouse and lived in a two bedroom house with four other siblings and his mother. He swept mill floors. He helped in the garden. He went to war when he was seventeen. My seventeen-year old has yet to hold a paying job (his grades are already a struggle). My mother visited her grandparents for summer vacations and stayed in a house that had no electricity. Her father had to bank the coal stove at night so they would stay warm (in Pennsylvania) but not die from carbon monoxide. My six-year old is more proficient on the iPad than I am and my eight-year old can work my smart phone better than me.

The point is that it is precisely when the politicians start their pandering that we should question, not just with the conservatives that maybe the underclass was better off before all of the government entitlements, but maybe we in the middle class were better off in the working class.

And more to the point: maybe the entire nation was as well.

foreclosures