Tag Archives: Matt McKinnon

You Can’t Want What You Want

by Matt McKinnon

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I am somewhat taken aback by the national and international attention to the Rachel Dolezal story. When I first read of it (on the BBC website of all places) I was confused: why is this news, much less international news?

It has only gotten worse.

I shudder at what amounts to a feeding frenzy from both conservatives and progressives alike, with each new detail from her past trumped only by each successive interview she gives.

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But what I find fascinating is how we think of and treat the question of “race” itself. We know it’s not biologically “real,” that it is a social construct, that it is actually a relatively recent convention born out of a Modern misapplication of biology to earlier attempts at classification based first on language and later physical appearance.

Contemporary science no longer thinks in terms of “race” as a biologically-based set of qualities that separates groups of people used for taxonomic purposes. For science, “race” has been rendered antiquated at best and completely useless at worse.

We know all this.

Yet in most any given discussion of the Dolezal case, little of this subtlety ever seems to be displayed. Or when it is displayed, it carries relatively little weight, especially when, in the light of the very public transgendering of Caitlyn Jenner, the possibility of being “transracial” comes up and is summarily dismissed.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, a specialist in the psychology of race at the University of Illinois, explains the history of the idea of “transracial” in describing adoptions where children of one “racial category” are adopted by parents of another. These children are understood “to be spanning their own and their adoptive parents’ racial categories.” Thus these folks, he contends, are really “transracial.”

But the attempt to call Dolezal’s identity “transracial” and compare it to Bruce Jenner’s transgendering into Caitlyn Jenner is met with disapproval. Lyubansky continues:

This description…makes sense when describing both trans men and trans women, meaning that it fits equally well regardless of direction. Applying this concept to race makes little sense to me. ‘Trans’ refers to a lack of fit between biology and identity, but there is no biology involved in race.

Exactly. There is no biology involved in race the way there is biology involved in one’s sex: biology determines one’s sex while society and culture determine gender, and one’s gender identity is determined by him or herself. Gender identity is more like “race” in that it is a social (and psychological) construct: the issue for transgender people being that their biological sex does not match their gender identity.

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But then, why can’t “trans” here refer to a lack of fit between a social construct (race) and one’s racial identity? We are left wondering: maybe perhaps, because a social construct is harder to overcome?

If race is not based in biology and is completely and wholly a construct of society and culture, then why is it impossible to move within this social construct (from “black” to “white” or vice versa) and yet it is possible to move when the biological fact of one’s sex does not fit one’s identification of their gender?

As Lyubansky suggests: a transgendered person is “trans” in that her sex (male) does not correspond to her gender identity (female). She is really a woman, despite what her biology is. But, it seems, a transracial person cannot be “trans” in that her race (white) is not decided by biology but by social convention. And while this is not biology, is it something more?

Jay Smooth

After all, no one with any sensitivity towards the trans community would ever suggest that a transgendered person is “pretending” to be someone she is not (charges many have levied against Dolezal) but rather is changing the appearance of her body to match her sexual identity—being who she really is despite her physiology—since who someone “really is” ultimately comes down to how they identify themselves, right? Like changing the physical appearance of one’s body to match one’s racial identity?

Not so fast.

Lyubansky argues that the application of “transracial” in the case of someone like Dolezal is “logically flawed and socially problematic in that it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgender and those who have had to live with real racial discrimination.”

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So the problem is not the biology of race, since there is no biological basis there. Nor is it the social construct of race itself (since gender is also a social construct), but rather the fact that this social construct has been used to oppress other groups by the dominant group.

But can’t this also be said of gender?

And moving from the dominant group to an oppressed group is “logically flawed and socially problematic” because it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgendered and those who have lived with racial discrimination. But a person who is biologically a man can become a woman because that is how she identifies herself even though some of the same dominance-oppression issues undoubtedly apply between male and female.

Something does not quite add up.

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I want to be clear here: I agree that a transracial move is socially problematic and that there may be more than a little “white privilege” at work in the concept of an avatar-like existence manifesting in any old racial group it likes, but I fail to see how it is illogical. Historically insensitive? Perhaps. Outside the norm? That too. But illogical? No, not if race really is just a social construct. After all, social constructs get deconstructed and reconstructed over time. And the growing acceptance of the transgendered community is a prime example. Race, in fact, is another.

It’s true that the specifics of this case are troubling, and I suspect there are some psychological issues that need to be addressed. I also don’t think Dolezal went about any of this in the right way (though I’m not sure what the right way would look like) and her past actions while at Howard (like suing the school for racial discrimination because she is white) leave her credibility more than a little questionable.

But this doesn’t get to the underlying idea: why switching sexual identification is possible, logical, and even socially acceptable but switching racial identification is not.

Unless we simply don’t want it to be.

Unless, regardless of the science involved, we really do think that race is more than biological, deeper than mere appearance or culture: based in our bodies and social histories and constitutive of who we are in a way that is even more basic than chromosomal. We seem to have an essentialist mentality when it comes to race, despite having dispensed long ago with “essences” in the way we think about things. Perhaps this “social construct” of race is so real (more real than biology in fact) that a person really is African American—or they are not, based not on identification, but rather on something more, something essential, something ontological that transcends an individual’s assent, choice, or identity.

This would explain the criticism directed towards folks our society identifies as African-American but who either don’t display the characteristics expected of them (Bryant Gumbel) or have the audacity to think of their identity in more complex terms (Tiger Woods). From this perspective, you cannot choose to be African-American any more than you can choose not-to-be—if indeed you really are African-American (a judgment left to society and not the individual).

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Lawrence of Arabia told us as much in the 1962 film of the same name while taking part (as a white Englishman) in the Arabian Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. While recovering after being flogged by Turkish soldiers who discovered he was white, T.E. Lawrence announces that he is leaving the revolt:

Lawrence: “I’m not the Arab revolt, Ali. I’m not even Arab.”
Ali: “A man can be whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “I’m sorry. I thought it was true.”
Ali: “You proved it.”
Lawrence: “Look, Ali. Look.” (Shows him his white skin.) “That’s me. What color is it? That’s me. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Ali: “A man can do whatever he wants. You said.”
Lawrence: “He can…but he can’t want what he wants.” (Still displaying his skin.) “This is the stuff that decides what he wants.”

This seems to be the way most of us tend to think about race, at least when we don’t really think too much about it: that there really is something physical if not biological about what it means to be African-American, or Arab, or white. Or rather that there is something more than physical that includes but goes deeper than appearance and determines one’s “race” and “racial identity,” something that, unlike sex and gender identity, we cannot escape or change.

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Ponder on that for a moment: Caitlyn Jenner can escape the misalignment of her sex and gender identity but Lawrence and Dolezal cannot escape the misalignment of their “race” and “racial identity.” That seems strange to me.

The fact of the matter is that most of our classification systems when it comes to humans are hopelessly flawed and messy, based in linguistics (Celtic, Germanic, Hispanic/Latino, Sino-Tibetan, Niger-Congo, etc…) but having outgrown their parochial origins to become descriptions of ethnic groups and the individuals who comprise them.

The uncomfortable truth seems to be that our society is wedded to race: that we are wedded to race. Oh sure, we may speak ill of it, admit that it is a social construct, deny that it is actually rooted in biology or science, pretend that we don’t see it, opine for a society that transcends it, and so on. But the fact is, we cling to it in an essentialist and ontological manner that says more about our own history, hang-ups, and issues than it does about any “real” identifiers.

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And the even more uncomfortable truth is that the idea of changing one’s racial identification seems absurd and illogical—more absurd and illogical than changing one’s sexual identification.

I cannot help but wonder if underlying this is the assumption that the real absurdity, the real illogicality is the suggestion that non-whites would ever be able to do this, or that most whites would want to.

I’ve noted in this forum before that Benjamin Franklin was opposed to the influx of Germans into “English” Pennsylvania, arguing that they could no more become “Anglified” than they could become “our Complexion” (southern Germans were regarded as “swarthy” and not “white”). But guess what? They did become Anglified as well as “white.” As did many other “ethnic” populations who were historically regarded as “not white”—Italians, Jews, Irish, Eastern Europeans. After all, social constructs change over time.

But I suspect that underneath the way most of us so easily cast off this idea of transracial identity lurks the notion that “white” is a pure category and that “real” non-whites (those of recent African descent and not Germans, or Jews, or Irish, or Italians) could never make the switch. It is not, as Lyubansky argues, applicable “regardless of direction.”

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Only certain light-skinned folks, this line of thinking goes, would be able to do it. Historically called “passing,” this in itself raises all sorts of issues about white hegemony and the effects it has on the psychology of being “non-white” in America. Furthermore, many would suggest that no sane white person would choose to identify as black for any other than sociological study (John Howard Griffin) or personal gain (the movie Soul Man unfortunately comes to mind). But then again, I wonder if not so long ago folks thought the same way about the idea of men identifying as women and women identifying as men. And yet, we are working to change those social constructs as well.

For now, however, it seems pretty clear: Rachel Dolezal, like Lawrence of Arabia, can do whatever she wants…

…but she cannot want what she wants.

We have bound ourselves to a social construct that is skin deep.

But made it so much more.

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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.

BPD-van

Science in a Postmodern Age

by Matt McKinnon

scientist

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.

The Madness of the Middle Class

by Matt McKinnon

middle-class-monopoly

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.

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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.

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Season’s Greetings, Bah Humbug, and All That

by Matt McKinnon

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So, they’re at it again. Bill O’Reilly, Fox n’ Friends, even Mike Seaver from the 80’s sitcom Growing Pains. It’s that time of the year to gird your loins, strap on some armor, grab a sharp object or two, and get ready for the annual War on Christmas. It’s going to be brutal this year.

Or so it would seem. Heck, Kirk Cameron even has a full-length film out on how to save Christmas—titled, appropriately enough, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Spoiler Alert: It’s not a remake of that yuletide classic from 1996 Elmo Saves Christmas, so don’t buy a copy thinking it will make a great baby-sitter for the little tikes while mummy and daddy sample the ole egg nog until they’re both Blitzen.

No, this is serious. The fate of the Holiday—er—Christmas season is at stake.

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Now there’s plenty of material to make fun of in this latest holiday counteroffensive, not the least of which is Cameron’s suggestion to mothers and wives: “(D)on’t let anything steal your joy…. Let your children, your family, see your joy in the way that you decorate your home this Christmas, in the food you cook, the songs you sing, the stories you tell, and the traditions that you keep.”

Yeah, that’s just my wife’s problem this time of year, what with her sixty-hour work weeks and dissertation writing—letting something steal her joy. “Come on baby, put those papers away and decorate! Cook! Sing! Tell Stories!”

And there’s even more fun to be made of the historically and theologically unsustainable claim by Cameron that it was Pagans who actually stole Christmas, making everybody believe that Christmas is really just some Pagan holiday that Christians co-opted. Christians didn’t steal Christmas from the Pagan Saturnalia and Yule: Pagans stole it from them. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the ticket. And, and, Santa Claus is really just one of the wise men from the East who lost his way and wandered into the Germanic celebrations of Yuletide (with a soot-black horned sidekick named “Black Peter” if you happen to live in the Netherlands. I forget what part of the Bible that’s in, but it’s got to be somewhere).

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But instead of making fun of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, I would like to agree with—and champion—its premise that Christmas has become way too commercialized and has lost sight of anything resembling a religious and holy observance.

Except…that isn’t the film’s premise.

No, instead of arguing along with some Christian groups, that the real war on Christmas is the fact that it has been almost completely co-opted by our neoliberal corporatized economy, Saving Christmas seems to embrace the very materialistic overconsumption that eats at the soul on that sacred day.

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The message is targeted to other Evangelicals and conservative Christians (who would pay to see the movie) and not to those dead-souled secularists whom Bill O’Reilly charges with making war on Christmas. And the point seems to be that Christmas really is Christian (did any of us doubt this?) and that everybody should be making as big a deal about it as they possibly can—there’s where decorating, cooking, singing, and telling stories comes in.

But also, presumably, throwing oneself full throttle into this Christmas marketing blitz that begins earlier and earlier every year, and which now includes shelling out some dough to watch Kirk Cameron save Christmas.

And then there’s Federalist blogger Mollie Hemingway who points out that Saving Christmas ultimately means Defeating Advent.

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What gets lots in all of this is that, once upon a time, Advent was the rather solemn and eminently respectful lead up to Christmas (at least it was when I was a kid way back in the ’70s). Or that it was the 17th century’s version of the Evangelicals—the Puritans in New England and regular-old England—who led the first war on Christmas when they attacked it as unhistorical and unbiblical, banning it and making it illegal in Massachusetts for much of the 1600’s. Or that, despite Cameron’s (and others’) love for their holiday, or their version of the holiday, there are in fact many other holidays celebrated around the same time. Some religious, some not so much.

And there are worse things in the world today than wishing someone “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or pointing out the syncretism between Medieval Christianity and the religions it replaced. Or opting out of all the commercialized craziness to concentrate on what’s really important—what folks think is really important in their lives (which we don’t have to agree on).

But making a holiday movie that embraces all of the commercialization and materialization of our culture is not a solution to the problem of the loss of meaning in Christmas and religion in general—it’s part of the problem.

bah-humbug

So with that in mind, I offer my own corporate-free observance, culled from various places on the internet and elsewhere, edited, redacted, plagiarized, but always heartfelt:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally friendly, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, ethnically diverse, class-inclusive celebration of the wintertime holiday of your choosing, including but not limited to (in an order not meant to suggest priority or preference):

Winter Solstice, Dongzhi, Signature of the Constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hogmany, Advent, Thiruvathira, Saint Nicholas’s Day (Western Calendar), Christmas Eve, Christmas, 12 Days of Christmas, Night of the Radishes, Saint Lucia’s Day, Saint Stephen’s Day, Saint John the Evangelist’s Day, Holy Innocents’ Day, Saint Sylvester’s Day, Watch Night, Feast of the Circumcision, Feast of Fools, Festivus, Dhanu, Twelfth Night, Epiphany, Eastern Orthodox Christmas, Monkey Day, Eastern Orthodox Epiphany (Theophany), Three Kings’ Day, Larentalia, Modranect, Yule, Hanukkah/Chanukah, Yuletide, Yalda, Sadeh, Brumalia, Saturnalia, Festival of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, Boxing Day, Winterval, Bodhi Day, Agnostica, Zamenhof Day, Day of Neutrality, HumanLight, Chrismukkah, Mummer’s Day, Kwanzaa, Agonalia, New Years Eve, New Year’s Day, Omisoka, Karachun, and/or Rohatsu,

…practiced within the traditional, religious, and/or secular perspective of your choice, with respect for the traditional, religious, and/or secular perspective of others (and mindful of your option to not practice religious and/or secular traditions at all),

…as well as a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the commonly accepted calendar year 2015, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures, traditions, and/or religious persuasions whose contributions to society have helped make America a great country (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country nor is the only “America” in the Western hemisphere) and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, and/or sexual orientation of the wishee.*

xmashup

*By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms: This greeting is subject to clarification and/or withdrawal. It is transferable without the explicit consent in writing of the wisher and may be altered, edited, redacted, expounded upon, or discarded at will. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement or guarantee any of these wishes and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

Employees of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and their families may be subject to disqualification from proposed wishes if these wishes constitute an infringement on proprietary wishing rights held and enjoyed by the UNCG institution itself, its Board of Trustees, Chancellor, Provost, Deans and Associate Deans of various colleges, and/or Department Heads, as well as the Board of Governors and President of the University of North Carolina, whose own well wishes may take precedence if limited and/or counteracted by these heartfelt greetings of yours truly.

Void where prohibited by law.

In the Market (For an Education)

by Matt McKinnon

college-student

There is a thick stack of beautifully-produced glossy pamphlets depicting fall leaves and smiling good-looking young people and gothic architecture on my kitchen counter. So many that they continuously slide around and fall off onto the floor to be chewed on by Max the family dog and stepped on by most everybody else. And more arrive everyday: a continuous stream of personalized correspondences proclaiming “Hey Nick” and “Fit is Everything” and “Rocky Says Yes” and “Your Future is Now.”

It can only mean one thing. And anybody who has a kid who’s a junior or senior in high schools knows just what it is:

It’s time to apply to college.

college brochures

I must admit, it’s been a while since I did any applying to schools—the last time being over fifteen years ago when I applied to doctoral programs. It’s been almost thirty years since I applied to undergrad, and even then I only applied to one school.

There may have been a few brochures here and there, but certainly nothing to compare with the mass of publications that seem to be single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business.

Ah, there’s the applicable term in all of this: business.

money-diploma

College, for better or worse, has become a business, and like all businesses, it relies on advertisement.

Ergo the huge stack of pamphlets overtaking the counter.

For even in this age of digital technology and social media, not to mention limited resources of both the natural and economic kind, colleges are still heavily invested in print. And nice print at that: thick glossy paper with lots of color and professional graphic design. Some even send short books, paperbacks that are designed more like travel guides than college brochures.

But don’t get me wrong, there’s heavy investment in digital media as well, from emails and Facebook messages to Tweets and IM and who knows what else. And even phone messages from personal Admissions advisors and perky college students extolling the joys of going to Whatever U or This-and-That State.

soccer

Throw in the fact that my son wants to play Soccer, most probably in Division II or III or perhaps even NAIA, and you have another aspect to deal with. College coaches (though limited in how much contact they can have) sending texts or leaving phone messages. Recruiting companies selling their services. College Showcases here; ID Camps there. Recruiting forms to fill out and highlight videos to make.

And if you add something else like band or the International Baccalaureate program, then it all gets multiplied exponentially.

Schools we’ve never heard of contacting us and sending materials. Like Finlandia, which is not quite all the way in Finland, but it’s close (Upper Peninsula Michigan on Lake Superior). Or Lutheran Schools of every Synod imaginableevidently, when you apply to one Lutheran School, they tell two friends, who tell two friends, and so on and so on, until the thought occurs that maybe we’ll convert to Islam just to stop the obscene amount of materials coming from Lutheran schools alone.

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And God forbid your student played a highly coveted instrument in the band. Like the Euphonium (the what? I know; it’s a fancy baritone). On a recent college visit to the corn fields of Nebraska my son met with the band director, even though he has little to no inclination to continue playing in college. When asked by a few band students in the music building what instrument he played, the opening of their eyes was only exceeded by the gaping of their mouths as they sat there drooling, barely able to contain their joy: “Euphonium? You play the Euphonium?” Even the band director could not completely hide his emotion (I still swear I saw a little tear in his eye as he spoke), promising the chance at several thousand dollars in scholarship without even the requirement of a music major or minor. “Just a couple of practices a week and concerts a few times a year.”

In real estate, they call this a “buyers market.”

The fact of the matter is that colleges and universities need students way more than students need colleges and universities.

college-photo

By that I don’t mean to denigrate a college education, only that the supply seems to be outpacing the demand. And the skyrocketing cost of a higher education isn’t helping, as schools vie for the attention and tuition of students who have many choices, from traditional to online.

College is expensive, the College Board recently reporting that the average total cost (including room and board) for a four-year in-state public school is $18,493.00 per year, and $32,762.00 for out-of-state. Cost for the average private school is $42,419.00.

And with such high dollar amounts and a plethora of choices comes the need to stand out. To show how these amenities or those services provide the best fit or opportunity or quality of life or whatever. Hence the need to sell; the need to advertise. The need for all those %@#& pamphlets and brochures.

in-class

Gone are the days when colleges and universities just offered an education to students. Now, like everything else, we offer services to a clientele: a product, a lifestyle, a brand.

I don’t know if, in the long run, this is a good or a bad thing. After all, one benefit is the opportunity of higher education to a broader range of students. Of course, one of the drawbacks is the oppressive student debt that a generation of students has racked up since we shifted paradigms from mostly grants to mostly loans several decades ago.

College is big business now, and not just the athletic programs with sponsorship and television deals. It’s big business for academics too. And let’s not kid ourselves: given the amount of money that the government receives from interest rates, it’s big business for the federal government as well.

And big business means big advertising. And creating demand. And promoting a brand. And selling series.

Which in term means lots and lots of slick pamphlets and shiny brochures collecting on the counter.

votc

Chew on This: The Ethics of Carnivory

by Matt McKinnon

bbq-porkchops

Let me start by being perfectly clear: I like meat. No, I love meat. And I eat my fair share of it. As the one who does most of the cooking for my wife and three sons, I cook a lot of it. Almost every night in fact.

Meat. Starch. Vegetable.

Just like most every meal my mother cooked us when I was growing up.

And aside from a brief foray into vegetarianism when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk, or the year I tried to abstain from meat during Ramadan when I was attempting to be a Muslim, or the meatless and fast days I put my wife through whilst contemplating becoming a Russian Orthodox priest, I have always been a meat-eater.

Tyrannosaurus Rex ain’t got nothin’ on me to be sure.

Oh, I have often wished I was a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits — cooking and then consuming a rather large meal of fried animal muscles and skin and fat, only to push myself away from the table at the end of the engorging, and bemoaning out loud (much to the annoyance of my wife), “Sickness and death. Nothing but sickness and death.”

But also in view of the way we treat the animals we eventually consume. Especially after watching a documentary or news report on the latest scandal within our industrialized food industry.

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I just have never been able to commit to it, and I don’t intend to do so now.

To be honest, I have never been all that convinced by the moral argument against killing and eating other animals, finding it the height, in fact, of anthropocentric thought. After all, nature, as Tennyson reminds us, is “red in tooth and claw,” and no other species of animal that I am aware of refrains from killing and consuming other animals based on moral principles.

There is thus a disconnect from nature in the moral argument against eating animals. A version, I think, of Hume’s Guillotine whereby normative claims (what ought to be the case) are made based on positive premises (what is the case). The idea that we ought not to eat animals has absolutely no basis in observable nature. And in fact, the opposite may be true: We evolved to the point of having such large brains able to come up with ideas like vegetarianism and the is/ought problem as a direct result of the large amounts of protein our pre-homo sapiens ancestors got by virtue of eating meat—from eating other animals.

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But arguments for or against vegetarianism aside, the manner in which we treat the animals that we eat is beyond unsettling. It is downright inhumane and, I would argue, unnatural (thus steering clear of my own is/ought dilemma).

As a student of religion, I am aware of and even sympathetic to religious convictions about why humans are superior to other animals. Whether we humans have a “soul” and are made in the image of God, or whether we humans are in a better position to reach enlightenment, or whether we humans are just better adapted to do things other animals cannot, I can accept the idea that, for the most part, we are at the top of the food chain, and thus are in the same position to cows and chickens and pigs as grizzly bears are to salmon or chickens are to bugs and worms or pigs are to, well, absolutely anything that wanders into their pen.

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As humans, we define ourselves, for better or worse, in relation to the rest of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, and we define ourselves, for the most part, as superior to it.

Okay, that’s all well and good (though it is also the cause of the environmental destruction we have wrought over the past few hundred years).

So we are at the top of the food chain and are, using nature as our model, free to kill and cook and eat whatever we find tasty and/or nourishing.

I get that: For Christians, all other animals are not created in the image of God and, a few crazy cat people notwithstanding, are not endowed with the same inalienable rights that humans are. Or for Buddhists, who forbid the killing of animals by their adherents but nonetheless allow them to eat animals that someone else (presumably a non-Buddhist) has killed, and for whom those other (non-human) sentient beings are not in the same position as humans to work out their karma and achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Or even for scientific materialists, who merely see this behavior as that of a dominant species in a given food chain.

But what I don’t get, and what I don’t think I have ever come across, is a discussion of how it must feel to be one of those animals unfortunate enough to be trapped in the middle of our industrial food complex.

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For that, I would argue, is where the real issue lies.

Those who would argue for human superiority often go too far in distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, based upon our possession of souls, or higher-order reasoning, or what have you. But likewise those who would argue against the eating of other animals go too far in asserting an egalitarianism, an equality, that simply does not exist or is not respected anywhere else in nature.

But what rarely gets discussed in arguments about the superiority of humans is what we sentient beings all hold in common: Sentience itself. The ability to feel. And more to the point: The ability to feel pain.

After all, do we really think that animals, while not possessing the same quality or degree of reason and consciousness that we do, therefore do not feel pain? Or feel it any less or differently than we do? Indeed, science tells us that animals do feel stress—direct evidence I would argue that they do in fact feel, and process sensations, in a similar manner to humans.

But why then does it not matter that the vast majority of animals that we end up eating live lives where their pain and discomfort is not taken seriously? And if it does matter, why then do the vast majority of us continue to support such practices by turning a blind eye, effectively supporting the system and perpetuating the problem?

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Well, the biggest reason is probably the cost of buying organic meat in the form of grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens. Availability is also an issue. And yet, most of us are not up in arms about any of this, instead seeking out the weekly specials on flank steak or chicken wings or baby back ribs, oblivious at best and unsympathetic at worst to the plight of those animals’ lives before we eat them. Complicit just the same.

Indeed, why is it ever alright to participate in this brutality by excusing it, supporting it, or simply ignoring it?

Thus it seems to me that this is the important and defining issue: Not lauding ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as possessing an inherent right to treat our food source any old way we choose. But neither in simply equating the value of a human life to be the same as that of any and every other animal in nature. Most of us simply don’t equate the lives of other animals with that of humans.

But both positions seem wrongheaded to me.

The issue is not whether or by what right we eat animals but how we treat them before we eat them. The solution, I contend, is simply to treat animals in a way that is conducive to a natural life—to the manner in which they would live naturally if they were not part of an industrialized food factory (the way, arguably, humans have done since we domesticated these animals for our own consumption thousands of years ago). Whatever it costs in terms of higher prices or lower profits.

And then eat them. Presumably with a smile on their faces as well as on ours.

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