the past in pop culture

Envying Amish

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Minneapolis, a group of neighbors started what they dubbed the “Amish Envy Club” to help them tackle tiresome house projects. Inspired by the idea of a barn raising or a quilting party, they get together to rip out carpets or till a garden. A large group works, a smaller group takes care of the kids, and dinner is potluck. They have since inspired others to form A.E. clubs. And elsewhere in America, somebody somewhere is picking up a new Amish romance novel to read since in 2013, one is being released about every four days.

Everybody loves the Amish. They love them so much, in fact, that well-known Amish areas in Pennsylvania and Ohio receive millions of visitors a year and generate hundreds of millions in tourist revenues. Their Amish populations each number about 30,000. On a per-Amish person basis, that’s an amazingly high productivity rate.

Not many things say “pastpersistent” louder than does Amish envy. Scholars tell us that we’re casting a nostalgic gaze back to the past when we take a weekend trip to Amish country, read a “bonnet ripper” as Amish-themed chick-lit is known, or buy a handcrafted piece of furniture or shoe-fly pie. Why? Because the Amish are living in the past, right now. Yes, they are so much realer than those Civil War re-enactor guys who are always a little too old and a little too chubby to make the illusion convincing. And unlike living history interpreters (that is, those people who pretend to be Ben Franklin or some anonymous colonial-era milkmaid), the Amish don’t speechify about the Revolution or give you overly long explanations about how cheese is made. No, the Amish actually live like people used to do in the American past of covered wagons and homesteading. They churn butter by hand, go to one-room school houses, wear clothes without zippers, and—best of all—travel by horse and buggy not just from 9 to 5 or on odd weekends, but every single day, year after year.

We look beyond the fact that we’re just day trippers in Amish land and focus on all the uplifting reminders of the values of how things used to be. It’s the simple life versus the complicated life. No movie got it better than Peter Weir’s Witness in which Harrison Ford’s cynical cop has to flee the corrupt Philadelphia police force for Lancaster County Amish country. The beautifully lyrical barn raising scene is enough to give anyone Amish envy. The plot toys with the idea that he might stay or that his Amish love interest might leave, but go back he must. And she has to stay or the rural fantasy of a superior past would be tarnished. Since Hollywood loves a happy ending, that just wouldn’t do.

It’s easy to forget that envy was traditionally counted among the seven deadly sins (for which you would not burn, but rather freeze in hell). Perhaps this explains the rather darker undertone of Witness when the “present” intrudes on the “past” and Ford punches out a local thug who was getting his kicks taunting the Amish. Even more does it explain the current reality shows such as Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (reality television motto: leave no sub-culture unturned!). The relentless commodification of the Amish as a wholesome source of traditional values makes the thought of seeing an Amish kid walk through Times Square fiendishly attractive and visits to night clubs and strip joints aren’t far behind. That the moral superiority attributed to the Amish way of life (regardless of whether they claim it) can be turned on its head by a short trip to the temptations of the Big Apple surely has something to do with a kind of sour grapes. Envy isn’t admiration for the achievements of others, it’s resentment of them. It pays to remember that the line between them is thin.

The Patron Saint of MOOCs

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscoun...

Carnegie, right, with James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MOOCs are so of the moment, they barely seem to have a past. The coinage of the acronym dates to just 2008. (It stands for massive open online course, but the unfortunately bovine MOOC might also contain a subtle suggestion of a herd mentality and the ever-growing likelihood of a stampede.) Yet every movement needs a guiding light or heavenly advocate. Since MOOCs are a secular phenomenon, their acolytes have looked to historical figures to play the role of patron saint. To date, the front-runners include Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Abraham Lincoln, American auto-didacts all.

The MOOC is an international phenomenon but like Silicon Valley from which much of the enabling technology has sprung, it remains an emphatically American way of thinking about education. If Ben Franklin is sometimes known as “the First American,” it has a lot to do with his up-by-the-bootstraps boyhood. Pulled out of school at age 10 to be indentured to his older brother’s print shop, Franklin spent his limited free time holed up in his room studying books that he borrowed or bought with the money he saved by becoming a vegetarian. He mastered the art of English composition in prose and verse by inventing ingenious exercises for himself using nothing more than a few editions of a popular publication. When he later ran away to Philadelphia with just a few coins in his pocket, these skills served him well as he was able to get in on the ground floor of the newspaper business in colonial America. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Franklin’s poor boy made good story has inspired generations of Americans. It’s the reason that Jack Hitt was able to write a very entertaining chapter in Bunch of Amateurs contrasting Franklin’s innovative, ahead of his time genius with John Adams’s boring old traditionalism. Sure, whatever, Adams helped out a little here and there with independence, the Revolution, and all that. But Franklin was a dropout and Adams actually graduated from Harvard so his accomplishments are hardly impressive. We all know that that these days the cool kids make a point of dropping out—Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg—or not even starting college—David Karp, founder of Tumblr. (If you’re interested, there are lots of “famous dropout” lists; there aren’t any for dropouts who didn’t do so well.) So Franklin’s got a good claim as patron of the MOOC revolution. Sure he founded an Ivy League school (Penn) but he also got together America’s first lending library—for a fee.

Andrew Carnegie went Franklin (whose Autobiography Carnegie adored) one better when he gave a great deal of his fortune to fund free public libraries. Carnegie, the child of a poor immigrant family who left school to start working at age 13, educated himself in the private library of one of his employers and wanted to give others the same chance that he had. This backstory makes Carnegie a likely candidate: MOOC developers like to highlight stories such as that of the poor, bright striver in a country like Mongolia who suddenly vaults into the big leagues via the miracle of MOOCs and is applying to MIT and Berkeley. (Oddly, Thomas Friedman, who recounts this anecdote, seems to have missed the contradiction here in which MOOCs are supposed to be reasonable substitutes for a quality education.) And Carnegie knew a thing or two about economies of scale. His recipe for beating the competition in the steel industry remains a classic:

Two pounds of iron-stone purchased on the shores of Lake Superior and transported to Pittsburgh. Two pounds of coal mined in Connellsville and manufactured into coke and brought to Pittsburgh. One-half pound of limestone mined east of the Alleghenies and brought to Pittsburgh. A little manganese ore mined in Virginia and brought to Pittsburgh. And these four and one half pounds of material manufactured into one pound of solid steel and sold for one cent. That’s all that need be said about the steel business.

The MOOC business model, on the other hand, remains a bit uncertain. It involves economies of scale, and putting together lots of the component parts of different industries, but it’s not quite clear to everyone just yet where the money-making part is going to come in. So far, the best indication of the future of profit making in MOOCs is the recent announcement that a series of public universities have partnered up with Coursera to introduce a MOOC model for scaling up large enrollment courses. On a per-student basis, the costs, compared to a traditional teacher-taught course, are very competitive:

In a typical case, the company would charge the university a flat fee of $3,000 for “course development.” After that, Coursera would charge a per-student fee that would decrease as more students registered for the course. The first 500 students would cost the university $25 per student; the next 500 would cost $15 per student; the university would pay the company $8 for each student beyond that.

Carnegie may have the jump on Franklin after all. Abe Lincoln who, according to legend, studied by firelight and scratched out his lessons on the back of a dirty shovel, is probably running a distant third. Still, Lincoln started out with even less schooling than either Franklin or Carnegie. And if Lincoln didn’t quite teach himself to read, as some versions of the myth have it, he made up for his lack of opportunities by sheer tenaciousness. This is a pretty good qualification for patron saint of MOOCs: it looks like 90 percent of those who start them fail to finish.

Such statistics have made some a little cynical about whether the much-ballyhooed “disruption” that the MOOC-ification of higher ed promises to deliver is really the promised land after all. Because when the odds are stacked against you, it takes more than the average amount of drive to succeed. It’s funny that Frederick Douglass isn’t in the running for patron saint of MOOCs, but maybe it has something to do with the uncomfortable reminder of how unreasonably high the bar is for some people. The heart of Douglass’s Narrative recounts his struggle to learn to read and write while an enslaved boy in Baltimore. Since it was illegal to teach slaves, Douglass bartered bread for letters with white street urchins who knew how to make out a word or two. He copied the letters he saw ship’s carpenters use to mark boards. He fed his masters’ paranoia about slave rebellion by sneaking off with newspapers left lying around the house. And he became ferociously literate. So much so that the best tack pro-slavery critics had of his Narrative was to claim that he could not possibly have written it. This is precisely the kind of thing that MOOC defenders claim that the new technology would eliminate. MOOCs are a perfect meritocracy since they promise to extend educational access to all the world. The meritocratic claim that a level playing field justifies the outcome of ultimate inequality means that original inequality is not a problem. As long as opportunities are available, then effort is all that is required to succeed.

This is an old argument in American society and it explains our deep love for the stories of self-made men. If the poor boy can become a robber baron, then robber barons must not be so bad. After all, they have made a habit of endowing educational endeavors with their wealth. This was true of Carnegie and is now true of the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, among others. Speaking of which: maybe Sam Walton is the real patron saint of MOOCs. True, he pursued a traditional education but his rise to become the worldwide king of big box retail from a single storefront in Bentonville, Arkansas is surely an American Dream. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State University (an early adopter of MOOCs as replacements for courses taught in-house), thinks that higher ed can learn a lot from Walmart. The retail chain employs massive economies of scale to be able to cut costs to the bone and offer shoppers truly remarkable savings. Walmart, at least back in the day, was pretty much the poster child for disruptive innovation, much like MOOC providers seek to become. The Walmart-ization of higher ed. What could possibly be bad about that?

Time of the Roma

Group photograph captioned 'Hungarian Gypsies ...

Group photograph captioned ‘Hungarian Gypsies all of whom were deported’ in The New York Times, Sunday Feb. 12, 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twenty-five years ago this month, the judges at the Cannes Film Festival named Emir Kusturica as Best Director for his Time of the Gypsies (1988). The audience at Cannes gave the film a five-minute standing ovation. It starred Romani people speaking the Romani language and incorporated symbolism based on their cultural beliefs into its plot. A beautifully constructed and moving film, it also played to nearly every cultural stereotype of “Gypsies” imaginable: psychics, thieves, and beggars abound. Inspired by a real (and sadly common) case of Romani children kidnapped for illegal adoptions, the movie emphasized not victimization but Romani criminality. The term “poverty porn” hadn’t been coined yet (a London critic first used it to describe the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire), but it trafficked in a similar kind of appeal. Ever wonder about the backstory behind the gangs of pickpockets or crews of beggars found in any tourist center in Europe? Well, this film has something for you.

In 1988, Yugoslavia, Kusturica’s country, still existed. Much has changed in the world since the fall of the wall and the end of the Iron Curtain. Not much has improved for the European Roma, and in many ways their situation has worsened. Widespread discrimination and harassment (both official—see France—and unofficial—see skinheads) continue to keep them often impoverished, poorly educated and socially marginalized. Recently, the New York Times reported that a school principal in Slovakia was looking to the American experience for models of how to desegregate schools (FYI: still a work in progress around here). In this principal’s school, Romani children study in separate classrooms for slow learners, play on a separate playground, are not served in the cafeteria, and their parents are forbidden to enter the building. These are just some features of the grave and systematic violations of human rights faced by Roma peoples in Europe.

And then we have My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. The tremendously successful show on TLC is in its second season and about to spawn a spinoff: Gypsy Sisters. Based on a similarly titled British series, the Big Fat franchise gets its kicks by letting viewers into the “secretive, extravagant and surprising world of the gypsies.” The voiceover narration used by the show is a mash-up of old school voice of God omniscience (“explaining” customs such as child marriage) and TMZ style snark. An earlier attempt by an American network to cash in on the newfound popularity of this subgroup titled American Gypsies featured a New York clan that runs psychic shops didn’t manage to get the mix quite right. National Geographic canned it after one season not, apparently, because it was threatened by a potential class action law suit on the grounds of racist discrimination, but rather because viewers found the characters “obnoxious” and the situations “contrived.” Big Fat has avoided an emphasis on criminality by instead taking viewers inside the blinged out wedding rituals and family dramas that accompany them and that the show relentlessly insists are typical in this community. Slate’s reviewer found the show “compulsively watchable,” and had no problem blaming the Roma for being backwards.

The Romanichal (the largest subgroup of Roma people in the United States, Britain, and Ireland) don’t, of course, face the kind of persecution in the U.S. that is more common in Europe. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, some Romanichal fled Europe for just this reason. Generally speaking, they are often lighter skinned than Romani groups in southern and eastern Europe. This fact places the recent reality shows about “gypsies” squarely in the category of a slew of shows that pander to stereotypes about the white working class. From the “hixploitation” of Buckwild to Honey Boo Boo and Breaking Amish to the many iterations of Italian bashing in Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, and Mama’s Boys, white is the new black for entertainment networks skittish about engaging in actual race baiting. As Eric Daggans of the Tampa Bay Times points out about this trend, the African American and Latino communities are far better prepared to bring pressure on producers to avoid creating shows around the most blatant stereotypes of these groups. It’s a good reminder though that it hasn’t been that long in the United States since the boundaries of the word “white” didn’t always include groups such as Italian or Irish Americans.

But as the principal of that Slovak elementary school realized, the African American experience remains relevant for understanding the dynamic of how Romanis (and other white ethnics) are perceived in contemporary popular culture. Reality shows about otherwise marginalized groups offer up the same deal with the devil that characterized how black characters and culture have long appeared in “mainstream” entertainment. From the minstrel shows of the nineteenth-century, to the mammies and Sambos of the early twentieth, to the homeboys and Sapphires of today, playing to a broad audience has meant playing to type. This has often been the only way in for black performers. As Hattie McDaniels famously put it about her mammy role in Gone with the Wind, given the choices available to her, it was better to play a maid than to be one.

It’s remarkable that reality shows are almost the only venues on American television where one is likely to hear regional (especially Southern) accents. It’s also remarkable to see the great diversity of peoples and lifestyles that make up this nation. Only on shows such as Bridezilla does one routinely see mixed race couples and a genuinely broad representation of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Yet they usually come with a kick. Exploiting masquerades as explaining and blaming is never far behind. Theories about “cultures of poverty” often lurk in the background where “traditional” and “backwards” are nearly always synonyms.

Abercrombie Zombies and Other Monstrosities

Inside Cover Page from 1909 Abercrombie & Fitc...

Inside Cover Page from 1909 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog, their first catalog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a stunning piece of news-that-isn’t-new (or even news), it was recently revealed that Mike Jeffries, the CEO of clothing and lifestyle line Abercrombie & Fitch, confessed to working hard to associate his brand only with the cool kids at school. Although he seems to have gotten away with it for over seven years now, no story is ever fully dead on the internet. Last week, a recent publication quoted a comment Jeffries had made in a 2006 Salon piece by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. This time people paid attention to the fact that Jeffries had gone on record as saying that A&F does not want larger sized girls and women, or the un-cool, un-attractive and friendless to ever buy their clothes or shop in their stores. In fact, just to make sure, they don’t even make women’s sizes larger than 10.

Denizet-Lewis found this pretty appalling the first time around. Forbes speculates that it pushed more people’s buttons this time because things have changed. Citing the tremendous popularity of the recent soap ads that let average women know they’re not nearly as unattractive as they think, Davia Temin argues that Dove’s feel good collectivism is winning out over the mean girls and bully boys. These latter groups are sometimes referred to in middle school speak as Abercrombie zombies. Contributors to Urban Dictionary don’t all agree on what this means, but it’s definitely not a compliment. The most popular definition describes this variety of the undead as the “clones and mindless copies of one another who can’t think for themselves, so they shop at Abercrombie & Fitch in order to try and give meaning to their empty lives.” Critiques of mindless conformity among status-conscious kids aren’t really unique to this generation of course. And Jeffries’ biggest mistake wasn’t dissing the nerds, freaks, weirdos, geeks, dorks, losers, dweebs or any others who might qualify themselves with the word “alternative.” No, it was admitting openly that A&F is playing the game.

If you’ve ever attended an American high school, or more importantly, ever watched a movie set in an American high school, you know the score. The cool kids never cop to anything and certainly not to making an effort at it. At least since the 1980s, the high school movie—from Revenge of the Nerds to Heathers to Juno to Superbad—always takes the point of view of the outcast and misunderstood. Always. In the genre’s finest film, John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, the ensemble cast that includes a brain, a princess, a criminal, an athlete, and a basket case, only has time for the cool kids once they ‘fess up to their own insecurities. Andrew the athlete (Emilio Estevez) admits to tormenting the weak to impress others; Claire the princess (Molly Ringwald) hates herself for going along with her friends all the time. And let’s not forget that Ringwald’s real star turn was in Pretty in Pink, where outcast girl is mistreated by cool guy until she and her outcast friends show him that he’s the real loser. And then they get together.

One might detect a contradiction here. After all, the uncool kids do want to be cool. Who doesn’t, really? Insecurities are the advertising industry’s stock in trade. This is why some think that Jeffries’ remarks may have revealed his business genius yet more fully. Surely he was channeling his inner-Don Draper when he told Salon that when you don’t alienate anybody, you don’t excite anyone either. In advertising, edgy is the new…edgy. As Denizet-Lewis wrote, “it’s not a normal day in America if someone isn’t suing (or boycotting, or “girlcotting”) Abercrombie & Fitch.” The only way advertisers have ever been able to find out what constitutes going “too far” is by going too far. Just this past week, major corporations have had to do the take-it-back two-step over ad campaigns that made light of race, rape, and suicide. Cool comes at a price, but it’s not much of a leap to think that it’s just another cost of doing business.

Man-Eating Colonists

Archeological digs at Jamestowne Historic Nati...

Archeological digs at Jamestowne Historic National Park (Photo credit: sarahstierch)

Archaeologists have had a big year. First it was Richard III turning up under a parking lot. Now it’s the settlers at Jamestown eating one of their own. A team from the Smithsonian rolled out the news that in their recent excavation of a garbage dump at the site of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, they found skeletal remains of a girl who showed signs of having been butchered. In 1609-1610, English colonists faced a long hard winter in the the tiny outpost on the edge of the North American continent and they got a little hungry. In fact, most of them starved to death, died of disease, or were killed by the Powhatan Indians who besieged the fort the colonists had barricaded themselves inside.

The Jamestown archaeologists seem to have taken a tip from their confreres at the University of Leicester who found Richard III: they also came up with a facial reconstruction of the poor girl (dubbed “Jane”) whose life in the New World came to such a bad end. While she looks a little dour in the picture, she’s been outfitted with a fetching kerchief. Some observers have been catty enough to suggest that such forensic reconstructions are just attention seeking behavior given that they serve no real research purpose. Certainly, the team’s recounting of the cut marks on the bones at the press conference had the breathlessness of breaking news reported by a rookie anchor. This was a little odd given that the events in question took place more than four hundred years ago. But let’s have some compassion. It’s not easy making a professional practice that requires mind-boggling feats of patience and endless hours of wielding very tiny toothbrushes news worthy.

Not since a college student flashed the message “love you” on her eyelids at Indiana Jones has the profession seemed cool. Indy didn’t spend much of his time sifting detritus through ever finer mesh screens. One character in Raiders of the Lost Ark described Jones as a, “Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it? Obtainer of rare antiquities.” If his methods were a bit unorthodox, they sure were cinematic. Who knew that that a bull whip could come in so handy out on a dig? At least the Jamestown crew didn’t have to wade through a pit of venomous asps. Hollywood is good at making even the most tedious kinds of research seem exciting. Why wait hours for documents to be delivered to your desk when you can just break into the Library of Congress á la National Treasure? And wouldn’t you be more motivated to find what you’re looking for in the Vatican’s archives if the air were being sucked out of the room (Da Vinci Code)?

So let’s forgive the archaeologists for going all Cold Case on us when they finally found the material evidence to back up what textual evidence has suggested for a while. It’s not news that the colonists resorted to the last resort. Survivors of the starving time in Jamestown wrote accounts of what had happened there. Historians accept those accounts as valid and also as ironic reversals: the European newcomers to the Americas almost always accused the natives of being cannibals. The reversal these days is that the Jamestown news has been greeted with a shrug. Ho hum—more survival cannibalism. The London Guardian included a helpful poll with its story asking readers whether they’d eat human flesh in similarly extreme circumstances. Over two thirds answered yes and added some jolly puns in the comments about Jack Lemmon and Francis Bacon.

We might take this as an acceptance of the desperate measures taken by desperate people. Less charitably, it looks like the cynicism of the over entertained and over fed engaged in a thought experiment along the lines of: what if the moon were made of cheese? In short, we whistle past the graveyard and hope never to find ourselves in such straits. Yet of course, some people do. The young men who survived a plane crash in the Andes in 1972 in part by consuming the flesh of their friends have spent the rest of their lives telling the tale and meditating on its meaning. While the famous account of this in the book (and later movie) Alive emphasized the drama, the more recent documentary Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains deepens the story by asking the survivors to reflect not only on what they did but on what this did to them. These now old men tell the story honestly, but never lightly. “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Rest in peace, Jane of Jamestown.

Gatsby: A Matter of Infinite Hope

English: Cover of a 1922 edition of F. Scott F...

English: Cover of a 1922 edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book Tales of the Jazz Age, painted by John Held, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baz Luhrmann has a modest goal for his movie version of The Great Gatsby. He plans to fulfill every high school English teacher’s fantasy: making the book seem relevant to our present moment. In the age of the one percent, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Gatsby’s parties will come alive in lurid 3D decadence to a soundtrack that replaces the jazz of the Jazz Age with the bass and beat of hip hop and the club. Everything will be bigger and better. Judging from the trailer (and that’s all we here at pastpersistent can judge from in the absence of an invitation to the premiere at Cannes), Gatsby won’t just toss a dazzling array of custom made shirts at Daisy and Nick, he’ll rain them down on their heads off of a balcony.

If this isn’t excitement enough, the trailer also highlights the film’s homage to the car chase scene from The French Connection. Although Gatsby usually  doesn’t strike one as an action filled novel, Fitzgerald does make a reference to Gatsby’s car speeding along at more than forty, yes, even fifty or sixty miles per hour. The car might be slow but the movie makers stayed true to the novel’s cold-eyed analysis of nouveau riche desperation. They reportedly plunked down more, possibly much more, than a million each for three 1929 roadsters.

In ways large and small, the rest of us are encouraged to do the same. Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s are rolling out Gatsby inspired collections. But if a six figure ring is beyond your price point, you might be able to swing some eye shadow. And in a worst case scenario, you could always buy the book. You won’t be alone. Despite the kerfuffle over the new movie tie-in cover, Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic is on its way to the top of the year’s bestseller list.

The merchandising does kind of undercut the novel’s premise: that you can’t buy your way into social acceptance in America. It’s a problem for the film. These days, a guy like Jay Gatsby would have to behave a lot worse to get any pushback. No, for an actual takedown of arriviste tackiness, what you need to watch is The Queen of Versailles, the recent documentary about a wealthy timeshare king and his beauty pageant trophy wife as they undertake to build the largest private home in the United Sates. Getting takeout for ten from McDonald’s in your stretch limo while dropping a few million on outfits worthy of the adult film industry—now that’s tacky. Indeed, it doesn’t take much to imagine that this is how Gatsby’s Myrtle (Tom Buchanan’s middle-class mistress) would have behaved were she actually to have deposed Daisy and run off with the rich guy.

Jay Gatsby, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is, in Daisy’s famous line, much too cool for all that. If the movie works—and we’ll know soon enough even if we don’t have press passes for Cannes—it will surely be due to the boy wonder all grown up. DiCaprio’s got the Fitzgerald feel. In Titanic he gave us the longing of the steerage-class striver who shouts “I’m the king of the world” from the bow of the world’s most famous boat. In Catch Me If You Can, he charmed us as the slippery shape-shifting con man who was everything to everyone despite being nothing at all. In Woody Allen’s Celebrity, he made sly fun of his own image as a badly behaved star and in Aviator, took a turn as troubled genius Howard Hughes whose greatness was undone by paranoia and obsession.

These are facets of the American character that Fitzgerald set out to autopsy in Gatsby. At the start of that novel, the eponymous character was already dead and Nick Carraway, the staid everyman who narrates Gatsby’s story, has already returned home to the humdrum Midwest. The lights have done dark in Gatsby’s mansion. And when the lights come up in the movie theater, one wonders what will remain with us: the brightness of the fireworks or the brevity of their sparkle.

The Guantanamo Games


English: NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (Aug. 25, 2011) The American flag flies over Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice Paul told a journalist in 1917 that “I’ve been forcibly fed, and I feel that every atom of American self-respect within me has been outraged.” Last week, in a piece titled “Gitmo is Killing Me,” Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel wrote in the New York Times of his own experience of force feeding that he “would not wish this cruel punishment on anyone.” Moqbel and other prisoners at the American base in Guantanamo, Cuba started a hunger strike earlier in April that now involves nearly half the men. Sixteen are presently being force fed.

The HBO movie about Alice Paul’s leadership of the American suffrage movement, Iron Jawed Angels, graphically depicted what force feeding looks like. Paul, played by Hilary Swank, is forcibly restrained and has a tube shoved down her throat to allow the guards to pour a mix of milk and raw eggs into her as she wretches and struggles. It’s difficult to watch. No doubt this explains why almost every other movie that incorporates force feeding into its plot is a horror film. Doctor Irene Martinez, herself a victim of imprisonment and torture in Argentina, wrote in an essay on Iron Jawed Angels in the book The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies that the force feeding of prisoners meets the definition of torture according to many international protocols governing medical ethics. In Angels, this act of suffering makes Paul’s heroism transcend the narrow mindedness of those who oppose her cause. When the press reveals the abuse that Paul and her fellows received, the public outcry shames the administration of President Woodrow Wilson into freeing the women and eventually supporting the 19th Amendment.

Or so the movie would have it. As Olga Khazan of The Atlantic points out in “Why the Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikes Probably Won’t Work,” the success of women’s suffrage movements in the United States and Britain did not result primarily from the use of hunger striking by a small group of activists. Suffrage came about because of mass mobilizations of women and men for decades. It’s also worth noting here that Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and the other suffragists sent to the Occoquan workhouse to serve sixty-day sentences for trespassing (by picketing in front of the White House during war time) didn’t go on a hunger strike to directly advocate for women getting the vote. They did so to make clear that they believed themselves to be political prisoners and to protest the ill treatment to which they were subjected.

Hunger strikes are exceptionally useful for making the jailers look bad. Khazan finds that in recent times, such strikes in prisons have been highly effective—at least in cases where the public found the strikers sympathetic. She concludes however that the Guantanamo prisoners won’t succeed because Americans just don’t care and notes, in an update to her piece, that polls showing precisely such attitudes influenced the Obama administration’s decision to renege on the campaign promise to close the prison at Guantanamo. Indeed, the very reason that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo have gone on a hunger strike is that the United States cleared eighty-six of them for release and yet continues to imprison them. Moqbel, after eleven years in prison, was cleared in January but since the U.S. does not want to send any former prisoners back to Yemen, his country of origin, he remains a prisoner. In his New York Times op-ed he writes of this situation, “I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.”

In Salon, Falguni Sheth questions Khazan’s conclusion that the Guantanamo hunger strikers are unsympathetic. The suggestion that they cannot gain sympathy through their actions rests on the assumption that they can only be unsympathetic. Sheth argues that those who would keep them there without charges, a trial, or any evidence of guilt are not likely to be moved by their hunger strike, but those who believe in the rule of law are likely to be troubled indeed. She continues that even where prisoners are not, in themselves, sympathetic figures, their action as hunger strikers often is. They attempt to harm only themselves. When force fed, their dehumanized condition is more fully revealed. The question, finally, is whether as Paul put it, Americans’ atoms of self-respect will be outraged.

UPDATE (April 30, 2013): The hunger strike at Guantanamo has continued to expand and has now pushed President Obama to renew his commitment to resolving the situation. He stated, “The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried,” he said, “that is contrary to who we are, contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”

Sowing Wheat, Reaping Thorns

Grain Elevator

Grain Elevator (Photo credit: nouspique)

In a country that finds beauty in its heartland’s amber waves of grain, investigative reporting by NPR and other publications on a series of deadly accidents at grain silos hits the solar plexus hard. In the most recent incident, two teenage workers—one fourteen, one nineteen—suffocated to death after they fell through a crust of dried corn and were buried in a sinkhole of grain. A third worker, a close friend of the other two, survived six hours in the bin because a co-worker threw him a bucket as he went down. He put it over his head and was able to breathe while he waited to be dug out. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. As NPR shows, too often safety regulations such as requiring workers to wear harnesses while they walk on top of the grain are ignored by companies due to lax enforcement, low penalties, and few criminal prosecutions. This has made such accidents a depressingly regular occurrence—179 deaths since 1984. One in four victims has been under eighteen years old. In addition, explosions at grain elevators caused by the combustion of grain dust have claimed more lives making employment at such places the most dangerous occupation in Kansas.

In the early twentieth-century, pioneering director D.W. Griffith made a short film titled A Corner in Wheat that comes to a dramatic climax with a man drowned by grain. In a spectacular triumph of cross-cutting, Griffith assembled a three part story about poor wheat farmers sowing their crops, impoverished city dwellers unable to afford bread, and Wall Street speculators cornering the market in wheat. The editing implies the moral: that the speculator is profiting from the powerlessness of the farmer and the bread customer. In the film’s signature scene, the wheat king and his friends decide to end their celebratory banquet with a visit to a grain elevator to see the source of their riches. The elevator operator motions the wealthy revelers away from the edge of the grain bin as the chute spills wheat down into it. Just then, the wheat king’s secretary arrives to deliver a telegram informing him that he has gained a monopoly over the world wheat market. As he jumps for joy, he loses his balance and plunges over the edge into the bin of wheat where wheat pours down on him. He is suffocated by the very source of his wealth and power.

The United States is the world’s largest grain producer. In the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph Dart of Buffalo, New York developed the modern grain elevator to take advantage of economies of scale by storing vast quantities of grain in bulk and loading it directly into railroad cars or ship hulls. Such innovations transformed the international trade in grain by tying it to modern systems of transportation and finance. Grain elevators came to dot the plains of the nation’s interior. Nearly every agricultural community had its own. They were the largest buildings on the horizon and came to be part of the region’s visual iconography. In their time, they were symbols of modernity that impressed European architects with their sheer size and functionality. Many have since fallen into disuse as they have been replaced by fewer, larger, and more modern storage facilities. The older buildings now inspire nostalgia for a rural past that seemed simpler.

This is the paradox of American agriculture. It remains one of the nation’s core industries even as the number of Americans directly involved in it has relentlessly shrunk. The inefficiencies of the once extensive system of small-scale family farms have led to their replacement by larger and larger ones. While undoubtedly more productive, an entire way of life has withered away. These days, agricultural workers are more likely to be low paid employees than land owners or operators. And however efficient, the ability to produce and stockpile mountains of corn, wheat and soybeans have long raised questions about the morality of speculating in futures for basic food supplies. On the one hand, the profit motive provides an incentive for storing food when it’s plentiful so that it is available when it becomes scarce. This helps keep people fed. On the other hand, speculating in food also has the potential for corruption.

Griffith’s depiction of the wheat speculator drowned by his own greed was so powerful that later filmmakers employed it to make similar comments on struggles between good and evil. In 1931, Danish director Carl Dreyer had an evil doctor who was in league with the undead Vampyr of the film’s title suffocated by flour at the town mill. In 1985, Peter Weir made Witness a city-versus-country drama starring Harrison Ford as a jaded Philadelphia cop who has to go into hiding in Pennsylvania farm country to protect a young Amish boy who witnessed a murder. When the corrupt city cops show up at the farm to kill Ford, he survives in part by luring one—the original murderer—into the silo and then opening the chute to crush him in grain. In both cases, the goodness and bounty of agricultural production are what balance the moral debt owed to society by the evil doers.

Away from the silver screen, it has been workers who have suffered and died in grain handling accidents. In 1993, Ron Hayes lost his son Patrick when sixty tons of grain fell on him in a Florida silo. In the years since then, he and his wife have founded The F.I.G.H.T. (Families In Grief Hold Together) Project to assist other families who have lost loved ones due to preventable workplace accidents. Too little has changed since then. In the late 1890s, Mary Elizabeth Lease, better known as Mother Jones, a labor activist and Populist, supposedly told farmers who were oppressed by bankers to “raise less corn and more hell.” The United States is not likely to cut back on its corn production, but raising hell is still an option.

Titanica: A Night to Remember, and Remember, and Remember

The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titan...

The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titanic; a smudge of red paint much like the Titanic’s stripe was seen near the base. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2016, the Titanic sails again. At least that’s the plan. Australian billionaire Clive Palmer recently signed a deal with a shipyard in Nanjing, China to begin construction on the recreation of the ill-fated ship that sank one hundred and one years ago. Right now Palmer is on the road with the Titanic II World Tour. Guests of the events enjoy an eleven course meal based on the menu served aboard ship on its last night and then they can tour Titanic the Exhibition. Palmer’s company, The Blue Star Line, is taking reservations for passage on the ship’s maiden voyage. The list is reportedly more than 40,000 names long already.

Rebuilding the lost liner raises some interesting questions. The re-built ship will feature the same exterior design and interior décor. Passengers will eat the same meals, be encouraged to dress in period costume, and even be obliged to respect the same divisions amongst first, second, and third class as on the original. On the other hand, the boat will not recreate the design features that made it vulnerable to sinking and, by contrast, will have a full complement of lifeboats and safety equipment. This Titanic, in other words, is intended to arrive to its destination with all its passengers still safely aboard. (And on a happy note from the ship’s perspective, though perhaps troubling in other senses, global warming means that the ship isn’t likely to encounter many large icebergs in the North Atlantic.) Being true to the past, in this case, won’t include a reenactment of the dramatic part of the Titanic story.

Titanic II will sail its maiden voyage along the original route, from Southampton to New York. It will have to navigate half the globe from China to Great Britain first, but the definition of “maiden voyage” doesn’t count the travel from shipyard to ship launch. Indeed, Palmer noted at a Titanic II event in Macau that the new ship will not sail in Chinese waters. Presumably this is a nod towards the recreation’s fidelity to the original, however geographically impossible this might be.

The Belfast Titanic Society is not amused. Representatives from the group had hoped that at least part of the ship’s construction would be done at the shipyards in the Irish city where the original Titanic was constructed. According to one member, they also hoped that the Titanic II would serve as a floating public history memorial to the ship that would feature educational programs about the people who built it and went down with it. Instead, they now fear that Titanic II will recreate not the experience of the 1912 luxury liner, but that of James Cameron’s 1997 eponymous movie.

The idea that some people know the Titanic only as the setting for the fictional story of Jack and Rose and their doomed love affair seems far-fetched at first. Few historical events have been better or more lovingly documented than the sinking of the Titanic. In the United States there are two major museums that re-create not only parts of the ship, but even the iceberg. The city of Belfast has created a Titanic Quarter that is anchored by a building known as the Titanic Belfast. These are complemented by Titanic themed tours and even a light show in an effort to use Belfast’s historical associations with the well-known story to promote tourism, investment, and urban renewal. The RMS Titanic, the company that owns the rights to salvage parts of the wreck, has been touring its Titanic artifacts exhibition around the world. This is not to mention dozens of smaller museum exhibits and hundreds of books published on the topic. Perhaps it’s impossible to ignore the historical reality of the sinking of the Titanic but it’s easy enough to see that it’s dwarfed by the media that represents it. In its time, the event made a profound impression on all who learned of it and the story has since become an allegory for the perils of hubris and excessive ambition and for the virtue of heroic self-sacrifice and the vice of cowardly self-preservation.

Despite its outsized reputation, the Titanic was not the world’s worst maritime disaster. In fact it ranks seventh in terms of lives lost on ships sunk in peacetime. The worst disaster was quite a bit more recent. In 1987, a Philippine ship known as Doña Paz went down after a collision with another ship and took more than 4,000 of its passengers with it. The ship was being used to ferry passengers around the archipelago. It was overloaded and the ship that rammed it, unlicensed and understaffed. The Doña Paz caught fire as it sank and the passengers who leapt into the water to escape it also faced the threat of sharks. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, the event remains little known. A National Geographic documentary about it that has tried to correct this chose the title, Asia’s Titanic.

And so the Titanic continues to loom in our imagination. In these days of cruise ships gone wild (see Costa Concordia and Carnival Triumph), the luxury liner industry seems a little tawdry. It remains to be seen whether the Titanic II will be an extension of this trend, or a reversal. For now, the unsinkable ship that sank remains improbably afloat on a vast sea of remembrance, recreation, and reenactment. It doesn’t seem likely that it will be going down again any time soon.

Intentional Anti-Racist, or Walkin’ on Eggshells

Giant Cowboy Hat

Giant Cowboy Hat (Photo credit: camknows)

This is a post about the-music-video-that-can’t-be-viewed on youtube. If you’re not sure what song this refers to, here are some clues. Take the first clause of this post’s title and turn the words into their antonyms. That will get you the song’s title. Still don’t get it? The second half of the title is quoting from the song’s lyrics. Gosh, need more help? Giving it away with a link wouldn’t be any fun, but if you’re really stuck, try googling the phrase, “The Worst Song Ever™.”

At the time of this writing, just over two days have passed since the song was released, the video posted to youtube, all copies of the video removed from youtube, and a torrent of social media unleashed. There’s not a lot to add at this point. The artists-who-created-the-song-that-can’t-be-viewed are well-intentioned but hapless bumblers; or they are publicity hounds; or they are part of the problem—depending on who you read and where you stand.

One thing that we can conclude is that there sure is a problem. A white country star and a black rap artist reach for reconciliation and stumble into recrimination. Accidental Racist (let’s cut to the chase: the hyphenated euphemisms were getting out of hand), according to its lyrics, claims that “the past is past.” It almost sounds like a deliberate rejection of Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That might be giving the songwriter a little too much credit, but as Faulkner knew well, the South and its past have a powerful hold on the country’s imagination.

Still, it isn’t often that references to Reconstruction come up in top 40 music, even if it is country. Here is Accidental Racist’s two line history lesson:

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years

Brad Paisley’s critics point out that skipping from Reconstruction to the present leaves out a few things that might be relevant to a history of American race relations. Lynching. Jim Crow. Segregation. It reminds one of the blowback that Ken Burns got for the concluding volume of his Civil War documentary series. He, too, left out a lot of the really tough stuff in favor of wrapping it up with a reunion of Confederate and Union soldiers. Historian Eric Foner called this the “romance of reunion” that substituted white reconciliation for racial justice.

Not that Paisley pretends that past was pretty:

‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done

In the song, a white customer wearing a Lynrd Skynrd t-shirt reflects on what the black man who was serving him at Starbucks might have thought of the Confederate flag on the shirt. The black man, whose part is sung by LL Cool J, describes his own look of bling, do-rag, and low slung pants and wonders if this makes the white man think he’s a hood. The two have little in common and the distance between them is the song’s reason for being.

It’s striking that this musical conversation associates white with Southern with country and black with northern with urban. It’s as if the Great Migration of rural black southerners to the urban north was complete and absolute. Somehow lost in the equation is the black South and the white North (and a whole bunch of other groups besides). It’s this, in part, that makes it easier to dismiss the song. If racism in America were just a matter of white people from the South hating on blacks who left and went North, well, it would leave the rest of us in a much easier position. But it’s not that simple and never was.

In the absence of the video that’s presently in so much hot water that it might as well have been titled Song of the South, it might be a good moment to recall an earlier country tune that trod some similar ground. In 1975, Tanya Tucker had another take on the South’s history and future.

Our neighbors in the big house called us redneck
Cause we lived in a poor sharecropper shack
The Jackson’s down the road were poor like we were
But our skin was white and theirs was black
But I believe the south is gonna rise again
But not the way we thought it would back then
I mean everybody hand in hand I believe the south is gonna rise again

It might be time for a re-make and a cross-genre mash up. Mix it up with some southern rap and leave the eggshells behind.

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