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Not Again

When I first learned of the massacre of children and teachers in Connecticut, my first thought was “not again.” Based on my Facebook and Twitter feeds I am not alone. “Not again,” we say, first in disbelief, and then in resolve. Yet until something changes, we all know, it will happen again.

The first step, I think, is to realize that we face a human problem. Evil is part of our nature as surely as good is. We are a species of violence. This is a profound truth—a historical truth, a biological truth, a moral truth. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once declared, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,” and now we have yet more horrific evidence of this truth. Yet if we stop our thinking there, we remain mired in a hopeless nihilism. Surely evil will always be with us—in this world, at least. But the persistence of evil is no reason to cease working for good. We can’t make a perfect world, but we can make a far better one.

We are now appallingly familiar with the script that plays out in the hours and days after an atrocity like this, and so we know that soon enough some pundits or politicians will start declaring that the answer to gun violence is more guns. If only a teacher had been armed, or the principal. Since evil will always be with us, they say, if the other guy has a gun, I better have one too. A bigger one. This is the answer of moral nihilism. We can do better.

Pondering evil is a fine place to start, but we need to understand that this kind of evil is not just a human problem—it is, sadly, a particularly American problem. We live in a culture diseased by violence. Ours is a frontier society, born and nurtured in conquest, genocide, enslavement, and revolution. Ours is a beautiful and noble experiment in freedom and democracy too, admirable and good in many ways—but also, clearly, a society still living off an inheritance soaked in blood. This inheritance has left us a culture that glorifies war and weapons, that preaches perverse doctrines of honor and distorted notions of manhood. The Swedes and Japanese and Indians share our same human condition, but they don’t kill like we do. We are reaping what we have sown.

This realization too might lead one to despair. With so many guns, and such a legacy of violence, the best we can do, says the gun lobby and its enablers, is arm ourselves, protect our own. Aside for the empirical reality that such defensiveness rarely works—as in the case in Newtown, the guns in ours homes are far more likely to kill through crime or accident than to protect—this position fails to understand that cultures can and do change. Our American cult of violence is a product of history, and it can be undone in history. Not easily, not quickly, but schools and parents and churches and governments and people of courage and character can move the tectonic plates of culture. We may never live in a world without violence, but we can live in a society that doesn’t worship killing and glorify killers. We can. Some day.

But we don’t have to wait for that day before we save lives. We can start tomorrow.  Most obviously:

We can regulate guns.
We can provide better mental health care.

These steps would vastly reduce the mass killings that happen in those places where people say, “we never thought it could happen here.” To middle class folks. To white folks. In malls and offices and kindergartens. Good policy ideas abound, ideas that could immediately reduce the number and scope of these kinds of mass murders. All we need is the political courage and leadership to make it happen. These simple steps really shouldn’t be that hard.

Most murders, of course, don’t happen in those places. Most killings happen in ghettoes of violence, in the places where people know all too well that it can happen here, because it does, relentlessly. The chronic violence of these forgotten places, places where the poor and black and brown live, is a product of our particular history too, the result of our uniquely American combination of racism and neglect and greed. We can and must root out the violence in these places, through policies that provide educations and jobs, hope and opportunity, free from the shackles of systemic poverty and racial injustice.

This is hard, never-ending work. But we must start, now, if we want “not again” to mean anything more than an empty cry.

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I am a member of the faculty at UC Davis, and my campus has been roiled these past few days by violent actions taken by the campus police, directed at non-violently protesting students. The video of campus police pepper-spraying students has been seen ’round the world, and letters of protest, outrage and demands have been blowing up my email inbox all weekend.

 

On Sunday, just as I was catching up on Friday’s events, I was also set to present at a panel at the American Academy of Religion Conference, in San Francisco.  The panel was convened by the good people behind Freq.uenci.es, a “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” and a website to which I’ve contributed.  I prepared some remarks, but I felt impelled to preface them by saying how weird it felt to talk about spirituality life on my campus — for my students, colleagues and friends — had changed irrevocably.  I opened with some comments about feeling that tension, and then went on with the show.  I explained that I was having a hard time reconciling these two things, but that I was okay to live with that unreconciled tension.

 

This morning, on my way to participate in the General Assembly at UC Davis, a friend told me about another video.  A second video – not of police and protesters, but of the Chancellor, Linda Katehi, being walked to her car, following an on campus meeting Saturday night.  In the video, you see Katehi walking down a road, flanked by hundreds of silent, standing students, making their protest as loudly as possible by not saying a thing. 

 

All you hear are her heels click-clacking on the asphalt.

That video, not the one of the cops, speaks to the power of these students that this community.  And the sound of her heels amidst the crowd of hundreds of students express perfectly the potential in this moment.  Potential that is political, and dare I say: spiritual, too.

 

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1. Gather your friend(s) together.
2. Listen to new episode of This American Life.
3. At the end of the episode, as Ira runs down the credits, each person guesses which clip will be used to mock Torey Malatia.
4. The person who guesses correctly gets to drink.
5. Repeat.

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How did the humanities lose out to neuroscience in making culture seem interesting?

I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR and podcasts lately. I’ve given my historical favorites a little break (sorry, This American Life and Sound Opinions), and I’ve been listening more and more to Planet Money and Radiolab (as podcasts), and to the usual NPR fare that airs while I do dishes or cook dinner: All Things Considered, Marketplace, and of course: Fresh Air.

What I’ve noticed is how often scientists and economists show up on theses shows to talk about things I thought were the main interests of humanists and social scientists. Questions like the how restaurants work, whether or not race matters, why certain songs get stuck in our heads, how people calculate the value of things or make decisions they know are not in their best interests, and so on.

These are the questions to which I have long sought answers by looking at culture and its various expressions, and in which my field of American Studies has long been interested (albeit in different forms, over time).

Yet somehow, every time I turn on the radio, I find one or another neuroscientist (or, often enough, Jonah Lehrer) talking about precisely these same questions, and about how the pathways of neurons and synapses can answer questions art or love or whatever.

So here’s my question to my colleagues: how did we become so untouchable or so uninteresting to mainstream media? How come the good people at NPR (and, presumably, their listeners) find neuroscientists and economists more interesting and more capable of talking about these questions that we are? How did they become the go-to academics for understanding how and why people do what they do? Social scientists and humanists look at those phenomena, too, but somehow, we have become generally less interesting than our colleagues.

This is not the neuroscientists’ fault: they are good at what they do, and their creativity in asking profound questions that teeter on the line between culture and biology ought to be encouraged. Similarly, it’s not the fault of the radio programmers; they are looking for the most intelligent, engaging guests they can find. And they’re finding them in neuroscience and economics, not in the Humanities.

Why is everyone else talking about culture but us? Are we that boring? Have we grown so adept at gazing at our own navels that we can’t talk about other things? Does “the public” think that so-called “hard” science is really the only arbiter of actualities in the world?

How have we become so irrelevant even on topics that are ostensibly our areas of expertise and scholarly interest?

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After watching the documentary, Food Inc. the other day, one scene stood out.   It wasn’t any of the film’s most shocking, arresting, or appalling moments.  It actually unfolded in a rather quiet setting.  A Walmart dairy buyer stands just inside the fence of an organic farmer’s lush green fields.  He is there to buy as much hormone free milk as he can gobble up.  “We won’t be here,” he admits, “if it wasn’t for customer preferences.”

The Walmart buyer’s statement says a lot about how the post-need consumer economy works.  Even the largest retailer and supermarket chain in the world has to bend to “customer preferences.” This points to an essential aspect of the nature of transactions.  Despite all the Mad Men and Madison Avenue manipulation, consumption, especially of relatively cheap, faddish items like food and fashion, represents what might think of as a rough democracy.

Walmart and other companies need to give us — consumers — what we want, or we will go elsewhere.  The rough democracy of desire means, then, that we vote with our money and credit cards at the point of purchase.  What’s popular sells, what isn’t doesn’t.  (Remember the New Coke.)  It also means that we can use our buying muscle to shape purchasing policies at the top, what or how the companies we patronize operate in the global marketplace.

While I was doing the research for my book, Everything But the Coffee, I traveled around the world going to Starbucks.  The results were, in some ways, rather disappointing.  For the most part, a Starbucks in Singapore looks, runs, and tastes exactly like a Starbucks in Seattle.  Except for one thing.  Starbucks devotes different amounts of signage and beverage and shelf space to fair trade coffee in different parts of the world.

In China and Japan, Starbucks stores said nothing about fair trade, no signs, no brochures, no messages on the back of cups.  When I asked a Starbucks in official in Japan — an American who didn’t speak Japanese — why there weren’t any fair trade drinks or signs with fair trade coffee farmers on them in Tokyo, she paused for a moment and said, “on one asked.”

No one asked.  Well British customers must have asked.  On a visit to a Starbucks in Norwich, England in 2009, there were signs everywhere about fair trade.  Grizzled, happy, handsome hard-working farmers — imagine Latino versions of the Marlboro Man — looked down from the posters on the walls and bathrooms, reassuring customers concerned about where their beans came from that their purchases improved the daily lives of growers in Central America and beyond. Sixteen months later, I went to that store again and found out that Starbucks  in the United Kingdom had dramatically changed its policy.  “Every Latte, Every Cappuccino,” the cups promised, was “100% Fairtrade coffee.”

In the US, the status of fair trade is somewhere in the middle between Japan and the United Kingdom.  Less than 10 percent of the beans Starbucks uses here where the companies operates more than 10,000 stores come from fair trade farms, though at least a quarter of the company’s signage seems to talk about Starbucks’ modest fair trade purchases.   On college campuses, where fair trade support is ostensibly the highest, the company regularly features Cafe Estimo (estimo means esteem in Spanish) — its fair trade blend — as its coffee of the day.

Thinking back to the comment from the Walmart buyer featured in Food, Inc., the differences in fair trade at Starbucks can be read as a poll, as a barometer really, for support for global awareness and fair trade consciousness in different countries around the world.  These disparities also tell us something about the rough democracy of buying.  Companies will, as the Walmart man tells us, shape their products to meet consumer desires.  Consumers, then, need to be more aware of their power.  If they raise their voices, or withdrawal their purchases, firms will respond.  That’s what happened with Starbucks.  Japanese customers haven’t asked for fair trade coffee, so they don’t have a choice.  But in the UK, the customers wanted it and got it.

The realm of consumption may just be a new — or renewed — front for justice.  Perhaps it is here — even more than the political realm where Senate seats are going in this election cycle for between $10-$141 million — that consumers can have the greatest efficacy and be heard the clearest.

But this remains only a rough form of democracy.  Corporations aren’t the most publicly minded or trustworthy of allies.  Like crafty centralist politicians, they want to co-op and de-politicize issues.  They are interested in more votes — in more customers — not justice, or even fair trade.  But they can be moved.

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Slow foods & local foods are fabulous, and we should be grateful to those who have made them part of the landscape.   Thanks to advocates in recent years, many of us can now purchase a tomato from the store and know where it came from or have a conversation with a grower while getting apples at the local farmer’s market.  These encounters allow us to better understand our food, and they make eating more pleasurable by connecting us to the past, and to each other.

But they do not solve the fundamental problem we face with American food and the way we’ve been taught to use it.

Our generation has inherited a food system—and by that I mean everything from how our food is grown, to how it is processed, to its flavors, to its branding, marketing, and store shelf placement—that depends on convincing people to eat and drink way more food than they need, way too much of the time.

Within this system, it would be wonderful if everyone could go local—slow—organic.  But better health doesn’t depend on it.   Better health does depend on being able to eat moderate amounts, for rational reasons, and stopping when one is full.

It’s not a zero sum game, of course.  We can have local/slow food and ethical/sustainable food production and marketing practices.  Yet I notice that I hear far more about the importance of yummy foods and regional farmers than I do about the importance of fair, just, and rational food landscapes.  Why not advocate for the heirloom tomato and the concept of a once-in-a-while soda and the removal of nutritionally bereft (2 for 1!!) foods from the end of the aisle at the grocery store?  Consider what would happen if some of the efforts we put into creating and sustaining farmer’s markets were diverted to build better barriers between food promoters and American stomachs.

I think part of the problem is that the food revolution has become, in a way, too tasty.  We want to advocate for structural change, but we want to do it through a good meal that we enjoy.  Fighting for accurate claims in food marketing (diet! natural! healthy!) or dissecting grocery store product placement—these are a long way from meals many of us who care deeply about food would even want to eat.  Thus, while we feel occasional outrage (bewilderment?) when we see a mega display pushing 3 12 packs of soda (+chips!) for $10, the attention can easily drift away from problems that, if solved, would benefit someone else (who doesn’t “eat right” anyway…) to those that benefit ourselves.

We should sit down together at the table of slow/local and celebrate our good fortune.  And, when the meal is done, take that tasty energy we’ve ingested and use it to regulate industry claims and prevent the over-making and over-marketing of all kinds of food in the US.

That way, no matter how fast their food moves, all eaters could have a better shot at health.

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The conversation about “selling out” in popular music has been dead for some time. And I’m not interested in reviving that conversation now. The last time it really flared up was around 1989, when Nike featured the Beatles’ “Revolution” in a commercial. Since then, it’s basically been a done deal.

So, today’s New York Times‘ story about Converse opening a recording studio did not come as that big a surprise. It’s a pretty interesting story, actually, that points out the real deadness of the “selling out” debate. Given the state of the music industry — the rise of digital downloading, the bloatedness of the major labels, the constriction of radio outlets through consolidation (and companies like Clear Channel), the so-called “360 deals,” rampant product placement in pop music and so on — why shouldn’t Converse enter the industry? Why shouldn’t Whole Foods? Barnes and Noble? You or I?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but it raises three important issues that we ought to be clear about, if we’re thinking about the current state of popular music.

1. Converse will make music to sell shoes. The music is “successful” if it results in shoe sales. The Converse record label is the idea of Geoff Cottrill, Converse’s chief marketing officer. Cottrill is pretty plain about his intentions:

“Let’s say over the next five years we put 1,000 artists through here, and one becomes the next Radiohead,” he said. “They’re going to have all the big brands chasing them to sponsor their tour. But the 999 artists who don’t make it, the ones who tend to get forgotten about, they’ll never forget us.”

In other words, if the company has a .01% success rate in terms of music sales, but it builds brand loyalty for its shoes, then the music is a worthwhile investment. It’s a strange approach to “arts patronage,” in which it has none of the trappings of the Rennaissance or human expression — it’s about creating art to sell shoes. And I know (thanks, Warhol), that this, too, is old, self-referential, post-modern news. Nevertheless, I think we ought to be clear about these new arrangements and what is serving and what is being served.

2. Because it is in the business of selling shoes, Converse is actually being far more generous to its artists than the labels (at least it appears to be so). The article reported that Converse has little to no interest in owning the recordings that it makes. This is something new, and it does give more power to the artists than they typically have under contract with major labels — but good luck selling your song to Nike or Starbucks or VW if you’ve already sold it to Converse. And if you’re a musician, you’re probably not making money selling records, so where are you going to sell your music?

3. The entrance of Converse into this marketplace seems like evidence of the breaking-apart of the music industry as we knew it in the 20th century. Indeed, one of the great things about music these days is that anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can become a label. This is radically liberating for many artists. But what’s the real difference between Columbia and Converse? Amidst the sweeping changes in the music industry, it still seems to be about artists serving larger corporate interests. Converse, like Columbia or EMI or Decca or whomever, has the broadcast outlets; it has the power in the marketplace that independent musicians don’t have.

And, though Converse seems to be more generous with their artists, they appear to care less about their music.

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