End of July Roundup

I’ve got to grade and write this week, so light posting from me. (And yoga and Zumba. I apparently have a penchant for looking silly in a classroom setting. Oh wait, every student I’ve ever taught already knows that.)


One for One Programs and Voter ID Laws

With the Supreme Court essentially gutting the Voting Right Act, all sort of state houses are trying to make voting harder. Never mind that more than one constitutional amendment guarantees the right to vote for all sorts of demographics. The irony of course is that each one of those amendments has to spell out to old white men why people other than old white men should get the right to vote, and indeed have the right to vote. I’m still reminded of the exchange in the West Wing where Ainsley Hayes is arguing with Sam Seaborn about the ERA, and he can’t understand why she’s opposed to it. Her response is apt:

Because it’s humiliating. A new amendment we vote on declaring that I am equal under the law to a man, I am mortified to discover there’s reason to believe I wasn’t before. I am a citizen of this country, I am not a special subset in need of your protection. I do not have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old, white, men. The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure.

It is humiliating that in this day and age we still have to fight to protect the right to vote for people who don’t belong to the old, white man club. Yet we do, and I don’t see Voter ID laws going away anytime soon. So while the Justice Department works on different avenues, I propose a modest solution based on the one to one programs used by TOMS and Warby Parker, among others. When you renew your driver’s license or pay your yearly registration fee on your car, why can’t the forms have a box where you opt to pay for a government id for someone in need. The id in Texas is $16, $5 if you’re over 60. I’m not saying this solves the problem entirely, and there would be some logistical oversight issues and the one to one programs are not faultless. Nor does this solve the problem of getting people to the DMV to get their card. But it does start to address the cost factor. We should start fight on legal grounds, but the only way to really prevent voter oppression from happening is by getting people to the polls who can vote and making sure they don’t have logistical hurdles to cross. Then again, I’m the person who drove my little sister to Texas so she could vote this last election because Texas doesn’t allow college students to vote via absentee ballot.

Feline Amenities

I ran across this post in my RSS feed this morning. The etiquette advice is sound, but what really caught my attention was the Punch cartoon used to head up the post, which I’ve reposted below:

dumaurier without the captionIt seems to be an appropriate image for a column on etiquette. Alas, it’s not. It’s one of George Du Maurier’s cartoons from a series called “Feline Amenities,” a recurring comic series about upper class women behaving badly. This particular cartoon was published in 1 January 1888 issue of Punch. The caption has been omitted here, and I assume it was cut from the image before it was reused. Here’s the image with the caption:


dumaurier with the caption

If you can’t read it, the caption has the woman looking at the pictures say the following: “Now which of these two photographs may I have of you dearest? The beautiful one, or the one as I know you?” The meaning is completely changed by the caption. I find it ironic that it’s being reused today on a blog posting about etiquette. I think Du Maurier would get a kick out of that since the “Feline Amenities” series uses etiquette as the vehicle by which women tear each other apart. I also think it illustrates the ways that Victorian periodical culture gets reused or repurposed today, and the importance of sideways reading. Removing the image from the text excises the humor of the cartoon.


Spies, Tourists, and Travel

How I hadn’t discovered Grantland.com before now is beyond me, but here’s an excellent article on travel in spy films by Brian Phillips. It’s ostensibly about the new film Red 2, a delightful romp through Europe and Russia. I’m a big fan of the spy genre in general; Alias, Chuck, and Covert Affairs are all frequent watches/re-watches for me. I even really liked that goofy spy film, The Tourist, with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.

Royalty and Celebrity

As you may have heard, Prince William and Kate Middleton aka the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to a son yesterday. It’s not exactly been an under reported event. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it overtook news network coverage along with social media yesterday. I say pretty sure because I found out through Twitter, and I avoid news networks like the plague. Along with the MSM freak out has been a pretty steady drumbeat of disgust. Why are we interested? Other women have babies. And while yes, other women do have babies, and those in poverty face enormous obstacles to healthy birth and care for their child, I’m a little over the criticism. It’s not like William and Kate have invited millions of people into their lives and pregnancy. Nope, that would be Kim Kardashian. Yes, they live a life of privilege because of being royalty, but it’s not like they are unaware of their position of privilege or the tragedy that life under a paparazzi light microscope can lead to. They use their position to fund charities, and in some respects, do the social functions of the head of state, which means that David Cameron can get on with governing. We expect our President to do state visits, travel abroad, and govern. Royalty is a bizarre thing; you become king or queen only through the death or abdication of the previous monarch. How can you look forward to ruling when to do so means mourning your grandmother or father? The day of your coronation is also the anniversary of your loved one’s death. And we’ve turned them into media celebrities, when in fact the royal family is not the equivalent of a reality TV star.

Tess Lynch over at Grantland.com (yep, I’m now reading an ESPN website thanks to Nate Silver’s move) has a good take on the whole thing as well as this Guardian leader, although the minute by minute coverage of the couple walking outside with their baby to drive home is a bit much. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell discusses how for some ancient Latin American cultures, women who had given birth were considered warriors. If the royal couple do nothing else, they’ve shown us just how normal and powerful childbirth is. They let us in because we stand around outside, demanding to be let in, not because they really want us to look.

Consumer Choices are not the Same as Political Action

Mark Oppenheimer at the New Republic has a new piece on parenting, liberalism, and the new Puritanism of liberal parenting, which is just an extension of the Puritanism of liberal consumer culture at large. His key point is towards the end of the essay:

I am only suggesting that we resist thinking of Puritanism as the only, or optimal, parenting style for liberals, for two reasons. First, thinking that Puritanism—whether a preference for organic foods or natural fibers or home-birthing—is somehow constitutive of a liberal politics is rather insulting to liberalism. Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.

But more important, realizing that Puritanism does not equal liberalism liberates us to think of another way to be liberal: by rejecting the kind of stress that comes from Puritanism. They say hygienic reform; I say the 30-hour work week and not stressing if my children eat Kix. Liberalism, as the political philosopher Corey Robin has recently argued, should be above all about freedom. The best reasons to want a labor union, or universal health care, or Social Security are to be free of worry, want, and privation, and to be out from under the hand of the boss. It makes no sense to re-enslave ourselves with fear, worry, and stress. That is not liberal but reactionary. Just because Big Brother is inside us doesn’t mean he’s not still Big Brother.

I’ve discussed the problem of mistaking consumer choices for politics before, most recently here. I’m not saying I’m not complicit in this system at all. In fact, the little sister likes to tease me about my penchant for cooking weird things like whole wheat blueberry pancakes. They turned out splendidly, but she has a point. I cook “weird” pseudo-healthy things (there is nothing healthy, no matter the ingredients, about pancakes) in part because that’s what our culture suggests is the thing to do. I gave up drinking soda in large part because I got fed up with people telling me how bad soda was, once memorably right after I bought one that I then tossed because I was so angry about getting judged. Petty, I know, but it’s all part of the culture of anxiety and judgment that Oppenheimer describes. And it’s easy to mistake the cultivation of certain consumer choices–sustainability, localvore movements, slow food, slow fashion–for progressive movement towards social justice. Some of these movements do an enormous amount of good, but buying more expensive clothing does nothing to address the factory system in developing nations.

Indeed, most of these movements simply side step the issues. For instance, eating healthier and exercising and instilling those habits in your kids will probably make all of you healthier. It won’t, however, solve the obesity problem for a number of reasons. First, obesity is linked to poverty. Banning soda does not solve the problem of impoverished kids and parents forced to make food choices based on what’s cheapest. Second, the BMI charts used to calculate obesity was designed by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet in the nineteenth-century to measure obesity at the population level, not the individual. It was then popularized by actuaries not health care professionals. Now, I’m a Victorianist, so I like the nineteenth-century, but I find the fact that we’re using the BMI measurement still remarkably silly. The Victorians just did not have our understanding of the body. These are also the same people who thought measuring brain size revealed information about character and intelligence level. Perhaps we shouldn’t be using their statistical models. The other issues with the BMI are listed here. Revising the instruments used to measure obesity would be an excellent start in accurately measuring and then addressing the issue. Third, eating healthier and exercise doesn’t mean you’ll never get sick, and eventually, you’ll need adequate health insurance to help when you do get sick, preferably health insurance that won’t drop you for pre-existing conditions or other issues. Your individual consumer choices help you, but issues like the obesity one are collective action problems, not ones that can be solved through individual consumer choices.

In Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004), Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue that the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s in fact fueled a change in consumer culture. In other words, capitalism, that ever changing thing, simply began making the things counterculture consumers wanted. Now, I don’t entirely agree with Heath and Potter’s argument that “The culture cannot be jammed because there is no single such thing as “the culture” or “the system” (8). I mean, I don’t think culture can be jammed. I’m not even sure what that means. Yet, we do have a common culture, but the problem that Heath and Potter examine is one based on Raymond Williams’s notion of tea shop culture, a culture of exclusion. What Oppenheimer points out is how that culture of exclusion can be mistaken for political choice and how it causes anxiety because the borders of that exclusion have to be continually policed.

Dear Mr. Watterson

There’s a documentary on Bill Watterson, creator of the irrepressible Calvin & Hobbes. I began reading the newspaper in high school so I could read Calvin & Hobbes. Eventually, I branched out from the comics page, but my first initiation into the wonderful miscellaneous world of daily print was through those comics. It’s perhaps not surprising then that I adore Punch. Calvin was the rebellious soul we all wanted to be, and Hobbes the quiet guide we all wanted. I even use some of his comics in my composition classes when I introduce students to the constraints of a medium.