Abortions for some, miniature Canadian flags for others!*

A man waving a gay pride flag in Canada

Last week, Canada’s two most dominant political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, released their campaign slogans for the 2019 federal election, to be held on October 21. The incumbent Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, have opted for a stay-the-course sentiment, “Choose Forward,” while the insurgent Conservatives, led by Andrew Sheer, are telling voters “It’s time for you to get ahead.”

The Conservative’s slogan is consistent with their standard platform of low taxes and small government, and plays into the party’s past attempts to brand Trudeau as a privileged pretty boy who is “not as advertised.” On-going scandals, including a conflict of interest violation, and a family vacation to a private island owned by the Aga Khan (on the taxpayers dime), are among the more common jabs trotted out to drive their slogan home. Continue reading “Abortions for some, miniature Canadian flags for others!*”

Moore’s Large Arch is Godzilla’s Leg-Bone

Tourists taking photos of Moore's Large Arch in Columbus, Ohio
Tourists behold Henry Moore’s Large Arch (1971) with Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church (1942) in the background. Photograph by the author

by Travis Cooper

On one humid, overcast summer day, an unpredictable ethnographic experience got me thinking about urban myth-making, sanctioned versus unsanctioned narratives, and contested public space.

The incident occurred as follows.

Among a group of architectural tourists on Columbus’s Avenue of the Architects, I observed as our tour guide — who I’ll call Eric — detailed I.M. Pei’s design methods for the plaza. Eric was a walking encyclopedia of architectural data, dropping design concepts such as subtractive architecture and coffering. He pointed out how the various architects who contributed to the environs aimed for a loose structural consonance. “Look how that walkway lines up, visually, with the clock tower,” he encouraged. He signaled toward the parallels between the texture of the underside of the library’s flat roof and the honeycomb pattern on nearby plaza benches.

We walked slowly toward the plaza’s center, trailing behind Eric as he approached the sculpture backwards, gesturing this way and that, deeply engaged in tour guide rhetoric. As we neared the foot of avant-garde sculptor Henry Moore’s Large Arch at the center of the plaza, an unexpected interruption resulted in a moment of awkward pause. A middle-aged man to our left, slightly unkempt and with cigarette in hand, interjected into Eric’s official soliloquy. “It’s Godzilla’s leg-bone, man!” he exclaimed, stepping forward from where he had been leaning against the red-brown brick of Pei’s library façade. Face bright with the attention he drew, from a distance this temporarily emboldened, unsanctioned guide traced the contours of the bronzed form with an outstretched finger. Continue reading “Moore’s Large Arch is Godzilla’s Leg-Bone”

“No Vote Was Changed”

Evidence from the Russia Investigation regarding the 2016 election

Have you caught the particular angle virtually all mainstream news media, let alone US politicians, are taking regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election?

Most recently, give a listen to this NPR radio story from this morning, in particular the 3:34 point onward, citing the Senate Intelligence Committee report that was just released (from which the above image comes [see p. 38 of the report]). Continue reading ““No Vote Was Changed””

Team AOC or Team Pelosi? Also, #Trump’s-a-Racist

A side by side picture of Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Last week saw yet another round of attacks against 4 recently elected congresspersons, all women of color. While these members of the so-called “squad” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley — have all been attacked by Donald Trump before (e.g., on Twitter, at rallies, in press interviews, etc.), this most recent incident has been widely condemned as “racist” in no uncertain terms by much of the mainstream media (see Trump’s tweets below). This marks a shift of sorts from previous media coverage of “the squad,” especially AOC and Ilhan Omar, where similar allegations of race baiting, misogyny, and xenophobia at the hands of the President were overshadowed by semantic arguments on the meaning of language that they had used–e.g.,  Omar’s critique of AIPAC  (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) , and AOC’s characterization of detention centers on the south border as “concentration camps.” Despite Trump’s more overt and strategic use of bigoted language, however, attacks against these two congresspersons have come just as frequently from within the Democratic Party, as younger, racialized, “progressive” representatives are routinely pitted against older, mainstream, “establishment” figures such as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Continue reading “Team AOC or Team Pelosi? Also, #Trump’s-a-Racist”

“Let Me Root Root Root for the Home Team…”

Basketball player shooting while a fan of the opposing team tries to distract him with a huge picture of Britney Spears

Watching Wimbledon this morning I got a little curious about why a hushed silence is expected (and actually enforced by officials) in some professional sports but not in others. Sure, there’s cheering between the volleys in tennis but, come that moment when the ball is bounced and a serve is about to happen, a hushed silence falls over the crowd.

Ever watch a snooker tournament? A chess match? Maybe golf?

Silence. Continue reading ““Let Me Root Root Root for the Home Team…””

On the Spot with Merinda Simmons

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

Merinda's profile picture1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

Well, if they’re asking what I study, they’re probably academics. Because how it typically goes is:

“What do you do?”

“I teach at the University of Alabama.”

“What do you teach?”

If the question doesn’t emphasize what most folx see as the more immediate/visible work of the profession, it’s usually coming from someone inside that same profession. Teaching and research are interconnected, of course (or should be, anyway), but “study” is kinda insider-speak… ain’t it the way? So among my community of insiders, I tell them I study and write about authenticity rhetoric — specifically how/why it appears in theories of gender and race. Even more specifically, my work tends to have a geospatial focus on the Caribbean and the American South as circum-Atlantic regions.

My Ph.D. is in English, so I bring a literary theory background to religious studies and try to put some proverbial money where my interdisciplinary mouth is. What does that mean in practical terms? Well, I write and teach about a lot of different things, but they tend to involve my interest in when and why ideas about authenticity or realness seem to appeal and have traction and when they don’t. Along the way, I apply identity theory outside the field to my own academic study of religion. Continue reading “On the Spot with Merinda Simmons”

On the Spot with Jason Ellsworth

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

A picture of Jason Ellsworth1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

The answer I provide to this question is often contingent on the context in which I’m asked. Is the question being asked at an academic conference, with family or friends, or perhaps while doing fieldwork? My general response — I used to simply say that I studied religion (religious studies). Partly because it was a nice quick sentence that bundled everything up into a simple box. But it was also an exercise, as I was curious about what responses and questions people would come up with for me. How did they envision something called religion? Some would ask if I was in training to be a clergy or priest, while others would begin to talk highly about all the good deeds that religions were doing in the world. Some might ask me a question about a very specific recent news story that a so called religion had been mentioned in, or they might ask what I hope to do with a degree in something like this, and others might start talking about the need for the separation of religion and the state (or politics). It provided an opportunity to engage them on their views of the topic of religion and then explain how my own study of “religion” addresses what they were talking or asking about — hopefully extending the conversation into a variety of directions that challenged us both. This can be a longer exchange and so other times I say that I study religion from a social scientific or anthropological perspective. It’s interesting that when I answer this way, I get a lot less of the responses and questions I just mentioned. Instead, since I added the word “science” it seems to justify my study as somehow more legitimate. The question may arise on what I hope to do after I finish my PhD, or they may offer a critique against “religion” in the world — but either way my description usually satisfies them more quickly.

Continue reading “On the Spot with Jason Ellsworth”

Fame, What’s Your Name…?

Gad Elmaleh holding a mobile phone that says GAD
I’ve been watching “Huge in France” on Netflix, a show based on the premise that a famous French comedian comes to the US to rekindle (or, better put, kindle) a relationship with his teenage son (an aspiring sunglasses model living in LA), the result of a fling some years earlier with a young American tourist.  It stars Gad Elmaleh, who plays himself and, yes, who is actually a very famous French comedian. But, of course, none of the Americans in the show have ever heard of him — much as many viewers here might have never heard of the actor (he’s also big in Quebec, they say). Continue reading “Fame, What’s Your Name…?”

On the Spot with Vaia Touna

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

Vaia Touna1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

It all depends on, of course, to whom I’m talking. I admit that in the early years I was feeling quite frustrated explaining that what I was doing is not theology, that I’m not searching whether god exists or not, whether there is paradise, and that finishing my studies I would not become a priest or a nun. Yes, these were/are some of the standards questions I will get and I assume many of my colleagues do. Now, knowing full well that this is the reality and that people in general are likely not to have any knowledge of the Religious Studies discipline, I get less disappointed and in fact sometimes I wonder why should they even know. I certainly don’t know a lot about many disciplines and in fact even though I guard myself against my own misconceptions, it is likely that my own experiences or what ever knowledge I have of a particular discipline inform how I understand them or even misjudge them, so I welcome those misconceptions people have of my own discipline as a challenge. So back to the question, although I don’t have a standard answer that I give to everyone, in general in my reply I would explain that Religious Studies is a discipline within the human sciences and therefore interested in people and their behaviors, with a focus on how people use, talk, define, and understand religion and the consequences those usages, definitions, etc. have for them and the world around them. Then I would go into the more specifics, that is, how my data (the things I’m studying) relate to ancient and modern Greece and that in my research I’m interested in the way both scholars and people define religion (that is, how they understand religion) and how those definitions inform understandings of both the ancient and modern world (I might even give an example or two). If I see interest then I would explain that definitions whether of religion or any other term are one among many acts by which people come to identify themselves and understand, even construct, the world around them. Hashtag REL100. Continue reading “On the Spot with Vaia Touna”