Who Won the Civil War?

Confederate memorial carving on Stone Mountain

“The winners write the history” is an easy way to highlight that those who have power are the ones who control how history is told. But this adage needs a bit more nuance, as sometimes those who lose end up on the winning side anyway. In the case of the American Civil War, the accounts that we tell in the United States too often legitimize the Confederacy. While some descriptions receive significant critique, such as Secretary Ben Carson describing slaves as “immigrants”, typical accounts are more subtle, hardly noticed by many. For example, narratives seldom refer to the actions of the Confederacy as treasonous, even though Andrew Johnson’s 1868 pardon given to those who fought for the Confederacy describes the rebellion as an act of treason. Continue reading “Who Won the Civil War?”

The Utility of the Familiar and the Strange

I assume you’ve heard the news of the two major hurricanes (and the damage they caused) that recently came ashore in the US — the first hitting the shores of southern Texas and then the other (this past weekend, just over a week after Texas was hit), going up the full length of Florida.

During the commentaries on these two events — whether by the media, politicians, or people who lived through them — I found it interesting how comparative analysis was deployed to make sense of the events.

Or, better put, to figure out what to do in the face of them. Continue reading “The Utility of the Familiar and the Strange”

So, you heard the news? Culture on the Edge has expanded the core group and gone back to basics; the peer review guest blog (what we call Chapter 2, up on the main menu) is still here and looking for interesting posts, of course, but just as our focus on a common book helped to get this initiative off the ground (as you may recall, it was a book by J-F Bayart) we’ve decided that we’re going to read a couple books each semester, together. Continue reading “”

The Next Chapter of Culture on the Edge: New Collaborations

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At Culture on the Edge, we’d like to think that one of our strengths is our academic diversity. While many from our original group have come from some area of the study of religion, we have a variety of areas of specialization — from Greece, to India, to the United States, from ancient history, academic discourse, and gender, to religious identifications, music, and literature. These many areas of specialization have prompted challenging and constructive conversations as we have grappled with issues in the study of identification. As we welcomed guest bloggers aboard (in what we’ve called “Chapter 2” of the blog), we’ve seen even more new perspectives added to this ongoing and ever-evolving study. Continue reading “The Next Chapter of Culture on the Edge: New Collaborations”

Is There Neo-Nazi DNA? Ancestry Tests and Biological Essentialism in American Racism

by Martie Smith Roberts

The vision of white racial purity that drove the Nazi regime to perpetrate genocide in the mid-twentieth century has persisted into the present, most recently made visible by American white supremacist groups. The idea that bodies not only represented but also manifested an essential cultural supremacy may seem to be an outdated and backward view of the world. And yet, a recent surge in popular interest in ancestry and DNA may reveal the ways in which biological essentialism continues to inform popular American notions of identity.

In the wake of Charlottesville, articles and exposés on the alt-right, KKK, white supremacy, and neo-Nazi movements in America are flooding newsfeeds everywhere. Two of those recent articles connect white nationalist movements with ancestry and DNA testing, raising questions about our general assumptions on relationship between biology and identity. Headlines, such as Sarah Zhang’s article in The Atlantic, “When White Nationalists Get DNA Tests That Reveal African Ancestry,” and Tom Hale’s post on IFL Science, “White Supremacists Taking Ancestry Tests Aren’t Happy About The Results” play on the generally assumed biological basis of identity. (Similar articles can be found here, here, and here.) Continue reading “Is There Neo-Nazi DNA? Ancestry Tests and Biological Essentialism in American Racism”

Developments at the Edge

As returning readers may already know, Culture on the Edge’s first chapter started in the Spring of 2012, when seven scholars of religion decided to work together on a common project devoted to studying identities — how they’re made and negotiated. Our blog began a year later, as a public place where we could experiment with the ideas on which we were working, trying to find discrete (and usually overlooked) examples where the work of social formation could be seen, if we just looked at them in a new way. The many posts that resulted (Chapter 1 on the menu bar) were meant to be pithy and written for a wide readership, modeling what a scholar of religion who reads across disciplines might contribute to understanding society at large. And then, about a year ago, we invented our second phase, encouraging other scholars to use the blog as a site to continue to advance the analysis of how social life works; Chapter 2 is therefore a portal for peer review posts, inviting submissions that, in the voices of new authors, press in new directions the insights on identification practices that we’ve been exploring all along. Continue reading “Developments at the Edge”

Are Divisions a Problem?

Emphasizing differences can generate ill-will and even violence, as we have seen (again) with the events in Charlottesville and the responses to it. But constructing differences is a central component of forming identifications and is not necessarily negative. The 1940’s US propaganda film Don’t Be a Sucker rejects discrimination against minorities in America and compares that position to Nazi ideology. While the film presents the creation of divisions as a problem, it also illustrates the positive side of division in a less direct fashion. If you haven’t seen it, it is worth viewing, particularly the first half of the film. Continue reading “Are Divisions a Problem?”

Forcing Tradition

Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.

As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:

Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.

Despite this, the captain insists on moving forward with the investigation: “We’re not giving up. … There has got to be a way to stop him.” Continue reading “Forcing Tradition”

Were We ‘Bamboozled’ by “Norman”?

by Lissa Skitolsky

When I read the glowing New York Times review of the recent movie Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017) by the Israeli-American director Joseph Cedar, I was intrigued about what A.O. Scott reported as “one of Mr. Cedar’s slyest conceptual jokes,” or the director’s deliberate decision to cast all non-Jews in the roles of the New York Jews who make connections between rich Jews and Israeli politicians.  Scott neglects to explain what is clever or funny about the casting choice, though he does list some of the dangers that could have emerged from this choice: “obnoxiously shticky performances; sentimental tribalism; easy moral point-scoring,” and then immediately declares that “None materialize.” The potential problem of the casting choice appears briefly only to be immediately negated, and so disappears as a problem.  When I thought of the casting choice I was led to ask a question that nagged me before I saw the film: “What does it mean for a non-Jew to ‘act’ like a New York Jew?” In other words, how was it possible to give direction to the non-Jews about how to ‘appear’ Jewish in stereotypically ‘Jewish’ roles as New York shysters, without inadvertently reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes? In most of the positive reviews of the film, this problem did not appear as a problem because the movie was described as a satire. Continue reading “Were We ‘Bamboozled’ by “Norman”?”

Long-Haired History

My department has a new website, with updated faculty photos. If you have known me for awhile, you might notice that my hair is a bit longer, now past my shoulders. By comparing photos of me as a faculty member, or even as a teenager, anyone can demonstrate that my hair is longer now than it has ever been in my life. That is a demonstrable fact about the past.

Of course, the length of my hair is not particularly interesting. As with most narratives (which is what histories present), the more intriguing issue is the explanation why. Why, at this point in my life, have I allowed my hair to grow? A friend who had not seen me for over a year commented on my hair last week, giving me the opportunity to create a narrative about my hair. My explanation was that I have not gotten my hair cut since becoming a full professor this past August. But, my own explanation is not necessarily complete. In fact, any of us tell stories, like our identifications, strategically. Perhaps (to create a narrative about my narrative), my response was a way to emphasize my recent promotion. The length of the hair was just the opportune time to insert that personal tidbit into the conversation, or perhaps that explanation was said in jest. Continue reading “Long-Haired History”