You Say Spiritual; They Say Political

1024px-Dargah_of_Sufi_saint_Moinuddin_Chishti_Ajmer_India_(5)We often assume that actions are either political or spiritual, that those two categories are easily discernible and inherently distinct, but are they different? At times the distinction is legal, centering on the separation of church and state, while at other times the distinction reflects a personal judgment about the actions of another. Whatever judgment is made, however, reflects the assumptions and interests of the observer rather than an inherent difference, as two recent events illustrate. Continue reading

Is Inclusion Possible?

14455178419_56118bd8d6_oClassification is a political act. Like the creators of “Coexist” images, the author/editor of any discussion of World Religions has the power to choose what groups are discussed and who is left out. In a recent critique of the Norton Anthology of World Religions, Brianna Donaldson carefully discusses two groups that the editors excluded. Donaldson describes Jainism and Sikhism as being “footnotes,” often not included in lists of major world religions, perhaps because of their challenge to the status quo and their size in contrast to communities identified as Hindu and Buddhist. No list of World Religions exists outside of the context in which it is created, with the political and social interests that become a part of that selection process. Donaldson’s assertions brought to my mind Jonathan Z. Smith’s assertion,

It is impossible to escape the suspicion that a world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it (“Religion, Religions, Religious”).

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Fabricating Origins

Picture 17We used a typescript copy of my small, forthcoming edited volume, Fabricating Origins (due out this summer), in my upper-level seminar this semester, a course devoted to examining origins narratives — seeing those various sorts of “In the beginning” tales we so commonly tell as not being about the past their tellers claim to narrate but all about the present and future hopes of the tale’s narrator. The course started out with Barry Levinson’s endearing film “Avalon” (but one that opens the way to discussing hidden fractures in the life of any social group) and then a couple weeks later we watched Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (in which the notion of nostalgia is problematized so nicely) — both setting the tone for the course. Students kept notebooks in the class (something I learned from Jonathan Z. Smith and which I’ve incorporated into most of my upper-level seminars), and they handed them into me last week; it was interesting to see, from some of their notes, how effective the films were in framing the problem of the course. And then, eventually, we worked our way to the ten revised posts from this site, collected together in the above-named volume, complete with commentaries on each by a group of young scholars I’ve mostly met online through social media. And, like the movies, the volume seems to have worked well with students, to press home the point of the course.

And that point was…?

Don’t look in the distance, or the past, at whatever someone is gesturing toward; rather, keep your eyes on the one trying to direct, perhaps even to force, your gaze. Continue reading

Almost Black?

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Almost Black, the forthcoming story and book by “Jojo,” err, Vijay, an “Indian American who got into medical school pretending to be an African American” has the internet abuzz and many in a rage. After shaving his head and trimming his “long Indian eyelashes,” 17 years ago Vijay Chokal-Ingam, the “Indian-American frat boy” with a 3.1 GPA, transmuted into “Jojo,” the African American affirmative action (which he refers to as state sponsored racism) applicant to medical school.

“Why now?,” many have asked, to this Vijay responds that “…he’s revealing his race ruse now because he heard that UCLA is considering strengthening its affirmative-action admissions policies,” arguing that, “…it’s a myth that affirmative action benefits the underprivileged.” Also, and perhaps most pressing, he has begun promotion for a memoir he is working on, Almost Black, which chronicles his “social experiment.” To add humor to the explicitly politically problematic, Vijay pats himself on his own back by affirming the public benefit of him not becoming a doctor. Continue reading

Profiling Bloody Mary

drink-cartI was up in Chicago the other day and when flying back home on a 9:00 am flight I noticed a woman, seated on a stool at one of those bars located alongside the boarding gate, with a plastic cup with reddish liquid in it and a straw. She’d walked by me, while I was seated at the gate, a few minutes before and stood out for me because, by the look of her face, I judged her probably to be rather younger than she seemed, maybe having lived a hard life, making her 40 or so years look 60 or more. So I guess seeing her seated at the bar, three hours before noon, confirmed a quick judgment I’d already formed based on how she appeared.

She was having a bracer before the flight, no doubt.

One for the road. Continue reading

The Memory That Forgets: The Women in Military Service for America Memorial

Women in Military

At the small liberal arts university where I work, we offer a travel course entitled “The Rhetoric of War.” The course examines the way that rhetorics (both verbal and graphic) depict war, patriotism, and the nation-state in the American context. Midway through the semester, the class takes a whirlwind trip to Washington D.C. in order to directly engage the ways in which war is memorialized.

My friend and colleague, Dr. Amy Milakovic, is one of the faculty who teaches that course; she has a forthcoming paper about the experience, with particular focus paid to the Women In Military Service For America (WIMSFA) Memorial. As Dr. Milakovic argues, the attempt to honor military women at WIMSFA happens through a narrative that works only to the degree that it actually diminishes women. WIMFSA achieves this by reinforcing traditional gendered stereotypes at the same time that its physical appearance emphasizes invisibility and insignificance, two terrible ironies achieved in a place that claims to highlight and celebrate women in the military. Continue reading

Competing for Status

UK_National_Championship_CelebrationBeing a basketball fan is almost automatic when you are born in Kentucky. As a Kentucky Wildcat fan, I certainly have enjoyed this perfect basketball season, but I have been a fan of the Cats in the less-than-perfect years, too. I even remember exactly where I was when Christian Laettner hit that infamous shot twenty-three years ago. If you’re over thirty and don’t know where you were when that dagger went through the heart of the Big Blue Nation, I am not certain that you can call yourself a true fan. Continue reading

Inclusivity as a Strategy of Exclusion

webelieve1Interreligious dialogue and notions of tolerance, while suggesting inclusivity, often employ exclusions that identify insiders and outsiders, although these insiders and outsiders are different than the boundaries commonly employed in communities. An interesting example of this paradox is Webelieve2, a board game advertised as encouraging discussion among people with different religious commitments. The game is designed to create an opportunity to “learn about others” and “to connect with others.” While targeted marketing to Religious Studies professorsassumes certain interests inform the study of religion (several of my colleagues and I recently received emails advertising this game), the game also reflects particular assumptions about religion that create a variety of exclusions that seem to counter the instructions’ interest in creating an environment where “people feel ‘safe’ when sharing.”

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It’s Not the Taj, It’s the Tour Guide: Some Musings on a Trip to India

Taj Mahal

Almost exactly two years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to accompany a group of my students to India for a course designed to specifically examine how notions of “justice” operate in an Indian context. As you might imagine, we saw literally hundreds of noteworthy things. With time, though, I have mentally sifted through some of these memories of what went on during our travels and realized that the most poignant moments of analysis came from events that no one had planned. Continue reading

“If you’re not sexy, you might want to be easy”: Some Thoughts On Ratemyprofessors.com

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“If you’re not sexy, you might want to be easy.” So wrote David Epstein in an Inside Higher Ed article written about the website ratemyprofessors.com, which allows students to provide public feedback about their professors. In addition to reporting some basic information like the student’s interest in the course material and their perception of the necessity of the textbook, class attendance, etc., each student grades their professors by providing feedback on three major scales:  “Helpfulness,” “Clarity,” and “Easiness.” A fourth measure, “Hotness” (symbolized by a chili pepper), is awarded when students deem a professor suitably attractive. Continue reading