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 The idea that bodies not only represented but also manifested an essential cultural supremacy may seem to be an outdated and backward view of the world.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”

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”?”

“I Wish I Had Down Syndrome:” On Disability, Agency, and Classification

By Daniel Jones

“I wish I had Down syndrome.” These words were spoken by a student in a functional skills special education (SPED) classroom that I work in during the day. The student was speaking with another student who has Down syndrome (DS). Like many graduate students, I work multiple jobs while being in school. Claims of the disconnected ivory tower sometimes seem lost on me. In multiple instances, my research on the role of classification in society (regarding discourses of nature, religion, human-being, etc.) and my experiences in the workplace shape one another.

My experiences in the SPED classroom often engage my experiences with the critical study of religion and society. I have found that one helps me think through the other. The above quote was affectionately spoken by a student with cognitive and physical disabilities (without DS) to another student who has DS. Continue reading ““I Wish I Had Down Syndrome:” On Disability, Agency, and Classification”

Got Legit Milk?

By Jason W. M. Ellsworth

First it was the Mayo Wars, and now we have the Milk Wars!

“If milk comes from a plant, can you still call it milk?” It’s the opening line of a New York Times article in which the dairy industry’s answer is an unequivocal no. The US dairy industry is pressuring congress and the F.D.A. to ban plant-based products such almondmilk or soymilk from using the label “milk.” For many of us, whether or not the carton says “milk” may seem arbitrary. However there is much to be lost, and learned, in this classification war. Examining the surrounding discourse reveals what is at stake for each side and how these types of delegitimizing tactics can have significant consequences in the real world.

So what exactly is “milk” and who decides? In the US, the decision rests largely with the FDA who currently states milk is “obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows”. The new definition proposed by lobbyists will now include milk from other hooved animals such as sheep and goats, yet exclude anything from plants. Continue reading “Got Legit Milk?”

Inertia, Broken Windshields, and the Boundaries of “Religion”

By Craig R. Prentiss

A decade ago, I was driving with my family on a highway in Tennessee when our windshield was hit by a stone. My focus soon shifted from the fresh crack in the glass to the signs on the back of each vehicle in a convoy of gravel trucks reading: “Stay Back 300 Feet: Not Responsible for Broken Windshields.”

Furious, I wailed, “How is it possible that they’re not responsible?!” I searched the trucks for a telephone number as I passed, to no avail. Reaching for an (absurd) analogy, I yelled, “What’s next? Serial killers wearing t-shirts saying ‘not responsible for accumulating corpses’?” I was quite proud of the analogy, but my family was more concerned about my rage than the $200 it would eventually cost to replace the windshield.

I thought about that windshield this fall when a former student shared an invitation she received from the Governor of Missouri to “The Thirtieth Annual Governor’s Student Leadership Forum: Faith and Values in Leadership.” Only the top students in the state receive the invitation, so she was rightly honored to have been selected. A description of the three-day event in Jefferson City was enclosed. It explained: “Each January, student leaders across the state gather with leaders in politics and business to discuss the servant leadership philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth . . . . The forum is not religious. We seek participants of all faiths . . . .” The forum is subsidized by the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. Selected students pay a fee of $350 to attend, and no tax dollars directly fund the forum. Continue reading “Inertia, Broken Windshields, and the Boundaries of “Religion””

Manufacturing Fast Food Founders

By Jason W. M. Ellsworth

Who founded McDonalds? The film, The Founder, tells the history of Ray Kroc as the founder of McDonald’s. It even opens, like many other Hollywood biographical films, with a simple set of words written in white letters set to a black backdrop — “based on a true story.” But, not everyone agrees that the credit should go to Kroc. The film’s title and focus on him gives the impression of a simple enough story, but, as the study of religion demonstrates, origins and founder narratives are usually highly contested with much at stake.

The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake appliance salesman in the 1950s. Unsuccessfully pedaling machines one at a time to various drive up diners, Kroc is curious about one restaurant in California requesting eight of the appliances. When Kroc arrives, he finds a well-oiled diner that runs like a Ford assembly line, one where every burger is consistently of the highest-quality and served lightning quick — “orders ready in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes.” Mac and Dick McDonald are the architects of this highly stream-lined kitchen where no stone is left unturned in the name of efficiency. They originally opened their first McDonald’s BBQ in 1940, and then reopened their newly improved McDonald’s in 1948. Continue reading “Manufacturing Fast Food Founders”

Politicizing Poutine

By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

Poutine, a delicious mess of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy, has recently been described as Canada’s national dish. Given poutine’s origins in rural Québec, these claims shed light on the tensions at play in the ongoing construction of Canadian identity.

Poutine’s status as Canada’s national delicacy remains unofficial despite a recent campaign to give poutine the national recognition it deserves.

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Yet marketing campaigns aside, poutine is already widely recognized as being quintessentially Canadian. Continue reading “Politicizing Poutine”

Is Tom Brady Vegan, Vegetarian, or Just Another Ominvore?

By Jason W. M. Ellsworth

After the New England Patriots’ astonishing comeback win last Sunday in Super Bowl LI, one question remains- how does Tom Brady do it? Despite being the oldest starting quarterback in the game, he continues to stay at the top of the league. His practice regime was summed up in a recent article “In Better Shape Than Ever at Age 39: Here’s How Tom Brady Does It.” It details Brady’s predominately plant-based diet and has sparked strident debates over how to label him and his eating habits:

For most of the year, Brady is a vegan. In the cold winter months, he adds some lean meat to his diet. A typical day’s menu this time of year might include a breakfast smoothie—made with almond milk, a scoop of protein, seeds, nuts and a banana—a midmorning homemade protein bar, sliced up chicken breast on a salad with whole grains and legumes for lunch, a second smoothie as a snack and a dinner of quinoa with greens.

Prominent animal rights activist, author, and the President of Farm Sanctuary Gene Baur shared this in a post on Facebook:

Continue reading “Is Tom Brady Vegan, Vegetarian, or Just Another Ominvore?”

Holocaust Statements and Identity in/of/for the World

by Martin Shuster

On January 27, 2017, the Trump White House issued, like many administrations before it, a statement on the Nazi genocide in remembrance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What was striking about this statement, however, was that it failed to mention the Jews. Trump’s statement merely noted that: “It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.” The problem is that this is exactly how those who deny or minimize the Nazi genocide talk about the event (as Senator Tim Kaine noted, Richard Spencer confirmed, and as a cursory glance at white supremacist forums will show). The White House, however, doubled down when the administration’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, claimed that the statement was intentional and that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Similarly,  Chief of Staff Reince Priebus remarked that, “everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust” (adding, “obviously all of the Jewish people”).

There are a lot of questions here. As Josh Marshall suggests, wouldn’t it have been wiser—if indeed that was the goal—instead to mention all of the groups you had in mind? How will this affect the relationship between conservative Jews and Trump, especially when that relationship is often based on a shared support for Israel that seems, mistakenly, also to signal support for Jews? How will such Jews weigh the importance of Israel in relation to the importance of acknowledging the Nazi genocide? As Jordan Weissman points out, the White House seems to have “all lives mattered” the Nazi genocide. Continue reading “Holocaust Statements and Identity in/of/for the World”