When We Want Alternative Facts

Among the most sensational elements of this week’s political news was the debate over the number of people who appeared across an approximately 24 hour window on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the site of both the Trump presidential inauguration and the Women’s March in protest the next day.  The controversy started over this particular series of photos, which featured the population attending the inauguration:

An image of Washington D.C.

and those attending the Women’s March:

An image of a live news broadcast Continue reading “When We Want Alternative Facts”

What Is Democracy?

Democracy – the worst form of government…

With Tuesday’s colossally surprising upset now behind us, I am musing about how to conceptualize democracy. I began to write this post on Monday the 7th, when the political landscape appeared much different from where many of us sat, perched at the edge of our screens. Indeed, with Trump’s camp appearing more on the defensive at that point, I was intrigued by the interesting and varied elements of anti-democratic speech that emanated from him and his supporters.

We are all familiar with the most public example of this, wherein Donald Trump pledged weeks ago to disavow the election results as non-democratic if they did not turn out as he wished. Yet consider how this same move has also happened among various religious groups that reassured their followers that god/Jesus/deity is in control of everything (including the election), and thus no matter what happens, the will of the people is not theirs, but the extension of the will of some god. Continue reading “What Is Democracy?”

Picture Day

Image result for elementary yearbook

There has lately been a flurry of talk at my house about picture-taking. First, there were the beginning of school pictures for the yearbook. Next, there were the soccer pictures to accompany the end of the season (which is just now occurring). Finally, one of my kids had a special school project that involved taking pictures of him in various stages of engagement with a special stuffed animal; this animal was our houseguest this weekend in honor of my son’s turn as “Student of the Week” in his class.

What struck me about all of these picture was not just the flurry of activity that we devoted to their creation, but my response to the picture-taking process (and, ultimately, the pictures themselves). For my almost-teenage daughter, school pictures are essentially a litmus test of her self worth, and thus she spent considerable time planning hairstyles, clothes, and different sorts of smiles to pull off the look she wanted. When she got her pictures home a few weeks ago, they were just as she had practiced. Everyone was pleased. Continue reading “Picture Day”

The Politics of Footnotes

The inside of a book

One of the earliest literacy skills we learn after formal reading is reading for context. It’s something we all do — it simply means that when we come across a word or phrase with which we’re unfamiliar, we pick up context clues from the text that help us work out what the unknown part likely means.

Recently, I was considering the interesting ways in which the presentation of such contexts operate while I was working through various parts of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction for a class I’m teaching. If you’ve seen it, you know that the Norton features many footnotes, presumably designed to accomplish its stated aim, which is to “help college level teaching of the short story.” We are often taught that the purpose of a footnote is to share additional important information or thoughts in a separate space in the text so that it doesn’t otherwise thwart the presentation of the main text’s primary point or readability. In the case of the Norton, most of the footnotes are devoted to defining phrases or terms, presumably to make the process of reading flow more smoothly. The editors of the Norton don’t offer a discussion about the logic behind what terms they selected for footnoting in the volume,  but common sense might indicate that the editors believe that the footnoted terms are less contextually legible for a college-level population today. Continue reading “The Politics of Footnotes”

Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)

An image of a Chipotle burrito

Several years ago, at Chipotle, I realized that one of the workers behind the counter was a student of mine, one to whom I’d spoken the week before about his poor performance and a particularly compulsive (and, for me, wildly distracting) propensity to text during class. As we were suspended in an awkward moment where he was asking me what kind of salsa I wanted, another question came out of his mouth as well: Did he still have to call me “Dr. Smith” when he was at work?

My answer, as I remember it, was stumbling and incoherent, comprised of “uh” and the general surprise of not knowing what to say. On the one hand I didn’t really care what he called me, for plenty of my students call me by my first name. On the other hand, though, Dr. Smith was not mentally in the building, so to speak; I was not expecting anyone to call me by my professional title, so I was caught off guard when it came up in a weekend conversation about tacos and corn salsa.   But before I could think much more about the significance of what he had asked and how I had responded, the chatter devolved into guacamole and credit cards, and the exchange was over just as fast as it happened. Continue reading “Standing in Line at Chipotle (or, the Hefty Politics of Naming)”

Shoots, Stabs, or Farts: Some Thoughts on Child’s Play

A gun with an orange tip

My three school aged children recently stayed with grandma for the week, and while there, she took them to the dollar store. Going to the dollar store is one of my kids’ favorite rituals (so popular that they practice it with both sets of grandparents); among other things, it is a pilgrimage that feeds their unending appetites for cheap plastic stuff. Although we actively discourage violent play with our children, have never purchased them violent toys, and talk consistently in our house about the danger of weapons, my sons’ favorite dollar store items are almost always plastic guns, grenades, and knives.

So it was little surprise when grandma texted me to tell me how, upon entering the store, my eight year old son had declared that he was interested in “anything that shoots, stabs, or farts.” After I recovered from that proud parenting moment, I began to consider Michael Kimmel’s observation that male violent play is not a matter of genetic destiny. As much as we may love to utter the following words to one another, this is not an inherently “boys will be boys” situation, for, as Kimmel and other gender scholars have amply shown, violent play is a phenomenon caused by specific cultural patterns and power arrangements rather than an inbred trait of boys. Continue reading “Shoots, Stabs, or Farts: Some Thoughts on Child’s Play”

No Words

A man laying on the ground with his hands up and man watching him

If you have read Susan Sontag’s arresting book, Regarding the Pain of Others, you’ll know that Sontag believes there is something unique about the way that a photograph — particularly a photograph that reveals suffering — is received by its viewers. This uniqueness is partially tied to the content of the image itself, but is also a function of how we, the public, think about images.

On the one hand, she notes, we judge images as something uniquely truthful in a way that we do not with words. Photographs seem like they’re portraying ‘just the facts,’ while we can more easily acknowledge that words are crafted, edited, tweaked. For this reason, the public is often disillusioned by the actual work that is involved in photojournalism, she remarks; that is, we do not want to be aware of the processes of thought, selection, and framing that goes on because we want our images to be ‘the truth.’ In this sense, “Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs” (47). And yet, she notes, we are terribly contradictory in this conviction, for we deny the power of photographs every day when they do not suit our particular purposes. Continue reading “No Words”

Christianity as Logo: Is Donald Trump a “Baby Christian”?


a baby wearing a

As you might have seen recently in the news, James Dobson, noted evangelical leader and founder of the Focus on the Family empire, has made the public claim that Donald Trump, the Presidential candidate to whom he has lent quasi-official support, is a born-again Christian.  This statement was made largely in an attempt to explain how Trump’s string of unsavory comments and crude vocabulary need not offput the “values voters” who Dobson represents and whose support Trump so desperately needs.  Rather, Dobson located the reason for Trump’s language and attitudes in the fact that he is a “baby Christian,” or very recent convert.  In other words,  Dobson has argued, Trump should be given a pass in the matter of his foul language and otherwise distasteful comments since he was not raised in an evangelical environment, and is just learning the cultural ropes, so to speak.

It will surprise no one that a wave of anti-Trump folks responded to the “baby Christian” comment by claiming that Trump’s ethics are so bankrupt that this news couldn’t possibly be taken seriously.  Yet as Russell McCutcheon himself recently argued, the progressive clamor over whether Trump’s religiosity is “genuine” — that is, reflective of some inward personal shift —  is actually a conservative move in the sense that it presumes the existence of some sort of authentic religious experience that is deemed authoritative and positive precisely because it is presumed apolitical.  McCutcheon’s analysis points to the fact that since every religious act is designed to have some impact on the power relationships shared by people, every such act is political in one way or another.  So while Trump may be among the more colorful candidates to invoke religion while on the campaign trail, there’s nothing particularly unique in how he’s doing it. Continue reading “Christianity as Logo: Is Donald Trump a “Baby Christian”?”

The Puberty Video: Or, A Quick Lesson in How We’re Taught to Feel

Although summer break is now upon us, it’s hard to forget that just a few short weeks ago, I received THE green permission slip home in my fourth grader’s hand.  That permission slip is the form that permits all fourth graders at our elementary school to watch the first in a series of puberty videos that continue through the sixth grade year, delving into ever more pronounced detail about the ins and outs of growing up.

As a person who studies social concepts of bodies and sex, and also as the mother of three kids (two of whom have now been initiated into the mysteries of that video), it has been increasingly interesting to me to watch the transformation in my kids’ attitudes towards this particular topic. I delivered my first “birds and the bees” speech to my oldest child (now going into middle school) when she was the tender age of four. Although she was far younger than I imagined she would be when we first had that talk, she demanded one day to know where babies came from, and so I told her. Naturally, she was shocked, but (importantly) she was not ashamed, and it is on this point that I wish to focus, for when my middle child and I first had this conversation a couple of years ago, he — a much more laid back type — was not only also unashamed, but also unsurprised, as if he were living on a farm and had between witnessing maturation and reproduction all these years (he doesn’t, he hasn’t).

So you can imagine my interest when this same child came home a few weeks ago a changed person (in a different sense!). Yes, he’d seen the puberty video, and no, he didn’t have any questions; he already knew everything from our conversations, he reports. But something was clearly diffferent: for the first time ever when discussing this topic, he was embarrassed. To be abundantly clear, this was not the product of the video nor any awkward chat with a teacher or school nurse. Rather, he was embarrassed because he did not know that his friends would be embarrassed. For all of the facts that I shared with him, it seems that the one I failed to tell him was that other people would be uncomfortable when talking about their own bodies.

While we often describe a growing body-consciousness as a sign of maturity, this is likely better described as a particularity of our socialization, since not all people in all cultures experience this in the same way. Put differently, what we are squeamish or insecure about  as a culture is usually closely connected to what our culture seeks to control and police.  As this changes from place to place, there are hardly universal experiences that accompany growing up (or any stage of life, for that matter).

Our emotions, however, seem to belie this version of events, since what we feel often appears to be so automatic or natural.  But as we know, if something were an innate part of our human biology, then assumedly virtually all humans would experience it. The fact that they don’t is a sign of the close relationship between emotions and socialization, one that Linda Kintz describes as a sort of “intimate training” wherein as part of our development into a fully functioning member of our culture, we are taught how to feel about certain things just as much as we are taught about them. Consider, for instance, that no one is born racist or sexist; the emotions that inspire those particular forms of social interaction are taught very subtly and over long periods of time, and probably without a lot of overt conversations on “how to be a racist (sexist, etc.).”

Kintz’s larger point is that trying to explain the platforms of a group by appealing to logic is a somewhat lost cause because emotions form their own logic, or as Kintz would put it, what we find logical is what feels familiar. This is, in my mind, a much better foundation from which to start analyzing group dynamics.  In this case, a widespread perception of bodies as embarrassing and inadequate and a related belief in sex as something taboo has produced a series of shared cultural feelings that, even if not individually embraced by all, help create a larger climate of discomfort. This is evidenced through the very sorts of permission slips and other institutional structures that must be put into place before broaching this particular subject, for perhaps it goes without saying that I do not sign permission slips for my kids to study math, science, reading, or art.

Sex and maturing bodies, then, are not intrinsically sensitive, shameful, or delicate topics, but are rendered so through the cultural lenses through which we view them. In this case,  these moments of intimate training are far less about telling kids about “the facts of life,” but also the associated feelings that our culture says go with those facts.




photo credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3_thfe_hHo

Debating “The System”

Five people standing behind podiums

I was one of “those” debate kids in high school whose weekends were spent at debate tournaments — and yes, I carried a ridiculous briefcase, spoke too fast, and owned a dress suit. In other words, I was livin’ the life.

So you can perhaps imagine my interest at a recent Radiolab episode that not only featured the story of a debate team, but of a debater who got his start in Kansas City, where I happen to live. This debate team performed a very unlikely act: in the final round of the national tournament, these underdogs reversed the customs of debate, and in so doing redefined what it means to engage not just in debate, but in persuasive discourse about their own and others’ identities. Continue reading “Debating “The System””