“It’s Just Like the Flu”

Oct 4, 1918, news story on the flu from the Dayton Daily News

Ever since the COVID-19 virus hit the news there’s been debates over what to call it. (COVID-19 just means Coronavirus Disease 2019, by the way.) We don’t have to go so far as to cite the current US administration’s habit of sometimes naming it as “the Chinese virus” (see this commentary or maybe this post on our site) but can simply focus on what’s at stake in calling it “the flu.”

For, depending on what one means by this, the designation “flu” can convey dramatically different implications — making all too apparent something investigated regularly on this blog: classification matters. Continue reading ““It’s Just Like the Flu””

Guys Like Us

Still from the opening of the TV show All in the Family

If you’re of a certain generation then you likely recall the theme song to “All in the Family,” a once-popular TV show that aired in the US for 9 seasons, all throughout the 1970s. Sung before a live audience by Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, the stars of the show, it spoke of a nostalgia for the good old days — a past constantly in tension with the present of the series.

In early 2019 the show was recreated for a special live broadcast, this time with Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei in the lead roles of Archie and Edith — the latter the eternally optimistic and long-suffering wife of the grumpy (and yes, openly racist and sexist) former. That Archie and his now outdated views were often the butt of each episode’s joke, as they say, was what made the series so popular for many, for it was broadcast at a time when race, gender, class and even generation relationships in the US were very under the microscope. Continue reading “Guys Like Us”

Mute Books that Speak Volumes

Reproduction of French Revolution-era Books with Plain Covers

You all know that old saying, the one about not judging a book by its cover, right? Well, I happened across some online French Revolution-era reproductions of books, with plain covers, that struck me as rather interesting.

The description of this product runs as follows:

Grand Tomes (Set of 3)

During the French Revolution, reading was forbidden in order to prevent the spread of rebellious stories about the monarchy. During that time, printers produced couverture muette or “mute books” – books with blank covers – to avoid detection. Paying homage to those historic 18th-century tomes, these exquisite books are entirely crafted by hand, from the torn paper and simple cover boards to the naturally stained linen bindings and timeworn labels. The only difference? The pages within are blank.

What’s so interesting to me about these “muted books” is the strategic reversal: an historical artifact that once protected dangerous content by means of an unsignified cover now, instead, has utterly blank content and a plain cover that speaks loudly of antiquity, culture, and learning — at least to those who place them around their living rooms or dens.

But despite the curious reversal, all anyone does with these books is hope that people judge them by their covers: whether disguising once dangerous ideas or putting one over on our guests.

IT’S A CHINESE VIRUS!!!!! Or, Yes, Words Have Meaning(s)

Most by now are familiar with Donald Trump’s insistence that COVID-19 be referred to as the ‘Chinese‘ or ‘Wuhan virus.’

In one sense, pointing out gaps in Trump’s logic is, in effect, to gaslight one’s self. After all, he tweeted that COVID-19 was less harmful than the flu as late as March 9th, then swiftly moved to accept its growing impact on March 11th. By March 16th, he had switched from calling it coronavirus to the ‘Chinese virus.’ More recently, Trump declared that the economy must be back on track by Easter, despite warnings from experts that COVID-19 will likely be peaking in much of the US at that time. On March 29th, that date was pushed back from Easter until April 30th. I could go on …

If we view Trump as a strategic actor who is utterly shameless in defending his interests, then his ‘logic’ does indeed make sense. Consistency and accuracy regarding the science of COVID-19 (or any topic, for that matter) are tools to be used or discarded as it suits his advantage. Considered in this light, the term ‘Chinese virus’ can be seen as a rhetorical device that aims to divert attention from the Trump administration’s many failings throughout this affair by reducing culpability for the spread of COVID-19 to one main variable — China. Continue reading “IT’S A CHINESE VIRUS!!!!! Or, Yes, Words Have Meaning(s)”

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”