Third Culture Queen vol. 18

Interesting Times | Commentaries on today’s culture and progress (or lack thereof)

  • America Lost Its Religion Three Decades Ago. Why? (The Atlantic)

    Stubbornly pious Americans threw a wrench in the secularization thesis. Deep into the 20th century, more than nine in 10 Americans said they believed in God and belonged to an organized religion, with the great majority of them calling themselves Christian. That number held steady—through the sexual-revolution ’60s, through the rootless and anxious ’70s, and through the “greed is good” ’80s.

    But in the early 1990s, the historical tether between American identity and faith snapped. Religious non-affiliation in the U.S. started to rise—and rise, and rise. By the early 2000s, the share of Americans who said they didn’t associate with any established religion (also known as “nones”) had doubled. By the 2010s, this grab bag of atheists, agnostics, and spiritual dabblers had tripled in size.

    According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.

    Religion has lost its halo effect in the past three decades, not because science drove God from the public square, but rather because politics did. In the 21st century, “not religious” has become a specific American identity—one that distinguishes secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right.

    Related: How Americans Were Driven to Extremes (Foreign Affairs)

  • Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” boost health and well-being (GGW)

    Superblocks are good for your health: Superblocks are nine-block neighborhoods where traffic is barred to major roads around the outside, leaving the streets inside for pedestrians and cyclists. A recent study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 superblocks are realized across the city, journeys by private car would fall by 230,000 trips a week. This would yield significant reductions in air and noise pollution. (Anupan Nanda | The Conversation)

  • Census: US inequality grew, including in heartland states (AP)

    Income inequality in the United States expanded from 2017 to 2018, with several heartland states among the leaders of the increase, even though several wealthy coastal states still had the most inequality overall, according to the figures.

    The nation’s Gini Index, which measures income inequality, has been rising steadily over the past five decades.

    The increase in income inequality comes as two Democratic presidential candidates, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are pitching a “wealth tax” on the nation’s richest citizens as a way to reduce wealth disparities.

    The inequality expansion last year took place at the same time median household income nationwide increased to almost $62,000, the highest ever measured by the American Community Survey. But the 0.8% income increase from 2017 to 2018 was much smaller compared to increases in the previous three years, according to the bureau.

    Even though household income increased, it was distributed unevenly, with the wealthiest helped possibly by a tax cut passed by Congress in 2017, said Hector Sandoval, an economist at the University of Florida.

  • “It’s a Gold Rush Town”: How Artists Survive in San Francisco (Hyperallergic)

    I moved to San Francisco for the queer community, but I’ve had a hard time keeping that community because this city is so transient. It’s a Gold Rush town, so every ten years, everything changes. You see the leases expire, and the storefronts change. To me, it feels like failure when you look around the city and think, ‘Oh my god, these businesses can’t stay, and these people have to leave their homes.’ The art schools bring really talented and diverse people to the Bay Area, they stay three to five years, then they’re gone and the next emerging artists appear. That’s the Gold Rush cycle.

  • The “Cancel Culture Con (New Republic)

    Yet, Gillis is now at the center of a discourse that suggests comedians should see, in critical tweets and Tumblr posts, the kind of threat comedians in Bruce’s day once saw in undercover policemen. This might be the funniest idea comics like Chappelle have left to offer us. As far as comedy is concerned, “cancel culture” seems to be the name mediocrities and legends on their way to mediocrity have given their own waning relevance. They’ve set about scolding us about scolds, whining about whiners, and complaining about complaints because they would rather cling to material that was never going to stay fresh and funny forever than adapt to changing audiences, a new set of critical concerns, and a culture that might soon leave them behind. In desperation, they’ve become the tiresome cowards they accuse their critics of being—and that comics like Bruce, who built the contemporary comedy world, never were. 

    Yet it seems at least possible that tweets are just tweets—that as difficult as criticism in the social media age may be to contend with at times, it bears no meaningful resemblance to genocides, excommunications, executions, assassinations, political imprisonments, and official bans past. Perhaps we should choose instead to understand cancel culture as something much more mundane: ordinary public disfavor voiced by ordinary people across new platforms. 

    Angst about this cannot really be understood as a response to the advent of an oppressively censorious monoculture—not when political figures reviled by most of the country can dance the salsa on national television or when rants about gay frogs and Bilderberg Satanists can earn millions. Not with anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers, and keyboard Klansmen running about. 

    The critics of cancel culture are plainly threatened not by a new and uniquely powerful kind of public criticism but by a new set of critics: young progressives, including many minorities and women who, largely through social media, have obtained a seat at the table where matters of justice and etiquette are debated and are banging it loudly to make up for lost time. The fact that jabs against cancel culture are typically jabs leftward, even as conservatives work diligently to cancel academics, activists, and companies they disfavor in both tweets and legislation, underscores this.  

  • College Student Voting Doubled in 2018 (Tufts)

    Major research findings include:​​

    • In the 2018 midterm elections, college students turned out to vote at double the rate of the last midterm. Across all students in the study, the National Student Voting Rate (NSVR) in 2018 was 40.3 percent. Remarkably, this 2018 student turnout was closer to the NSLVE-estimated voting rate for the 2016 presidential election–51.3 percent–than to the previous midterm in 2014–19.3 percent;

    • According to the U.S. Elections Project, the voting rate among all Americans increased 13 percentage points in 2018 as compared to the prior midterm. By comparison, the college and university National Student Voting Rate (NSVR) rose 21 percentage points;

    • In 2018, the voting rates of 99 percent of campuses in the study increased from the 2014 midterms, and nearly half of all institutions saw their rate increase between 15-24 percentage points;

  • Dear Disgruntled White Plantation Visitors (Bitter Southerner)

    Southern food is my vehicle for interpretation because it is not apolitical. It is drenched in all the dreadful funkiness of the history it was created in. It’s not my job to comfort you. It’s not my job to assuage any guilt you may feel. That’s really none of my business.

    Thanks to a viral tweet, the whole country sees what my colleagues and I have seen for quite some time. We get it. You want romance, moonlight and magnolias, big Greek Revival columns, prancing belles in crinoline, perhaps a distinguished hoary-headed white dude with a Van Dyke beard in a white suit with a black bow tie who looks like he’s about to bring you some hot and fresh chicken some faithful Mammy sculpture, magically brought to life, has prepared for you out back.

    The Old South may be your American Downton Abbey, but it is our American Horror Story. Even under the best circumstances, it represents the extraction of labor, talent, and life we can never get back. When I do this work, it drains me, but I do it because I want my Ancestors to know not only they are they not forgotten, but that I am here to testify, that I am their wildest dreams manifest.

  • E-Cigs Had a Rough Summer (CNN)

    June 25th: San Francisco bans e-cigarettes, saying they get teens hooked to nicotine.

    September 4th: Michigan becomes the 1st state to ban flavored e-cigarettes because the sound more like Starbursts.

    September 11th: President Trump says he plans to ban flavored e-cigs.

    September 18th: China removes Juul vaping products from online stores just days after they launched across the Great Wall.

    September 19th: India kicks China's moves up a notch and bans all e-cigs.

    September 20th: Walmart makes its moves.

  • For Millennials, Self-Help is More About ‘We’ Than ‘Me’ (LitHub)

    As for power, Wilson says,“the Epicurean invites us to distinguish between naked authority – the raw exercise of power: the power to make laws, to establish rules for institutions, to inflict suffering on others, or to reward them with what they value – and legitimate authority, arising out of human agreement.” This appeal comes to the Epicurean tradition by echoing the rhythms of nature, whose inhabitants tend to practice an instinctual democratic socialism. These Epicurean ideals feel especially appealing at a moment when melting glaciers and a burning Amazon rainforest have become an everyday reality.

    To the Stoic, painful circumstance is not the problem, but the sensation of pain is one to conquer and to dismiss. The philosophy may appear overly simplistic, but Irvine explains that it can apply in a variety of situations. In the book, he tells the story of people he deems admirable, many of whom did not declare themselves as practicing Stoicism but who he deems “congenital Stoics.” In the face of “setbacks,” detailed by Irvine as anything from a flight delay to physical assault, he recommends exercises that engage the mind elsewhere such as travel, learning an instrument, or taking lessons in a foreign language in order to experience unfamiliar circumstances and, in turn, be less phased by less-than-ideal circumstances. For the Stoic, putting yourself out there is the point; any favorable outcome is secondary.

  • Tennessee’s latest attack on gay marriage aims at online ordinations (Scalawag)

    The lawsuit alleges that the purpose of the earlier 1998 law and the 2019 law is to “to draw a line between favored and disfavored religious groups.” Additionally, the ULC refutes the idea that an “Internet church” can’t be a real church. Freeman holds up “All the televangelists throughout the United States,” as a counter.

    “[S]ince the days of Oral Roberts, on the radio, and everything else, we use the airwaves,” he said. ”You can’t tell me that there is a God if that God can’t transfer or communicate over cyberspace.”

    And the fact of the matter is that there is a lack of religious options for many in Tennessee. For someone looking for an officiant that will cater to an interfaith couple or a non-religious couple, an Internet church may be their best hope. After all, according to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of the population of the state identifies as Christian, with only 13 percent identifying as non-evangelical. And while there may be LGBT identity-affirming churches in major cities such as Nashville and Memphis, they become much harder to find in more rural parts of the state, which, let’s face it, is most of the state.

  • The Future of Political Philosophy (Boston Review)

    As the concerns of philosophers were consolidated, facility with Rawlsianism became the price of admission into the elite institutions of political philosophy. Many on the margins saw that it was only by adopting the form of liberal egalitarianism or its mainstream alternatives that other ideas—Marxian, feminist, critical race, anticolonial, or otherwise—could be considered. Just as often, rival political visions or arguments were not rejected outright, but accommodated within the liberal egalitarian paradigm—often in a way that diffused their force.

    The very capaciousness of liberal philosophy squeezed out possibilities for radical critique.

    Some have extended Rawls’s ideas to corporations, workplaces, labor markets, financial markets, algorithms, borders, and unions as sites for theories of justice. Others have repurposed theories of exploitation and domination to supplement distributive principles. Self-described political realists have tried to put the politics back into political philosophy by making theories of democracy more sensitive to the nature of actual political conflict. There has also been a move away from the distributive focus, as well as from the deliberative view of democracy that models politics on a seminar room. In these critiques, the limits of earlier phases of liberal egalitarianism are illuminated. It is perhaps not surprising that a political philosophy that began as averse to ideology, interests, and the coercive power of states, corporations, and unions became a theory of ideal speech unmoored from politics, but today that has been found wanting. Problems that had once been foreclosed by the non-historical nature of justice theory are also now interrogated, as some revisit ethical issues—such as reparations—raised by the legacies of colonialism. The study of ideology and the ethics of the oppressed have seen a resurgence, deploying insights from critical race theory, feminism, and Marxism. 

    So political philosophers are adapting, constantly extending the egalitarian framework in new directions. But is that enough? Whether Rawlsian ideas can help us confront the needs of our own moment is not so clear. Like much of the human sciences (and thanks in part to the constraints of a professionalized and increasingly precarious academic system), political philosophy continues to be oriented toward solving particular problems rather than to building new systematic theories. Even as the substantive concerns of political philosophers have begun to shift as new subject matter enters the philosophical domain, much debate still takes place in the shadow of a set of ideas that reflect the assumptions of a different age. There are benefits to working within an intellectual tradition, but there can also be costs if the tradition struggles to shed light on changing circumstances. After all, radicals in the United States are drawing more inspiration from Marxism than from liberalism.

  • The Green New Deal is really about designing an entirely new world (Curbed)

    But before any new infrastructure can be designed, we have to reframe what infrastructure actually means in America’s consciousness. “Right now the term ‘infrastructure’ as used by politicians is problematic,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, incoming dean at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, and author A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. In the book, he presented an idea for the “American Smart Infrastructure Act,” policy calling for infrastructure that encourages urban density, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and promotes access to economic opportunity.

    “For a lot of Americans, [infrastructure] is an abstraction,” Chakrabarti says. “They see it as people talking about public expenditures. What comes to mind is, ‘Oh: the [project] started at $4 billion and ended at $165 billion.’ It’s the perception of Calatrava bankrupting Valencia, the boondoggle. We need to shift the conversation around infrastructure to what it does for people, that their commutes are better, their safety is protected... Infrastructure is an engine of social mobility. It’s not about delivering water and power and transit. It’s the backbone of prosperity.”

    The Architecture Lobby, a progressive architecture organization, advances a similar sentiment. It recently annotated the Green New Deal with an eye to how the policy’s goals intersect with the construction industry, and called out reframing infrastructure—along with a number of other themes, like organizing labor, environmental justice, new funding and contracting mechanisms, and democratic participation—as an important focus. “How does new physical infrastructure make possible different ways of life, different social relations, different ways for humans to support each other?” one of the notes reads.

    The future of infrastructure is already taking shape across the country, as cities begin to implement their own policies that address climate change.

  • The Right Wing’s War on the L.G.B.T.Q. Community (New Yorker)

    But anyone counting on the current Supreme Court to protect the rights of any minorities, including the L.G.B.T.Q. community, is almost certainly looking for disappointment. That may become even clearer this term, when the Justices hear three cases on the question of whether the Civil Rights Act forbids employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as it does on the basis of race or sex. These cases will be the first to address the rights of gay Americans since Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was clearly supportive of them, stepped down and was replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is not.

  • The Quest for New Friendships in the Dregs of Adulthood (Shondaland)

    In every social interaction, I saw the painful potential for rejection, for things to fail and heartache to set in. And I realized that I didn’t know how to simultaneously be the person I’d grown into and the person I’d grown out of when I came home.

    In every interaction with new potential friends, I obsessed over whether my eagerness for connection shone on my face like a smattering of furious acne. I panicked over whether I shouldn’t have admitted that I’m a huge Dramione shipper apropos of nothing because I thought they said “Harry Potter” instead of “Pottery Barn.” I wondered anxiously if I talked too much, too little; if I asked too many or too few questions about their life, Hogwarts House, thoughts on the demoted Pluto.

    That summer, I started therapy for the first time.

    2019 had been an abundance of wonders and ripe grounds for festering anxieties. Things I had not allowed myself to look at in the eye now demanded noticing. And I knew I couldn’t expect connection when I was disconnected from myself.

  • The Slow Build Up to the American Revolution (LitHub)

    Restoring the voices of ordinary people to the story of the Revolution requires an additional element. After all, abstract and highly intellectual­ized ideas about public virtue and vigilance—sometimes seen as the driving force of revolution—were not sufficient to trigger or sustain resis­tance. Something more was needed, an additional catalyst. Revolutions require passion.

    What we often forget—although any contemporary news report about insurgencies throughout the world would clarify our histor­ical understanding—is that during our own revolution assumptions and beliefs about the exercise of political power were amplified by raw emotions such as anger and hate. Accepting the emotional base of revolutionary re­sistance does not lessen the achievements of the founding generation. To the contrary, it makes them more human. As the Reverend Henry Cum­ings explained in a sermon delivered in Lexington, Massachusetts—to a congregation that included families who had recently lost sons and fathers in the battle of April 19, 1775—“Though rage, and inflamed wrath, are no essential properties of patriotism; yet patriotism, without feeling or sensibility, is a mere name.”

    By restoring passions to the narrative of the Revolution, we gain a strikingly different perspective on the origins of American political cul­ture. Instead of an event­-driven story, one that sweeps us smoothly along from the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 to the Declaration of Independence and to the peace treaty of 1783, we will recover shifting emotional environments that were characterized in turns by a sense of rejection, a search for assur­ance, a climate of fear, a demand for revolutionary justice, a discovery of betrayal, a desire for revenge, and finally, an acceptance of reconciliation.

  • The Sum of a Life: Zora Neale Hurston (Bitter Southerner)

    Afterward, Alice Walker and Hunt headed east toward the river to see about a stone. At Merritt Monument Company, Walker set her eyes on a tall black slab, one she felt mirrored Hurston’s spirit. The woman helping her said, “That’s our finest. That’s ebony mist.” The price was exorbitant, so she settled for another, followed the engraver inside and handed him the epitaph she wanted incised in stone. It read: 


    ZORA NEALE HURSTON
    “A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH”
    1901       - - - 1960
    NOVELIST      FOLKLORIST
    ANTHROPOLOGIST


    They went back once more and marked the spot with a flag before heading home.

    After Walker’s pilgrimage, a resurgence followed. The first biography of Zora Neale Hurston, by Robert Hemenway,  would arrive on bookshelves across America in 1977. The Zora! Festival in Eatonville began in 1989. In 2003, Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows became the second biography of Hurston. In 2007, Deborah Plant would publish another, “A Biography of the Spirit.” And since 1975, more than a dozen posthumous collections have come out. Just last year, Hurston’s manuscript Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, written between 1927 and 1931, was finally published. 

    A decade after she found Hurston’s grave, Walker became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, with her novel The Color Purple, which also won the National Book Award. When she published her essay about Hurston in 1975, only four of Hurston’s books were in print. Today, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become one of the most assigned books in American colleges and remains a waypoint on the arc of American literature — Hurston’s career something like a constellation.

  • The World’s Oceans Are in Danger, Major Climate Change Report Warns (NYT)

    The report concludes that the world’s oceans and ice sheets are under such severe stress that the fallout could prove difficult for humans to contain without steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Fish populations are already declining in many regions as warming waters throw marine ecosystems into disarray, according to the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders in policymaking.

    “The oceans are sending us so many warning signals that we need to get emissions under control,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and a lead author of the report. “Ecosystems are changing, food webs are changing, fish stocks are changing, and this turmoil is affecting humans.”

    For decades, the oceans have served as a crucial buffer against global warming, soaking up roughly a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans emit from power plants, factories and cars, and absorbing more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped on Earth by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Without that protection, the land would be heating much more rapidly.

    But the oceans themselves are becoming hotter, more acidic and less oxygen-rich as a result, according to the report. If humans keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an increasing rate,marine ecosystems already facing threats from seaborne plastic waste, unsustainable fishing practices and other man-made stresses will be further strained.

    “We are an ocean world, run and regulated by a single ocean, and we are pushing that life support system to its very limits through heating, deoxygenation and acidification,” said Dan Laffoley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a leading environmental group that tracks the status of plant and animal species, in response to the report.

    UPDATE: Big corps commit to slash emissions at UN climate summit (Reuters)

    (Related: AP)

  • Truly Seeing the River: the Culture, Beauty of the Mississippi Delta (Longreads)

    Often, we’d all be better served to hear from someone from that place. The river, as a place, poses less of this conundrum, though I try to honor indigenous traditions that existed along the Mississippi ─ and in many cases persist ─ as well as the way Black laborers, often enslaved, did so much of the physical remaking of this place.

    n any region. I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “nature” apart from humanity. Humans are animals, after all. And human beings have been living on this continent for tens of thousands of years. They cleared forests, built monumental structures, actively manipulated the environment. The idea of an empty wildness came later. (John Muir argued that the Native and Hispano migrants should be kept out of his beloved Yosemite by soldiers; they spoiled the view, he thought.) I always come back to a quote from the critic Raymond Williams, from the “Ideas of Nature”: “[T]he conquest of nature . . . will always include the conquest, the domination or the exploitation of some men by others. If we alienate the living processes of which we are a part, we end, though unequally, by alienating ourselves.”

  • Walking with the Ghosts of Black Los Angeles (LitHub)

    You can’t disentangle blackness and California. California’s history in the public imagination is tangled up with blackness’ history as the fundamental marker of racial difference in the modern world, the sign by which we know what is irretrievably alien, irrevocably other. In my mind, the idea of a “Black California” is redundant: as a concept, California began as a speculative fiction with a disavowed blackness lodged at its center. In 1510, the Spanish romance writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo published Las Sergas de Esplandián, a sequel to his popular Amadis de Gaula. In Las Sergas, the Christian hero Esplandián defends Constantinople from an army of Muslim invaders led by the pagan Queen Calafia and her army of Amazonian warriors.

    Montalvo’s Calafia was not a delicate European beauty, but a regal African warrior. “She was not short, nor white, nor had golden hair,” he wrote. “She was huge and black, same as the ace of clubs.” She didn’t hail from a land any European had set eyes upon; her kingdom was a matriarchal society of fantastic wealth, “an island on the right hand of the Indies . . . very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise.” Her blackness marks her not only as an irreconcilable foe of white Christian civilization who must be defeated and converted, but also an available, willing target of plunder.

    Accordingly, Esplandián defeats Calafia, who accepts Christianity and marries one of Esplandián’s generals before returning to her kingdom and claiming it for Christianity. The Spanish had developed a host of stories similar to the Calafia myth—the seven cities of Cíbola, the lands of the gilded king El Dorado, who coated himself in gold, the kingdom of Gran Quivira—that spurred explorers into the vast unknown interiors of the American continents. But the dream of Montalvo’s “Terrestrial Paradise” was so powerful that it eventually came true.

  • We Need a PBS for Social Media (New York Times)

    The mechanics of how a public social media product would work have been fairly well figured out by now: It would be a digital platform that allows people to post and share a variety of media — pictures, audio, video, text — to other people in the network. I personally would structure it a little more like Instagram or Tumblr, where I was one of the early employees, than Twitter or Facebook. In other words, it should be built to prioritize sharing things you love over getting attention by simply being loud online.

    The harder, more interesting part is the corporate structure. Instead of being run, as all these platforms are, are as profit-making entities, public social media would be grounded in its local community. An organization similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could be formed, funded through a mix of government and foundation grants and member donations. And, as with other public media, its board and membership would hold it accountable not for meeting “engagement” metrics, but for how well it serves the public interest and members of its community.

    In some ways this structure is very similar to what Facebook once was. TheFacebook started as a platform limited to Harvard students. This restricted access helped behavior on the network: Only people with a verified real-world identity and accountability could get in.