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Kohara, Kazuno. 2014. The Midnight Library. New York: Roaring Brook.
By the time this month is over, I will have visited thirteen kindergarten and four preschool classrooms to promote Library Card Sign-Up Month.
It doesn't matter what other books I have in my bag. When kids see The Midnight Library, it's the one they want to hear! Apart from Kazuno Kohara's eye-catching linocut illustrations in three colors, here's why I like it:
It features a library that's open all night long. I wouldn't want to work there, but it makes for a really good story!
It highlights the fact that libraries are adaptable. The squirrel band needs to practice some new songs for an upcoming concert? No problem! The library has an activity room they can use.
It features one of a librarian's favorite activities - reading stories. Wolf is crying because her book is sad? No worries! The librarian reads it with her. It has a happy ending!
It's absolutely perfect for Library Card Sign-Up Month! Tortoise can't finish that 500-page book before the library closes at sunrise? A library card is what he needs!
Becker, Bonny. 2014. A Library Book for Bear. Somerville, MA: Candlewick. Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton.
I've loved the Bear and Mouse series ever since it came out, and while this one is not my favorite (I still love A Visitor for Bear best!), it's a good addition to your collection of library-themed books. You really can't go wrong with Bear and Mouse.
Here we are in the middle of Banned Books Week again! This is one of my favorite celebrations of the year because I love to read and I love to defend everyone’s freedom to read. I appreciate the conversations that I get to have with customers around banned books and I have a lot of fun working with creative staff to plan our celebrations.
This year at Rochester Public Library (MN) we created posters of staff holding the top ten challenged books of 2013. We also created a banned/challenged books reading area which we put right inside the front entrance. The area includes piles of banned books, comfortable seating, signage explaining book challenges and bans and small cards with the staff photos on one side and the list of the top 10 challenged books of 2013 on the reverse.
Patty’s Fortune is divided pretty clearly into two sections. In the first Bill Farnsworth hosts a house party in an empty hotel, and in the second Philip Van Reypen’s aunt attempts to coerce Patty into marrying Phil. Hopefully that will make it easier to talk about. I’ve been struggling with these last few books, mostly because I have a hard time telling them apart.
The house party thing is, I guess, Wells’ chance to revisit the premise of The Dorrance Domain, except with wealthy young people being waited on by shoals of servants instead of children in straitened circumstances mostly waiting on themselves. The party consists of twelve people, including the Kenerleys as chaperones, a new man called Chick Channing, and no Philip. Yay!
The party would be a complete success (Kit Cameron channels Mr. Rochester! Mona and Roger finally get engaged!) except that it’s indirectly the means of Patty’s introduction to Maudie Adams, a theatrical promoter who tries to convince her to go on the stage. Patty is maybe at her least appealing in this book — more human, but not in a likable way. It’s always been a mystery how Patty stays unspoiled in the midst of so much wealth and attention, but sometimes it seems like the answer to that question is, “Well, maybe she doesn’t.”
Without really seeming to have changed, Patty looks as vain and as spoiled as we’ve ever seen her. I guess that’s mostly when she wants to go on the stage, though. Once we get to the second half of the book, all of my sympathies are with her again. Otherwise some of them would have to be with Lady Van, Phil’s aunt, who tries to subtly and then less subtly coerce Patty into an engagement with Phil. Or with Patty’s parents, who willingly go along with the more subtle coercion. Or with Phil, which, no.
When trying to groom Patty for Phil doesn’t do the trick, Lady Van, in her final illness, tries to get Patty to promise to marry him, telling her that she (Lady Van) will die right then and there if she (Patty) doesn’t. It’s underhanded and gross, and thankfully Fred and Nan Fairfield agree with me, because I was starting to distrust them.
Then…well, as if the emotional blackmail wasn’t enough, Lady Van passes her illness on to Patty (I know, I’m being unfair, she didn’t do it on purpose) and between that and her stress over the promise Lady Van forced out of her, Patty ends up in pretty bad shape.
It’s cool, though. She’s saved through vaguely supernatural means and also Bill Farnsworth.
Next up is Patty Blossom. We’re on the home stretch, guys.
Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black. Other authorities suggest: orange and black. In any case, it has two sides: dark (black) and bright (red or orange). This color name does not seem to occur in the New Testament, and that is why of all the Old Germanic languages only Gothic lacks it (in Gothic a sizable part of a fourth-century translation of the New Testament has been preserved). In the Old Testament, the word appears most rarely. Genesis XXX: 32, 35, and 40 describes the division of Laban’s cattle. According to Verse 35 from the Authorized Version, “…he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.” Those sheep were indeed brown, but the situation is not always so clear. For example, an Old English poet called waves brown, and brown is a common epithet attached to swords in early Germanic poetry. Were waves and swords really brown, like Laban’s sheep?
In Old Germanic languages, brown had the form brun, with a long vowel (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. boo), and we can be fairly certain that the ancient Indo-Europeans had the same hue in mind we do, because at least three unmistakably brown animals were called brown. One of them is the bear, also known as Bruin (the word is pure Dutch). People were afraid of pronouncing the terrible beast’s name and coined a euphemism (“the brown one”). When they said brown, the bear could no longer think that is was summoned and would not come. The other animal with a “brown” name is beaver. If bears and beavers were called “brown” and the biblical Laban had brown sheep, why then brown waves and brown swords? We’ll have to wait rather long for the answer: this blog is a serial.
Let us first look at etymology. Those who have read the relatively recent posts on gray may remember that that Germanic color name made its way into Romance languages. The same holds for brown (vide French brun and Italian brun). Later, as happened more than once, Old French brun returned to Middle English and reinforced the native word; compare also brunet(te), from French, with reference to people with chestnut-colored or black (!) hair. In the posts on gray, I mentioned two current explanations of why gray, brown, and some other color names enjoyed such popularity outside their country of origin. Allegedly, Germanic mercenaries brought them to the Romance-speaking territory with either the words for their horse breeds or for their shields. There must have been something special about both. The root of brown can also be seen in Engl. burnish. The suffix -ish was added to the root of Old French burnir, from brunir. “To make brown” acquired the meaning “polish (metal) by friction.” This returns us to the brown weapons of Old Germanic.
The origin of bear and beaver from brown, though highly probable, is not absolutely assured, but the derivation of the Greek word phryne “toad” (stress on the first syllable) can hardly be put into question. Phryne looks like a perfect cognate of brown. (The famous hetaera Phryne is said to have received this nickname for her sallow skin, but other prostitutes were often called the same, and I have my own explanation of this fact; see below.) Toads, detested by some for all kinds of reasons, have occupied a conspicuous place in the superstitions of the whole world, beginning with at least the ancient Egyptian times. In Egypt, far from being shunned, they stood for fertility, and an amulet in the form of a toad supposedly replicated the uterus. Hequet was a goddess with the head of a frog.
Stories about frogs and toads are countless. One is especially famous. It is about a young man (prince) marrying a frog, which turns into a beautiful maiden. The Grimms knew a short and uninspiring version of this story (it is the opening one in their collection). In it the frog that insists on sleeping in the girl’s bed becomes a handsome prince, which is a variant of “Beauty and the Beast”; as a rule, in such tales the frog or the toad is a female. I would like to suggest, that the nickname Phryne had nothing to do with the hetaera’s skin. All other prostitutes who were called this could not have had the same tint. Since in the popular imagination toads and fertility went together and since Egyptian mythology and beliefs exercised a strong influence on the Greek mind, calling prostitutes toads would have made good sense.
Thus, as we can see, toads (brown creatures) were associated with things bad and good. On the one hand, they were feared for their supposed ugliness and identified with witches. On the other, they were venerated and thought to promote fertility. In that capacity, they frequently received votive offerings. From Egypt we should go to the British Isles, for whose sake I have told my story. As far as I can judge, no accepted etymology of brownie “imp” exists. The books at my disposal only say that brownies, benevolent imps, originated in Scotland and were brown. The earliest citations go back to the early seventeenth century. I have as little trust in brown brownies as in the brown-skinned Phryne among the Greeks. The name must have had magic connotations, but whether positive or negative is open to question. As time goes on, such creatures often change their attitude toward the houses they haunt. They can be friendly if treated well and hostile if offended. By contrast, brownies, chocolate cakes with nuts, are always brown and sweet (chocolate-colored, by definition).
My second example is literary. In Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey’s little daughter Florence is abducted by an ugly old rag and bone vendor. When the girl asks the woman about her name, it is given to her as Mrs. Brown and amended to Good Mrs. Brown. “She was a very ugly old woman, with red rims round her eyes, and a mouth that mumbled and chattered of itself when she was not speaking.” This is how she introduced herself to Florence: “…don’t vex me. If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you. But if you do, I’ll kill you. I could have killed you at any time—even if you was in your own bed at home.” I am sure somewhere in the immense literature on Dickens the folklore of Mrs. Brown was explained long ago. In any case, Dickens must have had a reason for calling the witch Mrs. Brown and adding ominously the ironic epithet good to the name, to reinforce the impression.
And here is a final flourish for today. I will be grateful for some reliable information on the origin of the last name Brown ~ Braune. Dictionaries say that the name goes back to the color of its bearers. I find this explanation puzzling. It is as though thousands of our neighbors were bears, beavers, and toads.
Why are people afraid to get old? Research shows that having a bad attitude toward aging at a young age is only detrimental to the young person’s health and well-being in the long-run. Contrary to common wisdom, our sense of well-being actually increases with our age–often even in the presence of illness or disability. Mindy Greenstein, PhD, and Jimmie Holland, MD, debunk the myth that growing older is something to fear in their new book Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging. In the following videos, Dr. Greenstein and Dr. Holland are joined by Holland’s granddaughter Madeline in a thought-provoking discussion about their different perspectives on aging in correlation to well-being.
The Relationship between Wisdom and Age
The Bridge between Older People and Younger Generations
On Fluctuations in Well-Being throughout Life
The Vintage Readers Book Club
Headline image credit: Cloud Sky over Brest. Photo by Luca Lorenzi. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
These prettily patterned book jackets were designed by writer and illustrator Leanne Shapton for a new Vintage Classics Austen series. Leanne tried to correspond her prints with each story and ensure that the pattern motifs feel appropriate for Jane Austen's work. I love book cover design and collecting books (as you will see from an earlier Austen post here) so I was really pleased to spot
Yesterday was a monumental and long awaited day for me: The Official Launch of my debut novel WHEELS OF CHANGE. I held the festivities at the local BARNES & NOBLE on the campus of Rowan University, in Glassboro NJ. It was a thrill to see so many people from all phases of my life turn out to show their support and help me celebrate. Here are some photos of the day:
The “Arrival Survival” Team from B&N set everything up for a successful day.
Friends make everything better…
Having my daughter and husband at the event made it extra special.
Teachers LOVE books…thank goodness! I LOVE teachers!
Many smiles brightened the day, many hugs were given and taken, many books were happily signed, many words of congratulations were heard. It was a wonderful way to send my book out into the world. Thanks to everyone who made the event possible. You are ALL wonderful and I will be eternally grateful for your generosity, enthusiasm and love.
It Was truly a “most Excellent Adventure” and a Five Star Day!
“Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.” –American Library Association
Here at Lee & Low Books, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite banned/challenged titles (in no particular order).
Note from Sooz: I am so delighted to share a guest post from author Grady Hendrix today. Personally, I am desperate to soak up any writing wisdom he might be so kind as to share.
Because guys, his new book Horrostör is incredible. Like, I got a copy of this in the mail, opened the package and snickered at the cover (and how the entire book is laid out like an Ikea catalog). Then I started reading…
…and two hours later, I finished the book. I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN. It was laugh-out-loud funny and also thoroughly terrifying. Plus, there was incredible character development, a thoroughly twisty plot, and OH MY GOSH, what an ending!!
Since I’m sure y’all are dying to read this book too now (seriously: everyone should read it.), then make sure you fill out the Rafflecopter form below! We’re giving away 2 copies (hooray!).
Now, I’ll hand over the mic to Sir Grady, writer extraordinaire.
When I was in college, I lived near the Music Palace and that gave me the better education by far. A vast, rotting hulk of a movie palace it showed Hong Kong double features for $6 and, being broke, that was a deal I couldn’t resist. The Music Palace led to me co-founding the New York Asian Film Festival, it led to me moving to Hong Kong, my wife and I bonded over our shared love for Stephen Chow’s Love on Delivery and the hand amputations in Always Be the Winners, and it taught me how to write. Because everything I learned about writing, I learned at the Music Palace.
Everything I learned about language, I learned from subtitles.
“Say if you find him lousy!” Uncle Bill shouts. “Thanks for elephant, it’ll be worse if it’s dinosaur,” mutters Lam Ching-ying. “Are you an archeologist or a sucker!” a cop screams in frustration. Hong Kong movies have to be subtitled in English, but that doesn’t mean the subtitles have to make sense. Recruiting random strangers off the street, or sometimes just making a production assistant stay up late with an out-of-date Cantonese-to-English dictionary, Hong Kong subtitles emerge looking like William Burroughs cut-ups. And I love them. Every time they stretch, push, bend, or otherwise mutate the English language I feel like a door is opening inside my brain. At this point in my life I’ve watched thousands of Hong Kong movies, and not a day goes by when I don’t find subtitles popping into my head. Stuck on a packed elevator? “It’s getting crowdy,” I think. Cut off by an annoying driver? “Damn you, stink man, try my melon!” rolls off my tongue. As I learned from Hong Kong movies, it’s not the actual words that are important. It’s the feeling.
Everything I learned about character, I learned from John Woo.
You may think that John Woo is all about the gunfights, but his secret weapon is his mastery of crafting iconic characters. He doesn’t need plots, he just drops his characters into the ring and lets their conflicting motives drive the story. Whether it’s happy-go-lucky Mark (Chow Yun-fat) in A Better Tomorrow who finally gets sick of being treated like an errand boy and decides to demand respect, or Jeff (Chow Yun-fat, again) in The Killer who’s wracked with guilt over blinding a bystander in an assassination and tries to earn enough money to get her a cornea transplant, or Ben, Frank, and Paul, trapped in Vietnam, one of them wanting to rescue a woman, one of them wanting to steal a crate of gold, and one of them just wanting to go home. In Woo’s movies there are simply characters who want things, and what they want and how they get it drives the story into some of the most insane action sequences ever put onscreen. Because character is action. Quite literally.
Everything I learned about plot, I learned from Comrades, Almost a Love Story
Plot means you throw everything horrible you can think of at your characters and watch them squirm, and by the end they need to be in a different place than where they began. No movie is better at this than Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story. When the movie begins, Leon Lai is a Mainlander who comes to Hong Kong to make money. He falls for local girl, Maggie Cheung, and then…complications. Chan (and screenwriter Ivy Ho) throw every conceivable twist at their two romantic leads and by the time the movie’s over these two characters may seem to be right back where they began, but the viewer isn’t. You’ll find yourself crying buckets of tears not over the main characters but over the people they’ve hurt on their way to “happiness.” Comrades is a movie where every time you think you know the story, you suddenly realize that it’s about something else entirely. Like a great magician, the creators distract your attention over there, and then take you by surprise from over here.
Everything I learned about writing scenes, I learned from Peking Opera Blues
I firmly believe that Peking Opera Blues is the greatest motion picture ever made. Period. Full stop. Movies don’t get any better than Tsui Hark’s tale of three women trying to keep their heads above water during the early 20th century when China was torn into factions by greedy warlords. And one thing he does better than anyone else is stage big fat setpieces that keep going, and going, and going. Just when you think a scene has gone as far as it can, it goes even further. Writers often skip from scene to scene, but great directors know that if you’re going to go through the trouble of lighting a scene, dressing a set, and placing your camera, then you better wring every last ounce of drama out of it. And so, for Tsui, even a scene of a character waking up becomes a slapstick ballet as her father enters her bedroom and she has to keep him from detecting any of the four other people hidden on her bed, armed with nothing more than a blanket. Rather than starting a new scene every ten minutes, Tsui digs deep and plays every spin, variation, and complication on every scene that he can possibly find, turning each one into a setpiece that’s packed with emotional and dramatic information.
Everything I learned about writing women, I learned from The Heroic Trio.
Hollywood has two models for women: mothers and whores. Sometimes they dish up a motherly whore, or a whorish mother, but that’s just about the entire emotional spectrum. I was lucky enough to see TheHeroic Trio back in 1993 when it first came out, and in Johnnie To’s movie an evil undead Chinese eunuch from the past is living in an underground lair in a dystopian future, stealing babies to turn them into an army of feral monsters. Opposing him are Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung), and Invisible Girl (Michelle Yeoh). Wonder Woman is a devoted mother who doesn’t get to spend as much time as she wants with her family because she’s constantly saving the world from evil. Thief Catcher is only in it for the money, but she’ll ultimately do the right thing. And Invisible Girl starts out purely evil, but changes sides when Wonder Woman and Thief Catcher offer her what she’s been missing: friendship. I came out of that movie theater understanding that inside every woman is a Thief Catcher, an Invisible Girl, and a Wonder Woman. I do my best to write them that way.
Well, you have succeeded, my friend. I ADORED Amy in Horrorstör. Thank you so much for joining us, Grady! And for all you readers interested in absorbing more of his wisdom, he’ll be touring all week across the interwebs:
Grady Hendrix writes fiction, also called “lies,” and he writes non-fiction, which people sometimes mistakenly pay him for. There is a science fiction book called Occupy Space that he is the author of, and also a fantasy book called Satan Loves You which he wrote as well. Along with his BFF from high school, Katie Crouch, he is the co-author of the YA series, The Magnolia League. With Ryan Dunlavey he was co-authored the Li’l Classix series, which are cartoon degradations of classic literature, and with his wife, and Ryan, he wrote Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook in America. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Pseudopod, and the anthology,The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.
He is very, very beautiful, but if you ever meet him, please do not let this make you uncomfortable. He does not judge.
Forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon faced certain impeachment by the Congress for the Watergate scandal. He resigned the presidency, expressing a sort of conditional regret:
I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
Nixon is not apologizing here as much as offering what sociologist Erving Goffman calls an account—a verbal reframing of his actions aimed at reducing their offensiveness. Nixon treats himself as a victim of his own mistakes and treats his mistakes as managerial, not criminal. His language is loaded with such words as “any,” “may,” “would,” and “if,” among others and circumlocutions likes “in the course of the events that led to this decision” and “what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.” Nixon offers regret, but there is no unconditional apology, and there never was.
I sometimes wonder how Nixon’s attitudes toward Watergate and his resignation were shaped by the 1952 presidential campaign, and the events that led to his so-called “Checkers” speech.
It was the home stretch of the 1952 campaign, in which the Republican ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and then-Senator Nixon were pitted against Democrats Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman to succeed President Harry Truman. Truman’s popularity was at a low point and Eisenhower and Nixon were optimistic about their chances. Then, in mid-September, the press began reporting stories of a secret expense fund established in 1950 by Nixon supporters. The New York Post offered the sensational headline that “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” As the story developed, many Democrats (and less publicly some Republicans) called for Nixon to be dropped from the ticket. News editorials disapproved of Nixon’s actions two-to-one. Even the Washington Post, which had endorsed the Republican ticket, called for Nixon to withdraw from the race.
The issue took some of the optimism out of the Eisenhower campaign. Eisenhower defended his Vice President publicly, but also promised that there would be a full reporting of the facts by independent auditors. The 39-year-old Nixon offered his account in a half-hour television address broadcast from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, on 23 September 1952.
“I want to tell you my side of the case,” he began, and in a speech that ran just over 4,500 words, Nixon used a series of rhetorical questions guide his audience through his version of events. He used the strategy that rhetoricians called differentiation by claiming that the fund issue was not what it seemed to be. Nixon said that there was no moral wrong because none of the money—about $18,000—was for Senatorial expenses and that none of the contributors receive special favors. He asserted his own good character by explaining why he needed the money: because he was not a rich man and he didn’t feel the taxpayers should pay his expenses.
Nixon bolstered his character further with his biography—explaining his modest background and finances, giving details down to the amount of his life insurance, mortgages, and material of his wife’s coat: not mink but “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” adding that “And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”
He added another rhetorical turn in the second half of his speech: “Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have?” Nixon’s answer was “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.” Here Nixon implies that he is motivated by a greater good and he pivots to an attack on his political opponents and his avowal that Eisenhower was “the man that can clean up the mess in Washington.”
The speech was the first ever use of television by a national candidate to speak directly to the nation and to defend himself against accusations of wrong-doing. And the public was impressed. For many, the most memorable part was when Nixon told the viewers about a black and white cocker spaniel puppy that a supporter from Texas had given his daughters. One of them named it Checkers, and Nixon defiantly asserted that, “regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The speech thus became known as “The Checkers Speech.”
Nixon finished with a call to action, asking his listeners to write to the Republican National Committee to show their support. His broadcast was seen by an estimated 60 million viewers, and letters and telegrams to the Republican National Committee were overwhelmingly supportive. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket and a few weeks later the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket carried the day with over 55% of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes.
Nixon accomplished three key verbal self-defense strategies in the “Checkers” speech. He argued that the fund was not what it seemed to be. He argued that he was a good steward of public funds and exposed his personal finances. He implied that he was serving a higher good because he supported General Eisenhower and opposed Communism.
But by 1974, things were different. Nixon was in trouble again, much worse trouble of his own making, and there was no “Checkers” speech, no way reframing his situation that would save his presidency. He resigned but he never apologized. Three years after resigning, in interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon was unequivocally defiant:
When I resigned, people didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.
Perhaps he was thinking about the “Checkers” speech.
Headline image credit: President Richard Nixon delivers remarks to the White House staff on his final day in office. From left to right are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president, First Lady Pat Nixon, Tricia Nixon Cox, and Ed Cox. 9 August 1974. White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
When the first production of On the Town in 1944 featured the Japanese American ballerina Sono Osato as its star, as part of a cast that also included whites and blacks, it aimed for a realistic depiction of the diversity among US citizens during World War II. It did so at a time when African Americans were expressing affinity with Nisei – that is, with second-generation children of Japanese nationals who had immigrated to other countries. The two communities shared the struggle of discrimination by the majority culture.
In 1942, the Office of War Information conducted a survey in Harlem, trying to gain an African-American perspective on the war, and opinions about the Japanese emerged in the process. Many Harlemites communicated a feeling that “these Japanese are colored people.” That quotation comes from a letter written by William Pickens, an African-American journalist who worked for the US Department of Treasury during World War II. When asked “Would you be better off if America or the Axis won the war?” most blacks in the survey stated they “would be treated either the same or better under Japanese rule, although a large majority responded that conditions would be worse under the Germans.”
Yet relationships between these two marginalized communities were not always easy, and On the Town became a flash point for racial distress. A striking case appeared in the memoir Long Old Road (Trident Press, 1965), written by Horace R. Cayton, Jr. An African American sociologist from Chicago, Cayton attended On the Town soon after he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred on 6 August 1945. He articulated a shared mission between Nisei and African Americans, yet he did so with considerable agitation. “Our seats were good, and the theater was cool after the heat of New York,” wrote Cayton. He responded positively to the opening number, “New York, New York,” then launched into an assessment of the racial and political complexities posed by Osato’s appearance on stage at that particular moment in time. He perceived her as racially accommodating.
“It was a catchy tune with cute lyrics, but when the beautiful Sono Osato, who is of Japanese descent, appeared and frolicked with the American sailors, I was filled with anger and disgust,” wrote Cayton. “I care more about your people than you do, I thought, as I sat through the rest of the first act looking at the floor and wondering how soon I could escape to the bar next door.”
Cayton’s “anger and disgust” came from watching Osato engage directly and uncritically with white actors playing the role of sailors. At intermission, Cayton’s wife June, who was white, said to him: “This is the first good musical I’ve seen in years. Isn’t Sono Osato wonderful?” Cayton then recounted a tense conversation between the two of them:
“If I were half-Japanese I wouldn’t be dancing with three American sailors at a time like this,” I [Cayton] commented sourly.
“Why shouldn’t she? She’s as America as you or I.” June began to warm to her subject. “She was born in this country. She’s one hundred per cent American, doesn’t even understand Japanese.”
[Cayton replied:] ‘She’s a Jap, I’m a nigger, and you’re a white girl. Let none of us forget what we are.”
Cayton’s outburst comes across as a racial polemic. But there was deep complexity to his reaction, as he expressed solidarity with other non-white races as they confronted the hegemonic power of Caucasians. Even though his language is disturbing, it is extraordinarily frank, acknowledging the era’s venomous racism against the Japanese and the degree to which African Americans felt themselves to be backed against a wall during World War II. Cayton continued:
“I’m torn a dozen ways. I didn’t want the Japanese to win; after all, I am an American. But the mighty white man was being humiliated, and by the little yellow bastards he had nothing but contempt for. It gave me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that white wasn’t always right, not always able to enforce its will on everyone who was colored. All those fine white liberals rejoicing because we dropped a bomb killing or maiming seventy-eight thousand helpless civilians. Why couldn’t we have dropped it on the Germans—because they were white? No, save it for the yellow bastards.”
Those multi-layered thoughts were unleashed by watching Sono Osato on stage, dancing an identity that was intended to portray her as “All-American” yet could not avoid the realities of her mixed-race heritage at a harrowing historical moment.
Headline Image: Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
The death rattle of the gender binary has been ringing for decades now, leaving us to wonder when it will take its last gasp. In this third decade of third wave feminism and the queer critique, dismantling the binary remains a critical task in the gender revolution. Language is among the most socially pervasive tools through which culture is negotiated, but in a language like English, with its minimal linguistic marking of gender, it can be difficult to find concrete signs that linguistic structures are changing to reflect new ways of thinking about the gender binary rather than simply repackaging old ideas.
One direction we might look, though, is toward the gendering of third person pronouns, which is what led me to write this post about pronouns on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. The social media giant may not be your first thought when it comes to feminist language activism, but this year’s shift in the way Facebook categorizes gender is among the most widely-felt signs of a sea change in institutional attitudes about gendered third person pronouns. Although Facebook does not have the same force as the educational system, governments, or traditional print media, it carries its own linguistic caché established through its corporate authority, its place in the cultural negotiation of coolness and social connection, and its near inescapable presence in everyday life.
In response to long-standing calls from transgender and gender non-conforming users to broaden its approach to gender, Facebook announced earlier this year that it would offer a new set of options. Rather than limiting members of the site to the selection of female or male, an extensive list of gender identities is offered, along with the option of a custom entry, including labels like agender, bigender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, trans person, two-spirit, transgender (wo)man and cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) (wo)man.
With all of the potential complexity afforded by these categories, Facebook couldn’t rely on a simple algorithm of assigning gendered pronouns for those occasions on which the website generates a third person reference to the user (e.g. “Wish ___ a happy birthday!”). Instead, it asks which set of pronouns a user prefers among three options: he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. As a result, there are two important ways that Facebook’s reconsideration of its gender classification system goes beyond the listing of additional gender categories. The first is the more obvious of the two: offering singular they as an option for those who prefer gender neutral reference forms. The other is simply the practice of asking for a pronoun preference rather than deriving it from gender or sex.
Sanctioning the use of singular they as a gender neutral pronoun counters the centuries-old grammarian’s complaint that they can only be used in reference to plural third person referents. Proponents of singular they, however, point out that the pronoun has been used by some of the English-speaking world’s finest writers and that it was in wide-spread use even before blatantly misogynistic language policies determined that he should be the gender-neutral pronoun in official texts of the British government. More recently, an additional source of support for singular they has arisen: for those who do not wish to be slotted into one side of the gender binary or the other, they is perhaps the most intuitive way to avoid gendered third-person pronouns because of its already familiar presence in most dialects of English. (Other options include innovative pronouns like ze/hir/hirs or ey/em/em’s.) In this case, a speaker must choose between upholding grammatical conventions and affirming someone’s identity.
But wait, you might ask – don’t we need a distinction between singular and plural they? How are we supposed to know when someone is talking about a single person and when they’re talking about a group? Though my post isn’t necessarily meant to defend the use of singular they in reference to specific individuals (an argumentothers have madequite extensively), this point is worth addressing briefly if only to dispel the notion that the standard pronoun system is logical while deviations are somehow logically flawed. As the pronoun charts included here illustrate, there is already a major gap in the standard English pronoun system when compared to many other languages: a distinction between singular and plural you. Somehow we get by, however, relying on context and sometimes asking for clarification. Could we do the same with they?
The second pronoun-related change Facebook has made – asking for preferred pronouns rather than determining them based on gender category – is a more fundamental challenge to the normative take on assigning pronouns. According to conventional wisdom, a speaker will select whether to use she or he based on certain types of information about the person being referred to: how their bodily sex is perceived, how they present their gender, and in some cases other contextual factors like their name. To be uncertain about which gendered pronoun to use can be a source of great anxiety, exemplified by cultural artifacts like Saturday Night Live’s androgynous character from the 1990s known only as Pat. No one ever asks Pat about their gender because to do so would presumably be a grave insult, as Pat apparently has no idea that they have an androgynous appearance (were you able to follow me, despite the singular they’s?).
But transgender and queer communities are increasingly turning this logic on its head. Rather than risk being “mis-pronouned,” as community members sometimes call it, it is becoming the norm for introductions in many trans and queer contexts to include pronouns preferences along with names. For instance, my name is Lal and I prefer he/him/his pronouns. (Even the custom of calling these “male” pronouns has been critiqued on the basis that one needn’t identify as male in order to prefer he/him/his pronouns.) The goal behind this move is to remove the tension of uncertainty and to avoid potential offense or embarrassment before it takes place. But this is not just a practice for transgender and gender non-conforming people; the ideal is that no one’s pronoun preferences be taken for granted. Instead of determining pronouns according to appearance, they become a matter of open negotiation in which one can demonstrate an interest in using language that feel maximally respectful to others.
Facebook’s adoption of this new approach to pronouns, despite prescriptive grammarians’ objections, suggests that the acceptance and use of singular they is expanding. More than that, it furthers the normalization of self-selected pronouns since even those who are totally unfamiliar with the use of singular they as a preferred pronoun, or the very idea of pronoun preferences, may be faced with unexpected pronouns in their daily newsfeeds.
For those of us at academic institutions with sizable transgender and gender non-conforming communities, the practices discussed here may already be underway on campus. During my time teaching at Reed College, for instance, I found students to be enthusiastic about including pronoun preferences in our beginning-of-semester introductions even in classes where everyone’s pronoun preferences aligned with normative expectations.
My goal here isn’t to argue that the gender binary is dissolving in the face of new pronoun practices. Indeed, linguistic negotiations of gender and sexual binaries are far too complex to draw such a simple conclusion. However, what I do want to suggest is that we are in the midst of some kind of shift in the way pronouns are used and understood among speakers of English. Describing a more fully complete change of this sort, linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein has explained how religious and political ideology among speakers of Early Modern English resulted in a collapse of the second person pronouns thou (singular, informal) and you (plural, formal). In the present case, rapidly changing ideologies about the gender binary may be pushing us toward a different organization of third person pronouns of the sort illustrated by the non-binary pronoun chart above.
The effect of Facebook on linguistic practice more broadly has yet to be fully uncovered, but its capital-driven flexibility and omnipresence in contemporary social life suggests that it may be a powerful tool in ideologically-driven language change.
I am a huge Oliver Jeffers fan but have to admit his last few picture books haven’t hit the mark. That of course excludes the absolutely brilliant The Day The Crayons Quit he did with Drew Daywalt last year which was simply outstanding. Oliver Jeffers illustrations have always been outstanding but it was his stories that seemed […]
We drove up the coast this weekend to move Jane back into school. My parents held down the fort here at home. Scott and I stayed in Pismo Beach and I was swooning every minute. California’s Central Coast is as lovely as it gets.
Now home, and the house seems so quiet with only five kids. Only, heh. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our regular routine. I have a stack of books awaiting me at the library, which is closed on Mondays. I was itchy all day for it to open.
Speaking of new books: two launches today made my heart go pittypat. One is Sarah Elwell’s latest, this one delivered in an innovative serialized-ebook fashion. Each week for three months you get a new installment. Sarah’s work is haunting and lovely, and I can’t wait to read this. A novel in weekly installments might just suit my jam-packed Cybils season schedule.
Not surprisingly, the Kochs [siblings David and Charles, inheritors of the second largest privately owned company in the US, Tea Party supporters, and opposed to action on climate change] are the number-one hate figures of the progressive left and environmentalists alike, and the grinning brothers are often portrayed in activist literature as the twin heads of the “Kochtopus,” surrounded by the spreading tentacles of their gas, oil, and chemical interests. This is the latest in a long cartoon history of rampaging corporate cephalopods, which have included railroad monopolies, ice monopolies, Tammany Hall crooks, [and] Standard Oil.
Heh, rampaging corporate cephalopods. Makes me laugh every time I read it.
I have a few writing and reading commitments I must attend to this week so posts might be skimpy. If only there were enough time in the day to fit everything in! I’ll try, but, well, we’ll see.
Jenn recommended Chip of the Flying U, by B.M. Bower, about a year ago, and that’s probably how long it’s been sitting on my Kindle. I don’t know why I picked it up this weekend, except that the internet in my apartment wasn’t working and I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about anything I was more familiar with, but I’m glad I did. It’s almost entirely delightful, one of those books that does enough right that you don’t care that much about the stuff it doesn’t. And if you have to be content with a kind of ham-fisted ending, well, everything before that is so much fun that the book has kind of earned the right to fall apart in the last chapter.
The Flying U is a Montana ranch owned by James G. Whitmore, and Chip is a sensitive, artistic cow-puncher. Don’t laugh; it’s awesome. He’s got a square chin and long eyelashes and a horse he loves a lot, and it’s kind of over the top, but in a cute way. Della Whitmore is cute, too. She’s the younger sister of James G., paying an extended visit after graduation from medical school, and she’s got grey eyes and dimples to go with Chip’s chin and eyelashes.
She makes a positive first impression when she shoots a coyote with Chip’s rifle on the way back from the train station, the day of her arrival. The rest of the book is about him being in denial about being in love with her, basically. There’s no reason he should deny it, except that Della writes frequently to a Dr. Cecil Granthum. So Chip mopes, and “the Little Doctor” flirts with him and displays a fair amount of unreasonable behavior. I worry this is meant to make her seem more feminine. But more importantly, she’s good at her job, and he’s good at his, and there’s humor and artistic triumphs and a tiny bit of adventure besides. It’s a funny book and a sweet one, and while I found Della inconsistent, and Chip almost unrecognizable in the final scene, it his enough of the right buttons at the right times that I smiled my way through the entire book.
“Pretend the window is a screen,” said poet Susan Blackaby at this morning’s #alsc14 session “The Poetry of Science.” People spend so much time with their eyes glued to their electronic devices that they’re liable to miss what’s going on in their environment. Imagine if people gave as much concentration to nature as they give to their computer screens. How many hawks would they see? What other wonders would they encounter?
Author Margarita Engle joined today’s panel, discussing how she uses both poetry and her science background to advocate for animal and environment conservation. As a child, Engle said, “No curiosity was too small for concentration.” She made the point that the phrase “the spirit of wonder” is applicable to both science and poetry. Because of this commonality, it’s possible to interest poetry loving kids in science phenomena and give science fans the chance to experiment with language.
Poet Janet Wong said that it’s easy–and vital–to create science literacy moments in the classroom and at the library. The key is to be bold. “Science and technology are accessible to people if they’re not afraid.” As gatekeepers of information, teachers and librarians should embrace the responsibility to expose kids to all subjects. Linking language and science may be a key way to make science more approachable. It doesn’t even have to be an elaborate lesson: just a few science literacy moments a week will have a lasting impact on children’s lives.
Traveling through Scotland, one is struck by the number of memorials devoted to those who lost their lives in World War I. Nearly every town seems to have at least one memorial listing the names of local boys and men killed in the Great War (St. Andrews, where I am spending the year, has more than one).
Many who served in World War I undoubtedly suffered from what some contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists have labeled ‘moral injury’, a psychological affliction that occurs when one acts in a way that runs contrary to one’s most deeply-held moral convictions. Journalist David Wood characterizes moral injury as ‘the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation’ and declares that it is ‘the signature wound of [the current] generation of veterans.’
By definition, one cannot suffer from moral injury unless one has deeply-held moral convictions. At the same time that some psychologists have been studying moral injury and how best to treat those afflicted by it, other psychologists have been uncovering the cognitive mechanisms that are responsible for our moral convictions. Among the central findings of that research are that our emotions often influence our moral judgments in significant ways and that such judgments are often produced by quick, automatic, behind-the-scenes cognition to which we lack conscious access.
Thus, it is a familiar phenomenon of human moral life that we find ourselves simply feeling strongly that something is right or wrong without having consciously reasoned our way to a moral conclusion. The hidden nature of much of our moral cognition probably helps to explain the doubt on the part of some philosophers that there really is such a thing as moral knowledge at all.
In 1977, philosopher John Mackie famously pointed out that defenders of the reality of objective moral values were at a loss when it comes to explaining how human beings might acquire knowledge of such values. He declared that believers in objective values would be forced in the end to appeal to ‘a special sort of intuition’— an appeal that he bluntly characterized as ‘lame’. It turns out that ‘intuition’ is indeed a good label for the way many of our moral judgments are formed. In this way, it might appear that contemporary psychology vindicates Mackie’s skepticism and casts doubt on the existence of human moral knowledge.
Not so fast. In addition to discovering that non-conscious cognition has an important role to play in generating our moral beliefs, psychologists have discovered that such cognition also has an important role to play in generating a great many of our beliefs outside of the moral realm.
According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, quick, automatic, non-conscious processing (which he has labeled ‘System 1′ processing) is both ubiquitous and an important source of knowledge of all kinds:
‘We marvel at the story of the firefighter who has a sudden urge to escape a burning house just before it collapses, because the firefighter knows the danger intuitively, ‘without knowing how he knows.’ However, we also do not know how we immediately know that a person we see as we enter a room is our friend Peter. … [T]he mystery of knowing without knowing … is the norm of mental life.’
This should provide some consolation for friends of moral knowledge. If the processes that produce our moral convictions are of roughly the same sort that enable us to recognize a friend’s face, detect anger in the first word of a telephone call (another of Kahneman’s examples), or distinguish grammatical and ungrammatical sentences, then maybe we shouldn’t be so suspicious of our moral convictions after all.
The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains.
The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/?p=75592&preview=true#sthash.aozalMuy.dpuf
In all of these cases, we are often at a loss to explain how we know, yet it is clear enough that we know. Perhaps the same is true of moral knowledge.
Still, there is more work to be done here, by both psychologists and philosophers. Ironically, some propose a worry that runs in the opposite direction of Mackie’s: that uncovering the details of how the human moral sense works might provide support for skepticism about at least some of our moral convictions.
Psychologist and philosopher Joshua Greene puts the worry this way:
‘I view science as offering a ‘behind the scenes’ look at human morality. Just as a well-researched biography can, depending on what it reveals, boost or deflate one’s esteem for its subject, the scientific investigation of human morality can help us to understand human moral nature, and in so doing change our opinion of it. … Understanding where our moral instincts come from and how they work can … lead us to doubt that our moral convictions stem from perceptions of moral truth rather than projections of moral attitudes.’
The challenge advanced by Greene and others should motivate philosophers who believe in moral knowledge to pay attention to findings in empirical moral psychology. The good news is that hope for the reality of moral knowledge remains.
And if there is moral knowledge, there can be increased moral wisdom and progress, which in turn makes room for hope that someday we can solve the problem of war-related moral injury not by finding an effective way of treating it but rather by finding a way of avoiding the tragedy of war altogether. Reflection on ‘the war to end war’ may yet enable it to live up to its name.
With turmoil in the Middle East, from Egypt’s changing government to the emergence of the Isalmic State, we recently sat down with Shadi Hamid, author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, to discuss about his research before and during the Arab Spring, working with Islamists across the Middle East, and his thoughts on the future of the region.
In your recent New York Times essay “The Brotherhood Will Be Back,” you argue that there is still support for the mixing of religion and politics, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent failure in power. So do you see a way for Egypt to achieve stability in the years ahead? Can they look toward their neighbors (Jordan, Tunisia?) for a positive example?
Cultural attitudes toward religion do not change overnight, particularly when they’ve been entrenched for decades. Even if a growing number of Egyptians are disillusioned with the way Islam is “used” for political gain, this does not necessarily translated into support for “secularism,” a word which is still anathema in Egyptian public discourse. One of my book’s arguments I is that democratization not only pushes Islamists toward greater conservatism but that it also skews the entire political spectrum rightwards.
In Chapter 3, for instance, I look at the Arab world’s “forgotten decade,” when there were several intriguing but ultimately short-lived democratic experiments. Here, the ostensibly secular Wafd party, sensing the shift in the country toward greater piety, opted to Islamize its political program, something which was all too obvious (perhaps even a bit too obvious) in its 1984 program. It devoted an entire section to the application of Islamic law, in which the Wafd stated that Islam was both “religion and state.” The program also called for combating moral “deviation” in society and purifying the media of anything contradicting the sharia and general morals. The Wafd party also supported the supposedly secular regime of Anwar Sadat’s ambitious effort in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reconcile Egyptian law with Islamic law. Led by speaker of parliament and close Sadat confidant Sufi Abu Talib, the initiative wasn’t just mere rhetoric; Abu Talib’s committees painstakingly produced hundreds of pages of detailed legislation, covering civil transactions, tort reform, criminal punishments, as well as the maritime code.
The point here is that the Islamization of society (itself pushed ahead by Islamists) doesn’t just affect Islamists. Even Egypt’s president, former general Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, cannot escape these deeply embedded social realities.
Egypt is de-democratizing right now, but the Sissi regime, unlike Mubarak’s, is a popular autocracy where the brutal suppression of one particular group — the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — is cheered on by millions of Egyptians. Sissi, then, is not immune from mass sentiment. A populist in the classic vein, Sissi seems to understand this and, like the Brotherhood, instrumentalizes religion for partisan ends. In many ways, Sissi’s efforts surpass those of Islamists before him, asserting great control over al-Azhar, the premier seat of Sunni scholarship in the region, and using the clerical establishment to shore up his regime’s legitimacy. Sissi has said that it’s the president’s role to promote a “correct understanding” of Islam. His regime has also been politically ostentatious with religion in its crackdown against the Gay community, leading one observer to note that
Religion is a powerful tool in a deeply religious society and Sissi, whatever his personal inclinations, can’t escape that basic fact, particularly with a mobilized citizenry.
Looking at the region more broadly, there are really no successful models of reconciling democracy with Islamism, at least not yet, and this failure is likely to have long-term consequences on the region’s trajectory. Turkish Islamists had to effectively concede who they were and become something else — “conservative democrats” — in order to be fully incorporated in Turkish politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party, threatened with Egypt-style mass protests and with the secular opposition calling for the dissolution of parliament and government, opted to step down from power. The true test for Tunisia, then, is still to come: what happens if Ennahda wins the next scheduled elections, and the elections after that, and feels the need to be more responsive to its conservative base? Will this lead, again, to a breakdown in political order, with secular parties unwilling to live with greater “Islamization”?
You began your research on Islamist movements before the start of the Arab Spring. How did your project change after the unrest in 2011? What book did you think you would write when you began living in the region — and what did it become after the revolutions?
I began my research on Islamist movements in 2004-5, when I was living in Jordan as a Fulbright fellow. These were movements that displayed an ambivalence toward power, to the extent that they even lost elections on purpose (an odd phenomenon that was particularly evident in Jordan). Power, and its responsibilities, were dangerous. After the Islamic Salvation Front dominated the first round of the 1991 Algerian elections, and with the military preparing to intervene, the Algerian Islamist Abdelkader Hachani warned a crowd of supporters: “Victory is more dangerous than defeat.” In a sense, then, I was lucky to be able to expand the book’s scope to cover the tumultuous events of 2011-3, allowing me to explore evolving, and increasingly contradictory, attitudes toward power. Because if power was dangerous, it was also tempting, and so this became a recurring theme in the book: the potentially corrupting effects of political power, a problem which was particularly pronounced with groups that claimed a kind of religious purity that transcended politics. The book became about these two phases in the Islamist narrative, in opposition and under repression, on one hand, and during democratic openings, on the other. And then, of course, back again. I knew the military coup of 3 July 2013 and then the Rabaa massacre of 14 August — a dark, tragic blot on Egypt’s history — provided the appropriate bookend. The Brotherhood had returned to its original, purer state of opposition.
The Arab Spring also provided an opportunity to think more seriously and carefully about the effects of democratization. Would democratization have a moderating effect on mainstream Islamist movements, as the academic and conventional wisdom would suggest? Or was there a darker undercurrent, with democratization unleashing ideological polarization and pushing Islamists further to the right? I wanted to challenge a kind of cultural essentialism in reverse: that Islamists, like its ideological counterparts in Latin America or Western Europe, would be no match for “liberal democracy,” history’s apparent end state. Any kind of determinism, even the liberal variety, would prove problematic, especially for us as Americans with our tendency to believe that the process of history would overwhelm the whims of ideology. In a way, I wanted to believe it too, and for many years I did. As someone who has long been a proponent of supporting democracy in the Middle East, this puts me in a bit of a bind: In the Middle East, democracy is simply less attractive. Yes. And now, since the book has come out, I’ve been challenged along these very lines: “Maybe democracy isn’t so good after all… Maybe the dictators were right.” Well, in a sense, they were right. But this is only a problem if we conceive of democracy as some sort of panacea or short-term fix. Democracy is supposed to be difficult, and this is perhaps where the comparisons to the third-wave democracies of the 1980s and 1990s were misleading. The divides of Arab countries were “foundational,” meaning that they weren’t primarily “policy” problems; they were the more basic problems of the State, its meaning, its purpose, and, of course, the role of religion in public life, which inevitably brings us back to the identity of the State. What kind of conception of the Good should the Egyptian or Tunisian states be promoting? Should the state be neutral or should it be a state with a moral or religious mission? These are raw, existential divides that hearken back more to 1848 than 1989.
You conducted many interviews to research Temptations of Power. How did the interviews craft your argument — whether you were speaking with political leaders, activists, students, or citizens? Feel free to mention some examples.
Spending so much time with Islamist activists and leaders over the course of a decade, some of whom I got to know quite well, was absolutely critical. And this book — and pretty much every thing I know and think about Islamist movements — has been informed and shaped by those discussions. I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned that way; that to understand Islamists, you have to sit with them, talk to them, and get to know them as individuals with their own fears and aspirations. This is where I think it’s important for scholars of political Islam to cordon off their own beliefs and political commitments. Just because I’m an American and a small-l liberal (and those two, in my case, are intertwined), doesn’t mean that Egyptians or Jordanians should be subject to my ideological preferences. If you go into the study of Islamism trying to compare Islamists to some liberal ideal, then that’s distorting. Islamists, after all, are products of their own political context, and not ours. So that’s the first thing.
Second, as a political scientist, my tendency has always been to put the focus on political structures, and the first half of my book does quite a bit of that. In other words, context takes precedence: that Islamists — or, for that matter, Islam — are best understood as products of various political variables. This is true, but only up to a point and I worry that we as academics have gone too much in this direction, perhaps over-correcting for what, decades ago, was a seeming obsession with belief and doctrine.
When religion is less relevant in our own lives, it can be difficult to make that jump, to not just understand — but to relate — to its meaning and power for believers, and for those, in particular, who believe they have a cause beyond this life. But I think that outsiders have to make an extra effort to close that gap. And that, in some ways, is the most challenging, and ultimately rewarding, aspect of my work: to be exposed to something fundamentally different. I think, at this point, I feel like I have a good grasp on how mainstream Islamists see the world around them. What I still struggle with is the willingness to die. If I was at a sit-in and the army was coming in with live fire, I’d run for the hills. And that’s why my time interviewing Brotherhood members in Rabaa — before the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history — was so fascinating and forced me to at least try and transcend my own limitations as an analyst. Gehad al-Haddad — who had given up a successful business career in England to return to Egypt — told me was “very much at peace.” He was ready to die, and I knew that he, and so many others, weren’t just saying it. Because many of them — more than 600 — did, in fact, die.
Where does this willingness to die come from? I found myself pondering this same question just a few weeks ago when I was in London. One Brotherhood activist, now unable to return to Egypt, relayed the story of a protester standing at the front line, when the military moved in to “disperse” the sit-in. A bullet grazed his shoulder. Behind him, a man fell to the ground. He had been shot to death. He looked over and began to cry. He could have died a martyr. He knew the man behind him had gone to heaven, in God’s great glory. This is what he longed for. As I heard this story, it couldn’t have been any more clear: this wasn’t politics in any normal sense. Purity, absolution. This was the language of religion, the language of certainties. Where politics, in a sense, is about accepting, or at least coming to terms, with impossibility of purity.
Are you working on any new publications at the moment?
I’m hoping to build on the main arguments in my book and look more closely at how the inherent tensions between religion and mundane politics are expressed in various contexts. This, I think, is at least part of what makes Islamists so important to our understanding of the Middle East. Because their story is, in some ways, the story of a region that is breaking apart because of the inability to answer the fundamental questions of identity, religion, God, citizenship, and State-ness. One project will look at how various Islamist movements have responded to a defining moment in the Islamist narrative — the military coup of July 3, 2013, which has quickly replaced the Algerian coup of 1992 as the thing that always inevitably comes up when you talk to an Islamist. In some ways, I suspect it will prove even more defining in the long-run. Algeria, as devastating as it was, was still somehow remote (and, ironically enough, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Algerian offshoot allowed itself to be co-opted by the military government throughout most of Algeria’s “black decade”).
This time around, there are any number of lessons to be learned. One response among Islamists is that the Brotherhood should have been more confrontational, moving more aggressively against the “deep state” instead of seeking temporary accommodation. While others fault the Brotherhood for not being inclusive enough, and alienating the very allies who had helped bring it to power. But, of course, these two “lessons” are not mutually exclusive, with many believing that the Brotherhood — although it’s not entirely clear how exactly this would work in practice — should have been both more aggressive and more inclusive.
You recently went on a US tour to promote and discuss Temptations of Power — any recent discussion items, comments or questions which supported your conclusions or refined your thinking that you would like to share?
During the tour, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the more philosophical aspects of the book, including the “nature” of Islam, liberalism, and democracy. These are contested terms; Islam, for instance, can mean very different things to different people. A number of people would ask about Narendra Modi, India’s democratically-elected prime minister and somewhat notorious Hindu nationalist. Here’s someone who, in addition to being illiberal, was complicit in genocidal acts against the Muslim minority in Gujarat. But an overwhelming number of Indians voted for him in a free, democratic process. There’s something inspiring about accepting electoral outcomes that might very well be personally threatening to you. Another allied country, Israel, is a democracy with strong (and seemingly stronger) illiberal tendencies. Popular majorities
In some sense, the tensions between liberalism and democracy are universal and trying to find the right balance is an ongoing struggle (although it’s more pronounced and more difficult to address in the Middle Eastern context). So it makes little sense to expect a given Arab country to become anything resembling a liberal democracy in two or three years, when, even in our own history as Americans, our liberalism as well as our democracy were very much in doubt at any number of key points. (I just read this excellent Peter Beinart piece on our descent into populary-backed illiberalism during World War I. Cincinnati actually banned pretzels).
At the same time, looking at other cases has helped me better grasp what, exactly, makes the Middle East different. For example, as illiberal as Modi and the BJP might be, the ideological distance between them and the Congress Party isn’t as much as we might think. In part, this is because the Hindu tradition, to use Michael Cook’s framing, is simply less relevant to modern politics. As Cook writes, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Islamists, on the other hand, do have a law and it’s a law that’s taken seriously by large majorities in much of the region. The distinctive nature of “law” — and its continued relevance — in today’s Middle East does add a layer of complexity to the problem of pluralism. This gets us into some uncomfortable territory but I think to ignore it would be a mistake. Islam is distinctive in how it relates to modern politics, at least relative to other major religions. This isn’t bad or good. It just is, and I think this is worth grappling with. As the region plunges into ever greater violence, with questions of religion at the fore, we will need to be more honest about this, even if it’s uncomfortable. This, sometimes, can be as simple as taking religion, and “Islam” in particular, more seriously in an age of secularism. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, which I cite in the book, from the great historian of the Muslim Brotherhood, Richard Mitchell. The Islamic movement, he said, “would not be a serious movement worthy of our attention were it not, above all, an idea and a personal commitment honestly felt.”
Heading image: Protesters fests toward Pearl roundabout. By Bahrain in pictures, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
I’ve been reading a lot of great children’s books lately and want to tell you about three I recently enjoyed.
1. DON’T TURN THE PAGE by Rachelle Burk (Creston Books) – is a delightful PB about a young hedgehog named Sami who wants mama to read her a story as she gets ready for bed, but tries to prolong the routine by telling Mama “Don’t turn the page.” Sami’s curiosity makes her question what happens next as she peeks at the next page of the story. It’s the perfect tale for little ones who are reluctant to say goodnight.
2. EDGAR’S SECOND WORD by Audrey Vernick: This delightful PB tells the tale of a little girl who longs for a baby brother to play with and teach things to. When Edgar finally arrives, Hazel is disappointed because he can’t talk or do much of anything until one day when he learns his first word. It is NOT what Hazel expected at all! A charming story for any child waiting for a sibling to be big enough to play with.
3. JUNIPER BERRY by M. P. Kozlowsky: This MG novel is a spooky and engaging tale of a lonely girl whose famous acting parents are acting even stranger than usual. Once loving and attentive, they’ve now forgotten Juniper is even around. One day she finds them sneaking out after dark toward an old, sinister looking tree. What is it about that tree – and the blackbird that lives in it – that makes her parents behave so strangely? Juniper is determined to find out, before it’s too late.
Check out these books and all the other wonderful titles that can be found at your local library or bookstore. Start the school year off with a great story!
On 22 September 1692 eight more victims of the Salem witch trials were executed on Gallows Hill. After watching the executions of Martha Cory, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Willmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker, Salem’s junior minister Nicholas Noyes exclaimed “What a sad thing to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.” These would be the last of the executions, for the trials were facing increasing opposition amid a growing dissatisfaction with the political and spiritual leadership of the colony. Symbolic of that displeasure, less than two months later Noyes’s cousin, Sarah Noyes Hale, the wife of Beverly’s Reverend John Hale, would stand accused of witchcraft.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer, created by Governor Sir William Phips to deal with the witchcraft crisis, increasingly mimicked the arbitrary rule of the former governor Sir Edmond Andros and his hated Dominion of New England. Andros restricted rights and controlled the legal system through his appointment of judges, officials and “packed and picked” juries that did his bidding. In 1687 when several Essex County towns rose up in a tax revolt, protesting what they saw as Andros’s arbitrary and illegal tax law, Sir Edmond acted quickly to try and convict the leaders before a specially established Court of Oyer and Terminer. One of the judges on that panel was William Stoughton, a former minister.
Now five years later, under a new government and royal charter that had supposedly restored English liberties to Massachusetts, William Stoughton headed another Court of Oyer and Terminer that was again making quick and arbitrary decisions. This time people were losing their lives. In a two week session in early September, the court heard 15 cases and convicted 15 people of witchcraft. It was a rush to judgment, especially when the evidence was not as strong as in earlier prosecutions. Judges increasingly relied on dubious spectral evidence, and many observers must have been taken aback by the treatment of Giles Cory. He had been pressed to death on 19 September for standing mute when asked if he would accept a trial by jury. Worse, no one who confessed to being a witch had been executed – with the exception of Samuel Wardwell, who recanted his confession. Only those who refused to confess met death.
The trials were but one failure of a weak government that continued to mismanage a war that had damaged the colony’s economy and threatened its very existence. The conflict against the French Catholics of Canada and their Native allies was also symbolic of the ongoing spiritual struggle in Massachusetts. Religious and political leaders had long called for a campaign for moral reformation to end the perceived decline of Puritan faith. The many accusations of witchcraft against the religious and political elite and their families show the extreme level of discontent at the failure of these policy makers.
A total of 20 people (11%) of the 172 formally accused or informally cried out on for witchcraft in 1692 were ministers or their close relatives. The number grows to 50 if one includes extended kin and in-laws of ministers – fully 30% of the people accused in 1692. In all, five ministers, four minister’s wives, three daughters, a son, two brothers and five grandchildren of ministers were cried out upon. Warrants were issued for only five of the twenty, and only two – George Burroughs and Abigail Dane Faulkner (daughter of Andover’s Reverend Francis Dane) would face the Court of Oyer and Terminer.
Burrough’s story is well known but historians have given little attention to Samuel Willard, Francis Dane, John Busse and Jeremiah Shepard, for none were ever formally charged. But they form an important part of an overlooked pattern of accusations against ministers and their families. Virtually all of the ministers who were accused or had family accused preached in New England churches that had accepted the Halfway Covenant – a controversial compromise that conservatives saw as a threat to Puritan orthodoxy.
These ministerial families were allied to each other by marriage, as can be seen in the example of Sarah Noyes Hale who was related to eight ministers. Her brother James would later be one of the seven ministers who founded Yale University. These families also married into the leading political families of the colony, so the accusations were a critique of the political and military leadership as well, including the witchcraft judges. And, the accusations went to the very top. Both Lady Mary Spencer Phips and Maria Cotton Mather were cried out upon. Clearly they served as stand-ins for their husbands – Governor Phips and his chief confidante, Reverend Increase Mather.
Maria Mather was the lynchpin connecting the two most important families of Puritan divines in Massachusetts. Her husband Increase was the President of Harvard College and the son of the prominent Reverend Richard Mather, while her father John Cotton was perhaps the leading Puritan theologian to join the Great Migration. Maria was also the sister of two ministers, sister-in-law of four more, and mother of Reverends Cotton and Samuel Mather. Increase and Cotton were both longstanding advocates of the Halfway Covenant but their conservative North Church had refused to accept it. During the trials, the Mathers were in the final stages of a campaign to get the North Church to adopt the Halfway Covenant. One of the few stalwart church members who stood in the way was Oyer and Terminer Judge John Richards.
The executions of 22 September were clearly the last straw for many observers of the witch trials. They generated opposition to the proceedings and the government, as well as accusations against the colony’s elite. It is notable that soon after his wife was cried out upon, Sir William Phips finally brought the Court of Oyer and Terminer to an end.
Headline image credit: Photo courtesy of Emerson “Tad” Baker.
Strong, stable relationships are essential for both individuals and societies to flourish, but, from transportation policy to the criminal justice system, and from divorce rules to the child welfare system, the legal system makes it harder for parents to provide children with these kinds of relationships.
In her book Failure to Flourish: How Law Undermines Family Relationships, Clare Huntington argues that the legal regulation of families stands fundamentally at odds with the needs of families. We interviewed Professor Huntington about the connection between families and inequality. In the clips below, she explains policies and misconceptions that prevent us from helping families during the crucial first years of a child’s life, provides examples of supportive family law and good neighborhood development, and describes how helping families plays a role in fighting poverty.
Family law and how it affects families
Politics and policy in family law
The role of families in fighting poverty
How do you get into family law?
Headline image credit: family traffic sign. Public domain via Pixabay.
When the UN General Assembly endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005, the members of the United Nations recognized the responsibility of states to protect the basic human and humanitarian rights of the world’s citizens. In fact, R2P articulates concentric circles of responsibility, starting with the individual state’s obligation to ensure the well-being of its own people; nested within the collective responsibility of the community of nations to assist individual states in meeting those obligations; in turn encircled by the responsibility of the United Nations to respond if necessary to ensure the basic rights of civilians, with military means only contemplated as a last resort, and only with the consent of the Security Council.
The Responsibility to Protect is a response to war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity. But R2P is also a response to pattern and practice human rights abuses that include entrenched poverty, widespread hunger and malnutrition, and endemic disease and denials of basic health care — all socio-economic conditions which themselves feed and exacerbate armed conflict. In fact, socio-economic development is a powerful mechanism for guaranteeing the full panoply of human rights, just as the Millennium Development Goals are a means of fulfilling the Responsibility to Protect.
While Responsibility to Protect is often misconstrued as a mandate for military action, it is more intrinsically a call to social action, and the embodiment of the joint and several responsibilities of the community of nations to seek a coordinated global response to life-threatening conditions of armed conflict, repression, and socio-economic misery. While diplomats and public servants debate the legality and prudence of military responses to criminal uses of military force against civilians, we must not neglect the legality, prudence, and urgency of non-military responses to public health and poverty emergencies throughout the world.
The United States has put out a call to like-minded nations to join forces, literally and figuratively, in the degradation and destruction of the criminal militancy of the so-called Islamic State [ISIL or ISIL]. Despite concerns that the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq itself may have led to the inception and flourishing of ISIS, and despite warnings that the training, arming, and assisting of Iraqi forces, Shia militias in Iraq and non-ISIS Sunni militants in Syria may inflame sectarian violence and threaten civilians in both countries, the United States is contemplating another open-ended military intervention in the Levant.
A military intervention against ISIS is not justified by the principles of Responsibility to Protect. Without the authorization of the Security Council or the consent of the Syrian government, military intervention is unlawful in Syria, offending both the UN Charter and the tenets of R2P. In either Syria or Iraq a military intervention, even with the permission of the responsible governments, is unlawful if it is likely to lead to further outrages against civilians. Military action that predictably causes the suffering of civilians disproportionate to any legitimate military objectives violates the principles of humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions, as well as the UN Charter and R2P.
Alongside the criminal militancy of ISIS we face the existential threat of the Ebola virus in West Africa, endangering the people of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and their neighbors. Over the past two months, approximately 5000 people have been infected by this hemorrhagic disease, and around 2500 have died, over 150 of them health care workers. At current rates of infection, with new cases doubling every three weeks, the virus could sicken 10,000 by the end of September, 40,000 by mid-November, and 120,000 by the New Year.
Ebola can be contained through basic public health responses: quarantining of the sick, tracing of exposure in families and communities, safe recovery of the bodies of the deceased, regular hand-washing and sanitation, and the all-important rebuilding of trust between effected community members, health care workers, and government officials. But the very countries impacted have fragile health care systems, insufficient hospital beds, and dedicated Red Cross workers, doctors, and nurses nearly besieged by the number of sick people needing care. By funding and supporting more health care and humanitarian relief workers at the international and local levels, more Ebola field hospitals and clinics, and more food, rehydration fluids, and safe blood supplies for transfusions, less new people will fall sick, and more of the infected will be treated and cured. At the same time, the fragile economies and political systems of the effected countries will be strengthened and the threat of regional insecurity will be addressed. Ebola in West Africa is calling out for a coordinated global public health intervention, which will serve our Responsibility to Protect at the local level, while furthering our collective security at the global level.
As the US Congress debates the funding of so-called moderate rebels in Syria in the pursuit of containing the criminal militancy of ISIS, we should turn our national attention to funding Ebola emergency relief in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Such action is consistent with our enlightened self-interest, and required by our humanitarian principles and obligations.