In the midst of our recent, deadly skirmishes with Iran, President Trump at one point threatened to bomb 52 sites that were “important to Iran and the Iranian culture.” Commentators quickly pointed out that doing so would violate the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as well as the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. (For just a sampling of those responses, see here, here, here, here, and here.) For my own part, I was struck by the President’s understanding of “culture” and his willingness to destroy it. Continue reading “Trump’s Willingness to Destroy Culture”
Given the never-ending political tumult within the Washington, D.C., Beltway, it was easy to overlook the Senate confirmation on September 26, 2019, of Eugene Scalia as Secretary of Labor. The party-line confirmation vote irritated workers and their representatives, who pointed out that Scalia’s claims to be a neutral advocate of his clients’ interests helped obscure his long-standing anti-labor politics.
The Department of Labor was established as a Cabinet-level agency on March 4, 1913, the last day of the Taft presidency. The Department’s purpose was to foster the well-being of wage earners by improving their working conditions and protecting their work-related rights. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, nobody doubted the Department of Labor’s job was protecting working people.
Eugene Scalia’s career, by contrast, has been devoted to fighting workers and their unions on behalf of big business and the rich. The son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Eugene Scalia was employed for twenty years in the Washington, D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He represented, among others, Boeing, Chevron, SeaWorld, UPS, and Walmart, not to mention assorted Wall Street banks. Continue reading “An Anti-Labor Secretary of Labor”
I had the delightful opportunity at the beginning of the summer to deliver a conference paper in Portugal. Lisbon’s cobblestone alleyways and bustling riverfront were exciting, but odd as it might seem, Portuguese cigarette packaging also caught my eye.
All cigarette packs in Portugal have graphic images related to the dangers of smoking cigarettes: rotted teeth, amputated toes, diseased lungs, stitched-up chests, and naked corpses sprawled out on coroners’ metal tables. The images and the accompanying verbal warnings take up the fronts and backs of the packs, and brand names such as “Marlboro” appear only on the narrow bottoms of the packs.
None of the Portuguese smokers to whom I spoke – and there were plenty – seemed particularly offended by the packaging. So-called “scare messages,” after all, are genuinely intended to get smokers to stop. They are consistent with the World Health Organization’ s directives regarding cigarette packaging, and graphic images appear on cigarette packs in most European countries.
What about graphic images in the United States? It briefly seemed that they would begin appearing after the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009. The Act in fact mandated them, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formally approved nine graphic images that it considered especially likely to make people afraid of smoking.
However, the tobacco industry and assorted neo-liberal pundits immediately rose up in arms. The former, of course, worried about its profits, and the latter championed the “right to smoke.” The graphic warnings, the pundits argued, interfered with freedom of choice. They were the efforts of the nefarious “nanny state.” Continue reading “Cigarette Packaging and Smokers’ Rights”
Given the Trump Administration’s denunciations of various Americans and numerous manufactured crises, we might easily overlook its attack on the humanities. For the third consecutive year, the Trump Administration has proposed closing down the National Endowment for the Humanities. It has also proposed major cuts for the National Archives Administration and the complete elimination of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
The justifications for these kinds of cuts are predictable. The endangered programs are said to be too costly, although the projected savings of only $28 million for National Endowment grants is not even a drop in the bucket compared to military and defense spending. More generally, supporters of the cuts are prepared to echo the public’s growing skepticism about the value of the humanities, particularly because they purportedly do not result in marketable skills.
What we really need, some might insist, is more funding for STEM programs or, at least, a greater commitment to programs that develop roll-up-your-sleeves practical approaches to problem-solving. These are the types of programs, it is claimed, that best prepare people for life and especially for work and employment in the context of the proverbial market economy.
Holding to the side the fact that STEM and skills funding already greatly exceed grants for teaching and research in the humanities, denigrators of the humanities overlook what might be gained from teaching and learning in such disciplines as art, classics, foreign languages, history, literature, music, philosophy, and religion. Each of these disciplines in its own way invites us to reflect on the most fundamental of questions: What does it mean to be human? Continue reading “In Support of the Humanities”
Ideological rhetoric not only lionizes heroes but also deplores villains. It tells us what we should like and what we should hate. Neoliberal ideologues, in this regard, typically praise deregulation, privatization, and the market economy while condemning the “nanny state” as especially villainous. If we reflect critically on the nanny-state rhetoric, we might be able to limit the persuasiveness of one of neoliberalism’s most-favored notions and in the process recognize who is most powerful in our society.
For starters, casting anything related to a nanny in a negative light is curious. Popular culture, after all, includes an abundance of perky, resourceful, and indomitable nannies, all of whom are devoted to the well-being of those under their care. Thoughts of Mary Poppins, Fraulein Maria in “The Sound of Music,” and Nanny McPhee win a warm spot in just about everybody’s hearts. I always enjoyed the resourcefulness of Fran Fine, who was played by the feisty Fran Drescher in the popular 1990s sitcom “The Nanny,” while my favorite boyhood nanny was the large anthropomorphic dog Nana in the Peter Pan stories. She wore a charming bonnet, built castles out of toy blocks, and lovingly made the beds for the Darling children.
How and why does the image of a nanny become a negative one for the neoliberal ideologue? Continue reading “The Nanny State”
Some are calling for a stronger connection between Christianity and Christmas, concomitantly rejecting the term “Xmas” as blasphemous, deploring the substitution of “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas,” and urging generally that we “put Christ back in Christmas.” Sincere religious beliefs prompt most of this campaign, but to what extent has Jesus Christ ever been the true heart of Christmas?
The Bible does not give the date of Jesus Christ’s birth, and it was not until the fourth century that the Catholic Church recognized December 25th as Jesus Christ’s birthday. Historians have suggested the day was selected to coincide with pagan winter solstice celebrations that were held in many locations throughout Europe. The solstice came at roughly the same time large numbers of cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during subsequent months. Meat was as a result plentiful, as was the wine and beer that had been started during the preceding spring and summer and had now fermented.
In some areas, the partying was raucous and drunken, comparable perhaps to the partying that occurs at Mardi Gras. Continue reading “Putting Christ Back in Christmas”
Some find the superficiality and commercialism of pop music troubling enough to justify ignoring the whole thing. However, if a music fan approaches pop music with some variety of critical consciousness, the pop music fan can use it to consider everything from personal values to national identity. If recent developments in the Korean Peninsula are any indication, pop music, a type of pop culture, can even play a role in improving international relations.
North Korea has traditionally been leery of South Korean and especially American pop culture. For years, the North Korean government attempted to suppress DVDs and thumb drives with pop cultural television shows, movies, and popular music. Often smuggled into North Korea from China, these pop cultural works struck the government as evidence of bourgeois decadence. Mere possession of South Korean or American pop culture was a criminal offense and could lead to a sentence in prison camp. Continue reading “Pop Music and International Relations”
With spring in the air, I thought the following poem from Emily Dickinson might help us mark the welcome change of seasons. However, Dickinson also provides a cautionary note. The spectacular inspires us, but it also slips by. Spring not only arrives but also departs. Our resulting sense of loss is like “Trade” encroaching “upon a Sacrament.”
A Light Exists in Spring
Emily Dickinson (1830-86)
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here
A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
But human naturefeels.
It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.
Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:
A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.
As the Chinese lawyer Jiang Tianyong painfully realized, a belief in the rule of law is commendable in one context but deplorable in another. While a belief in the rule of law has traditionally been honored in the dominant American ideology, the same belief is suspect given the dominant Chinese ideology.
Jiang had been a prominent human rights lawyer in Beijing and represented a large number of Chinese dissidents, often with surprising success. His most famous client was perhaps Chen Guangcheng, an activist who fled house arrest and received asylum in the American Embassy. Most recently, Jiang represented a group of other human rights lawyers, who were being prosecuted for criticizing the government.
In late August, 2017, Jiang himself was convicted of inciting subversion and attempting to undermine the Chinese Communist Party. His trial as broadcast live on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media network, and highlights of the trial appeared daily on Chinese network television.
Jiang’s conviction was hardly surprising since, late in the trial, Jiang confessed. In his confession, Jiang apologized for the harm he had done and, indeed, admitted he was part of a conspiracy to topple the Chinese Communist Party. His confession ended with an emotional plea for mercy and for “a chance to become a new person.”
What’s surprising, at least for an American, is that Jiang said he had stumbled into subversion because of a misguided belief in the rule of law. Jiang pointed at “the bourgeois Western constitutional system” and claimed that it had a “subliminal influence on him.” Because of his belief in the rule of law, Jiang said, he rejected China’s political system and worked to replace it with the type of system that reigns in the United States. Continue reading “Jiang Tianyong, Subversion, and the Seductive Rule of Law”
Bill Cosby has made two distinctly different splashes in American popular culture. He starred in “The Cosby Show” (1984-92), a sitcom that was America’s most highly rated television show for five consecutive years. Then, his trial for sexual assault in the spring of 2017 became the most recent “trial of the century.” Ironically, the immense success of the former prevented the latter from attracting the attention many had predicted.
As for “The Cosby Show,” it featured the Huxtables, a fictional upper middle-class African American family living in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. Cliff Huxtable, played by Cosby, was a jolly obstetrician, while his wife Clair Huxtable was a successful attorney. The Huxtables has four daughters and one son, and although each episode had its tender tensions, they always dissipated by the end of the hour. “The Cosby Show” was about a happy, loving ideal family, and Cliff Huxtable became the nation’s fantasy father. When TV Guide ranked the 50 greatest dads in television history, the magazine named Cliff Huxtable “The All-Time Greatest Dad.”
While the show rarely addressed race directly, it was what the show left unsaid that was important. Cosby and the show’s producers consciously set out to “recode blackness.” They turned stereotypes upside-down by presenting a tightly-knit African American family that was affluent, had friends and neighbors of different races, and was headed by a married couple, with each member belonging to a learned profession. In the midst of the Reagan-Bush years, Americans took to the portrayal, and it, if only for a moment, obfuscated the nation’s shoddy racist inequality.
When twenty-five years later in time two dozen women claimed Cosby had drugged, sexually assaulted, and raped them, America was shocked. When Cosby went on trial in the spring of 2017 for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, many thought the public would be obsessed with the proceedings. Coverage of the trial seemed likely to equal that for celebrities such as O.J. Simpson in 1994 and Michael Jackson in 2005. Trials of the rich and famous, after all, have been pop cultural delights since the days of the penny dailies in the early nineteenth century. Continue reading “Bill Cosby and American Popular Culture”
It is my impression that a good rock ‘n roll band can help a lot in law school. If listened to at the “appropriate” volume, the band can reduce the stress of the first year and relieve the tedium of the second and third years.
My band during law school was the Allman Brothers Band. It released an extraordinary string of vinyl albums in the early 1970s, with “Eat a Peach” (1972) being my personal favorite. My friends and I didn’t think of the Allman Brothers as progenitors of southern rock but rather as countercultural southern musicians able to blend the blues, jazz, and even a little country. The Band compared in our minds to Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. And who knew that an aspiring Georgia politician named Jimmy Carter was also a fan of the Band’s incredible improvisational jams?
The Allman Brothers song that I played the most was “Whipping Post.” Gregg Album wrote the song and also sang the lead vocal. Its studio version appears on the Band’s debut album, but even better is the live version on “At the Fillmore East” (1971). I realized from the start that the song was about lost love, but I chose to think of it in relation to my existential condition: “Tied to the whipping post. Good Lord, I think I’m dying . . . .”
During the 1970s, the Allman Brothers Band lost two of its original members in separate motorcycle accidents. (The Band members loved Harleys.) Afterwards, Gregg Allman struggled to hold the Band together, but alcohol and drugs were mean nemeses. He also had six marriages, including an ill-fated and much-ridiculed union with Cher. But still, he continued to make music and to tour. Elise Papke and I caught his tremendous performance at the Northern Lights Theater in the Potowatomi Casino from second-row seats in 2015, and yes, “Whipping Post” was on his play list.
It was with great sadness that I read of Gregg Allman’s death due to liver cancer on May 27, 2017. R.I.P. old friend, and thanks for your help along the way.
The extraordinary success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” has spiked renewed interest in the accomplishments of the actual Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804). And indeed, Hamilton was a genuine military hero in the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s unofficial chief of staff, author of two-thirds of the “Federalist Papers,” the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and the leading architect of the Early Republic’s market economy. His accomplishments as an attorney have attracted less attention, but legalists in particular might remember that in his era, he was New York City’s pre-eminent attorney.
When Hamilton returned to New York City after the defeat of the British in 1781, he qualified for a veteran’s exemption from the requirement that aspiring attorneys complete an apprenticeship. He studied law on his own for only six months, concentrating his studies on Lord William Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the English Common Law.” He then passed an oral bar examination and was admitted to practice in 1782. Continue reading “Alexander Hamilton as Attorney”