Saturday, September 10, 2016

Taking A Knee

Colin Kaepernick has started something. On August 26, the 49ers quarterback decided to sit during the national anthem before the preseason game against the Packers. His decision not to stand during the anthem has elicited consternation and praise. More interesting than all the commentary, however, are the similar acts of protest in the wake of his own.

A Navy sailor sat during the national anthem on her base.

A high school football team took a knee during the anthem under the Friday night lights.

And Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee before the first regular season game on September 8.

I've seen many posts online the decry these actions. As predictable as these responses are, I have to admit that I still find them baffling. This particular moment in the long history of civil rights in the United States only serves to highlight some of the most confounding tensions at the heart of who we are as a nation.

Each patriotically-inflected holiday, sentiments abound online and at public events centering on the uniqueness of American freedom. But in moments such as this, the caveats and restrictions of such sentiments come to light. We discover that the only vision of freedom that is acceptable to us is that which allows us to rest comfortably in our points of view.

Patriotism, my dear compatriots, is not required to be an American. Were it required, we could not tout our freedom. Moreover, the brand of uncritical patriotism--love of country that gives no space to critical thought--that underlies so many critiques of Kaepernick and the movement he has inspired has become normative: the only acceptable way to be an American, it seems, is to accept without question that the ideals of our country somehow absolve it from the many systems of injustice and oppression that persist and thrive. This should make any lover of freedom nervous, American or otherwise.

So far from the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we do not even recognize civil disobedience when we see it. We do not even recognize the very logic of a truly American version of freedom because we have let it become warped into nationalism. What Kaepernick and others are doing is wholly, uniquely American. Theirs is a quiet refusal to stand idly by as their nation proves itself so unmoored from its original, lofty goal: to sustain a place for people to be truly free in what they say, what/whom they worship, and what they do with their lives.

By taking a knee (an evolution of Kaepernick's original protest), the athlete adopts the same posture as when there is an injury on the field. Anyone who played sports as a kid knows this. You kneel out of respect. You kneel to wait. You kneel to acknowledge that something has gone wrong. You kneel to pay attention. You kneel to divert attention from you--your team, your strategy, your concerns--and draw attention toward what's wrong. And there is plenty wrong.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Catching Em All at the Holocaust Museum: Pokemon GO and Shared Spaces

People are rather obsessed with Pokemon GO, and it seems the internet is obsessed with talking about people being obsessed with it. One of the most interesting stories involving the augmented reality game concerns the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Many news outlets are reporting the Museum's frustration with Pokemon GO players hunting and catching Pokemon in the Museum itself. A spokesperson for the Museum said that the "game falls outside of our educational and memorial mission."

It's not difficult to understand where the folks at the Holocaust Museum (or Arlington or Auschwitz) are coming from. These are places of contemplation that ask their visitors to inhabit spaces of reverence. What this little moment in our technological history reminds me, however, is that so much of our supposed moral issues with digital life are actually issues of etiquette. A scholar of information systems recently gave me a helpful analogy on this point: when ATMs were first introduced, no one knew where to stand as they waited. Eventually, society sorted it out and now we know to stand a few feet back from the person using the ATM before us. If social pressures are strong enough, collective habits change. This includes our technological habits.

More than etiquette, however, I believe the conversation about Pokemon in the Holocaust Museum can help us think about the spaces we create and inhabit. I think of museums as "virtual" in their own right, as they seek to bring present what is absent, either because of history or location. Even for art museums, the spaces are virtual insofar as they are spaces of encountering the other through media. I am not an expert in museum studies, but it seems to me that curators and directors are always feeling the tension between cultivating spaces and cultivating particular experiences. That is, these professionals work hard to facilitate and encourage particular kinds of experiences for visitors, but without the ability or even desire to force that experience upon them.

What strikes me as somewhat frustrating about the Pokemon in the Holocaust Museum story, then, is that both the Museum and people writing about the phenomenon are convinced that there is only one way (or maybe a few ways) to experience that space. Museums have the right and prerogative to ask certain things of their visitors so as to aim for the experience they want them to have. They do not, it seems to me, have the right to tell people how to experience that which they have created. Some will jump in here with several critiques, which I attempt to address below:

Pokemon GO and other games are distracting for both the visitor using them and those around them! As for the individual playing the game, it seems difficult to ascertain "distraction" barring some sort of interrogation process. Furthermore, it seems to me that our problem is with the means of distraction and not distraction itself, as I would be hard-pressed to think of a time when I was truly not distracted even by my own thoughts. As the distraction of others, isn't this just what happens when humans get together for any shared experience?

On both these points, allow me to provide a small anecdote. I recently went to Cleveland's incredible Museum of Art. I was "distracted" from the experience personally because my dog had died the day before. Sometimes I would linger on a painting, almost looking through the art itself and find myself immersed in my own loss and grief. One could easily say that I was not experiencing the museum how its curators might want me to. If someone were to judge my grief as frivolous and pointless, they could just as easily make a claim against me as those making a claim against Pokemon GO. I was also distracted by a group of middle school students. The first distraction came from their docent who was spewing some popular but historically dubious "facts" about the "Dark Ages." The second came when the students dispersed, walking quickly through each room to check off pieces of art on the list given them by their teacher. Is this how the museum was meant to be experienced? Who am I to say?

Places like the Holocaust Museum demand reverence and games on your phone are not reverent! Reverence seems to me a theological category, and the resources for defining its nature in secular spaces are scarce after a strict division of sacred and secular. Furthermore, although spaces may attempt to demand reverence, they cannot force it. Anyone who has been to churches and other holy sites that are also tourist destinations knows well the tension I describe here. As a devout Catholic, I experience people inhabiting churches as complicated spaces of spectacle, curiosity, antipathy, and sometimes, reverence.

To claim that games on phones are not "reverent," one would need to be very clear about what reverence in a secular space looks like. I am not, of course, saying that the horrors of the Holocaust and the memories of its victims do not demand reverence. But as the middle schoolers in the art museum remind us, spaces can only be shaped and cultivated, and visitors can only be asked and encouraged. Short of disallowing phones in the Holocaust Museum, therefore, the directors cannot force people to have a certain kind of experience.

Pokemon GO is just a small part of technological advances that change our experiences of space. These technologies will challenge us and frustrate us. Most of all, they will expose the assumptions we have about shared spaces in particular, and force us to come to terms with what has remained unsaid between us as sharers in those spaces.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Stop Saying You'll Move If Trump Wins

It's time to stop saying that you'll leave the country if Donald Trump wins. I know why you say it. You say it because the idea of having him as president seems utterly repugnant, so much so that your gut tells you to run far, far away. But this sentiment is both ridiculous and dangerous.

First, it is ridiculous to say you'd just leave because you can actually stop Trump from happening. I am convinced, like so many others, that money has damaged our political system to a stunning degree. (I am also convinced that Congressional re-districting is a cancer on the political body.) But even in the post-Citizens United wasteland of American politics, I still believe that we retain some degree of political efficacy, however small it may seem. We still have our vote, and it remains a meaningful act of civic participation which, yes, requires that we plan ahead, put on pants, and go to the damn polls. Moreover, saying that we'll leave the country if Trump wins implies that after we cast our non-Trump votes, we did our part, and somehow deserve to be exempted from the result of the election. This is simply not the case. We have friends and family. We have people to talk to about things that matter. This is not to say that these conversations will be easy or comfortable. To do one's political part is to cultivate a habit of dialogue that supports spaces for discourse, whether in a free and independent press or in the nooks and crannies of our daily social lives.

Second, it's time to stop saying you'll leave if Trump wins if you have anywhere near the means to do so. One of the biggest reasons why President Trump is such a scary idea is because we all know in our hearts that those who are already marginalized in America would suffer the most under that administration. To cavalierly entertain the idea of fleeing the country is to endorse an apathy and complacency toward populations for whom this would never, ever be an option. Saying that we'll leave is dangerously close telling immigrants, the working poor, and the disenfranchised, "Well, good luck with that!" Saying that we'll leave is tantamount to choosing despair, and refusing to accept our responsibility in the well-being of all people.

So please, let's all stop saying we'll leave if Trump wins. Let's instead try and take up the arduous task of finding out why anyone would want him as president. In short, let's stay. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Does America Deserve The Donald?

Here's a scary thought: President Trump. While those of us with a sense of humor are actually kinda excited that he announced his candidacy, the prospect of Donald Trump being President of the United States is pretty unsettling. He has already said crazy things, and it's only a month into the campaign. But what if the unthinkable is true? What if Donald Trump is the president that America not only desires but actually deserves?

I should probably state upfront that I am in no way advocating or campaigning for Donald Trump. I think he is a racist, misogynist, megalomaniacal jerk. That being said, I want to use some of the crazy things he has said recently, as well as his personality and career, to simply propose that he totally makes sense as a presidential candidate.

1) Money. The most well-known thing about Donald Trump aside from his hair is that he is ridiculously wealthy. It's why he can have the deplorable hair: when you're as rich as he is, you don't have to look any way or do anything that you don't want to. When Trump announced his candidacy, he had to disclose his net worth, reporting $9 billion. NINE BILLION DOLLARS. (This is a suject of much debate online, by the way, as a Google search for his net worth brings up many articles about what he's "really" worth. We'll stick with the $9b figure because it's still a ridiculous number!) I think this has only exacerbated his cartoonish personality, as most of us can only imagine that kind of wealth in the following way:

But Americans simply cannot begrudge someone their financial successes when we've predicated our entire philosophy of work on the accumulation of wealth above all else. Donald Trump is just a capitalist, making extensive use of his silver-spooned childhood privilege and parlaying it into more money and more power. Incidentally, he shares this with so many other presidential candidates, both past and present, although maybe not to the tune of NINE BILLION DOLLARS. The fact of the matter is that to be president, you have to be rich. And the Donald is.

2) Television. I've seen maybe five episodes of "The Apprentice," but I know enough about reality television to know that Donald Trump is perfect for it. He's a loud, cartoonish man who plays the arbitrary judge of character and intentions, occasionally using the right words to make it sound like a morality play--the basic formula for any good reality tv show. He also happens to fit nicely into what I've called "wealth porn," a television phenomenon wherein shows exist almost exclusively to put the wealth of others on display. The fact is that Americans love rich people because our collective understanding is that we're all just rich people in waiting. In the ethos of American consumer life, isn't Trump the ultimate role model, graciously demonstrating the keys to success in prime time?

Furthermore, he managed to take one of the most horrific speech-acts in most of our lives, "You're Fired," and turn it into a mechanism for a game show. Behind every "You're Fired," however, was the audience's renewed hope in the American dream whereby hard work=money. They'll learn and work harder next time, Trump sang in our ears, that same tired tune which refuses to acknowledge privilege of any kind.

3) Racism. Among those "crazy things" that Trump said in the last month was the following:

"[Immigrants from Mexico are] bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting."

Most people aren't really surprised at such comments from the Donald but that doesn't make them any less shocking. Many companies have responded by pulling Trump products and doing what they can to distance themselves from his company. What his comments reflect, however, is the pervasive racist and xenophobic discourse that structures so much of our foreign and domestic policies. Other candidates and leaders may not call Mexicans rapists, but they certainly have sponsored economic and military policies that have destroyed the lives of droves of refugees, immigrants and migrants around the world. Closer to home, our justice system is maybe only now being truly examined (if it really is) for its well documented racism and codified injustice. On these fronts, Trump is more of the same.


I don't think that Donald Trump is the president that America needs. I do think that, on some level, he is the president that America deserves. If we continue to let our political discourse spin out into higher levels of absurdity, evidenced in no small part by the proliferation of cable "news" organizations, we will continue to attract absurd candidates. More importantly, however, is that when we allow our electoral system to be dictated by corporate money to such an extent that corporations are understood as persons with the same rights of free speech as individual Americans, we may as well sell our offices to the highest bidder. What Trump has shown us by his latest attempt at public office is not how absurd he is but maybe how absurd we may have become.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Get off my lawn, and other terribly helpful advice

My mid-morning perusal of clips from last night's NBA finals game was soured by a facebook post from Commonweal magazine. In their latest issue, Commonweal features an article by Rand Richards Cooper about technology. If you don't feel like clicking (or "flicking," as the case may be), allow me to sum it up: people these days (read: people younger than the author) are consumed by their relationships to their smartphones, and all of this flicking of the devices means that we no longer connect to one another. The article is peppered with scenarios--dinners, baseball games, etc.--where people who are together are actually on their phones, and all of this will mean that we won't be capable of reflection. "Occupied nonstop with taking things in," he writes, "we’ll have no time or place to mull things over. Eventually we’ll lose the ability."

I wish that this article was unique in Catholic media, just a little opinion piece on culture that would be read and forgotten. But it will be retweeted and shared hundreds of times, and people who read it in print will send copies of it to their friends and probably their adult children, hoping that it'll make them put their iPhones away at dinner, goshdarnit. People lap this stuff up, and editors know this. Check out this article from about a year and a half ago, this time from America, which warns that "digital isolation will only grow more acute as technology progresses." To be fair, the America article is more measured than Richards Cooper's but their similarities speak to something really irksome if not dangerous in Catholic media and American Catholic culture in general. My qualm with these articles is not each in isolation but the tone and posture towards technology that are cultivated by their publication and dissemination. Moreover, within these critiques of technological culture is a veiled critique of youth culture that is not just annoying but is quite ignorant given the present state of the American church.

Anyone who cares about religion in America knows that millennials are leaving religious communities in droves. For Catholicism, the relatively stable number of church membership overall obscures a seismic demographic shift, as the American Catholic church becomes more and more Latino while young people are opting out. For the first time in American Catholic history, young women are more likely than their male counterparts to say they do not attend Mass. This is a huge deal for Catholicism, which basically relies on women to keep families in the church.

In the midst of these real problems facing the viability of the American Catholic church, we read articles like the one I read this morning. Some might argue that these technologies are precisely the reason why young people are rejecting faith communities, but such a causal relationship is exceedingly hard to prove. What underlies so much of this anxiety about technology, I think, is a fear that if one embraces certain technological realities from a faith perspective, then one is automatically embracing the style of Christianity which has projectors in its worship services and glossy, over-designed pamphlets in its pews. This need not be the case. What is desperately needed at this time is not more talk about how technology "alienates" us but honest and serious conversations about what theological resources can be brought to bear in the historical circumstance in which we find ourselves and from which it is impossible to escape. We need less flat-footed warnings about kids these days and more intellectual rigor toward the things that matter to people now.

If the Body of Christ has nothing to say about the times in which the members of that Body live except "tsk tsk," it's no wonder young people are headed for the doors. Let us not be seduced by the false dichotomies which allow us to rest easy knowing that we're not like all of those kids on their damn devices, especially when those are the very people whose absence could spell disaster for the future church. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Let's begin with a confession: I love Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom. Walt Disney World is basically a giant, shiny toilet made of delusions where you flush thousands of dollars, but I simply cannot resist its futuristic elements. I suppose that would include Epcot too, Walt Disney's prototype for a future city. We're going to quickly bypass the troubling idea of a guy having such specific ideas about what future cities should be like, mostly because I'm sure he had very specific ideas about who should and should not be alive in the future.

Regardless, my Disney cynicism usually dissipates somewhere around the time I first catch a glimpse of Space Mountain. As a kid, Tomorrowland (one of the five major areas of the Magic Kingdom) was just the best. (I never had a princess phase, I guess.) It was by far the most intriguing part of Disney World to me and I even have fond memories of the syrupy idealism of The Carousel of Progress. Many of the things one finds in Tomorrowland (both the Disney Land and World versions) were debuted at the World's Fair, Walt Disney's stage before he built his own parks to showcase his ideas. This brings us to Tomorrowland, the movie.

Given my (somewhat shameful) fondness for Tomorrowland the place, I was very intrigued when I first saw the trailer for Tomorrowland, the film. Disney overlords knew that people like me--you know, the ones who ride the PeopleMover over and over--would shell out money for this film no matter what. And so I did. In recent years, Tomorrowland the place has become sorta sad, projecting a vision of the "future" that is clearly from the 1950s and 60s. It is no longer about the future, really, and is instead a kind of homage to what middle class white kids thought of as "the future" in 1955. It seems like the writers of the film have caught wind of this, and they situate part of the story right in the middle of this bygone vision, not with any sort of critical approach but with a typical Disney nostalgia that one can forgive up to a point.

One can even forgive the bad acting by Britt Robertson, who plays the forgettable main character, Casey. One may also be persuaded to forgive the implication that some elite people (mostly men) are pre-destined to save our entire world. That's about where my forgiveness ended. What one cannot forgive is the bait and switch this movie plays on you, wherein you spend about five minutes in the actual Tomorrowland of the trailer and of Disney lore. The rest is of the film is set in our own times, with the last quarter of the film in a dilapidated version of the shiny Tomorrowland we see in the trailer. But I guess that's the writers' prerogative, as much as it seems to betray Walt's own desire to immerse us fully in realities that either do not or do not yet exist.

What does not betray Walt's vision, it seems, is the narrative itself, which ends up being a diatribe against both dystopian fiction and real crises like climate change and starvation. That's right: the writers don't make any sort of effort to talk about how dystopian fiction and real-life catastrophes are different, but opt instead for an ideological position which maintains that our eventual demise as a species can be fixed by (wait for it)...dreamers. The problem with Disney World and all things Disney is the simple refusal to engage in things that are really important, at least for any sustained amount of time. Perhaps a company that predicates itself on fantasy notions that we can simply build new "worlds" and "lands" in which to retreat is bound to make such a film. Or maybe Disney (the World, the Land, the films) gives people a sense of hope in a world full of despair. But one has to ask: hope in what? In our own ability to save us from ourselves? In our own imagination, which often dreams of new ways to kill instead of to love?

Disney has released a truly anti-dystopian film, one that sets up the false choice of hope or dealing with real human tragedy, and tells you that you must pick. But what these filmmakers (and probably Walt himself) fail to understand is that the question of hope is at the very center of the dystopian fiction that Tomorrowland assaults. Furthermore, the real tragedies around us--war, hunger, greed, the destruction of nature--from which Disney directs our gaze are the very sites that need our hopeful attention the most. By lumping these two things together and dismissing attention to them as unhelpful, I'm afraid Tomorrowland invites us into real despair. There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day...unless that was the day you saw Tomorrowland. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

In the Market for Justice

An interesting trend has developed lately around our national "debate" over gay marriage. Americans both for and against legalizing same-sex marriage engage in boycotting and targeted patronizing of businesses based on the business' position on the issue, usually voiced by someone in a leadership role.

Three years ago,  Chick-fil-a, purveyors of (delicious) fried chicken sandwiches and sweet tea, became a flashpoint for the gay marriage debate. The CEO of Chick-fil-a, an evangelical Christian named Dan Cathy, made a not-so-surprising public statement about his opposition to same-sex marriage (and presumably, to same-sex relationship in general). In the summer of 2012, then, people drew lines on gay marriage by boycotting or buying Chick-fil-a. I drove past one of the restaurants in Dayton during this time and saw an enormous amount of people clamoring to exercise their freedom of speech by doing probably the most American thing possible: buying a fried chicken sandwich.

It's happening again, of course, as Indiana's passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) effectively allows businesses to deny service to individuals on the basis of their sexuality. (By all accounts, this seems true, unfortunately.) A hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Indiana decided to go public with their refusal to cater a gay wedding with their pizza. Besides the obvious problems here--who wants pizza at a wedding, let alone mediocre, Midwestern pizza?; "cater" is a strong word for pizza delivery; why are businesses feeling the desire to discriminate in hypothetical situations--the Memories Pizza conversation is just another version of the Chick-fil-a situation, with admittedly more complicated legal stakes. Memories Pizza has gone on to receive over $800,000 in donations from presumably like-minded people. At least they got chicken sandwiches last time!

On the other side of things, a backlash ensued against world-famous fashion designer Stefano Dolce, who said the following: "I am gay, I cannot have children. I don’t believe one can have everything in life, if it isn’t there it means that it cannot be. It is also nice to deprive oneself of something. Life has its natural course, there are things that cannot be changed. And one of these things is the family." Celebrities and other people who can actually afford Dolce and Gabbana called for a boycott, calling their opinions anti-gay. Most notably, singer Elton John spoke out against them, taking special exception to the implication that his own children are "synthetic."

For whatever little they have in common people on both sides of this debate share one thing: their chosen method of political action.The internet provides both sides with extensive lists of businesses to boycott or patronize, and people think things are really happening here. The heart of this movement is not a renewed sense of civic or political activity in American culture. Rather, where the heart of civic discourse should be one finds instead a pile of cash, the only language that has any political relevance anymore. Trained by a market logic that infuses every aspect of our lives, we give money or withhold it because it is our only means of political voice. Especially after Citizen's United, Americans know well that unless you "put your money where your mouth is," whatever you believe has no teeth. Demonstrating in the street is fine for a night but even the largest demonstrations are easily ignored until economic strategies take hold.

Most of the Americans donating to Memories Pizza or boycotting Dolce and Gabbana might not be as bluntly cynical as I'm being here but it seems pretty obvious that in a market economy as thick as ours, market exchange has become the only effective means of political activity. One of the terrible things about this new and singular means of political efficacy is that it inspires no real conversation. What it inspires is a tangible way to score points for one side of the debate or other. As we enter a new election cycle, we will pretend that we have free spaces for thoughtful political discourse, while at the same time we lament in our hearts the economic reality of our political system.

Boycotting or patronizing businesses on this issue may make us feel good and righteous, but it's doing precious little to move public discourse forward. It simply allows us to re-harden our political identities in antagonistic ways. Even more disturbingly, it shapes those identities primarily in terms of what we buy and what we don't, allowing what we perceive to be the true and the just into commodities.