Thursday, July 31, 2014

Creativity Online: The Internet Supports the Very Big and Very Small

I've been thinking a lot about writing and the internet lately. Here are a few opening thoughts.

The internet provides the means for creative individuals and groups who are either very big (celebrities) or very small (me) to do pretty well. What it's lousy at is providing the means to make a living. I don't know that this is a problem, per se, but it is interesting.

My band just got their kickstarter funded. Hooray! We didn't really need that much money, just a few thousand dollars that none of us could afford to front ourselves. We've been playing together for years now, in various ways, and have a lot of good friends and fans who like our music. We asked, they (perhaps you!) donated, and we are grateful. That said, making a living playing music would be very difficult. It's possible for us to get 150 to contribute, not 1500, or 15,000.

I'm a writer and I make a little money on the side through my writing. I work very hard at it, but my day job is to be a history professor, and without that support, making a living writing would be very challenging.

I spend a lot of time watching writers on Twitter. In fact, for writers, Twitter is packed with rich conversations, networking, sharing ideas and story tips, and all sorts of other great community activities. I frequently think about how hard it must be for people stuck in the mid-range. Writing full time, but not yet at the big enough level to command a steady salary or full-time gig. Freelancing is hard. You have to spend at LEAST as much time hustling for writing gigs as you do writing. Sometimes I ponder what it would be like to make the leap to full time, and I tell myself, not yet, not now, perhaps not ever.

I think there's something structural about the world of internet writing and crowd-funding for creative projects that it is very, very, good for the local band and the part-timer. It's also great for the giants who can use their celebrity to communicate and direct attention on products to buy, shows to attend, articles to read, or even causes to support. In between, things get difficult.

This worries me, as I want artists to be able to make a reasonable living producing their art. I want people to feel like they can dedicate themselves to writing and put food on the table, even if they don't go viral or have a NYT bestseller.

In the meantime, I'm having a really good writing week. Pitches have been accepted, drafts are on their way to editors, I finished my copyedits for my academic book, and I'm getting excited about teaching again. In the meantime, I'm now prepping to make a CD with my band.

Thank you, O Internet, for supporting my work. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Down Syndrome must not be a Wedge Issue in the Abortion Wars

A few weeks ago, I hosted an essay on the Pro-Information movement and the threat it faced in the wake of a new law passed in Louisiana, with my comments the next day here. Pro-information is a short-hand for an approach to making sure that women who have received a pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome also receive the most up-to-date and accurate information about the genetic condition.

It is a coalition of pro-choice and pro-life (and unsure) folks who respect the right of women to terminate their pregnancies after a pre-natal diagnosis, but really don't want them to do it. Given the nature of the abortion debate in our society, it's an uneasy coalition, with pro-life activists trying to ban any discussion of termination as an option. That's what happened in Louisiana.

Yesterday, Nursing Clio, a wonderful blog on history and medicine, hosted a piece called:
Prenatal Testing and Counseling: The New Front of the Abortion Wars?. The piece places the Louisiana law in the context of the broader fight over women's healthcare, and reveals some important details. You should read the whole thing, please, but here are a few excerpts and comments [edited and reformatted lightly. My emphasis]:
The Louisiana law, unlike the ones in other states, was not spearheaded by the Down syndrome community. As Stephanie Meredith ... explains, “In most states, Ohio, Kentucky, Massachusetts, etc., the law was initiated by grassroots Down syndrome advocates who were trulytrying to walk a fine line between respecting both reproductive and disability rights. In Louisiana, the law was driven largely by the Bioethics Defense Fund, and my understanding is that the leaders of the local Down syndrome organizations were unaware that the law had been introduced.”
This distinction in the origins of the bill is a significant one. The Bioethics Defense Fund frames the change to the law as an issue of discrimination and argues that presenting termination as an acceptable option for women in the event of a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome constitutes state-sponsored discrimination that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Bioethics Defense Fund is a pro-life group concerned with creating “prolife policy guides” for legislatures to further their anti-abortion agenda, and it has played a significant role in the recent legislative attempts to erode reproduction rights for women. Given the lack of Down syndrome advocates’ involvement in the development of the law and the Bioethics Defense Fund’s clear anti-abortion agenda, the change to the Louisiana law seems designed to co-opt a movement aimed at addressing the specific needs and concerns of those in the Down syndrome community and warping that movement to serve an anti-abortion, pro-life agenda.
It's not just about co-opting a movement. If a fetus with Down syndrome can be discriminated against,  then that fetus is a person. If that fetus is a person, so is every other fetus, and then abortion gets criminalized. The "personhood" movement is, in fact, attempting to redefine personhood back to the fertilized egg, so that miscarriage becomes manslaughter.

Now you, dear reader, may believe that abortion is murder and that every fetus is a person. That's your right. But the pro-information coalition depends on uniting pro-choice and pro-life individuals in order to help pregnant women after they receive a pre-natal diagnosis. I want them to choose life. I acknowledge, wholeheartedly, the choice part of that sentiment.

The BDF does not care about people with Down syndrome. It cares about using the issue of prenatal diagnoses as a wedge to further its radical agenda. From Nursing Clio:
The goal of groups such as the Bioethics Defense Fund seems to be to introduce as much “friction” as possible into the medical system when it comes to abortion. These groups chip away at our reproductive rights by disrupting the relationship between the medical provider and the patient, between the patient and the medical procedure, and between the patient and access to information.
As I wrote, I am pro-choice, pro-information, and anti-eugenics. It's a fine line to walk, but I believe that learning to walk this line is going to be an essential task not just for families and people with Down syndrome, but for our species. 

How we handle the consequences of ever-more-accurate, early (in the pregnancy) and inexpensive prenatal testing for genetic conditions like Down syndrome is a test run for the future of human procreation in our coming genetic age. This attempt to use the issue in order to divide, restrict, and limit shows one of the perils ahead. That's the long game.

In the short term, though, nobody I care about wins from efforts like the BDF and Louisiana. Not people with Down syndrome. Not expectant mothers. Not doctors. Not the activists working so hard to provide good information. It just feeds the radical right's pursuit of control over women's reproductive rights. Ultimately, I even suspect it will lead to MORE abortions, as good information and a broad coalition is the best tool that we have, but it only works while it's not politicized.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TASERs and the Cult of Compliance

Heather Digby Parton, aka Digby, is one of the most important voice out there talking about police violence, with a particular focus on the TASER issue. In Salon, she has a piece in response to the chokehold death of Eric Garner and subsequent video of other use of the illegal restraint.

Digby writes:
The New York police commissioner has promised to investigate, as they usually do, and indicated that New York will consider the greater use of tasers in order that the police not be tempted to use illegal and brutal methods to force citizens to comply with their orders. But tasers will not solve that problem, it will simply legalize the use of pain compliance by allowing police to administer electro-shock rather than take a person down to the ground with a chokehold. Just because tasers don’t leave marks doesn’t mean they are not brutal and violent.
TASERs cause pain. The use of electric shocks to subdue someone reinforces the idea that it is appropriate for police to cause pain to make people comply, and because they are seen as not dangerous (i.e. not firearms and not as viscerally dangerous as physical altercations), they actually make the cult of compliance that much worse.

She continues:
But tasers are now commonly used for another purpose entirely: to make people obey a police officer’s orders with an application of searing pain that throws them to the ground writhing and screaming in agony. Situations that might have required some psychology, patience, training or plain common sense in the past are now commonly dealt with by shooting citizens with 50,000 volts of electricity.
The viral video incidents this week in New York, the first of which resulted in death and the second a beating in the face as well as the illegal chokeholds, were about suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes in the first case and jumping a subway turnstile in the second. These were not people who were suspected of a violent crime requiring that the police spare no energy in protecting the public. Indeed, it appears that the violent acts against these two suspects were entirely based upon the “crime” of failing to instantly obey a police officer. Have we decided that this crime is worthy of beating, torture and possibly death? Because that’s what’s happening all over the country. It’s happening to children, it’s happening to the mentally ill, it’s happening to the elderly and the sick, it’s happening to average citizens who merely assert their rights and it can happen to you too. (It even happens to NFL players.)
Digby is justifiably focused on the police. It's where the cult of compliance most commonly leads to deaths, as the police have power. The schools are another place, though, where we see compliance played out in similar wars. It's a rot at the core of our society. Part of the solution involves linking these disparate events, to see the pattern, rather than blaming bad cops, bad departments, or fixating on a technological solution.

More TASERS will accelerate the growth of the cult of compliance, rather than slow things down or help us reverse course.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Cult of Compliance: Protecting the Deaf; Protecting Us All.

The ACLU has a new petition on up-to-date guidance and training for police in dealing with people who are Deaf. I've signed it. It's a good idea. Here's some text.
For Pearl Pearson, a 64-year-old deaf man, a routine traffic stop led to a brutal assault by police. When an officer shouted instructions, he attempted to show the patrolman that he was deaf. That’s when the officer pulled him from his car and according to Pearson, beat him for not following verbal orders.
The Department of Justice can help put an end to these tragedies. Police departments need up-to-date guidance and training from the DOJ on how law enforcement must interact with deaf and hard of hearing individuals, as obligated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I hope something good comes from it. Predictably, though, I think there's a deeper problem than response to deaf people. This story has dash-cam video and reports on the officers being cleared of any wrongdoing, as frequently happens in these cases. My emphasis.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol did not interview Pearl Pearson during the course of their investigation because of a disagreement about their interpreter.
However, Pearson and his attorney, Billy Coyle did submit an affidavit explaining that Pearson wasn’t reaching for a weapon during the stop, but that he was reaching for a hearing impaired placard so that he could communicate with the officers.
The troopers believed he was reaching for a gun.
“You have to comply with law enforcement.” Prater said. “They have to see your hands. Your hands can kill someone. That’s what you grab something with. That’s what you punch people with. That’s what you stab people with. That’s what you shoot people with: your hands.”
When the cuffs were finally on, and Pearson was in police custody his face bore the marks of the violent arrest.
Yes, by all means, the DOJ needs to update standards for dealing with deaf people. I've written about this specific issue before in various essays, and there are many other examples. But as always, I believe that the deeper issue is the cult of compliance.

The problem is that Pearson is deaf.

The problem is that Pearson is black.

The problem is that non-compliance justifies getting physical. 

I am increasingly skeptical that CIT training or better training for responding to deaf people or blind people or transgender people (the DOJ recently put out new standards for that situation), or whatever will really help. At best, it might carve our a small class of protected people, and that's good, they need protection.

On the other hand, I think we all need protection.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Higher Education Week

I had three essays published in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, 2 planned (they normally won't post on the same day) and one a reaction piece.

I'm exceptionally proud of my university's work on undocumented students, and in general of the way that many Catholic universities have responded to this issue. Making decisions about policy based on a moral or theological perception is a potentially dangerous thing, and as I wrote in my blog, it tends to lead to stories about taking away rights or closing off (Eden Foods, Hobby Lobby, Wheaten College). It doesn't have to work that way.

I also wrote a piece about public engagement. It's #ScholarSunday on Twitter today, and if you dip into that hashtag and other academic parts of the twittersphere you'll find hundreds of scholars practicing various forms of public engagement. I also believe that every time a teacher goes into a classroom, they are working on public engagement. But we need to build pathways to take advantage of that expertise. More on this next week.

Finally, I responded to Senator John Walsh's plagiarism with a blog about being wrong and an essay on Vitae about the military and why transparent sourcing of information matters so much. Warmongers want to take bad, untrue, or fragmentary information and use it to start a war. Demanding citation becomes pretty high stakes in that environment. Also, I'm still so angry about the Iraq War and all the lies.

In mid-week, I updated efforts on Eden Foods. I'm really interested in the phrase, "voting with dollars," because what I want to know is who is counting the votes. I think it's a way of shrugging off hard choices by stores. Don't let them do it!

Finally, in the disability world, I wrote three posts: One was on the ABLE act. It's a great act. I was going to write about it, but frankly I think it's going to pass. I try to cover stories that aren't getting enough attention.

The other two were about humor, one focused on Wyatt Cenac making fun of Down syndrome and speech on This American Life (I have an essay out on it I'm trying to land), and the second more generally on disclaimers (and antisemitism). Humor can punch up or punch down. It can shatter stereotypes or reinforce them. That's how I judge it.

Next week should be a good writing week for me, as I'm done with copyedits. I hope to get a lot of pending essays out and off to publishers.

As always, thanks for reading!

Friday, July 25, 2014

I was wrong: Senator Walsh and Plagiarism

I have a new piece up on Chronicle Vitae on the alleged (but really not alleged) plagiarism by Senator John Walsh (D-MT) in his final paper at the War College, where he received his masters. In the piece, I talk about what we do and don't need from military elites in terms of citation. Details of Chicago Manual of Style? No. Honesty about sources? Yes. I finish:
I am troubled by Walsh’s plagiarism. I don’t care whether our military elites know the intricacies of Chicago Manual of Style citation, but we cite in order to be transparent about the sources of our information. We cite to show how our ideas relate to the work of others. We cite to show that the evidence supports our conclusions. That’s something that I want our military elites to take very seriously. I hope the War College is responding to this scandal by examining their assessment norms and looking at other papers, not just those written by senators, to make sure their practices match their principles.
Walsh’s paper talks about the Iraq War. The Iraq War, as we now know, was started based off of faulty and biased information. One study found 935 false public statements from the Bush administration, many blithely reported as facts by the media. Many of the allegations about weapons of mass destruction came from “Curveball,” a single individual that claimed to have insider information, but didn’t.
Now there is a case where good footnotes might have helped.
I like to think that's a good point, that information structure REALLY does matter when deciding whether or not to go to war, or bomb something, or otherwise engage in military actions.

Here's the thing. I am a strong-willed opinionated writer. You have to have strong opinions to be an opinion writer; in fact, I am often toning myself down to seem reasonable when really I just want to WRITE ALL CAPS HOW CAN YOU BE SO WRONG kinds of essays. But there's plenty of that kind of thing online, I like a lot of it, and so I try for a more measured approach. Just remember, inside, I am shouting.

This leads me to get accused of never being willing to admit that I am wrong. That's not a new accusation for me, as I was a loudmouth extroverted-introvert as a kid (nerdy, pudgy, unpopular, argumentative) and some things don't change. I'm not easily persuaded that I am wrong. But I can be persuaded. For example, yesterday I tweeted:
Fourteen pages? A thought piece without data? For a masters? Such was my gut reaction.

A friend of mine from a military family quickly called me on it, followed by another friend who is a veteran, and they both pointed out that this was not a degree of higher learning, but a credential system. An officer gets nominated and sent there, everyone is under a lot of pressure to pass people through (my friend made an analogy to the pressure sports teams are under to get people passed, except for the whole school, with the honor of the service on the line!), and so forth.

It's still plagiarism. It's important. It's against the War College's rules and honor code. And Walsh is going to lose his election (he was probably going to lose anyway), pending some other kind of big change. But it was an important reminder that although the words were the same as my world - masters, plagiarism - the context was in fact entirely different.

I was wrong.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Disclaimers and Stereotypes

I'm interested in disclaimers in comedy, as well as offensive language and its permutations more generally (see here and here). In general, I argue that the speaker doesn't get to control whether or not something is offensive. The speaker only controls whether or not he/she cares.

Right now, I've got a piece working on comedy, disability, and disclaimers (see yesterday's resource post).. Here's a much more serious story on anti-Jewish hate in France. As you may know, there were riots in a suburb of Paris that damaged Jewish shops and a synagogue. For Jews, like me, as well as anyone who studies history, it raises the specter of historical mob violence against Jews and is very frightening. NPR had a piece this morning on French Jews moving to Israel despite the war there, because they no longer feel safe (in part due to anti-Islamic sentiment among French Jews, as well).

I want to focus on Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the comedian whose routines are all about the Jews. He's mentioned in the NPR piece and has been in the news a lot, but here's an excerpt from a Washington Post piece from June.
“I am not an anti-Semite,” French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala says with a devilish grin near the start of his hit show at this city’s Théâtre de la Main d’Or.
Then come the Jew jokes.
In front of a packed house, he apes Alain Jakubowicz, a French Jewish leader who calls the humor of Dieudonné tantamount to hate speech. While the comedian skewers Jakubowicz, Stars of David glow on screen and, as the audience guffaws, a soundtrack plays evoking the trains to Nazi death camps. In various other skits, he belittles the Holocaust, then mocks it as a gross exaggeration.
In a country where Jewish leaders are decrying the worst climate of anti-Semitism in decades, Dieudonné, a longtime comedian and erstwhile politician whose attacks on Jews have grown progressively worse, is a sign of the times. French authorities issued an effective ban on his latest show in January for inciting hate. So he reworked the material to get back on stage — cutting, for instance, one joke lamenting the lack of modern-day gas chambers.
But the Afro-French comedian, whose stage name is simply Dieudonné, managed to salvage other bits, including his signature “quenelle” salute. Across Europe, the downward-pointing arm gesture that looks like an inverted Nazi salute has now gone so viral that it has popped up on army bases, in parliaments, at weddings and at professional soccer matches. Neo-Nazis have used it in front of synagogues and Holocaust memorials. Earlier this year, bands of Dieudonné supporters flashed it during a street protest in Paris while shouting, “Jews, out of France!”
He starts with a disclaimer, then reinforces and promotes stereotypes. He finds the limits of hate speech, then slides just to the safe side. He reaps enormous publicity rewards, as the New Yorker puts it, "very little talent and a good deal of hate."

A disclaimer means nothing except that you are aware that you are about to objectionable and don't want to be punished for it. The cases I'm working on in regards to disability are NOTHING like the hate of Dieudonné, but I am a writer with a focus on epistemology and language, and the parallels are strong.This is an argument ad extremum. Does it work, do you think?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Resource Post: This American Life and Down Syndrome

Resource Posts on "How Did We Get Into This Mess?" provide full or partial transcripts of relevant documents, organized links, and minimal commentary on issues. 

A fellow parent and internet friend alerted me to a show on This American Life in which Wyatt Cenac, former Daily Show correspondent and comedian, made some jokes about Down syndrome. With the permission of my friend, I am posting excerpts of her email, the response from Ira Glass (producer and host of the show), and the transcript of the relevant piece.

Here's the transcript of show 524: I was so High. You can also listen to it on their site.
And my phone rang. I answered the phone. But no words would come out. I couldn't say anything. And I could hear my friend Laura on the other end. And she's saying hello.
Then, I'm trying so hard. I'm just like, say something. Just talk. Talk damn it! And finally, I am like, (UNUSUAL ACCENT) I am so [BLEEP] high. This is terrible.
And I did it in that voice. And I have never done that voice before in my life. I don't know where that voice came from. But I heard myself use that voice. And in my mind, I went, oh [BLEEP]. I just gave myself Down Syndrome.
(NORMAL VOICE) Now let me just say, I know what Down Syndrome is. I know that Down Syndrome is something that you're born with when you are born with an extra chromosome. I know all that information. I knew that information then. But something about eating this brownie made me think that somehow I had grown an extra chromosome and I now had adult-onset Down Syndrome.
And for people who have Down Syndrome, it's something they grow up with. And they grow up and they have healthy and happy lives. I just got it.
And I start freaking out. I'm just like, I'm going to have to explain this to people. And I start panicking. And I just start freaking out, freaking out to the point where I start weeping in the middle of Dodger Stadium.
And then, I start laughing. And then, I start weeping again. And then, a bunch of cops start walking towards me. And something in my brain just clicks on. It's like, Wyatt, you have to keep it together right now. I was like, (UNUSUAL ACCENT) yes. Keep it together.
(NORMAL VOICE) Yeah, Wyatt, there are cops right there. They cannot know you are high. (UNUSUAL ACCENT) No, they cannot know I am high. (NORMAL VOICE) And now, my internal monologue has become my external monologue. And I start pointing at the cops.
And I'm like, (UNUSUAL ACCENT) you cannot know I am high. I have to fool you. I am fooling you.
(NORMAL VOICE) We thought maybe it's time we should leave Dodger Stadium. I'm not sure exactly how far into the game we were. I know it was past the first inning. We might not have made it to the third inning.
My friend, J., wrote to complain and to ask that the segment was removed. That obviously hasn't happened. She wrote:
I am writing you in reference to the “I Was So High” episode broadcast a few weeks ago. We are members of our local NPR station KERA and we enjoy listening to This American Life. On this particular Sunday, my husband & I were listening to the radio on our front porch while our children were playing nearby. We tuned in about ten minutes into the episode before Cenac’s piece aired. This episode was like most: entertaining, thought provoking, and amusing. We were laughing up until the moment we heard Cenac say the words “Down syndrome” – at that moment we feared what might come next. Both of my daughters, including my younger daughter, who happens to have Down syndrome, were watching us and listening to the story, which now had our complete attention.
 When Wyatt Cenac said “Down syndrome” we feared how it would be discussed in the context of a comic’s routine about drug abuse. We anticipated hearing the R-word, Retard (a term of derision). But Cenac was choosing his words carefully and he stopped short of using the R-word in his monologue. Yet his implicit denigration for those with Down syndrome was impossible to overlook. In essence, Cenac describes an incident of abusing marijuana: he is unable to speak coherently, compulsively uses the bathroom and his thinking becomes disorganized and paranoid. He describes being so inebriated that he fears he has “grown an extra chromosome” and is convinced he has acquired “adult-onset Down syndrome”. The punch line of his monologue is having a cognitive disability: “Oh Shit!” Cenac says, “I just gave myself Down syndrome” and the crowd erupts in laughter. “This is terrible!” he repeatedly states. 
The letter, which is excellent, continues to analyze Cenac's reaction and says:
Even though Cenac avoids using the R-word, he tries to hide behind the medical term – believing it’s a safe, politically correct way to deliver an insult. As historian and author James W. Trent, Jr. writes (from Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the U.S.):
These words – idiot and imbecilefeeblemindedmorondefective and the like – are today offensive to us, and yet they reveal in their honesty the sensibilities of the people who used them and the meanings they attached to mental retardation…More recently, the mentally retarded have become mentally retarded persons and…persons with developmental disabilities or personas specially challenged…Behind these awkward new phrases, however, the gaze we turn on those we label mentally retarded continues to be informed by the long history of condescension, suspicion, and exclusion. While our contemporary phrases appear more benign, too often we use them to hide from the offense in ways that the old terms did not permit [emphasis mine]. 
To air a program that equates cognitive disability with the effects of drug abuse is far from humorous and entertaining – it’s reprehensible. I would no more laugh at this story than I would a racist joke. Try replacing the words “Down syndrome” for “Cripple” or “Transsexual”: disability-rights and LGBT activists would be alarmed and outraged! Hate speech against persons with cognitive disabilities is no less deplorable. 
In response to complains, Ira Glass wrote:
Hi J. -
Apologies for taking so long to get back to you.  Thanks for your thoughtful emails.  Sorry you've had to be so persistent in reaching out to get a response.
We've done many stories about people with various disabilities, including two about kids and parents of kids with Down Syndrome (Episode #311 <>  and Episode #358<> ).  I agree with you completely that nobody should have to listen to stories that mock and denigrate them.  This was a concern for me and my producers when we were working with Wyatt Cenac on his story for episode #524.  We talked about it as we shaped the story.  
But I don't agree with you that his story mocks and denigrates people with Down Syndrome.  Perhaps we will never agree on this point, but just to share my side of it: In my view, the only people being made fun of in his story are people who get high.  Wyatt goes out of his way to point out that Down Syndrome means that you have an extra chromosome (not offensive).  He points out that people with Down Syndrome grow up with it and have healthy and happy lives (also not offensive).  And he talks about his own freakout.  The only thing that possibly could be offensive is his imitation of what a person with Down Syndrome sounds like, and again - we may disagree about that - I think that's fair game for a comedian.  Black comedians imitate white people.  White comedians imitate black people.  Male comedians imitate females and females imitate men.  Wyatt isn't doing a disability version of some racist comic making fun of Mexicans or something.  In my view, it's clear he's the butt of the joke.  
If I felt differently, I wouldn't have put this on the air.  
If there's something you think I'm missing here, I welcome your thoughts.  Let's discuss it here in email.  Again, I say respectfully that it's possible we are not going to agree on this one, but if it's possible to come to some understanding with each other, I'd like that.
I've pasted below the transcript from our website, of this part of Wyatt's story.
Best regards,

Ira Glass
There we have it. I think J's letter makes the argument every strongly, but Glass wasn't persuaded. Expect to see more on this in the near future.

The ABLE act

Today in the US Senate Finance Committee there is a hearing on the ABLE Act. It's the kind of bill that ought to pass more or less instantly, as it allows people with disabilities to save some money for care without costing them their essential benefits.

And yet, in this Congress, it's stalled. We clearly won't get a vote before the August recess. I'm skeptical we'll get a vote before the mid-terms, but maybe a lame-duck Congress can pass it?

Anyway, back later with more thoughts.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Eden Foods - Voting with Dollars in a Rigged Game

Eden Foods Beans for Sale,
Whole Foods, Ogden Road, LaGrange IL 7/18/14
Eden Foods is on sale at Whole Foods stores across the country (often quite a bit cheaper than in Illinois. Thanks to everyone who sent pictures). Let me be clear - I am not accusing Whole Foods of a conspiracy here. I have talked to their spokesman who assures me that Eden Foods is part of a national yearly calendar sales promotion for July 2014, a calendar set well in advance.

I post this picture not to accuse, but to remind us all of the forces that are arrayed against us as we work to 1) stop corporate person-hood, 2) ensure equal access to contraceptive care for all, 3) stop the war on women, 4) fight for the separation of church and state.

I believe, I hope you believe, that personally held religious beliefs, especially but not exclusively ones that are medically wrong (Hobby Lobby's position in abortifacients), should not bring with it the power to discriminate against others. Moreover, I see the current law as benefiting conservative Christian religious principles only. For me, the fighting back takes place at the ballot box AND the checkout line, and my target is Eden Foods.

I've talked about this before. Eden Foods relies on a demographic that heavily skews liberals. If we simply stop buying their products, they will either go out of business or change their policy. This is on our turf. We can win this. And we are.

Last week I told you about Central Co-op in Seattle and their open letter to Eden Foods, revealing that about 80% of their products from the company were no longer selling, that consumers were voting with their dollars, so the coop was discontinuing products. I spoke to a spokeswoman at Central who said it amounted to about a $40,000 loss of sales a year for Eden Foods. One step at a time.

Here's the problem, though, with the voting with dollars construction that Whole Foods has used in their statements, and that lots of other stores are using as well. Someone has to count the votes. Central Coop did so, publicized the results, and we should be grateful to them. Who is counting at Whole Foods? Moreover, with this nationwide sale going on, isn't the game a little bit rigged, albeit unintentionally?

But Whole Foods has never really been my target, at least not yet. I think we win this fight in the locally-owned and operated co-ops across the country.

What I need you to do is to go to your store and ask about Eden Foods. When they reply something about "voting with dollars," ask them how soon they will count those votes, how closely they will track Eden Foods sales, when they will make a decision, and then publicize the damning information about Eden Foods, contraception, and CEO Potter.

Some stores have just stopped carrying the products (Weaver Street in North Carolina, for example). We need to publicize those. But where I really want to focus efforts is on the stores that haven't decided yet.
What is your co-op doing? If you vote with your dollars, will anyone count the votes and publicize the results? That's how we win.

And I can tell you this - Eden Foods is worried. They are so worried that they released a statement which failed to mention contraception at all. Follow the bouncing ball.
Prior to the Affordable Care Act, prescription drugs were an opt-in opt-out feature of health insurance plans Eden Foods offered its employees. Lifestyle drugs, as named and managed by the insurance industry, were excluded, such as viagra. Today, 34% of Eden Foods employees select prescription coverage for their plan, while 66% do not choose prescription drug coverage.
Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act all employees have all coverages required by the act, even those who do not want it.
1. Prescription drugs were an opt-in/out feature. Ok, fair enough.

2. Lifestyle drugs like viagra were not covered. This actually means contraception. They know they are on losing ground when they talk about birth control, though, so instead shift to viagra. Sneaky.

3. Today it's a 34/66 split. Except since the ACA, all employees have drug coverage. Which is it? Is it all employees or a 34/66 split? (I think the latter, since they have SCOTUS on Hobby Lobby as precedent now. I've emailed for confirmation).

4. "We are grateful for our silent supporters sending us messages directly, avoiding abuse that may befall them on social media." - As one of my friends said on Facebook, this is basically an argument that "all the lurkers in the thread are on our side."

The online response to Eden Foods, your responses to Eden Foods, has been overwhelmingly negative All the company can do is claim a silent majority, claim that they have private emails, claim that their customer-base is strong. 

In the end, Eden Foods has to rely on ignorance, apathy, and a nicely-timed national sales event to ride out this wave of bad publicity. They have to hope that when a store encourages you to vote with your dollars, that no one will count the votes. And so keep talking, writing, sharing pieces on the issue, and, most of all, pushing your local stores to pay attention. 

Thank you.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Religion and Public Engagement in Higher Education

Today I have piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Catholic universities and colleges and their leadership on providing support for undocumented students. I've met so many amazing students and I am deeply proud of the role my own institution is playing in this important matter. Please read and share the article.

I see this as another form of public engagement, my self-assigned "beat" for the Chronicle columns. Last time I wrote about individual faculty and engagement (and will again in a piece tomorrow over on their Vitae site), but institutions as a whole can also engage. One model is the famous agricultural school-extension services of the big land-grant universities. Here, with undocumented issues, is another.

In many ways, my essay today is about  the role of mission, belief, even theology, and how institutions and their leaders implement mission. It's also about epistemology - how we decide what our mission is and to what subjects it applies.

It seems to me that religious missions, in particular, can close a university off or catapult them into positive engagement and openness. The birth-control issue, recently decided in favor of colleges like Wheaton, is one issue, and I'm very upset about the role that Catholic universities are playing in denying coverage. I'm thinking, though, more about the pursuit of a religious exemption to discriminate against homosexual employees: George Fox has been in the news lately, but there are plenty of Catholic examples as well.

In these cases, it seems to me, that religion is being used to build a wall around the school, to say that modernity and the broader culture must keep out, must not corrupt, and that "religious freedom" means the right to be isolated. They certainly have a strong legal case, one that SCOTUS' conservative Catholic men support, but it runs directly counter to my beliefs about the role of the university in society (not to mention my beliefs about equal rights and against discrimination, that's a side issue for this particular blog).

On the other hand, as I tried to write about in today's essay, mission can open a pathway to direct action within society, to lead, to bring about change, to, as our mission says, "pursue truth, to give compassionate service and to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world." Since arriving at Dominican, I've been amazed and inspired to see how many people there really mean it. They try to live that mission. They do great work. They make me want to be a better person and to take my own stands in public.

And if you know the history of the Dominican order, good and bad, the way it plays out today won't be so surprising. It's the order of preachers, always focused on engagement, and today that engagement has brought my university into the world of immigration justice.

One of the reasons I wrote this piece, though, is that "Catholic" is contested ground. In American Catholicism, there are those who believe that belief requires them to restrict, to build that wall, as well as those who want to get out into the streets and engage, engage, engage. On the Left, there's a sense that religion is always focused on the closing of options rather than making things more possible. Such rhetoric, in fact, feeds the notion that conservative religion is the only real religion.

Catholic beliefs defy easy left-right assessment. But belief is not action. Individuals and institutions choose where they want focus - anti-contraception or anti-poverty, for example. I'm really proud of these Catholic schools that have been pushed by mission to serve these students in need.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Eden Foods and the Cult of Compliance

I am halfway done with my copy-edits on my scholarly book. One more week, I hope.

Two major themes from this week's writing:

I've been working more on Eden Foods. In one piece, I argued that if we can't win this fight, on our turf, we might as well pack it in. I think I missed, rhetorically, here, as I meant this to be a "yes we can" piece and it was very much read as a "no we can't." For the record, we can win this one! And we are - here's the news from Seattle. Keep the pressure on. 

In more grim news, I wrote two pieces on the use of non-compliance by law enforcement to justify violence, especially as it plays out against disabled people. In Missouri, there's news about a man with mental illness who was running away and shot in the back. In New York, a man with severe asthma and diabetes was thrown to the ground in a chokehold and asphyxiated. We have to BOTH deal with the injustices of each case AND link them into the broader pattern.

Next week I have two higher-ed articles coming out, one on the way teaching prepares academics for public engagement, another on Catholic universities and their support for undocumented students. 

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Cult of Compliance and the Chokehold

"When Garner refused orders to put his hands behind his back, one of the plainclothes cops, wearing a green T-shirt with a yellow No. 99 on the back, got behind him and put him in a chokehold, the footage shows.
A struggle ensued as three uniformed officers joined in on the arrest, knocking the man to the ground.
He screamed, “I can’t breathe!” six times before he went silent and paramedics were called."
A  man who was not breaking the law died after the police put him in a chokehold. We can, and should, talk about this through the lens of race and the NYPD for sure. He was big black man. We can also talk about the choke-hold and its place in police procedure. It has none. We can also talk about disability, the lens to which I am drawn - diabetes and asthma.

But all of this falls under the general issue of the cult of compliance as well. This man was not a risk. He was not hurting anyone. He wasn't doing anything wrong (sometimes he sells unlicensed cigarettes, but was not in this case).  In fact, by all reports, he had just broken up a fight.

But he wasn't complying with police orders, that became the justification for force, and now Garner is dead.

I see stories like this every week, not always fatal, not always racially-charged, not always urban. Every week, someone doesn't obey an officer and the officers treat non-compliance as if there were a threat, so they get physical.

It has to stop. It isn't stopping.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Inclusion, not Same-ness: Walgreens and the Disability Cliff

Over the last few months, I have been focusing more on "the cliff," which is a way some disability advocates refer to turning 22 in our system. Until then, special education provides support for school, training, and even certain kinds of therapies and other activities throughout a child's life. At 22, nothing. Work is hard to find. Programs are rare and expensive. Many kids just go home to their parents house or, if not possible, into a home, and that's that. They've fallen off the cliff.

But lots of people are working to change those realities, in all sorts of ways, and I am writing about some of them (including a piece on college to be published in August or September for the Chronicle).

Various people in the business world are trying to help. Here's a really great story, but not in the casual rah-rah inspiration way, about the former head of operations at Walgreens and his attempts to hire more people with disabilities at the stores and their distribution centers (the goal was 1 in 10 with disability). Randy Lewis is the father of a son with autism and his goal was not just to do what many retail stores do - hire people with disabilities to clean and move shopping carts and the like (which is fine, but not all that's possible), but rather:
Walgreens had previously employed disabled people to do “ancillary rather than mission-critical work”, cleaning for example, but Lewis wanted to do something more. “We wanted an opportunity to bring people in as our own employees,” he recalls. That opportunity came with the building of a new distribution centre; larger and more automated than any the company had owned before. Lewis’s mission was to use that centre to allow the company to hire greater numbers of people with disabilities. It is now Walgreens’ most efficient site, and 40% of its workforce is disabled.
Similar buildings have opened around the US, but Lewis says although automation has helped, it isn’t the true reason why hiring people with disabilities has spread throughout the company. “The automation is what gave us the courage to do something different,” he explains. “It didn’t make it happen, it made us believe it could happen. We could do this anywhere.” 
 Lewis had a vision. I am so skeptical of corporate mentalities, the kind of breathless lauding of business "visionaries," and other aspects of the way media talk about folks in the corporate world. And yet:
We never lost sight of the fact we are a business, not a charity: this had to make business sense,” stresses Lewis. “We had to hold everyone to the same standards and have a completely inclusive environment. When I presented it to the board, I said this was going to be the most expensive building we had ever built, which they didn’t like, but I said it was also going to have the best ROI, be the most efficient and be built in such a way that one-third of the workforce would be disabled.” The board had one question: ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ Lewis’s response? “If it doesn’t work, we’ll readjust. That’s what we do in business all the time: make mistakes, learn from them and move on. We didn’t say: ‘We’re going to have great performance or hire people with disabilities’; We said: ‘We’re going to have great performance, we’re going to have a positive impact on the community and change the workplace for everybody.’”
The piece continues like this and is worth reading, just to get a sense of the possible and how to talk to folks in business about employment.

One of the things I really like about the piece is that a number of Lewis' statements embody the concept that I call "inclusion, not same-ness." Inclusion requires creative thinking, it requires seeing possibilities that emerge from changing what we consider "normal," it involves letting people do things that you might not let another do. Often, unexpected benefits follow.

For example:
“We haven’t found a disability we can’t employ, because everything is on a spectrum,” says Lewis. “We have one person with epilepsy who has 17 seizures a day. He wears a helmet and people know to make sure he’s in a safe place when he has an episode. He couldn’t find a job until he came to us.”
This inclusivity has had a positive impact on engagement. Whenever a new piece of technology is implemented in a distribution centre, Walgreens expects some disruption, so with this high level of automation, it was expected things would go wrong. They did, and from July to November everyone in the centre was working overtime and Saturdays. “The preconception we had about people with disabilities is that they wouldn’t be able to be very flexible or work overtime,” says Lewis. “But when I went to talk to the team members, they only had two questions: ‘how are we doing?’ and ‘what can we do to help?’ That’s when I knew we had a special building.” 
 A helmet. A community. And a man has a job. Here's another piece.
Safety costs were also lower for people with disabilities. “Fears about more accidents had come up, but we found deaf forklift drivers – who many companies won’t hire – are twice as safe as someone who can hear,” says Lewis. “If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers.”
Deaf-ness as advantage. And what I like is that these advantages are not predicated on disability as a superpower (the Rain Man phenomenon), but just be opening one's mind to the possibilities of inclusion.

So cheers to Walgreens (for all it's fleeing America to avoid paying taxes, 2 years after begging tax breaks from Illinois).  May other companies follow in its wake.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Voting with Dollars: Eden Foods is Off the Shelves in Seattle Co-op

Like many stores, Central Co-op in Seattle became aware of Eden Foods' anti-birth-control policies last year. Like many stores, they decided not to boycott them, despite pressure from their consumers, because, "we decided not to join a boycott over this one point of divergence. Your strong stance on product safety and GMO issues precluded a complete severance of our relationship."

This is precisely the kind of decision that I was arguing against in my CNN piece and on the blog, but also that I am resigned to seeing. Eden Foods has had a deep grip on certain aspects of the organic food market and they are hoping people will care more about food quality than about the religious exemption and women's rights.

Moreover, I am sympathetic to stores that are hesitant to take a stance in an issue that is politicized, even if, as I argue, the core question is ethical. Stores that want to stay in business have to be careful.

But there's good news, as reported in an open letter from Central Co-op to Eden Foods. Consumers in Seattle are voting with their dollars. The letter reads:
We encourage our owners and customers to vote with their dollars by supporting companies that they respect. This is what we suggested our community do when outcry arose over your action last year; and recent renewed interest in your case was cause for us to review sales of Eden products and explore what options we might have that equally (or better) reflect our product guidelines. During this review we found that our community has indeed been voting with their dollars and that 80 percent of the Eden products on our shelves have failed to keep up with the sales of competing products. It is clear that your company has lost support from our community and that people are showing preference to other product lines.
GREAT WORK SEATTLE SHOPPERS. And kudos to Central Co-op for running the numbers, seeing the pattern, and being willing to publicize the results. I'm also really interested in their assessment that whereas once Eden Foods was an essential provider for the natural foods market, this has changed. There are lots of suppliers out there, so they can substitute less politically-charged brands for the products that aren't selling.

They conclude the letter asking Eden Foods to re-think their lawsuit, writing, "We realize that no company is perfect, including ours, and we remain diligent in our evaluation of which products most closely align with our values, and most effectively meet the needs of our community. In our judgment, this decision of yours moves you down the order of consideration among the options available to us."

This is how we win. Store by store, reducing profit margins, and either pressuring Eden to change their politics or making them irrelevant.

I have requests out to several other Co-ops and Whole Foods to find out if their sales figures have dipped. We'll see if they respond (some have promised to do so).

Here's what we do next.

Go to your co-op and ask them to assess how Eden Foods is selling and whether they could substitute the product for a company that supports women's rights. Organize locally. Collect data. Make sure your local food communities know what Eden Foods really stands for. Get them off the shelves, store by store, product by product.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Peer Review and Academic Kindness

Rebecca Schuman has a new piece up at Slate on peer review. She works through the usual, and often VERY TRUE, complaints about cruel, self-centered, or just very late reviews. Her comments track with the experiences of many of my friends.

One, writing about a third-tier European city, had her book booted from her publisher of choice because noted that it was a third-tier European city, and one of the reviewers didn't like hearing the town referred to in such a way. The reviewer was so powerful, the editor said sadly, that there was nothing he could do.

Another, writing for a major European press, received a peer review of her tenure book that was a paragraph long and said, basically, this sucks.

On Academic Fail Blog (Fumblr), Maggie Williams and Nancy Thompson has put up a transcript of their delightful 2013 Kalamazoo performance of "Speculations and Rejections." Williams' comments reflect an amalgamation of actual statements included in peer reviews they had crowdsourced, such as:
I find the references to/juxtapositions with modern thought here and there annoying, but that is perhaps more a reflection of my own stylistic predilections. More seriously, the introduction of the figure of Moses is poorly done, and besides, “Medieval Codex 312” (a manuscript I know something about!) has the earliest horned Moses, not “Medieval Codex 313”, which undercuts some of the force of the essay’s rhetoric (and reliability).
The author's most original contributions are the speculations about the multiple meanings of [the objects]... These speculations, however, are not based on any contemporary literary sources and derive entirely from the author's imagination.
Professor Thompson needs to read the most important dissertation in this area, a recent work by.... Nancy M. Thompson.
That last one is my favorite (anonymity often goes both ways for articles, so the reviewer wouldn't have known).

I've thought a lot about peer review lately, while getting some wonderful feedback on my own writing and delivering what I hope was constructive feedback to another author. I reviewed an article from receipt to delivery in 5 days - of course, it was summer.

One problem, I think, and one that I don't see explored very often, is that reviewers (in my field anyway) tend to be quite senior people, the more senior the better. That means that by definition they came through grad school and published their early work in a very different publishing environment than the one we live in now. Many senior faculty know this and have adapted their approach to reviewing, but not all.

Schuman offers three solutions (the last hers uniquely).

1. Sign your reviews. I endorse this. Yes, people will still be cruel, but it will change the calculus if we cannot hide behind anonymity. I actually think that the fact that we can be critical with our name attached shows that we don't need anonymity to review.

2. Crowdsource reviews - I don't really know what I think about this, but the idea of putting an academic essay draft on my blog or other social media site and letting you all have it at is terrifying but appealing. I might try it someday.

3. Review the reviewers. Before you are allowed to submit an article, you have to review an article, and it has to be both timely and constructive.

I love this idea, but I am skeptical about its pragmatism. In my field, at least, as noted above, reviewers tend to be relatively senior. I was never asked to review an article until I had made it through tenure and had a book on the way. That's appropriate. But I submitted many articles as a junior faculty member on the long climb upwards. Moreover, it definitely wouldn't work for monographs, as you generally need someone with a book (or many) to review your first book. In other fields, do junior people do peer reviews?

The best solution, of course, is to be kind and constructive. For people in the humanities, as Schuman puts it, to be humane.

It does happen. A friend of mine created the academic kindness tumblr as a way to track good behavior, so that the hubbub of horrible examples doesn't lead us into total despair.

It could happen more. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the book review, a signed, public, piece, in which there's a kind of expectation that we will write at least one negative paragraph detailing the work's faults, however minor. Do we have to write that paragraph? If it's not important, just skip it. I promise I will not think less of you if your review doesn't note minute errors (conflict of interest, I am finishing copyedits on my first book, I am terrified of minute errors)!

So what happened with those two friends I cited at the start of this post?

My friend with the book on the third-tier European city didn't get the first-pick press, but the editor immediately started calling other editors, telling them that he had a great book here he couldn't publish, and found it a good home. That friend got tenure.

My friend with the one-paragraph review - well, the editor sent it to her, but then said that they would find another reviewer.  The book will come out. That friend got tenure as well.

The kindness and professionalism of these editors is not a system. We're still too reliant on petty point-scoring and I like Schuman's thoughts on how to get around that. Until we've got such a system, though, just try to be good, be professional, and be punctual. It's the best we've got.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Eden Foods and the Death of the Progressive Boycott

Today I have one last post on Eden Foods.  I wrote about it last Friday for CNN, there's a new piece up on Forbes that covers the struggle, but I worry about it slipping away out of view.

If people concerned about women's rights cannot stop Eden Foods through exerting their consumer power, then we might as well give up.

Hobby Lobby is complicated. It's a huge chain, lots of people from all political stripes use it to support their crafts, and it's going to be hard to effect a strong boycott. Yes, there are lots of excited people and protests now, but it's going to fade and the company will survive or fail on its own. It just doesn't rely on a lot of high-information progressives for its profit margin.

Eden Foods, on the other hand, exists squarely on our turf. Yes, there is a libertarian market for organic products, but as I wrote on CNN, "organic products, a market that relies on educated, well-informed, urban consumers, a demographic that trends liberal." Follow the links (and there are many more studies).

Moreover, people tend to buy organic foods as a conscious choice, not a reflexive decision. The products are usually more expensive, for one thing. It's a business that usually relies on volume to make profits. Start getting Eden Foods out of your stores, refuse to buy them, educate store manager and other shoppers, and we can make a difference.

Moreover, CEO Potter makes for a perfect target. He's offensive in his discussion of birth control as like Jack Daniels, his self-expressed ignorance both about women's issues and about religion (though his lawyer talks a good religious game), he's exactly the kind of person it's easy to motivate lower-information shoppers against.

Here's my problem. I am not an organizer. I am a writer and thinker. I argue. I debate. I compose. I publish. And then it's up to you.

As covered yesterday in Forbes, Credo Mobilize now claims (this link says 100,000, but they've updated according to Forbes) over 150,000 signatures against Eden Foods. 15,000 on this Eden Foods - Whole Foods petition. This is good, but where are the daily diaries here? Where is the outrage across the liberal blog world? Where are the focused campaigns? I keep hoping for more, more pressure. I'm not seeing it.

This is on our turf. Organic foods. The perfect villain. The structural elements are all in our favor.

If we can't win this one, well, then maybe progressives don't actually care that much about access to contraception and fighting back against the religious exemption.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cult of Compliance - Man shoots panhandler as he runs away

From Digby, we have another example of what I call the cult of compliance.

In Springfield, MO, a panhandler in a Walmart parking lot, Eric David Butts, was confronted by a police officer, Jason Schuck. Butts turned to run away and Schuck drew his weapon and shot him in the back. Later, he claimed that he was reaching for his taser, which may in fact be true. In America, it's normal to send tens of thousands of volts through a non-violent man running away from confrontation.

Here's what Digby says:
Honestly, the shooting in the back is a terrible thing. But from the sound of it it actually was an accident --- the cop was negligent, but it doesn't appear he meant to shoot him. But the fact that nobody questions the officer's decision to taser a mentally ill panhandler who was leaving the scene is even worse. Yes, he had failed to appear in court and had a warrant. So what? He's schizophrenic, known to the cop, and pumping him full of electricity for failing to comply in a situation like this is as cruel as beating him with a nightstick. Unless someone's life is at stake, there's just no excuse for it.
This is the right interpretation of the event. Non-compliance is a justification for violence, whether taser, nightstick, pepper-spray, boot, or gun.

The man had mental illness, and yes, he may have been involved in various kinds of petty non-violent crime, and he was running away. It reminds me of the death of Israel Hernandez, a wonderful artist whose medium, graffiti, did indeed mean he was breaking the law. The police caught him, he ran, they tasered, he died. The local police chief said, "The officers were forced to use the Taser to avoid a physical incident."

Let's be clear. A non-violent suspect of non-violent crimes who is running away is not a threat. The officers are not forced to tase them, but choose to, perhaps even are trained to do so.

We, as a society, have to choose what we value.

Read more here:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday Roundup - Eden Foods,

Unexpectedly, Eden Foods became my big story of the last few weeks. It introduced my writing to thousands of new readers, for which I am grateful. 

I came to this topic because it's about language and power. 

Like any consumer, I wrote Eden to complain, got their response, and thought, "grotesque," now there's an interesting word. A week later, ten thousand views, three pieces on my blog,  a radio interview, a new CNN piece, and I'm now deeply invested in the topic.

I'll have one more blog tomorrow on Eden, so check back in the morning.

I wrote two pieces on medieval metaphors, and why it's vital that we understand both the ways that history does and does not inform our current situation. The first was a quick hit on Karl Steel's blog and his critique of using "feudal economy" to describe our current situation. Our current situation is vastly more unequal. 

The second worked from Stephanie Miller, a liberal radio host that I like, criticizing the "war on women" as medieval. It's the modern elements that concern me.

I also wrote one more essay on Down syndrome diagnosis. It's much more likely that you will be called on to support someone who has had a diagnosis than to receive one yourself. Be ready. My friends got themselves ready and helped us immensely as we struggled in those first hours.

I'm buried in copyedits on a 90,000-word book. Blogging may be limited. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Resource: Statements on Eden Foods

As I continue to write about language, politics, and ethics, I thought it would be useful to place statements all on one page, without comment. Eden Foods, Whole Foods, The Wedge Co-Op, Willy Street Co-op. I also have links to major reporting on the topic, especially from a year ago when their first suit was decided.

I will have a CNN piece on the topic this morning and will update the blog when it's up.

Here are some good resources.

And now the statements. If you see more statements from co-ops, send them my way or post them in the comments and I'll update. Also good articles that add something new. 

Eden Foods:
Eden Foods is a principled food company. We were convinced that actions of the federal government were illegal, and so filed a formal objection. The recent Supreme Court decision confirms, at least in part, that we were correct. We realized in making our objection that it would give rise to grotesque mischaracterizations and fallacious arguments. We did not fully anticipate the degree of maliciousness and corruption that would visit us. Nevertheless, we believe we did what we should have.
The objection we filed has never been part of the Hobby Lobby lawsuit
Whole Foods:
“We really do appreciate everyone who has reached out to us to share their feelings about Eden Foods. When reviewing products for our shelves, our primary consideration is whether the product’s ingredients meet our Quality Standards. We recognize and respect that customers may have their own personal criteria for buying or not buying a product, and it’s every shoppers’ right to vote with their dollars on that basis. We hope that if people have feedback for Eden Foods, they share it with them directly.”
The Wedge:

Thanks so much for sharing your views about the Eden Foods situation with the Wedge. We are aware of the recent news, and while we are disappointed by Eden Foods' stand on this issue, the Wedge has a long-standing tradition (since our earliest days as a co-op) of not engaging in boycotts that are called for political reasons. Our membership includes a wide swath of political, religious and cultural viewpoints, and we leave decisions of this kind to our members.
As an organic foods co-op, we have our own set of values to consider; Eden Foods sources from North American organic farmers. Dropping their products would punish regional organic growers who have no part in Eden company decisions and would leave our co-op with nothing but Chinese-sourced organic beans, in direct opposition to our commitment to healthy regional farm economies and a domestic organic food shed.
Basing health insurance on employment is an altogether different conversation that needs to move forward. This most-recent situation is just one part of that larger discourse, which will get worked out in the courts and in the political arena. Until then, we encourage our members to make their own purchasing decisions based on the values they hold most important to them, and we will follow your lead."

Willy Street Co-op:

A higher-than-average number of Owners have raised objections to the Co-op continuing to carry Eden Foods. The Owners who have already commented feel that the company’s legal action to avoid providing certain types of health care coverage for certain people may run contrary to our Food and Product Selection Philosophy.
On March 20, 2013, Eden Foods filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) for the right to opt out of contraceptive coverage for its employees (Eden Foods, Inc v. Sylvia Burwell). Eden Foods objects to a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring companies that offer employee health care to cover an array of contraceptive choices. Eden Foods is among roughly 70 companies objecting to contraceptive coverage on account of religious freedoms. The case has been reopened in court.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was a Supreme Court case decided on June 30, 2014. The plaintiffs were Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who refused to pay on religious grounds for emergency contraceptive pills and intrauterine devices as part of their employee health care. Eden Foods was not a plaintiff in this case, however, in their Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to reconsider their earlier decisions against Eden Foods.
Read Eden Foods’ statements pertaining to their HHS lawsuit and the impact of the Hobby Lobby lawsuit.
The Co-op appreciates Eden Foods’ frontline commitments to organic, natural, and sustainable foods and practices. Eden Foods has been an industry leader in maintaining organic standards and bringing BPA-free packaging to the U.S. market. The Co-op carries a lot of Eden Foods products (almost 100). Removing their product outright would significantly change our store inventory. Potential replacement products may cost more, and may not have as pure packaging. Some products may simply be no longer available to the Co-op.
However, our Co-op also strives to support a healthy, just, and tolerant food system in which workers are valued and compensated fairly across the board. Out of respect for the diverse values of our Owners and a commitment to transparency, we now bring the question of whether or not the Co-op should continue to carry Eden Foods products to the Ownership itself.
To address Owner concerns, the Co-op has initiated a 30 day Owner comment period on Eden Foods. At the end of the comment period, we will use this input to determine the status of their product. We are currently in the process of updating our Boycott Policy so that we will have a more structured process for Owners to initiate the comment period in the future.

Something Old, Something New - The Medieval and Modern War on Women

“I respect you very much as a woman for your accomplishments. I even read that you studied medieval history, which I think will come in handy with trying to defend the Republican war on women.”
Liberal Radio Host Stephanie Miller to Carly Fiorina, failed Republican Senate Candiate, on CNN State of the Union, 7/6/2014.

On CNN last Sunday, Stephanie Miller used Fiorina’s degree in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford as an easy way to score a rhetorical point. Miller argued that the Republicans, especially in their views on women, are medieval, and medieval things, as everyone knows, are bad.

This idea that the Middle Ages were especially backwards doesn’t really hold up to close analysis, but it’s a pretty pervasive myth and I’m not surprised to see Miller use it. In fact, Fiorina has used that kind of language as well. In a keynote address in 2000, she labeled ignorant government regulators as medieval and celebrated cutting-edge tech companies as the heroes of the Renaissance.  

This is, of course, nonsense. 

The kinds of regulations to which Fiorina objects are a product of the development the modern state and economy. The heroes of the Renaissance frequently served tyrants in an era of terrible war and strife, though they produce beautiful art in a time of chaos, disease, and religious strife.

Despite this, if we take Miller seriously and think about what the study of the Middle Ages might tell us about gender discrimination, patriarchy, and health care in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, we might make two arguments. First, knowing about the past in fact does come in handy when trying to understand the present. Second, one of the things the past reveals is that dangerous parts of the war on women are very modern.

Let’s start with a medieval story about women and healthcare.

14th-c drawing meant to depict "Trotula,"
a female doctor. Miscellanea medica XVIII
Wellcome Library, London. CC-zero
In 1322, the all-male medical faculty of the University of Paris took Jacoba Felice to court for practicing medicine without a license. At trial, witness after witness attested to her skill and denied that she had ever asked for payment. The court nevertheless found her guilty and ordered her to refrain from practicing medicine on pain of fine and excommunication.

On the surface, this looks like a classic example of medieval patriarchy at work.  But if the Middle Ages last from 500 to 1500 or so (and some scholars would end the medieval much earlier), 1322 is actually pretty late in the period. This is important because it shows that the specific issues in 14th-century Paris are new. 

Before that point, the men and women of the city had trusted Felice, investing her with social capital, although that didn’t help her in the face of the law. After this, male doctors increasingly worked to ban women from practicing medicine solely on the basis of their gender. In fact, according to Monica Green,   Professor of History at Arizona State University, Felice’s case may have sparked the physicians’ practice of applying gender-based barriers to the profession, since competency was harder to argue (Felice being supremely competent).

A modern analyst could use the case to inform either right-wing or left-wing arguments. On the one hand, it’s a kind of overreach of regulation that served the vested interests of male physicians who felt threatened by Felice’s competition. On the other, the case features a corporate body (the medical faculty) that used the courts and the church to enforce gender norms and restrict women’s access to quality healthcare. In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, that latter analysis does seem especially relevant, even if it’s not one Fiorina would make. 

Beyond the relatively narrow confines of medicine, the story of Felice also says a lot about the power of the state and what happens when that power is leveraged to reinforce gender or religious norms. The “state,” as we know the term, really begins to take shape in what we call the “early modern” period (starting around 1500, more or less), but we can see the roots in moments like the trial of Felice.

On the other hand, at its height, the pre-modern state had nothing like the kind of power that the weakest government can exercise today. The richest men or groups had nothing like the kind of wealth that corporations and plutocrats hold. The medical profession may have achieved power over credentials, but the knowledge and invasive possibilities of medicine today would have seemed largely inconceivable to the pre-modern physician.

At the core, Hobby Lobby’s arguments against providing contraceptive care do reflect older Christian ideas about gender, religion, and power. They are dangerous not because they are old, however, but because of the intrusive power of modern technology to peer into our most intimate lives. They are dangerous because of the control that corporations have over their worker’s health, a truly bizarre accident of 20th-century American labor history. They are especially dangerous because of the vast wealth leveraged by powerful conservative men who want to enshrine their religious views into law.

This is a modern battle as we decide what kind of country we want this to be. We resist the forces behind the Hobby Lobby decision not by mocking them for being antiquated, but through the ballot box, the courts, public opinion, and even the ultra-modern tool of internet-organized consumer boycotts.

On CNN, Miller’s quip suggested that patriarchy, gender repression, and even would-be theocracy are problems of the past, that the “war-on-women” is some kind of throwback to a barbaric and long-past age.

If only that were true.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Loose Medieval Metaphors

Copyedits for my academic book arrived in my email yesterday. My blogging will likely be a little sparser for the next three weeks. Or I'll write twice as much. There is no middle ground! Today is quick.

Medieval metaphors are flying around these days, as medieval is a shorthand in our national discourse for "bad," "backwards," or "unequal." We have descended into an age of acute inequality, so people turn back to "medieval" as a way of describing it.

That's nonsense. It's not like the Middle Ages were happy times one-person one-vote liberal democracy or anything, but the really important elements that shape modern inequality - technology, globalism (also a force for equality, in some ways), Wall Street, and so much else - are the very definition of modern. It's true in terms of state power, too. Sure, medieval rulers would have liked to be able to track you like the NSA does, but they couldn't. It's only once our entire lives enter a searchable digitial sphere that suddenly a body like the NSA can exist and imperil us.

Over on, Karl Steel takes on the notion of the feudal wealth gap. He writes:
We’re living in an era of unprecedented wealth, although perhaps not an unprecedented era of wealth concentration. What distinguishes 2014 from, say, 1014, is that the plutocrats couldn’t have fed everyone well even if they chose to try; lord knows they couldn’t have provided quality medical care and top-notch education to all of the poor, because they couldn’t even provide it to themselves; they couldn’t have extended the life of all the poor by decades, because even the rich back then, whenever that was, tended to top out at 40 years.
Also read his piece on religious warfare as an Enlightenment problem.

The possible now is very different from the possible then, for good and for ill.

And now, back to copyedits.