Category Archives: Culture

CRITIQUING LAND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Unless you are a hermit, you have probably listened to a “land acknowledgment.” These are short statements uttered before social gatherings, acknowledging the prior possession of the land on which the events are taking place by indigenous peoples. Originating in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, they have become popular in the United States, and are now regular features in theaters, sports arenas, academic conferences, college commencement ceremonies – and even private family gatherings.

Land acknowledgment details may differ depending upon the event and the attendees, but certain characteristics apply more or less consistently. The statement is delivered in solemn and serious tones. The Indian tribe or tribes identified in the statement are portrayed as innocent victims, and their land described as “ancestral” or “unceded,” thus implying that the non-Indian attendees are trespassing. For the most part, the statements are gentle. Few go as far as the Northern California ACLU, whose website advises readers that land acknowledgment statements help us “confront our own complicity in genocide.”

These statements do carry educational value. They remind us that the conquest of the North American continent by settlers of European heritage was accompanied by massive, often monstrous mistreatment of the native peoples. And learning about the people who earlier inhabited one’s place of birth or residence is always a laudable undertaking.

Yet at the same time that land acknowledgments have proliferated, so have criticisms.

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HARVARD’S LEGACY OF SLAVERY

Thirty two years ago, a San Jose State University English professor named Shelby Steele published a short book entitled The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. Steele perceived an unholy bargain between white and black Americans. Under its terms, whites, burdened with guilt for their history of discrimination, would exercise the power to bestow preferential treatment on blacks, and in return blacks, commanding the asset of innocence, would exercise the power to bestow absolution on whites.

Steele deemed the bargain harmful for both sides, but especially so for blacks:

I think the reason there has been more entitlement than development is … the unacknowledged white need for redemption – not true redemption, which would have focused policy on black development, but the appearance of redemption which requires only that society, in the name of development, seem to be paying back its former victims with preferences. One of the effects of entitlements, I believe, has been to encourage in blacks a dependency both on the entitlements and on the white guilt that generates them.

Last month, in a letter to the “Members of the Harvard Community,” President Lawrence Bacow announced the release of a 134-page report documenting the history of Harvard’s “extensive entanglements” with slavery. At the same time, President Bacow  announced a $100 million commitment to implement the authors’ recommendations on “how we as a community can redress – through teaching, research, and service – our legacies with slavery.”

Is this an exercise in true redemption? Or is it an engagement in the kind of superficial trade-off that Shelby Steele analyzed three decades ago?

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WHAT DO MEN WANT?

Sigmund Freud, pop psychologists, and even Mel Gibson have pondered: What do women want? This post explores a different but equally important question: What do men want?

Conventional wisdom holds that men want sex — and plenty of it. Also wealth. And fame. And power. And then more sex, please.

Of course, men want those things. But there is something else they want even more. Something less physical, less palpable, but prized all the more for its ethereal value. Every man wants to see reflected upon his beloved’s face a look of pure adoration. Men want to see what we may call the “Ilsa Face.”

This is the face that Ingrid Bergman, as Ilsa Lund, casts upon Paul Heinreid, as Victor Laszlo, in Casablanca.

To discover the Ilsa Face, one must turn to the 40-second La Marseillaise” scene. Here is a link to it.  Readers may wish to take the time to watch before we move on to explore what men want.

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IN PRAISE OF MISINFORMATION

The latest justification for censorship is the need to suppress “misinformation.” The enemies of misinformation see themselves, not as censors, but as public guardians engaged in a campaign of self-defense.

Critics of Joe Rogan have justified their efforts to pressure Spotify to drop his popular podcast by accusing him of endangering the public health by hosting guests skeptical of the Covid vaccines.

In his defense, Rogan posted a 10-minute video on Instagram, in which he addressed the subject of misinformation generally. Rogan gave three examples of contentions which were once deemed “misinformation,” but which are now either accepted as true or at least considered plausible: 1) even if you are vaccinated, you can still catch and spread Covid; 2) cloth masks don’t work; and 3) Covid came from a lab leak.

Rogan, a former stand-up comedian and ultimate fighting commentator, does not fit the classical profile of an intellectual. And one might quarrel with his descriptions of these contentions (for example, while experts have long advocated the use of masks, there has never been widespread advocacy of cloth masks in particular).

But Rogan’s basic point is valid and perceptive: yesterday’s “misinformation” may become tomorrow’s accepted truth. Indeed, Rogan may have understated his case.

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WHEN TEDDY ROOSEVELT HAD WINSTON CHURCHILL TO DINNER

The lives of Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill overlapped, but they met in person only once — at a dinner in the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, New York on December 10, 1900. The 42-year old Roosevelt was about to relocate to Washington DC to assume his duties as Vice President. The 26-year old Churchill, who was visiting America to shore up his finances by a lecture tour, was about to take his seat in Parliament.  

What happened at their dinner is unknown. But to the extent historians have noticed the dinner (which isn’t a large extent[i]), they have accepted the view, first attributed to Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, that the two men did not get along because they were so much alike.[ii] As Robert Pilpel, in his Churchill in America 1895 – 1961, put it: “It was a case of likes repelling.”[iii]

But was it?

We will never know for certain because the witnesses are not available for deposition. But based on the evidence, the “likes repelling” theory is unpersuasive. Something else, something deeper, was afoot.

Let’s review the record, starting with Winston Churchill’s reaction to the dinner.

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ABORTION DISTORTIONS

Truth in advertising is a legal requirement in the United States. But truth in advocacy often gets a pass. The polemics surrounding the abortion issue makes that manifest.

Abortion is in the news again, thanks to the live coverage of the Supreme Court oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson, a case testing the constitutionality of a Mississippi statute banning most abortions after 15 weeks.

Few issues arouse as much passion as abortion. It’s not hard to see why. Depending on one’s perspective, abortion is about a woman’s right to control her own body, free of governmental interference. Or it is about an unborn child’s right to survive and to avoid physical extermination. As the late constitutional law professor John Hart Ely noted in his often-cited 1973 Yale Law Journal article on Roe v. Wade, “the moral dilemma abortion poses is so difficult as to be heartbreaking.”

This essay does not attempt to evaluate the merits of either side of that moral dilemma. Rather, it examines how each side uses language to legitimize its positions and denigrate those of its opponent. Some might excuse such textual manipulation as zealous advocacy. But it borders on dishonesty, and makes this inherently contentious issue even more inflammatory.

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TRUTH, JUSTICE, AND THE AMERICAN WAY OF SELF-DOUBT

Last week, Jim Lee, publisher of DC comics, announced that Superman’s motto would “evolve” from “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” to “Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow.” The announcement followed Superman’s earlier renunciation of his American citizenship.

Some have welcomed these changes as “a pointed statement that the Man of Steel is a hero for everyone.” As Wired blogger Scott Thill put it: “The genius of Superman is that he belongs to everyone, for the dual purposes of peace and protection. He’s above ephemeral geopolitics and nationalist concerns, a universal agent unlike any other found in pop culture.”

But of course it’s possible to be “a hero for everyone,” while at the same time serving as a champion for the American Way. The Statue of Liberty – that “mighty woman” — is a heroine for everyone, lifting her lamp to welcome the huddled masses and wretched refuse from the world’s many teeming shores. But at the same time, she is quintessentially American – perhaps even more American than Superman. Certainly, she is more venerable.

The sad and uncomfortable truth is that removing “the American Way” from Superman’s slogan has nothing to do with extending his appeal beyond our shores to the world at large. That global appeal already exists and has for generations. “The American Way” has been deleted, not because the phrase was limiting Superman, but because it was embarrassing Superman’s owners.

They were not alone in their discomfit.

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MAKING RBG PC AGAIN

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson famously quipped: “We are not final because we are infallible, we are infallible because we are final.”

The ACLU decided that a statement by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on women’s rights wasn’t sufficiently enlightened.  So they deemed it not truly final, and proceeded to change it to make it more infallible.

In her 1993 Senate confirmation hearings, the future Justice stated: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity.… When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

In 2021, on the anniversary of her death, the ACLU tweeted this modified version, attributing it to her:

All references to women and to female pronouns had been erased, replaced with gender neutral terminology.

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IN THE HEIGHTS — OF INANITY

Four years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda portrayed Salman Rushdie, opposite F.Murray Abraham as Ayatollah Khomeini, in the hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm “Fatwa!” episode.

Sometimes life imitates art. The real Rushdie apologized in a futile effort to evade a death sentence. Last month, the real Miranda apologized to evade a cancellation decree.

Salman Rushdie’s trouble arose from the publication of The Satanic Verses. Miranda’s arose from the broadcast of In the Heights, the movie version of the stage musical of the same name.

In the Heights follows a group of residents of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, as they pursue their individual dreams. The story is uplifting, even patriotic. The central character, Usnavi, dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic to revive his late father’s bodega. But ultimately he chooses to remain in Washington Heights and remodel his local bodega there. His decision is based on the realization that his true home is America.

The highly successful stage musical established Miranda’s reputation, winning Tony Awards in 2008 for Best Musical, Original Score, Choreography, and Orchestrations. But the world changed between 2008 and 2021. When the movie version was released, Miranda was immediately condemned for “colorism;” namely, favoring light-skinned Hispanics over darker-skinned ones for the leading roles.

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THE SHAMING EPIDEMIC

An epidemic has swept over the country, spread by the cancel culture. It is called “shaming.”

Shaming comes in many forms. Some are acceptable, even wholesome. For example, long before they were prosecuted in court, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were shamed in the public arena for their deeply immoral, as well as criminal, conduct.  

Other forms of shaming are troubling, such as shaming for obnoxious statements made years earlier, when the speaker was young and immature.

Mimi Groves was 15 years old when she sent out a private snapchat video of herself celebrating her driver learner’s permit. The video contained a racial slur which, as she explained later, “was in all the songs we listened to, and I’m not using that as an excuse.” When the video surfaced, the University of Tennessee rescinded her admission.

Alexi McCammond was 17 years old when she tweeted messages with anti-Asian and homophobic content. She later apologized, and deleted the tweets. But screen images of her tweets remained. When she was named editor of Teen Vogue, at the age of 27, those ten-year old images resurfaced, and McCammond was forced to resign.

Shaming for youthful indiscretions is relatively rare. It runs counter to widely accepted beliefs in forgiveness and redemption. It also exposes the stone-throwers to the peril of being outed as glass house inhabitants. Christine Davitt, the Teen Vogue senior social media manager who led the shaming campaign against Alex McCammond for her 2011 tweets, now faces demands for her own ouster after her own tweets containing anti-black racial slurs, dating back to 2009 and 2010, surfaced.

But the most widespread and pernicious variant of shaming involves punishment for insufficient wokeness.

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