“So you’re Muslim? But wait, where are you from?”
Since converting to Islam in 2009, I have been asked this question more times than I can remember. It’s a kind of verbal squint: You look white, but…
When they aren’t satisfied with my answer — I was born in Maryland — they move on: “Okay, but where are your parents from? Your grandparents?”
They just can’t imagine a white Westerner being anything but Christian or maybe Jewish. An atheist even; that might make sense. But a Muslim? I must be hiding a secret Arab grandmother.
But the truth is, I was born into a Christian family. Then I chose to leave. I chose Islam instead.
Last fall, after the Oilers were downed 7–1 by Chicago—their sixth consecutive loss—Mike called in to 630 CHED’s Overtime Openline show. “I am an Oilers season ticket holder. I’ve spent many years driving from Red Deer, sacrificed so much. But I do it because of my absolute, sheer love for the Oilers. And I have lived vicariously through the Oilers because I was never good enough to make the team, but I always had the heart to believe in a team,” he said, the words tumbling out like he couldn’t stop himself. “I now have a three-month-old son. I will not even allow him to go anywhere near an Oilers shirt. He will be put in nothing that has to do with the Oilers, and that’s because the heart and soul of this team is gone. It’s lost. The only thing I can do right now is beg Oiler fans to stop buying jerseys. Stop buying tickets. Until we stop pumping money into this stupidity, we’re gonna watch the same thing over and over and over. It’s just so sad.”
When Mike finally ran out of words, all the hosts could do was gently thank him for the call and acknowledge that there were probably a lot of fans out there feeling exactly like he was.
Welcome to sports call-in radio, the world’s cheapest therapy. You don’t have to wait too long for an appointment, and like a 12-step meeting, it’s first names only—and you can even lie about that if you want. There’s no real psychological expertise on offer, but that’s not why anyone tunes in. Call-in radio is, quite literally, about making your voice heard. These shows are their own intense little communities—complete with local celebrities, crackpot street-corner prophets and unwritten etiquette—built on the foundation of obsessive sports fandom. It’s a weird thing to have a team in your life that you care so much about, but which acknowledges you only fleetingly, like a wink from the prom queen striding past you in the cafeteria. On call-in radio, everyone gets it: strangers sitting in their cars or garages or rec rooms, connected only by a radio signal and the fact that the same team lights their emotions on fire. “They know they’re saying something to other people who care, to the other callers and listeners. They don’t have access to the players or the coaches or [the general managers], so who are they gonna vent to?” says Reid Wilkins, the host who fielded Mike’s call back in November. “The call-in show is that front line.”
Occasionally Americans debate the correctness of beliefs and practices — political, moral, social. But not very often. Most Americans, or so one would judge from social media anyway, are Bulverists: they already know who is right and who isn’t, so all they need to debate is why the people who get things wrong — so, so wrong — do so.
But wait: it turns out that there is actually a second form or stage of Bulverism, one that is becoming increasingly common. If the first stage of Bulverism isexplanatory, this second stage is disciplinary: it is concerned to determine what penalties should be administered to those who are wrong. Disciplinary Bulverism is where all the action is today.
Consider the case of Brendan Eich, the former Mozilla CEO who was pressured to resign when it became widely known that he had contributed financially to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8. Now, Eich has made it clear that he doesn’t think he’s a martyr and would rather not have his name brought up so often in these contexts — a request that I am going to ignore, just this once, because well before he said that I asked whether people supported Eich’s ouster. Almost everyone who replied said that they did, but that’s as unscientific as a sample gets; and I’ve been unable to get a sense of just how severely Eich should be punished. One person tweeted to me that “A homophobe like Eich deserves whatever he gets,” but didn’t reply when I asked whether permanent unemployment would be a just punishment, or violent assault.
If there was a phrase that captured the state of many children and families in post-war middle America, it would probably be, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” If there was a phrase to capture the state of many children and families today, it would be “We were poor, and we could never forget it.” Robert Putnam, in his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, chronicles the changes in America’s culture and economy since the mid-20th century. Putnam seeks to show through vivid ethnography and weighty social science data the ways that “our kids” — the children that are the substance of our families’ hopes and nation’s future —are facing a bleaker world today than their parents. The grim statistics for out-of-wedlock childbirth, educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, divorce, family instability, and economic immobility are growing ever worse for America’s poor and working-class children. Putnam sadly documents how invisible their austere prospects are to the soaring children of privilege.
Putnam begins his story in his own hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950s during his own coming of age. There the children of construction workers and secretaries and laborers and lawyers and doctors mixed unselfconsciously in their neighborhoods, churches, and extracurricular activities. Class contrasts in culture—and crucially for Putnam, in social mobility—were muted or nonexistent in that era. Nonetheless, these were not halcyon days for everyone in Port Clinton. Many women who desired professional or educational advancement were stymied by bias and the prevailing social norms of the period. For the black children of Port Clinton, Ohio was an oasis of opportunity compared to a hellish American South in the dying gasps of Jim Crow. Yet they remarked to Putnam how “Your then was not my then, and your now isn’t even my now.”
BOSTON—Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Trescott University president Kevin Abrams confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Abrams, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus.
Millennials are grown up now — and they’re angry. As children, they were told that they could be anything, do anything, and that they were special. As adults, they have formed a unique brand of Identity Politics wherein the groups with which one identifies is paramount. With such a strong narrative that focuses on which group one belongs to, there has been an increasing balkanization of identities. In an attempt to be open-minded toward other groups and to address social justice issues through a lens of intersectionality, clear and distinct lines have been drawn between people. One’s words and actions are inextricable from one’s identities. For example: this is not an article, but an article written by a straight, white, middle-class (etc.) male (and for this reason will be discounted by many on account of how my privilege blinds me — more on this later).
May 5, 2005, Houston Southeast City Jail.
The blankets are “at laundry,” the guards say. Some of the other inmates grouse at the news. “Like we just animals,” one girl says and then slams the fleshy side of her fist into the Plexiglas opposite the guard picket, leaving a sweaty hologram like one of those baby feet prints Josh and I used to make on the inside of Dad’s frosted hatchback. I am tempted to walk over and dot five little toes in an arc over the print before it fades, and the thought forms a sad lozenge in my throat. The guards ignore us, but it’s a studied nonchalance, sadistic and mirthful.
“Shhhhhhh!” I scream inside, thinking it can’t be good to piss them off, better to be sycophantically polite. I am so white.
We are in a communal holding cell, where about fifty of us sit at a cafeteria table in front of our middle-of-the-night breakfast trays. We are in mini-skirts and stretchy knits, in soiled jeans and Goodwill t-shirts: we are bloodied, stricken, wigs akimbo—all of our night-filth naked to florescence. The table is god’s waiting room: here we sit together, passing stories and powdered eggs. The meaty part of my upper arm oozes blood from a two-inch gash, what will later be the one physical scar I sustain, and my thighs and knees ache from the crash, the blood now a dark syrup that stiffens my jeans. From my tray, I drink thick fruit punch from a disposable cup with a foiled lid, but avoid the pale spitballs of scrambled eggs. A lanky black girl, who reminds me of Big Bird with her fried blonde-turned-yellow hair and her huge Muppet hands, asks what happened.
“I dunno,” I offer. “Car accident,” I say, then tell her I was arrested for drunk driving.
CHANCES are you will not attend TED this year. Tickets to the gathering that begins Monday in Vancouver are sold out, this despite or rather because of the fact that gaining entry to the ideas conference entails more than pulling out your credit card. There’s a velvet rope of an application process, and questions to answer: “How would a friend describe your accomplishments?” “What are you passionate about?” Two references have to vouch for you.
But if you don’t make the cut and shell out the $8,500 fee for general attendance, no matter. The real action and measure of TED’s reach is online. In November 2012 TED announced its “billionth video view,” which, assuming an average length of 15 minutes, means that collectively by then we had clicked on roughly 10 million days’ worth of TED talks. At our desks or on our phones, we stare as sympathetic experts tell us we should reform education, admit to personal failings more publicly or invest in the developing world. It sounds great. The ideas, which TED promises are “worth spreading,” do indeed make the rounds. (Or as the Onion put it in TED-inspired mockery: “No mind will be left unchanged.”)
I grew up among Christian evangelicals and I recognize the cadences of missionary zeal when I hear them. TED, with its airy promises, sounds a lot like a secular religion. And while it’s not exactly fair to say that the conference series and web video function like an organized church, understanding the parallel structures is useful for conversations about faith — and how susceptible we humans remain. The TED style, with its promise of progress, is as manipulative as the orthodoxies it is intended to upset.
SWARTHMORE, Pa. — Robert Putnam wants a show of hands of everyone in the room with a parent who graduated from college. In a packed Swarthmore College auditorium where the students have spilled onto the floor next to their backpacks, about 200 arms rise.
“Whenever I say ‘rich kids,’ think you,” Putnam says. “And me. And my offspring.”
The Harvard political scientist, famous for his book “Bowling Alone” that warned of the decline of American community, has returned to his alma mater to talk, this time, about inequality. Not between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but between two groups that have also fallen further apart: children born to educated parents who are more likely to read to them as babies, to drive them to dance class, to nudge them into college themselves — and children whose parents live at the edge of economic survival.
The distance between the two is deeply personal for Putnam, now 74 and launching a book that he hopes could change what Americans are willing to do about children in poverty. He grew up in a working-class Ohio town on Lake Erie where, in the 1950s, poor kids could aspire to Rotary scholarships or factory jobs. He left Port Clinton for Swarthmore, where he met a woman in his introductory political science class who would raise two children with him. They would go on to Harvard. His grandchildren are college-bound, too, or already there, one of them living on the same floor of the dorm where Putnam once bunked.
It’s become one of the indispensable words of our time, a catch-all for any celebrity misstep or media mishap that could be seen as having sexist, racist, or hegemonic implications. In recent months, we’ve learned that love and loyalty, dresses and shirts, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are all problematic. Having found its way into rap lyrics and government reports, it’s now become a rallying cry for conservatives complaining about bad language on television. The word has broad, bipartisan, and seemingly irresistible appeal.
But there’s something problematic about problematic. By allowing its users to identify huge evils lurking behind every error, the word makes the slightest offense an occasion for outrage. An act need not be intentionally cruel to be problematic; it need not cause any direct harm at all. The only thing that’s required is for it to reflect certain unexamined assumptions with which we disagree. Thus, every human blunder is made the occasion for a full-blown culture war.
How did we get here? When the term first appeared in English, it looked unlikely to win any popularity contests. The 1609 play Every Woman in Her Humour (author unknown) speaks of “problematique mines, Obscurde enigmas…and incognite language.” Charlotte Brontë used the word, as did Coleridge, but it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that it came into its own.