The Magpie

Thoughts on the big and small questions

Day Without Immigrants

My mother is an immigrant and naturalized citizen. She has worked hard, in the public as well as the private sector, all her life to make a good life for my brother and me. But, she didn’t struggle as much as many. She married an American serviceman, whose American-ness made it easier for her and for us, her children. We were Americans, after all, born in the US to an American father. No one would send my mother back to her native country and no one would separate her from her children.

There are, however, those who came here, looking for more opportunities and did not have  an American spouse to smooth the way. Many work in low-wage, low-status jobs that many Americans won’t take. They make up the majority of restaurant staffs around the country. Where on earth would Americans eat, if not for immigrants? They clean our houses, they mow our lawns, and do untold tasks that privileged Americans are happy paying them to do. On the other side of the spectrum, though, they are doctors and scientists and intellectuals. They came to America to offer their skills, ideas and innovations, while taking fair advantage of the benefits America has to offer.

Immigrants come from countries all over the world and represent every race, ethnicity and religion. Like any group of people, there are good and bad. The population of immigrants in this country is not without its bad seeds. However, in lumping all immigrants into a monolithic category and then directing vitriol toward that category is part and parcel of a patriarchal white-supremacist culture. It is a culture that takes no account of the humanity of individuals. Indeed, it purposefully seeks to de-humanize individuals in the homogenizing in order to further its racist, sexist and ethnocentric/jingoistic agenda.

Today, I support all those immigrants and their children who will stay home, showing the  President, and others of like-mind, that the US economy is nothing without immigrant labor- legal and illegal; the US culture is starved of what makes us exceptional without immigrants.

Rationalizing College Applications

Max Weber, that wealth of social genius, once described the irrationality of rationality. Rationality, he said, was the streamlining of social process for the sake of expediency and efficiency.  Governments were most prone to this kind of rationalization, most notably in the form of bureaucracies. But, recent sociologists have described the McDonaldization, Disneyfication and Starbucksing of non-governmental aspects of social life.  What all of those fun phrases indicate is a penchant in American life for making things the same. When we walk into a McDonald’s or Starbucks, whether in Indianapolis, Tuscaloosa, Los Angeles or Portland, we know what to expect in terms of product and service.

It’s college application season and it is evident that the very kind of rationalization explained by Weber and later sociologists, has taken hold in that process, too. My youngest daughter just applied to six colleges, using the Common Application, an online application that nearly every college and university in the US accepts. This differs from just a few years ago when my older daughter applied to six colleges using six separate applications, on each of the college’s websites. Today, at this time in this college application season, seniors all over the country are using the same application to apply to the thousands of colleges and universities across the country.

On the one hand, you might think, that’s great, it makes it so simple, a sort of one stop shopping. And while this is sort of true, it would be misleading to think it’s easier, let alone reliable. Although, it’s a one stop affair, each college and university has its own set of criteria within the application framework. Applicants must be very careful to include all of the parts required for each school. So, kids have to be careful, what’s wrong with that? Nothing if that is all there was. The website itself is difficult to navigate and creates a latent learning curve that causes anxiety because the application is everything in these kids’ lives right now. One mistake, one deal could cost them college admittance and possibly alter the course of their lives.

So, take for example, my daughter’s experience. She is an A student with high test scores. a commitment to community service that goes beyond resumé padding, is on the French Honor Society and the Art Honor Society, works on yearbook and has a part-time summer job at our local beach. She is a dream applicant. Am I bragging, a proud mom? Of course! But these are also facts.

She has been preparing her college essays since last summer, working on them between work and AP summer homework. She applied early to an Ivy League school and was deferred an admissions decision until spring. As a result she applied to the five other schools she wants to attend. She had already filled out the general part to the Common Application when she applied for early action, so all she had to do was cut and paste her essays for each college as appropriate and send the application by hitting the “apply now”button. She did this on January 1, the colleges’ deadlines. Three of her essays did not, however, show up with her application.  It was unclear, at the time she applied, if they were not available to the colleges or if the colleges access the essays separately, as some do. Fortunately, the following week she was notified by one of the colleges that they hadn’t received her essay. She went into her application and simply started clicking around to see what she was suppose to do. Lo and behold, next to her essay was a button that said “submit essay” that was not there originally.  She happened on this and there was never additional instruction during the application process to help her know clearly what she was suppose to do for each school.

So, here we come to Weber’s idea of irrationality. He said that efficiency eventually becomes inefficient- think about your last experience at the highly rationalized bureaucracy of the DMV- and efficacy becomes unreliable as well. In other words, rationality has a tipping point. Had my daughter been able to send a paper application with her printed essays, she would have felt more secure in knowing that the colleges would have everything they needed in one place. The lack of efficacy of this method has become clear in the weeks following her application. One school emailed asking for her social security number, which was on the Common Application. No other school had this problem. Another was missing parental information for financial aid. The FAFSA is not modern enough to recognize that parents get divorced and remarried and leaves no room to explain status accurately.

The entire process in mechanized via the internet so that there are lots of moving parts. Transcripts and letters of recommendation in many high schools are sent electronically via a platform called Naviance. The one stop shopping expands exponentially when you apply for Financial Aid. There is the government website to submit the ever necessary FAFSA. If your child is applying to a private university, there is another financial questionnaire in the form of the CSS Profile, managed by College Boards, that organization that runs so much of the process from SAT testing to AP curriculum and testing to, apparently now, financial aid. Some colleges then want you to upload sensitive financial documents through still another platform, IDOCS, also managed through College Boards. Others want you to upload them through their own portals. And, of course, let’s not forget there are still those pesky SAT/ACT scores to send through their websites to the schools one is applying to. That makes at least 6 different websites one has to work with to apply to college and get some money to pay for it.

Every one of these steps has the potential for electronic mishap- the server is down, the wi-fi is spotty and you don’t know if your sending something was successful or not, you don’t get the right thing using the right link because it’s actually not the right link but you didn’t know because there are no clear instructions.

What we have here is irrationality of a once rational idea. Of course someone though it would be a good idea to streamline the thousands and thousands of applications that colleges and universities receive every year. But, it’s also scary for 17 and 18 year olds who have worked really hard for four plus years for this moment, only to find they didn’t do something correct that they could have done had they more personal control over the process. It’s hard to imagine your opportunities going down the drain because of a computer glitch.

Plus, now, in addition to studying hard to make sure first semester senior year grades are top notch, kids are required to manage the admissions portals, daily, of their applicant colleges, so they don’t miss anything important the colleges may need. And, they always need something they failed to tell you about in the first place or you thought you’d already taken care of.

It is no longer efficient or efficacious, yet, look who stands to lose if this system isn’t perpetuated through the false discourse of “simplicity”. College Board has their hands in so much of the process, and did I mention all the fees for every step of the way? FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is still free. The SAT/ACT charges a fee to take and to send the scores. AP tests cost per test to take and to send scores to schools.The Application costs per college on average is $70. The CSS charges to send the information to each school. College Board manages most of those. Wherever money becomes involved it lends itself to irrationality and, another subject for another day, it disadvantages so many young people trying to go to college. It seems time to once again revisit how this process works and for whom does it provide the most benefit.

Security Lines

Recently, on a trip to Disneyland in California, I was confronted with a strange reality: security lines, or more accurately, because their was no organization, security clusters. Ok, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that a place that regularly sees tens of thousands a day go through its gates, would have some security measures. But, the last time I was at Disneyland- still post 9/11- in 2005, they didn’t exist and it didn’t occur to me that at the “happiest place on earth” I’d find airport style security.

I already had security on my mind, having flown from New York to Los Angeles the day before. I’m used to the security lines at JFK- long. I’m used to the lack of human affect displayed by TSA agents, something some would argue is necessary for the job. I’m also resigned to having to undress either by taking off my shoes and belt and sweater and/or by having a person in an unseen room view scans of my naked body. So be it; the cost of terror.

Well, first of all there is a lot to debate around the definitions of terror and security, around methods for discerning “those with bad intent”, around civil liberties and American values and ideals. I won’t get into all of it here, but let’s say for the sake of argument I agree with the common understanding of what terror, terrorism and tourists are. I don’t think it’s a concept that is so easily whittled down to a sentence or a simple agreed set of definitions, but for now let’s say I do.

My father was a pilot and, growing up in the 1970’s, we often went to the airport to wave at my dad’s plane as it backed away from the gate. We would follow it through the gate area, looking out the windows, until it finally took off.  There was nothing between us and the gate where his plane originated before take-off. Now, in the 1960’s and 1970’s the world wasn’t devoid of fears and terror. Hijacking was a pretty popular activity then. People were hijacking planes for all kinds of reasons- money, politics, sport. And, yet, no personally invasive security measures. Actually, none of any kind.

Sometime in the 1980’s they erected scanning machines and we were asked to place our purses and wallets on the belt and walk through a screening gate that would detect metal. Many did this as we went to see of loved ones or meet them at their arrival gates. Eventually, and this was prior to 9/11, no one who wasn’t a ticket passenger could get past the security gauntlet. Now, not only can’t you get past security without a ticket/boarding pass, in some airports, like JFK, you can’t get to the ticket counter without proof of a ticket for that day, that you are suppose to print on your home computer or have accessible on your personal devices.

Anyone remember when you could just walk up to the ticket counter and buy a ticket for the next flight out? Shudder at the thought now. Even if the price is no object, buying a same-day ticket is a sure way to draw attention at the security area. You are more likely to get, what we call in my family, “the full meal deal”, i.e. taken to a separate area, patted down, your belongings pawed through and swabs taken of everything you own in order to detect explosives.

Some would say this all necessary in order to ferret out the bad guys among us. But, no one has offered another possible way this could be done besides the one that assumes everyone is guilty, treats everyone as if they are hardened prisoners who deserve no human intercourse, and create a class of policing that is dangerously close to devolving into a nazi-like state.

What does it do to our humanity? What does it do to the humanity of the TSA agent who must shut down, in the face of her work everyday, those very emotions that make human interaction, something so necessary to the vital operations of a civil society, possible? The sociologist, Ervin Goffman, defined Total Institutions as those arenas in social life where individuals are stripped of their socialization and re-socialized to the institution. Examples included the military, boarding schools, mental institutions, and prisons, among others. The key insight for this issue of security is that anywhere people gather and particularly in airports (why airports specifically? Don’t we have to ask that?) total institutionalization is at work. We acquiesce to the security measures we very recently, in terms of our overall history, have become socialized to believe are necessary. While there was an outcry against body scanners, it didn’t stop people from traveling by air. In fact, people, instead, just acclimated or adapted as they say in evolutionary theory. Similarly, now we don’t seem to find it outrageous that to go spend a day in a fantasy place like Disneyland, we first must submit to searches and scans and pat downs. It seems almost like a science-fiction novel or movie, some dystopic future. “Family decides to chuck reality for a few days, but must first check in for their daily personal search.” Margaret Atwood might have written that.  It strikes me that it’s dangerously close to some totalitarian regimes we find so distasteful. Don’t let the parallelism of total institution and totalitarianism slide past your consciousness. They both contain the word “total” because there is something totalizing about losing your freedoms.

The only thing I will say about Disney is that their security personnel were warm and friendly and not robotic automatons. No one has blown up a Disney franchise yet. So, maybe, TSA could get together with Disney and come up with a more human approach that would at least make us all, TSA personnel and travelers, feel like we have some human dignity and compassion. In the end, security isn’t going to stop terrorism, but compassion might.

Patricia Arquette, Patricia Arquette, Patricia Arquette

Fredrick Douglas once told Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, essentially, “Not now, ladies. It’s not your time.” This was while testifying in Congress for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which gave the right to vote to black men. Patricia Arquette has been lighting up the cyber world since her comments at the Oscar, that maybe, just maybe, now it was our time. It is said that when folks react so strongly to someone’s political action, the actor is doing something right. Well, it seems Ms. Arquette is doing something right. Reaction to her comments have spanned the political spectrum. While the usual suspects have responded negatively, the most vocal group appears to be those who would logically support her claims. The main criticism is that she acted in an “anti-intersectionality” manner. Does the average person even know what that means?

It is a term that comes out of the post-modern feminist critique of feminism that didn’t address the oppressions of women all along the race, sexuality and class spectrums. In other words, it was a criticism of white, middle and upper class feminism. The liberal feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s did a lot to deserve that criticism, no doubt. But, Patricia Arquette isn’t a scholar of post-modern feminist theory. She is a woman who has an experience. Yes, her experience may be different than if she were a black woman or if she were a lesbian or if she were childless, but nonetheless, she has an experience. Her experience counts as much as anyone’s and to suggest otherwise is as demeaning as those white middle/upper class feminist of yesteryear (or today) who ignored the experience of women unlike themselves.

The fact is intersectionality called for an analysis of experience by using the varying status levels and the accompanying privileges that do or do not accompany those status levels. It did not, in any stretch of the imagination, call for a dismissal of certain women’s experience because they may (or may not) have enjoyed more privileges. To suggest otherwise demonstrates a novice understanding of intersectionality. It seems, actually, that several people took a women’s studies class in college and pulled out a big word to use as club. To what end, though, is puzzling.

Oppression, in these criticisms, appears to be understood as a zero-sum game, that there is only so much equality to go around and people who already enjoy some level of privilege will only take away equality from someone who enjoys less privilege. The fact is, in the words of Roxane Gay, if you live in the United States of America, you pretty much enjoy some level of privilege. Of course, it doesn’t take some kind of genius to know that there are plenty of people who enjoy very little but using the theory of intersectionality, there are many different ways one could be oppressed and still enjoy certain privileges.

To scapegoat Patricia Arquette because she chose to use some of her privilege (an actor at the Oscars) to point out some of her oppression is unfair, and in-fighting over who is most oppressed is counterproductive. The fact is there are many white middle/upper class women who fight vigourously for the rights of people of color, for the rights of lesbians and gay men, for the rights of working class people and people in poverty. The fact is equal pay for women means equal pay for all women regardless of race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or motherhood status.

The motherhood criticism is particularly interesting, that Arquette “left out” women who are childless or didn’t “give birth” to their children. Once again, the expectations are pretty high here, to demand a woman speaking passionately remember every particular category of woman and experience there could possibly be. In all honesty, even scholars aren’t good at that. But motherhood is a particularly salient status when it comes to equality. No matter how well meaning or intentioned men and women are about egalitarian parenting, the facts remain that it is mothers who still do the majority of child-rearing and mothers who are more likely to stay home with a sick child, take time off for rearing young children and to leave the workplace all together because of family responsibilities. Mothers make less in the workplace than childless women. Yet, mothers are necessary to a functioning economy- as Arquette pointed out in her allusions to taxpayers.

Criticism was levied about Republican Motherhood, that Arquette appealed to the citizenship of mothers, or more accurately, their children. This criticism misses because Republican motherhood required mothers to raise good citizens as a matter of patriotic duty. Arquette, in contrast, argues that women should be taken seriously as actors in the economic well-being of this country, and compensated appropriately.

Ultimately, none of these criticisms leads anywhere productive. Conservatives who might have vocally opposed Arquette’s call for equal pay don’t have to do anything except sit back and let traditionally oppressed groups fight it out amongst themselves. Who benefits from that? Those who benefit most from the status quo. Arquette called for a banding together of political actors in the fight for equality for the benefit of all. That she wasn’t as eloquent or exact as some would like her to be doesn’t mean what she said was invalid.

Embarrassing

I have sat with it all week and I really can’t not say anything. I am embarrassed. Perhaps I have been for some time, but at the beginning of the week, it struck me that I was truly embarrassed to be an American. After the horrible killings in France, France came together. Its citizens, its leaders- they came together. And, not only that, they were joined by leaders of 40 other nations. The United States, however, was not among them. I know that there were Americans- visitors, expats- who were among the million or so who gathered in Paris on Sunday. Our ambassador to France was there. But our President was noticeably absent. Many have criticized the administration for not sending a high level representative, instead leaving it to our ambassador on the ground. Some have called for Eric Holder to have been there. He was, in fact, already in Paris. John Kerry, too, was mentioned but he was busy preparing for the President’s trip to India. But, I don’t think either of them should be criticized. I think that honor should be uniquely reserved for our President.

America is supposedly the leader of the free world. We are suppose to set the standard. And, we have. We set the standard the day the twin towers were attacked. We responded with militarism. We responded with our own kind of terror. Yes, terror. I was in graduate school when 9/11 happened. One of my professors came in that week and asked, “what is a terrorist?” There, were, of course a multitude of answers, but I will never forget the question, because it made us think about what constitutes terrorism. So much has happened since 2001 that the definition of terrorism/terrorist has taken on a common understanding linked to jihadists. Back then, though, it was still being discussed more broadly, and the United States response to the 9/11 crisis was, arguably, no better than those we disdain for terrorism. We could have chosen another way to respond and because we didn’t we have been mired in two wars for nearly 14 years.

We led the way, alright. We set the example and the example was that democracies should respond reactively, instead of with deliberation and thought, that democracies should initiate conflict, instead of resolving it, that democracies are as prone to violence as anyone else. What we reap we sow. The increase in Islamic terrorism is directly correlated with the US response 14 years ago. They hate us. So, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that the US made no showing at the Paris march. We continue to fail to do the right thing.

Our president could have re-arranged his schedule to be there, to walk arm in arm with Hollande, Merkel, and Cameron and the President of Mali. The President of Mali! He could have if he had the will. It would have set a different kind of example, that the United States stands with its allies for peace and inclusion. That the best way to combat hate isn’t with more hate, but with solidarity for the good of all. But, we didn’t and by not appearing, our President allowed our nation to say to the rest of the world “Sorry about what happened, but good luck to you.”

I am embarrassed by what we have done in the name of, let’s just say it, revenge for 9/11. It is embarrassing to contemplate what kind of world we have made by our militaristic responses. It is utterly embarrassing to me, as an American, to see the man who won the Nobel peace prize sit back and not prominently participate in this act of peace and solidarity that happened in Paris. It was the last straw. I am embarrassed to be an American.

Should We be Done with Football?

Football. All- American. I grew up on college and high school football. I was a high school football cheerleader. I played football with my brothers and their friends and I watched football every Saturday I can remember in the fall. When I grew up the men I dated were thrilled to find a fellow traveler in me. I was game for a long day at the bar watching the game or sitting on the couch eating chips and yelling at the TV with them. My husband and I are faithful college football fans for our respective universities. But this past August, I told him I was no longer going to watch football with him. I, of course, could not keep to my word. I vowed at first just to watch my team. Then I got interested in what my husband’s team (currently in the top 5) was doing. Then I got interested in certain other teams, like what was the hated rival of my team doing? What was Alabama doing? My father was a fan of the Bear so I always have to check in. So, I find myself this November with a conundrum. I am a football fan, a woman and a scholar of sex and gender, specializing in masculinity studies. I should be the first one out there to say enough is enough, because really, enough is enough.

There is so much about football that is wrong. The big news, of course, are the head injuries. A good half of the boys playing football at my daughter’s high school have had head injuries this year, mostly in practice. The star running back has been out since early October after suffering a concussion so severe he was unconscious for hours. It took 16 minutes to remove him from the field. A senior, any hopes of being recruited are likely over. But, that’s one piece of a larger puzzle. The culture of violence is alive and well, despite what such detractors like Jonathan Chait would have us believe. Chait argues that there is a kind of hysteria about the injuries and that the link between the culture and the injuries is spurious.

What exactly do we mean by football culture? For me, it means an environment where hegemonic masculinity is prized and where people who could make a difference look the other way when masculinity trumps the well-being or rights of others. Injuries from hard hits are just one consequence of a culture that equates masculinity with a kind of violence. Chait, himself, argues that football channels those attributes he links to masculinity, instead of questioning which came first, the attributes or the socialization. He takes masculinity as something natural, born with, to be channeled and made to accommodate, rather than the social construction that it is. He argues that not every boy is drawn to football, just as not every boy is drawn to chess. But what he fails to acknowledge is that there is a particular kind of boy who chooses football, just as there is a particular kind of man that chooses the military. Both offer a hyper-masculinized environment that promises to make a man out you. It is a particular kind of man it makes.

College football is rampant with sexual assault and harassment charges and it is particularly onerous because college athletic programs are at the forefront of covering up as much as can be covered up. I am not afraid to say that the James Winston case is a classic example. If there was no wrongdoing, why would Jimbo Fisher and his staff be working so hard to protect Winston from even talking to investigators? Florida State is not an anomaly. The Department of Education is investigating somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred universities and colleges for how they have handled sexual assault claims. Many of those claims were not related in any way to football, but it does speak to something I have long argued in the case of military assaults. When boys and men enter an environment already pre-disposed to a kind of masculine culture and that culture sits within an even broader culture of violence, and gender violence in particular, the results are almost uncannily predictable. Colleges are not doing enough to prevent this kind of violence. Then add a football culture where boys will still be boys and you have a kind of perfect storm.

The problem, as it always is, is money. College and professional football are money machines. Pop warner and high school programs are feeders for the machine. Connor Halliday, Washington State University quarterback, recently broke his leg while playing against the University of Southern California. He is out for good. He will graduate this spring, likely, without an NFL contract. He lamented this fact, saying that he had worked really hard and implied that he would have a lucrative contract if not for this tragic outcome. I’m not sure he would have. I hope he is doing well in school. Too many college football players are taking up seats in classrooms without any intention of learning or prospering academically. College football coaches are paid in the millions while adjunct professors make slave wages and full-time professors make barely more. Full professors are lucky to break six figures. Only celebrity status can hep a professor sell books and command fees for lectures that could enhance that, but no one who teaches in a college classroom is going to come near the $10 million that Nick Saban is scheduled to make this year.

There are things we can do before we ban football or stop participating of our own volition. Last week Army beat University of Connecticut. When I mentioned it my husband said, “yeah and they don’t even recruit.” He was being facetious, but the fact is they don’t, ironically, recruit- for sports. It got me thinking, what if all universities were forced to play the athletes that come their way from college admissions? What if college football players were, in other word, scholars? The field would be leveled in some ways. What if college football players had a higher academic standard to keep in order to play week to week? What if we stopped paying people in universities to abet academic cheating? (See North Carolina for example) What if we stopped paying for bowl games and committees to determine rankings? What if we used that money to fund academic scholarships for everyone in a country where it is getting harder and harder for students to afford college? The list goes on, but the point is priorities. Our priorities are mixed up. We do not value scholarship or women or even boys who play football for that matter. We are doing them a disservice to raise them up in a culture that equates violence with manliness and then protects them from the consequences of that kind of thinking. Maybe it is time to stop the madness.

The Beginnings

Beginning a blog is always hard. At least, it is for me. First of all, I am tech UN-savvy, so it takes a great deal of effort on my part not to rush off for a bottle of pain killer. Second, it’s hard to know where exactly this will go. I think. I think a lot and I think about a lot of different things. So, it is very likely I will be writing a lot of different things. Setting any kind of tone here would be impossible under those circumstances. So, suffice it to say this may be a body of insightful meanderings or just a silly catchall of my brain’s waste products.