Essential Reading for Super Bowl Sunday

No time for a think piece today — I have too many buffalo wings to eat, watery beers to drink, and hours of pre-game coverage to pass before my glazed eyes. But I thought I’d share some worthwhile readings for Super Bowl Sunday.

Trying to decide who to root for? Perhaps the political contributions of team owners will sway you? Broncos lean Right, Seahawks lean slightly Left.

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Is the NFL ruining football with an ever-more complex rulebook? Yes. Is it to make more money? Most likely.

Is that shiny new stadium going to help your community? Is it worth public money? Al Jazeera, says no and no. Sociology Lens reviewed the scholarship on the subject back in November.

The Super Bowl is a festival of gendered marketing. What can sociology tells us about that?

We’ve all heard about the concerns about concussions in the NFL (if you haven’t seen Frontline on the subject yet, you must). The Grey Lady’s Frank Bruni has done a great job following this issue and connecting with larger concerns about violence, greed, and bloodlust. But I was also very fond of the introspective contribution by ThickCulture’s own Jose Marichal.

Joseph Albini and Jeffrey S. McIllwain, “Deconstructing Organized Crime: An Historical and Theoretical Study”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Terrorism and Organized Crime] Joseph Albini and Jeffrey S. McIllwainDeconstructing Organized Crime: An Historical and Theoretical Study (MacFarlane, 2012) is not, as some academics might think, a post-modern analysis of organized crime. It is however, an exercise of deconstructing by trying to look past the common assumptions and myths to explain the phenomenon we call organized crime.

The book starts with a debunking of mythology around the American Mafia and its popular history. It then moves on to define organized crime and analyse what it means to organise crime. This is often overlooked in many books on the topic. How does organization assist criminals and what types of crime can be organized? The authors also present a good analysis of the illicit market place and the difficulties of running a free market without rules. So it’s a sort of Libertarians meet Hobbes making for large profits but a potentially nasty, brutish and short life. The final chapters of the book look at the nature of the marketplace in a modern globalised society.

I have read many, many books on this topic and I still found this book to be quite refreshing. It definitely meets its goal of jumping over the unanswered questions and myths and getting to the heart of organized crime. It would be an excellent text for undergraduate classes in the topic as it will sweep away the mainstream media typologies and make them think about the nature of the criminal world and its reason for existence.

An Account of the Rise of (Modern) US Conservatism [John Green's Crash Course series]

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This is from John Green’s Crash Course series on US History. It gives an account of the rise of modern US conservatism, but I’m not sure how conservatives and libertarians will agree with this account. I think it’s interesting because it’s useful in framing the current ideological divides. The video starts off with Goldwater and segues to Nixon. While many might argue that current conservatism owes its roots to the founders or that the video ignores the 1920s (as evident in some of the YouTube comments), I think that Goldwater and the 1960s represents a good point of departure for modern US conservatism, since it represented a deterioration of the Democratic “solid South” and sets up the current political landscape.

What’s instructive here is how it explains how policy and politics aren’t independent of popular opinion. So, not all of Nixon’s policies are “conservative” (e.g., The EPA), as the Nixonian conservatism was embedded in a particular historical circumstance. While the “Silent Majority” who elected Nixon wasn’t happy with the social direction of the country, there was hardly a wholesale reduction of the federal government to pre-WWI levels.

Going beyond the video, I think that there are three distinct eras in modern conservatism. The rise of Nixon in 1968 (who lost in 1960 to Kennedy in the general election) was a backlash against the counter culture, in all of its manifestations. The rise of Reagan (who lost to Ford in the 1976 primaries) was not only a backlash against Carter, but brought together the anti-Communist stance of Goldwater, a move towards laissez-faire economic policy, and a social conservatism. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” (which didn’t feature a social conservative stance) brought both houses of Congress under control of the GOP, but it signaled a divide: the “country club” Republicans versus the socially conservative populists. While George W. Bush managed to squeak by in 2000 with the help of the Supreme Court, he had a little more breathing room in 2004, winning with a “War on Terror” = “War in Iraq” messaging. He managed to keep together a coalition of social conservatives and fiscal conservatives, which fell apart by 2006 and evident in his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

The fragmented state of the GOP is an interesting case because the party cannot contain the ideologies of its factions. Strong leadership may remedy this, but perhaps only to a point. What the conservative factions want and popular opinions on issues such as taxes, deficits, regulation, income inequality, minimum wage, abortion/reproductive rights, guns, entitlements, gay marriage, and immigration create too many possible failpoints for Presidential candidates and legislators.

While 2016 presidential election is a far off on the horizon, I’m not the first to point out that the Republican who wins (since 1968, after the South realigned) had his challenger come from the middle:

  • 1968: Nixon, challenged by Nelson Rockefeller
  • 1972: Nixon, challenged by Pete McCloskey
  • 1980: Reagan, challenged by George Bush
  • 1988: George Bush, challenged by Bob Dole
  • 2000: George W. Bush, challenged by John McCain

I’m not sure what a 2016 “most conservative electable candidate” looks like, but looking at a likely rough primary fight and swing state math, they’re not in an enviable position.

 

 

Brent Nongbri, “Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Religion]  We all know that religion is a universal feature of human history, right? Well, maybe not. In Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013), Brent Nongbri, Post Doctoral Fellow at Macquarie University, argues that throughout time people have conceptualized themselves in various ways but did not classify what they were doing as religious. As someone who works in the antique period Nogbri found it peculiar to find translations of ancient works referring to religion. In the first half of the book, he examines how and why terms like the Latin religio, Greek threskeia, or Arabic din, are repeatedly rendered as “religion” in translations. He also draws our attention to various births of the modern conception of religion, such as the Maccabean revolt or the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea.

Ultimately, he concludes this phenomena could be more usefully described in other terms. Nongbri explains that in the pre-modern era Christians generally classified others as bad Christians or heathens and not as other religious traditions. The second half of the book contends that religion as an idea has a history and the way we generally understand it today can be traced back to a number of historical events. Nongbri points to the three moments as instrumental in a public of understanding of religion as a universal, private, non-political affair – Christian disunity following the Reformation, increasing colonial encounters with indigenous people, and the formation of Nation-states. He provides ample evidence for these claims through a number of vignettes tracing this transformation over time. With these complex issues surrounding the concept religion we might feel at a loss as to what we should be doing in Religious Studies. Nongbri offers some useful approaches to how we can examine social activities and ideas in the context of this loaded term. In our conversation we discuss definitions, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Manichaeans, Muhammad, John of Damascus, the story of Barlam and Ioasaph, John Locke, the early Muslim community, the World Religions model, the invention of Mesopotamian religion, issues of translation, and Talal Asad.

Out of Sight, Out of …

I'm back from Haiti.  It was pretty difficult to post from there with no electricity and one laptop for over 12 people.

Before I get into the meat of the service projects, I just want to post my impressions of being back in Port-au-Prince for the first time in nearly three and a half years.

The traffic in Port-au-Prince is just as congested as it was in the last quarter of 2010.  There were signs of sustainability in solar panels on the tops of the street lampposts.

But the most obvious change was the absence of rubble and numerous buildings in full or partial ruins.  Some of my colleagues in Hands of Light in Action who had been in the capital city during my absence noted the change in an October visit.

The other noticeable change was the lack of tent cities teeming with earthquake survivors rendered homeless by the seismic catastrophe.  The one near the airport was gone.  On a trip to Pétion-Ville, I didn't see any evidence of the camp in the Place St. Pierre across from the St. Pierre Church.  Apparently the settlement had been cleared in 2011, an occasion marked by some as a milestone in earthquake recovery.

An article in the HuffPost posted last April noted that the number of persons in tent camps had declined by 79 percent.  In the months immediately following the quake, the number of people clustering in these deplorable conditions soared to 1.5 million.  While the International Organization of  Migration issued a report that indicated that yearlong rent subsidies had helped some households to move out of the settlements into more secure housing.  The report said that six percent of the departures from the camps were due to evictions.  It didn't give a reason for the evictions.

In other cases, violence was used to empty out the camps.  I spent my first night in Haiti with a family who resides in Pétion-Ville.  On waking, I ventured outside to see the familiar blue tarps marking flimsy shelters on a steep hillside.  The displaced, like the poor, are with us still.

Sowing Seeds of Service in Haiti

After three years, I'm about to embark on another trip to Haiti.  This time I'm allied with a California Lutheran University club SEEdS. (Students for Enlightenment and the Education of Sustainability) for Haiti, headed by Ryan Glatt, an Exercise Science Major from Simi Valley.  In all, 12 students from CLU will be heading to Haiti to do permaculture, and construction projects from Dec. 27 to January 17.  Due to family obligations, I'll only be spending five days with the projects.

The student club will be working with Hands of Light in Action (HOLIA), a charity  that has responded to disasters in Haiti, Washington, Illinois, and Boulder, Colorado.  HOLIA was founded by Nancy Malone, a physical therapist.

More information is available on the trip in a news story on the CLU website at http://www.callutheran.edu/news/news_detail.php?story_id=10202 and in a Maria Sanchez podcast consisting of an interview with Ryan Glatt at http://mariasanchezshow.com/ryan-glatt-clu/

I'm excited about the opportunity to accompany CLU students on a service project of their own creation, rather than recruiting them to travel study courses that I have originated, albeit with a service component.

marriage equality needs wins where there are more people

Good news yesterday out of New Mexico where the state’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of full marriage equality (they previously had only civil unions). On MSNBC, one commentator remarked, “We’re now 17 out of 50 on our way nationwide same-sex marriage” — a reference to the fact that New Mexico is the 17th state to have full marriage equality. But “17 out of 50″ is misleading because New Mexico has less than 1% of the U.S. population (rather than the 2% suggested by 1 out of 50). Moreover, we shouldn’t assume that gays and lesbians are evenly distributed across the country. I began to wonder, how many people will actually be affected by the decision***?

I threw together this table, showing the state population sizes, the percentages of residents who identify as as gay or lesbian (according to Gallup’s largest state-by-state study to date), and then by multiplying those together, the estimated numbers of gays and lesbians in each state. Green shading means full marriage equality; yellow means domestic partnerships or civil unions.

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As you’ll see, though the news from New Mexico is positive, it represents a very small percentage of the U.S. population. There are only 60,000 gays and lesbians in NM, which is about half of one percent of the national LGBTQ population. To have an impact on millions of gays and lesbians, we would need to see changes in populated rust-belt states like OH, PA, and MI.

Unfortunately, the two states without marriage equality with the largest number of gays and lesbians — FL and TX — seem like too steep a hill to climb politically in the near-future. However, the New Mexico case is telling as the change came through judicial decision rather than legislative action. A so-called “activist court” can produce rapid changes in policy in many places.

***Of course, other people, like children and other family members, can also benefit from same-sex marriage. I’m referring to those who might potentially marry.

Emily Matchar, “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Big Ideas] A couple of years ago I was living in a hip district of a university town in the Midwest. It had all the hip stuff you’d expect: a record store (and I mean record store), a big used bookstore, a greasy spoon, two dive bars, a coffee shop, and two restaurants where you could buy 40 dollar meals (hipsters splurge too!). Then, suddenly, a knitting store appeared. It looked out of place. Knitting? So I went in to take a look. Much to my surprise, it was full of hipsters, or rather hipster women. The place was very casual. It had a coffee bar, homemade cookies, and couches. You could just wander in, get a cuppa, and, well, knit.

According to Emily Matchar, what I’d seen was a reflection of a return to domesticity. In Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Matchar gives us the why and how of urban gardening, urban chickens, urban canning, and–that’s right–urban knitting and sewing. According to Matchar, youngish women are rejecting high-flying careers to go “back to the land,” so long as that land is in a city.

A movement or a fad? Listen to the interview and judge for yourself. All I know is that now that I’ve read Matchar’s book, I have new respect for my mom. She was way ahead of the curve on this one. The woman made all her own clothes. And not only that, she had a career, though not a very high-flying one. She “had it all” before “having it all” was deemed impossible.

Melissa Aronczyk, “Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity”

[Cross-posted from New Books in Communications] In Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National IdentityMelissa Aronczyk locates the rise of nation branding as a response to the perceived need to sculpt national identity in the face of a fiercely competitive global economy. In tracking the history of the nation-branding phenomenon, Aronczyk recounts the rise and spread of the very idea of national “competitiveness,” a discourse that, in effect, created a market that branding specialists then tapped. The book engages with the large scholarly literature on nations and nationalism, arguing that nation branding should not be dismissed as merely the invasion of business practices into the national imaginary—though it has this character, undeniably—but that the practice should also be read as a discourse that maintains, extends, and reconstitutes the nation. Based on dozens of interviews with nation-branding specialist over a five-year period, Aronczyk develops major case studies of Poland and Canada in particular, and substantial treatments of a number of other cases spanning the globe, including Botswana, Chile, Estonia, Georgia, Jamaica, and Libya. In Branding the Nation, Aronczyk tells the story of how national identity came to be seen, and sold, as a form of added value in a competitive global market, and how these campaigns fed back into the ongoing process of thinking, and imagining, the nation.

Turning Away from Football

Andrew’s insightful post about the Martin/Incognito issue has prompted me to think more deeply about my personal relationship with football. About three weeks ago, I decided to “quit football.” This is a particularly challenging time to do this since Florida State University, my alma-mater, is having it’s most successful season in recent memory and quite possible might make it to the national championship game.

I haven’t entirely been able to articulate the reasons for my decision. I thought for a time it was the CTE head-injury issues plaguing the league. And while that is a big reason why I’m turning my back on the sport, it’s not the whole reason. To say I can’t live with the cognitive dissonance would flatter me too much. I’m a self-identified feminist that on a regular basis is compelled listen to Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die album (I’m particularly hooked on “The What” and “Unbelievable” at the moment.

In truth, I’ve been distancing myself from football for a while. And it’s not because of the Martin/Incognito issue. I’ve seen lots of condemnation about a “hyper-macho” culture in the NFL. But let’s be real, it’s not like the NFL suddenly became hyper-masculine. It has always been this way. What makes it the 800-lb gorilla of sports and culture is it’s projection of an almost unreachable masculinity. An ideal form of masculinity that we can view from a distance.

What’s more, we use it as a currency. We use it to brandish a form of masculine “street-cred” that matters a lot in some places. I grew up outside of Miami in what would be called a “lower-middle class” suburb. There was a whole lot of projection of masculinity. one way to “feel masculine” or to “be masculine” was to throw myself headlong into a love of the Miami Dolphins. That’s not the main reason I threw things across the room when Dan Marino threw a pick or Andra Franklin fumbled on the three yard line, but the fact that a love of football made me “one of the guys” didn’t hurt.

My struggle with turning my back on the sport I worshiped as a kid is likely informed by my place in life. As a middle-aged husband and father of a nine year old girl, I don’t need to tap into the idealized version of masculinity that football presents.

But low testosterone notwithstanding, I think that my decline in interest comes more from the selling of the game than the game itself. The selling of the game has increasingly mirrored they bluster and hyper-masculinity of the game itself. This wasn’t always the case. As an example, watch this CBS’ NFL pre-game show The NFL Today from September 1981.

The presentation seems remarkably muted. But this muted presentation made the game itself the spectacle. But today’s coverage of the NFL almost dwarfs the game itself. ESPN has daily, if not hourly, programming that covers Sunday’s games. The game itself seems to exist simply to provide fodder for the chatter about the game during the week. Check out any “take” by ESPN analysts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. These guys might be outliers of feigned passion and intensity, but they are indicative of a media culture that feels it needs to be as newsworthy as the news they cover. In this way, it seems a lot like standard critiques of the news media’s coverage of American politics.

I’ll always love football. What is appealing about football is the necessity to perform demanding intellectual tasks under intense physical and emotional duress. Reading a coverage, knowing when to ‘break a route” or figuring out who to pick up on a blitz are all the equivalent of brain-teasers happening at 100 miles an hour. Although strength and speed are a must, football is a “smart person’s” game.

But the increasing wall-to-wall coverage, the emphasis on the personalities covering the game rather than the game itself and (most importantly) the increasing evidence that playing football for sustained periods of time can lead to irreversible brain injury, has made the sport feel less mythic, less like an idealized notion of masculinity and more a stylized, exploitative version of its former self. It feels more like a simulacra of masculinity rather than an earnest production of it.

For me, there’s a legitimate societal role for the brand of “toughness” the NFL markets. To often it gets dismissed as a retrograde and archaic view of the world. The problem is not the toughness itself, is the cultural primacy of the toughness and its attachment to specific genders and sexes. As Andrew rightly points out, Brandon Marshall is making an important sociological point about how we talk to boys and girls. We should want them to both cry and “shake it off,” not either/or. But for me, any lesson the NFL could teach boys and girls about toughness is getting muddled by a lack of concern for player safety and an off-putting presentation of the product.