Category Archives: Culture

Where Do We Go From Here?

Felling a man of Harvey Weinstein’s stature was undoubtedly going to create aftershocks. It must help that the actresses coming forward with accusations against him are famous, people we recognize, people we believe we love even if we don’t actually know them. It helps us to care about them and, as female crew members afraid to come forward about their own abuse told The Hollywood Reporter, it helps the actresses:

“We don’t have the power that Rose McGowan or Angelina Jolie has,” says one female below-the-liner, and others agree that it is a lot easier for a production to replace a woman on the crew than it is to lose a bankable actor or director.

The female crew members told THR they’re afraid to come forward, lest a producer deem them “a liability” or “a troublemaker.” It’s not the men who abuse that are liabilities, it’s the women who would be so inconvenient as to not shut up and take it. One crew member says what many of us know about human resources departments: “Human resources is not there for us; it’s there for the company. To protect it from a liability.” Again, here, the liability is the person who tells the truth, not the person who behaves wrongly.

Still, since the New York Times and the New Yorker published their Weinstein exposés, less famous women have revealed abuse by powerful men. Men have followed with apologies. (The best one came from Ryan Gosling, who said he was disappointed in himself for not knowing about Weinstein’s treatment of women sooner — we’ll come back to this.) Kim Masters was finally able to get an outlet to publish a piece she’d been doggedly working on for months, in which a producer on the Amazon show The Man in the High Castle came forward to report harassment by a top Amazon executive, who has since resigned.

The #MeToo campaign on social media — originally created by a black woman activist, Tarana Burke, 10 years ago and popularized in the wake of Weinstein by actress Alyssa Milano and others — brought out even more stories beyond the entertainment industry. The #MeToo campaign also seems to have been eye-opening for a lot of men. Maybe you think we should be pleased about this, but I feel more like Alexandra Petri, who wrote in the Washington Post, “I am sick of having to suffer so that a man can grow.”

I received a late-night email this week from someone who crossed a line with me 13 years ago. He wrote that he “struggled for a while tonight” with the email, which made me laugh, that he thought I should care that he “struggled” for a few hours that night, after 13 years. But of course he thought that. His whole email was about him. He wasn’t sure if he had done anything wrong, but thought maybe he had. He appeared to not remember that 10 years ago, I had written him an email of my own, telling him how his violation had hurt me. He had dismissed it then, telling me — a college student who had worked up a tremendous amount of courage to even write him that email — that I was overreacting. Hysterical woman, your feelings are incorrect. He wants forgiveness now, but can’t be bothered to go through his email and see that I told him, a decade ago, exactly what he did wrong and how it hurt me.

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Scientific Conferences Are Filled with Spies

Nations have long done battle with one another in different ways. These days, they spy from satellites, send viruses to corrupt government software, poach scientists and infiltrate academia. At The Guardian, Daniel Golden describes how international intelligence agencies send operatives to scientific conferences to gather intel, and how the U.S. has worked to convince foreign nuclear scientists to defect.

Scientific conferences attract people from all corners of the world and facilitate the exchange of information. Conferences are also one of the few opportunities for nuclear scientists from Iran to leave the country, so they function as what Golden calls “a modern-day underground railroad” for potential defectors. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely create their own sham conferences through an intermediary in order to isolate their targets and engage them one-on-one. The system has worked on many scientists. It’s fraught with many dangers: how to blend into a relatively small academic community and impersonate a scientist with actual scientific knowledge? How to get the target away from his guards without attracting attention? The larger question is whether this billion-dollar industry keeps the world safer.

“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”

The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.

With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”

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An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Jason De León

Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 1,800 words (7 minutes)

As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn State, Jason De León spent a decade in Mexico studying debris left behind thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples crafting simple tools out of obsidian. The goal, he says, was to learn about ancient political economies, but he ultimately felt his future career path was too niche. “I looked at 40,000 little shiny pieces of rock and tried to say something meaningful,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I actually succeeded, but I definitely got to the point where I felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time.”

Last week, De León was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, $625,000 doled out in installments over the next five years with no strings attached. I spoke with De León, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, about the origins of his Undocumented Migration Project, how border crossings have changed in the decade he’s been in the field, and how he’ll use the MacArthur funds.

***

When you first founded the Undocumented Migration Project, what was your end goal as you were getting it up and running?

I had some pretty simple goals: How can we learn about what border crossing looks like without physically being with migrants crossing the desert? Are there other ways to study that behavior? Is archeology one of those ways?

People have some pretty strong opinions about border crossing. Based on accounts of journalists who have talked to migrants, you tend to get black or white kinds of discussions. So I thought, what would the archeology tell us? Is there a way to study this process? At that point, I was naively thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna be a scientist and study this process and it’ll be this apolitical kind of endeavor.’ It turned out to be an incredibly political endeavor, but it’s definitely science.

Was that something you were fascinated with while you were doing your undergrad and getting your Ph.D. or did this evolve?

I’m a classically trained archeologist. I spent about ten years in Mexico before I began this project. The migration stuff came incredibly late, which is surprising given the fact that I grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border and I have many family members who were immigrants and have undocumented family members. It wasn’t until I started having really deep conversations with people who worked on archaeological projects in Mexico, and hired laborers who told me about their immigration experiences. That’s when I really started getting interested in this as a topic of study.

Archeology uses artifacts from the past to explain the present. But this is archeology as it happens. Has it been difficult to address what you’re finding in terms of how it forms your opinion of what migration means in this 21st century?

All archeology really means is we’re studying the past through material traces. We tend to think these must be ancient things. But what happens if you think about the archeology of the recent past, as recently as this morning in some cases? Is that still archeology, or is that something else?

I’ve had to be really defensive when people would say to me, “you’re not an archaeologist.” I’m now at the point where I use archeology to understand border crossings, but that’s not the end of it. I have to draw on other things.

One of the cautionary tales that I tell students is that people love to talk about these migrant objects: the backpacks, the water bottles. It’s very easy for them to empathize with shoes and baby bottles and to be emotionally impacted by a giant wall of backpacks. It becomes more difficult for them to take those feelings and put them in the context of a real individual. It’s okay to think these objects are powerful, but you have to remember they are only powerful because of their connection to these people.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

Items left behind by undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, 2014. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard to address.

Archeology that happens this morning, or yesterday, is a difficult and murky territory. Our interpretations of these materials become very complicated. If you find these things in the desert and you use archeology to try to understand it, you’ll have your own opinions about it. Then a migrant comes by and blows your opinions out of the water; it can become very troubling for some archeologists. If we can’t even figure out what this shit means yesterday, how are we going to understand what these things meant five thousand years ago?

It’s interesting too because history is subjective.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable with this stuff, and it’s okay to embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. I’d rather talk about the diversity of interpretations of the past, or multiple types of explanations for an observed behavior, than to just give you my one expert opinion.

I think that people want definitive answers because they erroneously think about archeology as a truth-finding mission where the artifacts don’t lie. Of course artifacts lie all the time. Think about the manipulation of the past through monuments., There are active, purposeful adjustments to material culture that will subsequently impact the way things are interpreted later.

We’ve been collecting this stuff in the desert for a long time, whereas other objects that were left have been taken away and thrown in the trash. But if someone cleaned up the desert, and then we went back in a hundred years or in five hundred years, you wouldn’t even know the border crossing ever happened. This active destruction of the archeological record that’s occurring in real time really hints at the fact that the archaeology is not always going be truth finding. We’re manipulating it as we go.

In the decades that you’ve been doing this, have the objects that people have brought with them changed over time? Soes that help you sketch out a narrative of how migration is changing?

The technology evolves. Water bottles and clothing come in and out of style. The preferred objects to get through the desert have evolved and adjusted. In the beginning of this project, we would find a lot of personal items, a lot of heirlooms, things that people thought they were going need that were not very useful, so they ended up losing or discarding them.

Over 25 years, people crossing the border have become well informed about the dangers of the journey. The material culture in the aarchaeologicalrecord has become much more focused and more strategic. It’s really about survival, physical survival, mental survival.

People will say ‘I didn’t bring anything with me because I know I’m gonna lose it.’ I’d rather leave it at home or leave it in my home country than risk taking stuff to the desert. And what we’re also seeing now, with this increase in Central American migrants, are people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border with nothing. They have to cross Mexico first before they can to the border, and they have been robbed so many times that they have literally no personal effects when they finally make it to the border.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Has your project changed to study the archaeological record of Central American migrants?

We’ve definitely been focusing much more attention on Central America since 2015.  We’ve done some archeology in Mexico, on the train tracks and other places where migrants are crossing and trying to look at that artifact assemblage as well. I have been working with smugglers as well.

I think the smugglers are an overlooked and misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Everybody, from migrants to law enforcement, loves to scapegoat the smuggler. So if a migrant dies in the desert, it’s because it’s the smuggler’s fault. Clearly, that’s not always the case. Smugglers don’t take migrants through the Arizona desert because they love nature. They’re taking people through the desert because of this border enforcement policy.

Looking at the smugglers, I’m trying to fill in some blanks and really humanize this group of people who obviously are doing some horrible things. At the end of the day, they are complex humans.

Are there are challenges to undertaking this project in the current political climate?

It’s not any more harder now in the Trump era than it was before. It has always been difficult dealing with the politics of the project, and people’s reactions to it. There are also the emotional difficulties of doing this type of research, working with people who are in the midst of so much trauma.

I just saw a report about a professor at UNLV getting called out by the Trump administration for bad-mouthing him in a classroom. We’re in this era where our civil liberties and free speech are being directly attacked by the people in charge. As someone who is committed to this issue, I’ve had to do some real soul searching about what my role would be. Am I gonna get quieter and try to protect myself? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing because I believe that it’s right?

I’ve got a lot of colleagues who didn’t think it was that important to be in the public or to engage with media. They are now trying to translate their work for a general audience. There are a lot of folks now who are so worried about what’s going on in this country that they are getting active and vocal.

What do you plan to use the MacArthur money for?

For many years I’ve wanted to have a research compound in southern Arizona, so we will buy some property in this little town called Arivaca, which is I think the greatest place on earth. I’ll probably start by putting a double wide on there so we have a permanent home base and then we’ll just start building facilities.

Part of this money will also go to buy a truck so I can stop renting vehicles all the time. We’re working on a new exhibition so some of these funds will be used to develop this multi-media traveling exhibition that we hope to launch next year.

The truck, the archeologist’s greatest tool.

You know, I’ve never owned a truck in my life. When I found out about the grant, I knew I could finally get my truck!

Multi-Level Marketing’s Feminine Mystique: A Reading List

The commodification of female friendship began in the living room, often with a small party or a conversation between neighbors. Then the goods came out: cosmetics, vitamins, jewelry. The multi-level marketing scheme was a suburban phenomenon, a way for homemakers to earn some money among friends. In the 1960s and 70s, Mary Kay, the pink-hued cosmetics company, dominated the market; in the 1980s, it was the Pampered Chef, with its kitchen tools and cookbooks; in the 2010s it’s LuLaRoe, a clothing company with coveted patterned leggings that are sold primarily through social media.

Today, multi-level marketing is booming online, with entire transactions taking place in the comments sections of Facebook posts, and aspiring entrepreneurs dispensing tips on YouTube about unloading their inventory. The products may vary, but the tactics don’t. Products are displayed, promises made. And whether a woman calls herself a consultant, a retailer, a partner, or distributor, there’s always a thinly veiled sense of desperation beneath the pitch.

Women who participate in MLM companies make a hefty up-front investment. To profit, they’ll need to recruit others to invest, and once drawn in it can be difficult to get out. Take a look at any website for an MLM company, and you’ll see sparkling promises of wealth for women. They don’t just sell products; they sell fantasies of empowerment, control, and financial freedom. Thanks to the stories below, it’s easy to understand how and why these companies target women, and what happens when they do.

1. “How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire” (Jen Doll, Mental Floss, June 2017)

It’s easy to associate Tupperware with beehive hairdos and grimy leftovers, but the company—pushed to success by social networker Brownie Wise—set the stage for today’s MLM culture. Doll tells the story of how Wise grew the company from a food storage novelty to an unstoppable national phenomenon. Why did hosting home parties as a Tupperware consultant appeal to so many women? For many, it meant a chance to work again, after the loss of employment after World War II.

Most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands’ authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

2. “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” (Virginia Sole-Smith, Harper’s, August 2012)

For decades, Mary Kay has sold a two-sided promise to women: You can buy cosmetics for youth, but for actual power, you should sell them. When Sole-Smith became a consultant for the cosmetic brand, then nearly fifty years in business, she witnessed the revival-style tactics used consultants to recruit women. She also saw a flip side of the brand for women who found both friendship and financial peril in their new roles.

Lynne resigned from her directorship soon after, but she stayed on as a consultant. She had over $15,000 in credit card debt and a basement full of unsold products inching closer to their expiration dates. It took three more years to fully extract herself, paint over the pink wall, and get rid of the products. In 2011, her husband filed for divorce, citing as one of the reasons their “different attitudes towards money.” “He meant the whole Mary Kay thing,” Lynne said. “We just never got past it.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. When her husband first began to talk about leaving, Lynne cleared every last Mary Kay product out of the house, selling much of it at a loss and throwing the rest in the trash. “I didn’t want him to see so much as a bottle of lotion and be reminded,” she said. “I didn’t want to be reminded either.”

But she hasn’t left Mary Kay behind entirely. The consultant who debuted with only two guests at Lynne’s party remains one of her best friends and is her son’s godmother. Lynne’s new career in real estate allows her to apply her sales knowledge, and the commission checks are at least bigger.

“Oh gosh, we were all so happy,” Lynne said as we looked at a picture of women in sequined cocktail dresses and layers of Mary Kay makeup smiling into the camera, their arms slung around one another. “I guess I didn’t know who I would be without Mary Kay to define me.”

3. “How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety,” (Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, October 2017)

When Monroe embroiled herself in the wild world of MLMs that sell essential oils, she found that it meant more than money for its sellers. Part of the appeal of grassroots-style selling came from consultants’ belief in their products. And when it comes to essential oils, it could feel like a matter of life or death.

Lara distributed a handout that listed various ailments and their oil treatments: eucalyptus for bronchitis, lavender for third-degree burns, cypress for mononucleosis, rosemary for respiratory syncytial virus. Diffusion “kills microorganisms in the air which helps stop the spread of sickness,” the pamphlet read. Oils “repair our bodies at a cellular level so when you are not sure which oils to use, don’t be afraid to use several oils and the body will gain a myriad of benefits.” Lara told the people in the room that doTerra had oils that were “very antiviral” and could knock out bronchitis in twenty-four hours. She shared essential-oil success stories—her migraines gone, her friend’s rheumatoid arthritis reversing, a colleague’s mother’s cancer in remission. A blond woman at the back of the room raised her hand. “Cancer?” she said, sounding both skeptical and hopeful. She explained that her sister-in-law had recently been treated for breast cancer, and was taking a pill to prevent its recurrence, but the side effects were terrible. The blond woman was hoping for a more natural solution.

“There is an oil for that,” Lara said cautiously. “There is some research. It is an option. It would not have those side effects.”

4. “The Truth Behind Rodan + Fields (And Its Takeover of Your Facebook Feed),” (Lauren Lipton, Allure, September 2015)

Women can become involved in MLMs for both friendship and financial gain. But what happens when everyone you know is involved in a sales scheme? After all, there are only so many showcases and special sales a person can attend, and for some, it might feel like an entire friend group has morphed into eager saleswomen. As Lipton learned, not everyone is thrilled about those endless invitations and events.

There’s a fine line between inspiring and annoying, and not all Rodan + Fields consultants tread it well. In fact, if you sell Rodan + Fields and think your friends might be dodging you, they probably are. “This is the suburban scourge,” says Rachael Pavlik, a Houston mother and the blogger behind rachriot.com, who says she goes out of her way to avoid anyone trying to sell her anything. “At first I would buy all of their stuff because I was kind of guilted into it….What is that? That’s not friendship.”

Pavlik is more outspoken than most. Most women we spoke to can’t bring themselves to hurt their friends’ feelings, so they roll their eyes privately, secretly blocking Rodan + Fields consultants who clutter their Facebook feeds and deftly fending off clumsy come-ons. One East Coast mother says she’s been approached multiple times by everyone from the woman who does her brows to childhood acquaintances she hasn’t seen for decades. Last year, an old high-school friend asked her to lunch — for reasons that soon became all too clear: “It wasn’t long into the conversation before I realized that this was a thinly veiled attempt to make me join her team,” she says. “She’s not trying to be friends with me; she’s trying to build her empire.”

5. “Multilevel-Marketing Companies Like LuLaRoe Are Forcing People Into Debt and Psychological Crisis” (Alden Wicker, Quartz, August 2017)

Wicker’s deep dive into the business practices of retailer LuLaRoe finds women grappling with everything from disappointment to financial disaster. On its website, LuLaRoe hypes not a company, but a movement—one that offers retailers a happy ending complete with balance, flexibility, and personal fulfillment. However, Wicker finds that the ending can happen quite differently for most consultants.

When consultants wake up to the fact they’ve been hoodwinked, many don’t warn their friends to stay away. That’s because if you speak out against any of LuLaRoe’s rules or mishaps, the community could publicly shame and harass you for being negative. “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you? I have to block you due to your constant-gross-delusional-uneducated opinions of LLR.” If you reveal you are struggling to make sales, you might be told to stop playing the victim, that you’re not putting in enough effort, to be more enthusiastic, and, of course, to buy more inventory.

“Success as a retailer results only from successful sales efforts, which require hard work, dedication, diligence, leadership, and perseverance,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Success will depend upon how effectively these qualities are exercised. As with any business, results will vary. In addition to the factors above, retailer success is influenced by the individual capacity, business experience, expertise, and motivation of the retailer.”

In other words, it’s not the system that’s broken — you’re just not trying hard enough.

Can Detroit’s Legendary Techno Scene Survive Gentrification?

Techno emerged in Detroit’s minority and queer communities as the city descended into decay in the late 1980s. A couple of decades later, after having reshaped electronic music and club culture around the world, the scene is alive — but changing. At Roads and Kingdoms, Akhil Kalepu writes a history of techno that goes all the way back to Motown. But he devotes special attention to a contemporary tension between the genre’s diverse, underground origins and an increasingly white, affluent scene in Detroit and beyond.

In Detroit, much of the electronic music world rejoiced when techno veteran Dimitri Hegemann of Berlin’s famed Tresor nightclub announced plans to open a branch in Packard Automotive Plant, a former DIY venue for the local rave scene. For many locals, though, it was yet another example of a white European taking something made by their predominantly black city: the gentrification of a genre seeping back into physical space.

Despite its genuine Detroit roots, Movement [Electronic Music Festival], too, has had its part to play in the gentrification of electronic music and, by extension, Detroit. The inaugural festival, held in 2000, was the brainchild of Carl Craig — a second-generation techno star in his own right — and Carol Marvin of the event production team Pop Culture Media. They saw Hart Plaza, dead in the center of Detroit’s beleaguered downtown, as the perfect place to host a techno festival, even if most of the city’s residents were unfamiliar with the scene.

Since those first years, Movement has gone from a free event to a paid one, passing through the hands of several directors along the way. Despite changes in leadership, Movement still plays an important role in the narrative of Detroit Rising, which is also the story of Detroit Gentrifying. Hart Plaza itself is now the centerpiece of one of Detroit’s many “revitalized” neighborhoods. As in similar urban zones across the U.S., rising rents have driven out a predominantly middle-class economy, replacing local businesses with high-end establishments and luxury apartments—the early stages of the trend that turned former underground capitals like New York, London, and Tokyo into velvet-rope and bottle-service cities. Growing electronic music scenes in Asia, Africa, and South America show promise, though most investment in those regions goes to venues that cater to the developing world’s growing elite.

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The Nigerian, Feminist Designer who Flouts Convention

For The New YorkerAlexis Okeowo profiles Nigerian fashion designer Amaka Osakwe, whose delicate yet adventurous creations from the line Maki Oh have been worn by Michelle Obama, Solange, and Lupita Nyong’o. Nigeria, a massive country with bustling metropolises, an expanding middle class, and a fashion-forward cadre of cosmopolitan “repats,” is still conservative about sexuality and female agency. Osakwe’s work pushes hard against those old mores while still embracing some of the country’s traditions in textiles and dressmaking.

Her first collection, that same year, was inspired by a coming-of-age ceremony called dipo, undertaken by girls of the Krobo ethnic group in Ghana. In the ceremony, girls are sent to the house of a chief priest, where they undress, have their heads shaved, and are given cloths to wear around their waists; strips of raffia are tied around their necks. During the next few days, older women teach them the skills of seduction, housekeeping, and child rearing. The girls wade into the river with sponges and calabashes for a communal bath, and sit on a sacred stone that affirms their virginity. At the culmination of the rite, they dress in bright kente cloth, adorn their bodies with beads, and dance before the community.

Osakwe, beginning her adult life in Lagos, was drawn to the ritual. “I thought it was fitting at the time,” she said. She broke calabashes into pieces, burned them in an oven to various shades of brown to match Nigerian skin tones, and drilled holes in them so that she could sew them onto blouses. “It was exhausting and exciting,” she said. She made gauzy tops with circles painted on them to accentuate the wearers’ breasts, a reference to the bare-chested girls of the rite. On a low-cut silk jumpsuit, she used an adire motif of a shekere, a dried-gourd instrument covered with beads, which conveys a wish for good times.

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Reflections of a Lifelong Metalhead

There are scores of pressing issues in our turbulent world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a moment to discuss things that might seem superfluous. For instance, heavy metal. If you grew up in the late 1980s like I did, you encountered a certain tribe of people wearing torn faded jeans and black band t-shirts who either listened to operatic bands like W.A.S.P. or truly heavy bands like Slayer. Whether it’s the Reagan era or the Trump era, death metal or grindcore, metalheads’ passion has remained undiluted across the decades, even as the music evolves. For many people, all these metal subgenres are confusing and repellent. To fans, they’re exactly the strong medicine that’s needed to get through tough times.

At March Shredness, part of an annual, themed music project, Andy Segedi looks back at his youth as a headbanger. Examining metal’s history and intertwined subgenres, Segedi reflects on what drew him to loud, dark music in the first place, looks at how the debt serious metal owes to lame “hair metal,” and makes a case for all metal.
It’s my opinion that, if you’re one of those people who maybe looks at the dark side of things, has what proudly normal people might consider a socially unacceptable sense of humor, and whose favorite songs tend to be in minor keys, then listening to Sabbath or any of the myriad styles and crossover genres it inspired is an ideal way to safely release (not cause) the accumulated angst and frustration that comes from living in this increasingly self-destructing world.
Best of all, by celebrating the broad metal category, Segedi goes beyond it: even if you don’t like Sabbath or Pantera, loving music is always essential, and bonding with strangers over your chosen tunes is one of the most powerful, joyous aspects of the human experience. Even if it involves a flaming pentagram.

A person’s discovery of music of any kind is a journey, and while for some pop music fads these journeys are relatively brief and uncomplicated (see: disco; fuck: disco), metal is not. It’s been around for almost 50 years now, its mainstream popularity fluctuating like a sine wave but never quite disappearing, just slinking away into the stygian underground to mutate as new hybrid sub-genres and styles emerge. After 50 years of this, things get messy. So unless you were lucky enough to be there at the beginning, your discovery of metal and its offshoots is bound to be just as non-linear and complicated as a particular sub-genre’s influences. Complicated, but still traceable for those who are more forensically inclined, as metal scholar Fenriz of Norwegian black metal pioneers Darkthrone shows in this earnest reconstruction of that particular genre’s lineage.

This complexity might be one reason why metal shows are so… friendly. There’s a sense of community, of comfort and relief in the air. Here, many fans whose backwards employers don’t allow them to wear rock shirts, or display piercings, or grow their hair, or otherwise express themselves in the Holy Workplace are finally among their own kind. Everyone’s there for the same reason, but they each got there a different way, and therefore offer new perspectives on the genre. While waiting in the beer line, complete strangers compare notes on whatever bands they’re repping on our t-shirts. I’m sure this happens at other types of shows, too, but it always happens at metal shows (and I’ve been to more than a few “other” shows where nobody talked to anyone outside their social circles). Anyway, these beer-line conversations almost always include “Dude, if you like [Band A], you’ve got to check out [Band B]” moments, which often lead to momentous discoveries. And momentous metal discoveries are important to explorers like me.

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The Horizon of Desire

Laurie Penny | Longreads | September 2017 | 15 minutes (4,185 words)

“Man fucks woman. Man: subject. Woman: object.”

 —The Fall, Episode 3, “Insolence and Wine”

The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.

We need to talk about what consent really means, and why it matters more, not less, at a time when women’s fundamental rights to bodily autonomy are under attack across the planet, and the Hog-Emperor of Rape Culture is squatting in the White House making your neighborhood pervert look placid. We still get consent all wrong, and we have to try to get it a bit less wrong, for all our sakes.

To explain all this, I’m going to have to tell you some stories. They’re true stories, and some of them are rude stories, and I’m telling you now because the rest of this ride might get uncomfortable and I want you to have something to look forward to.

Read more…

We Need to Talk About Madness: A Reading List

When I was 15, a teacher I was very close with killed himself over winter break. I found out about it in an AOL chatroom the night before school resumed. My friends were talking about how the elementary school science teacher had died. “The one from when we were kids?” I typed into the chatroom, sitting on the couch between my parents, as the Jennifer Garner show Alias played on our television. “Shit,” one of my classmates typed. “We weren’t supposed to tell her,” another wrote.

John Wake was my little brothers’ science teacher, and my after-school photography teacher. I leapt from the couch and called my homeroom teacher at his home. In a quiet, heavy voice, he confirmed what my friends had let slip. I screamed. My parents hovered around me, trying to understand what was happening. Eventually one of them took the phone. I was sobbing, incoherent, and couldn’t breathe. I needed air. I ran to the elevator and my father followed me. He walked me down and back up our Manhattan block in pouring January rain, his arm tight around me as I sobbed, tucked into his armpit. The next day in school I was crying at my locker and the guidance counselor walked by. He stopped and turned around after passing me, and asked if I was okay. I looked at him and said with all the raw teenage emotion in my body, “No. My favorite teacher killed himself.” The guidance counselor looked back at me, said he hoped I’d feel better, and walked away.

My own mental illness had made itself known a few years earlier. Mr. Wake and I had a special bond, maybe because something in each of us recognized itself in the other person. I had always been a Good Kid — didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, had never kissed a boy. But when Mr. Wake died, I became angry at the adults in my school. I needed them to talk about this monster that lived inside some of us, sometimes quiet for years at a time, occasionally rousing to try to kill us. When they wouldn’t, I punished them the only way my teenage self knew how: I became Bad. I smoked cigarettes in school, cut class to get stoned, threw tantrums at teachers and stormed out, showed up drunk to a school dance with the valedictorian. The adults in charge ignored my acting out, for the most part. I transferred to a new school at the end of the year, in large part because the adults who interviewed me there didn’t look away when I confronted them with my sad, ugly, unwieldy pain.

I try now, as an adult, to be sympathetic to those adults at my old school, who shied away from the conversation I so badly wanted to have. They were probably ill-equipped for it. They were probably dealing with their own pain. They probably worried that I wanted answers they didn’t have, that simply didn’t exist.

Talking about mental illness is possibly the most vital necessity for the health of those of us who have it. But doing so is terrifying. Some of the kindest and most progressive people I know have tried to tell me I don’t need medication. They don’t know how damaging it is when they say that, so I don’t hold it against them. A lot of people don’t know that resistance to medication is one of the main things that kills people like me. That depressives are prone to blaming themselves for everything, that I already have this monster inside me telling me everyday, “You just don’t try hard enough. You’re just lazy. You’re just selfish.” Mental illness is hard to understand because it’s invisible and complicated. We know so little about the science of it, and are conditioned to talk even less about the experience of it.

Talking about is terrifying because it could possibly tank your career. Who wants to hire someone who has a chronic illness that is impossible to cure and difficult to treat? Especially when that illness can make you nonfunctional? Sometimes it seems like you can’t talk about it without being defined by it. Now that I’ve told you I have depression, will you think of me as a writer or a reporter or an occasionally funny person you know online? Or will I be that woman who used to report and write until she wrote about her depression? Will editors think better of assigning me stories, worried that I can’t handle the work? As psychologist Nev Jones notes in David Dobbs’ recent piece for Pacific Standard, “The Touch of Madness,” we often tell people with mental illness to be less ambitious — “settle for jobs shelving books,” in Jones’ words. I have been a freelance journalist for six months and there has not been a single day when I haven’t thought about a therapist I saw when I was 18 who told me that my illness meant I could never freelance.

David Dobbs writes well about the “othering” of the mentally ill in his piece:

Reading philosophy helped Jones think. It helped order the disorderly. Yet later, in college, she lit up when she discovered the writers who laid the philosophical foundation for late 20-century critical psychiatry and madness studies: Michel Foucault, for instance, who wrote about how Western culture, by medicalizing madness, brands the mad as strangers to human nature. Foucault described both the process and the alienating effect of this exclusion-by-definition, or “othering,” as it soon came to be known, and how the mad were cut out and cast away, flung into pits of despair and confusion, leaving ghosts of their presence behind.

Dobbs’ piece, and Jones’ work, are specifically about “madness” — psychosis and schizophrenia — which is a different beast than depression (though depression is sometimes experienced by those with psychosis or schizophrenia). Those who experience schizophrenia — typically a more obvious, less invisible madness than depression — suffer the opposite problem: rather than being told they could just try harder, be healthier, sleep more or less, eat better, exercise more, “Western culture today continues to view schizophrenia as something essentially biologically fixed, invariably progressive, and, with rare exception, permanent,” per Dobbs. But the fundamental point — that “othering” those whose minds sometimes cause them hardship only intensifies that hardship — holds true for both experiences, especially in the West. As Dobbs writes:

When the director of the World Health Organization’s mental-health unit, Shekhar Saxena, was asked last year where he’d prefer to be if he were diagnosed with schizophrenia, he said for big cities he’d prefer a city in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka, like Colombo or Addis Ababa, rather than New York or London, because in the former he could expect to be seen as a productive if eccentric citizen rather than a reject and an outcast.

Dobbs’ piece includes fascinating historical research about the differences in psychosis experienced in different cultures and the fascinating field of “psychiatric anthropology” or “biocultural anthropology.” These fields see culture as a series of concentric circles, with the outermost containing the institutions (“government, universities, clinics”) and norms (laws and medical standards, as well as those defined by literature or history) and the innermost containing our personal social world — friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, peers. Our interactions with the denizens of these circles create culture — which is precisely why “othering” the “mad” is harmful, as Dobbs explains:

When people in mental distress are shunned and relegated to a class of others needing care away from the rest of us, they are pushed outside of culture precisely when they need it most. They may seem utterly detached from reality. But they will keenly comprehend their exile.

Part of Dobbs’ story recounts Jones’ own experience with madness. I’m particularly grateful for the inclusion of what happened when Jones, conscious that something in her had changed, sought help from a psychologist who said she couldn’t help her. Jones stopped going to therapy. This is, to me, part of why not shunning the mentally ill from culture is so important. Psychologists and psychiatrists are humans just like us, flawed and weird and wrestling with a field that sometimes seems unknowable. Everyone I know who has interacted with therapy has struggled to find treatment, felt stymied by the trial-and-error of seeking someone with whom they can connect and also trust. Isolation makes that struggle so much harder.

Even when a friend helps Jones seek treatment, Dobbs notes it was “a fraught venture”:

…because, in much of the Western world, an initial medical visit often accelerates a first episode. A 2013 review, for instance, found that a first hospitalization often caused psychotic patients distress rivaling that caused by the symptoms that drove them to the hospital. The care could wreak as much havoc as the ailment.

Emergency rooms are by nature horrible places for someone in trauma, and inpatient psychiatric facilities are often not much better. It is common to treat the mentally ill as though they cannot understand their own illness. That is very often not the case, especially in the beginning of an episode. Jones always knew her hallucinations and certain perceptions were not real to other people. Her education might have helped with that, but it didn’t help her to be treated with any more respect by the healthcare system. When a friend took her to a facility for an intake appointment, the nurse ignored Jones and told her friend, “I think she’s a schizo” right in front of her.

Public violence in America is often perpetrated by people with mental illness. This results in a perception that is contrary to fact: the vast majority of us, the mentally ill, are non-violent. But when these public acts of violence happen, our culture demands an explanation. American society is disinclined to regulate weapons that can mete out violence, so the explanation becomes “The mentally ill are dangerous.” Guns don’t kill people, mental illness does.

This perception proved extremely damaging to Jones when people in her Ph.D program who she had shared her illness with became afraid that she would go the way of the rare but high-profile violent mentally ill. She was banned from campus temporarily, returned only to feel alienated, then was kicked out of her program by professors who said some of the most damaging things you can say to a mentally sick person:

“The decision strikes the committee as simple — you clearly do not have your act together and we have no reason to believe you ever will.” Another professor: “you are a burden on the instructors.”

Dobbs aptly describes mental illness as “a horror experienced in solitude.” But he and Jones also highlight how that solitude needn’t be compounded by the concentric circles of culture in which the mentally ill person exists. It is a painful Catch-22 that the sicker a person is, the more she needs to talk about her sickness, and the scarier that talk is to the people around her. Dobbs quotes Erving Goffman, author of a  classic 1963 study, “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity”:

The more there is about the individual that deviates in an undesirable direction from what might have been expected to be true of him, the more he is obliged to volunteer information about himself, even though the cost to him of candor may have increased proportionally.

Being honest about her sickness derailed Jones’ life and sunk her frighteningly deeper into madness. But years later, after getting the opportunity to join a different Ph.D program, she blogged about her sickness, and it brought her in touch with a cohort with whom she could discuss her experience. She also notes, compellingly, that the defining characteristic of many of the violent mentally ill is isolation. More often than not, the backstory of these perpetrators involves stymied attempts at obtaining help. In Jones’ own story, she was aware her psychosis was not reality until she experienced cultural banishment. In isolation, her psychosis became her only reality.

Here are a few other good reads regarding mental illness.

1. “FSU Shooter’s Friends Tried To Get Help For Him Months Before The Shooting” (Michael LaForgia, Tampa Bay Times, November 2014)

I think about this piece constantly and have shared it with every mental health professional I’ve ever met. It’s an excruciating and invaluable ticktock of how a mass shooter tried desperately not to become a mass shooter.

2. “How to Talk About Suicide on Father’s Day” (Ashley Feinberg, Gawker, June 2015)

Feinberg writes compellingly not only about her experience as the daughter of a suicide victim, but the discomfort around talking about suicide and mental illness:

Suicide is uncomfortable, it’s a downer. It makes people cast their eyes away, to the left, to the right—anywhere but at you. “Oh… I, wow. That’s really—jeez. I’m sorry.” They apologize. Their eyes dart back to you, pleading. Shit. Were those the right words? Did it go away? Are you broken?

Whether or not this is actually what they’re thinking doesn’t matter. Because as soon as the word “suicide” falls from my lips, the air becomes heavy, conversations strained, and all the negative space in my head fills with one, sinking thought: “They look so uncomfortable. Are they wondering what’s wrong with me?”

3. “Should a Mental Illness Mean You Lose Your Kid?” (Seth Freed Wessler, ProPublica in partnership with The Daily Beast, May 2014)

Wessler investigates “predictive neglect,” a justification used by authorities in more than two dozen states to take children away from parents with mental illness.

4. “Homeless and Mentally Ill, a Former College Lineman Dies on the Street” (Juliet Macur, The New York Times, December 2015)

Macur chronicles the mental decline and eventual death of Ryan Hoffman, once a promising college football player.

5. “Where Psychiatric Care Is Scarce, Religious Institutions Are Stepping In” (Lindsay Holmes and Beth Shelburne, The Huffington Post in partnership with WBRC, September 2017)

Holmes and Shelburne look at an interesting antidote to the cultural or social isolation of the mentally ill, especially in cases where medical treatment is hard to come by: support from faith-based organizations.

6. “Knitting Myself Back Together” (Alanna Okun, BuzzFeed Reader, October 2014)

Okun’s essay about treating her anxiety with knitting spawned a forthcoming book of essays about crafting.

7. “The Concussion Diaries: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE” (Reid Forgrave, GQ Magazine, January 2017)

Forgrave tells the heartbreaking story of a high school football player who realized the sport he loved had wreaked havoc on his young brain.

8. “The ‘Madman’ Is Back in the Building” (Zack McDermott, The New York Times, September 2017)

McDermott was a public defender when he had a psychotic break. He ultimately left that job, deciding the “pressure cooker” environment couldn’t work with his illness. In this piece, he writes about that experience, and how his mother helped him through it.

A History of American Protest Music: This Is the Hammer That Killed John Henry

John Henry

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,465 words)

 

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said – Drive so much before sundown.

—Sterling Brown, “Strong Men” (1931)

 

In the folktale, a powerful black steel-driving man named John Henry challenges the steam drill to a race, beats it, and dies. In some versions, John Henry is almost seven feet tall. In others, he wears fine clothes and commands any price for his work. In our national consciousness, he stands for the common man, beaten by industrialization, but unbowed.

Songs about John Henry became popular in the early 20th century. He is a folk hero in all—by resisting either the dehumanizing effects of technology or a racist power structure. His story helped give rise to an iconic American “blues ballad” as well as the “hammer song:” a rhythmic style which helped synchronize the work of manual laborers on railroads, prison work farms, and logging camps. Each axe or hammer blow rang out in rhythm to the tune, and as the tempo of that industrialized century increased, this would ultimately become the backbeat of rock and roll. Read more…