Category Archives: Culture

Treating Drug Epidemics Requires More Than Changes in Law

AP Photo/David Goldman

For a small country, Portugal has a lot of scientific and anecdotal data to offer the world about protecting people from substance abuse. At The Guardian, Susana Ferreira spends time in Portugal’s north and south, examining the sweeping shift from a standard punitive approach to drug use to one focused on harm-reduction. Since decriminalizing drug possession and consumption in 2001, the country has staved off a massive drug epidemic and its associated issues, from HIV to overflowing prisons. Ferreira examines the subtle cultural shifts that underpin Portugal’s success: no longer thinking of soft versus hard drugs, no longer looking at drug users as ‘junkies,’ but as ‘people with addiction disorders.’ Success requires social services and as well as new ways of thinking, which are things the U.S. has long struggled with, but should strongly reconsider as we suffer our own opioid epidemic.

“These social movements take time,” Goulão told me. “The fact that this happened across the board in a conservative society such as ours had some impact.” If the heroin epidemic had affected only Portugal’s lower classes or racialised minorities, and not the middle or upper classes, he doubts the conversation around drugs, addiction and harm reduction would have taken shape in the same way. “There was a point whenyou could not find a single Portuguese family that wasn’t affected. Every family had their addict, or addicts. This was universal in a way that the society felt: ‘We have to do something.’”

Portugal’s policy rests on three pillars: one, that there’s no such thing as a soft or hard drug, only healthy and unhealthy relationships with drugs; two, that an individual’s unhealthy relationship with drugs often conceals frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves; and three, that the eradication of all drugs is an impossible goal.

“The national policy is to treat each individual differently,” Goulão told me. “The secret is for us to be present.”

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Longreads Best of 2017: Food Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in food writing.

Mayukh Sen
Staff writer, Vice

Can Local Food Help Appalachia Build a Post-Coal Future? (Sarah Jones, The Nation)

Jones has been one of my favorite writers to emerge from the shitstorm that is the Trump presidency, so I was quite happy to see The Nation’s Food Issue publish her look at Appalachian food: the baggage it’s so unjustly carried, where it’s headed, and who’s doing the work to steer it in that direction. She interrogates the language of “trash” that has followed the region’s people and what they eat, and she does so beautifully. Her voice is clear, engaging, and tempered with compassion. The vast majority of food writing is fearfully not much further than center-of-left, which makes Jones’ piece extremely refreshing. It’s a marvelous piece and a reminder that some of the most exciting, relevant food writing will live outside food publications unless they step up their game.

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A Pact Between You, God, and the Dance Floor

Daniel Arnold / Topic

Bar and bat mitzvahs celebrate a time when Jewish boys and girls reach the age to observe Jewish law. These sacred celebrations can also be wildly expensive, even competitive, with families trying to make their kid’s event memorable enough to stand out during a season of bar/bat mitzvahs. Dancing is always part of the program, and getting people to dance, and dance wildly, can require some external direction. For Topic, Jen Doll spent a month attending bar and bat mitzvahs to examine the professionals who are called “party motivators.”

Doll attended celebrations with a few different motivators to see how they work across the range of Jewish denominations. Motivators are not only excellent dancers, they engage the audience and direct people to play games, and they keep the party going. Although some like Meir Kay are independent operators, some companies provide fancy sound systems and up to eight motivators. It’s a lucrative gig, but it’s not just a job any dancer can do. Motivating is a skill that requires natural charisma and energy, which you either have or you don’t.

I’m pulled into the circle and dance with them, my hair in my face, feeling sweaty and slightly silly but also exuberant and welcomed by the crowd of strangers. On the other side of the mechitza, Kay has fashioned a jump rope with black napkins and is using it as a dance prop. Leaving the circle, I hang out at the back of the room to watch him cycle through a range of moves, his feet in black Nike high tops, tirelessly moving to the beat as he makes his way around the men’s side of the party. He leads line dances and games like Coke and Pepsi, a bar mitzvah staple that involves running back and forth across the room depending on whether “Coke” or “Pepsi” is called. He passes out hats and sunglasses and glow sticks in neon colors, items he’s brought along to the event in a large box. Tzvi Hersh’s dad has put on a pair of hot pink sunglasses and is grooving to the music, a huge smile on his face. Men are being lifted onto other men’s shoulders; boys pose with Kay for photos to post on Instagram and ask for his autograph. He is a celebrity, the most popular person at the party—at least, if you don’t count the bar mitzvah boy. And maybe even if you do.

When we leave at around 10:30, Kay is still dancing wildly. “I hope I could always do this, even if I’m a bazillionaire,” he’d told me on the phone. “After every night I’m sweaty and exhausted. Once you get to the later years, can you keep up with the kids? I’m gonna ride the wave as long as I can.”

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Black Women’s Maternal Mortality Rates in the US are Staggeringly High

Pregnant African American mother holding her stomach

As part of ProPublica and NPR’s series on maternal care in the U.S., Nina Martin and Renee Montagne tell the devastating story of Shalon Irving, a vibrant 36-year-old epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who died three weeks after the birth of her daughter earlier this year. Irving was educated, insured, and well-supported by family and friends; still, she became a casualty of missed opportunities and neglect by healthcare providers. The story explores how a constellation of factors — not least of all bias in the healthcare system and the chronic stress of living with racism — combine so that black women are more than two times more likely than white women to die of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

By April 2016, Shalon had given up. She had a new boyfriend and she was on her way to Puerto Rico to help with the CDC’S Zika response, working to prevent the spread of the virus to expectant mothers and their unborn babies. There she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by accident. Her excitement was tempered by fear that the baby might have contracted Zika, which can cause microcephaly and other birth defects. But a barrage of medical tests confirmed all was well.

More good news: A few weeks later Pryor [Shalon’s close friend] learned she was pregnant, too. “All right,” she told Shalon, “let’s finally go after our rainbows and unicorns! Because for so long it was just dark clouds and rain.”

In reality, Shalon’s many risk factors — including her clotting disorder, her fibroid surgery, the 36 years of wear and tear on her telomeres, her weight — boded a challenging nine months. She also had a history of high blood pressure, though it was now under control without medication. “If I was the doctor taking care of her, I’d be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough one,’” her OB-GYN friend Raegan McDonald-Mosley said.

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Things People Don’t Want Their Kids to Do

An obviously bored boy in a balcony box in 1948
Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Getty Images

At The Atlantic, Helaine Olen interviews philosopher Martha Nussbaum and law professor Saul Levmore about their new book, Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret. Their conversation takes on a number of taboo financial subjects, including some real head-scratchers about wealth like how “we need to remember that not all children have rich parents.”

The burden of managing wealth can apparently inspire some salty debates. You’d think, for example, that most parents would want their kids to volunteer, but if those children historically weren’t welcome in the workplace, Nussbaum says, “their time is really at a premium.” You might like to “imagine that you’re making the world a better place” while you’re alive, Levmore says, but “in a funny way, it’s easier to do that when you’re dead.”

You could give your kid some money before you die, but then you might have to “watch your kid not go to work every day, or watch your kid misuse the money,” or watch your kid audition for opera training:

Nussbaum: Why do I give to the Lyric Opera and not so much to other opera companies? It’s mostly gratitude for the involvement and the performances that I’ve enjoyed over the years.

Levmore: I do the same, but I don’t like it. I wish they’d just raise prices. I would much prefer that they just charge the price to keep it alive and if they couldn’t afford it, then things would close down or there’d be fewer of them. But I’m sure Martha and I disagree about this.

Nussbaum: Well, I disagree because I think the art form is really wonderful and very important and right now prices are already so high that young people are discouraged. So I want, really, to lower the prices.

Levmore: Nothing stops the opera from subsidizing young people if it’s a good investment. I don’t really see why taxpayers as a whole should be supporting the opera.

Nussbaum: They do have programs, not only to include new audiences but to train young singers. But that’s one of the things the philanthropy supports. And maybe that’s not ideal, but…

Levmore: No, I don’t think it’s ideal. You know a lot of these young singers are children of wealthy people.

Nussbaum: Many trained there are not the children of wealthy people. They win a nationwide audition in which five people win out of about 10,000 that initially complete.

Levmore: You should look at the numbers of where these people come from. Most poor people are immigrant families who wouldn’t want their kids training to become opera singers. It’s not a reliable source of income.

Nussbaum: Most people don’t want their kids to do lots of things. But they do it.

Levmore: They do? Not in my family!

Nussbaum: Ha! Well, I mean, look at my daughter: She’s working for animal rights, making a very, very low income.

Levmore: Yeah, she comes from a comfortable family.

Nussbaum: But what I’m saying is that artists and singers are drawn from all walks of life. Typically, they get their start when they’re in some undergraduate program and they learn that they have this wonderful talent. And then they might come from any kind of income class.

Levmore: Well, they’re wealthy enough to go to college.

Nussbaum: But I mean the state universities.

Olen: I want to jump in—you’re never going to agree on this, right? Let’s talk about why people often give more to charity as they get older.

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Suburbanizing Survivalism

AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Katherine Jones

As the disaster preparedness phenomenon spreads from the rich and eccentric into mainstream America, survivalism is becoming big business. One leader in this sector is Wise Co., a manufacturer of shelf-stable food packed in Mylar pouches. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Amanda Little examines how Wise Co. CEO Aaron Jackson is steadily growing the business by targeting who he calls Mr. and Mrs. Smith in everyday America.

Rather than focusing on niche survivalists and evangelicals who believe in end times, Jackson is focusing on Target, Home Depot and Walmart, where survival foods are positioned as purchases just as practical as fire extinguishers and bottled water, and consumer habits are shaped by mounting global paranoia about natural disasters, terrorism and climate change. So far only 2% of Americans buy survival foods. He intends to change that. The whole approach seems a bit strange, though, since as a CEO who wants what he calls “stable customers” and “predictability,” his success has everything to do with global instability. Also, he doesn’t really believe the world will end, because if he did, why would he work so hard to make money he won’t be able to spend?

Then again, it’s the fear behind the idea that you should be prepared, just in case, that nags at you as a potential consumer. It can’t hurt, right? Because what if you’re wrong? Maybe it won’t matter. When the world has been devastated by warlords and ecological disaster, and you’re hiding in a bunker in the burned out woods, eating shelf-stable beef stroganoff mixed with radioactive rainwater, the flavor will probably make you feel like the rest of the world can’t end fast enough.

Jackson first connected with Wise in 2012, when a headhunter tried to recruit him from Post to run the fast-growing startup. He declined the offer, but commenced some research. “My aha! came in mid-2012 when I read that more than half of American homes have first-aid kits on hand, along with fire extinguishers and flashlights. I realized then they haven’t added the food component. I saw incredible growth potential.” When the headhunter extended the offer again a few months later, Jackson accepted the job of CEO and cautiously started to shift the marketing focus to his ideal customer, one who looks less like Ted Kaczynski and more like himself, his wife, who’s an attorney, and their two tweens: someone who isn’t entirely convinced that humanity is hurtling toward annihilation but who’s willing to stock the pantry with a Mylar-fortified food supply just in case. “This is the food equivalent of life insurance—staples that every American household in this age of uncertainty should have,” he says.

Jackson hired a young designer who’d been at the surf company Quiksilver to revamp the packaging. “We’d been selling our products in large, black plastic tubs. We needed something that doesn’t scream doomsday, so we moved to clean white boxes, contemporary fonts, high-quality food images—packaging that makes sense on a Target shelf,” Jackson says. As orders came in from big-box stores, he added a manufacturing facility a 15-minute drive from the office (production had previously been outsourced) that can produce 25 million pouches a year.

In the past four months, the spate of natural disasters combined with the specter of nuclear war with North Korea has pushed up Wise’s total sales 40 percent from the previous four-month period. Concerned suburbanites as well as disaster responders have contributed to the increase. The factory has made it possible for Jackson to meet both sudden surges and steady growth in demand. He ultimately managed to ship the 2 million servings to FEMA in a matter of weeks, with only a brief disruption to his regular customers’ supply.

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Jay-Z Opens Up About Race in America, Therapy, and ‘4:44’

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 5: Musician Jay-Z performs at a Barack Obama campaign event at Schottenstein Center on on the eve of the 2012 election November 5, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Stephen Albanese/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the recent issue of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, hip-hop artist and mogul Jay-Z sat down with the newspaper’s executive editor Dean Baquet for a wide-ranging conversation about black identity and success, the state of leadership in America, and emotional healing and vulnerability. The artist’s latest album, 4:44, released last summer, gave listeners a raw and moody look into many of those themes, and bristled with discomfort and regret. It earned eight Grammy award nominations, the most of any artist this year.

BAQUET: This album [“4:44.”] sounds to me like a therapy session.

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah.

BAQUET:  Have you been in therapy?

JAY-Z: Yeah, yeah.

BAQUET: First off, how does Jay-Z find a therapist? Not in the phone book, right?

JAY-Z: No, through great friends of mine. You know. Friends of mine who’ve been through a lot and, you know, come out on the other side as, like, whole individuals.

BAQUET: What was that like, being in therapy? What did you talk about that you had never acknowledged to yourself or talked about?

JAY-Z: I grew so much from the experience. But I think the most important thing I got is that everything is connected. Every emotion is connected and it comes from somewhere. And just being aware of it. Being aware of it in everyday life puts you at such a … you’re at such an advantage. You know, you realize that if someone’s racist toward you, it ain’t about you. It’s about their upbringing and what happened to them, and how that led them to this point. You know, most bullies bully. It just happen. Oh, you got bullied as a kid so you trying to bully me. I understand.

And once I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing and maybe, “Aw, man, is you O.K.?” I was just saying there was a lot of fights in our neighborhood that started with “What you looking at? Why you looking at me? You looking at me?” And then you realize: “Oh, you think I see you. You’re in this space where you’re hurting, and you think I see you, so you don’t want me to look at you. And you don’t want me to see you.”

BAQUET: You think I see your pain.

JAY-Z: You don’t want me to see your pain. You don’t … So you put on this shell of this tough person that’s really willing to fight me and possibly kill me ’cause I looked at you. You know what I’m saying, like, so … Knowing that and understanding that changes life completely.

 

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On the Contentious Borders of the American South

Fifth graders practice before battle during a re-enactment of Picketts Charge at Gettysburg. (Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Scholar and writer Zandria F. Robinson narrates her coming of age in Memphis while examining the food, music, and accents of contemporary “southernness” for Oxford American. During her teenage tears, the author tried to extricate the South from her voice:

At home in my room with the door closed, I practiced aloud, watching the shape of my mouth and the movements of my tongue in the mirror. I repeated my introduction in different accents: regular, valley girl, Southern, newscaster, New Yorker, and British. I still couldn’t hear how I sounded, but I was desperate to discern and attain a standard American accent—that is, one with no regional mark. I was sixteen years old, trying to make it in the world. I didn’t need no Southern accent perched like a twanging bird on top of my being black and a girl and precariously middle class and a precariously middle-class black girl whose hair wouldn’t get straight all the way no matter the strength or caliber of the relaxer. I switched on the television, hoping to find a Cosby Show rerun so I could study Mrs. Clair Huxtable.

But in echoes of Ralph Ellison’s essay on black regionalism from 1948, “Harlem is Nowhere,” Robinson comes to realize that any notion of “southernness” as separate from “Americanness” is false.

Everybody wants to be Southern but don’t nobody want to be Southern, too. To enjoy the culture, to have gentrified ham hocks, but not to deal with ham hocks’ relationship to slavery or slavery’s relationship to the present and future. Folks want the fried chicken and Nashville and trap country music (an actual thing) and sweet tea, but they don’t want Dylan-with-an-extra-“n” Roof or the monstrous spectacle and violence in Charlottesville or the gross neglect and racism after Katrina. No one wants the parts of the South that make America great again. It’s high time we move beyond the border sketched out in John Egerton’s provocative 1974 book, The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America — the South has been everything below the Canadian border all along. If the Black Lives Matter chapters across Canada weigh in, then the South is above the Canadian border, too. Though I’ll admit that “everything below the Arctic circle” doesn’t have a good ring to it.

Things are dirty on both sides of our nation’s internal border, it’s just that some folks won’t confess it. The borders in us and between us seem ever more real, even as we strive to tear them down in service of one sound, one nation, undivided. But one side always wins, and borders are never neutral. I’m just glad that the border wars in me are over for now … I wonder if America ever will be.

 

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Destroying Music, One Playlist at a Time

Rex Features via AP Images

The music business is struggling. File-sharing and streaming have cut into what was for decades a lucrative industry. Sure, Americans are producing more vinyl now than they have in years, but overall album sales remain down, and the average consumer doesn’t seem to want to own music anymore. They want to listen to it, and only half-listen. So how does the industry get people to pay for a product that they’ve started expecting for free? Enter Spotify.

At The Baffler, Liz Pelly puts the world’s most popular streaming service under her microscope, to look at not only how it works, but how its algorithmic system shapes how listeners value music itself. The key is in the playlist, Pelly says, and how it strips songs of their origins or any other context besides mood, and directs listeners not to albums, but back to Spotify. Spotify user satisfaction is high, but while we’re relaxing to another chill mix, the service collects data about our tastes and songs’ performances — information that advertisers use to sell us stuff, but not anything that can help sell music. Playlists are corporate-branded. Spotify isn’t the solution to the music industry’s struggles. It’s a new threat, and our $9.99 monthly subscription finances the problem.

As an industry insider once explained to me, digital strategists have identified “lean back listening” as an ever more popular Spotify-induced phenomenon. It turns out that playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll: “Chillin’ On a Dirt Road,” “License to Chill,” “Cinematic Chill Out.” They’re all there.

These algorithmically designed playlists, in other words, have seized on an audience of distracted, perhaps overworked, or anxious listeners whose stress-filled clicks now generate anesthetized, algorithmically designed playlists. One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”

Indeed, Spotify’s obsession with mood and activity-based playlists has contributed to all music becoming more like Muzak, a brand that created, programmed, and licensed songs for retail stores throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s, the company prioritized workplace soundtracks that were meant to heighten productivity, using research to evaluate what listeners responded to most. In many ways, this is not unlike the playlist category called “Focus” that we see now on Spotify. In March 2011, Muzak was purchased by Mood Media, a company that provides in-store music, signs, scents, and video content. The similarity between the objectives of companies like Muzak and Mood Media, and the proliferation of mood-based playlists on Spotify, is more than just a linguistic coincidence; Spotify playlists work to attract brands and advertisers of all types to the platform.

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Portland, Oregon, Where the Law Protects Car Thieves Instead of Peoples’ Cars

AP Photo/The Telegraph, John Badman

In my first six months living in Portland, Oregon in 2000, someone smashed my passenger window. They stole a jacket I left on the front passenger seat, and some irreplaceable audio recordings I was transporting between work and home. I was pissed. I quickly learned a hard Portland truth: you can never, ever, leave anything visible on your car seats around here. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paper bag full of old burger wrappers or an empty box; if thieves see potential, they’ll break in to get it. The problem has persisted. Shards of broken glass still sparkle on our sidewalks, and people drive with plastic bags taped to their cars to keep out the rain until they can get their windows replaced.

Things have gotten worse. Now thieves just steal your car. Despite its small size, Portland has the third highest car theft rate in America, right after Baltimore and Detroit. By October 2017, more cars had been stolen here than in all of 2016. At Willamette Week, staff writer Katie Shepherd figures out why. It turns out, it’s because of a culture of crime and intravenous drug use, and because lax laws make car theft difficult to prosecute. Cops arrest the same people over and over. That’s how easy stealing cars here is. Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Lufkin is working to change that by closing a loophole. Until then, hide your stuff. Don’t let your car idle to heat up on winter mornings. Use The Club. Not that it matters; parking here is a roll of the dice. So how did this start?

The case involved Jerrol Edwin Shipe, a 49-year-old former retirement home worker who was arrested in 2012 while sitting in a stolen truck in Washington County. He was convicted but appealed the verdict, claiming he didn’t know it was stolen and that he had gotten the truck from “a friend named Richey.”

Evidence at the scene suggested Shipe knew he was driving a stolen truck. He had bolt cutters, multiple sets of keys, and a locked case labeled—amazingly—”Crime Committing Kit.” The truck had other stolen property inside. The key Shipe had been using to start the engine did not belong to the truck.

Shipe’s appeal claimed that prosecutors could not prove he had “knowingly” taken possession of a stolen vehicle. Prosecutors argued that the evidence should have made it obvious to any reasonable person that the truck had been stolen.

The Oregon Court of Appeals judges ruled in Shipe’s favor. Chief Appellate Judge Erika Hadlock wrote in the July 23, 2014, decision that the state was asking the court “to accept too great an inferential leap” in determining that Shipe knew the truck was stolen when he took possession of it. (Hadlock declined comment to WW on her ruling.)

It set a precedent: Carrying tools associated with car break-ins or even operating a car with the wrong key was not enough evidence to prove that someone sitting in a stolen car knew that it was hot.

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