Tag Archives: longreads

The Business of Building a Country’s Brand

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Flipping through a magazine — if you’re like me and still do that — you’ll often encounter a colorful advertisement beckoning you to visit some place like Montenegro or Switzerland. “Belarus,” the slogan says. “Hospitality beyond borders.” But do you even know where Belarus is? What images does its name conjure? At The GuardianSamanth Subramanian tells the story of a whole sector of the marketing industry outside tourism, whose machinations remain invisible to consumers, but whose work shapes our opinions about place.

Many people associate Mexico with drugs, China with pollution, and Russia with spies and snow, but each country has so much more to offer than those social ills. A host of marketing firms now work with nations, regions and cities to sculpt their public image, crafting an identity that either polishes preexisting rough edges, or builds one from scratch from history, character and potential. To attract visitors, a place must be safe and full of activities, but tourism is not rebranding’s only objective. Some places want to reposition themselves on the map of public opinion. They want to increase their status and respect among their neighbors. Many want foreign investment, and to attract business, they must appear flourishing and stable.

Nation-building requires more than writing taglines and designing logos. It requires psychology, and firms can conduct years worth of research and interviews to identify how to fix image problems or make places like Primorsky Krai visible in the first place. As with all marketing, some part of the image is a lie, and branding’s inherent manipulations don’t always work. Example A: Gaddafi’s Libya. As Subramanian asks in his piece: What makes a nation a nation?

Of all their projects, the Grands are proudest of Tatarstan, which has bolstered their reputation among the people who run Russia’s regional governments. The government of Tatarstan, a republic of around 4 million people in south-western Russia, was convinced it wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved, either in Moscow or overseas. In 2013, they hatched a plan to promote the region’s heritage.

When Instid was hired, the government merely wanted a thick book, with glossy photos and text about the artefacts in Tatarstan’s museums. The Grands expanded this meagre vision. They reached into the period of the Bulgar kings, who ruled this region between the seventh and 13th centuries, and distilled a set of attitudes and values that had persisted into modern-day Tatarstan. The people were perfectionists, the Grands decided. They honed their skills and craftsmanship continuously, they were competitive, and valued pragmatism; they also bore a sense of loss about their past, and they prized the material over the spiritual or the intangible.

The products of such study – lessons from medieval history, or patter about “mastery,” “decisiveness” and “speed” – can seem amorphous, or even concocted. But they lent structure to some of Tatarstan’s initiatives, Alex Grand said. Schools and universities folded these cues into their syllabuses; architects based blueprints on them. In their annual reports, government officials took to naming sections after the values the campaign celebrated. The tourism sector, which was never encouraged as warmly as industry, received a dose of state enthusiasm: its own ministry, more funds, better training.

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Can Portland’s River Cleanup Correct Environmental Injustice?

AP Photo/Don Ryan

Fishing isn’t sport for everyone. Many urban residents rely on rivers and lakes to supplement their diets. In Oregon Humanities magazine, journalist Julia Rosen looks at the people of color who once relied on the Willamette River for food, pleasure, and work. The Willamette runs right through downtown Portland, Oregon. After industry and urbanization polluted it, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland Harbor a superfund site, and many locals quit fishing it. A new 13-year, billion-dollar plan has the potential to clean this beautiful river, which could reconnect certain communities with what Rosen calls the city’s lifeblood. But gentrification has already displaced many black families, physically separating them from the river. The question now is whether the cleanup can create jobs for impacted communities and right the city’s many racial injustices.

Historian Ellen Stroud has written that the pollution of the slough reveals a story of environmental racism. North Portland has been associated with African Americans since Henry Kaiser built Vanport, a housing development for his shipyard workers, along the Columbia’s southern bank. From 1942 until 1948, when it was destroyed in a catastrophic flood, Vanport housed the majority of Portland’s Black population.

That association, Stroud writes, seems to have contributed to the decision to sacrifice North Portland—and the slough—to industry. North Portland also housed the city’s primary garbage dump from 1940 to 1991, and has long suffered from poor air quality.

“Whenever you look at where those toxic substances and hazardous substances lodge,” says Robin Collin, “it inevitably follows color.” Collin is an environmental justice expert and law professor at Willamette University in Salem. She says this pattern has been documented repeatedly, and often emerges from the perception that fear and disenfranchisement will keep communities of color from protesting the pollution.

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The Strange Art World of Craigslist

Rex Features/AP Images

Most working artists have day jobs, and the creative class is filled with actor-waiters and poet-copywriters. Working artists also have to be crafty to survive. At Artsy, Scott Indrisek looks at the ways working artists use Craigslist to find materials and subjects. Established in 1995 as an open web bazaar, people still use the spare-looking website for everything from finding used washing machines to kinky sex. Artists have found a particularly welcoming group of people on Craigslist willing to engage in experimental projects, many of them challenging and risqué.

For Cathy (2009), Tam posted a Craigslist ad offering cash to a couple who would let him observe, and film, an ordinary dinner in their home. “It became an odd, uncomfortable evening for me,” he admits, “though Cathy seemed totally fine with it. It was such a strange, strange encounter.”

The resulting video—in which its subjects eat fried chicken and chat while Tam perches on a chair in the background—left him conflicted. “I felt very ashamed of what I had done,” he says. “I couldn’t explain what was happening. And I think that’s part of the work: this uncertainty of what this relationship is, and the feelings of discomfort.”

Tam was making these videos in Los Angeles, and he believes the city’s demographics are what made Craigslist so successful for him. “A lot of the people I was encountering considered themselves actors,” he says. “There’s this surplus labor in L.A. So, despite how strange it was, people there are very familiar with being in front of a camera. People will always think anything could be their break—even this weird art guy showing up at their doorstep.”

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Searching for Poet Frank Stanford

Marie Rousselot / EyeEm

In many cases, dying young grants many artists a type of sainthood, forever shrouding them in mystery, and protecting their profile from the inevitable creative and stylistic ravages of age. Some famous examples are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Belushi, Kurt Cobain, and poet Frank Stanford.

For the Poetry Foundation, writer Ben Ehrenreich sifts through Stanford’s papers at Yale, gives his work a close read and travels to Arkansas where Stanford grew up and eventually met his end in 1978. Best known for the 500-page poetic magnum opus The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, unanswered questions still swirl around the young poet, questions about what parts of his mythology were self-made or true. Called “a swamprat Rimbaud,” Stanford had a strong relationship with death, both on and off the page, and the pages he left behind continue to inspire and tantalize readers, as new generations discover his dense, singular, ethereal work.

Death is everywhere in Stanford’s poetry, and it often drives a Cadillac. It’s there—he’s there, I should say—in the first lines of The Battlefield, which begins with the funeral of young Francis’ nanny: “well that black Cadillac drove right up to your front door / and the chauffeur was death / he knocked on the screen he said come on woman let’s take a ride.”

In much of the work Stanford published in the mid-1970s—presumably written in the poet’s early and mid-20s, around the time he bid academia goodbye—death took center stage. As time passed, death gradually pushed everything else to the sidelines, everything but love, which grew more pained and brittle as the years went by. Stanford’s “biggest love affair,” C.D. Wright told me with a tired smile, “was with death.” And he was not a man known for being stingy with love.

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Idaho Conservatives Are Trying to Move the American GOP Further Right

AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger

At BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen reports from Northern Idaho, where many conservatives have moved to enjoy a life among like minds in this white, right wing sanctuary. Once a Democratic region of loggers and miners, conservatives have successfully converted the area into a Republican stronghold. But to the ultra-right wing Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, the GOP isn’t Republican enough. This Committee’s loose confederation rallies around an outspoken, slightly mysterious man named Brent Regan, who works better as a behind-the-scenes strategist and source of funding than a public face. One critic calls Regan’s contingent “the whole constellation of wackadoodles,” but they seem too effective and extreme to dismiss.

Tyler and others say the only membership requirement to be in Regan’s camp is to be a true, liberty-loving conservative, but the truth is more complicated. You don’t necessarily need to be a Christian, but you should believe in Christian values — and the ability for Christians to practice their beliefs without restriction, which includes supporting “school choice,” aka using federal funds to support religious schools. You believe that the Johnson Amendment — which forbids nonprofit organizations, including churches, from making political contributions — is unconstitutional. You should be against any increase in “unnecessary” spending, any expensive public works — like the pricey renovation of a lakeside park in Coeur d’Alene, which prompted an attempted recall of the mayor and city council, or the recently proposed transit center, dubbed “a Taj Mahal for government employees” by Alex Barron. You should also oppose the growth of government, especially Obamacare and the “perverse incentives and waste,” as Regan put it to me, that have resulted from it. And you must disaffiliate yourself with those who don’t believe these things.

Christa Hazel’s conservative credentials have been challenged, for example, because she posted pictures to Facebook that included “known” liberals. A far-right blog accused Duane Rasmussen, one of the founders of the North Idaho Pachyderm Club, of “bringing Socialism to Kootenai County” for making friends with Spokesman-Review columnist Dave Oliveria, who often published photos Rasmussen had taken of GOP events. When lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Steve Yates spoke at a recent Central Committee meeting, he was challenged for attending Johns Hopkins, a liberal school.

For many, it’s an exacting, and exhausting, sort of tribalism. As Deborah Rose, a political observer who’s been warring with Regan and his followers in the comments of newspaper articles for months, put it to me, “Here’s what bothers me so much: I agree with them on 95% of this stuff! But then the 5% that I don’t — that’s what makes them call me a liberal.”

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Reflections of a Lifelong Metalhead

Axel Heimken/AP Images

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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Nestlé Is Sucking the World’s Aquifers Dry

Nestle takes about 25 million gallons of water a year from the San Bernardino National Forest under a permit that expired decades ago. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun via AP)

At Bloomberg Businesweek, Caroline Winter visits Nestlé’s bottling plant in Mecosta County, Michigan to analyze how the multinational corporations targets small communities with promises of jobs, and buys up public land to gain control of water resources. Nestle sold $7.7 billion dollars worth of bottled water last year, making it the world’s largest bottled water company. It made that money partly by paying a pittance for its product. Nestlé pays the U.S. Forest Service only $524 a year to draw 30 million gallons of public water in San Bernardino, California, and Nestlé pays the city of Evart, Michigan just $250,000 a year for its water. Consumers drink bottled water because they assume it’s safer than tap, but that makes us complicit in what many analysts and activists warn is the gradual privatization of water. These multinational corporations don’t have the public’s best interests in mind, activists warn. If anybody should own water, it’s the public.

Nestlé has been preparing for shortages for decades. The company’s former chief executive officer, Helmut Maucher, said in a 1994 interview with the New York Times: “Springs are like petroleum. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.” His successor, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who retired recently after 21 years in charge, drew criticism for encouraging the commodification of water in a 2005 documentary, saying: “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. … The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.” Public outrage ensued. Brabeck-Letmathe says his comments were taken out of context and that water is a human right. He later proposed that people should have free access to 30 liters per day, paying only for additional use.

Compared with the water needs of agriculture and energy production, the bottled water business is barely responsible for a trickle; in Michigan, it accounts for less than 1 percent of total water usage, according to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). But it rankles many because the natural resource gets hauled out of local watersheds for private profit, not used in the service of feeding people or keeping their lights on. There’s also, of course, the issue of plastic pollution.

In the U.S., Nestlé tends to set up shop in areas with weak water regulations or lobbies to enfeeble laws. States such as Maine and Texas operate under a remarkably lax rule from the 1800s called “absolute capture,” which lets landowners take all the groundwater they want. Michigan, New York, and other states have stricter laws, allowing “reasonable use,” which means property owners can extract water as long as it doesn’t unreasonably affect other wells or the aquifer system. Laws vary even within states. New Hampshire is a reasonable-use state, but in 2006, the municipality of Barnstead became the first nationwide to ban the pumping of its water for sale elsewhere.

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Keeping Black Farm Families Connected to the Land in Michigan

AP Photo / Gosia Wozniacka

Owning land provides families with a legacy and, hopefully, some stability, but how do farmers keep their family farming their land? At BuzzFeed, Bim Adewunmi talks with blueberry farmers around tiny Covert, Michigan, to see what life is like for farmers of color. Only 1.46% of America’s farmers are black. Many Covert growers inherited their profession and have enjoyed a rewarding rural life, steady income and something to give to their children, and land, as one farmer tells Adewunmi, is power. But they still struggle to interest their kids and grandchildren in the job.

Farming is physically demanding, financially risky, costly and tenuous, and the market, like the weather, is constantly shifting. When parents raise their kids to go to college, save money and have more opportunities at their disposal, it isn’t surprising that younger generations leave home to work instead of stay on the family farm. As one farmer said, “We worked hard to show our kids what we considered a better life, and they’re taking advantage of those opportunities. They’re doing exactly what we told them to do.”

“He worked on the Hawkins farm for a time,” she says of her husband. “He always loved blueberries, so when we bought this place, he put his own blueberries out there. They’ve been here since 2001, I believe.” Harold died of cancer a few years back, and Carol assumed responsibility for the business. It is safe to say, however, that she never wanted to be a farmer. “If this wasn’t right here at the house,” she says, gesturing out of her kitchen windows, “I would’ve sold it a long time ago, is all I can say. It was my husband’s thing. I was just… I didn’t wanna be a farmer.” She giggles, but it’s a laugh filled with resignation. When I press her about the potential significance of holding on to her late husband’s legacy, she holds firm. “Uh-uh. I keep it because it’s here at the house. You see, it’s a ‘U,’ right here. And I just don’t want anybody else out there. So that’s why I keep it. And it does pay for my son’s college, the berries. So…” This time when she trails off, her laugh is knowing.

Unsolicited family legacy aside, Carol Baber’s most pressing headache is labor. All her berries are handpicked. Blueberries are graded — the handpicked ones generally get the best price at market, but they are also the most labor-intensive to produce, and picking conditions must be dry (“Nobody wants a wet berry,” Steven tells me, sagely, when I ask), which means picking during the hottest, most arid hours of the day. And that’s before the other maintenance issues that concern a blueberry farmer: weeding, pruning, fertilizing, spraying, and so on. “It’s hard for me because I don’t have any equipment,” Carol says. The Hawkinses help out with spraying (she buys the materials), but “it’s really hard to keep the grass down. So I’m working on trying to get a tractor.”

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The Dangers of Being a Tiny Island

AP Photo / Louisa Buller
To those of us who cringe over the price of organic versus conventional butter, the idea of buying an island seems as indulgent as buying a separate house for your poodle. Or even having a poodle. But for the ultra rich, property has always been the thing, and small islands have appealed to a particular subset of rich men drawn to superfluous investments and narcissistic nation building. Why just start a company when you can start your own country? We’ll see how rising sea levels treat that investment.

In The Guardian, natural history writer Patrick Barkham tells how the Scottish Hebridean island of Eigg got passed around between owners until residents had enough and bought the place themselves. Eigg has one road, 100 occupants, and had multiple overlords. Some call island-lovers islophiles. After the locals ousted theirs, the islanders experimented with the rewards of community ownership.

In contrast, community ownership enables Eigg to run its own housing association and provide cheap rents – currently about half the market level of “affordable housing” in this region of Scotland. Low-rent societies where residents are liberated from the grind of earning a lot to pay for a house are likely to be more radical, creative places: people have the freedom, and time, to pursue less money-oriented goals.

McIntosh echoes an earlier writer of the Highlands, Hugh MacDiarmid, by raising the question of what a small island might bring to a bigger one. His great hope 20 years ago was that Eigg would be “a pattern and an example unto one another”, to quote George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. The centre needs the periphery as a source of inspiration and renewal, just as the periphery relies on the centre. Eigg may be able to give the larger island at its side some practical lessons in affordable housing, renewable energy and land reform. A small-island manifesto for the “mainland” might begin with the realisation that we need to treat other people more carefully. Be open to outsiders and to the world. Live as generalists, not as sclerosed super-specialists. Spend more time outside. Reduce our consumption. Make our own energy or, at worst, buy it by the sack, and then we will use less. Consider animals and plants as well as people. Live more intimately with our place, for it is a complex living organism, too.

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How Did the Blues Become the Blues?

AP / Beth J. Harpaz

There’s a certain type of scholar who is obsessed with the Blues. The music’s historic record is riddled with holes, and, like swamp water, speculation fills the gaps, producing a narrative built as much from legend as fact, where a traveling guitarist like Robert Johnson can stroll down a dark rural road to make deals with the devil. Blues’ blurry, mythological past only makes the subject more seductive. Still, there are certain matters of record to contend with. With so many scholars searching for new revelations, it seems like every rock has been overturned and every shellac pre-war record unearthed from those Southern attics, but like all frontiers, there’s always more to discover.

In The Sewanee Review, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the Early Blues, a time in the music’s development before people started calling songs “blues songs” based on their definitive a-a-b rhyme scheme and 12-bar structure. There in the not-so-blurry past of early published articles, Sullivan finds an African American journalist named Columbus Bragg who was the first to call a song a blues song. Although Bragg predates all the well-known Blues scholars, he is largely absent from the larger narrative. But it was Bragg who, in the 1914 issue of the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender, wrote “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” And with those words, he simplified a diverse group of musical traditions and helped codify a genre.

That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.”  The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.

Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”

It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.

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