Fashion Cycles

The language of fashion has long been used to dismiss various forms of literary scholarship. Most recently, that charge has been made against types of “post-critique”—methods of reading that seek alternatives to interrogating and demystifying a text’s unstated ideological commitments or implications. Yet, for decades, conservative critics have used the language of fashion to dismiss literature and scholarship that focuses on race, gender, sexuality, and other categories of difference, or that engages “theory,” which usually means poststructuralist thought and its legacies. Ironically, however, some of the canonical works and movements that those literary traditionalists champion were also charged with being fashionable. Modernism, in particular, was parodied as modish before it was canonized, due in part to modernist writers’ preoccupation with style. In all of these cases, to be unfashionable or anti-fashion is to be aligned with more substantial and lasting social and political ideals and aims. But these claims disavow the critic’s own inevitable entwinements with fashion.

Many modernists themselves decried fashion as the epitome of superficial, commodified change.

But, as I argue in Modernism à la Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature, they also turned to fashion to consider what stylized objects might do in midst of war, imperialism, global capitalism, and on-going racial violence. In the work of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, fashion is treated as a collective mood, a set of influential material objects, as well as a target of critique. Through these authors’ engagements with fashion, their writing becomes a means to understand and generate shared forms of feeling, to excite and animate readers’ bodies, or to imagine alternatives the very economic and political structures that fuel the global fashion system.

Via fashion, modernism becomes of the moment once again.

That is because modernist treatments of fashion intersect with contemporary work in literary and cultural studies that investigates the nature and force of collective emotions, the power of supposedly inanimate objects, as well as the way that beauty and style might fuel various political projects. Virginia Woolf’s treatment of fashion as a shared mood, for example, provides contemporary scholars of affect with ways to describe how seemingly personal feelings emerge with and through specific material, historical, and social conditions. In her anti-war essay Three Guineas, Woolf also provides a timely critique of the ways that seemingly liberal states disavow their fascist, imperialist underpinnings in part by celebrating uniforms—and, we might add, suits—as rational, utilitarian garments that supposedly transcend the vagaries of fashion.

As this example suggests, modernists treatment of fashion help us to reconsider facile distinctions between what is lasting and what is a passing phenomenon.

Given the on-going public disinvestment in higher education, demands that humanities research justify itself in market terms, and the virtual collapse of the “job market” in literary studies, it can seem urgent to champion what is unfashionable. But such a stance usually relies upon caricatures of literature, literary study, and of fashion. Instead, taking fashion seriously can help us to grapple with what it means to do work in the humanities right now.

modernism a la mode


 

About the author of this blog post: Elizabeth Sheehan is Assistant Professor of English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. She is the author of Modernism à la Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature and co-editor of Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion, and will be attending The Modernist Studies Association Conference “Graphic Modernisms” in Columbus, Ohio, this November 8-11, 2018.

Fashion Cycles

Ideas and Things

Can we be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by American culture and politics? Daily we read or more like hear about political polarization, deep ideological divides, a politicized Supreme Court, protests over race and history. Of course, there are histories and context to each issue and conflict, but sometimes what we need is something more fundamental. Behind all these things are ideas.

Intellectual historians have attracted larger and larger audiences that are hungry for explanations about the origins, contexts, and consequences of ideas that seem more powerful than ever. How do we understand a society riddled by profound contradictions—a society that transitioned, most recently, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?

Ideas matter. A lot. Most people recognize as much. Intellectual history—the study of ideas in the past—thus has a lot to offer people. With my colleague Andrew Hartman, we have co-edited a collection conceived with this basic fact in mind.

We asked the authors to consider the following question: How might the methods of intellectual history shed light on contemporary issues with historical resonance? Their answers, while rigorous, original, and challenging, are eclectic in approach and temperament. For example, to understand the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between the left and liberals (or supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, respectfully), Hartman argues we need to grapple with the idea of freedom: “The left’s mission—the reason for its existence—was to expand the idea of political freedom, which was limited and went by the name of liberalism, to include economic freedom, a broadened conception that went by the name of socialism. The route to such freedom was class struggle.”

In another essay, David Sehat helps us locate a position from which to look critically at “originalism” or the idea that seems to capture the politicized nature of the present U.S. Supreme Court better than any other. Sehat explains: “Intellectual historians, like all historians, recognize [the] reality of historical change and growth, which is why they have tended to be some of the strongest critics of originalism. They know that the past is different than the present; that time is corrosive of meanings, arrangements, and cultural ideas at particular moments; that its corrosiveness leaves only remnants from the past that historians must pick over to make sense of now-lost worlds; and that the reconstruction of the past is always, as a result, only provisional and partial. As such there is not, historians have suggested, a set of interpretive rules to be followed by which original meaning will be revealed, since that meaning was contested at the founding and has evolved over the centuries.”

But when we come right down to the most pressing questions of our age, we all want to know “why Trump?”

In her essay tracing the genealogy of conservatism, Liza Szefel wonders in an era that is “post-truth” what good is intellectual history to such a question? She offers an answer: “A line of inquiry gaining traction attempts to move beyond rise and fall narratives to examine conservatism not merely as an ideology, grass roots social movement, or party, but as a sensibility, temperament, and mentality. Casting conservatism as an orientation brings into relief values shared by the left and right.” Indeed, intellectual history uses the tools of social history and cultural history to look at the world—as well as world views—of Trump’s working-class supporters. By doing so, Szefel demonstrates how intellectual history identifies the ideas behind all sorts things, including Donald Trump.


 

About the author of this blog post: Raymond Haberski, Jr. is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the co-author of the upcoming #CornellPress title American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times. Take a closer look and pre-order your copy here.

Ideas and Things

East Asia’s unicorn builders: different strategies in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan

Unicorns are increasingly running the streets of East Asia. In fact, policymakers in Singapore and Hong Kong wave the flag of their first unicorns with pride and Taiwan is on track to have its own unicorn. I am not talking the mythical animals adorning children’s storybooks. In the world of start-ups and venture capital, since 2013 a “unicorn” is understood to be a privately-owned (technology) start-up that achieves valuations in excess of $1 billion. A unicorn is also a validation that a start-up ecosystem is succeeding, and a key performance indicator used by governments.

From myth to reality: unicorns in Singapore, Hong Kong and (soon) Taiwan

Singapore has unicorns inhabiting its island, with Garena, Lazada, and Razer all comfortably achieving $1 billion valuations. But the ever-active and promoting Singaporean state isn’t stopping there. On Monday, October 2nd, the Singaporean parliament approved the “variable capital companies” (VCC) bill in an effort to further project the Lion City’s position as leading destination for asset management firms, particularly venture capital funds, to domicile and operate. In explaining the power of the new VCC structure, the Bill will provide a mechanism for overseas funds to be constituted as Singaporean. The Business Times asserts that one of the benefits to Singapore is that it “enhances Singapore’s position as a full-service international fund management centre”. This is a time-tested strategy in the Lion City.

GoGoVan, a logistics company, excited Hong Kong start-up enthusiasts in September 2017 as it achieved unicorn status. Finally, Hong Kong – and its government – had something to show for the rising support of start-ups and innovation (and within two years of the promotion of the Innovation & Technology Commission to Bureau level status).

For Taiwan, in May 2018 an electric scooter company called “Gogoro” was being picked as the likely candidate. This unicorn excitement came as the Taiwanese government announced in early 2018 that it promised to incubate its first unicorn by 2020 (Japan made a similar promise, through its J-Start-up program which launched in June 2018, that it would help build 20 unicorns by 2023).

These unabashed efforts to build unicorns is not a new phenomenon. In The Venture Capital State: The Silicon Valley Model in East Asia, I detail how each country purposefully, but differently than one another, helped catapult its local VC market to world-class size and operations. They don’t copy the real or imagined Silicon Valley model either. Even the “core elements” of the American legal and tax environment within which Silicon Valley VC emerged were not deployed in each case. Here’s a visual of the unique “yellow brick roads to Oz” – or, policies implemented with the aim of building a local VC market akin to Silicon Valley:

SILICON VALLEY

Why variation amidst convergence?

Though each country had the same aim – of building a local VC market that could support the growth of its local unicorn population – they all took different paths. The phenomenon reminds me of the Seinfeld-inspired play “I love you, you’re perfect, now change”. Each country’s policymakers fell in love with the idea of building Silicon Valley-like venture capital markets. This, they concluded, was part of the recipe for creating innovative firms, as well as ensuring vibrant financial markets. But after falling in love with the model, they changed it.

The Venture Capital State systematically explores why and how this change occurred as it has in these East Asian nations. And crucially, it explains that this adaption has been essential to success in East Asia, as elsewhere. It’s not about copying Silicon Valley in order to build local unicorns. It’s about local competitive advantage and approaches that reflect distinct environments.


 

About the author of this blog post: Robyn Klingler-Vidra is a lecturer in Political Economy at King’s College London, and the author of The Venture Capital State: The Silicon Valley Model in East Asia

East Asia’s unicorn builders: different strategies in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan

Open wound: privatizing the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

After spending more than 30 years researching health care delivery and nursing in the American private, profit-driven health care marketplace, I decided to explore how the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) delivers healthcare to 9 million of the nation’s veterans. Although neither I, nor anyone in my family is a veteran, I knew that the VHA had made impressive strides in implementing healthcare teamwork and improving patient safety. I knew the system was more accountable than the settings in which I –a non-veteran– get my healthcare. I had, however, no idea how impressive the system really is.

Nearly five years observing and interviewing veterans, their families, and their caregivers, showed me how the VHA delivers excellent care –at far lower cost than is available in the private sector– to the nation’s most complex patients.

In Wounds of War, I introduce you to the veterans who receive this care and the dedicated employees who deliver it. I take you into exam rooms, hospital wards, therapy groups, homeless and legal programs, and even cooking classes where the VHA caregivers are interacting with their patients.

And you’ll find that while our broader healthcare system delivers fragmented healthcare services, the VHA is grounded in an integrated model.

It has perhaps the only functioning mental and behavioral health system in the United States and delivers high quality geriatric and end of life care, all while simultaneously addressing patients’ housing, employment, and legal problems.

True, we should all have this kind of integrated care; but it is critical to veterans. After all, military training and service places them at high risk for mental health and substance abuse problems, suicide, chronic pain, homelessness, and legal issues, to name a few.

The VHA has done something really rare in American medicine. Today, many hospitals may advertise team-based care, but will not spend their resources to teach people to work together. The VHA has devoted enormous time and energy to train employees to work on teams. You’d be surprised to find out that a veteran’s primary care provider will actually consult with his or her mental health therapist or orthopedist, social worker, dietician, or physical therapist in a face-to-face conversation –not only through notes entered into a shared electronic medical record–, in order to determine the best plan of care.

Over and over again, I am reminded how lacking this kind of integrated care is outside the VHA.

The other day, a friend who’d been suffering for years from back pain, consulted with a high- priced orthopedic specialist. The specialist peered at his X-rays and declared that he wasn’t a candidate for surgery. Maybe, the physician told my friend, PT would work, or chiropractic, or acupuncture, or even yoga.  Check it out, he advised, as he rushed on to his next appointment. My friend was on his own.

If my friend was a veteran, he would have been scheduled for a visit with an integrative pain team. He would have been helped to enroll in the kind of pain classes that significantly reduce patients’ perceptions of pain and enhance daily function. He would have been scheduled for physical therapy and even signed up for classes of yoga and mindfulness meditation. And all of this would have been coordinated by caregivers, not left in the hands of a vulnerable patient.

Plus, it wouldn’t cost the veteran one dime.

Today, President Donald J. Trump and Congressional Republicans are attacking and trying to privatize the entire system, rather than to improve and strengthen it. They are following the game plan of ultra right wing-libertarian billionaires like the Koch brothers, who have carefully crafted a narrative of a broken government-run healthcare system. Aided and abetted by some Democrats who fail to understand the promise and problems of the VHA, they have passed legislation like VA MISSION and VA Accountability Acts. These laws will outsource more VHA care to the private sector, starve the system of resources, close facilities, vilify VHA employees and shift billionaires of tax payer dollars into the hands of private sector hospitals, doctors, mental health practitioners, medical equipment companies, and even real estate developers.

That’s why I hope you will not only read Wounds of War but also join me and the veterans, healthcare reform groups, and unions that are fighting for the VHA. We owe it to the veterans who have sacrificed for their country to maintain and improve a healthcare system designed to serve their specific needs. And it would also be an important step towards promoting the kind of successful models of care that should ultimately be available to all of us, not just veterans.


For more information on Wounds of War and the VHA, listen to our latest #1869podcast:

 

About the author of this blog post: Suzanne Gordon is an award winning journalist and author who writes about healthcare delivery, health care systems and patient safety. Her last book, The Battle for Veterans’ Healthcare: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Policy Making and Patient Care was published by Cornell University Press in May of 2017.  She received the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Special Recognition Award for her work covering veterans’ healthcare. Ms. Gordon is the Senior Policy Fellow at the Veterans’ Healthcare Policy Institute.

Open wound: privatizing the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

“Celebrate life” with our #CCAM Cancer Crossings giveaway!

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (#CCAM), and both politicians and healthcare professionals are calling for a “Cancer Moonshot.” Thanks to exciting work in checkpoint inhibitors, anti-cancer vaccines and immunotherapy, we’re making major inroads against a disease that impacts 14 million people across the globe every year.

Yet to have real progress, we need to remember the lessons of a small team of doctors who reached the pinnacle of cancer research a half-century ago. Nicknamed the “Cancer Cowboys,” this extraordinary group of doctors took acute lymphoblastic leukemia from a 100 percent death sentence to the 90 percent survival rate it has today.

Not that long ago few in the medical community dared to take on cancer. In the 1960s, pediatric handbooks had little to offer about possible care and treatments. The Cancer Cowboys decided this was unacceptable.

Even though they were sometimes ostracized by their peers, these doctors developed modern-day chemotherapy practices and invented the blood centrifuge machine, helping thousands of children live longer lives. And despite being at hospitals scattered across the country – Buffalo, Memphis, Houston and Washington, D.C. – these doctors gathered every few months, often after-hours at each other’s homes, to discuss their latest clinical trials and findings.

“Of course, this was before cellphones and video conferencing,” says Dr. Donald Pinkel, who founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. “So, it wasn’t easy. But we made sure we always knew where we stood with each other.”

The patients and their families benefited greatly from such efforts. My younger brother, Eric, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1966. Soon after he was admitted to Roswell Park in Buffalo, New York, my mother was told she was now part of his medical team. That this team extended from the doctors to the nurses to the families themselves. “I appreciated that we were all in it together,” she says. “That we needed to be to make any real progress.”

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to write about many successful teams and organizations, including the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey squad, the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers. But none was as impressive as the Cancer Cowboys.

Today, many more hospitals and healthcare systems have joined the efforts to stand up to cancer in all its forms. Yet in touring the country in support of Cancer Crossings -my book that’s part family memoir, part medical narrative-, I wonder if today’s health-care community can be as united, as determined, and as accessible as the Cancer Cowboys once were. In the end, our hopes for another Cancer Moonshot may well depend upon it.

Click here to start reading Cancer Crossings FOR FREE, with our “Celebrate life” on #CCAM GIVEAWAY, and for the month of September only!

 

Celebrate Life

 

 


 

Also of interest: Check out author Tim Wendel’s interview on our #1869podcast for more information on Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia, and the story behind this wonderful book:

 


 

About the author of this blog post: Tim Wendel is the author of “Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors and the Quest to Cure Childhood Leukemia.” Part family memoir, part medical narrative, his latest work is a valuable voice in Cancer Awareness Month.

 

“Celebrate life” with our #CCAM Cancer Crossings giveaway!

The importance of telling stories… but whose story?

Jean Cocteau once wrote that ‘the poet does not invent, he listens’ in order to tell a story. But is there an art to this? Robert Saviano recently argued that he tells stories about Italian Mafias because he constantly seeks to raise awareness to fight them more effectively and he has succeeded extremely well in that. But do his stories always have to be so dark and uber-naturalistic for his message to attract a mass audience? No.

There are many examples of Camorra stories which include different voices, registers, and tones. In Francesco Rosi’s film ‘Le Mani sulla Città’, there is a scene where during a council meeting, the councillors put their hands up and shout ‘our hands are clean, we have got clean hands’, implying that they are not involved in corruption. This one single act summarises the story of corruption which Rosi is trying to tell. More recently, in the Neapolitan Mafia musical, ‘Ammore e Malavita’, the Camorra is portrayed with humor as a harsh reality, but the love story between the Mafia hitman Ciro and Fatima, the witness-nurse, shows that alternatives to the Camorra life are possible, and we laugh at the couple’s attempt to escape it.

FELIA COVERLike Sciascia, Roberto Saviano believes that ‘mafia stories are our defence against organized crime’. And there is no doubt that he is right about the importance of telling stories to help break down l’omertà, (the law of silence), disband traditional stereotypes and introduce a dose of reality. As part of my research for The Invisible Camorra, I too was keen to let the criminals have their say, and use their voices to explain their clan’s mobility around Europe. Adopting a bottom-up, insider’s perspective of the many camorristi who travelled across Europe, I was able to trace their presence and activities in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. This allowed me to get a taste of their thinking but at the same time, a better-informed overview of their rationale and consequent actions. By using their language, I became fascinated by their mind-set, their choices and acts, which forced me to go beyond the obvious scenarios.

However, I soon realized that it would have been simplistic to leave this one-sided view of their behaviour unchallenged. I too needed to listen to other individuals, those in the wider community and context. After all, criminals do not exist in a vacuum; they act and think in relation to their civil society, the economy and politics and as a researcher interested in un-packaging the complexities of this criminal phenomenon, it was necessary for me to give a voice to all the actors involved. Therefore, I collected the stories of the camorristi, but also of all those who interacted with them (police officers, anti-mafia judges, expert observers, and state witnesses). This helped me produce a multi-dimensional, multi-layered story.

Saviano argues that in his creative non-fiction, the key is to allow the criminal’s point of view to frame the story. He wants to show these camorristi as they are, and he suggests that as a consequence of this, there are no positive characters in his stories. The result is a very bleak and violent portrayal of the Camorra today: young and old camorristi jetting around Naples city and Campania to conquer territory, business deals, and political favours. Like in Kafka’s novels, Saviano’s convincing description of the Neapolitan underworld as lived by his criminals, is one where you cannot breathe, where there is no hope nor escape route.

But, would positive characters in his stories have detracted from his fast tempo and gripping account? Yes, I believe they would have made a difference, and they would have made Saviano’s incomplete stories complete. Different and varied non-criminal voices would have added to the intricate detail, the harsh reality, and the gruesomeness of Camorra lives and business. It would have put his stories in context and not left them isolated. As story tellers of the mafia, it is our responsibility to produce complete accounts of this complex phenomenon. In this way, we are not inventing but continuously listening attentively like Cocteau.


About the author of this blog post: Felia Allum is senior lecturer in Politics and Italian at the University of Bath. She is author of the The Invisible Camorra (Cornell University Press, 2016). From September 2018, she is a Leverhulme Major Research Fellow.

 

 

The importance of telling stories… but whose story?

Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

Since India won its independence in 1947, it has celebrated its victory over its bygone British colonial occupiers on August 15th annually. In contemporary India the holiday is celebrated with parades, flag-raising ceremonies, and the singing of the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana.” The festivities mark a celebration of the modern Indian state, but it is also day of remembrance and a repudiation of the repressive colonial powers of the past. Most of the princely states and regions that are now unified under the state flag of India were under the thumb of the British Raj for close to a century (and some lands had been under military occupation by the East India Company or other colonial interests for a least a hundred years before that). Thus, India is no stranger to foreign interventions, and it should be quite comprehensible that many Indians are still sensitive to soft and hard applications of power by outside influences.

Celebratory parade in India, photo by Jessica Falcone.

As I discussed in my book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, when an American-based transnational Tibetan Buddhist group of mostly non-heritage Buddhists sought to build the biggest statue in the world, they became embroiled in a dispute with local Indians in Kushinagar. The Buddhist group, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), wanted to build a 500-foot behemoth Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, the site of the Shakyamuni Buddha’s death about 2500 years ago.

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A Buddha statue in Kushinagar, photo by Jessica Falcone

The “Save the Land Movement,” comprised of rural Indian farming families and their advocates, argued that the land acquisition of several hundred arable acres that had been organized by the state government for the Maitreya Project would be a complete disaster for those affected. In the process of arguing against the statue, locals said that even if they did consent to sell their farms, which most refused to do outright, the state was forcibly taking their land at far less than market value. While some Indian farmers felt that the project could offer some benefits to the local economy, they were almost in total agreement that the proposed process of land acquisition would be so imbalanced that they themselves would be shunted aside long before any potential benefits trickled down to their villages.

During my years of research on the Maitreya Project, I was often compelled by informants to think about how such a compulsory land acquisition on behalf of a foreign institution was not unlike a neocolonial incursion.

When I embarked upon ethnographic work in India in the mid-aughts, I did not seek to study the echoes of colonialism, but as many scholars in the region will attest, postcolonial India is haunted by the past, especially insofar as domination of the poor by the rich has continued unabated, albeit under new globalized, neoliberal, neocolonial guises. Even armed with the intellectual understanding of this history and cultural context, I naively hoped that the project that I was studying would be different. But my hope that the cultural logics of Buddhist morality would set this intervention on a more deliberate, ethical path were not borne out in fact. Most surprising to me, FPMT and its Maitreya Project, seemed utterly ambivalent about the local resistance movement directed against them.

A village protesting against the Maitreya Project, photo by Jessica Falcone.

An elderly woman in Kushinagar who counted herself as an anti-Maitreya Project protestor told me that she remembered Gandhi’s anticolonial protests from her childhood. She told me during our interview that they had beat the British and they would fight against this Maitreya Project too. On another occasion, I was approached by a local man, let’s call him Sanjay, who likened the Maitreya Project to a foreign parasite. He said, “We will win against the Maitreya Project. I am 100 percent sure that we will be successful. [Around 1600 CE] the East India Company came from London. The East India Company was also a ‘project.’ The Maitreya Project is like the East India Company.” When I hastily wished him and his peers well in their struggle against the Maitreya Project, he seemed skeptical and anxious.

And so, on the occasion of this year’s celebration of Indian independence, as I find myself thinking about Indian resistance movements past and present, allow me to share what Sanjay said to me by way of farewell, “We are stronger now. You tell them that we can’t be colonized again.”

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About the author of this blog post: Jessica Falcone is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University where teaches about South Asian and Asian-American cultural and religious worlds. Her book, Battling the Buddha of Love: a Cultural Biography of the Greatest Statue Never Built, will be released on September 15, 2018 by Cornell University Press. Since the release date of Manikarnika: the Queen of Jhansi was postponed until next year, she will be celebrating India’s Independence day by watching the movie, Lagaan, for the hundredth time.

budda

Happy Independence Day, India: Grassroots Resistance in India Past and Present

What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

This summer has found Americans arguing over religion. What do we think of a baker who refused, on grounds of religious liberty, to make a cake celebrating a gay couple’s marriage? Should Catholic hospitals consider offering contraceptive services if they’re the only hospital in their region? Is it ever a good idea to turn to Scripture in order to justify or criticize government policies? Arguments like those made news. Other moments, in which someone looked with kindness, indifference, or contempt at a neighbor’s hijab, or crucifix, or flying spaghetti monster bumper sticker, didn’t. But in their daily accumulation, those small encounters also make history: the history of how people who disagree on things they consider supremely important, decide how and whether they will live in peace.

Elizabeth SetonNext month Cornell University Press will publish Elizabeth Seton, my biography of the woman who in 1975 became the first native born American citizen to be canonized in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton (1774-1821) changed her mind about her beliefs more than once during her life, and she also changed her mind about whether what she believed in should affect the society around her. As a very young woman, Seton laughed at the idea that faith needed any particular doctrinal content: if one found one’s way to cheerfulness and harmony, then all was well. This form of religion neither inspired Seton nor offended anyone else.

 

In her early thirties, after years of personal tragedy and spiritual inquiry, Seton converted to Catholicism. Her new faith allowed her to create a women’s religious community whose spiritual daughters serve others to this day. It also left Seton ablaze with certainty that only those who believed as she did were on the path to salvation. Her efforts to convince others of this angered many in her cosmopolitan Manhattan circle: they thought that faith should be held privately, its edges smoothed to avoid friction. Seton felt her friends’ and family’s insistence that she should keep her faith to herself was an assault on her beliefs and good intentions. Friends and family found her proselytizing a violation of their right to be left alone.  Everyone felt unfairly judged.

Within a decade, Seton had once again changed her mind. And although she continued to believe that the Catholic Church was the only safe path to God, she no longer tried to persuade others to follow it. Neither the venerable magisterium of the Catholic Church nor the First Amendment, its ink still damp, deserve the credit for this view; Seton’s growing desire for harmony and her growing spiritual humility do. She now believed that her faith imposed a different kind of obligation than she’d first believed, an obligation to offer specific, loving attention to those around her. Nurturing relationships, not spreading doctrine, would be the external manifestation of her faith. She wanted, she wrote, to “constantly find occasions of rendering [others] good offices and exercising kindness and good will towards them.”

As the summer’s arguments show, living harmoniously when people disagree vehemently will always be challenging. So will the act of creating a faith community that makes no unwanted claims on those outside it, but is meaningful to those within. Yet I think often of the principle Elizabeth Seton set forth late in her life: “Fear nothing so much as not to love enough.” Amid our many (and necessary) arguments, this seems like a promising place to start.

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Related upcoming event of interest: Living History Tour 

For more on Elizabeth Seton visit:

Daughters of Charity Federation

National Shrine of Elizabeth Seton

About the author of this blog post: Catherine O’Donnell is an historian at Arizona State University.  She writes and teaches about early America, religion, and the Atlantic World.

What Does Faith Demand? Elizabeth Seton and the Beliefs of Others

A Tentative History of Wild Bird Feeding (part 2)

Elsewhere in the New Testament, birds are portrayed as agents of wasted opportunity in Jesus’s parable of the sower (Matthew 13:4), consuming the metaphorical “seed as the Good News” carelessly cast onto the path rather than onto the tilled soil. These would have been effective metaphors for Jesus’s rural audience, who would have been familiar with the local birds ready to scavenge any seed they could. For our current purposes, this reminds us of those instances when bird feeding occurs against our wishes: the unwelcome species at the feeder; those aggressive waterbirds that invade the picnic; the scavengers of human food wastes.

A final biblical example of a feeding interaction disturbingly reverses the expected arrangements: God directed the prophet Elijah to await further instructions from a cave in the dry and remote Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan River. How can he possibly survive? By wild bird feeding with a difference. “Ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening” (1 Kings 17:6; ca. 550 BCE). How’s that for deliberate, systematic, and regular provisioning of species-appropriate sustenance?

In reality, however, the historical record—at least the component available in English—is strangely silent (ignoring the Egyptians for the moment) about what we would accept as just about any form of bird feeding from the first century CE until somewhere in the eighteenth. Maybe other things were happening—the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Reformation—but writers, philosophers, and journalists seem to have missed the feeding undoubtedly occurring in their very own streets and villages. In all seriousness, that is the most likely explanation: it was so familiar and commonplace—so ordinary—as to be unworthy of comment.

There are a few worthy exceptions to this dearth of historical detail, although their veracity may be questionable, both involving Roman Catholic saints. The first features the somewhat opaque Scottish figure Saint Serf (or Serbán) (ca. 500–583) of Fife. Among numerous highly improbable adventures (including seven years as pope in Rome) and the usual series of miracles, it was his apparent “taming of a wild robin by the act of hand feeding” that has often warranted mention. Although not directly related to feeding, Saint Cuthbert of Northumberland (634–687) also deserves attention here in the context of a very early concern for bird conservation. Arguably the most famous saint of Anglo-Saxon England, Cuthbert is today recognized for enacting the world’s first bird-protection laws. During a spiritual retreat on the nearby Farne Islands, Saint Cuthbert used his authority as bishop of Lindisfarne to declare legal protection for the eider ducks and other seabirds that were being harvested unsustainably by fishermen. These laws—literally centuries ahead of their time—remain in place today.

Saint Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) is venerated for his revolutionary ideas on many topics, but of particular relevance here is his conception of the relationship between humanity and nature. Francis regarded the natural world as “the mirror of God,” and therefore all animals were fellow creatures to be treated with appropriate respect. He famously preached to flocks of birds gathered expectantly beside the road—although there is no mention of him actually feeding them. He does, however, convince some irate villagers to feed a starving wolf instead of killing it. The legend says they did so.

The long slow centuries without much reference to bird feeding come to a whimsical end with the advent of the era of broad circulation newspapers, especially in England. For example, on one apparently slow news day in 1787, the Northampton Mercury felt it “worthy of Remark,” that a “Pair of wild Sparrows have built a Nest and hatched their Eggs in the kitchen,” and that the “Mistress of the House often feeds the young Ones.” Furthermore, a predilection to bird feeding may be an indicator of moral character according to a character reference tended to a Scottish court. The accused murderer, according to an acquaintance, was a “kind and mild man of a sensitive nature. He used to carry crumbs of bread for the purpose of feeding birds.” We do not know whether this swayed the jury.

THE BIRDS AT MY TABLEThe following is an excerpt from The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why it Matters, by Darryl Jones.

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A Tentative History of Wild Bird Feeding (part 2)

Political Upheaval: a glimpse into racial politics, state political patronage and the future of Malaysia

Since the early 1970s, capitalism and politics have been organised and rationalised in Malaysia in a distinctive way: the principal stated aim being to transform the comparatively disadvantaged social and economic position of ethnic Malays vis-à-vis ethnic Chinese. Promotion of an ethnic Malay business and state bureaucratic class, together with insistence on Malay political supremacy within the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) coalition, were integral to the strategy.

But in spite of initial improvements for ethnic Malays in general, the model’s real power lay in growing capital accumulation opportunities for capitalists that were closely aligned to the dominant BN party —the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). And as inequality grew, so did BN’s reliance on repression of its opponents and critics. Ethnic and religious nationalism were both used to justify BN rule and discredit challenges to it, but yet this model’s problems would mount.

PARTICIPATION

As explained in Participation without Democracy: Containing Conflict in Southeast Asia, the unequal distribution of costs and benefits of development have exerted political pressures across the region. However, precisely how capitalism is organized affects the bases of support and opposition for particular institutions and ideologies of participation and representation. In neighboring authoritarian Singapore, for instance, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) interests and ideological dominance link to state capitalism under technocratic rule. Hence, the PAP developed state-controlled consultative institutions and ideologies for incorporating experts, civil society actors and others into public policy deliberations.

Comparable forays in consultative representation in Malaysia were limited and counter-productive. Two national consultative committees—during 1989-90 and 1999-2000—produced governance reform proposals antithetical to the regime’s political patronage systems. As a result, the politically disaffected sought to exploit electoral politics and civil society mobilizations. These peaked under Najib with huge street demonstrations, organised by the Bersih movement pushing for electoral and other institutional reforms.

Malaysia’s May 9 general election result was a shock, ushering in the first change of government in 61 years of independence. To be sure, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government had been on the nose for years, saved at the 2013 election by massive electoral malapportionment. In 2018, though, the scale and range of obstacles to free and fair elections was unprecedented. These included further racially-skewed boundary changes, barring of key opponents, boosts in phantom voters, deregistration of a major opposition party, and an Anti-Fake News law to blunt debate about Najib’s alleged role in Malaysia’s biggest ever corruption scandal.

Yet still one of the world’s most durable authoritarian governments fell, and the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Coalition of Hope) formed government. Paradoxically, 92-year-old former authoritarian BN leader, Mahathir Mohamad, is again prime minister.

Mahathir’s political comeback was precipitated by allegations of at least $4.5 billion stolen from the state investment company One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), including almost $700 million siphoned into Najib’s personal bank accounts. Mahathir aligned with Bersih’s call for Najib’s resignation and co-established Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) in direct competition with UMNO, as the authentic champion of Malays. And in early 2017, HP elected Mahathir leader.

It is an unlikely coalition of forces, comprising alienated members of the old political establishment combined with popular reformist forces, that has made this victory possible. Many of the latter seek the dismantling of racial politics and state political patronage: foundational pillars of the prevailing Malaysian political economy. But how much will government change translate then to regime change? This depends on the way that contradictions within this multi-ethnic coalition are resolved or managed, and how the PH’s technocratic, nationalist, democratic and even authoritarian elements play out to lead change.

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Related article: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44036178

About the author of this blog post: Garry Rodan is Professor of Politics and Director the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Australia. He is also an elected Fellow of The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Upheaval: a glimpse into racial politics, state political patronage and the future of Malaysia