Sunday Roundup: Shame and Glory

The week began, for me, with the Pope’s new encyclical. That story has been buried in the US beneath the wave of big news stories involving violence here and abroad, SCOTUS decisions, and flags.
  • I posted  a wonderful guest essay from historian Ellen Arnold on the ways in which medieval ideas about the environment are consistent with Pope Francis’ vision. Arnold says – “The capacity to imagine a “whole earth”—fragile, surrounded by emptiness, is not ours alone.”
I am always open to guest posts from regular readers who want to share their expertise and analysis here. See my email from the About Me page

I returned to The Atlantic this week, writing a piece on the same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v Hodges, and the way this new right was grounded in history. In my blog post, I offered a few comments on Justice Roberts’ bizarre dissent from Anise Strong, one of the historians I interviewed for the piece. Carthago delenda est!
Other pieces:
I am travelling to DC briefly to work on a big project on which I’m collaborating (reveal coming in a few weeks). Then I’m going to Harvard to participate in a workshop about fighting misogyny on the internet. That event is being held under Chatham House Rule, which means I can talk about what I’;m doing, and I can talk generally about what is said, but not reveal names or participants.
Thanks for reading!

Obergefell v Hodges in the Scope of History

I have a new piece up with The Atlantic on the historic decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. It argues that the history of marriage supports, even mandates, change as societies change.

We’re ready. History is with us. Love wins.

Here’s the piece, with thanks to Anise Strong and Ruth Karras.

UPDATE – Anise Strong gave me permission to repost these comments on Roberts’ dissent:

Roberts: “As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians
and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

Strong Writes:

Just for the record:

The Kalahari !Kung or San people (Bushmen being a frequently pejorative term) practice a limited form of same-sex marriage for inheritance purposes and probably have for tens of thousands of years. Also, their marriages are generally open with regard to sexual intercourse and can be freely and frequently divorced by either party.

The Han Chinese frequently practiced polygynous marriage and the primary functional practical relationship is mostly mother-in-law/daughter-in-law.

We don’t know much of anything about the Carthaginian practice of marriage or family life, except that there’s increasing evidence that they did sacrifice babies.

Aztec nobles were polygynous; Aztecs may have also practiced a form of same-sex marriage involving third-sex (intersex or “two-spirit)) individuals. Furthermore, Aztec wives had far more property and individual rights than most European and Asian women in the last 5000 years.

Or in other words: do your research.

And that is why I interviewed her for my piece.

Disability and Policing – My Front Porch

The front screen door opened and then closed. I thought it was a package. But then I heard male voices on my porch. Was the delivery man saying hi to a neighbor? After a few minutes, when they continued, I opened the door to find a police officer on my porch, another on the sidewalk in front of the house, and my neighbor – a man maybe in his late 50s or early 60s (he’s a Vietnam war vet) next to him.

In the rocking chair, just to the left of the door, sat my neighbor’s mother, G. She said, sweetly, “I just came up to your porch to sit.” Then she told me that these men wanted to take her away, that they were stupids. The police officer, very calmly, replied directly to her that he was there to help, that she had been wandering, but that because she said she was going to throw herself in front of a car, he had to take that seriously.

G asked me if she could come inside, but I demurred, offering instead to help walk her to where she needed to go. She asked me to walk her back to her house, and I carefully helped her down the stairs. As we got down the block a bit, an ambulance pulled up, and without real complaint (but much insulting commentary directed at the police), we walked towards the curb as the paramedics got out. Once she was well in their hands, she more or less dismissed me, and 10-15 more minutes elapsed as step-by-step they got her to the back of the ambulance, onto the gurney, and into the vehicle.

I chatted with the second officer about the unexpected arrival of my subject field – police interactions with people with disabilities – on my front porch. And I complimented their patience and thoughtfulness in handling it.

It’s going to be a rough period for G and her son, but I’m pleased to see the police are ready to both take threats of self-harm seriously and to respond so patiently and calmly. Both G and the officers are welcome on my porch any time.

Voluntary Wellness Programs are Neither Voluntary nor Promote Wellness.

Many work wellness programs work like this – get regular checkups, hit various benchmarks of health, get money! It’s a way for business to lower their health care costs by rewarding people for making healthy choices.

Except that according to the ACLU, these bonuses are basically closed to people with disabilities. Moreover, there’s no real evidence that they make people healthier – instead, it’s a bonus for people who are already, luckily, healthy. As Susan Mizner of the ACLU said – voluntary wellness programs are neither.

Here’s Claudia Center:

Voluntary wellness programs at work can provide benefits to employees, but employers are increasingly adopting “voluntary” wellness programs that unfairly burden workers with disabilities the most of all. Worse, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems to think that’s okay, undermining core antidiscrimination protections it used to defend.
Here’s why.
Imagine a woman living with rheumatoid arthritis and severe depression who, under doctor’s care, has finally returned to work. Her medications — a corticosteroid and an antidepressant — have triggered weight gain. Now imagine this woman facing her employer’s “wellness activities:” She is instructed to fill out a detailed questionnaire about her medical conditions; she is weighed and pronounced overweight; she is told to lose weight. Oh, and the program is voluntary — but if she doesn’t comply, she will have to pay hundreds of dollars more in annual health care premiums.

Comment period at the EEOC is now closed (I shared this widely on social media when it came out), but I wanted to circle back to it and just take a look at the logic. The pressure on the disabled body to be measured and assessed by normative rubrics forces various types of compliance.

So to review:

Voluntary wellness programs are not voluntary.
Voluntary wellness programs do not produce wellness.
Voluntary wellness programs discriminate against the disabled.

Finally – Voluntary wellness programs are a kind of corporate reification of the medical model of the body. Which isn’t surprising, because medical model has come to embody all kinds of neoliberal principles.

Language and Power – Philosophy and Propaganda

David Johnson is my main editor at Al Jazeera America, so to the extent you appreciate the pieces I write there, you have him to thank (along with several brilliant assistant editors). All mistakes, of course, are my own!

But he’s also a philosopher and what one might call an “alt-academic,” someone who took his academic training and made a career in journalism. After sending him so much of my writing over the past year, it was a pleasure to read this essay by him on propaganda and philosophy.

In the piece, Johnson uses a book review of How Propaganda Works, by Jason Stanley (prof at Yale, also columnist at “The Stone,” the philosophy blog at the Times), to talk about the power of language, idea, and image, but also his own career and the role of philosophy in public discourse. He writes:

The 9/11 attacks occurred the week I had to defend my dissertation in philosophy. I took my first tenure-track job (yes, such a thing existed back then) during the launch of our now fourteen-year-old “war on terror.” As I made my way in academia in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency, my new colleagues and I would inevitably discuss the authoritarian and distorting turn of American public discourse. How could so many be so cowed and so misled into supporting such an obvious misadventure as the Iraq war? How could our leading institutions—and especially the media—fail so miserably to underline the immorality of torture and question the claims as to Saddam Hussein’s threat to national security? This dismal time raised the specter of propaganda, and posed the questions of how the false alibis of power could hold such sway in a liberal democracy and what could be done about it.

In 2004–2005, I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan. By then, I had become so radicalized by the American political situation and so frustrated by the restrictive horizons of my research—my specialty was ancient Greek philosophy—that I felt I had to make a choice. On the one hand, I might continue on the academic track and try to speak out where I could. (Like many of my peers, I was an active extramural blogger.) On the other, I could leave the ivory tower behind and plunge into journalism.

As someone who has a “diversified academic career,” as we’re calling it, attempting to remain in academia and yet plunge into journalism, as well as an author of a string of essays about public engagement, I naturally found this narrative interesting.

Johnson then plunges into the book itself. And that, too, seemed important to me, because language undeniably has power and any state exercising that power can be accused of propaganda. So is there good propaganda and bad propaganda? How do we tell? Is it always subjective?

I haven’t read the book yet, but Johnson suggests that these questions are not satisfactorily answered.

So what, in the end, makes the propaganda that launched the Iraq war or attempted to end the “death tax” bad but other instances of propaganda—such as the campaigns that launched FDR’s war against Fascism, economic royalists, and want—good, or at least tolerable?

I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say the ends justify the means, but Stanley is surely onto something when he claims that the most productive role for propaganda in a liberal democracy is to shore up liberal-democratic ideals. In this view of things, the cure for the problem of propaganda isn’t to make less of it, per se, but to harness it into the service of undergirding the core values of our political system: reasonableness, pluralism, and equality.

I left academia to fight for these values. Although journalism is not propaganda, Stanley’s book clarifies what’s at stake when journalists fail to see how the propaganda of our liberal democracy is functioning.

One thing that’s clear – the reason David is a good, demanding, editor is that he’s a good, thoughtful, writer and thinker.

Making Books Accessible – And Tone Policing Accommodation Request

I like books! I wrote a book (and think we need to reconfigure how they work professionally).

Books are, however, notoriously inaccessible to people with certain kinds of disabilities, whether it’s because of vision issues of various sorts, motor control, etc.

A group of disability studies scholars have published a letter on making books accessible, written for other scholars to use as a template for discussions with publishers who want their work. You can read the letter here in a word doc. Here’s a sample:

As a scholar working in disability studies, I am dedicated to publishing work that is accessible to all scholars, including anyone with print-reading disabilities. For this reason, it is imperative that before agreeing to publish with [name of publisher], I have written assurance that materials will be available in accessible formats at the same time as any print copies.

Then the letter moves into how to make that happen.

technical specifications: Materials must be in EPUB 3.0 or later format… 

the program “Adobe InDesign” – the program used by most large book
designers – has built-in features for checking accessibility…

is important to remember that many charts and graphs are also unrecognizable to
screen-reading software…

images, maps, and figures appearing in books should also be visually described…

It’s a good letter. I did not visually describe the images and maps in my book and I wish I had.

Here’s the problem – Inside Higher Ed‘s Carl Straumsheim tone-policed the authors of this letter for not being nice about this list of reasonable accommodations. He wrote: The guidelines, a one-page template letter, read a little like an ultimatum.

Asking for the accommodations you need; asking to make your work universally accessible, is not now and never will be an ultimatum. This kind of tone policing is simple not acceptable.

Update 1 – Some readers have interesting things to say about “tone police” has a useless phrase. I’ll write more about this in the future. I think they are right, and I’m using it as a lazy shorthand for language that replicates and reinforces hierarchy and prejudice (rather than undermines it).

Update 2 – Here is the response from the reporter, to a third party. It’s the usual, “Not my intention.” The good apology is – I see how the words I used were damaging and I’ll do better in the future.

Pope Francis and the Traditions of Medieval Environmentalism

This is a guest post written by Ellen Arnold, PhD. Arnold is Assistant Professor of History at Ohio Wesleyan University and author of  Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes. Follow her on Twitter. Read more of her work on this site here.

The capacity to imagine a “whole earth”—fragile, surrounded by emptiness, is not ours alone

Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change has caught the world’s attention. Here in the US, this has brought new attention to the role of the church in science and the legitimacy of faith leaders engaging with economic and ecological issues. This has put the Catholic Church’s relationship with environmentalism in the news—but that relationship is nothing new.

As many will undoubtedly point out in the coming days, Pope Francis named himself after a medieval saint closely associated with environmentalism. Yet too much attention on this tie, and on St. Francis himself, may be a bad thing. Our modern conversations about St. Francis of Assisi make him seem exceptional—he is a proto-hippie and proto-ecologist. He has become the lone medieval lover of nature (the Johnny Appleseed of the Middle Ages)—mythologized out of his context.

This clouds the ways that almost all medieval saints were connected to local environments and to the protection of God’s creation. Medieval saints, scholars, and everyday Christians cared about nature, wrote about nature, and thought deeply about their environment. They recognized the fragility of the earth and valued nature as God’s creation. The history of ties between the medieval church and care for the natural world is deeper and richer than we imagine. As we engage with Francis’ encyclical, we need to recognize that the Catholic Church is not new to the table on this, and that older ideas are worth revisiting and revising as we look to chart a way forward.

In many ways, the way we live in and with nature is radically different from that of the past—we have created new problems (acid rain, ozone depletion, and artificial toxins). We use resources on massively different scales, and have radically altered our energy regime (extractive and non-renewable materials dominate global energy landscapes). We have also overcome many things that used to endanger human survival (the eradication of smallpox and the invention of plastic have saved millions of human lives).

Yet though the scale of our interactions with nature might have changed, we share with medieval people (and the medieval church) more common environmental concerns than we might expect. Medieval people did not live in an Edenic “balance” with nature—they, like us, practiced large-scale, profit-driven agriculture, stretched land beyond its limits, over-exploited fuel resources (such as peat and coal), and developed complex and fragile food systems to feed expanding cities. Yet they also (like us) believed that people could alter their environments in ways that made them more “useful” or “healthful” for human communities. They planted orchards, created massive systems for diverting water resources to run sewage systems, raised fish in artificial ponds to keep steady food supplies, and regulated urban pollution to protect the health of both rivers and people.

Medieval people were also not ignorant of environmental risk—they were aware that land was limited, that droughts could hit, and that forests could disappear. Medieval land managers developed practices to expand the longevity of natural resources, and to protect the resources they controlled. Almost every medieval forest, for example, had large sections that were “coppiced”—a practice in which people harvest the branches and shoots of a tree and then wait for them to regrow. Medieval kings also established Europe’s first “national parks” when they created protected forest zones that privileged wildlife habitat.

Finally, the capacity to imagine a “whole earth”—fragile, surrounded by emptiness, is not ours alone.

Gautier de Metz’s Image du Monde
(BL MS Harley 334)

Ancient and medieval thinkers knew that the earth was both round and finite. Medieval monks, scientists, and theologians alike recognized that it was also fragile, and unique. Today, we express that uniqueness by evoking Earthrise (for example in this article)–in the past, they expressed this through stories of creation, and images of the world as made and then protected by God. Medieval representations of the earth (1) show it as not simply bestowed upon humanity alone, but, quite literally, in the hands of God (2).

Today, we tend to view life in the Middle Ages as nasty, brutish, and short. We assume that nature was the adversary, that there was no sense of the beauty of nature and little appreciation for abstract contemplation of nature. But medieval people noticed birdsong, commented on the marvelous ranges of colors and smells of wildflowers, cultivated ornamental trees and plants, and kept exotic birds and animals. They saw in the colors of flowers, the behavior of animals, and the qualities of birds signs about God’s creation and moral lessons to instruct people on the right ways of living in the world. Though medieval people might not have talked about the value of nature in quite the same ways we do, they did have an appreciation for nature’s bounty and balance, and an awareness of how easily disrupted both were.

Many may be surprised to learn that Pope Francis has a Master’s degree in Chemistry, because of the American assumption of not only a separation of church and state, but also of church and science. But that assumption is a false one, one, largely a cultural and historical construct produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. The medieval church championed science, actively managed resources, and thought about how human work impacts nature. Medieval monastic scholars preserved, read, and wrote extensive commentaries on the scientific works of antiquity. They also produced their own.

Bishop Isidore of Seville wrote the world’s first encyclopedia. The 7th-8th century saint and scholar Bede wrote biblical commentaries and also “On the Reckoning of Time” and “On the Nature of Things,” as well as compiling precise tide-tables. Bestiaries from the twelfth century, famous today for their fantastical animals, were compendiums of natural history and strove to explain the web of human and animal life. Monastic communities throughout Europe were at the forefront of agricultural technologies and engineering advancements. They maintained agricultural production and managed lands across vast territories and across centuries. They also developed the modern university, pursuing knowledge of the seven liberal arts and working to better understand and value God’s creation.

In the Christian faith (modern and medieval), failure and the recognition of our responsibility for failure is a necessary step to salvation. Human knowledge of the Fall is necessary for salvation, just like awareness of the natural limits of resources is necessary for ideas of sustainability to develop. But as Pope Francis writes, faith (and progressive action on global climate change) requires more than blame and guilt: “Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment.” (3)

If, encouraged by Francis, we work “to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care,” we may be able to ally science and faith more fully. If we can step beyond a modern understanding of the isolation of scientific inquiry to a sphere separate from faith and history, more people may understand and embrace the purpose and value of science. If we can drop our restricted (and negative) view of the deep relationship between Christianity and ecology, we may be able to yield more converts to conservation and ecological concern, and help heal our communities, or souls, and our environment.


(1) Fifteenth-century manuscript of Gautier de Metz’s Image du Monde (BL MS Harley 334)

(2) Codex Vindenbonensis 2554, 12th cent. Bible Moralisee

(3) Pope Francis: quotes (6/29/13, no. 55)

Sunday Roundup: #FathersDay and Working Dad Edition

Happy Father’s Day! Let’s fight the patriarchy. Here’s just one issue out of many in a new piece from Al Jazeera America.

I am hardly alone in needing to find a way to make a lot of moving parts fit together. Working dads are so normal that we don’t even talk about it. A Google search for “working mom” or mother versus “working dad” or father comes out at a 10:1 ratio. Bing turns up a 20:1 ratio. A Google books search for “working mom” shows at least 15 times more results than “working dad,” and “working mother” breaks the chart.

Our silence on issues facing working dads is bad for men. It’s worse for women, because the idea that women are the default parents leads to all kinds of discrimination. In fact, it affects all caregivers, not just parents, but also those caring for spouses, parents, or a sick loved one. It’s even bad for people without children. Fundamentally, the “working-dad problem” is about patriarchy. Men and women get confined to definite gender roles and punished, or at least pushed back, whenever they transgress or transcend those norms. On the one hand, working dads lack the vocabulary to talk about the challenges of work-life fit. There is no neat, culturally accepted, set of norms from which working dads can integrate the various aspects of their lives. Often we’re just workers, not dads.

I have been thinking about this essay for awhile and tracking these stats. Basically, no change in the last two years.

Two other published pieces this week:

And then these blog posts: