Since Timothy Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? went on sale this month, the media have been abuzz with cuts against bogus movie star beauty and health regimens. In the first half of his book, Caulfield, professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta, debunks the pseudoscience of deep cleanses, snail facials, and super juicing, just to name a few. No matter how deep the cleanse, or how super the juice, your body and well-being will not glow from the purported benefits endorsed by the rich and famous. Caulfield's certainly did not. That his research has practically divested Gwyneth Paltrow of her dubious title of queen of health and beauty is what most media hubs have latched onto.
But there is more to Caulfield’s book than Ms. Paltrow’s misinformative lifestyle tips. The heart of his argument, featured in the second half, focuses on the sociological implications of celebrity culture obsession. The countries with the highest level of social disparity are the most obsessed with fame—fame to be earned effortlessly by being one’s self in front of a camera for a reality TV show or by dint of becoming a rock, movie, or sports star. Striving toward fame, or even aspiring to it, is not what it is cracked up to be. In the following passage, Caulfield lays bare some of the adverse side effects. Interestingly enough, the celebrity industry is not entirely responsible.
The countries that seem the most obsessed with celebrity culture (i.e., the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea) do not score particularly high in rankings of population happiness. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, a study prepared for the United Nations, the happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland. Canada ranks sixth. The United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that both produce and consume a great deal of celebrity culture, rank seventeenth and twenty-second, respectively. These same celebrity-loving countries also have a terrible record when it comes to social mobility. The United Kingdom ranks last among the thirty-four nations in the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the United States is third from last. In other words, in these countries, moving up the socioeconomic ladder is nearly impossible. If you are born into poverty, you are likely to stay in poverty. If you are a middle-class kid, chances are you will be a middle-class adult. Ditto your kids. (Incidentally, the country that has the highest degree of social mobility? Happy Denmark.)
Some commentators have gone so far as to call the American dream a myth, a topic I discussed with Howard Steven Friedman, a well-known statistician with the United Nations and author of The Measure of a Nation. “The idea of social mobility, of becoming rich, is core to the American mythology,” Friedman says. “But, ironically, American performance in this area is consistently one of the worst of the developed nations.” Friedman has observed that the statistics are depressing for those “who subscribe to the notion that America is a meritocracy and a ‘land of opportunity.’” And the data tell us social mobility is getting worse.
According to the Sixth Amendment, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, was entitled to a public trial at which he would be judged "by an impartial jury of the State and district" drawn from the community where the crime occurred. Yet while well more than half the people from the Boston community opposed the imposition of the death penalty, Tsarnaev was nevertheless sentenced to death. How did that happen?
A day after the verdict, a handful of major media outlets, including Esquire magazine and MSNBC, reported the news by observing that it was a big loss for Judy Clarke, Tsarnaev's lead defense counsel, as if the trial were a baseball game, and Clarke had struck out with bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The reality is, to switch metaphors, Clarke and her team had about as much chance as saving Tsarnaev as a craps player has against the house rolling loaded dice. In fact, it would have been miraculous if Clarke and her team had eluded a death sentence for their client, because Tsarnaev's fate had been sealed long before he ever met his lawyer.
So when exactly was it sealed? It did not happen on that spring day in 2013 when Tsarnaev placed a homemade bomb in front of the Forum restaurant on Boylston Street, which exploded and killed Martin Richard, an eight-year old child, and Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old graduate student from China who was studying at Boston University. Nor did it happen on January 30, 2014, when the U.S. Justice Department announced it would seek the death penalty. It was not even sealed on March 4, nearly two years after the horrific bombing, when Tsarnaev's jury was finally selected and his trial began.
And it wasn't even sealed during the trial itself. Quite the contrary: According to media reports, three jurors believed Tsarnaev had acted under the influence of his older brother; two believed he was genuinely remorseful. Considering that all it takes to avoid a death sentence is a single juror who holds out for life, the fact that these jurors accepted at least one of the major themes of the defense narrative suggests that Judy Clarke and her team did their job well and that fact reinforces the same question: Why, then, was Tsarnaev nevertheless sentenced to death?
In Love’s Promises, Martha M. Ertman, a law professor at the University of Maryland’s Carey Law School with an extensive background in contract law, explores how deals and contracts create and transform all kinds of families. Love’s Promises forces us to radically “rethink our commonplace—often wrong—assumptions about how we love, commit, trust, and thrive in relationships,” writes Beacon Press’s Queer Action/Queer Ideas editor, Michael Bronski.
In advance of my wedding this month, I thought it would be beneficial to check in with Ertman to see how couples (including yours truly) can use her book as a roadmap to “plan for the expected and the unexpected.”
Nicholas DiSabatino: In Love’s Promises, you talk about the difference between contracts and deals, with contracts being enforceable by the courts and deals being as simple as “I pay the bills and you do the grocery shopping.” In my own relationship with my fiancé, Josh, we have a sort-of unspoken rule. He’s always going to be the brains behind dinner, planning ahead with Ms. Rachael Ray’s 30-minute meals (because who has time for more prep than that?) while I’m always on clean-up patrol. Should we put this deal in writing?
Martha M. Ertman: First, congratulations!! It’s an amazingly exciting thing to find someone you want to spend your life with, and better still one with whom you enjoy dinner rituals. Your deal is probably the most common one of the many I read and heard about while writing Love’s Promises. While some couples do put this kind of domestic swap into writing—sometimes a playful document that no-one expects will be legally binding—you’re also typical in making an implicit deal through your actions over time. That’s the same way my wife Karen and I came to put gardening on my to-do list and balancing the checkbook on hers. The most important thing is that you and Josh both see the deal. Then if you start sloughing off on the dishes he may suggest you step it up or take over one of his tasks. Grocery shopping perhaps??
Rajeev Goyal was in the Kavre district of Nepal when the April 25 earthquake struck and has been involved in relief work since then. He and his team quickly mobilized and have distributed 2,000 waterproof tarps. When the second earthquake struck on May 12, he and his team were in the city of Kattike Deurali. They are all safe and intend to continue their relief efforts. Their goal is to give out 10,000 tarps to families hit hard the most in Kavre. Right now more than 40,000 families have lost their homes. More than 8,000 Nepalese have lost their lives.
The destruction of homes and deaths reminds Goyal of the terror of the Maoist War in Nepal. In 2001, the Peace Corps deployed him at Namje, a remote village in the eastern hills of Nepal, as a volunteer translator during the conflict. He chronicles his experiences in The Springs of Namje. The passage below recounts the harrowing environment he encountered when he arrived in Gaur, a town at the border of Nepal and India.
The moment the landing skids hit the ground, we were in a cloud of twirling dust. When the blades finally stopped whirring, it was so quiet that I imagined we were in some desolate location, but outside a thousand dark-skinned men, fresh after the kill, stood motionless, staring at us. Normally the site of a UN helicopter in a village would bring all the schoolchildren out, cheering and howling, but not on this day. We had landed at the site of unspeakable crimes in a Terai town, with the unfortunate name Gaur (pronounced like the English word gore), just a few kilometers from the Indian border.
“I hope you’re ready for this,” Lena Sundh whispered in my direction as her cloth shoe met the warm ground. As the country representative for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), she had more than a vague sense of the horrors that lay ahead. The men parted and allowed her to pass as she made the slow walk toward the Gaur hospital. I zipped up my blue and white vest and scurried after Lena.
Video used by permission of The School District of Philadelphia. All rights reserved.
It’s the time of year when our newsfeeds are filled with posts highlighting the best commencement speeches of the season. This got us thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to young people today who are heading into the next chapter of their lives; his speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” immediately sprang to mind. In it, Dr. King, speaking at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, encourages students to be the best people they can be, regardless of their status in life.
Now, you can watch this rarely seen film of that speech. Recorded on October 26, 1967, just six months before his assassination, Dr. King’s words will still resonate with young people today and encourage them to keep moving in the struggle for justice and make our nation a better place in which to live.
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would enlist an army of young people to help each other and America in the education process. He would trust them to bring their energy and sense of justice to end gang violence and to reverse the feeling of helplessness that hurts so many of our young people. He would keep marching against unjust laws, racism, war, and poverty. Dr. King made America a better place for all people to live during the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle. Using his insights, his courage in tackling difficult problems, and his loyalty to nonviolence both in action and in the language we use with each other, perhaps we can continue building the America he once thought possible. What do you think?”
My mother kind of freaked out when I told her about the proposal for Sex Workers Unite! I never thought of her as a prude. When I was growing up, she rarely seemed embarrassed about sexuality matters, and her several non-traditional relationships definitely influenced my critique of the whole white picket fence family idea. But for her daughter to write about prostitutes’ rights threw her for a loop.
There are huge stigmas against sex work. For my mother, who came of age after World War II when the sexual double standard was as popular as drive-ins and girdles, embracing the women’s movement and sexual liberation of the 1960s was a radical rejection of her parents’ protestant conservatism. As a feminist, she rejects the idea that a woman’s sexual history is evidence of her worth or her integrity.
But sex work and the sex industry are another matter. For her, women “shouldn’t have to” be prostitutes; women should have education and employment opportunities and enjoy wage equality and childcare. My mother is also a successful businesswoman, a pioneer in a field that had very few women when she entered it in the early 1970s, rife with sexism, harassment and even sexual violence. She’s a feminist because the movement was supposed to liberate women through economic independence so they didn’t have to exchange sex for money or other support.
It’s heartbreaking when we lose such a visionary in politics and social justice. Jean Hardisty, political scientist and activist, died this year on March 16 after battling Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She founded Midwest Research in Chicago in 1981, which became Political Research Associates (PRA) in 1987 when it relocated to Boston.
Hardisty founded PRA to produce investigative research and analysis on right-wing movements to support social justice advocates and defend human rights. It specializes in reproductive justice, civil liberties, economic justice, LGBTQ rights, and racial/immigrant justice. Social change activists, in fact, knew Jean as a public intellectual concerned with feminist and lesbian issues. In order to understand conservative leaders’ influence on voters, Hadisty sought to learn what made right-wing supporters click rather than demonize or scapegoat them. It was her goal to expose the leaders of the Right.
She found the Left’s response to the rise of the New Right during the Reagan presidency inadequate and misguided. During her tenure as Executive Director of PRA, she taught Left activists not to underestimate the clout, finances, and the unifying vision of the Right. Patiently, she led her staff through analyses of elections, events and incidents on the local, state, and national level, and the work of the Right. Although the historical perspective she brought could be challenging, it was always reassuring. She matched the rigor of her research with the compassion, mentorship, and sense of humor her friends and colleagues cherish to this day. Those whose lives she touched will miss her dearly.
Alien species are taking over nature. Rogue rats, predatory jellyfish, suffocating super-weeds, snakehead fish wriggling across the land–all are headed for an ecosystem near you. These biological adventurers are travelling the world in ever greater numbers, hitchhiking in our hand luggage, hidden in cargo holds and stuck to the bottom of ships. Our modern, human-dominated world of globalized trade is giving footloose species many more chances to cruise the planet and set up home in distant lands. Some run riot, massacring local species, trashing their new habitats and spreading diseases.
We all like a simple story with good guys and bad guys, so the threat of invasive species invading fragile environments and causing ecological mayhem instantly gets our attention. For half a century, conservationists have been in the forefront of the battle to hold back the invasive tide. And as an environmental journalist, I have written my share of stories about the mayhem they can cause.
Some of it is true. But do we fear the invaders too much? Do zebra mussels, kudzu, salt cedar and the rest do as much damage as is claimed? And what about the thousands of other visitors who fit in without trouble? Is our fear of invasive species little more than green xenophobia? In my new book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation(Beacon Press, 2015), I explore these questions.
Most of us don’t treat foreign humans as intrinsically dangerous. Yet the orthodoxy in conservation is to stigmatize foreign species in just that way. Native is good, and foreign is bad. I believe it is time for a rethink—time to consider whether invasive species can sometimes be the good guys, and whether nature’s go-getters are actually rebooting ecosystems corrupted by human activity.
Since coming out last month as a transwoman during his interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20, former Olympian, track and field athlete, and TV personality Bruce Jenner has cast more light on gender identity. His celebrity status grants him a privileged position to do so and has been propelling a paradigm shift in American society’s regard toward the standard female/male dichotomy. That Jenner came out to millions of viewers while still phenotypically male is encouraging. In fact, he inspired singer and actress Miley Cyrus to come out and admit her non-binary gender. These and the stories of others give guidance and hope to those living between and outside of the narrow definitions of masculine and feminine. If you or someone you know is at the crossroads of gender identity, we would like to share some books and resources that we hope will be helpful in the journey.
Matt Kailey lived as a straight woman for forty-two years until he took the steps toward becoming a man. In Just Add Hormones,he shares the story of his transformation through surgery and hormone therapy, the change in the behavior of others because of his new gender identity, and the transition towards acceptance of one’s self as a person who straddles two genders. For those who have been questioning their gender, Kailey’s book is full of sound advice and answers all the questions you may have about what it’s like to live as a transsexual.
Trans Liberation is a collection of activist Leslie Feinberg’s inspirational speeches in which ze calls for acceptance and tolerance for those who live at the boundary of sex and gender expression. Pointing out the similarities between the struggles of the trans and gay, lesbian and bi communities, Feinberg advocates for respect towards the cross-dressers, transsexuals, intersex persons, Two Spirits, drag kings and drag queens.
It’s hard to believe that the world lost Matt Kailey and Leslie Feinberg just last year, but we hope their lives and work continues to inspire and help others.
In My Gender Workbook, author, performance artist, playwright, and gender outlaw Kate Bornstein provides a hands-on, accessible guide to help readers discover their own gender identity. Through quizzes, exercises, and puzzles, you may discover that you’re a “real man”, a “real woman”, or “something else entirely”.
Professor J. Jack Halberstam appoints Lady Gaga as a symbol for the new era of gender identity in Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. With the burgeoning influence of pregnant men, late-life lesbians, SpongeBob SquarePants, and queer families in the twenty-first century, gender and sexual politics have broken away from the status quo of heteronormativity. Halberstam urges readers to embrace the gender and sexual fluidity of the new feminism that Lady Gaga embodies.
Our parent organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), offers a Transgender 101: Identity, Inclusion, and Resources section on their website that includes a list of ten ways to be more welcoming and inclusive of transgender people, basic gender identity definitions, films for congregational viewing, and much more. You may also be interested in Standing on the Side of Love, a public advocacy campaign sponsored by the UUA that participates in LGBTQ activism. The campaign’s mission is to challenge exclusion, oppression, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity.
2010 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Theresa Perry is series editor of the Simmons College/Beacon Press, Race, Education, and Democracy Lecture and Book Series. One of the books in the series is Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski’s Holding Fast to Dreams, which went on sale yesterday. As a preview, we’re presenting the note she wrote for the book in which she explains how Hrabowski’s work, going on strong since he joined the civil rights movement at age twelve, is making headway in education and equality.
In the spring of 2013, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski delivered the Simmons College–Beacon Press Race, Education, and Democracy Lectures, called “Standing Up for Justice, Creating Opportunity: From the Birmingham Children’s Crusade to the Creation of Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.”
This book, which is based on those lectures, eloquently captures the bookends of Dr. Hrabowski’s life and indeed the lives of many other African Americans who grew up in the Jim Crow South, fought with their lives to dismantle this oppressive system, and then dedicated themselves to creating opportunities for black students and other marginalized groups.
The atmosphere at Dr. Hrabowski’s Boston lectures was electric, filled with a sense of anticipation and hope. Similarly in Holding Fast to Dreams, Dr. Hrabowski brings us a message of hope and possibility.
In describing his young life, he embodies Du Bois’s mantra “Your child is wiser than you think.” Dr. Hrabowski offers a moving story of what it was like to become a civil rights activist at twelve years of age. He describes the agony of his parents and their initial refusals to allow him, their only child and son, to participate in the marches. He describes how the morning following their refusal, with tears in their eyes, they gave him permission to march. Dr. Hrabowski describes the brutality he experienced during the marches and while being arrested.