Human sense perception has long been a fascination for me, though I know I'm not alone in this preoccupation. When I studied modern art in graduate school I got interested in the ways artists work with paints, photographs, and sculptures to "bend" reality and restructure our perceptual apparatuses. And when I investigated religious practices in various parts of the world I kept noticing the ways eyes and ears and tongues were triggered.
Some years ago I set out to write about all this, wanting to chart some of the ways the senses operate in religious traditions, how the senses perceive particular objects, and how the arts help us come to grips with these processes. The result was a book, A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses. But as I note therein, something happened along the way: the objects became the subject. The incense became as crucial, even more so, than the olfactory system, and the drums themselves seemed to have powers beyond their rhythms and reverberations.
Nonetheless, it is one thing to simply say this, and another to teach about it. While the standard "read a bunch of words and write a paper" pedagogical procedure is finally beginning to fade, we remain bound by a primarily audio-visual mode of education. Not only is education far too word-based, it is also sensually deficient. The fullness of the sensorium—the perceiving across five or more senses—is generally reduced to two, at least past primary education.
News of this new office is less significant when viewed in a fuller context. China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) has for many years talked about its support for saving wild tigers and stopping illegal tiger trade. What SFA officials did not say—and still do not say—is that they were and are investing significantly more effort and money in growing China’s tiger farming industry, upping its capacity to brew tiger-bone wine and seeking international approval for reopening legal trade in luxury products made from farmed tigers. The SFA’s Wan Ziming wrote in a 2009 magazine article that China would be prepared to appeal all the way to the International Court of Justice in The Hague should the UN treaty on international trade in endangered species (CITES) not give its blessing.
Amid the excitement following the announcement of the forthcoming publication of a second novel by Harper Lee, the author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a work featuring the return of an adult Scout Finch to her hometown, the most prominent initial reaction was a sentimental outpouring of love for a book (and movie) that many readers say gave them their first introduction to the struggle for racial justice. Lost in the excited flurry of response is the unexpected relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird to current tensions throughout the country—in Ferguson, Oakland, New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, and many other communities—regarding "hate violence," structural racism, police violence, and a persistent culture of antiblackness in American society.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most heralded American stories of the twentieth century. Harper Lee’s novel won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize and has since sold more than thirty million copies. Many white people remember Mockingbird as the story that first opened their eyes to the terrible wrongs of racial injustice. Cultural and political scholars have examined the novel’s representations of the racial dynamics and community life of fictional Maycomb, Alabama, and its exploration of the relation of social norms to questions of justice.
In January 1965, a campaign for voting rightslaunched in Selma, Alabama. Escalating police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators culminated in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson on February 18. He died eight days later. In response, on March 7 activists set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local lawmakers. After refusing to disperse, the marchers were attacked with clubs and teargas. The event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” James Reeb (January 1, 1927—March 11, 1965) was among 40 Unitarian Universalist ministers who answered a call from Martin Luther King, Jr., for religious leaders to join him in Selma after the violent confrontation. On March 9, 400 religious leaders joined 2,000 African Americans to march over the bridge again to the site of the attack, where they kneeled and prayed before returning to Selma; the march had been cut short because of an order prohibiting it until protection could be provided to the marchers. That night, Rev. Reeb and two other UU ministers were attacked outside a whites-only restaurant. Rev. Reeb died two days later from his injuries. On March 21, a federally sanctioned march from Selma to Montgomery began. The march was limited to 300 people but swelled to 25,00 by the last day. On August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This eulogy for the Reverend James Reeb was delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Brown Chapel, Selma, Alabama, March 15, 1965.
And, if he should die, Take his body and cut it into little stars. He will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night.*
These beautiful words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet so eloquently describe the radiant life of James Reeb. He entered the stage of history just thirty-eight years ago, and in the brief years that he was privileged to act on this mortal stage, he played his part exceedingly well. James Reeb was martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers. His death was a result of a sensitive religious spirit. His crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.
What do children around the world eat for lunch? Apparently, not what we think or hope. We’d like to think the children in Greece are being served grilled chicken and tomato-cucumber salads. Aren’t French children eating beef with haricot vert and finishing their meal with a piece of brie and an apple? Perhaps some of them are eating that way. But the unfortunate truth is that children around the globe are mostly eating the kinds of processed foods that are depressingly familiar to American school children and their parents.
A beautiful slideshow of aspirational traditional school lunches made the rounds on social media recently showing trays of food representing the mid-day meal in many countries, and featuring traditional foods that looked fresh and appealing. As has since been pointed out, those photographs are simply the ideal. They were produced by a company called Sweetgreen who have since been called to account for not making it clear that these were not photographs of actual school lunches. As others have pointed out, the reality in schools is more likely to be hamburgers, hotdogs, french fries, and fried fish no matter the location.
With the season’s snowfall now well past the 100-inch mark, no one needs to be reminded of how rough a winter it’s been for Bostonians. Ice dams are everywhere, gutters are straining to the breaking point, and leaks have become the prime topic of water cooler conversation. Yet amidst it all, residential solar power systems have soldiered on.
To be sure, there have been many days when the latest dump of snow has blocked the wintry sun from reaching the 23 solar panels mounted on the roof of our home and adjacent garage. But surprisingly quickly, the snow has slipped off our panels’ slick glass surfaces even as it has clung to the surrounding asphalt shingles. Soon enough our solar panels have resumed their work, generating a healthy flow of electrons.
So far in 2015, the world has seen two rounds of effusive headlines about tigers “roaring back” in the wild—first from India, then from China. Unfortunately, wild tigers are nowhere near “roaring back” anywhere. In fact, their numbers are down by half what they were 20 years ago, while threats to their survival continue to escalate.
Sure, everyone prefers good news. And conservation groups must show donors that some sort of success has been bought with their dollars. But hyperbole can lead to the widespread false impression that wild tigers are much better off than they are.
“India’s tigers come roaring back,” World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced on January 20. “India’s tiger population has significantly increased, according to the 2014-15 India tiger estimation report released today. Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in numbers….” The headline was parroted by news media around the world. But few, if any, that ran the story mentioned the fact that India’s tiger censuses are notoriously unreliable and sometimes dangerously wrong. In fact, just a month after the breaking good news, Indian and Oxford University scientists called India’s census techniques into question. “India’s tiger success story may be based on inaccurate census,” cautioned a headline in the UK’s Guardian. “Reports that India’s tiger population has risen by a third in four years are based on an unreliable count method,” said the subhead.
We at Beacon would like to honor World Wildlife Day, marked every year on March 3, by highlighting some of the books dedicated to various kinds of wildlife conservation. In publishing these books, we seek not only to educate the public about animals in danger, threatened, and sometimes nearer to extinction than is generally known, but also to celebrate the wonder of the natural world and to recognize those who are fighting for the future of the wild.
This post originally appeared on The Huffington Postblog.
A prison can't function without its pecking order. Call it what you will, chain of command, hierarchy, rank, it all comes down to power. Who's got it, who doesn't. Who's on top, who's on bottom. It's an all-inclusive, endemic culture: wardens, top assistant wardens, captains, sergeants, and rank and file officers. Frontline correctional officers top inmates, and inmates top whomever they can.
Support staff is notched in there somewhere, just one step above inmates. These "civilians"—medical workers, teachers, social workers, chaplains—are viewed by corrections with almost as much suspicion and contempt as inmates. I know firsthand all about that suspicion and contempt from my years teaching high school offenders locked up in an adult county prison. You get the message pretty quickly when time after time you're kept standing behind some prison gate or security door, waiting in plain view for an officer to buzz you through while he or she finishes joking with their buddy or finally looks up from their crossword puzzle.
Seven years after the end of the Civil War, hundreds of African Americans in Baltimore gathered at historic Madison Street (Colored) Presbyterian Church for the purpose, “[O]f adopting measures to petition the Congress of the United States to tender the powerful mediation of this great government towards ameliorating the sad condition of a half million of our brethren now held in slavery in the island of Cuba by Spain.”S.R. Scottron, noted black inventor and a co-founder of the Cuban Anti-Slavery Committee, was the evening’s keynote speaker. He urged his enthusiastic audience to remember, “They had passed through the Egyptian bondage and through the sea of blood, and having become clothed in the habiliments of freedom, knew how to sympathize with the 500,000 of their own race bowed down in Cuba. The Cuban patriots were opposing wrongs as galling as those which adduced the American patriots to rise up against the oppression of Great Britain.” Scottron’s advice was that African Americans should “petition the government of the United States to extend a liberal policy to the colored race in Cuba. The 800,000 votes of the colored people here would have their weight in that direction.” After Scottron concluded his speech, church deacons circulated the petition for signatures.
Rev. Henry Highland Garnet
Less than a week later Scottron joined a delegation that included Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, George T. Downing, and J.M. Langston to present petitions to President Ulysses S. Grant signed by tens of thousands of African Americans and allies across the country in support of the resistance movement in Cuba. African Americans demanded that the US government grant belligerency status to the Cuban freedom fighters and also support the abolition of slavery on the island. The Cuban solidarity movement was a national phenomenon with organizing activities in cities including Sacramento; San Francisco; Virginia City, NV; New Orleans; Boston; Philadelphia; New York; Washington, DC; and many other places. Estimates of the number of signatures gathered in support of the struggle ranged from tens of thousands to as much as half a million.
The United States is one step from bringing trade sanctions against China for its domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn.
The fact is the US has been one step away since 1993, thanks to a legal petition filed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) with the Clinton administration. They did so under the Pelly Amendment of the Fisherman’s Protection Act, which gives the US mandate to punish countries whose nationals undermine international protections for endangered species. Not long after China’s State Council banned domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, President Clinton put the sanctions on hold, where they remain today.
In July 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) asked the Obama administration to revisit them, providing lengthy documentation to show that China continues to ignore international agreements aimed at stopping tiger trade and allows legal trade in tiger products from tiger farms. The US Department of Interior confirmed it is reviewing EIA’s request.
Entering the grand old house on West Twelfth for an interview with a potential client, I was ushered in by a determined doggy who was flanked on both sides by two decorative felines. The cats paused cautiously while their pal, a funny French bulldog whose personality far exceeded her size, came rushing toward the door snorting and barking with a rough, whiskey voice. “This is Winnie,” was my introduction to the being I befriended with a simple scratch behind one of her outlandish satellite-dish ears out of proportion to her head, which was itself supersized for the small, compact frame to which it looked bolted. “She’s seven and loves cats,” Winnie’s mom continued, sensing my delight with the peaceable kingdom I’d just discovered in a narrow foyer. The dog approved, her owner was instantly set on giving me the job, and the rest was mere formality.
My new client gestured me down the hall and my new best friend followed, as though by instinct without being told, in a precise heel position by my side on round, feline feet. The cats scattered to right and left , disappearing into different rooms. “In fact she has two of her own. I like to call them the Three Musketeers. But you have to watch her on the sidewalk because she only loves her cats.” A conversation followed in the front parlor where I sat on a sofa petting a quirky contraption that looked more like a cat than a dog. Attached to Winnie’s dwarfed body was a domed lion’s head with the punched-in face of a Persian. Puss-in-Boots ears were raised alertly, and her back was permanently arched like a frightened kitty’s. Wide leonine eyes, a flat button nose, and a Cheshire grin carved into a globular skull resembling a Halloween pumpkin—a long tail was all that was missing to complete the comparison. Winnie’s was reduced to a stub.
Now we get to feel what it’s like to live in extreme weather. The16’’ of snow we just received, on top of the 80” we already had—most of which arrived in the past three weeks—has changed the way we live and work. We are experiencing the world we’ve created by our collective failure to address climate change and invest in public transportation. Our offices have been closed 5 of the past 15 workdays.
Meanwhile, we adapt and our work continues. Since our warehouse and printers are located elsewhere, new books ship on time and we are staying in stock with reprints. Our publicity team reaches out to media about new titles, royalties and vendors are paid, new lists of books are launched and promotion continues. We held an editorial meeting via conference call and acquired two books.
What is a mob, actually? We say the word, and tend to think of it as a crowd of people. But a mob is not a crowd; it is a state of mind.… Two or three people, even one can become a mob. —Lillian Smith, novelist and civil rights activist
It was another tragedy in a distrustful, on-edge society steeped in violent confrontation and extra-judicial killing as the solution to whatever ails us.
What motivates these on-the-spot executions? Fear? Resentment? Rage? Disgust? Misbegotten feelings of some sort of imagined superiority: racial, religious, gendered? Maybe just a hair-trigger impulse to strike back decisively at anyone who symbolizes an enemy? Or maybe, at times, the motivation is some terrible combination of any or all of these emotions that results in a desire, as Lillian Smith wrote, to hurt somebody.
There have been so many tragedies lately. Too many.
On February 10, 2015, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla, 19, were shot to death—bullets to their heads—in a condominium complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were Muslim, all pursuing or about to pursue studies at UNC and North Carolina State University.
I often think awkwardness is my superpower. No one else I know has such a deft way of turning an ordinary situation into a hot mess of confusion and apprehension. People have noticed—particularly at work, where I seem to bumble my way through meetings and pleasantries with high-powered executives.
When I tell people I work in online marketing, I usually get a confused response: they assume that I work from home in a get-rich-quick scheme or that I’m spamming their e-mail address about performance-enhancing drugs. It’s still a fairly new field, and it doesn’t yet have much cachet because there hasn’t been a television series to glamorize it.
In one of my many attempts to legitimize my life’s work, I started a job in Los Angeles with the hopes of turning the phrase “I work in online marketing” into “I am an executive at a marketing firm.” However, my inner AwkwardMan took over and sabotaged me before I could get a firm grip on the corporate ladder.
The movie Selma deserves the accolades it has received not just for its artistry but also because it lays bare for modern day activists the kind of strategies that are necessary to work a social transformation. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Christian theologian but he was also a tactician. He recognized the power and absolute moral authority in love and nonviolence. He championed agape love. It was not romantic love or the love between friends, but the hardest kind of love to show—a love indifferent to human merit. You raise a billy club to me and I will kneel and pray for you. I can’t say that I could be as brave or as disciplined as the marchers who lived this history and code. The moral authority that flowed from John Lewis and others crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, getting beaten and not retaliating did much to render the movement “everybody’s fight”—the words that Viola Liuzzo used to justify leaving her five children in Michigan to join with civil rights activists in Alabama.
Dr. King saw in his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he espoused. The movement itself could be an approximation of the spirit of agape love and community that he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of this love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the end he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Christmas Eve 1967, he proclaimed, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
As distasteful as it is to anticipate the next shooting of an unarmed African American by law enforcement officers, it’s also sadly inevitable. When it happens next, government officials and the media will attempt to diffuse the righteous anger on display in the community protests just they have done before in demonstrations against the killings in Ferguson, Missouri, in New York City, in Los Angeles, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and elsewhere. The mayor and the police commissioner will suggest that “justice” will be served and the murderous officer prosecuted. But justice rarely arrives despite videos and testimony.
Indictments of law enforcement are almost impossible to obtain for three very simple reasons. First, local District Attorneys are elected officials and voters (whites and even many voters of color) are ambivalent about curbing police power. Second, prosecutors do not want to antagonize the law enforcement agencies they depend on to do their jobs. Law and order protect each other.
The birth of the American film industry, first in New York and then Hollywood, changed how Americans thought about politics, law, and social justice. Beginning in colonial times, newspapers, pamphlets, and books were enormously influential in shaping public opinion. They helped formulate ideas about justice and helped an ever-growing reading population to engage in public conversations about ethics and morality. Images played a large part in this (think of the illustrations of abused slaves in abolitionist literature), and the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century radically transformed the cultural influence of images.
Authorities in China seldom respond to the consistent flow of new evidence that Chinese demand for tiger products drives poaching of wild tigers. When they do, it’s important to notice what isn’t said.
The New York Times recently wrote a courageous editorial about China’s “plunder” of Myanmar’s natural resources. “China’s insatiable demand for tiger and leopard parts, bear bile and pangolins has helped to transform the town of Mong La, near the Chinese border, into a seedy center of animal trafficking, prostitution and gambling,” it said. “The people of Myanmar…want this plunder stopped.”
A few days later, China’s official Xinhua News Agency published a retort from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying. “We firmly disagree with the editorial,” Hua was quoted as saying. “We are committed to strengthening cooperation with our neighbors, including Myanmar, to tackle illegal activities, protect natural environment and safeguard the stability of border areas.”
During my junior year of college I picked up a copy of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Lifeby Alison Weir for a bit of “light reading.” An experienced historian with an eye for detail, Weir makes it clear from the get go that, while this is a history of Eleanor of Aquitaine, there are quite a few places where we simply don’t know what was going on with her because, in the twelfth century, no one really cared to document her life. This struck me as remarkable. This is a woman who controlled one of the most desirable duchies in Europe, became queen of France, insisted on joining her husband in the Second Crusade, managed to get her marriage annulled despite papal opposition, married yet another king (England this time!), and eventually became Queen regent when her royal son thought embarking on another crusade would be more fun than ruling his own country. The woman was a force of nature and a canny one at that. And yet, there are gaping holes in her history where even an experienced and well respected historian can only guess what she was up to based on what her male contemporaries say women typically did.