Saturday, December 29, 2012

Political Racism in the Age of Obama

From the New York Times, "Political Racism in the Age of Obama," by Steven Hahn, on 10 November 2012 --  THE white students at Ole Miss who greeted President Obama’s decisive re-election with racial slurs and nasty disruptions on Tuesday night show that the long shadows of race still hang eerily over us. Four years ago, when Mr. Obama became our first African-American president by putting together an impressive coalition of white, black and Latino voters, it might have appeared otherwise. Some observers even insisted that we had entered a “post-racial” era.

But while that cross-racial and ethnic coalition figured significantly in Mr. Obama’s re-election last week, it has frayed over time — and may in fact have been weaker than we imagined to begin with. For close to the surface lies a political racism that harks back 150 years to the time of Reconstruction, when African-Americans won citizenship rights. Black men also won the right to vote and contested for power where they had previously been enslaved.

How is this so? The “birther” challenge, which galvanized so many Republican voters, expresses a deep unease with black claims to political inclusion and leadership that can be traced as far back as the 1860s. Then, white Southerners (and a fair share of white Northerners) questioned the legitimacy of black suffrage, viciously lampooned the behavior of new black officeholders and mobilized to murder and drive off local black leaders.

Much of the paramilitary work was done by the White League, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilantes, who destroyed interracial Reconstruction governments and helped pave the road to the ferocious repression, disenfranchisement and segregation of the Jim Crow era.

D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” which played to enthusiastic audiences, including President Woodrow Wilson, gave these sensibilities wide cultural sanction, with its depiction of Reconstruction’s democratic impulses as a violation of white decency and its celebration of the Klan for saving the South and reuniting the nation.

By the early 20th century the message was clear: black people did not belong in American political society and had no business wielding power over white people. This attitude has died hard. It is not, in fact, dead. Despite the achievements of the civil rights movement, African-Americans have seldom been elected to office from white-majority districts; only three, including Mr. Obama, have been elected to the United States Senate since Reconstruction, and they have been from either Illinois or Massachusetts.

The truth is that in the post-Civil War South few whites ever voted for black officeseekers, and the legacy of their refusal remains with us in a variety of forms. The depiction of Mr. Obama as a Kenyan, an Indonesian, an African tribal chief, a foreign Muslim — in other words, as a man fundamentally ineligible to be our president — is perhaps the most searing. Tellingly, it is a charge never brought against any of his predecessors.

But the coordinated efforts across the country to intimidate and suppress the votes of racial and ethnic minorities are far more consequential. Hostile officials regularly deploy the language of “fraud” and “corruption” to justify their efforts much as their counterparts at the end of the 19th century did to fully disenfranchise black voters.

Although our present-day tactics are state-issued IDs, state-mandated harassment of immigrants and voter-roll purges, these are not a far cry from the poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements and discretionary power of local registrars that composed the political racism of a century ago. That’s not even counting the hours-long lines many minority voters confronted.

THE repercussions of political racism are ever present, sometimes in subtle rather than explicit guises. The campaigns of both parties showed an obsessive concern with the fate of the “middle class,” an artificially homogenized category mostly coded white, while resolutely refusing to address the deepening morass of poverty, marginality and limited opportunity that disproportionately engulfs African-American and Latino communities.

At the same time, the embrace of “small business” and the retreat from public-sector institutions as a formula for solving our economic and social crises — evident in the policies of both parties — threaten to further erode the prospects and living standards of racial and ethnic minorities, who are overwhelmingly wage earners and most likely to find decent pay and stability as teachers, police officers, firefighters and government employees.

Over the past three decades, the Democrats have surrendered so much intellectual ground to Republican anti-statism that they have little with which to fight back effectively. The result is that Mr. Obama, like many other Democrats, has avoided the initiatives that could really cement his coalition — public works projects, industrial and urban policy, support for homeowners, comprehensive immigration reform, tougher financial regulation, stronger protection for labor unions and national service — and yet is still branded a “socialist” and coddler of minorities. Small wonder that the election returns indicate a decline in overall popular turnout since 2008 and a drop in Mr. Obama’s share of the white vote, especially the vote of white men.

But the returns also suggest intriguing possibilities for which the past may offer us meaningful lessons. There seems little doubt that Mr. Obama’s bailout of the auto industry helped attract support from white working-class voters and other so-called Reagan Democrats across the Midwest and Middle Atlantic, turning the electoral tide in his favor precisely where the corrosions of race could have been very damaging.

The Republicans, on the other hand, failed to make inroads among minority voters, including Asian-Americans, and are facing a formidable generational wall. Young whites helped drive the forces of conservatism and white supremacy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but now most seem ill at ease with the policies that the Republican Party brandishes: social conservatism, anti-feminism, opposition to same-sex marriage and hostility to racial minorities. The anti-Obama riot at Ole Miss, integrated 50 years ago by James H. Meredith, was followed by a larger, interracial “We Are One Mississippi” candlelight march of protest. Mr. Obama and the Democrats have an opportunity to bridge the racial and cultural divides that have been widening and to begin to reconfigure the country’s political landscape. Although this has always been a difficult task and one fraught with peril, history — from Reconstruction to Populism to the New Deal to the struggle for civil rights — teaches us that it can happen: when different groups meet one another on more level planes, slowly get to know and trust one another, and define objectives that are mutually beneficial and achievable, they learn to think of themselves as part of something larger — and they actually become something larger.

Hard work on the ground — in neighborhoods, schools, religious institutions and workplaces — is foundational. But Mr. Obama, the biracial community organizer, might consider starting his second term by articulating a vision of a multicultural, multiracial and more equitable America with the same insight and power that he once brought to an address on the singular problem of race. If he does that, with words and then with deeds, he can strike a telling blow against the political racism that haunts our country.  (source: New York Times)

[Steven Hahn is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.” (source: New York Times)]

Thursday, December 27, 2012

New Year's Good Luck Food: Black-Eyed Peas

As reported in the Washington Post, "Hoppin’ John, a New Year’s tradition born from slavery," by Tim Carman, on 27 December 2011-- The hoppin’ John cassoulet on his New Year’s Eve menu at the Tabard Inn might give you the wrong impression about chef Paul Pelt. It might lead you to think that Pelt believes in random, mercurial luck. He doesn’t. The unusually taciturn cook — I’d call him shy if it weren’t for his occasional bursts of pointed humor — believes in divine providence over luck.

“I’ve bought lottery tickets and never won anything,” says the dreadlocked chef. “Last night we had our employee Christmas party. I’ve never won anything at the raffle.”

No, Pelt’s interest in one of the American South’s great superstitions — that annual ritual of eating black-eyed peas to bring good fortune for the new year — is purely culinary. “I don’t really believe in luck,” he deadpans. “I just like eating pork and beans.”

If you took a poll, many eaters would probably fall into Pelt’s camp. Few, I trust, expect to win the Powerball after devouring a dish of hoppin’ John swollen with slow-cooked black-eyed peas. I suspect any fascination over the dish is 1 part camp, 2 parts gustatory pleasure and 97 parts tradition. A desire for black-eyed peas around New Year’s does not automatically assume you believe in the Deep South version of Jack’s magic beans.

The good-luck tradition tied to black-eyed peas is a curious one, given the bean’s history. Like the people who first loved the legume, black-eyed peas were a product of the slave trade. The men and women of West Africa, who were dragged involuntarily to the United States, were sought for their knowledge of rice cultivation.

In their search for a profitable crop, Southern plantation owners “tried everything they could,” says food historian and cookbook author John Martin Taylor (a.k.a. “Hoppin’ John”), during a phone interview from his new home in Bulgaria. “Rice happened to do really well there. That’s what then effected the slave trade. They specifically brought West Africans from rice-growing regions.”

And those West Africans, the literature so often notes, brought their food with them — except they didn’t, as food writer John Thorne so eloquently points out in his now-classic essay on hoppin’ John in the “Serious Pig” collection (North Point Press, 1996): “The only thing Africans brought with them was their memories. If they were fortunate enough to have been taken along with other members of their own community and to stay with them (which rarely happened) — there was also the possibility of reestablishing out of these memories some truncated resemblance of former rituals and customs.”

It was in all likelihood the slave traders who started to import black-eyed peas to the United States as some sort of backhanded charitable act to appease their unhappy charges during the long and often deadly journeys across the Atlantic. In the American South, with both rice and black-eyed peas available, the natives of West Africa could prepare a dish that reminded them of home: a humble combination of rice and beans that eventually became known as hoppin’ John.

Much has been written about the origin of the name. Most of the theories, as Taylor wrote in a recent essay about the dish for Gastronomica, are merely “fake­lore,” because “they are based on neither fact nor historical record.” One such theory supposes the dish earned its name from children hopping around the table before they could eat their beans and rice. (Please.) Another describes a hobbled man by the name of Hoppin’ John who sold the dish on the streets of Charleston, S.C. Thorne believes the name is a corruption of the French term for pigeon peas, “pois a pigeon,” while the late food historian Karen Hess thought the name derived from “the old Persian bahatta kachang, meaning cooked rice and beans,” Taylor wrote in his essay.

If writers and scholars disagree on the origin of the name, at least they have something to argue about. There are virtually no established theories about how hoppin’ John came to symbolize good luck, or how eating it would provide good luck for the coming year. Some point to the notion that the peas resemble coins, which would be true if our pocket change looked like jellybeans. Others note that hoppin’ John typically is served with braised collard greens, which popularly symbolize paper money.

Taylor suggests that the tradition might (emphasis on “might”) have started during that fallow period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when slaves were given time off. The harvest season was essentially over, the planting season yet to come. It was a good time to give thanks for past crops, Taylor says, and raise expectations for the coming season. Such a ritual could have developed into a good-luck tradition, with the slaves’ favorite dish of hoppin’ John as the centerpiece.

Then again, as Taylor notes, “a historian of belief systems, superstitions and traditions I’m not.”

The historian stands on firmer ground when discussing what, to me, is the most fascinating part of the hoppin’ John story: the dish’s migration from slave table to slave owner table. Taylor believes it was a natural evolution, given that slaves often served as cooks to the plantation owners. “These wealthy families, they weren’t eating the grand food” every night, the historian says. “They would have been eating hoppin’ John and corn pone and grains.”

Hoppin’ John has that ability to worm its way into your life, even if it wasn’t part of your family’s tradition. Perhaps the combination of rice and beans is so universal, so nutritious and so satisfying that, on some level, the human body just craves it. In one form or another, rice and beans can be found on tables from Africa and India (try the black-eyed peas and pumpkin dish at Passage to India in Bethesda) to the Caribbean and the American South.

Tabard Inn’s Pelt, 52, didn’t grow up eating hoppin’ John. He’s a Chicago native whose parents were born in the Second City. Southern cooking was not a regular part of his diet, even though Pelt’s grandparents, on both sides of the family, were from the South. Pelt moved to the District in 1973 to live with his father, who had a healthy appreciation for food and was known to prepare a plate of collard greens from time to time. Pelt fell into the restaurant business along Pennsylvania Avenue SE, busing tables, washing dishes and doing prep. Like so many in the industry back then, he worked his way onto the kitchen line.

Pelt eventually landed a cooking job in the 1990s at the Tabard Inn (the first of two runs for him there), where chefs Stacy Cosor and David Craig took the untrained cook under their wing. They encouraged him to read as many cookbooks as he could get his hands on. “I always liked cooking, but reading made me start thinking how American food got to be what it is — all the different influences on what we cook.”
 Heidi Haughy Cusick’s “Soul and Spice” 

The book that really deepened Pelt’s appreciation for Southern food was Heidi Haughy Cusick’s “Soul and Spice” (Chronicle Books, 1995). “It’s about the cooking of Africans in the Americas,” he says. “Around the same time I got that book, I went to Nigeria for the first time, for like three weeks. . . . That was really an eye-opener for me: just the history of how the slave trade affected what we eat and what people eat in the Caribbean, what people eat in Brazil and the American South.”

Many years later, Pelt is creating his own fusion of cultures with his hoppin’ John cassoulet, which combines African and American traditions with the classic French stew. Aside from substituting black-eyed peas for the more traditional cannelloni or flageolet beans in cassoulet, Pelt also puts a Southern twist on the proteins in the dish. He retains the Toulouse sausage and duck confit but replaces the lamb and roast pork with ham hocks and pork shanks. The result is a deep, smoky, satisfying winter dish: perfect, I’d say, for many other occasions besides New Year’s.

There’s just one ingredient missing from Pelt’s chef-driven hoppin’ John: the rice. He says the grains are a casualty of his multi-course New Year’s Eve meal. “Because it’s an appetizer,” he says about his cassoulet, “I don’t want to make it too filling.”

So given Pelt’s feelings about luck, will he include a mention of the hoppin’ John tradition on his New Year’s Eve menu at the Tabard Inn?

“I’ll tell the waiters the story: that people believe, or that people used to believe . . . that it’s good luck,” Pelt says. “But I won’t say, ‘Hey, it really is. You guys should eat some before you go out there tonight. You’ll make a lot of tips.’ ”  (source: Washington Post)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Polk’s Lust for Land, 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico

"A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico," by Amy S. Greenberg is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State University

From the History News Network, "The Origins of the Latino 'Immigration Problem'," by Amy S. Greenberg, on November 2012  --  In the wake of their recent presidential defeat and losses in many congressional races, Republicans seem to be reaching a consensus that they need to fix their "immigration problem". Despite unprecedented Republican spending on Spanish-language advertising, more than seven out of every ten Latino voters voted Democratic, a higher percentage than in 2000, 2004, and 2008. Even Cuban Americans, once a reliable voting block for the Republicans, failed to turn out in force for Romney; 49 percent chose Obama, a 14-point increase over 2008. Given Republican condemnation of illegal Latino immigration, particularly during the primary, the Latino ticket preference shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A poll of Latino voters found that 60 percent personally knew an undocumented immigrant, and Mitt Romney suggested that as president he would make life so uncomfortable for undocumented immigrants that they would “self-deport.” As political commentator Bob Price told, “If we don’t fix the immigration problem, the Republican Party is dead.” Republican strategist Ana Navarro tweeted in the aftermath of the election that “Mitt Romney self-deported himself from the White House.”  (source: History News Network)

Battle of Resaca de la Palma, May 9, 1846, Courier and Ives, 1846.

An understanding of our current issues with immigration and 'illegals' must begin with a look back at the U.S.-Mexican War, one of most understudied conflict in American history, and yet key to so much about the modern American project. Those portions of the United States where anti-immigrant fervor has been most heated were taken by force from Mexico in the 1840s. California, southern Texas, Arizona (where all three competitive congressional races went to Democrats), and portions of Colorado (where the Latino vote proved decisive in delivering a supposed swing state to President Obama) were Mexican territory when James K. Polk won election in 1844 on an openly expansionist platform. His Whig opponent, Henry Clay, predicted that Polk’s election would result in war with Mexico, and he was correct. In 1846 Polk oversaw a war of aggression that transferred the northern third of Mexico into U.S. hands. When Polk brought a declaration of war to Congress in May 1846, his Whig opponents capitulated. All but fourteen congressional Whigs voted in favor of war, despite believing that the war was unjust, and started by their own president.(source: History News Network)

The Battle of Palo Alto took place on May 8, 1846, print by E.B. and E.C. Kellogg,1846.

The place of Mexicans in America was as just as politicized in the 1840s as it is today. The standard narrative of the 1846 U.S.-Mexican War claims that it was widely popular among self-proclaimed “Anglo-Saxon” Americans who were convinced that the racially-mixed occupants of Mexico were both inferior and undeserving of their lands. Anti-Mexican sentiment proved a winning issue for Polk and his party in 1844, and the initial public enthusiasm for war was in large part driven by racism. Pro-war newspapers compared Mexicans to vermin, and assured readers that American volunteers would have no problem besting a cowardly enemy and taking as much of their country as they might choose. Democrats successfully deployed anti-Mexican rhetoric both to win election and embark on a war of empire that would eventually, and ironically, result in Anglo residents politically organizing to fight the presence of Mexicans on formally Mexican territory.(source: History News Network)

But the war with Mexico was never as popular among the people of the United States as most historical accounts have indicated. Ministers, politicians, average Americans, and soldiers in the field all critiqued the war. By the late fall of 1847, once isolated voices in opposition to the war coalesced into an antiwar movement that was widespread and vocal enough to persuade President Polk to accept a treaty negotiated by a diplomat, Nicholas Trist, who so opposed the continuation of the war that he defied the president in order to make a treaty that was “fair” to Mexico. Two months before Trist’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo arrived in Washington, President Polk appeared adamant that any peace treaty with Mexico deliver Baja California and Sonora as well as Alta California and New Mexico. But faced with antiwar agitation in February of 1848, Polk concluded that if he did not accept Guadalupe Hidalgo, “The probability is that Congress would not grant either men or money to prosecute the war ... and I might ... lose ... New Mexico and Upper California.”(source: History News Network)

James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the USA

This narrative might suggest that opponents of the war adopted a humane policy against Mexico, and valiantly brought an unjust war to an end, out of concern for the Mexican people. To a certain extent this is true. My new narrative history of the U.S.-Mexican War documents tremendous acts of personal courage and political risk in the interests of peace.

But a close examination of America’s first national antiwar movement reveals a more complicated story than one of racist Democrats and empathetic Whigs. It wasn’t only pro-war expansionist Democrats who demonized Mexicans; what we would now identify as proto-anti-immigration sentiment mobilized the antiwar movement as well. While many Americans called for an end to the war because they believed it immoral, because they were sickened by reports of atrocities by American soldiers against Mexican civilians, and because they worried that it would open the door for the expansion of slavery, just as many, if not more, demanded that the U.S. withdraw from Mexico because they had no interest in seeing Mexicans in the United States.(source: History News Network)

The Battle of Buena Vista, Mexico was fought fought on February 23, 1847, Courier and Ives, 1847.

Captain John J. Hardin, Abraham Lincoln’s main political rival in Illinois, was an enthusiastic volunteer who longed for war with Mexico. Once he led Illinois volunteers south of the Rio Grande, however, he became skeptical about both the war and Manifest Destiny. “Although I was for annexing all of this part of Mexico to the United States before I came here,” he told a friend, “yet I now doubt whether it is worth it. ... So much for Mexico. Its people are not better than the country -- not more than 1 in 200 is worth making a citizen of.” Anti-Mexican sentiment became particularly pronounced among opponents of the war in the fall of 1847, when U.S. troops had captured Mexico City, and expansionists called for the annexation of all of Mexico as spoils of war. In a widely reported speech that led to public meetings opposed to the war throughout the East and Midwest, Whig leader Henry Clay demanded the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, and peace without taking any territory from Mexico. Clay asked his audience, “does any considerate man believe it possible that two ... populations so incongruous, so different in race, in language, in religion and in laws could be blended together in one harmonious mass?” South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, another active opponent of the war, lodged a “protest against the incorporation of such a people. Ours is the government of the white man.” Even General Winfield Scott, who encouraged Nicholas Trist to conclude his treaty with Mexico, did so, he later wrote, because “as a lover of my country I was opposed to mixing up that race with our own.”(source: History News Network)

The U.S. relationship with Mexico has always been complicated, and America’s first national antiwar movement reflects that reality. There is much to admire in the movement to end “Mr. Polk’s War.” It did, after all, bring a drawn out and bloody conflict, one that cost the lives of 13,000 Americans, and tens of thousands of Mexican, to a close. But its goals were far from pure. The belief in the superiority of an “Anglo-Saxon” America, free from the corruption of racial inferiors, was a potent force for political mobilization in 1847. In the century and a half since, countless politicians have gained office by appealing to that same anti-immigrant impulse. The elections of 2012 mark a break in that history, and the Republican desire to fix its “immigration problem” suggests the future may, in fact, be different. It’s possible that an era begun in the mid nineteenth-century, when politicians could count on anti-Latino sentiment as a winning political issue, is, in fact, at an end. But old problems often prove hard to fix.(source: History News Network)
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848

In February of 1848 the United States of America and Mexico created the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The U.S. paid Mexico 15 million dollars for California and New Mexico. The U.S. also gained present-day Arizona and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah. In 1853 during the Gadsden Purchase, the United States bought the lower part of Arizona from Mexico. Mexico had lost close to 55% of its territory because of the war. Mexico had lost its main northern trading town of Santa Fe. To make matters more insulting to Mexico, large of amounts of gold were discovered in California later in 1848 causing one of the biggest gold rushes in modern history. (source: )

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas From The US Slave Blog

Merry Christmas From The US Slave Blog

Gangnam Style Christmas in Washington, DC

From the UK Guardian, "Gangnam Style passes 1bn views on YouTube: South Korean rapper Psy's song has broken a Guinness world record and is the most liked video in the history of YouTube," by Charles Arthur, on 21 December 2012 -- It's spawned a new dance style, parodies, copies and a fascination with things Korean – and on Friday afternoon Gangnam Style, the video by the South Korean singer Psy became the first ever to break a billion views on YouTube.

The song – an ironic comment on the rich socialites living in the Gangnam area in central Seoul, the south Korean capital – also had its title added to the Collins Dictionary as one of the phrases of the year (along with omnishambles and fiscal cliff).

The K-pop (Korean pop) song and particularly its video – with its "horseriding" dance – has made 34-year-old Psy an international star who has since performed with Madonna, broken a Guinness World record for the most liked video in YouTube history, and inspired flashmobs: one is scheduled for new year's eve at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin where hundreds of thousands could turn up.

Described by Reuters as "chubby", the South Korean singer had released five studio albums, but had never had a hit in the west until Gangnam style was released on 15 July.

Progress was slow until on 28 July, the video was shared on the social site Reddit – and remarked on by Robbie Williams on his personal blog. At that point it took off, and in late November passed Justin Bieber's Baby as the most-watched video of all time. Ranked second, Baby has a mere 813m views.  (source: UK Guardian)

The Disturbingly Orwellian Christmas Snitch called "Elf On The Shelf"

As reported in the New Republic, "Santa's Little Spies: How Christmas Elves Turned Creepy," by Noreen Malone, on 21 December 2012 --  Many people mistakenly believe that the one true symbol of the American Christmas is Santa Claus. These people are wrong. Sure, every mall worth its Auntie Anne’s salt has a Saint Nick in the food court. Yes, he’s in every seasonal advertisement. Your kid might have learned his name before yours. And yeah, the most seductive Christmas song of all time was written for the big guy. But if you really want to understand the spirit of our country around the holidays, consider the Elf. (Sorry, baby Jesus.)

I’m not talking about the mystical, woodland dwellers from The Hobbit or in German mythology. Nor am I talking about the Keebler elf, though you might encounter some of his product at a family party or two this season. The Christmas elf is a distinct creature, jolly and green and generous. Elves have been part of the seasonal mythology in Europe for far longer than on these shores (in Iceland and Scandinavia they bring presents; the Greeks, ever tragic, are beset by elves who pop up between Christmas and Epiphany for the main purpose of frightening people).

The American version of the Christmas elf— the one who lives at the North Pole cobbling together toys—emerged sometime in the mid 19th century. The exact origins are somewhat murky (some credit Louisa May Alcott), but by 1857, Harper’s had published a Christmas poem with the lines “In his house upon the top of a hill/And almost out of sight/ He keeps a great many elves at work/ All working with all their might/ To make a million of pretty things/Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys.” It was, after all, a time of bustling manufacturing in the United States, a state of affairs that would only increase over the next century or so, alongside the elf’s place in our holiday mythology. The modern Christmas is a paean to capitalism, American-style (and has been since long before people were trampled outside Wal-Marts on Black Friday), and capitalism is nothing without its happy, industrious workers producing goods. Every Santa needs his helper, just as every Henry Ford needed his factory workers.

Then came the 1960s, and Hermey the Misfit Elf. Not everyone is cut out to be a cog in the wheel, man, as the country realized en masse not long after the now-classic television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, featuring Hermey, aired in 1964. Hermey dreamed of following his own path (dentistry: rugged individualism doesn’t always have rebellious trappings), and left the North Pole to pursue it, just as America’s youth began to realize that they wanted to join the Peace Corps or move to the Haight or learn to woodwork in Colorado instead of dropping their resume off with IBM.

Hermey was the most famous modern elf for decades, until Will Ferrell got in the game. 2003’s goofy, beloved Elf featured Ferrell as a good-natured man-boy, Buddy, who dearly loved the North Pole, but who was too gargantuan for the elf community. In his eagerness to help out, he ended up messing things up for the very people whose lives he wanted to improve. Meanwhile, hegemon America was a year into its Iraq invasion, where, led by a good-natured man-boy with a certain physical resemblance to Ferrell, we ended messing things up for the very people whose lives we wanted to improve. But Elf wasn’t ultimately a story about disillusionment: Though Buddy has a rough series of encounters with modernity in Manhattan, the Christmas spirit triumphs, and only the belief that Santa Claus is real—that the old traditions and belief system are worth fighting for — saves the day. It was a perfect post-9/11 feel-good morality tale.

Elf is now a Broadway musical and a new Christmas classic, but for an entire generation of children, neither Buddy nor Hermey nor the old industrious woodworker will be their vision of what an elf is. That honor will go to Elf on a Shelf, the wildly popular symbol of Christmas for the surveillance-state era. In case you don’t have young children: the Elf on a Shelf, a massively successful marketing spin-off of a self-published 2005 children’s book, is a doll that parents purchase and perch throughout their home, sometimes moving around during the night to further convince their kids of the figurines magical powers.

According to the official description, “At the start of each Christmas season, the elf appears to serve as Santa's eyes and ears, traveling back to the North Pole each and every night to make a detailed report of the day’s activities. This keepsake gift set includes a light skin, blue eyed boy North Pole pixie scout elf and a hardbound watercolor picture book. Children can register their elf online to receive an official adoption certificate and a special letter from Santa.” (There’s also a “brown-skinned” Elf if you like your surveillance a bit more multi-culti.)

Santa has been watching to see if you’re naughty or nice for a long time, of course, but now he has eyes on the ground. Parents no longer have to convince their children that he is omniscient, and so, relieved at the ease of it all, they’ve happily welcomed a spy into their homes without questioning the long-term implications. Now here’s physical evidence for the budding preschool skeptic—the kid who will also grow up taking for granted the trove of information that various government agencies and places like Google and Facebook are collecting on him. Sure, we leave cookies for Santa near the hearth, but now we also leave them in our browser for the busy elves of commerce: how will St. Nick know what you want for Christmas if he doesn’t have a record of other products you’ve viewed on Amazon? The elf of 2012 is, like the American economy, based more and more on data collection than manufacturing. Have yourself a wary little Christmas, kids.  (soource: The New Republic)

Friday, December 21, 2012

African American Female Protagonast in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation

DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns :reviews Assassin Creed 3: Liberation, on 28 November 2012- Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away the only black man in the universe was Lando Calrissian a “Card player, gambler and scoundrel”. The only Asian People in comics were Kung-Fu masters and the only person of color you could play in a video game was a cheap knock-off of Mike Tyson. The sci-fi/comic/fantasy genre has come a long way over the last few years, with minorities taking on more (while still occasionally problematic) roles across the mediums. Unfortunately the one area that hasn’t seen much progress is the gaming world. I had hoped that Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation the first video game to ever feature a minority woman as a main playable character was a sign of progress, instead it was one of the most offensive and blatant examples of just how little things have changed in the gaming world.

Even if you lived in “Swing state” just about the only thing that had more ads running the last week of October than the presidential election was ads for Assassin’s Creed 3. The third in the insanely popular series had some of the best commercials you’ve ever seen. Assassin’s Creed follows the tale of a centuries old battle between the “good” assassin’s and their undercover war against the Templars who are sortof a shadowly illuminati group always on the side of the bad guys (corrupt church officials, the Colonial British, etc.) The Assassin’s Creed series, produced by Ubisoft is one of the best – selling and best reviewed video game series in history. In particular AC3: Liberation has broken records for a Playstation hand-held game. Smooth graphics, attention to historical detail and elaborate and time specific plots have made these games a must have. AC has also always been rather progressive as video games on the racial front, with the main character in the first game being a Muslim running round killing corrupt church officials in renaissance Europe. The 3rd in the series was the launch of two games, the main AC3 featured on the PS3 system and the AC3: Liberation on the PS Vita. The games would feature an American Indian and an African American woman respectively as main characters. On the surface this was a big step in the gaming world.

Pop quiz time: How many black females have ever been main playable characters in a video game? (And by that I mean original video game characters, playing Storm in a video game doesn’t count she’s a comic book character first). Times up! Only…  FIVE. (Sheva Alomar Resident Evil, Lisa Hamilton from Dead or Alive, Christie Monteiro from Tekken, Elena from Street Fighter, and Samantha Alexander from Hunter the Wayward Reckoning). That’s right 5, out of the literally thousands of video game characters that have come out since the advent of home video game systems in 1978. Just to put this into perspective, there have been more Donkey Kongs than black women in video games.

*I decided to review AC3 because the game developers spent so much time doing interviews about how historically accurate the games were not to mentioned patting themselves on the back for making the main characters minorities. I focused mainly on AC3: Liberation which had the following descriptions online.

*Born of a French father and African mother through a commonlaw marital system referred to as placage, Aveline (de Granpre) enjoyed all the privileges of her father’s position as a wealthy merchant. Her mixed race heritage did not impede her ability to blend into high society, as her situation was not uncommon in Louisiana.

*Aveline is raised with privilege and love, even after her mother disappears and her father marries her step-mother. As Aveline grows she develops into a strong-willed young woman and starts to take notice of the contrasts around her – wealth and poverty, freedom and slavery – and while torn between the different values she inherited from her parents, she forms her own set of values, including a vehement anti-slavery stance,” (Game producer Martin Capel).

*Wow, before even picking up the controller it’s hard not to be bowled over with the A-historical and underlying ignorance in the main character Aveline De Grandpre’s backstory. First, placage has long been romanticized by some historians (as well as the French and some Creoles) as the way in which wealthy white men and black women managed to find love despite the oppressive laws against interracial coupling in the 18th and 19th century. The romantic meme is that wealthy white men fell in love with black women, and, unable to marry them set these women (and their eventual offspring) up in fancy houses, gave them educations and gave them all they could except marriage since that was legally forbidden in New Orleans. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Given the limited opportunities for women of African descent at the time (some of whom were still slaves) they were often pressed into these relationships with little or no choice (Read Ann Rice’s Feast of All Saints for a more sobering description of Plecage). The white men who “chose” them had no obligation to provide these concubines with any financial support, and these women and their children had any legal standing to inherit money or property when these men died. Worse, in many cases if the man simply lost interest these noble suitors simply abandoned their placage wives and returned to their public white wives without a hint of guilt or legal consequence. In the case of Aveline her mother was a slave, her father a rich Frenchman. He consistently laments to Aveline the laws that kept him from properly marrying her mother. This is a common self-serving twist of logic in discussions of White men and their sexual behavior during slavery. Wealthy white men claiming to have been constrained (by the very laws that they created) as a way to rationalize maintaining unequal and coercive relationships with women of color.  [This is Part I: Of a Review of the New Ubisoft video game Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation. You can find Part II by clicking here.]

The Lady. With this aristocrat disguise she can blend into high society events, get passed certain obstacles through bribery, or lure her target away to their death with her charm. Good thing she won’t need very many weapons with those skills, because this disguise doesn’t allow for much weaponry, even though she could probably hide a entire cannon under that dress. [source: The Married Gamers]

The Slave. Dressing as a common peasant will allow Aveline to stealthily walk around town and be unnoticed. This disguise doesn’t give you much choice in weapons either, but at least it has a special blend technique similar to Altair blending into the scholars back in Assassin’s Creed. All Aveline has to do is pick up a crate and she instantly blends into the background. She can even ask her fellow workers to help her with distractions by causing a little trouble. That ought to come in handy. [source: The Married Gamers]

The Assassin. And last but not least, my favorite disguise. Yes, it does look pretty awesome, but the fact that we get all of Aveline’s weapons is what makes it the one I’m most anxious to use. This will be the disguise that makes Aveline the assassin that we expected, and wanted, since we heard about Liberation.

Born and raised in New Orleans with an African mother and a French father, Aveline lived a life of status, respect, and comfort. But when Spanish soldiers invaded and enslaved her people she decided to fight against the injustice and bring freedom to her land. Have a look at the latest trailer and keep an eye out for someone special, I’m pretty sure we squealed loud enough to break glass.  [source: The Married Gamers]

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Jólakötturinn The Yule Cat of Iceland

The Icelandic Christmas Cat

From The Grapevine -- "Grapevine reporter depicts the legend of the Christmas Cat," on 10 December 2008, by Haukur S. Magnússon   --  “We’ve got this database of monsters and creatures in our past. These stories are fascinating, it’s a shame that they’re not used more in modern culture,” remarked comic artist Hugleikur Dagsson in an interview this summer. The Grapevine promptly drafted Dagsson to illustrate a series of articles on these monsters of yore. For this ninth instalment in the series Dagsson depicts one of Iceland’s creepiest critters and the reason we sport cool new threads during the holidays; Jólakötturinn, the Christmas Cat.

Jólakötturinn is a lovable, wholly unholy beast, a sort of proto-fashion police whose impeccable sense of style, in your face attitude and lack of respect for human life terrified Icelanders into stylistic submission in ways that today’s anorexia-inducing Vogues and Cosmopolitans can only dream of. 

The ginormous cat’s sole purpose in life is to eat children (and adults, some say) that do not get a new piece of clothing before Christmas. Yes, it devours financially disadvantaged children.This is the kind of message Icelanders like to send out in their folklore: if you do not have the money or means of acquiring new items of clothing before the festival of lights, you will be eaten by a gigantic cat. This is one of the reasons that Icelanders clock in more hours of overtime at their jobs than most European nations: to avoid the cat, we stayed up sewing or knitting in the olden days, and we stayed up graphic designing or stock-brokering in early 2008.

Some versions of the Jólakötturinn story actually claim he did no such thing as eat kids, opting rather to steal all their food and holiday treats instead. While its a far cry better than chewing them to a bloody pulp and devouring their tasty flesh, its still real mean of him. Not much is known about Jólakötturinn’s origins, in fact a famous poem about him ny Iceland’s beloved bard Jóhannes úr Kötlum accurately proclaimed that “no one knows where he’s from or where he goes”.
Although he is believed to have terrified Icelanders since the dark ages, written records detailing the murderous feline and its children-eating ways only go back to the nineteenth century. He is thought to be the house-cat of the evil troll Grýla (she also liked the taste of children – more on her in next issue), her troll husband Leppalúði and the non-trollish thirteen mischief-making Yule-lads in a cave somewhere up in the mountains. As far as we know, Jólakötturinn and his evil, biting teeth are still at large. Merry Christmas, everybody!  (source: The Grapevine)

The Yule Cat by Jóhannes úr Kötlum

You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.

He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.

He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.

If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.

He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.

From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.

Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread
For a frock or a little sock.

Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.

And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.

Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
- That was all it took.


For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.

Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.

Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.


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