Thursday, January 17, 2013

Paris, Je t'aime

The following is the first of several posts on my time in Paris, with my family, for the Christmas holiday, 2012.  Now I know that a handful of posts will never do justice to one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  But that is not my intention.  My goal, instead, is much more simple:  it is to just share how this city, being in it for the first time, impressed itself upon me, with the knowledge that I will definitely be back.

When you tell people, including well-traveled Europeans, that you are spending Christmas in Paris (Noël à Paris), the response is the same.  "Vous sucer; je ne t'aime plus (You suck; I do not like you anymore!)" 

Trust me, I almost couldn't believe it myself. But we nonetheless did it. 

Une vie consacrée à Lettres françaises 

Now, don't get me wrong.  Paris was, in no way, a whim or some random act of decadence.

For the past twenty years I have devoted a major, massively huge, crazy chunk of my existence (including my disseration) to French art, philosophy, literature and sociology.  Seriously.  I'm talk'n from Durkheim and Baudrillard to Beavoir and Merleau-Ponty; from Derrida and Lyotard to Latour and Kristeva; from Camus and Genet to Artaud and Robbe-Grillet; from Lacan and Deleuze to Blanchot and Tocqueville; from Rodin and Cézanne to Matisse and Monet; from Braque and Duchamp to Cartier-Bresson and Bourgeois.  I can go on and on.

And, for the past year and a half, my daughter Ruby and I have even spent hour-upon-brutal-hour in the car learning French on CD and working our way through Rosetta Stone, just so we, along with my wife, who already knows French, could enjoy speaking our broken, horrible French to the Parisians, so patient they are, so we could sink into their beautiful language and say things like "Excusez-moi Madame. Où est le train pour le sacré cœur?" Or, "Je voudrais un double expresso s'il vous plaît." Or, even better, "Je voudrais un verre de vin, s'il vous plaît."

In fact, while I was at Durham, my brother Warren said I needed a poster to "liven up" my place.  So, I went out, and for a couple pounds, bought a big 1950s black-n-white poster of Paris.  I would stare at it everyday and memorize where I wanted to go.

L'incroyable Michel Foucault

But, even more than all that, the most compelling reason for me to visit Paris was, if only for a short while, to live in the city where my most favorite intellectual lived: the philosopher and historian of science, Michel Foucault (1926 to 1984).   I cannot even begin to explain the effect this man's work has had on my intellectual and personal life, so I will not even try.
So, on our third day in Paris, we went over to visit the Latin Quarter of Paris, where the Collège de Sorbonne, the Collège de France, amongst other wonderful institutions of higher education, are located.  Our primary destination, however, was  Foucault's Square.

Sorry for sounding so cheeky; but, for me, this was a real sort of bucket list visit; which, unfortunately, meant little to the family that I had to drag along.  When I told my daughter, for example, she just looked at me and said, "Fine, Dad, I am cold; let's go."

Funny, enough, the Parisian response to Foucault's death isn't much better than my daughter's.  I was really surprised by the Parisian lack of homage to one of their most important 20th century intellectuals.  I was not expecting a major monument or anything like that. But, I did expect something a bit more.  As the pictures here show, Foucault's Square is a small grass area with a simple sign.  Anyway, it was an incredible experience for me to be standing there, experiencing the typical thoughts of someone who is a major fan of someone else.  Right?  You know, thinking about how Foucault walked around these same streets, ate in nearby cafes, and so forth.

Noël à Paris

Eurostar trains at St. Pancras StationSo, we arrived in Paris the day before Christmas, via the Chunnel (aka channel train) from London.  I don't know why, but i thought the journey under the channel would be astronomically long.  In fact, I remember looking at my wife Maggie, after no more than an hour into the trip, and saying, "I think we are already in the French countryside?"  "Really?" She said.  "Yes."  In fact, the entire ride from London to Paris was only a couple of hours.

On the train, as the pictures to the right suggest, everything changed.  The train was like riding on wind with no noise.  And, we went from fish-n-chips and shawarmas to red wine and sushi; from crisps to baguettes.  I thought, the stereotype is true: The French really know how to live.

And they do.  You can say what you want about the French; but you have to admit it; they truly do understand that to live well is to live well every day, as Foucault would say, as if it were a work of art.

Vivez votre vie bien

In fact, "Le français ne s'est pas trompé. c'est la façon de vivre" (The French got it right.  This is how to live) was my mantra during my time in Paris.

I cannot help but fall into cliché.  Everywhere I walked I just kept thinking, "How did this many people come together and figure out exactly how to live life perfectly?  I mean, such a thing is an immense accomplishment."  No wonder they are so protective against anyone trying to change things.  I would be too if I had found perfection.

Now, do not get me wrong.  I am not naive.   Paris has problems just like any other city.  But, I'll gladly trade my residence with anyone tired of living there, because, despite all of its problems, it is the most beautiful city in the world, at least to me, with its endlessly gorgeous, tasteful architecture, its rue after rue of boulangeries, charcuteries, épiceries, boutiques, cafes and brasseries.  And, don't forget the Louvre, Montmartre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Cathédrale Notre-Dame.  Oh, my god!  How could such a refinement of culture exist all in one place?

And, then there is the food--which takes me to my next bit.

Brian, pour l'amour de dieu, pas plus de viande

I have to say, and my family was amazed, I went absolutely nuts with the food in Paris.  From the croque-monsieurs and baguettes to the meat and wine.  I was like a kid in a candy store--in fact, I was in several chocolateries eating my way through them.

As an example, the first day there, after getting settled into our apartment, my brother John and I went to the grocery store.  I came back with five bottles of wine.  My wife, Maggie, just laughed.  Each bottle, which I would have paid  $10 dollars to $30 dollars for in the states or the UK, cost no more than $3 to $4 euro in Paris.  And the meat, ah, the meat!  The only other places I have eaten this well were in Italy and Spain.

Paris croissant with egg, ham, sliced apples and brie.So, every morning I would wake up, make an espresso, and then start cooking.  I would yell out, "Who wants eggs?"  Which really meant, who wants eggs cooked in butter with several types of ham and gooey French cheese, all lovingly placed in a warm baguette, with some fruit and yogurt?  After the second day, the only person keeping up with me was my daughter, Ruby.  "Hey Dad, you making eggs this morning?"  "No!," everyone else would yell.

Let's just say that, after seven straight days of eating like that (along with several bottles of wine and various meats for lunch and dinner) I had a serious stomach ache.  But, what the hell, we are in Paris, right?  In fact, on the seventh day, after a breakfast of eggs, meat and cheese, Ruby and I were walking along with our gang when we saw this creperie in the Île de la Cité--like you couldn't find one on every corner, right?--and just had to go in.  Ruby got a crêpe au chocolat. And, what did I get?  You damn well know what I got, a crêpe avec des œufs et du jambon.  Maggie, John and Jay just looked at me in disgust.  I think the only thing that saved me was all the walking we did. Ah, the wonderful walking.  You could walk all day and night in Paris and never get bored--which takes me to my next bit.

Marcher à Paris

We stayed in a wonderful apartment on the rue de Douai, which is in the 18th arrondissement.  We were in the Pigalle quarter, some sections of which have a rather scandalous reputation--let's just say that, for some down-and-out people, life can be a cabaret!  Where we stayed, though, it was family-friendly and wonderful.  Below our apartment were rows of guitar shops, with wannabe customers attempting to sound like Jimmi Henrdix.  

The 18th is also one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Paris; and it was home, at one point in time or another, to some of the great artists of the 20th century, including Picasso and van Gogh.  Click here to see pictures of our apartment, which I highly recommend.  With high ceilings, an inner courtyard and quiet back bedrooms, it was the perfect place to spend the holiday--I sound like a tour guide.

Paris, La Ville-Lumière

Anyway, back to walking.  It was Christmas day evening.  We spent the day just relazing and eating.  John and I made, if I may brag, a wonderful turkey dinner with all the trimmings--which made up for me missing Thanksgiving.  We finished it off with Jay's buche de Noel.  We teased Jay for days leading up to finally eating this damn thing.  Ruby even bought Jay a petite buche de Noel as a Christmas gift.  As the picture to the right shows, it was one of the most decadent things I've ever eaten--but, wow, was it good.

After eating and drinking all day, we needed an evening walk.  Earlier that day we took a subway ride and walked to see the Tour Eiffel and L'arc de triomphe.  The weather was great, partly cloudy and about 54 degrees Fahrenheit.  But, by evening, we needed another walk.

"So John," I said, "you think we should go for a walk?"
"Yeah, let's go."
Notre Dame de Paris in HDR on a Summer Night"But, where?"
"Brian, you are in Paris, the city of lights.

Okay, I am a moron.

So, off we went.  John, Maggie and I retraced their steps from six years ago, when they spent two weeks here.  They stayed right near the Cathédrale Notre-Dame--the picture to the right is by Martin Soler.  From there we walked all the way over to the Louvre then halfway back to our apartment in the 18th.  By the time we got back it was time to eat and drink again.  God, I love it here, i thought to myself.  I do not want to go home.

And there was no need to worry.  We had lots more time and lots more things to see.




Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Culture and Politics of Identity: Impression 5

The following is fifth in a series of five posts on my impressions about the culture and politics of identity while living in Europe.  None of them are complete thoughts.  Instead, they are reactions I had to situations and events during my last two weeks in the UK and France.

Impression 5: Back in the US of A

One of the things I am constantly taken with, when talking with well-traveled Europeans, is their resistance to cross-the-board caricatures about the states as a whole. Such "sober-minded" thinking drives the sarcastic side of my personality crazy; as one of my daily joys is a good, old-fashioned, sweeping generalization about something.  "Common," I want to say, "Isn't it just so much easier to throw up some stereotype and be done with it?"

Case in point.  While I was in the UK the 2012 American presidential elections took place.  The Brits were amazingly interested in the details, far beyond what I would expect.  In fact, one Brit quipped to me sarcastically (as if it was my faulty) that, in reality, the recent presidential elections in France and Germany were far more important to the daily lives of Brits; and yet, all the Brits seemed to care about was the American election.  "Well, the Brits, including Kate and William, seem to be, now, massively into Danish culture and its postmodernist television, so there," I said.  Actually, that is not what I said, but it is true, the Brits are obsessed, now, with Danish culture; and the Danes, in turn, cannot figure out why--click here to read more.

But, I digress.

Given that I live in Ohio, my fellow Brits in Durham had all sorts of questions for me.

"Is it true that, as Ohio goes, so goes the country, because no republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio?"
"Yes," I said.
"But, isn't Ohio getting older making it less relevant?"
"That is, to some degree, true."
"And, isn't the diversity of people in the US increasing, with more Mexican-Americans and Eastern Europeans, Asian and Indian immigrants, and more rights for gays and transgendered?  And, your society is getting older, and all of that is impacting the demographics of your country and how elections are won, making it harder for the republicans to hold on to their radical right position?..."

Wow, I thought, you need a hobby.

But, as the election proved, my British colleague was right.  The polls suggested that Obama won, in large measure, because the cultural and, hence, political power in America is widening outward to an increased diversity of cultural views and perspectives, making the states an even more pluralistic society.  This is not to suggest that old-school, white, male power has lessened all that much, or that the corporations have lost their financial hold on local, state or federal government.  But, it does illustrate the main point of my fifth impression about the culture and politics of identity, which I will now try to explain.

While the Brits Have lots of History; the States Have lots of Space

My well-traveled European colleagues are fond of saying to me that, "America is a really big place."  And, as the map here shows, it really is; which is something I sometimes forget.

"As such," they will always say, "there really is no one America; instead, it is more like there are lots of little Americas."

And, again, they are right.  You think of the numerous cultural differences in the states, from towns and cities to regions and states.  You've got NYC culture, Los Angeles culture, Chicago culture; you've got the the East Coast, the Midwest, the "rust belt," and all sorts of southern culture, including New Orleans.  I can keep going.

What is interesting about these geographically-grounded, cultural differences is that they are more the way Europeans think about cultural identity, given that they are a collection of countries; and, to a much lesser extent, how Americans typically think of cultural identity, given that we are a collection of states--even though many of our states are the size of most European countries.

Here, in the states, we tend to constrain cultural identity to socioeconomic status, emphasizing mostly ethnicity, gender, income and, more recently, sexual preference/identity.  For example, if you look at any undergraduate sociology or cultural anthropology course in cultural identity or race/class/gender you will be hard-pressed to find an article or chapter on the geography of culture.  Which is, I must say, odd, because so much of the culture of ethnicity and social class in the states is, actually, deeply imbedded in space and place.  Think, for example, about places like the Bronx or Harlem in New York City; or, about all the different neighborhoods in Queens, from Mexican to Colombian to Korean to Chinese to Indian; or, how about how life differs for Muslims living in Indiana versus Los Angeles; or how about white, middle-class America and its gated suburban communities?  Place is connected to culture.

Now, do not get me wrong.  Europeans likewise see culture at the level of the body.  For example in Impression 2 of this series I discussed social-class-as-cultural-identity in the UK.  And, one sees such cultural conflicts in Paris, for example, between the French and recent immigrants, such as people coming from Algeria and West Africa--click here, for example, to read a review of this issue in relation to France's recent presidential election.

And, particularly within the epidemiological, urban planning, health geography, and community health literature, there is a major movement in the states (of which my research colleagues and I are a part--click here) that studies the impact that place has on health outcomes, from obesity networks to food deserts to the built environment--click here to see more

Still, all of these differences within the states has made me realize a few things.  First, we really are a very diverse country.  Second, no wonder, given this diversity, we are so obsessed with our differences.  Likewise, no wonder we are engaged in a constant cultural war, as groups are constantly vying for power, while those with the power try to hold on to it.  In fact, sometimes it seems, particularly around elections, that we are at each other's throats.

Given all this difference--and now I am getting to the heart of my point--it is amazing to me that Americans somehow find ways to keep it all together.  Right?  The EU, in constrast, is hanging together on a string.  Remember, for example, my discussion of Habermas and his critique of the EU in Impression 3?  To repeat part of it, Habermas's basic argument is that Citizens do not have to “feel” that they belong together culturally or ethnically to act in a democratic manner and experience solidarity with their neighbors, especially beyond their borders. It is enough that they share a common set of ethical and civic values and participate in a set of institutions that enable them to communicate and debate.

And yet, perhaps ironically so, the search for a common culture is exactly what Americans constantly struggle with each other to find.  Sometimes this struggle gets ugly and deadly, as in the case of civil rights; or when political or religious ideologues try to force the rest of us to be like them--you know, the dangerous game of arguing that one's critics or those not like you are not American.  Very nasty stuff indeed.  But, despite all this terror, it seems, overall, that our struggle, in the end, goes in the right direction, toward a more pluralistic, tolerant society.

I am reminded of a quote that my father-in-law, Leonard Rusnak, used to say to me all the time.  Len was a serious student of military history (he served in World War 2 and Korea) and Europe.  He was also very fond of the Brits and their toughness in times of great trouble.  Unfortunately, Len is no longer with us.  But, as my mother-in-law, Helen, said the other day, listening to me give an off-the-cuff version of this posting,"Boy would Len love to hear about your current travels."

And, I know just what he would say, which takes me to my quote.

"Brian, Brian, Brian...  What an adventure you have had; to be out there, in the thick of it, studying things sociologically as they happen; you've got one of the best jobs in the world."  "I think so Len; I think so."

A pause, filled with silent thinking on Len's part.  Really old guys do that, right?

"Yes Len?"
"You know what your description of the states makes me think of?"
"No, Len, what?"
"Yes.  He once said that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing.  But, only after we have exhausted all other possibilities.  That seems to be the point you are making"
"Yes, Len.  I think that says it perfectly!  And, let us hope that its keeps going that way."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Culture and Politics of Identity: Impression 4

The following is fourth in a series of five posts on my impressions about the culture and politics of identity while living in Europe.  None of them are complete thoughts.  Instead, they are reactions I had to situations and events during my last two weeks in the UK and France.

Impression 4: Long Live the Multi-Singularity

In my first three impressions I discussed, in order, Scottish identity in relation to the UK; the culture of social class in the UK versus the states; and British identity in relation to the European Union. Common to all three posts are the themes of difference versus unity, the local versus the global, and going it alone versus working together

The focus of my fourth impression is how these themes go together.  I think, in many ways, a certain false dualism exists in these themes; as if, to be successful, one or the other side of these dichotomies needs to be chosen--for example, working together or apart. 

I think, however, given my travel experiences, that such distinctions are not helpful. In fact, following Michel Foucault, I think much is to be gained by blurring these dichotomies to create multi-singularities.  For example, I find it more useful to think about cultural or local differences emerging out of unity; or thinking about the global in the local; or about people, groups, networks, towns, cities, regions, and countries working alone and together at the same time.  In other words, multiplicities intertwined with singularities.

Such a multi-singularity, a negotiated ordering if you will, is well expressed in the following quote from William Johnston:
"When people meet at the level of personal love achieved through radical non-attachment, they do not merge, nor are they absorbed in one another.... There is at once a total unity and a total alterity" (Silent Music, 1976, p. 147, Perennial Library).
It is also well expressed in, for example, this recent painting I completed, called Cathy's First Dinner Party.  These four family members form, through their interdependent interactions, a system of characters, mimicking the Last Supper painting of Leonardo da Vinci.  What is interesting, amongst other things, is how four different unities emerge by assembling the differences amongst these family members in multiple ways.  The painting is a combination of local and global, difference and unity, going it alone and together.

Speaking of Leonardo da Vinci and differences within unity, have I told you about my trip to Italy?

There is No One Italy, France, Spain or UK.

I remember my first trip to Italy in 2009.  My family and I arrived in Rome and were overwhelmed by its beauty.  The food, in particular, was a focal point for us, as we are serious "foodies."  My first thought was, "Wow! Now, this is Italy!"  I did I not realize, at the time, I was wrong.  It was only one version.

From Rome we moved on to Florence--one of my most favorite cities in the world--then onward to Bologna, Lucca, Urbino and, finally, Pisa.  As we traveled to and stayed in each of these cities, we kept thinking, "Okay, now this is Italy, right?  Wrong.  Each place was only a particular take on Italian life.  Each with its own culture and history; its own approach to eating, cooking, wine, clothing, customs, folkways, architecture and art.  It all differed.  Amazing!

During our Italy trip, I was reading two social histories about the country.  Both books made my anecdotal experiences clear: there is no one Italy; instead, there are many.  Starting with the Roman era, alone, and moving forward, for example, the history of Italy and its people is a complex amalgamation of cultural differences; influenced, over the centuries, by invasions and war, changes in political boundary lines, the repeated collapse of various empires, including Rome and the Catholic Church, alliances with foreign countries, and trade and migration in and out of Italy from all over Europe, the middle east and the rest of the world.  The result is a network of different "little Italies." You ask someone from Florence their cultural background and they say Florentine, not Italian.  Point made, right?

I can go further.  Back in the states, for example, in 2011, I was watching an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  In this particular episode--click here to see it--which I think is one of the funniest rants Stewart has ever done, he goes off on Donald Trump and his approach to eating pizza.  Trump (who Stewart feels, as a New Yorker, should know better) takes Sarah Palin to eat pizza at a chain restaurant (major faux pas #1); stacks his pizzas on top of each other (major fauz pas #2); and then he eats his pizza with a fork (fauz pas #3). We are talking about NYC, rants Stewart, a pizza mecca.

Now, for me, what makes the bit so funny is that, during the entire rant, Stewart, who loves all things Italian, talks with a stereotypical Italian accent--based, mostly, on the American actor, Robert De Niro.  As I watched it, I just laughed and laughed, not having the heart to email Stewart and tell him or his writers that, in Italy, in particular Naples, they actually eat their pizza with a fork.

So, in reality, Stewart is not talking about Italian culture or, more specifically Italian-American culture.  He is talking about New York City pizza culture--which emerges out of the intersection of a variety of cultural influences, Italian, New York City and otherwise.

In other words, while the constant ability of humans to vary culture is one of the high points of travel--be it Italy, New York City or the UK--there is another side to the "differences" that one constantly finds; particularly if one is reading about the history of a place.  Bottom line: the uniqueness of most areas is a function of the conflicted, negotiated collision amongst the various peoples who have inhabited that piece of land.

More examples.  On his travel show, Anthony Bourdain, for example, always does a brilliant job showing how some street food he is eating in, for example, Taiwan, is the result of several hundred years of cultural collision between five or six different peoples from around the world, and the locals, cooking the food, are completely connected to this history in ways that make it almost impossible to recreate the dish anywhere else.

An example of such regional taste just happened while my family and I were in northern Scotland.  For those who have yet to travel there, I cannot quite explain it, but there is a certain smell in the air up there I have never smelled before.  It is this combination of rain and the sea and the land and the trees and the lochs and farm land and burning coal and so forth.

So, my brother John and I are both major scotch enthusiasts--said another way, alcoholics with expensive taste.  So, we are in this Liquor store in Scotland and the owner starts telling us all about Islay Scotch, which is made by a whopping total of only 8 distilleries on one of the western islands of northern Scotland.  Right?  So we buy the stuff and take it home, very expensive.  And, wow!, the first thing John and I say to each other is, damn, it actually tastes and smells like northern Scotland.  Too fuuken wild!  So, here is this whiskey that emerges out of all these cultural confluences, which come together to form something that can be found nowhere else in the world.  To me, that is what traveling is all about.

But, it hits on my larger point: unity through difference; or, multiple unities, all over the world, emerging through multiple collisions of various differences, evolving over time to produce culture(s).  So, the local and global, difference and unity, going it alone and together are always, already, together.  They are two sides of the same coin.
As a final example, last year, in 2012, my wife and I saw the Catalan (Spanish) musician and composer Jordi Savall perform at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where my wife works.  As part of his performance, Savall (who is also an ethno-musicologist) played a short and very, very old folk melody.  After his first performance of the piece, he explained to the audience that this song has multiple cultural origins, including Greece and various parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  He then went on to play for us several versions of the melody, noting how different cultures have influenced it.  The funny thing he said, however, is that the musicians he has worked with in these various countries and continents think they invented it first.  Everyone in the audience laughed, Savall's point was made.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Culture and Politics of Identity: Impression 3

The following is third in a series of five posts on my impressions about the culture and politics of identity while living in Europe.  None of them are complete thoughts.  Instead, they are reactions I had to situations and events during my last two weeks in the UK and France.

Impression 3: Should We Stay or Should We Go?, Part II

Last year, 2012, I was invited to do some grant reviews for the EU.  It was a very intense week of work, but I had lots of fun meeting colleagues from all over the world.  At one point, during a quick lunch out, I was sitting around a very large table with physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists, from as many different places as Spain, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, France, Israel, the Netherlands and the UK.

There was also one other person at the table from the states--who, unfortunately, every time he opened his mouth, seemed to say the wrong thing, albeit well intentioned.  And, he saw himself a comedian, who unfortunately, as you will see below, had the worst sense of timing.

Anyway, as a sociologist, this was a rare opportunity, as I could get a live, international discussion going about global politics, the EU, and the challenges these scholars saw in their respective countries. Frustratingly, no sooner would I get them on a topic when they would somehow always bring it back to the states, usually by asking me about some stupid thing some American had done.

Suddenly, about half way through the conversation,  it dawned on me: these people were very uncomfortable discussing politics, their country, or the EU in front of the others; it was something they were not used to doing.  Hence, their focus on my home, something about which they could all agree and complain.

Finally, after a bit of prodding, and me and my fellow American openly critiquing our country, some headway was made.  The attention of the group was focused on the financial imbalance across countries in the EU.  "Yeah," said the German.  "It see it as a problem.  In Berlin, for example, many of us do not even but clothing dryers, as they are a misuse of money.  More austerity is needed..." 
"Do you think any states should leave the EU," asked the Frenchman?
The Polish scholar interrupted "I want a new clothing dryer."
Everyone laughed. Then I saw it, out of the corner of my eye.  My fellow American was going to use this moment of laughing to go for a joke.
"Heck," he said.  "Now, what you all need to do is learn from us.  See, we got a whole bunch of moocher states we take care of.  Places like..."
Nooooo, I thought to myself, stop, don't say it...
At this point, the colloquialisms of my fellow American and the speed at which he was speaking English were becoming lost in translation.  So, the Lithuanian interrupted, "What is a moocher state?"
"Well, I'll tell ya.  A moocher state is one that takes huge amounts of money from our federal government and gives almost nothing back in return..."
"I see."
"And, these states are the same republican ones that complain we should get rid of the federal government.  Places like dot, dot, dot."
I looked over at the Brit, who seemed to be wondering why they are our closest ally.
At this point in the conversation I got up, went to the bar and ordered a second scotch, as none of the Europeans at the table laughed.  Upon returning, I, once again, found myself apologizing to foreigners for the stupidity of a fellow American...

                                                            (timeline of the EU's development by country)
labelled map of Europe showing progressive EU enlargementsBut, this bit of humor, however badly, goes to my point.  As an American, I am used to taking it "square in the chin" all the time.  For those who travel abroad regularly, sometimes it feels as if it is "open season" on the states.  On occasion I just want to scream, "Hey, the states is a really big place, over 300 million people, spread out across a very large continent.  I am not its representative.  Give me a break."  I cannot tell you how many times I have traveled abroad, met someone for a few seconds, only to get it, right between the eyes, about some stupid thing done in the name of my home country.  If I, however, were to say something similar to them, that would most likely be the end of the conversation.  In short, American academics, at least the ones I am around, have a rather tough skin and are used to people telling them what they think of our country.  But, it does not work so easily the other way.  It is as if many Europeans still struggle to openly talk about their respective countries or what is happening with the EU.

Even during my sabbatical, I would see it happen. When a British colleague was around, the German or French colleague was careful to avoid politics about the UK.  At the same time, however, all of them were comfortable talking about another country. 

Now, do not get me wrong here.  Nuance and complexity are always necessary, as I met lots of scholars open to having such "international"conversations.  But, they were, for the most part, in the minority.

And so, it seems, despite all the EU has accomplished, it has not, by any means, brought about a United States of Europe, or any such thing.  National and regional identities and the politics of culture are still very strong.  And, I think, such things need to be addressed or the EU (and its very important political, social and human rights policies) is in serious trouble, particularly to the forces of capital and corporation.

My views are similar to those of Jürgen Habermas, the famous German intellectual, philosopher and sociologist.  Click here, for example, for a summary of his recent book on the crisis of the EU and its future.  The title of the book, fair enough, is The Crisis of the European Union. In reviewing the book, Cronin does a good job of summarizing Habermas's view on getting past cultural identity to make the EU work.  He states:
While critics have typically complained that the EU does not have the same legitimacy as nation-states because there is no such thing as a European “people,” Habermas argues that the ethical and political self-understanding of citizens in a democratic community needn’t be rooted in a historical or cultural essence. Simply put, citizens do not have to “feel” that they belong together culturally or ethnically to act in a democratic manner and experience solidarity with their neighbors, especially beyond their borders. It is enough that they share a common set of ethical and civic values and participate in a set of institutions that enable them to communicate and debate.
I think that is very well said.  But, will people listen in time?

I open up the newspapers in London, as we get ready to leave for Paris; Christmas is just two days away.  And the topic dominating the papers?  While Scotland is considering seceding from the UK; the UK, in turn, is considering seceding from the European Union.

As I go through the newspaper, I find myself singing a song by Peter Gabriel, called Not One of Us.  In particular, I keep repeating the following four lines:

There's safety in numbers
When you learn to divide
How can we be in
If there is no outside

We Are the World

A few days later, now in France (which I will post about next), I think more about what I read in the papers my last day in the UK.  I cannot leave it there.  I am, ultimately, an optimist.

And, I have to say, despite the problems the EU faces, during my time in the UK, Germany, and France I have seen a lot of love, a lot of kindness, and a lot of care.  In fact, the positive karma of my trip has been, overall, so overwhelmingly positive, and the people so great, that I struggled daily to keep the same level of good karma going back out toward others.  As the rock band Rush says, "Our hope will depend on a world without end, whatever the hopeless may say."  Long live Europe!

My final point, therefore, is best expressed in the words of We are the World, performed by USA for Africa and written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson.  Our differences and similarities are all a function of the fact that we are all one big family.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Culture and Politics of Identity: Impression 2

The following is second in a series of five posts on my impressions about the culture and politics of identity while living in Europe.  None of them are complete thoughts.  Instead, they are reactions I had to situations and events during my last two weeks in the UK and France.

Impression 2: Cultural Capital and the Politics of Social Class

It was raining hard outside my train window, as we pulled into the Durham train station. I was tired and had too much luggage to bother walking home, to my room.  So, I blew five pounds and got a taxi.  Besides, I always like taking taxis, as I find myself entering into the most interesting conversations with cabbies.

Case in point:  Three weeks earlier, when my brother Warren arrived, we got talking with the cabbie, who asked us, given our American accents, where we lived in the states.

My brother said, "NYC."
I then said, "Cleveland."
"Ah, mate, you mean Cleveland Ohio?"
"Yes," I said.
"Well now, let me tell you, I love Cleveland, working-class town; a lot like northern England and Newcastle!" 
"Exactly," I said.
Then he said something I could not quite understand, as he had a thick Yorkshire accent. "Gul-din cure-ell!," he exclaimed in a loud voice.
"Sorry?" Warren said.
"Gul-din cure-ell, mate... you know...  fuuken steaks as long as your forearm!"
"Ah," my brother Warren exclaimed!  "The Golden Corral."
"Yeah, mate, that is it!  Me and me blokes love that place; went there everyday, gave the waitress a big fat tip at the end.  You Americans say you have economic problems; but the Golden Corral got enough food to feed the whole world, for fuuke sake!  Ah, those steaks!"
Warren and I were dying laughing with the guy.  He was so happy remembering his trip to Cleveland that I thought he was either going to (a) run off the road or (b) take us to the local pub to get piss drunk and eat steak.  I was hoping for the latter.
"Ah, the Golden Corral," he said finally, "I luved that place."

So, back to my rain drenched taxi ride back to my dorm room.

"So, where am I taking you mate?"
"I am staying up in the Castle Keep, near the Cathedral."
"Sure enough, help with your luggage."
"No, I am fine, thanks."
Noticing my American accent, "So, what brings you to Durham?"
"I am a visiting professor from Cleveland, Ohio here on sabbatical...  been here about two months."
"Ah, a professor."

After that, silence.  Now, maybe this guy was as tired as me, but it seemed to me that, upon telling him that I was a professor, a certain formality overcame our interaction--obviously, this cabbie had not been to the Golden Corral, so Cleveland did not ring a bell of glutenous joy.

Before we proceed, though, we need to get something straight.  In case you haven't noticed, I am a neurotic and my family constantly teases me, saying that I think too much about everything and over-read most interactions.  I probably do, but I couldn't help wondering to myself, nonetheless, what this guy was thinks about all the privileged faculty and students he drives daily up to the university?  Perhaps nothing.

But, then again, maybe not.

It was fascinating to me, during my time in the UK, how palpable social class, as a form of cultural identity, was in my daily interactions with people, albeit in very nuanced and sophisticated ways. Accents and dialects and clothing styles and eating behaviors all pronounce, often loudly, who one was.

Now, do not misunderstand me.  My discussion of social class, here, is not some simplistic Marxist "upper class/working class" thing.  Instead, it is all, as we say in social psychology, very sophisticated, scripted behavior: everyone seems to have a nuanced understanding of their social roles and positions.  The french sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, refers to these roles, rules and distinctions as the culture of capitalism, or, alternatively, cultural capital.  

Still, in comparison to the states, what was so striking to me in the UK was how clear these roles were--from London all the way up to Inverness (See, for example, this New York Times review).  In the states, in contrast, we so desperately try to pretend that social class does not exist, so we say "Hi" to everyone and act like we are all part of the middle class.  But, then, you look at our social policies--for example, how we care for Mitt Romney's bottom 47%--and the realities of social class smack you straight in the face, and hard, with a bat--and, if that does not do it for you, how about our recent banking scandals, Wall Street corruption, and housing market disaster?  Do I need to go on?  And, still, some in the upper class in the states get upset, calling Obama a class-war instigator.  Are you kidding me?  The American sociologist, Daniel Bell calls these sorts of ridiculous arguments the cultural contradictions of capitalism.

In the UK, in contrast, social class is out in the open and therefore addressed; as a result, social policies are passed where the rich pay their fair share and the wealth is more equitably distributed.  If you do not believe me, look at the pound versus the dollar (about 1.60 to 1).  As another example, my wife, when discussing this point with me, told me how J.K. Rowling intentionally lives in the UK, paying more tax than she would by living in the states, because she received the financial help in the UK that she needed when struggling as a single mom writing the first Harry Potter.

So, yeah, I guess while taking this particular cab ride social class was on my mind. 

Suddenly, near the end of the drive, the cabbie spoke up, as if he had been thinking for a while about something to say.  Or, maybe, like me, he suddenly woke up from his rain-drenched drowsiness.

"You know, we have a Cleveland here in the UK, about 25 miles southeast, along the sea; did you know that?"
"Yes, actually, my friend told me all about it.  And, he told me that the English Cleveland's river even caught on fire like the one in the states, because of so much pollution.  In fact, our local brewing company, Great Lakes, named one of its ales after it: Burning River Pale Ale."
"No kidding.  Pint drinkers too.  So, you come from a similar working class town."

Now, call me crazy, but something in the conversation changed during our final exchange.  The rules suddenly seemed to shift to a different set of scripts; both our guards down, we could put the former rules aside and interact in fresh ways.  As one of the kitchen staff at the castle said to me, when discussing social class, "Kindness doesn't cost a penny; and its goes along way."  Well said, i think, well said.  

The Culture and Politics of Identity: Impression 1

The following is the first in a series of five posts on my impressions about the culture and politics of identity while living in Europe.  None of them are complete thoughts. Instead, they are reactions I had to situations and events during my last two weeks in the UK and France.

Impression 1: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

I was sitting at table in the dining hall at Durham University, talking with two colleagues, both of whom are Scotish, born and raised.  They educated me on the latest movement toward seceding from the UK--see, for example, this link.  It is, like most things, complex, nuanced and contradictory.  There is this sense in Scotland, it seems, that the 'Island Story" advanced in the UK is very English oriented--again, this is the impression I got from listening to these stories; they are not my own opinions.

For me, to make sense of their point, I thought of the single "American Dream" story sold in the United States about its history, right?  I interjected into their discussion that the problem with any singular story, as the postmodernists and feminists have taught us, is that it ignores reality.

Truth be told, the history of the UK or the states is complex, with multiple and contested stories, based on the group of individuals about whom you are discussing. Think, for example, of the multiple American Dream stories of African Americans, Polish Americans, Native Americans, Muslim Americans and Mexican Americans, to name a few, right?  In turn, as these two colleagues shared with me, think of the multiple stories of people in the UK: Scottish, Irish, Welsh, English, and, more recently, Indian, Muslim, Northern African.  And, digging even further, there is the longue durée of this Island's history, going back almost 30,000 years, way before the Romans, where one finds all sorts of complex, conflicted intersections between the Celtic peoples (later Britons), Gaelic peoples, Normans (northern French), Vikings, Anglo-Saxons (Germanic tribes), and then, finally, the next few thousand years of Roman and European history.

I in no way pretend to know much about this history. But, my two colleagues at the table did; and they were flying at a breathtaking speed through it all.  As I listened to them, I just sat there thinking of something a local Brit said to me, "In the states you have lots of space, but in the UK we have lots of history!" Boy-oh-boy is that an understatement. And, I will take it one step further.  In the states, we seem uninterested in learning or discussing our history; which, in some ways makes sense, as we don't have castles in our backyard; instead, we have McDonalds and Walmart.  The result, in the states, is that you have all these people complaining because the "elitist liberals" (code for professors who dare to assert their expertise) have the audacity to suggest that American history is, in reality, a complex series of conflicted and contradictory story lines and that students, to be informed citizens, should know this history.

I mean, I will even admit my own ignorance.  I wish I had a grasp on the history of the culture and politics of identity in the United States and its longue duree the way even your average, non elitist, liberal Brit does.  It is impressive.

As a result, the debate in the UK about Scotland seems to be less about the historical record, and more about issues of power: political, economic and cultural.  In other words, the Scots are not trying to set the history books right.  Instead, they are exploring their notions of identity and, in the process, having an internal debate about their shared and distinct political, economic and cultural identity.  My two colleagues at the table made it clear, however, that not all of this "exploration" of identity politics was very healthy or useful, as much of it amounted to a sort of xenophobia of Brits and a false sense of the purity of Scottish identity.

If all goes according to plan, the Scots will, nonetheless, have to make a decision, as they will mostly likely vote, as a country, on the issue of succession in 2014.  In short, in the words of the Clash, the question for the Scots is Should we stay or should we go?