Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Apocalypse is Near, the Only Question is How?

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. The clock has been an immutable symbol of life, with each second passing signifying the unstoppable journey towards death. When our time will run out is a mystery, but its inevitability is universally known. In the classic Edgar Allen Poe tale, "The Masque of the Red Death", even the rich and powerful Prince Prospero cannot hide from the ticking black clock of death. For time ends for all of us, and the fear of death, the unknown, the uncertainty of its timing, has played an important role in the creation of laws, social structures, and mythologies.

One representation of the connection between time and death can be found in the Doomsday Clock. This large, symbolic clock is a measurement for how close the world is to destruction, annihilation, and the apocalypse. Its initial intention in 1947 (created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) was to measure the likelihood of nuclear war with 7 minutes to midnight the original time. Using midnight and the tolling of the clock as the endpoint to the countdown, the clock does not move constantly as a normal clock would. Instead, the hands are moved closer and farther away in response to certain actions and occurrences in the world. For example, the clock moved to two minutes to midnight in 1953, during the height of the Cold War. Despite its original symbolism, the Doomsday Clock now responds and moves in accordance to not only nuclear threats, but other apocalyptic threats such as nuclear energy, climate change and malicious technologies. The most recent move from seventeen minutes to five minutes to midnight reflects a topic previously discussed on this blog: climate change. Citing research about the consequences of climate change, the Doomsday Clock moves nearly as close to imminent destruction as under the threat of nuclear war.

The symbolism and rhetoric of the Doomsday Clock makes the comparison of climate change to nuclear war, legitimizing the threat by equating them. To consider the threat from climate change as equal to as as dangerous as nuclear war is a powerful rhetorical statement being made by the BAS. Whether one agrees that climate change should be included in the Doomsday Clock or not, the idea that the end is near is a belief held by many people worldwide. A recent poll shows that 15% of the world population believes that the world will end during their lifetime. Interesting to note is that one's belief in the apocalypse happening in our lifetime is negatively associated with education level. The implications of this could be as simple as those with less education are more likely to be persuaded by alarmist or apocalyptic rhetoric that answers their questions about life and death. This is a relationship that might need further explication and research in another post, but the finding in this study is an intriguing point. Overall, one in seven people believe in the impending apocalypse, and though these percentages fluctuate across nations, the tendency towards apocalyptic thoughts is a global phenomenon. That is to say, it is human to worry and be anxious about death, believing that the end is always near. The range of how the apocalypse will occur varies.

Some believe that the earth will eventually be consumed by the sun.

Some believe that the rapture will occur, saving religious believers and turning the world into a war-torn wasteland.

Some believe that climate change will become unstoppable, with massive flooding, displacement, famine, extreme weather, and war.

Some believe that a disease or virus will infect the world's population causing massive chaos and death.

Some believe that militant groups or governments may obtain nuclear weapons and begin a domino effect of nuclear war.

These beliefs range widely from the scientific to the religious to the fantastical, but the interesting point is that the end is not debated, only when and how. Just as no one can stop the ticking clock in the velvet room, humankind is aware of its eventual destruction, whether personal or global.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

When Freedom isn't Really Free: Church and Politics

Ever since I gave a lecture on Foucault to the undergraduates at USC, I have begun to link my interests in politics with issues of power, gender, the body, the environment, and religion. Each of these areas has their own discourse, language, and regulations. When these discourses begin to mix and gain voices in each other's spheres, problems can emerge. Consider the mixing of religion in the educational system, where scientific and religious discourses collide in how to teach the origin of humanity. Some would argue that religion should be separate from education and has no role to play, where others would defend its inclusion and right to be there wholeheartedly. Whichever side one would fall on, the reality is that the mixing of discourses complicates ideas of knowledge, power, and truth.

This specific example explores the relationship between religion and science/politics that has been a sordid affair for centuries. From recent debates about abortion, birth control to the nomination of Paul Ryan as the vice presidential nominee, religion and political regulation has risen to prominence. Whereas political discourse relies on the participation of the people and elected politicians to craft and decide regulations, religious discourse (primarily Judeo-Christian in America) places knowledge and truth within the Bible and religious leaders. The problem when they become mixed is that people who are atheists or follow a different faith are subjugated to non-universal laws. Religious discourses are better suited to personal or community spheres for those who believe, whereas political discourses are better suited to federal and governmental policies.

I was surprised at the proposed mixing of the two advocated at a sermon I attended in Pittsburgh. The overall theme of the sermon was to redefine freedom to be less self-centered and more inclusive of community, family, and religious purposes. The preacher discussed the traditional definition of freedom as "doing what you want whenever you want" as a participant in the sin of pride. He instead argued for freedom meaning the opportunity to follow God's plan and do what we were designed to do in life. While seemingly a plea for people to help others and avoid what can sometimes become a self-centered, navel-gazing activity of "I want", I found more sinister and underlying ideologies.

In a world, in a discourse where freedom doesn't mean free to choose or free to follow one's own actions, freedom is actually replaced with restriction, regulation, and oppression. When we sacrifice individual liberties in order to follow God's design, we ignore the 16% of people in the United States with no religious affiliation, those not part of the Christian majority religion, and those who do not wish to mix their religion and politics in favor, we lose freedom. I define freedom as the elusive ability to choose, to have options, to serve oneself as one desires as long as one does not harm, silence, or oppress others. Following God's law means that people do not have the freedom to choose, especially when one thinks of women's rights over their own bodies.

An inquiry into the complications and fears surrounding the female form would be a whole blog post in and of itself to fully address the issue. Suffice to say for this post that religious discourse has traditionally treated the female body as a sexual instrument, subordinate to and property of men. Even in current times, women are being denied their right to regulate their bodies, control becoming pregnant, and accessing services such as Planned Parenthood. The message that bothered me in the previously mentioned service was that by allowing for the discourses to mix, to take the personal focus out of freedom, fosters a community and ideology where restrictions on personal choice flourish. I imagine that women listening to sermons like these when they were younger (e.g., Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter) begin to believe that their rights should be restricted and they do not deserve the choice over their own body. Whether one would choose to have an abortion or not is not the issue, it is the right to be able to choose. If someone, for religious reasons, decides to keep an accidental pregnancy, they are equally without choice if it is mandated so by law.

Sermons and ideas such as these foster a culture comfortable with religious lessons and teachings leaving the Church, personal values, and family life and becoming commonplace in political discourse. When the voices of some are oppressed on the journey to power, freedom is distorted, and ultimately lost. Politicians and the general public should fight against these inclusions and keep the discourses separate. When there is freedom, true choice involved, those who wish to follow God's laws can do so as a personal choice, not a legal mandate.

Just like in American History X, I will defer to the words of others to summarize and inspire my words on freedom. I hope that in the future, human behavior, biopower, and personal choice can be left mostly unregulated, giving people true freedom over themselves and relinquishing them from the ideology of others.

Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.
-Abraham Lincoln

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
-Nelson Mandela

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Please Vote for Me: Introducing Democracy to Children

In my media and politics class in the spring, we watched a fascinating documentary called "Please Vote for Me". It is currently available on Netflix and I encourage everyone to watch it as it has interesting implications for systems of government and global politics in addition to being a fun and enjoyable watch.

The premise of the film is that a classroom of young children (8-9 years old) in China is going to implement democratic voting for their class monitor. This position was previously appointed by the teacher, but now a student will be chosen as a representative of the class. Three children decide to run for the position, the previous class monitor (Luo Lei) and a female (Xu Xaoifei) and male challenger (Cheng Cheng).

From nearly the very beginning of the election, Cheng Cheng takes aggressive action in securing votes and manipulating his classmates. Though very young and unfamiliar with democracy and elections, he instinctively employs political tactics. For example, during various stages of the election, Cheng Cheng promises classmates positions if they vote for him, makes a promise to Luo Lei that he will get Cheng Cheng's vote (in order to get Luo Lei to vote for him), fabricates lies about Luo Lei and Xu Xaoifei and tells them to each other, plants students in Xu Xaoifei's audience to yell at her during speech, and overall using language and strategies that one would assume are beyond his 9 years of age. Making promises that cannot be fulfilled is a common tactic of American politics and one that happens near immediately in the classroom election. Catchy slogans such as "read my lips: no new taxes" sounds great and are persuasive, but practically are unlikely and strategic fabrications. Lying about candidate positions or exaggerating negative qualities has become more and more prevalent in negative advertisements and debates. From "swift-boating" to claims of Mormonism being a cult, exaggerations and lies are commonplace in political rhetoric.

I don't want to spoil the ending and who wins the election, but the tactics involved and the strategies that emerge in these three young children are truly fascinating. I believe that this movie speaks to the complications that emerge when people are given a voice, as the temptation to cheat, lie, and manipulate for each vote to power is an unmistakable part of the system. One would hope that politicians would be above the immature attitudes of children, but it is obvious from this film that people of all ages can be consumed by the thought of power in the climb to the top.

A connection that I cannot help but make is the relationship to values, a topic that highly interests me. I have previously discussed values in political speeches, and this topic is also relevant to "Please Vote for Me", because each student appeals to different values when searching for the election. In a tense debate between Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei, the question of honesty versus confidence arises. Previously, in an attempt to guilt Luo Lei into casting a vote for him, Cheng Cheng says that his vote will be for Luo Lei, because that is what is fair (despite his intention to vote for himself). In the debate, Luo Lei asks Cheng Cheng who he will vote for, prepared to either attack Cheng Cheng on his confidence or his honesty. When Cheng Cheng is called out on his lie, the classroom begins to question Cheng Cheng's previously made promises, collapsing his efforts to garner votes.

It brings to mind what values Americans place in their leaders and hope to find. Is the value of loyalty important? Then perhaps there is the explanation for Gingrich's fall, as his series of wives does not paint a loyal husband figure. Is the value of faith important? Then perhaps Romney will be facing a large difficulty convincing the American public that his Mormonism is a Christian faith. Is the value of change as important this time around? Then perhaps Obama still has a chance to be re-elected. What is interesting is the parallel between how values are influential in an American presidential election and a classroom election in China. The act of electing someone draws forth not only their policies, but also their character as an entire person, regardless of situation, location, age, or importance.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Supermodels Without Photoshop: Goffman's Presentation of Self

Arguments over the beauty of models has become under greater scrutiny with the use of Photoshop. Images and visuals, traditionally considered "truthful" as they show reality before the lens, can now be manipulated pre and post photo shoot. Many websites have made their focus highlighting Photoshop mistakes, the drastic differences in appearance when celebrities are "caught" without makeup, and how makeup and photoshop exaggerate the beauty of models.

JennaMarbles: How to Trick People into Thinking You're Pretty
Disclaimer: minor foul language

But how offensive are these "lies" and "manipulations"? What damage is caused when ideals of perfection are unreachable? Backlash from the over-usage of make-up and photo-editing tools call into question the health and well-being of youth, especially young females, who may feel pressured to perform dangerous activities to keep pace with media images.

Communities such as Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia groups (advocating, providing information about, or discussing anorexic and bulimic lifestyles) and "thinspo" or "thinspiration" groups are becoming more prevalent in online spaces. The accessibility and limited rules of the Internet allow for previously sequestered, shamed, or otherwise isolated groups to connect in open, free access spaces. These groups oftentimes detail strict dieting plans, workout routines, or glorify thin bodies in their quest for "perfection". Are the exaggerated and fake images in the media responsible for such behavior? Do they initiate or augment feelings of inadequacy in the population?

I find myself being drawn to Erving Goffman's presentation of self where he discusses the front stage and the backstage performances in the theatre of life. One's front stage performance is the act we put on in our every day lives, how we express and communicate ourselves to others. The backstage performance can be considered our true selves, or the identity that we hide, shield, or keep from others. The congruency between a front and backstage persona is often unachievable, as people are always trying to put their best foot forward and hide flaws (e.g., consider job interviews, politicians, dating, etc.). When the front and back stage do not match, or is revealed to be incongruent, one's identity and performance is questioned and mistrust, skepticism, and cynicism flourish.

Are these models not the same? The industry and media standards for beauty have literally become impossible. Even models and actors hired for the beauty can no longer meet the standards and must inflate and exaggerate their features through cosmetics or computers. And when their "true" identities are revealed or captured, there is ridicule and shame brought upon them. Can we truly fault these models for working? For meeting the requirements of their jobs? Perhaps this is an issue of the industry and the larger culture. So do we all not share the responsibility in creating and fostering these ridiculous beauty standards?

Part of me thinks that this is a good thing: when perfection is unobtainable, then the search for it can be forgotten. If models and celebrities cannot be perfect, surely no one can be, at least in current standards for beauty. When size 4 models are photoshopped to remove extra fat, when computers are altering cultural and racial representations of beauty, then can't the fight for perfection finally end?

Unfortunately, the issue is one of awareness and knowledge which is echoed beautifully in this article about a 14-year-old who is fighting back against photoshopping. Her criticism of photo manipulation stems simply from ignorance on the part of many that these levels of beauty are faked. In response to this lack of information, many organizations and countries have begun placing increased standards on media images because of the perceived health risks in exposing youth to harmful images (female and male alike). Israel, for example, has required advertisements to place disclaimers on advertisements that are photoshopped and all models have to provide a doctor's approval that they are of a healthy weight before working (i.e., to work in Israel, a model's BMI has to be above 18.5).

Even Pinterest, a site that has come under scrutiny for its large "thinspo" community that posts pictures of thin models and anorexia diet plans now places this disclaimer on "thinspiration"-themed searches:

Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening.

For treatment referrals, information, and support, you can always contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or

People are no longer free to establish their own standards of beauty, but are labeled as unhealthy or mentally ill because of their physical preferences. Should transgender individuals feel the same way because they alter their appearance against the "norm"? How about other cultures that may bind feet, stretch their neck, or brand members in a search for beauty? These are all serious questions for our world, because while we are a nation founded on choice and free speech, there are situations where the health and well-being of our citizens requires, necessitates, and deserves intervention.

The journey to stop such glamorization of thin frames, anorexic bodies, and manipulations of beauty have only begun. I can only say that everyone should define beauty their own way, without the undue influence of the fashion and modeling industries, media images, and peer pressure.

Segment from National Geogrphic's "Taboo: Beauty"
Disclaimer: images of extreme anorexia