Monday, November 17, 2014

November 17th: The Butt of the Joke

Well, apparently Kim Kardashian “broke the internet” last week. That’s surprising to me, considering I’m using the internet to post this right now, but I’ll take everyone’s word for it.

This is the tame version of her photo shoot, if you can believe it.
In a spread for Paper Magazine this winter, Kim posed in a very revealing set of photos, showing off that world-famous booty. The photo went viral instantly. Everyone wanted to talk about Kim Kardashian's butt.

She was actually showered with criticism, which came as something of a surprise to this Kim critic, as I often feel like I’m alone in my disdain for the talent-less tease. The overwhelming majority of commentators chastised her for posing in such a revealing way when she is trying to parent a young child. They questioned how she could properly raise a child while also being so morally questionable by agreeing to objectify herself publicly.

I can’t believe I’m about to use my valuable column inches defending Kardashian, but here goes: these criticisms seem to dramatically oppose everything that feminism has been fighting for. What happened to women finding strength and power in their sexuality? What happened to women teaching their children how to be strong and independent and not fear their bodies, but rather feel comfortable enough to be willing to bear all? What happened to the whole “you do you, girl” that feminism is trying so hard to promote?

Now, here is the Austin everyone knows: Kim Kardashian hasn’t done anything of value for society in...well, ever. She isn’t a talented actress. She isn’t a brilliant investor. She isn’t a financially insightful entrepreneur. The greatest claim to fame she has going for her is that she has money and that she got on the world’s radar with a sex tape. An entire TV show was dedicated to showing exactly how much nothing Kim does on a daily basis. The general public gets some kind of sick satisfaction out of watching Kim spend money, watching Kim live the life of luxury, watching Kim interact with her equally spoiled family.

Society created this monster of a situation. Kim Kardashian only exists as a character in the landscape of American culture so long as we continue to pay attention to her. In this particular case, we are calling her out for doing an extreme version of exactly the same kind of thing she’s been doing for years. Yes, there was a little more skin than in some other cases (although maybe not as much as in others), but she is a product of what we, as a society have asked her to be.

We have recently seen an influx in female role models. Jennifer Lawrence has been a strong woman, especially in light of a tough situation with photo hacking. Emma Watson has made herself into something a spokeswoman in the fight for equality for women, speaking passionately and magnificently to the United Nations. Even Taylor Swift has been cited as a character in the new-wave of women worth looking up to. Kim Kardashian is most certainly not on that list.

The big question is, does the society we’re hoping to create have any space for a celebrity like her. Based on the reaction by the social media community, it would appear as though the answer is no. We do, however, need to be mindful of what we are asking of her, because we cannot really be upset with her for being Kim when it was viewers of “Keeping Up WIth the Kardashians” that got us into this mess in the first place.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

November 12th: The Seal of America

I’ve never been to Pakistan. I’ve never fired a gun. I’ve never walked into a room knowing people would die and praying that it wouldn’t be me. Yet, there are many men and women in this country who have done all of those things to defend America’s freedom.

It is both curious and fitting that, the week of Veteran’s Day, there has been a clamour to uncover the identity of the Navy Seal who was responsible for killing Osama Bin Laden. Even now, over 3 years later, the American public is fascinated by the idea that one individual is responsible for neutralizing the greatest terror threat in the 21st century.

There are some who believe knowing the identity of Bin Laden’s killer would be significant, meaningful in some way. They believe that this person should be commended, receive some extra attention for taking out one of the world’s most dangerous characters. This man would never have to buy himself another beer for the rest of his life. The American people would make sure of that.

There are still others who believe that announcing the identity of the trigger puller would put that person’s life in danger. Drawing a giant circle around a single member of the military would make him a prime target for Al-Qaeda to attempt retribution.

While I don’t necessarily believe the Seal’s life would be put at risk by uncovering his identity, I think there is a bigger moral issue associated with acknowledging the role of any individual who participated in the raid.

First of all, the Americans that went into Bin Laden’s camp in May of 2011 consisted of an entire team of men and women, putting their lives in danger for their country. The person who fired the first bullet wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of the guy who held the door open. There is no need to call out individuals for their actions when the whole group had their own roles, and no piece would have worked if it wasn’t for another cog in the machine.

On a different level, maybe an even more important level, we see the gravity of this moment in the historical context of America. The man responsible for the largest terror attack on US soil was killed, not by an individual, but by the American public. I would love to believe that a bald eagle, wings painted in star-spangled Red, White, and Blue, swooped into the room and stole the life right out of the man. This may sound a little theatrical, but that kind of image is exactly what the American public needs. This was not a man being killed by another. It was a man being killed by an entire nation, revenge for the countless lives that he stole.

The best byproduct we could hope for is that we, as the American public, give more attention to any and all members of the US Armed Forces. We should be buying a beer for anyone willing to sacrifice their lives for our freedom. We should be looking out for the financial and emotional security of all who make sacrifices to ensure we can continue to live out the American dream. We should be saying that, no matter what you did, you did it for us, and we’re so grateful that you did.

Rob O’Neill, the Navy Seal coming forward as the man who shot and killed Osama Bin Laden, said recently that he sometimes can’t decide whether this act of heroism was the best or worst thing he has ever done. The ability to end a man’s life, serving as judge and jury for the most hated man in America, is a burden no individual should have to bear. He will live with that for the rest of his life. Now, though, we as a country, can help to support that load, because he was acting on behalf of the entire nation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October 28th: Tricked for Treats

My mother spent most of my childhood complaining about the fact that there was no school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Columbus Day or, my personal favorite, Casimir Pulaski Day. She used to say that it was ridiculous for us to spend those days “celebrating” these great men outside of school when we could be learning about them in school.

You see, holidays meant to commemorate special times and people should come with education. All too often, though, we skip right over explaining why we have the celebration, and move right on to the pomp and circumstance (I still have no idea who Casimir Pulaski really was, although I do love getting the extra sleep in March).

Well, it’s that time of year again! That time where there is equal clamor by those desperately searching for the Halloween costume that will get the most attention, and those telling cautionary tales of the potential dangers of picking an offensive character to represent.

The level of competition for Halloween costumes has grown ever more fierce, with people desperate to come up with something that will catch everyone’s eye. This year, the Jameis Winston couples costume (one dressed as the Florida State football player, another dressed as crab legs) is a clever one. Ebola is an easy stab at news-based costumes. Of course, you can always go with the tried and true, adding “sexy” before either a profession or animal to get an easy (if not trashy) way of getting attention without putting in any extra effort.

While some are looking for the perfect get-up, others are adding their voice of reason to the conversation. Costumes have grown ever more offensive as feeble attempts at comedy drive the public toward caricatures of racial groups or other potentially insulting options. E! Online offered us their 18 costumes to stay away from, including Ray Rice, a Malaysian Airlines Passenger, and Michael Brown. (Thank you, E!, for putting this in your “News” section…)

My personal favorite is the fear associated with cultural appropriation on Halloween. Dressing up as a rapper or Indian princess are devastating examples of racial intolerance in the form of frivolous costumes.  We can do irreparable harm to these cultures if we are unaware of the potential negative ramifications of belittling their identities with goofy dressing up and abuse of meaningful symbolism.

The problem is, that is exactly what Halloween is all about.

Halloween is the most famous example of cultural appropriation in American history (with maybe the exception being Christmas being on December 25th, although that’s a different blog post). You see, Halloween originates in a Celtic tradition, meant to commemorate the new year, which they believed to take place on November 1st. On October 31st, according to the Celts, the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead was particularly thin, allowing for prophecy and sacrifice to please their deities. For a full history of the holiday, see’s detailed description.

Even the tradition of trick-or-treating has roots in the relationship between the living world and spirit world. Poor children went from door to door, asking for treats in exchange for prayers for the souls of a homeowner's dead relatives. Not exactly the same thing as a snack-sized Snickers bar.

Every year, we go out of our way to look for costumes, buy candy, and celebrate the holiday. Yet we have no real idea what we’re recognizing. This was the religious practice for an entire culture, their version of New Years Eve. It is the equivalent to turning Easter into a cave exploration holiday.

So while we are up-in-arms over what costumes some decide to wear, we all need to remember that, no matter how you decide to dress up, there is cultural appropriation going on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 20th: The Eye Test

Turn on the TV right now. Pick a channel, any channel. It will only take a few minutes to get to a commercial break. What you see might surprise you.

American society has been working to better the way women are treated. Campaigns for higher awareness for the income gap have been doing a very good job of trying to bring awareness to the issues of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Feminism has taken to blogging and columning, with an almost constant critique and analysis of every possible situation, from media to politics.

She's about to sell a cheeseburger, I promise.
But now we’re watching TV, and the commercial break has just begun. Maybe you’ll see the newest Miller Lite ad. You know which one I’m talking about; the one where Miller Lite takes credit for inventing subliminal advertising, while flashing images naked women rolling around in hops. Not that one? Maybe you’ll see the Hardee’s commercial where a woman sitting on an airplane in a cleavage dominated dress asks the man sitting next to her if he wants to joining the Mile High club (who would guess that means a sandwich?)

These are just two of a long list of commercials that use sexuality to sell a product. We are seeing a lot of progress in what is being said by the American public. The problem is waiting for the shift in the way Americans think.

My favorite barometer for the way Americans think is in our consumer culture. Advertising agents, you see, don’t really care about racism or sexism. They don’t care about fairness or morals. They don’t care who has the power, really. All they care about is whether it will make people spend their money.

You see, American advertising will adopt feminism as soon as it becomes financially responsible to do so. They will chase the financial bottom line, and do what the market dictates is necessary to get people’s money. Right now, as much as we think we’re making good progress, we still allow products to use sexy women to sell products, because we continue to buy them.

Products that target men are continuing to use sexualized imagery to get their audience's attention, and they won’t stop until we stop giving them the attention.

Women can also be part of the problem. In fact, one of the best examples is Cosmopolitan Magazine. Have you ever read the cover of a Cosmo? Sex tips dominate, as well as ways to get attention through the use of sexuality and beauty products. Is that a problem? Maybe not. But it doesn’t match the language being shared by most of the feminist blogging community about looking for value in a woman’s identity beyond her physical attributes.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Cosmo also does a lot of empowering of women. Women can read Cosmo and feel better about themselves, feel like they’re not alone, and read about strong, confident women who are highly successful. That is incredibly important and positive. The scary part, though, is that it is foraging a deep relationship between sexuality and a woman’s identity. A strong woman must be sexy, must have good sex, must have a man who she knows how to please. Those are very dangerous things to be linking in the minds of women who are trying to come up with an understanding of their identity.

There is a constant struggle to find ways to make the world a better place for women. We know we’re not there yet, and that there is plenty of work left to do. We do, though, need to be far more conscious of what we do with our eyes and our money, because it can have a huge impact on how the cultural landscape shifts.

I hate when people blame the media for things. I think the public and the media feed one another. There is a balancing act. The media tells the public what to believe, while the public tells media producers, through their spending habits, what they want to see. We now have the chance to choose what we want the media to say, as long as we’re being thoughtful of what we’re being told to think.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

September 29th: Awesome and Full of Dread

“Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day; it is awesome and full of dread.”

These are the words that we read on Rosh Hashanah, marking the ten day period between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

We read a passage that describes God as the Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. The imagery describes a King, sitting upon a throne, determining “who shall live and who shall die.”

I find this writing both hauntingly beautiful and deeply troubling. There are equal parts safety and helplessness in the notion that God gets to decide our fates in the coming year.

On the one hand, we are taught that, through repentance and good deeds, we have the opportunity to be inscribed in the Book of Life. On another level, though, we are at the mercy of a God who gets to choose our fate, rather than having the chance to create our own way.

Throughout the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we look at the power God has over our fate. We are confronted by the reality that we are but small pieces in a larger world, with little understanding of how we come to live the experiences we encounter every day. Sometimes this can be comforting, while other times it can lead to a sense of false security.

What I find most difficult, though, is the notion that our actions are pre-determined. Are we to believe that the loved ones we lose from one year to the next are the result of a failure to “make it into the Book”? How do we come to terms with a piece of our faith that is so unsettling?

The reality is that, at the time that this piece was written, we needed a God who would protect, provide, and judge. We believed in these lofty personifications for God, and they brought us comfort, knowing that our actions would lead to good judgement and, hopefully, a promise of another year of life. It also allowed us to rationalize those who we lost, knowing that, for whatever reason, they had been put on the “Who Shall Die” list, rather than the “Who Shall Live” one.

Now, though, we live in a time where faith needs to lead to accountability. We cannot hide behind the false comfort of a God who makes the decisions for us. We must hold ourselves accountable for our choices, and the results of them.

This is not a burden we must bear, but an opportunity to take control of who we are and what we do. We get to use the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to evaluate our behavior, to think of how we can do better in the coming year. But that betterment needs to be for our own benefit, not as an opportunity to get into the good graces of God.

What, then, is the value in a religious practice such as this that focuses so wholly on an area that we don’t find immediately meaningful?

There is hope to be found in the words from our liturgy. We read, in the Gates of Repentance, “Freely we choose, and what we have chose to become stands in judgement over what we may yet hope to be. In our choices we are not always free. But if only we make the effort to turn, every force of goodness, within and without, will help us, while we live, to escape that death of the heart which leads to sin.”

We have the unique opportunity, as Jews, to evaluate our choices, to make an attempt to be better. Judaism never calls for perfection. Rather, Judaism calls for the pursuit of being better. We want to be better people, find more meaning, seek more happiness. Through our observance of these ten sacred days, we are able to better come closer to the divine presence within each of us. We become just a little more Godly.

Shanah Tovah.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

September 21st: The Last Grain

I’ve been fairly quiet about the Ray Rice situation in the last several weeks. Part of the reason is that I was waiting to see how other people reacted. Part of it is that I had a sneaky feeling more would be coming than just what we had originally learned.

All I knew was that, when Ray Rice was given a 2 game suspension for domestic violence against his soon-to-be wife, that wouldn’t be the end of the story. The NFL’s fan base and ESPN’s commentators were in an uproar, demanding an answer as to why the punishment was so lenient. It wasn’t until the video footage from inside the elevator came out that the NFL and the Ravens decided to take more drastic action, suspending Rice indefinitely and releasing him from the team, respectively.

The aftermath in the realm of social change has been enormous. The National Organization for Women (NOW) has demanded that Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, resign his job to make up for the judgement flaws coming out of his office. In fact, the clamor for Goodell’s head has been loud and enthusiastic.

I, on the other hand, am not going to call out the Ravens, the NFL, or Roger Goodell. While each of them is at fault, at least to some extent, the root of the issue goes to a much larger problem: the United States justice system.

Roger Goodell, you see, has made a habit of waiting until the law determines a player or owner’s punishment before levying one of his own. Therefore, when the legal system let Ray off with just a slap on the wrist and a court-mandated anger management class, Goodell took that to mean things were going to be ok.

Yet the public has all but let this go unnoticed. Only a select few have acknowledged that the failure on the part of the legal system is what set this problem in motion, leading to this debacle. We do, of course, also need to acknowledge that blame falls unilaterally on Ray Rice. While many people, institutions, and organizations have muddied the waters, if Rice had had control over his behavior and reactions, we could have avoided this whole situation all-together.

All of that being said, the public has made one heinous error that will cause the Ray Rice situation to go down as the worst thing to ever happen to the NFL, rather than an incredible opportunity for mankind. The situation has been made about Ray Rice. Everything has been about this one situation, what went wrong, and how we can punish this one man. Because we feel bad about what we saw in the video footage, we have ran this man out of town, ruined his career, attempted to decide the strength of his relationship (His now-wife has stood by him every step of the way), and generally turned him into a villain. In fact, we only really seemed upset when we actually saw the video. It wasn’t enough for Ray to tell us what he did. It was only when we saw the violence that we believed it to be really what it was.

I’ve never met Ray Rice. I know people who have, and everyone who knew him swears by his positive attitude, his sincerity, and his desire to be a good person. By all accounts I can find, Ray Rice is a good man who made a terrible mistake. His high school football coach, a beloved member of his community, threatened to quit his job if the high school did not return Rice’s jersey to the school’s rafters. He was that supportive of this man.

Here is the other piece of the puzzle. NOW has claimed that there is a domestic abuse issue in the NFL. Upon further review, though, 20 men have been charged with domestic abuse in the NFL in the past 4 years. Out of the 1,700 players in the NFL, that makes up just over 1%. While I’m sure only a fraction of those who are abusers actually face charges, there still is evidence that football does not experience any higher a rate of domestic abuse than any other industry. In fact, I would be willing to bet that in any group of 1,700 men in any industry, at least 20 will be abusive. This isn’t a good thing. It is a scary number. But it is representative of a much larger issue, not within the NFL, but within all walks of humanity.

By making this example a Ray Rice issue, we are failing to make it about all of the men and women who face abusive relationships in their lives. We are failing to actually help those people who cannot stand up for themselves. Focusing exclusively on Ray Rice will not make the problem go away. In fact, it may even lead to more women who are afraid of turning in their husbands and boyfriends for fear that, by ruining every facet of a person’s life, they will turn even more violent.

We, as a society, have the opportunity to teach humanity in this moment. We can teach men and women what a healthy relationship looks like, and in some cases what it doesn’t. We can teach how to learn from bad decisions and how to become better people when we mess up. We can teach how to take a bad situation and turn it into an opportunity for growth and learning. We have a choice, and right now, we are making the wrong one.

This is the second in my series of posts about causes that I will be making a donation to. I will be making a donation to a charity supporting those who have experienced domestic abuse. Hopefully a combination of advocacy and support will bring about a serious change for the better.

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 8th: Not the Same Deal

If you’re looking for the good news in the wake of the Donald Sterling debacle, it may have come in something of a surprising form. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced today that he would be selling the team because of a racist email he sent in 2012.

At the first moment, all basketball fans’ hearts should sink. I don’t think the NBA could handle another owner causing a team that kind of distraction again. Upon further inspection, though, something very different was happening here.

In the email in question, Levenson sent a communication to his General Manager, Danny Ferry, in which he seemed to be giving something of a “state of affairs” in many important areas of the team’s operations. He began with commending parts of his organization, as well as giving some thoughtful remarks about how to move forward with issues such as food vendors and season tickets. In my reading of the email, I started to like the guy from the beginning of the email.

It was in the fourth section that the issue came up. In it, Levenson diagnoses one of the issues he is facing that most drastically affects his team’s bottom line: season ticket holders. He makes the comment that, more than at most stadiums, the Hawks draw a uniquely African American dominated crowd. He cites “eyeball statistics,” numbers he attempted to guess at based on observation, mentioning 70% African Americans in the crowd, predominantly black cheerleaders, and an overwhelming amount of hip-hop music in the stadium. He then goes on to say that the feeling of overwhelming African American culture in the building may be leading to low numbers of season ticket holders because most season ticket holders are affluent, and there are fewer affluent African Americans in Atlanta than whites.

This is the email that Levenson self-reported as racist and the reason he has no business owning an NBA team. Really, though, business is the reason he is owning an NBA team, and all of his comments were observations in the name of smart business. Upon deep inspection of the email, there is nothing that should have driven Levenson to step away.

Now, that isn’t to say stereotyping and over-generalization isn’t a big issue. These can be incredibly detrimental when assessed in society. The thing is, though, that business and society are very different, and sometimes something that is wrong in society is imperative to running a financially responsible organization.

This case, more than most, needs to call into light the importance of intent. In the case of Sterling, he was a racist who meant to say that blacks were inferior. In the case of Levenson, he even goes so far as to call other antics “racist garbage,” almost feeling bad for making his observations. He was attempting to answer a business question with something that, for all intents and purposes, were ball-parked observations. If he had done a census of fans at his games, he could have made the exact same statements with facts (plus or minus a few digits), rather than slightly skewed information that could be claimed as “opinion”.

You may be wondering where the “good” from the Sterling situation comes into this one. The good is that this is evidence that the NBA learned something. This is evidence that no level of racism will be acceptable. This is evidence that a seemingly good man who made a mistake will own up to it and take responsibility for his actions.

I don’t believe Levenson needs to sell his team. I think he made business-minded statements to a man in his organization to help make more money. I think it is pretty great, though, that he is willing to step down (step down for some big bucks, that is) to state how important it is that we be thoughtful of the way we treat each other and think about racism.

I have two blogs: a sports blog and a “life” blog. The reason this is on the “life” blog rather than the sports one is that racism is an issue that transcends sports. It’s also important that, in a time when issues in sports will bring to the forefront important societal issues, that the public knows about the conversations going on in sports and, in this case, the great moves forward that are being made.