symbolic dominance, culture and religion

When the war of the yard signs was at its peak some years ago, I wanted to put three popular signs in my yard, all together:

Let Your Light Shine: Fight Racism
We Support Gays and Lesbians
Keep Christ in Christmas

My state celebrates the winter season with the war of the symbols.  Nativity scenes on public property justly spark lawsuits by those who are not Christian.  Menorahs and “separate church and state” banners flank the decorated evergreen tree whose very name is subject of debate in the legislature.  Proposals to include Wiccan pentacles and jokes about Festivus poles add to the fun.  Some Christians have decided that “their” holiday has been ruined by any acknowledgment of others, even by as simple an expedient as a generic “Happy Holidays” in public space or by using the name “holiday tree” for a decorated evergreen, itself a pagan symbol morphed into a Christian symbol for a pagan Roman holiday morphed into a Christian holiday.  This seems to me to be so clearly about cultural dominance, not religion, that I find all the arguments unsettling.  The Christmas centered on shopping malls and Santa Claus and Christmas trees is not a religious holiday, unless the religion in question is capitalist consumerism.

The religious holiday centered on the symbol of the nativity is about God embodied in a new human child, a light in the darkness, a hope for the oppressed.  For those of us in this tradition, it is a symbol well worth contemplating, and any Christian of conscience wants to lift up the nativity and downplay the materialist excesses of the secular Christmas.  So it is doubly ironic and sad that deploying this symbol in public space is an act of cultural domination over religious minorities, not a challenge to excess and greed.

As a practicing Christian, albeit a theologically liberal one whose right to the name is disputed by more conservative Christians, I struggle to find a way to be authentically who I am without oppressing others. Continue reading “symbolic dominance, culture and religion”

An Object Lesson in Good Interviewing and Public Health

I have recently experienced an example of a persistent and rigorous interview that yielded an unexpected payoff. I somehow contracted a Giardia infection, a parasite usually associated with contaminated water. The first questions anyone knowledgeable asks are “Were you drinking out of streams?” and “Were you drinking well water?” because there is a problem in rural areas with contaminated water and wells can become contaminated, especially when there is a lot of flooding, as there was this summer. But I am a city person and only drink tap water. No, I haven’t been camping, I have not been drinking out of streams. I thought maybe there was a sick food service worker? Maybe contaminated tap water in a rural gas station in our trip to Duluth? Hard to know.

It turns out that Giardia is a reportable public health infection, so I got a call this week from a public health student. Continue reading “An Object Lesson in Good Interviewing and Public Health”

Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics

My department has run a number of workshops (organized by grad students) on “teaching about race.” They asked me to speak about what the rules are about what we can and cannot say in the classroom. I was pretty sure I knew the “rules” but asked our Provost for the official statement. Interestingly, there was none, but the question was referred to the Legal department. After a  delay, Legal Affairs sent back an email citing Wisconsin state statutes and linking to some policy statements. I’ve pasted the original correspondence below.* First a student and I translated the legalese into English bullet points. Then I wrote an essay about how to think about the authority and ethical responsibility in teaching controversial topics. This was recirculated this fall and as I’ve gotten positive feedback about this, I decided to post it here, with a few more edits, in case it is helpful. There’s always more to say, and legitimate disagreement about how to handle some things. Feel free to use the comments to expand on these points. Continue reading “Exercising Judgment in Teaching Politically-Charged Topics”

Stata: roll your own color palettes

I realize all the cool kids have switched to R, but if you still work with Stata, you may be interested in some routines I worked up to generate color and line pattern palettes and customize graphs fairly easily with macros and loops. This is useful to me because I am generating line graphs showing the trends for 17 different offense groups. Some preliminary tricks, then the code. Continue reading “Stata: roll your own color palettes”

A Matthew Christmas

nativity_2016
Christmas

The Christmas Eve homily stressed the need for an adult Christmas narrative. There is the children’s narrative with angels and shepherds and wise men we patch together from the theoretically-inconsistent stories in Luke and Matthew and set up in our Nativity scene. And, the pastor stressed, there is a place for that narrative. But there is also a time and place for reading each narrative as it was written and understanding the meaning of the narrative to the people who wrote it and used it in worship.  In the Matthew narrative, all the main characters fear for their lives, a deranged king who fears a usurper orders the slaughter of babies, and the Holy Family are refugees fleeing into Egypt. This year the Matthew narrative seems apt. Anyone who is paying attention to the climate news and the political news and the economic news is afraid. Anyone who is paying attention knows that there is tremendous suffering going on in the world right now.

massacre_of_the_innocents
Nicolas Poussin, Massacre of the Innocents, artable.com

Here and now, when the nights in our hemisphere are long and the news is bad, we light a candle in the darkness and contemplate the hope that we will survive and that something new is yet now being born that will bring light to the world.

Participating While Privileged

I’ve been asked to participate in a session at a conference for academics and activists that is supposed to help set the tone for how academics ought to behave when interacting with community people. It turns out that I am considered to be good at this. This is the kind of accolade that is very dangerous. The minute you think you know what you are doing and are confident of your ability to mix well across lines of culture and privilege, you will mess it up. It is like bragging about how humble you are.

Since I seem to have been anointed, at least temporarily, as having some expertise in this area, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts, partly in preparation for the session. We agreed I’d begin by giving my own background, but that feels like too long a detour, so I moved it to the bottom of this blog post. Bullet points because it is too much trouble to turn it into an essay. Continue reading “Participating While Privileged”