Saturday, October 29, 2011

Helping and The Help

Insights from Taylor and Stockett
This summer's film The Help is based on Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name. The novel, in turn, centers around the writing of another book, also of the same name. So it is a work of fiction about a fictional work of memoir, but it is permeated with uncomfortable truths.

My favorite librarian recently devoured the book over teh summer, and has written about the book's subplots regarding  libraries. She was enthusiastic about seeing the film, which we very much enjoyed, even though libraries were among several important threads of the story that were dropped in the film adaptation.

Because it marches boldly into such delicate terrain, the book and especially the film have generated quite a bit of controversy, mainly around two questions: First, why did actresses such as Viola Davis accept roles as maids, which represent the marginalization of African Americans in and by Hollywood?  Second, why is this story of African Americans told by a white author through the eyes of a white protagonist, herself a white author?

When Viola Davis addressed the first question in an NPR interview, she emphasized the heroism of her character, Aibileen Clark. This is a work of fiction whose heroes echo the real heroes of the period, and they included maids. (The dismissal of the role is itself a symptom of a pervasive bias against working people that I have addressed in other posts.) I also notice that throughout her stage and screen career, Viola Davis has played quite a variety of roles, many in law enforcement, so she does not have anything to prove about "accepting" stereotypical roles.

Because Stockett's book is about a white author helping to tell the story of her black neighbors, questions about the legitimacy of this role are an important part of the book, though they are not addressed so directly in the film. The question is inherent in the film, and for me the answer is in the character of Skeeter, the young idealistic writer who wins the trust of two of the maids she knows, who in turn bring a larger group of their peers into the writing project. Skeeter is brave, eventually putting her privilege on the line and even taking on some personal risk.

It is essential that Skeeter knows she is not as brave as the women who tell their stories through her. She knows that they put themselves at even greater risk by cooperating with her, and it is they who must decide for themselves whether those risks are worth taking. This aspect of the story vividly reflects the reality of this and so many other struggles for civil rights: allies in the fight are never as important as the principals, nor do they usually risk as much. But in Mississippi and elsewhere, some white allies did take risks, some fatally so. The efforts of such allies are never alone sufficient, but they do have meaning.

Whether or not the answers to these questions are adequate, the fact remains that The Help tells an important and nuanced story, and tells it well. It may be because my own upbringing was in many ways just on the periphery of this story that I find it especially compelling. I grew up in a social class a bit lower than that of the Junior League characters in the film, in a state a bit further north, and in a period just a few years later. (I grew up, in fact, very close to the story told by another important movie: Mr. & Mrs. Loving.) So while nothing feels exactly like home in this film, much of it strikes very close to home!

White-Collar Holler

In the October 24 issue of The New Yorker, cartoonist Emily Flake perfectly captures the angst that has driven many Americans to the streets. The scene she creates resembles those examined so brilliantly in T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain, but populated by a different cast of desperate workers.

I was reminded of Nigel Russell's "White Collar Holler," the IT chain-gang song made famous by Stan Rogers. As Wall Street speculators and their political allies continue to eviscerate the work force, few have the luxury of complaining about dull work any more. 

I see one ray of hope in the reality that Flake's cartoon so eloquently captures. A growing number of working people are beginning to understand that they are ill-served by policies designed by and for the super-rich.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


A week ago Saturday evening, when I mentioned taking my daughter to "my building," a new acquaintance asked whether I am an architect. No, just a geography professor. But architects and geographers have a lot in common, as space -- as it is used, modified, and even thought about -- is central to both disciplines. I was pleased, therefore, the very next day to hear an interesting radio piece that brings the two subjects together.

On the Studio 360 program that aired the following Sunday, architect Micheal Kimmelman describes how Private Space [has] Gone Public in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The neologism I use for the title of this post signifies the world-wide distribution of the spaces created by the movement.

The map above signifies the distribution of protests in the October 15 movement, with close to 1,000 gatherings in 82 countries. The dots are disproportionate, of course, to the physical scale of each event, but Kimmelman's analysis of the details suggest that this might be a reasonable representation of the conceptual scope of the movements. Listen to Kimmelman for an explanation of how why this might be.

The main purpose of the DC Douglas video above is to clarify the reasons for the Occupy movement. The powerful montage in the final half minute powerfully illustrate Kimmelman's description.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Demagoguery Meets Demography

Source: Prof. Peter Catapano, Immigration History
My recent "jockeying" post focused on the hypocrisy of most of the Republican presidential candidates, as they ramp up anti-immigrant rhetoric while engaging in practices and promoting policies that increase immigration. It was only a couple of days later that journalist Ann McFeatters published "White House Watch: GOP Views on Immigration," which details the demographic constraints on demagoguery.

First, let's be clear: scapegoating immigrants is a bipartisan sport, and long has been. Democrats and Republicans play it differently, but both play. President Obama has become Deporter-in-Chief, as McFeatters points out, having sent 400,000 people packing for paper lapses.

In recent decades, legislative redistricting has often focused on "majority minority" districts, but as early as 2042, the entire country will be in this category. That is, non-Hispanic whites will be less numerous than people formerly dismissed as "minorities" in this country. What is a politician to do in the face of such profound demographic change? McFeatters explores the options and finds the current campaigns very much lacking.

She clearly shows that over time, even the most xenophobic politicians will have to recognize the need -- as Rick Perry currently does on his good days -- for everyone who lives in the our society to be an educated and contributing member of it. Long before US-born whites become a minority in the population as a whole, they (we, in my case) will be a minority in the working-aged population. In her words:
Instead of embracing inevitable demographic change as a golden opportunity, we are trying to kick people out or make their lives miserable. The truth is that we are rare among developed nations in getting the gift of young workers (and consumers), who, if properly educated and motivated, will save us.
Of course, not all undocumented workers are Hispanic, but McFeatter is not mistaken in noting the rhetorical connections between race and migration. It is well known in the Northeast that thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of undocumented workers from Ireland, Australia, or Eastern Europe go unnoticed while Hispanic workers and even their children are increasingly likely to be harassed, regardless of status.

Source: Prof. Peter Catapano, Immigration History

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jockeying for Advantage on Immigration

The subtitle of Globe cartoonist Dan Wasserman's "Out of Line" series is "A notebook of graphic disobedience," a distinction that is well-earned in this doubly transgressive send-up of the discourses surrounding immigration in the current presidential debate.

With Pavlovian precision, much of the political center has moved to the fringes on immigration. During boom years, nobody cares, but scapegoating the poor inches up quite predictably with each downward stumble of the national economy. Political survival in down times requires candidates to pretend that immigrants -- documented and otherwise -- did not contribute to prosperity in previous times.

For a candidate who is also a venture capitalist at the very top of the economy, this is especially challenging. His rhetoric needs to be insistent and fiery enough to overshadow what he has gained from migrants, which has come in several forms. In addition to the generalized benefits we all gain from migrants -- legal and otherwise -- Romney derives several specific benefits as a major player in Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Commodity coffee is often exported at prices very close to -- or even below -- the cost of production. In conventional trading systems, individual farmers are likely to receive far less than the export price, driving migration from coffeelands, first into nearby cities and later into other countries. A majority of Nicaraguan families, for example, now have at least one family member working abroad, and many of these are people who would work in coffee if they could earn enough to survive.

During the most recent candidate's debate, Gov. Rick Perry called out Romney for his previous employment of undocumented workers through a landscaping contractor. His denial was interesting in several ways. First, he said that he personally had not directly hired anybody. This is both specifically true in the case of hiring a landscaping contractor and generally true among the truly powerful, whose hiring practices are often buffered by layers of contracts and subcontracts. This means that not only can Romney deny responsibility for the legal status of his gardener, but he can also deny it for hourly workers at Dunkin' Donuts, who are hired by franchise owners who under enormous pressure from their "investors" at Bain Capital.

Romney's reply to Rick Perry centered on the claim that he "fired" the landscaping company as soon as he found out about its hiring of undocumented workers. In describing the termination of the contract, he admitted mentioning his own status as a political candidate to the contractor. He failed to mention, however, that he did not terminate the relationship the first time he learned of the hiring, but only after the second Boston Globe story on the subject, a full year after the first!

I conclude this post with a comment on the Wasserman cartoon itself, and my use of the word "transgressive," which I usually use to refer to artistic license that is taken at the expense of societal norms that I think deserve to be challenged. In this case, however, the art transgressed against two of my own norms. First, as someone who grew up on the spatial and temporal edges of the Old South, I find so-called "lawn jockeys" a disturbing symbol of white privilege. Second, the word "illegal" is problematic even when used as an adjective, and doubly so when used as a noun to refer to a person. It is not generally applied to those who commit other crimes, so that a murder is illegal, but the murderer is not, so why does it apply to those who cross borders, overstay visas, or violate the terms of visas?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dignity Desert

One of the blessings of not having television in our house is that I am blissfully unaware of most developments in fast food and the marketing thereof. Some of the more interesting aspects do bubble up through NPR, though, is did the existence of the KFC Famous Bowl. It was from comedian Patton Oswalt's appearance on the Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me that I learned of this and several other culinary horrors.

Be advised that Oswalt's language is rather vulgar, but the obscenity of his comedic rant is appropriate to the topic, just as the film Fast Food Nation is rated "R" and the film Super Size Me should be. (Note about how we teach our children: Sporlock's documentary is available in a sanitized, PG version that is called "educationally enhanced," a designation that would make Orwell proud.)

Anyway, Oswalt takes two and a half minutes to describe the experience of ordering the inexplicably named Famous Bowl from KFC and its meaning for the target customer. (That is the real name of the company now, as it got rid of the word "Fried" in order to healthify its image.) It is hilarious, and seems like hyperbole. In fact, however, he actually leaves out one ingredient in this, the most artery-clogging item on the KFC menu, with more salt and fat than one can imagine fitting into a small bowl.

If ever an ad were a parody of itself, it is the original Famous Bowl ad, which is just a shorter, sexier version of the original -- with a wink and some extra cheese. The customer in the ad does not look as pathetic as Oswalt (or I) might, but the wiles of the server leave nothing to chance.

What does all this have to do with the geography of food? Quite a lot, actually, as it is an extreme manifestation of the broader problem of access to healthy food. We may be responsible for our food choices, and as a hard-working, low-income friend of mine has pointed out, with a some effort and awareness most people can find their way to healthy food habits. But the combination of geography and marketing make it more of a challenge than it should be. It is often necessary to traverse both perceptual gulfs and food deserts to get back to anything like real food. (See Feeding America for more information about USDA efforts.)

Monday, October 03, 2011

Mother Earth

Fuller Craft Museum is one of the jewels of our neighboring city of Brockton. When our daughter was younger, we were members and visited frequently. It surely was part of what made her the great artist she is today, though it failed to have a similar effect on me! It has, however, deepened my appreciation for art and craft, while making me less certain of the difference -- if any -- between the two!

The museum is very active, with several new exhibits at any one time, and frequent additions to the permanent collection from these exhibits. One excellent case in point is Seated Lady by "Junk Sculptor" Leo Sewell. This diminutive adult female is an arresting figure composed entirely of found metal and plastic objects. She sits near the museum entrance, welcoming each visitor to the visual feast that the museum as a whole has to offer.

As a geographer, I could not help but notice the creative use of a small globe -- and wonder whether the scale of the entire sculpture was to some extent determined by the availability of a globe just this size. The Southern Hemisphere is in pleasing proportion to the entire 51-inch figure. The Northern figure is, ahem, less clearly visible in her seated position.

See Leo Sewell's site for more amazing sculptures!

And if you are in the Brockton area, please visit the Fuller Craft Museum -- they are very nice and value teachers more than those big museums in Boston. Fuller Craft has reasonable admission costs, which are waived for MTA members. And after you visit the museum, have a stroll or drive through the D.W. Field Park, one of Brockton's other treasures!

Sunday, October 02, 2011


Thanks to my student Sebastián for pointing me to Mark Drajem's recent article on Bloomberg: EPA Boosts Water Policing as Farmers Say Worst Fears Realized. The article describes efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand their jurisdiction over smaller waterways.

The article focuses on the "fears" of inconvenience and possible limitations on economic activities that may be environmentally destructive. Little context is given for the current proposals. The Clean Water Act built on laws initiated in 1948, was reorganized and signed by President Nixon in 1972 and given its present name under further reorganization in 1977.

The practical impetus for the laws was a wide array of environmental problems resulting from the abuse of waterways throughout the United States, which reached untenable proportions in the mid-20th Century. The constitutional basis for the laws, however, is the Commerce Clause in Aricle I, Section 8, whose very early interpretation gave the Army jurisdiction over navigable waters.

It was found much later that the protection of the waterways themselves requires the protection of adjacent and contributing wetlands. The Drajem article does not make clear the importance of these waterways, echoing the all-too common misconception that streams that do not flow constantly must be unimportant. It is unfortunate that the "fears" mentioned in the article are those of convenience and economic cost; the word "flood" is not used at all, though it should qualify as a concern for any farmer.

The Drajem article does mention the economic benefits of the kinds of regulations being contemplated, but only obliquely. More explanation of these benefits should be given, and also to the ecological context in which the proposed rule-making takes place. As we dramatically simplify both the hydrology and biology of large swaths of farmland, we increase the risk of floods and exposure to crop pests.

As Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day has written, "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around." Those who look at environmentally destructive economic activity as some kind of inherent right exhibit a lack of understanding of the natural systems on which they depend.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Environmental Protection has primary jurisdiction over enforcement of the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental programs. The Environmental Protection Agency allows much of its day-to-day enforcement activity to be carried out by DEP, as it it does with state-level agencies throughout the United States.

In Massachusetts, however, the initial point of contact is usually with volunteer-led conservation commissions at the community level. The Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissioners -- of which I am a member -- provides educational services to the volunteers and to the professional conservation agents that some of them hire. It is also a place for developers, regulators, consultants, and vendors to stay abreast of both legal and technological developments related to the protection of natural resources. As far as I know, no other state has so much community-level involvement in the enforcement of the Clean Water Act and related statutes.

Every two years (next up: spring 2012), I have the opportunity to teach an upper-level geography course entitled Environmental Regulations, in which we explore the development, implementation, and interpretation of environmental regulations of all kinds. I also teach a course every other autumn (but not again until Fall 2013) that focuses more on land-protection strategies other than regulations, such as conservation easements. Many of the people who take that course (with the awkward title Management and Preservation of the Natural Environment) go on to work or volunteer for many of the commissions, organizations and companies related to MACC.

Choosing Headlines

A friend recently shared this story about the spending and occasional misspending of welfare benefits, and it got me thinking quite a bit. The report, of course, generated a lot of ire, but some of that is misplaced.

The article -- with the headline Massachusetts Welfare Money Spent on Resorts, Nail Salons -- is a bit of investigative journalism that shows gaps in the accountability for money intended to help people in need. Since benefits are expended electronically, it is possible to track where the money goes, by business name and address. The journalists rightly point out that the agency that should be using this information to hold recipients accountable is not doing so. They report that more than two million dollars in benefits were expended out of state, and they find that some of the money intended for basic needs was spent on luxury items.

The story illustrates something that has gotten too little notice in the post-2001 period, in which surveillance of citizens increases out of all proportion to necessity, and in fact out of proportion to anybody's ability to use the data effectively. The agencies that are in a position to monitor this spending have not done so, raising the question of whether agency has enough staff and training to keep up with the data it collects. Given recent trends in public institutions, and the fact that many Federal "intelligence" agencies cannot keep up with their data collection either, I rather doubt it.

I headlined this piece "Choosing Headlines" because it is clear that the headlines in the original article were chosen more to agitate than to educate. In addition to the main headline that emphasizes a kind of spending that is not shown to be pervasive, a sub-headline mentions a geographic fact: Mass. Welfare Recipients Spent $2.3 Million Out of State. No mention is made of whether this violates any specific conditions of the assistance, but the implication is clear that anybody who can afford to be away from home should not receive assistance.

Deeper in the story, it is revealed that half of the out-of-state spending occurs in  neighboring Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The reporters do not explain their reluctance to account for spending in other neighboring states. It is also admitted that some people might have family connections or obligations that explain the travel to other states, though they could not resist the suggestion that "sunny" states were necessarily luxury travel. (Clearly, the authors have not seen the parts of Florida that I have!)

The reporters also use the phrase "specialty grocery stores" to describe both Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. The implication is that poor people should eat food from "regular" grocery stores or "convenience" grocery stores, even if lower sticker prices belie poor value in terms of nutritional return per dollar spent. The implication is especially misplaced in the case of Trader Joe's, which does offer nice food, but does so at sometimes surprisingly low prices. The reason is that the chain has made a study of the economic geography of grocery stores (which I describe briefly on one of my geography-education blogs). As a result, for example, I buy organic apple sauce at Trader Joe's for less than I would spend on the chemically-enhanced stuff in my local grocery. Why should poor people be berated for doing the same?

Now back to the outrage: of course those who receive public assistance should show their gratitude by earning what they can and spending carefully. Those who received support for food and shelter but spent it on luxury items should be held accountable. Deep in the story, we learn that all of the "suspect" spending amounts to less than one percent of total aid. But the headline "More than 99 Percent of Welfare Spending Not Suspicious" would not adequately tap into current biases against the poor and the government.

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