Go vote. Go vote. GO VOTE.
“Have you noticed how riddled with fear our country is lately? We’ve never been more afraid. I’m concerned about that. Because when a society is afraid, people with a wrong motive can take advantage of that society and make them become something that they’re not. There’s a lot of fear right now in the United States of America and the most fearful Americans are the Americans that are buried deep in the middle of this country with no passports. This is a concern. Fear is for people who don’t get out much. The flipside of fear is understanding, and we gain understanding when we travel. I think it’s important for our very democracy… that we get out there, we travel, and we gain an empathy for the other 96% of humanity.”
I caught this talk last night on PBS, and it was so well done that I felt compelled to keep watching past my bedtime. (He’s been giving some version of the talk since 9/11.) It’s pretty brilliant in that it’s both a genuine plea for a saner, more thoughtful politics in this country, but also basically an infomercial for his travel services, his book of the same name, and his classics, Europe 101 and Europe Through The Back Door. (It feels very American to me in that way — both heartfelt and capitalist.) Worth a watch.
Whenever a heartwarming story about a community rallying to support someone with a medical issue pops up, one of my smarter friends will point out how absurd it is that any citizen of the richest country on Earth should need a GoFundMe campaign to pay for their medical bills.
Again and again, I come back to this post by comedian Rob Delaney:
I’m almost a single-issue voter. I’m not, but my thinking about government and elected officials and what their purposes are begins and ends with how they approach health care. My thinking certainly visits all the other issues along the way (or a few of them anyway; I don’t have to have an opinion on everything as I’m not running and never will run for president) but number one among all the issues for me is health care. My reason for that is that I believe that you can’t really effect positive change in any other area if your body (or your child’s body, or your partner’s body) is sick or not working. Nor can you effect change if you’re struggling to pay for – or even get – vital medicine for yourself or a family member. Nor, again, can you effect change in areas you care about if you’re in significant debt for medical care you’ve already received. You can even have a hard time effecting change in the political issues you care about if you merely live with the specter of not being able to access or pay for medical care for yourself or your family.
For me and my family, it’s the black cloud that hovers in the background of every decision we make: What will we do for health insurance? What if one of us gets sick or hurt?
Health care is my #1 issue, as I think it should be for everyone in this country. (It also happens to be the one issue my conservative dad and I can agree on: Medicare for all.)
Inevitably, someone will say, “I read you for art, not for politics,” so here’s a hook for you: Bad health care has killed more American artists than I could list here without my fingers falling off.
The midterms are coming up, so if you want to support the arts, register to vote and vote for politicians who support universal health care.
I read about this 1966 LEGO ad in Alexandra Lange’s The Design of Childhood. In case you can’t read the copy:
Let somebody else’s child get his kicks tracking a little kid through a gun sight. Let somebody else’s child build a bomb shelter in the hollow of an old tree. Remember when the hollow of an old tree was just fun? Heck, war isn’t very adventurous anymore. We think there’s lots more adventure in a medical lab, or at the U.N.
A half century later, it seems remarkably progressive . I was reminded of this pamphlet from a 1974 LEGO set:
The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls.
It’s the imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship.
A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses.
The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.
Again, it seems remarkably progressive, as does this 1981 ad, written by creative director Judy Lotas, who was inspired by the Equal Rights Amendment and her own daughters:
Have you ever seen anything like it? Not just what she’s made, but how proud it’s made her. It’s a look you’ll see whenever children build something all by themselves. No matter what they’ve created.
That ad went viral in 2012 when LEGO started marketing LEGO Friends.
The response, when we see these ads, is often, “Why on Earth don’t they do it like this anymore?”
Many parents, including myself, lament the fact that there used to be more emphasis on free play and building from imagination, rather than pre-determined kits. Here’s Raul Gutierrez, of Tiny Bop:
The best toys — Tinkertoys, Lego, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs — allowed us to build and rebuild almost endlessly. With my kids, I noticed that these kinds of toys have become increasingly rare. Lego bricks are sold primarily as branded kits. Instead of a pile of blocks that could become anything, they are now essentially disassembled toys. Instead of starting with a child’s imagination of what could be, play is now fixed on a single endpoint, predetermined by Lego’s designers.
But Lange points out that this golden age that we think of was actually just that: a golden age, a product of the specific time:
Today, the LEGO Group is often criticized for stoking the cycle of consumer desire, sequestering LEGO bricks in individual branded universes, and launching new sets on a fashion cycle, but this has been part of the company’s sales strategy for longer than people realize. The free play celebrated in their ads of the 1970s and early 1980s reflects a brief moment in American culture when the kindergarten values — embedded in wooden blocks — returned to the forefront…
We also lament the loss of that wonderful gender-neutral tone, which, according to this NYTimes article on how Disney has branded Frozen, was way more prevalent in the 1970s than today:
Princesses may seem like a permanent feature of the toyscape, but they were less common before the 1990s. “The idea that pink princess fantasy dream dolls have always been a part of girlhood is false,” says Elizabeth Sweet, a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, who studies the cultural history of toys. Sweet has found that the popularity of gender-neutral toys reached a peak in the mid-1970s. Since then, toy makers have embraced the market-doubling effect of pushing certain toys to boys and other toys to girls. Sweet says the level of gender segregation has never been higher. A typical big-box store might have four aisles of blue toys and four aisles of pink toys with an aisle of yellow toys in between. “Separate but equal,” she says. Legos, for example, evolved from simple packs of building blocks into play sets mostly sold to boys, often with brand tie-ins. In 2012, the company introduced Lego Friends, which are basically Legos for girls.
Here’s another NYTimes article from 2012 on gender-based toy marketing:
Gender was remarkably absent from the toy ads at the turn of the 20th century but played a much more prominent role in toy marketing during the pre- and post-World War II years. However, by the early 1970s, the split between “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” seemed to be eroding…
But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.
There are several reasons gender-based marketing has become so prevalent. On a practical level, toy makers know that by segmenting the market into narrow demographic groups, they can sell more versions of the same toy.
We want, so badly, for companies to stand for something good, and some companies do, but at the end of the day, advertising is about moving product, and while it can be idealistic and a force for good, is always the product of people trying to sell things to other people in a particular time and place. If you want better, more progressive advertising, build a better, more progressive world. Best not to get too caught up in nostalgia, but look back, see what’s worth stealing, and more forward.
A note on the post title, from Lange’s book: “LEGO” is a contraction of the Danish leg godt, or “play well.”
I love this picture of actor Nicholas Hoult on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. I love that he’s in his full makeup and you can’t really see any other crew in the background — you can almost imagine another film in which his character, Nux, the War Boy, goes off on his own and spends the apocalypse making caps or something.
I thought of the picture while watching the BBC film, George Orwell: A Life in Pictures. Since there is no surviving footage of the author on film, actor Chris Langham plays Orwell in fake newsreels and documentaries, delivering monologues that are straight from the essays. At one point, Langham starts quoting the essay, “England Your England,” which Orwell wrote during The Blitz of 1941: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
Orwell is trying to describe what makes English culture unique and why the English seemed to be resistant to fascism. Only a few paragraphs in, he mentions the English “love of flowers” and their “addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life.”
We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.
In my post, “In Praise of the good old-fashioned hobby,” I quoted actor and director Mackenzie Crook saying that he suspected that a penchant for hobbies and pastimes was a very British thing. I then suggested that as our own empire crumbles, “we would do well to observe how citizens of former empires enjoy a nice pint, a ramble, and a bit of tinkering.”
I’m interested in this idea that hobbies can not only help us cope in times of crisis, but they can also foster in us a sense of personal liberty that, no matter how small, can help us resist tyranny.
I’m thinking, now, of Leonard Woolf planting iris, or Paul Kingsnorth, in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, on leaving the environmental movement to tend to his own little “square of earth”:
Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet – oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell.
All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything.
I like this idea of tending to your plot. The prerequisite for resisting a tyrannical government, as Orwell showed in 1984, is maintaining the “few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”
I suppose some would scoff at these ideas with the old expression: “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” The funny thing about the phrase is that fiddles, or violins, weren’t actually invented yet in Nero’s time. So he didn’t literally fiddle. But there’s the other meaning of the word fiddle: to fidget or pass time aimlessly, without really achieving anything. And yet, fiddling, in this sense, is so much a part of how artists arrive at their work: they fiddle around, they putter, they waste time.
There’s another story about fiddling during a crisis: the orchestra on the RMS Titanic, who played music to keep the passengers calm as the crew loaded the lifeboats. (There is speculation as far as what final song they chose.) A passenger said:
Many brave things were done that night, but none were more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.
Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem called “Motto” about 1930s Germany:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
It’s for this reason that my next book starts with this poem, “Overheard on the Titanic”:
It’s a great tradition in American life to cherry-pick Bible verses to shore up your political positions, and as Alan Jacobs points out, if you’re happy with those in power, you drop Romans 13:1, if you’re unhappy, you drop Acts 5:29.
In A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut observed that no politicians seem to want The Beatitudes or The Sermon on the Mount printed in public buildings. “‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? […] I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars!
I made this blackout back in 2010, but it came to mind last night when I was finishing up Malcolm Harris’s book about millennials, Kids These Days, and I read this sentence: “The First Amendment gives us the right to get together and complain until things change or we get too tired to keep going.”
Thanksgiving approaches. The supermarkets are jam packed with people who behave as if they have never shopped for groceries before, and Twitter is full of people who behave as if they’ve never had a meal with someone who doesn’t share their political views.
Regarding the meal, @poniewozik tweeted: “A thing I love about this country is it invented a holiday where millions of amateur cooks have to prepare a freakishly large bird. Like, the same country where people buy pre-made PBJ sandwiches, ONE TIME a year they have to figure out how to roast basically a dinosaur.”
Regarding the company, my friend @erika, the author of Just Enough Research, has it nailed: “Heading out to see your family this week? Don’t fight with them. Study them!” She suggests, if the conversation starts to head south, this magical phrase: “Tell me more about that.”
Say nothing else. Do not argue. Keep quietly sipping your beverage… All the research shows that facts are powerless in the face of contradictory beliefs. You will not win the argument. You have a better chance that Second Cousin Rick will talk himself out of his own theory if he talks long enough.
In the words of Oliver Sacks, pretend you’re an anthropologist on Mars.
Perhaps this perspective comes easiest for writers. (Czeslaw Milosz: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”) In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner write that the “anthropological perspective” is exactly what a good education is supposed to provide you. “[It] allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits…”
But the anthropological perspective is not just for surviving Thanksgiving! It’s a way of surviving all sorts of situations involving people who are being assholes. Here’s a trick for cultivating the proper detachment the perspective requires, from Bob Sutton, author of The Asshole Survival Guide:
I’ve got this colleague who does this astounding thing: He pretends when he’s in a meeting and there’s a really nasty person, what he does to detach is he pretends he’s a Doctor of Assholeism. And he says to himself, instead of getting upset, “I’m so lucky to have this fabulous specimen! To be so close up! I just can’t believe it!”
Good luck, my fellow anthropologists! I’ll be at home in my pajamas.
“The remembrance of my country spoils my walk,” said Emerson’s friend, Henry David Thoreau, 3 years later, to a crowd of 2,000 people, gathered on the 4th of July, 1854, in front of a “black-draped American flag hung upside down.” (Detail from Laura Walls’ wonderful bio.)
They were both talking about the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but their words can easily speak for some of us now, 160 years later.
A bit more from Emerson’s speech: “one cannot open a newspaper without being disgusted by the new records of shame…a man looks gloomily at his children, and thinks, ‘What have I done that you should begin life in dishonor?’”
My twitter friend @debcha said it’s the 19th-century equivalent of how she’s described this last year: “A DDOS attack on people with empathy.”