Monthly Archives: August 2010

The problem with growing up Christian

is that you’re hardwired to find all kinds of irrational shit inexplicably moving.

I found a music compilation called Fire in My Bones a few months ago, and have been clutching my heart and absorbing it in gulps ever since. The above song is the highlight for me, and I get an emotional pinch from it that I know I wouldn’t get if the song was about Allah, or reincarnation, or stress-testing, or any of the other shibboleths I could have been raised in the shadows of if my mom wasn’t a Presbyterian minister.
It’s the same pinch I got when Barack Obama was elected, the neon part of your brain that thinks the values you were raised with are self-evidently right, and why won’t the rest of the world just come around already? The song probably sounds like gibberish to anyone not raised in my particular household. And sigh, The Giving Tree probably isn’t the most moving story ever told. And there are definitely better movies than Chariots of Fire. I know all these things. I just don’t always feel them.
But no matter how loud I think at the little kid endlessly spinning around in the snowglobe of my brain, sometimes he still wins.

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Helveticans tried to do me in

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The ’50s were terrible

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I found a book called ‘The Status Seekers’ in a bookstore in the Faroe Islands for a dollar (it was an unmanned bookstore. You pick a book, check the price, then deposit the cash through a slot in the office door. Only in Scandinavia!)

The book is by Vance Packard, a forgotten blip in the genre of bestseller psychology. It was published in 1959, and chronicles the increasing class stratification of America in the midst of its first period of sustained income and economic growth.

It’s a fascinating artifact, both for its descriptions of things that haven’t changed since 1959 (Bosses hate mingling with subordinates! People buy fancy cars to demonstrate their status!) and what has (Rotary clubs! Upper class people go to church!).

This is the third book I’ve read recently about the 1950s in America, and the more I learn about the decade, the more I think its conception in the popular memory is utterly false, to the point of perniciousness.

The 50s were awful. Our idea of them as embodying universal prosperity, equal opportunity and family dinners is based entirely on movies and TV. Imagine someone 100 years from now extrapolating the dimensions of our society solely on the basis of ‘High School Musical’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.

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The dark side of the 1950s wasn’t depicted in 1950s music, movies or books. That’s precisely what the dark side of the 1950s was: Nothing that scraped the veneer was tolerated.

This extended far beyond TV and movies. As Packard describes, applicants were barred from employment if they weren’t white, happily married or Protestant enough. All forms of socialization—from workplaces to schools to social clubs to churches—were designed to pre-emptively exclude those who didn’t fit in.

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The 1950s were also the decade where The Greatest Generation laid the foundations for everything that sucks in America today. They abandoned their inner cities and built an infrastructure devoted to mass-produced suburbs and shopping malls. They invented the commute.

More perniciously, and something I never really realized until Packer pointed it out, was that they built a society where classes rarely come into contact with each other. As the physical geography changed, neighborhood institutions and social structures could more restrict themselves to a narrow demographic band. Neighborhood churches and schools became increasingly focused on servicing the universally rich (or universally poor) residents who lived near them.

‘What happens to the personalities of people who live in communities where the houses for miles around are virtually identical, and the people seen are all from the same socio-economic slice? It is too early to tell,’ Packer writes. I think with 40 extra years of perspective on his question, we can answer it.

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Someday the country won’t be run by people who look back on this time of social exclusion with nostalgia. It’s time we moved on from our simplistic idea that the 1950s were America’s glory days, and start constructing them as they were: The increasingly panicked flailing of a generation that would go to any length to preserve its unearned privilege. 

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Fjord focus

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How I ended up at a whale hunt

I was visiting my friend Rogvi in the Faroe Islands this weekend. The Faroe Islands is a colony of Denmark, a small island chain right between Norway and Iceland. It’s been inhabited by Vikings, and little else, for the last 1,000 years. Most of it looks like this:

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Just after I arrived, Rogvi took me on a driving tour.

‘Where are we off to?’
‘I heard on the radio that they caught some whales in Kvivik,’ he said.

Apparently a whale hunt works like this.

  1. A fisherman spots a pod of whales.
  2. He broadcasts the location of the pod to all other fishermen in the area.
  3. The other fishermen rush to his location
  4. En masse, the fishermen use their boats to push the pod of whales closer and closer to the shore.
  5. Eventually, the whales simply wash themselves up on the beach
  6. The fisherman hop off their boats and club the whales in the head to knock them unconscious.
  7. The fishermen sever the whale’s spinal cord with a long knife they keep with them whenever they’re on the sea. Imagine a ninja cutting someone’s jugular, only in the back of their head instead of the front.

 

The entire process takes less than 10 minutes, and about 1,000 whales are killed like this every year.

Here’s what we saw when we arrived in Kvivik.

 

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The intestines are the only part of the whale you can’t eat.

 

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Though dolphins, humpback whales and killer whales are regularly spotted up here, Faroe Islanders only kill pilot whales. The carcasses ranged from golden retriever-sized infants to full-grown males the length of a Cadillac. One guy was hosing them down while another tried to arrange them in rows with a forklift. 

It was about as effective as eating sushi with a blindfold. The whales were sliding all over the place.

 

 

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Each of these hunts yields thousands of pounds of whale meat and blubber. The person who first spotted the whale has first dibs, and gets the largest share. All the fishermen who participated in the hunt are also allocated a ‘part’. After that, parts are reserved for village residents, local hospitals and old-folks homes. If there’s any left, people simply sign their name in a sort of guestbook and are also given a share.

A hunt like this can yield 500 parts, each consisting of about 100 pounds of meat. People eat it year-round, and some ends up in restaurants.

As Rogvi put it, anyone who eats meat isn’t allowed to be sickened or disturbed by this. Many of the industrial processes between ‘cow’ and ‘hamburger’ are significantly less edifying than these pictures. Humans eat meat. Meat comes from animals. This is just what that process looks like.

Rogvi also pointed out that, for about 1,000 years, whales provided one of the only sources of food for Faroe Islanders. Only about 2 percent of the islands are suitable for agriculture, and meat from fish and whales—raw, dried, smoked or boiled—was literally the only food available.

I’m definitely not convinced on the latter point. We don’t own slaves in 2010 just because, hey, for a few hundred years there, it was the only agricultural labour available. The repugnance of human activity is not related to its longevity.

But there’s something to the former. I don’t know if I found the experience of seeing all those whales uncomfortable because I think whales are closer to humans on the sentience-spectrum than cows, or simply because I’ve never been that close to a bunch of large, freshly killed animals before. Either way, it’s hard to stand within smell-distance of the consequences your consumption behavior and not feel compelled to defend it.

 

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