Monthly Archives: May 2014

Just Deserts

Recently at Target, I noticed a pool float aimed at swimmers who (responsibly, of course) enjoy an adult beverage while relaxing in the water. In English and in French, the copy on the box informed the purchaser that the float would give her the kind of leisure she is looking for—“you deserve it, vous le méritez.” Is that enough to make a sale? Apparently it is, because later I saw someone behind me in the checkout line holding that very product—and looking, I might add, quite deserving.

man ice cream_THRjust deserts_78714819Just what do you deserve? Quite a lot according to today’s marketers and ad copywriters. From healthcare to fast food, you deserve choices, you deserve the best, and—most hyperbolically—you deserve it all. Advertising has long played on the emotions to convince buyers of a product’s merits. McDonald’s most famously assured the hungry that they deserved a break today, while Buick’s short-lived Reatta model dared car shoppers with the tagline, “Go ahead, you deserve it.” Sharing a meal gives us feelings of well-being, belonging, and mutual affection. (Recently, THR guest blogger Stephen Assink wrote about an inventor whose food product aims to do just the opposite; see “Minimalist Food for a Streamlined Life.”) Driving that certain kind of automobile gives you a feeling of superiority, inviolability, or uniqueness.

What’s interesting to note here is how the term deserve leads to two separate conclusions: In the case of eating together, we engage in a merited sense of belonging and love, but in the case of a certain kind of car (or handbag, smartphone, computer), the result is a kind of exalted uniqueness, a sense of being above it all. If there is any belonging in the latter case, it is only at a distance among other coolly discerning consumers.

Deserve, then, appears to be a word of many parts. The rapper Future hears from his cousin who tells him, “You Deserve It,” and a hit is born. In the TV series You Deserve It, contestants compete to win prizes for others more deserving. Paid your dues? You deserve a break. Worked hard all week? You deserve a weekend. The word also ranks high among sloganeers, including the ones who first spun out the unnecessarily cryptic “sometimes you have to forget what you want to remember what you deserve,” the rather disturbing “you deserve to be loved until your insides melt,” and the admirably succinct “be happy, you deserve it.”

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that deserve derives, via Middle English and Anglo-French, from the Latin root deservire, to devote oneself to, to serve zealously. Surely, few would dispute that our troops deserve our support or that children deserve a chance for a good education. But when did acknowledgement of merited support or reward—just deserts—become a self-congratulatory pat on the back? In our modern therapeutic culture, to deserve has joined the pantheon of sentiments designed to uplift, to affirm, and to bolster self-esteem. Going after what you deserve is about following your dreams, fulfilling your potential, and then sitting back and smugly surveying all the good things coming your way because, well, you deserve them.

If we chip away at the sugary carapace of deserve as it is now used, we see that its core meaning is something much more insidious. By gauging our self-worth on the ministrations of marketers and focus groups, we have become complicit in the skepticism that drives consumerism.

It is also worth noting that deserve in modern parlance gains much of its potency from the idea of ego-driven entitlement.  Entitlement is another multivalent word, but the triumph of its cheapened sense is undeniable. For Americans, entitlement came from our Founding Fathers. They assured us that we are entitled to certain rights, that they are unalienable. While “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” imply much about individual freedom, they leave the vagaries of human nature tantalizingly open to interpretation. Into the breach have stepped many voices to assure us of what we deserve, perennial yes men to the ego’s insistence on its own merits.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is the managing editor of The Hedgehog Review. Photo: Getty Images

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She Knew Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou, born Marguerete Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928, died today in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, having accomplished in a little over 86 years what would take most gifted people at least two lifetimes to equal.


Maya Angelou (Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons)

Resilience, a quality much talked about these days, marked the life of the poet and author who, in her earlier years, worked as a cook, prostitute, pimp, night-club singer, and dancer. Raped at age 7 by her mother’s boyfriend, she turned mute for almost five years, believing that her words—her accusation—had been responsible for the murder of her rapist.

The reading of books slowly brought Angelou out of her self-imposed silence, but she did not begin writing in earnest until the 1960s, while living and working as an actor, activist, and  journalist in New York City and Ghana, crusading for civil rights with the SCLC, befriending Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X,  and James Baldwin, and finally bringing out her first autobiography in 1969.  Its title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, came from a line in the poem “Sympathy,” by African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Angelou’s autobiographical works blended the rich details of her experience with the techniques of literary fiction, but her literary energies also found expression in essays, stories, poetry, TV scripts, documentaries, and plays.

Never having attended university or even graduated from high school, she became in 1982  the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, discovering, in her words, “I’m not a writer who teaches. I’m a teacher who writes. But I had to work at Wake Forest to know that.”

Early tributes here, here, here, and here.



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Happy Birthday, Brown v. Board of Education!

save brown build civil rights

(Above: Poster used in the April 1, 2003, Civil Rights March on Washington; Library of Congress)

May 17, 2014, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, and I only wish the occasion was as happy, in an unqualified way, as the exuberant headline above sounds.

Certainly, there are still reasons to rejoice.  One of the most powerful bulwarks of Jim Crow segregation began to fall that day in 1954, when the high court justices unanimously overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine encased in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. President Barack Obama is surely justified in his proclamation that Brown “shifted the legal and moral compass of the Nation.”

Nevertheless—and here the other shoe must drop—no longer separate still falls abysmally short of accomplishing the other, equally important goal of the ruling.  As I wrote ten years ago (in US News & World Report, March 22, 2004) in the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary, the unfinished business of Brown remained unfinished:

 But the great tragedy of Brown, many commentators agree, is that its original emphasis on racial integration as a means toward equal education somehow shifted toward an emphasis on integration as the end itself. Lost in the shuffle of subsequent rulings and interpretations was the other desired result: educational equality. Things could have been otherwise, argues Yale legal scholar Jack Balkin. After all, in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that education was “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” And in Bolling v. Sharpe, which desegregated Washington, D.C., schools concurrently with the Brown decision, he almost stipulated that education itself was a fundamental constitutional right. “It would have changed the way people talked about Brown,” Balkin says. “If you can say what is really at stake is equality of education, you can talk about whether you are creating equal opportunity.”

Without such clarity, subsequent decisions reached by courts more conservative than Warren’s produced much narrower interpretations of Brown. In San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez (1973), the majority concluded that the state had no obligation to equalize funding for an urban school district whose tax base was considerably lower than that of nearby suburban districts. The 14th Amendment “does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages,” the majority argued, adding that education was “not a fundamental interest” under the Constitution.

Similarly, Milliken v. Bradley (1974) overturned a federal district court ruling that found integration in greater metropolitan Detroit could be achieved by busing children from the city school district to suburban ones. Noting that the suburban districts had not themselves practiced discrimination, the Supreme Court determined that the remedy was inappropriate. Foes of affirmative action, sometimes resorting to similar logic, have also used Brown’s implicit embrace of colorblindness to argue against racial preferences in admission

No one needs to be told that law is an imperfect instrument for redressing social ills and injustices. Laws can even be turned against what might seem to have been their original intent—which is only to say that laws seldom rise above the times that interpret them.

And that may be the saddest comment on the times that surround this anniversary of the landmark ruling: that there is now so little public passion, and perhaps even less political will, to provide the kind of equal education that is the true foundation of equal opportunity.

So, yes, Happy Birthday, Brown!  Let’s acknowledge the good.  But may the next anniversary gives us even greater cause for celebration.

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Minimalist Food For a Streamlined Life

However long humans have been eating, they have been doing it together. From the first hunter-gatherer societies to our contemporary haute cuisine, food has always been enmeshed in elaborate social rituals, codes, mores, and expectations. Anthropologists have for some time observed that food is a window into a how society functions. Though food can segregate people along class, ethnic, and religious lines, it can also bring together and solidify communities. If it is true then that we are what we eat, what does it say if all our meals are exactly the same and eaten alone?

Above: Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart holds a bag of finished product inside a warehouse in Oakland, California. AFP PHOTO/Josh Edelson/Getty Images


According to a recent article in The New Yorker by Lizzie Widdicombe, the future of food may be glimpsed in the minimalist vision of Rob Rhinehart, the young founder and maker of Soylent.  Named after the 1973 dystopian film starring Charleton Heston, Soylent is a doughy mixture of synthesized ingredients designed to provide complete daily nutrition in one convenient glop without the need for heating or the company of others. Like the popular prepackaged meals introduced in the 1950s, Rhinehart’s product is aimed at efficiency:

Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile.”

In our digitally instantaneous times, the desire for speed and efficiency is nothing new, including in our eating habits. Consider the drive-thru window, instant coffee, microwavable pizza— all driven by the logic of convenience. Rhinehart’s project is simply an accelerated response to popular demand for the cheap, convenient, and fast. This time though it comes in the form of gooey calories.

Soylent has been heralded by the press as “the end of food,” which is a somewhat bleak prospect. It conjures up visions of a world devoid of pizza parlors and taco stands—our kitchens stocked with beige powder instead of banana bread, our spaghetti nights and ice-cream socials replaced by evenings sipping sludge. But, Rhinehart says, that’s not exactly his vision. “Most of people’s meals are forgotten,” he told me. He imagines that, in the future, “we’ll see a separation between our meals for utility and function, and our meals for experience and socialization.” Soylent isn’t coming for our Sunday potlucks. It’s coming for our frozen quesadillas.

But Rhinehart’s ambition is greater than simply replacing the the occasional microwaved taco.

Living on Soylent has its benefits, though. As Rhinehart puts it, you “cruise” through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: “There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.” Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings.

Rhinehart claims that ninety percent of his meals consist of Solyent, something that allows him to bypass the physical as well as social elements associated with eating. Considering that Rhinehart has twenty-five thousand backers, it would seem that this appetite for minimalist dining is strong.

Rhinehart’s techno-utopian project may seem like an innocuous innovation— a proposed step in the evolution of food practices that change with time, much like the venerated family meal. Yet the problem with viewing eating as the solitary consumption of essentialized nutrition is that it denies that eating is always enmeshed in a moral web involving soil, flesh, water, and community. No amount of chemical synthesizing can eliminate this reality. To be embodied is unavoidably to be in the world, with all of its messy obligations and duties to others. In our daily eating, we take in the surrounding world in and through our bodies, and that world is made up of dirt, blood, animals and people— a reality that seems to trouble Rhinehart:

Rhinehart is not a fan of farms, which he refers to as “very inefficient factories.” He believes that farming should become more industrialized, not less. “It’s really the labor that gets me,” he said. “Agriculture’s one of the most dangerous and dirty jobs out there, and it’s traditionally done by the underclass. There’s so much walking and manual labor, counting and measuring. Surely it should be automated.” 

Rather than lamenting and “solving” the necessity of food and the work involved in growing it, we should celebrate its humanizing capacities. At its best, eating enhances our moral sensibilities and enlivens our spirits. It obliges us to acknowledge our own dependency and reminds us of the fragility of life. Practiced for millennia in various ways, the enactment of a shared meal can deepen friendships, establish trust, and open our eyes to one another’s humanity. And in an era of deep divisions—political, ecological, and cultural—Wendell Berry reminds us that “Eating with the fullest pleasure is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.“ In eating, we enact a particular story and inhabit, rather unconsciously, a larger cosmos than we can name. Rhinehart’s Soylent may keep us going—but only at the expense what is truly nourishing.

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