Bruce Watson's Profile > Messages Posted

Subject: Genetics, Race, and Politics

Forum: Genetics, Race, and Politics
This week, Senator Elizabeth Warren released an analysis of her DNA to refute President Trump's claims that she lied about having Native American ancestors. While Warren drew both support and criticism, there was no question of her political intent: Her release took aim at a longstanding attack by Trump, and she immediately pivoted to raise questions about his withheld tax forms and his earlier promise to donate $1 million to a charity of her choice if she submitted to a DNA test. Almost immediately, the President responded with tweets downplaying the issue of her heritage and questioning the accuracy of her genetic test.

What's far more interesting than Senator Warren's release and President Trump's response is what both events say about the meaning of race in our culture. For example, less than a day after Warren's release, representatives of the Cherokee nation pointed out that she is not a recognized member of any tribe, and that--for them--her DNA was insufficient backing for her claims of tribal heritage. Other, non-native critics questioned whether the very small amount of Native American DNA in her profile justified her claim of heritage.

The irony is that, according to Warren and her siblings, her parents eloped because her father's family didn't want their son marrying a woman with ANY native heritage. And, lest the message isn't clear, the US has a long history of racial prejudice against people who carry any non-European heritage.

It's particularly striking that all of this is occurring against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, ICE detentions, immigration restrictions against Muslims, voting rights battles in Georgia, and other events that are casting fresh light on America's struggle with institutionalized racism.

Your Challenge:
How do you view Trump and Warren's battle? What does it say to you about race in America, or in our culture? How do you think your race impacts your position in society? Do you agree or disagree with Senator Warren's decision to make her genetic profile public? Why?

Subject: Get Your War On

Forum: Get Your War On
In a recent campaign ad, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin loaded up his shotgun and literally took aim at an anti-Obamacare bill. Think about that for a sec: a national politician and former governor loaded a shotgun on TV and blew a hole in a piece of legislation. This follows a former ad in which Manchin took aim at some of the “bad parts” of Obamacare and shot them, too.

Talk about your militant imagery!

It’s not surprising that Manchin used guns to woo voters: America loves to wage war. There are our real wars, of course -- Afghanistan, Iraq, possibly Iran -- and then there are the metaphorical ones, like the war on drugs, the war on terror, the wars on women or men, on gangs and guns and coal and Christmas.

These wars have had mixed effects. For most of us, the most visible effect of the war on terror is that we are filled with terror every time we see an unattended bag at an airport. As for the war on drugs, it doesn’t seem to have done much to halt the ever-rising tide of opiate overdoses.

Worse yet, these “wars” also tend to pit us against each other, often without our consent. The gender war, for example, suggests a good side and a bad side, a villain(ess) and a hero(ine). Often, we’re automatically placed on one side or another based on our biology, not beliefs. And, even if we’re able to factor in our beliefs, the “war” metaphor assumes that we’re all in or we’re all out, that all of our values fit into column A or column B. There’s no room to pick and choose your values or -- better yet! -- demand a little nuance in your political beliefs.

All too often, our “wars” give us clear-cut battles, at the expense of a realistic assessment of a larger problem. The war on gangs, for example, focuses on whether gangs are good or bad, not their underlying causes or the policies that could address those causes. The “war” between football players and NFL teams frames the issue as a battle over kneeling, not a question of the impact of institutionalized racism and police violence in the US.

So, are you ready to take on war?

Your Challenge:

Think about one of our many cultural wars and skirmishes. Address some of the rhetoric surrounding the war -- the generalizations laying out the various sides, for example -- and then take a stab at addressing the more nuanced issues that underly the rhetoric. Suggest a better, more effective way to address the situation.

Subject: Who Gets to Be American?

Forum: Who Gets to Be American?
About a year ago, the posters started showing up in my neighborhood. Printed in red ink on a white background, they read “CHINGA LA MIGRA!,” and gave readers a number to call if they were having problems with immigration. The English language version was more polite -- it said “ICE-FREE ZONE” -- but the message was still clear: this was a safe area for immigrants.

In the news, the message is different. We regularly see the President and members of his inner circle talking about the dangers of immigrants -- the drag on our social safety net, the threat of criminal gangs, and the alleged damage to our culture.

In the last month or two, the rhetoric around immigration in our culture have been particularly ugly. But while child separations and the current attacks on legal immigrants that are being discussed by members of the Trump administration are extreme, anti-immigration bias is hardly new. America has had a strong vein of anti-immigration sentiment at least since the 1800s.

At the heart of all of this lies a fundamental question -- and a major contradiction. The contradiction is the fact that the US economy is largely based on cheap, illegal labor. Those are the people who pick our grapes and build our homes, take care of our kids and clean our hotel rooms. Their illegal status makes it possible to underpay them, and many companies both rely on them and take brutal advantage of them. They are vital to our country, yet are not legally allowed to be here.

As for the question, that’s your challenge…


What is it to be an American -- and who has the right to pursue citizenship? Does being American mean being born here? Being able to speak English? Having American born parents? Declaring allegiance to our country? How would you define citizenship, and what path -- if any -- would you make available to people who are looking to become a part of our country?

Subject: When They Go Low, Do We Go Lower?

Forum: When They Go Low, Do We Go Lower?
American politics has been a rough, nasty business, almost since the beginning: in the election of 1800, one of Thomas Jefferson’s supporters referred to John Adams as “A hideous, hermaphroditical creature.”

Arguably, things have been going downhill ever since.

But while politicians have often attacked each other, either directly or through their allies, there has usually been a sort of gentleman's agreement, a notion that it was only business, and that private lives were sacrosanct. In the last few years, however, it seems like that dividing line has come under attack. In speeches and tweets, President Trump has called for the jailing of his enemies and political opponents, and encouraged violence at protesters at his speeches.

Late last month, when details of ICE’s policing of the Mexican border came to light, many liberal protesters similarly began taking aim at the personal lives of members of Trump’s administration. Trump officials, including Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen were publicly berated: Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, VA, while Nielsen faced chanting protesters outside her home and a restaurant where she was eating.

Many members of the liberal political establishment, including Nancy Pelosi, bemoaned this lack of civility, echoing Michelle Obama’s sentiment that “When they go low, we go high.” However, a growing number of Democrats, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, have taken another tack, encouraging protesters to continue their direct attacks against members of the Trump administration in their private lives. In response, some Trump supporters have threatened her life.

Your Challenge:

What place do you think civility has in politics? Is it an unchanging and universal standard that everyone is obliged to follow, regardless of the behavior of their opponents? Or is it a contract between opponents, a promise to act decently as long as your opponent reciprocates? Should we go high when our opponents go low? Should we strike back when they are disrespectful? Is civility a moral strength or a political weakness?

Subject: After Roseanne, can we still talk politics?

Forum: After Roseanne, can we still talk politics?
So, here’s a (somewhat) interesting fact about my neighborhood: I live about two miles away from Archie Bunker’s house, the home that was used for exteriors on All in the Family.

(I also live about two miles away from the diner that was used in Goodfellas, but that’s another story!)

For those who aren’t familiar with 1970’s television, All in the Family was once the most controversial show on TV, and it provided a forum where liberal and conservative characters regularly hashed out the most intense cultural battles of the day. The main character, Archie Bunker, was racist, sexist, and uneducated. He argued regularly with his son-in-law, a stridently liberal college student. While the show’s basic politics were liberal, it gave voice to both conservatives and liberals, highlighting the validity and absurdity of their respective arguments.

I mention this because of Roseanne Barr. For all its problems -- and there were many -- the reboot of Roseanne evoked the spirit of All in the Family. Like its predecessor, the show featured conservative and liberal characters -- and actors -- offering a sincere approach to their perspectives, while finding room to poke fun at their stridency. Given time, it could have become a real forum for some of the cultural battles that are raging across our society.

And then Roseanne Barr made a horrifically offensive tweet, the show was immediately canceled, and the conversation was shut down. There’s no forgiving Barr’s tweet, but it still feels like something valuable has been lost in the wake of her cancelation, for both conservatives and liberals. This loss was echoed in the statements of many of her castmates, who were quick to criticize her statements.

Your Challenge

My question is two-fold, and you can choose to answer either or both questions. First, can you think of a forum in popular culture where liberals and conservatives can see our cultural arguments played out in a fairly balanced way? What do you think such a forum could or should look like?

Second, what do you think should have happened with Roseanne Barr -- and to other public figures in similar circumstances? Was silencing her show the best way to handle the problem? Should we silence public figures when they make comments that we consider disgusting or distasteful? How can we go forward with a public discussion when we can’t stand the things that our opponents are saying?

Subject: Where does cultural borrowing become disrespect?

Forum: Where does cultural borrowing become disrespect?
A month ago, Wes Anderson released his latest film, Isle of Dogs. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it involves a Japanese mayor’s conspiracy to banish all of his city’s dogs, and a young boy’s subsequent attempt to rescue his pet from a quarantine zone. The movie is set in a fanciful version of Japan, where drumming punctuates the soundtrack, glass buildings dominate the skyline, and haiku illustrate the action.

Some critics claimed that Anderson was guilty of “cultural appropriation,” a disrespectful exploitation of Japanese culture. They cited his unrealistic depiction of Japan, his use of a heroic American exchange student, and the fact that the dogs in the film all spoke English and were voiced by American actors.

Admittedly, Japan is a far cry from the preppy-infused, Norman Rockwell-accented world of most of Anderson’s movies. But one could argue that Isle of Dogs delves deeply into central aspects of Japanese culture and literature, using them to tell a very Wes Anderson movie. In many ways, it raises the question of where cultural appreciation becomes cultural appropriation.

In some ways, this goes to the heart of American culture. After all, most truly “American” things come from somewhere else: our hamburgers owe a lot to Germany, our pizza is an adaptation of Italian food, and our all American apple pie comes from England. Rock music traces its roots to Africa, surf music borrows from the Middle East, and guitar can be traced back to Spain. For centuries, we’ve borrowed from countries around the world to create a culture of our own.

Your Challenge

Where do you draw the line between borrowing and stealing? Between appropriation and exploitation? Does “Despacito” cross the line? What about the Lucky Charms Leprechaun? Can we draw a list of attributes that separate respectful borrowing from disrespectful theft? Or is it something that we feel, but can’t explain? Should we all endeavor to stick only to our own “native” cultures, or are there some rules of engagement we can apply to our own cultural explorations -- and borrowings?

Subject: Celebrities in Politics

Forum: Celebrities in Politics
Does anyone out there remember Miranda from Sex and the City?

On Monday, Cynthia Nixon, the actress who played her, announced that she’s planning on running for Governor of New York. Nixon hasn’t previously run for office, but she’s got a bit of political experience: she’s worked for years as a marriage equality activist, and served on an advisory committee for New York City’s Mayor DiBlasio. What’s more, given the dysfunction between Albany and New York City, it seems that she might have a real chance against Democrat governor Andrew Cuomo.

Celebrities in politics aren’t anything new: we’ve seen a Congressman who previously starred on the Love Boat, a Senator who was on Saturday Night Live, a Governor who got his start in pro wrestling and a President who rose to fame in movies where his costar was a chimpanzee. And now, of course, the man in the Oval Office is probably most famous for his role on a reality show.

When it comes to effectiveness, those celebrities have been a mixed bag: some were great communicators, but lacked a deep understanding of policy. Others were solid on policy, but were plagued by the scandals related to their earlier years in entertainment. Some were great, and many were mediocre. Across the board, though, it’s pretty clear that the ability to understand an audience and the ability to understand policy are two very different skill sets.

This difference in abilities is likely to become even more important over the next few years, as we seem to be entering a new era of political celebrities. The merest hint that Oprah Winfrey was considering a Presidential run — despite her repeated denials — has led to an insane amount of speculation. And celebrities from Duane Johnson to Kid Rock to Caitlin Jenner are allegedly considering running for office. Far from disappearing, it seems likely that celebrity politicians are going to become an increasingly important part of our political landscape.

Your Challenge

What do you think of this trend? Are you excited by the ability of celebrities to reach voters and bring attention to political issues? Concerned by their often-limited understanding of policy? Do you see this as a positive trend for democracy in America, or a further lurch toward the consolidation of power by the wealthy and prominent? Are you eager to vote for President Winfrey or worried that professionalism in politics is disappearing?

Subject: Why Are You Watching the Olympics? Why not?

Forum: Why Are You Watching the Olympics? Why not?
It often seems like the Olympics are more of a metaphor than a real-life competition. In 1896, the first modern Olympics in Athens were a metaphor for international relations and cooperation. Forty years later, Adolf Hitler tried to make the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a metaphor for racial superiority, only to have Jesse Owens and several other black athletes turn them into a metaphor for the value of diversity. In 1980, the US snubbed the Soviet Olympics, turning them into a metaphor for the Cold War.

And athletes have gotten involved in the metaphor making. In 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their hands in the black power salute, the gesture became a metaphor for rising ethnic pride in America — and their subsequent banishment became a symbol of how much work remained to be done. The 1988 Jamaican bobsled team became a metaphor for creativity and determination, while the 1994 showdown between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan became a metaphor for everything from social class to feminism to the 24-hour news cycle.

Now it’s 2018, and it’s time to ask what this year’s Olympics symbolizes. When North and South Korean athletes marched together, did it become a metaphor for repairing the rifts created by the Cold War? Did the banning of Russia’s Olympic team make it a metaphor for an international commitment to law and order? Or did the emergence of “OARs” — Olympic Athletes from Russia — make it a metaphor for yet another international body caving in to Vladimir Putin?

How about America’s team? Do the US athletes taking the field in their matching Ralph Lauren uniforms make it a metaphor for Americans joining together despite our internal political divisions? Do the young athletes tweeting from the sidelines during their competitions make it a metaphor for a new generation for whom every moment must be memorialized on social media? Does the recent Larry Nassar sexual abuse trial make it into a metaphor for society’s abuse of women? Is it a symbol of everything that draws us together? Everything that pulls us apart?

Your Challenge

Why are you watching the Olympics? Why not? Are you interested in the stories of the athletes or the behind-the-scenes political maneuverings underlying the competition? What do these stories mean to you? What do they tell you about the state of the world or about the internal divisions and politics rippling across the US today? How do you think future generations will characterize this Olympics?

Subject: Is Silence a Statement?

Forum: Is Silence a Statement?
This year’s Golden Globe awards have been lauded as both a victory and a failure. For women, they were an unquestionable victory: across the audience, women wore black in solidarity, and many brought women’s rights advocates as their dates. Throughout the night, women commented about this watershed moment in Hollywood’s fight for gender equality, culminating in Oprah’s speech tying her award to the civil rights struggle. Paired with Natalie Portman’s comment about the all-male nominees for best director, Oprah’s speech put the #MeToo year in the context of a larger historical movement, while showing that the struggle is far from over.

But for men, the impact of the evening was a little cloudy. Many showed support by wearing all black, but when it came to words, they were almost universally silent about harassment. For many, their silence spoke volumes.

Many critics have argued that the male silence at the Golden Globes was shameful, but some have pointed out that it’s also part of a larger question of how men should men approach the #MeToo movement. Should they share their own #MeToo moments, or should they stay silent? Should they make statements of solidarity, or should they step aside and let other voices be heard? Should they apologize for their behavior, or just resolve to improve it?

These aren’t simple questions: it easy to condemn male silence, but there have also been recent articles criticizing men for trying to weigh in on a topic that they don’t understand. Men who tell their #MeToo stories have been criticized for making the issue entirely about sexual harassment, and missing the larger context of the gender struggle. And men who have come forth to apologize for their poor behavior, like Morgan Spurlock, have also been criticized for the manner in which they did so.

At the height of the Civil Rights struggle, a woman approached Malcolm X at a college campus and asked what she could do to help. He told her “Nothing,” and passed her by. Years later, writing in his autobiography, he said that he regretted his words, and wished they had been more productive.

Your Challenge:
What do you think men should do in response to #MeToo? Should they remain silent, in respect to other voices? Share the stories of their own struggles? Apologize for their actions? Work with other men, but remain silent in public? What is the best way for a gender that is often the villains in the harassment struggle to help promote change?

Subject: When it comes to harassment, what is your role?

Forum: When it comes to harassment, what is your role?
I recently came across a pair of articles that, together, give an interesting glimpse into how the sexual harassment environment is changing. One covered Billy Bush’s appearance on the Late Show, where he reiterated that Donald Trump bragged about sexual harassment on the Access Hollywood bus. But when it came to explaining why he didn’t push back against Trump, Bush faltered, lamely pointing out that he thought Trump’s comments were a comedy routine.

The other article recapped a public disagreement between John Oliver and Dustin Hoffman that occurred during a panel discussion about one of Hoffman’s movies. Oliver surprised the actor by bringing up the sexual harassment allegations against him, and the discussion became heated. Members of the audience criticized Oliver for going off topic, but he explained that he felt it was important to bring it up, as “No one stands up to powerful men.”

Rather than focusing on sexual harassers and victims, these events put the spotlight on bystanders. Billy Bush chose not to speak out about Trump’s sexist comments, while Oliver chose to shift from a movie discussion — which his audience had paid to see — to a harassment discussion that many of them didn’t want to witness. But for all their differences, Oliver and Bush both made a decision about their values, their responsibility, and their willingness to create an uncomfortable environment in order to address a larger point. Faced with sexual harassers, they chose either to face the problem or to turn away.

It’s an issue that resonates: to a great extent, we’re all bystanders, and we’re all being forced to figure out where we stand on these issues. Knowing what we now know, can we still see “The Graduate” the same way? Do the events of this year change the way hear a Louis CK set, or see a Pixar film, or watch George Takei? Does Billy Bush’s failure change the way we react to our friends when they say something offensive? Where do we draw our lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

Your Challenge

Our culture is in the midst of redefining many of its rules, and we are all part of that discussion. Where do you stand on the changing rules and perspectives around sexual harassment? Are we too insensitive? Are we oversensitive? What do you consider an appropriate punishment for a harasser? How about a bystander? Do you have a story about a time when you stood up to harassment…or failed to do so?

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