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­­Diversity and the wage gap

—Cindy I-Fen Cheng

While much has been written about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s tech industries, recent findings by the American Institute for Economic Research sheds light on what may be a more alarming concern: wage disparities based on race and gender.

As data released by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter has shown, the tech industry is dominated by men. Racially, whites made up the largest percentage of tech workers while Latinos, Blacks, mixed-race and groups listed as “other,” the smallest. Unsurprising to those who are familiar with the layout of Silicon Valley, Asian Americans were not only well represented in these companies; they also comprised the largest percentage of tech workers at Yahoo and LinkedIn.

This impressive showing of Asian Americans in tech positions may explain why findings on wage disparities are so appalling. As the tech industry is inching towards “diversity,” isn’t “equality” within the work force the anticipated result?

The wage gap suggests that the answer is “no.” According to the findings of the AIER, Asian Americans made $8,146 less than whites in 2012, $3,656 less than Blacks, and $6,907 less than employees listed as “other.” With this wage gap, “diversity” is reduced to being merely a symbolic measure of equality.

Notably, the Asian American wage gap raises other concerns. With the strong presence of Asians in the tech industry, does this suggest that companies are choosing to hire foreign workers, also known as H-1B workers, over citizens and permanent residents? More importantly, does the wage gap suggest that the hiring of H-1B workers are driving down American wages, given the longstanding practice of hiring foreign workers as “cheap” labor over filling a skills gap in the work force?

Thus far, the debate over H-1B workers has focused on a narrow set of questions that seek to determine whether H-1B workers and more broadly, immigrants, are good or bad for our country. Missing from this debate are questions over what corporations and the federal government are doing to ensure equal pay for equal work. Instead of asking whether or not foreign workers are driving down wages, we should also consider how the belief that it is ok to discriminate against H1-B workers and pay them less is working to sustain wage disparities.

If we want to see equality in work place, we need to recommit ourselves to the struggle against discrimination and engage in open and frank discussions about the effects of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Only then will we see a fair distribution of people from various backgrounds and genders in the work force, and wage parity for all workers.

Cindy I-Fen Cheng is Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Citizens of Asian America: Democracy and Race during the Cold War (now available in paperback from NYU Press).

Reducing incarceration rate begins with juvenile justice

—Simon I. Singer

 A large segment of the over 2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States entered the criminal justice system as adolescents. From the 1980s on, too many juveniles faced the harsh penalties of a zero tolerance criminal justice system. We are now paying the price of a justice system that has lost its rehabilitative mission.

But these harsh determinate sentencing policies are not to be applied to all juveniles, particularly those residing in affluent suburbs. The rehabilitative mission of juvenile justice is still alive and well in many middle-class communities. It can be found in desirable suburban cities where there are good public schools, plenty of recreational activities, and youth service professionals that seem to really care.

For those youth who occasionally deviate from the straight and narrow path of law abiding behavior, the youth services available in affluent suburbs offer more opportunities to confront adolescent troubles than those available in impoverished communities.  This is a major finding of my detailed study of delinquency in a large suburban city named by Money Magazine as America’s Safest City. My book, America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia, shows why rates of incarceration are so high among impoverished communities and so low in affluent suburbs.

In these suburbs, treatment at the first sign of adolescent offending is not far removed from the medical model of good health: a cold is treated so it doesn’t become pneumonia and minor surgeries are agreed upon to avoid major ones. Similarly, the residents of affluent suburbs invest in their good schools, youth programs, therapists, and a whole host of youth service professionals so that their low offending youth do not become high offending criminals.

The way to reduce this country’s high incarceration rate is to emulate the prevention-treatment approach that currently exists in many affluent suburbs. This means investing in prevention and treatment so that impoverished adolescents are not so quickly excluded from developing as law abiding adults. It also means responding to the first sign of trouble in a system of juvenile justice that should have the aim of avoiding the labeling of its youth as criminals. That often requires diversion along with programs that actually confront the reasons for delinquency. By making a treatment-oriented juvenile justice system available to all adolescents—no matter where they live, we can effectively reduce this country’s high rate of incarceration.

Simon I. Singer is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. He is the author of America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia (NYU Press, 2014).

Challenging Barbie’s image of beauty

—Amanda M. Czerniawski

Kalliopi Monoyios for Scientific American writes about artist Nickolay Lamm’s Barbie project, where he created a doll based on the measurements of a “real, healthy 19-year-old” and compared it side-by-side with a Barbie. He also hopes to create more dolls, representing a variety of body types, ethnicities, and genders.

His Lammily doll demonstrates how Barbie, along with fashion and media, distorts our sense of normal bodies by constructing an idealized body that is far from a natural one. Barbie, with her impossible physical measurements and proportions, presents an unattainable image of beauty; yet, her body type is depicted throughout the media landscape, including in popular animated films geared towards children. Monoyios laments, “Are we still stuck on the impossibly thin-waisted, big-boobed, bobbleheaded ideal of beauty? When can we let that go?” I would like to add: Can we let go not just a particular image of beauty but the concept of beauty itself?

Our culture places a high premium on the look and shape of women’s bodies. The female body, in particular, is constructed as an object to be watched. Barbie typifies this objectification with her limited mobility, implicit focus on dressing up, and her penchant for high heels. As a consequence of this intense focus on appearance, women experience their bodies as not solely for their pleasure and amusement but as under the constant gaze of others. This focus on the physical may lead to a separation of the mind from the body, i.e., disembodiment. This occurs when we are taught to think of our bodies as passive objects meant to be admired by others.

When women begin to hold themselves accountable for the proper display of their bodies, they risk becoming objects in their own body projects. They invest in and manipulate their bodies and engage in extensive body practices to cultivate their physiques, often towards these unattainable Barbie-like goals of perfection. If women do not feel like they measure up to this ideal, they may disconnect from their bodies in order to shield themselves from the pain associated with living in non-normative bodies that fail to match contemporary standards of beauty. Ultimately, many women often find themselves continually toiling away at their bodies without reaching the goal, for the fashion icons they aspire to emulate do not really exist but are, instead, carefully constructed and manipulated by the brush strokes of master aestheticians and computer technicians. We have forgotten (or simply ignored) that these kinds of bodies are fantastical images.

The Lammily doll aims to expand the notion of beauty to include average bodies, but does it help eliminate the engendered problem of disembodiment? While the website presents a photo slideshow of Lammily’s figure (including close-ups of her bust and rear-end in a teal bikini), it also stresses the doll’s articulated wrists, knees, elbows, and feet. At least Lammily may be able to do something besides pose and look pretty.

While Lammily may be a step in the right direction, ultimately, we need a doll that instills the lesson that we should not judge women and girls on the basis of their looks. We need a doll that does not sexualize or objectify women’s and girl’s bodies. Instead of being judged on their “good looks,” let us value women for their “good works,” in the home, the workplace, and the global beyond.

Amanda M. Czerniawski is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Temple University and the author of Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling (forthcoming from NYU Press in January 2015).

The satiric lesson of ‘Dear White People’

—Pamela Newkirk

[This article originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Rarely is a white audience afforded a lucid and freewheeling response to the deluge of indignities blacks still endure. Instead, reaction to the barrage of stereotypes embodied in many Tyler Perry films, the one-dimensional depiction of blacks in news or reality television, or whites’ insulting appropriation and commodification of a hard-earned black urban culture, is seldom considered.

Now Dear White People, appropriately set on an elite and predominantly white university campus, delivers a timely and barely satiric lesson on why, for many blacks, tensions continue to simmer beneath the nation’s facade of racial harmony and transcendence. The film’s writer-director, Justin Simien, lays out an ambitious lesson plan to reveal how racial stereotypes play out on an elite campus that claims to celebrate diversity.

Inclusion in such settings typically means a small number of blacks fitting into preconceived notions of who and what they are. And for many, the stereotype of black life—of a monolithic, urban slang-wielding group that glorifies criminality and crass consumerism—is more salient than the reality of black individuality.

So many conflate blackness with an underachieving urban underclass that, for some white filmgoers, it’ll come as a surprise that blacks don’t wish to be viewed as products of street culture. Nor do they relish the curiosity of whites who touch their hair or inquire about its texture, manageability, or authenticity. The individuality and dignity readily accorded whites are often denied blacks, so few African-Americans manage to escape some of the slights deftly depicted on screen.

Even at elite colleges, many high-achieving African-Americans are often addressed by their white peers as if aliens from a rap video, rather than as fellow classmates from similar or even more-privileged backgrounds. Why white students feel entitled to use the N-word, or to affect urban slang when greeting their black classmates, is both confounding and yet all too familiar.

One character in Dear White People, a prototypical nerd and gay writer, is assumed to be a member of the Black Student Union and to live in black housing when in reality he feels as alienated by many blacks as he does by the larger culture. A girl from the South Side of Chicago is so determined to fit in that she conforms to a narrowly prescribed, self-deprecating role; while the main character, Sam White, is the agitator whose provocative campus radio show, Dear White People, not only catalogs the daily slights but lashes back. In one show she mockingly counsels: “Dear White People, don’t dance.” But behind the scowl is the pain and frustration of a sensitive aspiring filmmaker who privately favors the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman over Spike Lee.

While Sam speaks for the black students, she is understood best by her perceptive white boyfriend. He alone among the characters sees and fully appreciates the person beneath the skin. It is here where we are granted a close-up look at the intricate dance that is race, the complicated series of endlessly variable calculations that defy neat categories or lazy shorthand. It’s all covered, sometimes tumbling all at once from the screen with such velocity that one may at times miss the subtlety.

What becomes clear is that the central black characters are anything but the interchangeable cartoon cutouts they are in the imaginations of their white—and sometimes their black—peers. The cost of acceptance in predominantly white settings is often great, as is the temptation to insist that America has come so far on the racial front that whites can be considered the new victims of discrimination who can mindlessly evoke black stereotypes for fun.

In the end it’s not their race that unites these highly individual black students at the proverbial cafeteria table, but rather the barrage of indignities that effectively obliterates their differences. It’s the persisting erasure—the inability to see them as unique individuals—that cuts so deeply.

Recognition or even denial may account for some of the uneasy laughter I heard in the Upper West Side theater where I was among an age- and racially-diverse New York audience. Not all will agree that the filmmaker’s incisive critique is justified, but this film is certain to be discussed, on campuses and elsewhere, for many weeks and years to come.

Pamela Newkirk is Professor of Journalism at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2012).

Doing Time in the Texas Prison Rodeo

Doing Time in the Depression, Ethan Blue’s seminal work on prison life in the 1930s, is coming out in paperback next month! To celebrate, we pulled one of our favorite excerpts from the book to share with y’all. 

In the passage below, Blue takes us into the world of prison sports, starting with the king of all penal sporting events: the Texas Prison Rodeo.

Texas Spectacle

Prison sport in Texas shared something with sports in California and elsewhere. Inmates in Texas played baseball, they boxed, and they even had volleyball. While black and white athletes might play together in the San Quentin or Folsom baseball leagues, this was unthinkable in Texas, which sponsored firmly defined white and Negro leagues. But penal sport in the Lone Star State had a peculiar twist. Rather than private affairs, prison sports and celebrations became massive, public spectacles.

The Texas Prison Rodeo, originally billed as the “Fastest and Wildest Rodeo in Texas” (later expanded to “the World”) was first instituted in 1931 as a self-proclaimed progressive reform. Lee Simmons, who claimed the rodeo as his brainchild, thought a rodeo would be cheap entertainment for prisoners and guards. It was this and more—the rodeo ballooned into a huge public relations success and a source of considerable income. Audiences grew from just a few hundred in 1931 to tens of thousands by the end of the decade. The prison stadium was built, expanded, and rebuilt to hold the overflowing crowds, thousands of whom were regularly turned away for lack of capacity. According to prison official Albert Moore, the first Sunday’s rodeo in 1939 drew “the largest crowd ever to witness a rodeo in the United States.”

The rodeo drew from Lee Simmons’s invocation of the slaveholding tradition of forcing captives to celebrate. Its form was of an imagined Texas frontier past. A radio advertisement hyped the event, where “one hundred and fifty daring inmate buckaroos will clash with outlaw broncs, vicious brahma bulls and steers, which have been brought in from the outlying reaches of the vast farmlands and river bottom pastures of the System. It’s a case where outlaw meets outlaw! And there will be action such as you have never seen before.”

Baseball may have been America’s game, but rodeos held a special place in Texans’ hearts. The rodeo accessed a different form of nationalism and statemediated identity than baseball did. Like baseball, the rodeo was notable in the way that it structured the temporality of the prison year, and in the way its creation of “leisure” validated the existence of “labor” as an organizing force of life. But unlike baseball, the Texas rodeo was based in an Anglo-Texan memory of the American West, steeped in the lore of the open frontier.

For more information on this book, visit our website.

Q&A with Kyle Bulthuis, author of Four Steeples over the City Streets

In the interview below, historian Kyle Bulthuis discusses his forthcoming book, Four Steeples over the City Streets: Religion and Society in New York’s Early Republic Congregations (NYU Press, October 2014).

What led you to write the book?

Kyle Bulthuis: In graduate school I found myself drawn to two historical fields—religious and social history—that often do not mix. When they interact, each tends to flatten and simplify the other field. In this book I wanted to do justice to both methods. In New York City, individuals such as John Jay, James Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Peter Williams were not just prominent citizens but also churchgoers. I strove to tell their story as religious as well as social individuals, people located in a time and place that included religious and secular commitments.

In two sentences, what is the argument of your book?

These four New York City congregations—Trinity Episcopal Church, John Street Methodist Chapel, Mother Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, and St. Philip’s (African) Episcopal Church—were all historically significant in their respective denominations (and socially significant landmarks in New York City), and each were profoundly shaped by the social changes of the early Republic. The language of Christian unity that congregants voiced proved to be an ideal that was impossible to maintain in an environment where wealth and poverty, race and gender, and physical and material development tended to divide religious bodies more than unite them.

Why do we need to read Four Steeples over the City Streets?

In major American cities, churches are often prominent landmarks that tourists treat as museums of the past. American politics and culture tend to identify cities as places of primarily secular, not religious, commitments. These assumptions have carried weight in the scholarly community. American religious histories often focus on denominations, or large movements, rather than individual buildings or congregations. Further, scholars of American religion have traditionally focused on the western frontier, the place of big camp meeting revivals, rather than urban centers. My examination of city congregations therefore reveals a different scale in a different place than is typical. I found that these central New York City congregations experienced religious change earlier and more intensely than elsewhere: rather than being a place where religion was peripheral, New York City was a place where religious change was cutting-edge, for good as well as for ill. Democratization, revivalism, feminization, racial segregation, reform: these developments all contributed to the urban religious experience.

[Note: An expanded version of this post originally appeared on The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog.]

‘Left Behind,’ again? The re-emergence of a political phenomenon

—Glenn W. Shuck

Critics just don’t get Left Behind, a new movie adaptation of the best-selling book series. Sure, it’s predictably awful. The acting is bad, the production is terrible, and the plot is thinner than Soviet toilet paper. But the stakes are far higher than with a typical, first-order howler. Left Behind preaches to the choir, sure, but this is no ordinary choir! The film, like the novels, doesn’t cater to Hollywood styles; it’s all about motivating people to “spread the word,” and that word is just as political as it is otherworldly.

Ten years have passed since the original Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins concluded. In a world where news cycles grow ever shorter, ten years is several lifetimes. Sure, the Christian suspense novels helped unleash powerful political forces then, but what about now?  The series and the values it champions may have found a way to return with the debut of the new Left Behind film.

Why Left Behind?  Why now?  Financial motives, as always, play a powerful role. Just look at recent films and television serials. Apocalypse sells. God sells. Fear sells. But another motive is at hand: apocalyptic narratives are also multi-stranded; they carry, after all, a revelation. They proclaim a new way of being in the world. In short, apocalyptic narratives often motivate action.

Dr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins helped politically conservative evangelicals in the 1990’s move beyond “single issue” and “values voters” labels to empower their political imaginations beyond narrow and predictable categories.  As the series progressed and the politics behind them came together, they helped an upstart and then highly disliked presidential candidate, George W. Bush, to two unlikely victories, selling millions of political primers along the way.  The Left Behind phenomenon helped embolden a hyper-energized religious right.

But something went wrong with doomsayers’ forecasts of evangelical political dominance: they stopped voting at the high rates that boosted President Bush. It wasn’t just that the original Left Behind film and its sequels were big–screen busts. “New” Republican standard-bearers Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney never held much appeal for evangelicals. Yes, it hurt that the Left Behind series and its spin-offs and spokespersons were no longer so influential. Moreover, Bush’s unpopularity became toxic. More “moderate” Republican candidates, however, without the full support of a key voting bloc, found a different kind of apocalypse.

Fast-forward to 2014. A president is not on the ballots but President Obama’s policies certainly are as Democrats fight to retain the Senate. Polls and pundits raise concerns for Democrats. But Democrats ought to also consider a voting bloc that has been under-engaged for a decade. Some experts have assumed evangelicals and the Tea Party are one and the same (or similar enough), hence one can already account for these potential voters. But it is simplistic to equate the Tea Party with the religious right. It takes more than faux filibusters to help push high percentages of mercurial evangelical conservatives to the polls, especially in a midterm election, albeit as critical as this year.

Re-enter the Left Behind phenomenon. Left Behind, another adaptation of the novels, is earning the Left Behind phenomenon and the values it champions, a closer look. The film does not have the highest budget, but this re-boot has fared much better than the 2001 original, grossing almost twice as much (roughly $ 7 million) in the first weekend as the ill-fated original all told.  Whether the film grosses $20 million or $50 million matters less, however, than the fact it has brought conservative evangelicals back into the news cycle.

Thus in the days leading up to the 2014 midterms, Republicans have a wild card in Left Behind that just may become an ace. It is absurd to suggest a low-budget film will change the balance of power in the U.S.A., but it has resurrected the dynamics of the novels, and conservative evangelicals finally have a powerful reminder to vote.  And as any pundit will admit, it won’t take much to tip the scales in Washington.

Finally, the timely release of Left Behind may owe to coincidence, one month before the crucial midterms.  Evangelicals do not believe in coincidence, however, nor should campaigners in evangelical-filled battleground states such as North Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa, to name a few. Left Behind is playing in the heartland, playing for the hearts and minds of conservative evangelical voters. Critics, who dismiss Left Behind as simply an awful film and fire dull hip-shots with dismissive derision and canned clichés, miss the point. Left Behind is not about film prizes or outstanding cinematography or even good taste. It’s all about “spreading the word.” Who will be left behind if the film re-energizes its core audience and steers them into action just weeks before the crucial elections next month?

Glenn W. Shuck is Assistant Professor of Religion at Williams College and author of Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity (NYU Press, 2004).

Books That Cook: Yellow Potatoes

During the month of September, we’vee celebrated the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! Check out the reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Our final post comes from Monica McCormick. Read below as she shares her thoughts on finding home through the joy of cooking. 

 


I have moved often in my adult life. In each new apartment, preparing meals has become a way of making a home. Pulling out my well-used pots and knives, reaching for ingredients in strange new cupboards, and learning the quirks of an unfamiliar stove are all part of the ritual. Whatever I cook, it fills my new place with comforting scents and flavors, evoking other meals in other homes, long ago.

The opening lines of Ketu H. Katrak’s essay evoked this nostalgia created by food, sounds, and scents.[1] She writes of waking in her childhood home in Bombay on a visit from the U.S., roused from sleep by clanging in the kitchen:

All these sounds mingle with the aromatic spices wafting over my waking body. The sounds of prayer and smells of chapatis and vegetables weave into a pattern of belonging, of home-sounds and home-aromas.

This brought me back to a related, though in some ways opposite, experience. At age 18, I left Stockton, California, for a year as an exchange student in Mombasa, Kenya. I have often thought of my first few mornings there, waking to strange sounds and smells: voices shouting (in what language?), a rooster crowing, the cranking of an old car engine that wouldn’t turn over, foods frying in an oil I couldn’t identify, the oddly floral soapy water my host sister was sloshing on the hallway floor. I wondered how I would ever feel comfortable with all this.

I found my way home there through the kitchen. My host family, like my California one, made meals a central daily ritual. The Oderos were Luo people from Lake Victoria in western Kenya, but in Mombasa they cooked in the Swahili style. This Indian Ocean culture was wholly new to me, combining people and traditions from places like Zanzibar, Goa, Gujarat, Oman, and the Seychelles on the East African coast. I learned to roll out flaky chapatis, though my first attempts were so far from round that my sister Leonida would laugh, “It’s the shape of Kenya!”

I grated coconut, seated on a low folding stool fixed with a serrated blade, the white flakes falling to a plate below. We packed the coconut in a long, cylindrical basket and twisted it to extract the milk that thickened stews of fish, potatoes, tomato, and curry spices, or flavored large pots of long-grained basmati rice. I pounded the tiny red chilies that grew outside our back door, burning my fingers as I scooped the paste out of the big wooden mortar and pestle.

Eventually I took on the family task of going to the covered open-air market, mixing my minimal Kiswahili with English to bargain for staples: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, rice, beans, lentils, and the local bananas, mangos, and papayas. At my favorite stand was a corpulent yet dignified man in a white skull cap, presiding over trays mounded with brilliant-colored spices: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, paprika, mustard seeds. From his high stool he would reach out to scoop what you needed on to a metal scale, blending to your specifications, and pouring the spices into newspaper cones, twisted at the ends.

At school, we had a two-hour lunch break. Because my host family lived a long bus ride away, schoolmates would bring me to home with them. I especially loved invitations from Bansari Shah, a girl whose tiny frame belied her healthy appetite. Her mother seemed to spend all morning preparing our lunch, in a kitchen lined with shiny metal tins of lentils, grains, and spices. She would set out a gorgeous array of vegetarian dishes: okra stewed with tomato and chili; acid-yellow turmeric potatoes flecked with black mustard seeds; green mung-bean dal; shiny white rice studded with cloves and cardamom pods. Bansari pointed out her favorites to be sure I tried them, and we would tuck in happily.

When I returned to the States, I was homesick for Mombasa. I made some of this food, trying to reproduce the methods and tastes in American kitchens. Like Ketrak in Massachusetts, I found Indian grocers in Minneapolis and San Francisco where I could once again inhale the combined scent of innumerable spices, and select from bins of lentils, dried peas, and beans. I bought Indian cookbooks and made elaborate meals with many garnishes. It was all a lot of work, and over the years I’ve simplified my cooking.

But Katrak’s recipe for Yellow Potatoes reminded me of lunch with Bansari. It inspired a trip to the Indian markets on Lexington Avenue near East 29th Street. I selected fresh packets of turmeric and black mustard seeds, and asked the grocer to reach me a bunch of cilantro, a knob of ginger and a lime from the small cooler behind the counter. Back in my little Harlem kitchen, I heated a generous slug of oil in my favorite heavy pot, let the mustard seeds pop to season the oil, and sizzled cubes of potato with the spices and minced chilies. When the potatoes were tender, I added a squeeze of lime, a few torn cilantro leaves, and gave a quick stir. Breathing in the flowery, sharp, tangy aromas, I took a mouthful and felt right at home.

Monica McCormick is Program Officer for Digital Scholarly Publishing at NYU Libraries and NYU Press.


[1] Food and Belonging: At ‘Home’ and in ‘Alien-Kitchens’, by Ketu H. Katrak

Keeping the lights on for Heaven’s Gate

—Benjamin E. Zeller

This past week I’ve been forwarded links to Ashley Feinberg’s essay on Heaven’s Gate, “The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind.” As the now go-to expert on Heaven’s Gate—an honor I share with colleagues Robert Balch and George Chryssides—friends, family, and colleagues have reached out, asking for my opinion on the piece. Having now digested Feinberg’s essay, here’s my summary: Feinberg mostly got it right, though she has fallen into several traps of overgeneralization. She has done a good job of showing how Heaven’s Gate’s activities on the internet unfolded at the end of the movement’s history, but there is more to this story.

In terms of the facts, Feinberg has it mostly right, or at least as close as possible. For example, on the pivotal 1972 meeting between co-founders Marshall Herff Applewhite (1932–1997) and Bonnie Lu Nettles (1927–1985), Feinberg indicates that a heart attack had led Applewhite to be admitted to the hospital where Nettles worked, a position Applewhite’s sister also took. Applewhite himself said he was visiting a friend, and this is Balch’s position as well. Regardless, this is one fact we’ll probably never know.

Certainly Feinberg didn’t fall into the trap that some sloppy journalists did after the 1997 suicide of simply assuming that Applewhite must have been crazy and therefore Nettles must have worked in a mental hospital and Applewhite must have been a mental patient. None of that is true, and honestly it says more about us as a public that we could believe such things.

Feinberg also misread how and when Heaven’s Gate’s became increasingly reclusive and monastic in orientation. Feinberg traces this to “the years after Ti’s [i.e., Nettles’s] death” in 1985. In fact, it was Nettles herself who called for the “closing of the harvest” on April 21, 1976, which led to her and Applewhite shifting the group towards more insular, strict living over the following months. Interviews with ex-members and an analysis of the sources show that both the insularity and the puritanical model of life did not change much after Nettles’s death, though as Feinberg rightly pointed out, other theological shifts did occur.

But this really amounts to quibbles. Overall, Feinberg has done a good job of unpacking the history of a complicated group. (If I may be permitted a moment of self-reflection, it took me years to trace and retrace the early history of Heaven’s Gate, an effort I distilled into the first chapter of my forthcoming book.)

Feinberg’s assessment of the sociology of the group was also spot-on. Here she did her homework, interviewing Balch, who spent the most amount of time studying the group during its existence. Her conclusions are correct that ex-members usually left on good terms because they were supported by Nettles and Applewhite in doing so, but that those who were deeply committed would find this difficult to actually do. One emendation: the movement in fact experienced massive defection rates over the years. Numbers are hard to pin down, but the group went from several hundred at its heyday to thirty-nine at its terminus.

Regarding their theology, Feinberg has unfortunately fallen into the trap of assuming that, in her words, “[t]he Heaven’s Gate doctrine in its entirety is convoluted and, unsurprisingly, not all that consistent” and that “for all the hundreds of pages of sermons and prophecies and transcripts held within the site and its advertised wares, the bizarre, often incoherent text really doesn’t tell you all that much.” Here Feinberg repeats the oft-seen trope of presupposing that a group labeled a cult must ipso facto have an incoherent or inconsistent doctrine. In fact, Heaven’s Gate’s religious worldview was quite coherent and consistent, though like any living religious community, different members possessed their own perspectives and positions, and the teachings of the two founders and leaders also shifted over time as they responded to changes both internal and external. It was also exceedingly well documented in hundreds of pages of text and dozens of hours of videos.

The religious message of Heaven’s Gate boiled down to this: Earth existed as a intermediate realm wherein individuals could experience growth and, with the proper effort and instruction, be given the chance to transcend this existence and be reborn into a new eternal life of perfection in the heavens. At its heart, this is not a radically different message from the typical Christian teachings on of the drama of human life, especially in the forms championed by American Evangelical Protestants. Like such Christians, members of Heaven’s Gate looked to Earth as a battleground between good and evil, but sought to transcend it through cleaving to the teachings and personhood of a heavenly savior. For Christians, that is Christ, the Bible, and the Church. For adherents of Heaven’s Gate, it was Nettles and Applewhite as Ti and Do, their teachings, and their movement.

As I and my colleagues have written, Heaven’s Gate brought together such typical Christian teachings with those of the New Age movement and its emphasis on self-transformation and extraterrestrial wisdom, as well as influences from secular ufology, science fiction, and—towards the end of the movement’s history—the conspiratorial subculture of the American fringe. Here I’ll have to tell you to read the articles or books that my colleagues and I have written to get the longer story, but what Nettles and Applewhite did was careful and considered. They created an internally consistent theology that allowed non-supernaturally oriented American spiritual seekers to find a religious home. It wasn’t formal theology, but it made sense if you accepted their presumptions. (That’s true with most religions, incidentally.)

Feinberg’s essay does an excellent job in the consideration of the group’s internet business, Higher Source. Some of the sample images that members of Heaven’s Gate produced for their business and to which Feinberg links provide visual clues as to how the worldview of Heaven’s Gate had unfolded by the mid-1990s. Kudos to her for bringing the group member’s business work—what adherents disparaged as simply a means to “earn sticks”—to our attention.

But in terms of Heaven’s Gate’s usage of the internet, we need to look earlier than the world wide web to the Usenet, the free-roaming bulletin board system that served as the internet’s front porch before the days of the graphic-based web. Over a yearlong period following September 1995, Applewhite authored several overlapping statements that he or members acting on his behalf posted to Usenet boards ranging from alt.current-events.usa to alt.startrek to comp.ai.philosophy to alt.drugs.psychedelics. As I’ve documented in my forthcoming book, the responses to Applewhite’s posts were uniformly negative. This more than anything else led him and his coreligionists to begin to give up on ever connecting with the people of this planet. If philosophers of Artificial Intelligence and Trekkies did not take Heaven’s Gate seriously, then who would? The movement created its first webpage at the end of this period, published its anthology, issued several videotapes, and basically began to wrap up things here on planet Earth. All it took was the right heavenly marker to show that the time had come to leave. Comet Hale-Bopp did that.

Returning to Feinberg, my biggest critique is this: there is nothing really remarkable about the work of Mrc and Srf (as they prefer to be called) as the continuing webmasters of HeavensGate.com. I say this as someone who has spoken with, interviewed, and spent informal time with Mrc and Srf: one ought to take them at their word when they say, as they did to Feinberg, that they serve as archivists and keepers of the group’s intellectual property. They do this out of deep commitment to the memories and beliefs of several dozen of their close friends with whom they spent over a decade living as a tight-knit family, individuals whose lives and deaths were disparaged and dismissed on national television, and for whom no one is left to speak. I hardly think that I, or anyone reading this, would do otherwise in similar circumstances. Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card would surely not mind if I borrowed his term: Mrc and Srf are Speakers for the Dead.

A nasty internecine conflict exists over the claims of ownership of the Heaven’s Gate intellectual property. (There are more former members than Feinberg found, as well as other parties involved, but I will not use names here.) I am no lawyer and cannot speak to the claims of ex-members, academics, amateur collectors of cult paraphernalia, and in some cases, my own colleagues and friends, as to who legally or ethically ought to control the legacy of Heaven’s Gate. But here is why it matters, and why it matters that “someone’s there to keep the lights on” for the website, as Feinberg puts it.

When thirty-nine relatively ordinary, sane, unremarkable people decide to end their terrestrial lives for the purposes of seeking transcendence and truth, that is important. When they pen essays, videotape monologues, and issue press releases on their impending deaths, they mean to tell us something. What did they want us to know? I quote Srrody, a member who joined Heaven’s Gate on February 14, 1976 and ended his life with his co-religionists: “Somebody on the other side of the camera…you’ll say ‘you are deluded or you are brainwashed or whatever’…but from my perspective, this is a godsend, this is the answer to everything.”

Hauntingly, members of Heaven’s Gate knew they would not be taken seriously. They knew they would be accused of being brainwashed, of being cultists, of being crazy. The Heaven’s Gate materials exist as testimony to how these thirty-nine individuals wrestled with questions of identity, meaning, and purpose. They show how intelligent, ordinary people sometimes painfully tried to explain what they knew others would dismiss as stupid or strange. The HeavensGate.com website and related contents, in other words, speak to how thirty-nine people lived and died, navigating the same questions and issues that face us all. They were human beings, though they longed with all their hearts not to be. That’s why it matters.

Benjamin E. Zeller is Assistant Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College. He is the author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press, 2014).

Books That Cook: Lettuce in Ribbons with Cream

During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Today’s special:
Assistant Editor Caelyn Cobb, on pot brownies, Gertrude Stein, and how to cook lettuce (or “sacrifice the innocents”). 


“So does it have pot in it?” my boyfriend asked when I said I planned to make a dish from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for our blog.

More than any other Modernist writer, Alice B. Toklas is a household name, due largely to the success of her cookbook, a mishmash of memoir and recipes which contained one of the earliest published recipes for pot brownies. I am here to break the terrible news that Books That Cook does not contain a recipe for pot brownies. (Maybe in the second edition.)

Instead, the excerpt from The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is a retelling of the writer’s time at a house in the French countryside, where she and her partner Gertrude Stein spent fourteen summers. It is largely about fruits and vegetables—growing them, picking them, cooking them, serving them, and eating them. I was attracted to this chapter for two reasons. First of all, vegetables seemed much easier to prepare, involving less time, fewer ingredients, and less of my money. I was sort of right about these things, but then again, I only sort of made the recipe. But more on that later.

Mainly, though, I was drawn to this chapter due to my past life as a literature student. Most interested in feminism, poetry, and Modernism, I was steered by many TAs and professors to Gertrude Stein’s most famous work, the poetry collection Tender Buttons. I was disappointed to find that I did not like this book anywhere near as much as I liked feminism, poetry, or Modernism individually. Tender Buttons is often described as “cubism for poetry,” which mostly means that you can only sometimes tell what is going on.

It wasn’t easy being a Modernist woman, especially on the American expatriate scene, and so I feel bad about not being a bigger fan of Gertrude Stein’s work. The leading lights of the Lost Generation were the greatest literary bros of their generation, ushering in a period of literary bro-ism that persists to this day. Given the time they spent watching bullfights, locking their wives in sanitariums, learning to box, and moving young ingénues into their homes (with or without approval of their wives) because it “helped with their creativity”, it’s a wonder that they got any writing done. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas hosted, promoted, and befriended many of these men, introducing them to leading artists and intellectuals—and looking at their memoirs, it sounds like quite a lovely and exciting time. However, Hemingway would later memorialize Stein in his own memoirs as looking “like a Roman emperor, and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors,” so maybe not.

I mull this over as I get ready to make my dish, getting in the mood by thinking angry feminist thoughts and listening to the moodiest French band I had on my iPod. I had selected a cooked lettuce dish called “lettuce in ribbons with cream” because I thought it was funny how Toklas only begrudgingly gives these recipes, calling them “the sacrifice of the innocents” (innocents being lettuce, I presume).

It is the simplest of the recipes but also the least specific. What kind of lettuce? What is “heavy cream sauce”? I imagine her cooking with the tiny, sweet lettuce my grandpa grows in his garden, but I can’t find these in Queens and settle on two tiny heads of Boston lettuce. I contemplate making my own béchamel sauce, which I think is what she means by “cream sauce”, but I instead purchase a jar of Alfredo sauce because I do not feel like it.

The recipe does call for one specific ingredient, and that is “one teaspoon of onion juice.” They definitely do not have this at my grocery store; I turn to Google for instructions on how to make my own onion juice, but it seems like way too much work for one teaspoon. I instead buy an onion and sauté a few pieces with the lettuce. I am basically murdering this recipe, but you know, death of the author, etc.

The dish itself is pretty easy: slice up the lettuce, sauté it (with onion) in a lot of butter, then once the lettuce absorbs the butter, add salt, cover it and let simmer. I buy two heads of lettuce and the shredded bits fill three large bowls. I cook down two and half of them into a tiny wad of lettuce, which I then cover in Alfredo sauce. I am reminded of a Dutch dish, which involves cooking lettuce with ham and root vegetables in a white gravy. I’m sure it has a Dutch name, but in my family we just call it “Dutch lettuce.” It is not a crowd pleaser. My aunt would request it for her birthday dinners as a child just to prank her siblings. I begin to regret my choice of dish, but am too far in to turn back, much in the way I began to regret my decision to write my BA thesis on Modernist poetic criticism over winter break of my senior year. The only option is to suck it up and see it through.

Early in our courtship, my boyfriend had confirmed a deep love of vegetables that we both share. “Don’t insult my home by bringing a salad into it,” he warned, as I offered to do this very thing. Thus, I have promised the meal I make will not be only vegetables, and set about preparing bacon and tomato wraps while the lettuce is simmering. At the time I planned this, I had liked the BLT symmetry.

When I serve up the lettuce, he pronounces it “very tasty.” It is not bad. It is also very heavy; cooked lettuce has an earthy taste, and paired with a creamy cheese sauce, it’s extremely rich. I recommend serving it with something lighter than a bacon sandwich, like tilapia or chicken or anything besides bacon. I feel like I just ingested a grease ball.

After we finish our meal, I jokingly whip out my copy of Tender Buttons.

“Vegetable,” I read. “What is cut. What is cut by it. What is cut by it in.”

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” my boyfriend says.

Caelyn Cobb is Assistant Editor at NYU Press.

Books That Cook: Artichokes with Beurre au Citron

During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Read, savor, and be sure to enter our giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the book before it ends on September 21!

Up next on the menu: Managing Editor Dorothea Stillman Halliday masters the art of l’artichaut.


My father would have loved Books That Cook, uniting as it does two of his greatest passions: books and food. My father read voraciously, books of all kinds, several at one time, and among those were cookbooks and literary food writing. He read about the history of foods and cuisines and the culinary practices of different cultures. He traveled widely and loved to taste the world. But every night at home he sat down to a disappointing dinner.

My parents lived in Europe during their early married life and then again later, after my siblings and I were part of the mix. My father’s tastes were full of herbs and spices to begin with and grew only more sophisticated after living abroad, while my mother seemed incapable of distinguishing between delicious and dreadful food. Her culinary ability and discernment were in the great American (pre–Julia Child) tradition of the blandest meat and most overcooked vegetables, puddles of mayonnaise, and a cabinet full of prefab foods. Why make fresh potatoes, when you could make potato flakes from a box just by adding them to hot water? Why even drink fresh milk when you could mix milk from a powder? The nutrition was what mattered to her, and that was all.

Unfortunately for my parents, who were newlyweds in the late forties, they were imprisoned in the gender roles of their time. My father went into the world and worked; my mother stayed home and cooked. He read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and watched Julia Child on TV, but he felt constrained to do no more food preparation than to put cream cheese and lox on a bagel. The wife did the cooking. The husband’s lot was to sit and be served—poor wretch. He dreamed of gastronomy; she dreamed of getting all our nutrients via vitamin pills. Needless to say, this caused considerable marital friction, and were it not for frequent dinners at the local Chinese restaurant, things might have gotten really ugly.

By the mid-seventies, the culture and my parents had both evolved enough that my father finally declared that he would do the cooking from now on. The dinner table became a happier place. And the food was much improved too. My mother was relieved to be liberated from the pressure of preparing meals that continually fell short of expectations. But she never understood what the big deal was. She always greeted any culinary preparation by expounding the nutritional value of the components: “Oh, carrots are very good for you. They’re full of vitamin A” and “Spinach is loaded with iron.”

If you’ve ever painstakingly prepared a delicious meal for someone and been greeted by this kind of response, then you know that the friction at the dinner table did not disappear altogether. My father would sigh in exasperation with her lack of appreciation but would console himself with the responses he got from the rest of us and with his own enjoyment of his meal. Once, while serving up one of his creations, he loaded up a fork and offered it to my mother. “Try this,” he said. “It’s got something in it that’s very good for you: flavor.”

When asked to select a recipe from Books That Cook to write about, I chose artichokes with beurre au citron, lemon butter sauce. The dish is both simple and fine, and it is one of a very few I remember my mother making that we all truly enjoyed. I don’t know if she learned from Julia Child’s recipe or from somewhere else, but even my mother could boil an artichoke and squeeze lemon juice into melted butter.

I remember how exotic it seemed to eat a huge flower bud. It was a gustatory adventure, even a quest: We sought the hidden treasure, the succulent heart. We peeled the petals away one at a time, avoiding the sharp points—my mother either didn’t know, or didn’t bother, to cut them off. We dipped the petals in the lemon butter and scraped the “meat” off with our teeth. We worked our way past the soft inner leaves of pale green and purple, down to the choke, which guarded the heart. Once past its defenses, we beheld the grail. And there was peace and harmony at the table.

The artichoke was good, even in the hands of an unskilled cook. And it still is.

Dorothea Stillman Halliday is Managing Editor at NYU Press.

Books That Cook: A Good Roast Chicken

During the month of September, we’re celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Today, editorial assistant Constance Grady shares her thoughts on “A Good Roast Chicken,” an essay featured in the book from professional chef and food historian Teresa Lust.


Roast chicken is a good dinner for many reasons. It is economical: a decent-sized bird is a good meal for a family of four, with enough left over for some sandwiches or perhaps a pot pie, and then you can turn the bones and giblets into stock for soup or a risotto. It is forgiving. You can buy a free-range organic bird from a farmer’s market for an ungodly sum, and then massage a compote of herbs and butter under its skin and stuff it with more herbs and garlic and lemon, and baste it with melted butter as it roasts, and flip it halfway through cooking so that the juices are evenly distributed through the whole chicken. This will be good. You can also buy a five-dollar bird from the supermarket and spritz it perfunctorily with Pam, perhaps shaking some table salt and pre-ground pepper over the skin, and stick it in the oven and forget about it for two hours. This will also be pretty good.

It is also—and this is probably what is most attractive about roast chicken for many of us—simple. Even a gussied-up roast chicken is quick and easy to prepare; it will allow you to put a full meal on the table with a minimum of labor. But what Teresa Lust reminds us in “A Good Roast Chicken” is that roast chicken is not an intrinsically easy dish: it’s just that we’ve outsourced the labor.

Lust is the granddaughter of farmers, and she describes in detail all of the dirty, uncomfortable farm work that goes into a roast chicken. Someone has to break the chicken’s neck. Then the chickens have to be dipped into boiling water to loosen their feathers, and plucked. The feathers that don’t come out with plucking have to be singed off, or alternatively, waxed off like unruly eyebrow hair. Then, of course, they have to be beheaded and de-feet-ed and gutted, and now at last we come to something resembling the chicken that you pick up in paper wrappings at the farmer’s market or in plastic shrinkwrap at the grocery store.

Lust does not mourn for the farm life of her grandparents. “I am not so sentimental,” she writes. I have the same attitude: I do not especially feel deprived at having never smelled chicken feathers scorching as I burn them off a partially plucked carcass. But it is good to be reminded that the food we take for granted is the product of immense industry, and that the “raw ingredients” we buy at the grocery store are anything but.

Lust’s recipe is a good balance between the easiest and the most elaborate versions of roast chicken. You rub the skin down with melted butter or olive oil, and stuff the cavity with herbs and garlic and lemon. Then you let it sit in a hot oven for an hour. Previously I have been wedded to the system of using a very hot oven for the first ten minutes to sear the skin, and then turning the temperature down for a long, slow roast, but I think Lust’s method is better. The skin comes out crisp and brown, and the meat is succulent and moist.

Lust serves her chicken with buttered carrots and parslied new potatoes. This is simple and pleasant, but I decided instead to roast the chicken on a bed of vegetables. On this I refuse to compromise: cooked this way, the vegetables caramelize and are permeated with the rich flavorful juices of the chicken, so that even celery becomes delicious. Also it saves on dishes, because the entire meal is cooked in your roasting pan. I used carrots and celery and onions and potatoes and garlic, but you can use any vegetable that catches your fancy. Zucchini is good in the summer, and so is asparagus. I am told that a bulb of fennel is a welcome addition, if you like fennel (I do not), and leeks add a nice earthiness.

Cooking this chicken, you are most likely far from the life Lust describes, “a life full of vegetable gardens and barnyards and meals rushed from the farm to the table,” and “a life where there’s no denying that what lies succulent and crisp on a bed of rosemary sprigs once scratched in the dirt.” The beauty and power of her essay is that it brings this life back to us: it reminds us of the labor embodied in the carcass of a chicken.

Constance Grady is Editorial Assistant at NYU Press.