On Biomedicine and its Limits: An Interview with Joseph E. Davis

—Joseph E. Davis

[This piece originally appeared on Social Trends Institute.]

Q: The title of your book is To Fix or to Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine. What choice is implied by the phrase “fix or heal”?

A: In our book “fix” alludes to a reductionistic medical framework, “heal” to a more holistic one. We use this reductionism/holism distinction to frame a broad continuum of concerns, from patient care to global health disparities. Neither term has a univocal meaning, but “reductionism” means generally those features of the biomedical model against which “holism” aligns itself. These features include a mechanistic and narrowly somatic understanding of disease, a preoccupation with cure to the neglect of prevention, diminishing medical care to a marketplace commodity, and restricting the definition of the human good to naturalistic terms.

Q: The term “holistic” often refers to “alternative” medical approaches, such as homeopathy or ayurveda. Is that what you have in mind by “holism?”

A: Not really. “Holism” in that sense opposes conventional medicine and wants to replace it. We have in mind a different holism: a set of interlinked ideas articulated within the mainstream of medicine and social science. “Holism” as we use it includes a broad range of systemic, integrative concerns: the patient as person, the experiential aspects of suffering, the environmental determinants of health, and more. The shared feature of all these concerns is a contextual understanding of disease causation, intervention, or prac­tice.

Q: The title seems to frame the issue as an either/or choice: to fix or to heal. Is it possible to do both?

A: The or is not meant to indicate an absolute distinction. Reductionistic and holistic approaches are not polar opposites, but ways of thinking that are often negotiated in practice. The elements of the “fix” orientation have their proper place; what we stand against is the belief that they are entirely sufficient. Our argument is that the contemporary practice of medicine is based on both prodigious knowledge and very real limitations. We need a balance between “fix” and “heal” orientations.

Q: What are the “limits of biomedicine” mentioned in the subtitle?

A: The book is divided into three sections, each of which tries to suggest some challenges to the prevailing “fix” orientation. Part 1 focuses on the cultural context of reductionist medicine, and the limitations that context imposes. Biomedicine is powerful, but it is powerful in part because it echoes key features of the broader social order. To some extent, biomedicine depends on this cultural context for its power, and is captive to it. It is increasingly clear that this dependency presents certain challenges to medicine. For instance, biomedicine is deeply individualistic, but the very logic of individualism makes it hard for medicine to resist the encroachments of consumerism, and defend its own goals as an ethical profession.

Part 2 focuses on the practical limits of reductionist medicine in the face of the shifting disease burden. The biomedical model came of age in a era when infectious diseases dominated, and a specific disease/specific cure orientation was well suited to such diseases. But the chronic illnesses which now kill most Westerners resist explanation in deterministic, monocausal terms. Moreover, developments in the larger world cast doubt on biomedicine’s apparent success. From the rising cost of health care to the unexpected resurgence of infectious disease, we are confronted with the need for holistic approaches like never before. In light of a globalized world, one-dimensional and reductionist approaches seem anachronistic.

Part 3 addresses the limits of current ethical discourse about biomedicine. Health and illness are public as well as private matters, and ethical questions are ineradicable from medicine. The great cultural appeal of the reductionist biomedical approach was partly that the messy business of moral questions could largely be avoided—or so it seemed. In fact, the biomedical model smuggled in a great many moral convictions without ever examining them. “Health” language can become a kind of repressive ideology, and health has become nearly synonymous with the good life. An important work of ethics here is to draw out the background assumptions of biomedicine, making them transparent and open to discussion. The naturalistic language of conventional bioethics may not be equal to this task.

Joseph E. Davis is Research Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is one of the editors of To Fix or To Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine (NYU Press, 2016), the Publisher of The Hedgehog Review, and is the author or editor of three other books, including Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self.

What Sarah Palin’s Endorsement of Donald Trump May Say about Tea Party Women

—Melissa Deckman

[This piece originally appeared on Presidential Gender Watch 2016 on January 26, 2016.]

Sarah Palin’s high-profile endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Iowa last week continues to dominate the news cycle. Many view Palin’s motives for endorsing Trump as sheer opportunism, while some conservatives, even Palin’s own Facebook followers, feel betrayed by her decision to back Trump given his uneven (at best) record on many conservative issues. Taken at face value, however, Palin’s decision to endorse Trump may best be viewed as an utter rejection of the GOP establishment.

As she indicates in her—ahem—colorful endorsement speech, Palin believes that Trump is a political force that exposes the “complicity” of both sides of the political aisle in enabling a “fundamental transformation of America.” She argues that Trump has been able to “tear the veil off” the political system:

The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in [sic]. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able to suck off of them…We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again.

Palin is not alone among conservatives, particularly those who sympathize with the Tea Party, in their view that the Republican Party is weak-kneed and ineffectual, despite lots of evidence that the GOP has taken a far right turn thanks in no small measure to the Tea Party movement. In my forthcoming book Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, I interview dozens of women active in the Tea Party and they, too, uniformly express downright derision toward the Republican Party. These Tea Party women believe that the current crop of GOP leaders will do little to shrink the size and scope of government. That belief, in fact, helped to propel their activism in the Tea Party.

However, I was surprised to find that some of the animosity toward the Republican Party among Tea Party women is linked, in part, to their gender. Several activists I interviewed recounted attempts to influence their local or state Republican parties in a more conservative direction, only to encounter a hostile, good ‘ole boys network. For example, Katrina Pierson, who co-founded the Garland Tea Party in Dallas, Texas in 2009, hails the Tea Party movement for allowing women to find their voices as a new generation of conservative leaders, telling me, “It used to be that men in the GOP or male leaders could take a woman’s idea as their own—I have had this experience—but with social media women can be attributed, they can define their own brand, and define yourself and have your ideas heard. You don’t have to go through the good old boys’ club any longer and that has been huge for women.” Women such as Pierson describe the Tea Party as a more appealing form of political activism for authentically conservative women than the GOP. Social media platforms, in particular, not only allow Tea Party women a chance to promote their political views, but also serve as launching pads for their own political careers. For instance, although Katrina Pierson failed in her challenge to Representative Pete Sessions in the 2014 GOP congressional primary in her home district in Texas, her high-profile involvement in the Tea Party led to her being hired as the national spokeswoman for the Trump presidential campaign. She maintains that Trump’s nontraditional campaign appeals to her and other Tea Party types: “He’s sort of not politically correct. He sort of calls it like he sees it. I’m kind of that way, too.”

To be sure, the past several election cycles have brought some very conservative women to prominence within the Republican Party; examples include Senator Joni Ernst (IA) and Representative Mia Love (UT), both elected to Congress in 2014 (and both endorsed by Sarah Palin). Yet their success is the exception and not the rule. Ironically, the challenges that many right-wing Tea Party women face making inroads with the Republican Party are similar to those experienced by women representing the ideologically moderate flank of the party. As the Republican Party has become more conservative ideologically in the past few decades, work by political scientist Danielle Thomsen shows that GOP women state legislators, who have historically been more moderate than their male counterparts, have been reluctant to seek their party’s nomination for Congress, given that primary voters are far more conservative than voters in the general election. Likewise, experimental research by David King and Richard Matland finds that Republican voters may punish female candidates within the GOP, believing that such women are less conservative than their male counterparts; thus, the perception of women being less ideologically conservative may hurt women’s chances to emerge both as candidates and as party leaders within the Republican Party.

These perceptions about Republican women, then, may have spillover effects for women in the Tea Party, despite their very conservative orientation: if Republican party leaders, most of whom are men, believe that women within the party are less conservative than men, Tea Party women may be hindered in their ability to wield influence within the GOP itself, making involvement in the Tea Party a more appealing alternative.

Turning back to the Republican presidential race, however, what role will Tea Party women play in choosing the eventual nominee? Will Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump mean that the “mama grizzlies” she has previously called to arms will follow suit? Possibly. But it won’t likely be because of Sarah Palin’s endorsement alone. Right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly, whose conservative bona fides are far less open to question than Sarah Palin’s and who has a strong following among socially conservative women at the grassroots level of politics, has also endorsed Trump, declaring him the “last hope for America.” Time will tell if Tea Party women will back Trump or perhaps will find a more “authentic” Tea Party candidate such as Ted Cruz appealing. He, too, was a popular figure with many of the Tea Party women I interviewed, and his anti-establishment rhetoric, as shrill and pronounced as Donald Trump’s, is also likely to find favor with many Tea Party women.

If the latest polls are any indication, however, Palin and Schlafly’s endorsements appear consistent with the sentiment of Tea Party women in battleground states. According to CBS/YouGov, Trump bests Cruz among Republican women and Tea Party voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina who seem to agree with Palin that, “[Trump] is perfectly positioned to … make America great again.” She added, “Are you ready for that, Iowa?” Come next week, we’ll know.

Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College, where she also chairs the Political Science Department. An expert on gender, religion, and American politics, she is the author or co-author of four books, including Tea Party Women and School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics, winner of the 2007 Hubert Morken Award for the best book on Religion & Politics from the American Political Science Association. She chairs the board of the Public Religion Research Institute and her political commentary has appeared in The Washington PostHuffington Post, and the Brookings Institution’s FixGov blog. Her latest book, Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, will be published by NYU Press in May 2016.

Teaching Environmental Crisis and Justice

—Alexa S. Dietrich

When events that are understood to be tragic happen, like the poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michigan, it is typical for we, as human beings, to ask Why? When these events affect whole communities, it then becomes incumbent upon us, as human beings, to ask “How could this happen? because the cause is far less likely to be a random occurrence. Students tend to sense this connection intrinsically, but struggle to think critically about causal factors in situations like Flint.

In classroom discussions, students will often respond to stories of severe environmental pollution in one of two ways. Sometimes they express bewilderment. They feel the inherent injustice but cannot fathom a reason for the damage to people’s health and well-being. The other common response, such as one of my students stated just this week in talking about the toxic waste in Flint’s drinking water, is to say, “It’s almost as if someone planned it.”

It is easy to see conspiracy behind a series of what were, with the benefit of hindsight, a series of despicable acts leading to the potential devastation of an entire community, particularly a community already so disadvantaged and seemingly disposable as Flint. To our shame, in the United States we have long since become terribly inured to the suffering of communities of color, and poor communities.

But while it is easy to imagine a conspiracy of evilly-inclined individuals, such as politicians, plotting to wipe out a community like Flint, this perspective avoids the hard conversations we need to have with our students and others. Explicitly evil intentions are not required in order for great harm to be perpetrated. I am not suggesting that politicians, such as Rick Snyder, are “innocent” in this situation – far from it. Rather, we need to be having frank discussions, leading to actions, about how our culture rewards greed at the expense of human life-especially the lives of the poor and oppressed minorities.

We must, as educators and students, together answer the question, “How could this happen?” The fact is that people with the power to protect the lives of Flint residents chose not to do so. Not once, but many times, people in the position to make decisions about sourcing the water, about testing the water, about reporting the test results and health impacts, made decisions for financial gain or political expedience. And our cultural system (encompassing, e.g., economics, social relations, and ideologies) reinforced the permissibility, the very social and political acceptability of those decisions. There were undoubtedly both legal and moral crimes committed – but accountability for these crimes should weigh heavily on all of us.

In the aftermath of a public health crisis like that in Flint, there are likely to be emerging narratives of the heroic actions of empowered individuals, those who seem to swoop in as community saviors. However, a culture of community engagement cannot, and will not, wait for such heroes, as significant as their contributions may be. As one Flint resident and activist has been quoted as saying, “I decided, I guess I got to figure the science part of this, because you can’t argue with the science.” In the pursuit of environmental justice, there is no substitute for the actions of “non-experts” with local knowledge, and local commitment. But it is also our responsibility to teach and reward this commitment to collective good on a broad scale, more than we currently reward (or at least accept) harmful self-interest, and the violence of disinterest in the well-being of others.

It is also tempting to rely on the explanation of “bad apples,” or individual actors, as is so often used to describe the causes of violence and social suffering perpetrated by institutions. But these explanations are too simple, and release us of our own obligations to care for our fellow human beings. How could this happen? The answer lies in a larger examination of our culture, and our individual roles in it.

Alexa S. Dietrich teaches anthropology at Wagner College, where she is also the Faculty Director of Wagner’s First Year Learning Communities. Her book, The Drug Company Next Door (NYU Press, 2013), won the 2015 Julian Steward Award for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.

Putting the Lead in Structural Violence

—Peter C. Little

As anthropologist and disaster studies expert Gregory Button, author of Disaster Culture, recently put it, the unfolding disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a case of urban lead contamination. Rather, it is a “morality play about structural violence.” [i] He encourages this way of thinking about this emerging national environmental health conflict because this “structural violence” he refers to is about a system of racial discrimination that is a social, political, economic, and infrastructural fact of life in the US. Thinking about the structural violence of lead contamination requires a focus on how lead politics are exacerbated by deep-historical racial discrimination and ongoing poverty politics. As evidence for these lead-related disasters, Button sites a recent study [ii] published in the American Journal of Public Health that reports that while 41.5% of Flint residents are living below the poverty line—compared to the national average in 2014 of 14.8%—nearly 60% are African American. These are some bare facts of inequity that when meshed with toxic substance exposure risk exacerbates the bitter reality of recent Flint water crisis headlines.

The scale, scope, and depth of this man-made disaster are impressive, no doubt justifying the need for an environmental justice perspective on the matters at hand. Robert Bullard, long regarded a leader in the environmental justice community and a major source of inspiration for social scientists working on environmental and social justice conflicts, was recently interviewed about the Flint conflict. [iii] He speaks of a “reality” that goes beyond lead toxicity, drinking water distribution pipes, and a systemically fraudulent city, state, and federal government: “Unequal protection is a reality. The right to clean air, clean water and safe places for kids to play is something that affluent communities take for granted. But many low-income and minority communities don’t get parks, or street lights, or housing code enforcement, or safe drinking water. The cumulative environmental stresses in these neighborhoods create a toxic stew. And then government agencies don’t respond when people complain. The government’s nonresponse to Flint’s water crisis is on the scale of the federal nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina.”

The municipal, state, and federal response and mitigation plan unfolding in Flint also turns our attention to how such disasters are treated more as “technical” water management problems rather than human relations problems. Some critiques of the situation have suggested that “Working with communities to plan for better infrastructure, funding those developments, and adequately enforcing environmental laws will help reduce the number of future similar crises from becoming disasters.” [iv] While continuing to expose the contentious role of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his government counterparts in this complex disaster still matters, an underlying politics of uncertainty lingers as impacted residents try to navigate a living amid the circus of accusations and attempts to restore calm. Continuing to deal with what residents themselves are dealing with is of utmost importance and ought to be where local, state, and federal government energy and forms of empathy focus.

[i] See http://foodanthro.com/2016/01/20/the-flint-water-disaster-a-perfect-storm-of-downplaying-denial-and-deceit/

[ii] See http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003

[iii] See http://www.juancole.com/2016/01/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice.html

[iv] See http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/22/the-real-disasters-in-flints-water-crisis/

Peter C. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press, 2014).

Decades of Xenophobia Shape US Response to Syrian Refugees

[This piece originally appeared in Truthout.]

—Richard Baldoz & Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Current debates surrounding President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 have revealed deep political fissures in the United States. Until recently, criticism focused on the Obama administration’s doing too little to aid people fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria, but Republican leaders have now seized on the terror attacks in France, while stoking anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, to oppose refugee resettlement on national security grounds.

While the White House and its allies dismiss their opponents’ position as xenophobic and un-American, this line of argument is also simplistic, as our history with refugees is an ambivalent one. Over the past century, the prospect of settling refugees has tested Americans’ self-avowed benevolence, underscoring our conflicted attitudes about newcomers and raising inconvenient questions about the extension of US power abroad.

As migrants, refugees are distinct. They are a displaced people escaping danger who, unlike conventional immigrants, have not voluntarily left their homes for reasons like family reunification or economic opportunity. While in the abstract, humanitarian concern for refugees is a broadly agreed upon principle, we have been tentative when it comes to admitting living, breathing people. During the late 1930s, for instance, as European Jews were fleeing Nazi aggression, two-thirds of Americans opposed increasing immigration ceilings to admit them, citing fears that Bolsheviks or German agents might slip into the country. This was also a time of international isolation, marked by economic depression and low immigration. It was not until 1944, as Americans learned more about the horrors of the Holocaust, that special provisions were made to admit Jews.

With the onset of the Cold War, anti-communism and diplomacy guided US actions on refugees and revealed the selective application of humanitarian compassion. For much of the second half of the 20th century, policies allowing refugees’ entry were implemented in an ad hoc fashion and usually only applied to people fleeing communist regimes. For example, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 prompted the admission of tens of thousands of Hungarians, and Cuba’s socialist revolution of 1959 led to the United States accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from that country. In these cases federal officials opened the doors by invoking emergency powers, despite most Americans’ opposition due to concerns about potential communist infiltrators and other “undesirables.” By contrast, during the 1980s, Haitians fleeing the dictatorial but US-backed Duvalier regime were repeatedly denied asylum or refugee status on the grounds that they were economic migrants whose human rights had not been violated.

After the Vietnam War, Americans hesitated to admit Southeast Asian refugees, due in part to a legacy of anti-Asian immigration exclusion and a desire for closure from a divisive war. Because people were fleeing Communist governments, politicians acceded that the United States had a duty to admit them, and Americans’ urgency to do so deepened after learning about tragedies like the plight of “boat people” and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

Ideological commitments and moral compassion aside, the United States’ obligations also stemmed from a history of interventions in Indochina going back to the 1950s. Determined to contain communism, it committed troops to fighting in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 and conducted secret bombings and military operations in Cambodia and Laos. After the communist victories in these countries in 1975, persecution and violent purges of dissidents and minorities prompted massive exoduses, a segment of which the United States admitted.

Four years later, facing pressure to accept more refugees, two-thirds of Americans opposed increases due to worries about their assimilability and the prospect that they would drain public resources. Eventually, about 1 million Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the United States, and they have inarguably been woven into the fabric of our nation over the past 40 years despite the enormous hardships they have faced.

While the troubles in Syria seem removed by comparison, recent US actions there, as well as a long history of meddling in Middle East affairs, underscore the US role and obligations in the current crisis. Viewed one way, modeling moral leadership on the refugee issue can be an effective anti-terror strategy against ISIS propaganda that portrays the United States as an anti-Muslim nation.

The debate about admitting refugees, moreover, begs a moral and philosophical question about the consequences of US foreign intervention: If we are committed to toppling the Assad regime in Syria and defeating ISIS through proxy fighting and aerial bombings, why would we withhold refuge to those fleeing the turmoil?

We might also keep a longer history in view, because despite decades of diplomatic and military entanglements in the region – in the name of anti-communism, Israel, oil and more recently anti-terrorism – our perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis is strikingly myopic. And yet, as we witness another humanitarian catastrophe, some of our leaders raise the specter of terrorists entering the United States, glossing over the fact that refugee screening entails multiple and lengthy rounds of examination by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States, making entry for anyone enormously difficult. It defies reason to think individuals with terrorist aspirations would submit themselves to a multiyear vetting process that probes into every aspect of their past and present associations.

The interrelated propositions framing the debate about Syrian refugees – that we have a moral obligation to provide shelter to those facing imminent danger, and that the US bears a responsibility because of its interventions in the country and region – point to a dilemma we have confronted before. Additionally, how we treat refugees mirrors not just our mixed feelings about newcomers and the world outside, but also ignorance about the world within our borders (thus highlighting an irony of the promise of US safe harbor). In the war on terrorism, our imprecise understandings of its origins and trajectories have given rise to enemies that are creations of our own bigotries, which pervade discussions about Syrian refugees and have made scapegoats of Americans of Arab and South Asian descent.

After President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a comprehensive system for processing refugee and asylum cases, he proclaimed, “[It] is the historical policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” Although not entirely accurate, this statement echoes a challenge to which we ought to rise.

Richard Baldoz is a professor of sociology at Oberlin College. He specializes in the areas of immigration and citizenship policy and is the author of the award-winning The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America (NYU Press, 2011).

Shelley Sang-Hee Lee is a professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College. Dr. Lee specializes in Asian American history and urban studies. She is the author of A New History of Asian America (Routledge).

Zach Anderson, Statutory Rape Laws, and the History of Age

—Nicholas L. Syrett

In October of this year, thanks in part to a petition that circulated on change.org, stories that went viral on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, and a good deal of media attention, an Indiana man named Zach Anderson was removed from the sex offender registry in two states. He had originally been added after having been convicted of statutory rape.

The story, briefly, is this: last year Anderson met a girl on the app “Hot or Not.” He drove from his home in Elkhart, Indiana to her home in Niles, Michigan, about twenty-two miles away, where they had sex. Anderson was nineteen at the time and the girl said that she was seventeen and had registered in the “adults” section of the app. It turns out she was only fourteen and the age of consent in Michigan is sixteen, meaning that Anderson had unknowingly committed statutory rape.

After being arrested, Anderson pled guilty to a charge of fourth-degree criminal sexual assault and spent seventy-five days in jail. Under the terms of his five-year probation, he was forbidden from using the Internet, owning a smartphone, or having any contact with anyone under the age of seventeen (save immediate family). He was also placed on the sex offender registry in Indiana and Michigan until 2040.

The case attracted as much attention and outrage as it did – aside from the fact that his parents were savvy users of the very Internet from which their son was banned – because the girl admitted to lying about her age, she and her parents opposed the prosecution, and because the judge in the original sentencing was intransigent in handing down the mandated punishment stipulated by the statute. The case provoked broader discussions about teenage sexuality in the age of the Internet and the long-term repercussions of statutory rape laws that brand teenagers as sex offenders.

What received less attention, however much it was lurking just beneath the surface of these conversations, was the function of age itself in what happened to Zach Anderson and his youthful sexual partner. While the minor girl was only fourteen, either she looked like she could be seventeen or Anderson simply willed himself to believe that this was so. Michigan’s penal code stipulates that someone is guilty of “criminal conduct in the fourth degree” if the victim “is at least 13 years of age but less than 16 years of age, and the actor is 5 or more years older than that other person.”

This age-gap exception to statutory rape law is meant to protect the older of two sexually active teenagers from prosecution; it is a result of late twentieth-century revisions to rape laws that came in the wake of the sexual revolution, after which high school students were more likely to have sex than when the original laws were passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Anderson was not helped by this part of the law, despite still being a teenager, because he was nineteen. Had Anderson only been eighteen years old, one year younger than he was, he could not have been charged under the law, because the two would only have been separated by four years, not five. Had his birthday been perhaps a little later in the year or hers a little sooner, there would not have been a crime.

Age is a blunt and sometimes arbitrary legal instrument. Legal age cannot accommodate those who lie or who do not “look” their age. In a time when all of our ages are precise, fixed, and documented, Anderson had no wiggle room. He was a nineteen-year-old adult and she was a fourteen-year-old child; despite all the ambiguity of their meeting, in his first trial there had simply been no way around this. Age-based laws have also offered little meaningful protection to actual victims of sexual violence like, for instance, the countless children abused by Catholic priests.

This reliance on age has a history. Only about a hundred years ago Americans were completing the process of incorporating age into their criminal and civil law, as well as their collective consciousness. Since that time, they have increasingly used it as if it were a simple, incontrovertible, biological fact. In one way that is undeniable, but as the case of Zach Anderson also demonstrates, age itself does not fully accommodate or contain all aspects of human beings’ development, capabilities, and responsibilities. It is a legal shorthand that all too often—and statutory rape law is only one example—perpetuates limitations and enacts violence when it is meant to protect or enable. Further, at a moment when the age one purports to be online can have little relation to one’s actual age, and when numerous websites (not just Hot or Not) do little to verify age, we have entered a new era in the malleability of age itself.

While Zach Anderson’s story has a (relatively) happy ending—in the form of his revised sentence—many other young men remain in jail and on sex offender registries because their age at the time of their sexual encounters placed them there.

Nicholas L. Syrett is an associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, the coeditor (with Corinne T. Field) of Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present (NYU Press, 2015), and author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (2009) and the forthcoming American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.

A Response to Amber Scorah: Learning from Parents and Child Care Providers to Create Better Policies

Palley_Shdaimah—Elizabeth Palley & Corey Shdaimah

Amber Scorah’s loss of her son Karl is tragic. Leaving a young child in daycare can be hard for any parent. Scorah’s story illustrates why this decision is so much harder in the United States for two reasons. First, unlike in most other countries, many US parents who prefer to care for their own infants do not have the financial and societal support to do so. Second, we do not treat early child care and education or the people who provide it as the valuable service that it is.

Despite hardships, most parents and providers work hard to find and deliver the best care for young children. What happened to Karl is rare. Most children survive and those in high quality care thrive. That does not make the decisions that parents of young children face any easier.

Some criticized Scorah for returning to work and questioned how she could blame larger societal pressures on her own “poor” choice. The factors that shaped Scorah’s decision, however, were not only individual but also societal. The very real pressures that she and her family experienced, including a need for health insurance and salary, compelled her to leave Karl in care. As Scorah noted, we live in a society that values paid employment over caring responsibilities and often leaves little space for parents to stay with their children when they are the most vulnerable. Though parents should have choices to stay with their children until they are less vulnerable, our workplaces and our government have not provided such choices for most Americans. We are anomalous in the economically developed world, where most countries have some policy that protect parents’ employment and even provide some form of salary or insurance that allows parents to care for their own children or assists them in securing affordable, quality care.

While Scorah indicated that she does not necessarily hold the provider responsible, she does implicate child care providers as overburdened, insufficiently trained, and callous to the needs of their charges. In our discussions with child care providers across New York State, we have met many center based directors and family providers who view the children in their care (often for the majority of their waking hours) as a sacred charge. Their interests mirror those of the parents whose children they care for. They want more training, better pay to allow them to hire and retain a stable and sufficient workforce, and the best equipment and curriculums. Karl seemed to be in distress and though a child care worker noticed and expressed concern, no one followed up. Karl was also left on his stomach. These are both issues where better training might have prevented Karl’s death, and they raise the possibility of regulatory policy responses. In our research, however, we have found that regulation in response to rare tragedies often makes for bad policy that burdens providers without always resulting in substantive improvements. In any contemplated policy change, policymakers and advocates must consider the voices of parents and providers, whose input will lead to better policy.

This blog post was contributed by Elizabeth Palley and Corey Shdaimah, the authors of In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy (NYU Press, 2014).

Salvation with a Smile in the Classroom

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, has been a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication. The posts have unveiled certain aspects of the project and provided selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here, the third post about the project’s origins, and a recent post about researching the book. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this final post in the series, the author addresses using Salvation with a Smile in the classroom.

Salvation with a Smile is a scholarly monograph designed to advance historical arguments about the meaning and significance of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church within American religious culture. As I wrote the book, I thought extensively about audience—fellow academics and scholars, the reading public, journalists, Lakewood members, and students—and wrote with these constituencies in mind. Readers will decide the extent to which I succeeded, or not, in reaching a wide audience through scholarly argumentation, historical narrative, and I hope compelling prose.

As I neared the project’s end, I picked up Lerone Martin’s Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of African American Religion, one of the best of NYU Press’s recent religion books I’ve read (and there are many, many good books!). Martin tackles an understudied subject and brings it to life through expert research and innovative argument. As I learned more about the project, I discovered that Professor Martin created an Instructor’s Guide for Preaching on Wax. I was immediately excited and intrigued. Having spent eight years as a high school history instructor before joining the college teaching ranks, I always think about my formative years in light of the continuing quest to offer engaging and interesting instruction through innovative pedagogy. For me, Professor Martin’s teaching manual demonstrated an attempt at innovative pedagogy that I decided to replicate for my own book. So, hat’s off to Lerone Martin and NYU Press for continuing to exemplify innovative scholarly publishing.

It was also my good fortune to assign Preaching on Wax in a recent summer course on African American religion, and put the Instructor’s Guide to use in the classroom just as I was in the process of contemplating what my own Instructor’s Guide would look like for Salvation with a Smile. It worked very well in my class. The questions and exercises in Professor Martin’s Instructor’s Guide not only helped to steer my students through the book’s content, but it also encouraged them to connect the historical dots between the different eras in African American religious history, and how modern technology has indelibly shaped multiple expressions within black religious culture. Professor Martin’s willingness to Skype with my class after we had read and discussed the book not only exhibited an exemplary professionalism, it further helped to bring the book to life via the Instructor’s Guide.

I thought about all of this as I put the finishing touches on Salvation with a Smile’s Instructor’s Guide in the fall of 2015. Based on nearly 15 years of secondary and post-secondary teaching experience, and in consultation with a number of friends and colleagues (including Professor Martin) I sought to design a user-friendly classroom resource that highlights the book’s major themes and arguments as well as challenge students to connect the book’s content with relevant factors of social, cultural, religious, and historical context. I designed questions mostly for history and religious studies courses, but it is my hope that the questions might also work, or be adapted, for classes in theology, sociology, ethnography, and literature. Using Professor Martin’s work as my guide, I wrote Summary section recaps of each chapter’s contents, and created Discussion Questions to prompt reflection on how the book’s themes tie into the broader history of American religion. For each chapter I also crafted a Classroom Enrichment section that offers videos, audio clips, or digital materials that bring the chapters to life, or allow instructors and students to engage the book’s contents in more visual and auditory ways.

There’s no doubt that the possibility of digital explorations are perhaps more abundant for a book that deals with contemporary history; I earnestly tried to exploit this opportunity fully as I designed my Instructor’s Guide. Let me illustrate what I mean. The fourth chapter of Salvation with a Smile explores the contents of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel. It compares his teaching on positive confession and positive thinking to that of his father John Osteen while it also relates Lakewood’s prosperity message to that of other megachurches. With this in mind, the Discussion Questions try to flesh this out interrogatively while the Classroom Enrichment assignment proposes an exercise that would allow students to compare Joel to John, and assess Lakewood’s megachurch status to those of other large congregations. Here are two questions from the enrichment section on chapter 4 in the Instructor’s Guide:

  1. Using data from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR), chapter 4 quantitatively compares Lakewood to other megachurches. Encourage students to conduct their own research and analysis from the HIRR’s online database of megachurches. They may wish to compile a list of megachurches in Texas and find the cities in the Lone Star State with the most megachurches, and/or compare megachurch data in Texas to that of other states.
  2. A key example of Joel’s teachings on positive confession come from a 2001 sermon “The Power of Words” (discussed on p. 83). For comparison with John Osteen’s concept of positive confession, see his sermon also titled “The Power of Words” from 1988 (discussed on p. 49). While both sermons are nearly 30 minutes in length, sampling particular sections will be useful in comparing Joel’s teachings on positive confession with that of his father.

These questions, in conjunction with reading chapter 4 of Salvation with a Smile, seek to engage students through comparative thinking, expose them to very basic quantitative data, analysis, and comparison, and invite them to consider the power and performance of religious programming, language, and ideas. This exercise allows students to locate megachurch data on their own, and draw out their own comparisons and conclusions. It also compels learning about the content of sermons as well as the performative aspects of contemporary American religion in connection with the prosperity gospel. An exercise like this is due to the stupendous efforts and excellent work of Scott Thumma and his team of megachurch experts associated with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and dependent upon the large amount of John and Joel Osteen sermons uploaded to YouTube.

With all of this said, I hope my Instructor’s Guide works well in classrooms to the extent that instructors assign the book. Lerone Martin’s work in this regard paved the way for me. I hope other authors who study the countless dimensions of religion and cultural follow the trail he blazed with his Instructor’s Guide as we collectively ponder religion’s significance and meaning in our contemporary moment through academic argument and pedagogical engagement.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.