Category Archives: History

Magic and Menace: The Music of Värttinä

Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.

Over thirty years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.

Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.

Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.

Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.

There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.

 

Bless the Beasts and the Children

One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.

In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.

In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.

Black Power and Beauty in the Portraits of Kehinde Wiley

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“Willem van Heythuysen” by Kehinde Wiley.  The pose and the title are based on a 17th century portrait by Dutch painter Frans Hals. Photo from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

[Originally published on February 24, 2016]

As you enter “A New Republic,” the exhibition of paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures and triptychs by Kehinde Wiley currently at the Seattle Art Museum, you are met by the direct and confident gaze of an African American man astride a rearing horse. The man wears a camouflage jacket and trousers, Timberland boots and a bandanna tied around his head; a heavy gold velvet cloak encircles his shoulders and billows dramatically in the air. Though he and his horse stand on a rocky crag, their backdrop is not of nature but of a red and gold wallpaper design such as one might find in a Victorian drawing room. Draw closer to the monumental portrait and you’ll see hundreds of seemingly randomly placed undulating sperm cells delicately filling the interstices between the golden arabesques of the backdrop. More swirling sperm fill the egg-shaped corner medallions on the huge and ornate gold frame in which the painting hangs, obviously and humorously reminding us that this painting is all about manliness and the power of the male gaze.

Here is a celebration of the masculine life force. Those who know something of the history of Western art will smile, since the pose, the horse, even the words engraved on the rock upon which the rearing horse stands all come directly from one of the most famous equestrian portraits ever painted: this is a direct homage to Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 equestrian portrait of Napoleon at the height of his power.

Continue through the exhibition and you’re met by other grand equestrian portraits. One painted shortly after the death of Michael Jackson features the late King of Pop wearing armor and portrayed as if he were King Philip II of Spain in a nod to a 17th century Baroque painting by Peter Paul Rubens. However, most of the portraits here depict not recognizable faces but everyday people found by the painter during one of his “street-casting” sessions. Wiley approaches strangers in public and asks them whether they’re willing to be photographed, usually in their own clothing, so that they might later be painted in the pose of an old master portrait of their choosing. While their likenesses may hang in major museums around the world and garner huge prices from avid collectors of Wiley’s work, the models usually remain anonymous, since Wiley prefers to title his portraits not after the sitters but after the people depicted in the portraits to which he pays homage.

Evoking well-known Western masterworks of the past with modern-day young men who display all the signifiers of 21st century African American masculine style is fresh and arresting, as is this fact: although they borrow the poses of major dead white European males, Wiley’s versions of the portraits usually depict black men between the ages of 18 and 35.

Wiley, himself a black, gay, American man, says that he chooses men in part for their sexual attractiveness to him, though he does not ask their sexual orientations. But in gazing upon them, he is knowingly sexually objectifying them, which has traditionally been seen as a way to take power away from the person who is being objectified. However, Wiley does this with the sitters’ assent and participation, so his sitters have the ultimate power over whether they are depicted in new works of art by a prominent internationally known artist, and in what pose they will be remembered. Wiley’s subjects exude power and self-awareness, but  are left unnamed and undescribed. He chooses them not for their personalities, influence or station in life. It is enough that they are black, beautiful and capable of presenting themselves in a composed, dignified and quietly confident manner.

Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times

Kehinde Wiley at his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio with his painting “Jose Alberto de la Cruz Diaz and Luis Nunez” (2013). Photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times

Wiley’s creations in all their varied media serve to focus his gaze on attractive, confident young men who wield evident power with total comfort. Their poses are usually not so much arrogant as entitled: they address viewers directly without fear or anger. They often display the sartorial signs of success, including name-brand shoes and clothes. Even when they find themselves in dandified poses, Wiley catches them looking unsurprised to be presenting themselves as worthy of their evident power.

Over time Wiley has added more women to his work, and some of his most recent portraits feature elegant women in formal designer gowns instead of in their street clothes. Their hair is elaborately coiffed and they look like fashion models, but again, there is a sense of self-awareness and power in their expressions. These proud black men and women command attention without effort; they are vivid and dynamic symbols of black strength and power who assert the importance of their place in history and in the modern world.

In an interview with National Public Radio’s Audie Cornish, Wiley said of his decision to incorporate obvious product placement in his works, “Branding says a lot about luxury, and about exclusion, and about the choices that manufacturers make, but I think that what society does with it after it’s produced is something else. And the African-American community has always been expert at taking things and repurposing them toward their own ends. This code-switching that exists between luxury and urban is something that was invented in the streets of America, not Sixth Avenue.”

Most of Wiley’s portraits on canvas are based on photographs that he takes and then adjusts with computer applications to heighten their contrast and make their colors more vivid. But though he takes great care with the paintings of his subjects, he assembles groups of assistants in his studios around in the U.S., China and elsewhere to undertake the background painting in his portraits, much as the great 15th to 17th century painters of the Renaissance and Baroque period had their assistants fill in the areas behind the human subjects.

The backgrounds in his large portraits on canvas are not usually naturalistic landscape or elegant rooms—they are flat, decorative, repeating floral motifs such as one might find on wallpaper by Victorian designer William Morris or by 18th century designer William Kilburn. These floral backdrops hang behind the subjects of Wiley’s paintings, but sometimes elements of them—tendrils or branches or floral sprays—curve around in front of the subjects, surrounding the carefully rendered, three-dimensional human beings with flat fantasy gardens come to life. These delicate, elegant backgrounds contrast with the often dramatically manly subjects of the paintings, heightening the objectification of the body and pointing out the physical beauty in African Americans who have often been made to feel “other,” less than, ugly and unwanted by white Western arbiters of taste, style or value.

In 2006, Wiley found a crumpled police mug shot on the ground near his studio in Harlem. He used this symbol of a young man’s having been stripped of his freedom and power to inspire a beautiful portrait. The anonymous young man is portrayed with great dignity and honesty. Of the painting, NPR’s Audie Cornish said “It’s also the antithesis of the work people may recognize. … If anything, your work, for a lot of people, has been a rebuke of the mug shot when it comes to black men.” Wiley replied that his usual choice to portray black men in positions of power is indeed “a rebuke of the mug shot, it’s an ability to say ‘I will be seen the way I choose to be seen.’ All of the models are going through our history books and deciding, out of all the great portraits of the past, which ones do they feel most comfortable, which ones resonate with them. And so I go through the studios with individuals who go through art history books and choose how they want to perform themselves.”

The mug shot portrait is unusual for Wiley in that, while it shows an evidently self-possessed man displaying dignity and internal strength, it was created without the subject’s knowledge or consent. This back-story makes the viewer consider the question of the subject’s power or powerlessness, and whether Wiley has bestowed an aura of power on the man in the mug shot portrait while denying him the power to determine how and whether to present his face to the world in general. The questions of who has power, where it comes from and whether it is deserved hang over every piece in this exhibition, just as these questions unfortunately hang over the heads of all African Americans who feel that their presence and worth are constantly scrutinized and challenged as they go about their daily lives.

While many of Wiley’s works celebrate temporal authority, this new exhibition also places young black men in the context of spiritual and religious iconography, often posing as if they were martys and saints. One room is filled with elegant gilded triptychs, portraits painted on upright wooden panels with hinged closable doors on either side of the portrait, similar to the way that saints were depicted in shrines in Catholic chapels during the Middle Ages. These paintings don’t have vibrant stylized floral backdrops like the huge portraits on canvas do, but are intimate works of art with either Renaissance-style landscapes or Medieval-style gilding shimmering behind the beautifully, naturalistically painted portraits of black men in modern-day dress and hair styles. The T-shirts and tattoos and dreadlocks make it clear that the men featured in the triptychs are very much modern-day men in timeless settings.

In the stained glass room, tall and vibrant windows as boldly colored and intricately decorated as original 19th century Gothic Revival windows feature men in Converse shoes or Timberland boots, quilted vests and hoodies, African cloth shorts or cuffed jeans standing on plinths like statues, their halos shining above their heads. In these religiously inspired pieces, the subjects still exude great power, but their symbolic association with those who were too good for this world, who were martyred for their purity and courage, shows another aspect of greatness; the power that these men display takes a different, quieter form than his other work.

After the dramatic room-filling portraits on canvas, the intimate triptychs and the solemn, saintly stained glass windows, his oversize bronze busts of black men and women are impressive in that they show further diversity and skill, but they don’t mesmerize the way his other more colorful two-dimensional works do. However, the sculptures do show a charmingly cheeky side to his wit. In one exhibit, three nearly identical black female heads are arranged in a setting reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman artworks depicting the mythological Three Graces. The three are joined together by enormously long and undulating locks of braided hair. In another, a solemn, dignified man wearing a dashiki, his chin up and head back, looks for all the world like a noble statesman posing for an official portrait from the front, but a bronze hairpick sticks surprisingly out of his natural afro in the back. The importance of black hair as a cultural signifier and symbol of connectedness and continuity within the black experience is underscored by the use of hair as an important decorative and unifying element in a number of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures.

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“Shantavia Beale II,” a painting by Kehinde Wiley, 2012. Photo from the Brooklyn Museum

Art critics are divided on whether to celebrate or deride Wiley for his techniques, his subject matter and his style. Some find the quality of the background painting that he hands off to assistants to be subpar; my experience of his paintings is that they appear to be composed and finished with care, and that they give an impression of greater precision than most large artworks do upon close examination. Other critics deride his reuse of tried-and-true, immediately recognizable poses from masterworks, finding it derivative.

I see Wiley’s reworking of clichéd art-historical tropes into fresh new hip-hop-infused celebrations of modern style as a bracing twist on tired themes. While some writers praise his prolific, vivid output across different media, others complain that he outsources the painting of the backgrounds to other artists (just as was the custom of the great European artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras) and doesn’t give enough credit to the artists who inspired him. Some detractors find his choice to reuse classical poses unoriginal; they neglect to mention that the history of art has always involved the borrowing, reworking and downright copying of old masters by the new, and that it is this very obvious borrowing from the white Western artworks of the past that helps us to set these works in context and face the racially charged questions they evoke.

In the 16th century Michelangelo copied the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome; in the 19th century Manet copied the pose of 16th century painter Titian; in the 1960s, Warhol made slavish copies of Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes and ushered in a whole new art movement. Pop art is today among the most valued and collected genres of art despite being derived from the most banal, repetitive and disposable elements in modern culture. If Warhol is a genius for having his (often unpaid) underlings endlessly reprint silkscreened images of popular entertainment icons based on photos that he didn’t take, color them unevenly in unnatural colors and then turn them over to him to sign, how can Wiley, whose works have layers of meaning and historical signifiers that Warhol’s works often lacked, be dismissed for following in the footsteps of earlier masters?

It is certainly possible for someone to find Wiley’s work lacking for purely aesthetic and technical reasons. However, it does seem that critics are often in a hurry to try to take him down a peg and to speak ill of him more directly and dismissively than they do other less-talented artists who also take inspiration from historical sources, like John Currin, or from artists who elevate pop culture (and even kitsch) to new heights (like Jeff Koons), but who happen to be white. It seems to me that Wiley’s composure and the confident ease with which he expresses himself in interviews might strike some as signs of unearned or unwelcome entitlement. The sense of pride and power with which he imbues his portraits can be found in his demeanor, but I see it not as arrogance or as a threat but as a strong sense of self. I wonder how much the discomfort some feel about his works stems from an unease over the idea of an African American having the power to make artistic choices and elevate those who look like him.

Criticism of Wiley, his work style and his aesthetic reminds me of white criticism of Beyoncé’s latest songs and videos; they’re unapologetically created from a black perspective with a black audience in mind. If we white folk appreciate it and want to buy it too, great, but it’s not specifically for us, and it isn’t the job of black artists to comfort or pander to whites.

Critics seem often to be looking for reasons to denigrate Wiley—his backgrounds are too thinly drawn, they say, or his use of decorative motifs undercuts the seriousness of his work. He cares too much about making things pretty and not enough about making them real, some cry. These complaints feel manufactured to me, and they deny the visceral power, the thrill, the vibrant, vibrating beauty that leaps off his canvases and suffuses the galleries in which his works hang or stand with a glowing, thrumming life force. Trying to reduce works of such emotion and energy to dry theoretical constructs strikes me as ridiculous, like trying to freeze-dry sunshine or to express color using only grey-scale photographs.

Like Warhol and Koons and Rubens before him, Kehinde Wiley is a successful businessman with many people working under him in order to allow him to manufacture expensive luxury goods at a fast clip. But Wiley’s works have a unique power to them, and they are fresh and unusual individual creative works; they are African American cultural signifiers like no others in the art world today. Wiley is clearly obsessed with creation and beauty, and regardless of whether he has assistants to help him, he is personally constantly visualizing and manifesting new visual magic all the time. While the subjects of his portraits look at ease with themselves, Wiley himself is happy to go to uncomfortable places with his art, and to challenge himself by traveling the world, learning about and painting brown-skinned people in Africa, Asia and Europe as well as here in the U.S.

In his NPR interview, Wiley told Audie Cornish, “My love affair with painting is bittersweet. I love the history of art — you asked me about that moment that I first looked at the stuff and when I first fell in love with it. It was only later that I understood that a lot of destruction and domination had to occur in order for all of this grand reality to exist. So what happens next? What happens is the artist grows up and tries to fashion a world that’s imperfect. Tries to say yes to the parts that he loves, and to say yes to the parts that he wants to see in the world, such as black and brown bodies — like my own — in the same vocabulary as that tradition that I had learned so many years before. It’s an uncomfortable fit, but I don’t think that it’s something that I’m shying away from at all. In fact, I think what we’re arriving at is the meat of my project, which is that discomfort is where the work shines best. These inconvenient bedfellows that you’re seeing all over this museum are my life’s work.”

Kehinde Wiley says yes to history, yes to his desires and yes to his vision of the world. His affirmative energy and his willingness to sit with and address uncomfortable questions of gender, orientation and power makes for an electrifying exhibition that invites us to enter into Wiley’s vision and live in A New Republic of his creation.

The Least of These

Boxing Day illustration by George Cruikshank (1792-1878), the British caricaturist and book illustrator best known for illustrating the works of his friend Charles Dickens.

Today is Boxing Day, a day traditionally set aside to remind those who have been blessed with comfort to share their bounty with those to whom life has been less generous. The tradition seems to have begun in the 1600s in England when the more well-to-do put together boxes of money, gifts, hand-me-downs and leftover food for their servants who had worked on Christmas Day. These servants were given the day after Christmas off to spend with their families and enjoy the contents of the box.

One of the central tenets of the religion which takes Jesus as its lord is expressed in the following passage from the New Testament’s Book of Matthew:  “‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’’

The true character of a human being is shown in the way that she or he treats those who are in need, those who are suffering, those who have no power. People of character don’t spend time determining that some people are unworthy of human decency. The Jesus lauded as the redeemer of Christians did not trample on the weak or crush those who had erred. He saw no poor as “undeserving,” nor did he believe that some prisoners deserved kindness while others deserved a boot in the face. Jesus said that the way to show reverence for that which was pure and good was to show reverence for and generosity to “the least of these”—those most degraded, despised, troubled and troubling people among us. He said we should focus more of our love, mercy and understanding on these people than on the fortunate few. His concern was not with the inhabitants of any shining city on a hill; he saved his blessings (and, Christians say, his miracles) for those who had the least and needed love most.

We can celebrate the spirit of Boxing Day without using boxes; just choose a favorite charity or two and help them to help others, or do a good deed for someone in need. In the spirit of Boxing Day, I’m giving to my local food bank today. If you’re looking for an especially effective nonprofit to support with your Christmas cash, Hanukkah gelt or secular humanistic savings, CharityNavigator.com is a great place to start.

Blessed are the merciful. Peace be with you today and throughout the new year.

Emotionally Scarring Toys

Pooduck

In December 2005 researchers at England’s University of Bath released the results of a study that found that children, especially girls, see torturing and mutilating their Barbies as a common and enjoyable form of play. An article in the London Times stated that “mutilation ranged from cutting off hair to decapitating and putting the dolls in microwaves.” Children ages seven to eleven were said to “see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity,” according to the article. The children were aware that they were being exploited by “over-marketing and over-charging” and that rejecting the doll was a “rite of passage” engaged in by children who felt they’d outgrown their Barbies. “Barbies are not special,” said the researchers. “They are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected.”

I’ve thought about my history with Barbies, and my daughter’s, too, and I take issue with some of the article’s findings. Cutting Barbie’s hair isn’t really an act of mutilation in the way that putting her in the microwave is. Children know that cutting their own hair gets them in trouble, and cutting Barbie’s hair gives them the satisfaction of distorting her appearance and messing with the standard and approved way of viewing her, it’s true—it also lets them know what it feels like to cut hair without getting in trouble. The Barbies I grew up around often had missing toes; this is not because we wanted to bind their feet golden-lotus–style and further fetishize their sexual-fantasy-based bodies, but rather because chewing the rubbery plastic felt good. Gnawing away at them resulted in their coming off completely in the mouth in a pleasant if slightly disturbing fashion. Pulling Barbie heads off was common when I was a child, not because we were acting out scenes from Robespierre’s Reign of Terror but because we wanted to trade them around among dolls with different features and outfits. We also pierced our dolls’ ears (leaving them looking grey and infected) and bent their knees back and forth so much for the sheer pleasure of hearing the click click click of their joints that their skin tore.

But do people take pleasure in creating their own torture tableaux featuring Barbie, Ken and all their plastic molded-bodied friends? Of course. Their constantly perky expressions and injection-molded perfection do invite children to challenge their prefab poise. They look so inviting in the box, but take them out of the vivid fuchsia packaging and their clothes are hard to put on, and their hair gets bunched up and never lies flat again and gets permanently dull and stringy when Barbie is invited to play in the bathtub. Ken’s spray-painted hair wears off and he ends up with flesh coloring showing through in patches that have nothing to do with standard male-pattern baldness. Barbie is not only free of genitalia, but sometimes has molded skin-colored patterns simulating underwear built right into what would be her buttocks if she had any gluteal musculature.

Barbie’s original design was based on that of the Bild Lilli, a sexually suggestive German doll from the 1950s. A German brochure from the 1950s states that Lilli was “always discreet,” and that her wardrobe made her “the star of every bar.” When Barbie debuted in 1959, many parents found her obviously sexual nature disturbing. Of course, this aspect of her is partly what has always made her so alluring to children. She’s the premiere socially sanctioned sexualized plaything, and she allows young children to engage in pre-sexual roleplay and pretend to embody the roles they think are expected of them as they mature. Children live out stereotypes with Barbies, but they also challenge and laugh at them.

The widespread delight that children take in trashing their Barbies when they feel they’ve outgrown them might be a reaction to the stereotypes, the expectations and the mass-merchandizing overconsumption extravaganza that Barbie represents, at least in part. But often Barbie’s mutilation is an unintentional byproduct of trying to personalize her and make her more interesting and individual. When such an attempt results in a Barbie who is less appealing, her loss of allure and inability to be made into something uniquely appealing make Barbie a sorry remnant of a time of earlier naivete, as well as a reminder of failed attempts at creating more individualized beauty. Rather than feel bad every time we see what our attempts at beautification have done, it’s easier to dissociate her from her former status as beauty icon if we take her destruction even further. If she’s ugly and all the gloss and perfection that we once admired in her is gone, why not turn her into a doggy chew toy, or see what happens if we take nail polish remover to the paint on her face? If we turn her into a science experiment, we feel less disappointed in her lost glory.

Barbie’s reputation for mindlessness was bolstered by the 1992 release of Teen Talk Barbie. This talking Barbie spewed forth phrases like “Math is hard!” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” A group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization soon became famous for engaging in acts of Barbie sabotage, exchanging Barbie’s talking guts for the voice hardware found in Mattel’s Talking G.I. Joe dolls. The BLO repackaged three hundred dolls and slid them back onto store shelves. When unsuspecting little girls tried their new Barbies at home, the fashion dolls grunted out “Vengeance is mine!” and “Dead men tell no tales,” while little boys’ new G.I. Joes cooed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”

Of course, some toys are less than glorious to begin with, and only become more disturbing or ridiculous with time. Others begin attractively and grow frightening with disuse or misuse. Such are the toys found at DisturbingAuctions.com. The site’s home page states that Disturbing Auctions “is dedicated to the research and study of the most bizarre items found for sale on Internet auction sites. Not the obviously fake auctions, like the infamous human kidney, but truly tacky stuff that people really, honestly, believed that someone would (and in some cases did) buy.”

DisturbingAuctions.com features home furnishings including the velvet painting of Jesus blessing an 18-wheeler; accessories like the purse made of a bull’s scrotum; clothing like used gym shorts and a matching used jock strap; and haute cuisine, including 200 freeze-dried pork chops. But nothing can compare to discovering the hideous figurines, including the “Check Out My Ass Clown” (make sure to look at the optional magnified view for ultimate flamboyant clown perusing pleasure), the items classified as Terrifying Dolls, or, my favorites, the Emotionally Scarring Toys.

The Terrifying Dolls category features the pained, shriveled and body-part-challenged Puppet Assortment, the pinheaded Li’l Head Doll, and Baby Tears-Your-Flesh, a.k.a. Little Dolly No-Head. Big Hands Baby and the Saddam Hussein puppet also get honorable mention.

Clowns have a special place on Disturbing Auctions; here you’ll find a clown brooch, a clown ashtray and a vicious Cranky Clown Lava Lamp, among other items. Dead stuffed frogs also have their places, as does the stuffed and mounted genuine Deer Butt. The Clark Gable candle puts one in mind of a wax-covered severed head, and why the seller of the Inflatable Ladies’ Legs had to mention that they fit in the mouth when not inflated is anyone’s guess.

Still, the Emotionally Scarring Toys is the biggest, juiciest treasure trove of outrageous kitsch. From the Dean Martin Hand Puppet to our beloved Big-Ass Donkey, from Darth Small to the marvelously named Pooduck, it’s hard to find an entry that isn’t deeply, horribly, hideously wrong down to its very core.

While most of the site has stayed static for years, there is a related site, DisturbingAuctions.com/daily, where visitors can post their own horrific online auction discoveries and attach their own witty (or, more frequently, just vulgar) commentaries. There are occasional gems to be found here, but the older, original DisturbingAuctions.com site has the most consistently hideous and perfectly captioned offerings. All hail the Pooduck!

[Revised from an article which originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Fascism in America

Vice News has created a powerful documentary on the murderous fascist violence that took over Charlottesville last weekend. It is hard to watch, but important to see. We must all bear witness to what is happening and not turn away from it but fight it together.

Fascism has been an undercurrent in American politics for many decades and has never been wiped out. But it now has thousands of newly emboldened, well-armed adherents who feel safe leaving their shadows, rifles in hand. They see themselves as part of a holy war. Aided and abetted by Trump and Bannon, American Nazis have gained the confidence to come out, threaten, attack, even murder. They act out more forcefully now because they fear no reprisals—they believe God and Trump are on their side. This makes them a much more powerful force for evil than they were only months ago.

Unless we stomp this fascist uprising down hard and fast with the rule of law, show immediate intervention between sides at rallies where fascists appear, and disallow armed proponents of violence from threatening others and brandishing weapons in the streets and elsewhere—unless we legislate against the legal arming of members of hate groups who actively support the murder of innocents and the overthrow of our government—we may enter an age of increasing white fascist terrorism.
 
The president has spit in the face of all who fought the Nazis during World War II. He has made a dirty joke of the sacrifices of all who were tortured and slaughtered by Hitler and his followers. Trump has all but welcomed the Klan into the White House. He daily proves himself to be an utterly unfit and illegitimate head of state, a leader opposed to his own people and his own nation, a traitor in support of a malign foreign power and a man with a malignant and severe personality disorder that keeps him from thinking rationally or caring about any interests other than his own.
 
If Trump should eventually be impeached and ousted by those in power who recognize his instability and moral bankruptcy, we may hear and see threats made against those who oppose him. Extremists who feel their fascist president was toppled by a communist coup d’etat will go after both liberals and conservatives who finally feel too soiled and disgusted to carry water for an unhinged tyrant who seems to be in league with Putin against the United States.
Whether Trump stays in power or not, he has unleashed heavily armed monsters without morals or mercy. So far, they have been given the benefit of the doubt by police and government agencies when they should have been held back. Legislators in the pocket of the NRA have allowed people with documented mental illness and histories of domestic violence to own and use deadly firearms and even purchase semi-automatic weapons of mass destruction. Our nation has been willing to coddle supporters of violence and support them in their efforts to arm themselves like professional soldiers and build up huge personal armories.
 
Fascists do not stop at threats. They do not stop at murder. There is a good chance that, emboldened by irrational hatred and violent tendencies, some will believe that it is their holy duty to engage in what they see as righteous war against members of the U.S. government. No, they cannot topple our government, but they have already infiltrated it. They are massively armed and exist in larger numbers than we have seen in decades. They are likely to continue to do great damage, and to distract us all from helping those who are in need and watching how international affairs affect us. We must speak against tyrants, demagogues and terrorists. We must change our gun laws. We must be ready to bring fascists down.

How Xenophobia Destroys Us from the Inside

A model member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community, a hardworking go-getter who regularly works 16-hour days to support his family (which includes two daughters—both U.S. citizens—and a wife who is eight months into a high-risk pregnancy), is likely to be deported this summer. Does he have a criminal record? No. Is he a leech on the public welfare system? No. Francisco Rodriguez not only works full time as a custodian at MIT but also runs a carpet-cleaning company, and he pays income taxes on both jobs.

Did he lie to the government and try to sneak in? No; he applied for asylum when he moved here from El Salvador just over a decade ago. A mechanical engineer in his native country, his success made him a target of gangsters who shook him down and threatened him with murder if he didn’t pay them even more. He has been up-front with the Department of Homeland Security all along the way. The U.S. would not give him asylum, but until recently they would not begin deportation proceedings, either, since it was clear that Francisco was not a risk to our nation—indeed, he was a taxpayer and a job-creator, he supported his family and was active in his children’s school, his church and his union. But on July 13, he will meet with representatives of ICE, possibly for the last time before he is forced to leave his family, his job, his business—everything—behind in the U.S., the country he has served so well for over a decade.

So what changed? Our nation is now led by a man who sees all born outside of our borders as lesser beings, and he sees those who were born in countries below our southern border as especially dangerous and worthless, with inherent violent and immoral tendencies, no matter how clearly the facts prove otherwise.

Francisco Rodriguez wasn’t targeted for deportation because he’s a danger to society; he was chosen because his honesty made him easy to find, and his lack of criminality made him highly unlikely to cause a fuss when he was singled out for removal from his home, his family, his job and his community. If Francisco is deported, he and his wife will not be allowed to travel between the U.S. and El Salvador to visit each other for at least ten years.

The true cost of Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policy is this: families are torn apart; honest and hardworking people are forced to give up everything to go to countries where their safety is at risk; taxpayers are taken off the rolls, so the IRS loses out on revenue; and formerly independent families are forced to ask for assistance during and after family crises (in this case a high-risk birth with no father present—a crisis completely manufactured by the U.S. government).

The knock-on effect of sweeping deportations to families, businesses, tax rolls and our culture in general is enormous and devastating. It will soon be felt strongly in the business world and will result in lower income tax revenues as well. The service and construction sectors rely heavily on undocumented labor and are fearful of the increasing costs of hiring citizens who want greater income and shorter hours. The agriculture sector is already feeling the pinch and is worried about how they’ll manage to find enough farm workers to bring in their crops. They can’t find enough citizens willing to work long hours in seasonal agricultural jobs in the blistering harvest-season heat, even as wages rise. Produce will rot before it can be picked and distributed when there are not enough workers to go around. Will our supposedly business-savvy president recognize the folly of his fear and hate then? It is doubtful.

These misguided policies fuel our growing xenophobia and will take a huge economic and emotional toll on our nation. It is never in our country’s interests to treat good, honest, hardworking people like criminals because of an accident of birth. Our moralistic pronouncements about the greatness of our country are hollow when we use our might to destroy lives, to vilify honorable people and to dismantle our social compact out of unearned self-regard based on birth and not innate worth. We harm ourselves as well as others when we let our fears and prejudices overcome reason, mercy and human decency.

I Cannot Celebrate Today

I feel so melancholic about the direction this nation has taken this past year that I can’t find much to celebrate this Independence Day. These supposedly United States are again facing so many of the things we chose to free ourselves of in 1776—institutionalized inequality; a growing lack of respect for our sisters and brothers among the populace; rule by a careless aristocracy that stomps on the most vulnerable; and the detestation and destruction of truth, justice, fairness and mercy by those in power. But this time, these evils are not visited on us by a distant king—these sins are of our own making. We have chosen our own violent, prejudiced, ugly, Earth-hating leadership.

I want to celebrate and revel in the passion of the masses who resist. I want to stand with them against greed and bigotry and corporate take-over of our health and safety and humanity. But today, I just need to hide away from blind, jingoistic celebration of a nation that shuts its doors on refugees, on the destitute, on the desperate. I don’t recognize my nation anymore, the nation whose Constitution has so often made me literally weep with pride. I cannot celebrate today.

Sally Yates, National Hero

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Former Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates is a genuine American hero. She has at least twice in the past month stood up to the president to champion the Constitution and the rule of law as well as to warn him of the treachery of one of his appointments. Was she lauded for her patriotism and insight? No: She was promptly fired and excoriated by Donald Trump for doing her job.

In the wake of Trump’s executive order banning the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries into the U.S., Yates wrote, “I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful. For as long as I am the Acting Attorney General, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the Executive Order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.”

Also, in January, Yates warned the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was misleading others in the Trump Administration about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.; that he did not divulge that he had made deals with Russia promising to lift U.S. sanctions levied against them by President Obama for interfering in the U.S. presidential campaign even before Trump was elected president; and that he was highly vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government. Recordings provided by U.S, security operatives proved that Flynn had colluded with a foreign government to undermine the strength of then-President Obama’s sanctions. That gave an enemy state an incentive to undermine a U.S. presidential election in order to prop up a friendly U.S. regime that would bow to their will, and gave them something to use against Flynn in order to blackmail him. By engaging in these conversations, Flynn broke his oath to support the Constitution of the United States. He is, quite simply, a traitor, and Sally Yates warned Trump’s White House of that weeks ago.

The Trump White House did not believe Flynn’s treachery should prompt his ouster, which implies that Trump or his advisers had already been aware of his interactions with the Russian ambassador, or that the White House supported them, or both. They did not evict Flynn from his post until news video of Vice President Mike Pence looking like he was unaware of what was going on behind his back made Pence look clueless and out of the loop. Clearly, being beholden to the Russians is no sin in their eyes, but looking weak.

Last month Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, was abruptly dismissed by the White House after directing Justice Department lawyers not to defend the new administration’s travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries. Why? Because she knew it was unconstitutional as written, would never hold up in court and would violate the oaths that she and the president had taken to uphold the Constitution. She was doing her job, had no choice but to oppose defending an illegal edict, and she was proved right in her assessment when the travel ban was later struck down as unconstitutional by a three-judge panel. For her efforts to do the right thing, Trump said Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice” and fired her. But Yates is exactly the sort of brave and conscientious person I want watching over my freedoms and rights and holding my government accountable.

Coretta Scott King’s Condemnation of Jeff Sessions

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Above is the beginning of the letter that civil rights leader (and widow of Martin Luther King Jr.) Coretta Scott King wrote to segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond about Jeff Sessions in 1986 when she was protesting his nomination for a position as a federal judge. On the cover page of her nine-page letter, Mrs. King wrote, ‘“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”

Thurmond was supposed to make the letter a part of the Senate record, but he failed to do his duty in an attempt to the hide the filthy history of a fellow believer in white supremacy. Thurmond’s action hid the fact of the letter from the public for 30 years. It was recently rediscovered and shared by the Washington Post.

Tonight Senator Elizabeth Warren was reading it aloud on the floor of the U.S. Senate when Republican Senator Mitch McConnell shut her down, saying she was breaking Senate rules against impugning the name of a fellow member of the Senate by sharing historical facts about his long history of racism, facts necessary to properly assess his worthiness for one of the most powerful posts in the nation.

Jeff Sessions has spoken on behalf of segregationists and white supremacists. He has gone out of his way to stand by bigots and against racial equality in his public as well as his private life. Now Donald Trump wants him to be our Attorney General.

Stand up to them, America.