Seasonal Seasoning

November 27, 2011

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Changing Holiday Traditions

November 27, 2011

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New York Times Magazine:

The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules . . . they would have the chance to build a good life.” But these days, many workers have lost a near guarantee on a decent wage and benefits — and their careers are likely to have much more volatility (great years; bad years; confusing, mediocre years) than their parents’ ever did. So when did the rules change?

It has been hard to keep track. Over the past four decades, we have experienced the oil embargo, Carter-era malaise and a few recessions. Mixed in were the thrills of the late 1990s and mid-aughts, when it seemed as if you were a sap if you weren’t getting rich or at least trying. But these dramas prevented many of us from realizing that the economic logic was changing fundamentally. Starting in the 1970s, labor was upended by a lot more than just formal government work rules. Increased global trade devastated workers in many industries, especially textiles, apparel, toys, furniture and electronics assembly. Computers and other technological innovations had an arguably greater impact. While factories continue to make more stuff in the United States than ever before, employment in them has collapsed.

Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries. Money now flows around the world so quickly, and technology changes so fast, that people who thought they were in high demand find themselves uprooted. Many newspaper reporters have learned that their work was subsidized, in part, by classified ads and now can’t survive the rise of Craigslist; computer programmers have found out that some smart young guys in India will do their jobs for much less. Meanwhile, China lends so much money to the United States that mortgage brokers and bond traders can become richer than they ever imagined for a few years and then, just as quickly, become broke and unemployed.

One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence. Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college, and most of them could get a decent job. Today nearly a third have college degrees, and a higher percentage of them graduated from nonelite schools. A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability. To get a good job, you have to have some special skill — charm, by the way, counts — that employers value. But there’s also a pretty good chance that by some point in the next few years, your boss will find that some new technology or some worker overseas can replace you…

Read it all.

The Walrus:

TWO DECADES AGO,RCMP officers drove up a winding road through the Creston Valley of southeastern British Columbia, past fields of timothy hay and cottonwood stands, to an unmarked settlement known as Bountiful. It looked a typical rural town — homesteads bordered by well-kept yards full of children running and swinging and cycling — but, in fact, the officers had come to investigate a complaint that two local patriarchs, young gun Winston Blackmore and his fifty-seven-year old father-in-law Dalmon Oler, were polygamists — an offence under Section 293 of the Criminal Code.

All 1,000 or so residents of Bountiful are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon sect that believes God’s chosen leaders should each marry several virgins and “multiply and replenish the Earth… that they may bear the souls of men.” Unashamed, Oler invited the officers into the fifteen-bedroom home he shared with his five wives and forty-eight children. Blackmore, who in addition to leading Canada’s FLDSoperated a multimillion-dollar logging, trucking, and manufacturing business, was cagier about numbers, only admitting to having more than one wife. He was rumoured, however, to have at least twenty-five (many underage at the time he married them), and more than eighty children.

After a year-long investigation, the case seemed completely straightforward, but lawyers knew otherwise. While the Criminal Code defines polygamy as a crime, the Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom, and in the summer of 1992, after consulting various constitutional experts, the BC attorney general’s office officially rejected the RCMPrecommendations, on the grounds that Section 293 was invalid. Blackmore, puffed up with victory, is said to have mounted a framed copy of the Charter on his office wall.

But his troubles were far from over. Blackmore would soon became embroiled in an internecine leadership struggle with James Marion Oler, son of Dalmon; more concerning, Bountiful suffered from growing image problems. In the wake of the thwarted charges, BC’s secretary of state for women’s equality commissioned a committee on polygamy issues, which in May 1993 issued Life in Bountiful, a powerful indictment of polygamy, in particular forced marriage and extreme demands of obedience. “When does a culture stop being a culture,” the report concluded rhetorically, “and start being abuse?” A decade later, one of the committee members, escaped FLDS wife Debbie Palmer, published Keep Sweet, a sensational memoir dedicated to her eight children, “who lived through unspeakable horrors before I brought them out.” And in 2008, Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham published The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s Polygamous Mormon Sect, which documented, along with the sad fate of Bountiful’s girls, that of its boys, who were yanked from school and put to work, or expelled from the community to eliminate competition for brides.

The year after the book was released, BC’s attorney general, Wally Oppal, laid polygamy charges against Blackmore and James Oler (who replaced the former as bishop in 2002) and had the RCMP arrest them. In his determination to do so, however, Oppal had ignored government lawyers who maintained the charge wouldn’t stand up to a Charter challenge, instead appointing successive independent prosecutors until he found one who recommended laying charges, which the court then quashed on procedural grounds. (Blackmore is now suing the BC government for expenses related to “unlawful” prosecution.) When Oppal lost a subsequent election, his successor, Mike de Jong, filed a constitutional reference in which he asked the BC Supreme Court to contend with the conflict between the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights at last.

When the trial opened on November 22, 2010, a stream of participants and witnesses for the government, including representatives from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children, REAL Women of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, and academic experts, testified about the many harms associated with polygamy. Most convincing, perhaps, was the testimony of former FLDS members. Carolyn Jessop, who fled a community in Utah with her eight children in the middle of the night, summed it up well: “Polygamy is not pretty to look at. It is nice that it is tucked away in a dark corner where nobody has to see its realities, because it’s creepy.”

But George Macintosh, the amicus curiae (friend of the court) appointed to present the opposing argument, came out swinging. He characterized Section 293 as an overly broad and grossly disproportionate law rooted in Christian prejudices, a law demeaning to polygamists. Women in polygamous marriages anonymously testified that they were happy, that they’d made the right decision. According to CBC, the BC Civil Liberties Association argued that “consenting adults have the right — the Charter protected right — to form the families that they want to form.” And the Canadian Association for Free Expression maintained that the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 strengthened the individual’s right to enter a polygamous marriage.

The rights argument carries considerable weight in a liberal society — if it didn’t, we wouldn’t still be faced with the Bountiful problem. We’ll find out what the court makes of it all by the end of the year. Something that hasn’t been fully considered but should be factored in to any reasonable decision is that rights can’t be separated from the culture in which they arise. They are inextricably linked to institutions that form the backbone of a society, and in every society throughout history the fundamental organizing institution has always been marriage…

Read it all.

New York Magazine:

On a recent Sunday afternoon, ­Arianna Huffington, the 61-year-old editorial director of the newly merged AOL–Huffington Post, gathers a group of children around her on a white rug, reading a series of stories. Her outfit—tuxedo jacket, sensible pants, hair lightened to the color of Donald Trump’s and with a similarly distinctive swirl—is a little more formal than the event, a spa open to the public, calls for today, but in every other way this “oasis,” as she puts it, is a reflection of Huffington’s habits: a “cell-phone check” at a concierge desk (a sign encourages guests to “give your phone a boost while you unplug inside”), blue yoga mats rolled up in a bin (“I do yoga every morning”), a chef making smoothies with names like You’ve Got the Beet, and a buffet with Greek yogurt—“the best in the world,” she explains, pushing it forward. “Eat. My mother used to say if you didn’t eat every twenty minutes, there was something wrong with you.”

Even the books that Huffington has selected for her reading session mirror her adult concerns—there’sGoodnight Moon; Stop Snoring, Bernard!;and a heap of others on the theme of sleep, a topic on which she can hold forth at length (and, indeed, she encourages her writers to file stories on sleep, such as “What Your Sleep Position Says About You” and “The Lost Art of Dreaming”). “Since I moved from L.A., I find the noise of New York City is great during the day, but it’s difficult to disconnect,” she says. “Sometimes, I have to sleep with my Bose headphones on.” She’s never taken sleeping pills and conks out on planes as long as she has “my kit, my socks, my music, which comes from MTV founder Tom Freston—he has made me the best play­list, which gives me so much joy.”

Huffington turns her considerable charisma on the children at her feet. “Who likes to nap?” she asks. “You know, in the AOL–Huffington Post offices we have two nap rooms, and grown-up people like me can even go in in the middle of the day and take a nap, and then they can come out recharged and ready to play hard.”

The kids look confused.

“Tell me, why do you like to go to sleep?” she says, turning to a curly-­headed kid in a sweatshirt.

“Because I can dream that I’m in a magical land,” he says.

“And what’s in that magical land?” asks Huffington.

“Happy stuff!”

“Fantastic,” she says, smiling widely. “I think we should all do that tonight—dream of a magical land with happy stuff.”

For Huffington, who, on the one hand, serves as a glittery Earth Mother and, on the other, is the world’s best bullshit artist, with stagehands and pulleys at work in conversation (although, oddly, she remains intensely enjoyable to be around), AOL is in some respects a ­“magical land.” The company has allowed her access to ­corporate funding for the Huffington Post website, and she seems to believe her new perch will recast her from a protean self-­reinventionist—at various times a Greek immigrant, New York socialite, New Age proponent, political wife, California gubernatorial candidate, and on and on—into something more solid: the Rupert Murdoch of the digital age, helming the world’s most influential “Internet newspaper,” as the Huffington Post is called.

The domination of news is clearly her goal, even news as defined as a mix of aggregation, original content, and unapologetic linkbait (stories like “What Time Does the Super Bowl Start?” or “Sex With Animals Can Lead to Penis Cancer: Study”), but in a way journalism is a cover for her larger gifts, which are as a cultural magician. Would Rupert Murdoch lock eyes with a reporter and say that, in addition to sleep, “I think that the next big thing is going to be disconnecting,” as Huffington does? “We need to create a ‘GPS for the soul’ app, one that will let us know when we’re off course,” she says. “This will be a bigger and bigger part of our lives in the future, I think.”

The squirming kids are soon quieted by the rhythmic purr of her voice going up and down, down and up, as she reads a couple of books in rapid succession, then announces, “Who wants to come with me to get a blueberry smoothie?” A small cup in hand, she drifts to a massage room, where an assistant hands out aromatherapy patches (“Put it on your skin, and it will transform your day”), and lumpen figures relax under billowing white curtains. “You know, I set up an oasis once before, at the Democratic convention in 2008,” says Huffington. “We had some bloggers come by, and Charlie Rose, for yoga and mini-facials. But it was nothing like this!” She laughs. “No, no. Back then I didn’t have the budget.”

Huffington’s life has always been about weaving the ordinary stuff of life into a bigger story, hoovering up ideas and phrases and people and sometimes whole companies, then putting them back together in the service of a greater good—the greater good looking a lot like a certain Greek-accented, feminine dynamo. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Steve Jobs was in some sense an aggregator, too, and look what he created. Right now, the story is about the merger between AOL and the Huffington Post, but the reality is that Huffington is subsuming AOL media into her personal brand—which may very well be best for ­every­body. Though AOL’s content business (in the past, a sleepy homepage leading to news and lifestyle sections, as a way to ensnare its subscriber base as they dodder over to their e-mail) is only 20 percent of its total revenue, the company now employs 1,300 journalists (1,000 of these work for its local service, Patch)—more than most publishers, except the New York Times, Bloomberg, and ­Reuters. AOL’s CEO of nearly three years, Tim Armstrong, has been committed to growing this part of the business. Forty years old, six foot four, and with Clark Kent looks, Armstrong, the captain of his lacrosse team at Connecticut College and Greenwich dad of three, is one of the golden boys of the online-ad age. A great go-to-market guy full of marketing mumbo-jumbo to coach AOL through what he calls its “transformational agenda,” Armstrong made the decision to buy the Huffington Post for its huge and growing number of visitors, but also for the patina of glamour that Huffington is able to give to AOL, for her Hollywood network of the rich and famous…

Read it all.

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