Hey suburban parents—let’s stop spending money at Abercrombie and Fitch

Not long ago, I followed my daughter to Abercrombie and Fitch in a suburban mall.  I and a legion of other middle-aged parents were fairly stunned by the throbbing background music and frenetic atmosphere. I was also fairly stunned by the high price of the clothes.

Abercrombie and Fitch is now in court because the company declined to hire an otherwise qualified young woman because she wears a Hijab. Apparently she didn’t fit the company’s preferred look.

Shabby treatment of this Muslim young woman is just the latest infraction. Abercrombie and Fitch has attracted controversy for its refusal to sell women’s pants above size 10, its icky soft-core advertising, its apparent race/ethnic bias in recruitment, its mistreatment of an employee whose prosthetic arm ran afoul of the company’s “look” policy, and—not least–its CEO’s casual description of its cool-kid marketing philosophy:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids… We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.

To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, every attractive all-American kid should deliver this guy a swift kick in the pants.

Our kids, particularly our daughters, are forced in so many ways to contend with a predatory commercial culture that reinforces the most crummy and stupid aspects of adolescent life.

As adults, this is partly our fault. We bankroll many purchases in stores that can’t be bothered to sell a pair of pants to somebody’s wonderful 16-year-old girl who wears plus-size pants.

I have no idea whether Abercrombie’s various policies violate various employment laws. I know that this company that doesn’t deserve my money. If every parent did the same, maybe the people hawking stuff to our kids would at least pretend to some basic decency.

Sympathy for the Unhappily Unmarried

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

In watching a comedy special by the hilarious Stephen Merchant I was startled when he announced that his routine was about his inability to find a wife. An army of unmarried male and female comics do routines about their quest for romance or sex or a date or a boyfriend or girlfriend and a comparably sized throng of married comics regale their audience with jokes about their rotten marriage/dopey husband/nagging wife. It was strange therefore to hear a comedian define himself explicitly as unhappily unmarried.

There’s a lot of cultural space out there to be happily married, whether it’s someone rubbing people’s noses in their bliss with wedding anniversary photos on Facebook or a magazine writer managing to work an adoring, successful spouse into a profile of a famous person (particularly if the result is a vaunted “power couple”). With the arrival of gay marriage, the space for happy marriage has been expanded even further.

Unhappily married people also get their cultural due. It’s hard to count all the great novels and plays that plumb their painful existence.

As for the happily unmarried, the positive cultural image of the carefree, smiling, confirmed bachelor goes way back, and has recently been joined by you-go-girl-don’t-need-marriage types in pop culture. If you are unmarried, and a higher proportion that Americans than ever are in this state, you are now generally expected to be excited about it.

But many unmarried people aren’t excited about being unmarried, but find it hard to say so. How do most people react if someone says “I really wish I were married, but I’m not”? Too often I suspect it’s to the view the person as a failure who ought to be marketing their brand better on Match.com or as some emotional misfit who can’t fulfill their duty of joyfully embracing singlehood.

The truth is that there are enormous structural barriers to marriage these days. In communities where men have high unemployment rates and/or are in and out of the correctional system, marriage is harder to initiate and sustain. As the age of first marriage rises, a once common place to find a mate (college) comes at the wrong time in life. The decline of religiosity lessens the opportunities at another meeting ground where many of the current generation’s parents and grandparents found their life partners. There is of course on the job romance, but depending on that rules and informal norms in the workplace, that’s often an unappealing career and/or legal risk for the parties concerned.

Rather than simply expect every unhappily unmarried person to work it out on their own despite all that (and blame them if it doesn’t pan out), the rest of us could no doubt do more to support them in their quest. I used to think that “setting people up” inherently constituted annoying, Yenta-ish meddling. But my married friends who were “set up” speak glowingly about the third parties who brought them together. If done respectfully and thoughtfully, matchmaking for unhappily unmarried people is a community and personal service. Indeed, it can be a gift that lasts a lifetime (ask the Veillards).

Happy 82nd anniversary

Happy 82nd anniversary

When a caregiver leaves

For the fourteen years that I knew my mother-in-law Janice, she would sit at her computer for hours doing her bookkeeping working or just playing solitaire. Her son Vincent would sit quietly beside her, keeping her company. Then Janice passed away. Pretty soon, he kept Veronica and I company in the same way, for the time he lived with us. More recently, for the almost-six years that he has lived in a group home near our house, he has sat quietly beside the night manager Carol, while she has done her own computer work and play. Carol and Vincent have a special relationship.

Carol has firm opinions about things. She and Vinnie squabbled frequently, often when he was caught cutting corners on some rule. We sometimes squabbled with her, too. There’s awkward negotiation and role conflict regarding various details of Vincent’s care. She was away for awhile on sick leave after some surgery. The guys missed her terribly.

We called her last weekend to get a phone number. She surprised us with the news that she will be leaving her position. Like so many black women caring for other people’s loved-ones, she’s had to move on. Not for the first time, no one quite knows the right thing to say. “Thank you for everything” is essential, but leaves so much unsettled and unsaid.

Through circumstances that were beyond her control, she would not be able to say goodbye in person. So she asked one thing: Would we please tell Vincent that she will miss him terribly, but that she won’t be able to see him anymore. Would we also say goodbye to my two daughters, whom she has come to know? Veronica and I spoke with Vincent about it. A staff member had already gotten the guys together. She broke the news to them, rather in the way one tells small children about the death of a close relative.

Vincent is resilient and hungry for human connection. So he will soon find a new person to keep company with before he kicks in for the night.

Vincent’s not saying much about it. That’s his way. I’m helping him pen a goodbye card, as we’ve done when others have passed through his life. Given the low pay and the difficult working conditions in direct care work, he’s experienced this before.

At some random moment long in the future, he’ll say: “I miss Carol.” I’ll say: “Me, too, Vin. Me, too.”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Hobo with a Shotgun

Back in 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released a pair of ’80s exploitation revival feature films under the combined title of Grindhouse. They also held a competition for directors to submit trailers of imaginary films, consistent with the theme of the genre, that could be screened beforehand. One such trailer was eventually turned into its own feature length film four years later, and is this week’s movie recommendation. It’s Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (2011).

Screen shot 2015-02-26 at 17.31.07 Continue Reading…

Have “black sites” come to Sweet Home Chicago?

The Guardian and The Atlantic have now both reported that Chicago police maintain a site at which they interrogate suspects without booking them or letting them talk to their lawyers.  On the Huffington Post, this is what I have to say about that.

As it turns out, this news doesn’t come too late to have an impact on the race for mayor in Chicago.  Perhaps we can use the six weeks before the runoff election to ask Rahm what he knows about these sites, and when he knew it.

Labour’s Scottish Message vs. Ramsay MacDonald

With Britain’s two main parties running neck and neck in a race in which neither is expected to get an outright majority of seats, each is trying to persuade minor party voters to “come home”. For example, to help stanch Labour’s Scottish losses to the Scottish National Party, Labour advocate Jim Murphy is arguing that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories:

It is a simple fact that the single biggest party gets to form the next government.

I couldn’t square this claim with my recollection of UK political history (more on that in a moment), so I consulted Southampton University Professor Will Jennings, who blogs at the excellent site Politics Upside Down. I asked Will what David Cameron could do if the Tories didn’t get a majority, but eked a few more seats than Labour (say 290 vs. 286) because the SNP managed to grab a number of seats (say 40) that otherwise would have gone to Labour. If Labour and SNP wanted to form a majority coalition of 326 seats, could Cameron stay on anyway on the basis of his being the single biggest party?:

the incumbent government has the right to attempt to form a government. However, the government would still need to command a majority in a vote of no confidence, and that would depend on the arithmetic of the opposition parties. So if the Conservatives won with the seat permutation you suggest, it would quickly become apparent they would lose a vote of confidence, and would have to step aside for an alternative government.

Ramsey MacdonaldI was grateful to Will for confirming my suspicions, which funnily enough come straight from my recollection of the founding of the Labour Party by Scottish politicians, most notably Ramsay MacDonald. Having read up a bit over the weekend, I can now relate the intriguing story.

The MacDonald-led Labour party secured 191 seats in the 1923 election, well behind the Conservatives’ tally of 258. Under “Murphy’s Law”, this would have ensured a Tory government with Stanley Baldwin as PM. But H.H. Asquith of the third place Liberal Party threw his 158 seats behind Labour, which meant that Baldwin couldn’t possibly win a confidence vote in the Commons. Thus, despite coming in a distant second in seats, MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister.

A vote for the SNP in Scotland is thus..a vote for the SNP in Scotland.

Fidelity investments wrote their own little investment card. Guess what is missing?

Fidelity Investments today tweeted “6 steps to pay off #debt while saving money at the same time.”


These are pretty good rules, nicely presented. Indeed they remind me of something I first posted here at Samefacts:


That index card is probably my most famous contribution to American financial journalism. It was featured all over the place, and has been copied, plagiarized, modified, even translated into Romanian.

Somehow, Fidelity omitted a few items. Consider these two… Continue Reading…

Obama, America, Christianity, and Islam

Does Obama love America?“ and “Is Obama a Christian?“ are both reflections of the same analytically absurd but politically potent winger theme song: “Obama doesn’t hate Muslims enough; he won’t say ‘Islamic terrorism.’ ”

Really, this gets much easier to understand if you recall that a President’s words are strategic choices rather than contributions to a seminar series. Strategically, it’s obvious that if you want some Muslims to help you fight other Muslims, then of course the last thing you want to do is define the common enemy as “Islamic.”

Even as a matter of pure analysis, there’s simply no true or false answer to the question: “Is ISIS an Islamic movement?” That question could mean either “Is ISIS an aspect of Islam?” - to which the answer is obviously “Yes” – or “Is the version of Islam adopted by ISIS the best or authentic version?” in which case the answer is equally obviously a matter of opinion or controversy rather than of ascertainable fact.

Consider the same analysis as applied to Christianity. Was burning heretics at the stake “Christian”? Well, of course it was, if by “Christian” you mean “Done by many Christians out of what they thought was loyalty to Christianity, and approved by many other Christians.” And of course it wasn’t, if you mean “Consistent with the views attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.” (See the Grand Inquisitor scene from the Brothers Karamazov.)

So the answer I ought to give to that question would depend on the context, the audience, and my purpose.

If I wanted to convince a Christian audience that persecution was wrong, then of course I would try to argue that burning at the stake was “un-Christian.” Since it’s certainly un-Christlike, I’d have a very solid basis for that argument. On the other hand, if I wanted to convince an audience of Buddhists or atheists that Christianity was evil, I’d want to argue that burning heretics at the stake, having been an uncontroversial part of actual Christian practice for more than 500 years, was mainstream Christianity, and that therefore the whole religion was manifestly the work of the Devil. Again, I’d have lots of evidence on my side.

The point is that “Christianity” names both an ideal of conduct (whose content is controversial) and an historical phenomenon with many strands, some of them mutually contradictory, and of course something that was an important part of the history could nonetheless violate some versions of the ideal.

Or take slavery or McCarthyism or the internment of the Japanese-American population during WWII. Were those phenomena “un-American”? Lincoln certainly thought so about slavery, which clearly contradicted the founding notion that “all men are created equal.”  And almost no one now defends the politics of McCarthy or the policy of internment, which were far more reminiscent of Nazi or Communist purges and deportations than of law-guided republican politics.

But of course slavery was deeply entwined with our national history – being almost as old as English settlement in the New World and being protected, directly if euphemistically, by the Constitution itself – and McCarthyism and internment weren’t the only moments at which the paranoid strand in American politics got loose: Know-Nothingism and the Palmer Raids reflected the same craziness.

So, again, if I wanted to persuade Americans to live up to the best this country has to offer the world, I’d want to claim that slavery, internment, and McCarthyism were deeply un-American, and that getting rid of them helped move us toward “a more perfect Union.” If, on the other hand, I were an America-hater, or alternatively if I wanted to defend the use of torture, I’d want to insist that all those phenomena, like violence, were “as American as apple pie.”

There is no “truth of the matter” to be found in any of these cases, because neither “Christianity” nor “Americanism” has an empirically ascertainable “essence,” and because in each case the practice might differ substantially with from the ideal, and the ideal itself will certainly be a matter of controversy within the tradition. I can prove from the Gospels that pious cruelty is evil, and from the Declaration of Independence that slavery is evil; but I can’t deny that St. Dominic and John Calvin loved pious cruelty, or that the God of the Hebrew Bible explicitly commands it [Deut. 13:6-18], nor can I deny that the Constitution protected slavery.

As an interpretive historian or cultural critic, I might try to say something serious about the central tendencies of Christianity or of  the American tradition, but those arguments aren’t likely to be conclusive; if someone makes them as part of a political debate, he is practicing rhetoric rather than dialectic: trying to persuade, not merely to elucidate.

What’s absolutely certain is that if I want Christians or Americans to behave well, I shouldn’t criticize the bad behavior of some Christians or some Americans as typically - or even “extremely” – Christian or American; instead I should point out how inconsistent that behavior is with the best parts of those traditions.

This seems obvious. So why should “Islam” be different?

ISIS is recognizably “Islamic” in the sense that its leaders claim the mantle of Islam and its followers think they are good Muslims. Moreover, there is support in some Islamic texts – including the Koran – and traditions for some of ISIS’s bad actions. If I were an ISIS recruiter, of course I’d want to stress those links. And of course I’d do the same if I wanted to incite hatred against Islam or stir up a “holy war” between Christians and Muslims, or merely incite hatred against an American President with a Muslim name.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to convince an Islamic audience to join with me in fighting against ISIS, the last thing I’d do is describe that group as “Islamic extremists.”

Last time I checked, Barack Obama wasn’t elected to a chair of  cultural criticism or comparative religion; his profession is statesmanship, of which rhetoric is a fundamental tool. When he denounces ISIS as “a perversion of Islam,” he’s not making a claim for scholars to debate; he’s making a rhetorical move and offering a call to arms. Denunciations of his remarks from intellectuals as too one-sided and insufficiently nuanced, and by wingnuts and anti-Islamic bigots as insufficiently anti-ISIS, are equally beside the point.