Francisco Bethencourt: Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’

Exhibition ‘Racism and Citizenship’, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Lisbon
6th May to 3rd September 2017
Curator: Francisco Bethencourt, Charles Boxer Professor, King’s College London,
and author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

When Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century was translated into Portuguese I was invited by the director of Padrão dos Descobrimentos to organize an exhibition on that subject there. The monument had been created in 1960 by the Salazar regime to commemorate Portuguese overseas exploration and colonialism, obviously ignoring the suffering inflicted on other people. I immediately accepted the challenge to transform a comprehensive book into an exhibition naturally based on images and focusing on the Portuguese case. I needed an argument, a narrative, and a structure.

I decided to focus this exhibition on two interlinked realities: racism, understood as prejudice against those of different ethnic origins, combined with discriminatory actions; and citizenship, seen as the right to live, work, and participate in the political life of a country, equally involving duties and responsibilities. The tension between exclusion and integration lies at the heart of this exhibition. I invite viewers to reflect on various historical realities and recent developments, with the help of objects—paintings, sculptures, engravings, shackles, manillas, ceramics, posters, photographs, and videos. Images are presented in a crude way, but they also reveal subtle contradictions, hinting at what lies beyond outward appearances.

The exhibition is arranged into two parts, early modern and modern, and six sections: a) the hostility towards Jews and Moors living in medieval Portugal, which was renewed after forced conversions; b) a focus on people of African origin who were enslaved and transported to Portugal, Brazil, and Asia; c) the representations of native peoples of the New World and Asia, which led to the first European conception of a hierarchy of the world’s people; d) the Portuguese colonies, where slave labor was replaced by forced labor; e) the contradictory realities of the 20th century, in the colonies and Portugal alike; f) the dynamics involved in the attempt to repair the fractures in the contemporary and post-colonial period.

Racism was always confronted with informal forms of integration, which became predominant in the postcolonial period. The assertion of citizenship followed the Revolution of April 1974 and the independence of the colonies in 1975. It is a new period, still under the shadow of informal racism, but in which new values of legal equality have been supported by the state. The anti-racist norm became a reality, still to be systematically implemented. The last section of the exhibition shows the recent work of Portuguese and African artists, who use colonial memory to reflect on new issues of collective identity.

During the period under consideration, Muslim expulsion took place, as did the forced conversion of Jewish people, the slave trade, the colonization of territories in Africa, America and Asia, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, and immigration.

The exhibition aims to encourage the public to question past and present relations between peoples, combining emigration with immigration, exclusion and integration, lack of rights and access to citizenship.

BethencourtFrancisco Bethencourt is the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, and the author of The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834.

Women, Interrupted

Tuesday saw an Uber board member wisecracking about women talking too much (he later resigned), while democratic senator Kamala Harris found herself interrupted for the second time that week by her male colleagues. 

Coincidence? Not at all, say the experts. Yesterday the New York Times called out the all too frequent experience of women interrupted by male colleagues, noting that anecdote and academic studies alike confirm that “being interrupted, talked over, shut down or penalized for speaking out is nearly a universal experience for women when they are outnumbered by men.” Cited in the piece is Princeton University Press author Tali Mendelberg, co-author of The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberations and Institutions which examines what happens when more women join decision-making groups:

[Mendelberg] and Christopher F. Karpowitz, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University, found that, at school board meetings, men and women did not speak as long until women made up 80 percent of the school board. When men were in the minority, however, they did not speak up less.

During the past week, women from a range of sectors have offered up their own personal experiences and frustrations on social media. According to Deborah Gillis, president and chief executive of Catalyst, which works for women’s advancement in business, the situation is plagued by what is by now a familiar irony. She is quoted in the New York Times piece:

“The fact that women are outnumbered in every room puts them in a position where they’re often coming up against gender-based stereotypes,…Women are too hard, too soft, but never just right. What that means is that women are seen as either competent or liked but not both.”

The Daily Show was quick to make hay about the sheer irony of a sexist remark finding its way to a meeting that was actually aimed at addressing sexism. The clip cites research by Karpowitz and Mendelberg:

 

Elizabeth Anderson: Is your workplace a dictatorship?

AndersonOne in four American workers says their workplace is a “dictatorship.” Yet that number probably would be even higher if we recognized most employers for what they are—private governments with sweeping authoritarian power over our lives, on duty and off. We normally think of government as something only the state does, yet many of us are governed far more—and far more obtrusively—by the private government of the workplace. In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson argues that the failure to see this stems from long-standing confusions. These confusions explain why, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still talk as if free markets make workers free—and why so many employers advocate less government even while they act as dictators in their businesses. Recently she took time to answer some questions about her new book.

Most contemporary discussions of work focus on wages, benefits, and unemployment.  You want to focus on the power of employers over workers.  How does that matter for workers today?

EA: Millions of workers in the United States labor under humiliating and abusive conditions. Most poultry workers, for example, aren’t allowed to use the bathroom during their shift, and are told to wear diapers to work. The vast majority of restaurant workers suffer from sexual harassment. Managers scream at warehouse workers when they can’t keep up with the grueling pace, or get injured on the job. They search workers’ bodies and personal property, and listen in on their conversations with co-workers. These conditions aren’t inherent in these types of work. The aren’t like the dangers that firefighters unavoidably face. They are imposed by employers. Employers can do this because they have power over workers and can threaten their livelihoods if they don’t submit. This kind of unaccountable power is objectionable even when workers are paid decently. Many professional and managerial workers who enjoy good pay are pressured by their bosses to contribute to political candidates their bosses prefer, and know that their contributions are being monitored. Workers up and down the organization chart are bullied by their bosses. It’s high time that we drew attention to these problems.  Work doesn’t have to be this way.

You claim that current political discussions confuse government with the state.  Why is that a point of confusion, and why is it important to distinguish the two?

EA: Politicians are constantly telling people that “the government” is interfering with their freedom.  What they mean by “government” is the organs of the state—the Federal government, or agencies of the 50 states. This way of talking misleadingly suggests that if we only got the state out of our hair, we’d be perfectly free to lead our lives as we choose.  It masks the fact that other kinds of governments, with unelected leaders, also rule our lives. The workplace is a type of government, and bosses are the rulers of this government. It’s important to recognize this reality, because managers often regulate workers’ lives far more intrusively and minutely than state governments regulate the lives of ordinary citizens. Most workers are not free under the government of the workplace, because they have no voice, no representation in that government. State regulation of workplaces can actually make them more free by setting constraints on what their bosses can do to them—for example, barring harassment and discriminatory treatment.

You’re concerned about the conditions for workers today.  Yet you begin your discussion with the Levellers of the mid-17th century.  What can we learn from them?

EA: The Levellers were a group of egalitarian activists in mid-17th century England. They advanced a way of talking about free market society as liberating for workers. They saw that the state was not the only government that ruled their lives. As small craftsmen, they were also governed by the monopolistic guilds. Freeing up markets meant ending monopoly control, which would enable craft workers like themselves to be their own bosses, and expand the ranks of the self-employed. Other 17th and 18th century figures, including Adam Smith and Tom Paine, similarly believed that freeing up markets would open the way to nearly universal self-employment. Lincoln carried that vision into the mid-19th century. The Industrial Revolution destroyed their ideas of how free markets would make workers free. It bankrupted self-employed craftsmen and forced them to submit to bosses in big factories. We still talk today as if markets make workers free, forgetting that this idea depended on pre-industrial conditions. The originators of free market ideas were vividly aware that wage workers were subjected to the arbitrary rule of their employers, and thought that free markets would make workers free by enabling them to escape rule by bosses. Today, talk of how markets make workers free is magical thinking, masking the reality that bosses govern their lives.

How do you think the governance of the workplace can be improved?

EA: I argue that workers need a voice in how the workplace is governed.  Other measures, such as making it easier for workers to quit, and laws protecting workers’ privacy and off-duty activities from employer meddling, can certainly help. But these can’t substitute for workers having a say in how the workplace is governed. Labor unions once gave voice to more than a third of American workers. These days, outside the state sector, few workers are represented by a union. Yet unions are not the only way that workers can have a say in workplace governance. In Europe, so-called co-determination, in which workplaces are jointly managed by owners and workers, is common. I make the case for exploring different ways workers could have a say, to open up a topic that is hard to frame in today’s impoverished political discourse.

What inspired you to write this book?

EA: I have long been interested in the lived experience of workers, particularly those at the bottom of the labor market. Their experiences are unjustly neglected in today’s public discourse. It should be a major public outrage that so many workers today are denied bathroom breaks, and suffer innumerable other indignities that almost no politicians talk about! Instead, a common response of politicians and the managerial class is: if you don’t like it, then why don’t you quit? The freedom of workers is just the freedom to quit. The inadequacy of this response should be glaring. But today’s public discourse doesn’t help us see why. My research on the history of egalitarianism uncovered the reasons why public discourse is so inadequate, and motivates alternative ways of talking about workers’ complaints, so they can be taken seriously. In the United States, it’s normal to complain about government regulation interfering with our freedom. Once we recognize that employers subject workers to their own dictatorial government, it’s easier to sympathize with workers’ complaints, and think about remedies.

Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It).

Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Yair Mintzker: Court Jews, Then and Now

“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is a delightful movie. Directed by Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort,” “Footnote”), it tells the story of Norman Oppenheimer, a gentle if somewhat overbearing middle-aged man, who operates as a wheeler-dealer on the fringe of New York Jewish society. Oppenheimer has a murky past and a gloomy present. He does not seem to have much of a family, a physical office, or even a home. But one day he runs into Micha Eshel, a rising star in Israeli politics, and in the spur of the moment buys him a pair of expensive shoes as a gift. Eshel is touched by the unexpected gesture, and three years later, when he becomes Israel’s prime minister, the two reconnect. What follows is a series of tragicomic events that change both men’s lives forever.

“Norman” has an impressive cast, including Richard Gere in the main role, Lior Ashkenazi as the Israeli politician, and Steven Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, and Hank Azaria. The exaggerated Jewish characters, the over-the-top accents, the Woody Allen-like dialogues, and even the soundtrack, all place “Norman” firmly within contemporary American Jewish culture. This, together with the movie’s many subtle criticisms of Israeli politics, makes it a natural American sequel to Cedar’s wonderful previous film, “Footnote,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 in the category of Best Foreign Film (Cedar is Israeli).

And yet there is more  to “Norman” than immediately meets the eye. Three hundred years ago, there lived another Jewish “fixer” named Oppenheimer whom “Norman” is clearly referencing. His full name was Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, though he is better known today as “Jew Süss.” Just like Cedar’s fictional character, the historical Oppenheimer started too as a small time operator, befriended an up-and-coming politician, and quickly rose to power. And just like his modern namesake, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer eventually also fell from power in scandal and disgrace.

Süss Oppenheimer was born in Heidelberg in 1698, and became in 1733 the “court Jew” (personal banker and advisor) of the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. He quickly became rich and powerful. But when the duke died unexpectedly in 1737, the local authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and finally executed him for a series of made-up charges, including treason and sexual transgressions against Christian women. Extremely well known in other parts of the world, in the United States “Jew Süss” is remembered today mainly through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Geobbels. In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’haretz, Cedar acknowledged the influence of this background story on “Norman.”

What does Cedar gain or lose by drawing a parallel between Norman Oppenheimer and “Jew Süss”? This much is clear: though the historical Oppenheimer was executed nearly three centuries ago, his trial never really ended. Already during his trial, it was clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of the accused’s supposed crimes. Rather, the significance of his story is to be found in the role it came to play as a parable about Jews’ attempts to integrate themselves into modern, non-Jewish society. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but who was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then faced extreme prejudice, prosecution, and eventually death. Thus, at every juncture when Europeans addressed the “Jewish Question,” the story of this man moved to center stage, where it was investigated, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that “Jew Süss” is to the European collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to educated Americans today.

Therein lies “Norman’s” ultimate weakness. Tying it to the story of “Jew Süss” without ever mentioning anti-Semitism is to flatten a three-dimensional story. It’s akin to claiming that the Merchant of Venice is only about Shylock’s relationship with other Jews. Modern Jewish history, in the eighteenth century as well as today, is more than just the story of machers and more, too, than how Jews treat themselves. In that respect, and though it is really quite delightful, “Norman” is an unsatisfying movie. It is not a good retelling of the story of the legendary “Jew Süss.”

 

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

A peek inside The House of Government

The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine is unlike any other book about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet experiment. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Grossman’s Life and Fate, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Slezkine’s gripping narrative tells the true story of the residents of an enormous Moscow apartment building where top Communist officials and their families lived before they were destroyed in Stalin’s purges. A vivid account of the personal and public lives of Bolshevik true believers, the book begins with their conversion to Communism and ends with their children’s loss of faith and the fall of the Soviet Union. Drawing on letters, diaries, and interviews, and featuring hundreds of rare photographs, The House of Government weaves together biography, literary criticism, architectural history, and fascinating new theories of revolutions, millennial prophecies, and reigns of terror. The result is an unforgettable human saga of a building that, like the Soviet Union itself, became a haunted house, forever disturbed by the ghosts of the disappeared. Take a peek at what’s in store.

 

 

Yuri Slezkine is the Jane K. Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Jewish Century, which won the National Jewish Book Award.

Robert Rotberg: What’s the cure for corruption?

RotbergCorruption corrodes all facets of the world’s political and corporate life, yet until now there was no one book that explained how best to battle it. The Corruption Cure provides many of the required solutions and ranges widely across continents and diverse cultures—putting some thirty-five countries under an anticorruption microscope—to show exactly how to beat back the forces of sleaze and graft. Recently, Robert Rotberg took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Can corruption be cured?

RR: This book says that corruption can be reduced sharply if not eliminated entirely. It shows that once wildly corrupt places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Rwanda have suppressed corruption effectively thanks to determined leadership, that Botswana did so as well, that China may be shifting a huge country away from graft (again because of leadership actions), and that Nigeria and Brazil could follow.

The “cure” sometimes takes decades and centuries, as in Scandinavia, New Zealand, and Canada (a subject of a chapter in this book), or much shorter periods of time as in Singapore and Hong Kong (and perhaps India’s Delhi State).

But there are real remedies, and opportunities for civic as well as political and bureaucratic leadership in the battle against corruption. This book is the anti-corruption primer, with a “how to” approach.

What is corruption?

RR: Strictly speaking, corruption is the taking advantage of a public elected or appointed position for private gain. But corruption also is the abuse of any position of trust for personal profit, or to benefit one’s own family, lineage, or cohort. To be non-corrupt is to be impartial—to be fair and even-handed in all dealings between persons with power and those who are essentially powerless.

What are the three types of corruption you identify?

RR:

1) Petty, or lubricating: These are the relatively small bribes that people routinely pay to avoid standing in long queues at licensing offices, to avoid being penalized by traffic policemen, and to avoid being held up at road barricades. People also routinely pass bribes along to influence minor decisions favorably, perhaps to obtain a passport, a marriage certificate, or the like—to pay extra to obtain what is rightfully theirs.

2) Venal, or Grand: When a construction company pads its bid to build a bridge or a road (or a refinery) so that it can split the extra proceeds with a person or persons responsible for granting a contract, that is venal corruption. Likewise, when the leaders of FIFA demand large personal payments from cities and countries anxious to hold World Cup tournaments, that is also venal corruption.

3) Corporate to Corporate corruption: To influence a strategic business decision or to gain market share versus a rival, a firm often pays its competitors to turn away. Or a corporate leader might undercut decisions of the company in order to enhance his own firm or to harm the other.

What does corruption cost?

RR: Large-scale customary corruption costs most developing countries at least 1 percent of their GDP growth each year. Overall, the World Bank estimates that the world’s citizens lose $1 trillion in potential growth each year because of corruption. Of equal concern, the more corrupt a country is, the poorer its people tend to be. Corruption is a component of bad governance and the poorer a country’s governance, the worse its economic performance usually is. Corruption undermines a country’s moral fabric. It distorts or destroys national priorities. When politicians live for the rents that they can seek from national incomes, citizens lose vital services like educational opportunity and medical care.

How is corruption measured?

RR: Many indexes measure corruption, but Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and the World Bank’s Governance Institute’s Corruption Indicator are the leading ones. On both of those indexes and most others, the least corrupt countries in the world are the Nordic nations, Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, and Singapore. The most corrupt places are in Africa (the two Congos, Nigeria, Zimbabwe) and in South America (Venezuela). These last states are all very badly governed, poor, and unstable.

What explains Nordic and Antipodean exceptionalism?

RR: The Nordics and Australia/New Zealand were all outrageously corrupt before the early years of the twentieth century. But the rise of what we call ethical universalism gradually replaced the particularism of early corruption. A new civic consciousness, educational attainments, and the widespread embrace of new aspirations and the appropriate methods for achieving such goals led to a shunning of corrupt dealings. A special chapter of the book examines how these nations and others discarded corrupt pursuits.

What works best to reduce corruption?

RR: The key shift is to alter the mindset of citizens from accepting the inevitability of corruption to refusing to countenance corrupt dealings. Political leadership is essential. In every modern case where a country has abandoned (or greatly reduced) corruption, a political leader – a president or a prime-minister – has understood the dangers of corruption within the body politic and has punished politicians and bureaucrats who thus stole from the people or abused their trust. Where corruption has been reduced sustainably, a political leader has led the way. Other initiatives include limiting opportunities for discretion, putting all interactions between a citizen and a permit-granting official, or a law maker, online, strengthening the operations of auditors general and ombudsmen, strengthening the ability of judges to refuse bribes, encouraging judges to penalize corrupt persons severely, welcoming and supporting a free media, thus adding to the increased transparency and investigative accountability which is foundational in any successful battles against graft and sleaze, and creating a world wide, U.N. sponsored, International Anti-Corruption Court to assume jurisdiction when national courts are either powerless or compromised. This book examines each of these (and other) anti-corruption options at length.

What can corporations do to reduce corruption?

RR: Venal corruption is often stimulated by a multinational enterprise seeking a mining or petroleum-exploitation concession from a national government. The best corporate citizens abide strictly by the letter and the spirit of the American Foreign Corruption Practices Act or its Canadian or European analogues. The best corporate citizens police their compliance policies strictly, and do more than simply pay lip service to anti-corruption legislation. The best corporate leaders refuse to condone any attempts to buy influence from politicians and officials, or to facilitate decisions in their favor that are supposed otherwise to be decided impartially.

Robert I. Rotberg is founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at the Harvard Kennedy School and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His many books include When States Fail and The Corruption Cure: How Citizens & Leaders can Combat Graft. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and former president of Lafayette College.

Masters of Craft: A trip to the barbershop

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about barbering. 

OcejoOne Monday in the early afternoon a young Asian man in his late 20s sits in Miles’s chair at Freemans Sporting Club, an upscale men’s barbershop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After greeting him, Miles asks what he would like to do. The man takes out his phone and shows Miles a picture of a model he saw online.

“Well, I can’t exactly do that for you, at least not now. You’ve got that coming down [points to longer hair on the side of his head] that I’d have to gradually get rid of. It’d look good in a couple of haircuts. Is that what you want?”

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

Miles turns to get his tools in order and then starts cutting his client’s hair. He makes basic chitchat to set him at ease: Has he ever been here before? (No.) What does he do? (Lawyer.) Where does he live? (Upper East Side.) After about ten minutes, Miles gets to the side of his head. Perhaps feeling more comfortable, the client talks about his hair.

“I’ve always had problems with that side of my head.”

“Yeah, a lot of guys do,” says Miles. “It’s where your whorl is. Do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“It’s this circle on the top of everyone’s head. Yours is there. It’s kind of like where hair starts [on the head]. Most guys who have cowlicks have them because either their hair is too short or it’s going in the other direction [from the whorl].”

“Oh.”

“So that could be why you’re having problems with it. Or it could be how your mom parted it for you when you were a kid, or sometimes you’re left-handed and trying to part on the other side.”

Of the four workplaces I studied, the upscale men’s barbershops are the most obvious places where we can see men performing masculinity. The barbers perform a “caring masculinity” for their clients, while clients go to these high-end shops to seek out a particular look or style to perform their own form of masculinity. Here, Miles is engaged in a “masculinity project.” He’s actively helping his client realize what kind of style would work for him, while simultaneously teaching him about why men usually get cowlicks and giving him an excuse for why he’s always had problems with his part (his mom may be responsible, or his handedness). But Miles is not just passing on knowledge of how to “do masculinity;” he is also working in a masculine-coded job that has been redefined today for a new generation of worker in service and manual labor, which is what he has in common with the people in the other jobs I studied.

Among the most vaunted jobs in today’s economy are those that require knowledge work in some form. These are jobs in high technology industries (IT, nanotechnology, biomedical research), high-end services like finance and design, and creative/cultural industries that require a large amount of human capital. Meanwhile, recent reports show that women-dominated jobs (health aides, counselors) are among the fastest-growing in today’s economy, while men-dominated jobs (manufacturing) are among the fastest-shrinking. Additionally, women have been shown to be more likely to enter male-dominated occupations, such as medical positions, than men are to enter women-dominated occupations, such as those that require caregiving and interpersonal service. In short, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for men to earn a living and achieve respect by using forms of traditional masculinity, specifically their bodies, and more pressure on them to acquire advanced degrees and/or work jobs that require them to interact with and even show empathy toward consumers.

But the jobs I studied represent alternatives to the strictly knowledge- or service-based jobs of today’s economy, and they offer their workers, who are mostly men, greater social benefits than the more common versions of these occupations. They are interesting hybrids: they allow men to use both their minds, as in the sense of style and knowledge Miles provides for his client, and their bodies, as in the technical haircutting skills Miles uses to achieve this style. Similarly, cocktail bartenders use their knowledge of mixology and skills in making cocktails, while whole-animal butchers use their knowledge of meat and artisanal butchery skills. They all must provide interpersonal service, but their interactions almost always circle back to the cultural knowledge. And they all perform their jobs for an audience of consumers in search of unique products, services, and experiences from cultural experts. These consumers validate the performances of these workers by listening to their knowledgeable advice on taste and style, and expressing their gratitude for what they’re receiving from them. Meanwhile, even though they do not regularly interact with consumers, since they aren’t part of the service industry, the craft distillers I studied also use their mind and bodies to manufacture special spirits products. Comments about what they make, directly from consumers and in the media, always refer to their products’ originality and the craftsmanship that went into them. In short, men in these jobs are able to claim a fading sense of middle class masculinity through work by performing physical labor, at the same time as they can achieve a greater amount of status by working jobs that require them to understand and communicate sets of cultural knowledge that have high cultural value in today’s city.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Masters of Craft: A trip to the butcher

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about butchering. 

Ocejo“Hi, can I help you pick something out?” asks Ted, a counter worker at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, a whole-animal butcher shop, to a customer. It’s a simple question, common in all types of retail stores. But this customer, a woman in her early 40s, walked into the shop with a surprised look on her face, and has been staring at the shop’s fifteen-feet-long display case for thirty seconds, wandering from end to end. She says she’s not sure, and takes a step back as she notices another customer next to her has a question.

“How would you prepare lamb steaks?” he asks Ted.

“In a hot, hot pan, both sides. You want it to be rare. It really has that funky, lamby flavor to it.”

The customer orders two arm chops. Another comes in and goes right to the beef section.

“No skirts left?” he asks.

“I don’t think so, but let me check,” replies Ted, who then he asks Giancarlo, one of the butchers, to look in the walk-in refrigerator. There are none.

“OK, what else do you have that’s like it?”

“Um, well, we have the feather steak and the sierra. They’re [from] a different part of the animal than the skirt. Sometimes the sierra’s left on the rib eyes as a flap of meat, but when it’s taken off it’s sierra steak. I think it has more flavor than skirt and it’s a good alternative.”

When a customer walks into a typical neighborhood bar, barbershop, or butcher shop (or meat counter Ocejoat a supermarket), it doesn’t take very long for what they see to “make sense” to them. Most of these businesses are set up in similar and familiar ways, and the routines for ordering are pretty standard. But the special businesses that I studied, like Dickson’s, disorient the senses of customers and clients. Craft cocktail bars are dark with sweet smells and sounds of forceful drink shaking. Upscale men’s barbershops accentuate the vintage imagery of classic shops, or feel like hunting lodges, complete with taxidermy. And whole-animal butcher shops feature tray upon tray of meat, with strange cuts of all shapes and sizes. The owners of these businesses want first-time entrants to feel like they’ve stepped into a different world, and to check their expectations at the door. And more than the décor and other sensory stimulants, it’s the workers and their brand of service that really turn the visit into a unique experience.

What does it mean to receive elite service? To be accommodated at an extreme level, to be treated like someone of great importance, and to feel like every immediate need is catered to, even to the point of feeling pampered. We typically think about elite service at places like luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and high-end retail outlets, like BMW dealerships. These places still exist in today’s cities, but I’ve found that they’ve been joined by a new set of businesses with meanings behind the products, services, and experiences they offer that are also distancing with airs of exclusivity. Unlike their more common versions, craft cocktail bars, upscale men’s barbershops, and whole-animal butcher shops aren’t just selling drinks, giving haircuts, and selling meat. They’re also selling the ideas behind the unique products and services they offer and the experience of consuming them within head-turning, transporting environments.

That’s why having workers, like Ted in the above example, who are knowledgeable and passionate about their industry is essential for these businesses. People who strive to work at a craft cocktail bar don’t just want to create, make, and serve drinks with elaborate recipes. They also want to match customers with a drink that suits their tastes, while informing them of why their drinks taste the way they do. People who work at upscale men’s barbershops don’t just want to do as many haircuts in a day as possible. They also want to show clients how they can achieve a certain style that fits their personalities, lifestyles, and careers. And whole-animal butcher shop workers don’t just want to cut and serve meat. They also want to explain the importance of using the whole animal, the ethics behind sourcing meat locally, and the differences and similarities in taste and preparation between cuts that come from various parts on an animal’s body. The sets of cultural knowledge behind these products and services, which these workers communicate to their consumers through service, are what push these businesses above and beyond their mundane versions. In these places we’re seeing how important providing in-depth, rarefied knowledge has become in the world of consumption.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.

Global Ottoman: The Cairo-Istanbul Axis

First published in Global Urban History as ”Global Ottoman: The Cairo-Istanbul Axis” by Adam Mestyan. Republished with permission.

On a Sunday at the end of January 1863 groups of sheikhs, notables, merchants, consuls, and soldiers gathered in the Citadel of Cairo. They came to witness a crucial event: the reading aloud of the imperial firman that affirmed the governorship of Ismail Pasha over the rich province of Egypt. The firman was brought by the Ottoman sultan’s imperial envoy. After the announcement, which occurred, of course, in Ottoman Turkish, Ismail held a reception. Local Turkic notables and army leaders came to congratulate and express their loyalty. A few months later, in April 1863, they received Sultan Abdülaziz in person in Alexandria—something that had not occurred since the Ottomans occupied Egypt in the sixteenth century. From Alexandria the sultan took the train to Cairo. This was the first trip of a caliph on the tracks.

 

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The Fountain of the Valide (the mother of the khedive), between 1867 and 1890, by Maison Bonfils, Library of Congress.

But what did Ottoman mean exactly in Egypt? My forthcoming book, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt, examines the significance and meaning of the Ottoman imperial context for the history of Egyptian nationalism. The book demonstrates the continuous negotiation between Turkic elites in Egypt and local intellectuals and notables bound by collective, albeit contested, notions of patriotism. There was an invisible compromise through the new representations and techniques of power, including the theater. This local instrumentalization and mixing of urban Muslim and European forms is the backstory to new political communities in the Middle East. Importantly, the Ottoman connection was an urban one: imperial elites are urban elites and rural elites had to become urban ones in order to maximize their interests by the fin-de-siècle.

So, what does the Ottoman framework mean for urban historians of the Arab world and in particular of Egypt? Such a framework does two important things: as Ehud Toledano underlines, it points to the delegated power of the governors by the sultan; and it reveals that new (elite) consumption practices and technologies spread not only by direct contact between local and European actors but also by the imperial mediation of Istanbul, or vice versa, by local provincial mediation to the capital. The Ottoman Empire guaranteed the network of free and safe trade, and movement between cities still in the nineteenth century. These basic features of the Ottoman context remained in place even after the British occupation of Egypt until 1914.

Such a perspective does not diminish the factual power of European empires and their military interventionism to protect their economic interests. On Barak eminently showed that the first train line in Egypt was crucial for British rule in India in the 1850s. European technologies and new sources of energy (coal, electricity) also helped the Ottomans to reach their far-flung domains quickly (remember the sultan arrived via train in Cairo). These instances, however, do not mean that the sultan’s (or his representatives’) power was usurped by Europeans completely until the 1870s. “Bringing the Ottomans back in” destabilizes the bifurcated view of West and East by highlighting a plural system of power just before the scramble for Africa.

We should not read “Ottoman” as “old” in contrast to the European “new.” This is the exciting moment of the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire, in which new technologies were “Ottomanized” to a certain extent, next to legal changes. There was an Ottoman elite modernity representing novelty to the provincial populations which had milliard connections to bourgeois practices globally.

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Interior of the Mosque of Silahdar Agha, picture by the author.

In the context of nineteenth-century Cairo, the most aesthetic representations of power were often formulated in terms of Ottoman sovereignty—a sovereignty that the pashas of Egypt wished to renounce but never did. Among these Ottoman features, one can see the mosque of Mehmed Ali in the Citadel. Doris Behrens-Abuseif reminds us that this mosque represents both Mehmed Ali’s power and Ottoman imperial aesthetics. It dominates the city’s skyline to this day. The pasha’s military elite brought late Ottoman baroque to Cairo: just look at the mosque of Sulayman Silahdar Agha in al-Mu‘izz Street and other smaller Ottoman mosques, schools, fountains, and palaces around the city. Though featuring local characteristics (“the Egyptian dialect of Ottoman architecture”), these structures are unmistakably Istanbulite and were built prior to or in the 1870s. A particularly interesting interplay between Ottoman and European aesthetics, hygienic considerations, and capitalism occurred in the creation of various public and private gardens in nineteenth-century Cairo and Alexandria. Buildings of power such as the Abdin Palace were likely conceived in a competition with the Ottoman capital (there the Dolmabahçe Palace was new in the 1850s) restaging political representation in a “modern” architectural idiom.

Socially, there are some who understand the Ottoman presence in Cairo (and in Egypt in general) as “The Turks in Egypt,” to quote the useful but somewhat misleading publication title of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. There were certainly ethnic Turks in Ottoman Egypt. The local population looked at the quite cruel Ottoman military ruling class as the “Turks” (al-Atrāk). Yet, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Cairo, there were many Ottoman Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Albanian, Bulgarian, and Circassian families whose primary or secondary language was some version of Turkish and who had family or economic ties to various Ottoman cities in Asia and Europe. Their leading members rapidly transformed themselves into Franco- and Italophone “cultural creoles” (to use Julia Clancy-Smith’s expression), who forged new identities precisely by distancing themselves from their Ottoman past. Another identity strategy, not necessary exclusive of the previous one, was nationalism.

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Ismail Pasha, Library of Congress.

The Cairo Ottoman elite was connected to Istanbul and was part of the imperial order. There was an elite Ottoman global network. The rulers, their families, and various relatives lived in both cities (later in Paris and in Switzerland). Every day, orders, secret reports, gifts, and personal staff arrived from Istanbul in Alexandria to be transported to Cairo and vice versa. From the 1860s onwards, this political and leisure traffic was facilitated by the Aziziya steamship company. The landowning-ruling households developed significant economic investments in between both cities, not to mention the large yearly tribute Egypt paid to the sultanic treasury. Ottoman treaties applied to Egypt to a significant extent. In the 1860s, as Nicolas Michel argues, the Ottoman Empire not only remained skeptical of the Suez Canal, but actually intervened in its construction. Ismail Pasha himself is usually remembered for the Suez Canal opening ceremony and associated follies which led to foreign control of Egyptian finances. He was, however, also an Ottoman man, part of the imperial elite and intimately familiar with Istanbul where he lived and where he eventually died. His mother, Hoşyar, who maintained a full Ottoman cultural elite household, invested significantly in the Muslim landscape of Cairo. Last but not least, one should not forget that the Ottoman sultan’s firman was the legal basis of the pashas’ rule.

There was also an invisible Ottoman underworld in Egypt. Sufis orders, especially in Cairo, had spiritual and material significance in Istanbul. Musicians and entertainers travelled between the two rich centers and other cities. Religious endowments (sing. waqf) in Cairo were related to Istanbul in many ways, going back to the sixteenth century. Religious scholars often received a salary from the sultan or from the Sheikh-ül-Islam. Small merchant networks fully functioned between Egypt, the Syrian provinces, and Tunis. Shari‘a court cases from Cairo could sometimes even reach the Istanbul courts. The question of religious endowments in Egypt belonging to individuals in republican Turkey remained a complex problem until the 1950s. Merchants living in Istanbul and in other parts of the empire had significant investments in Cairo and vice versa. Likewise, criminals circulated (and sometimes escaped) between Istanbul and Cairo. Al-Qanun al-Sultani, the “Sultanic Law,” was the basis of the penal system in Egypt, though the governor wanted the right of death penalty for himself in the 1850s. Political dissidents also commuted between the two cities (scholars are yet to properly explore the use of fin-de-siècle Cairo as an Ottoman hub of anti-Abdülhamidian propaganda). The khedives and the sultans used various figures in the capitals to keep each other at bay.

The often-romanticized bourgeois society of Alexandria was in large part a semi-Ottoman society, which had its less spectacular but perhaps even more powerful sister-groups in Cairo. The ministries in Cairo received the French, Arabic, and Turkish newspapers printed in Istanbul until the 1880s. Armenian refugees arrived in Egypt in large numbers. Egyptians were legally Ottoman citizens until the First World War.  Even in the 1920s there were (Ottoman) Turkish newspapers printed in Cairo.

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Citadel of Cairo, between 1870 and 1890, by Antonio Beato, Library of Congress.

The British occupation did not reduce the Istanbul-Cairo traffic. Egypt and its capital Cairo remained both a cultural and financial market for Ottomans—from the Ottoman musical theater brought by enterprising Turkish-speaking Armenians, to clothing and other products.  Indeed, the occupation arguably boosted the symbolic Ottoman presence by the arrival of an Ottoman Imperial High Commissioner (the war hero Muhtar Pasha) in Cairo in 1885. Ottoman flags symbolized Egypt’s belonging and resistance in the 1890s. Some argue this was a mere instrumentalization of the Ottoman Empire because Egyptian anti-colonial mass nationalism had already bloomed, clamoring for an independent nation-state.

The urban nature of these dynamics and relations cannot be overemphasized. Rural Egyptians rarely identified with the empire. Outside the cities, “the Turks” meant taxation, conscription in the army, misuse of power, and pashas and beys with legal privileges. Until the nineteenth century, peasants could apply for justice to the distant sultan as his subjects by way of petitions, but the Mehmed Ali family, by assuming legislative powers, blocked this unique means of connection between the poorest and the highest.

The provincial system of the late Ottoman Empire was torn between centralization, local concerns, and integration into global infrastructures, as Johann Büssow, Christoph Herzog, On Barak, Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, and Till Grallert have recently shown on the examples of Ottoman Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, respectively. It was up to local elite activity to shape whether the processes of urbanization and capitalism were to be paired with imperial initiatives as negotiations played out in the European imperial context.

MestyanAdam Mestyan is a historian of the Middle East. He is an assistant professor of history at Duke University and a Foreign Research Fellow (membre scientifique à titre étranger) at the French Institute of Oriental Archeology – Cairo. His first monograph, Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt, presents the essential backstory to the formation of the modern nation-state in the Middle East.

Kathryn Watterson on I Hear My People Singing

WattersonIn I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African-American Princeton, Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson illuminates the resilience and ingenuity of the historic black neighborhood, just outside the gates of Princeton University, through the words of its residents. Watterson recently answered some questions from writer Kristin Cashioli, providing insight into this extraordinary labor of love that began nearly two decades ago.

What does this project mean to you?  Why is it so special?

KW: Wow, that question gave me goosebumps. When this book began, it was a simple effort to collect the life stories of the elders in the Witherspoon neighborhood.  This was thrilling work, and was second nature to me as a writer and journalist. Since I was a child, I’ve seen African Americans as national heroes. Imagine yourself living in the heat of laws and efforts to thwart you, keep you in poverty, to punish, demean, and often kill you; imagine that every single day, you encounter negative stereotypes because of the shade of your skin or the shape of your nose. Racism and segregation are so cruel and invasive, and it’s just amazing how black people live with some form of violence against them at all times. Even though Princeton wasn’t as bad as many places, it still had these patterns. Most white people never experience something so crushing on a daily basis. To see the great strength that dealt with this assault, rose above it, and created from within it, makes this project special. The humanity in these residents’ lives, the richness of their vision, and the way they came together made working on this project an honor. Turning this project into a book as a way to preserve these vital stories has been a gift to me.

What sets your book apart from others about race and justice issues?

KW: It’s the speakers’ voices that make this so powerful and intimate. There is such a panorama of diverse, complex individuals and their experiences. They are the heart of the book. I’ve been told that historians have done a lot of writing about racial issues in the North during the 18th and 19th centuries, but that this book will add to the scholarship of northern segregation in the 20th century. This is not a traditional oral history–it is its own creation, one that’s highly accessible and allows readers to imagine the inside experience as if they’d been there themselves.

What aspects of your research most inspired and surprised you?

KW: I was most surprised to discover the continuity of prejudice that this community has dealt with and addressed nonstop for more than three and a half centuries.  Its origins began with slavery, long before the village of Prince Town or the university existed. The designs of racism were established when slavery was an accepted practice, and have continued in other forms through America’s and the neighborhood’s history. In my research, I felt I kept uncovering the deep roots of racism. To see something that disrupts families and the lives of children so blatantly encouraged and accepted by fellow human beings is unnerving.  It’s very similar to the way we accept the prison system today. We act like it’s normal.

The most inspirational parts of this research were definitely the stories of individuals who blossomed throughout their lives in their service to others. I fell in love with Rev. William Robeson (Paul Robeson’s father) who, after escaping from slavery, went to Lincoln University, studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, earned two degrees in Theology, and then moved seamlessly into his ministerial leadership and family life in Princeton. His wisdom and grace are extraordinary. I also was enthralled by Betsy Stockton, formerly enslaved as well, who started schools in the 1830s for a people who had been forbidden to learn how to read or write. She founded the Witherspoon School for Colored Children and engaged the entire community in growing a school system that deeply understood the importance of education.

What do you hope your readers will take away from your book?

KW: So often in my own urban neighborhood, I see young black men crossing the street or walking with their heads down so as to deflect the fear they have learned to expect from white people passing by who clutch their bags or glance away. I especially want white readers to understand the impact of this diminishment and to recognize why black lives matter—just as it’s taken for granted that white lives do. I want to open readers’ minds, let them in on another level, and allow them to know how it feels. I want them to realize the courage it takes for an individual to live with hope and with the belief that the human experience we share is sacred.

How did you arrive at the title?

KW: Paul Robeson, the great orator, singer, and social justice advocate, wrote, “I heard my people singing,” when he was describing the beloved Witherspoon neighborhood where he was born. Back when we were conducting interviews in 2000, one of my students, Lauren Miller, suggested it as the title. One of the things we did during that time was to hold several public presentations at the library, the community center, and the university. Students read excerpts from the interviews we had, and residents in the audience heard their own words spoken back to them. It was like hearing singing—all of these different voices blending together. It was exhilarating and was exactly what I wanted people to hear—this fantastic chorus of voices. For me, in their stories, I hear America singing. I hear what this country could be. I feel lifted up, and I think everyone who has been involved with this book feels the same.

What is the greatest thing you have learned from writing this book?

KW: That magic happens. It all started with Hank Pannell’s love for the community and his urgency about saving these unique stories. When he told me that what he and his other Witherspoon neighbors really wanted was an oral history, I thought, how could I possibly do this? What seemed like an impossibility became a reality because it was built on love. I got swept up by the beautiful spirit of this neighborhood, and so did my students. It was contagious. This book shows what can happen when people come together, caring for and honoring one another.

What has been the greatest compliment and toughest criticism given to you as an author?  How have these helped you?

KW: The greatest compliments I’ve been given as an author are from people who’ve told me after reading one of my books, “This changed my life.” It’s been a moment or an emotional connection or a story that opened up the world for them somehow and moved them to new insights and a deeper understanding of our human experience. I’m humbled by this, as well as encouraged, because I, too, have been transformed by doing this work.

The toughest criticism that stands out is when someone wise tells me I’ve gotten something wrong, missed a point, or missed the bigger picture. These incidents act as a vehicle for learning. They sharpen my thinking and help me immensely with revisions. For this book, critical feedback that I received from three historians opened up my perspective and helped me discover more about the centuries of segregation and slavery in the North.

What is your next project?

KW: Before I found out that Princeton University Press wanted to publish I Hear My People Singing, I was immersed in a novel about a Philadelphia-based newspaper reporter at odds with the police in the 1970s. I’m eager to get back to work on it, as well as on several short stories that are treading water, waiting to get to the shore.

Kathryn ‘Kitsi’ Watterson is an award-winning journalist and writer, as well as a beloved teacher of writing. The author of nine books, including Women in Prison, Not by the Sword, You Must Be Dreaming, and Growing Into Love, she’s drawn to issues of justice and to expressing the full range of human experience. Her creative writing classes at the University of Pennsylvania, as they were at Princeton, are known for their close sense of community and personal empowerment, engagement with the world, and a great deal of fun and laughter. In addition, she sings, drums and plays percussion with an improvisational band, The Unity. She lives in the City of Philadelphia.

 

Alexander Todorov on the science of first impressions

TodorovWe make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second—and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In Face Value, Alexander Todorov, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions. Here he responds to a few questions about his new book.

What inspired you to write this book?

AT: I have been doing research on how people perceive faces for more than 10 years. Typically, we think of face perception as recognizing identity and emotional expressions, but we do much more than that. When we meet someone new, we immediately evaluate their face and these evaluations shape our decisions. This is what we informally call first impressions. First impressions pervade everyday life and often have detrimental consequences. Research on first impressions from facial appearance has been quite active during the last decade and we have made substantive progress in understanding these impressions. My book is about the nature of first impressions, why we cannot help but form impressions, and why these impressions will not disappear from our lives.

In your book, you argue that first impressions from facial appearance are irresistible. What is the evidence?

AT: As I mentioned, the study of first impressions has been a particularly active area of research and the findings have been quite surprising. First, we form impressions after seeing a face for less than one-tenth of a second. We decide not only whether the person is attractive but also whether he or she is trustworthy, competent, extroverted, or dominant. Second, we agree on these impressions and this agreement emerges early in development. Children, just like adults, are prone to using face stereotypes. Third, these impressions are consequential. Unlucky people who appear “untrustworthy” are more likely to get harsher legal punishments. Those who appear “trustworthy” are more likely to get loans on better financial terms. Politicians who appear more “competent” are more likely to get elected. Military personnel who appear more “dominant” are more likely to achieve higher ranks. My book documents both the effortless nature of first impressions and their biasing effects on decisions.

The first part of your book is about the appeal of physiognomy—the pseudoscience of reading character from faces. Has not physiognomy been thoroughly discredited?

AT: Yes and no. Most people today don’t believe in the great physiognomy myth that we can read the character of others from their faces, but the evidence suggests that we are all naïve physiognomists: forming instantaneous impressions and acting on these impressions. Moreover, fueled by recent research advances in visualizing the content of first impressions, physiognomy appears in many modern disguises: from research papers claiming that we can discern the political, religious, and sexual orientations of others from images of their faces to private ventures promising to profile people based on images of their faces and offering business services to companies and governments. This is nothing new. The early 20th century physiognomists, who called themselves “character analysts,” were involved in many business ventures. The modern physiognomists are relying on empirical and computer science methods to legitimize their claims. But as I try to make clear in the book, the modern claims are as far-stretched as the claims of the old physiognomists. First, different images of the same person can lead to completely different impressions. Second, often our decisions are more accurate if we completely ignore face information and rely on common knowledge.

You mentioned research advances that visualize the content of first impressions. What do you mean?

AT: Faces are incredibly complex stimuli and we are inquisitively sensitive to minor variations in facial appearance. This makes the study of face perception both fascinating and difficult. In the last 10 years, we have developed methods that capture the variations in facial appearance that lead to specific impressions such as trustworthiness. The best way to illustrate the methods is by providing visual images, because it is impossible to describe all these variations in verbal terms. Accordingly, the book is richly illustrated. Here is a pair of faces that have been extremely exaggerated to show the variations in appearance that shape our impressions of trustworthiness.

Faces

Most people immediately see the face on the left as untrustworthy and the face on the right as trustworthy. But notice the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. Positive expressions and feminine appearance make a face appear more trustworthy. In contrast, negative expressions and masculine appearance make a face appear less trustworthy. We can and have built models of many other impressions such as dominance, extroversion, competence, threat, and criminality. These models identify the contents of our facial stereotypes.

To the extent that we share face stereotypes that emerge early in development, isn’t it possible that these stereotypes are grounded in our evolutionary past and, hence, have a kernel of truth?

AT: On the evolutionary scale, physiognomy has a very short history. If you imagine the evolution of humankind compressed within 24 hours, we have lived in small groups during the entire 24 hours except for the last 5 minutes. In such groups, there is abundant information about others coming from first-hand experiences (like observations of behavior and interactions) and from second-hand experiences (like testimonies of family, friends, and acquaintances). That is for most of human history, people did not have to rely on appearance information to infer the character of others. These inferences were based on much more reliable and easily accessible information. The emergence of large societies in the last few minutes of the day changed all that. The physiognomists’ promise was that we could handle the uncertainty of living with strangers by knowing them from their faces. It is no coincidence that the peaks of popularity of physiognomists’ ideas were during times of great migration. Unfortunately, the physiognomists’ promise is as appealing today as it was in the past.

Are there ways to minimize the effects of first impressions on our decisions?

AT: We need to structure decisions so that we have access to valid information and minimize the access to appearance information. A good real life example is the increase of the number of women in prestigious philharmonic orchestras. Until recently, these orchestras were almost exclusively populated by men. What made the difference was the introduction of blind auditions. The judges could hear the candidates’ performance but their judgments could not be swayed by appearance, because they could not see the candidates.

So why are faces important?

AT: Faces play an extremely important role in our mental life, though not the role the physiognomists imagined. Newborns with virtually no visual experience prefer to look at faces than at other objects. After all, without caregivers we will not survive. In the first few months of life, faces are one of the most looked upon objects. This intensive experience with faces develops into an intricate network of brain regions dedicated to the processing of faces. This network supports our extraordinary face skills: recognizing others and detecting changes in their emotional and mental states. There are likely evolutionary adaptations in the human face—our bare skin, elongated eyes with white sclera, and prominent eyebrows—but these adaptations are about facilitating the reading of other minds, about communicating and coordinating our actions, not about inferring character.

Alexander Todorov is professor of psychology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions.