Spotify Killed the Record Store

I hate to say it, but I think the arrival of Spotify in the U.S. signals the death knell for indie record stores. For less than 10 bucks a month, I now have access to just about any artist to whom I want to listen. On my computer. And my phone.

Okay, so Bob Dylan isn’t on Spotify, but don’t most of us Dylan fans have at least a dozen of his albums floating around anyway?

Spotify has sent me on another PJ Harvey kick. The woman whose lyrics once inspired me to move to Spain (I want to bath in milk/eat grapes/Robert DeNiro/sit on my face/I want to go to Spain/spend nights/just sipping on nectar & ice) keeps putting out stunning, avant garde albums that never feel like repeats.

Needless to say, I am psyched to have all this rad music on hand for so cheap, but pretty bummed for good old Waterloo Records.
Spoon at Waterloo Records. photo by Manuel Nauta.

God(dess) Bless Rachel Maddow

photo by Paul Shoul

I watched part of “The Rachel Maddow Show” Wednesday night as I was running on the treadmill. (Okay, okay, the treadmill is lame, I know. But at 108 degrees outside it’s even too hot for me to run out there). And I was reminded of just how much of a bad ass she is. So I wanted to make a quick list of my

Top 5 Reasons to Love Rachel Maddow.

1. She doesn’t hesitate to call out the Republicans for advocating to strip the neediest and most marginalized Americans of current state and federal support services.

2. She doesn’t hesitate to call out the Democrats for being saggy old man balls and incite them to take some meaningful action. (I would call the Democrats pussies, but let’s face it, the vagina is an incredibly strong and muscular organ). And she presents Dems with viable ways they can take a stand, as she did during Wednesday night’s segment “GOP war on Unions presents advantage to Democrats.”

3. She speaks clearly about what’s at stake in the current political climate.

4. She’s hot to lesbians and bi girls. I mean, let’s face it, with her carefully crafted TV makeup on, she’s straight up gorgeous.

5. She’s hot to straight gals. I mean, let’s face it, in Buddy Holly Glasses and a hoodie she reminds every hetero leaning gal of our first tomboy crush…

Thanks, Rachel. Please keep showing us what it means to be a citizen!

A Diamond Is Forever: One Woman Questions the Most Successful Ad Slogan of All Time


The A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign (launched in 1938 by Harry Oppenheimer and the president of N.W. Ayer & Son, Gerold M. Lauck) successfully brainwashed a nation into believing that a diamond represents lasting romantic love; and even that the gift of a diamond ring at the time of engagement will help such love to endure the inevitable trials of a couple’s married life.

Women have been trained by ubiquitous advertising–on billboards, in magazines, and on television–to long for a man to give her a diamond ring, an expensive symbol that his unswerving devotion will last a lifetime.

Newly engaged women show off their sparkling diamond rings to oohing and aahing friends. The ring speaks loudly for the woman who wears it, saying: I am loved; I have been chosen; I am not alone.

As aware as I am of the history of the A Diamond Is Forever ad campaign and its impact on our perception of diamond rings, I myself–a happily never-married woman–find that my first thought upon seeing a pretty diamond on a woman’s ring finger is: Someone loves her enough to have bought her that ring.

Now I am the first to rejoice for loving partnerships and happy marriages; I also admire the wedding aesthetics of white dresses, diamond rings and elegant bouquets. Yet I feel it’s important to be aware of the way the A Diamond is Forever ad campaign–the most successful ad campaign in history–has shaped our thinking about this symbol of romantic love, which has too often also become a symbol of class, status, “worth,” and heteronormativity.

So it was with delight that as I was going through the checkout line at Whole Foods the other day, I noticed that the young woman bagging my groceries wore a gigantic faux diamond on the middle finger of her right hand. The diamond dazzled; it was ostentatiously huge, clearly fake, and super duper pretty.

“I like your ring,” I said.

“Thanks,” she said. And then she added, a little sheepishly, “I bought it for myself at the mall for seven bucks.”

“Wow,” I said. “It turns out none of us have to wait around for a man to buy us a gigantic diamond ring. We can just go get ourselves one at Claire’s.”

Both the young woman bagging groceries and the female cashier laughed as if they understood exactly what I meant, which was that we as women no longer need a man to marry us in order to feel validated, successful and worthy of approval. And yet we still, in some dark corner of our hearts, long for the sparkle and shine of the stone that speaks of everlasting love.

So if you have always secretly wanted a giant diamond, but:
1) don’t have a partner who wants to buy you one; and/or
2) don’t have a partner who can afford to buy you one; and/or
3) aren’t into funding the diamond trade,
take yourself to the mall, or hop on Amazon or Ebay and buy yourself an inexpensive and satisfyingly sparkly reminder that you are worthy, beautiful and loved.

After all, you can rest assured that even if that cheap piece of crap ring falls apart in two weeks, your relationship with yourself will certainly endure until you take your very last breath.

From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy: What Will It Take?

[caption id="attachment_9047" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Helen Zia, activist, author, former editor of Ms. Magazine (San Francisco Sentinel)"][/caption]

My eight years working full-time in the movement to end violence against women have left me a little jaded. I realized this a few days ago when, at a team meeting, some of my colleagues were discussing The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s new name: Futures Without Violence.

“Ugh,” I said. “Who do they thing they’re kidding?”

My colleagues laughed.

“Better turn on your light box today, Mary,” one of my colleagues quipped.

So it was with mixed feelings that I prepared to travel to San Francisco to attend the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence’s (APIIDV) 2011 National Summit entitled: From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy. What Will It Take? A snarky voice in my head said: “From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy? Good luck with that one, ladies.”

My tenure as an advocate in a domestic violence shelter followed by years working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, followed by my current work as a Public Policy Analyst at the Texas Council on Family Violence have left me with a keen awareness of the overwhelming problem of violence against women, a problem that I believe to be rooted in patriarchy and gender oppression and inequity.

While working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, I answered over 25,000 calls from domestic violence victims and their friends and families, and in doing so I developed what I consider to be an extensive anecdotal understanding of the triumvirate of race, class and gender oppression in America. Take for instance, a call I received from a Mexican immigrant woman whose physically and sexually abusive husband had left her alone with her two children and no income. She’d been pounding the pavement for weeks looking for work, but because she had no work permit she had not been able to secure employment. And because she was a monolingual spanish speaker without state identification, she had been unable to find and access a local food bank.

“My teenager understands why we don’t have food,” she told me. “But I’ve had nothing for my two year-old to eat for three days except sugar water, and she doesn’t understand why she is hungry.”

Because of the secondary trauma and sadness that the heightened awareness of gender violence has brought about in me, I had a hard time believing that attending APIIDV’s 2 ½ day summit would truly energize me to continue my work to cut through the barriers to services for all victims of gender violence, or allow me to believe that this cause for which I have worked for so long is not painfully, terribly hopeless.

But Helen Zia, the summit’s first speaker, changed all that for me. Zia, a long-time activist, author and former editor of Ms. Magazine, took the stage and immediately addressed this issue with which I had been grappling.

Zia spoke on the title of the summit, saying that when she thinks about moving towards the goal of gender democracy she is reminded of how she, as a lesbian, used to feel about the Gay Rights Movement’s fight for legal marriage for gays and lesbians.

Zia said, “I had to ask myself, is this worth fighting for? Because:
a) It will never happen anyway, so what’s the point; and
b) What’s so great about marriage anyway?”

The audience laughed; and I realized that I had found an iconoclastic activist with a sense of humor dark enough even for me. Zia went on to say that in the 1950s, African-Americans had to sit at the back of the bus; they had to drink water from separate fountains. And when they were finally allowed to sit at the front of the bus, they found the front of the bus was cleaner. And when they were finally allowed to drink from the forbidden fountains, they found that the water was sweeter.

Zia said that when she and her wife Lia legally married in California, they found that the water they had finally been allowed to drink was indeed sweeter. Her marriage brought about unexpected and beautiful things; because Zia and her wife had finally wed, the members of their two families began to consider themselves to be truly related, and made overtures to spend more time together and develop relationships with each other. As a result of their marriage, the two women’s families changed and grew closer. This was a wonderful benefit of marriage that Zia had not been able to anticipate or imagine. Zia used this personal experience to illuminate the title of the summit. “If we assume that gender violence will always be there,” she said, “then we will not bother to envision a world without violence. Thinking that way will ensure that a world without violence won’t happen, exactly because it will keep us from working towards it.”

Like Helen Zia, who did not know what it would be like to be married because she had never experienced it, none of us know what it will be like to experience a gender democracy because “we haven’t been there. But we are going to create it.”

Zia went on to say, “We can’t imagine what a gender democracy will be like. But we can know gender democracy will be better for women and girls who will be able to go to school or to the corner store without being snatched and trafficked,” will be able to walk across university campuses without being sexually assaulted, will be able to live safely in their own homes without fear of being abused by their intimate partners. “In a gender democracy, abusers will not be protected, no matter how rich and powerful they are.”

Zia’s powerful speech stripped away my feelings of hopelessness created by my hyper-awareness that gender oppression has both a long history and deep roots in our current society. Zia reminded me that it is possible to keep the snarky, dark humor that gets me through while maintaining an optimism and commitment to my work to bring an end to violence against women.

Helen Zia’s book “Asian American Dreams: the Emergence of An American People” is available for sale on Amazon. To read about or purchase the book click here.

Real True Grit

“Well, there is no beat of a good friend.”

–Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the novel, True Grit.

“He is not my friend.”

–Young Mattie Ross, speaking of Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit.

The American myth of the rugged, self-sufficient individual is ever-present in our culture. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a character based on the nameless “Continental Op” of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller, Red Harvest. The characters abandon the very concept of community. They no longer even want a name that could be known by others.

The myth, of course, is just a fictionalized reflection of a belief held by many Americans: the self-contained individual is all. The furtherance of individual liberty, with little regard for the fate of the community at large, is the only legitimate role of government. The belief comes with magical thinking (or cynical slight-of-hand) that unrestrained selfishness will produce more for all than selflessness, altruism, or compassion.

Charles Portis’s True Grit and the 2010 film version by the Coen Brothers turn the myth on its head. In the process, the works tell us something about loneliness, inequality and the pursuit of friendship in contemporary America. We can look at the “true grit” of the book and movie as a reference to the courage to befriend others selflessly despite differences and barriers.

Continue reading “Real True Grit”

Conservative Lies About Human Nature

Since World War II, America’s elite policy makers have arranged and re-arranged our political and economic relationships around an empirically false – radically false – understanding of human being and behavior.

Paradoxically, the false portrait of humankind feeds both an unwholesome worship of dog-eat-dog individualism and a sense of powerless in the face of godlike market forces that must be obeyed no matter the cost in lives, global environmental catastrophe or gross economic injustice.

Its roots lie in the gloomy Hobbesian picture of unredeemable, brutish humanity and in the Enlightenment’s faith in universal reason. Twentieth Century conservative thinkers, looking to rationalize authoritarianism and excuse the inevitable social destruction caused by unrestrained greed, simply invented new concepts of human nature that made their policy goals seem essential.

It’s just one of many ironies that this authoritarian view was swallowed whole hog by so-called libertarians. It should be noted that Robert Nozick, author of the seminal libertarian book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, later spit out the worm he’d swallowed and repudiated his earlier work.)

The ugly, empirically false portrait is this: a human is a cold and isolated individual who uses unemotional reason to reach pre-determined ends. This is the widely discredited but still popular “rational actor” model. And there’s another color in the picture, which some are now calling the “rat choice” model. This tells us those pre-determined ends are always selfish or self-interested.

We are, these conservatives say, rats.

Continue reading “Conservative Lies About Human Nature”

Why I’m calling it *gulp* for Michele Bachmann

Yep. Monday night belonged to Michele Bachmann.

Let’s be clear: If history is any indication, the Republicans are not going to nominate “a maverick” for president. The party has its share of them at the state and Congressional levels, but I’m talking about a presidential nominee who’s a true outsider in the McGovern sense.

That was always Pat Buchanan’s problem. It was where Jack Kemp hit a glass political ceiling. Reagan was the maverick when he lost in 1976. So was McCain in 2000.

Bachmann faces the same challenge. But she stepped up, met it head-on, and exceeded expectations on Monday. Exceeding expectations are what debates are about. Her strong performance should light a fire under Gov. Rick Perry, who increasingly seems like he is considering a run himself.

The other big winner was Romney, who comes from the other wing of the GOP –  the one where the nominees traditionally live. The big loser, of course, was Pawlenty, who grabbed media attention on the Sunday talk shows with his buzzword “Obamaney Care” and flubbed miserably on Monday, when he had a chance to keep up the momentum on a true national stage.

Pawlenty wrote a book called Courage To Stand, but he didn’t have enough courage to stand by that claim, much less plant it firmly on Romney’s forehead when the two were face to face. It was more than a missed opportunity; it was an affirmative mistake that reinforced his milquetoast image.

Romney walked on stage Monday at St. Anselm College as the frontrunner, and Pawlenty’s fumble let him leave largely unscathed. Romney showed cool in a cool medium and came across presidential. His campaign experience was evident.

But this group is far to the political right of the 2008 GOP field, and that is Bachmann territory. Being ultraconservative helps in this early phase. Down the stretch Republicans are going to think increasingly about who can beat Obama. They are going to ask who can appeal to independents and conservative Democrats. That is Romney’s biggest asset, and he lucked out because the others chose to use this first debate to introduce themselves in a positive light rather than to attack him.

The key thing Bachmann did was move out of Sarah Palin’s shadow. She showed news savvy by announcing she had filed her papers and was an official candidate. She showed political savvy by being the first one in the first debate to swiftly and firmly promise to eliminate the Obama health care program. It made the rest of the group, who scampered to restate their own similar positions, look like they were following her lead.

Bachmann carefully introduced herself in terms of her real work as a member of Congress, but her most impressive moment – the one where she showed real message savvy – was when she tied health reform in a negative way directly to the issue Obama is trying to seize: jobs. She cited a study that shows it’s a job killer. An 800,000-job killer. It was a political twofer and a signal she is ready to campaign at a sophisticated level.

Bachmann’s biggest job right now is to convince political insiders who know her as a bomb thrower that she is more than a “movement candidate.” If she is serious, she can’t be the GOP’s Dennis Kucinich. She clearly is the candidate that the Tea Party is most comfortable with and, like it or not, that means she has a real Republican constituency.

Perry (and Palin) are Bachmann’s strongest competition for those voters, but both are still playing coy. Perry doesn’t have the national exposure Palin has, so he can’t wait as long as Palin can to enter the race. If he is serious, Bachman’s strong showing was bad news for him.

Ron Paul has a constituency, but nobody believes he is going to get the nomination. Romney has a national base of supporters left over from four years ago. The rest of that group is hoping for the type of “catch fire” opportunity Pawlenty flubbed.

I worked on Ann Richards’ campaign in 1994, when many Texas Democrats didn’t take George W. Bush seriously until it was too late. I watched Al Gore and national Democrats make the same smug mistake six years later. I’d never vote for Bachmann, but in terms of making the most of a specific campaign moment, I’m not afraid to give her kudos for an impressive job on Monday night. Perry’s advisers should do the same.

AC360 digs into the dark world of “reparative therapy” in “The Sissy Boy Experiment”

How hard is it to love a 5-year-old child unconditionally, or a child of any age for that matter? If you believe God created each of us, how do you decide some of his creations, especially children, are disposable – that they are junk?

Yet, that’s what happens in the sick world of the charlatans who pass themselves off as “reparative therapists.” These people aren’t harmless quacks. They are psychological assassins who use fear to convince confused, vulnerable parents to give up their children to programs of mental terror.

Anderson Cooper 360 launched a three-part series about this on Tuesday. It included interviews with the mother and siblings of a preschool boy sent to a government-funded “reparative therapy” program at UCLA in the 1970s. The program was supervised by the infamous George Rekers, whose writings have been widely discredited but are still used by some who want to promote this violent destructive idea.

Varmints like Rekers, feigning professional credibility, work in communities in Texas and across the country. Some get rich, and many develop personal followings by holding out false hope that they can change the most fundamental aspect of a child’s psyche.

The disgusting unforgivable part of what they do is that those actually trained in psychology know better.

No credible study shows this type of “treatment” can alter something that basic in any human. In fact, the potential for irreparable harm is so great the American Psychological Association has issued an official statement opposing this practice. It reads:

Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or “repair” homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable.  Furthermore, anecdotal reports of “cures” are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm.  In the last four decades, “reparative” therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure.  Until there is such research available, APA recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to First, do no harm.

Cooper interviewed family members who recalled instructions Rekers gave to withhold maternal empathy from the boy and to construct a merit-punishment system for his behavior. That system included weekly beatings from the father that raised welts on the 5-year-old boy’s butt and back as punishment for not showing “masculine behavior.”

Cooper’s investigation works, because so far it hasn’t fallen into a political or theological “he said v. he said” debate. (Parts 2 and 3 air Wednesday and Thursday.) Part 1 had a narrative arc that found truth by tracing the undeniable impact and human toll of Rekers’ “experiment” more than 30 years later.

We learned in that story the boy quickly withdrew from all social interaction, and that he was unable his entire life to form lasting friendships or any romantic partnership. Seven years ago, at the age of 38, the man he grew up to be hung himself from a ceiling fan, half-way across the world alone in a small apartment in New Dehli, India.

I’m a bit puzzled that Cooper didn’t fully identify Rekers. Perhaps it’s because we all know in the back of our mind how stories like this usually play out.

Decades after Rekers tortured that child and others at UCLA, after using his “research” and “experiments” to make a national name for himself and testifying against gay adoption and gay marriage, and after serving on the founding board of the Family Research Council, Rekers was busted last year in a Miami airport returning from a European vacation with a male escort from

I don’t have children, but I was a gay kid. I also was a board member and volunteer years ago at a gay teen support organization in Austin. Some of those kids had been sent to “reparative therapy.”

One weekend, I got a panicked call from one of my favorites about another teen in our weekly “rap group.” The other kid had slit his wrists. I rushed to where they were, and we got him to a hospital. He lived, but I’ll never forget visiting that bright, sweet, handsome boy barely in his teens in a psychiatric ward with bandages on his wrists. An image like that stays with you the rest of your life.

Towering Humanity: Turk Pipkin’s Building Hope

Disabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction.

Building HopeDisabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction. And I am not the cheese here. This entirely true story of Turk Pipkin and the Nobelity Project’s tenacious creation of Kenya’s Mahiga Hope High School won the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival Lone Star States Audience Award. It’s not important exactly how I know that you cannot jam that ballot box— the point is that Building Hope is a bona fide “feel good” movie (which is normally just marketing parlance for a trite and predictably happy ending). Also, insipid rom coms are not actually great date movies. Building Hope is (unlikely as that may sound at first blush). But really now, did the latest Kate Hudson vehicle (to pick a name) put you in touch with the energizing wonder of human existence and possibility? When the lights came up, my spectacles were quite literally spotted from teardrops (mostly from the joy of my heart melting but also from moments of it breaking).

Building Hope is populated with a gallery of inspirational and selfless folks, not the least of which are the students of Mahiga (whose smiles, especially on class picture day, are indelible). Amongst these folks are Greg Elsner, the volunteer on-site “hippie architect from Minnesota,” local educator and point man Joseph Mutongu, executive producer and international non-profit darling Christy Pipkin, and the three young Austin siblings who raised $10,000 for substantial kitchen improvements. A vital construction component is the RainWater Court, which collects and stores drinking water with solar powered purification for the drought prone rural area and also serves as a full basketball court. Mr. Pipkin introduces the sport to the community for the very first time. From demonstrating the concept of dribbling, to the initially carnival midway-esque and comically under-sized homemade rim, and to the students eventual mastery of the game is one of the exemplary narrative arcs of concrete progress that will make you marvel.

Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening
Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening

All proceeds from the forty-four screenings at the Violet Crown Cinema June 3rd – 9th, 2011, will benefit the Nobelity Project’s Kenya Schools Fund.

The following is a transcript of the impromptu visit I had with director Turk Pipkin right after the June 1st Crown Violet screening.

Steve Birmingham: I was struck by the statistic that it would cost 11 billion dollars a year to educate every child in the world through Grade 8 and, for Americans, 11 billion is less than our military spends in one week.

Turk Pipkin: You’ve zeroed in on something that’s fairly imprecise. That’s a quote that actually comes from Queen Rania [of Jordan] that was actually in One Peace at a Time [Pipkin’s previous film]. I talked to her about it at Clinton Global Initiative a couple of years ago after she had spoken there [See Pipkin’s Sept. 13, 2009 “One Peace at a Time – The Right to an Education”]. Later in the film I talk about the idea of universal secondary education and then we’re talking about much larger numbers. Free, universal secondary education is one of the Millennium Development goals. But when they started in 2000, there wasn’t even universal primary education. What happened in Kenya is in the early ‘90s the World Bank advised Kenya to quit paying for primary school (“Let parents pay for it”) because they weren’t paying back their debt to the International Monetary Community. So they suspended free primary school on the assumption that parents could pay a few bucks a month. And half the country no longer went to school. Which, in my belief, is one of the reasons that country was primed to have post-election violence a few years ago because there’s a big generation of young people that didn’t get educated and they don’t have any opportunity, they’re living in slums, and there’s political unrest. They’re easily swayed to go one-way or the other and, actually, they’re for hire (which is a lot of what happened in that political unrest they had for the contested election). So, in ’03 they reinstated free primary education but now we’re eight years later and what’s really happened is all those kids have come up and (just like there was in the first five or six years with the primary school) there’s not enough places for them to go to secondary school. But it’s not just in Kenya; it’s all across Africa. Worse there than other parts of the developing world but it’s ridiculous to think that the developing world is going to change in substantive ways if kids don’t get a high school education. What do you do with an 8th Grade, y’know?

SB: Exactly. And yet, again, that figure was approximately one week of the U.S. military budget?

TP: Yeah, less than a week. I think the new budget just passes in the 700 billion range but that doesn’t include the money we’re spending in Iraq and Afghanistan which is special appropriations, so we’re more in like the trillion a year— not counting covert money that we don’t hear about. So, what would it cost everywhere? It’s hard to say. But, in this community, which is really what I was going at, we ending up spending… probably not all in but with the new preschool, with all the high school and with everything else, and with rebuilding the primary school, we really built a functional facility for 800 kids from age four to eighteen for about $300,000.

SB: I was really taken with how positive the students are despite their economic station in life and the community also seems so wonderfully jovial. I’m just curious from all your travels…

TP: You know, it’s interesting, people say “Why Kenya?” And one of the reasons for Kenya was just luck. I’ve worked in a lot of countries in the developing world and Wangari [Maathai of the Green Belt Movement] got me there and Joseph [Mutongu of Mahiga] got me there, and so it was really kind of a series of luck. It is easier for me because Kenya is an English speaking country— more Swahili than English every year. This really is a great community, it really is. But truthfully, I think that the perception that we get in America of the rest of the world and of the despair in Africa and how messed up everything in the world generally is— I think most of that is horseshit and that wherever you go, the people are actually just like that. People are exactly like people are here if they were living in dire circumstances. They’re just parents and kids and they all want their kids to have a better opportunity. The kids are not spending their time going, “Oh, why don’t I have a Porsche?” The kids are spending their time with their friends and their family and they’re enjoying life. And school is one of the things they enjoy in life.

SB: Because education is not something they take for granted… there was the sixteen-year-old young lady who said that her favorite class was physics and that she wanted to be a journalist. I wonder how many other American sixteen-year-olds would say that physics was their favorite class?

9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building
9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building

TP: Yeah, and that girl is an orphan who’s had other family loss since this film was made. And she still perseveres. I dunno. They are a very special bunch of kids. It’s not like there’s no problems, y’know, but they deal with them. Every once in a while the school committee or Jane Wainaina, the new principal who’s great, will call us up or send us an email and say, “Oh we had a problem with something and what do you think we should do?” And we say, “Whatever you think, it’s your school” [laughs]. And they’re, “Oh, we were just checking to see if you had any input?” “Yeah, we do. Whatever you think.” So the autonomy that comes with that and I think it’s the same thing for the kids— the kids realize, “No it’s not about [The Pipkins].” It’s actually about them. They like it when we come over and I’ll be over in a few weeks but it doesn’t really change the school situation. We still have teachers that are probably not quite as qualified as the teachers in Nairobi. We’re still going to have challenges on the KCSE [an exam for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education] when you finish high school. We’ll only have our first senior classes next January, so we’re a year and a half away from trying to send our first kids to college. It’s going to be a challenge with the rural area and getting these kids accepted into college, but they’re trying!

SB: It was quite moving to learn that the students hadn’t visited these incredible nature preserves that are so frequented by tourists but are just a few miles from their homes. What was that like for you to see them witnessing this wildlife and having them being introduced to the idea that they are to be the stewards?

TP: It was great. And we were developing a mentor program for the school. So one of the mentors, Joseph, he’s a guy who was just lucky to get someone to sponsor him and go to high school and they he earned a scholarship to go to England and study to be a naturalist in a special program and he went right back to his community. He’s really quite a brilliant naturalist. But the preserves are there and they have to be there. You talk about the encroachment; Joseph talks about the elephant migratory route between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, which is gone now. And he’s one of the many people trying to restore that route but it’s not likely to actually ever happen. It’s just become too over-settled. The Aberdare National Forest has the rhino fence. It was just completed last year. Heck, we have a new school project that’s right next to the rhino fence. But, it’s the longest game fence in the world. It’s 400 kilometers of super high voltage electric wire— strong enough to hold elephants in. Although, elephants are so smart that they can work in concert. They can go up to five or six concrete pylons in a row, and in unison put one tusk against the concrete pylon and push the whole fence over and hold it down while others step over to go raid farmers’ fields when their corn is ready. They go to Joseph’s house where his wife hand tills an acre field of corn every year and the elephants come in and raid it right before they’re going to pick it— three years in a row. What are you going to do? So the fences are there for good reason and the preservation of these forests and of these animals is absolutely essential but it costs money to go inside. For tourists, it costs sixty bucks a day. For the locals, it costs like less than a buck but you got to get there and you got to be in a vehicle and they don’t have a buck and they don’t have a vehicle. So, taking them there is really cool and that’s something we’re going to continue to do.

SB: With any construction project, there are always delays and expenditure overages but yet you’re doing it in Africa where things like roads, basic materials, and equipment are a real challenge. You had the rains and the RainWater Court project manager just disappeared. What was the biggest logistical challenge? But it didn’t seem that it was ever radically off-track compared to people who just build here in remote areas.

TP: No, it wasn’t. Well, if you look at Madonna trying to build her girls school in Malawi— where she took the opposite approach. Rather than partnering with the local community, she said, “I’m going to go take charge of an area. I’m going to buy land. I’m going to hire staff. I’m going to do everything.” Y’know, the way an American or foreigner would envision that this would be done. We could’ve built almost twenty Mahiga Hope High Schools for what she spent before she abandoned and fired everybody and never even bought a piece of land. And she’s about six million dollars into it. She still says she’s going to build it and I hope that she will but I think the lesson is if you have the community as a partner and you’re not pretending that you’re the person that knows the best thing in the world about how to operate a school in another culture, you know. They have a great education system in Kenya; they just don’t have enough funding to run it. Actually, the Kenyan government spends a higher percentage of their tax revenue on education than any country in the world. They’re number one— twenty-seven percent of their federal tax revenue. If you look per capita, they’re 125th. They just don’t have enough tax revenue. The biggest challenge… I don’t know. The classroom building turned into a money challenge and we found the money. We had a lot of people and support here. We just continued to raise money here, longer. But the vision of the school grew a lot. We built a full soccer pitch on that sloping field which had eight feet of incline and the first bids to build that soccer pitch were about twenty-five grand. I basically turned the school committee loose on it and [Austin’s] Westlake High’s soccer team raised a thousand dollars and a couple of other people donated about $500 and we built a twenty-five thousand dollar soccer field for about two thousand bucks. So, there were a lot of places where we went way under and were able to do a lot more. Just from a personal point of view, Christy fighting cancer was by far the hardest part of it. And it’s also very hard to build a school and do a project and make a film at the same time. We don’t have a lot of the coverage that we would have because when I’m in meetings I’m not shooting. And there’s no crew. I mean it’s just me and George [laughs] [George Abraham, a student on a journalism scholarship shot footage of the RainWater Court’s stormy raising]. And it turned out Greg couldn’t shoot. I don’t know. Greg was not a good shooter. He’s a better architect than a shooter. It’s absolutely crazy. Look at the credits— they’re tiny. It’s really crazy that this little core of people [made] this movie. I’m not foolish enough to edit the movie; I did have Molly [Conway] and Matt [Naylor]. Mostly, it was just a lot of eighteen-hour days for about two years straight.

SB: Just a small aside. What kind of travel time is it to fly?

TP: It’s about twenty-four hours… in the back of the bus.

SB: And not to be “poor Turk” but does the accumulation of that much back and forth traveling get taxing?

TP: Yeah, I guess it is but you get to the point because of the time and the money involved… I fly back of the bus. The cheapest ticket you possibly can. The B.A. flight from London, there’s four classes. So you really are with the chickens back there. In the second cabin I think they cook the chicken but back there, they’re in boxes. You know, we hit the ground running over there. We get to the hotel at midnight and the next morning we’re at the bookstore when they open at 8 o’clock in the morning, shopping for the library. We’re at the computer store at 9 o’clock. We’re on the road at 10 o’clock and we work straight through until you leave the country. There’s no jet lag allowed in international development. Malaria medicine? Forget it. You don’t take antimalarials. You don’t rest for a day when you get there or when you get back. You just say, “This is it, I’m not taking anything else for an answer.”

SB: Now that this film is being released and getting out there, what is your sincere hope that audiences take away?

TP: Well, I’d really like for people to spread the word because we don’t actually have distribution on the film and we’re just taking it one day at a time. But from the issue point of view, I think that I’ve gotten more out of this film than Joseph Mutongu got out of it and my kids, in the long run, may get more out of having built this school than his kids will get out of going to it. And the love that you take really is equal to the love that you make. Bhagavad Gita and the Beatles had it right all along. I would like people to see the opportunity to become engaged with other people. It doesn’t have to be in Africa. It can be anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be in East Austin. We live in an increasingly isolated world. I think it’s just a symptom of our times in that the more crowded the world is the more you tend to live in an isolated circle. People coming to this movie probably will know more than most people but most Americans don’t know much about the world other than what they see on TV about a war or a natural disaster. What do we see from Africa? The Sudan? What’s the last thing anybody knew about Kenya? That Barack Obama wasn’t born there, you know, and there was election violence and that there was an al-Qaeda bombing of the embassy there— that’s it. And more people learned about the Kenyan Olympic gold medal runner [Sammy Wanjiru] when he killed himself than when he actually won the gold medal. What does that say about our knowledge of the world? So… for people to engage. Whatever it is— across the street or across the world. It’s for your own good. What do you put here on Earth? The idea of universal secondary education, to me it’s as big of an idea as the Girl Effect (the idea of changing the world through empowering girls), and as clean water (which has made amazing things happen all over the world and continues to). It’s the next logical step but right now unfortunately it’s coming at a time where the world doesn’t seem to have a lot of resources to focus on it.

For screening and other information visit:

There’s a reception with the filmmakers in the lobby every evening at 8 pm. If you attend the 7pm screening, they’ll be waiting for you when the film ends. If you attend the 9 pm, the reception will help warm you up for the movie. And the Violet Crown is offering happy hour specials every night.

American Winter: The Right’s War on Education and Contraception

It’s a shocking historical juxtaposition. The pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring is in significant part a consequence of rising literacy and declining birth rates in the Mideast. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Right is mounting a direct assault on education and a renewed war on contraception. This ought to tell us something.

It may be spring in the Mideast, but a chill wind is howling in America as America’s Right puffs its cheeks like Old Man Winter. Education and the personal freedom to control one’s body and sexual life fuel powerful democratic movements. What kind of movement then is America’s Right engaged in?

French social scientist Emmanuel Todd is explicit about the democratizing power of literacy and reproductive freedom. They lead to:

…the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens.

But the American Right seeks the opposite, the conversion of citizens into subjects. That they do so while speaking of liberty is just more authoritarian “denying and distorting of information” in the words of Italian humanist, Auschwitz survivor and anti-fascist Primo Levi.

Is the Right really mounting a war on contraception? While far-right conservatives have largely succeeded in snookering the credulous news media into framing its anti-birth control agenda as all about abortion, they seek much more than an abortion ban.

In a moment of unintended candor, a leading conservative Texas state legislator, Wayne Christian, recently confessed. The Texas Tribune asked Christian whether he was engaged in a war on birth control. He answered: Continue reading “American Winter: The Right’s War on Education and Contraception”