Monthly Archives: November 2015

When Tipping Was Considered Deeply Un-American


Imported from Europe, the custom of leaving gratuities began spreading in the U.S. post-Civil War. It was loathed as a master-serf custom that degraded America's democratic, anti-aristocratic ethic.i

Imported from Europe, the custom of leaving gratuities began spreading in the U.S. post-Civil War. It was loathed as a master-serf custom that degraded America’s democratic, anti-aristocratic ethic.

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Imported from Europe, the custom of leaving gratuities began spreading in the U.S. post-Civil War. It was loathed as a master-serf custom that degraded America's democratic, anti-aristocratic ethic.

Imported from Europe, the custom of leaving gratuities began spreading in the U.S. post-Civil War. It was loathed as a master-serf custom that degraded America’s democratic, anti-aristocratic ethic.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Today’s restaurants abandoning the tipping system are part of a long heritage of people — including Emerson and Twain — raging against the gratuity system.

With New York restaurateur Danny Meyer banning tips in his restaurants and Berkeley restaurateurs Andrew Hoffman and John Paluska joining the no-tip bandwagon, the tipping debate has clinked back into the headlines of late.

Except it never really went away.

To tip or not to tip constitutes one of the oldest and nastiest debates surrounding America’s restaurant business.

When tipping began to spread in post-Civil War America, it was tarred as “a cancer in the breast of democracy,” “flunkeyism” and “a gross and offensive caricature of mercy.” But the most common insult hurled at it was “offensively un-American.”

Loathed as a master-serf custom of the caste-bound Old World that went back to the Middle Ages, tipping was blamed for encouraging servility and degrading America’s democratic, puritanical, and anti-aristocratic ethic. European immigrants surging into the U.S. were charged with bringing this deplorable custom with them. But in fact, it was also American tourists, like the characters in Henry James’ novels, who picked up the restaurant conventions of the Continent, and imported them back to America.

In James’s 1897 novel What Maisie Knew, 6-year-old Maisie, breakfasting with her English stepfather, Sir Claude, at a quayside French café, watches the waiter retreat “with the ‘tip’ gathered in with graceful thanks on a subtle hint from Sir Claude’s forefinger.” Significantly, the word “tip” is in quotation marks, indicating its newness to the little girl, as well as to James’ American readers.

For their part, Europeans were irked by wealthy Americans who ruined the rates by over-tipping — not just during the Gilded Age, but in more recent times as well. According to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. was in the habit of leaving a scandalously lavish propina for the staff of the Swiss chateau he rented in the 1980s. He used the Spanish word for tip, his son Christopher explained, “since it’s money, you know, it’s best not to discuss it directly.”

America’s anti-tipping hall of fame includes millionaires John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who were stingy tippers, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously said, “I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, yet it is a wicked dollar, which, by and by, I shall have the manhood to withhold.” A 1901 editorial in the Chicago Times-Herald congratulated Mark Twain for refusing to tip a cab driver, and added, hyperbolically, that should the writer lived to “claim credit for its abolition[,] he will deserve greater gratitude from the public on that account than for anything that he has written or ever may write.”

Famous anti-tippers (from left): Leon Trotsky, William Howard Taft and Mark Twain. Trotsky refused to tip his waiters while living in the Bronx. The Russian revolutionary thought the practice let capitalist restaurant owners off the hook.i

Famous anti-tippers (from left): Leon Trotsky, William Howard Taft and Mark Twain. Trotsky refused to tip his waiters while living in the Bronx. The Russian revolutionary thought the practice let capitalist restaurant owners off the hook.

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Famous anti-tippers (from left): Leon Trotsky, William Howard Taft and Mark Twain. Trotsky refused to tip his waiters while living in the Bronx. The Russian revolutionary thought the practice let capitalist restaurant owners off the hook.

Famous anti-tippers (from left): Leon Trotsky, William Howard Taft and Mark Twain. Trotsky refused to tip his waiters while living in the Bronx. The Russian revolutionary thought the practice let capitalist restaurant owners off the hook.

Associated Press

The long-suffering public grumbled incessantly about being at the mercy of surly waiters and porters who performed only when bribed. The attitude was summed up by the young prostitute in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise, who, when caught with a patron in a hotel room, says angrily: “Alec didn’t give the waiter a tip, so I guess the little bastard snitched.”

The tipping abolitionist campaign came to a boil in 1915, when three states (Iowa, South Carolina and Tennessee) passed anti-tipping laws, joining three other states (Washington, Mississippi, and Arkansas) that had already passed similar bills. Georgia soon followed. By 1926, however, all these anti-tipping laws were repealed, writes Segrave, largely because it was seen as futile to police something that had gained a momentum of its own.

Tipping also had a racial angle. “Class, race and gender all played a part in the early discussions of tipping,” writes Segrave. He quotes journalist John Speed writing in 1902, “Negroes take tips, of course, one expects that of them – it is a token of their inferiority. But to give money to a white man was embarrassing to me.”

Such was the furor surrounding tipping that, in 1907, Sen. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina – a virulent segregationist whose bronze statue stands outside the statehouse in Columbia – actually made national headlines for tipping a black porter at an Omaha hotel. The porter, well aware of Tillman’s previous boast that he never “tips a nigger,” told reporters sardonically that he would have the quarter made into a watch charm. “Tillman gives Negro a Tip,” was The New York Times’ headline, under which ran a sympathetic editorial on how travelers were forced “to convert themselves into fountains playing quarters upon the circumambient Africans.”

Tipping even became an election issue, writes Segrave. When William Howard Taft, who prided himself on never tipping his barber, ran for president in 1908, he was projected as “the patron saint of the anti-tip crusade.” Today, several Democratic presidential hopefuls have campaigned on raising the minimum wage – an issue that was, and continues to be, at the heart of the tipping debate.

Then, as today, the crux of the matter was the low wages paid to waiters, making them dependent on patron largesse. The waiters’ cause was taken up by union member T. O. Smith, in the 1919 edition of The Mixer and Server, a trade journal of restaurant and hotel employees. He said waiters were unfairly accused of having “an itching palm,” when the truth was that the “waiter was not the author, but the victim of the tipping system.”

Smith was referring to a popular 1916 anti-tipping jeremiad by a writer named William R. Scott entitled, The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America. Scott’s screed decried the millions of Americans who derived their income from tips as suffering from a “moral malady.”

But Smith pointed out acerbically that while the newspapers were dripping with concern for the “long suffering public,” not too much thought was directed at the “long suffering waiter.” He said the unjust system forced waiters to “learn the art of smiling under even the most adverse circumstances” – for a frown, however justified, would cost him not only his tip but perhaps his job as well. It was tougher for black waiters, who were commonly paid a lower wage than white waiters.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky refused to tip and had soup spilled on him by vengeful waiters in the Bronx (where he lived briefly). He believed that tipping allowed capitalists, a.k.a. restaurant owners, to get off the hook. If the waiters were being paid a decent wage, he said, tipping would die on the vine.

Over time, however, the opposition to tipping faded. “Tipping eventually became more entrenched in American life than in any other country,” writes Segrave.

In 1942, the Supreme Court ruled that employees had an exclusive right to their tips and that their employers could not force them to share their tips with kitchen staff.

In 1966, Congress created a concept known as “Tip Credit.” This system allows employers to pay tipped employees a sub-minimum wage on the understanding that the rest of the wage would be made up by the largesse of customers. Which is why, to this day, the federal minimum wage for tipped employees is just $2.13 per hour.

Tipping remains a deeply divisive issue. Many waiters at fine-dining restaurants prefer the tip system because it means a higher income — but it’s harder for those who toil away in diners and lower-end eateries to earn a livable wage. No-tip restaurants like Alice Waters’ famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., have a fixed service charge that is divided among the whole staff, including the kitchen. As a result, waiters get less, but the back-of-the-house staff — traditionally left of out tipping — get more.

The irony is that, though Americans imported the tipping custom from Europe, countries such as France have long done away with tipping: A 15 percent service charge is automatically added to the bill, and customers aren’t obliged to tip. As a result, a French schoolgirl visiting the U.S. might find herself, like Maisie, curiously eyeing the “tip’ in the billfold.

5 Sisters Struggle With The Shackles Of A Conservative Culture In ‘Mustang’


Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan and Günes Sensoy play five orphaned teen sisters who live with their grandmother in the film Mustang.i

Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan and Günes Sensoy play five orphaned teen sisters who live with their grandmother in the film Mustang.

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Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan and Günes Sensoy play five orphaned teen sisters who live with their grandmother in the film Mustang.

Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan and Günes Sensoy play five orphaned teen sisters who live with their grandmother in the film Mustang.

Cohen Media Group

The most intractable conflict in modern life is the battle between those who want society to be somehow pure — religiously, say, or racially — and those who see society as an ever-changing mix and actually prefer it that way. You could hardly find a more horrific example of this split than the Islamic State’s terror attack on the proudly diverse city of Paris.

We find a less bloody version of this conflict in Mustang, the debut feature of the gifted young female director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. And talk about your mixes: Ergüven was born in Turkey, but now lives in France. She co-wrote the script with a French director, but tells a story about Turkey from a Western enough angle that France has made a film in Turkish its Oscar entry. I should probably mention that it’s really, really stirring.

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Mustang centers on five orphaned teen sisters who live with their grandmother in an isolated town on the Black Sea. Their blood fizzes with the champagne of dawning sexuality, and as the action begins, they join some boys at the beach where they splash one another and ride guys’ shoulders. It’s all innocent fun, but when they stop to eat some apples — which spells trouble in the Koran as well as the Bible — you know their Edenic idyll will end badly. And it does. They get ratted out for licentiousness by a neighbor whose headscarf represents her entire worldview.

Led by their abusive uncle, the family basically puts the five under house arrest. They strip the girls of the devil’s tools — you know, cell-phones, makeup, stuff like that. They give them virginity tests and force-feed them a crash course in being a good housewife. So what if they’re kids? The family sets about marrying them off.

Their home has become “a wife factory,” as it’s put by the youngest sister, Lale, through whose keen eyes we see the action. Delightfully played by newcomer Gunes Sensoy, Lale’s an irrepressible soul who keeps wondering which, if any of these young women will stand up for herself and refuse to be broken.

As all this unfolds, the family home becomes a metaphor for an entire culture driven by patriarchal ideas about female purity, family honor, women’s sexuality and the belief that women shouldn’t be allowed to choose their futures for themselves.

While Mustang‘s story is simple and sometimes too neat, it has the zing and energy of life, starting with Ergüven’s shooting and editing style. She works with a freedom and looseness closer to French cinema than to, for example, the rigorous approach of the best-known Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

But like Ceylan, Ergüven knows Turkish reality and knows how to keep her characters anchored in it, a feat all the trickier given that she’s working with mainly first-time actors. Although her five long-maned mustangs at first seem indistinguishable in their youthful exuberance, all five reveal vividly distinct personalities, from the sexually wised-up Sonay, who’s learned the tricks of feigning wedding night purity, to the quieter Nur, who knows family secrets no one else does.

As our sense of them deepens, so does the film. A story that begins in a larky eroticism, with Ergüven eyeing the young women rapturously, is gradually suffused with a pained and powerful sympathy for young women shackled by a conservative Islam that finds their natural stirrings obscene.

Lest we viewers feel too superior about this, it’s worth remembering that American culture shies away, too, from dealing honestly with the sexuality of teenage girls. We find it strangely threatening, although we tend to talk about this in terms more psychological than religious.

Although Mustang is essentially a feminist prison movie, it’s neither dreary nor didactic. In their different ways, the sisters try, with mixed success, to resist their fate. None does so more radically than Lale, who dreams of escaping to the comparative freedom of Istanbul. This isn’t The Hunger Games, in which a teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is able to topple an entire oppressive order. It’s provincial Turkey, and the most a free-spirited young woman can do, Ergüven suggests, is run for her life.

From Gladiator Duels To Caesar’s Last Words: The Myths Of Ancient Rome


In Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe plays a Roman general who is forced to fight in gladiatorial contests. Historian Mary Beard says the real competitions were probably not as brutal as the film would have us believe.i

In Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe plays a Roman general who is forced to fight in gladiatorial contests. Historian Mary Beard says the real competitions were probably not as brutal as the film would have us believe.

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In Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe plays a Roman general who is forced to fight in gladiatorial contests. Historian Mary Beard says the real competitions were probably not as brutal as the film would have us believe.

In Gladiator (2000), Russell Crowe plays a Roman general who is forced to fight in gladiatorial contests. Historian Mary Beard says the real competitions were probably not as brutal as the film would have us believe.

Universal/Getty Images

Historian Mary Beard has spent her career working through the texts and source materials of ancient Rome. She has written several books on the subject — including her most recent work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome — but she doesn’t feel like she’s close to being done with the topic.

“One of the great things about history is that it sort of isn’t a done deal — ever,” Beard tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “The historical texts and the historical evidence that you use is always somehow giving you different answers because you’re asking it different questions.”

Beard notes that history is a shifting discipline, and that many of our popular notions of ancient Rome are based on culture rather than fact. Take, for instance, “Et tu, Brute?”, William Shakespeare’s version of Julius Caesar’s final words. Beard says it’s “one of the most famous quotes in the whole of Roman history — except it certainly isn’t what Caesar ever said.”

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.i

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

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Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Robin Corma/Liveright

Despite her tendency to “myth-bust” ancient Rome, Beard still enjoys popular cultural representations of the empire. “There’s no reason not to enjoy those stereotypes and have all the fun with them,” she says. “Just as long as we realize that that’s what they are.”

Interview Highlights

On how Rome became a regional power

That is the big question about Rome, and I think it’s an even bigger question than the one that we’re more used to answering, which is: Why does it fall? I mean, why does it rise is such a puzzle. In the end, I think we can’t give any simple answer to that, but I do have a very strong hunch about what’s going on here and that … Rome’s success relates to its views about its own citizenship, about incorporating its enemies into the Roman network, the Roman project, the Roman power structure. I think you have to realize that most ancient warfare is really kind of hit and run, honestly. You go and you bash down the walls of some enemy 50 miles away and you take some slaves, you take some cattle, probably a bit of cash too, and then you say goodbye and go home and you probably do the same thing next year — or try to, or they do it to you.

SPQR

A History of Ancient Rome

by Mary Beard

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Rome fundamentally changes the rules of that game. And when it bashes up one of its neighbors — and to begin with it really isn’t much more than “cattle-raiding” in our terms — what they do is they establish a permanent relationship with the people that they have beaten, either making them allies or often making them Roman citizens. … It may well be that the people they made Roman citizens didn’t want to become Roman citizens, but that’s the Roman model. And the consequence of that — because the main obligation of either alliance or citizenship was to provide troops for the Roman army — the consequence of that is very quickly Rome gets more boots on the ground than anybody else, and it’s boots on the ground that win ancient campaigns. People don’t win because they have clever military hardware, and they don’t often win because they’ve got clever military tactics; they win because there’s more of them.

On the architecture of ancient Rome

I think when we shut our eyes and think, “What did ancient Rome look like?,” we have a very Hollywood image in our minds of shining white marble and planned architecture developments — amphitheaters and theaters and temples. Rome eventually does become like that. If you went to Rome in the second century of the Common Era you’d find bits of Rome that really did look grand in that way, but that kind of grandeur doesn’t start until the very end of the first century B.C.E.

When Rome is actually conquering most of the world that it conquers from the third to the first century B.C.E., they’re doing it from a city which is low-rise, built of brick, rather ramshackle — a warren of windy, twisty streets. Nothing like the Rome of our imagination. They’ve got a million people in it by the first century B.C.E., but it isn’t the city of imperial grandeur that we have in our minds. That doesn’t come until later, and particularly it doesn’t come until they find some useful local marble supplies, which they exploit. … As the first emperor, Augustus, says: He found Rome a city of brick and he left it a city of marble.

On the assassination of Julius Caesar

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Assassination was up close and personal, unless you did it by poison, and poison was sometimes used. But [Caesar’s] assassination, like most Roman assassinations, was stabbing. And the more you read about it — despite the heroic image we get in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example — the more seedy and tawdry and messy it seems to have been. Some of the assassins stab each other by mistake, and they escape with their lives, but with a lot of blood all over them. Caesar looks up at his friends who are killing him, and in Shakespeare’s famous version, which we all remember, he says, “Et tu, Brute?,” which … was a marvelous invention by Shakespeare. What Caesar is supposed to have said — speaking in Greek, as he looked at Brutus — he said, “And you, my child?,” suggesting probably that he was just shocked that his younger friends and his younger associates and colleagues could be doing this to him. And then he died.

On the status of women in ancient Rome

You can tell the good side of that or the bad side of that. The good side of that is that compared with most other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, it was an awful lot better. It’s very clear that women had some property rights, they were sometimes entrepreneurs, they were renting out property, they were owning bars sometimes — and that’s something that would never have happened, say, in fifth century Athenian democracy. However, the downside is that they had absolutely no formal political rights whatsoever. No women in ancient Rome ever had the vote. They had no formal political power at all, and even those imperial ladies like the famous Livia, who was the wife of the first emperor, Augustus, … although they’re often written up as if they’re pulling the strings behind the scenes, they probably weren’t really. They were a convenient target to blame for what was going on, but actually they were out of the power structure.

On gladiatorial contests

I am going to be a bit of downer on gladiatorial contests, I’m afraid. … In a Hollywood imagination we have a very, very lurid view of gladiators and wild beast hunts. We imagine ourselves in the Colosseum and hundreds of pairs of gladiators are fighting to the death in some appalling bloodbath that the awful Romans are sitting there cheering and enjoying. Now, I think occasionally that did happen. I have no doubt that once in a while an emperor would put on an extraordinary display of both gladiatorial contest and wild beast hunts. … But I think we’ve got to be realistic, first of all, about how low-key most gladiatorial contests in most of the Roman world were. Gladiators are an expensive commodity and they don’t get killed very often. And nobody, apart from the emperor, can afford to bring lions to fight Christians. So I think an awful lot of the gladiatorial shows that you would have seen in the Roman world would have been more likely to be fighting wild boar from the local hills, and the gladiators would not have been fighting, usually, to the death.

On her favorite films and TV shows set in ancient Rome

I’m a great fan of Roman movies. All the classics are — they might not be accurate, but they speak to me about Rome. I loved Gladiator and I thought its depiction of gladiatorial combat, although it was an aggrandizing picture, was cleverly and expertly done. And I love Life of Brian.

But I think if I was going to have anything I’d have that old I, Claudius television series, which was shown both in the U.K. and in the U.S. in the 1970s. And it’s completely untrue, but it is such a marvelously slightly camp version of Roman empirical power.

‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ At 50


The 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas is celebrating 50 years of somber music and sad little trees.i

The 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas is celebrating 50 years of somber music and sad little trees.

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The 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas is celebrating 50 years of somber music and sad little trees.

The 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas is celebrating 50 years of somber music and sad little trees.

Charles M. Schulz/AP

Kristen Bell hosts a retrospective called It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, Monday night on ABC.i

Kristen Bell hosts a retrospective called It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, Monday night on ABC.

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Kristen Bell hosts a retrospective called It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, Monday night on ABC.

Kristen Bell hosts a retrospective called It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, Monday night on ABC.

Nicole Wilder/ABC

Tonight (Monday), ABC will air a special at 8 p.m. ET called It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, to mark the half-century since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965. Then at 9, it will air the special itself.

There’s so much about A Charlie Brown Christmas that you’d never see on network television holiday specials now, I suspect. A special that, if not for children, is certainly intended to be accessible by children would never use that “guzzling Irish coffee in a bar on a snow-blanketed night in New York when you just got stood up but you feel weirdly OK about it” Vince Guaraldi music. Mass-marketed entertainment doesn’t tend to trust kids’ capacity to appreciate either stripped-down scores or the natural blues of winter that much. The kids’ chorus singing would be replaced by a Demi Lovato version of “The Little Drummer Boy” or something like that. Pardon the cynicism, but … wouldn’t it?

Watching the special now, its bleakness is palpable and bracing. It opens with Charlie Brown defining his problem in part as, in these words, “I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Straight-up dread, straight-up emotional emptiness. When Linus — who is, in many ways, the nice one — tells him, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest,” it feels like the kind of improvisational brutality in which kids really do specialize.

And that’s not his only problem. Charlie Brown says things like, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” I know nobody likes me. That’s unvarnished, and while the special will end with everyone telling him “Merry Christmas,” you will not really see much evidence in the next 20-plus minutes that they do, in fact, like him. He’s sad, for real, and he lives in that feeling, and he uses the word “depressed” to describe it. As with most things in Charlie Brown’s life, it is a load that will be temporarily lifted, but never resolved.

He’s so desperate for help, in fact, that he continues to pay Lucy five cents to think poorly of him in more sophisticated language. Her solution to his need for “involvement” is to make him the director of the Christmas play, a doomed scenario from the start, no?

But of course, it’s also unlikely that a special would end with a character reading Scripture with the earnestness of Linus. (It might be unlikely for a character to exist with the earnestness of Linus in the first place.) But as common as it is for viewers to remark on the religious content of the special, that content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t exist to say, “It’s a religious holiday, and therefore you should spurn its secular aspects.” Quite the contrary: Linus’ reading inspires Charlie Brown to redouble his efforts to decorate his sad little tree. And it inspires his friends to follow him and, when he becomes overwhelmed with sadness about said sad little tree, to help him.

So as much as A Charlie Brown Christmas is about the significance of the religious tradition as what Christmas is “really about,” it sees that tradition at least in part as a gateway to, and an inspiration for, other actions. It doesn’t only suggest Christmas is really about the Bible story; it suggests Christmas is also really about friends, dogs, cooperating, the beauty of humble things, singing out loud, and hope. It’s just not about writing your Christmas list and asking for, as Sally does, “10s and 20s.”

The only thing you really can’t recapture from 1965 is scarcity. It was once the case that Christmas specials could be seen only at Christmas. Now, you and your family can watch Charlie Brown anytime you want, anywhere you want. It’s convenience at the expense of a certain kind of preciousness, to be sure. But if you still want to be the kind of person who watches things when they happen to be on, Monday night is the night for that sad little tree.

No Meekness Here: Meet Rosa Parks, ‘Lifelong Freedom Fighter’


Rosa Parks joins in a march at the South African Embassy in Washington, Dec. 10, 1984, protesting that country's racial policies. She's famous for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, sparking the Montgomery boycotts — but her activism spanned her entire life.i

Rosa Parks joins in a march at the South African Embassy in Washington, Dec. 10, 1984, protesting that country’s racial policies. She’s famous for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, sparking the Montgomery boycotts — but her activism spanned her entire life.

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Rosa Parks joins in a march at the South African Embassy in Washington, Dec. 10, 1984, protesting that country's racial policies. She's famous for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, sparking the Montgomery boycotts — but her activism spanned her entire life.

Rosa Parks joins in a march at the South African Embassy in Washington, Dec. 10, 1984, protesting that country’s racial policies. She’s famous for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, sparking the Montgomery boycotts — but her activism spanned her entire life.

AP

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on bus in Montgomery, Ala. — and changed the course of history.

Her action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which would eventually lead to the end of legally segregated public transportation.

And for many Americans, Parks is the civil rights icon they love to love: the unassuming seamstress who, supposedly, just got tired one day and unwittingly launched the modern civil rights movement.

But as author Jeanne Theoharis explains in her book, The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks, there was much more to Parks than this simple narrative. She spoke about this with Michel Martin, weekend host of All Things Considered.

Click on the audio link above to hear the interview as it aired, or see below for excerpts from the full, original interview.

Interview Highlights

On the biggest misconception about Rosa Parks

I think we reduce her to the one day on the bus … and in fact, she is a lifelong freedom fighter, and what it took to do what she did across her life and on that December day was deeply courageous, deeply difficult. And we see that beginning decades before her stand and continuing for decades after.

On how, in addition to civil rights and voting rights, Parks was also an anti-rape activist

Rosa Parks, like many black women, was doing domestic work in her late teens. She’s working for a white couple and a white neighbor of theirs is let in the house, gets a drink, puts his hand on her waist. She gets terrified. He’s big. He’s burly.

She’s small, but she resolves to resist. She basically tells him “you can rape my dead body.” And we’ll see the same kind of resolve in the 1940s. Then she will … try to bring cases where other black women have been victims of sexual violence or rape.

On what it cost the Parks family to maintain the boycott

She loses her job; her husband loses his job. They never find steady work in Montgomery ever again. So the whole boycott, they are in deep economic trouble. They’re getting constant death threats … Their steady income goes away.

They’re never well-off. I think we also have this myth that she’s middle-class. They’re not middle class. They’re living in the Cleveland Courts projects when she makes her bus stand. Their income is cut in half. In fact, it takes 11 years for the Parks to post an annual income equal to what they’re making in 1955. They will move to Detroit in 1957 because things are so tough in Montgomery.

On why many of the details of Parks’ real story are so little known

The story we’re told is a feel-good story: “It was bad, but then people organized, and look how far we’ve come, look how good we are.” It’s a story that puts the problem deeply in the past.

And I think what having to see what it took, having to see Rosa Parks and many other people continue for decades … I mean, Rosa Parks will continue to the end of her life fighting for racial justice, fighting for criminal justice, fighting for a more just foreign policy, fighting for real school desegregation, real change in the curriculum. All these things continue on. But the story that we’re told is a happy ending story. It’s a story that makes us feel good about how far we’ve come.

If we want to think about the way it portrays Rosa Parks, it traps her on the bus. It makes her meek … and we miss the fierceness of Rosa Parks. We miss the perseverance … We miss who she was and what it took, and what she’s asking of us today.

All Things Considered weekend host Michel Martin heads to Montgomery on Dec. 1 to look back on the city’s historic bus boycott on its 60th anniversary. The live storytelling event is a part of Martin’s Going There series. For more information, visit www.nprpresents.org.

A Star-Crossed ‘Scientific Fact': The Story Of Vulcan, Planet That Never Was


The Hunt for Vulcan

And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

by Thomas Levenson

Hardcover, 229 pages |

purchase

There’s a common misconception that science is purely about cold, hard facts — concrete evidence, mathematical models and replicable experiments to explain the world around us.

It’s easy to forget that there are people behind the data and equations. And when people are involved, there is always room for human error.

In The Hunt for Vulcan, author Thomas Levenson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explores one glaring error that was taken as fact for more than 50 years: the belief that there was another planet in our solar system that we couldn’t see behind the sun.

The mistake started with good science, Levenson says: the observation of something odd, and the development of a reasonable hypothesis to explain it.

“In the mid-19th century, an extremely talented astronomer — a really, really top-flight guy — was studying the orbit of the planet Mercury, and he found that there was a wobble in it. There was an unexplained extra residue of motion,” Levenson tells NPR’s Michel Martin.

And, Levenson says, according to the prevailing science of the time, there was a clear explanation for that: “another planet that we hadn’t yet discovered, inside the orbit of Mercury, that could tug it just slightly off its expected course.”

Professor Thomas Levenson, during the History Channel 2008 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.i

Professor Thomas Levenson, during the History Channel 2008 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images


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Professor Thomas Levenson, during the History Channel 2008 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.

Professor Thomas Levenson, during the History Channel 2008 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

After the theory was announced, both amateur and professional astronomers reported that they’d actually spotted the planet. The planet was named Vulcan, and its orbit was calculated. It all appeared quite cut and dried.

Then Albert Einstein came along.

Interview Highlights

On Einstein’s role in debunking Vulcan’s existence

Albert Einstein had a problem in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1905, he invented the special theory of relativity, which explained motion in all kinds of circumstances but one — which was motion under the influence of gravity.

And so, from about 1907 on, he started trying to reconcile the fact that his special theory of relativity and Newton’s laws of motion — Newton’s ideas about gravitation — were incompatible, they clashed. He spent eight years on the problem, completed 100 years ago this month. He showed that it was the actual shape of space and time that produces this visible wobble in [Mercury’s] orbit that requires no extra explanation for it. It’s just that’s the way the shape of space is where it happens to be.

On Einstein’s reaction to this conclusion

He kind of lost his mind for a little bit. He did the calculation to see … if his theory produced an account of Mercury that behaved as the real Mercury does. He was working through the calculation, and there are a bunch of steps, and he got to the end. And he got the number, and he looked at the number and he looked at the table of what astronomers had observed, and he saw that they matched. He said he had palpitations — I mean, his heart was literally shuddering in his chest. I just have this vision — it’s completely made up — but I have this vision of Einstein, sockless, dancing at his desk when he got that number.

On why the story of Vulcan isn’t better known

We don’t teach the history of science by the things that people messed up on; we teach the history of science — we teach all of history — by the things that worked. You know, the transcontinental railroad goes through, and you drive the golden spike and there it is. You don’t talk about all the railroad companies that went bankrupt somewhere in the Great Plains, right? And in science, you don’t dwell on the blind alleys.

But the blind alleys are most of what science actually does. You have to go down the blind alley, you bang your head against that blank wall at the end of it, come back out again and try something else. And that’s the real experience! And that’s why Vulcan is so wonderful. It shows how you do that and ultimately how you get out of that.

On the ideas we believe today that may turn out to be ridiculous

I’d bet real money on this: that 100 years from now, somebody’s going to look back on things we believe about who knows what, our current theories of the brain or consciousness, some of the deep ideas of the people working in physics, ways that social relations are presumed to work. You name it, there’s something out there. We have an assumption, we have a mental model, we have a theory that just isn’t right.

And 100 years from now somebody’s going to look at them and say, “Wasn’t that ridiculous? How could they get it so wrong? Isn’t it obvious?”

I mean, yeah — human beings don’t get things right all at once. It takes us a lot of time, we make a lot of mistakes, we have category mistakes. And it takes a great leap of the imagination to get from what you really know you know to the wacky thing that turns out to be more true than your remembered but erroneous past.

Customization Is Key: ‘Star Wars: Battlefront’ Makes Space For Gamers Of All Stripes


In Star Wars: Battlefront, gamers can take their pick of customization options for the characters they play. i

In Star Wars: Battlefront, gamers can take their pick of customization options for the characters they play.

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In Star Wars: Battlefront, gamers can take their pick of customization options for the characters they play.

In Star Wars: Battlefront, gamers can take their pick of customization options for the characters they play.

Courtesy of EA

Still several weeks out, the hype is already hitting enormous heights for the new Star Wars installment. The Force Awakens has sold more than $50 million in tickets — and the movie doesn’t even open until Dec. 18.

But fans of the film franchise do have an outlet for their excitement available right now, and it offers an opportunity the movie doesn’t: The video game Star Wars: Battlefront allows players to customize their characters with a tremendous diversity of characteristics — white, black, young, old, male, female, human or, well, distinctly unhuman.

Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir, a senior producer at DICE, the Stockholm-based team that developed the game, says all that customization wasn’t just a secondary feature. It was a priority.

“For us, now that we are rebooting the franchise and looking forward, it was important to take notice of the fact that gamers are of both genders, young and old, of every race,” Ingvarsdottir tells NPR’s Michel Martin.

“We wanted to make sure that from the get-go we were designing the franchise to be inclusive for everyone.”

Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir, senior producer at DICE.i

Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir, senior producer at DICE.

Courtesy of Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir


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Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir, senior producer at DICE.

Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir, senior producer at DICE.

Courtesy of Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir

Interview Highlights

On how customization came to be such an emphasis

I think that you could have an easy assumption that [customization] is because of me, but it isn’t really — although I strongly support it. My design director of the game, for him it was always a given that you’d be able to play people of both genders. And, you know, we didn’t specify races in the beginning, but that was the next step.

The way that we do it is we use a technique that’s called photogrammetry. So, the characters in the game and that you can select from — these are actual actors. When we did that casting for it, we decided to make sure that they were as diverse and as different as possible.

On the most fun part of the process

I think for me being able to go to the Lucasfilm archives at Skywalker Ranch. There’s a treasure trove of Star Wars props and costumes and models that have been used in the original trilogy of movies.

One of the things that I had never thought about was how the vision for the universe is creating the unfamiliar out of the eminently familiar. And I think the technology of a lightsaber as an example. What they did was they took pieces of camera equipment from the ’60s and put them together to create these hilts for lightsabers. I think it’s really the key to making the universe of Star Wars so believable and so enchanting.

On whether their achievements in this game will help improve the social dynamics of the gaming industry

I’ve been in the industry now for nine years, and I can see more prominent women through different gaming companies reaching higher levels. I can see games starting to feel more diverse, in both their subject matters as well as character creation. It feels like it is changing in a more positive way. Not very quickly, but I feel pretty hopeful.

I don’t think, you know — although it would be nice to feel like my game is a big contributor to that — but I think it’s more emblematic of a bigger change.

‘Not Without My Daughter’ Subject Grows Up, Tells Her Own Story




RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It’s been almost 25 years since a film called “Not Without My Daughter” captured the world’s attention and thrust a Michigan mother and her child into the international spotlight. The movie starred Sally Field and was based on a memoir written by Betty Mahmoody. It’s the true life tale of how Betty agreed to leave the U.S. with her Iranian husband and their daughter to visit his family in Tehran. She thought it was for a short visit, but when they arrived, Betty realized he was never going to let her and her daughter, Mahtob, return to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER”)

ALFRED MOLINA: (As Moody) I know it seems harsh but it’s the best thing for all of us. Mahtob could learn real values here.

SALLY FIELDS: (As Betty Mahmoody) No, I won’t stay here. You can’t keep me.

MOLINA: (As Moody) Now you listen to me. You’re in my country now. You’re my wife. You do as I say, you understand me?

MARTIN: After more than a year in Iran, Betty and Mahtob did escape. And they carved out a new life for themselves back in the U.S. Mahtob has now written her own reflections of that harrowing experience. Her new memoir is called “My Name Is Mahtob.” She joins me from member station WGVU in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thanks so much for being with us.

BETTY MAHMOODY: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

MARTIN: Let’s go back, if we could, to where this story began, the day that you left the U.S. with your parents to go to a Iran. It was 1984. You were 4 years old at the time. The Iranian Revolution had happened just a few years prior and your dad had been swept up in this movement, even though he was living far away from his homeland – he was here in the states with you and your mom. How did he convince you and your mother to come with him? Because it wasn’t exactly a stable time to travel to Iran with a young child.

MAHMOODY: No, not at all, not at all. I was 4 years old. I didn’t really have much of a say in the matter (laughter).

MARTIN: Right.

MAHMOODY: My mom was very much apprehensive about going. But she was also afraid that if she didn’t go, my dad would kidnap me and take me. And then she would have no way to get me back.

MARTIN: What happened when you did arrive?

MAHMOODY: Well, at first, it was a two-week vacation. So there was a lot of family and there was (laughter) – it wasn’t entirely seamless. But it was very much a celebration. They were very happy to have us there. They treated us very well.

MARTIN: When did it start to dawn on you that you were not going home?

MAHMOODY: So it was the night before we were to leave to return to America. Mom was packing. And there had been talk about our passports and our papers weren’t in order and, you know, there were issues. But everything was going to work out. It was going to be all right. And then the night before we were to leave, we were in the bedroom. Mom was packing. And my dad came in and said that’s it. We weren’t leaving. We were in Iran until we died. And we were in his country. We had to abide by his rules. And from then on, he was a completely different person. To me, that’s when my daddy died. You know, he was, from that moment on, completely changed.

MARTIN: He was violent. And from time to time, he physically attacked your mom. You described one gripping scene in the book near the beginning of your time in Tehran. And he’s having this violent episode. You – this very young child – you jumped in to try to separate them. That’s a horrible thing for a child to have to witness.

MAHMOODY: It is. It’s wrong on so many levels but, you know, it was. That was the reality of the situation. And it was worse for me to see my dad beating my mom than for him to hit me, and he did that too. I mean – but I would rather he hit me or he throw me across the room than to see him hit her.

MARTIN: The escape story is amazing. I’ll summarize it. The two of you pretended to be on an errand outside of the house. And a string of couriers, essentially, put you in one car, then another car and they drive you to the border. You were smuggled outside of Iran through a perilous journey through the mountains. Eventually, you make your way to Turkey. And from there, the Embassy – the U.S. Embassy – helps you get back to the states. I wonder – I mean, it’s a long, complicated, emotional journey. But can you recall a couple of details that you could share, either moments or emotions, people?

MAHMOODY: Sure, it was very, very cold. The man who helped us – I remember he had a sofa table with little figurines on it. I remember playing with them and listening to him and my mom talking. And I remember being so sad to leave him because this was a symbol of security to me. This was someone safe, someone loving and kind.

MARTIN: You got home. When did you finally stop looking over your shoulder, living with the fear that someone working for your dad or your dad would come to get you?

MAHMOODY: For the first few years after I escaped, I had terrible nightmares. And I felt like he was chasing me in life and he was chasing me in my dreams. There was no peace. But Mom enrolled me in a small parochial school. And there, I learned the lessons of God’s grace and God’s love. And that – they helped me learn to forgive my dad. At the same time, Mom was working really tired hard to help me let go of the hatred that had taken hold of me and help me to love my dad again and remember that he had loved me.

MARTIN: Your father has since passed away. And there was an opportunity you had to see him. You chose not to do that. Why?

MAHMOODY: Well, I think there’s a big difference between forgiveness and trust. You know, I forgave my father very early on, within the first year or two after our escape. And then every time he would reappear in my life, I would have to work through those emotions and, you know, forgive him all over again. And Mom always made sure that I knew that if I wanted to communicate with my father, it was always my decision. She actually really thought it would be good for me. If nothing else, to learn about my family’s health history (laughter). But I didn’t trust him. I know how dangerous he could be when he was provoked. And I knew he would never get from me what he wanted. And it would be torture for him and it would be dangerous for me and for Mom. So really I thought it would do more harm than good.

MARTIN: Mahtob Mahmoody, her new book is called “My Name Is Mahtob.” Thank you so much for talking with us.

MAHMOODY: Thank you. It was an absolute pleasure.

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Barcelona’s Women Make ‘The Whispering City’ Shine


What do you get when two academics from Frankfurt collaborate on a mystery novel set in mid-20th century Spain?

You might think the answer is “one snoozer of a read,” but you’d be dead wrong (apologies; it is a mystery, though). The Whispering City: Barcelona 1952, written under the pen name Sara Moliner, depicts a time and place so perfectly that the central mystery of who killed socialite Mariona Sobrerroca almost seems beside the point.

Rosa Ribas, who teaches at Frankfurt University and has published six novels in her native Spain, wrote The Whispering City with her former university colleague Sabine Hofmann, a philologist. Early on in the story, it was easy to tell that Ribas was probably responsible for the chapters featuring young journalist Ana Martí Noguer and Hofmann for those focused on Ana’s older cousin Beatriz, a professor whose career has been stalled due to her leftist associations — the alternating chapters have different tones and pacing. However, as the women’s stories intersect and intertwine, the writing grows tighter and more seamless.

Knowing about how the novel reads means something because once you’ve managed to map all of the characters and their complicated, gorgeous Catalan names (“Oleguer Pons,” “Jaime Pla,” and “Conchita Comamala,” to list just a few), you’ll be drawn into their rigid, Generalissimo Francisco Franco-led universe. The mental sepia tones evoked (and used on the cover — good job, Pegasus designers!) aren’t just those of vintage photographs, but those of a city blanched of its color and vivacity by a right-wing regime.

Ana (or Aneta, as Beatriz and other family members call her) works at La Vanguardia, a newspaper valiantly attempting to stay one step within the limits the authorities impose. When her editor Mateo Sanvisens assigns her the task of investigating Sobrerroca’s death, he’s just trying to appease those authorities — the prosecutor hopes an article will reflect well on “the forces of order.”

Unfortunately for him and happily for the reader, Ana smells a rat — literally, at the murder scene, and figuratively, in the person of nasty Inspector Isidro Castro of the Criminal Investigation Brigade. As she realizes that she needs help deciphering a piece of evidence, she happens to attend a family funeral and meet her cousin. The two women join forces and enlist Beatriz’s brother Pablo to help them as well.

However, what gives this historical gem its shine is Ribas and Hofmann’s quiet but insistent focus on the women of Barcelona, of every age and type. One of the most vibrant characters is Encarni (short for “Encarnacion”), Beatriz’s loyal, stubborn housekeeper, who lives in hope of winning an electric refrigerator to replace the apartment’s leaking wooden icebox. Ana and Beatriz’s fervor to find the dead woman’s killer is kept lit by an internal recognition of their cultural fate. When Ana’s boss tells her, at one point during the investigation, “We aren’t in a position to negotiate,” she knows she isn’t: “A woman, and a rookie. As soon as she was married, if she married, her husband could forbid her from working. No, she wasn’t in a position to demand, or expect, anything. So she just asked ‘What now?'”

Fortunately for demanding mystery readers, we can expect another Barcelona 1952 novel sometime in the next year or two. Will it feature Ana and Beatriz again? You’ll have to finish The Whispering City in order to hazard a guess.