Professor Maurice Samuels took the podium and sighed. “As many of you know,” he said, “this has not been an easy summer.” To me, it didn’t look like those in attendance—faculty members, elderly New Haven couples, and a few undergraduates informed of the lecture through the Directed Studies program or the Polish Club—had found their way to the Wall Street auditorium on the heels of controversy. That September afternoon in Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center, Samuels was introducing Princeton history professor Jan Gross, who would give a lecture called “On the Periphery of the Holocaust: Killing and Plunder of Jews by their Neighbors.” Samuels’s words were a reminder of the fierce debate surrounding his program, which made the afternoon’s talk unusual among the enormous number of department-sponsored lectures on Yale’s campus.
“Professors of nineteenth-century literature like myself aren’t usually accustomed to the media spotlight,” Samuels said. “And I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the critics I faced on both sides of the political spectrum, and before I had even done anything.”
What occurred over this past summer was, on its surface, little more than a bureaucratic shift in the Yale academic machine: the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism (YIISA, pronounced “yee-suh”) was shut down and replaced almost immediately by the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism (YPSA, pronounced “yip-suh”). Acronyms change, faculty shift their affiliations with various boards and institutes: so the seasons pass in academia. “YPSA will discuss both contemporary anti-Semitism and historical anti-Semitism,” said Samuels, who had just been appointed director of the fledgling YPSA, in a June 21 statement. “Like many, I am concerned by the recent upsurge in violence against Jews around the world and YPSA will address these concerns. I also believe that we benefit a great deal by placing current events into historical context. YPSA will not refrain from exploring any controversial contemporary topic.”
This carefully worded statement wasn’t enough to stop the public from reacting with ire to the transition. Commentators accused Yale of hushing dialogue on what former YIISA director Charles Small called a “current crisis facing Jews” and focusing instead on the more politically neutral study of historical anti-Semitism. The verb “kill” occurred frequently in columns about YIISA’s closing. In Slate, in the Wall Street Journal, and in many Jewish publications, critics accused Yale of allowing leftist political sympathies to stifle scholarship exposing Muslim anti-Semitism. David Greenberg, writing for Slate in July, posed a charged question: “How did liberalism—historically the philosophy of toleration and equal rights—come to be so squeamish about confronting Jew-hatred in its contemporary forms?”
Jew-hatred. I have a very vivid memory of being six years old and worrying that a neo-Nazi was going to kill my mother. In Illinois, a lawyer named Matthew Hale was preaching white supremacy and one of his followers had shot several Jews walking to their synagogue in Chicago. So, running errands with my mom, I would cross my arms over my chest in a way that would cover up the word “Jewish” on my Jewish Community Center summer camp T-shirt—that way, the white supremacists we encountered wouldn’t know it was us they should be shooting. We never did run into one—or, if we did, my trick worked, and we survived. Around that time, the Ku Klux Klan staged a march in my home city, Pittsburgh. They were met by protests, which my mother and older siblings attended. I was not allowed to go. I was very disappointed at being denied the chance to gawk firsthand at the hooded anti-Semites: an exotic, dying species of bigot which I had so often heard about but never met.
In Hebrew school, and eventually, in public school, I learned about Hitler, Kristallnacht, the Nuremburg Laws, and Auschwitz. At 12, I watched Schindler’s List and visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. What made these history lessons different from others was their ominous refrain: It could happen again. Anti-Semitism was a disease that could appear dormant but break out when least expected, and it was our duty as Jews to be vigilant. Before the Democratic primaries for the 2004 presidential election, a Sunday school teacher told me that he would move to Israel were Joe Lieberman ’64 elected president. “If the terrorists attack again, people will blame the president, and then blame the Jews.”
He left the rest up to my imagination, but by that point I was already growing skeptical of what in my view was a kind of paranoia. For all the Holocaust films I watched, I couldn’t make the connection between Germany in 1938 and the United States in 2004. Lieberman didn’t win the primary, so my teacher’s theory was never tested, but I felt sure anyway that it was unfounded. The Klan never came back to town. I came to Yale, where, just like everywhere, some people have funny opinions about Jews, but where, just like anywhere, I have yet to meet a real anti-Semite. I thought I’d left the fear of my childhood behind for maturity and rationality. And before the events of this summer, I was used to shrugging off criticisms of the American university as a stronghold of leftist politics. So what if my history professor is a self-avowed Marxist? Where else was I going to meet one?
I was nonplussed by accusations this summer that a historically anti-Semitic university was hushing a group of academics simply because their ideas were unpalatable to the University’s liberal supporters. When editorials called for “not another Jewish dime to Yale,” I couldn’t comprehend the uproar. Why was the media so up in arms, especially when another program to study anti-Semitism was going to take YIISA’s place? As I talked to different scholars in the field, I began to think that these visceral reactions to YIISA’s closing reflected the same problematic assumptions that lay underneath the old institute’s research.
The foundation of YIISA’s scholarship was the concept of “New Antisemitism,” which scholars define as the latest incarnation of an ancient prejudice which focuses primarily on demonization of the State of Israel. Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Contemporary Study of Anti-Semitism at Indiana University, Bloomington, traced for me the historical evolution of anti-Semitism, from the religious anti-Semitism that accused Jews of Christ’s death, to the racial anti-Semitism that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, to the modern political anti-Semitism targeting Israel.
“The fact is that we are living in a time when there is much too much hostility to Jews and the Jewish state,” Rosenfeld told me. “And by the latter I don’t mean criticism of Israeli policies that someone might object to on legitimate grounds, but the need to call into question the legitimacy of the state and its future. When [Israel’s critics] use Nazi language to compare the state of Israel to the Third Reich, or South African language to compare the State of Israel to apartheid South Africa, that is something else, and I have no problem calling that something else anti-Semitic.”
Rosenfeld referred me to a working definition of anti-Semitism accepted by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia. The definition, which is used by the Indiana institute and appeared in a 2008 Congressional report on global anti-Semitism, provides examples of anti-Zionist rhetoric which is also anti-Semitic: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination… by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
I can see where Rosenfeld is coming from. What is going on in the Palestinian Territories, for all of its ugliness, is not equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust. Making that comparison is alienating and unproductive. I feel queasy when a friend dismissively asks, “You’re not doing that Birthright thing, are you?” I imagine that many Jews, both my age and older, and of all political persuasions, also suspect that anti-Zionism stems from a particularly sticky form of anti-Semitism. But intellectually, I know the issue is sometimes more complicated. Those entrusted with studying anti-Semitism should think deeply about these complexities. My major issue with scholarship on New Antisemitism, of which YIISA was a prime example, is its insistence that large swathes of potentially useful or revealing ideas are anti-Semitic and therefore deserve no serious discussion in academia.
Take, for example, the South Africa-inspired strategy of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel as a means of ending the occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Critically analyzing the BDS movement instead of dismissing it immediately as anti-Semitic would be alarming to many scholars who subscribe to the doctrine of New Antisemitism, because it compares Israel to a historically racist state. In a 2006 paper for the American Jewish Committee, Alvin Rosenfeld wrote that “progressive” Jews who promote discussion of the BDS movement are “profoundly wrong. Such thinking is also harmful in its likely effects, for in calling into question Israel’s legitimacy and moral standing, it abets the views of those who demand an end to Jewish national existence altogether and lends a coveted aura of Jewish support to the advancement of this eliminationist goal.”
Rosenfeld avoids exploring the premises of the movement he criticizes. Similarly, I wouldn’t have dared to discuss the reasoning behind Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions in my Hebrew school classroom. But Yale is not a Hebrew school classroom. Dogmatic restrictions on studying anti-Semitism put seriously considering the reasons for anti-Zionism on the same moral level as crediting the claims of Holocaust deniers. The truth is that the failure to distinguish between the two also makes me queasy.
Yaman Salahi, a soft-spoken third-year law student, contributed an op-ed to the News last fall criticizing the old YIISA before its closure. Instead of attempting to place anti-Semitism in the context of other forms of hatred, Salahi wrote, speakers at a YIISA conference focused conspicuously on Muslim and Arab anti-Semitism. Scholarship at YIISA, Salahi told me, reflected “a body of knowledge out there which is saying: ‘O.K., who is criticizing Israel right now? Let’s find out how to make them anti-Semitic.” This dogma was what led to the closing of YIISA: its research was sometimes unscholarly, its speakers oftentimes uncritically pro-Israel in their rhetoric, and the institution itself ultimately undesirable at Yale.
Wondering about the possibility of alternatives to New Antisemitism, I got in touch with Jonathan Judaken, an anti-Semitism scholar at Rhodes College in Memphis. In an email, Judaken stressed that the academy should not shy away from politically charged scholarship, as long as the research being produced is innovative. If controversial and opinionated scholars “have insights that challenge conventions not already an important part of the public debate,” he wrote, “then either perspective should be voiced in the academy. There is no better site in our culture for voicing the most difficult or dangerous ideas because the academy actually has tools and criteria for judging such issues.” Difficult and dangerous ideas might include not only questioning specific Israeli policies, but also the fundamental doctrines that underlie them—even if this means doing away with the restrictions of the New Antisemitism school.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that all scholars of anti-Semitism think it is a problem that a small American child fears for his Jewish life at the end of the twentieth century, whether they call the problem New Antisemitism or something else. But the greatest challenge of researching anti-Semitism is not labeling and cataloguing offensive acts but asking the essential question: “Why does man hate?” It is a frustrating question, partly because it has no definitive or universal answer, and partly because it’s hard to see how any answer could stop Iranian newspapers from publishing hateful cartoons or untangle the knot in my stomach I feel when my friends criticize Israel. Academic research, no matter how contrarian, can feel inadequate when there are so many problems in the world that require tangible solutions. It can be frustrating to hear a professor such as Samuels suggest that scholarship must take care not to cross the line into activism. “Scholars can help define anti-Semitism; they can map its contours; they can explain its manifestations,” Samuels, YPSA’s embattled figurehead, told me. “This is not to say that scholars cannot have opinions, or take sides on issues. But the work of the scholar is different from the work of the advocate.”
Both Rosenfeld and Judaken will be coming to Yale this year to speak at YPSA events. Rosenfeld’s lecture is titled “Sources of the ‘New Antisemitism’” and Judaken will talk about “Theorizing the Study of Antisemitism.” No theory about anti-Semitism or the state of Israel will ever be politically neutral, but from the list of speakers and their lecture topics, I can surmise that the range of views expressed at YPSA will be wider than that of its predecessor, and I feel that YPSA is in good hands. My hope that its scholars do take an activist stance, though not in support of or opposition to any nation-state. Instead, I’d like to see YPSA advocate and be a model for a more open and heterogenous academy, where scholars argue new ideas in front of a critical audience instead of preaching established theories to a complacent choir. As easy at it is to ignore Yale’s seemingly esoteric academic turmoil, as students we are right in the middle of it. It’s hard to say which ideas will make their way out of the ivory tower, where we are safe to appreciate their complexity, but we can’t wait until they enter the world of politics and sound bites to start paying attention.
It was the end of the 1970s in Washington, D.C., and nobody was buying Laine Harris’s falafel. The competition was fierce. “I would line up with all the other vendors on the corner—rug dealers, hash-pipe carts, hot-dog carts,” he recalls. When the boredom became unbearable, Harris started to perform. Raised in Alabama, Harris had learned Balkan folk-dancing in college, and at his cart he chose a Macedonian dance involving fancy footwork and towel-twirling. Later, he challenged himself further by chanting rhymes in time to the music playing in his head: “Hot falafel, spinach pie, baklava, give ‘em a try. It’s a tasty treat, it’s got no meat, so come on by, give it a try. Hot falafel and spinach pie.” People took notice of him and started flocking to his cart. Soon, he said, “I was busy enough that I wasn’t dancing and singing anymore.”
Laine Harris and his brother Drew have since made their way to New Haven, where they’re still dancing, but no longer sell falafel. They lead a new Balkan jam the first Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at Café Nine on State Street.
“For those of you trying to have an intimate conversation: Well, sorry,” Drew announced after they finished a song on October 3. Half an hour into the jam’s third session, the patrons weren’t paying much attention to the music. They sat at the back, drinking beer, eating popcorn from red plastic baskets, and chatting. Most of the applause came from the musicians themselves.
The seven instrumentalists sitting or standing in the lee of the stage launched into a lively dance tune, the melody carried by Drew and another saxophonist, who were playing in the aggressively nasal style favored in the Balkans. On the rotary trumpet, which looks vaguely like a horn from the Civil War, Laine took care of the harmony, keeping pace with the saxes through each twist and turn. A tuba player filled out the lower register. And beneath it all ran a wild river of percussion, from the water-like sounds of two darbukas—a kind of hand drum played all over the Near East—to the cascading booms and cracks of the tapan, a Balkan double-headed bass drum strapped to the front of the body and played with a mallet-like stick in one hand and a switch in the other.
The song they played had once been performed at a traditional gypsy circumcision party near Ohrid, Macedonia. It came to the United States on a cassette in the early 1980s, in the hands of a musician who played with the Harris brothers in the legendary New York Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste. Laine Harris still plays with Zlatne Uste, although Drew left the group to spend more time with his family and to focus on his job teaching entrepreneurship and business strategy at Central Connecticut State University. Laine works at a yoga center in Hamden.
What first interested the Harris brothers in Balkan music was girls. “As a shy guy looking for a date, I couldn’t just walk across the room to talk to someone,” Laine says. Both brothers had taken some ballet classes, and they figured that, as straight guys who could dance, they might get lucky. So they began to attend folk-dance events at their college in Pensacola, Florida. “We got invited to parties, and we were pleased with our results,” Drew told me with a laugh. Years later, Laine would meet his wife, Jennifer Brosious, in a professional Balkan dance troupe in California.
But while Laine and Drew Harris were date-hunting, they got seriously hooked on the odd meters and modes of Balkan music. Laine remembers hearing a recording by Boris Karlov—a man referred to as “the legend of the Bulgarian accordion”—and thinking that “this was not an accordion, this was a steam train.” Soon, they had put together a band. Their first paying gig was a mock Serbian wedding in Texas. “It was a three-day weekend, the appropriate amount of time for a wedding,” Laine said.
All this was happening in what Drew calls “the golden era of folk-dancing in America,” which began around the late ’60s and was winding down by 1980. In that period, a folk dance with seventy people was considered small. Hundreds of enthusiasts would turn out at get-togethers all over North America. Dancers who lived in places where there wasn’t much of a scene would drive hundreds of miles for a weekend workshop. The Harris brothers suggest that the fascination with Balkan dance in particular came from an interest in cultures oppressed by Soviet rule and a wish to express solidarity with the people who lived under it.
In those years, Drew and Laine Harris moved from job to job. Drew worked as a longshoreman, a construction worker, and a windshield repairman, while Laine, besides being a falafel salesman and folk-dancer, was a fireman, a cabinet-maker, and a flight instructor. Since then, both brothers have settled in the New Haven area, and the golden age of folk-dancing has come and gone.
But Balkan music is now becoming increasingly hip in cities like New York and Montreal. On September 24, I heard Laine Harris playing with Zlatne Uste in the East Village. Since its formation at a week-long Balkan music workshop in Ashoken, New York, almost three decades ago, Zlatne Uste, which Drew describes as “a classic, Serbian-style brass band,” has been at the centre of the Balkan music community in New York City. At their show in September, I found myself dancing in a sea of Brooklyn hipsters as well as ladies who could’ve been my grandmother. Traditional circle dances in 11/8 time, pogoing, free-style grooving—we did it all.
New Haven has never had as vibrant a scene as New York, but the Elm City did have its own folk-dance boom in the ’70s. Every week, Hendrie Hall was packed, the floor shivering in time to Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek rhythms. Now the Harris brothers are trying to re-establish a community around Balkan music and dance. “I’m hoping to tap into the youthful, inquisitive social ferment I associate with colleges and universities,” Laine said.
Later in the evening on October 3, the Harris brothers’ hope was looking less far-fetched than it had been earlier. Jennifer Brosious, Laine’s wife, and Bonnie Kaplan, a lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine, two women who have been folk-dancing for decades, joined hands and began to weave a Serbian line dance between the tables at Café Nine. I watched Kaplan’s feet—I have never seen sneakers moving so gracefully.
Soon, during a fast dance in 7/8 time called a rachenitsa, some of the patrons who had looked apathetic earlier got up to join. Brosious and Kaplan showed them when to move their feet and how to wave their hands in front of them as if they were at a Bulgarian wedding. As their stiletto heels fell into rhythm, the women began to whoop and yell with excitement. Drew took a wild solo. Afterwards, I asked Demo Rest, a Café Nine regular, whether he knew about Balkan music before that night. “This is the first night of my Balkanization,” he replied. From his grin, it looked like it might not be the last.
In the late afternoon on Friday, October 7, I relinquished my watch to a jeweler on Chapel Street.
I can’t tell you the precise time this occurred.
My watch had been ailing for days, maybe the better part of two weeks. First, it was five minutes behind. Then ten. Then forty. Then it stopped. Then it would tick again and I’d wind the dial so the second and minute hands rested at the correct distance from each other. Then it would stop, again, but I’d wear it anyway, hoping that it would revive during the day when it got some sunlight and some fresh air and that I’d look down when I needed it and the hands would be moving again like they were supposed to.
I’d sit down to dinner in the dining hall and find myself telling everyone about my watch.
“So, how’s your week?” asked my long-unseen friends. “How have you been?”
My fork would clink against my plate. I would dig into roasted cauliflower or tofu fried rice or pan-seared salmon with mango salsa.
“Good! Good. I need to get my watch fixed, though. Every time I look down it’s more behind.”
“Oh, yeah—hm. That must be so annoying!”
You know the phrase, “You are what you eat?” Rewrite. You are what you say while you eat. My watch was the bland, vicissitudinous spoonful I fed my suitemates.
On Tuesday, October 11, after my film lecture, I returned to the jeweler on Chapel Street. The lecture ends at 2:20 p.m. It couldn’t have been long after that.
The woman behind the counter asked for the ticket they’d given me on my first visit. I couldn’t find it in my backpack, and all seemed lost.
But she said I could give her my name, which I eagerly did. She disappeared into the back, reemerged with a crisp, yellow manila envelope, and asked to see my identification. Satisfied, she unveiled my watch, the band neatly coiled. It was pulsing gorgeously.
I was reunited with my watch at 2:32 p.m., according to the receipt.
“Would you like to wear it out?” the woman asked.
“Oh yes, I would,” I said.
Is knowing the time all the time so important? If it is, why did days grow into the better part of two weeks before I relinquished a time-teller that couldn’t tell me the time? I mean before I got it diagnosed. Cured. Fixed?
My watch’s constant tempo gives regular rhythm to inconstant days. Its band wraps around my wrist and beats with a pulse where I can feel my own. It’s the living, moving machine I choose to wear with me from day’s start to day’s end.
Maybe it took me so long to part with my watch because it’s really a small part of me. Maybe I had known all along that I would miss it. I had been a negligent owner, really. Maybe that’s why it was the conversational morsel I gave others to digest.
Or maybe I need to stop worrying about my watch and find something else to talk about.
Bill Brown’s third-grade teacher once told him that if he didn’t learn to spell, he would be a truck driver. A few years later, another teacher threatened Brown with digging ditches for the rest of his life. Brown is now the director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop. He speaks clearly and deliberately, and wears spectacles and an eye-patch over his right eye. “Well,” he smiles, “I own a truck, so I guess I am a truck driver. And I’ve given Yale volunteers ditches to dig before, and they don’t know what to do. A good ditch digger has a way of reading the soil, a kind of Zen focus on where to move rocks with a speed that takes your breath away.”
When Brown worked as a school social worker, he was often sent 9-year-old boys whose teachers wanted them “tamed.” But to Brown, their misbehavior was not the real problem. “Being the smartest kid in the school is the problem,” he says. “This is a fairly common paradox, where natural mechanics are told that they’re losers. They’ve never been told, ‘You are magical at this.’”
Through his work at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, Brown tries to reach those with a different kind of intelligence, “people who see big pictures so intricate that English is inadequate” to describe them. Over the course of our conversation, he talks about accountants, religious mystics,dyslexics, and origami artists, saying, “They’re fascinated by intricacies, while other kids are caught up in the thematic lines of the Smurfs.” According to him, these are students who can’t sit still in a classroom, but become utterly absorbed by imagining esoteric mechanical processes.
Various treasures rest here and there in the museum staff offices: a set of wooden elephants, a metal acrobat held up by spindly limbs, other personal tokens from beloved students. There’s a large wooden worktable at the back and rows of plastic tubs filled with model boats and houses. They’re products of the museum’s workshop, which I visited on a Sunday in September when it was humming with activity. In uniforms of red t-shirts and safety goggles, high school-age apprentices sand surfaces and bore holes, cutting once and measuring twice. Amidst the sawdust and clamor, their seriousness of purpose and brisk competence, there are snatches of color: the red of their shirts, the aqua of a boy’s dyed hair, the wooden cat dolls being painted by a birthday party of younger children. The apprentices’ productivity is totally unlike the way I work as a Yale student. They are busy without being harried, focusing on their tasks with attention that isn’t scattered by multitasking. Everyone is utterly absorbed in their given duty.
The museum staff runs this apprenticeship program for students ages 13 through 18 in addition to offering workshops and visiting classrooms in schools. The apprentices, nicknamed “redshirts,” work at the museum for approximately five hours a week during the school year, and longer over summer vacations. In exchange, they receive a stipend and considerable training, and become involved in all of the museum’s operations. They master tools, assemble kits, and conduct workshops with visitors, eventually designing their own projects to add to the museum’s collection.
Brown and the museum staff constantly emphasize the importance of experimentation. They’re believers in the serious business of tinkering, and in the generative qualities of what most would call play. When they visit a classroom, it becomes a much more open space. However briefly, the work can present students with new and tangible challenges—challenges that occur in real time, with specific shapes and demonstrable consequences. This kind of challenge can only arise while working with your hands towards a particular goal: turning a wheel, igniting a spark.
The Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop collects “experiments.” Established in 1979, the red brick building on Whitney Avenue is located on the site of Eli Whitney’s historic factory in Hamden, which introduced mass production to the United States. Whitney was the first to give each worker a specific task in the manufacturing process. The image of his factory is well-known from history textbooks containing William Gyles Munson’s idyllic painting “The Eli Whitney Gun Factory.”
The museum outside the workshop is quieter. Here, exhibits are sectioned off in their own domain. A glassed-in model of the old factory stands silent. Waiting to be illuminated by the push of a button, miniature workers are frozen in their labor, each bending to his assigned task, forever striving towards their boss’s dream of uniform production.
The apprentices in the museum’s workshop, by contrast, are in constant motion. As Brown leads me on a tour he calls our “walking interview,” some of the teenagers stop us to ask him questions. They politely ignore my blank stares that betray an inability to visualize the dimensions they discuss, the screws and braces they name, and the difficulties they’ve encountered in building. They have developed a friendly but impenetrable jargon precisely for this space.
“I’ll be okay if we don’t finish the balancing circuses today,” Brown tells one student. “But we should finish the boats.”
Brown referred to two of the workshop’s projects. Where the workers of the old factory once built guns, the seven full-time staff and seventy-five apprentices now manufacture kits containing the materials for models and science experiments—seventy thousand a year. These kits are designed to teach science concepts to younger students, ranging from kindergarten to the eighth grade. The kits and the museum’s accompanying educational programs bring in approximately one million dollars annually, comprising 72 percent of the organization’s revenue. Other sources of income include the field trips that educators from the museum make to public and private schools in Connecticut and New York to conduct workshops in classrooms. The museumalso earns money from visitors, usually families with young children, who assemble projects together on weekends or come in for birthday parties. Many attend the special programs held during school vacations, weaving scarves over winter break and designing tests for superhero-themed crash dummies over the summer. The rest of the museum’s revenue comes from First Factory products, projects sold wholesale to summer camps or local teachers.
These projects are the museum’s educational mission in a box. Designed to fulfill Connecticut standards for science curricula from kindergarten through eighth grade, each is intended to be easily completed in a classroom and to promote engagement with concepts through physical contact with materials. To learn about electricity, students build a basic circuit and battery pack, with the goal of lighting up a model house. To learn about energy and inertia, they build cars out of wooden wheels, rubber bands, and mousetraps.
Conducting these programs, the staff is dismayed by what they see as a lack of creative drive in today’s students. According to Sally Hill, the museum’s associate director and principal designer, teaching to the test has fostered a generation that constantly asks, “Is this okay? Is this right?”, often to the exclusion of more pressing questions. “They’re driven by a culture of ‘get it right, get an A,’ ” she says. “These are kids who take no risks.” These days, the museum’s educators no longer show “unelaborated models,” as Hill calls them, to classes. All examples are decorated, messed-with, or otherwise personalized beforehand. Unless they’re given this tacit license to explore, kids will churn out replicas utterly indistinguishable from the model, following directions and learning little.
Brown argues that it is more important today than ever before that students learn through mentorship. He was profoundly influenced by his mentor, Normand Method, a cabinet-maker and teacher who Brown says would try anything. Method instilled in Brown a passionate belief in learning’s “liberating function,” freeing doctors to become woodworkers, and making woodworkers realize that they can attend MIT seminars on electricity.
However, there is a dearth of mentorship in American classrooms today, Brown says, due in part to two things: schools which are pressed to meet state and federal benchmarks, and the monopoly that universities have on higher education. Universities dominate most young people’s visions of their future advancement even if they do not learn well in a traditional classroom. As a result, many have forgotten to stop to ask what they should be.
“The university system is not much different from the housing bubble.” Brown claims. “It’s a great mechanism to make people borrow money.” Though higher education is often valuable, he says, “It’s a suspicious product for the amount of money.”
Sara Thomas, an educator at the museum, agrees. An art teacher at a magnet school for eight years, she grew frustrated with a system that conveyed her students to colleges that they couldn’t afford. Wishing to be able simply to teach kids skills again, she joined the staff of the museum several weeks ago.
Brown and Thomas insist that there must be some way for young people to seek out meaningful learning experiences after high school, outside of two and four-year colleges: journeymen’s programs, for instance, or engineering internships. In our first email exchange, Brown asked, “You don’t get into Yale without a bookish predisposition. But what if you had wanted to be an electrician? Are there schools for deep thinking electricians? Are there schools that offer electricians a cultural/social experience equivalent to that part of your experience [at] Yale?” Is it possible, he asks, to have an Ivy League for auto mechanics?
This unique educational perspective is refreshing, but also somewhat alienating to visitors. The Eli Whitney staff members often refer to people as “outsiders,” though their tone issurprisingly free of judgment or suspicion. The usage seems protectively insular, as though the staff members feel they must defend their pursuit of an educational model that has been declared obsolete in America. Hill, catching herself using the word, explains, “It’s hard. We’re not typical in any way.” When pressed as to why, Karen Lenahan, the museum manager laughs, “Have you seen our office?”
According to Lenahan, the museum has adjusted to the recession by working harder to book programs at schools, though their contribution lines have remained steady. Such community loyalty has sustained this small organization despite a humble and unfashionable mission, and will continue to do so during times of fiscal hardship.
In fact, while businesses and nonprofits alike are trimming down wherever possible, the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop has plans for growth. They have begun to raise funds for a $200,000 project: a 1,000-square foot expansion of the Design and Development Workshop to house a new computer numerical control robot alongside the one that was purchased three years ago. The CNC can scan a design to fabricate three-dimensional objects. The museum staff usually refers to it as “the Robot” in their pamphlets, or, conversationally, as “the Machine.”
Hill jokes that the museum divides its history into two periods, pre-Machine and post-Machine. Where an apprentice would once be tasked with drilling holes into hundreds of strips of wood, that job is now dispatched by the Machine with greater precision and speed. As a result, staple projects have been sharpened, made more beautiful, their constituent parts now fitting together more smoothly. The Machine also can produce prototypes practically on demand, enabling iterations of new projects that can be refined more quickly. More importantly, Hill says, it has expanded their sense of what is possible for their designs.
The specter of automation does not worry Hill. The Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop is far from eliminating the human element from their work, and even farther from devaluing the process of learning by doing. In order to design well with the robot, you first have to play with materials by hand. As apprentices advance, delegating tedious tasks can only improve their educational experience, allowing them to invest more time and energy in design and invention. To that effect, the museum has created the Norm Method Design Internship, a semester-long workshop intended to help the apprentices build a portfolio, a single concession to a world that demands résumés.
When Eli Whitney once said that his factory was producing armorers as well as arms, he meant it regretfully. His goal had been to phase out skilled labor in favor of simple, reproducible motions not subject to human variance. This industrial ethos, which used workers as interchangeable and replaceable bits, would not be fully developed until over a century after he established his firearms factory in 1798. Today, the museum that bears his name takes as its mission the continuation of the historical moment that Whitney was impatient to move beyond: when the energy of innovation and the zest of enterprise were balanced by production on a human scale, when there was dignity and craft in manufacturing. “We are not naïve,” reads the museum’s fund-raising literature. “We don’t forsee, or need, the steadily growing markets we enjoyed for the last ten years…We want to save—as only a computer can—the intricate and nuanced dimensions of our designs.”
Construction on the new building has already begun; as of mid-September, a space had been cleared, and in the intervening week between my visits, the first framed wall was erected. Gleaming with the paleness of new wood, the site resembled Munson’s landscape more closely today than ever before.
Education has long been recognized as the great equalizer in America. The U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights believe that providing all students with an educational environment free from discrimination is extremely important.
Thus began the letter sent to colleges around the country on April 4 by the Office for Civil Rights of the federal Department of Education. Nineteen pages long, it expressed concerns about national statistics on sexual violence in institutions of higher education and outlined the responsibilities of these colleges and universities, under Title IX of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to take “immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.”
In recent years, the Office for Civil Rights has issued similar advisory letters regarding bullying, gender discrimination in collegiate sports, and single-sex education. But Jim Bradshaw, a Department of Education spokesman, noted that this was the first time an administration has ever issued guidance specifically dealing with sexual violence. April’s letter is also unprecedented in mandating specific policies. “Dear Colleague” letters in the past have left details to the discretion of individual schools. But this time, the Office for Civil Rights is requiring that administrators include specific language in student codes of conduct. The letter also stipulates what some worry is a low standard of evidence that could lead to wrongful punishments in sexual assault cases. Universities must comply or else they could face litigation or lose federal funding.
The letter covers everything from disciplinary procedures to freshman education programs, emphasizing respect and protection for victims and transparency on policies and programs. The obligations discussed in the letter also apply to secondary schools.
The Dear Colleague letter is not surprising in light of the many cases of collegiate sexual violence that have made the news in recent years. At Arizona State University, a rape survivor successfully sued the school under Title IX in 2006 for allowing her attacker, a football player, to return to campus after dismissing him for prior sexual misconduct. A woman at the University of Colorado won a Title IX suit in 2007, receiving a $2.5 million settlement from the university after proving it had failed to address a hostile sexual environment that led to her rape. Eastern Michigan University was fined $357,000 by the Office for Civil Rights in 2006 for failing to notify students of an on-campus rape and murder. These are just a few examples.
“It was clear from OCR’s work investigating individual complaints, conducting compliance reviews, and responding to technical assistance requests that universities needed assistance in determining how Title IX applies in cases of alleged sexual violence,” Bradshaw explained.
The Office for Civil Rights is hoping the Dear Colleague letter will clarify a university’s responsibilities when it comes to sexual violence and that these recommendations and guidelines will help to create campuses in which sexual assault occurs less frequently, or when it does occur, to assure that the victims can find emotional and disciplinary resolution.
When asked if schools are ever uncooperative, Bradshaw said, “It’s rare.” He also explained that the first action the Office for Civil Rights initiates with a non-complying institution is to negotiate a resolution agreement with the university to bring it into compliance. He said that in the vast majority of cases, this is sufficient action.
Pomona College in Claremont, California, is one school that has responded swiftly to the letter. The school revised its code of conduct in September, bypassing the student comment period typically required for such changes because the change was federally mandated. Instead, the school held a two-week period for student discussion after enacting the new policy.
Zach Schudson, a junior at Pomona and a member of the student group Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault, said that he appreciated how conscientious the administration at Pomona has been in engaging with issues of sexual violence. “People like to pretend that this is a wonderful place, but it’s not perfect,” Schudson said. His classmates assume “that people who come to this school all come from white, middle-class backgrounds with liberal parents, and that those who haven’t experienced hardship in life, won’t experience it, and won’t cause it,” he added. “That is a very dangerous assumption.”
Pomona already had a number of policies in place intended to prevent sexual assault and to support and protect victims before receiving April’s letter. These included providing private and group counseling for survivors, in addition to the support Schudson’s group offers. Pomona also allows a victim to request special academic considerations, such as dropping a class without penalty after the regular deadline if the assailant is also in the class. The university recently added a session to its freshman orientation program for a more engaging and thorough discussion of sexual assault.
One of the more important new policies adopted this fall, however, met with criticism from some Pomona students. The Dear Colleague letter requires that schools use a “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof in grievance procedures for sexual harassment or assault. If sexual harassment or violence is more likely than not to have occurred, then a student can be punished. The standard is now part of Pomona’s student disciplinary code.
The legal system employs various standards of evidence for different levels of litigation. In criminal trials, the standard is highest, requiring the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But in most civil suits, as well as in some criminal proceedings such as parole violation hearings, the plaintiff must only provide a preponderance of evidence. This is also the standard of proof used in grand jury proceedings. In a 2002 National Institute of Justice study, approximately 80 percent of the schools that identified a particular evidentiary standard for sexual-assault disciplinary proceedings already employed the preponderance of evidence standard.
Despite the standard’s prevalence, national organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have criticized it. Both groups have sent letters to Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali at the Office for Civil Rights questioning whether the lower standard still complies with the basic principles of the judicial process and expressing reservations about the severity of consequences for the falsely convicted, comparing the standard to a “tie goes to the runner” mentality.
The editorial board of The Student Life, the weekly newspaper at Pomona, also objected to the new standard, claiming that it discounted “the value of a legal right that lies at the heart of our democratic process.”
A few days later, The Student Life published a response from Schudson. He argued that the preponderance of evidence standard of proof is an appropriate response to this unique type of case because sexual assault does not always result in forensic evidence.
Schudson cited data from a 2010 study by David Lisak, a psychologist at Northeastern University, and several of his colleagues, which estimated the rate of false rape allegations over one ten-year period at just under 6 percent. As Schudson wrote, “the presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ that protects alleged perpetrators mutates into a presumption of ‘lying until proven truthful’ for survivors.”
Schudson’s response is compelling. Just as much as alleged perpetrators of sexual assault deserve to be presumed innocent, victims of assault should not be presumed liars. Preponderance of evidence is a good compromise between both parties in cases such as these, where hard evidence is often difficult to find. Many criticisms of the standard may ultimately stem from an assumption that women who accuse men of rape are often untruthful, or from a mistaken belief that sexual assault is uncommon.
The University of Maryland is also working to include the preponderance of evidence in its code of conduct in response to the letter from the Office of Civil Rights. Currently, the university’s published Code of Student Conduct states that in all cases brought before the grievance boards, the “burden of proof shall be upon the complainant, who must establish the guilt of the respondent by clear and convincing evidence.” Diane Krejsa, senior university counsel at Maryland, explained that a separate committee has also been meeting every other month since the summer to review any needed changes and updates to the university’s disciplinary procedures for sexual assault cases.
But in Maryland’s case, students had also been fighting administrators for greater transparency. For three years, a group of persistent journalism students and one professor worked on a project to track cases of sexual assault at their university. Just weeks before the Dear Colleague letter was sent to campus officials, the students obtained a list from Maryland’s Office of Student Conduct of all the students in the past decade found guilty of sexual assault. Sue Kopen Katcef, a lecturer in the Merrill College of Journalism at Maryland, led the students in investigating sexual violence there. When she first presented the idea to her journalism class three years ago, she said, “[My students] looked at me like I was crazy.” But by the end of the semester, both men and women in the class had committed themselves to the project, upset by the predatory behavior of some of their fellow students. The students that year produced an award-winning radio program based on their research.
Katcef didn’t stop there. Semester by semester, she helped her students follow the laws all the way to the top of the state of Maryland’s legal system. The university at first refused to release the names of guilty students by claiming they were protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Sexual violence “is not something that’s unique to the university of Maryland,” Katcef said. “This is a problem that is pervasive on college campuses, private and public, across the country.”
In 2000, the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics collaborated on a comprehensive survey of college women about sexual assault. Their data demonstrate that in fact nearly 5 percent of college women are victimized (experience completed or attempted assault) each calendar year. The conclusions of this Department of Justice survey, when applied to a campus of over 26,000 undergraduates, half of them female, indicate that an average of 675 women at Maryland may be victims of attempted or completed sexual assault each year.
When Katcef’s students finally obtained the list of students who had been disciplined by Maryland’s grievance boards in the last ten years, there were only four names. If sexual violence is a huge problem, why don’t more cases come before university disciplinary committees?
Extrapolating their data to a four-year college career, the Justice Department researchers observed that the statistic could climb to 20 percent of the collegiate female population. (A 1985 survey of over 3,500 college women about sexual violence published in Ms. Magazine also found that one in five women were victims of sexual violence. While the statistic was widely accepted and cited throughout the 1990s, there were problems with the survey’s methods, making it easy for skeptics to dismiss its findings. This more rigorous federal survey unfortunately confirmed the older estimate.)
The University of Maryland’s list reveals the problem in how victims of sexual violence understand their experiences and whether they choose to report them. “Many women do not characterize their sexual victimizations as a crime for a number of reasons (such as embarrassment, not clearly understanding the legal definition of rape, or not wanting to define someone they know who victimized them as a rapist) or because they blame themselves for their sexual assault,” noted writers of the Department of Justice. In addition to making procedural modifications, universities must improve education about sexual violence.
Yale University’s code of conduct already uses the preponderance of evidence standard. “I think the evidential standard is definitely more applicable than clear and convincing evidence because establishing guilt or innocence is already so difficult” in cases of sexual violence, Assistant Dean Jill Cutler said. Cutler sat through many sexual misconduct proceedings during her fourteen years as the secretary of the Yale’s Executive Committee. The cases are complicated by factors like alcohol, lack of witnesses, and the fact that most cases of sexual assault at Yale involve acquaintances.
During the past year, though, Yale has reassessed its sexual misconduct policies anyway. Among other changes, Yale now uses stronger, more specific language in the student code of conduct explaining what qualifies as sexual harassment and assault. The grievance procedure for victims of sexual violence—in the past an opaque and confusing process—has been unified into a single University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.
That committee will also appoint a fact-finder, someone unaffiliated with the university, for each case. “I think it will help greatly to have independent outside investigators who can spring into action and collect the facts as soon as a case is brought to light, and who will have the time and energy to interview all the people whose observations might be relevant to the chain of events,” said Cutler. It is important that the investigators are not professors, who often are too busy to gather all the information a committee needs to make a decision.
Proper investigation of sexual violence cases was mentioned briefly in the Dear Colleague letter, but the Office of Civil Rights focused on the speed of investigations (so that victims are not dragged through months and months of hearings) rather than on the individuals doing the investigating.
Though some have criticized Yale’s efforts to change how the University handles sexual misconduct as ponderous and ineffectual, the administration’s attitude contrasts with what Schudson calls an inadequate response from Pomona College officials.
The administration there is making changes only because the Office of Civil Rights has required it to do so, according to Schudson. The letter “has regulatory authority, so that’s what’s important to us,” Miriam Feldblum, a dean at Pomona, told The Student Life. As far as Schudson is concerned, it was like saying, “Because we had to.”
The administration didn’t hesitate to make changes that will help victims of sexual violence find justice. However, if Schudson is correct, Feldblum’s attitude also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the depth of the problem and the need for administrators to cooperate in addressing it.
The Dear Colleague letter began with the premise that changes had to be made so that education could remain the great American equalizer. The threat of terminating federal funds is an effective one, as Pomona’s case shows. But for universities to alter a campus culture that fosters—or at least turns a blind eye to—victim blaming and other dangerous assumptions, they will need to do much more than just follow the guidelines in the Office of Civil Rights letter. The federal bureaucracy has nothing to do with some of the best examples of effective action to combat sexual violence, from Schudson’s and his friends’ determined advocacy at Pomona to Katcef’s sleuthing. Instead, students and administrators alike must take a long look at their own campuses’ specific failings and find ways of creating a safer, saner sexual culture.
Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state legislature overhauled Connecticut’s energy bureaucracy over the summer. They merged the regulatory body for utilities and the old environmental commission to create a new agency, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The department is headed by Daniel Esty, a Yale University professor on leave, and is sometimes known by its profound acronym, DEEP. Malloy also established the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, which calls itself “the nation’s first ‘green bank.’ ” As a “quasi-public” agency, it has broad legal power not only to award grants, but also to make various types of loans and to seek investment, like a private bank.
The aim is to leverage public and private money to help scientists and entrepreneurs in Connecticut develop renewable, efficient sources of energy, and to encourage the commercialization and adoption of new technologies. “Financial institutions across the country have been in touch with us to try to think through opportunities and partnerships. Attracting private capital is the main goal here,” said David Goldberg, the green bank’s director of government and external affairs.
It may be too early to tell what the new authority’s impact will be, but if Goldberg and his colleagues are successful, the Leeway-Putnam building on Putnam Avenue in Hamden may offer a glimpse of what’s to come.
The supportive housing facility for patients with HIV and AIDS is a stucco-sided box with bright blue metal roofing on the gables and awnings over the entry. It sits across from a vacant lot and next to a warehouse and garage where grass sprouts through cracks in the asphalt of the parking lot. Inside, a vent near the floor was quiet on a rainy September afternoon. A visitor wouldn’t give the dusty grate a second glance.
Yet energy-efficiency technology doesn’t always look fancy and futuristic. When the building’s vents are whirring, its heating and cooling system draws energy from the ground through many shallow, water-filled wells several feet deep. The system is called a geothermal or ground-source heat pump, and it’s designed to meet the building’s heating and cooling needs more efficiently. Geothermal pumps can save more energy per dollar than solar panels, and they’ve been around for decades. Reducing fossil fuel consumption doesn’t have to mean cold fusion generators, acres of solar panels gleaming in the sunrise, or faster-than-light travel.
Leeway, the New Haven support organization for patients with HIV and AIDS, opened the 17-unit facility in Hamden last fall. The system was installed with a $71,000 grant from the Finance and Investment Authority’s predecessor, which did not offer loans to the extent that the new authority will.
“It’s had its quirks just like any other system, but I think it’s been working very well,” said Rick Ross, who oversaw the project for Leeway. “That, along with the insulation that was installed there, makes it a very energy-efficient building.”
Mark Simon, a founding partner of Centerbrook Architects in Centerbrook, Connecticut, is especially familiar with geothermal systems. He helped draw the plans for Kroon Hall, Yale University’s $33.5 million experiment in efficient building design, which uses four 1,500-foot wells for geothermal heating and cooling. When I spoke to Simon, he was preparing to catch a flight to Ohio, where his firm is designing a system for a boys’ high school in a Cleveland suburb.
Soil and water belowground are insulated from seasonal temperature changes, and the pumps use the planet’s body heat to keep buildings comfortable inside. Ten feet down, the temperature in most places stays around fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit all year, Simon said. In the winter, the warmth that the soil and groundwater absorbed during the summer can heat buildings. In the summer, water that is the temperature of the soil can be used to cool them down.
Geothermal heat pumps are inexpensive and don’t require sophisticated technology. They will typically pay for the cost of installation in five to ten years. Still, a geothermal heat pump can be very difficult to design. “There are a lot of tricky technical issues that need attention. Some things aren’t going to work the way you want them to,” Simon said.
The engineer designing a heat pump needs to consider what’s in the soil—mud, sand, rock, gravel, clay—as well as how much groundwater there is and whether changing seasons will affect the water table. The amount of heat the ground can absorb depends on all of these factors. The climate of the region matters as well, since when a geothermal pump heats groundwater and soil, they stay warm for a surprisingly long time. In a climate with hot summers and mild winters, Simon explained, “the ground over time will slowly get warmer and warmer.” Yet the pumps work well in a state such as Connecticut, with warm summers and cold winters.
Funding geothermal heating and cooling systems is only a small part of the new green bank’s mission. The agency also plans to add enough solar panels to Connecticut homes to generate thirty megawatts of electricity, and Goldberg said the agency’s staff expects to exceed that goal. Another ambition is producing methane, which can power electrical generators, by feeding agricultural waste to bacteria on a large scale.
Goldberg emphasized, though, that choosing particular technologies or industries to support isn’t his agency’s goal. It’s a familiar criticism of government efforts to support entrepreneurship. “The state didn’t pick a winning technology,” he said. “We’re going to say, ‘We got a pot of money, we’re looking for the lowest cost, ultimately, to the ratepayer.’ ” If the Leeway-Putnam building is any indication, the cheapest, most effective technologies in Connecticut’s clean-energy future may be old ones that look surprisingly familiar.
John Kebabian’s desk is in the corner of the storefront, almost hidden behind a pile of small rugs. It lacks modern technological gadgets, including a computer. Here, John neatly records transactions by hand on spreadsheets collected in a black binder. The whole interior of the store has an old quality about it, reminding customers that Kebabian’s Oriental Rugs has been in John’s family for more than a century. It is clean, with hardwood floors, solid white walls, and a high ceiling adorned with a pattern of white tiles that are elegant in their simplicity. The plainness emphasizes the vibrant colors and chaotic patterns of the rugs.
In the back of the store sits a brand new 21-inch Apple desktop computer, which John’s wife Peggy says they invested in so their “Web site guy” can help them create and edit video blog posts. Every week, Peggy posts a short video called “Rug of the Week” to Kebabian’s Facebook page in which John tells the story of the chosen rug. She herself is also updating the store’s Web site. The new site’s launch date is November 1, and Peggy excitedly tells me it will be totally redesigned, complete with a virtual tour of the store.
The store’s red bricks stand out among the pale pink and gray and white of its neighbors on Elm Street, drawing attention to bold white paint on the side wall that proudly proclaims Kebabian’s, the name of John’s great-great uncle, also called John. The first John Kebabian was an Armenian who had attended Robert College, a school for expatriate children in the former Constantinople. He arrived in New Haven in 1882 as a Yale College student. In those days, Yale did not offer financial aid, so he sold oriental rugs to pay for his tuition.
The current John Kebabian took over the store in 1992, abandoning his molecular biophysics and biochemistry degree at Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences when his father retired due to illness. He had planned to work as a medical researcher and teacher before taking over the business. Now he purchases high-quality hand-woven rugs from Central Asian countries, including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Tibet.
John has continued the store’s tradition of repairing rugs by hand. Although sewing machines make repairing rugs easier and faster, the result is inferior, he says. The methods used at Kebabian’s may seem outdated and time-consuming, but they are thorough.
Marcy Kebabian, John’s sister, is mending a rug. “We don’t use machines here,” Marcy clarifies, her hands busy with invisible stitches. “This rug here? The guy is giving it to his son, but he wants it repaired first. I have to do the invisible stitch because it’s double-sided, so you wouldn’t want to see the stitch on either side.” She bends her head close to the rug, illuminated by a bright lamp, and deftly makes a stitch.
Even when cleaning the rugs, the store uses the method that has been in place for decades. Though machines are available that wash rugs, they aren’t thorough enough, especially when used on the handwoven rugs Kebabian’s sells. John proudly shows me the vacuum cleaners the staff uses instead. “You can’t even find these anywhere anymore!” John says. Indeed, they look like props taken from the set of Mad Men, the television show set in the 1960s: a silver pole connected to the suction piece, with a big red bag hanging from the back to collect the dust. The store’s traditions can mean hard work for the staff. “I can eat whatever I want, because it’s a workout every day here,” says Craig Tyska, who has worked at Kebabian’s for many years.
All the same, Peggy is working to modernize the stubbornly old-fashioned store’s branding and media presence. “We’re trying to bring things up to date. We have such great products, and we want to use all this new social technology to get the word out, bring the caliber of our media resources up to that of our rugs,” she says. If she succeeds, she’ll have demonstrated that new media doesn’t necessarily mean the end of old traditions.
One sign read, “Our economy could be more fair.” Well, that was what it was all about, I guess. As I wandered through the crowd at Occupy Wall Street on a Saturday last month I saw that all the usual suspects were out. Dreadlocked, shirtless, smelly backpackers littered the ground with their wool blankets and blue plastic tarps and gave each other back massages. Mixed in among them, middle-aged, bald anticapitalists handed out Socialist Party literature and The Occupied Wall Street Journal and told anyone who would listen to “open your eyes to the coming revolution.”
I guess you could say a lot of these guys were weird. One lady told me that the Federal Reserve was completely responsible for the financial collapse because it was controlled by the Rockefellers, the Morgans, and the mafia, and then said something like “America-is-turning-into-Nazi-Germany.” An old man there said he had won an Emmy for his documentary filmmaking, and that he had been a protester all his life, at the ’63 march with Martin Luther King, Jr., the ’68 protests against “the war,” and the ’03 protests against “the other war,” but that this gathering at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan was the greatest sharing and interchange of humanity he’d ever seen. I asked him to tell me the name of one of his films and he dodged the question, muttering something about anti-Semitism in Poland.
I stopped trying to talk to people and checked out the signs. “This is what democracy looks like.” “We are the 99 percent.” “Mr. President, tear down this Wall (Street).” “Todos somos O.W.S.” “End all war; End all greed; End the fed.” “I’m a human being not a commodity.” “Ronald Reagan sucked balls.”
Occupy Wall Street is a movement of discontents. Lefties of all stripes, from Communists to anarchists to supporters of President Barack Obama to independents—even some Ron Paul libertarians—gathered to stare down the New York Stock Exchange and display to the bankers, traders, and CEOs the mass of humanity that didn’t like what Wall Street was doing. Then the police told them to move, so they spilled into a nearby park and stared down a Brooks Brothers store and a Burger King.
This kind of thing wasn’t new to me. I’d been in Madrid during the May 15 movement of losindignados, the indignant, who sat down in the plaza that serves as the beating heart of Spain’s capital and decided they weren’t going to move until they felt less indignant.
But then, I thought I was witnessing a European phenomenon. I couldn’t imagine a similar group of Americans protesting against nothing in particular and for nothing specifically in a manner that violated all manner of municipal regulations. In Spain, even the president merely shrugged his shoulders and said he understood the protesters’ ire and that evicting them would cause more problems that it would solve. In America, I reckoned, protests became weird sometime between the ’70s and last fall’s Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C., where I and a quarter of a million other people all made fun of the idea of protesting.
Unemployment in Spain pushes 20 percent, and among young people it’s over 40 percent. Neither of the nation’s two biggest political parties has any idea what to do. Politicians in major cities, such as Valencian Community president Francisco Camps, have been indicted in corruption scandals and gone unpunished. Short of Franco’s grandchildren, who wouldn’t be taking the streets? But it’s a Spanish thing. Right?
Spaniards in all major cities protested against the political and economic system. They began in May a week before national elections. They didn’t vote. They camped there all summer, beginning to disband in June but not actually leaving until the beginning of August, when the police finally retook the plaza. They tried to come back, but the police blocked the streets, so the protestors all went back inside to find some air conditioning.
As I strolled through Occupy Wall Street last month, I tried to figure out what the protestors wanted. One man’s sign listed the ratios of average CEO salary to average worker’s salary in Britain, Japan, and the United States. Twelve to one. Fifteen to one. Four hundred and twenty-two to one. Yikes.
I found myself helping out with what the protestors call the“people’s voice.” Someone starts talking. People nearby repeat the words loudly so that a large circle of people can hear the speech. (The New York Police Department has prohibited megaphones and other noisemaking devices.) A woman gave a speech on behalf of an organization she called the New York Society of A-G-L-B-F-I-O-Z or something like that. (It got a little muddled in the process of repeating.) Then she began to tell us the economic story of our young lifetimes: “Since the early ’90s (‘since the early ’90s’), average worker salaries have remained constant, but the super rich keep getting richer.” More people repeated her words. “In the financial collapse, (‘in the financial collapse’) ordinary Americans lost their jobs and their homes, but Wall Street kept on profiting.” Loud and clear.
I walked to Washington Square Park, where another protest was underway. It may have been true that every corner on Broadway, the street in America with the most overbearing corporate advertisements, was just as crowded as Zuccotti Park, but Washington Square was lively. New York University students and young people surrounded the central pond and repeated each other’s speeches. TV cameras surrounded a pretty, well-dressed college-age girl as she explained her sign listing concrete demands for the movement. Another man waved a stake topped by the impaled effigy head of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein bloodily gaping at us. Most people seemed to recognize Blankfein. So there’s another concrete demand.
Why Washington Square Park? Well, the movement spread. Everyone wanted to take part. As we listened to a speech by environmental activist Bill McKibben railing against oil pipelines and government secrecy, a group of kids wearing tie-dyed T-shirts held signs saying “Christians for Occupy Wall Street” and “Who would Jesus foreclose on?” By October 15, when people all over the United States and the world marched in solidarity with OWS, there were protests in my hometown of Atlanta, in London, England and Lubbock, Texas; in Cape Town and Mumbai and Seoul; in socialist-equality paradise Stockholm, in multiple buroughs of New York City. Oh, and fifty thousand indignados retook Puerta del Sol.
The hardcore people camping on the cold New York concrete have started something, and I don’t mind if a lot of them are weird. It’s about time someone stood up and said it: the economy could be fairer. I’m orgulloso—that’s “proud”— of my country because so many of us are doing just that.
This summer, before she announced her candidacy for Ward 22 alderwoman, Jeanette Morrison went door to door in Dixwell, asking her neighbors what concerns they had about the community. “There’s no jobs,” they told her. But from the porches where she stood listening, she could see construction happening all over neighboring Ward 1 on Yale’s campus. How could the city grant those zoning rights, she wondered, without also requiring that some of the area’s unemployed residents be trained and allowed to work on these projects? Only 30 percent of the people employed in New Haven are actually from New Haven, which, she argues, is “just a terrible statistic.”
With unemployment rates, municipal layoffs, and violent crime all rising, frustrations like these are mounting across the city as the November 8 election approaches. “People just want to live decent lives,” Morrison said. “There’s something wrong.”
In the September 13 Democratic primary elections, New Haven residents announced that they want new representation. Aldermanic candidates backed by unions, such as Morrison, defeated establishment candidates, many of them incumbents who had served for as long as two decades, in fourteen out of fifteen hotly contested races—despite the fact that many City Hall officials took a vacation day for last-minute canvassing. It was the first time in Mayor John DeStefano, Jr.’s tenure that a significant number of aldermanic candidates he had endorsed were defeated. “The unions kicked ass tonight,” DeStefano said at his own primary victory party at BAR on Crown Street. The same evening, Morrison recalled, “I started crying, my mom started crying, my friends started crying. Like, oh my God!”
The unions had won an important victory over the Democratic Party establishment, creating a new, dynamic moment in New Haven politics. Since early summer, DeStefano and local unions were assembling rival slates of aldermanic candidates. The mayor may no longer be able to count on the support of the aldermanic council in January.
On November 8, students living in Ward 1 will vote for a peer to represent them on the Board of Aldermen. While the labor-establishment division will influence the day-to-day responsibilities of the new alderman, neither of the two candidates—Sarah Eidelson ’12 and Vinay Nayak ’14—is officially supported by unions or by City Hall, and neither is incumbent.
Though they’re aware of the signficance of the primary election, Eidelson and Nayak are wary of talking candidly about it. They are especially reluctant to discuss how tensions may affect the Ward 1 race. Certainly, neither wants to be categorized as belonging to either side.
“I think that pro-City Hall versus anti-City Hall politics is entirely unproductive because ultimately whoever the aldermen are are going to have to work with whoever the mayor is,” Nayak said. He said he would be an “independent-minded” alderman, putting him in the best position to be effective because “when you’re less concerned about the other political dynamics that are going on, like the longevity of staying on the board, then you’re in a better position to really advocate for what you believe in.”
Eidelson was equally diplomatic. “I think that the kind of active democracy and engagement happening around the city is exactly what we need to move forward in a positive direction,” she said, “and I think it’s great that people were able to elect a lot of new representatives who they thought would serve them better than their past ones have.” She added that the quarreling involved in intraparty politics is counterproductive.
This reasoning may be inspiring, but it is also tactful and predictable. Whoever is elected to represent Ward 1 will have to navigate these tensions once he or she is on the Board. In fact, despite their careful public distance from New Haven’s political dichotomy, Nayak and Eidelson have already inevitably encountered this aspect of the city’s politics on their paths to this campaign. For now, these histories are all constituents have to distinguish the two candidates.
As a freshman, Nayak worked as a policy assistant to the board’s Community Development Committee, where he learned about the economic plight of small business owners, nonprofits, and other community members. Eidelson worked with 3-year-olds at Creating Kids, a daycare on Wall Street, during her freshman year. She has spent the past two summers in New Haven. This year, Eidelson managed Sarah Saiano’s campaign for Ward 18 alderwoman. In 2010, she ran the Community Voter Project at the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a nonprofit organization in the city that deals with issues of economic justice. She went door-to-door registering voters in Dwight, West River, Dixwell, and Newhallville. So, while Nayak has spent more time working with the city’s legislative and executive branches, Eidelson has spent more time in the city at large—talking to community members about their concerns and working on the campaigns that led up to last month’s elections.
The candidates’ divergent experiences have provided them with different skill sets and areas of expertise. Nayak worked on a committee headed by Marcus Paca, Ward 24’s establishment-backed alderman who was just unseated by a union candidate. Eidelson helped lead last spring’s “We Are One” rally at City Hall, which brought together unions and labor rights groups, and the campaign she managed this summer was for a union-backed candidate. (Saiano was the only such candidate to lose her race on September 13.) Eidelson has personal relationships with Frank Douglass, the union-backed candidate and Yale dining hall staff member who won in Ward 2, and Jeanette Morrison, whose campaign she worked on last month. Morrison said, “The most important thing in local politics are relationships and trust, and Sarah has a relationship not just with me but with different people around New Haven.”
Publicly, the candidates portray themselves as being very similar, sometimes frustratingly so. The three planks of Eidelson’s platform are to create a New Haven where “Government works for the people,” “No one lives in fear” and “All neighborhoods are vibrant and inclusive.” Nayak’s points are (with the order manipulated for comparison’s sake), to “Make government more transparent,” “Keep us safe,” and “Revitalize our economy.” They both want to improve infrastructure, make the city’s streets friendlier to bicyclists and pedestrians, and strengthen prisoner re-entry programs. Each promises to be an accessible presence on campus.
When pressed, the candidates have found a convenient, respectful way of distinguishing themselves. Eidelson, a senior, says she’s “the most in touch with Yale students because of how much experience I have working with them already to make the changes that they want to see.” Nayak, a sophomore, points out that while Eidelson will graduate soon, he will be a student for the next two years, making him “able to be accessible to and interact with kids in the Yale community to work together on the solutions.”
Their approaches to policy do vary, however. Nayak is extremely detailed and on point. When asked the same open-ended questions as Eidelson in an interview on policy matters, he spoke for more than three times as long. Hyperspecific, downloadable reports—ready to be submitted to the board if he’s elected—have been on his website for months. He punctuates conversation and op-eds with appeals to refer to his website. Eidelson is less talkative when it comes to policy and has only uploaded some comparatively concise policy points to her site this month.
The difference between the candidates is clear in their approaches to community policing. Both candidates think it’s important that the police department engage with residents, but they would execute this goal differently. Nayak says that his campaign is based on “realistic conversations [I’ve] had with people on the Board as well as people in City Hall, as far as what we could reasonably get done.” While he believes that the city should have more community-centered policing, he says it’s an internal matter for the police department to address. He would rather focus on “real solutions that the Board of Aldermen actually has jurisdiction over.”
Eidelson said that a return to community-centered policing was a priority. Faced with the question of jurisdiction over policing, she brought up charter reform, the review and revision of the city government’s constitution completed by the Board every five years. (Charter reform is a favorite subject of Eidelson’s; Nayak didn’t mention it in an interview.) Currently, Eidelson said, the police commission that oversees the police department is entirely appointed by the mayor. This authority, she said, “could shift with charter reform, such that the people can have more direct power over the police force.”
Nayak wants to work within the system, and Eidelson wants to reform it entirely. He’s more pragmatic; she’s a bit more romantic. It is not difficult for anyone who has talked to the candidates to understand the differences between them. But these differences are certainly not advertised.
In city politics at large, candidates don’t understate their differences and affiliations—they champion them. Morrison, for example, was proud to have served on the executive board of her local union. “I like unions!” she said. “I work for the State of Connecticut, and I’m part of the union.” Morrison supports unions because of what they accomplish. “We all believe that the people should have a voice,” she said, “and that people should be given the same opportunities as everyone else.”
We can hope that a more diverse Board of Aldermen will help achieve these goals, whatever the outcome of the Ward 1 race.
The former world champion L.J. Jenkins was there. So was Ryan Dirteater, who’d won the tournament two weeks earlier in Wichita, along with a cadre of talented Brazilians, including this year’s favorite for the championship, a 23-year-old from Pilar do Sul, São Paulo, named Silvano Alves. The best in the world were buckin’ bulls in downtown Hartford. You had to think they were in the wrong city, and possibly the wrong century. Ain’t no cowboys in these parts, someone should have warned the organizers of the Professional Bull Riders, which is the major league of bull riding and the governing body for what may be this country’s newest spectator sport.
I arrived in Hartford on a Friday night. On my way to the XL Civic Center, I drove past clubs, bars, and darkened office buildings, and—inexplicably—small crowds of cowboys and cowgirls of all ages wearing denim and plaid and boots. The scene outside the city’s virtuous Old Statehouse was a foreigner’s confused vision of America: cowboy hats leaning together and proud, colonial brick.
I gradually realized few of them were anything like “real cowboys”—whatever that meant—and that was disappointing, because I had come to Hartford with the intention of meeting one. I was looking for someone who appeared more comfortable on an animal’s back than on his own two feet, with a leathery face and a lean jaw and an intense, flat gaze, like you might use to stare down a bull. I had come out of curiosity. You see, I’m one of that rare species of troglodyte that Flint Rasmussen, the Bull Riders’ clown, kept calling “city people.” (“People are staring at me—city people,” he told the audience. The crowd at the Civic Center had just dressed up for the night. They were city people too.) I felt that after having lived here for twenty-one years, it was time to learn what America was really all about.
Yet although someone says something politically incorrect and vaguely offensive into the arena’s microphone about once a night, I discovered bull riding shows are for the most part designed to appeal to people like me as well, not only to true Americans. The prayer that’s repeated before the bull riding begins each night noticeably avoids the words “Jesus” and “Christ.”
I caught Rasmussen shortly after he had officially declared his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election. He had aimed a pair of political jokes right and left—following a line about joining the other clowns in the presidential race with “I don’t have time to occupy Wall Street, because I have a job”—but he told me he almost always avoids political comedy. “These people pay money to come and sit for two and a half hours where they’re not watching the news,” he said.
The Professional Bull Riders have changed the sport, and if I had gone looking for a genuine hick good time, I wasn’t going to find one. The organization is building a national television audience, and bull riding is becoming corporate and mainstream. As Jeff Robinson joked, “We’re not just redneck-based oriented anymore.” Robinson is one of the country’s major stock contractors. That is, he owns thirty-five of the bulls who were in Hartford, including Stanley FatMax, a bull named after the hardware brand, and New Britain – 1843, named for the town and year in which Stanley was founded. Several of the wildest, most powerful bulls in the world are also his, including I’m a Gangster and Chicken on a Chain, who would be bucking in the World Finals in Las Vegas at the end of October.
There would be only one more stop on the riders’ tour before they went to Las Vegas. It was a last opportunity for some of them to qualify for the championship, so the stakes were high.
Of course, it is a gross oversimplification to say that this country is split into city people and cattle people and they never talk to each other. I myself have had several experiences with the other kind of American.
There was, for example, that one fellow, my friend’s cousin’s husband, a retired engineer whom I met at a dinner party in Knights Landing, California. If you haven’t heard of Knights Landing, that’s because it’s not much more than a plot of houses amid other plots of rice, tomatoes, and sunflowers the same size and shape. The engineer was a short man with pale blue eyes whose hobby was racing automobiles and who spoke in deliberate, exact sentences. “I like Bill O’Reilly,” he told me. “I think he calls a spade a spade.” I really wanted to ask him about politics because he seemed like an intelligent man with strong opinions and a point of view unfamiliar to me. We stayed away from the subject, though. It seemed in the past he’d had heated disagreements with his father-in-law, who was sitting at the head of the table and telling stories about immigrating from Mexico as a young man, becoming a farm operator, and harvesting more than fifty thousand tons of processing tomatoes in one bumper year. America meant very different things to those two men. Besides, the engineer’s mother-in-law kept serving me more of her enchiladas.
Then there was the woman who spent many months trying to get my grandpa to marry her. The relationship finally ended earlier this year. “She thought Jesus wouldn’t like her,” my grandpa said. “But people need companionship, and I think He would understand that.” Getting married didn’t make sense to him, though, because nothing of that kind was going to happen anyway. I have always wished I could share my grandpa’s magnetism, but I’ve at last come to admit that at 94, he is the handsomer man by far.
I called my grandpa the morning I left New Haven for Hartford. “Whatever you do, don’t get on a bull’s back,” he warned.
“I wouldn’t ever have thought of it if you hadn’t suggested it,” I said.
At the back entrance to the Civic Center in Hartford, I met a pair of technicians. One of them had twirled the ends of his impressive moustache. The other looked me up and down and said, “If you came to work this show, you’re definitely overdressed.” I had thrown on a pair of jeans and my blue blazer because—well, obviously, the corduroy one would have been out of place. As it turns out, the blazer and jeans is a good strategy if you’re going to watch bull riding. It’s what the announcers and officials wear who aren’t cowboys. What gave me away was the necktie.
I explained that I was there to report on the event. “Don’t speak to this man; he’s from the evil news media!” the technician joked to his partner. This might be a difficult weekend, I thought then, but as it turned out, everyone involved with the bull riding seemed happy to have me hanging around. A moment later my phone vibrated. It was Jack Carnefix, the Professional Bull Riders’ affable press officer. I excused myself and met Carnefix in the bowels of the Civic Center, where he explained what bull riding is all about.
“First thing, nothing’s tied around the bull’s balls. That’s the most common question,” he said. A rope called a flank strap is tied around the bull’s waist to encourage him to buck harder. It’s an annoyance to the animal, who will try to kick it off with his hind legs. Another rope, the bull rope, is wrapped tightly around the bull’s shoulders and over the rider’s palm.
The rider must keep his grip on the bull rope with his other hand free for eight seconds. If he isn’t thrown before then, the ride qualifies, and the rider is awarded a score out of a hundred points by four judges who consider whether the rider appears in control and how hard the bull is bucking. A decent score is between eighty and ninety points; scores above ninety points are rare.
Besides the rider, there would be several others in the arena. The three bullfighters would protect the riders after they’d been thrown by distracting the bulls. “If you’re a rider, and you get thrown, first you got to figure out which way is up. Then you’re running for the nearest fence,” Carnefix said. There would also be a mounted cowboy, who would lasso a bull if the animal couldn’t find the exit after throwing his rider. Presidential hopeful Rasmussen would also be present.
Rasmussen (it is not a pseudonym) is officially an “entertainer,” not a rodeo clown, because the Professional Bull Riders don’t organize rodeos, and they’re very sensitive about the distinction. At a rodeo, you’ll also see steer wrestling, cutting shows, saddle- and bareback-bronco bucking, and barrel racing, among other competitions. “Whatever you do, don’t call us a rodeo,” Carnefix told me later.
But before I saw any of these people, the lights in the Civic Center went down, and a movie about the United States Air Force was played for the audience on several large screens. The Air Force is a sponsor of the Professional Bull Riders, and the gist of the movie was that the two organizations share a set of American values as old and as sacred as the Constitution itself. After the film, a squadron of about twenty Air Force recruits marched into the arena in three columns to swear their oaths of service publicly and to promise to defend those values. They wore blue jeans and blue Air Force T-shirts and looked very young. I felt bad for the recruit on the corner of the phalanx nearest me, who stepped off on his right foot and stumbled.
“Ladies and gentlemen: 365 days a year, 24/7, may it be here, or may it be abroad, they’re men and they’re women that protect and defend these United States of America,” as one of the announcers described the Air Force later, emphasizing these. “I think it is our American duty to tell them from the bottom of our hearts how much we appreciate what they do for our country.” The audience didn’t need the encouragement, though. They’d interrupted Lt. Col. Horst Knorreck of the 319th Recruiting Squadron with spontaneous applause during his speech before the swearing-in.
Several minutes later, there was a series of loud explosions and heat on my face: Carnefix had positioned me underneath a set of four flamethrowers that were shooting columns of fire to a height of around twenty-five feet. Flashes of magnesium lit up the Civic Center, and the letters “PBR” burned in propane on the dirt floor of the arena. The announcers introduced the cowboys, who ran out of the gate, tipping their hats to the audience. The current top five riders stood akimbo on platforms above the arena. Over their heads, beams of light crisscrossed through the smoke and more stuff blew up. The ecumenical prayer was said (“We don’t only ask it of you of our cowboys, we ask it of you of our livestock as well”), and the 319th Recruiting Squadron Honor Guard presented the colors.
The National Anthem was followed by the Party Rock Anthem as the lights came on again. I had expected, even hoped for ostentatious displays of patriotism, but I was so surprised to learn that everybody’s shuffuhlin’-shuffuhlin’, including the toughest cowboys in the world and their fans, that I missed the first ride: Mike Lee, the former world champion from Decatur, on a bull named Get Back, for eighty-five points. It was a mighty fine way to start a weekend of bull ridin’.
It turned out there were several reasons for the Professional Bull Riders’ presence in Hartford, the group’s first visit to the city in their nineteen-year history. The riders have stopped at Mohegan Sun, the casino in Uncasville, for the past several years. This year, there was a scheduling conflict at Mohegan Sun’s arena with the state’s Women’s National Basketball Association team, the Connecticut Sun, who took priority. As to why the cowboys were in the state in the first place, Carnefix explained it was part of a vision of building a national audience for the sport. The organization couldn’t just hold events in Texas and Oklahoma. “We want California. We want Connecticut,” Carnefix said.
That vision seems to belong mostly to Ty Murray, one of the twenty bull riders who left the rodeo circuit in 1992 to establish the Professional Bull Riders. (“Ty wants to make this a mainstream sport. And really all of us do,” Robinson told me.) Murray has won the world championship nine times, and he gave television commentary in Hartford. “I want to see it where it’s on ESPN every week, just like the other sports,” he told me, adding later, “I want to see it grow as much as possible. Whenever we go after something, we try not to limit ourselves. We set our goals pretty big.”
Before the Professional Bull Riders, Murray told me, riders competed in “a lot of stand-alone, one-off things that different promoters would do. They ranged from big and good to little and crappy.” His organization has succeeded in making the sport “followable,” he said. “Football wouldn’t be that big if it was just some random game and you didn’t know anything about it every Sunday.”
The New York private equity firm Spire Capital bought a majority share of the Professional Bull Riders in 2007 for an undisclosed amount. The same year, the cowboys traveled to New York for the first time. Bull riding at Madison Square Garden was sold out, Murray remembers. “We were really adamant about going to places like Boston and New York City. When we sold out Madison Square Garden, it dispelled the myth that it was a Western sport.”
Today, the Professional Bull Riders estimate their international television audience at 100 million. The events are broadcast in eighty-five countries. Not only has the audience for bull riding grown, it has broadened as well. “When you look at the crowd at a PBR event compared to a more traditional rodeo event, you see a more diverse crowd. You see young people, you see every race, creed, and color,” Murray said. “It’s not your traditional everybody’s-in-jeans-and-hats-and-boots.”
The field is wider, too. Some of the riders are city boys, including many who had never ridden until their late teens. Then there are the Brazilians, who held five of the top six spots in the overall standings during the Hartford tournament. “The Brazilian contingent goes stronger every year,” Murray said. Many of the Brazilians don’t speak English, and when a bull’s name is lost in translation before a round, it’s funny to see the world’s best riders looking confused in the middle of the arena. Brazil has always been strong—Adriano Moraes, who won the first world championship in 1994, is Brazilian. But, Murray said, “They dominated this year like no other.”
Yet Murray left me with the impression that his dreams had less to do with audience numbers, much less advertising revenue, than with seeing bull riders get the respect they deserve. Though there’s more money in the sport now than there used to be, the athletes’ earnings remain comparatively modest. The top bull riders earn about $1.5 million a year in “on-bull earnings,” or prize money, excluding sponsorships. The riders aren’t employed, and if they can’t hang onto a bull for at least eight seconds all weekend, they’re paid only a nominal four hundred dollars to cover the expense of traveling to the tournament. Their independence and low pay is a point of pride—Rasmussen made a joke the first night about Alex Rodriguez’s $32 million salary after the Yankee shortstop left men stranded in the last game of his team’s season, which they lost to Detroit. But as a friend of mine who is a lawyer pointed out, serious injuries are so common among bull riders that employing them would probably be prohibitively expensive.
Over the weekend in Hartford, Harve Stewart tore his ACL, the bull Angry Bird stepped on Pistol Robinson’s left arm, and the Brazilian Rubens Barbosa strained his neck when King Lopez threw him off headfirst. Barbosa was wearing a helmet and avoided a concussion, but many of the riders still insist on cowboy hats.
Toughness, after all, is the cardinal virtue of the Professional Bull Riders. Their tour is officially the “Built Ford Tough Series,” the sport is nicknamed “The Toughest Sport on Earth,” and the seats over the chutes where the bulls and riders enter the arena are “The Toughest Seats on Earth.” Rasmussen joked about the pampering football players receive after minor injuries. Demonstrating how a cowboy treats a hurt elbow, he picked up a handful of dirt from the arena floor and rubbed it on his forearm.
It’s “ludicrous,” Murray told me, that bull riders aren’t seriously considered for the ESPY’s, ESPN’s annual awards for athletic performance. “Those are the kinds of things that drive me insane,” he said. “If you claim to know anything about sports and athleticism, there’s no way that you could not give our sport five minutes and not see that it takes an incredible amount of athleticism, physically speaking, and that it also takes an incredible amount of athleticism, mentally speaking.”
That the ESPY’s include a “Best Driver” and a “Best Bowler” category does seem unfair to bull riders. Yet if Murray wants his sport to be taken seriously, you couldn’t avoid feeling he still has some work to do. There was the fact that the cowboys had been pushed out of the Mohegan Sun by a women’s basketball team—which was purely a contractual matter and had nothing to do with whose sport was tougher, but which was still a little bit embarrassing. Carnefix, the press officer at the event, was in a good mood because ESPN, which is headquartered in Bristol, had sent a few folks to check out the tournament. The group included anchors Mike Hill and Michelle Beadle. “We kept coming to Connecticut because we were trying to get ESPN to notice,” he joked, expressing frustration at how little attention bull riders receive from sports media. “It took us eight times.” I wasn’t sure if Carnefix knew that the network had also sent a humor writer.
Cord McCoy tamped the dirt with the toe of his cowboy boot and waved to Randy Spraggins. “You see that? We’re talkin’ ’bout nice. It’s not always like that,” McCoy said. Spraggins and his crew had hauled 750 tons of dirt to the Civic Center for the event, spreading it eight inches thick over the arena floor. The bottom five inches were packed tightly, but the top three were loose. Making sure the dirt had the right density and moisture content was Spraggins’s responsibility. “I have a really good source for this dirt,” he told me.
The first night of bull riding had just concluded. Alves, the favorite, had ridden last, holding onto a rookie bull of Jeff Robinson’s named Riggin Slinger past the eight-second buzzer. Only one rider had ever scored on Slinger before Alves. But his score wasn’t high enough to beat Luke Snyder’s 87¾-point ride earlier, and the night ended with Snyder in the lead. McCoy hadn’t had a bad night either—he’d ridden a bull named Country Boy for 84¾ points before jumping onto the dirt. “It’s got some cushion,” he said. The stuff may have been soft, but it had held up under the weight of forty bulls that night.
The bulls, I found, are the ones who make bull riding worth watching. They’re agile and fluid, whipping their hindquarters into the air and around in a circle with all the ease of a puppy chasing her tail. They know where their riders are sitting. “Some of the bulls—I feel like they’re trying to set you up,” McCoy said. One jump will imbalance the rider, and the next is meant to buck him off.
When the rider is on the ground, the bull will usually trot obligingly through the gate out of the arena—as if to say, “It’s nothing personal”—but sometimes he’ll lower for the rider or for one of the bullfighters. It’s animal instinct, Robinson explained to me, and it seems that once everybody jumps on the fence, the bull, having demonstrated his physical superiority and territorial dominance, will calm down and leave. If he doesn’t seem to know where to go, that’s when the cowboy on horseback, the “safety man,” will rope him and pull him away.
There’s a lot of downtime in bull riding. Each rider has to settle himself on his bull in the chute, a narrow pen exactly the dimensions of a bull that opens from the side into the arena. One of the rider’s competitors pulls hard on the bull rope to tighten it, while another steadies the rider, holding his shoulders. “You and the bull know what’s fixin’ to happen. You’re thinking about what you need to do,” McCoy said. Only after the rider has wrapped the bull rope over his palm and nodded to signal he’s ready will the gate open. If the bull won’t hold still, the process can take several minutes.
Filling those minutes is mostly Rasmussen’s responsibility. He wears a cowboy hat, basketball shorts, a Cooper Tires jersey, athletic shoes, and clown make-up, and his shtick is that he can dance to any song you’ve ever heard. In one four-minute segment, he danced to everything from Elvis Presley to Flo Rida’s “Low” featuring T. Pain, including Michael Jackson and The Sound of Music. Rasmussen, who is forty-three and balding and shaves his legs, can do a particularly convincing impression of Beyoncé. His “Single Ladies” routine is always a crowd-pleaser. After a few of his more suggestive moves, an announcer commented, “Dads, take your kids fishing when you have a chance, or they’ll turn out like him.”
I had prepared myself for more country music than I heard over the weekend in Hartford. Rasmussen’s repertoire is simply too wide for a single genre to encompass.
“When you saw bull riding, maybe you thought there’d be cowboys in town who walk like this,” he told us, slouching and bowing his legs out, “sit on the fence, and say, ‘Yee-haw!’ ” If so, we were mistaken. “We’d like to have a little fun—play some tunes, do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight!”
If anyone were to shout “Yee-haw!” I would have expected it to be McCoy. When it comes to cowboys, the 31-year-old rider from Tupelo, Oklahoma is the genuine article. He rode his first calf when he was 5. I asked him how to tell a real cowboy from a city slicker who’d just dressed up for the show. “The thing is, the bulls don’t care what you wear. You could ride one like that,” he said, indicating my necktie.
That night, McCoy and his three roommates sat down in a Denny’s to talk about the bulls they’d drawn for the next day, figurin’ how best to ride ’em. McCoy would be on an animal named Flashpoint. “He looks like a really good draw. He’s honest; he has no tricks,” McCoy told me. Then they headed back to their room at the Hartford Marriott for a good night’s sleep.
The bulls, meanwhile, were spending the night at Crowley’s Stables, just over the state line in Agawam, Massachusetts. “We’re staying at the Hotel Marriott because we couldn’t get into Crowley’s Stables,” Carnefix said. You could tell it was a joke he’d used many times, but it was still funny.
I drove up to Agawam the next day after lunch to meet Jeff Robinson, the stock contractor. (“It’s a hot item, bull semen,” McCoy said, adding that Robinson is “the producer of the year. He’s kind of cornered the market, if you know what I mean. He’s got it cornered, or froze. He’s got the market froze.”) After having heard a rumor or two, I wanted to hear the true story of how Robinson’s bull Chicken on a Chain got his name. Chicken on a Chain is a popular animal who has been bucking riders since 2005, even though the career of a typical bull lasts only two years before he is put out to stud. Chicken on a Chain has just over 3,700 fans on Facebook, and Robinson told me he receives a couple dozen emails a week asking about him.
Robinson, with his deadpan cowboy sarcasm, has a keen appreciation for the ironies of what was originally a predominantly rural sport. “We don’t fight chickens or dogs where I’m from,” he told me. He is also the kind of stock contractor who enjoys messing with you. For example, after I told him I was a Yale student, he convinced me, briefly, that Rasmussen was a Harvard alumnus. More than one reporter asked Robinson over the weekend how many bulls he owned. “Oh, several,” he’d say. (Robinson operates three trucks that carry around a hundred bucking bulls to events around the country, and there are more animals at his ranch in Mars Hill, North Carolina.)
At Crowley’s Stables, Carnefix and I had been joking about my prospects as a bull rider. “We got some guys that will teach you. You’re not too young to learn,” Carnefix had said. Carnefix mentioned this post-graduate plan to Robinson. “You’re the right size,” he told me.
I asked Robinson what a good size for a bull rider is. (I am 5-foot-9.)
“ ’Bout your size,” he said.
We stood around watching the bulls leave their temporary pens and trot up into the trailers in which they’d ride down to Hartford. Eventually, I asked Robinson about Chicken on a Chain. He’d bought the bull on a farm somewhere in north Georgia.
“It was kind of creepy,” Robinson began. “It was a junky, junky set-up.” A boy about ten years old met him. “His teeth were all rotten, and he looked he was on meth. He said, ‘Hey mister! You come to get this motherfucker?’” Robinson looked at the bull, a huge animal even by bovine standards. “He’s the meanest Goddamn bitch you ever seen,” the boy said, “and his name’s Chicken on a Chain.” Robinson asked for an explanation, and the boy obliged, continuing in the same vein. “That cocksucker got into my daddy’s fightin’ roosters,” the boy began, indicating a hillside behind him, where Robinson saw a number of roosters tethered on short chains. Apparently the bull had got a prize cock’s chain tangled in his hind feet and drug the animal around the farm, and that was how he got his name.
“That’s the last time I been to north Georgia,” concluded Robinson. Turns out some folks are too redneck even for the country’s biggest producer of bull semen.
I made no effort to determine whether Robinson’s story was true.
Tickets for two decent seats for the weekend came to six hundred dollars, but money was no object for the devoted bull riding fans of New England and New York. Georgina Vitarius, the organizer of the Professional Bull Riders Bronx Fan Club, led a group of about ten fans to Hartford. The Bronx group is “mostly single women, sitting in their rooms screaming,” she said. “This way, you can scream together. You don’t feel so alone.”
Vitarius met Cori Bielecki in Hartford, and by Sunday, the two had become fast friends. Bielecki, a lissom 31-year-old horsewoman and vegetable farmer from Nantucket, is one of the riders’ favorite fans. She spends a lot of time with them during the tour, and had run an errand to Walmart that morning to pick up a couple of tanks of propane for the show’s opening pyrotechnics. Her cowboy boots are covered with the riders’ autographs.
“They were drunk as skunks last night,” she told me. She’d been out with them until 5 a.m. as the cowboys drank, flirted, and ordered pizzas. “The girls are flocking… They’re just living the little rock-star lives that they’ve built for their little bull-buckin’ selves,” she said.
(McCoy, who wears his wedding ring when he rides, was not among the group. “I like to think that most of the guys are here for business,” he told me. If that’s not always true of the Americans, it is of the Brazilians. “One word—dedication,” McCoy said when I asked him about their rides this year. “They come a long ways with one goal in mind.” Many of the Brazilian riders send their winnings home to families who can’t support themselves otherwise.)
The fact that the riders spend time with their fans—at the very least, to sign autographs, take photos, and shoot the breeze through the fence after a night of bull riding—is an important part of bull riding’s appeal. “That’s what makes this sport great,” said Chuck McCoy, an appliance repairman from Bridgeport, New York, who isn’t related to the rider. As bull riding grows more popular, though, it’s inevitably losing some of its intimacy.
Chuck McCoy came for the weekend with his wife Doreen, who has an album filled with autographed photos of herself with bull riders, and they would be traveling to Las Vegas at the end of the month for the championships.
The McCoys have been bull riding fans for about eight years. When the tour came to Mohegan Sun last year, the bullfighters, who are officially the Dickies DuraBullFighters and who are also Built Ford Tough, were sent to a hardware store in the small town of Colchester, Connecticut to meet fans and advertise Dickies jeans. Even though Colchester is half an hour away from the casino in Uncasville, the McCoys followed them.
“No one knew who they were,” Chuck said. “People were going in there, buying garden supplies, their pet food. Nobody was there.” Doreen wrote a letter to Dickies, letting them know the McCoys felt the company had gone too far. Everyone involved in bull riding is expected to be accessible to their fans.
The McCoys weren’t the only ones nervous about the sport’s future. “It’s going to get further and further away from the fan-rider relationship,” said Pete Archibald, a retired well-driller from Lyndeborough, New Hampshire. “It’ll be like NASCAR, where you can’t even get near them.”
The comparison between the Professional Bull Riders and the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing is often drawn in the press, and Carnefix himself had mentioned NASCAR earlier in the weekend. Though the sport is now receiving more airtime, not too long ago, sports shows’ highlight sequences only included wrecks and drivers with comical names. In the same way, Carnefix explained, sports shows feature bull riding only when a bull picks up a rider on his horns and tosses him, especially if the rider has a name like Ryan Dirteater.
I asked Murray if he thought that bull riding could continue to expand without straining the riders’ relationships to their fans. “I think it’s tough. I think it’s a balancing act,” he answered. The former world champion keeps his own personal cell phone number private. “People are looking back to when there were fifty people that wanted to meet the guy. Now there are fifty thousand that want to meet the guy. It just gets harder.” But, he concluded, “We’re still far and away the most fan-friendly and accessible sport.”
That may be true, and the bull riders’ fans will remain wildly loyal no matter what. It’s also true that bull ridin’ jus’ ain’t what it used to be. “Years ago, we were one big family,” Chuck McCoy told me. “Now, you have to kiss ass and get down in the dirt just to talk to the real cowboys.”
Saturday night, the riders gathered in a concrete-floored room of the Civic Center basement, big enough to drive a truck through, to draft their bulls for the third and final day of riding. At traditional rodeos, the riders draw their bulls out of a hat, but the Professional Bull Riders introduced the draft to add an element of strategy to the sport.
The cowboys sat around several small round tables with computer printouts and markers. The Brazilians had a table in the corner.
“Dirteater couldn’t get out on him,” I heard one cowboy saying to another.
“Dirteater couldn’t, but you could get out on him,” the other said.
“I’m not even gonna try.”
Fabiano Vieira, a rookie from Brazil, was the only rider to have qualified on all three bulls he’d ridden in the first two days of the tournament. He had the first pick, and he chose a bull named Hannibal.
Tight Rope was the next bull, Luke Snyder’s pick.
Then Slim To None, Exotic Justin, Tornado Alley.
“L.J., which one? Did you say Tornado Alley?”
Flashpoint had bucked off Cord McCoy that night, and another rider picked the bull McCoy had hoped to ride the next day. McCoy chose Real Legit on the advice of the guys who happened to be standing next to him at the time. “You shoot from the hip,” he said. He wouldn’t ride Real Legit either, and would finish the weekend with only four hundred dollars.
Vieira, on the other hand, would ride Hannibal the next day and another bull named Who Dat in the championship round to win the tournament. He’d had a perfect weekend, and left Hartford with just under forty thousand dollars.
I wasn’t going to leave the tournament with a check, nor were any of the other fans merging onto Interstate 91 that afternoon. I was lucky, though, to have talked to the real cowboys.