Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hostess and the House of Saud

Yesterday in the car, my wife and I got talking about the recent demise of Hostess Brands, Inc. (longtime maker of Twinkies, Wonderbread, and other mainstays of American pop culture) after their bakers' union turned down a pay and benefits cut. We'd heard some people blame those union members for bargaining themselves out of 18,500 jobs. We'd also heard, though, that union workers had agreed to pay cuts to save the company after a previous bankruptcy just a few years before. And so we wondered: when would you accept a pay cut to save your company? When would you vote for your own employer to go under? 

With limited information on the Hostess case, we decided we'd probably have voted against the pay cut. After all, what's the point of sacrificing just to extend the decline of a dying concern? If changes American eating patterns have made pay cuts the only way for Hostess to survive, why not just let it go and try to find work with a company better in touch with the industry's future?

Now--if I felt like company leaders understood why Hostess was struggling, I said, and if they had a clear plan to turn the company around and get wages up again, then it would be much easier for me to make a short-term sacrifice to keep the company alive.

In short, I said, I would make a sacrifice to back a leader with a plan for success but would have very little loyalty to a leader who allowed his or her own company to decline and then expected me to fix it. And with a union potentially multiplying workers' anxiety as well as influence, it might be quite difficult for a leader of a failing company to really convince anyone he was worth a second chance. 

Which is when our conversation turned to the House of Saud.

I once read that before the late 1700s, the interior of the Arabian peninsula was typically ruled locally, with various families and tribes competing for dominance. Periodically, one family's leader would defeat another, and still other families would align themselves with him in exchange for promises of security. Gradually, the leader of that family might come to rule much of the peninsula as people rallied around him after military victories--but a leader's rule ever lasted long, because the first defeat not only limited his expansion, it also shook the loyalty of all his subjects. A losing leader was less likely to have his former allies show up for the next battle, and therefore more likely to lose again--starting off a chain reaction that resulted in rapid decline. In the end, many once-great leaders died as little more than village patriarchs, or even as exiles and wanderers, no longer supported even on their families' native lands.

And so it was with Hostess: a weak leader can't hold a coalition together on a "sacrifice because we're weak" slogan. They should have known they were doomed: people are naturally inclined to support the ascendant.

And yet--if we support on the ascendant, aren't we also doomed (like Arabs in the 1700s) to the insecurity of rapid cycles of change? It's human nature to want to side with winners, but people who change sides too quickly risk their own stability and security, which are also powerful motivators for supporting a given ruler or boss. So how can a leader keep a coalition together through ups and downs long enough to establish stability?

One possible answer comes from the House of Saud. In the mid-1700s, a local chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud joined forces with a preacher named al Wahhab: ibn Saud swore to govern in a way that would promote al Wahhab's vision of a purified, fundamentalist Islamic order. Ibn Saud won battles, to be sure, but it wasn't just his military ascendance supporters were drawn to. They also bought into his ideological vision. Even when ibn Saud suffered defeats and setbacks, allies who valued that vision were willing to stand with him. Within just 70 years of their adoption of Wahhabism, the heirs of ibn Saud ruled an area just larger than they do today.

A possible corporate parallel can be found in Apple under Steve Jobs. At various times, Apple has been ascendant and weak. But its core supporters have remained committed because of their faith in the company vision even at times when its fortunes seemed to be running low.

Thinking about House of Saud, I theorized that ascendance, security, and vision are the three main glues all types of different governments and companies use to keep their organizations together.When a country or company loses these three things, it's likely to lose the support of its people soon afterward. The stronger it can keep each of the three, the more claims to people's faith and support it has to fall back on.

Hostess probably had an inspiring vision once upon a time. Maybe back in the Depression its workers took pride in their ability to provide people with affordable, technologically-sophisticated bread. Maybe in the 1950s and 1960s, they took pride in their ability to give hostesses a startlingly convenient way to share obviously complicated desserts with their guests. Along with that vision, workers in those eras probably enjoyed a sense of ascendance as they saw their company uniting with other regional bakeries into an industry powerhouse. They probably also developed a strong sense of security as company leaders promised them reliable benefits packages and wages above the industry average.

The advantages Hostess has probably didn't disappear all at once. But the culture around them shifted. As inexpensive turned to cheap, the company's talent for lowering the bottom line by extending the shelf life of goods probably lost much of its lustre. As people began to value the wonders of the natural over the wonders of technology, the company likely lost more meaning.

And with the vision slipping, ascendance probably settled into plateau and then market share erosion. When a product becomes uninspiring to make, odds are it will soon struggle to sell.

Finally, probably after years and years of subtle warnings, Hostess found itself unable to meet its old promises of security. They asked their workers to accept a pay cut in 2009 and got it. But they lost the last leg of their legitimacy in the process. When they had to come ask for concessions again without a vision or a hope of ascendance to support them, it was over.

And maybe we'll live to see the same happen to the House of Saud. The personal behaviors of some members of the ruling family have undermined their credibility as heirs to Wahhab's vision--which may also itself lose cultural power as hardline Muslim governments around the world fail to thrive. Their credibility for providing security was compromised during the first Gulf War, when they had to ask the United States for assistance and accept American bases on their lands. And their ascendance is certainly in jeopardy if the world transitions from oil--or if their oil runs out. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Identity as Social Technology

I've been thinking lately about the idea of identity. And it's occurred to me that most of what we talk about as part of identity is less about "who you are" than about what aspects of yourself you choose to emphasize to connect with others.

Here's an example: anybody can mix whole wheat flour and water, roll it out and add oil, then cook it, eat it, and enjoy it. They could even share the word roti for describing it. But that's just something you eat. It's part of what you do, but not part of your identity.

For me, it's also part of identity because eating roti is a piece of social technology I use to connect myself with other people. It reminds me of my grandfather and of other members of the Gill family. In some sense, it connects me to non-Gill Punjabi who also, presumably, feel a certain emotional and family as well as dietary connection to rotis

Another example: let's say you listen to a song. You may like it or dislike it, but it's only part of your identity if you see your attitude toward the song as being a part of my belonging in a larger group. You may be subconsciously using your dislike for country music, for example, as a way to connect to other urban, sophisticated people and to distance yourself from rural populations in the South and West. Or you may be emphasizing your connection to a certain ideological group by emphasizing your appreciation for related music.

In any case, it seems like whether we're talking about stories, food, values, or practices,the point of most of what we associate with identity is to connect with others.

Which is why I'm a bit puzzled at how much people today seem to want to find a totally unique identity. I mean, every person is already unique--it seems to me that the point of most elements of identity is to counterbalance your natural isolation by building stronger bonds with others.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Simple Version

Tonight, I had several friends over who I know only through a new group blog. At one point, they wanted to get straight my family background, and it occurred to me it might be time to post a basic diagram for people who are finding out about me through the internet.

Here is a simple chart of my ancestry:

At the bottom, I have listed my original name. After various bureaucratic misunderstanding, I decided to simply and go with three names like most Americans, but still happily answer to Westwood when I'm with people who knew me when I still tried to go by all four names.

Above me are my parents. To my children, my Dad is "Grandpa Zorro" (well..."Zoyyo" still for my two-year-old, but close enough). I have included this name on my chart because I think his chosen patriarchal title is a good expression of who he is. My mom is Vilo 3 of 4 because she shares a first name with her daughter, her mother, and her grandmother, which was also the nickname of her great-grandmother's close friend.

My father's father was Jewish--both his parents were immigrants to the United States from Romania. My father's mother was from the Westwood/Holladay clan in California, which is a strange and wonderful tribe of Mormons with a ferocious wit and a taste for massive Fourth of July parties.

My mother's father was born in rural India while the British still ruled there. Six of his brothers followed him to the United States, and so our extended family is mostly Punjabi-American, but with some Punjabi-Canadians and even a few Punjabi-Punjabis! My mother's mother was born to a family of Mormon colonistas in northern Mexico, though when many people from the colonies went north, her family went south, so part of her childhood was in Hidalgo state near Mexico City.

The diagram leaves out the relatives who married in from other countries (including but not limited to Belgium, Japan, Fiji, the Navajo nation, England, and Ohio). And it leaves out any mention of the sort of awesomely overwhelming number of extended cousins I have. But it's maybe helpful in giving a basic overview of the family context that inspired the creation of this blog.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Valiant Chattee-Maker

So...once upon a time, I wrote this children's play based on an old Indian folktale. It's about an ordinary pot-maker who goes out into a storm to look for his lost donkey, launching a series of improbable events that make him a national hero within the next thirty-five minutes of stage time.

Last night, I got to watch a performance of this fall's touring production of the play. And it was awesome. I laughed. Elementary school kids laughed and laughed. When the warhorse came on, even my two year old son started to laugh.

And I think there's something really wonderful about that. About little kids getting early experiences of other cultures through humor they can enjoy and feel like a part of.

It's a small thing, yes. But sometimes I feel like it's the small things more than the big dramatic things that make our world work. The little points of connection and sympathy that will ultimately make a difference.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An hour in Greensboro

 I am currently in Greensboro, North Carolina, participating in Orson Scott Card's "Literary Boot Camp"--an intense, week-long writing class and workshop with a writer I admire. Last night, he sent us out onto the town with instructions to find story ideas: two from observation, one from an interview, and two from research.

It was awesome.

I wandered up Highpoint Road first, and stepped into a small side gate of a large cemetery--full of Guralniks and Stadiems and Isaacsons and Goldbergs. Completely Jewish with headstones dating back to the late 1800s.  Evidence of a long history of Jewish Greensboro.

Behind the cemetery were some woods. I walked next to them down the road, wondering if there would be a synagogue on the other side--but there was a little Christian church instead (I think it was called Sunrise Ministries or something). Past the church was a little path down into the woods, so of course I followed it. North Carolina woods are pretty spectacular--tall pines taking out the sky, but leaving enough room for thick green growth on the ground and long vines winding up around their narrow trucks. I walked, and I watched the fireflies rise up out of the grasses and along the stream bed. And I thought about the people who used to run and hide in woods like these. Wondered how, once they got far enough for dogs not to track them, anybody ever managed to hunt them down.

I came out of the woods again and watched people sitting on porches or gathering on lawn chairs around tables under trees. Watched a lot of people talking on cell phone in the cars, windows rolled down in the driveway. I worried for a minute I might not find the noise and landmarks of Highpoint again...just be lost in this nice southern neighborhood.

But it wasn't long before I found Highpoint again, stepped into one little corner grocery with no produce and barely any grain (unless you count Doritos or Potato chips) and then out again to see if I could find a place that could at least sell me a tomato.

I noticed another hole-in-the-wall grocery back in the direction of my motel, close to where I'd seen the cemetery. Though I knew it was a long shot, I decided to give it a chance.

There was not a single piece of produce in sight, but there was a nice guy with a thick local accent who was willing to give me directions to another grocery store. It was farther than I wanted to walk at the time, but he was a nice guy, so I asked him if he knew anything about the cemetery.

"Oh, for that you've got to talk to the boss," he said. "He's the man to talk to about anything in Greensboro." So he took me into the store and introduced me.

His boss was a 70-year-old Palestinian Christian emigrant named Nabeel, and he wrote down the address of the nearest Jewish school for me in case I wanted to go there at the same time as he explained to me how Judaism and Zionism are two very different things, and that he doesn't mind the one even though he hates the other. Then he told me all kinds of things about his village outside Tel Aviv, overlooking the Mediterranean, where everybody knew you and if you got sick people just popped in with soup or bread--ready to help without even being asked. He talked about the old family business making soap out of pure olive oil. "With that soap, you never get dandruff," he said. "Hundreds of years before Tide, my family was making that soap!" He talked about missing the village, about high school and East Jerusalem, about how attacks interrupted life and how that still didn't mean he could count someone he saw as a freedom fighter as a terrorist. I asked him if he wanted to go back "there" and he told me he was glad I didn't use the word Israel (even though it was more accident than choice).

When he asked what my name was and I said James, he told me that was crap. He asked what it really was, my Hebrew name, and I said it would be Yaakov. He said, "oh yes! Yacub. I had an uncle with that name."" And he insisted on referring to me as Yacub for the rest of our conversation.

It was a pretty amazing interview. Good to have a writing exercise to help justify talking to strangers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Is gurdwara an English word yet?

My short story "The Maulana Azad Memorial Lamppost of Panipatnam" was recently accepted for publication and I recently got the copy edited manuscript to look over.

In my original manuscript, I had italicized India-related terms only when the characters of the story were self-consciously explaining them to non-Indian characters while leaving India-related terms unitalicized when two Indian characters talked with each other, or when Indian characters talked quickly without bothering to explain themselves.

But the publisher's style guide, understandably, doesn't have such an elaborate set of rules for when to italicize words. Their rule is that if a word is foreign, it should be italicized the first time it appears. Which is, admittedly, a much simpler standard to watch for.

But it sort of makes me curious: how do we know when a word counts as foreign and when it becomes English? Obviously we don't feel the need to point out that pork has French origins every time the term appears in print. And when characters are clumsy, no one calls them klutzes in case you don't know any Yiddish.

But when did a mosque become a mosque? And when will gurdwara become just plain old gurdwara?

How does an imported word get naturalized into English? 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gender, Seating Arrangements, and Social Development

In Punjabi Sikh culture, men and women sit on separate sides of the center aisle at a wedding or other religious service.  I don't think it's a rule or anything, just tradition (though weddings tend to bring out the tradition in people to the point where it might as well be a rule). Punjabis also do a lot of socializing in same-gender groups.

In LDS churches, most of us spend one hour with our with an age group, one hour with a gender group, and one hour seated by family with the whole group. We also have formal gender-based organizations and spend time with them occasionally in service or social activities.

I recently read Sylvester Lamin's The Coconut Bond, a novel that gives a fascinating look into recent Sierra Leonese history and culture. It makes passing, casual reference to characters' initiations into the poro secret society for men and bondo secret society for women. There's a Hugh Masekela song called "African Secret Society"--the title sounds like it's an imaginary thing, but he's probably referring to similar institutions in South African cultures.

Yesterday I started wondering when and how often mainstream Americans spend time in formal or informal single-gender groups. Many teens and a few people in their early twenties participate in single-gender sports teams. A few participate in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, though I believe enrollment numbers are down for both organizations. In popular culture, watching sports is often presented as a male bonding activity, and book clubs as female--though in practice, both are probably mixed-gender activities more than single gender.

I understand, of course, that gender roles can lead to damaging gender inequalities. So there's a good case that we should just get rid of single-gender groups and socialization patterns and aim for a society where there are no real gender distinctions between the two biological sexes.

Then again, there may be a reason why so many cultures have developed structures for some socialization in single-gender groups. If we're gaining something in America by largely neglecting such groups and patterns, are we also losing something?


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why America is Ready for a Black President--but not a Mormon President

Don't get me wrong--there's a good chance America will soon have a Mormon President. Try as they might, it seems improbable at this point that the Republican Party's right wing will be able to stop a Romney nomination. And if gas prices are too high in the fall or things turn particularly ugly in Afghanistan or something else happens that's mostly out of Barack Obama's control but for which he'll still be blamed, then people are likely to vote for against him and--voila--put Mitt Romney in the White House.

But even if Americans elect a Mormon President, I don't think they're really ready for one--because among both liberals and conservatives, the capacity to stereotype Mormons is still too high.

See, when Barack Obama passes something controversial, people blame him, not all black people. Nobody thinks "man, those black people need to leave the Catholic Church alone" or "I hate how black people are cozying up to the Europeans all the time" or even "black people are so indecisive sometimes." And when a black person does something negative in someone's life, no one seems to think it's evidence to oppose the President. No one says, "I had a black boss once who I didn't like, so I can't support Barack Obama."

But I don't think America is ready to make the same differentiations yet between a Mormon President and Mormons. I've read plenty of online comments in which people did attack Romney because they had a bad Mormon boss or because they heard all Mormons are against women or racist or trying to take over the world. And if Mitt Romney does become President, I think we'll see the stereotypes go the other way. Imagine for a moment:
"%&#$@ Mormons took away my health insurance!"
"Why'd you Mormons have to push us to the brink of war with Iran?"
"Of course he nominated another man to the Supreme Court. %(#@$# Mormon!"


So, I'm pretty sure I'm right that many people expect Romney to be accountable for all of Mormonism, and I'm pretty sure that many people would expect individual Mormons to be accountable for things Romney would do as President.

But I'm wondering now whether the same doesn't seem to be true for Barack Obama because he's actually biracial, raised in a white family, and more difficult to associate with black Americans as a group. If we had a President who was closer to people's image of what a black man in America is like, would there be more crossover between the President's acts and the cultural stereotypes?

Maybe another useful example is Nikki Haley in South Carolina. I don't think anyone is going to judge all South Asians based on her, or expect her to explain why bad things happen in India--but they probably would do those things to an Indian-origin candidate who was closer to their stereotypes.

And would Americans still be talk about a Presidential candidate's Mormon-ness the same way if the candidate were, say, a Mormon Latina?
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