A Review of “Blackened Fertility”

Reviewed by Associate Editor Nikki Shaner-Bradford

In Osaremen Okolo’s investigation of the myth and reality of fertility amongst African American women, “Blackened Fertility: The Lasting Discourse of African American Female Reproduction After the Civil Rights Movement,” Okolo contrasts the concept of hyper-fertility that is forced upon African American women with surprising statistics about the prevalence of infertility amongst these women. She illustrates the progression of this narrative of hyper-fertility along with the socially accepted concept of the Welfare Queen, concerns of overpopulation (in particular the growth of nonwhite populations), and the results of this ideology as translating to forced sterilizations and the development of widespread but oft-ignored fertility challenges.

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Okolo’s research is her examination of the role of popular media in both contributing to and refuting these ideas. In particular, she notes that part of the aim of her work was to amplify the voices of black women whose gynecological health was simultaneously exploited, fictionalized, and overlooked. She does this by noting two magazines for and by African American women, Essence and Ebony. It was these publications that aimed to target issues specifically within that community that discussed concerns over infertility, birth control, black female identity, and the overpowering voices of black men within the conversation of black reproduction. The complicated history of being an African American woman within a country that often actively suppressed that identity meant that ideas about birth control and sexual empowerment in the wake of forced sterilizations and the hyper-fertility narrative were inherently controversial. Okolo emphasizes the importance of providing space for women to create their own narratives, however, for her paper concludes that this suppression and popular narrative have contributed to a lack of fertility treatment offered to and sought out by black women.

Along with this analysis of media and popular culture, Okolo traces the legislative debates and political platforms that contributed to the rise of this narrative. She discusses the was in which the image of hyper-fertility was projected upon the African American mother through political manipulation and exploitation of the idea of the Welfare Queen as an ideal scapegoat for other societal issues. She discusses the rise of this narrative with the Reagan administration, and the way in which this rhetoric undermined the reproductive agency of African American women around the country.

The strength of Okolo’s writing is in her ability to contrast this complex and overlooked history with the current reality of infertility and inaccessibility for proper healthcare amongst African American women. It is clear through her thorough examination of this history that these issues not only persist, but build upon their past. She draws a clear correlation between the historical narrative of hyper-fertility amongst African American women and the notable inequity in fertility care today. Ultimately, Osaremen Okolo eloquently discusses a complex and important issues while both illustrating the development of the problem and the current reality that remains.

Review of “Gerrymandering in Ohio’s 9th District”

Reviewed by Associate Editor Peter Rutkowski

Gerrymandering has long been utilized as an unfair strategy in order for one political party to gain control of a district within a defined region, often creating divisions between people of varying socioeconomic classes or races. Kimberly Hill, in her paper Gerrymandering in Ohio’s 9th District: Ideological Effects, explores this very concept.

Hill begins by discussing how the Republican Party strategically was able to redraw voting lines as a part of the REDMAP project, thus winning state legislatures before the 2012 federal elections. In her paper, however, Hill chooses to look beyond just the causes of gerrymandering; she determines that it’s important to analyze the effects of gerrymandering upon representative ideology. Her literature review discusses the ways in which redistricting affects policy outcomes. It is noted that most of the literature argues that there are “perverse” effects to redistricting and certainly to gerrymandering; however, Hill is careful to point out that some authors argue that majority-minority divisions have even led to more substantive representation for minority voters.

Of course, in this paper’s title is a specific district. Indeed, the author utilizes the Ninth District of Ohio, a district that has been redrawn and modified so much that it is nicknamed the “Snake on a Lake,” to analyze representative ideological shifts. Also, Hill mentions that she chose this specific district because its representative Marcy Kaptur (D) has won incumbency since 1983. And since then, three separate redistricting processes have occurred — in 1990, 2000, and 2010. Using the theories discussed in her literature review, Hill hypothesizes that Kaptur would become more ideologically liberal as her district became increasingly urban or populated with a higher concentration of minorities.

In order to test her theory, the researcher takes a data-driven approach to analyze Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s voting patterns. She uses a table and multiple graphs that summarize the composition of the district in terms of race (black and hispanic are tabled and graphed), medium income, and median age in four-year increments from 1893 to 2017. With this data, Hill discusses potential and theorized voting outcomes that could arise based on the data.

Next, Hill looks at another quantitative factor named the DW NOMINATE score. This measurement analyzes the level of ideological liberalism or conservatism that a representative represents with their voting patterns. Using data plotted on another graph, it’s clear that Representative Kaptur went from voting slightly liberally to more liberally over each election cycle — this could mirror her district’s composition, potentially representing an effect on the ideology of her constituents on her own voting patterns. At the same time, data from the NAACP Rating, the Federation for American Immigration Reform Ratings, the NARAL Pro-Choice America Ratings, the NRA Ratings, and the League of Conservation all suggest either that there was no observable shift in Kaptur’s voting patterns or that Kaptur became more ideologically liberal just on certain issues over time. At the same time, Hill acknowledges that it’s difficult to tell whether or not Kaptur was shifting her voting (at least difficult to determine without speaking to Rep. Hill in person) as a result of a change of her own ideology or as the result of her adjusting in order to secure her incumbency in voting cycles.

In her conclusion, author Kimberly Hill discusses the importance of continuing to research her ideas and theories, perhaps looking at other districts, particularly those where cases of gerrymandering have been investigated. Certainly, she argues, there is a correlation between voting patterns and the ideological makeup of a constituency — its effects on representative ideology just still have yet to be explored more deeply.

Review of “Blackened Fertility”

Reviewed by Associate Editor Sam Baron

In “Blackened Fertility: The Lasting Discourse of African American Female Reproduction After the Civil Rights Movement”, author Osaremen Okolo attempts to shed light on the invidious and false narrative of blackened “hyper-fertility”—the idea that African American women are more likely to be fertile and reproduce than their white counterparts. In the paper, Okolo finds that contrary to the popular narrative of “hyper-fertility”, African American women are actually less likely to be fertile than whites, and have an increased likelihood to encounter fertility issues while trying to conceive.

Okolo argues that the proliferation of this misconception of blackened “hyper-fertility” was widespread even before the Civil Rights Movement, and thus its provenance has largely racist underpinnings. Despite empirical evidence suggesting the narrative was false, Okolo points out that the “hyper-fertility” narrative became so pervasive throughout American society that the phenomenon was even cited in official government documents, legislation, and reports. Okolo further argues that because of this gross mischaracterization of black fertility, African American women suffered immensely not only socially, but also when seeking out fertility treatment and resources. She substantiates such claims with interviews with former government officials in charge of instituting policies which further promulgated the supposed veracity of the narrative, and while doing so, she notices a distinct lack of voices from African American women themselves.

The paper proceeds in a chronological fashion, first beginning with a brief introduction of the narrative, and then continuing onto a discussion around the “threat” of black overpopulation in the years following the Civil Rights Movement. In Part II, Okolo builds off the fear of black overpopulation to reveal that the United States government instituted a policy of sterilization of many poor African American women. And how ultimately in Part III, the Clinton Administration further institutionalized the “hyper-fertility” narrative as a weapon to paint African American women as “Welfare Queens” in order to mass mobilize its political capital for welfare reform to achieve the Administration’s paramount goal of a balanced budget.

Although Okolo presents an original, well-sourced and in many ways, captivating paper on the struggle for recognition of African American women’s fertility, the paper leaves much to be desired. In many instances throughout the paper, Okolo writes in an almost polemical fashion, harshly critiquing the misguided policy that supported the basic tenets of the false “hyper-fertility” narrative. She also often injects her opinion into places where the research she cites speaks for itself, thereby undermining the legitimacy of her argument.

In aggregate, however, Okolo does an excellent job at elucidating the impact of a harmful narrative which affects many African-American women today.

Trade and the Environment: A Dichotomy

Reviewed by Associate Editor Debbie Leung

There has long been a debate about the priority between economic growth and environmental conservation, with recent cases such as the Trans-Pacific Partner agreement. Ngoc Bao Pham Stefany in Trade and the Environment: A Dichotomy attempts to observe the correlation between free trade and environmental protection in the context of globalization by drawing on panel data of more than 170 countries. She first explains the four different channels through which trade influences the environment: income, composition, scale and technique effects, then elaborates on the 2 main existing opposing hypothesis that pinpoint the relationship between trade and environmental outcomes: gains from trade and race to the bottom. Next, she puts together the various indicators for trade and environmental impacts and analyzes their relationship based on the empirical results, upon which she draws her conclusion on relationship between trade openness in context of developmental level and environmental outcomes and puts forth recommendations to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.

 

She first establishes the effects of the four channels through which trade impacts the environment by reviewing existing literature. Income growth, as she explains, is modeled in the Kuznets Curve, which indicates that pollution increases with increasing income per capita but the positive trend reverses when the income per capita reaches $8000 or above. Composition factor states that countries specialize in certain sectors with different pollution composition and could have both positive and negative impacts on the environment. The scale effect, however, posits that trade harms the environment as it facilitate more economic activity while the technique effect indicates that trade brings environmental benefits via worldwide green technology transfers. She also presents the two main theories about the impact of international trade on environmental protection. The “gains from trade” theory proposes that Trade can contribute positively to the environment through technique and income effects and policy convergence, known as “California Effects” in which powerful nations prod smaller nations into improving environmental policy through trade forum. On the other hand, the “race to the bottom” theory believes that trade openness and investment will lower environmental standards as countries would loosen their domestic regulations to increase their export competitiveness.

 

In trying to quantify the correlation between free trade and the environment, Stefany first introduces the different indicators of a country’s economic and environmental performance: Yale Environmental Performance Index (EPI) for a country’s environmental outcomes, ranging from water and sanitation, air quality, forest, biodiversity, climate, energy and more; GHG emissions for emission of air pollutants; import and export ratio over GDP for trade openness; GDP per capita and its square for national income given the hypothesis of the Kutznet Curve; political rights index from the Freedom House for political rights; and domestic trade in value added (TiVA) as % of gross export data. Using four tables to analyze the relationship between trade ratio and EPI (with and without TiVA) and that between trade ratio and GHG emissions (with and without TiVA), though Stefany concludes the correlation as insignificant given the constraints of her data, she explains trade openness alone does not account for the changes in environmental performance, trade openness in the context of development level influences environmental outcomes: as countries improve their development level, more trade openness can lead to better environmental outcomes and less greenhouse gas emissions. This is because their higher development level enables countries to take advantage of clean technology to reduce pollution, aligning with the Kuztnets Curve and the gain from trade hypothesis.

 

In light of her conclusion on the relationship between trade openness in context of developmental level and environmental outcomes, Stefany suggests the solution to environmental protection is not to limit trade; rather, we should focus on improving the level of development around the world so that countries can use their increasing income and technology transfer to enhance environmental outcomes. In Stefany’s view, this development process can be ultimately facilitated by trade.

Examining Activist Strategies

Reviewed by Associate Editor Akanksha Ashok

Farris Peale’s Indifference and the Ivory Tower attempts to qualify and explain the strategies of apartheid divestment activists at Harvard and Columbia in the 1980s. These activists pushed the two universities to divest from investments in South Africa that supported apartheid. While Columbia divested fully, Harvard’s partial divestment stands out in stark contrast to Dartmouth, Georgetown and the entire University of California system (which withdrew three billion dollars of investments). By comparing Columbia and Harvard, Peale attempts to understand the gap in the administration’s response to divestment movement, and identify strategies that made complete divestment possible at Columbia.

Peale draws upon interviews and articles in The Harvard Crimson and The Columbia Spectator to construct coherent narratives of student activists and administrative responses. Her analysis suggests that outcomes at Harvard and Columbia were due to the differing structures of the two organizations heading the divestment movement. Harvard’s South African Solidarity Committee (SASC), despite having a democratic and non-hierarchical approach, seems to have been less effective than Columbia for a Free South Africa (CFSA) in persuading administration to divest fully. SASC remained a largely white organization with, as Peale notes, existing racial power structures replicated within. By contrast, CFSA’s more diverse population and prominent South African members made it more credible.

Structural differences aside, CFSA and SASC’s largest difference was a tactical one. CFSA had the distinct advantage of appealing to moderate students through a multistep process of education, appeal to administration through student votes, and eventual protests and barricading. Going through this process gave CFSA a way to cater to a base of moderate students and administration in a way SASC’s anti-administration and association with purely leftist student groups did not. In fact, Peale suggests that SASC ended up alienating a moderately conservative student body that should have otherwise been its broadest support base.

Indifference and the Ivory Tower provides an interesting study of divestment activism. In the context of Columbia and its Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movements, one may wonder how effective the tactics presented by Peale are. The caveat, however, is that Peale’s research cannot account for administration and their motivations as actors. While Peale acknowledges this and suggests further research in the area, activists and their narratives do not exist separately from their administrations and circumstances. Perhaps a study of the makeup and motivation of Harvard and Columbia’s administration would allow Peale to establish a more causal relationship between CFSA and SASC’s structures and the different outcomes of divestment.

Review of “Let’s Talk About Sex”

Reviewed by Associate Editor Chloe Dennison

In her paper “Let’s Talk About Sex: the Acquisition of Sexual Health Education Among Urban
Youth in Cameroon,” Tiani Vessah analyzes the cultural and personal influences that shape the
development of sexual education in adolescents living in Cameroon. Vessah specifically focused
her research on the economic capital of Cameroon, Douala, and selected forty-one individuals
(aged 18 to 25) to interview, ultimately applying her conclusions to the larger country and region.
Her selection of Douala as the pool for interviewees is particularly significant: as the most
heavily urban city in the nation, it is immensely diverse, supporting broadly varied ethnic and
socioeconomic groups. The respondents were 68.29 percent male and 31.71 percent female,
leading to a slightly skewed result in the research (as males were less likely to receive
information on pregnancy). However, this discrepancy was to be expected, as females were less
likely to be so forthcoming in discussing sexuality (as they were taught to be discreet).
Vessah breaks down the sources of sexual education for youths into three distinct categories:
parent-to-child communication, friends and teachers, and technology. In the author’s view, the
parent-to-child communication can be the most influential on the sexual education received by
the adolescent, as it shapes one’s attitude about sex from an early age. The natural growth
approach (as theorized by Annette Lareau) is most prevalent in households, wherein parents
believe that their children will learn about sex as they grow up (and thus no direct
communication on sexual activity is necessary). Some parents utilize passive communication,
where they bestow their children with gifts suggestive of certain behaviors (such as condoms
implying the utilization of safe sex methods), but still refuse any to participate in any form of
direct communication.

Among friends, adolescents communicate in Camfranglais, a slang language that solves the
problem of discomfort of speaking outright. Sexual health is primarily discussed down strict
gender lines, and stereotypical gender norms persist in these conversations (as males try to
establish their sexual behavior as being overtly masculine or “macho,” for example). However,
youths also reach out to les grands frères du quartier (older brothers) for advice. These
individuals are often thought of as the “cool kids on the block,” as they are older and more
experienced. Male youths regularly reach out to these les grands frères du quartier for
information on more advanced topics such as unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted
diseases.

Youths in Cameroon also rely on their teachers to provide them with information on sexual
health, though the accuracy and depth of this education widely varies. In private Catholic
schools, the sexual health curriculum is carefully planned, and is one of the most extensive ones
offered. Safe sex (and the usage of condoms and other forms of birth control) is heavily
promoted, as well as healthy communication with one’s sexual partner. All lessons connect back
to Biblical teachings, but remain conscientious of the context of the student’s lives outside of the
school environment. In contrast, public schools regularly do not have any structured sexual
health curriculum. Rather, teachers often give impromptu lessons on sexuality, which lead to
inaccurate or anecdotal evidence being spread.

Finally, Vessah argues that technology plays a major role in the sexual health education of youths
in Cameroon. As adolescents are increasingly exposed to technology (especially in comparison
to older generations), the media they consume often dictates what information they receive.
Songs and television shows often promote promiscuity and more open sexual behavior.
Advertisements for condoms inform adolescents on safe sex behaviors. Social media (among
other online platforms) can promote the spread and consumption of pornography, which further
dictates attitudes towards sexual activity.

Ultimately, Vessah concludes that the key to increased prevalence of accurate information on
sexual health is open communication. Starting at an early age (before sexual activity begins),
parents ought to be more open in discussing sexual health with their children, ensuring that
reliable information is distributed. In Vessah’s view, as sexual health education models the future
sexual behavior of individuals (and thus is incredibly important), early and accurate education
can lead to decreased sexual risks and consequences (such as unplanned pregnancies and
sexually transmitted diseases).

Modernization and Urban Planning

Reviewed by Associate Editor Priya Mishra

In Austin Crouse’s paper, “The Politics of Urban Transport Planning in Ahmedabad, India,” Crouse investigates how urban transportation decisions are made by analyzing the dialectics between academic researchers, government administrators, policy professionals, and inclusive habitat advocates. Because of unchecked urban sprawl and private vehicle dependence, India is home to thirteen of the most polluted cities in the world and has the highest rate of death caused by respiratory illness.  Crouse analyses the discourse-coalitions between the previously mentioned entities to identify the causes of the problematization of public transit in Ahmedabad, India, and the role the current trend of public transit expansion plays in low-income and marginalized communities and environmental sustainability.

Crouse begins by giving an overview of public transit usage and the history of urbanization in Ahmedabad.  The high levels of pollution and road injuries were not always the norm in Ahmedabad. Initially, urban growth was spatially concentrated around transportation infrastructure, but as housing demand increased, strict rent controls and low floor space regulations in municipally classified areas pushed growth into the neighboring ‘rural’ areas. Public transportation systems could not keep up with the geographic expansion, and urban residents shifted to private vehicles to meet their daily needs.  While many people do use non-motorized transit (NMT), it is inefficient and people switch to private vehicles when they have enough money to buy them.  Crouse argues that rather than attempting to promote a massive shift away from private vehicle use, Indian cities must build urban environments that maintain citizens’ preference for NMT and public transport modes.

There has been such a large focus on being more modern and environmentally sustainable by implementing a metro system that little attention has been paid to how ridership on the Ahmedabad Bus Rapid Transit System has plateaued, failing to encourage a significant shift away from private vehicle use.  Furthermore, the focus on Ahmedabad’s technical progress has overshadowed a more troubling breakdown in trust between Ahmedabad municipal government and local communities.

The government has emphasized technologically advanced and capital-intensive infrastructure, but not one that is more practical, such as pedestrian and cycle-friendly architecture. Investing in new technology does not increase mobility, since potential users do not have the freedom of modal choice, because capital-intensive projects need high fares to recover the cost of construction. They are thus unaffordable for the lower classes.  In this way smart cities have been designed to accommodate the emerging neo-middle class, and, as Crouse argues, unless Indian cities focus on affordability and service quality of public transport to all communities, including lower income communities, they will never achieve healthy and sustainable living environments.

All of the different actors in the public transit creating process have different views on what needs to be done. Government administrators was focused on high-modernist design and economic growth and relied on authoritarian power to suppress controversy and implement identified solutions. Expert consultants, academics, and technocratic civil society members, believed in “ecological modernism.” They attempted to understand the problem of sustainable mobility in great detail, but in recommending specific policy changes, they trusted the existing political and urban development institutions to care for the problem and implement solutions. Finally, Crouse found that civil society members, who called for urban equity in access to resources and social services, were organized out of the accepted discourse-coalitions

So Crouse’s conclusion is that when modernization becomes the center of public transit discourse, then the solutions to environmental issues become framed by scientific and economic perspectives and they both fail to meet the needs of citizens and neglect to address the fragmented governance systems responsible for urban planning in the city.  And, as a result, private actors are able to exploit development opportunities, while the poorest continue to live in dangerous and marginalizing environments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planning Mass Transit – a Review

Reviewed by Associate Editor Connor Haseley

In “The Politics of Urban Transport Planning in Ahmedabad, India,” Austin Crouse examines how the framing of problems of urban transport along statistical lines relates to the failure of many mass transit projects to reduce private vehicle travel, and further how such framing contributes to inequality and lack of inclusivity of poor people. Focusing on the city of Ahmedabad, India, a city often cited as an example of progressive urban planning, Crouse uses discourse analysis to examine how the planning and development of the Indian city is oriented around the needs of the middle class and upper class at the expense of the poorest.

Crouse starts by introducing the Indian city as a city plagued by pollution, one in which sprawl has developed unchecked and is no longer concentrated around transportation infrastructure. He introduces the theory of transport-oriented development — which attempts to reduce reliance on motorized transport by reducing the distance between home, work, and public transit — in order to criticize it for its inconsideration of feedback effects and its lack of community engagement. He posits that Indian cities must be planned such that exiting preferences for non-motorized transport are maintained, criticizing Ahmedabad’s internationally renowned bus rapid transit system for not doing this.

Crouse notes that since 1991 the Indian central government has poured more resources into cities, examining specifically a 2015 urban renewal project tasked with creating ‘smart cities’. He problematizes this development by critiquing the principles of sustainability which underlie ‘smart city’ projects by saying that increased modal choice does not necessarily mean increased mobility, and that high fares mean increased modal choice would not serve the poor and would hamper pedestrian infrastructure.

Crouse introduces his theoretical underpinnings most cogently in the literature review, where he references urban planning as a ‘wicked problem,’ whereby the solution favored by each actor is determined by the type of actor (engineer, community activist, politician, etc.) and the frameworks through which each actor sees urban planning. Crouse’s argument itself is an example of how frameworks beget solutions — his framing of urban planning as a ‘wicked problem’ leads directly to his solution: communication between different actors and incorporation of all perspectives, as opposed to privileging the scientific-technical lexical framework which Crouse shows has become dominant in Indian urban planning. He links the unplanned and vibrant communities at the edge of the underused ‘top-down’ modernist cities of Brasilia and Changigarh with the ‘top-down’ style of many recent Indian urban development projects, both of which pose significant inclusivity problems for poor and marginalized communities. Crouse ends the literature review by identifying the discourse-coalitions which form around terms such as ‘sustainable development’ and ‘eco-modernity’ with the problematic discourse of scientific-technical modernization.

Finally, Crouse introduces his specific study of Ahmedabad, explaining that he conducted interviews with 36 people broken down into academics, government officials, consultants, and civil society workers, and used political discourse analysis. He finds two discourse-coalitions, one in which government officials rely on authoritarian methods to implement high modernist designs, and one in which the other three groups coalesce around ecological modernism, though he complicates this by stressing the unwillingness to communicate between groups. Though he makes some differentiations between the four groups, he stresses that each of the four focus on top-down solutions which appeal to discourses of modernization. He details the fracture between civil society actors which use scientific-technical language and those which do not, castigating the former for not endorsing participatory approaches.

After a historically situated critique of the international institutionalization of inflexible high-modernist approaches to urban planning which Crouse says are unsuited to Ahmedabad, Crouse once again criticizes the lack of inclusion of marginalized communities and even civil society groups in the development of ‘smart cities’ throughout India, focusing on the negative effects of the displacement inevitable caused by capital-intensive megaprojects. He concludes by once again associating eco-modernism with the faults of high-modernism, and emphasizes how these narratives exclude civil society organizations advocating for inclusive planning. He ends with the hope that new and inclusive discourse-coalitions can be built around the goals decentralization and localization of power, using the visual aspects of displacement as a reminder that current urban development schemes cannot capture the world in an algorithm.

A few points of criticism for this paper: It often changes in scope within specific sections: although his on-the-ground research focused solely on actors in Ahmedabad, Crouse often goes back and forth between points specific to Ahmedabad, points specific to India, and points general to urban theory, such that the paper’s strongest aspect, the collection of data, appears secondary. Crouse often does not directly link Ahmedabad to the theories he cites. Further, Crouse’s distrust of scientific-technical language and planning is not as well-founded or as well-stated as it could be — on the one hand he acknowledges the role of scientific expertise, while at the same time blaming the lexical gap between technical and non-technical actors for the lack of inclusivity. Additionally, Crouse’s pro arguments for participatory development, pedestrian infrastructure, alternatives to displacement, and the like, are often more implicit than explicit. Nowhere does he lay out a full theoretical justification for why participatory development, for example, is good in and of itself along with its accompanying lexicon, nor does he explicitly cite the work of other urban theorists. Lastly, his selective use of data was made weaker by lack of context: changes in population density and private vehicle use do not happen in a vacuum, and solely blaming urban planning for trends which have multiple causes without explicitly acknowledging that fact runs the risk of reifying the all-powerful conception of the state which Crouse explicitly argues against in his critique of high-modernism and the arrogance of urban planners. That said, this paper is a strong piece of critique which effectively shows how urban politics function in Ahmedabad, and Crouse’s persistent focus on marginalized communities is a well-centered avenue of problematization of urban narratives which unfortunately predominate in too many places.

Molière and Louis XIV – a Complex Relationship

Reviewed by Associate Editor Ciara O’Muircheartaigh

In “A Paradoxical Partnership: An Exploration of Molière’s Comedies during the Reign of Louis XIV,” Serena Frechter analyzes the complex relationship between seventeenth century French ruler Louis XIV and his playwright contemporary, Molière. Frechter argues that although Molière is often sidelined in analyses of Louis XIV’s absolutist reign, the playwright had an essential role in furthering Louis XIV’s political agenda, and that Molière, too, benefited from their relationship, both financially and otherwise.

Frechter begins by pointing to significant gaps in existing scholarship on Louis XIV and Molière. She explains that extensive research and analysis have been done on the life and ambitions of Louis XIV, and to some extent Molière as well, but that there is little to no existing work on the politically motivated relationship between the two. Although some authors have used the regular appearances of Molière’s work in Louis XIV’s court as evidence of Louis XIV’s commitment to the arts in general, Frechter argues that their relationship was more significant than that, and that Molière helped Louis promote absolutism to the French people.

In order to explore their relationship, Frechter begins by describing and analyzing Louis’s path to, and motivations for, absolute rule over France. She describes Louis’s movement toward absolutism as a series of instances of his bringing order to previously disordered areas of France’s sociopolitical system. Naturally, given the subject of her paper, she devotes particular attention to Louis’ creation of a formal system of patronage in the arts. She points to this system as evidence of a symbiotic relationship between Louis XIV and Molière; artistic patronage meant the long-term stability of Molière finances and reputation. Inversely, the French Académie commissioned artists to create works that venerated Louis.

Frechter separates Louis XIV’s politically motivated national elevation of art into three distinct categories: emphasis on his own “singular power,” giving the French people “tangible representations” of his enemies, and creating a “distraction” for anyone marginally influential who he felt posed a threat to his power (7). Louis used culture to create a community among wealthy and powerful people, spending large amounts of money on events, rituals, and artworks that encouraged a sense of loyalty and belonging. This was necessary, as many of Louis’s reforms drained nobles of their political power.

Frechter’s primary source analysis centers around three of Molière’s plays: L’ecole des femmes, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Tartuffe, all of which were written between 1660 and 1670. Although these plays appear inflammatory in that they mock the nobles and clergy Louis aimed to impress, the author argues that they in fact target only those nobles who attempted to defy the king. She notes that L’ecole des femmes ends “in chaos,” emphasizing the inability of non-rulers to create order in their own lives (15). Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, too, appears deceptively critical of seventeenth century French social structure. Although it centers around the challenging of gender norms and expectations, it preserved the class hierarchy of the time, and allowed nobles to laugh at bourgeoisie attempts at social climbing.

In her analysis of Molière’s work, Frechter also touches on the playwright’s use of prefaces in printed editions of his plays as a means of asserting authority over his work’s interpretation. He published only as a means of preventing others from publishing his content, and was in fact quite hesitant to publish at all. However, once he did choose to publish, the structure and content of his prefaces were highly intentional. He emphasized the complexity of his work and the loss of nuance and meaning that resulted from seeing only the text of his plays.

Frechter ties her analyses together with a study of Molière’s Tartuffe. Although Louis himself had no major problems with the play, the church felt attacked by the “fraudulent piety” of the story’s eponymous main character (23). In fact, they were so upset by the play’s content that the archbishop of Paris ordered that those who sought it out in any form would be excommunicated from the church. Louis also banned a later, extended version of Tartuffe (entitled L’Imposteur) before it could be shown to the public. Molière wrote to Louis in hopes of convincing him to let the revisions be performed, saying he felt firmly that Tartuffe actually furthered Louis’s absolutism by “exposing” the “hypocrites and rascals” who posed a threat (24). It was not until five years later that Le Tartuffe, a second revision, was approved (and was extremely well received). This obviously benefited Molière, but it also assisted the king; when Louis ultimately did allow the play to be performed, Frechter argues that his handling of the situation demonstrated his control over both the church’s and Molière’s behavior.

In conclusion, Frechter asserts that Molière benefited from his relationship with Louis XIV even after his death. The king pulled all possible strings to ensure a dignified burial and legacy for Molière, despite the church’s open disdain for the playwright. The author also re-emphasizes the importance of Molière’s role in Louis’s political success, saying his plays not only furthered, but also helped to develop, French absolutist ideology toward the beginning of Louis’s reign.

 

Torture and Public Opinion – An Analysis

In her paper, “Constructing the United States Torture Regime: The Power of the Media to Distort Public Opinion of International Law,” Zoe Young analyzes the government leaders’ utilization of the media to shape public opinion of domestic and international policies. She especially looks into the Bush administration’s normalization of interrogational torture following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Before looking into her specific example, Young begins by reviewing the relevant international law prohibiting torture, mainly Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which contains prohibition against “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” She then illustrates the United States’ historic role in spearheading the international effort to push back on the use of torture around the world to lead to her main point of her essay of how the United States had distorted this international law in modern times as obsolete in the aftermath of 9/11.

Young provides some background to her example by describing the ‘ticking bomb scenario,’ where terrorism was essentially portrayed through the media as an imminent situation in which the use of interrogation was crucial to avoid more casualties and damage to the United States. She disapproves of this practice as a distortion of international law that justifies the use of torture against terrorist suspects and strips them of their international right to be free from such practices.

Looking more specifically on the media side, Young criticizes the media for failing to question the government’s justification of torture until the discovery of severe abuse in the in Abu Ghraib detention center. However, the blame for the lack of media coverage on the issue is turned back to the Bush administration as its effort to control the media’s depiction of the disturbing situations in the detention center as something that the government is not directly responsible for. Young asserts that the public’s limited access to truthful information facilitated by such government control redefines torture to a much narrower term that only includes practices that would lead to death or near-death, which deviates from the broad international definition of torture.

Young concludes her paper by describing the negative global consequences of such practice in normalizing the use of torture in the citizens’ minds as an acceptable counterterrorism effort, as well as in justifying the bypassing of international law. As her concluding remark, she wraps up her paper by suggesting for the United States to end this torture regime and ensure compensation for the torture victims.