Taylor Swift breaks her political silence, and America erupts

Her support of Democratic candidates has the alt-right furious.

  • Taylor Swift breaks her political silence by endorsing Tennessee Democratic candidates.
  • Mistakenly believing her to be one of theirs up until now, the alt-right is furious.
  • New voter registrations have spiked since her announcement.

In their heyday, The Beatles never told anyone how to vote, fearful as they were of their own power over their fan base. As one of their promoters put it, "Only Hitler ever duplicated their power over crowds." Such were the times that they felt safe keeping their views mostly to themselves, only occasionally implying them in song lyrics.

These are not those times, though, and The Beatles of today, Taylor Swift, this week stepped into the political fray by endorsing Democratic candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives candidates in her home state of Tennessee. She also strongly criticized the voting record of Republican Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn.

That Swift has spoken up in these troubled times confirms her image as an "All-American girl." The tweet in which she made her endorsement speaks eloquently in support of traditional American ideals.

I'm writing this post about the upcoming midterm elections on November 6th, in which I'll be voting in the state of Tennessee. In the past I've been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now. I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country. I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG. I believe that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent.

I cannot vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love. Running for Senate in the state of Tennessee is a woman named Marsha Blackburn. As much as I have in the past and would like to continue voting for women in office, I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives. Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values. For a lot of us, we may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100% on every issue, but we have to vote anyway.
So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do. October 9th is the LAST DAY to register to vote in the state of TN. Go to vote.org and you can find all the info. Happy Voting! — Taylor Swift

Photo that accompanied Swift's tweet.

True to the times in which we live, the faction so out-of-step with traditional American ideals, the alt-right, exploded in rage. On the other hand, according to vote.org, new voter registrations since Swift's tweet have also exploded, with 65,000+ signups in just the first 24 hours after her tweet, demonstrating the powerful and emotional bond Swift maintains with her audience.

The fallout is a stunning collision of the power of hate and celebrity that so characterize today's U.S.A.

Nobody's Aryan princess

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The alt-right movement has for several years believed the blonde, blue-eyed, Southern Swift to be their "Aryan princess." In the absence of a full-throated rejection from the pop star, their faith in Swift's presumed agreement with their radical views has become more and more entrenched over time.

Never mind that it began as a joke when a November 2011 4chan kitten-naming contest decided on a name Swift herself had chosen for her own feline. Additional "clues" supporting Swift's alleged alt-right leanings appeared over time, culminating in a neo-Nazi's article reposting a mashup of Hitler quotes over an image of Swift. His post was titled, "Aryan Goddess Taylor Swift: Nazi Avatar of the White European People."

One tweet describes Swift's recent endorsement as a "betrayal beyond words". On Reddit, things grew even darker, with one poster claiming, "Nobody pisses off 4chan. She will regret this move for that reason alone." Another informs her, "you just lost over half of your fanbase, including me." One alt-right commenter with a user name containing "taytay4ever" wondered, "Son of a bitch...how do I change usernames???"

Donald Trump defended Blackburn as a "tremendous woman," and shared his unique conception of math by telling supporters, "Let's say that I like Taylor's music about 25% less now."

There are performers and then there’s Taylor

Image: Flickr

Taylor Swift has a powerful and emotionally resonant relationship with her fans. Many, though by no means all, of her adorers are teenage girls who look to Swift for guidance in matters big and small during this charged time of life. From song lyrics to one-on-one fan surprises, Swift clearly works hard and reciprocates the adulation she receives. As she noted in her tweet, a sizable portion of her base has just come of voting age, and she clearly wanted to use her influence with them for positive change. That her reasons involved standing up for human rights and making clear that this includes various groups whose rights are in question these days fits in perfectly with her long-time message to fans. As Mary Mancini of vote.org tells Buzzfeed, "Having her come out and say this so publicly will make people sit up and say, ya know what, I'm not alone here."

According to Mancini, of the 5,183 new registrations in Tennessee so far this month, 2,144 were from the period following Swift's tweet. vote.org itself saw 155,940 unique visitors in the first post-tweet day, the largest group of visitors since National Voter Registration Day in September.

A gamble worth taking

Swift has really stepped up as a young American here, taking a real risk with her career and her personal safety to simply help her generation do what she feels is obviously right. That thousands are willingly following her guidance at the same time as others are demonizing her fits this American moment, sadly. To provide some light in this wilderness is why she spoke up.

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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