Tegan Tuesday: Disabled activists are using South Korea’s lack of accessibility to fight for human rights

My first introduction to disability rights was at a mock trial when I was a teenager. For those unfamiliar with the structure of mock trials, schools all across the US are given the same fake trial, and students must prepare both prosecution and defense against other school districts. It’s an introduction to the law process in the US and an interesting bit of mental competition. I remember one of the years that I was competing, the plaintiff was a disabled newscaster suing a news network for discriminatory hiring practices, stating that the network was not interesting in working with a newscaster in a wheelchair.

Among the many things our team had to learn to work on this case was what counts as discrimination, and what categories of people counted as a “protected class”. In the U.S., race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and age are the current protected classes. Partial protection from disability discrimination was from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, with additional protection from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Our fictional law case had the news station only paying attention to the original Civil Rights Act of 1964, which only protects discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. As an able-bodied person with no disabled people in my immediate family, I hadn’t ever considered the discrimination disabled people face. My mock trial team knew about how much effort went into getting the Civil Rights Act, and we assumed that a similar amount of effort was put in for all subsequent additions. And that’s where we left it; no actual research was done on the disability activists who made the relevant law happen.

The next time I heard much about disability activism was 2017 when activists were arrested outside Mitch McConnell’s office. The activist group ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today) had staged “die-ins” with wheelchair users abandoning their wheelchairs, making it harder to force the protesters to leave, as well as making the visual impact of removing said protesters stronger. In the many discussions and articles I read about the activists in 2017, I learned of how throughout much of the last fifty years disabled activists have been fighting. Not just for their lives, although they certainly have fought for that, but for the right to exist in public, to have jobs, to have families. One of the actions that ADAPT is known for are the protests throughout the 1980s for accessible buses. A quick summary from Wikipedia states:

Throughout the 1980s, the campaign for bus lifts expanded out from Denver to cities nationwide. ADAPTers became well known for their tactic of immobilizing buses to draw attention to the need for lifts. Wheelchair users would stop a bus in front and back, and others would get out of their chairs and crawl up the steps of an inaccessible bus to dramatize the issue. Not only city buses but interstate bus services like Greyhound were targeted. By the end of the decade, after protests and lawsuits, ADAPT finally saw bus lifts required by law as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

As anyone who has ever seen or experienced the process of getting a wheelchair user onto a bus will know, the current system is still not particularly good. It varies from place to place, but it generally requires the bus to laboriously lower a ramp, let the rider wheel on, then equally-laboriously raise the ramp. The process is repeated when the rider needs to exit. It takes time, which delays the schedule, and there is often only space for one or two wheelchair users on a bus. But, technically, officially, wheelchair users are able to ride the bus with the non-wheelchair-using populace. There’s just the implied and hoped-for expectation that most wheelchair users will avoid the bus. In a world where punctuality is often so important, and time is often so short, the setup almost seems designed to focus attention – and impatience – on disabled people just trying to go about their day.

This situation isn’t limited to just the US. In both Scotland and Ireland, my experience has been that anyone requiring a mobility aid has had to make an ordeal of their entering a bus. Cue my lack of surprise to find that South Korea has a similar issue with public transit. Since mid-December, Hyehwa station in Seoul has been the center of a new fight for disability rights.

Disability rights activists, many of them in wheelchairs, have been staging subway protests to demand accommodations on public transit. And on [April 15th] the demonstrators chained themselves to each other and to a portable ladder, reenacting a 2001 protest where activists chained themselves to the subway tracks. Now they shouted, “Pass a budget for disabled citizens! No rights without a budget!” They boarded trains in groups, which requires transit workers to install and uninstall wheelchair ramps, thus causing delays. A few of the activists had recently shaved their heads in public, a monkish ritual of sacrifice.

Lee Hyoung-sook, who leads a local advocacy group, was among those with her head shaved. At Gyeongbokgung station, she tried to board the train en route to Hyehwa station. Subway workers brought out a ramp so her wheels wouldn’t get stuck in the large gap between the platform and the car. Four more wheelchair users waited their turn to board in other sections of the train. While workers moved their one ramp around to get every wheelchair activist on board, the subway doors kept closing in on them. “Fellow citizens, we sincerely apologize for the inconvenience,” Lee told her fellow passengers.

These subway protests are being led by the largest disability-rights activist group, Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD). This is far from the first time that SADD has been in the news. In 2016, the group was protesting the 6-tiered disability system that ranks the amount of support any individual can receive. The activists were visibly pulled from chairs and dragged out of an international social work conference. Current South Korean president, Yoon Seuk-yeol, is the head of the conservative People’s Power Party, and the official response from the government has been as helpful as 2016’s sanctioned violence. The head of the political party – and the president’s right-hand-man – Lee Jun-seok, has claimed that the activism is illegal, an “uncivilized backward strategy” and that the activists are “playing the minority card” to villainize the majority. My, that’s certainly a familiar conservative refrain.

According to 2020 surveys, 32% of disabled Koreans don’t have access to medical care, 85.6% of disabled Koreans have been unable to pursue higher education, and the majority of the people surveyed stated that lack of accessible transportation was the primary reason. The transit activism runs parallel to efforts to improve conditions in residential facilities, as current statistics indicate that fully half of disabled Koreans living in care homes die before age 50, and a third of them don’t even make it to 30. But care home residents are not as visible as subway stoppages, so awareness has to come from without. SADD’s demands are simple: they want the rights of disabled citizens guaranteed, same as any other citizen.

SADD currently has been demanding the government to draw up four major bills relating to the basic rights of disabled. The disabled advocacy group has been also asking the government to secure budgetary funds for disability rights in the 2023 fiscal plan, in addition to an official meeting with the new administration’s finance minister.

Laws protecting the rights, freedoms, and safety of people have always been written in blood; I hope the South Korean government sees the value in the lives of disabled people before more blood is shed.

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Tegan Tuesday: The Music Video Effect

Part of the fun of graduate level training is the introduction to existing questions in your field. One of the topics presented for debate in my Masters was the phonograph effect. A short description of this debate is: does knowing there are preserved, repeatable versions of a performance change how we write, perform, and listen to music? Of course it does. Technology changes cultures and music is no exception to this. (The debate then becomes what specifically is the phonograph effect versus changing tastes.) But now, 150 years after Edison’s invention, I think we are experiencing a second shift: the music video effect.

While videos of musicians and songs existed in the 1960s and 1970s, these mostly don’t resemble the current understanding of a music video. A modern music video is a separate work of art that uses a piece of music as the predominant soundtrack for storytelling. This isn’t that they can’t be more than that — Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Beyonce’s “Lemonade” album come to mind — but they usually stick close to the recorded sound. Sia’s “Chandelier” is an example of modern visual storytelling that uses the song as the primary audio.

Early music videos, rather than being a separate art form, were often recordings of live TV performances, or weren’t far off from that format. Here’s The Monkees’s “Daydream Believer” as an example of the fake concert format.

These early videos weren’t much beyond advertising for tickets to live concerts and for album sales. Notable exceptions to this were long-form videos like Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” and The Beatles’s “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Compressing two decades of music video history, it’s enough to say that the biggest change to the value of music videos came in August 1981 when MTV first went on the air. The story I had always been told by my dad was that the first video played was The Buggles’s “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It is a story so pat, I doubted it, but a quick glance at wikipedia — your friend and mine! — suggests that it’s true. Now, because of the impact of MTV on young people, if an artist wanted to reach that market, they needed an arresting video in addition to a catchy radio hit. The forty years since then have only increased the emphasis placed on music videos, and even prioritized them over the development of albums. According to my friend’s own MA research (unpublished thesis entitled How TikTok is Changing the Music Industry), it is more cost efficient in the Spotify and TikTok world to have a handful of well-made and highly-produced singles with music videos than to build the narrative of an album that would have three-quarters of its tracks commercial non-starters. Most pop music consumers today are only looking for individual tracks anyway. The TikTok connection to videos is obvious, as it’s a visual medium, but even Spotify will often show music videos while streaming if the app is up on the phone or computer. That a streaming audio service is attempting to capitalize on the music video phenomenon is indicative of how prevalent this format is in the modern music industry.

Where the music video effect gets really interesting — to me — is the relationship between music videos and non-current popular music. Today, we have access to 150 years of recorded sound and each era has modern fans. One of my favorite digital archives and preservation projects is the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archives, with a close second being the Library of Congress National Jukebox. These platforms allow modern music lovers to hear everything from the latest vaudeville hit of 1899 (“Hello My Baby” anyone?) to home recordings of unidentified children singing folk songs. While I’m sure that there are early sound fans creating videos for some of these recordings, the majority of early sound fans on YouTube prioritize the physical medium. Their videos are often simply a turn table or phonograph playing the music, sharing the early album with you, the viewer. I suspect that these earliest recordings are less susceptible to the music video effect simply because they are niche markets with dedicated fans of the aesthetic. The goal of a digital rendition is not to bring modern aesthetics to the era, but to introduce modern music lovers to the aesthetics of a previous era.

There is, however, a pre-MTV era of music that is still commercially viable and widely popular: the classic rock of the 1960s and 1970s. Not all of the hits from the early music video days had videos made because it was an expensive extra. More than that, hindsight can tell us what tracks have stood the test of time. “Purple Haze”, for example, was considered a flop upon release, and now it’s one of Jimi Hendrix’s most well-known tracks. Why waste the money on a video if you weren’t even sure the song would be popular? Classic rock is thus the only genre that both has a large, active fanbase, and doesn’t currently have in-period music videos to bring into the digital, visual world. They also are still all under copyright. Because of this visual gap, in the past 5-10 years, many record companies have started producing officially licensed music videos to bring these beloved hits to a new market. There are three main categories for how to structure these videos: listening community, artistic community, and retrospective.

The first category is the celebration of the listening community. The first song that I noticed having had a modern music video made fits this category: Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

The music video is simple and doesn’t even include the singer, but it instead highlights the listener. “Tiny Dancer” has been a part of people’s listening experience since it’s release in 1971 and has been loved for all of those fifty years (although it technically wasn’t a commercial success as it never topped the charts). The newly crafted music video shows the viewer snapshots of the lives of the many people who listen to Elton John, and invites us to link our experience with theirs. Rather than highlighting a new work or an artist, this video celebrates the long-lasting cultural power of a hit song. The artist is important, the song is important, but the listening community built around it is where its current value lies.

The second category is also a variant on community. “Artistic community” specifically refers to the community that the artist has built. An example of this I saw recently (it’s what prompted this article!) is George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

The music video for this song is a fun romp telling the story of a secret spy organization, and has nothing to do with the song content. For this star-studded video, it is clear that the artist — who is posthumously present in the film — had had all of his friends asked if they wanted to make a film. This video is just a goofy and entertaining introduction for viewers who might be unfamiliar with the song. The non-topical video also in no way impedes the enjoyment of a long-time fan.

The final type of new video for an old tune is the nostalgic retrospective. An example of this is the new video for The Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun.”

It’s a beautiful video that references the source material, but it primarily highlights old footage from the band’s heyday. A viewer of this type of video is most likely already familiar with the source material and the context for the nostalgia. This style is the hardest video for a newcomer to appreciate, but perhaps the easiest for a long-time fan. This style also feels closest to a fan video with an actual budget, so the only novelty here is the official sponsorship from the record label.

The thing that all three of my examples have in common is that they are mega-hits. It is a low-risk financial investment for a recording company to make a video for one of these tried-and-true songs. The Lovin’ Spoonful or Lulu aren’t likely to be eligible for officially licensed videos any time soon, no matter how popular they may have been in their own time. Personally, I hope that more videos are made in the first two categories, as I find both of them significantly more fun than simply being sad about times gone by. Feel free to share any examples of the music video effect that you’ve seen in your own corner of the internet — I’m always looking for more fun videos to watch!

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Tegan Tuesday: Scientists solve one part of the SIDS puzzle

I was probably around 5 when I first learned about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). A friend of the family, one year younger than I, had unusual sleep habits and I brought my new-found knowledge of him to my mother. I almost certainly wanted confirmation that I was the more-grown up with better habits than this friend, as I have been known to be petty and selfish, especially as a kid. My friend lived down the street with his family. Our moms were friends, and my sister and I often played with the three kids, so we naturally competed in a lot of ways. My mom instead told me how this friend, my sister’s playmate, was actually the fourth child born to his family, that the children had lost an older brother, the second child, before he turned one. That because of this mysterious, untreatable, unknowable disease that kills babies was now known to be part of this family, their mom had to fight to keep this youngest child alive. The third child was not affected by SIDS, but the youngest nearly died dozens if not hundreds of times, but was on monitors that would wake his mother up to save his life.

I remember it being one of the scariest things I had ever heard about. My great-grandmother lost a child to cradle death – as it was called in the 1930s – and according to family history, she blamed herself for what she might have done better until the day she died. I know that my mother’s friend, the mother of my friends, still feels guilt and shame for having saved one child but not two from this syndrome in 1985. And my mom told me how, because it comes to sleeping children under a certain age, there are a lot of recommendations about how to hopefully prevent such deaths. Limited blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals in the crib; no soft mattresses; only letting babies sleep on their back. I developed a horror of having my face covered during this time period, because what if I fell asleep and died? I still am uncomfortable sleeping without my nose breathing air beyond the covers, even though I am well beyond the range of SIDS! The Mayo Clinic still lists the sleeping guidelines I learned in the early 1990s as the recommended preventative for SIDS. With the syndrome being sudden and unexplained, there was very little conclusive research expanding beyond the knowledge of the ’80s and ’90s. In 1994, the US ran an education campaign called “Back to Sleep” that did successfully raise awareness of safe sleep practices and SIDS cases dropped by 53%. Even with this wide-spread knowledge, however, SIDS remains the leading cause of mortality for infants under 12 months in age, at a rate of approximately 1 in 1000 births per year. That was the state of things. Research continued, but it seemed like everyone was coming up empty, at least when it came to figuring out either causes or new preventative measures.

At least, it seemed like everyone was coming up empty until this year. An Australian research team (Carmel Harrington, Naz Al Hafid, and Karen Waters, of the SIDS and Sleep Apnoea Research Group of The Children’s Hospital in Westmead, New South Wales) was one of many that were frustrated with the limited information and comfort modern medicine could offer parents.

But many children whose parents took every precaution still died from SIDS. These parents were left with immense guilt, wondering if they could have prevented their baby’s death.

Dr. Carmel Harrington, the lead researcher for the study, was one of these parents. Her son unexpectedly and suddenly died as an infant 29 years ago. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Harrington explained what she was told about the cause of her child’s death.

“Nobody could tell me. They just said it’s a tragedy. But it was a tragedy that didn’t sit well with my scientific brain.”

Since then, she’s worked to find the cause of SIDS, both for herself and for the medical community as a whole. She went on to explain why this discovery is so important for parents whose babies suffered from SIDS.

“These families can now live with the knowledge that this was not their fault,” she said.

It was already known that there were three factors that caused SIDS: a) environmental (such as the bedding); b) age (between 1 and 12 months of age); and c) biological susceptibility (yet to be determined, but suspected to relate to the body’s ability to wake). The new study, officially published in this June’s Lancet, demonstrates that they have started to crack the code finding a bio marker for those in danger of SIDS. Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) is an enzyme that appears to be one part of the complex system that is autonomic function, specifically related to waking a sleeping body. In particular, it is one of the enzymes that hydrolyzes Acetylcholine (ACh), the primary neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system. In testing blood samples from 722 live births collected from 2016-2020 with 67 dead (26 SIDS and 41 non-SIDS), the research indicated that those infants who perished of SIDS showed lowered levels of BChE, while the non-SIDS deaths remained at the same levels as the control group. The blood samples were from the routine “heel prick” or Guthrie Test for a handful of dangerous diseases such as cystic fibrosis and phenylketonuria (PKU). As there is more than one enzyme regulating the ability to wake up, the researchers initially tested for both Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and BChE, but the storage of samples denatured AChE beyond current ability to test.

Currently, this is as far as this new research has gone. The next stage in SIDS research around the globe will be to develop reliable tests to assess the risk to newborns before children have to die. In the meantime, it’s important to keep following safe sleeping practices for infants who’re at risk. Hopefully in the next decade, SIDS will be join the list of concerns tested with the heel prick!

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Tegan Tuesday: Congrats! You’re poor now!

Every January since 1981, the US Department of Health and Human Services updates the poverty guidelines (aka the poverty line) based on the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). The poverty guidelines outline the eligibility criteria for a number of US assistance programs such as Medicaid or SNAP. The poverty thresholds were initially created in 1963 by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration (SSA). To quote from Health and Human Services,

Orshansky used a factor of three because the Agriculture Department’s 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey found that for families of three or more persons, the average dollar value of all food used during a week (both at home and away from home) accounted for about one third of their total money income after taxes.

In May 1965, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity adopted Orshansky’s poverty thresholds as a working or quasi-official definition of poverty. In August 1969, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (predecessor of the Office of Management and Budget) designated the poverty thresholds with certain revisions as the federal government’s official statistical definition of poverty.

Because of this metric, it’s assumed by the Powers That Be that approximately one third of household income is spent on rent, one third spent on food, and the remaining third spent elsewhere – that these ratios have remained unchanging for nearly a century. These are the same metrics that influence whether or not you can rent an apartment based on your income – property management often won’t allow you to spend more than a third of income for rent. Obviously there are ways and means around every system, and I mostly dealt with that in my own life by working with small scale landlords and trying to keep my rent spending below half of my income. When I initially became the primary breadwinner of my household, Abe and I were living in the Boston area, and so our rent was close to 75-80% of my income. And yet, we were ineligible for assistance, as the poverty line for a two-person household was $16,460 a year in 2017 — aka, less than our cheap Boston apartment by approximately $400. We could barely make rent, but we weren’t officially poor as the US government defined it. Note: this and all other statistics used in this article are based off of the rates for the contiguous US – Alaska and Hawai’i have higher numbers to account for their much higher living costs.

The CPI-U is based on the record of approximately 80,000 items each month gathered by thousands of data collectors. There are eight major spending categories (food and beverages; housing; apparel; transportation; medical care; recreation; education; other) and rates of increase can be sorted out by category, by region, or a few other divisions. My concerns with it’s value, as it’s currently set up, as a metric for poverty or government assistance programs can be quoted directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website:

One limitation is that the CPI-U may not be applicable to all population groups. For example, the CPI-U is designed to measure inflation for the U.S. urban population and thus may not accurately reflect the experience of people living in rural areas. The CPI-U does not produce official estimates for the rate of inflation experienced by subgroups of the population, such as the elderly or the poor. Note that we do produce an experimental index for the elderly population that is available upon request; however, because of the significant limitations of this experimental index, it should be interpreted with caution.

Another limitation is that the CPI-U cannot be used to measure differences in price levels or living costs between one area and another as it measures only time-to-time changes in each area. A higher index for one area does not necessarily mean that prices are higher there than in another area with a lower index. Instead, it means that prices have risen faster in the area with the higher index calculated from the two areas’ common reference period. Additionally, the CPI-U is a conditional cost-of-living measure; it does not attempt to measure everything that affects living standards. Factors such as social and environmental changes and changes in income taxes are beyond the definitional scope of the index and are excluded. [source https://www.bls.gov/cpi/questions-and-answers.htm]

Because these are self-reported spendings from average, (I assume) middle-class Americans, they almost certainly don’t accurately reflect the spending habits and needs of the demographics that would be eligible for assistance! This is frustrating in a number of ways, and while I can certainly spitball reasons for why those demographics aren’t represented, it doesn’t change the fact that this seems to a problem built into the system. The spending habits of the non-poor was one of the reasons why the UK developed the Vimes Boots Index, after all. But unlike the UK system, I see no evidence that the US reports are built around luxury goods. They are just likely to be middle class. Apparently it was only in 2019 that telephone surveys were replaced as the primary means of data collection, so just think about who was likely to answer phone surveys on spending habits in the past decade – that’s who’s spending the index was based around.

As an additional contrast to the UK, I was pleasantly surprised to find that rent was one of the many things that was included as a metric for the CPI-U. According to the BLS, the CPI Housing survey covers approximately 0.11% of all rental properties in the US, with 32,000 units in the survey. I initially felt that was an outrageously small sample size, but a friend with more experience in population-sized datasets assures me that it’s a fairly normal ratio, so long as it is truly a representative sample. I was unable to find any clear details about how the housing survey is spread across the US, so please let me know if you have any ideas or further information! But I will optimistically assume that these rental properties are a true representative sample and are fairly spread across the US.

But rejoice! Look at how much the poverty line has increased this year! This means that more Americans are eligible for benefits and are able to take advantage of this opportunity. The higher the cut-off rate for government assistance, the more households that are eligible.

This image is a graph showing the total increase to the US poverty line, without accounting for inflation, since the year 2003. The increase varies from year to year, with the one from 2021 to 2022 being obviously larger than any other year.

This year’s cut off income for a single person household is $13,590 a year, or $1,132.50 per month. That is still outrageously (and intentionally) low. (Note: I did track the rate of change across multi-person households as well, but they follow roughly the same path as that of a single person, so I have simplified the data for ease viewing.) This surely is reflective of the current state of affairs, as the CPI-U takes into account the recent food hikes and the energy price increases and rents that always, always go up (albeit these are based on four-year old data, as that’s how long it takes to process the CPI-U). This $13.5k must be similar to the poverty rate of previous years. Factoring for inflation, however, actually tells a very different story.

The image is a graph showing the US poverty index from 2002 to 2022, adjusted for March 2022 rates. Since the high point in 2009 at just under 14800, the overall trend has been downward, with a slight recovery in the mid 2010s

This graph shows the income rates for a Single Person Household as given by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation and run through the inflation calculator provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. So each number, assigned in January of the given year, has been factored to represent the spending power of the USD in March 2022. And allowing for inflation, fewer and fewer American households are eligible for government assistance. This assistance could be housing aid, cheaper health insurance, or the various programs lumped together as ‘food stamps’. The only saving grace for poor Americans is that wages have also stagnated over the past two decades, so many people who were near the cut-off point might have slipped into eligibility without having to lose a dime.

It’s not a lie that this year’s poverty index has risen more than any other year in the past twenty – the average increase (not accounting for inflation) is 2.17% and this year’s is a 5.51% from 2021. But inflation has completely overrun everything else, making it harder and harder for the average American to stretch their dollar even as far as it did two years ago. I think it should go without saying, but just in case, I don’t think that anyone should be struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

The past decade has involved a great deal of unlearning my own shame and stigma with being labeled ‘poor’. I am poor – I grew up poor, and for most of my adult life, I have been poor. I have known people with less than me, but I have never been so comfortable as to not worry about food insecurity. It’s probably pretty clear from the guest posts I have done here, but ready access to affordable and healthy food is one of my biggest concerns for the planet. While the new poverty line won’t bring help to as many American households as it should, hopefully it will have an impact on more than it did previously. If you or someone you know is eligible for assistance based off of the new numbers, please start the process to apply. It absolutely sucks – US food and housing assistance have some of the worst bureaucratic hurdles to jump over. But for anyone making under $20k a year, every little bit helps. And even those of us who aren’t near the cut-off point – now’s a good time to start investing in household food storage and larger food networks. Exiting the pandemic, we all could use a little social activity. Why not make it a supper club or a regular potluck? This is social and network building, while also not straining any given household’s resources. More and more people are going to be considered ‘poor’ rather than ‘comfortable’ or even simply ‘middle-class’, and the sooner we can build solidarity among the working poor, the sooner we can build enough momentum to change the system.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Tegan Tuesday: Etsy sellers are going on strike

Article edited April 15, 2022

Next week, from April 11th through the 18th, there is a seller strike on Etsy. After years of increasingly hostile policies, the new seller fee increase is a step too far. There have been a number of planned strikes over the years, but this is the first one I’ve seen that has had any real traction. Many sellers will be putting their shops on Vacation Mode, as this makes it so that sales cannot be processed, and the strikers request that people not attempt to purchase goods during that time.

For those not familiar, Etsy is a microtransaction website, much like eBay, only it does not offer the bidding set-up, and it has traditionally privileged homemade or vintage objects. Anyone who has ever made the foolish mistake of knitting in public has had at least one person tell them that they should sell their wares on Etsy. Some of those lovely strangers will get quite cranky at the lack of enthusiasm at being voluntold to monetize their hobby. Because of my ability to find easier work elsewhere, I have never been an Etsy seller. But I have been a shopper! I bought my silver and my china on Etsy, I’ve bought furs, and I’ve bought any number of sewing patterns and books. Heck, Abe and I got our wedding rings from a blacksmith’s Etsy shop — I have been a longtime Etsy customer. I haven’t bought much in years, however, for a number of reasons. Initially, as a consumer, it seemed like it was difficult to find anything. I can’t even particularly put my finger on anything specific, but about five years ago I felt that things that I should have easily found were rare, or shops that I used to love were gone. It was confusing, but ultimately didn’t impact my life, so I ignored it, and just bought less.

It turns out there there were a number of policies and decisions happening “under the hood” that were actively making it difficult for sellers to make a living. The first large decision that shaped all the rest was of course becoming publicly traded. As of April 16, 2015, Etsy, Inc (NASDAQ: ETSY) has been a publicly traded company and thus has to answer to its shareholders and drive profit up. Ever expanding upwards! And then began the price gouging and offloading of financial burden to sellers. To quote Denise Hendrick of Romantic Recollections:

In the last couple years they have raised rates and added new, mandatory fees. 15% fees on orders from ads they run and that we cannot turn off. 5% on the amount buyers pay for shipping. They strongly pressure sellers to offer free shipping and run sales. It all adds up fast. They added programs like “star seller” that add to our workload and are hard to meet, but if we don’t hit that goal we’re not listed as highly. At the same time, more and more sellers are selling mass produced junk.”

Last year (or the year before — time has no meaning since Covid) Etsy also strong-armed most sellers into offering “free” shipping. When sellers rightfully asked how that would work, Etsy’s official stance was to artificially inflate your prices to hide the shipping costs. This was also during a push to dodge any responsibility for the many, many, many shipping issues during the pandemic, and allow buyers to recoup their costs with no fault and sellers to have to eat said costs. Now the seller is out the product and the income. This fee structure is so hostile to sellers and many have either left Etsy, or use Etsy only as a way for people to find their personal website. Taylor of Dames a la Mode only lists stock pieces on Etsy and offers limited runs or customizable options on her personal site, as that is her primary selling space. In her statement of intent to strike she says:

Etsy has changed dramatically over the years, and the fee increases are endless. That’s why my stuff on Etsy costs more than my website – their fees are so high! And the worst thing is they force you to pay to promote your items outside of Etsy (I truly, truly hate this but you can’t opt out… infuriation!)

There have been so many new fees, and increased fees, and seller-hostile policies that many sellers have felt their stores are experiencing death by a thousand cuts. Many sellers feel that it’s only a matter of time before their profits do not exceed the overhead at Etsy. The reason for the strike is that with record-breaking profits from last year, Etsy is implementing a 30% seller fee increase on all sales. This is an absolutely ridiculous number. The fact that all sellers received a yearly newsletter congratulating Etsy and thanking their hard work for said profit, only to have this fee thrown in their faces is… very corporate America.

One of the most faithful voices I have heard concerning the many issues plaguing Etsy sellers is that of Sultry Vintage. She closed the Vintage end of her Etsy shop last year due to an ever-increasing hedge of fees with policies encouraging sales and slashing prices. Her recent statement about supporting the strikers went out today and I think sums up the general feeling well.

Storms a brewing. Etsy recently sent out a newsletter congratulating everyone on their record profits. They then shared the news that they’d be hiking fees. Because Etsy is a publicly traded company with a backwards minded CEO, they profit share with investors and squeeze sellers for more to hand over to shareholders.

Sellers are the sole reason Etsy exists at all.

I many not make my entire living off Etsy any longer – Etsy and its hot garbage policies since going public being a contributing factor to that – but I do solidly stand with tens of thousands of independent small businesses who do. Who built Etsy, and who are being taken to the cleaners every time their hard work pays off.

I’m asking three things. One, if you’ve ever said you support small business – mean it. Right now, refuse to shop on Etsy for the week of the 11th-18th. Shop directly with sellers if you need something or plan ahead. Two, spread the word. It’s a small ask with massive, rippling effects. Three, if you can strike for any amount of time, do. Put the message in your vacation banner as to why you’re striking. Etsy has a policy of not allowing you to inform customers that they can shop with you off etsy (hilarious), so let them know now where to find you for that week and that is a crucial moment for support and shopping alternatively, off etsy.

Etsy has decided sellers are puppets meant only to reap them profits. It’s time the corporate structure acknowledge that without its sellers, Etsy ceases to exist, and honor the labor sellers put in that makes them boatloads of money while small businesses drown.

Please spread the word and go directly to the organizers of this movement for more info @etsy.strike

It makes sense that with the absolute nightmare situation that is labor right now, strikes and unions are forming everywhere. The Etsy strike is yet another one, and I think the time is certainly ripe for this strike in particular, and labor rights in general.

Of course there is a downside. There’s always a downside. Sellers who are barely breaking even can’t afford to strike. Lauren of Wearing History is only striking on the first day, for example. She is financially unable to close for a whole week, and doesn’t have the wherewithal to maintain a site that can reach her international customer base the way Etsy can. I have thankfully seen nothing but kindness and respect to those sellers who say they are unable to strike for financial reasons. I hope that continues as we get closer to the strike, especially as the biggest impediment to strike support is wanting to also support Ukrainian sellers. Elizabeth-Iryna of Bygone Memorabilia, The Boudoir Key, and Marie Theresa and Lumieres has been one of the most vocal Ukrainian makers and offered a clear statement in opposition:

Some of you sent me the “Sellers Ask Customers to Boycott Etsy” news due to increasing fees.

Thank you for thinking of me. 🙂 Unfortunately, selling completely outside of Etsy is not possible for me at the moment. Ukrainian users of Paypal can’t use it for business. Etsy didn’t cancel any fees for Ukrainian shops. When I can, I will open my website. I also use the help of intermediary for a few, because Paypal is still unavailable for Ukrainian business.

I cannot boycott Etsy because selling e-patterns on there is my one and only source of income at the moment. Same for other Ukrainians.

Yes, Etsy is making money on us. But it helps us live, too.

And therein lies the quandary: Ukrainian makers who are trapped in Ukraine or those who are refugees in other countries have very few options for income right now, and digital resources on Etsy have been a staple. Much like the movement to rent Ukrainian AirBnBs to send funds to Ukrainians, many people have sent financial support through Etsy purchases. Strikes are always difficult and often hurt those with the most to lose. I wish the strike well, and I hope that it doesn’t severely impact those sellers relying solely on Etsy for their daily needs. I’m unfortunately pessimistic enough to suspect that it will have little-to-no impact on the decision-makers at Etsy, and Etsy will continue to function as the saying goes: I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.

Abe here – if you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into this. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Tegan Tuesday: Art, Disability, and “Real Jobs”

One of the most common themes of this blog is an unending rage against the way our society devalues humanity. Usually, this is focused on the fairly direct destruction of life for profit. Unfortunately, that’s not where it ends. Both Abe and I have been involved in education for a long time, and we’ve both been frustrated by the way the education system — and by extension, society — treats art as a luxury. As frustrating as that is, it gets worse when you enter the workforce. Art, in all its forms, has always been vitally important to every human society we have ever known about. Those societies we remember best and know the most about, tend to be the ones that invested some of their excess, when they had it, into art and culture. But just as human life must be sacrificed for profit, so to must human enjoyment, because funding art for its own sake will not make anyone rich. Artists must either already have money, or scrabble to find the time and energy to do that work, on top of doing work for the benefit of others to make ends meet.

I am an artist. Therefore, I have had a lot of jobs. I have worked in sit-down restaurants, in commercial food prep, at farmer’s markets, in fast food and ice cream scooping; I have worked in translation and real estate; I have worked in gas stations, and theatres, and schools K-12 through graduate programs; I have answered phones and scrubbed toilets; I have worked in clients’ homes, in my home, in basements, in parks, and in churches. I have been working constantly for the past 18 years, and there are very few areas of employment that I have not had some experience. I work and work and have almost always been poor, because I have never lived in places that were cheap while working a job that paid enough to build savings. Amusingly, I also made too much to merit assistance, as Abe and I found out when we initially became a single-income household — in one of the most expensive cities in the US — and we were eligible for $15 of food stamps per month. In all of these jobs, my problems with it were rarely my coworkers, and even-more-rarely the clients. I’m an extreme extrovert with ADHD — I like how a customer-facing role is wildly different from day to day and even the most bizarre (non-violent) encounter with the general public just makes for a great story, and doesn’t actually impact my life significantly. No, usually my problems lie squarely with my bosses or the company higher ups.

I’ve had a boss who drunktexted my coworkers and installed spyware on our computers. I’ve had multiple bosses who would watch the security feeds and call to ask questions about what they were watching. I’ve had bosses who preferred to hire 16-year-olds because unexperienced workers don’t notice the many, many, labor violations employees are required to perform. I’ve been fired by text and I’ve been replaced by someone I trained without the notice of being demoted or fired. On one memorable occasion, I had an argument with a boss about simple arithmetic. With all of these shining beacons of industry as my leaders, small wonder that some of my favorite employment has been self-employed.

This goes beyond simple preference, as well. If one person is drained enough by their work that they can’t make themselves do extra on the side, another may have problems – like neurological disorders or physical disability, that mean they hit that point where they can’t work more faster, depending on working conditions. For a non-insignificant portion of the population, self-employment has often been the only employment. Writer Siobhan Ball recently headed a twitter thread discussing the intersection of “real jobs” and disabled lives.

The discussion is filled with artists and freelancers of all types: writers, musicians, visual artists, sex workers. Many of the “real jobs” come with requirements that are physically, mentally, or legally not possible for large swathes of the population. I think back to one of my theatre jobs, which was impossible for someone with mobility issues. Even if I was able to get into the theatre next door to make one of their employees run the service lift for me for every shift, I still would not have been able to use the bathroom, as there were two steps from the floor up into the stall. Many jobs also have high mental strain. Anyone who has ever worked retail or even observed the astounding lack of humanity that shoppers unleash upon the staff can picture how those types of service jobs have an emotional (and often physical) toll upon the employees. Call center employees are worse-off still than retail for a mental and emotional load. The legal restrictions on disabled folks is even shittier. I know in the US there are caps on the amount that someone on disability can have in savings (and it’s small, it’s something like $1000) and restrictions on how many hours they are allowed to work or how much money they can make in those hours. This video by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, a disability activist, does a decent overview of some of those issues. But running an Etsy merch shop, or doing cam work, or writing and editing freelance are all jobs that have less oversight, work around a person’s schedule and needs, and are just flexible in all the ways that life can require.

We need people to do these jobs! There’s no question that they provide great value to all of our lives. As discussed at the beginning, art is an important part of what we are. When we had to cope with isolation during lockdowns, we turned to art. We read more, we watched more movies, we listened to more music, we watched more YouTube, and yes, more people joined OnlyFans too. Art gives us connection with other people, and that was at a premium during the past few years of pandemic. But even is it uses the work of artists, of freelancers, of those casually employed in non-“real” jobs, society as a whole hasn’t bothered to appreciate this work anymore than it has what was recently called “essential” work. If we as a society don’t value artists, and don’t value disabled people, how much worse is the disabled artist?

I’m just as guilty as the next person — I see post after post on social media of people who are disabled, or neurodivergent, or queer, or just poor, and who are raising funds by selling art and I have a gut reaction to wonder why they can’t just “get a real job”. I am not sure if there’s the possibility to change our acceptance of this labor as valid without also decoupling a person’s worth in our society from their ability to work. It seems like a massive undertaking, but it’s a task that needs doing. For now, it’s a good day to remind ourselves: each person has value just by being themselves and deserves to live their life without “earning” that value through an approved from of labor.

Abe here – f you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into this. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Tegan Tuesday: U.S. Government Fights For Health Industry Profits

By midnight EST today, one phase of COVID support will be ended in the United States. Specifically, the Heath Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) COVID-19 Coverage Assistance Fund (CAF) will no longer accept claims due to a lack of sufficient funds. Free-to-the-receiver vaccines will only be until midnight on April 5th.  This program was one of the very few attempts by the US to have the medical support normally expected in a developed country, and certainly didn’t last very long! Those with insurance will return to their standard level of care, and those without insurance or with terrible or useless insurance will be covering costs out of pocket, as is their standard level of care.

I’m not quite sure what I had expected the work-around for free healthcare in the US to be, but the details of the CAF was a surprise to me. Depending on the individual’s personal level of health insurance, the health care providers have to go through multiple and specific hoops to ensure that the “free” vaccine or healthcare went through the proper channel. It’s free for Medicare, so make sure you notate it this way for Medicare patients. It’s usually (!) free for Medicaid, but it’s up to the states discretion, and there are exceptions. Bog-standard insurances are required to reimburse the providers. Those without insurance go through a specific claims process, which is also different from those who are underinsured. I had forgotten how much I hate the American health care system, and had foolishly thought that it was just free and easy.

Sadly, it seems that even mediocre things must come to an end, and the budget for this kind of humane support was not approved by Congress. The White House has put out an official statement (blunter than I expected) about the effects of this program ending. Among other things, this cuts off funding for preventative measures, additional vaccine research, and global outreach. The congressional failure is, naturally, laid at the feet of Republicans, but I have yet to find any specific politicians involved in this de-funding. It looks like Representative DeLauro sponsored a funding extension in the House, but she is on the Committee on Appropriations, so it’s not a surprise that she’s the sponsor on an appropriations act (looking at her profile on the House website, it looks like her most recent vote was ‘yes’ for the CROWN Act in support of natural hair, which is also nice to see).

I am frustrated. We are working on Year Three of a global pandemic, a new variant is starting its world tour, and one of the very, very, very few things the US government did right is being overturned. It reminds me to be thankful that Abe’s entire social circle is me and a few animals, and mine is the insular world of a small university department in a small island country. If nothing else, it limits our exposure. I can do very little except try to keep my household together, and rage at the narrowminded selfishness of those with the power to actually make the world better.

Abe here – if you like the contents of this blog, please share it around! If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider funding my budding career as a professional hermit. It’s especially important right now, as my immigration status prohibits me from seeking any kind of normal job. Every little bit helps, even if it’s as little as $1 per month. It’s not cheap to train birds to nest in my beard.

Tegan Tuesday: Stuart Little and the recovery of lost art

Studying art history is a bittersweet thing for me. Much of art is ephemera, and any preservation is only as good as your failsafe. Fires, floods, random spills of ink, hard drive failure, the memorable cat-based file-deletion, and a myriad of other things mean that a huge amount of has simply been lost to time. I’ve read about composers or performers, the best of their ages, with all of their musical works lost. We only know Sappho’s poetry in fragments. Early film was highly combustible and whole warehouses have gone up in flames, as well as being destroyed or lost for any number of non-accidental reasons – in 2013, the Library of Congress reported that 75% of all silent-era films were lost. For myself, as a kid, my favorite painter was Claude Monet, and when I learned that he would paint over old canvases I cried to think of all the paintings that nobody will ever see!

But just as there have been losses, there have been amazing finds. I worked with a flutist in the Boston area who reconstructed an early 19th century concerto. The most important oboe concerto in the repertoire is Mozart’s — and it was only rediscovered in an attic in 1920 by a Mozart scholar named Bernhard Paumgartner. (And amusing to my modern academia-trained self, the article detailing the find is a scanty four pages long.) The US Library of Congress also hosts a semi-yearly event called “Mostly Lost” with scraps of unidentified film and the public invited to help identify aspects. Mere seconds of a film might show show something distinctive and lead to proper identification. From what I’ve heard it is a fun event and a real life mystery puzzle that could have archival importance for these scraps of celluloid. Despite ongoing efforts like this to find lost art, many of the biggest discoveries were made by accident.

While on Christmas break in 2009, Hugarian art historian Gergely Barki opted to relax with his daughter and watch the 1999 film Stuart Little, when he recognized the art in Stuart’s living room as a previously-missing painting by Hungarian avant-garde artist Róbert Berény (1887 – 1953).

Barki recognized the painting—“Sleeping Lady with Black Vase”—from a black-and-white photograph taken of the work during its last exhibition, in 1928. “It was not just on screen for one second but in several scenes of the film, so I knew I was not dreaming. It was a very happy moment,” said Barki. who had no idea how it ended up as set dressing in a 1999 children’s movie.

Barki, who is writing a biography of Berény, went into full detective mode. “I started to write e-mails to everyone involved in the film,” he told the New York Post. He sent letters to the film’s creators, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures, finally receiving a reply from the film’s former set designer two years later.

According to Barki, the film assistant, whose name has not been reported, had picked up the painting in a Pasadena, Ca., antiques shop for just $500. Unaware of its origin or value, she used the work to decorate the apartment of the family—played by the disembodied voices of Michael J. Fox, Jonathan Lipnicki, Geena Davis, and Hugh Laurie—in the film based on E.B. White’s beloved book. When production wrapped, the assistant bought the painting from the studio and hung it in her apartment. “I had a chance to visit her and see the painting and tell her everything about the painter,” said Barki. “She was very surprised.”

Berény was one of leaders of the Hungarian avant-garde movement in the early 20th century and was heavily influenced by artists like Cézanne and van Gogh, thanks to his training and work in Paris. “Berény’s work was exhibited throughout his lifetime, including at the Ernst Museum in Budapest, at the National Salon in 1929 and 1932, and he represented Hungary at the Venice Biennales of 1928, 1934 and 1936. Works by Berény are in the collections of the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs, and the Deák Collection in Székesfehérvár and have been exhibited as far afield as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California.” Unfortunately, his studio was destroyed during WWII and many of his works are presumed lost. But the importance of Berény to Hungarian art history combined with the rarity of his extant work made Barki’s discovery all the more important. The five-year journey from discovery to repatriation ended with a record-breaking sale for 70 million forints (226,500 Euros) at a pre-Christmas auction hosted by the Budapest Congress Centre.  Barki suspects that the reason the painting survived the century is that it left Hungary when it was sold in 1928 “because that was when it was last exhibited and, as most of the buyers were Jewish, it probably left the country as a result of the war”. What a journey this little painting took, and how wonderful that it made it home.

The image shows a scene from the movie Stuart Little, with a man in a black suit and a woman in a red dress on either side of a boy in a white tuxedo with a black bowtie holding a clothed mouse in his hand. In the background can be seen Berény's

When I initially thought to write up this article, I thought it was extremely charming and a welcome bit of good news. I had foolishly not looked at the dates, and I thought it was a recent article -the hazards of encountering interesting articles through social media! But even good news from 2014 is still good news to read in 2022, especially considering the general tenor of the news today, and I hope the story of “The Sleeping Lady with Black Vase” enchants you too!

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into this. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Tegan Tuesday: War threatens food supplies, drives up prices

In 2020, world production of wheat was 731 million tons (1.7 trillion pounds), making it the second most produced cereal after maize. Since 1960, world production of wheat and other grain crops has tripled and is expected to grow further through the middle of the 21st century. Global demand for wheat is increasing due to the unique viscoelastic and adhesive properties of gluten proteins, which facilitate the production of processed foods, whose consumption is increasing as a result of the worldwide industrialization process and the westernization of the diet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat

Many people who are more informed, more educated, more aware of global politics than I, have discussed what’s going on with the Ukraine-Russian war. I’d like to pull the conversation back from the — equally valid! — discussions on nuclear or fossil fuel power, or NATO involvement, and talk about food. Specifically, wheat. The Ukrainian flag is a light blue band over a yellow band, and represents a blue sky over a ripe wheat field. Ukraine has been called the bread basket of Europe, and Ukraine is one of the five largest producers of wheat around the world. Unsurprisingly, wheat is a major part of Ukrainian culture, as well. One of the traditional plants for the Ukrainian flower crown (vinok) is wheat, worn during a harvest festival by an engaged woman, as good luck and honor, among other uses of wheat as a cultural icon. Ukraine and Russia together make up one-third of all wheat production and export globally. Because of the war, Ukraine is not harvesting winter wheat right now, nor planting any new crops (sunflowers and corn for oil are also supposed to be planted now).

Because of the war, Ukraine has no one to spare to transport or sell the wheat already harvested. Because of the war, Russia is banned from selling their wheat due to economic sanctions and countries making political stances against the Russian aggression and empire-building. Because of the war, people around the globe will be starving:

Grain prices were already rising before Russia invaded Ukraine, and recent days have seen unprecedented further gains as two of the world’s biggest producer are at war.

Wheat closed in Chicago at the highest price ever on Monday. Benchmark corn and soybean futures have each surged by 26% this year. Those kinds of increases in food-staple commodities have been associated with social unrest throughout history.

“Remember, bread riots are what started the Arab Spring, bread riots are what started the French Revolution,” said Sal Gilbertie, CEO of Teucrium, the largest U.S. exchange-traded fund issuer focused solely on agriculture funds. “It is a biblical event when you run low on wheat stocks. You won’t see a global food shortage. Unfortunately, what you’re going to see globally is that billions of people might not be able to afford to buy the food.”

Gilbertie doesn’t think the world will run out of wheat — but prices could continue to rise, and that will be most problematic for vulnerable global populations. “Ukraine dominates what they call the sun-seed market,” he said. “Sunflower oil is a major component of cooking oil and food, and you see palm oil rising, and soybean oil rising. That is a big deal, especially for the poorest of the poor, where cooking is a big part of the daily budget.”

Global food prices rose to a record high in February, led by vegetable oil and dairy products, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Wheat traded in Chicago, the international benchmark, has jumped more than 50 per cent since Russia invaded Ukraine. Prices rose to as high as $13.40 a bushel on Friday, while European milling wheat in Paris hit a record of €406 per tonne.

North American wheat harvests were curtailed by drought this past year, as were South American soybeans and corn. Severe weather all around the globe has impacted global food commodities, and food insecurity was already on the rise in many areas. The countries most reliant on Slavic wheat imports are in Africa or the middle east. Some particular countries are Egypt, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen — all of these whom have a fair amount of unrest even with full access to foodstuffs. Sudan in particular has already been suffering from wheat shortages due to the closing of ports during protests. But countries like Lebanon are buying 96% of its wheat consumption from either Ukraine or Russia, Egypt buying 85%, Turkey buying 78%, and the others listed above with similarly high amounts of annual consumption supported from Slavic wheatfields. Some countries, like Egypt, have attempted to buy imports from countries like France, but France has not been able to keep up the demand. Lebanon doesn’t have their expected stockpiles, as the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020 destroyed its only large grain silo. Turkey, in particular, needs wheat not just for it’s populace, but for it’s own exports: Turkey is a major producer and exporter of pasta, flour, biscuits, and semolina. Without the raw materials to make such items, Turkey’s economy will also suffer, along with everyone else in the region.

The price of bread has been a politically explosive issue in Egypt as on several occasions in the past 50 years it triggered angry protests, to which the Police usually responded by firing shots over the heads of demonstrators. Particularly strong protests were staged in March 2017 in Alexandria, Giza and many other areas after the government cut the supply of subsidized bread amid an economic crisis.

Also during the so-called “Bread Intifada” in January 1977 violent protests broke out and the Egyptian security forces killed 70 people and wounded more than 550 protesters, but in the end the government was forced to re-institute the subsidies.

Bread subsidies are considered a red line among Egyptians and people in other countries in the Middle East, as they are a staple for every family in the region. Bread is sold at very low prices, for example, a subsidized flat loaf costs 0.05 Egyptian pounds, less than one US cent, which covers only a small part of the real cost of producing it and the government coffers cover the rest.

It’s not just the general populace that is worried here either. The bakers who rely on the imported flour are the face of the government-subsidized bread for most families, and they are equally worried about what the future holds.

Tunisia’s government remains tightlipped on the flour shortages, even though the evidence is already apparent. Across the country, bakeries are shutting early, or rationing supplies, with anger growing among owners.

“There’s been a problem building for months,” said Hazem Bouanani, a baker. “Normally, we buy flour from mills and the government will reimburse us. For 10 months, we haven’t seen any payment.”

And that’s just wheat. Russia and Belarus also provide a significant amount of the world’s fertilizers, and the corn and soybeans grown in Ukraine feed livestock. People are going to starve. With a third year of a global pandemic, many industries failing or businesses failed, extreme weather patterns (flooding in Australia as we speak!); most people don’t have the funds to weather an additional hardship like severe food shortages.

This century is likely to be one instance of food insecurity after the next. I know that I will be working hard to have a large enough pantry to cushion any sudden surprises, considering how to eat more locally, and I think that I should look into how to support my local food banks. For those who wish to support those relieving the food insecurity of Ukrainian refugees, and many other global catastrophes, World Central Kitchen is usually one of the first organizations on the scene, and they provide hot food for all who can come.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into this. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Tegan Tuesday: The National Black Doll Museum needs your help!

“The National Black Doll Museum has a three-fold mission: to nurture self-esteem, to promote cultural diversity, and to preserve the history of black dolls by educating the public on their significance.” – Mission statement of The National Black Doll Museum of History and Culture

I only recently learned about this interesting museum, The National Black Doll Museum, that used to be housed in Mansfield, MA. For all I lived in Massachusetts for 12 years, I rarely explored the many small and unusual museums in the area. The NBDMHC has a collection of over 7000 Black dolls, and the oldest dolls are from the late 18th century. This isn’t just about the past, however, as these dolls are equally loved and displayed with Black Panther action figures. Although many doll museums include Black dolls in their collections, prior to 2020, this museum was the only physical museum in the US dedicated to Black dolls specifically.

The museum got its start from the personal collection of the founder, Debra Britt, who used to take her private doll collection on tours to women’s shelters or community centers to share the history and communal heritage as the Doll E Daze Project. The museum, which is a 501(c) 3 non-profit, still supports this community outreach as well as a number of workshops and educational resources. The workshop on the Power of Play looks at the impact of Black dolls on the self-pride and explores the stories of Black activists post-Reconstruction through today; The workshop on African wrap dolls works to preserve this important cultural handcraft; and the museum offers support and assistance for geneology research as well. For a project focused around children’s toys, the staff involved have found ways to connect with many aspects of the Black community at all stages of life.

But, unfortunately for the project, 2020 was a difficult year for them, like so many others. With the lack of school engagements, workshops, or in-person celebrations, the museum lost their space in Mansfield due to lack of funding. However, all is not lost! Attleboro, MA has set aside land for cultural development and is interested in working with the National Black Doll Museum to relocate to the new area. But they need funding to do so. The current phase of fundraising has a goal of $100,000 and a deadline at the end of the month — February is Black History Month after all! So I hope that you, much like myself, find the concept exciting and the project worthwhile, and will help to make the new location a reality. Let’s let this understudied aspect of history have a chance to shine again!