TIME society

A Few Forecasts on the Defining Questions of 2015

2015-light
Getty Images

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column.

Be on the lookout for the unexpected shocks

My friend Greg long ago convinced me that instead of a laundry list of resolutions, what we really need every New Year is just one catch-all aspirational slogan, more likely to be remembered past January. Like “Find the fix in ’06.” When I crowd-sourced the challenge of a slogan for this new year, a wise 10-year-old I know came up with, “See the unseen in ’15.”

I like it because it is both a timeless exhortation – to expand one’s horizons – and a particularly timely one. The year 2015 – the far-away year Marty McFly travels to in the 1980s classic Back to the Future — is shaping up, ironically, to be a year when the reassuringly familiar reasserts itself. Such mainstays as the Bush-versus-Clinton dynastic feud, the Star Wars saga, interest rates, U.S. power around the world, the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, and the telephone all are poised to make a comeback this year. But don’t trust me: Grab a half-dozen Post-it notes and make a few forecasts of your own on the defining questions of 2015.

Before going any further, however, I realize my last comeback suggestion might seem absurd: that the phone, used as such, as in the lost art of dialing and talking, is back. But the hacking of Sony in late 2014 may prove a tipping point forcing people in many different workplaces to avoid putting certain things in writing. “Call me” may turn out to be among the most emailed words in 2015, shedding their once ominous overtones to become shorthand for, “I have something juicy to say about this, but I would be crazy to write it.” Here’s an interesting forecast close to home: Write on your first Post-it whether you think you will spend more or less time talking on your phone in 2015 than in 2014 (and figure it out at year’s end).

In politics, 2015 is shaping up to be a throwback year as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton explore, and likely announce, their 2016 presidential bids. Will Bush or Mitt Romney or someone less aligned with the party’s business wing (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz?) be ahead in the GOP’s polls as 2015 comes to a close, on the eve of primary season? Write down your prediction (eschewing email for obvious reasons). And, if it is Bush riding high, will the dynastic hue of the contest affect how voters view Clinton?

The appeal of the familiar is understandable: The country has had a hard time settling into a semblance of normalcy pretty much since the start of this millennium, buffeted by a series of booms and busts, not to mention wars. Now the Federal Reserve, the institution wielding the greatest (if underappreciated) power over our financial affairs, is coaxing us to be OK with going back to normal. 2015 is when the Fed plans to put an end to its emergency measure of keeping the important benchmark interest rate it charges financial institutions at essentially zero. One defining story line for the year is whether this is seen as a vote of confidence in the economy, or whether it spooks markets addicted to artificial stimulation. Use a third Post-it note to guess whether the Dow Industrials Average will crack 20,000 and end 2015 above that level, which is slightly more than 10 percent higher than it is today.

In either case, the United States will look like a safe haven compared to much of the world. Our lead in all aspects of information technology keeps growing. We’re experiencing a manufacturing renaissance. We are well on our way to becoming one of the world’s lowest-cost (and self-sufficient) energy producers. 2014 started with a barrel of oil costing some $20 more than a share of Apple. The year closed with a surging share of Apple costing almost twice as much as a plummeting barrel of oil ($114 to $60). Go ahead and forecast on your fourth Post-it which of these two (Apple share or barrel of oil) will cost more at the end of 2015, and what the spread will be.

It should become clearer in the coming year that America has gotten its mojo back. It isn’t only our economic prowess. There’s also a renewed acceptance of American power and influence in much of the world, courtesy of Vladimir Putin’s antics, China’s extraterritorial assertiveness, the implosion of the anti-American left in Latin America, and all the global challenges – climate change, pandemics like Ebola, the persistence of radical Islamist terrorism – that still require U.S leadership.

This desire on the part of many countries for closer ties, coupled with America’s renewed economic confidence and domestic political trends, might make possible an ambitious trans-Pacific trade deal. And that would signal to the world that America is no longer stuck in the Middle East. On your fifth Post-it forecast a ranking of Iraq, Ukraine, Mexico, and China, according to the number of times each is mentioned in 2015 in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, information technologies continue to empower us. But now the revolution turns inward, as the next frontier of the Information Age that brought the outside world to our fingertips – the next great unseen that we will see – will be within ourselves. 2015 will be the year of the iWatch and other tracking and diagnostic technologies – some wearable, some in your medicine cabinet, others like cheaper, faster and less intrusive blood tests at the nearby drugstore – that will allow us to acquire unprecedented self-knowledge.

This will keep the topic of inequality alive, as we talk about how such technologies create a new “digital divide.” I don’t have a clever forecasting prompt here for your last Post-it, but rather a question worth jotting down and contemplating: What does it mean for a society to have some people walking around with sophisticated dashboards measuring their well-being, while many others don’t, and remain in the dark? That seems qualitatively different than having the divide being defined around one’s access to knowledge of China or finances.

As bullish as I am on 2015, I should caution readers that I am usually optimistic at the start of every new year. It must be a personal flaw. And that’s why “See the unseen in 2015” is a perfect personal slogan, and not just as an exhortation to climb a mountain or go on safari or avail myself of these self-tracking technologies. The slogan is an antidote to my own complacency, a cautionary admonition to be on the lookout for the unexpected shocks that can upset my rosy scenarios.

After all, no one has ever said that, when it looked like nothing could go wrong, nothing went wrong. Happy New Year.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He is also a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME world affairs

With Cuba, Nothing Can Be Simple

cuban-flag
Getty Images

My father hates the decision to normalize relations with Cuba, but I’m looking forward to a new start with the country of my birth

In announcing his decision to normalize relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama explained the relationship between the two nations with a saying very common among Cubans: No es fácil—it’s not easy.

After more than a half-century of unresolved geopolitical tension, Cubans both on the island and in exile have adopted the saying to describe any struggle, from the mundane to the complex. In Miami, some call it the “Cuban Condition” – nothing can be simple. We are all so diverse in our interpretation of the same events, yet so unified in our pride and passion for a country some haven’t seen in half a century, many never at all.

I was born in Cuba, but grew up en el exilio, in exile, in Miami. I lived among the old guard that fled immediately after Fidel Castro took over in 1959; those who stayed on for a few years before being disillusioned; those who hung on to their island for a decade, or two, or three, before fleeing; and others, like me, the children of those generations. Where you are woven in this great Cuban-American tapestry influences how you feel about what the President announced last week.

I don’t remember Cuba. All my life, I’ve heard about an island —described with such nostalgia—that Castro ruthlessly tore apart. To hear my parents and their peers describe a pre-Castro Cuba is to hear an eyewitness account of Eden itself: the houses were sturdier, the food tasted better, the streets were safer, and the ocean breeze was cooler.

My father was 19 when the Revolution drove another dictator, Fulgencio Batista, out of power. He openly admits—as many of his generation do—that he helped in that ousting, by causing disruptions and participating in civil disobedience. His brother—my uncle—was sent packing to France after setting fire to the last row of a movie theater. My father was never so brazen, but they believed that Batista was corrupt and tyrannical, and considered Castro their savior. My mother, on the other hand, was just 11 when Castro came to power, and was the first generation to be inducted into La Juventud Rebelde—the communist youth—and educated to venerate the pantheon of Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx – along with the one constant in Cuban history claimed by all, José Marti.

My mother’s first disillusionment came early on, when she was asked why she never reported to a government-required volunteer activity.

Porque no me dió la gana,” she answered. Because I didn’t feel like it. She was always a little hard-headed, a trait that didn’t set you up for a successful trajectory within the Communist Party.

Her disillusionment deepened when her dream of being a grade-school teacher was dashed as she was forced to become a veterinarian. The government’s new five-year economic plan called for more emphasis on agriculture and all that the industry required.

My mother resisted any urge to leave. At the time, leaving the island was considered an act of defection, and there would be no turning back. Leaving her family behind was unconscionable.

Then my mother met my father, also a veterinarian. Two years later, I was born. Suddenly the food rations, the lines to get rice and the meal plans all became increasingly difficult to bear. Still, when the Mariel boatlift opened the doors for anyone to leave the island, my parents stayed. My mother still couldn’t leave her family. My father, whose entire family had already left, couldn’t convince her.

The trigger for her coming around, and deciding to leave, was not a traumatic, high-drama moment, but rather an everyday scene, starring yours truly. I was all of two, eating a slice of ham. I asked for more, but there was no more to give. The rations only allowed for so much. My mother realized Cuba was no place to raise me.

As the story goes, the following months were agonizing. Thanks to my father’s French lineage, my parents were able to claim political asylum in France. But actually getting off the island took nearly a year. When the Cuban government learned of my parents’ desire to leave, they fired my father from his veterinary job and reassigned him to work in a construction site. He broke two ribs before word came that our application had been approved.

We lived in France for six years before making our way to Miami. My mother eventually was able to bring her mother from Cuba a decade later, and always hoped that she would one day also be reunited with the brother and four sisters that remained on the island.

Neither of them ever saw these relatives again, though there were years of grainy, bittersweet phone calls filled with hopeful talk of the impending reunion. My grandmother died in 2003. My mother, this May. My father, whose family has all since left the island, has never been as emotional about leaving his home, however. He’s kept memories alive by endlessly telling stories about the Eden that he remembers, debating every tweak in American policy, and lamenting the mistakes of his generation.

I’m often asked about my own journey; whether I’ve ever been back to Cuba, for example. I’m often told how beautiful it is by people who have visited – how everyone should experience it before the government changes, and the country’s “frozen in time” quality disappears. And all I can think about are the countless hours—at the dinner table, at parties, in the car—of my parents reminiscing about the past and complaining about how their country has crumbled. It became deafening, as if an entire people had become obsessed with one singular topic, never able to move past it and start anew. Like my parents, I’ve never returned. They believed that going back would be a sign of support for an immoral and corrupt government, and that any money they spent there would go in support of the dictatorship. And they wanted no part of it. Neither did I. I’ve always believed that the best way to honor their sacrifices was to honor their beliefs. It never seemed right to return to a place that my parents fought so hard to leave just to give me a better life.

Eventually, I do remember my parents shifting their tune. Sentences stopped beginning with “Cuando Fidel se cae,” once Fidel topples, and ending rather with the notion that the Cuba they remember will never again exist. At least with my parents, the harsh reality that exile was not going to be temporary finally set in.

I struggled with a swirl of mixed emotions at this month’s news. My initial reaction was to hold on to my parents’ anger, as a way of acknowledging their suffering. But, like my parents came to realize, there are emotions and then there’s the reality. The status quo has not only failed, but also frustrated a people who hoped regime change was always right around the corner.

And now that I live in L.A., I realize the complexity of the Cuban experience is lost anywhere north of South Florida. It’s like I am exile not from one, but from two, surreal islands: Cuba itself, and the displaced Cuban alternative in Miami. It would be unthinkable there to have someone come up to me and talk about how amazing Cuba currently is, but I actually hear it quite often here. Now I marvel that such a small island has held the attention of every president since Kennedy.

Though my father has mellowed in his old age—he’s nearly 85—it’s no surprise that he fervently disagrees with me. For him, there is no compromising, no negotiating with this regime. My mother, however, would’ve welcomed this news. The idea of an American embassy in Cuba is tantalizing, the idea of the American flag flying again in Havana should inspire the Cuban people that hope is just 90 miles away. And for me, it will be a welcome reminder that this home I left over a defiant demand for more ham is not as distant, and aberrant, as it has felt.

Jean-Paul Renaud is the director of communications for the UCLA College. Prior to entering higher education, Renaud was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Watch a Restaurant CEO Fire a Woman for Refusing to Wear a Bikini on TV

He also offered a free breast augmentation to a waitress as a bonus

Some television networks play heartwarming content over the holiday season — but not CBS. On Sunday’s episode of Undercover Boss, Bikinis Sports Bar & Grill CEO Doug Guller not only fired a bartender after she declined to wear a bikini on television, but also incentivized a different waitress by offering to pay for her breast augmentation.

Just the brand of American dream you’d expect to be served at an establishment that calls itself “America’s first breastaurant.”

In the above clip, Guller sits down with Jessica to discuss her decision to forgo wearing a bikini while on camera. (Note: Jessica follows the dress code on normal work days, just not when her grandma can see it on TV.) “That was a big bummer from my point of view,” Guller tells a bummed Jessica in front of an even more bummed audience. He had previously told cameras that he was actually “f****** pissed” — after all, “It’s called Bikinis, not Tee-shirts.”

While he had other complaints (including over-serving a customer and admitting to a disguised Guller that her ambitions extended beyond the breastaurant industry), he maintains his main reason for firing Jessica is her insistence at remaining fully clothed on TV.

But Guller isn’t a complete Grinch.

Just like Santa, Guller offers a different server a reward for her work ethic. “I’m going to make you a deal,” he tells Grace, promising her a free breast augmentation if she’s a “rock star” for the next six months.

“This makes my job so much easier,” she says. “I don’t even have to talk as much because they do the talking.”

Suffice it to say, the Twitterverse was not pleased.

Bikinis has also received backlash on its Yelp page. “Why would anyone who respects women spend their money in a dump like this?” asks one reviewer.

Guller appears unconcerned.

Read next: Twitter Account to Overly Thirsty Brands: Stop Saying the Word ‘Bae’

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME language

This Is What ‘Cisgender’ Means

Two babies looking at each other curiously
Vladimir Godnik—Getty Images

This adjective had its biggest year yet in 2014

Cisgender is a word that applies to the vast majority of people, describing a person who is not transgender. If a doctor announces, “It’s a girl!” in the delivery room based on the child’s body and that baby grows up to identify as a woman, that person is cisgender. Similarly, a baby designated male in the delivery room who grows up to identify as a man is cisgender. This is the case for about 99% of the population, at least according to the best available statistics.

The word exists to serve as an equal to transgender. Author Julia Serano says the best parallel is to homosexual and heterosexual. “There was a time when there were homosexual people and everyone else was considered to be the ‘normal’ people,” she says. “Now people think of themselves as straight or heterosexual.” That adjective probably applies to about 95% of the population, though people perceive the heterosexual population as being much smaller.

The prefix cis- is Latin meaning “on this side of,” whereas trans- means “on the other side of.” While trans-atlantic means “on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean,” an American could describe New York or Virginia or the Rocky Mountains as cis-atlantic. In general, there aren’t too many places outside of a dictionary or chemistry lab where one would likely see the prefix being used, but cisgender is seeing an uptick in use.

(MORE: This Is What Intersex Means)

In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries—the branch of Oxford that deals with modern usage, words we’re using now and how we use them—added cisgender to their ranks. Stephen Colbert joked in June that he is “cis-white,” because “I’ve always been comfortable with my birth race.” And in February, Facebook added no less than 10 “cis” terms among their expanded options for gender, ranging from plain cis to cis male to cis woman. This graph from Google Trends shows how often people have searched for the term over time:

People who use the word to describe themselves are often sending two messages: A) I’m hip to gender politics and B) I believe people are all the same when it comes to being normal and legitimate, even if their experience of gender identity is different. But there is no consensus on who should use the term or when. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, believes that trying to introduce the word cisgender into more vocabularies when many people still don’t really understand transgender is counterproductive for their cause. “It does not help us as advocates,” she says, “changing the language.”

Other leaders in the trans community, like Serano, feel the word is useful in spreading the idea that even if the vast majority of people are not transgender, they too have a gender identity; it’s just not one that is challenged or questioned. No one should have to identify themselves as cisgender all the time, just as “people don’t go around all the time thinking of themselves as a straight woman or a heterosexual man,” she says. “But it becomes useful when you’re talking about the ways in which people are treated differently in society.”

TIME society

This One-Man Band Playing ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ at Seattle Airport Will Get You in the Holiday Spirit

Killing time at the airport before the flight to your holiday destination? This video of a “one-man band” singing “Jingle Bell Rock” and marching through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will make you wish there was more of this kind of entertainment at airports nationwide.

Eric Haines, the dexterous guy behind the music, regularly entertains at the airport and throughout the Seattle area with a bass drum on his back and a banjo over his shoulder.

The YouTube user who uploaded the band video, “Matthew Morris,” also filmed a man dressed like Elvis riding a dual-wheeled unicycle. An “Elvis” has also been spotted doing a similar stunt at the Seattle Space Needle in years past.

 

TIME Family

The Paternity Leave Stimulus

father-holding-baby-beach
Getty Images

Research says paid paternity leave can boost economies, empower women and make families happier

Rodrigo Neves wasn’t expecting a fight. After the city council of Niteroi, Brazil passed a new law earlier this month extending Brazil’s nationally mandated 5 days of paid paternity leave to 30 days paid leave for city employees who become fathers, Neves, the city’s mayor, vowed to overturn it. He didn’t expect to be bombarded by news outlets and a local campaign demanding that the law remain in place. The story even made it onto BBC.

“How do we deal with the shortage of teachers, street cleaners with an absence for that long?” Neves said. “I‘m the father of three children and I don’t think it’s necessary or essential to have 30 days of paternity leave.”

Currently, Brazil offers only five days paid paternity leave, compared to four months fully paid maternity leave (the United States, of course, offers none). And yet, many government officials at the local and federal level in Brazil (and in other countries) take Neves’ side: They believe allowing 30 days of paternity leave will disrupt worker productivity and the functioning of cities and countries. They’re wrong. In fact, the opposite is true.

Experiences from as far north as Sweden and as far east as Japan show that policies promoting fathers’ involvement at home is good for the economy, for gender equality, and for families. And it’s good for men, too. A litany of studies demonstrate the positive effects of active fatherhood on men’s own health and well-being, their relationships with their partners, and on the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of their children. Research shows that when men are more involved in the early care of a child, they are more likely to remain connected to that child and to carry out a more equitable amount of the care work.

And that has big economic implications. If men share half the care work at home through the help of policies like extended, paid paternity leave, women’s participation in the paid labor force increases. Numerous studies have found the economic benefit of maternity leave; the evidence is also mounting about leave for fathers.

Consider this: the Organisation of Economic Coordination and Development reports that if women in the U.S. worked at the same rates men did, U.S. GDP could grow 9 percent; France’s by more than 11 percent; and Italy’s would see a 23 percent climb. On average, across OECD countries, if women’s participation in the workplace were to converge with men’s rates by 2030, we could see an overall increase of 12 percent in GDP. This data comes in addition to recent policy recommendations from the ILO, the IMF and the World Bank all pointing to paternity leave and men taking on an equitable share of the care work as being essential components in promoting women’s participation in the workplace – and in boosting the economy overall.

This would be especially welcome in Brazil, where, after a decade of meteoric economic progress, economic growth has now slowed with a mere 0.3 percent projected growth for 2014, the lowest in 5 years. Over the last two decades women’s labor market participation has increased to 60 percent in Brazil. Paternity leave could boost that even more.

Brazil’s fight for gender equality could also use a boost. Brazil fell nine country rankings since last year in the latest Global Gender Gap Index report, putting it behind Cuba and Mozambique. Not surprisingly, Iceland, Sweden and Norway–all of which offer paid paternity and maternity leave—rank first, third and fourth, respectively, in the report. They represent convincing examples that father-friendly policies contribute to women’s economic empowerment – and to a country’s economic stability and growth.

To be sure, creating these policies is only half the battle. The next question becomes: If we offer leave, will men take it? Studies find that many men, particularly those in the private sector, worry about their job stability if they take extended leave to care for a child. One key strategy to convince men to take leave is that it be paid and that at least part of it is non-transferable from the mother to the father. Another key lesson learned from places like Iceland, Sweden and Norway – countries that pioneered paid paternity leave more than 20 years ago– is that employers, particularly in the private sector, must encourage men to take leave and assure them that their career trajectories will not suffer if they do.

For example, Sweden’s famous “daddy leave” promotes parental involvement by compensating mothers and fathers at 90 percent of their wages while offering subsidies that ensure fathers take at least one month off (and making a portion of parental leave designated only for the father). Today, 9 out of 10 fathers in Sweden take paternity leave averaging more than 6 weeks. One result: a study in Sweden found that women’s income increases 7 percent for each month that her partner takes leave.

Beyond countries, corporations are also catching on. One Brazilian company is leading by example in extending paid paternity leave from the currently mandated 5 days to 30 days. Ernst and Young, which offers paid leave for mothers and limited paid leave for fathers, has found that such policies pay off in terms of worker satisfaction and retention, for both fathers and mothers.

Despite these bright spots, here’s our current reality: globally, the trend is that men work more paid hours when they have a child and women work less. Furthermore, after the birth of a first child women are more likely to return to the work force in a part-time position than men are. The result: men’s incomes increase, women’s remain lower and many women remain outside the formal labor market. The other result: we continue to see caregiving as women’s work, while men are seen, at best, as “helpers.”

Paid paternity leave breaks this destructive trend. It is key to shifting traditional gender expectations and achieving full equality for women. And it could also be key to shaking up stagnant economies.

Almost 1,000 people have signed a petition to tell Niteroi’s Mayor Neves to give fathers leave. Now it’s time for other politicians and policymakers, in Brazil and elsewhere, to listen to citizens and consider paid paternity leave. It’s not a question of whether it’s “necessary and essential,” to use the words of Neves. It’s simply a smart and just policy all around.

Gary Barker, Ph.D., is founder and International Director of Promundo, an international organization with offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Washington, DC, and Kigali, Rwanda, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality and ending violence against women. Mary Robbins is a Program Officer at Promundo, an NGO that works internationally to engage men and boys in promoting gender equality and end violence against women. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Why Pro Athletes Won’t Stay Silent Anymore

Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets
Jason Szenes—EPA Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James in Brooklyn, New York on Dec. 8, 2014.

“I knew it would be coming sooner or later,” says Olympian John Carlos

For nearly 50 years, John Carlos, the American sprinter who raised his arm and clenched his fist at the 1968 Olympics to protest racial inequality, has waited for a group of athletes to follow his example. To stand for something more than scoring points and pushing products.

His wait is finally over. In the weeks since grand juries returned non-indictments of police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, dozens of professional and college athletes have abandoned the safety of the sidelines to lend support for the protests over their killings. “I knew it would be coming sooner or later,” says Carlos, whose “black power” salute with teammate Tommie Smith has become an iconic image. “I’m extremely proud of these athletes. I think they have a brave heart. I think they have a vision. And I think they would like to see these issues resolved.”

Some of the biggest names in sports are leading the charge. LeBron James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before a Dec. 8 game to support the family of Garner, the New York City man whose last words — captured on video as police wrestled him to the ground — have become a slogan of the emerging movement. Even President Obama took note of James’ decision. “You know, I think LeBron did the right thing,” Obama told People in an interview published Thursday. “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness.”

Those athletes represented the peak of socially-conscious sports stars. Since then, most have followed the disengaged template perfected by Michael Jordan. In the early 1990s, Jordan refused to endorse an African-American Senate candidate trying to unseat right-winger Jesse Helms in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Though he might not have actually uttered the famous excuse for staying neutral that’s been attributed to him –“Republicans buy sneakers too” — Jordan followed this philosophy, and turned it into a marketing blueprint: Play nice, don’t offend, grow your personal brand. And whatever you do, stay out of politics.

James, the modern-day Jordan and Nike’s premium pitchman, and Derrick Rose, Adidas’ biggest name baller who was the first NBA star to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt, have rewritten the rules. “We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves,” Obama told People. “LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention.”

For these players, the lack of consequences shows that they can take certain stances without sacrificing corporate clout. “Companies are a now little more willing to allow endorsers speak their mind,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. When asked about LeBron’s gesture, Nike said in a statement that “we respect everyone’s right to share and express different points of view.” Adidas says it supports the position of NBA commissioner Adam Silver; he appreciates free expression, but prefers that players stick to the pre-game dress code.

In Jordan’s day, brands could control what their athletes were saying. Nike, Adidas, and other companies now realize that since so many athletes interact with social media, where the protests played on a 24-hour loop, they’re bound to join the conversation. “It’s kind of an undercurrent that pulls you in,” says TNT analyst Kenny Smith, a former NBA player in the 1980s and 1990s.

For the athletes, it’s easier to speak if you know you’ll be heard — and supported. Social media offers a ready platform to spread a message. “When you have a million Twitter followers,” says Etan Thomas, who played in the NBA from 2001-2011 and was known as one of the more outspoken pro athletes of his era, “there’s tremendous power in that.”

And don’t discount the emotional element. A majority of NFL and NBA players are African-American, and many have had personal experiences of being profiled by cops. “Today’s athletes are starting to reflect outside of themselves,” says Carlos, who briefly played pro football before becoming a counselor and track coach at Palm Springs (Calif.) High School. “We wanted to unify ourselves to make a statement to society — enough is enough. I think that 46 years later, that cry is still out there. Enough is enough.”

TIME Culture

Christmas Cards Were America’s First Social Media

homemade-christmas-card-bw
Getty Images

Before we posted our family Christmas photo on Facebook, we mailed images of our idealized selves and lives to the people we loved

My great-grandmother, who was born in the 1880s, passed away when I was about 11 years old. Looking back, it is fairly obvious now that she was a hoarder on a colossal scale, but since this predated reality television, we tended just to say she was a packrat. As we cleaned out her house in rural Missouri, there was something special waiting: two boxes brimming with postcards. These were not of the “wish you were here” variety depicting washed-out hotel swimming pools and palm-tree-lined boulevards. These were older, more elaborate—variously embossed, gilded, tinseled, and extravagantly colored. They were greetings for birthdays and anniversaries, tokens of affection and romantic overture, and happy returns for every holiday on the calendar. Christmas, especially.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my great-grandmother’s collection would give me a window into the desires—and anxieties—of a world I would only later come to understand and appreciate as I pursued my doctorate in American history. Until I embarked on that journey, the cards often sat in the back of closets or under piles of other accumulated stuff. Still, every so often, I’d take them out, dust them off, and wonder at them anew. Once my long nights of historical study began, I returned to them more and more often, until they finally set me on a path of becoming a scholar of American holidays and culture, including the phenomenon of holiday postcards.

It turns out there was a good reason my ancestor had piles and piles of these rectangular cardboard artifacts. For a few years in the early 20th century, postcards were a massive phenomenon. Billions of postcards flowed through the mail, and billions more were bought and put into albums and boxes. And amid that prodigious output, holiday postcards were one of the most popular types, with Christmas reigning supreme, just as it had in my inherited collection.

The practice of sending Christmas cards pre-dated the broader postcard craze by several decades, largely thanks to the efforts of Louis Prang. Prang was a savvy printing entrepreneur who kept adding products and lithographic techniques to his ever-expanding business, including the introduction of Christmas greeting cards (perhaps at his wife’s suggestion) in 1875. By the 1880s he was publishing more than 5 million holiday cards each year. And once postcards fell out of favor, greeting card companies like American Greetings and Hallmark rushed in to fill the void. But for a few short years between 1907 and 1910, Christmas postcards created a visual conversation between Americans that was unique because it was also very public. They were in many ways a forerunner of today’s impulse to post selfies and holiday pictures on social media. Unlike a greeting card or letter that hides its contents within an envelope, a postcard was always on display—from the rack in the drugstore where it might be purchased to its final destination. And those billions of snowy landscapes and bag-toting Santas churning through the mail system—the Rural Free Delivery system in particular—revealed much of what was on people’s minds at the height of the Progressive Era.

Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe had long been part of the Christmas tradition, with young men using sprigs of the plant to claim the right to demand or steal a kiss. Yet this was an era when women were asking serious questions about their rights and questioning the assumed passivity of their lives in everything from courtship and marriage to education and work. This is why so many postcards feature a woman who has taken control of mistletoe, deciding when and where it will be hung, and when she will choose to be under it and for whom. Sure, the rowdy, sprig-wielding young man still shows up in Christmas postcards, but now he must contend with the “New Woman” who uses mistletoe as part of her new right to take the initiative.

Rural landscapes are another good example. On the surface, nothing seems particularly unusual about a Christmas greeting that features a little snow-covered house in the countryside. That sort of mythologized ideal has been around since before the Civil War, when Currier and Ives capitalized on rural nostalgia with their inexpensive prints. Still, rural and small-town America was far from a contented place in the first decade of the 20th century. Farm children seemed to be fleeing to cities in droves, with 1910 marking the last census of a majority-rural American population.

One reason billions of Christmas postcards circulated with nary a cityscape to be seen is that rural Americans were circulating an idealized vision of themselves. When times seemed tough, all those picture-perfect fields, barns, fences, and country homes became a way to create an alternative narrative—one that was beautiful, healthy, and prosperous. One could argue this instinct shares significant DNA with the practice of staging family photographs for Christmas cards, or for today’s Facebook postings. There is something comforting and empowering about controlling the visual elements of a holiday greeting to your friends and family. Those visuals are not just representing you but a perfected version of you, and your world.

These were also the years when the United States saw the peak of European immigration, particularly immigrants from Southern and Eastern European nations like Russia, Lithuania, Italy, and Greece. Partly as a reaction to this inflow, and its surrounding anxieties, people were eager to emphasize their longstanding roots in the country, as if to say “we came here generations ago, not yesterday.” Manifestations of this urge to claim native roots pop up in the period’s genealogical societies, colonial revival movements, and yes, holidays. An “Old Fashioned Christmas” is a phrase that appears with increasing regularity through the first two decades of the 20th century. It is also a repeated theme in Christmas postcards with plenty of “ye olden time” imagery of colonial homesteads, spinning wheels, lanterns, rocking chairs, muskets, and horse-drawn coaches.

The postcard fad ended when the best postcards—which were printed in Germany using superior lithographic techniques—were priced out of the market by a newly passed tariff in 1909. By 1910, interest was waning as American firms failed to produce postcards of equal quality. World War I put the final nail in the coffin. Yet whereas Halloween or Thanksgiving greeting cards never took off the way their postcard predecessors had, Christmas cards have remained an American tradition, if now dressed up in an envelope. Always a mirror of the times, popular Christmas card styles included Art Deco in the 1920s and patriotic cards during World War II.

Looking back, however, there was something distinctive about the old postcards. They put it all out there—hopes, dreams, worries, excitement, wonder, fear, pride, and more—for store clerks and mailmen, nosy neighbors and family members to see and read.

Certainly I wonder how my great-grandmother’s network of cousins, friends, and her future husband (who sent her plenty of courting postcards, including a few mistletoes of his own) picked the cards they sent. What appealed to them and why? As a kid my answer would have been “because they look cool,” but as a cultural historian I now look deeper for what might like beneath the surface. Like so many others who gravitated to postcards with an almost forceful passion, she was a young rural girl from a long line of rural Americans who saw the world changing quickly. Postcards were a way of dealing with those changes, some welcome I’m sure, and many not. Still, I do agree with my younger self … they were and remain pretty darn cool.

Daniel Gifford is the manager of Museum Advisory Committees at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His first book, American Holiday Postcards 1905-1915: Imagery and Context, was published by McFarland Press in 2013. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Watch an Insanely Cool Star Wars-Themed Holiday Lights Display

We recommend waving glowsticks—er, lightsabers—as you watch this video

An intricate lights display at a Newark, Calif., home features a 17-foot guitar, a 19-foot piano, all choreographed to songs from the Star Wars films.

According to the YouTube description, this design was orchestrated by Tom BetGeorge, a music teacher at Oakland’s Conservatory of Vocal and Instrumental Arts.

He writes, “If you look closely (especially during the Cantina song) the instruments are playing the real notes!”

If you cannot see it in person, it is supposed to be featured on ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight, in which families compete to put on the best Christmas lights display.

TIME society

Dear Police Unions: Please Stop Asking Jocks To Apologize

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns
Joe Robbins—Getty Images Andrew Hawkins #16 of the Cleveland Browns walks onto the field while wearing a protest shirt during introductions prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on Dec. 14, 2014 in Cleveland.

Sean Gregory is a TIME senior writer who has covered sports extensively over the last decade.

NFL players have taken stands against the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and been criticized by police unions. But why shouldn't athletes take a stand?

On Sunday, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a t-shirt that said “Justice For Tamir Rice And John Crawford III.” Rice, a 12-year-old, was shot by a Cleveland police officer in a park last month; the boy had been carrying a toy gun. Crawford was shot by police in in Beavercreek, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, while holding an air rifle in a Walmart this summer; a grand jury did not indict any officers.

“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland police union, wrote in a statement to a local TV station. “They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology.”

Neither the Browns nor Hawkins said “I’m sorry.”

On November 30, five St. Louis Rams players made the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose during game introductions, in support of Michael Brown and Ferguson protestors. The St. Louis police union was similarly peeved. It released a statement saying the officers were “profoundly disappointed with the members of the St. Louis Rams football team who chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury this week and engage in a display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.” The union called for player discipline and “a very public apology” from the NFL and the Rams. Although the police organization and the Rams debated whether private correspondence between a team official and the union qualified as an apology, the team publicly stood by its players.

Public opinion has moved against police officers. Some misguided people are painting them with a broad brush, saying all cops are bad. As the son of a retired New York City police sergeant, I strongly disagree with this sentiment. That’s why I’m asking police unions to please stop belittling professional athletes.

These apology demands come off as defensive. They don’t help public perception; they don’t help the tense relationship between law enforcement and many communities. These athletes aren’t painting all cops as racists. They are exercising a right to free speech. The right to believe that a 12-year-old boy should not have been shot. To believe that an unarmed Michael Brown did not deserve to die. Sure, officer Darren Wilson said Brown never raised his hands to surrender. A few witnesses said he did. The St. Louis Rams have a right to believe the witnesses.

And why single out athletes for reprimand? Unions don’t seem to be firing out angry letters to peaceful protestors. To be fair, not every union is singling out athletes. Before a December 8 game in Brooklyn, NBA stars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, and other players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in warmups, to protest the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after an officer put him in a chokehold. He uttered “I can’t breathe” before he died; a grand jury acquitted the officer. The New York police union did not publicly blast the players.

And official police department representatives generally have been much more measured. Cleveland Division of Police Chief Calvin D. Williams said on Tuesday: “The Division of Police respects the rights of individuals to peacefully demonstrate their personal views and opinions. Mr. Hawkins was certainly well within his rights to express his views and no apology is necessary.”

Yes, athletes have a larger platform than the average dissenter to spread a message. But if you don’t agree with the message, that doesn’t mean you go after them. Jocks have a first amendment right not to stick to sports. Why should law enforcement chastise law-abiding athletes?

 

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser