About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

End of Days

I am writing this blog on the eve of what many people believe will be the last year of human history.  The reason they think that this is the last New Year's Eve is because on December 21, 2012, the Mayan calendar ends.

What they fail to recognize is that on December 22, 2012, the Mayan Calendar begins.

This is because, like most societies of antiquity, the Mayans did not view time as linear, they viewed it as cyclical.  It is only after the development of Apocalyptic Christianity (and thank you, Saint John the Divine) that time began to be viewed as linear.  Even the Old Testament has cyclical themes, where similar events happen over and over.

The cyclical time view is a very natural cognitive progression: day turns into night, which then becomes day again; the moon waxes and wanes over and over; summer follows spring, which turns to fall then winter, then back to spring.  Cycles exist everywhere you turn in the natural world, even on the grandest scale.  The Big Bang may very well end in the Big Crunch if the universe actually has enough mass to reverse the expansion.

The linear view of time is the cultural anomaly, yet we constantly project a linear view onto the world, even on cultures that do not share that concept.  The Mayans, like most Meso-American cultures, viewed time as cyclical, which can be proven by the simple fact that they made their calendar round.  A circle has no beginning and no end; when you return to the place you started, a new revolution begins.

I would like to note that the linear view of time is probably an outgrowth of the linear nature of the human life, mixed with a belief in heaven and hell.  Most cyclical time cultures also believe in some form of reincarnation or rebirth, where this life is one of many.  The Abrahamic Traditions view this life as having an end, and after it ends, we go to an eternal afterlife. 

This raises an uncomfortable theological question, if the Universe does end in a Big Crunch do Heaven and Hell also crunch?  Also, if the universe ends in entropy, where it turns black and cold and all energy ceases, does heaven also go dark and God fall apart like everything else?

At its root, though, the belief in the end of the world is a very narcissistic world view where people can't bear the thought of life continuing without them.  Many people find comfort in the idea that when they die, so does everyone else.  Its sort of like, when you leave the party, you want them to kick every else out with you, lock the door and turn off the lights.  I have actually talked to people who believe in the Dispensationalist view of the Bible who hope the Rapture happens in their lifetime, so that everyone they love will ascend into Heaven with them.

This is an idea that I find appallingly self centered.

To return to my original point, we are projecting a liner view onto a cyclical calendar.  The ancient Mayans would be shocked to hear us say that they predicted the end of the world, they just viewed it as the end of one cycle and the start of another cycle.  To them, this would just be the end of the thirteenth b'ak'tun and the start of the fourteenth.  The Mayans even developed a complex "horoscope" of the K'atuns (the 7200 day period of the shorter cycle), describing the general character of the cycle.  The k'atun that begins next December is one of transition and change, which further reinforces the idea of the restart after the change of b'ak'tun.

This is not to say that the world won't possibly end on December 21st, but if it does, it will be from something much more frightening than a 500 year old Mayan Calender.  It will be because people believe so fiercely in the end of the world that they actually bring it about. 

You can see this apocalyptic world view in play in may of the fundamentalist Christian churches.  May of these people want the Jews to continue to govern Israel, and even see King Solomon's Temple rebuilt, because they believe that those are necessary conditions for Armageddon.  They do not support Israel as a goal in and of itself, but just because the existence of Israel is necessary for Jesus to return.  (And when he does, they believe the Jews will have to convert to Christianity or go to Hell.  Trust me, their support of Israel is not a particularly pro-Jewish action.)

When Harold Stroke predicted the end of the world last May, thousands of people got rid of everything they owned, quit their jobs, and otherwise divested themselves of everything in preparation of the Rapture.  In the year 1001, there was mass famine in Europe because people didn't plant crops because they believed that Jesus would come at the end of the Millennium and the world would end. 

People want to believe so strongly in the end of days that they will give up everything that they have to prepare for it.  They believe so strongly that some will actually even try to bring it about.  There have been some hints leaked to the press that the Dispensationalist world view was part of the idea behind the Iraq War, and that the Bush White House was trying to set the stage for the Rapture to occur. 

I do not know if these are valid, and I certainly do not wish to fuel any conspiracy theories.  However, it does fit with things that I have heard evangelical ministers on TV preach about the Middle Eastern Wars.  It could just as easily be that the preachers were creating a Christian mask to enframe the wars as God's will.

In either case, it will only take a few nut jobs who want to bring about the end of the world to actually start something that spirals out of control and does do some significant damage.  White supremacists could try to start a second Civil War if Obama get's re-elected.  The debt crisis in Europe could spark a new European World War.  Iran could lob a nuclear bomb at Israel.  Kim Jong Un could do the same with South Korea or Japan.   The possibilities are endless; and there are many things happening that could bring the world to it's collective knees.

There is only one thing that is certain; if the worst does happen this year, it will be completely explicable by human behavior.

It will not be because a Meso-American culture five hundred years ago ended a calendar cycle on December 21, 2012.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Case For Soft Polytheism


When there is only one truth, there can be no peace.  When there are many truths, peace is possible.

Many social scientists state monotheism is more culturally advanced than polytheism, and is the natural progression of human society.  On the surface, this seems to be a plausible extrapolation – after all, polytheism in the western world was obliterated (or retreated into the shadows) a millennia ago, with the absorption of the Celts.  It would seem, at least from a western point of view that monotheism is a hallmark of an advanced society.

But is it really?  Hinduism and Shintoism are overtly polytheistic, Buddhism, with its Hindu roots, has polytheistic overtones.  I dare say that no one would question Japan as an advanced society, and India is fast becoming a world player.  Although China is technically atheistic, the Buddhist traditions run deep.  None of these countries have become monotheistic as they have advanced technologically. 

Furthermore, the Greeks and Romans were more advanced than any societies that existed until at least the 1700’s.  If monotheism cemented societal advances, the Roman Empire should have reached its zenith, or at least underwent a renaissance, after Constantine.  Instead, the Empire fragmented, the barbarians sacked Rome, and Europe was plunged into the dark ages.  It could just as easily be argued that monotheism destroys societies.

However, since most anthropologists are from the west, enculturation probably plays a role in this statement of societal evolution.  There has been a long tradition in cultural anthropology to practice a rather paternalistic and superior attitude toward the societies being studied.  This is reinforced by the fact that the modern empires have all been Western, even if the cultures subjugated are millennia older than the European countries. 

The reality is that social evolution does not tend toward monotheism as it advances nor does it, in and of itself, advance society.  The two are completely disconnected; we just fall back to the natural belief of the superiority of our own culture, and consequently conflate the two.

The reality is that in order for society to advance as we move forward, we must fall back to what I term a “soft polytheism.”  What I mean by this is, an individual culture may be monotheistic, but they also recognize the validity of other religions and other deities.  This is not saying, “I accept that they worship another God, even though I know that their God is false, but I’ll allow them their own beliefs, even though I know that they are wrong.”  It is actually saying, “I worship my God, and through that God I have found my own personal salvation, but I know there are other Gods that can lead other people to their own Salvation.  No God is better than any other, except on a personal basis, and what is right for me is not right for everyone.”

This is a radical statement, as it goes even beyond what liberal theologians like John Spong espouse.  Their view is that everyone worships the same God by different names.  That may or may not be actually true, but it is better for society to take the issue entirely off the table by accepting soft polytheism.  Saying that there is only one God that we all worship in different ways is actually still pretty paternalistic toward people who profoundly believe that they are multitudes of deities.

In the ancient world, there were no wars fought over the Gods, war was for more concrete issues such as territory, money, trade and resources.  In fact, it was typical for a conqueror to adopt the pantheon of the subjugated land.  An example of this the Ptolomies converting to the worship of the Egyptian deities and building temples in their honor, such as the complex at Dendara, dedicated to Hathor.  Gods were tied to the land, and if someone went to another land where other Gods were worshiped, they typically adopted the new deities.

The Bible, written by monotheists, documents the first incidents of religious warfare.  Except for the Bible, there are few, if any, documented cases of people fighting over the validity of a God.  There are contentions between people, such as the strife between Sparta and Athens that had a religious component, but neither side was trying to convert the other to the worship of their patron deity, they were just trying to prove their God was better, kind of like modern sports rivalries. 

I would also like to note, the Old Testament does not deny other deities, it just commands the Jews to have no other God than YHVH.  The fact that they name their deity, unlike Christians who just call Him God, indicates that they needed to differentiate Him from other Gods.  It is the strict monotheism of the later Abrahamic traditions that dispense with the need for God to have a name.  And by the way, Allah just means God in Arabic.  Arab Christians (yes, they do exist) call God Allah as well.

And it is this latter Abrahamic tradition that has caused so much grief in the world.  When there is only one God, all other Gods must, by definition be false, or worse, the other Gods are actually Lucifer in masquerade.  This then leads the faithful to have to convert the Heathen to give them salvation or literally pull them from the clutches of Satan.  When you view other religions as games or satanic, you cannot hold respect for them, and by extension, for the people who follow them.  It also makes the infidel or heretic among the most depraved of individuals, as they are embracing fakery or evil.

In the end, this belief that all other religions are false will make it impossible to deal with its followers honorably.  In a way, the overt hatred of people of other faiths is better than the subtle paternalistic distain that many “enlightened” people demonstrate.  I saw this same kind of behavior in the South (and also in Boulder) among many “liberals.”  They treated other races with the same sort of kindness I show my dog.  I love him, but I know he is still a dog, and no matter how much I would like him to, he will never be able to understand Quantum Physics.  The pseudo-liberals do the same thing to people of other races and religions; they treat them well, but you can tell that they know in their hearts they are better.  I’d rather deal with overt hatred than this patronizing attitude; at least I can fight against the people who hate openly.

But to return to my point: if we all accept our deity as one among many, we can accept those other deities as good and loving, and most importantly, valid.  This does not mean that we have to celebrate those other Gods, just that we have to respect that they are as worthy of worship as our own.  Many members of polytheistic religions have a single God that they feel the strongest kinship with. 

If each one of us accepted this Truth, we will have bridged one of the greatest chasms that divide us.  If we accept that all religions are good, all of them strive to help their adherents become better people, and their followers are as profoundly devout as we are, we will see true peace on the horizon.

And trust me; this will actually bring us closer to our own individual Gods.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Essence of Architecture


Architecture is a cultural container.  At it's purest form, it is a built representation of our value system, our cultural beliefs, our social structure and even the patterns of our lives.  It represents our views of cosmology, theology, sociology and psychology.   It demonstrates our technology and our science.

In short, you can look at architecture and determine a large amount of information about the culture that built it. 

On a side note, the buildings are one of the main resources available to archeologists.  The buildings, coupled with the artifacts contained within, are typically the only resources you have to understand a pre-literate society.

But why is architecture such a significant identity marker?

The answer comes from the Theory of Essences.  Before I explore how this impacts architecture, I will briefly cover what this term means.

The origins of this theory date back to pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, which addressed what could be termed the "Folk Theory of Essences."   First of all, folk theory refers to an informal theory (as opposed to a scientific theory) and it typically an unconscious characterization.  In the folk theory of essences, you essentially say that there are certain characteristics that define something. 

For example, there are certain identifiers that make an animal a dog.  You are probably not even consciously aware of how you determine the animal bounding toward you is a dog, you just know it is.  It is something we learn as a very small child.  If we came from culture that did not differentiate between dogs and cats, we might have very different folk theory of essences referring to them.  Perhaps we would categorize them as small animals that live in our houses; it might even be possible that we would categorize the small lap dogs with cats while the large working breeds might get lumped in with livestock.

But at the root, the folk theory of essences allows us to identify what something is in relationship to other things like it.  The theory of essences is at the root of ontology.  Dogs and chairs can have very different appearances, but when we see any dog or any chair, we are probably going to know what it is.  (However, don't even get me started on Chinese Cresteds, those are not dogs, they're freaks of nature.)

According to Lakoff, there are three things that characterize what an essence is: essences are substances; essences are forms; and, essences are patterns of change.  These three things are what we analyze to categorize an object.  Everyone does it, it is a part of our psycho-social makeup.  Humans are pattern makers, it's how our brains work.

The folk theory of essences gives us an ability to understand the world around us at a basic level, but for the expert, the theory of essences needs to be combined with Aristotle's theory of categories.  This theory refers to a set of necessary conditions and inherent properties that define something.  We are able to identify a dog by simple characteristics, but a biologist has a far stricter categorization that is necessary to define an animal as a dog.  And sometimes, as in the case of moths and butterflies, even biologists can't actually work up the exact categorical differences.

It should be noted that the theory of essences is not the entire foundation of science, because, as in the moth/butterfly example, these essences do not tell the entire story.  The theory of essences informs scientific thought, but it is not the entirety of scientific theory.  But for fields like architecture, the theory of essences lies at the core of the profession. 

This is where the folk theory of essences comes in, and where it combines with naturalized culture.  Most Americans can look at a strip mall or a church and know exactly what it is.  There are cultural markers that we understand through the folk theory of essences that identify a building for it's purpose.  If we took someone from a vastly different culture, or a different point in history, they would have no idea what the building was or how it was used.  (There is a wonderful book to this effect called the "Motel of the Mysteries" where a group of archaeologists from the future completely misinterpret a motel as a burial complex.  You should see what they think the toilet lid is used for.)

Every group of people is encultured to understand the essences of the objects that surround them.  No one could function without this awareness, because it would mean that every time we encountered a chair that looked different from any chair we had seen before, we would not recognize it as a chair and we would have no idea how to use it.  This explains why, when we excavate objects belonging to non-literate societies, we often cannot figure out how they were used.  This leads to the typical archaeologists dodge, "it must have been ceremonial."  It probably wasn't, but we have no way to understand it's purpose, because we do not understand it's essence.

The architect, on the other hand, cannot simply rely on the folk theory of essences.  Architects, just like any other professional, must understand the expert theory of essences as it relates to their profession.  Architects must do more than recognize the cultural markers that identify a church, they must understand those markers, and understand how to manipulate them without violating their essences.

This is one of the great failings of modernism.  Modernists tried to turn their backs on cultural markers, especially in non-Western cultures such as Chandigarh.  By attempting to remove cultural identity from architecture, they removed many aspects of it's essence.  It is interesting to note, however, eventually culture catches up.  Now we have accommodated Modernism into our folk theory of essences about architecture and we can understand it better.  We can look at a Modernist building and categorize it through our redefined cultural markers, but this understanding took years to penetrate into naturalized culture.

But at the core, the theory of essences is something that architects cannot ignore.  To create architecture that the public can engage, the architect must understand and apply this theory in an expert manner.  An architect can create a church that looks nothing like the traditional church, but he or she must include enough markers for the regular person to feel that the space is sacred.

This is why architects need a diverse education, they must be able to understand all of the factors that feed into our understanding of culture, and by extension, our understanding of architecture.  The architect must enframe society into their buildings, to allow their buildings to help define society. 

It is a powerful cycle.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Paradox of Fundamentalism


There is a worldwide trend of fundamentalist sects growing in secular power. 

You see this in the religious litmus tests in American politics.  No candidate in America would be elected to high office without referring to God and working in the phrase, "God Bless America."  This is one of the few truly bipartisan movements in the United States; it does not matter whether the candidate is  a Democrat or a Republican, both sides constantly invoke God.  (And God forbid any President dare skip the National Prayer Breakfast.  I think they would be immediately impeached for that.)

You see this growth in the power of the Taliban, Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups.  Countries that overthrew their dictators are willingly handing power over to religious dominance.  It is likely that Sharia Law will become the foundation of the constitutions in most of these new democracies.  (Which leads to the question, will democracy turn out to be like free will, where it only exists long enough to give all power over to God?)

 You see this in the growing influence of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.  This group is bending Israeli society to their strict interpretation of the Torah, where the sexes cannot mingle in any way and women are treated like second class citizens.  (There was an incident recently where a woman refused to move to the back of the bus when an Ultra-Orthodox man demanded she do so, because, according to Leviticus, no man may sit behind a woman.  The police were called because of the near riot her refusal provoked.  I should note, she finished her bus ride sitting in the front.  Score one for equality.)

But why is there this trend?  Why, after decades of movement toward a secular society are we seeing this return to fundamentalist interpretations of religion?  And why, after enshrining secular democracy as the pinnacle of governmental development are we seeing a return to a modified form of the Divine Right? 

On a side note, how many candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are running because they claim God told them to?  It is certainly more than one, which then leads to a disturbing set of questions: does God like fighting, so He tells multiple people to run, just to see the brawl; is God fickle, and changes his mind on who He wants to run the way normal people change their socks; or most theologically disturbing, are different Gods telling Their candidates to run and we are having a proxy battle between a diverse pantheon?

But back to the main point, why is there this rush back to fundamentalist religious views?

I think the most likely answer is that we live in uncertain times, and God provides a certainty.  God also provides cover for a denial of progress and justifies reactionary urges in a way that cannot be argued with.

This has happened before.  One of the outgrowths of the Black Plague was the Inquisition, and that was a logical development given the situation. 

The plague overturned the social order in Europe; had it never occurred Serfdom and Feudalism would have continued on for a significant length of time.  But with the mass deaths of the 1400's, labor became a scare commodity, which lead to the rise of a merchant class, the guilds and the idea of "employment."  It broke the back of the Feudal society and led to the Renaissance and the Reformation.  In a relatively short time society transformed completely.  Short is relative here, given the lack of speedy transference of ideas without electronic communications.

A natural outgrowth of this transformation was the rise of the Inquisition, which became a last ditch reactionary movement to slow or halt the transformation.  (It also had other "benefits," including consolidation of power, etc.)  But at it's heart, the Inquisition was a way to try to take society back to a more "Godly" way and root out ideas that questioned the way things were.

We are in that sort of a transformation again.  Society is changing in ways that many people don't like.  Some don't like the changes because they are altering the normatives, others don't like them because they are threatening the entrenched power structure.  So the best way to combat the changes is to claim that these changes go against God.  It is the ultimate trump card, because fear of God is at it's root fear of ourselves.

I would like to note that this dislike of societal transformation is similar to the Fear-anger-hate chain that I discussed at length in previous blog posts, but there are differences as well.  The fear-anger-hate chain is the result of a certain amount of powerlessness to stop the inexorable tide of change.  The insertion of God's Will into the discussion is an attempt to actually turn the tide.  (Which is a very fitting Moses reference)

It becomes the ultimate firewall to try to invoke a Fundamentalist view of God to reverse a societies course.  And, sometimes it works, at least on the short term scale.   Had it not been for the invasion of Afghanistan the Taliban would have likely continued in power for decades, keeping that country locked in a medieval world.  (An no, I am not going to address whether I think the invasion was right or wrong, I am merely pointing out that the Taliban's fundamentalist view of Islam cemented a stagnation in that country, and would have continued for quite a while)

In the end, the Inquisition failed to stop the Enlightenment, but it did slow it down.  It applied a braking mechanism on the change, but ironically it made the change stronger when it came.  It did this because it forced the great thinkers of the day, who were driving the transformation, to solidly construct their arguments and force them to have a strong ontology and epistemology.   Since they developed better arguments, in the long run, it became harder for the church to rally support against them.

This leads to the paradox of fundamentalism; in the short term, fundamentalism strengthens religion, but in the long term it sows the seeds of the destruction of religion.  Today, in the West at least, we would never accept the Divine Right of Kings to rule over us.  This refusal to accept a Godly dictator came from people like Thomas Jefferson having to construct irrefutable arguments as to why democracy was essential.   His arguments would never have been as eloquent if he did not have to fight against the weight of God's Will. 

Even though we want our candidates to be inspired by God to run, we still demand the right to approve God's choice, in essence giving us veto power over God.  This leads to other disturbing questions of omnipotence that I am not going to address right now.
A modern example can be found in the issue of gay marriage.  The fundamentalist arguments against it forced the supporters to be better at presenting their case.  The result of this is, for the first time, gay marriage supporters are a slight majority in the country.  This is the paradox at work, the louder and more viciously opponents argue against it, the tide is inexorably flowing toward marriage equality.

In the end, Fundamentalism is another self-defeating process, because it forces the opponents that narrow view to create irrefutable arguments on their side as well.  And given that the only constant is change, eventually the Fundamentalist must bow to defeat.   

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hate Not Heritage


It is time, that we as Americans recognized a simple truth - there is nothing honorable about the Confederate Flag.  It is a symbol no less polarizing or horrifying than the Nazi Flag.  And in saying this, I am not pulling the Nazi card, where people today conflate a relatively minor atrocity (or something they disagree with) with Nazi Germany.

I have stated this as a point of actual, on par, comparison.  (Yes, more people died during World War Two, but how many millions died under the yoke of slavery in the United States in the 200 years that it was legal?)

When I first moved to the South to take a job in Savannah, I passed through a gas station in Tennessee that had a large amount of merchandise that displayed the Confederate Flag.  Coming from Colorado where the Confederate flag is considered at best an inappropriate thing to display, these products shocked me.  Most upsetting of all was one T-shirt that read, "It is better to have fought and lost than to never have fought at all; the South shall rise again."

I realized in that moment that even though 150 years have passed since the start of the Civil War, the South still thinks it was in the right.  And in that moment, I also realized that I would never be able to call the South "home."  I might live there, but that would be all that I would do.  I also realized that I needed to leave that part of the country as soon as I could.

I have now left, never to return.  And that vow is brought about in no small part because of the attitude in the South toward the Civil War and the Confederate Flag. 

First, I want to state, the Civil War was entirely about Slavery, specifically, about the South refusing to accept the end of it.  If you read historical accounts of the time, you will discover that this is the truth.  At the time, the South did not even try to hide that fact.  They came right out and said that they would go to war before they would allow any further restrictions on slavery.

It is only a historical revisionist attempt to state that the war was not about slavery, it was about state's rights.  The right of the state that it was about was the "right" to own other people.  Americans need to stop thinking that "Gone With the Wind." is a historical document, it is one of the most vile reconstructions of history ever perpetrated in America.

So I will say again, the Civil War was about one thing, the South's desire to own people, and the Confederate Flag is the banner that they rallied around in that rebellion.

The actual symbol on the Confederate Flag, the Saint Andrew's Cross, is not an evil symbol, any more than the original swastika is evil.  Both symbols have become perverted and changed out of their original form.  The inverted Swastika that comprises the Nazi flag has become a symbol of hate, divorced from it's original positive meanings, just as the Saint Andrew's Cross is perverted by the addition of the stars and the red field it is displayed on. 

I would see bumper stickers all over the South that proudly displayed the Confederate Flag paired with the statement "Heritage not Hate."  Let's look at that.

If it is about heritage, it is about a heritage of causing a needless war that killed more Americans than all other the other wars we have fought as a country COMBINED.  More American soldiers died in the Civil War than died in the rest of our 200+ year military history put together.  And it was a war of choice, a war that happened solely because the Southern States knew that sooner or later slavery would be ended.  The South sunk the United States in a ocean of blood, just for the right to own other human beings. 

Some heritage.  It makes a person proud.

 Again, this is all fact, not spin, and can be easily sourced.  I would start with the excellent book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" by James W. Loewen.  Or better yet, just examine The "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union" where South Carolina specifically holds up the rights of slave owners above "State's Rights."  (Which blows a hole in that entire "State's Rights" falsehood)  Another damning document is Mississippi's "Declaration of the Immediate Cause" which says, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery--the greatest material interest of the world."  If you read the actual documents of the time, you see that slavery was the cause of the Civil War.

These attitudes towards slavery have not died with the end of the Civil War, they've not died with the Civil Rights Movement, they've not even died with the election of a black President.  In the South, there is still a deep, although rarely voiced, desire to bring back the institution.

I first discovered this shortly after moving to Savannah.  I went driving around the region, trying to discover the land in which I was now living.  I got lost in the backwoods of Georgia, to the point that I started listening for banjos.  I came upon what I can only describe as a compound, ringed by Confederate Flags.  In front of the compound was a billboard that read "And the children of Ham shall ever be servants of Man."  This is a direct reference to Genesis 9:25, which is the bible verse used to not only justify the slavery of Africans, but to state that it is God's Will that they be slaves.  (Africans have been interpreted by Biblical scholars to be the "Children of Ham.")

I wanted to pull the car over and take a picture of the sign, but as a long haired "Yankee" driving a small British sports car, I decided that it was in the interest of my continued health and well being that I drove quickly on.

After seeing this, I asked one of the Administrative Assistants at work about it.  She grew up in Savannah, and as a black woman growing up there, she was quite familiar with the racism in the South.  She informed me that she was certain, that if they put the issue to a vote, and only whites were allowed to cast a ballot, that they would vote overwhelmingly to reinstitute slavery.  She said that she personally had met people who got angry every time they saw an African-American who was not wearing shackles.

After this incident, I was speaking with another friend of mine who knows a couple of white supremacists.  (I need to note, he is not one himself, but he comes into contact with them through his line of work)  He informed me that there are lists out there that document who owns who so that when slavery is returned, the owners can take back their property.

This is not ancient history, this is the underbelly of modern America.  An underbelly that rallies around the Confederate flag as the symbol of it's goals as surely as the neo-Nazis rally around the Swastika.

In my last few weeks in the South, I saw a pickup truck with large Confederate Flags plastered on the sides and a sign in the back window that read, "Vote 2012, it's time to take back the plantation."  He was driving with this sign, proudly, through the streets of Savannah, with no fear of reprisal what so ever.  The boldness of this astonished and terrified me.

A symbol is a powerful thing.  It can raise up armies, it can turn brother against brother, it can tear a country apart.

That is what the Confederate Flag is.  And that is it's power, and why it must be repudiated by all Americans.

I saw another bumper sticker down there that said, "Bring back the Old South."  I wish I could have asked the car's owner what part of the Old South did he want to bring back?  Did he want to bring back the shackles, the chains, the whips, the beatings, the forced labor, the degradation, the humiliation, the forced rapes, the families torn apart, the dogs, the grinding of an entire race into the dirt, the boots on the throats of people who did nothing wrong except to be born a different color?

We need to accept that, for a large segment of the American population, the flapping of the Confederate Flag will always carry the sound of the rattle of a slave's chains. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Corrosion of Conformity


For a place that prides itself in it's history of rebellion, I have never been anywhere that demands more conformity.  In the South, rebellion is not permitted, at least not within the social construct.

Rebellion outside of the culture is acceptable; the Tea Party is praised for it's "rebellion" against the Federal Government.  But within the bounds of Southern society, even mild non-conformity is treated far more harshly than elsewhere.

This seeming inconsistency has bothered me for a long time; why is the South so caught up in obedience and bowing to the internal power structure, while building an entire identity around refusal to bow to an external power structure?

Then I realized, the South is nothing but a group of Goth teenagers.

Not literally of course, but there is an incredible parallel between the two groups.  Both pride themselves on their rejection of cultural normatives on the larger scale, while strictly enforcing an internal set of normatives.  (Normatives are social constructs that define "normal" behavior - they set the limits of what is acceptable and create boundaries that define deviance.)

Goth kids reject the "acceptable" behavior of the larger society, and create a new set of appropriate behaviors within their group.  They consider themselves to be complete non-conformists, but they all dress alike, act alike, listen to the same music, etc.  How can you be a non-conformist when you look like everyone else?  (As reference to how powerful these internal sanctions can be, I once knew a Goth girl who dyed her hair back to it's original mousy brown, she was shunned and pressured by her peers until she dyed it black again.)

It all comes back to an identity of shared persecution.  Both Southerners and Goths feel like no one understands them, that they are being persecuted by the tyrannical "other," whether it is the Federal Government or parents and school systems.  And this very persecution gives them their sense of identity, and it strengthens the social bonds within the group.

Things like the Confederate Flag and black eyeliner become the rallying points of a culture under attack.  I have written two blog posts on how Southern Culture feels like it is under attack, so I won't cover old ground here, but the naturalized culture of the South is under what is perceived to be an attack.

And like a group of Goths, Southerners cling to identity markers and a tight knit social structure.  The adversity of persecution reinforces the social compact, and makes that compact even more essential.  It should be noted that neither the South nor the Goth are actually mistreated for the most part, it is a perception that is actually part of the identity of the "outsider."  It is a part of the construct.
And that construct is a powerful thing; it is what gives that group their strength. 

It should be noted that actual persecution is different from illusionary persecution.  Even though both typically reinforce cultural markers, actual persecution can also degrade culture if it is perceived as to dangerous to maintain that culture.  The persecution of Southern culture is illusionary in that no one is actually in physical danger from their culture; the threat to their culture is rooted in epistimology.

To return to the main point, when people feel like everyone is against them, their internal bonds get much stronger, because they feel like they have no one else.  It creates a sense of "you and me against the world," which leads to an extremely tight society.  Just like "Southern Nice," it becomes a bulwark against an existential threat.

But it goes further than that.  It becomes a method of internal control.  When a group is under threat, there can be no internal dissention.  Look at how a fractured America came together after Pearl Harbor or after September 11th.  No matter what your political persuasion was, after those events, all other sub-categories disappeared, and the only identity of any importance was that of being an American.

People, at their root, are herd animals.  (We don't like to think of it that way, but all social animals revert back to group-think in times of stress or crisis.)  As herd animals, our identity submerges into the collective identity at these times.  This leads to the ability of the "alpha" to control the behavior of the rest of the group.

You see it in the Goth sub-culture, and you see it in the South, with dynamic preachers or politicians.  The leaders take this strong need to belong and use it to manipulate behavior, through the use of the Third Dimension of Power.   They make people do what they want them to do, because people, especially people belonging to a persecuted group, cannot afford to lose the ties to their band.

In essence, the leaders perpetuate the sense of persecution by the outside world to reinforce their internal control mechanism.

And it is not just Southerners and Goths that this happens to.  You see it in the Republican Party and in the Christian Churches.  You see it in every ethic group with a strong cultural identity.  Democrats wonder why the Republicans see themselves as an oppressed minority even when they run the entire show.  Non-Christians don't understand the brouhaha over the "War on Christmas," when Christmas is the biggest holiday in America.  People wonder why immigrants don't abandon their languages and their traditions now that they live in America.

It has to do with this control, and this sense of identity through persecution.  By setting themselves us as the oppressed, some Republicans and some Christians reinforce the internal bonds of their sub-cultures.  It pulls them together, and supports their identities.  It creates boundaries on the group's behavior and causes them to revert back to a herd mentality.  It creates a cultural dynamism that creates an opportunity for the group to move as a cohesive whole.

The basic core of this is, "I have no one else to turn to, so I must obey the rules to avoid being cast out of the one group that accepts me." 

Cultural identity is an important thing, and I am not trying to demean it here.  This dynamic gives people a sense of safety and of belonging.  What I am talking about is the deliberate set up of persecution to create identity within a group.

In the end, setting yourself up as part of an outcast group becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.