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.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pardon Me, Your Prejudice Is Showing


I really hate the word tolerance because of the (not so) hidden connotation of the word, which is "to tolerate."  Let me be clear, tolerance is not acceptance.  You tolerate a root canal, you tolerate a tedious business meeting, you tolerate a drunken uncle at Thanksgiving. 

In other words, you tolerate things that you find miserable, uncomfortable or unpleasant, but because of necessity or social niceties, you put up a front to avoid reproach.  You bury your actual feelings to play nice.

And every time I hear people preach tolerance, they are actually saying "I know you don't like (insert prejudice here) but you have to act like you do, because that is what is socially acceptable.

In a way, the South, with it's rampant bigotry and racism is better off than some other places in America.  (And I know, in a way, I am praising the South with faint damns.  I can't believe it either.  It may be the only "nice" thing I say about that region for a while, so enjoy it while you can.) 

Why are they better off?  Because in the South, the un-evolved attitudes are in your face and open, which means you can fight against them.  When someone is spewing racist, chauvinist, or homophobic crap openly, you can confront them.  You probably won't change their minds, but at least you can open a dialog.  Have enough dialogs, and eventually, people might realize that their attitudes have little or no basis in fact, and they might actually evolve.  I know it is not likely, but there is a chance, and I will try to be optimistic here.

And even if you don't change the mind of the idiot, other people who hear the discussion, and hold similar beliefs but aren't set in stone on them, might reflect on their own attitudes.  It takes a long time, but even George Wallace eventually recanted his racism.  If such an avowed segregationist can evolve, I have hope that anyone can.

But back to the issue of tolerance; in many parts of the country, people preach the gospel of tolerance, which suppresses the dialog, while allowing people to hold hatred in their hearts.  They say, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, that you can't have that attitude.  You have to tolerate, just like you do anything unpleasant.

You see this in the criticism of President Obama.  Most Republicans know that they cannot actually come out and say, "I don't like having a black man in the Oval Office," so they code their words.  They call him arrogant, which, when directed at a black man, has a meaning that is different than when it is directed at a white person.  They call him a socialist, a alien, a traitor, and many other horrible things, because they cannot say the one horrible thing they really want to say.

The closest time anyone ever came to actually expressing their real thoughts was when the Teabagger was crying, "I want my country back."  That articulation, had it actually been discussed, might have torn open the wound of racism.  Even though it would have caused fresh bleeding, we might have been able to clean out the infection beneath the scab and let it actually heal.  Call it racism penicillin.  (And that may be one of the most graphic analogies I have ever used.  Sorry if you were eating when you read this.)

But this is not a phenomenon limited to the right side of the political spectrum, you find it on the left as well, and this is where "tolerance" really shows it's ugly side.

The perfect example of this is Boulder, Colorado, home of some of the whitest people on earth.  I mean this in both senses of the word: the "Stuff White People Like" sense; but also the actual demographic sense.  There are very few genuine minorities in Boulder.  By genuine, I mean actually having different skin color or a true ethnic name.  What constitutes a minority in Boulder is someone who had an American Indian in their ancestry, maybe 150 year ago, and who proudly checks the Native American box on their EEOC form.  There are also many people who claim that ancestry, but genuinely respect their heritage, and go out to learn about it.  I'm not referring to them, I'm talking about the people who hang a dreamcatcher in their window and smoke peyote to "get in touch with their people."

Boulderites also worry about buying "Fair Trade" coffee that doesn't exploit indigenous people, stopping the South American sex trade, and freeing Tibet.  They love their minorities, as long as those minorities don't live in Boulder

And this is where the ugly truth comes out.  My family has lived in Boulder for five generations, and for five generations, Boulder has put forth the front of being one of the most progressive cities in America.

Except, my great great grandfather, who when German when being German was like being a Mexican today, had all of his neighbors come unglued every time he'd make mutton stew.  They said it smelled bad.  Eventually he started going to his son's house to make it because, as he said, "the people in Boulder were too uppity."

Fast forward to the 60's, at the height of the civil rights movement.  Boulder was really behind that as well, until a black family  moved onto the block where one of my parents friends lived.  Then, every single house on that block whet up for sale.  Civil rights was fine for the South, but when it came to Boulder... well nevermind.

In the nineties, a CU student was beaten almost to death, just for being BBIP. (blatantly black in public)  While he was being attacked, his attackers screamed racial epithets at him.

Also, every time the city council tries to bring in low income housing, people have a meltdown.  The city has shut down all of the mobile home parks within the city limits, and moved them outside of Boulder.  Consequently, at each end of the city are large trailer parks housing the people who cannot afford to live in Boulder, but are lucky enough to have jobs or classes there.  I guess being poor is also a problem for the people in the city.  When the Dali Lama came to visit, they loaded all of their homeless on a bus and shipped them to Denver, so he wouldn't see them.  I hope you appreciate the delicious irony of that one.

And this is what I'm talking about with tolerance.  Most people paper over their prejudices, bury them, don't talk about them, but the prejudice keeps cropping up.  And when it does, they come up with convenient explanations about why it isn't actually prejudice. 

We don't hate Obama because he's black, we hate him because he's not "American in his heart."  Mike Coffman, a U.S. Congressman from Colorado accused the President of that last part yesterday, actually claiming that Obama "in his heart, he is not an American." 

We don't hate Mexicans, it's just that they are draining the national budget and not giving anything back.  Except, in terms of net revenue, without illegal aliens, Medicare and Social Security would be bankrupt in half the time than current projections.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

It is time in the United States to stop hiding behind "tolerance."  As I said before, tolerance is something you reserve for your ability to endure something distasteful or unpleasant.  You should not just tolerate people.

You should accept them, fully and totally.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Right to Deprive


This has been a rollercoaster week for gay rights.  On the one hand, you have the first sitting president of the United States bluntly state that he believes that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry.  On the other hand, you have the Colorado House Speaker blocking a vote on "civil unions" through a parliamentary move, North Carolina banning gay marriage and even the watered down "civil union" idea through a popular vote, the head of the Republican Party claiming that Gay Marriage is not a civil right, and the presumptive Republican nominee assaulting a fellow student in high school for being "queer."

Let me be very blunt, the fight for equality based on sexual orientation and gender identification (GLBT) is the civil right battle that will define the first part of the twenty first century, just like the civil rights movement defined the fifties and sixties and the women's rights movement defined the twenties and seventies.  For a nation based on the idea that everyone is created equal, we have had to fight constantly against the idea that some people are more equal than others.

And the right to marry who you love is at the core of this battle. 

Since members of the GBLT community cannot be identified by physical characteristics, despite what Mitt Romeny believes, they can often escape workplace discrimination.  As evidence of this, many gays and lesbians had exemplary military careers when it was actually illegal for them to serve.  J Edgar Hoover, the man who defined the FBI, lived a shadow life as a gay man.  It is even likely that we had a gay president as far back as 1856, when Buchanan and his probable lover were known around Washington as Miss Nancy and Miss Fancy. 

Whereas race and gender are inescapable identifiers, sexual orientation is less overt, which makes some types of discrimination more difficult on some level.  As a side note, I suspect that that is why some people fear gays, because they could be anywhere and you would never know it.  Conversely this lack of ability to identify members of this particular minority means that many people who "act gay" are discriminated against just because people think they might actually be gay.  You never hear a racist say, "he might be black, let's get him," but you frequently hear homophobes say, "I think he's a queer, let's get him."  In fact we have a presidential nominee who said exactly that when he was in prep school.

But all this invisibility changes when someone wants to pledge undying love to someone of the same sex.  All the wallpaper of denial is ripped down and society has to confront a very real truth, some people are more attracted to members of the same gender than to the opposite one.  When gays have the right to marry, the final veil of secrecy will be ripped aside and homosexual couples will finally be able to emerge into the light of full equality.

And this terrifies people.

Let's look at some of the arguments against gay marriage and deconstruct them.

First is the old time standard, "Gay marriage destroys the sanctity of straight marriage."  Sorry, no fault divorce has already done that.  People no longer marry with the expectation of a lifelong partnership; Mr. Right has devolved into Mr. Right Now.  Any newly married couple will say that they are married for life, but in the back of their minds, most of them mentally add a silent, "I hope."  Marriage is no longer the sacred bond that it once was. 

If anything, gay marriage might strengthen all marriages.  Given how hard gays and lesbians have had to fight for the right, they are probably less likely to take the institution for granted, and more likely to try to make it work.

To quote Hal Sparks, "the only way gay marriage will impact straight marriage is if you want it as a option for yourself."  In other words, the only way gay marriage will affect anything is if you are gay.  There might be a small downtick in straight marriages, but only because fewer people would be lying to themselves and others about their sexual orientation.  The only other group that would be impacted is the small segment of the population who build a life around being a Beard.  (A straight or lesbian woman who marries a gay man to help him conceal his and/or her orientation.) 

As a straight man, I can assure you, legalizing gay marriage will not change one thing in my personal life and in no way does gay marriage affect straight marriage, unless, you yourself, are gay.  In fact the only thing it might mean for most of us is having to buy wedding presents more frequently.  

Next is another right wing favorite, "every child has a right to a mother and a father."  So I guess that means that not only should we ban gay couples from having children, we need to outlaw single parenthood as well.  Welcome back to the days of the shotgun wedding.  Also, do we institute an aspect of ancient law as well?  Specifically, I'm referring to the part where a widow is given over to her deceased husband's brothers.

The reality is that at least some gay couples will have children.  All gay marriage does is give those children security for their future.  Gay parents love their children every but as much as straight couples, again possibly more than in some straight relationships, because a child in a gay relationship will never be an accident.  Unless we make incredible advances in parthenogenesis, no lesbian couple will ever have the conversation, "I don't know how it happened, but I'm pregnant."  And for a gay couple to have that conversation will require even more outlandish medical advances.

But back to the point, gay marriage gives children security, the security of knowing that if one parent dies, the other will still be there, and if the parents split up, there will still be legal access to the child for both of them.  As it stands now, in states that do not allow gay adoption, only one parent is the legal parent to the child; the other has literally no rights under the law.  Should the legal parent die, their partner may be completely cut out of their child's life, and have to watch the child shipped off to a grandparent or, worse, to a foster home.

Gay marriage helps provide loving two parent environments for children, which is a very good thing.

Next up is the argument that gay marriage goes against the Bible.  Well, you can certainly make that argument, at least based on Leviticus, however, and you may need to sit down for this one, this is NOT A CHRISTIAN NATION.  In a secular country, you base your laws on ethics, not morals, and bringing up a holy book, or any religious text, as the foundation for the legal system is absolutely out of bounds.  Besides, since eating shellfish is also an abomination in the eyes of the lord, according to Leviticus, if we are going to base law on the Bible, we had better outlaw the entirety of the shrimp and lobster industry.  Also, we need to dispatch the vice squad to arrest all of the cast members of "The Deadliest Catch," the second their boat docks.

Secular law is based on what is good for society, not on what is good for God.  The Bible even says this when Jesus states, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's."  Further, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that gay marriage is bad for society.  We have proof of this, since six states currently have legal gay marriage, and none of them have descended into anarchy.  Also, since none of them have met the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, I'm going to guess that God isn't particularly upset either.

Additionally, this interpretation of the Bible is a more recent development that Christianity, and there are records of Christian same sex marriage services that were performed as late as the 18th century.  The medieval church had actual services for gay unions, and there are many depictions of and theological treatises on St. Serge and St. Bacchus, who were openly described as loving partners. 

So, in the end, it doesn't matter if the Bible preaches against homosexuality, because even the Christian church, until relatively modern times, accepted gay marriage. (See this link for more.)

Finally, there is the argument that the homosexual lifestyle is a depraved lifestyle choice.  Basically, I guess that this means that all of the people who are gay have some sort of masochistic personality disorder, and want all they pain that being gay in today's hateful world brings.  I think this is the most disturbing of all the arguments.  I remember a gay friend in high school, who was frequently picked on for it, saying to me once, "Do you think I would chose this if I had any other options?"    

People do not chose to be gay.  I strongly suspect that it is a combination of genetics and environment, at least I hope it is.  You may think that hope is odd. The reason for that hope is, if it is purely genetic, and it is a simple genetic switch, gay people will become an endangered species overnight. 

Before you think this is an outlandish idea, realize that in the last twenty years the number of Down Syndrome babies has dropped precipitously.  Understand, I am not condemning someone for making that choice, especially given the healthcare situation in America, I am just stating a fact, probably half of the Down's babies are no longer carried to term.  I would expect homophobic parents to do the same, rather than deal with having what they would consider an imperfect child.  But all the same, they have already begun to identify genetic markers for homosexuality.

On the other hand, an argument for environmental triggers is not easily excluded, based on the history of ancient Rome and Greece.  In both countries, bisexuality was the norm, and pure heterosexuality was aberrant behavior.  This argues two things.  First, the genes for a wider range of sexuality than pure heterosexuality are far more common than we might think.  Second, there has to be some other factors, given the different demographics of the classical world and modern society.  (Although, I do think it would be funny if keeping a catamite was a modern status symbol, like it was in the Roman Empire; I can just imagine Donald Trump parading his around.  I can also see them in the halls of the Capitol.  Mark Foley would have been a trendsetter.)   

There are other cultures where homosexuality is common and accepted, so I don't think it is purely genetic, but I also don't think it is all environmental.  Even in cultures where homosexuality is acceptable, bisexuality is what is actually the norm, and there are always segments of the population that are purely heterosexual.  Even in America, many men think it is hot for a woman to be somewhat bi, even though the opposite is utterly inconceivable. 

And for those who think homosexuality is a mental health issue, the American Psychological Association struck it from the list of mental illnesses a few decades ago.

In the end, I think this is all about fear.  Fear of change, fear of happiness, fear of confronting a homosexual intrusive thought, and worst of all, fear of not having an enemy to demonize and blame all of the bad things on. 

I remember, two days after 9/11, Jerry Fallwell blaming the attacks on homosexuals, feminists and the ACLU.  If homosexuality becomes normalized in society, the only ones left to blame for bad things are the immigrants.  And since the immigrants have no actual political power, the right would have to accept that there is no enemy guiding the country in what they think is the wrong direction.  They would have to accept that maybe most of us just want America to move forward and become more accepting.

And, to them, that is the scariest thing of all.  

 And since I couldn't narrow them down this time, here are a few cartoons on the subject, that make my point far better than I ever could.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Long Horizon


One of the greatest failings of modern society is not thinking over the long term.  I would like to say that this is a purely American phenomenon, and perhaps a few decades ago it was, but this lack of long range planning seems to be sweeping the globe.  It afflicts both the political left and right, the rich and the poor, the educated and the not, the powerful and the weak.  It does seem to be the universal leveler, and the one thing we all have in common.  It is our "Breakfast at Tiffany's" moment.

I'm going to go over a few issues where lack of foresight is devastating.

The economy - let's go for the low hanging fruit here.  You hear debates about the spiraling debt crisis, and how much our grandchildren will owe for our spending.  This seems like a foresight enframed argument, until you realized that it is simply that, enframing.  It is using the future to pass a bunch of stuff that benefits a small amount of people in the present, while laying waste to the future that they claim to be trying to protect.

To understand how this is a false frame, you only need to look G.A.O. evaluations of the Republican budget.  The massive tax cuts and elimination of the social safety net that supposedly will eliminate the national debt, actually will blow a several trillion dollar hole in the budget.  I cannot find actual amount of the hole, which, those of you who read my blog know that I try to do.  The reason that I cannot is that when you try to google the G.A.O. report, you get at least ten pages of results linking to right wing propaganda.  It seems that the actual report is no longer available on-line, or if it is, it is so far buried that I can't find it.

But let's look deeper at how the Ryan budget is actually not a document that plans for the future.  If you eliminate the social safety net, student loans and all of the other devices where people can lift themselves out of poverty, you create a permanent underclass.  How is this an example of poor planning?  Well for one thing, the social mobility of America is one of the founding principles of our country.  The idea that your children will be better off than you are is a core motivator for progress.  If you eliminate the motivation to strive to become better, you eliminate the fuel that drives America's success.

Then add in one of the other areas where the Ryan budget lacks foresight - the growing income gap - and you set up a horrifying scenario.  When you take money out of the pockets of the 99% and give it to the 1% through a combination of regressive taxation and tax incentives for the rich, you are literally robbing the poor to give to the wealthy.

And here is where the truth comes in - the 99% is actually the majority. 

I know it's hard to believe given how Washington acts most of the time, but the poor and middle class are the bulk of the population in this country, and math does not work in the favor of the rich.  France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 give us a pretty good idea of how this story ends.

The right wing's economic plan lacks the foresight to understand how they could be sowing the seeds of their own demise.  People will only be crushed underfoot for so long, then they will rise up.  Even people with almost no power, such as the Egyptians, figured this out - there are more of us than there are of them.  The Republicans are sacrificing their own futures for short term gain.

Another issue, Foreign policy - more low hanging fruit.  This one is not purely a left or right issue, both parties seem to screw this one up pretty equitably.  We do not think how our interventionist philosophies will play out over time.  Look at how we have conducted ourselves since World War Two; incidentally, the last time we acted with an eye to the future. 

Since then, we've had the Cold War, and hot wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and now it is looking pretty likely that we will have Korea again as well and also Iran.  And guess what, since World War Two, we have not won a single war: at best, we have had stalemates, but more often, we have outright lost.  There is no rubric of success that could call Iraq part two or Afghanistan victories. 

Why have these armed conflicts been failures?  Poor planning, and no clearly defined goals, the opposite of which are two hallmarks of foresight.  We went into Afghanistan purely for revenge, which is a natural feeling.  But without a strategy, a long term goal, the mission quickly became a debacle.  At best, now, all we can hope for is to leave with some shred of our dignity intact, which it does seem that President Obama has put together.

But this lack of foresight has significant impacts beyond the region where we are fighting.  Every time we lose a war, or fight to a draw, we diminish ourselves in the eyes of the world.  I'm not saying that we should only pick fights we know we can win, that is the action of a bully.  What I'm saying is, we need to know if the war is worth the cost over the long term. 

We did not need a war to get Bin Laden.  A surgical military strike got him, and in a country that was not our enemy, but ostensibly our ally.  We have picked off terrorist leader after terrorist leader, without devastating wars.

We need to think of the long term implications of our foreign policy actions.  We armed the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets, because we couldn't allow our enemy to gain territory.  We lacked the foresight to see that the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan would be their downfall.  Then because we supported the Mujahideen for the rebellion against the Soviets, but abandoned them once our short term goal was met, we set the stage for the Taliban.  The Taliban sheltered and outfitted a Mujahideen rebel named Osama Bin Laden, who then attacked us on September 11, 2001.  We did not see that coming, but we should have.  We should have had the foresight to stabilize Afghanistan through humanitarian aid when the Soviets left.  It goes back to the saying, if you break it you bought it.

This is only one case of blowback, but many of our problems in the world stem from short term fixes to complex, long term problems.

Let's look at a couple of other cases, a little more briefly because I don't want to belabor the point.

Global Warming - it doesn't matter if we are causing it or not.  We need to act like we are, in case we are actually responsible, or at least are compounding the problem.  Global warming could submerge some of the most populated land on the planet.  If we keep sticking our heads in the sand, the costs will be enormous.  We worry about the short term costs of environmental regulation, and we ignore the costs of rising oceans.  How much will it costs to save or replace Venice, New York City, Miami, Dubai, Hong Kong and all of the other great coastal cities that will be dramatically affected?  How much will it cost to feed people when the areas that can be farmed shift radically northward?  How much will it cost when Malaria becomes endemic in Europe, and Dengue Fever infects all of the United States?

Contraception - This one gets tied into a lot of other issues.  If you eliminate access to contraception, you will cause a population boom.  How is this a bad thing?  It will stress an already overburdened health care system, with a massive influx of pregnant women and newborns.  It will overload social services, because poor people will have many babies that they cannot afford.  I can see a future where a European Angelina Jolie is going to the United States to adopt babies by the busload.  It adds many people to a world that is already at or near carrying capacity.  This means increased likelihood of famine, disease and war, the three natural population control solutions.

And the list of issues where we lack foresight can go on and on.

So what is the solution?  How do we derail the train blithely chugging us into hell?

Think ahead. 

That's the short answer.  By this I don't mean think of the immediate consequences, think over the long term.  Ask yourself, how will this impact my children, my grandchildren?  Make long term strategic plans.  Be satisfied with things other than instant gratification. 
And most importantly, vote for people who think for the long term.  Not the fake long-term as I talked about before, but the real long term.  Ask them where they see the country in 50 years, and how they plan to get us there.  Demand concrete steps, not easy platitudes.  Expect them to have vision, and hold them to that vision.

Don't live for today, live for tomorrow and all of the tomorrows that are to come.