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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own

Dangerous Supplement

Nostalgia is the dangerous supplement for the authentic; it substitutes discourse on the past for the actuality of the present.

First some background.  The dangerous supplement is a concept first presented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book "Emile." 

            "How people will cry out against me!  I hear from afar the shouts of that
            false wisdom which is ever dragging us onwards, counting the present as
            nothing, and pursuing without a pause a future which files as we pursue,
            that false wisdom which removes us from our place and never brings us to
            any other."

Basically, the origin of the thought came from his ideas on masturbation, which he termed a dangerous supplement to actual intercourse.  The thought evolved into the concept that writing was the dangerous supplement to speech, which was the primary connection to the intellect of the speaker.  Writing, in Rousseau's philosophy, was removed from direct connection to thoughts, and therefore a poor substitute for the authentic.

In this manner, to reframe Rousseau, nostalgia drags us onward, discounting the potential authenticity of the present, for a false promise of recreating a past that never existed.  

To show how seductive the dangerous supplement is, I was trying to explain my take on this to my friend Patrick, and got frustrated with my own speech and told him to just read this post.  In this case at lease, writing apparently is the dangerous supplement to speech.

On a side note, Derrida would discount this, as he deconstructs the notion of the "real presences," and everything relies on a chain of relationships to create meaning.   To Derrida, there is no such thing as "authentic" or "real" and that all truth is merely interpretation.  This is a subject that I may return to in a future post, but for now I am going to leave this philosophy alone and accept Rousseau's assertion that the authentic can exist.

To return to my point, when we allow nostalgia to become the primary focus of worldview, we substitute it for the potential to create the authentic.  This is because nostalgia is the idea that the past is better than the present and definitely better than the future; our best days are behind us; and if we want to have a glorious future, we have to recreate that great past.  In the nostalgia contrivance, there is no way that the future can be bright unless it is a reboot of the "Golden Age."

Except that "Golden Age," never really existed.

Nostalgia, as I have discussed at length in previous blogs, is a rosy view of a past that never existed.  It is Disneyland's Main Street, sanitized and improved for your pleasure.  Because of this, it turns history into illusion; it makes us feel better, but we are living a lie.

From this, we discount the possibility that anything can be actually authentic.  Because we are living in an artificial construct of nostalgia, we no longer recognize authenticity, and we make ourselves feel better about this inability by saying everything is fake.  We have achieved a parallel what Ellsworth Toohey in "The Fountainhead," strives to do to art by promoting the trite, the incompetent, and the bad.  We have destroyed it by holding up the dangerous supplement of nostalgia.

A case in point is Las Vegas.

Everyone complains about the "fakeness" of Vegas, and it is a complete fake.  But it is so fake that it actually becomes a new authenticity.  It does not strive to conceal it's fakery, like Disney does, it embraces it, it even revels in it.  And because of it's wholehearted embrace of its lack of authenticity, it bends the curve back around to create a new form of reality.  It is authentic by not pretending to be anything but fake.   Disneyland tries to seduce you into suspending your disbelief; Vegas wants you to get drunk on it.  

And that is what I would consider to be the core of the authentic, not to be "real" but to not try to be something other than what it is.

Most modern cities are nothing more than masturbatory fantasies.  Dubai tries to be Hong Kong, Hong Kong tries to be Tokyo, Tokyo tries to be New York City, New York City tries to be London, London tries to be Paris, and everybody wants to be Rome, at least the way we imagine Rome - as the center of a world-spanning empire.

Towns have the same problem, they want to evoke the bucolic world of the gentleman farmer, the naturalist, the landed gentry, all of which fall back to a nostalgic view of how we imagine the pastoral life should be, without the manure and backbreaking labor that are spawned on the farm.  When we think of rural town life, the first word to come to mind is "quaint."

And all of these visions, fueled by nostalgia, not only limit our ability to see the authentic, in many cases they actually cripple our ability to create it.

For example, we model many new developments on the Andres Duany's New Urbanist patterns that he first developed at Seaside in Florida.  The problem is, these patterns are driven by the nostalgic view that 1900 was the best year ever to live in a city.  People sat on their front porches, there were no cars, the grass was green, the sky was blue, and everything was perfect.  That might have been true if you were white, upper middle class and Protestant.  If you were anything else, city life pretty much sucked.  And today, unless you are rich enough to live in a New Urbanist development, life still pretty much sucks.  At least that is the message being fed to you.

To return to my point, because we have allowed a nostalgic view of how cities should look to drive the new developments we build, we do not look at how they actually should be built so that they reflect the current era.  We spend so much time telling people how they should live, that we refuse to examine how they do live.

Another case study is Pessac.  In Pessac, Le Corbusier created a modernist's dream of how medium density, low income worker's houses should look.  The problem was, the people who had to live there hated it.  They hated it so badly that they did whatever they could to personalize the houses, even to the point of basically strapping salvaged building materials to their houses to personalize them.  Le Corbusier was so set on how he wanted people to live, and what he thought they should appreciate, that he would not accept the reality of how the people themselves wanted to live, or their aesthetic concerns.

By putting preconceptions ahead of reality, anything created becomes, by definition, fake.

And this is why I feel that Nostalgia is a dangerous supplement to the authentic; it sings an irresistible siren song that keeps us from looking at the actual reality surrounding us. 

If we don't work with actual reality, we do not create authenticity.  When we don't create authenticity, we lose the ability to believe that anything can be authentic.  When we lose the ability to believe anything can be authentic, we no longer try to create anything authentic.  When we no longer try to create anything authentic, we have to create a nostalgic vision to substitute for the authenticity we lack.

We have become the Ouroboros, devouring ourselves for the want of the authentic.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Deconstruction of Falling Stars


Over the last few months I have been re-watching the late 90's TV series Babylon 5.  In the process, I have again realized that it is probably one of the most significant works of modern philosophy, wrapped up in science fiction drag.  It beautifully addresses issues of life and death, morality and ethics, sociality and culture, history and myth.  And one of the more striking episodes is titled, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars."  On the surface, it just seems to skim through events as viewed through a filter of varying time frames, and as such, seems to be almost a throwaway episode.  On deeper reflection though, it examines how we view historical characters, and the process by which we deconstruct and rebuild them.  Because of this, I realize that this one episode is one of the most important in the entire series.

The stages of deconstruction are; heroism, villainization, propaganda tool, legend and myth.  Not every historic character goes through all of the stages, and sometimes the stages get inverted, but this is the typical path that prominent figures go though.  In a way, the path is similar to the stages of grief, where you do not always follow the exact same course, but you typically hit all of the stages at some point. 

The first stage the figure goes through is a period of being the hero.  Typically this begins immediately after they have accomplished something great or notable.  Ronald Regan closing down the cold war, Lyndon Johnson getting civil rights enshrined into law, F.D.R. winning World War 2 and ending the Great Depression, the founding fathers building the nation.  This period can last for a long or short time, depending on the magnitude of their achievement and the level of hatred of their opposition.

An interesting phenomenon of the 24 hour news cycle is that this "honeymoon" period seems to be getting shorter and shorter, especially with media made heroes.  A perfect example of this is the man with the golden voice.  You may remember him from last year; he was the former DJ turned homeless man that was discovered by a news reporter, and his video went viral.  He was lionized for a short period of time, then he was quickly deconstructed into someone less noble but far more human.  Shortly after that, he disappeared in a fog of negative press.

This man was never destined for long term fame, he was an example of Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, but he is a good model for how the hero becomes a villain in today's media environment.  Another example is President Obama, who was the savior for all of about two months, and then, when he couldn't give us instant gratification salvation, he was termed a failure by many, especially on the right.  However, given that they wanted him to fail from before day one, the villainization could be said to have begun concurrently with the heroism.

After heroism comes villainization.  This is where we tear the person down to the lowest level possible, blaming them for things that were out of their control, for things that were acceptable at the time, or frankly just revising history to fit a new narrative.  I do want to say here, some people do actually deserve demonization; history is littered with actual villains who deserve to be reviled for the rest of eternity.  This, however, is again different from the phenomenon that I am charting here.

This process of tearing down the hero is done to discredit what they stood for.  A perfect example of this is the relatively recent development of claiming that F.D.R. made the Great Depression deeper and longer than it would have been under a second Hoover term.  F.D.R. was credited by most economists, even very conservative ones like Milton Freeman, with pulling the country out of the Depression.  The downtick, or double dip, that occurred later in the 30's can be directly tied to a reduction of stimulus and a pullback from the New Deal.  It can be traced to an increasingly oppositional congress, not to any fault of F.D.R.  And yet, he is being painted as the villain here to invalidate the entirety of Keynesian economics.

It is also happening to many of the icons of half a century ago.  Kennedy and Martin Luther King are having their adultery thrown around to discredit them as heroes, Truman's use of the bomb to end the Second World War is being referred to as a war crime, J Edgar Hoover was a transvestite and a homosexual, Lyndon Johnson was complicit in Kennedy's assassination and so on and so on.

The thing is, each of these people stood for things that other people disagree with, therefore they must be destroyed.  The cycle is even faster now, with each of the last three presidents being villainized by their opposition while still in office, even in the midst of trying to accomplish their goals.  I should say here, that everyone considers it villainization when it is someone they agree with, and an expose when it is someone they hate. 

I am not immune to this, I cannot believe the lies being made up about Clinton and Obama, and am enraged by what the right is doing to them.  However, I cheered each negative revelation about the two Bushes and Regan.  The process of villainization is very partisan, especially in today's partisan world.

But in many cases, it works, even with people on the same end of the political spectrum.  Even Democrats are embarrassed by Kennedy's sexual adventures, and the shine is wearing off Camelot for everyone.  People may still respect Kennedy, but he is not the abject hero/martyr that he was even a decade ago.

After villainization, the person becomes a propaganda tool, either to promote a viewpoint or destroy a viewpoint, depending on how successful the villainization was.  If the person comes out the other end as flawed but still respected, they become a proxy promoter, if they come out completely discredited, they can be used as a weapon to destroy a movement.  Sometimes, when the views are diametrically opposed, the person can be used as propaganda by both sides at the same time.

The positive propaganda tool can be seen in the Tea Party's use of the Founding Fathers, who came through their bad times as still respected figures.  We have come to terms with them owning slaves, and while we don't like that aspect, we still respect their ideals.  And because of that, the Tea Party throws them in everyone's collective faces as propaganda proving the country is on the wrong track.  The Right constantly evokes the Founders as the definitive proof of their position, whether or not they would actually agree with any Tea Party position.  The propaganda is more "true" than actual truth.

The negative can be found in Karl Marx.  Even though he never proposed anything remotely like the Soviet Union, and was in fact an opponent of government in general, let alone totalitarianism, he was tarred with the horror of the U.S.S.R. and permanently discredited.  He is now the poster boy of why communism is vile and doomed.  To call somebody a Marxist essentially implies that they are a bad person.

In either case though, when a historical figure is used as propaganda, their actual positions and ideas are twisted to fit the current narrative.  I strongly suspect, given the Founding Fathers' distrust of corporations, that they would have been appalled by the Citizen's United decision.  (They tried to write limits on corporations into the U.S. Constitution.  The only reason they didn't was every state had it in their constitution, and it was deemed an unnecessary addition.)

Even though the people who wrote the constitution would likely have been opposed to Citizen's United, the Right is claiming that this court decision was vindication of the Framer's intent.  The actual views of the real historical figures no longer matter, all that matters at this point is the common narrative of what the propaganda machine spews forth.

And this is what happens at this stage, the actual views of any historical figure no longer matter, what matters is the story that is put forth.  Grant wanted to crush the South, the Founding Fathers hated government, Darwin was an atheist, Jefferson Davis was a patriot, etc.  Even though those filters are provably false, whatever can be tied to a propaganda tool and swallowed by the general public is fair game for a figure in this stage of their deconstruction.

Next comes legend.  This happens when only the common narrative of propaganda remains, and the actual facts are lost, or at least minimized.  A perfect example of this is Robin Hood, who is one of the legendary figures of English history.  Everyone knows he stole from the rich to give to the poor.  This is probably a perfect example of a twelfth century P.R. campaign.  It is almost certain he'd rob the rich, they were the only targets in his time.  Serfs would have had nothing of value, so if you are going to steal, you would only have the rich as a target.

He also likely did give to the poor, but probably not out of altruism.  He probably gave some share of his spoils to the peasants to shut them up.  Their lords gave them nothing, Robin Hood gave them something, and they were not likely to cut off the gravy train.  In the meantime, I suspect Robin Hood grew enormously wealthy, at least wealthy enough to hire a medieval spin doctor.

And this is what happens in the legend stage, the person becomes essentially a tool of meta-propaganda.  They no longer reinforce an idea, they become the idea itself.  You hear about a modern day Robin Hood, and it conveys an entire belief system.  The legendary figure is a historical metaphor for a current condition or situation.  Lady Godiva, Joan of Arc, Jaques DeMolay, Charlemagne, Constantine, most of the Catholic saints, the list goes on and on.  The only requirement to be on the list is that we can't know too much about the person, but enough that we can create a story around them to fit our ends.

The final deconstruction is to move into the mythic.  At this point, even the legends have become conflated with each other, and any actual facts are gone.  These people typically have little or no actual record of their existence, except for the impact of their lives.  For the mythic persona, faith in their existence supplants and becomes a substitute for proof of their existence.  Some legendary figures are shadowy, but typically can be grounded in an actual person; a mythic figure does not need grounding, they have taken on a religious or quasi-religious existence.  In most cases, the mythic person is also touched by deity. 

I should point out here, for people who have not read my previous post on myths, that myth does not imply falsehood.  Myth simply refers to a story that examines a truth beyond proof, and helps people fit themselves into the fabric of existence.  For a more detailed examination, read this post.

The most familiar example of the mythic persona is Jesus.  It no longer matters if there was a real person named Yeshua (the Hebrew root of Jesus) because he has achieved mythic status.  He is considered to be the foundation, not only of Western religion, but of the entirety of Western society.

I would also like to note, he is a figure that can trace the entire deconstruction, in order, and therefore is a perfect case study for the sequence.  He was a hero to the disciples and his other followers, calling out a corrupt priesthood, and giving focus and meaning to their lives.  This in turn made him a figure that the authorities had to destroy, because he challenged the status quo.  They villainized him, bringing him down, trying and crucifying him.  He became an example of everything that was wrong about Messianic Judaism.  His downfall was probably used to end the entire movement.

As he was further deconstructed, he became a propaganda tool for both sides; he was the ideal to which all of his followers should aspire, and he was the ultimate rebellious villain to the Roman Empire.  He was the reason people should become "Christians," and he was the justification for Nero using "Christians" as garden torches.

He passed into legend fairly quickly after that.  Since society was minimally literate, within the first century after his death, there were few, if any, first hand accounts of him left, and what remained were written copies of oral histories, that reduced him to primary messages and parables.  The "Legendary" Christ is probably best exemplified and recorded by the Gnostics, who rejected the direct divinity of Christ, and considered him the prime example of the Divinity that lies in us all.

By the second century, he had become an almost mythic figure, which was fully codified by the Council of Nicea, which edited his "humanity" out of the Bible, leaving only a fully Divine Christ.  At this point his deconstruction was complete; all reference to the actual person at the core had been removed, and only the story was left.

There are many other figures that have devolved into myth, King Arthur, Pythagoras, Conchobar mac Nessa, Zoroaster, but each one is the focus of an ideology.  That ideology may not be a comprehensive as the one tied to Jesus, but all of them are rallying points for various cultures and peoples.

And this is how all great people are deconstructed.  Bit by bit, the actual person ceases to exist, and bit by bit, an image of that person is built up.  That image is crafted to fit a need in society, and as such, the deconstruction of falling stars is a necessary process.  By the time a person reaches the mythic stage, they embody entire philosophies.

But in the end, never confuse the image with the actual.  The actual will never live up to the story, no matter how the story ends.

Friday, May 18, 2012

And They Shall Be Felled By the Hands of Their Brothers


The Republican Party is currently being decimated by the Tea Party.  I do not mean this in the modern English sense of the word, where we use it to describe great destruction or death.  I mean this in the literal, original Roman sense.

Some background.  The Romans, both during the Republic and the Empire would punish legions for mutiny or cowardice with decimation.  The soldiers would be divided into groups of ten, lots would be drawn, and the losing soldier in each group would be killed by the other nine.  Decimation literally means "removal of a tenth."  Since all soldiers had an equal chance of being decimated, regardless of their participation in whatever they were being punished for, this had to be a weapon of extreme psychological terror to keep the troops in line.

It has been used throughout history as a way to punish the troops, and put fear into those who are left.  It was most recently used by the Soviet Union in World War Two, when a division commander in Stalingrad went down the line killing every tenth soldier.  So basically, when an army was decimated, it was not from the enemy, but from the commanders of the army itself.  It is one of the most horrifying sorts of punishment.

Now the Republicans are being decimated.

Not literally of course.  Even today, you could not get away with shooting every tenth member of your caucus, although I am sure that there are some who would like to try.  Now they are engaging in decimation by destruction of careers.

Lugar, Bennet, Snowe (who committed career suicide rather than fall in battle) and many other "moderates" are being purged from the party.  Not exactly one in ten, but close enough to make this parallel work.

They are being destroyed by their fellows as examples.  Their crime, as with the legions, cowardice and mutiny.  Cowardice, in terms of making deals with the other side of the aisle; mutiny, by not voting in lockstep with the caucus.  And like any good decimation, it makes those who are left too terrified to step even slightly out of line, for fear that they will fall in the next decimation, called a primary.

Decimation is not a punishment for those who fall, other than the fact that they are now unemployed.  Those people can go on to write books and speak about the polarization of the country, get jobs as pundits lamenting the loss of civility, or just retire to a countryside villa and draw their sizable pension.

Decimation is a punishment, and weapon of terror, for those who are left.  The ideological purging on the Right forces the moderates who remain to vote against their own conscience, and often against the interests of the constituents who elected them.  The Far Right holds the Center Right hostage.

And the worst part is, even if the moderates hold to their consciences, and refuse to bow to the pressures of the far right, they'll just be primaried, and replaced by someone who is an ideologue.  Essentially it is a no win situation, vote a straight Tea Party line, or be removed and replaced by someone who will.  Regardless of what happens, everyone votes according to wishes of the far end of the spectrum.

Decimation does not work everywhere, and sometimes it backfires.  It didn't work with Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, who ran and won as an Independent., and it didn't work with Orrin Hatch, who has successfully fended off a primary challenger.  It backfired in Connecticut with Christine O'Donnell, in Colorado with Ken Buck, and in Nevada, with Sharon Angle.  The more moderate candidates fell in the decimation, but the replacement was just too extreme to be accepted by the majority.

Decimation only works consistently to change the makeup of the Congress in reliably Republican districts or states.  In places like Colorado's fifth congressional district, where the only important election is the primary, and the general is simply a rubber stamp, an extreme candidate will be successful.  In a purple district, you depend on the level of anger that the voters have against the government, which is a tricky thing to judge.  It worked for Rand Paul in Kentucky, which is purple, but not in Nevada, which is also purple.  Even when it's not successful, at least in the senate, where you now need 60 votes to do anything, the far right can successfully block anything.

That said, the fear that decimation inspires forces all Republicans to vote for at least some of the Tea Party agenda.  They have to support enough of it to keep their jobs and be able to point to certain litmus test votes to prove their conservative bone fides.

And the worst part for the country is, the Tea Party, with it's scorched earth mentality acts like it is better to lose a seat entirely that to have a R.I.N.O. occupy it.  I want to be clear here, the loss of seats for the Republicans isn't what is bad; the parties shift control back and forth and that is probably a good thing.  A permanent majority can lead to very bad outcomes for a country over the long term; things do have to balance out in a Democracy or Republic, so that everyone has a say.

The scorched earth mentality is dangerous for the country because the ideologues have no interest in governance, only in winning. 

There is a difference.

Governance means compromising, even if you have to give something to get something else.  It means recognizing that there is a political spectrum in the country, and you need to try to make solutions that satisfy as many people as possible.  Neither side gets the whole pie, but both sides do get some.  In government, there are no winners or losers, just a group of people looking out for the country.  In reality, the winners in good governance are the citizens.

When victory becomes the prime directive, the calculus changes.  Every action becomes a strategic move to box your enemies in. 

You attach poison pills to necessary legislation, turning passage into a lose-lose scenario for the other party.  They then have a choice, let a needed bill, like a debt ceiling increase, fail, causing devastation, or vote for it, and be on the record for something hideous to your constituents and/or the entire country. 

You block even non-controversial nominations to fill government posts, crippling the functioning of government.  Then you can say, "see, government is the problem, not the solution."

You filibuster anything that might pull the country out of economic decline, flatlining the recovery.  Then you can run against the other side, saying, "They don't understand how the economy works."

When victory at all costs is the motivator, the people lose.  All of them, even the ones on your side, because if America fails, it fails forever.  The implosion of the Soviet Union guarantees that no one will ever seriously propose communism again; it is forever marked as a failed model.

If democracy fails, especially if it fails because one party has decimated themselves, it too will go down in history as something that looks great on paper, but doesn't actually work in the real world.

For democracy to succeed, everyone has to be willing to work together.

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.