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.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Take my Makers... Please!


There has been a lot of hand wringing on the Right (or least parts of it named Mitt Romney) that the United States has now been given over to the "takers."  In this Randian mythology, the poor are nothing but worthless leeches who want nothing more in life than to suck at the tit of righteous job creators.  According to this fantasy, their votes can be bought for the electoral equivalent to purchasing the island of Manhattan for $24.00 worth of beads and trinkets.   (And yes, I do know that story is another myth, but it works here, so I'm going to use it)

The Ayn Rand disciples dream of a world where the "makers" quit making.  They truly want all of the captains of industry, the "visionary" leaders to just stop, close up shop, and go away.  They hope for a general strike of the Masters of the Universe.

And to all of them, I say, please do.  Strike, go away and quit bothering us.  Hide in the Cayman Islands, or in a Swiss Bank vault.  Disappear.

The world will be a better place, trust me.

Before I explain that statement, let me deconstruct the ideology of the "Taker/Maker" narrative.  The myth of "Atlas Shrugged" is built on a number of fallacies and self affirming lies.  It is a bedtime story told to convince the top 1% of their indispensability and as such is an exercise in little more than mental masturbation.  Lets look at a few of these myths.

The first myth is that the "takers" don't want to do anything to make their lives better; that their dream is to be taken care of cradle to grave.  I would like to know where these people are, because I certainly haven't met very many of them.  Most of the people I know who get some sort of assistance are desperate to get off of it.  Whether it is unemployment, welfare, food stamps or any other form of the Dole, most Americans find it at minimum, embarrassing, if not outright humiliating.  They take it because it is better than being on the streets, hungry and hopeless.  It is a safety net, not a lazy-boy and most people feel that way.

In fact, in an ironic side note, the primary recipients of government assistance who don't want to get off of it are senior citizens, the very group that breaks heavily for the party of the "Makers."  They have a rude awakening if the Far Right ever gets into a position to fully execute their plan.

But to return to my point, most people who have to live entirely on support wish they didn't have to.  They have hopes and aspirational dreams, they want more for their children than they themselves have.  With the exception of a small segment, these people are not happy to be "taking" anything.

Parallel to this tale is the myth that anyone can succeed in America if they work hard enough.  That may have been true once upon a time, although I doubt it was ever a ubiquitous as the American story would like to make it.   

Regardless of the past, it certainly isn't true in the present.  The elites have been very successful in pulling the ladder of social mobility up behind them  It is so extreme that even the Libertarian author Charles Murray wrote a whole book on the subject called Coming Apart.  Even though he as well falls for many of thee "Maker/Taker" points, he forcefully makes the case that class mobility in this country is a thing of the past.

Today, even with affirmative action and other policies designed to give everyone an equal chance at the American Dream, the actuality is that unless you have money and connections, you aren't going anywhere.  One of the cases Murry presents in his book is that of Stuyvesant High School.  This is one of the most prestigious public schools in the country, and the only way to get in is by getting a high score on the SHSAT.  It doesn't matter who you know, it doesn't matter how much you make a year.  The only thing that matters is the test.

This seems to be the perfect example of the Meritocracy of America in action, the place where anyone can get the absolute best education in the country, regardless of social standing.  And it did work that way for a couple of decades, and the school had one of the most racially and economically diverse populations in the country. 

Then the elite figured out how to fix the system so that only their children got this opportunity.  They didn't change the admission process, that was beyond their control.  Instead, the test preparation industry began offering prep classes for the SHSAT, very expensive and very good prep classes.  As a result, the children of the elite, who could afford these classes, began to outperform the less advantaged students on the test.  Now Stuyvesant High School is mostly white and rich.  The poorer students have been mostly shut out of one of the most certain pathways to the upper class in the entire city.

This isn't the only example of the ladder of opportunity being pulled up, but it is one of the best.  The point is, the "Makers" have made certain that the 47% that they consider "Takers" can't take positions in the upper class.

The third myth is that getting necessities like health care, child care and other assistance of this type from the government destroys peoples ambitions.  People who fall victim to this flight of the imagination actually believe that if you cannot afford health care, you shouldn't get any.  They call it taking responsibility for your life.

As if the general American could ever take personal responsibility for the costs of their health care as it stands.  Until I got my new job, with it's shiny benefits package, my health insurance ran almost $900.00 per month.  And that was just for me, I am not married and don't have any children that I know of.  I was in a car accident a few years ago, and had to spend 4 hours in the emergency room.  Even with health insurance, it cost me over $5,000.00 out of pocket (On a $20,000.00 bill)  There are very few people in this country that could afford those kinds of costs.  It is not being a leach to want the Affordable Care Act; what is being a leech is going to the hospital without any assistance from the government and walking on the bill because you can't pay it.  Then everyone has to chip in through higher medical costs.

Not only is government sponsored health care not going to destroy people's work ethic, it will likely actually improve it.  With better health care, people will get sick less often, get treatment when they do get sick, and ultimately will be more productive in the workplace.  Most people do not want to work only to pay their health care bills, but in today's society, that is want often happens.  This government program makes people be able to contribute more, not less.

So now that we have looked at just a few of the ways that the "Makers" have structurally enshrined their ideology into the system, let's look at my original position that the country would be far better off if Atlas did indeed Shrug and examine the primary myth of this group.

They are not indispensable, they not actually needed and all of their bluster and their demands are actually just misdirection to make us think they are relevant.

If the "Makers" went away, we would actually be better off because a new generation would step up to the plate, and they would have the opportunity to do so.  The avenues that the elite have closed off would open and the stranglehold they have on the country would be released.

First, there would be opportunities for everyone.  Despite what the one percenters think, there are many ambitious and intelligent people out there.  New entrepreneurs would emerge to take up the reigns of industry, maybe not trans global mega corps, but honestly, those are really not all that great to begin with.  People will actually be industrious, when that industriousness actually gets them someplace, and it isn't just wasted effort.

New local industry would have space to emerge and flourish without the suppressing nature of the current economic structure.  Start-ups could really spring up on every corner, and those start ups would recapture the spirit of actual innovation and creativity that seems to be lacking in our highly polished stainless steel industrial machine. 

Money may be hard to come by, but ultimately the bankers would see new potentials for profit, and they would jump in with both feet.  Even if they didn't, without the 1% fighting every bill in Congress, the government would free up research and development funds.  Despite the lies from the Right, this would not be a bad thing, look at how we saved the auto industry for a model of this. 

The second advantage to the elite going on strike would be the opening of social opportunities.  Perhaps we could return to the idealized meritocracy that the United States is always supposed to have been.  Without legacy admissions, test prep classes, expensive country clubs, and the entirety of the Dressage Set, perhaps people from all standings would have access to the means to better themselves. 

This also shows up who is really the entitled class.  Mitt Romney ran for President acting like he was entitled to the position by dint of his name, his wealth and his legacy.  He couldn't believe that anyone would have the audacity of hope to not anoint him King and God.  He acted like he could buy the Presidency just like he'd buy his wife another Cadillac.

And he is not alone.  The top percentile feels entitled to have their tax burden less than the middle and lower classes, they are entitled to better health care, better schools, and better opportunities.  And the rest of us should just keep out mouths shut and let our social betters run it all. 

When people who have a vested interest in preserving their privileged position in society are not around, the doors will be flung open.  For the first time an a couple of decades, children would again have a higher standard of living than their parents.

The third advantage of losing the so called job creators would be in returning the political system to the hands of the actual people.  Without the fire hose of special interests spraying down the throats of politicians, perhaps they could swallow some reforms that actually benefit the 99% of Americans who cant write a $5,000,000.00 check every other week.

The last election already showed the power of the $20.00 donor, imagine if that money could actually be put to good use, instead of combating the handful of entitled rich old men who feel that it is their God given right to purchase whatever political office they set their eyes on.  Without the "Makers" we might actually be able to make laws that benefit the entire country, open up opportunities for real growth, and actually enshrine the individual to give the  liberty to pursue their happiness.

The wealthy have built a mythology that makes them indispensable, and the source of all that is good in this country. but remember, these are the same people who convinced themselves that Mitt Romney would win by a landslide.

So in the end, I ask the "Makers," please shrug.  We'll even chip in and buy you an island. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing?

Post Mortem

The general consensus after the 2012 election is that it was a status quo election; the President remains the same, and both houses of Congress are still in the hands of the same parties that controlled them before the election, albeit with modest gains for the Democrats.

But the surface read does not really reflect the earth shattering implications of this election.  Some of these have been discussed (and dismissed to the peril of the groups dismissing them) and others have not been addressed by the mainstream.

First, this election proved the power of the changing demographics of the country.  Latinos, Blacks, LGBT, Women and Youth swung this election.  The reign of Old White Men is effectively over; and the politics of Racism will no longer win any statewide or national election.  They may still hold sway on the local and congressional district scale, but beyond them demographics will overwhelm racism.

Since the Civil Rights movement, the Republicans have built electoral strength on the power of White Outrage.  The messages were not even remotely coded at first, but until this election they were increasingly subtle.  Right wing pundits in this election pulled off that cloak and showed the white robes that lay beneath.  In their certainty that this country was fundamentally a country that wanted leaders that looked like them.  They called President Obama some of most vile names I have ever heard in politics and in doing so, tried to paint him as a caricature of the worst stereotypes imaginable -- lazy, stupid, incompetent and so on.

It failed.

In fact, it motivated the people who are not Old White Men, and who do not agree with that vision of America, to get out the vote and fight for their side.  And as a result, this obscene rhetoric guaranteed that the Republicans have lost large swaths of the country for a generation, just like the Civil Right Movement cost the Democrats the South for at least two generations.  It guaranteed that the so-called minorities, which actually when aggregated are actually now the majority of Americans, have now turned their backs on the Republican Party. 

But it did something more.  The elections of 2008 and 2012 have shown these groups that they wield real power in this country.  Acting as a cohesive whole, they have the ability to effect real change in the United States.  One of the great shocks to the Right in this election was that minorities and young people turned out to vote in numbers comparable to the 20008 election, even though many were supposed to be disillusioned with the Obama message of hope and change.

The thing is, the Right underestimated what these groups learned in 2008, that they can have real power.  While the Right dismissed them and talked about "takers," self-deportation and legitimate rape, these groups set out to show them just how wrong they were.

And in doing so, the Democrats proved without a shadow of a doubt, that to be the President in this country you now have to be President for all types of Americans, not just a segment of favored elites.

But the deeper lesson here is not that these groups are reliably Democrats; both sides moving forward MUST address the needs of these constituents.  They have found their power and their voice, and they will not quietly do what they are told to do.  The future of both parties depends on becoming more diverse, more inclusive and more responsive to the people.  These groups will never again willingly give up their power.

The second lesson of this election follows the first; divisive conservative position on social issues will Trump a pure economic message.  (pun intended)  It is true that this election was the Republicans' to lose, mainly because our instant gratification society felt that President Obama should have solved the economic meltdown in his first hundred days.  Even though the Republicans offered nothing but a slight repackaging of the Bush policies, if they had remained focused on their economic message, they might have won.  This would have been because they would not have alienated women like they did.

Instead, they brought social conservatism front and center in the election, and in doing so failed to recognize that the country is getting more secular, and more liberal, on these issues.   A majority of people under 50 no longer care what you do in your private life, and respect your ability to make decisions in regard to your body, you sex life and your overall personal happiness.  The more the Right clings to their rigid ideas on these issues, and tries to mandate how people handle their private lives, the more marginalized that they will become. 

The take-away here is that both parties moving forward need to articulate a vision for this country that is based in economic directions, foreign policies, and building a strong and unified nation.  No one wants to talk about these divisive issues.  One of the reasons the President won a second term was he continued to talk about America as a whole, not as a 47% solution.  I don't think anyone will ever again win a national election by setting one group in this country against another.

The next lesson, math rules.  Statistics have been incontrovertibly proven to hammer gut feelings.  When aggregated, polls are not skewed and facts do not have a political bias.

This is a hard one for Republicans to stomach this election.  They were so convinced that the polling was part of a liberal plot to suppress the truth that Romney did not even write a concession speech.  They created a fantasy world to justify their feelings that there was no way that "their" America would re-elect President Obama.  And when that delusional edifice came crashing in on them election night, it sent them into a spiral of despair.

However, I am not gloating here, the Democrats could just have easily been deluded, and in fact many of them were.  The pundits on the left did not use any epistemology for their positions either, except for the handful kept quoting Nate Silver.  And in the next election, if the models predict a Republican win, I wonder if the Democrats will bend themselves into intellectual pretzels like the Republicans did this year.

I personally did not out as much faith in him as I should have, partially for fear of dirty tricks like we saw in 2000 and the potential for them from groups like True the Vote, but more because he had only used his model for one Presidential election.  I just was not certain the mathematical model would hold true.  It did, and it did with stunning accuracy, and from this point forward, I will put my faith in the math.

Ultimately, I am not sure that this will end the reign of the Chattering Class, who sit and talk about how their side is certain to win, based on gut feelings and tea leaves, but I suspect that in the next election we will see more substantive discussion and less spin.  For certain, in the next election, people will have less faith in talking heads offering opinions with no facts or hard numbers to back them up.
The final major lesson of this election is that elective office is not for sale.  Money alone does not substitute for vision, nor can it buy an election.  Further, a few free-spending billionaires cannot dictate the direction of the country.  This is still a government for the people, by the people.

I did not actually think this would be the result.  I, like many Democrats, thought that Citizen's United was the end of democracy in America.  I was certain the Koch Brothers promise to purchase every second of advertising in the week running up to the election would transform the outcome. 

Instead, all of their money had the opposite effect, it motivated the Democrats, who knew that their had to have an impeccable ground game to combat the tsunami of cash flooding them.  And as a result, the Billionaire Band of Brothers got precisely as much good from their money as they would have gotten by flushing down the toilet.

And in the end, this result may have made Citizen's United the most overrated decision in Supreme Court history.  That isn't to say that it isn't a horrible ruling that must overturned soon, it just that it probably won't turn the United States into an Oligarchy.  And on that note, I feel like, for the moment at least, our Republic will be preserved.

The reason is, that I doubt that the wealthy will pony up next election like they did this election.  They did not get to be that wealthy by dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into lost causes.  They expect results for their money, and if they don't get them, they are going to be more resistant to dumping cash the next time around.

And there is an added pickup here, I think this debacle spells the end of the reign of Karl Rove; he has truly earned the nickname "Turd Blossom."  I just wonder if he will mysteriously disappear, just like the unfortunates who crossed the mob in the old days.  In any case, his reputation and power is pretty much finished at this point.

On another plus, all the cash that the Right dumped into this election will actually have a stimulative effect.  One of the problems with the Bush Tax Cuts, according to the CBO, is that the super wealthy typically do not inject as much money into the economy as the Middle Class.  All the money that was dumped into the media is now flowing around the economy.  The people who fought tooth and nail against the Stimulus Bill just did their own stimulus program.

Irony, your name is American Politics.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Know Thy Place


A couple of months ago, I was reading a very interesting book called "Better Off Without 'Em," which is an exploration of Southern culture, and how, for all intents and purposes the South really is a distinct country from the rest of the United States.  The book is on the whole, very interesting, but it is pretty much a condemnation of the South.  A lot of it is on the money, but it is harsh.  And I should say here, any part of the country could be dissected like that and a negative book written on it.  As much as I love the West, we are also very different from the rest of the country and we have cultural normatives out here that can really frustrate and upset who did not grow up here.

However, in the book, he introduced a concept that I had never heard of before, but now that I know about it, it is a perfect explanation of many things going on in the country right now, especially things in the South, and things in the Presidential race.

The concept is called Placism.  Placism is similar to racism, and in fact, they often go hand in hand with each other, but it is possible to be a placist and not a racist, or visa versa.  In fact in the South, poor white people face many of the same Placism challenges that minorities do.  The basic idea of placism parallels classism; with placism, as long as you remain in your place, and don't try to challenge the social structure, you can get along just fine.  Step outside of that box, and all hell will descend on you.

After reading about it, I realized that I had actually known about it while I was living in the South but I just ascribed it to run of the mill racism.  The episode that sticks in my mind was a conversation I had with the woman who ran the diner that I frequently ate lunch at.  She told me about an incident with her daughter's new job in Birmingham.  Her daughter had gotten an MBA, and gotten a good, although entry level, job in an investment company.  On her first day on the job, her new boss told her, "There are many opportunities here for a person like you, as long as you know your place and don't try to rise above yourself."

And that is the core of the problem.  There are many opportunities for someone, as long as they don't try to rise above themselves.  In other words, they cannot show up decent upper class white folks.  They cannot be visibly smarter, more skilled, or more accomplished that their "betters."

Once I started looking at my experiences in the South through this filter, things began to make more sense to me.  For example, as I have pointed out before, on the evening news, no matter who won the game, they would almost always show a white guy scoring a point against a black guy.  For example, they never showed a black guy making a basket, unless both teams were entirely black.  I had thought of that as racist, which is probably a part of it, but now, through the new filter, I realize that it was a visual to show cultural dominance.  Black people cannot show up white people.

Another point that is explained by placism was the faculty and staff demographic where I taught.  There were very few African-American faculty members, but there were a number of foreign born black faculty.  The staff had many African-Americans, but typically, they were in subservient roles such as security guards and administrative assistants.  There were a few in middle management, but the upper echelon of the school, both in faculty and administrative roles was exclusively white.

While on the surface, that looks like racism, it goes deeper than that.  If it was racism, why could foreign blacks get slots on the faculty while African-Americans didn't?  Placism, and the fact that educated people from other countries exist outside of the normal class structure, is a better explanation. 

And I would like to note, skilled foreigners often exist outside of normal class structures, no matter what country you are dealing with.  I applied for, and was interviewed for, several jobs in the United Kingdom, which is a notoriously class-ridden society.  I talked to a few American ex-pats living there, and they told me that they had no problems moving between the classes, and everyone accepted them.  Class in this case was strictly for the natives.  Similarly, one only needs to look at the percentages of foreign born doctors and engineers to see that in action in our country.

However, this does not translate down to the unskilled or semi-skilled end of the spectrum.  The uneducated immigrant faces the worst sort of Placism imaginable.  Back to my personal work situation, African-Americans comprised almost all of the security force at the college.  Although it was a low paying, more or less dead end job, there was a certain dignity that came from the responsibility of keeping the college secure.  The janitorial staff, which is the lowest end of the scale, was entirely Hispanic immigrant. 

And this is the norm everywhere.  Anyplace you go in this country, the first generation low skill immigrants are shoved into menial, and often degrading, jobs.  The doors to education and social improvement are closed and barred to them.  It is only the second or third generation that is allowed to break out of the placist role that is assigned to them. 

And then, that often only happens if they do not look different from the rest of the people.  The Irish were, in their day, treated just like Mexican immigrants are today, however, once they lost the accent, they could easily blend in with the rest of society.  Still, you only need to look at the occasional and very subtle discrimination of "gingers" to know that one segment of the Irish, the one that looks different, is still not as fully assimilated as the rest of them.  Being a redhead won't block you from a job or an education, but, I can say from personal experience, it does limit your dating options.

Blacks and Hispanics, except for the very light skinned, tend to get locked into certain roles permanently.  And furthermore, the people who are very light skinned, almost indistinguishable from white people, have many more opportunities available.  You can see this in this Harvard Study.

So how does this concept of Placism translate to Presidential politics.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both rose above their station, and both have been more viciously attacked than any President since the Reconstruction.

Bill Clinton faced the same placism issues as President Obama.  He came from a poor background, and he rose to the pinnacle of American society.  And the Right never forgave him for it.  They tried to destroy him and stop him from having any legacy.  Specifically, they wanted to show that a person from his socio-economic background was not equipped to be President, because the inspiration of Bill Clinton was that anyone, from any background, CAN become president.  He was the first truly middle class president since Truman, and we all know how that ended.  (Truman ended up for years on the worst president list; he's better now.)

And Bill Clinton set the stage for President Obama, who also does not come from the background that we expect of our national leaders.  Racism does play a part in the hatred of Obama, and I will not deny that.  There are many people who cry, in coded words, I don't want a black man as my President.  But that isn't the full story, it is only half of it.

Similarly, not all possible aspects of Placism are in play with the President.  Remember my example of the foreign black faculty and remember, Barack Obama's father was not born in this country.  As my mentor Joe said, shortly after Obama's victory, "It is no accident that our first black President was not descended from slaves."  He explained that, at least for the first black President, he could not have won with the baggage of slavery in his past.  Again, Joe was talking about Placism, I just didn't catch on. 

However, that said, Placism is still strongly at work in most aspects of the hatred of Obama.  Obama was raised by a single mother, he came from a relatively poor background, certainly middle class at best.  Also since his father was foreign, he carries the Placist taint of "not one of us" that you see in the Birther attacks. 

Look at the other attacks on him and you can see Placism all through them.  He got where he is because of affirmative action, which means, he could never have gotten into Harvard on his own accord.  He was a community organizer, which means, he worked in poor communities filled with poor people.  He's lazy and incompetent, which means, no one from his background has the skills to run the country.

And the single worst thing that he did; he beat a rich old white man out to become President.  He showed him up in a landslide.  He made him look bad.  He rose above his station.  He didn't know his place.

And that is nothing compared to the Hell that will open up when he beats Mitt Romney, the ultimate scion of who the Placists think "should be President."  The poor black kid wiped the floor with the rich man who is entitled to be President because of "Who he is."

It will be an interesting four years.