About the Name of this blog

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

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

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

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Inconvenience of Reality


The truth does not set us free, it typically just makes us uncomfortable.  A prime example of this is the rampant racism in this country.  Despite, or more likely because of, electing a black President, bigotry has not declined.  Tangential to this is the strong uptick in sexism that runs parallel to racism.  This is the uncomfortable truth that we face.  However, rather than just complain about the phenomenon, I would like to try to examine some root causes of the behavior: shame, fear, and identity.

The first driver of prejudice is shame.  For generations we literally enslaved blacks and we oppressed women.  Both were treated appallingly by the power structure and denied recourse to protest that repression.  Black men were not counted as people until after the civil war, and then it was a further 100 years before they truly earned the right to participate in the democratic process.  Women didn't get a universal right to vote until 1920, although some states adopted suffrage before that.

This is shameful, and any rational person in 2013 should recognize how appalling that truth is.  However, people don't always react the same way to shame.  Some people, and I would hope the majority, although recent events make me question that assertion, use the shame as a driver to guarantee that those mistakes are never repeated.  Shame has been used throughout history as a powerful method of discipline in a social structure, and therefore is often corrective.

Unfortunately, some people cannot correctly process shame.  Instead they refuse to see their behavior as inappropriate, and actually transfer the shameful behavior onto the actual victims.  You see this in a number of events recently.  President Obama being constantly criticized as un-American, arrogant, uppity, and a host of other epithets that condemn him for the audacity of becoming President.  You also see this in the Trayvon Martin case, where the black teen is de facto guilty, and judged to be in the wrong automatically, even though, if he did fight back, he was acting under the same principle that allowed George Zimmerman to legally murder him.  And even further, you see this is the repeated refusal to acknowledge rape as an actual crime, and the pushing of the idea that women contribute to their own rapes through their bad behavior.

In all of these cases, shame is being transferred off of the person who cannot accept it, and it is being placed on a person or group who in way have any guilt in the matter.  This is unfortunately a common behavior pattern among people who lack the maturity to face a horrible reality.  Part of the problem here is that since they did not personally engage in those behaviors, they feel that they bear no responsibility.  Further they feel that assigning them responsibility for the actions of people in the past, or other people in the present, is utterly wrong.

This is correct as far as the individual goes, but there is another layer at play here and that is societal guilt.  Societal guilt is not personalized, but belongs to a large group of people and is the method of mitigating bad behavior by a culture.  A prime example would be the Holocaust; only a relatively small percentage of the German population actively participated in the atrocities, but a wide swath stood by and watched it happen.  In this, they became complicit, is not directly guilty; and that is what societal guilt is meant to address.

Even though the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, and the Equal Rights movement ostensibly came to an end 30 years ago, much of the bad behavior is still being perpetrated.  But rather than acknowledge it, the guilt is off-shored and placed on the people who do not deserve the blame.  The racist attitudes justify the ill treatment of minorities and women, by essentially blaming them for their own condition.  In doing this, the racist and sexist attitudes become fully justified in the mind of the person who holds them, and removes the burden of shame.

And to address another elephant in the room, there is a genuine phenomenon of reverse racism and counter sexism, where minorities and women turn the tables against white men.  However, it should be noted that this phenomenon is distinctly different from traditional racism and sexism.  These are response behaviors, basically stemming from the idea, "You hate us, so we will hate you back just as much."  Although it drastically increases the problem, it is a natural response.  However, since is it such a different imperative from traditional racism, I am going to leave it out of this discussion.

The second driver is fear.  As I have discussed in previous blog posts, the fear-anger-hate chain is powerful and ubiquitous.  But the root imperative is fear.  With racism and sexism, the fear is both extremely simple and highly convoluted.  The root cause of the fear is the idea of loss of privilege, white men have essentially run the show in most of the industrialized world for centuries.  Losing that basic power structure is deeply troubling. 

White men have been on top for so long that we literally do not know how to function in a world where we are not the ultimate power.  You see this in the repeated meltdowns over President Obama.  He is going out there and acting just like a white man, asking for motorcades, for marines to hold an umbrella over him, traveling the globe and talking to world leaders as an equal.  How arrogant of him.  To many who fear the loss of their influence, he is the ultimate harbringer of their doom.

The convoluted part comes in the realization that ye shall reap as ye have sown.  The comedian Patton Oswalt talks about using a time machine, and how it would be great to use it to visit the past, because there never has been a time when being a white man hasn't been awesome.  However, he cautions against using it to go to the future, because what we have done is going to catch up to us, and the future is "gonna suck."  We are going to eventually have to pay for our millennia of bad leadership decisions.

This fear drives both racism and sexism.  They are the dying gasps of trying to stave off an inevitable future where the white male has, at best, limited ability to control events, and at worst will become the oppressed minority.  The fear of what might happen to us makes it imperative that we keep everyone else down, by whatever means are necessary, and bigotry serves that very well.  In fact, through careful application of it, we can even get some of the oppressed people to buy into the story.  Allen West and Phyllis Schaffley are perfect examples of this.

Add to that the second layer of fear, the fear that we are not superior.  Much of racism and sexism is supported by the indisputability of the superiority of the white male.  We view ourselves as smarter, more talented, better leaders, and generally better people than either minorities or women.  And every time one of the other groups does an excellent job in a "white role" it undercuts that certainty.

This is also why President Obama gets described as lazy, ineffectual, and incompetent.  And unfortunately, to be honest, it comes from both sides of the white political spectrum.  The issues of complaint about the President may be different, but underlying both sides is this hidden message that a white man could do it better.  The lionization of Bill Clinton by both side proves this idea.  I should note here, there has been significant criticism of the President from the African-American community, but it is fundamentally different in tone, and often echoes the idea that he isn't doing enough for their community.  However, given the issues surrounding his Presidency, he would only make it worse and heighten the racism, if he actually did more.  Notice the furor over his  relatively mild statement regarding Trayvon Martin,

The last piece of the racism puzzle is identity.  For much of human history, the world has revolved around ideas of us and them.  We define ourselves by certain identifiers, race, religion, and culture.  The ideas of what make us, "us" are very powerful and form the basis of a racial identity.

The vampire mythic sequence illustrates this very well, we are both drawn to and repelled by the other.  In the older vampire stories, the monster wanted to seduce our women and steal them away, which meant that he had to be destroyed with a stake through the heart.  This symbolized the need to strike at the core of the dangerous other.

In today's world of "sparkly vampires" we want to mate with the vampire, not to embrace the other, but to subsume the other.  The ultimate message of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight is that we need to make the vampire more like us.

This returns to the issue of bigotry.  We can accept a black man if he is more white than the average white man.  In fact, most of my white friends who have the one black friend typically describe them as "the whitest black guy in the world."  By taking on a "white" identity, the otherness becomes neutralized and they are save.  Even if they are a different skin color, they do not challenge the predominant white identity of our culture.  They become "neutralized."

The same goes for women.  If a woman acts girlish in the work world, she is basically a threat to the cultural identity of what an employee should be.  If she cries, or talks about "female problems" or in any way breaks the mold, she becomes a danger.  Basically, to function effectively in the work world, a woman must be indistinguishable from a man.

However, there is a double standard for women that does not exist for racial issues.  It is OK, and even expected, that a woman fill a traditional role in the non-work realm.  That is also part of the identity issue, a woman has a specific role to play in our cultural structure.  She can step outside of that at work, but not outside of work, and that is part of what is expected.  However, a minority can never step outside of the "white" role, or they instantly become a threat.

The problem with this arises from the fact that we are not allowed to talk about these issues, and that acerbates all of them.

If we were allowed to address the issues of shame, we could talk openly about the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow and try to make some sort of peace with the past.  We cannot fix what has gone before, but we certainly can acknowledge that we have done horrible things and commit to never repeating them.  Germany engaged in this purging of their societal soul after World War 2.  They did not eliminate the Nazi movement, but they served to marginalize it to the point that only the most extreme racists would embrace it.  In this context, shame becomes a powerful tool to cleanse out the festering rot of bigotry.

Second if we could openly discuss our fears and our insecurities, we could meet them head on.  Most of the time, fear is unfounded, and in this case, it is particularly so.  If we were allowed to have open discussions that made people realize that another group's success does not in any way diminish our own, we might come to terms with our fears.  Just because white male influence is waning does not mean that we have become reviled.  However, if we do not address this issue, our fears will become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, we need to stop defining our identity by race, sex or creed.  Even defining identity by nationality can lead to problems, but that is a more natural division.  At lease, if kept in check so that it doesn't devolve into extreme nationalism, it can become a tool to unify people.

At the end of the day, we need to realize we are all Americans, whether we are male or female, white black or brown.  Only then can we begin to move past this mess we have made for ourselves.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

God is a Bullet


I am going to be blunt here, Trayvon Martin was murdered.  I don't care mental contortions what a racist jury in the South had to tie themselves into, he was murdered by a man who unfairly profiled him, stalked him and murdered him in cold blood.  I lived in the South for close to five years, and I knew that there was no way that Zimmerman would be found guilty of killing a black man.  I also know, from living in the South, that if Zimmerman had killed a white teenage boy named John Martin, he would be facing the death penalty. 

But wait, you say, he was half Hispanic, he couldn't be guilty of a racially motivated crime.  And to that I say, bullshit.  Just because he was also a self-described minority does not absolve him of racism.  Racism does come in all forms and among all people.  Just because Zimmerman was not lily-white does not mean that he did not target Trayvon Martin based solely on the color of his skin.

Zinmmerman had a long history of calling 911 and reporting people for the "crime" of being blatantly Black in public.  He also called 911 on the night of the murder, and even though he was told to let the police handle it, he still stalked and killed Trayvon.  The facts show that he put himself in the position to have a confrontation; he escalated the situation rather than diffusing it.  Further, he escalated it when he did not need to: at the time he began stalking Martin, no crime was being committed; no one was in danger; and the only thing happening was that a black teenager was cutting through a neighborhood.

A black teenager walking through an affluent gated community, obviously that is a crime that deserves execution.  And Zimmerman appointed himself, judge, jury and executioner.

But wait, you say, Travon Martin attacked Zimmerman, and he shot the teen in self defense.  But, even if that is factually correct, Zimmerman put himself in the position in the first place.  He could have followed the police directive and LET THE COPS HANDLE IT.  Sorry for shouting, but that is a critical point.  HE DID NOT HAVE TO BE THERE, ZIMMERMAN MADE A DELIBERATE CHOICE.

But, lets go a little further.  Zimmerman was acquitted based on the "Stand Your Ground Law," that is basically a get out of jail free card when it comes to murder.  Flip the situation around again, and imagine that Trayvon had killed Zimmerman on the exact same grounds of self defense.  How do you think that would have flown.  Trayvon would have faced murder 1 charges and would probably have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment.

And still further, lets look at the situation from Travyon's perspective.  He is walking home from the store, having gotten a bag of candy, and takes a shortcut.  He then gets stalked by an older man, which could be considered "stranger danger."  He's in a situation where he doesn't know if he's going to get mugged, raped, (Yes it does happen) or killed (Which did happen)  He "Stands His Ground" when the crazy old guy pulls out a gun, and defends himself.  And for defending himself, he is killed.

Everyone talks about Zimmerman's right to defend himself, as a white adult man, no one talks about Trayvon Martin's right to defend himself, as a black teenager. 
If you are going to have a law like Florida's, then both parties have the right to "Stand Their Ground," when no crime is being committed, and none was that night, except for Zimmerman stalking an unarmed teen.

By the way, I want to nip something else in the bud here, Hispanic is an ethnicity, like being French, it is not a race.  You can be white Hispanic, Cuba, black Hispanic, Dominican Republic, Asian Hispanic, the Philippines, or Meso-American Hispanic, Guatemala.  I have a good friend who is Hispanic, and he has red hair and the last name of Gordon, but he is still Hispanic, and identifies himself that way.

To return to the point, Zimmerman put himself in a situation, by his own choice that threatened the life of a young man, who may or may not have tried to defend himself.  If that is exactly what happened, it shows the danger of laws like the one Florida has, where it is essentially a license to kill someone with impunity.  If Trayvon did not even try to defend himself, then Zimmerman killed him in cold blood.

And that is the definition of murder.

And now begins the crowing of the Right: Trayvon deserved to die; Trayvon was a racist because he used the word "cracka;" that Zimmerman was unfairly prosecuted.

And again I call bullshit.  No teenager, who is just walking through a neighborhood, even if it is a gated community, deserves to die.  So what if he used the term "Cracka?" That is in no way shape or form anything like the term "Nigger."  It does not carry anything of the evil of the N-word, which in my opinion is the single worst word in the world, no term is more belittling, racist or vile than that word.  And just to satisfy Godwin's Law, the N-word is the Hitler of language.
And finally, Zimmerman was fairly prosecuted.  Given the circumstances, if I was the prosecutor, I would have sought first degree murder charges, given that he stalked the teen.

The vile rhetoric of racism spewing from the Right makes me ashamed to be a white American, for fear that my non-white friends might just think that I agree with some of this hatred.  Many people thought that electing our first black President would stem the flow of hatred in this country, when in fact, it has done nothing but acerbate it.  The hate in this country is hitting a crescendo, building vile inequity upon hideous innuendo, demonizing an innocent teenage boy, and blaming him for his own murder.

However, the single worst thing I have heard is what Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'mara said, that if Zimmerman were black, "he never would have been charged with a crime."  Really?  In the South? A black man killing a white boy would never have been charged?

He would have been executed next week.

There's a green plaid jacket on the back of the chair
It's like a moment frozen forever there

Mom and dad had a lot of big plans for their little man
So proud!
Mama's gone crazy 'cause her baby's shot down
By some teenage car chase war out of bounds
It was the wrong place wrong time wrong end of a gun.
And its sad, sad, it's sad!

Shoot straight from the hip, yeah.
Gone forever in a trigger slip
Well, it could have been
It could have been your brother.
Shoot straight shoot to kill, yeah.
Blame each other, well, blame yourselves, you know
God is a bullet have mercy on us everyone
-Johnette Napolitano

Saturday, July 6, 2013

I Do Not Think This Word Means What You Think It Means


It would be nice if the "Pro-Life" movement actually cared about life, not just about fetuses.  Instead, the movement is actually one of the most evil things I have ever seen, and is absolutely antithetical to actual life.

I know these are fighting words, but I am sick of the use of the term "Pro-Life" when it is obvious that they care nothing about actual living babies.  The same people who are trying to ban abortion are also cutting food stamps, child health care, universal preschool, education in general and anything else that would actually help babies survive and thrive once they are born.  A true "Pro-Life" position would mean that you wanted a baby to have the best opportunities in life.

If you really want to reduce abortion, several things should happen.

First, make sure that all people have access to high quality, free medical care.  This would ensure the health of both the mother and child.  The United States has one of the higher infant mortality rates in the Industrialized World.  This is due to the economic rationing of medical care in this country.  If you are rich (and probably white) you have excellent medical care, in fact some of the best care in the world.  If you are poor, your medical care is similar to that of the developing nations.

Second, lifelong medical and life care must be made available to disabled children.  One of the most heart wrenching decisions that middle and lower class families must make is what to do when a fetus is found to have severe disabilities.  You can see this in the vast reduction in the number of babies born with Down Syndrome.  Parents without the financial resources to care for a child who will need life-long assistance are frequently choosing abortion.  This is not necessarily what they wish to do, but they must make a calculated decision based on their resources.

As the government slashes programs to help these parents, they frequently have no other option.  A disabled child means that one, or maybe even both parents must leave the full time workforce in order to provide child care.  Even worse is the realization that once the parents are gone, there may be no one to care for their child.  Accordingly, abortion is terrible choice that they have no option to avoid.  I have had friends in this exact situation, and they were essentially forced to terminate the pregnancy, not out of desire, but because they had no financial capability to care for the child.  The only other option would be to abandon their baby to the state system, condemning it to a life of institutions and foster care, given that very few people want to adopt a special needs child.

In the worst case, North Dakota has banned abortions based on disability, while simultaneously cutting all of the social programs to help the parents of a disabled child.  I'm just going to call a spade a spade and say this is pure evil, to force a family into economic ruination and condemn them to a life of privation.

Next, cutting Food Stamps and other social safety net programs often forces a woman on the financial brink to consider an abortion.  Most people do not want to bring a life into the world without the ability to care for it, and the social safety net provides that ability.  Also, I will give a hard truth: although it is very chic for white people to adopt babies from Africa or Asia, it is not so chic for them to adopt a minority baby from Louisiana.  That is harsh, but true.

Next, providing universal preschool would help parents re-enter the workforce earlier, in order to be able to provide for their children.  Then, access to high quality education would set the children up to improve their standard of living, and rise in economic class.  By limiting these opportunities, children have few, if any, avenues to escape poverty, or even move out of the Middle Class.  In fact, it creates a generation that has a high likelihood of falling below their parents' economic station.

Giving every child the opportunities to succeed, guaranteeing medical care, and providing a strong social safety net would go a long way to reducing abortion.  Until the conservatives take these steps, I will not accept the term "Pro-Life."

So what is going on?  Why the massive rush to ban reproductive choice? 

It is helpful to understand what is actually under attack.  It is not just abortion, but all freedoms of women to control their bodies that is being legislated.  Planned Parenthood, Emergency Contraception, and even the Pill are being threatened.  Everything that has given women economic freedom is being systematically dismantled.

When women have control over their reproduction, they have the freedom to enter the workforce, the freedom to chose marriage or single life, and the freedom to chose to start a family on their own terms.  This is Biblically unacceptable, and given that the most vocal anti-abortion campaigners are Fundamentalist Christians, it begins to make sense. 

Colossians 3:18 states it very clearly: "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord."  A woman with reproductive freedom is in a position to clearly control her own life.  Turning back the clock means that women are forced to make a choice, marriage and family or the single life and a career.  Further, it returns babies to the status of punishment for sex outside of marriage.  It enforces abstinence.

So in the end, the draconian attacks on reproductive rights become a form of social engineering, attempting to lock women into the roles they occupied at the beginning of the 20th century.  There is no actual concern about the lives of the unborn, because if there was, they would be instituting other child and family friendly policies.  Since they are not, I will stick by my position that this is simply an underhanded effort to wind back the clock on equal rights.  And until they start actually promoting other causes that are actually promoting life, please stop buying into the "Pro-Life" term.

Call it what is, "Anti-Woman."