Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Today during our daily rehearsal my husband and I did “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a beautiful song from the era of slavery in this country. In the lyrics were embedded instructions to escape from the South, a way for illiterate slaves to remember the long detailed directions to find their way to Ohio. The “drinking gourd” was the big dipper, which points to the north.
A recent New Yorker article, “Turning the Page: How Women Became Readers,” by Joan Acocella (10/15/12) is a fascinating look at the history of literacy. (The article is a review of a new book, The Woman Reader, by Belinda Jack.) Nowadays we take it for granted that everyone should be able to read, but not long ago the wealthy and powerful realized that literacy was a source of power and attempted to prevent women and the poor from acquiring the skill.
Men feared that if women read books they would begin to think independently, because, as Acocella writes, “there would be no one there to guide their thinking” as they read. “Accordingly, they might cease displaying the attractions—sweetness, soft voices, compliance—that were the product of their dependence on male approval. Indeed, they might start talking back to men.” Also, women might start realizing there were other possibilities in life: novels portrayed romance and excitement. Women started dreaming of having better lives for themselves.
Female literacy has been a major contribution to both the precipitous drop in the birthrate across the globe in the last fifty years and the improvement in living conditions in many poor countries. The UN Economic and Social Council reported in April 2011:
Higher levels of education, particularly among girls, had a strong correlation to declining fertility and better development outcomes, delegates and experts said today as the Commission on Population and Development continued its forty-fourth session…
Another notable success story was that of Mauritius, whose representative recalled that experts had predicted in the 1960s that the Indian Ocean island nation would collapse under the weight of its large population and low levels of development.  Instead, Mauritius had reduced its fertility rate by implementing strong reproductive health education programs, she said, adding that national maternal and child mortality rates had dropped as living conditions had improved.  Mauritius now enjoyed a 95 per cent literacy rate among people aged 15-24 years, she said.
According to Ms. Acocella, as recently as the mid-1800s the number of people who were literate was still shockingly low even in advanced nations —in Europe the literacy rate was about fifty percent. But this was not shared evenly across countries; in Sweden the rate was 90 percent, England 65-75 percent, Spain 25 percent, and Russia 5-10 percent.
Compulsory education began in most industrialized countries in the 19th century because the industrialists realized they needed an educated workforce. But at the same time they realized that education was dangerous—thinking laborers would not put up with sweatshops and unsafe working conditions.
Perhaps this explains the conservative attack on public education that has been happening in this country in the last few decades. By promoting vouchers, they can pull taxpayer money away from the public system and put it into the private schools where they send their children. Educate the poor just enough to make them employable, but not enough so they can question anything.
Recently I saw Werner Herzog’s latest film, Into the Abyss, which delves into the lives of people connected with the senseless murder of three people: the two killers, their friends, and family members of the victims. One of the killers’ acquaintances, perhaps thirty years old, admitted that he couldn’t read until, as an adult, he went to prison for the first time. He wasn’t happy about having been in prison, but was very grateful for the gift of literacy. Life as an illiterate was hard, he said.
This film was set in a small Texas town, so I looked online for some statistics on literacy in Texas. I found “Literacy Texas,” a group working to improve literacy in Texas, which has this information on their website:
Adult low literacy can be connected to almost every socio-economic issue in the United States:
·    More than 60 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can barely read and write.
·    Low health literacy costs between $106 billion and $238 billion each year in the U.S. — 7 to 17 percent of all annual personal health care spending.
·    Low literacy’s effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment. (ProLiteracy)
·    85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. (National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 2003)
·    Correctional populations report lower educational attainment than do those in the general population.  An estimated 40% of State prison inmates, 27% of Federal inmates, 47% of inmates in local jails and 31% of those serving probation sentences had not completed high school or its equivalent while about 18% of the general population failed to attain high school graduation.  (Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report 4/15/03 - Education and Corrections Populations - full report attached.)
·    50% of the chronically unemployed are not functionally literate.
(U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Presentation: Dr. Susan Sclafani, April 2005)
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a major research program completed in 2003, found that 14% of adults in this country performed at “below basic,” which meant they had no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills. They found that 11 million adults were “Nonliterate in English.” These could be divided into two groups: 7 million who could not answer simple test questions and 4 million who could not take the test because of language barriers.
I am a great fan of public education. I think it is a fundamental component of a democracy: there’s a leveling effect when children are given the same basic education, and a positive effect when children from different backgrounds are mixed in a classroom.
Human beings are our greatest national resource, and yet we callously throw away countless lives, condemning those people to poverty and ignorance, unaware of the cost to our nation and our selves.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Global Gender Equality

When I visited my mother in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua in 2009, Pelican Eyes Resort was building a new pool near the house I was staying in. A female engineer was in charge of the construction, and I admired her clear sense of authority over the male workers. I spoke to her in my pidgin Spanish, telling her that I found it impressive that the men were so willing to work under a female engineer, and she seemed surprised. “You mean it’s not like this in the United States?” she asked. “Not in my experience,” I replied.

Since then I’ve wondered if I was exaggerating, but a new study by the World Economic Forum, the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, bears out that conversation. The report ranks 135 countries (which collectively contain over 90 percent of the world's population) based on 14 indicators used to measure the size of a nation's gender gap.

Nicaragua is 9th on the list, while the United States is #22. Cuba beat the U.S. also, coming in at #19.

According to the Huffington Post the indicators can be grouped into four key areas:
1. Economic participation and opportunity, which includes female labor force participation, wage equality and the percentage of women in high-ranking jobs.
2. Educational attainment, which looks at female literacy and how frequently women are enrolled in higher education.
3. Health and survival, which is measured by comparing female and male life expectancy and mortality rates.
4. Political empowerment, which examines the number of women holding political office as well as the number of female heads of state over the last 50 years.
At the Huffington Post article there’s a graphic showing the top 25 and bottom 25 countries. Not surprisingly, most of the top countries are in northern Europe, while most of the bottom are in the Muslim Middle East.

Addendum: The day I posted this, I later went to film an event. I’m a professional videographer; I had my large hi-definition video camera on a tripod. At one point while I was waiting for the event to start I was standing near my camera talking with a man who was a part of the event. A second man came up to us and, looking straight at the first man, said, “That’s a bad place for your camera.” The first guy replied, “That’s not my camera,” and number two just started walking away, without giving me a glance. Clearly he assumed that no woman could be associated with that kind of camera. Believe me, I have seen this prejudice before.

I said, “That’s my camera, and that’s the only spot I can shoot from. And who are you?” He turned to me and apologized, saying he was doing the lighting for the event.

How telling of attitudes towards women in 2012 in the U.S.A.

Monday, October 22, 2012

My Perestroika

In 1979 I spent six weeks in the Soviet Union. I had taken Russian for three years and could speak the language passably. I was with a group that was unique for the time: instead of traveling in enormous tour buses, staying in tourist-only hotels and eating at tourist-only restaurants, with every waking moment completely controlled by official “Intourist” guides, my group drove ourselves in VW buses, camped in campsites outside of the major cities, and spent the days on our own in the cities (in my case, Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa).

It was a phenomenal experience. I was 21 and the Cold War was raging. I spoke to hundreds of ordinary Soviet citizens, and not one of them had ever had the opportunity to meet an American, much less an American who spoke Russian.

The most common question asked of me was, “Why does your country want to have war with us?” I was floored by this, because of course I was certain the Cold War was entirely the Soviet Union’s fault. I would reply, “My country tells me you want to have war with us!” This exchange, that happened multiple times, is one of my strongest memories from that summer. It would always end with the two of us, Russian and American, reassuring each other that the last thing in the world we wanted was war.

As I traveled around the country it was shocking to me to see the wounds of World War II still evident. Some beautiful palaces, bombed by the Germans, were still in the process of being rebuilt. There was a name for an entire generation that had no fathers—so many men had been killed in WWII. It was easy to believe that the Russian people had no appetite for war.

This trip opened my eyes to the propaganda of my own country. It was a defining moment in my life: I realized I had been lied to by my own government. I started questioning everything I had been told.

Just recently I watched a documentary called “My Perestroika,” that to my delight is partly about Soviet life in exactly the time I was there. The film is made up of interviews with five Muscovites (filmed in 2009 or so, film was released in 2010); they were students in the same Moscow middle school in 1977. Their interviews are intercut with one man’s home movies of his childhood, Soviet propaganda films from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and news clips of the changes that perestroika brought.

The people interviewed in the film were in college during the collapse of the Soviet system, so they are old enough to have strong memories of the Soviet system; they were young enough to participate in the demonstrations and activities of the early 1990s; and now as adults they are dealing with the changing economic circumstances of post-Soviet Russia. One has become a successful businessman and is the most American-like of the five, but the other four all mourn what they see as a loss: the increasing Americanization of their culture where the only thing that matters is money.

After watching it, my husband Arthur said, “I never could understand what you meant when you said that some Russians want to go back to the Soviet system. But after watching this I could see why.”

There’s also a chilling warning about Vladimir Putin. Two of the interviewees are history teachers (they’re also married). They both talk about how challenging it is to teach the last seven decades of their country’s history. At the end of the film they are watching Putin talk at a conference about releasing new history textbooks, and you realize he’s talking about a 1984-type scrubbing of the past. You can see on the teachers’ faces the horror that they’ll be the ones required to carry this mission out, mixed with the disappointment at realizing that their experience of (relative) political freedom is maybe about to be snuffed out; authoritarianism is not only their past, it’s also their future.

If you’d like to learn more about Russia, in particular the events of the last twenty-five years, this film is an excellent place to start.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Humans Are All Members of the Same Tribe

Why does morality exist? Is this evidence of a metaphysical realm, or can it be explained as an evolutionary adaptation? Recently I’ve read a couple of books that argue that morality is a product of natural selection.
The Science of Good and Evil (2004) is by Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine. He begins by providing an evolutionary explanation for morality, which I found very plausible. Shermer claims that all moral attributes can be explained by natural selection over the millions of years of human evolution: groups in which members cooperated and could trust each other did better than groups that had a lot of infighting and deceit.
In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (2011), author Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of the evolution of morality parallels The Science of Good and Evil.
In particular, Rosenberg identifies a core morality, which includes cooperation, fairness/equality, and trustworthiness, which is recognized by all human societies. He has an interesting discussion about how different societies interpret this core morality differently due to their different beliefs. For example, all societies think caring for your children is moral, but some Islamic cultures believe that includes genital mutilation of their girls: if you didn’t do this no man would marry her. This doesn’t mean they don’t share the core moral value that caring for children is good, they just filter that through beliefs that we in the West would call mistaken.
American culture has been under the sway of Social Darwinism for over a hundred years now. We mistakenly believe Darwin’s theory of natural selection means competition is the natural way to behave and thrive. Our version of capitalism is dependent on ruthless cutthroat competition. Supposedly capitalism works so well because it is the system that most closely follows the natural law of selfishness.
But now biologists and anthropologists say that that interpretation of Darwin's theory is incomplete. Natural selection works through both competition and cooperation. Humans survived as a species because we learned to cooperate. This is the adaptation that allowed us to become the dominant animal on the planet.
Rosenberg imagines two early hominids (creatures that predated Homo sapiens) on the savannah coming across a half-eaten gazelle. At this point hominids were quite a bit lower on the food chain than we are today. If both the hominids ate at the same time, maybe the animal that killed the gazelle would return, or a pack of jackals would ambush them, and they both would be killed. But if they cooperated, if one watched while the other grabbed food for both of them and then they shared it in a safer location, they would increase their chances of survival.
One of the ways we can tell that evolution has programmed us to cooperate is to study babies. How do they behave before they have had time to learn about social interactions? Chimpanzees almost never help another and never share information. But Rosenberg writes, modern “human babies do all these things, and with strangers, well before they can do much more than crawl. They help, they share food, they even convey information before they have language and certainly without knowing anything about norms or niceness. That means that human babies have both an ability conveniently called theory of mind and an inclination to cooperate; both are hardwired or quickly and easily learned with very little experience at a very early age.”
What’s important to realize is that hominids learned to cooperate with the members of their group. Prehistoric groups fought with other hominid groups for possession of resources and territory. Shermer debunks the noble savage myth, which he says is still very strong in our culture, in particular in terms of violence. Many people seem to believe that violence is a recent development: a product of civilization, or patriarchy, or other relatively recent development. Shermer cites the numerous examples of anthropological sites dating back tens of thousands of years that show humans suffering violent deaths from such things as a hatchet blow to the head.

In addition, these early human groups believed they were special and better than people outside their group. Shermer uses an Amazonian tribe, the Yanomamo people, as a window into the thinking of people unaffected by modern civilization. They “consider themselves to be the ultimate chosen people—in their language their name represents humanity, with all other peoples as something less than human.” He quotes Aldous Huxley: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that the other set is human. By robbing them of their personality, he puts them outside the pale of moral obligation.” [From The Olive Tree, 1937]

Early human social evolution was the story of small tribes cooperating within the group and fighting other groups. For most of humanity’s time on this planet, tribes numbered no more than 150 people. But in the last ten thousand years, the size of our social groups has mushroomed. Shermer includes a chart illustrating this remarkably rapid social evolution of humans:

100,000 – 10,000 years ago                  Bands                        10s – 100s of individuals
10,000 – 5,000 years ago                      Tribes                        100s – 1000s of individuals
5,000 – 3,000 years ago                        Chiefdoms                 1,000s – 10,000s of individuals
3,000 – 1,000 years ago                        States                        10,000s – 100,000s of individuals
1,000 – present                                      Empires                    100,000s – 1,000,000s of individuals

In other words, 10,000 years ago all of humankind lived in small groups made up of extended families. Imagine living in a group made up of your aunts, uncles, cousins, second-cousins, etc. Maybe you wouldn’t be related to everyone in your group, but everyone would be very much like you.
Today people live in groups made up of millions of people. I live in the United States, part of a 300-million-member group. Most Americans identify as a member of this group and cheer on its victories (most medals in the Olympics) and bemoan its defeats and threats (9/11, China's rise, Islamic terrorism, etc). We are capable of feeling a kinship with hundreds of millions of people, many of whom are very different from ourselves. Most of us never give this a moment’s thought, but being able to feel a membership in this large and diverse a group is an incredibly significant advance in consciousness.
I talked about these ideas with a friend, and he seemed to dismiss the idea that human social organization is improving. Finally I asked him, “Do you think human culture evolves?” He replied, “I don’t think evolution necessarily means things get better.” Very true—evolution just means a change that renders an organism better adapted to its environment. However, it is our ability to work together that has allowed us to prosper in every environment on this planet—from the poles to the Equator.
From what my friend said he seems to think humans’ ability to interact socially has gotten worse over the last ten thousand years. It occurred to me that there are a lot of new-age/liberals out there who probably feel the same way about this; they romanticize those small hunter-gatherer tribes.
I have a very different spin. Once upon a time, each tribe of 150 or so considered their members the only true humans. Now we can feel a common identity with 300 million people. Soon we’ll be capable of perceiving that every person on the planet is a member of our tribe—the human tribe—and the amount of creative energy that will be released by no longer having to fight each other will be astronomical.