Monday, December 31, 2012

Ode to Winter

Winter is so often maligned. People say it’s ugly: they talk about the sadness of the leaves being gone and the obvious superior beauty of spring, summer, and fall. Of course, they might say, snow is beautiful but that’s about it.

I love winter in a purely aesthetic way. As a child I can remember riding in the backseat of our car, looking out the window at a bare tree silhouetted against a winter dusk sky of pink and orange and deepest midnight blue and being moved by the beauty. That is still today one of the most beautiful things I know. 

Just down the road from my house is a field that climbs a hill, ending in a row of trees along the top of a ridge. Looking at those trees silhouetted against the deepening night of a winter sky is one of the pleasures of my year here. I rarely notice those trees any other time of year—all the foliage blocks the clean geometric lines of the branches.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Who Knows What's Good or Bad?

Recently I watched James Cameron’s Titanic. One of the twists of the film’s story is that Jack, the protagonist, was not supposed to be on that ship. Just before the Titanic sailed he won two tickets in a poker game with two Swedes. When one of the Swedes realized that the other had bet and lost their tickets to America, he punched his friend out. This appeared to be a disaster for the Swedes, and a triumph for Jack and his Italian friend.
After boarding, Jack and his friend ran down the corridor of the great ship’s third-class compartment, and Jack shouted, “We’re the luckiest sons-of-bitches in the world!”
This makes me think of a Chinese parable: One day a farmer’s only horse disappeared. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the farmer’s horse returned accompanied by a wild horse, and the neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer. The next day the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride the new horse, and the neighbor came to console him again. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer. When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer asked, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
In the movie, Jack and his friend ended up dying, and the Swedes were now the luckiest sons-of-bitches in the world. (There's a similar storyline in The Lord of the Rings trilogy: it appears to be really bad that Gollum survived until right at the end, when it turns out to be a very good thing.)
I thought of this Chinese parable while reading Damien Echols’ book, Life After Death. Mr. Echols served 18 years in prison for the infamous West Memphis murder of three young boys, although he was innocent of the crime.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Another mass shooting has occurred; this time at an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut. Twenty children—all six and seven years old—and six adult teachers and staff, dead. I didn’t watch the televised memorial services. Personally I don’t care for the media frenzy that follows these events; I find it unseemly, to put it mildly. But I did hear a little bit of a speech made by a minister, and he seemed to be struggling to express himself. I think his problem was that he was paralyzed by a basic problem of most theologies, what is known in philosophy as “theodicy”: how can you reconcile a loving God with human suffering?
I love this word, theodicy, because to me it sounds like the combination of “theology” and “idiocy”; many religious people come across as idiotic when they try to explain how God could allow something horrible to happen, like last week’s senseless slaughter of children.
Twenty years ago, my husband Arthur and I published a book called The Game of God. Theodicy is the starting point; the book’s introduction begins with this passage:
A friend recently told us that, of all the funerals he had ever attended, he had yet to hear a minister satisfactorily answer the question, “Why did God create death?” He went on to say that, in fact, he had yet to hear a minister (priest, rabbi, etc.) make any sense of why God had created anything at all. Our friend concluded that the most sensible explanation for this dangerous and mysterious universe is simply that there is no God.
We live on a tiny planet lost in a huge and seemingly indifferent universe. Life is a continuous struggle which inevitably ends with death. Life is a terminal disease.
What kind of universe is this anyway? Does life have any meaning or purpose? If there is a “God,” why did God create the universe?
Many religions have tried to explain God’s motives for creating the universe—a universe filled with suffering and death—but these theologies are often illogical and filled with contradictions, and thus fail to provide comfort when a true test arises: when real disaster strikes.
A minister once told us that, in his experience, the death of a child was particularly difficult to “explain,” and has often resulted in expressions of hatred for God by the parents, and even the abandonment of their faith.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Forest Unseen

Science has been a great boon to humankind. Anyone who has lived through a few days without power after a storm realizes how dependent we have become on the technological gifts of science. In 2004 I went 5 days without power after Hurricane Ivan hit western North Carolina; because I lived in the country this meant no running water either. My husband and I took the power crew out to lunch after they turned our power back on out of sheer gratitude for returning us to the 21st century.
But science has had some negative influences on our culture too. Scientists have made their work easier by imagining that life can be chopped up into little pieces and studied separately. They act as if this chopping up doesn’t have any effect on what they observe.
One of the consequences of this approach is the overemphasis of competition in the process of evolution: nature is composed of discrete individuals engaged in a brutal struggle for survival. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson described this view of nature as “red in tooth and claw.”
Some scientists are beginning to question this view of nature. They are putting the pieces back together to see the big picture: everything is interrelated, and cooperation balances competition in the mechanism of natural selection.
I’ve just read an astoundingly beautiful book, The Forest Unseen, by Dr. David George Haskell, which combines a poetic meditative sensibility with a scientist’s detail-oriented mind. Dr. Haskell is a professor of biology at the University of the South in eastern Tennessee. He found a patch of old-growth forest near his home, and within that forest designated a one-meter-square patch as his “mandala,” which he visited weekly throughout the course of a year. The book is composed of meditations on what he observed, and he finds inspiration in even the smallest things that most of us overlook.
I would recommend this book to anyone who loves nature; it is filled with both lovely descriptive writing and fascinating information about so many creatures, from nematodes to vultures. For many years I have walked in the woods without a goal; I would hike to a spot and sit and observe. Dr. Haskell’s book has inspired me to look even closer than before.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Am I Really a We?

I have a degree in molecular biology, and I can remember the day I told a decidedly non-scientific friend about the mite that lives in human eyebrows—I thought it was fascinating, but he found it not only disgusting but profoundly disturbing. Modern civilization has tried to banish all parasites and insects from our bodies and living spaces; we think we live in an antiseptic indoor refuge separate from the creeping, crawling outdoors.
A recent New Yorker had an article that would have disturbed my friend even more: “Germs Are Us,” by Michael Specter. What scientists are discovering is that our bodies are actually a “microbiome,” an ecosystem that includes not just the cells of our bodies but thousands of species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi (not to mention those mites). Mr. Specter writes,
We are inhabited by as many as ten thousand bacterial species; these cells outnumber those which we consider our own by ten to one, and weigh, all told, about three pounds—the same as our brain. Together, they are referred to as our microbiome—and they play such a crucial role in our lives that scientists have begun to reconsider what it means to be human.
There are ten trillion cells (more or less) in our bodies, so that means we contain 100 trillion bacteria, virus, and fungi cells. This raises the question: Who am I? Am I an individual or a community?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is There Such a Thing As Race?

Think about race. What comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you think of White (Caucasian), Black (Negroid), and Asian (Mongoloid). Maybe with a little reflection you add Native American. (The terms in parentheses are the scientific names for these races.)
These categories basically conform to the racial categories I grew up with, which we crudely called white, black, yellow, and red.
Now ask yourself: What is the meaning of race? Does it mean there are significant differences between groups based on variations in physical characteristics? Does it mean differences in abilities as well?
Do you think one race is superior to others in athleticism? Do you point to the number of black football and basketball players, or the winners of the 100-yard dash at the Olympics?
Do you think that one race is superior in intelligence? Do you point to the results of IQ tests that show Caucasians and Asians with higher average IQs than those of Negroid extraction?
Let’s think of regions of the world. What race are Mexicans—are they white? What race are Egyptians—are they black? What race are Indians—are they Asian? What race are Australian aborigines? Think about Europe. Are the blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Norwegians the same race as the dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned Spaniards? How do you draw the lines that separate races? What is the basis for the categories?
Now let’s think of specific people. What race is the current president of the United States? Barack Obama is commonly called the “first black president.” But he is equally Negroid and Caucasian. He is just as much “white” as he is “black.” To label him as a member of just the one and not the other is absurd.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Soldier Gods Redux

I wrote a weekly column for a local newspaper for three years (2007-2009). One of the most explosively controversial was entitled “Soldier Gods,” inspired by the furor surrounding the ad about “General Betray-us.” 
The online progressive group had placed a full-page ad in the New York Times in advance of General Petraeus’ testimony to Congress about the progress of the troop surge in Iraq. The ad’s headline read “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” The ad accused Petraeus of “cooking the books for the White House.” (You can’t find it at anymore, they removed the page after President Obama nominated Petraeus to be the top commander in Afghanistan, but here’s the Wikipedia link.)
In the column I questioned the wisdom of offering such deference to the military. One of the greatest strengths of America, I believe, is our ability to make fun of, satirize, and ridicule anyone and everyone without fear. No one is immune, from the president on down. Oh—wrong—everyone except the military.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Life Goes On

Just recently I saw a Robert Frost quote on a Quote of the Day site: “In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.”

This brought to mind an experience I had a number of years ago when I looked at a genealogy chart of my family. I was going through some trouble in my life (although now I can’t remember what it was!) and as I looked at the names, and their dates of birth and death, I thought, “these people went through crises like I’m going through now. They somehow resolved all the crises of their lives until they reached that final crisis, death, that has only one resolution.”

This realization has given me a lot of comfort ever since. Before, when I was in a crisis I would feel as if I were drowning; it felt like life couldn’t possibly go on because this crisis was too hard to solve. It was like a paralysis.

Now I think: it’s just another one of my crises, one in a series. It too will pass, like all the others, until I reach that final crisis in my life. Then I will pass, and that’s all right too, because that is also part of life going on.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Destroy My Enemy by Making him My Friend

When Homo sapiens evolved tens of thousands of years ago, we acquired the powerful skill of cooperation within our group. But a side effect was the belief that our group was special. We were The People (a common translation of group’s names for themselves all across the globe).  Other groups were The Other, and, by definition, less than/and or a threat to The People.  As a result we demonized all other groups and fought them when necessary. Over the millennia we have gotten extremely sophisticated in the arts of demonizing The Other as The Enemy. In addition we believe that our survival and, often, the future of the human race, depends on our vanquishing The Enemy.

As a modern example, what is the purpose of the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen if not to eliminate every single member of Al Qaeda?

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our wisest president, had an enlightened view on the idea of “enemy.” Dr. Scott Atran, an anthropologist who wrote a book called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists in 2010, told this story to Krista Tippett on her show “On Being”:

You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he's describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.

An elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln says to the woman, "Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" If you think about it, wars are truly won only in two ways. You either exterminate your enemy or you make them your friends. I think that we have not thought very deeply about the latter alternative, especially when I see how we're reacting to these young [potential Islamic terrorists] around the world.

Dr. Atran went on to discuss the transformative power of the Internet; how it is breaking down those ancient barriers of group and forging a new global identity.

I see the vast possibilities of this world, of a social brain. Just think about the networking possibilities of knowledge and access to knowledge that people have now. I mean, again, people now in New Guinea can link up with what people in New York are doing and work together with their different experiences and come up with new possibilities for human life. And this is happening at an incredibly fast rate and it's something that I don't think our traditional political establishments are at all capable of dealing with and I think there will be huge upheavals as a result, economic and social.

My favorite example of this transformation: watching a cat video on YouTube and realizing the language being spoken isn’t English…the Iranians and Japanese play with their cats just like we do. We are all members of one family, the human family.

[Krista Tippett, "On Being," “Demonstrations, Hopes and Dreams,” Feb 10, 2011.]

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's 2012 Win Bigger than 2008

I am so relieved this morning that Barack Obama has won re-election. From my perspective this is a bigger win for Obama and the liberals of this country than 2008. In that year the country was suffering from Bush fatigue, with a terrifying collapse of the economy added for good measure. And the Republican nominee for vice-president revealed herself to be absurdly unqualified (If you've forgotten, watch Game Change--it was actually worse than I knew at the time).

This time Obama had plenty of obstacles: high unemployment, a large part of his base were disappointed and ambivalent about voting (myself included), the Republicans were pushing voting rules all across the country that would suppress the liberal vote, and a torrent of dark money unleashed by Citizens United was aimed against him. No president since FDR has won re-election with unemployment so high. 2010 was a rout for the Democrats because disaffected liberals stayed home. 80% of the dark money in this election went to Republicans. And Obama won anyway, and not just in the electoral college. After all the votes are counted he should have a lead of a couple of percentage points in the popular vote. In addition, Democrats picked up seats in the Senate and even one in the House.

I voted because I thought the Republican Party needed to be punished for their obstructionism in the last four years and their attempts to prevent people from voting. Early reports seem to indicate that voting turnout was higher this year than in 2008, and I think this is because there were plenty of liberals like me who felt the right-wing could not be rewarded for their unpatriotic actions. I don't think the Republicans and FOX News were prepared for this liberal voter surge--they thought their base was more fired up.

I wrote an optimistic blog post in September saying that the American people were rejecting conservative ideology. After Obama's first debate performance and Romney's October surge I was afraid I had been wrong in my assessment. This morning I feel like I was vindicated in my optimism.

This country has changed. One look at the two campaign headquarters last night reflected another reason why the Democrats are winning. It was just like the conventions: the Chicago crowd was multicultural and young, while the Boston crowd was white and old. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post writes about the 1% crowd allowed in to Romney headquarters.

This isn't just a win for Obama. This is a huge win for our country.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Disasters Reveal Cooperation is Part of Human Nature

Whenever a natural disaster hits, like last week’s Hurricane Sandy, reporters love to find heart-warming stories of people helping strangers to balance out the heartbreak of loss. The reporters always speak as if this is an unusual form of human behavior brought out by special circumstances; the unspoken assumption is that ordinary human behavior is completely selfish.

For centuries now Western societies have believed that humans were basically evil: first the Christian dogma of original sin held sway, and for the last few hundred years philosophers and biologists have argued that the natural order, humans included, is all selfish competition: Nature is “red in tooth and claw” (from an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem).

This gloomy appraisal of nature is now being upended by scientists across a number of specialties. Biologists are discovering that cooperation and symbiotic relationships are common features of the natural order (watch an interview I did with a biologist discovering a symbiotic relationship between spiders and carnivorous pitcher plants).

E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, presents the idea that the reason humans have become the dominant animal on the planet is because we learned to cooperate.

Dr. Wilson is a specialist in ants, and he argues that the creatures who have learned to form cooperative societies are the masters of their ecological niche: “The twenty thousand known species of eusocial insects, mostly ants, bees, wasps, and termites, account for only 2 percent of the approximately one million known species of insects. Yet this tiny minority of species dominate the rest of the insects in their numbers, their weight, and their impact on the environment. As humans are to vertebrate animals, the eusocial insects are to the far vaster world of invertebrate animals. Among creatures larger than microorganisms and roundworms, eusocial insects are the little things that run the terrestrial world.”

At some point in the evolution of human beings, after we split off from chimpanzees, hominids started cooperating, as I wrote in an earlier post. Unlike ants, humans are not genetically identical within a colony. This means we have two opposing tendencies in our nature: selfish competition to ensure our genes survive combined with altruistic cooperation to ensure our group survives. The tension between these two tendencies creates what we call “human nature.” Dr. Wilson writes, “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature.” But this conflict is what has made us so successful in our evolution.

Dr. Wilson cites research by Michael Tomasello (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) that points out “that the primary difference between human cognition and that of other animal species, including our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, is the ability to collaborate for the purpose of achieving shared goals and intentions. The human specialty is intentionality, fashioned from an extremely large working memory.” We not only express our own intentions, we can read other’s intentions relatively easily. “From infancy we are predisposed to read the intention of others, and quick to cooperate if there is even a trace of shared interest. In one revealing experiment, children were shown how to open the door to a container. When adults tried to open the door but pretended not to know how, the children stopped what they were doing and crossed the room to help. Chimpanzees put in the same circumstance, but far less advanced in cooperative awareness, made no such effort.”
Dr. Tomasello concludes in this essay on his book Why We Cooperate, “It seems that Rousseau, not Hobbes, was right in the first place: humans are born helpful, or at least they become so very early in development before much active socialization and teaching has taken place.”
American culture is built on the idea of the self-sufficient individual—the pioneer family making it on their own, the cowboy riding the range alone. What would our culture look like if we celebrated our cooperative nature as much as our competitive nature? I found an essay online that spoke very well to this idea:

We don't talk about a desire to do a thing well for its own sake.  We don't talk about the incentives of achievement.  For example, would a manufacturer work to make a better product if there were public awards for such craftsmanship?  Would there be an incentive if the competition were non-destructive. . . if the goal were to make the best and be recognized rather than to make the better and kill the competitor's business?  We don't talk about how well the public can be served by unified objectives, where all work toward a common goal and divide labor in a sane manner.  Within companies, teams are brought together with planning to get to a single goal, and this works very well.  Why can't this happen between businesses?  It worked well for the Apollo project. 

Humans learned to overcome the deeply embedded instinct of selfishness over a hundred thousand years ago. I think we are up to the challenge of changing our culture today.

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.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

American People Rejecting Conservative Ideology

I have been feeling so optimistic in the weeks since the political conventions as President Obama has pulled away from Mitt Romney in the polls. The reason I'm feeling this way is because that tells me the American people are waking up; they have taken a look at the radicalism of today's Republican Party and they are saying NO.

When the Tea Party won big in 2010 they got cocky and strutted their stuff on the national stage. They pushed the Republican presidential candidates to take extreme positions; Mitt Romney has not been able to recover and "pivot to the center" like most candidates do.

The 99% meme introduced by the Occupy Wall Street movement somewhat penetrated the nation's consciousness, but I think Romney's 47% comments (particularly the line that people in that group aren't responsible for their lives) really pushed the American people into a new awareness that there is something very wrong with our society.

This election was supposed to be an easy win for a Republican--the pundits have talked endlessly about how no incumbent has ever won re-election with an economy this bad. But it's starting to look like this election could be a landslide for Obama. And, in my mind, the major reason this will happen is that the American people are rejecting conservative ideology.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Three Stooges History Lesson

I recently watched “Cash and Carry,” a Three Stooges film from 1937, and was surprised by its political message. The Stooges live in a city dump (which alone makes this short worth watching—the trash is almost all tin cans with a few tires and some broken wagon wheels). After an absence they return home to find a teen-age girl and her little brother, who has one leg in a brace, living in the Stooges’ shack at the back of the dump.

The Stooges dig around in the trash and find money in a tin can. When they find out it’s what the girl has been saving for the boy’s leg operation, the Stooges say they’ll put it in a safer place—a bank—and the boy asks “But will they give it back to us?” Curly replies, “Oh sure, they didn’t used to but now they do.” This is clearly a reference to the bank runs of the early 1930’s before the FDIC was created by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. At that time if a bank run happened and the bank closed you lost whatever money you had deposited (hence the panic that caused bank runs).

When the Stooges go to a bank they discover it would take 100 years to “grow” the money from the $62 they have to the $500 needed for the operation, so as they leave a couple of con men grab them and promise they will take them to a place where treasure is buried.

They’re dropped off at a nice home and the Stooges proceed to tear it up. When they’re digging in the basement they end up breaking into the U.S. Treasury vault. They’re caught as they attempt to leave with gold bars and bags of bills. The last scene shows the Stooges and the girl and her brother in the Oval Office with President Roosevelt. The President says he will make sure the boy gets his operation and will extend executive clemency to the Stooges. Of course Curly misunderstands and says “No way!” so Moe bops him on the head and explains that means they’re free. Curly turns toward FDR and says, “Gee Mr. President, you’re a swell guy!” and Moe adds, “You said it,” as all three look gratefully towards the president.

People today take the protections provided by the federal government so for granted. That’s why it’s easy for conservatives to make the argument that federal regulations hurt the economy. The Three Stooges provide a pleasant history lesson.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Act Don't Occupy

Today is Occupy Wall Street’s one-year anniversary. There are some protests in cities around the country today but it’s obvious this movement has died.

I think it failed because OWS became all about people camping out in city squares and fighting for the right to squat on public property. It looked like the activists just wanted to bring the country and the economy to a standstill. It appeared to promise only chaos and anarchy and destruction. No wonder most people rejected it.

What we need is for the people of this country to wake up and remake our political system with a new consciousness. And at the same time bring this new consciousness into our local business community, town by town. I feel like that is what many people are doing in many cities around the nation, including where I live (Asheville, NC).

I marked OWS’s anniversary by contributing to a local group who are acting, not occupying: an anarchist collective that runs a café called Firestorm Café and Books. They are financing a renovation by putting out “bonds” that will return 10% on your investment in a couple of months (in the form of a gift certificate).

Friday, September 14, 2012

Republicans Think They are the Only Legitimate Party

In my last post I discussed my theory that many members of today's Republican Party think theirs is the only legitimate political party. I read a couple of things today that just added weight to the theory.

First: Tom Toles is my favorite editorial cartoonist, and his blog posts are almost as good as his cartoons. In today's "Friday rant" he says he is gasping with dismay at the incredible attacks by Republicans against Obama:

They really DON’T consider him [Obama] qualified to be president, and if it’s not a made-up story about his birth-certificate, or a made up story about his religion, a made-up story about him “apologizing for American values” will do. Anything will do, because the conclusion comes first, then the mis-reasoning.
This is nearly terrifying. This is a rip in the fabric of who we are as a society. Because here’s why. If they hate Obama that much, and don’t respect the minimum standards of recognizing his legitimacy, then what about the half (or more) of the country who will vote for Obama in November? They hate you too, and they don’t respect your legitimacy either. Take a look down THAT road and see what you see.
Second: the Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, is considering removing Barack Obama from the state's ballots because he "lacked sufficient evidence about his birth certificate." This is completely insane.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Politics Isn't a Blood Sport

Bill Clinton gave an awesome speech at the Democratic National Convention. There was plenty of powerful material in there, but one phrase in particular stood out to me: "Politics isn't a blood sport."

I think this speaks to what is wrong with the Republican Party—and this isn’t something that has just happened in the last few years during the TeaParty-ization of the party. Clinton praised Obama for being committed to “constructive cooperation.” He cited as examples the fact that Obama brought into his administration Republicans (Secretary of Defense, Army and Transportation) and two former opponents from the 2008 Democratic primaries (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden). Clinton went on to say: 
And the signal that sends to the rest of the world, that democracy does not have a -- have to be a blood sport, it can be an honorable enterprise that advances the public interest.
It’s obvious from the Republicans’ actions in the last three-and-a-half years that they no longer believe in constructive cooperation, but people act like this is something new. However, there is an ugly side to the right-wing that has existed for a long time. In fact, I think there is a large contingent in the right-wing who believe that only Republicans should be in the White House.

When Bill Clinton took office in 1992, conservatives immediately went into attack mode, devoting enormous resources in the attempt to discover anything, no matter how insignificant, they could use to discredit Clinton enough to defeat him in 1996.

When the election of 2000 was being disputed in Florida, mobs gathered outside the Vice-presidential residence in Washington, D.C. (where Al Gore and family were living) yelling, “Get out of Cheney’s house!”

The attempts to delegitimize Barack Obama are legion, and I don’t think it is all about race. It also stems from this underlying belief that the White House belongs to Republicans, and any Democrat who has the temerity to be elected is, by virtue of being a Democrat, an illegitimate president.

This is the thinking of authoritarianism: there is one legitimate political entity. It is very dangerous for the future of our country.