Why Walls?

walls

All the talk about building that wall along the border between my home state of Texas and our neighbor to the south made me more than a little curious about who else around the world has built (or may plan to build) a wall. It’s an informative list. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_barrier )

Of 30 countries listed in the Wikipedia article (which may or may not be complete or accurate), only seven of the walls were built before 2000 and only four predate 1990. Prior to that date, the only border walls noted were between China and Hong Kong, between North and South Korea, between Egypt and Gaza, and between South Africa and Mozambique. There also used to be one between East and West Berlin in Germany, but that one’s history. (A history we should study, BTW.)

South Africa has subsequently built additional walls on its borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe, making it one of the most walled-in countries in the world. The second most walled-in is Uzbekistan, which has built border fences with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has barricaded itself from both Yemen and Iraq. India has a wall along its border with Kashmir.

In Europe, a barrier separating Spain from Morocco was built in 2001 (an earlier section was built in 1998) and walls or fences have recently gone up between Bulgaria and Turkey (2014), between Macedonia and Greece (2015) and between Hungary and both Serbia and Croatia (2015).

Walls are currently under construction in eight more locations and are proposed for an additional six. India is fortifying its borders with both Bangladesh and Burma. The other walls being built separate Argentina from Paraguay, China from Korea, Iran from Pakistan, Slovenia from Croatia, Ukraine from Russia, and the United Arab Republic from Oman.

Further walls are proposed between Belize and Guatemala, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, between Estonia and Russia, between Malaysia and Thailand, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And then, of course, there’s the one between Mexico and the USA, small sections of which already exist.

Why all this 21st-century wall-building? Of the 30 walls existing, under construction, or proposed, fully 25 of them are being built at least in part to curb “illegal immigration”. Eight instances are intended to inhibit smuggling, seven are built in (or define) conflict zones or “disputed territory”, and four are construed as “anti-terrorism” barriers.

Now it’s time for the anthropologist to make a couple of observations. First, I would point out that there are more people alive today than at any time in the past. Why does nobody talk about overpopulation anymore? Second, we need to talk about the fact that human beings have never been as fixed in place as most of our high school history and social science texts would lead you to believe.

Overpopulation

When I Googled “overpopulation” I got five options – definition, myth, problems, facts, and “in china”. This last entry is about China’s well known one-child policy and we’re going to leave that aside for our purposes here (although I will note that the policy has recently been abandoned).

The definition of overpopulation is this: “excessive population of an area to the point of overcrowding, depletion of natural resources, or environmental deterioration.” This is the standard applied to all species, not just humans.

As for the “myth”, this refers to the complexities of applying the above standard definition of overpopulation to a cultural, social, technology-enabled creature like Homo sapiens. The disturbing idea that there could be some natural limit to human population constituted by the carrying capacity of planet earth was designated a “myth” sometime in the mid-20th century and the declaration made that there really is no such thing as overpopulation for us. This arose in the heyday of our faith in science and technology and human creativity and was touted as recently as 2013 in the opinion pages of the New York Times.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/overpopulation-is-not-the-problem.html )

Ongoing research into climate change and other forms of human destruction of our planet and its resources calls this optimistic myth-busting faith in human capability into question. Or maybe it’s becoming not so much a question of “can we” continue to support a burgeoning human population, but rather “will we”. When we deny the admonitions of climate scientists to rein in our carbon-transforming ways and refuse to change our high-consuming habits, we are clearly not living up to our potential and may be producing the very overpopulation that scientists have for several decades now told us we didn’t need to worry about. Rachel Carson’s 1960s classic Silent Spring has suddenly become a bestseller again on Amazon, recently grabbing #1 in environmental books. Climate refugees are a reality – people fleeing lands that no longer produce a livelihood – and nations become more possessive and defensive about their own resources. We increasingly perceive a limited-sum game and immigrants are no longer resources who can potentially make our nation stronger. Rather, they are “taking our jobs” and otherwise straining the limited resources of our nations.

You want some facts? Consider that between 1999 and 2011, global population increased by a billion people. That’s a lot of strain on human ingenuity. Furthermore, our population continues to grow by more than 3,000 hungry mouths every twenty minutes. Just this past week, the United Nations declared a state of famine in South Sudan. Clearly, our human creativity and engineering potential are struggling. It’s also worth pointing out that these 3,000 new people per day hunger not merely for food and clean water but also for cars and air conditioning and cell phones. (SOURCE: http://www.postconsumers.com/education/10-facts-overpopulation/)

Human Migration

When I taught cultural anthropology, one of the most stubborn misperceptions of my students was the idea that there were great benefits to humans “settling down” during the Neolithic farming revolution and even that humans would have found it a great relief to do so! First of all, I would explain, the initial stages of living in the same place year-round would have meant a less varied diet (relying on a limited range of crops) and a much less hygienic environment (living in the midst of your own waste is not so pleasant). Archaeological data support this hypothesis that the earliest farmers were less healthy than hunters and gatherers in a strong environment. Furthermore, how can you argue that humans are naturally sedentary in light of our thriving tourism industry? We love moving about! And the archaeological record clearly shows that we have always done so.

We also tend to have these crazy ideas about European countries being somehow ethnically homogeneous entities. To begin with, most European countries encompass relatively small territories. France is comprised not merely of French, but also of Flemish, Alsatians, Jurassians, Bretons, and Occitanae, all speaking distinct languages. Spain, too, has its Basques, Catalonians and Galicians, in addition to its Spaniards. Add to this the shifting boundaries through history and you begin to get the point, which is that national boundaries have always been artificial and the notion that they enclose “a nation” is a tribal myth.

Humanity is diverse and always on the move. Our numbers are inexorably increasing. In our eagerness to incorporate “primitive” peoples into the world economy, we induced them to give up subsistence farming and plant cash crops. In many places those crops have led to more rapid deterioration of farmland and we now berate these same people for their inability to “feed themselves”. The global competition for resources – led by the richest and most powerful nations – contributes to conflict and political unrest on almost every continent. It is no wonder that desperate people are fleeing their failing and conflict-ridden homelands in record numbers.

Because population increase continues apace and because our drive for survival always outweighs any sense of rootedness in a home territory, the flood of refugees and migrants worldwide will only grow. The 21st-century phenomenon of wall-building is rooted in the growing suspicion that there really may not be enough for all of us.

Walls are not going to fix anything.

Advertisements

Divided We Fall

What Have We Built?

What Have We Built? (24 x 24, $450)

The country of my birth (and the birth of at least five generations of my direct forebears) is more deeply divided now than it’s been since the Civil War. And the most dangerous thing about today’s division is that a large group of our citizens find themselves utterly beyond the reach of fact and reason. They have succumbed to the insidious belief that belief is all that matters, that all facts are relative and that science is an anti-religious plot. They have elected as their standard-bearer a reality show star with dubious business credentials and they cheer shamelessly at his invective-laden lies du jour and eagerly transmit fake news created by amoral entrepreneurs and Russian operatives who have never believed in the American version of democracy and who are now undoubtedly wriggling with delight at its demise.

How did we come to this? It hasn’t happened overnight. We’ve seen it coming (or should have) for a long time, primarily in our schools, in our courts of law, and in our newspapers.

In our schools, teachers became too timid to speak with conviction about the scientific facts of climate and evolution. They accepted bullshit as a “science project” and rewarded pretty presentations more highly than ragged attempts to grapple with truth. Schools backed off too readily when parents objected to particular literary works or found new historical research findings incompatible with what they were taught when they were in school. And if the teachers were resistant (and many, God bless them, were) then the science deniers and history skeptics took control of school boards and pushed their agenda harder.

In our courts, lawyers increasingly found it easier to plant seeds of doubt rather than assemble hard evidence to support their cases. Discrediting opponents via query and innuendo and disputing their stories via hand-picked “experts” who could be relied on to say what was needed became accepted practice. Lawyers became adept at obfuscating the very nature of facts and truth and were highly rewarded for their skill.

In our newspapers, editors tried too hard to provide “balanced” coverage and thereby led readers to believe that points of view with no basis in fact or logic had equal merit with the views of highly educated and experienced professionals, people who had dedicated their lives to investigating the subjects in question. As the digital age impinged upon journalism, selling papers or garnering viewers and clicks became more and more challenging and a hot story became more important than in-depth coverage. They printed or broadcast anything anyone in the public eye said and rarely bothered to follow up with fact-checking. As long as they had a source on the record, they put it out there for the public to consume.

So here we are, weeks away from the official launch of the Trumpocracy.

I don’t know where we go from here. What I do know is that we must stay focused on verifiable fact, sound logic, and reasoned argument and that we must do that because that is who we are. We are people who cannot give in to the desire to fight bias with bias. We are well aware that those on the other side cannot be swayed by fact, logic, and reason. Nonetheless, we soldier on, speaking truth, marshaling facts, reasoning logically, and knowing that we don’t stand a chance unless we know precisely where we stand: We do not stand united.

What To Do?

nocheerful

Lately I find myself remembering a particularly volatile time we went through at the University where I used to work. Things got extremely political and there was a lot of hateful talk and distrust. Some of us prided ourselves on our activism and clever words. We became distracted and self-important. Others just hunkered down and did what they needed to do to advance the actual work of their departments and their students. When the shit-storm finally passed, guess who came out on top?

So now, in the context of a much bigger shit-storm, I think it’s time to consider what kinds of words and actions are useful and which ones are just making us “feel better”. Here’s a short (and unquestionably preliminary) list.

  • First, consider the things that have no substantive effect:
    • “Liking” and “reacting” to posts on Facebook and re-Tweeting stuff.
    • Sharing anything that comes from blatantly partisan pages and websites.
    • Embedding ourselves in an echo chamber where we hear words and words and more angry words from people who think exactly as we do.
    • Signing every online petition that comes along.
    • Posting on Facebook that we’re praying about it.
    • Protests that are only opportunities to vent. If there is no clear intent, demand, or message, then it’s probably a waste of time.
    • Buying and wearing T-shirts with pictures of Bernie that say “Hindsight – 2020”. Or similar. (I just really liked that one.)

I’m not saying not to do these things – just don’t fool yourself into believing they actually help. Also, I’m not saying that feeling better is of no value. Certainly supporting one another (for example, on Pantsuit Nation) and offering words of encouragement and solidarity are important things. It’s just that it’s not enough.

  • Now here’s a to-do list of a few things that might actually help:
    • Be well informed. This means reading – all the way to the end – well researched pieces from actual experts and real journalists. Sharing these is also useful. Everything else on this list follows from being well informed.
    • Get involved in activities and organizations that promote and protect the people and activities that are currently threatened. And by “involved”, I mean volunteering and actually DOING something.
    • Pay attention to local politics and show up to meetings and events that can have an impact on community policies and decisions.
    • Allocate resources to organizations that are having an impact. But never, never feel that giving money is enough.
    • Reassess the values you promote in your own work and lifestyle and stay aware of how this impacts the bigger picture.
    • Refuse to be distracted. Stay focused.
    • Live your life as if the world you believe in actually exists.

I’m sure there are lots of other things that could be added to both lists and I encourage comments. Yes, writing this made me feel better. Now to get busy and do something that might actually help.

Same and Different

CB017727

As I continue to read all the words flowing forth from both the wise and the foolish in the aftermath of Orlando, I keep pondering, “What can we do to prevent such a thing happening again?” Yes, we definitely need to do something about the ready availability of such powerful tools of death as were used in this instance. I applaud the efforts of the Senators (not mine – I’m from Texas) filibustering to compel their colleagues at long last into action. But we also need to do something about the hate that fueled this particular outrage – the hate directed against, as it’s often put, people who are “different”.

What does that word even mean these days? Different? Different from what? Just as humans don’t inhabit skins of a limited number of colors – black, brown, white, yellow – but instead come in a marvelous gradation of every color and combination, we also don’t come in only two genders. This realization shouldn’t come as a surprise; human cultures around the world have made room for these non-binary gradations in gender and sexuality for centuries.

In order to combat the hate coming from the stubborn gender dualists out there, we need a new and empowering alliance of all people who want to challenge such stifling gender definitions. We need to come together as LGBTQ folks and cis-gender feminists and men who are weary of the old macho mentality. We need to embrace one another as members of one incredibly diverse and beautiful array of human possibilities.

In a sense we’re all different. And all the same, all beautiful manifestations of exactly what it means to be human. We need each other in order to know, experience, and understand the full reach of our humanity.

Be the rainbow, y’all!

“This Changes Everything?”

Aug. 1, 1966: A man with a gun shot and killed 16 people from a university tower at the University of Texas in Austin before being shot by police.

Maybe we should change some things.

July 18, 1984: A man with a gun killed 21 adults and children at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., before being killed by police.

Surely, there are things that should change.

Aug. 20, 1986: A part-time mail carrier with a gun killed 14 postal workers in Edmund, Okla., before killing himself.

This should change things.

Oct. 16, 1991: A man crashed his pickup through the wall of Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. With his gun, he shot and killed 23 people before committing suicide.

Would this change things?

April 16, 2007: A student with a gun went on a shooting spree at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., killing 32 people, before killing himself.

Certainly this will change everything.

Nov. 5, 2009:  A man with a gun killed 13 people and injured 30 others at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas.

Things have to change.

July 20, 2012: A man with a gun killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

This has to change everything.

Dec. 14, 2012: A man with a gun killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself.

Now. Now this will change everything.

Sept. 16, 2013: A man with a gun killed 12 people and injured three others at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C. He was later killed by police.

Will things ever change?

June 18, 2015: A man with a gun killed nine people at a weekly Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The dead included the pastor Clementa Pinckney; a 10th victim survived. The suspect said he wanted to start a race war.

This is it. This is the one that will change everything.

July 16, 2015:  A man with a gun opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn. The first was a drive-by shooting at a recruiting center; the second was at a U.S. Navy Reserve center. Four Marines and a Navy sailor died; a Marine recruit officer and a police offer were wounded. The shooter was killed by police in a gunfight.

Nothing has changed.

Oct. 1, 2015: A man with a gun killed an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Ore. After a shootout with police, he committed suicide.

Nothing has changed.

Nov. 27, 2015: A man with a gun attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., killing a police officer and two civilians and injuring nine others. The shooter was taken into custody after a five-hour standoff and charged with first-degree murder.

Nothing has changed.

Dec. 2, 2015: A married couple with guns opened fire at a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party, killing 14 people and injuring 22 in a matter of minutes.

Nothing has changed.

June 12, 2016: At least fifty people dead in a shooting at a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Where Are You From?

"Trying To Blend In" 8 x 10 framed, $300

“Trying To Blend In” 8 x 10 framed, $300

My collegiate study abroad was the summer of 1969 at the University of Graz, Austria. There I met two women – mother and daughter – and when I asked them that time-worn, tedious question “Where are you from?” they looked confused. I believe they were originally from Bulgaria, but due to politics and undisclosed personal matters, they were officially stateless, traveling around Europe on United Nations passports.

“How marvelous!” I thought at the time. “How liberating to not be tethered to one country and one identity, to be free to move about the world unburdened by someone else’s prejudices about your origins!” I didn’t discuss this with the mother and daughter, though now I fervently wish I had.

I’ve developed some new perspective on this question of stateless persons over the years and especially during the past year as I’ve watched political turmoil and violence turning people loose in the world with nowhere to go, nowhere to belong, nowhere to call home. We call them refugees or, more politely, migrants.

The world appears to be increasingly full of such people, the effluent of conflict and economic catastrophe. Just yesterday I read an article about Nepal, where children born of a Nepali mother and a foreign father cannot claim Nepali citizenship except through a difficult and highly uncertain political process. Without their official citizenship certificates these people “cannot vote, open a bank account, sit for many official examinations, register the birth of a child, buy or sell property, get a passport, or even obtain a mobile SIM card.” They are effectively stateless persons.

Instead of loosening the restrictions of social and political participation, we appear to be getting more and more chary about according citizenship and belonging to our fellow human beings. My youthful infatuation with the notion of global citizenship, one planetary society, was naïve. Although we may be annoyed when people ask the question, we all want to be from somewhere that loves us.

Read more from Donna Dechen Birdwell.

Report From the Writer’s Desk

IMG_1059

It’s been a busy six weeks! My last post was about the Texas Writers’ League conference at the end of June. From there I headed off to Belize to revise the first half of my next novel – THE FOURTH TIME – in the environment where the story takes place. Arriving back home, I finished that round of revisions and have now sent the manuscript out to three beta reviewers for critical comment. While I wait to hear from them, I continue writing the first draft of FLIGHT OF THE OWL, which is the sequel to WAY OF THE SERPENT. I am now a bit more than 40,000 words into that one and – so exciting! – I know how it ends. At least, I think I do!

WAY OF THE SERPENT is now available at two local independent bookstores – Bookwoman on North Lamar and Malvern Books on West 29th Street.

I got my first check from my print-on-demand paperback publisher, CreateSpace, and it looks like my book is doing pretty well on Kindle. I only have three Amazon reviews so far, but all three make me smile.

Today I’m headed off to another fun afternoon of Austin Writers’ Roulette with the incomparable Teresa Roberson, where I’ll be reading a piece of flash fiction, “A Tale of the Timecrypters.” (I’ll tell you a secret: The Timecrypters were dreamed up by the sci-fi novelist husband of my protagonist in THE FOURTH TIME. This is the only story he’s shared with me so far!)

Thursday evening at 7, I’m doing “Novel Night” at Malvern Books, reading from WAY OF THE SERPENT and answering questions from the audience. I’ll be sharing the stage with Steven Metze, author of THE ZOMBIE MONOLOGUES.

Final note:  Just for fun, I placed a copy of WAY OF THE SERPENT in one of those little roadside lending libraries in my neighborhood. I dedicated it to “my Hyde Park neighbors”, signed it, and asked that it be shared forward. I also circled my email address in the back. It would be so excellent to hear from someone who reads this copy of my book!

Writers’ Conference Takeaway

"Overwhelmed" 18 x 18

“Overwhelmed” 18 x 18

I spent the past weekend immersed in a rather wonderful “agents and editors conference” put on by   Writers’ League of Texas   in Austin.  I’m a newcomer to this whole writing and publishing game, so I was eager to learn, excited about pitching to an agent face-to-face, curious to see what other writers are up to and what they have to say about what we do. I was looking for insight on how to plot my course forward as I nurture my first self-published novel and ready the next one for its eventual debut in print.

Here is what I think I learned from my colleagues and the gatekeepers of our profession:

Although there are many paths forward, there seem to be two disparate directions the novice writer might take. One I would call the “path of honor”. This path is pursued by submitting material for contests and literary journals, striving to accrue accolades from the anointed and an eventual place within a “big house”. The other is the “path of material reward” – marketing the hell out of deliberately marketable stories and raking in the dollars from an adoring public, keeping them salivating for more. However much we wish to believe in a convergence of these paths, it’s rare. Exceptionally rare. I met successful and talented writers on both trajectories and I maintain deep respect for their personal choices, diligence, artistry, and generosity in sharing stories from their respective paths.

I’m not sure either of these distinct directions is for me. I’m an independent at heart, happiest when I’m doing my own thing. I don’t care much for either accolades or material reward. I want readers. I want to reach people who want to think about and talk about the things my stories are about. And I believe stories always have to be about more than a sequence of events. As an artist, I finally had to accept the label of “conceptual artist”, however uncool that may be. I’m also a conceptual writer.

I come away from the conference still uncertain of my path forward. If I found the “right” agent, could I be happy on that path? If I could tap into and inspire the “right” audience, would I be willing to market to them in order to keep them as fans?

TO BE CONTINUED…

Published!

IMG_0854

Yesterday was euphoric. My first novel, WAY OF THE SERPENT, was published and I held in my hands an actual book that I had written. I’ve published before, but all of that had been rigidly academic work. This was different. This is a story I conceived, wrote, edited, and published.

What is it about?  WAY OF THE SERPENT is speculative fiction, set in a 22nd-century world where no one gets old and where the corporations control everything, including your personal memories. It’s about one woman’s quest for a lost year and a lost identity. The story moves from Dallas, to Mexico, to Argentina, to Costa Rica. It’s a love story, too, and it plays with the nature of human connection – to one another and to our material possessions – and the importance of shared stories.

I hope you and your friends will read it. It’s available on Amazon as both paperback and Kindle eBook.  I hope there are ideas in it that you will want to talk about. And please, let me know what you think!

Contagious

WAY blogpost

 

Reading the news over the past months about the Ebola virus, I can’t help but identify even more strongly with the predicament of my protagonist in Way of the Serpent. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Jenda Swain’s flight from Costa Rica arrived at the Dallas airport right on time.  Jenda was surprised to see how crowded the international terminal was. “I wonder what the holdup is?” she asked herself. And then she almost panicked; what if the international corporate police had caught wind of their plan and were searching bags? “It’s okay,” she told herself, “as long as you stay calm and don’t attract attention.” As she got nearer the gateways, Jenda saw that they were not inspecting bags, but rather scanning people with an infrared device. She felt relieved. “Do you know what’s going on?” She was now relaxed enough to speak to one of her companions in the slow moving queue.

“It’s the IHA – that blood disease, the hemolytic anemia. Well, I think they’re calling it VHA now that they know it’s a virus. It’s been spreading like wildfire. How long have you been out of the country anyway?” her companion responded.

“I didn’t think it was contagious,” Jenda said, “Why are they screening us?”

“Well, now they know it is contagious,” the man replied, “although they’re still a long way from understanding how to deal with the virus that’s causing it. Lots of cases in Mexico and Guatemala, so all passengers from anywhere in Central America are getting screened.”

Jenda thanked her fellow traveler for the information. “Well, here’s something else I could worry about,” she said to herself, “but let’s just say I choose not to.”

When Jenda finally passed through the screening device, she noticed that several people had been pulled aside and equipped with face masks. A gloved and masked physician wearing a Pharmakon uniform was speaking with them. “I am not going to worry about this!” Jenda told herself again.

Riding in the autocar back to her apartment, Jenda gave her grandmother a call.

“Oh, I’m so glad to hear your voice,” Granny El said. “I’ve been worried about you, you know, what with this VHA thing beginning to get all out of hand. At least I was glad you were in Argentina rather than Central America – it’s really getting bad there!” Not worrying about viral hemolytic anemia was getting harder for Jenda.

WATCH FOR publication of Way of the Serpent on Amazon in early 2015!