Remembering Loss

A writer I follow on Twitter made the point that Memorial Day is not a day for calling up your military vet friends to thank them for their service, but rather a day for remembering those who died in service to our country.
Technically, she’s right, of course. But I think maybe it’s both.
I think it’s also a day for remembering all of our returned vets who have committed suicide and those who continue to do so with alarming regularity.
I think it’s a day for remembering homeless vets.
I think it’s a day for remembering the dreams that died on the battlefield with lost limbs and lost sanity.
I’m especially vulnerable to such sentiments this year because my next novel delves into these issues and especially into the legacy of family hardship that follows along with them.
I honor those who have given of themselves in honorable service. But I also hope for a day when we no longer sacrifice our young men and women’s lives and limbs and dreams in the service of ill-advised wars and interminable conflicts.

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Three Books for Our Time

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The three books I’ve read most recently seem to follow a theme. Maybe you’ll see it and maybe you won’t.

The first of the trio was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, a best-selling Oprah’s choice story about America’s most tortured long-term immigrants, those brought from Africa against their will, still struggling to claim their place in the 21st century. Second was Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home, a delicately textured tale of the many facets of the lives of several generations of Mexican immigrants. Third was Chaitali Sen’s The Pathless Sky, set in an unnamed country that might be Lebanon, a love story fraught with intergenerational responsibility and guilt and political conflict.

These are stories about how people struggle to build lives for themselves amid circumstances they cannot control – slavery, racism, poverty, violence, migration, and political turmoil. There are a thousand stories like these being lived out by real people every day and every day we sigh and turn our backs and say if only things were different. Every day people are leaving homes and families, going to prison or to foreign lands where they are treated like criminals or live in the shadows. They leave behind parents and lovers and childhoods and dreams. They go in search of happiness, just a little bit of happiness, just a little something salvaged from a bittersweet past, a little something to offer their children.

I strongly recommend all three of these books. Read them in any order you like. It’s a repeating cycle.

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 – dominated 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. And it is equally understandable that they head for the resource rich, resource-hoarding nations.

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.

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?

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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.

Morning. After.

"Discouraged" 8 x 8 shadowbox

“Discouraged” 8 x 8 shadowbox

11/11/2016
Early morning walk.
I greet my neighbors.
“Morning,” I say in passing.
I can’t yet say “Good morning.”
It isn’t good.
And it won’t be good
Until
Everyone can feel as safe as I do
Walking through their neighborhood.
And mine.
Until the woman in the headscarf,
The youth in the black hoodie,
The man who is fluent in Spanish,
The lady in the wheelchair,
Until all of us can be safe.

Safe when we roll down the car window
For the policeman who pulled us over.
Safe when we put our arms around
The one we love
Right out there in public
No matter who it is we love.
Safe when we speak a language
Other than English
Or English with our parents’ accent.
Safe when our disability means
Maybe we take a little longer at the ATM.
Safe when we’re the only woman on the bus.
Safe when our visa has expired and we’re
Too scared to go back to our broken country.

I want to know what it’s like to be you.
I can put on a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt
And experience the hateful stares and scoffing comments.
But I can also take it off.
It doesn’t tell me how you feel every day
Walking around in the skin you were born with.
I can speak Spanish with my friends
But no one assumes I don’t speak English.
I can wear a headscarf like I did on cold, windy days
When I was a girl. We all did that.
No one would assume I was a terrorist.

I don’t ask that we always be comfortable.
Only safe.
Because safe is really important.

I have done nothing to deserve my privilege.
You have done nothing to deserve less.
Someday I will go for my morning walk
And say “Good morning!” to everyone I meet
And mean it
And know it is also a good morning
For you.
Until then
We have work to do.
Please, can we do it together?

Privilege

“For those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I don’t know who said this first, but the words keep coming to my mind as an appropriate response to posts and comments all over social media’s political spectrum. People are saying all kinds of horrible things to one another because they’re hurting, and in many cases they’re hurting because they’ve lost some kind of privilege and they resent it. It got me to thinking about what kinds of privilege we – various ones of us – have become accustomed to. Here’s a quick checklist:

  • White privilege. This is universally apparent to people of color but often elusive to white people themselves. Ourselves. Some white people like to claim being “color blind” and to not notice color. This has no impact on privilege. Others readily make the leap from embracing white privilege to claiming white supremacy. (As an anthropologist, I could go on for pages and pages about the irrelevance of “race” to the human genome although not to the human experience. But that’s not what this post is about.)
  • Male privilege. This has been eroding away for decades. Is it any wonder many men are all too ready to follow the lead of a swaggering “alpha” male who exemplifies all the benefits of privilege they feel they’ve lost? A lot of women – perhaps fearful of being labeled a feminazi – still believe in male privilege, too, identifying with the sexy helpmate image the males assign them and seeking out the most swaggering domineering males they can find. It makes them feel protected or something.
  • Christian privilege. Suddenly there are Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists openly practicing their faith, openly not being Christian. Christians are horrified. Isn’t America “supposed” to be a Christian nation?
  • Marketplace privilege. Protected industries like oil or coal or manufacturing fall victim to “green” industries, robots, and offshoring, and people whose jobs and family history are tied to those industries feel robbed. They still work hard or are willing to if given the chance. They want to know who took their jobs, the jobs they thought they were entitled to.

As privilege erodes, those who have enjoyed the benefits of privilege feel deprived, hard-done-by, oppressed. Worse than that, though, is when people tell you you’re in one or more privileged category – white Christian male working in the oil patch, for example – and your life still sucks. These are Trump’s people. They want the privilege they were promised but never got. They want to “Make America Great Again”. Like it never was for them.

REVIEW: The Association of Small Bombs

smallbombsI don’t do book reviews very often, but I’m making an exception.  That’s because Karan Mahajan’s THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS is hands-down one of the most important books I’ve read in a long while. It begins with an act of terror – the explosion of a small bomb in an ordinary marketplace in Delhi – and follows the reverberations of the event backward and forward in time in the lives of both victims and perpetrators, exploring the unexpected yet inevitable interconnections and ultimately explaining better than I would have thought anyone could exactly what this thing called terrorism is all about. “You turn into what you hate,” one of the characters observes. I’m afraid he may be right.

Same and Different

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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.