Experiencing Racism

Somebody on Twitter asked: “Have you ever experienced racism? Tell us your story.”

There are two ways to experience racism: As a victim and as a beneficiary. I have experienced racism as a beneficiary. It’s called “white privilege.”

And the more I observe the victims of racism, the more undeserving I feel of its benefits.

I am no more deserving than my black brothers and sisters of being able to walk (or jog) down the street without being harassed.

I am no more deserving than black Americans to feel only mildly annoyed when a cop pulls me over on the highways or city streets.

I am no more deserving than they are of living in a comfortable home in a “safe” neighborhood.

I am no more deserving than they are of being able to watch birds in a city park without others feeling threatened by my presence.

It’s been said that America will never truly rise to greatness until we undergo the genuine soul-searching and structural realignments demanded by “truth and reconciliation.” This week I’ve seen a lot of people encountering some big truths about America and who we have been (and still are) as a racially divided nation. There’s a lot more to come. And the reconciliation will never come without uncovering all of the shameful truths about our nation’s history and about how I and others like me have benefitted while others suffered.

It’s time.

You might also want to read my previous post, “This is Not a White Country.” Or this broader take on the notion of “Privilege.

1960s Déjà Vu

A protester carries a U.S. flag upside, a sign of distress, next to a burning building Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

I got up this morning experiencing a sense of déjà vu that sent me looking for my bound volume of all the campus newspapers from my senior year in college—1969-1970. I was editor-in-chief that year, so there’s a lot of me on those pages, from editorial decisions about what got covered and what went on the front page to editorial statements (many, in retrospect, rather outrageous!) about everything that was going on that year.

There was a lot going on. There was a Moratorium declared in opposition to the Vietnam War. On December 2, 1969, there was the infamous draft lottery. We put out a special issue on the environment in March of 1970. There was also the Texas Pop Festival and skinny dippers in Turtle Creek. But I think what prompted my déjà vu was the memory of our black students’ association (yes, we had one at SMU) and the list of demands they drew up and how meticulously we tried to cover them in the student newspaper. We got criticism for that.

The previous year, in May of 1968, I had submitted a term paper in which I cited numerous political theorists and a few black activists. The paper concluded that white America had long since declared war on black Americans and that black people had every right to fight back, including with violence. I quoted extensively from James Baldwin and even included one citation of Stokely Carmichael’s writings.

There had been repeated riots through the 1960s. We may have thought that the Civil Rights Act and school integration and a few other achievements would fix things. More recently, we may have thought that having a black President would fix things.

Nothing has been fixed. The past decade has seen a vicious resurgence of (never dormant) white supremacy with its constant toxic handmaiden, white privilege. And black people and other people of color have had enough. The current pandemic has revealed the deadly extent of existing economic and healthcare inequalities. The murder of George Floyd forced us to see what we haven’t wanted to see: The heritage of slavery and Jim Crow are with us still.

When people time after time are pushed to the brink, when they ask for and then beg for and then demand change and nothing changes, eventually something explodes.

When it’s a gas fire, you don’t just spray water. You turn off the gas. And until we address the very real structural inequalities that exist within our society, we’re going to keep having explosions. Maybe even some big ones.

 

Scared

 

The population of planet Earth is currently around 7.53 billion humans. The loss of a few million to COVID19 won’t make much of a dent in that. But if one or more of that few million happens to be someone you love or someone who could have made a difference for a whole bunch of other people either through literally saving lives (because they’re a doctor) or through thinking us into a better way of being together (once we’re allowed to be together again), the loss is magnified many times over.

This morning I’m feeling scared.

I’m scared to leave the house because I really, really don’t want to catch this virus. I’m 71 years old and prone to annual bouts of allergies that haven’t been kind to my lungs. If I got COVID19 and had to be hospitalized in the midst of high demand for ventilators, would I be one of the ones shunted aside as too old to qualify? I just found out yesterday that about half of COVID19 patients who are put on ventilators die anyway. I found out today that about 20% of patients exhibit neurological impairment. What if I became too disoriented to call 911?

I’m scared for my son and my daughter and their spouses and my grandchildren and my sister who is older than me and her family and all of my elderly friends who have so much living still to do. I don’t want any of them to get sick. Hell, I don’t want anyone to get sick, but that doesn’t seem to be a realistic aspiration under the circumstances.

I’m scared for our future (and this gets back to the kids and grandkids again). How long will the economic pain last and will we have the courage to change some things that we can now see need to be changed, especially in case anything like this ever happens again? And it will happen again. Viruses are sneaky bastards that only behave in terms of their own survival and propagation. (Don’t be like a virus…)

I try to be positive. Really I do, but I can’t just turn off the news, because not knowing what’s going on makes me even more stressed out and anxious. Or guilty for feeling upbeat when there’s so much disaster out there.

I try to imagine myself in the picture above, high on a mountainside in central Tibet in a snug cabin, all alone by choice, with people bringing me food and drink every few days…

I’m actually in my urban condo. Alone. Not by choice. The traffic on the street has grown quieter. The food delivery people bring me groceries. I’m still reasonably healthy. I have a secure income. I have a place to live and plenty of supplies and conveniences at the ready. I have internet and friends and family and we check in with one another regularly.

But I’m worried. I’m worried about me and about you. And sometimes I’m scared.

 

 

How It Might Have Been Different

“Pursuit of Happiness”

The future was already lost. The only hope was to retrieve their past, reposition it, and hope for the best. They would eventually be known as “Timecrypters”. They knew this, but preferred to call themselves “Travelers”.

The scenario in which they found themselves was occurring in what the carbon-based alpha species of this rather pretty blue-green planet referred to as the year 2015 CE. Travelers tried to make note of these time-posts, as otherwise they were inclined to forget where or when they had been coming from as well as where or when they were going. It was easy to get caught up in scenarios, these convoluted meanderings of present circumstances laden with residues of past occurrences and hints at future possibilities. As noted, these hints had recently faded away into absence.

It should perhaps be confessed that the narrator of this story is also a Traveler, but since Travelers have no native linguistic equivalent of first person pronouns, it is easier for them to relate this story as a third-person tale. Verb tenses are also problematic, but they will have done their best.

The expertise of Travelers – Timecrypters, as you say – lies in their ability to navigate the currents of the time-space continuum by accessing small breaches between eras and universes. And when they say “small” they mean really minutely tiny. So tiny, that they can’t actually move through the breaches themselves, sending instead nano-robots equipped with photonic projectors and holistic transmitters, by means of which they can manifest whatever forms seem spatio-temporally appropriate and then projecting their consciousness into that form. Because they are not just communicating with these forms but rather BECOMING the form, they sometimes forget, as it were, which when they’re in and become more involved than perhaps they should have been in specific scenarios. It is always being a risk of this particular mode of travel.

The prime movers in the scenario related here appeared to be energy and moisture and the changing distribution of these across the blue-green planet’s surface. Ah yes, mundane, mundane. Exactly. The most fundamental facts so often appear mundane to those who exist by means of them. Have you ever tried to explain water to a fish? Don’t bother. They don’t get it. Likewise the alpha species of this blue-green planet, a terrestrial species, didn’t get their own reliance on the time-currents that distributed energy and moisture for their sustenance.

There were more proximate factors in the scenario, namely Mario Verguenza – the wealthiest specimen on the planet in terms of the things the alpha species valued most – and Gandida Raksha, who exemplified their highest ideals of personal beauty and sexual desirability.

The lifeways of the planet at this juncture in the scenario were facilitated by means of energy that was having been mined from below the surface, where is storing over many eons. Of course it all comes first from their star – a rather unremarkable mid-sized star – and was having been being transformed into physical form by an exceptionally efficient and truly admirable process they called photosynthesis (which the alpha species didn’t invent). The photosynthesizers carried much of this fixed energy to their graves, where it was having been stored and was now extracting for use.

Rather than ingesting this stored energy for direct benefit, the creatures of this planet were taken to burning it in various inefficient and wasteful contraptions to produce a wide range of goods that, as far as Travelers could see, had no benefit. They also consumed a lot of it in scurrying as rapidly as possible from one place to another. As a byproduct of these activities, the efficacious balance of energy and moisture transfer essential to their basic life processes was being severely – no, terminally – disrupted.

They didn’t really care about this, even in the fleeting moments when they almost understood. Among those most notable for not caring were Mario Verguenza and Gandida Raksha. They reveled in the reckless accumulation of useless goods and scurried from place to place more than most.

The Travelers were having produced a particularly endearing photonic small canine, which Gandida has quickly adopted and carried with her everywhere. They also produced a specimen of an unobtrusive variety of small brown bird, free to fly about and observe more broadly.

It became obvious to the Travelers that Mario was bent on extracting and incinerating every last ounce of stored energy from the planet. They felt the quivering disruptions in the continuum. They sensed the disappearance of the future.

During the late nights when Mario and Gandida were engaged in non-reproductive sexual activity and early mornings when they slept, the lapdog and the little brown bird convened to compare notes.

“It is palpable,” the little bird said. “These people have consumed their future.”

“Shouldn’t there have been some doing to help?” asked the dog.

“It’s so hard not to get involved,” the bird replied, with a sad, down-drifting twitter.

“If Travelers could have gone back to where this scenario began, to see if it might be tweaked? Just a little bit, understand…” The dog rested its head languidly on a paw and twitched an ear.

And suddenly they were inside a building where huge metal objects with four wheels were assembled. The term “Model T” comes to mind. The Travelers were taken the form of cockroaches skittering about in the corners of the factory, and as they look at the heavy boots of the workmen, they felt the vulnerability of this particular form choice.

“Is this where it started?” one of the cockroaches said.

“Unlikely,” said the other.

The scene shifts again, and they were in a beautifully appointed sitting room. There are chairs of carved mahogany, upholstered in intricate tapestries. Heavy brocade curtains hang at the windows and brass ornaments gleam in the light of a blazing fireplace. A corpulent gentleman sits on one of the chairs, smoking a cigar, while a gentlewoman in rustling silk sipped tea or coffee from a delicate porcelain cup held in a hand sparkling with jeweled golden rings. The Travelers occupy the forms of mice hiding behind the wainscoting.

“Can you feel it?” said one mouse, its whiskers quivering with excitement.

“Yes, it manifested strongly here,” the other replied. “This is where the future begins to disappear. But what is it that was happening?”

They both sit very still for a couple of minutes, training ears and whiskers this way and that to get a better read on the time currents flowing through this scenario.

“It’s the desire, isn’t it?” said one.

The other twitched its nose in agreement. “Even so,” it said at last. “The desire for objects, things, experiences of faraway places. Maybe the desire to feel exalted? Outside this space there is readable a similar desire to have what is in this room. And of course, there can never be enough for that.”

“Is there anything that can have been done about it? You know, to prevent what transpires from here and consumed the future?”

“Maybe it’s just the way they are,” the second mouse suggested. “Maybe they were destined to be a species with no future.”

“You know that’s not the way things work,” the first mouse scolds. “There’s no such thing as destiny. You’re absorbing their way of thinking. Get hold of yourself.”

The second mouse scratched its head with its back foot. “Sorry.”

The first mouse closed its eyes thoughtfully. “What if these ones have never acquired these things? What if they have to rely more on things from their own place? You know, their own resources?”

The second mouse perked up its ears. “Maybe if their temporality had been shifted somehow. Grabbing a piece of the past and repositioning it in such a way as to give them a chance to have emerged in a different way.”

The scene changes once more and they are on a ship at sea. They are no longer mice, but instead rather large and nasty rats, gnawing vigorously at some thick ropes. The ship lurches side to side, backward and forward in a dreadful tempest. The wind howls and waves smack loudly against the timber hull. The ropes the rats have gnawed through give way. A mast cracks and then crashes onto the deck, smashing a hole where water enters. The two rats climb onto a piece of floating debris as the ship disintegrates. And because they are really Travelers and not rats at all, they can read the names inscribed on the disintegrating hull of this ship and two others equally doomed – Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria. Sailors flailing about in the storm-tossed waters, desperately clinging to anything still afloat.

As dawn breaks, broken bits of wood, a few empty barrels, and a couple of corpses bob aimlessly in the calm waters.

On the time horizon, the future glimmers.

(This was originally posted in October of 2015 but I thought it was worth repeating in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day – aka “Columbus Day.” It is a “Tale of the Timecrypters”, a species of time-travelers invented by author Seth Abbot, a character in my recently published novel, NOT KNOWING. It has been lightly edited from the 2015 version.) 

The Burning

Forest fires play a huge role in my latest work-in-progress (in the hands of beta readers now!) and in writing it I’ve done a fair amount of research into such fires. But I don’t think I envisioned anything quite so globally apocalyptic as what is occurring right now in the Amazon.

It is established fact that fires are part of life on planet earth. Fires are useful in the cyclical health of all kinds of ecosystems. Just yesterday I went for a walk at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, where they recently did a controlled burn over a large swathe of their property and posted signs promising a bounty of spring wildflowers.

The fires currently devastating the Amazon are not part of this natural cycle. They’re not even part of the centuries-old practices of indigenous people who clear small patches of rainforest with fire every dry season, a practice that kills off “weeds” and insect pests and leaves a layer of nutrient-rich ash. The indigenous people have always done small, controlled burns and, after planting the field for a couple of years and harvesting what’s left for a few more, they always let the space return to its natural rainforest state. They’ve been doing this forever, so when you hear that “farmers” are to blame for many of the blazes being set in Amazonia and Rondonia, the indigenous farmers are NOT the farmers we’re talking about. Instead, we’re talking about farmers and ranchers whose intent is to permanently clear land for larger-scale crops and grazing. We’re talking about thousands of acres being permanently removed from the Amazon rain forest.

There’s also the political firestorm surrounding all this. For years Brazil has tended to get huffy when lectured on the (scientifically well established) importance of the Amazon rainforest to the overall environmental health of our planet. The wealthy nations achieved their status in large part through devastating environments with impunity, they said. And now you’re going to tell “developing” countries we can’t follow suit? The general attitude was one of “fuck off.” But there were those within Brazil and the other nations within this vast forest who understood the importance of the Amazon and they formed political action groups and linked up with activists worldwide to engage in what was, until recently, a modestly effective conservation strategy.

Enter Jair Bolsonaro. Echoing the politics of the United States of America, Brazil now has a nationalist president who puts jingoistic Brazil-first profit above all else and has clearly indicated his support for “developing” the vast resources of the Amazon. So the Amazon burns. Animals of all kinds (including rare and endangered species) are roasted within the devastation. Native peoples who have protected their rainforest home for millennia are driven out. And scientists hastily recalculate the carbon balance of our atmosphere and recalibrate hopes of surviving climate collapse.

This blog post has no conclusions. I go back to my manuscript, to my story in which time is marked as much by “before the Great Fires” and “after the Great Fires” as anything else. And I watch the burning.

(NOTE on the image: This is a painting on paper that was sadly damaged beyond repair. The burning of a work of art is not the same as the burning of a work of nature…or is it?)

 

What Not To Read When the World is Falling Apart

Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading recently. First of all, over the past week, I’ve been reading a lot of news about the horrors in El Paso and Dayton. As well as the continuing horrors in Washington, D.C., and most of the rest of the world.

Just before El Paso and Dayton, I had finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a beautifully written dystopia filled with all the horrors that people of color already face in many of our cities every day. It ends on a hopeful note, but on the way takes the reader through a lot of violence and terror and despair.

Last weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, Austin’s convention for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy. One panel was about what has recently been dubbed #hopepunk fiction. Panelists asked whether readers were becoming weary of a steady diet of dystopia. I’m pretty sure our answer was “Yes. Now what?”

At the convention, I bought two books from an up-and-coming Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse, and found myself with plenty of time on my hands to read them this week after I fell victim to the latest virus traveling through the social circles my grandkids travel in.

Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are skillfully crafted stories with larger-than-life characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the gods and heroes of the Diné (Navajo) nation manifest in some stunningly impressive ways. Great stories. Very violent. Every character morally gray (which is fine). Many of them a very dark gray. And of course, since Roanhorse is writing a trilogy, book two ends with some sense of resolution followed by one of those “OH MY GOD, NO!!” moments that are the mark of the great writer who knows how to get you to buy her third book.

So there I am–sick, depressed, steeped in the eerily parallel violence of dystopian fiction and breaking news. What to do? I thought I needed a break, a different book that would pull me out of my funk. Maybe something contemporary. So I went to my bookshelf and found a nice hardback I’d picked up sometime back and carried it upstairs with me last night for a good restorative bedtime read. I was only a few pages into the book when I remembered what it was about. This was Elizabeth Crook’s Monday, Monday, which begins with the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas. Her description is slow-motion and elegant as a dagger. I broke down in tears as I laid the book aside.

I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I woke a bit late and scurried around in order to make my breakfast date with my son and his family. If anything could pull me out of my funk, the grandkids could.

Tacos and donuts and grandbabies. I was definitely feeling better. Well enough to share with my daughter-in-law what I’ve been going through. She confessed that she’d just finished re-reading Pollyanna. Maybe I’d like to borrow it? Tempting, but…no.

You see, I don’t want to just hide from the violence and hatred. I don’t want to cover it over with prettily-painted, trompe-l’oiel wallpaper and pretend it’s not there. I just want to see something in our world, something in us, that can reassure me that we’re more than this, better than this.

Show me some hope.

Driving home I remembered something from my college days that I had worked into the second book of my Recall Chronicles. Malia, the main character in Shadow of the Hare, is alone in a little hotel in India, struggling to cope in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I read for a while, [she says] struggling through a short story in French that Simone had shared with me. It was about a little blind girl whose parents, with collusion from the village priest, had conjured a beautiful and perfect world for her, never let­ting her encounter anything ugly or sad. She was so angry when she discovered what they’d done, what the world was really like. “Je ne veux pas etre heureuse,” she cried. “Je veux savoir!” I liked the story. I don’t want to be happy—I want to know. I made a cup of tea and read it again.”

That story has stayed with me all these years and it has kept me asking questions, never content to rest in my privilege or comfort, always wanting… to know.

Here’s what I know now: I want both. Yes, I want to know. But I also want to be happy. I DO want to be happy, dammit. And I want you to be happy, too.

My job as a writer, especially as a writer of speculative fiction, is not to write #grimdark, violence-filled dystopian and apocalyptic stories devoid of hope; nor is my job to write pretty #noblebright fiction in which saviors magically come to our rescue. No, my job is to face the reality of #grimdark and somehow dig out of it… some shred of hope. Some deeply human determination to hope in spite of everything.

They say we have to write the stories we want to read. Okay, then. If all goes well, my book will be out early next year.

(A version of this essay was read earlier today at Austin Writers’ Roulette, hosted by Teresa Y. Roberson at Malvern Books.)

“This Changes Everything?” (Updated.)

NOTE: This was originally published in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June of 2016. Today I added a dozen more shootings. How many will it take? 

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

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, California.

Surely, there are things that should change.

Aug. 20, 1986: A man with a gun killed 14 postal workers in Edmund, Oklahoma.

This should change things.

Oct. 16, 1991: A man with a gun crashed his pickup through the wall of Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and then shot and killed 23 people.

Would this change things?

April 16, 2007: A young man with a gun at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, killed 32 people.

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, Colorado, 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.

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.

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.

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, Tennessee, killing five.

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, Oregon.

Nothing has changed.

Nov. 27, 2015: A man with a gun attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing a police officer and two civilians.

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.

Nothing has changed.

June 12, 2016: A man with a gun killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

ADDENDA (August 5, 2019)

October 1, 2017: One man with a lot of guns opened fire on an outdoor music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from the 32nd floor of a hotel-casino, killing 58 people and wounding more than 500.

This one. So many dead! We talk about bump stocks.

November 5, 2017: A man with a gun shot up a congregation at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing more than two dozen.

At a church? We talk about mental health.

February 14, 2018: A young man with a gun shot and killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Finally, change is coming. Such powerful student leaders will push for change!

May 18, 2018: A young man with a gun killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

Another school, nothing has changed.

June 28, 2018: A man with a gun killed five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

Targeting journalists now.

October 27, 2018: A man with a gun killed 11  worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during Shabbat morning services.

Targeting Jews? What can we do? What can we do?

November 7, 2018: A man with a gun killed 12 people at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California.

Again. And nothing has changed.

February 15, 2019: A man with a gun killed five co-workers at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois.

Nothing changes.

May 31, 2019: A man with a gun opened fire in a building that houses Virginia Beach government offices, killing 12 people.

Nothing changes.

July 28, 2019: A young man with a gun kills three people at an outdoor festival in Gilroy, California.

Now? We talk about children.

August 3, 2019: A man with a gun killed 20 people at a shopping center in El Paso, Texas.

We talk about domestic terrorism.

August 4, 2019: A man with a gun killed nine people in 30 seconds at a popular nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio.

Can we talk about the guns now? Will anything ever change?

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.

Three Books for Our Time

IMG_0308.JPG

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.