Thursday, December 31, 2009

2000-2009: Good riddance to bad rubbish

The past decade was arguably the worst in US history, due almost entirely to the stolen presidential election of November 2000 and the subsequent reign of terror on the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United States on the part of a group of people who called themselves "patriots" and "defenders of the homeland," but who were in fact, literally, psychopaths and sociopaths. I am not talking about Al Qaida or the Taliban, though they probably fit the description; I am talking about Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol, Rice, Rumsfeld, Feith, Rove... I don't even know where to stop. John Nichols describes the theft of American democracy in a brief essay at Common Dreams. Worth reading.

Some other things I learned about the US in 2000-09:
  • This is a pathologically stupid country. I say that because, in 2004, after nearly four years of Cheney/Bush proving themselves incapable of being higher primates, let alone governing a democracy, "the people" voted for this pair of troglodytes in sufficient numbers that, once again, the Party of No was able to steal the election and maintain its orwellian death grip on government.

  • This is a viciously uncaring country. I say this because our "elected" leaders just spent months working over a health care "reform" bill that does not contain what the majority of their constituents want: single-payer or at least a strong public option. And the grip of the health extortion insurance industry is maintained, at least so far, despite the fact their only reason for existence is to make a profit by denying coverage. Meanwhile, thousands of lives are terminated every year at the hands of the corporate death panels known as Blue Cross, AvMed, etc.

  • Speaking of not caring, a story on NBC News last night featured the plight of college students, some of whom are having to resort to food banks, and most of whom will be up to their eyeballs in debt for years paying for education they sought to make themselves more worthy and productive citizens of this farce of a country. Why can't we have education without fear of eventual bankruptcy?

  • For that matter, why can't we have a country in which people who work a full-time job make a living wage? Why doesn't one full-time job have that much social worth?

  • And finally, can't we end the culture of war that has gripped us since at least WWII, and actually earlier? Is this really the only way we can keep our country's economy moving along?
 Is there any chance that we will better in the coming decade? Frankly, I doubt it; history is against it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thanks to the Commies, a little less cranky

Leave it to a Communist web site to take a reasonable perspective on our political goings-on...

Like some others, including former Vermont governor Howard Dean, I've been complaining about what's not in the so-called health care "reform" bill just passed in the Senate. Things like Medicare-for-All, or at least a reasonable public option, and so on. I've also been complaining about some things that are in the bill, like prohibitions against using federal funds to pay for abortions (why not prohibit the use of federal funds to treat people with smoking-related illness?). Anyway...

A post by Sam Stark at People's World puts some of this into perspective by calling attention to the original Social Security legislation passed in 1935 under probably our most progressive president ever, Franklin Roosevelt, and with large numbers of progressives in the House and Senate. Even so, the legislation was far from what these people really wanted, thanks largely to southern Democrats who made sure that the bill would disturb their antebellum world view as little as possible. It would be several decades before Social Security would look like the program most of us are familiar with.

The point, which this essay makes nicely, is that the legislation started out less than adequate and got better with time. Perhaps health reform will, also (Paul Krugman agrees). Perhaps someday the US will be a truly moral country, a country in which anyone who needs medical care will be able to walk into a facility and get it, no questions asked, no money changing hands, and  no health insurance industry death panel holding their life in its hands.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Tis the season to be cranky...

It's another holiday season, and I have many things to be happy about: a loving wife of 35 years, a son back safely from Iraq, a daughter with my love of animals, and lots of good friends, a reasonably satisfying career. But there is something that's been bothering me the last few Decembers, and Tom Englehart of TomDispatch has posted an year-end essay that fleshes out my vague and somewhat diffuse unease.
My unease is rooted in our (and by "our" I mean the US's) apparent state of perpetual war. Every holiday season, especially around Christmas time, I am reminded of this by the seemingly countless stories about families here at home coping while a mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, or son is "on duty" somewhere. The most poignant of these stories involves the family at home having the chance to communicate, perhaps over tv or videophone, or some other way, with their far-off military relative, while the country looks on. We forget for a moment that in almost every case, the far-off soldier, sailor, or Marine is not in fact "defending our freedoms," but instead providing a raison d'etre for the bloated, greedy, and insatiable Military Industrial Complex.

Or, we try to forget. My problem is that I am getting the impression these feel-good moments are designed to distract us from the enormity of our addiction to sending our people into harm's way in far-off places. I even wonder, at times, whether the wars themselves are intended to provide a reason for providing these moments. So what if thousands have to die so we can have a few special moments, moments that, I suspect, are manufactured for the purpose of damping down whatever dissent might be mustered against our addiction to war.

Too cynical? Maybe. Near the end of his essay Englehart offers this:
None of what’s happening in the world of American war may make much sense any more, not even in terms Washington’s foreign policy power brokers understand, but no matter.  They -- and so all of us -- are already in the grip of a nightmare, and nothing, it seems, can wake us.  So, for the last days of this year, as for the days that preceded them, as for all the days of next year, it’s full drone ahead and damn the torpedoes.  That’s our American world, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.   
So, I will enjoy the holidays, but I will also remain somewhat cranky, and I will continue to sign petitions and write letters urging an end to our national addiction. I hope you will join me.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Cuban political cartoonist Tomy's view of the US role in global warming, from the Granma Digital website.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The AAAs

I had originally intended to blog from the American Anthropological Association meetings in Philadelphia, but that didn’t happen for various reasons. Herewith a few preliminary reflections:

  • Minor annoyance: Willy accompanied me to the meetings, and attended my and other sessions with no problem. However, when she tried to enter the publishers’ area she was stopped at the door because she didn’t have an ID badge. When I tried to take her in with me, they still wouldn’t let her enter. WTF? She might have bought a book from somebody, for Jebus’s sake.

  • Slightly less minor annoyance: We had to pay extra for internet service, and it wasn’t very reliable at that. But it seems to me that AAA ought to either hold its meetings in a place that provides internet at no extra charge, or include internet access in the registration fee. I mean, come on, it’s 2009, virtually everybody at the meetings had a computer and had reason to use it, as I did in keeping in touch with my university email, students’ activities on Blackboard, and so on.

  • Major annoyance: Only two sessions out of I don't know how many hundreds had “Caribbean” listed in the program topic index.

  • Another major annoyance: Not finding much of anything with a Caribbean theme, I searched the program for interesting sessions to attend and found.... almost nothing! And I’m a pretty eclectic dude. To be fair, I only had Friday afternoon, Saturday, and part of Sunday to work with, and there were a couple of sessions I would have gone to earlier in the week, but again, c’mon. I did attend an interesting session on Darwin and anthropology, which included Nina Jablonski doing her very smooth rap on the evolution of skin color. And I went to the memorial gathering for Dell Hymes; a moving experience, with a number of his former students and colleagues, as well as his wife Virginia, sharing memories and stories. Of course, maybe it’s just me, but so many session titles seem to be written in some kind of Doublespeak that’s, to me, impenetrable and off-putting.

  • I definitely prefer the meetings I usually go to, like the Society for Caribbean Linguistics and the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics. Smaller, more focused, more opportunities for interaction and feedback. I wonder whether smaller section meetings (Society for Linguistic Anthropology, etc.) wouldn’t be more rewarding. Problem is, I like the opportunity to range outside my normal comfort zone from time to time.
Willy and I both did enjoy a couple of days in the Big City, and we practically lived on Philly cheese-steaks from the Reading Terminal Market, right next door to the hotel.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

From the AAAs...

So, I'm at the meeting of the American Anthropological Society, Philadelphia, sitting in the lobby of the meeting hotel. Surrounded by a bazillion anthropologists, almost none of whom I know. Too much going on all at once. My presentation is at 8:00 am tomorrow (Sunday). I bet there won't be very many onlookers...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama's speech

Senator John McCain just told NBC News's Brian Williams that he supports President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. As far as I'm concerned, that is the best evidence I can imagine that Obama's decision is the wrong one.

Message to Obama: No, we shouldn't

If all goes as pre-reported, President Obama will announce tonight that he is recommending an increase of US troops in Afghanistan, a "surge" that supposedly will put an end to Al Qaida and the Taliban in that country. In what can only be described as a surfeit of symbolism, the announcement will be made at the US Military Academy at West Point.

If this happens, Obama will become, in effect, an accomplice after the fact in the war crimes and crimes against humanity initiated by the Cheney/Bush regime before him. And in doing so, he will have made the wrong choice in what might have been the transformational moment of his presidency. He could have turned the US away from its historical path of military interventionism and American exceptionalism. Instead, he will join the ranks of US presidents who, all else being equal, should have been tried at The Hague–that is, pretty much all of them beginning with Truman.

Some will argue that he has to do this to clean up the mess left by Cheney, Bush, Rice, Powell, Rumsfeld, and the rest; that to stop a forest fire, you sometimes have to light some fires. The analogy is not compelling for me. I still think that our response to 9/11 was, and continues to be, immoral as well as illegal, and I maintain that the best response would have been, should have been, one made through the courts, not by treating it as a "war" to be engaged in by armies.

Maybe Obama will surprise us, or maybe he can make us feel better about this action. But I don't think so.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

National Geographic: the Hadza "live without rules"

So, a couple days ago I picked up the current National Geographic Magazine at our nearby Publix. There’s an article on the Hadza that begins with this cranky-inducing banner: 
They grow no food, raise no livestock, and live without rules or calendars. They are living a hunter-gatherer existence that is little changed from 10,000 years ago. What do they know that we’ve forgotten?
No rules? Really? The world’s only true anarchy?  This is the kind of subtle ethnocentrism that you always have to watch out for in the National Geographic's dealings with humans. Don't get me wrong, when they're giving us information about cocoa, or gold, or dinosaurs, they can be very, very good. And, of course, their maps are terrific. But with people, well, things sometimes go awry.

The Hadza, of course, have "rules." All human cultures hang together by virtue of the fact their members know how to behave appropriately in which situations, what obligations they have toward others, what others can demand of them, who they can and cannot joke around with, marry, and so on. In small-scale societies like that of the Hadza, who are foragers living along the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania, the rules are acquired in the process of becoming an adult. They are carried in people's heads, not written down in legal codes as they are in large-scale societies like ours, but they exist none the less.

Furthermore, the rules Hadza people need to know involve, almost exclusively, rules about interpersonal behaviors. In our culture, there are rules like that, but there are also rules that have to do with correct and incorrect behavior with regard to the State, the distinction between what we call torts and crimes. In Hadza, there is no state: any violation of the rules is personal.

In September 1979, the National Geographic carried an article* about the Caribbean states of Grenada and St. Vincent. In the article, the author, Ethel Starbird, referred to the way of speaking of the inhabitants of these islands as English with "a certain free-form style." It so happens that I was just back from a summer of linguistic fieldwork on Carriacou, one of the Grenadine islands. I was collecting data for a description of the variety of Caribbean English Creole that Carriacou people speak.

It turned out that Carriacou people's speech was not "free-form" at all. Its speakers, like all speakers of the Human Language, carry in their heads linguistic rules for putting sounds together into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences. These rules had not been investigated before, and existed in no "grammar" book; they form part of what Noam Chomsky calls their "knowledge of language." but like the "rules" the Hadza know about keeping their society running smoothly, they existed before anyone studied them and they continued to exist even after they had been inscribed in a descriptive grammar.

Young and foolish, I wrote to the National Geographic author and explained her mistake: nobody, anywhere, speaks a "free-form" language. The answer I received was essentially Thank You Very Much, and Bug Off; We Are The National Geographic.

(For an in-depth look at how National Geographic has over the years treated the subject of non-European peoples, check out Reading National Geographic by and Lutz and Collins.)

*Starbird, E. 1979. Taking it as it comes: St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada. National Geographic 156, 399-425.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night..."

Today is the 94th anniversary of the death by execution of Joe Hill, the labor organizer and songwriter perhaps made most famous by the song performed by Joan Baez at Woodstock:
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me,
Says I but Joe you're ten years dead,
I never died, says he,
I never died, says he.
Hill was tried and convicted of murder in Salt Lake City, Utah, despite no physical evidence being presented at trial. In 1915, in certain parts of the US, being a successful union organizer was all one needed to get the death penalty. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered in every state of the Union except Utah, leading to one of the questions sometimes asked of anyone professing to belong to the union: "Where is Joe Hill buried?"  Labor columnist Dick Meister has an in-depth article on Hill here.

Health care: The crankiness continues

I only have time for a short note, but I need to get this unbottled.

I am becoming ever more disappointed, frustrated, even angered by the process that is supposed to be getting us toward a more rational way of distributing access to health care in this country. A bill passed the house a week or so ago. Good news? Only to those for whom the news is always bad.

For one thing, it passed by just five (5) votes. That's right, the difference between the representatives who want to make access to health easier for more people and the representatives who don't give a rat's ass about anyone but themselves and their corporate health insurance pimps was five votes!

But it's worse that that even. In order to pass this bill, the (relatively) sane and moral people had to accept an amendment that for most practical purposes vacates Roe v. Wade. So, women were shoved back into the alleys by men who hate women and women who also hate women and, presumably, themselves. It's a ghoulish march forward to the Middle Ages.

So now, in the Senate, they're trying to pull something together. Senator Reid yesterday made much of the fact that the bill they're writing will include a public option, but one that any state can choose to opt out of! In other words, if you live in a state ruled by whackaloons, and many of us do, your chances of participating in health care "reform" will be grossly undermined.

What is wrong with us? That's a rhetorical question: we know the answer. We are a nation dominated by selfish, ignorant, and viciously superstitious white men who will go to any length, toss any baby out with the bathwater, push anyone under the bus, to whatever they need to do to maintain their position of privilege and wealth, and especially their right to collect cash from Big Insurance and Big Pharma.

And the sad thing is, health care reform could be so easy. Just extend Medicare to everyone. In the process, eliminate the health insurance industry. Let them insure cars and houses and your collection of mint-condition Batman comics, but make them take their hands off health. Period.

Our health care system will only be moral and decent when nobody is making money from denying us health care.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chomsky on socialism

Ok, I know I just posted a Chomsky video. However, this one is important, I think. Here Noam discusses the ways in which the label "socialism" has been misused both by the US, and by states that claim to be "socialist" but are really fascist dictatorships.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tommy is home!

Our son Tommy, the Marine Gunnery Sergeant, got home last night from a 10-month deployment to Iraq. We talked to him this morning before heading for work, and he sounds healthy and happy. He, and we, are very lucky; things could have been so much worse, as they have for so many families.

I urge everyone who reads this to contact President Obama and ask him to bring all the troops home, both from Iraq and Afghanistan. Ask him to begin to bring an end to the culture of war that has for so long, but especially since World War II, been central to the American way of life. Ask him to stop the use of our military for the benefit of the military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned us about decades ago. Ask him to stop sending our military people to die for the profits of oil company executives. Ask him to use our wealth, human and otherwise, to provide our people with what they need: education, health care, jobs with living wages, security in their retirement.

Ask the President to end the Endless Wars.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy post-Halloween!

Here's wishing everyone a happy post-Halloween sugar rush. We greeted the neighborhood kids with a scary bat-pumpkin carved by daughter Aimee.

And we ate plenty of that demon-blessed candy. At least that's according to someone named Kimberly Daniels, who, according to Ed Brayton at Dispatches From The Culture Wars, wrote a bat-poop looney anti-Halloween essay that was posted on the Christian Broadcasting Network's web page. The post has been removed (too nutty even for them???), but not before Ed could save us a, er, taste:
During this period demons are assigned against those who participate in the rituals and festivities. These demons are automatically drawn to the fetishes that open doors for them to come into the lives of human beings. For example, most of the candy sold during this season has been dedicated and prayed over by witches.
I need some more candy...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Kooks to Earth: "Happy birthday to you, happy..."

This escaped my attention yesterday, but a post on Pharyngula reminds me that yesterday was Earth's birthday. According to English Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656), God created the Earth on October 23, 4004 BC. He based his calculation on an analysis of the chronologies in the Old Testament. And here's the sad part: a very large number of people in the USA and elsewhere continue to believe that this is literally true.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I wish Al Franken were my Senator!

See, this is what we need more of: facts that challenge the made-up fantasy nonsense used by right-wing political hacks to discredit universal health care (or anything else).

Monday, October 12, 2009

How to feed the world!

Sarah Silverman explains how in this video. Not for the feint/faint of heart. I replaced the video with the url because I couldn't get the embedded video to fit in my blog template. Still learning...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Now ABC News makes me cranky

The ABC News website has an article on Ardipithecus, the newly publicized (not really newly discovered) fossil that provides a glimpse into the world of Hominins (bipedal apes, like humans) that existed some four and a half million years ago. She (yes, she's a she, nicknamed "Ardi") is an early biped, but there are some interesting differences between her and the Australopithecines, such as the famous "Lucy," who came a bit later. For example, her feet seem to be more chimp-like with an opposable big toe, and her pelvis, while clearly allowing for bipedality, is not quite like that of Lucy, who was fully bipedal. She lived in a forest ecology, which reinforces the hypothesis that human ancestors were bipedally oriented before, rather than after, they came down out of the trees and entered the open savanna environments of eastern Africa.

So far, so good. The part that makes me cranky is that this article is on ABC News's Technology and Science website, and the article headline reads:
Creationists Say Science and Bible Disprove 'Ardi' Fossil is Evidence of Evolution
The writer, Russell Goldman, sets the tone of the discussion with this:
In the case of "Ardi," the ape-like fossil recently discovered in Ethiopia and already being celebrated as the oldest found relative of modern human beings, the final determination depends on who is doing the talking.

In one camp are evolutionary scientists who last week published and hailed the discovery of an upright walking ape named Ardipithecus ramidus, or "Ardi" for short, who made Ethiopia her home nearly 5 million years ago.

But despite the excitement from the paleontology community, another group of researchers, many of them with advanced degrees in science, are unimpressed by Ardi, who they believe is just another ape -- an ape of indeterminate age, they add, and an ape who cannot be an ancestor of modern man for a range of reasons, including one of singular importance: God created man in one day, and evolution is a fallacy.

Say what? Scientists who have examined these remains for years, meticulously describing everything they can about them, are paired off against people who believe that every word in a set of myths and stories made up by nomadic pastoralists several thousand years ago is literally true? And the "final determination" of the fossil's significance simply depends on which of these groups has the floor? I don't think so.

See, this is what's wrong with America. Every opinion, no matter how loony, is equal in weight to every other opinion, no matter how well supported by, you know, facts and things. I usually refer to this as the Crossfire Model of Argumentation (CMA), after the old CNN talk-news show. A "liberal" and a "conservative" each gave their take on things, nobody was ever challenged to provide evidence, and in the end nothing was ever resolved; it was just entertainment.

CMA is an outcome of hyper-independence training, a component of the enculturation of people in the US. We see it in our classes, where students feel that simply having an opinion is just as good as doing the hard work sometimess necessary to have an informed opinion. On a wider scale, we see it among supporters of the "Birther" movement, who just "know" that President Obama was not born in the US, evidence be damned. We see it in the "Death Panel" movements, whose adherents are just absolutely certain that the health care reform legislation moving oooh sooo slooowly through the process contains provisions that will allow the gummint to kill their grammas.

Goldman's article ends, sadly, not with a debunking of the witless yahoos who think the Earth is 6,000 years old, but with this quote from David Menton, an "acclaimed anatomist and creationist" and a "researcher in residence at Answers in Genesis" (in other words, a total fraud):
"Evolution is supposedly based on science, but the science does not prove what they want it to. Creationism is not based on scientific observation but on God's word. God created everything in six days, and that's it."
When will we, as a nation, grow up?

Friday, October 9, 2009

I'm getting cranky...

The BBC Caribbean website has a forum with comments on the value of creole languages. The questions are:
  • Do you think dialects should be officially recognized?
  • Do you think of them as a language?
  • Should people be encouraged to speak their own dialects?
I wrote a response but it seems as though they are not going to post it. So, here it is:
Regardless of public "opinion," linguists know that creole languages are "real languages"- completely normal examples of this defining human characteristic.

Over 20 years ago, I conducted a literacy project with children on Carriacou, Grenada, which showed that learning to read their English Creole helped them learn to read Standard English. Unfortunately, this research and others like it does not seem to reach the consciousness of education ministers and others who, through public education campaigns, could end the centuries of what amounts to educational malpractice- I could even say child abuse- that has required creole-speaking children throughout the West Indies to struggle with learning a new language system while at the same time adjusting to the many other stresses of schooling.

The very fact that a poll could be asking whether readers think of creoles as languages is a sad and sorry indictment of educational systems that do not really teach people about what it means to be human, and what part language plays in being human. Of course creoles should be official languages, of course people should be encouraged to use them, of course ministries of education should develop linguistically informed policies on their uses in schools, including uses for first literacy.

Anything less should be considered crimes against humanity.
If they ever do post it, I'll let you know.

A dose of irony

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the young Argentinian physician who in the 1950s linked up with Fidel Castro and helped carry out the Cuban Revolution.

Guevara as prisoner, surrounded by Bolivian soldiers.

On this date in 1967 Che was executed after being captured along with members of his band of Bolivian guerrillas. The young Bolivian soldier who was ordered to do the shooting, and to make it look as though Che was killed in battle rather than sitting wounded in a chair, was named Mario Terán.

Now comes the irony part. A couple of years ago, a team of Cuban physicians working in Bolivia discovered Terán, now an old man, in need of eye surgery. They removed his cataracts, making it possible for him to see again.

So, the man who killed the person who helped establish the beginnings of Cuba's health care system was in turn given back his eyesight by that same health care system. For free.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

That's our boy...

Here's our son Tommy, deployed in Iraq.

Needlessly to say, we are all waiting anxiously for his return, but being able to chat frequently with him over Skype makes the waiting a little easier.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Something apolitical

Our little Colombian rainbow boa is doing nicely on a steady diet of unsuspecting mice. We still haven't settled on a proper name for it, partly because we aren't yet sure whether it's a her or a him. But we enjoy her/his dazzling combination of iridescence and chocolaty brown. And every now and then we let it have some exercise climbing in our little oak tree.

Epicrates cenchria.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Now it's just Peter, Paul...

Mary Travers (1936-2009).

Yesterday Peter and Paul, and many others of us, lost Mary Travers to a long struggle with cancer.

I took our daughter Aimee to see the trio just a few years ago here in Jacksonville. They put on a great and moving program, despite the fact that Mary was already ill and had to sit in a chair most of the time. They sounded just like they did when I first heard them 40-odd years ago now.

It was the guitar playing on their renditions of Libba Cotten's "Freight Train" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" that first tickled my ear enough to make we want to play the guitar in that finger-picking style. But it was their songs for peace and justice that first got me thinking contrarian thoughts at a time when, with the Vietnam War still raging, if you were against it you were assumed to be some sort of "communist."

Here they do one of my favorite songs, perhaps one you haven't heard. Mary is not the prominent voice here, until she brings it all together at the end.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jimmy Carter: Speaking truth to stupid

Tuesday evening, in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, former President Jimmy Carter stated what has been obvious to many of us since well before the election:

"I think that an overwhelming proportion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, he's African-American," Carter, 84, told NBC television.

"I live in the South, and I have seen the South come a long way," Carter added.

"But that racism inclination still exists, and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but across the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

Of course, the right-wingnut apologists are all over this:

"It is an intimidation tactic. When you make that attack and call someone racist or homophobic it is a way to kind of silence them," said Brendan Steinhauser, grassroots coordinator for FreedomWorks which organized the first large-scale protest against Obama in Washington over the weekend.

"This movement is made up of people who oppose big government," said Steinhauser, describing the tens of thousands of protesters who converged on Washington.

Really? This is a hypothesis, which can be tested because we already have completed what social scientists call a natural experiment. The experiment consists of comparing what Obama's doing now with the eight years during which George W. Bush was expanding government control over all of us, creating whole new bureaucracies like the "Department of Homeland Security" (which has a nice 1930s Germany ring to it, don't you think?), and leading us into a pointless and incredibly expensive (the costs being both human and monetary) war in Iraq.

So, where were these people who claim to "oppose big government" back during those eight years? I'll tell you where they were, they were running around calling anyone who objected to Cheney and Bush's demented policies "anti-American" and "against the troops."

In this natural experiment, the main variable is: Bush and Cheney are "white"; Obama is "black." These people simply cannot stand the idea that an African-American is President and that he and his family are living in the White House. Their rhetoric shows this: "we want our country back" is one of their frequent themes, along with comparisons of Obama to Hitler, Stalin, monkeys, and apes. And there are even darker messages, such as "bury Obamacare with Kennedy" and people actually showing up at the President's speeches toting firearms.

Carter is right on, and this is a very dangerous pack of sociopaths.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Obama's speech; thoughts on the morning after

President Obama is an excellent speaker, appearing all the more excellent after the eight years we had of George Bush's mind-numbing oral flatulence. But he did not say what some, at least, of us needed to hear: that access to health care should be considered a right, not a privilege, a right that should be enjoyed universally.

In fact, the President's only use of the word "universal" in the speech came in this sentence:
For some of Ted Kennedy's critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their mind, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.
The right to health care for all people is contained in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Article 25 (1) states:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Health care is, already, a universal human right. And yet, we here in the USA, mired as we are in a cultural system that glorifies independence training and hyper-individualism while at the same time vilifying any suggestion that it might be ok, even human, to depend on each other sometimes, can not say those words. And so, the plan to "reform" health care as outlined by the President, while certainly including some improvements, even major improvements, to what we have now, is missing the crucial step. That step is the elimination of the "health insurance" industry, the extraction of health care from the predatory capitalist "market" system altogether, so that health care becomes just as much a right as, say, public K-12 education.

To those imbeciles who scream "socialism" every time they hear a proposal like this, I can only wonder whether they would also prefer to get rid of the socialized law enforcement we already have, the socialized fire and rescue services, the socialized public libraries, and so on. And if they happen to be eligible for Medicare, one wonders if they also want to rid us of that socialistic program.

Meanwhile, our "tyrannical" neighbor to the South has this section in its constitution:
Article 50: Everyone has the right to health protection and care. The state guarantees this right;
  • by providing free medical and hospital care by means of the installations of the rural medical service network, polyclinics, hospitals, preventative and specialized treatment centers;
  • by providing free dental care;
  • by promoting the health publicity campaigns, health education, regular medical examinations, general vaccinations and other measures to prevent the outbreak of disease.
  • All the population cooperates in these activities and plans through the social and mass organizations.
That's right, this is from the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba. Maybe this is, ultimately, what it will take.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Obama's speech is on right now

OK, although I didn't plan to, I'm watching President Obama's speech before the joint session of Congress. The funny thing is watching the Democrats stand up to applaud when he makes an entirely reasonable point, such as insisting that Medicare will be protected against Republican privatization schemes on his "watch." The Republican nimrods just keep sitting, looking at each other exactly like a bunch of children who know they've been caught raiding the cookie jar. Morons. And the thing is, they're avoiding some good exercise which it looks like many of them could use...

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Nice picture

Daughter Aimee took this photo of some jellyfish at the Atlanta Aquarium the other day.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Oh great. The stretch of Florida road 9-A that I frequently use to drive to campus has just been renamed the "Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway."

Here in Jacksonville we already had at least one bridge and one street named for Klan members, and a high school named after that genocidal maniac, Civil War criminal, and Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. And now we have a highway named for a vicious, murderous ex-president who perpetrated a terrorist war against the people of Central America back in the 1980s. Is there a theme in all this? Well, maybe, but I'll explore that later after this bout of crankiness wears off.

Meanwhile I have to find another way to get to school...

Sign this petition

If you admired Senator Edward Kennedy's struggle for health care reform, sign this petition:

PETITION TO THE SENATE: "Ted Kennedy was a courageous champion for health care reform his entire life. In his honor, name the reform bill that passed Kennedy's health committee 'The Kennedy Bill' -- then pass it, and nothing less, through the Senate."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Kennedy and the potato

Sometime last night we lost one of the very few true progressives in the US Senate, Edward M. Kennedy. This is a sad, though not totally unexpected, event, reported at length in other places.

I want to focus here on something else: the largely unreported and underappreciated back story of how Teddy Kennedy and his family, along with other Irish folk, came to be in and around Boston, and what shaped their tendency to be on the liberal side of politics.

It began with the Columbian Exchange, the great transfer of people, plants, animals, and ideas set in motion when an Italian named Cristoforo Colombo, a.k.a. Christopher Columbus, working for the Spanish royalty, ran into the Americas on his way to the Far East. Columbus himself brought with him among other things horses, pigs, cattle, sugar cane, and wheat, all of which helped transform the New World. And he carried back to Europe not only some of the Native Americans he encountered but also various animals and plants. But it was the Spanish conquistadores who followed him who set in motion events that would lead to Edward Kennedy.

In the early 1500s the Spanish reached and conquered the area of South America we now know as Perú and Bolivia. In the Andes, the Spanish found indigenous farmers growing an amazing number of food plants, one of which we now know as papas; potatoes. When potatoes were first taken back to Europe people were reluctant to eat them, using them instead as ornamentals. Eventually, though, potatoes became the preferred food of much of the European poor and working classes, because abundant crops could be grown on small plots of land, even in poor soils. Potatoes helped European populations rebound from years of plague, providing labor for the new factories of the Industrial Revolution.

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh

The soils of Ireland were especially productive, and Irish farmers became hugely dependent on potatoes. But then something bad happened: in 1845 a blight appeared that decimated the potato crop, and between 1845 and 1852 around a million people died. About the same number left the island to escape the British government's generally less than robust response to the problem, many landing in the port of Boston and settling there.

The Irish who came to America fleeing the Famine brought with them strong memories of the lack of help offered them by the British, and along with this the idea that it should be government's role to assist in such crises. This idea, that government can do things for ordinary people rather than only for the elite, formed the core ideology of the political party that came to be associated with Irish names like Kennedy and Kerry: the Democratic Party.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What else can I say?

There seem to be a lot of people here in the US who think that: (a) Obama was born outside the US; (b) Obama is anything like Hitler; (c) socialism is the same thing as fascism;(d) health insurance reform will lead to government-mandated euthanasia of old people; (e) legislating access to health care for everyone is a bad thing; (f) private insurance companies don't already ration health care; (g) Medicare, Medicaid, and the programs that provide health care to current and former military personnel are not managed by the government; (h) countries that have national health care are all just like Nazi Germany; (i) countries that have national health care are all just like the Soviet Union; (j) a government-managed public health care plan can't possibly be any good, because the government can't do anything right, but we can't have it because it will be so good that private insurance will face unfair competition...

I could think of more, but as the old saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I say chimp, you say orang; let's call the whole thing off!

There is an ongoing debate among scholars of human evolution regarding which living primate is most closely related to humans: chimpanzee or orangutan. The question boils down to: Which of these primates do we share a more recent common ancestor with?

The molecular and geographical evidence suggests chimpanzees as our closest relatives; the orangutan argument is built primarily from shared morphological traits. In either case, what we have are competing hypotheses, neither of which has been definitively falsified as of now.

It's an important issue in human evolution, but that didn't stop The Daily Show with Jon Stewart from tackling it. Enjoy!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Human's Closest Relative
Daily Show
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Sunday, August 9, 2009

CNN needs an anthropologist

All day yesterday, the news crawler on CNN included this item:
Kenyan offers livestock dowry for Chelsea Clinton
The story as reported on CNN's web site provides more details:
(CNN) -- What can 40 goats and 20 cows buy a Kenyan man? Chelsea Clinton's love, if you ask Godwin Kipkemoi Chepkurgor.

The Kenyan man first offered the dowry nine years ago to then-President Bill Clinton in asking for the hand of his only child. He renewed it Thursday after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about the proposal at a Nairobi town hall session.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the session's moderator, commented that given the economic crisis at hand, Chepkurgor's dowry was "not a bad offer."

However, Clinton said her daughter was her own person.

"She's very independent," she said. "So I will convey this very kind offer."
Now, I don't know who introduced the term "dowry" into this context, but this is not an example of dowry as anthropologists understand it. Dowry is wealth transferred from the bride's family to the groom. Wealth transferred from the groom's family to the bride and her family is called bridewealth or sometimes bride price.

This is an important distinction, because it can be an index of the relative importance of females and males in different societies. In societies where females are highly valued, and where marriage means that a female family member's productive and reproductive output are lost to the groom and his family, bridewealth is more common. It's compensation for the loss of a female. This is the case for many traditional African cultures, including some in Kenya where the offer for Chelsea was made.

In some traditional European and Asian cultures, where females are not so highly valued, dowry serves to compensate the groom and his family for taking on the extra burden of a female. Of course, the iconic example of dowry and the problems related to it is in India, where brides whose families fail to hand over the negotiated dowry may be killed by the husband or his family. The European dowry tradition continues to be expressed in the custom of the bride's family paying for the wedding.

In small-scale societies that have little material wealth, like the Yanomama (Venezuela and Brazil) who subsist on horticulture and foraging, another way of compensating a family for loss of a valuable female is for the groom to perform bride service for his wife's family, perhaps by gathering firewood, hunting for them, or clearing the forest for their new garden. This is tricky in this case because Yanomama men are supposed to avoid their mother-in-laws at all cost.

For more on this, visit the Anthropology Tutorials web site at Palomar College.

Mike Seeger, 1933-2009

Mike Seeger, long-time collector, performer, and teacher of traditional American folk music, passed away on August 7. Mike was proficient on a number of instruments including guitar, autoharp, fiddle, mandolin, and harmonica, but he claimed that the banjo was his main instrument.

Mike was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that formed in the 1950s and continued performing and recording into the 2000s. It was their album String Band Instrumentals, given to me by a fellow St. Johns College student around 1965, that ruined my life by presenting me with the old-time music of the Appalachians and southern Piedmont.

On the album cover Mike is in the middle, and that's his autograph. It reads "an artifact! Mike Seeger 2/05."

I was listening to the Beatles at the time, and this rustic, acoustic music didn't immediately grab me; however, a few of the tunes did tickle my ear, and as I continued to listen I gradually became aware that, somewhere deep in my mind, I knew I had to do it. After a false start with a tenor banjo, I got a 5-string banjo. Then I found Pete Seeger's famous instruction manual in the Hagerstown Public Library and got started in earnest. I've been learning ever since.

I first met Mike at the Florida Folk Festival in 2004. Then in 2005 he was an instructor at the Suwanee Banjo Camp, a weekend series of workshops held at Stephen Foster State Park on the banks of the Suwanee River. I took a couple of lessons with him and found him to be a clear, patient teacher, very hands-on. I have some photos of these workshops and will post a few when I find them. It was at this camp that he kindly autographed my copy of the old album that got me started.

Anyone wanting an introduction to the sound of old-time, traditional, acoustic American music can do no better than to listen to the New Lost City Ramblers. I recommend the two compilation cds The New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years (1958-1962) and The New Lost City Ramblers Vol. 2, 1963-1973: Out Standing in Their Field. But there are others; just do a search on There is also a new (2009) documentary film, Always Been a Rambler, available on dvd. You can view the trailer here:

Mike, if you can hear us, we're already missing you.

Friday, August 7, 2009

US: Thumbs down on Honduran democracy

The US State Department has abandoned any pretense of supporting the return of elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya to office. Recall that Zelaya was removed from office and flown out of the country in June. His crime: attempting to find out whether the Honduran people supported the idea of overhauling their country's constitution.

A good summary of US involvement in and encouragement of the coup and Zelaya's exile is told in this article at Foreign Policy in Focus.

What's especially disturbing is that this behavior on the part of the US seems to have a life of its own, independent of particular administrations. After Grenada's revolution in 1979, both the Carter and then the Reagan administrations worked to destabilize the new Grenadian government, ultimately hastening its self-implosion in late 1983 and paving the way for the US invasion, which I wrote about here.

Historically, any time a Latin American or Caribbean government, be it Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, tries to implement policies that shift the wealth of the country away from the usual tiny elite class and into the hands of peasant farmers, indigenous peoples, former slaves, and others with a history of abuse and exploitation, the US has interceded in favor of the elites. These elites are typically hyper-conservative, actual or ideological descendants of the founding European landowners. They tend to be either members of or tightly tied to a military whose leaders are routinely trained in methods of terror and torture at the US's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) at Fort Benning, Georgia. They are, to put it bluntly, fascists. And now, fans of fascism in the US have once again handed a people clamoring for democracy over to thugs.

But we don't have to leave the US to see these people in action. As I write, senators and congressional representatives trying to discuss health care reform in town hall meetings with their constituents are being terrorized by wandering gangs of the same sort of thugs, almost certainly some of the same people who were allowed to disrupt vote counting here in Florida during the 2000 election. And we all know how that turned out.

The only thing these troglodytes need to complete their ensemble is brown shirts.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

And on a lighter note...

I made a visit to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens this morning, and encountered this Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) mugging for my camera:

I also got up close and personal with an Inca Tern (Larosterna inca):

And a Green-winged Macaw (Ara chloroptera) and Blue and Yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna) obligingly groomed each other for me:

The tern and macaws are native to South America; the dragon is from Indonesia.

An almost unmentioned anniversary

I was just under a month old on August 6, 1945. On that day, a US bomber dropped the bizarrely named nuclear bomb "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan, killing up to 140,000 people, 80,000 of them instantly. Three days later, US forces dropped a second bomb, "Fat Man," on Nagasaki, killing another 80,000. Besides those who died, many survivors lived with terrible injuries, and for many years babies were born deformed by the lingering effects of the radiation.

So, in less than a week 64 years ago, the United States of America committed the two most destructive uses of weapons of mass destruction in the history of humankind. The usual defense is that it was necessary to end the war, but this is subject to debate. There is also evidence that the real purpose was to show the Soviet Union that we had the Bomb and we were crazy enough to use it, needed or not. I don't know which is true, perhaps both are. What I do know is that possession of nuclear weapons by the US makes me just as nervous as their possession by any other nation. And why shouldn't it, given that we are the only ones who, so far, who have actually used them?

So far, watching the news today, I've seen no mention of this anniversary. Perhaps there will be some later in the evening. Meanwhile, peace activist Daniel Ellsberg, who was a bit older at the time, has a good essay here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Grandbaby update II

Here's the latest photo of me with our grandson, Gabriel, visiting from North Carolina:

We can all see who the handsome one is.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bill Kristol exposes his hypocrisy

Monday night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart coaxed hyper-conservative wingnut Bill Kristol into admitting that the US government runs the "best health care system in the country." He meant the health care that the US military provides our folks in uniform.

Perhaps more disturbingly, Kristol also insisted, despite the best Stewart could do to back him away from it, that other US citizens do not "deserve" to have such a fine health care system from their government. They have to pay for it.

Watch the whole interview:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill Kristol
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Presumably, Kristol's not imaginative enough to think that not only soldiers, sailors, and Marines, but also teachers, emergency workers, law enforcement personnel, bus drivers, librarians, public utility folks, and everyone else whose labor keeps the country humming along might "deserve" the best health care they can get.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Maher: "Not everything in America has to make a profit"

Last night on his HBO program Real Time, Bill Maher made a New Rule: Not everything in America has to make a profit.

When did the profit motive become the only reason to do anything? When did that become the new patriotism? Ask not what you could do for your country, ask what's in it for Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

Only the most marginalized proposals for health care, like HR-676, seek to take the health "insurance industry" out of the equation. And yet, this is the only way we can get to substantive, rather than mere cosmetic, reform. And, given the apparent unholy alliance between the Rethuglicans on the one hand and some "conservative" Demoncrats on the other, it doesn't look like we'll get anything much.

It's interesting to note that conservatives, for all their talk about morals and values, have no problem obstructing the reform of a system that denies millions of people health care.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cranky about health care

Just seconds ago I watched as CNN's Wolf Blitzer questioned former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani about the struggle to get real health care reform here in the US. And this is what makes me cranky: Guliani repeats the lies that Canadian, British, and other national health care services "don't work"; that people from these countries routinely come to the US for health care; and that somehow "competition" among corporate for-profit health care providers is the key to making health care accessible and affordable for the greatest number of people.

And of course, from Wolf there's no "what is your evidence for these assertions?"

In essence, the assertion that "competition" in a "free market" is the best way to distribute an essential service like health care is a religious statement. As with Noah's Ark or the six days of Creation, no evidence is required, you're just supposed to have faith. And, as with the Creationists, no matter how much contrary evidence is offered, it makes no difference. You say the US spends more money per capita on health care than any other country, and yet doesn't even make a list of the top 25 countries in terms of overall quality of health care? No problem, even though in 2000 WHO ranked the US 37th, sandwiched between Coast Rica and Slovenia, and just ahead of Cuba.

And as I write, an anti-reform commercial is running that features the frightening prospect that if we have national health care, a "government beaurocrat" may come between us and our doctors. Oh, horrors! That just has to be worse than the corporate beaurocrats working for Blue Cross, AvMed, UnitedHeathcare, etc. that already work to ration our health care.

The fact is, eliminating the health insurance extortion industry and moving everyone in the country into an expanded Medicare would, I read somewhere, pay for itself. We could still have home and car insurance, and things like that. Health care should not be allocated through the capitalist market system. Same for higher education, but that's another post.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A little more on Honduras

The more I learn about what's going down in Honduras, and the way in which the US is implicated, the less optimistic I am that anything good is going to come out of this. And by "anything good" I mean progressive policies that might potentially benefit regular Hondurans, as opposed to the maintenance of a neo-colonial power structure that favors members of the oligarchy and the military elite.

Honduras is a classic example of what anthropologists sometimes call internal colonialism: one segment of a society treats the rest of the society in much the same way that the former colonial powers (in this case, Spain) treated their colonies, as places and people to exploit and extract as much wealth from as possible. It is this internal colonialism that the "new leftist" leaders in Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia, have tried to address, always with overwhelming support from the people targeted to benefit, always with resistance from the people fearful of losing their ill-gotten wealth and power who, in turn, are nearly always supported by the US.

Anyway, Nikolas Kozloff has an article posted today that does a disturblingly good job of focusing on the US role in Honduras. We learn of the involvement of US Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens, a hold-over from the Bush regime and ideological, if not actual, member of the anti-Castro Miami Mafia. We also learn of the tangled web that connects the Honduran right-fascist elite to the US; I reproduce the concluding paragraphs here:
What is the connection between U.S. interests and [Honduran] constitutional reform? If you had any doubt about Washington's true intentions in Honduras consider the following AP Report for July 8 about diplomatic negotiations between the coup regime and ousted president Zelaya: "Clinton would not discuss specifics of the mediation process, which she said would begin soon, but a senior U.S. official said one option being considered would be to forge a compromise under which Zelaya would be allowed to return and serve out his remaining six months in office with limited powers [italics added]. Zelaya, in return, would pledge to drop his aspirations for a constitutional change."

It's the State Department then under Hillary Clinton, allied in spirit to figures from the old Bush establishment, which is seeking to cut off constitutional reform in Honduras --- reform which could lead to popular mobilization as we've seen in Ecuador and Venezuela. Obama meanwhile has condemned the coup but his failure to rein in either Llorens or Clinton suggests that he too believes that Zelaya's proposal for a constitutional reform is dangerous and needs to be halted.
Read the whole article.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Catching up, again

As previously reported, I had rotator cuff surgery on July 7 and have been wallowing in pain medication and general aimlessness since then. But now it's time to pull myself out of my funk, since my Trophy Wife (apologies to PZ Myers) is off to visit relatives on Monday, leaving me to fend for myself for the following three weeks. Just in time, it seems, I can now bathe and dress myself, do some simple things in the kitchen, and even drive.

Meanwhile, lots of interesting things have been happening out in the world, responses to which have been swimming in my head. And now that I can type two-handed on my laptop, I get to catch up a little. The goal is to call attention, and maybe save depth for a little later.

Honduras. The evidence seems to be accumulating that the US prefers the leaders of the coup against President Zelaya over Zelaya himself. Too bad, but not that surprising, given that it also appears that the golpistas (coupsters) have strong ties to well-placed crypto-fascists here in the US, and of course the Honduran military is virtually a branch of the US military. There's a brief article here, and a more detailed one here.

Judge Sotomayor and the Rethuglicans. I watched some of her confirmation hearings, mostly snippets on the news. I must say I was astounded by the blatant, over-the-top sexism and racism displayed by the Rethuglican neo-confederates Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). The ongoing and apparently indestructible meme that White Males can't possibly be biased, since they have no ethnic identity that might provide a basis for such bias, is understandable, of course. From a linguistic/anthropological perspective, we say that White Male is the unmarked category; its very real biases are thus rendered invisible. But still, can't we climb out of the of 19th century sometime, please?

"Race" and ethnicity. Pundick Pat "why on Earth does this troll still have a job?" Buchanan keeps calling Judge Sotomayor a "racist" for siding with the Hispanics in a recent discrimination case. When will he (and most of the rest of the US) learn that "Hispanic" is no more a "race" than "English-speaking" is? See my photo of Spanish-speaking Cuban schoolchildren in an earlier post.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t. Speaking of the aforementioned pundick, on July 14 published an article by Buchanan titled "How to Handle Sonia." "Sonia?" Is this really the proper way to refer to someone with a 17-year record on the bench? Of course, for him it is, because she's a Hispanic Female.

Affirmative action. Buchanan, again, this time claiming, in the same HumanEvents article, that Sotomayor's (or should I say "Sonia's?") entire career is the result of her taking advantage of affirmative action to gain benefits that she was never really qualified for. Oh, the irony: PB is naturally unaware (because he belongs to the unmarked category) that White Males like himself have been the exclusive beneficiaries of affirmative action since the founding of the Republic. He may even be unaware that, without this White Male targeted affirmative action, nobody would be paying him to pundickificate...

There must be more but my right arm is getting tired and I need to put it back in its sling. Perhaps more on some of these topics later.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Explaining the quiet...

Here's why you haven't seen any new posts from me for a few days:

On Tuesday, July 7, I had surgery to repair the rotator cuff on my right shoulder, which I injured by tripping and falling in the woods. Deja vu: about 5 years ago, I had the same thing happen to my left shoulder. I should be able to type with both hands in another week or so; and I have several posts incubating and just about ready for delivery.