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
Full Episodes
Political HumorSpinal Tap Performance

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.