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

Will the real Pliocene hominin please stand up?

Here's a rap video that summarizes some of the complexity of early hominin evolution.

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.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Noam Chomsky on hypocrisy

Concise, and worth watching:

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...