Monday, December 31, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Heard on NPR

On NPR's Morning Edition this morning, a reporter called attention to the idea that the new "right-to-work" laws just put in place in Michigan would cause the unions to lose, among other things, "clout." Doesn't the use of this negative-affect word prejudice the reporting? What sort of "clout" are we talking about? Does collective bargaining for the benefit of workers, who are otherwise at the mercy of amoral corporations, really constitute "clout?" Especially when the collective bargaining leads to better wages, enhanced benefits, safer working conditions (which also benefits employers), and so on? Implying that these are the result of having "clout" is the wrong way to frame this discourse, in my (linguist's) opinion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A brief thought on US education

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

End of semester blues

It's that time of year.  A student writing on circumcision included this bit of information:
When circumcisions are performed here in the United States the male is given Anastasia to numb the pain…
 Thank goodness!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

End of the semester, part I

It's the last week of classes, and there's good news and bad news.

The good news:  Two linguistics students came by the office worried about being able to finish their papers on time.  Their problem: too much material.  The paper is a squib, defined as a usually relatively short exploration of a topic, often incomplete.  I had to talk them down, explaining that squibs are not term papers and that at a convenient point they needed to just stop and suggest where they might go next in the exploration of their topic.  But it is good to know that some students seem to be finding linguistics engaging and relevant.

The bad news: A student emails asking which chapters, in addition to 18 and 19, will be on the final test next week.  Our textbook only has 13 chapters.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day

Mom and Dad were married during World War II, and they both did their part to help defeat fascism and genocide in Europe and Asia.  If they were still around, I would want them and all veterans to be honored for their service, and I would also want them to have what, really, everyone ought to have:  health care, education, and all the other things that only an entity like the state can provide for all its citizens.

What I would not want, necessarily, is the hyperbolic near-deification that we seem to want to bestow on our military folk, past and present, regardless of what they did or where they did it.

I'm willing to go the extra mile in giving props to the generation that beat Hitler and his ilk; I am less comfortable with the hero-worship of more recent veterans of places like Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Did they do hard work in difficult places?  Of course.  But were they really fighting for "our freedom," as the speeches and declarations assert?  The evidence is not there.  None of these "enemies" were even close to being a threat to the United States.  None of them were in a position to attack and occupy the US, none could have subjected us to their will.

Virtually every military adventure undertaken by the US since WWII has been a "war of choice," nearly always for the purpose of shoring up some capitalism-friendly dictator (for a long list go here; for just a sample of the current ones, go here). Very often these people have committed egregious criminal acts against their own people. Very rarely have they been the kind of leaders we should be supporting: people with a sincere desire to improve the conditions in which their people live.

What we have really done, since World War II, is create a class of citizens who are, from some perspectives, unindicted war criminals.  Do I want them to be indicted?  No, I don't (some of our leaders who sent them into these situations should be, though).  But no, what I want is for them to be taken care of, to be given whatever they need to deal with the physical and mental injuries they have returned with, to be provided access to the education and training they need to rebuild their post-military lives.

And we should promise them that we will never again betray the folks who, for whatever reason, enter our military by sending them into these spuriously manufactured and often no-win conflicts that, objectively, have little or nothing to do with our own security, and everything to do with the feeding of our vast military-industrial complex.

As a culture, we are addicted to warfare and violence.  The first step in conquering addiction is to admit there's a problem.  The Veterans Day "celebrations," in their present form at least, do not help.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Language(s) in schools

Hear ye, hear ye!  Children attending Irish-language primary schools outperformed their peers in English-only schools in mathematics and, wait for it...  English!  A lttle dated, but it's never really too late.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

On "race" and ethnicity

On the Anthro-L email list someone asked:
For the uninitiated, could someone please tell me what distinction anthropologists make between race & ethnicity?
First have a look at a post on this blog some time back: "Paging Dr. Gupta: ethnic skin?!?"

Now then, briefly:

Both race and ethnicity are cultural categories used for sorting humans into groups.  The "race" category alleges that biological features can be used to do this, but it is not valid.  "Race" is equivalent to "subspecies," and it doesn't work even for non-human animals. For instance, the "Florida panther" is an alleged subspecies of mountain lion, Puma concolor coryii. It is a figment of people's imagination, although... the informal designation might be useful for conservation purposes: "the panthers that happen to live in Florida need to be protected."  The taxonomic label is simply invalid.

Ethnic group, as a category, alleges that people share language and culture, at least partly or mostly due to their having a common origin, coming from a place.  "African-American" comes to mind, of course. The Garifuna in Central America are an interesting example, because many of them appear to be of African descent, but they speak an Arawakan language: a nice example of the independent variability of biology and culture.

By the way, in the US at least, SAE (standard average European) is the unmarked ethnic category.  Other people belong to "ethnic groups," but not them (us?).  This is one facet of the trap Gupta fell into.  Of course, to be human is to belong to an ethnic group: without language and culture, we are not human.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

J Philippe Rushton is dead

J. Philippe Rushton (1943-2012), one of the leading practitioners of what has come to be called "scientific racism," died last Tuesday from cancer.  A professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, he was unapologetically consistent in his racist assertions about the meaning of the biological and cultural variation across the human species.  Among other things, he argued that:
  • Humans can be divided into three distinct biological races, which he labeled Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid.
  • These three races can be ranked on a scale of "intelligence," as measured by "IQ," with Mongoloids highest, Negroids lowest, and Caucasoids in between.
  • Penis size is an index of intelligence: Negroids, the lowest in IQ, have the biggest penises; etc.
  • The biological concept of r/K selection can be applied to the different human "races." Mongoloids, who are K-selected, have the fewest children and take the best care at raising them, while Negroids, being r-selected, have many children and are relatively careless with them.
There's a lot one could say about Rushton, but I'm not sure it's worth it.  His ideas were straight out of the 19th century tradition of explaining human variation, both biological and cultural, in essentialist, racist terms.  Although this paradigm has been thoroughly debunked by anthropologists since Boas, there remains a group of psychopaths who refuse to let go. Some are gone, like William Shockley and Glayde Whitney; others linger on, like Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, and other fans of the Pioneer Fund and Mankind Quarterly who worry that the "white race" is being "diluted" to the "degeneration" of humankind.

Rushton's misapplication of r/K-selection is typical.  This concept describes reproductive strategies that are generally present at the level of biological order or even higher, rather than at the level of species, and certainly not at the level of "races" (i.e. subspecies).  Among humans, having more or fewer children is a cultural adaptation, not a biological one.  Indeed, this particular cultural trait has changed over time even among "whites" who have moved from farming (which favors having more children) to industrial (favoring fewer children) lifeways.

I'll leave you with another of Rushton's bizarre ideas, one that I frequently share in my anthropology classes: that a nation's intelligence or "IQ" is somehow indexed to its gross domestic product (GDP).  Forget the history of colonialism, exploitation, and deliberate underdevelopment carried out by Europeans in much of the "low-IQ/low-GDP" world.  Instead, just smile at Rushton's "IQ of Nations":

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What does a Native American look like?

In his debates with Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown claimed that he could look at Warren and tell that she isn't Native American.  My friend Anj Petto at the National Center for Science Education worked up a little exercise to test this hypothesis.  I have modified his work slightly and present my version here.

Test your ability to determine, by sight alone, who has Native American ancestry.  The answers are below the fold.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Campbell's soup features Mock Spanish

This soup, chicken with quinoa and chilis, was quite good.  However, the package contains the phrase "no problemo."  Really, Campbell's?  This is a disturbing use of what linguistic anthropologists call "Mock Spanish."  One of the scholars who's written most about this usage is Jane Hill (University of Arizona); here's a link to a paper on Mock Spanish by Professor Hill.

As Hill writes, "... everyday talk, of a type that is almost never characterized (at least by Anglos) as "racist'', is one of the most important sites for the covert reproduction of this racism. "Mock Spanish'', the topic of this paper, is one example of such a site."

Friday, September 21, 2012

More anthropological confusion

In last night's debate between Massachusetts Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, Brown told the audience "The professor said she is a Native American, a person of color, and you can see she's not."

You can "see" that she has no Native American ancestry? Really? I guess Brown has some kind of special vision that allows him to see into people's DNA. Or something. I don't know if Warren has Native American ancestry or not, but I do know that you can't just look at someone and tell. As anthropologists have demonstrated, there is no reliable way to place people into the imaginary categories that we call "races."

And...  Given what we know about gene flow in the United States, there's a better than one in ten chance that Brown himself is African-American.  This is because placement in the culturally constructed category of "African-American" in the US is determined by what anthropologist Marvin Harris called the Hypodescent Rule: any [known] African ancestry makes you African-American.

Homer votes!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Romney's anthropological confusion

On Tuesday presidential candidate Mitt Romney (hereafter "Willard") told a group of supporters in Utah "We want to help those in need, but we don’t believe that redistribution is the way to create a bright future."

The key concept here is redistribution.  This is a term used by anthropologists to label a type of economic activity in which a surplus of goods and services is aggregated and then given out in culturally prescribed ways.  Redistribution is different from reciprocity, another form of exchange, in that reciprocity is generally carried out between and among individuals: the meat brought in by successful Ju/'hoansi hunters, for example, is shared out among the members of their band, most of whom are kin. Reciprocity may be generalized, in that the givers give with no special expectation of immediate or equal return.  Reciprocity may also be balanced, i.e. trade in which givers expect an equal return from recipients.  Reciprocity may also be negative, in which givers get back less than they give; nobody wants that.  Reciprocity, or sharing, represents probably the oldest form of economic exchange devised by humans.  It is the most typical mode of exchange in foraging (hunting and gathering) societies.

Because of the nature of what they gather and hunt, foraging peoples are rarely able to maintain a surplus.  With the advent of food production some 10,000 or so years ago, however, people in some places began growing crops and keeping animals that allowed for the development of surpluses.  This permits larger and more settled communities: the distinction between bands (foragers) and tribes.  Under these conditions, a farmer or herder might be able to gather enough of something or other together, usually with the help of kin, so that they can stage a ritualized giveaway for everyone in the community and sometimes for people from other nearby communities as well.  In its most pristine version, the giveaway, or redistribution, is complete, so that the recipients end up with everything and the givers are left with nothing.  However, the givers do gain important prestige from their giveaway.  This type of redistribution is called egalitarian redistribution.

As food production becomes more, er, productive, societies become more dense and more elaborate systems of hierarchical ranking with a well-defined leader at the top develop.  These societies are what anthropologists call chiefdoms, and while there has always been some ranking based on factors such as age and sex, now people's place in the society tends to be determined by their degree of relatedness to the chief's family.  The chiefs have more power over their "subjects" than leaders of bands and tribes have. Chiefs can order their folks to bring in a prescribed share of their crops and animals.  Some of this surplus ends up on the chief's table; some can be held back and then given out in times of need, say when a family's crop fails and they need help.  This is stratified redistribution, and it evolves eventually into what we call our tax system.  It's a fairly small jump from chiefdoms to the entities we know of as state societies.

Now, because Willard does not understand human cultural evolution, when he says "we don't believe that redistribution is the way to create a bright future," he is interpreting redistribution as a recent thing that Karl Marx and the Communists dreamed up.  In this view, redistribution is a perversion of some prior, more pure means of moving food and other things around, probably involving money.  Redistribution happens when people who don't have stuff see the stuff other people have and pressure them into giving some of it up.  In reality, redistribution was a cultural adaptation to a certain mode of food production, an adaptation that helped humans survive into that "bright future" that they were even then probably hoping for.  Redistribution happened long before money happened.  It's a part of what made us human.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I didn't write anything about 9/11 this time either

Last year at this time, I posted a non-post of sorts about 9/11.  At least it had a couple of essays that seemed relevant, including one by Will Rivers-Pitt.  Please go have a look.

Meanwhile, I'm pretty much continuing the tradition this year.  Except for a couple of things.  For one, it occurs to me that as we remember our 9/11, it would serve us well to recall another 9/11, September 11, 1973.  This was the day the world came crashing down on the Chilean people.  A US-supported fascist named Augusto Pinochet ousted the popularly elected and left-leaning president of Chile, Salvador Allende.*  A pretty decent summary of that event can be found here.

 Meanwhile, closer to home, it's worth remembering that our own 9/11 happened at least partly due to the mind-blowingly catastrophic ineptitude of our own elected leaders. The New York Times has a good summary.

Finally, we are reminded of John Stewart's treatment of the debacle regarding Condoleeza Rice and the President's Daily Briefings leading up to 9/11/01. One of those PDBs was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."  Stewart takes an incredulous look at Secretary Rice's bizarrely incoherent testimony before Congress.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Me Ain't Culpa
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Read, watch, weep.

*Father of acclaimed writer Isabel Allende.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A brief note on pronouns

A Facebook friend posted this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, prompting some thoughts on English morphology, a topic coming up soon enough in my linguistics class:

One interesting thing about English is that some things people think are pronouns really aren't. In English, the personal reference sets are:

(1) I, we, you, she, he, they   [subject pronouns]
(2) me, us, you, her, him, them   [object pronouns]
(3) my, our, your, her, his, their   [possessive somethings]
(4) mine, ours, yours, hers, his, theirs   [possessive pronouns]

Note that I and me are true pronouns; they can occupy the Noun Phrase slot in a sentence:

I see Mary.  (subject position)
Mary sees me.  (object position)

The forms my and mine, on the other hand, are different. Mine is a true pronoun, but my needs the support of the Noun it specifies. Note the following responses to the question Which book does Mary see?.  By linguistic convention ungrammatical sentences are marked with an asterisk (*):

Mary sees my book.
Mary sees mine.
*Mary sees my.

Note that the English articles also follow this pattern:

Mary sees the book.
*Mary sees the.

These possessives, and the articles, fall into a class that linguists call Determiners.  Determiners in English precede their Nouns and occupy a syntactic node called Specifier, because they specify which or whose something the Noun references.  In English, specifiers include the possessives (my, our, etc.), the articles (the, a/an), and the demonstratives (this, that, etc.).

Traditionally, language arts teachers have referred to these forms as "adjectives," but they are not adjectives.  For one thing, they can't be made comparative or superlative (*myer, *myest).  For another, they can't be modified by very, as in *very my (book).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New links

I have stumbled upon a handful of anthropology-related blogs that look promising (to me), and the links are added over on the right.  Here's a rundown, with blurbs taken from the blogs themselves:
  • Anthropologizing.  Featuring a mixed-bag of articles on anthropology, culture, consumption, and applied research methods by practicing anthropologist and customer experience researcher Amy L. Santee.
  • Anthropology Report.  The best and most recent updates from anthropology blogs, anthropology journals, books, and fresh news from anthropologists.
  • Appalachian Anthropology. A discussion of public anthropology in Appalachia.
  • Hominid Hunting.  At Hominid Hunting, we’ll consider the age-old question “Where do we come from?” by digging into the human fossil record and interpreting the clues recorded in our DNA. We’ll explore the science behind the latest discoveries, imagine how our ancestors lived and ponder the people, places and controversies that have shaped our understanding of human evolution.
  • Review of the Indigenous Caribbean.  Our aim is to provide a wide variety of news, views, and announcements concerning indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, past and present, and the wider indigenous world. In some cases we touch on broader political, economic, and cultural issues of regional and international import as they may affect local indigenous communities in the Caribbean.
  • Teaching Anthropology.  A discussion forum run by a seasoned Community College Instructor for those who want to share the pluses, minuses, rants, and fist bumps that come from teaching Anthropology at the undergraduate level. Gather up your pigs, yams, and banana leaf bundles and join the fun

The gathering of the Republicans

Monday, August 27, 2012

Culture being learned

We like to say that culture is learned and shared within a social group. Here's an example in a video from Cultural Equity.  Young folks on Carriacou, Grenada, are practicing a Nation or Big Drum song.

Traditionally, these songs were performed to encourage the participation and blessing of the Ancestors on important occasions such as launching a boat, moving into a new house, setting up a permanent tombstone, and so on.  The drumming patterns are associated with specific Aftrican Nations, such as Kromanti, Igbo, Kongo, etc.  The songs are mostly in French Creole, but sometimes in English Creole and also sometimes containing phrases that may be African in origin.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Where do we come from?

This map from the US Census shows, by county, the majority ancestral group for the people of that county.

One likely surprise: Purple represents African-American ancestry. Note the broad swath of purple running through the South from Louisiana to Virginia.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Jeopardy," you disappoint me again!

"Jeopardy" is on a role tonight, with a category of "homophones" that contained two answers that do not work for some English speakers.  The alleged homophones:

  • don (as in Mafia leader) and dawn (as in sunrise)
  • weather and whether
Of course these are homophones for many American English speakers, with pronunciations of [dɑn] and [wɛðər].  But for some, they are not; for some, there are two minimal pairs involved. For these latter folks, the pronunciations are:

  • don [dɑn] - dawn [dɔn]
  • weather [wɛðər] - whether [ʰwɛðər].

I really wish the Jeopardy people would stop taking one regional variant as the only legitimate one.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Meet a "Neandertal"

An anthropologist friend sent this photo of a reconstruction of a Neandertal* (i.e. variety of archaic Homo) on exhibit at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany.

When I first saw the photo, I was haunted by the impression that I had met this person somewhere. Another (linguist) friend provided the answer (see below the fold):

Friday, August 10, 2012


Here I am at the door of one of my Fall 2012 classrooms.  I'll be teaching Introduction to Anthropology (ANT 2000) to about 200 students, with no help from a teaching assistant. Can you say "multiple choice?"  I was there this morning to see if my key opened the door (it did), and whether the lapel mic was working (it was).

I've taught here a number of times over the years, and each time I've thought that I should take a photo of this wall plaque outside the room, but I never got around to it.  Until today.

Oh, and the irony?  The classroom is located in the College of Health...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jeopardy does it again

Tonight one of the categories on Jeopardy is "rhymes with bot."  Presumably, "bot" would be pronounced [bɑt].  In one of the questions, the desired response was "ought."  Problem is, for some of us, "bot" and "ought" do not rhyme.  For some of us, including me, "ought" is pronounced [ɔt], not [ɑt].  For those not familiar with phonetic symbols, [ɑ] is a low back unrounded vowel, and [ɔ] is a mid back lax rounded vowel.

So, once again, the Jeopardy answer is contingent on whether people have participated in the [ɑ] - [ɔ] merger.

PS:  I wrote about a similar incident on Jeopardy back in February, that time involving the so-called "homophones" Don and dawn.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Yet another August 6th

Every year, I post a little something about this anniversary. This is from last year's:
Once again, the anniversary that affects me more than almost any other has rolled around.  On August 6th, 1945, just shy of a month after I was born, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.  This was, at the time, the most deadly use of a weapon of mass destruction ever inflicted by humans on other humans.  A few days later, on August 9, we repeated the experiment with a newer and "improved" bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  At least 150,000 and more likely over 200,000 people were either killed immediately or died from injuries caused by the explosions.  In later years, many people suffered from the aftereffects of radiation exposure; this includes birth defects.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Romney's anaphor abuse

An anaphor is a linguistic expression that takes its meaning from some element in an utterance. For example, the word she in the old Roger Miller song lyric my uncle used to love me but she died is an anaphor that refers back (inappropriately, but never mind that) to my uncle. So far, so good.

In a speech back on July 16 President Obama said (my emphasis):
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that
Note the anaphor that, the last word in this bit of text, refers obviously to roads and bridges.  Keep that in mind as you peruse the pathologically dishonest way that presidential candidate Willard "Mitt" Romney represented what President Obama said (again, my emphasis):
Romney: He [President Obama] said this: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
Suddenly, that no longer refers to roads and bridges, but to the business you thought you had built all on your own but that the President is suddenly saying you didn't.

What I want to say to Romney is "fine, then stop driving on our socialist roads and bridges." Because only a psychopathological level of hyper-individualism could lead somebody to imagine that they are totally and singularly responsible for whatever they create, and that they get no help, no support whatever, from the rest of us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bill Moyers on Woody Guthrie

Yesterday was Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, and Bill Moyers has a nice video essay:

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I feel not so alone

Way back in March 2010 I wrote a post about Liberty University in which I suggested that Liberty's accreditation should be yanked because they teach creation "science."  On a recent episode of "Real Time" Bill Maher echoed my sentiment, but in a funnier way. The stimulus was Presidential candidate Willard "Mitt" Romney's delivering of the commencement speech at Liberty:

A step in the wrong direction

On Friday (June 22) we got this email from the university president:
Yesterday, the Florida Board of Governors approved at [sic] 13 percent tuition increase for UNF. We appreciate the work of the Board of Governors and are satisfied with its decision. As a sign of respect to the BOG and the Governor, we are not appealing the decision. This tuition increase will allow us to continue to provide a quality education to our students. 
The university had asked for a 15% increase, but that was turned down; 13% was the compromise.

This is a step in the wrong direction.  College student debt in the United States is already higher than credit card debt.  The right direction would be to make all education, kindergarten through university, free, i.e. tax-supported.  We could easily afford to do this, and add universal health care, if we didn't have to police the entire planet and at the same time coddle our millionaires.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Our inability to get these kinds of things done is a function, or rather dysfunction, of our hyper-independence training.  For those who missed it, independence training is a cultural value that stresses individualism at the expense of the social good.  It has multiple ramifications throughout our culture, from the rejection of co-sleeping with infants and the emphasis on early weaning (to the point where images of women breastfeeding are seen as "dirty") through the Lone Ranger Syndrome in popular culture, all the way to our ambivalence toward the United Nations and our too-frequent willingness to "go it alone" in international adventures of dubious legality.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A quiet anniversary

On this date in 1967, the US Supreme Court (not always as determinedly useless as they have been recently) struck down the State of Virginia's anti-"miscegenation" law, rendering such laws unconstitutional.  The case was Loving v. Virginia.  Wikipedia has a fairly good description here, and there's another article, with photos, here.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Join the Union, or hate America!

This is an important graphic. It reveals the positive effect that union membership has on our society (unless you believe that the increasingly obscene gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is a good thing).

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Chris Hayes tells truth; then apologizes

MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes has gotten into some trouble for comments he made yesterday about the use of the word "hero" in reference to US military personnel. The relevant segment begins around 6:30:

In essence, Hayes thinks the word is overused; the overuse makes it too easy to justify wars that have no justification (think all the wars the US has been involved in since WWII).  Hayes is right of course, and it was good to see fellow linguist John McWhorter and other panel members agreeing.

The fact that he felt a need to apologize reflects the fetishization of the military and war that permeates US culture.  We dare not question the actions of our Dear Leaders without feeling the consequences.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Here's my Memorial Day offering: Pete Seeger sings "Bring Them Home," probably sometime in the 1970s.

Since WWII, virtually every military action carried out by the US has been an action of choice. None have involved the threat of invasion or even attack. Think Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, and all of what has happened in the Middle East. Add to this our military "advisors" in Central America and elsewhere, who have been busy training the military in these areas in the arts of intimidation, torture, and disappearance.  We are a nation addicted to War.  We use the manufactured separations and homecomings to promote a false sense of solidarity and to give ourselves feel-good moments, especially around major holidays (think Thanksgiving, Christmas). In our highly independence-trained, individualistic culture, War becomes the drug that feeds our buried need for sociality.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cultural relativism

This is important. Not only for these young women, but also for a real understanding of the anthropological concept of cultural relativism. Contrary to its detractors, cultural relativism does NOT mean "anything goes." Especially not when some cultural practice is objectively harmful to those it is practiced upon.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Double standard?

The recent dust-up over whether Anne Romney and other stay-at-home moms actually "work" or not has revealed some interesting things about the way we USAniacs think of "work."  Too many to include everything here, but this morning I was thinking...

The Republicans have rallied fiercely to the defense of Romney and other stay-at-homes, insisting that child rearing is "hard work," and I agree.  But in nearly the same breath, most Republicans are quick to insist that relatively poor moms, in order to receive welfare and other family benefits, should be forced to enter the labor force, even if they have to pay for child care while they're working.

Isn't there a double standard here?  Why is the labor value of raising children higher for wealthy moms than for poor moms?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What did Jesus look like?

I just recently stumbled upon this, and thought it worth spreading around a bit.  We're all familiar with the ever-present blond, blue-eyed interpretations of Jesus coming out of Western culture.  In 2002, Popular Mechanics (?!?) published a reconstruction of a more plausible Jesus.  The work was done by forensic artist Richard Neave; the details can be found in the online article.

Probably not much comfort for many of the white born-agains. And, if he were at the airport getting ready to board a plane,  the TSA would surely pull him aside for extra "scrutiny" (if you know what I mean).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Singing apes"

I visited the Jacksonville Zoo today, and I was fortunate to catch the Siamangs (Symphalangus syndactylus) vocalizing.  Pretty impressive.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Robert Lawless: mentor and friend

(The following obituary for my old friend and professor, Robert Lawless, was written by his wife Anita Raghavan.)

Family, friends, colleagues, and students celebrate the life of Robert Lawless

Robert Lawless, Professor of Anthropology, Wichita State University, passed away peacefully on February 2, 2012 of heart failure at HCA Wesley Medical Center, Wichita, Kansas.   Family and friends were by his side at the time of his passing.  He did not suffer.   He was taken to the hospital by ambulance at about 4 am and had passed away by 9:26 am.   He had gone to work the day before and was in good spirits.   He complained of chest pain at about 4 am on the day of his death.   He had been battling heart disease for roughly seven years.

Robert was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and grew up in Sand Springs.  Oklahoma.   His father taught instrumental music in the public schools of Sand Springs and Tulsa, Oklahoma.   As a youngster Robert played the trombone in his father’s band and was a drum major.   Music and music appreciation was an integral part of his life till the very end.

After graduating from Sand Springs High School, (he frequently and without much prompting regaled friends with his high school cheer song) he left Oklahoma for a Journalism degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.   He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1959.    He was a journalist in San Francisco and left to join military service.   He volunteered for the National Security Agency and went to the Army Language School in Monterey, California where he studied Russian.    He was stationed on the border of the former USSR and Germany.   There he learned German.   He helped to gather information for the USA about the maneuverings of the Soviet army.   He was honorably discharged and chose to teach English Literature at Brent School - Baguio, Philippines.    Interest in studying further led him to a Master’s degree program in Asian Studies from the University of the Philippines, Manila.   He learned several Philippine dialects and languages.   He married Aida Arribas and they had a son, Andrew and a daughter, Ilona.   At two years old Andrew was diagnosed with autism.   Robert’s ongoing advocacy for people with special needs grew with this personal milestone in his life.   He was a social justice activist for positive change in several local and international areas of the world.

Interest in pursuing a PhD led him back to the USA where he worked as an editor for two publishing companies, John Wiley and Sons and Prentice Hall, and to the Anthropology Department at the New School for Social Research, New York.   He engaged in anthropological field work among the Kalingas of the North Luzon highlands in the Philippines.   He graduated in 1975.   He did international rice research and helped gather information for the UN.   He did field work in Haiti while in Florida.   He learned Haitian Creole.   His research focused on a comparative holistic and evolutionary examination of foraging, agricultural, and industrial peoples.  He spent 7 years doing research among urban scavengers in Manila, investigated peasants in the Central Plains of Luzon, studied neo-colonial warfare on the island of Timor and lived with headhunters in the North Luzon Highlands.  For several years he investigated the social organization of hospitals in Manhattan and the survival values of street people on its Lower East Side.   He attempted to teach himself Spanish.

In 1978 he joined the Anthropology faculty and the African Studies faculty at the University of Florida and served there as an Associate Professor for 14 years.  Since 1982, he concentrated on work in Haiti, investigated its tourism, sociopolitical structures, coffee production, and religion.   Much of his work used an integrative approach to the study of the cognitive and ecological aspects of people’s beliefs and behaviors.   He married Anita Raghavan in 1988.  In 1992 they moved to Kansas where he joined the Anthropology Department as a socio-cultural anthropologist and as an undergraduate advisor at Wichita State University.  He served as the department chair from 1996-1999.   He had three children with Anita, a daughter Sharmini and twin sons, Kylen and Tavrick.  Tavrick was diagnosed at birth with Down syndrome.  This intensified his interest in a comprehensive and fulfilling life for people with special needs.

Robert amassed a record of scholarship, including several recognized books, especially one on Haiti, and many articles in international journals.  He was a prolific writer using a style that was succinct and powerful.  He served as a journal and book review editor and he reviewed numerous manuscripts and grant proposals submitted for research funding.  His field research during a 10-12 year long stay in the Philippines included work among urban residents and more isolated tribal groups such as the Kalinga.  He also did field work among immigrant ethnic groups in New York and among communities in Haiti.  He served in various roles in professional organizations including the association of Philippine Anthropologists and The Association of Third World Studies.  He was directly involved in the drafting of position papers for the Aristide Government in preparation for the restoration of representative government in Haiti.

Robert enjoyed teaching and saw teaching as a primary medium for dispensing his knowledge and experience to an audience of students.  Throughout his career, he touched thousands of students who enjoyed his academic energy, his knowledge, and his wit.  He served on many Masters and PhD dissertation committees, thus influencing generations of new students in the field.  He cared immensely about his students and took great pride in their many accomplishments. 

Robert loved his family both biological and “adopted.”  He was a foreign exchange “dad” to many, “adopted” several children and young adults, and was a local guardian to international students.  He enjoyed keeping up with their achievements, their joys and tribulations.
He is survived by his wife Anita Raghavan, daughters Ilona and Sharmini, sons Andrew, Kylen and Tavrick, granddaughters Mackenzie and Kerrigan, and his brothers Jerrold and Lyndon.

He also leaves behind a number of professional colleagues and friends who treasured their friendship with him, a large number of students who loved him as a teacher and a mentor, and a community of friends and acquaintances both locally and beyond.   A private service was held at 2:00 pm on February 7, 2012 at All Faith Affinity Mortuary and Funeral Home in Wichita, KS.   A Robert Lawless Memorial Fund has been established and can be reached C/o Rev. C. Pace-Adair, PO Box 48045 Wichita, KS 67201-8045.   The memorial fund will support the diverse academic and social issues that Robert cared about.   

Friday, March 9, 2012

Still waiting...

So, here we are well into March of 2012.  I'm still waiting for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Pearle, Wolfowitz, et al to be arrested and sent to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Alex, I'm disappointed

So, I was just watching "Jeopardy."  One of the categories for Double Jeopardy was "homophones."  And one of the expected responses was the pair of "homophones" Don and dawn.

Problem is, these are not homophones for me. Nor are they for a good many speakers of North American English. For those like me, these words are:

Don = [dɑn]
dawn = [dɔn]

The vowels are different.  The vowel in Don is low, back, and unrounded.  The vowel in dawn is mid, back, and rounded.  Two different vowels, two different words, not homophones.  I and those like me also distinguish the pairs cot - caught, knot - nought, bot - bought, rot - wrought, and others.

The [ɑ] - [ɔ] merger is a regional feature of American English, as shown in this map*:

So, Alex Trebeck, be careful about what you claim are "homophones."

*The map is from the University of Pennsylvania's Phonology Atlas.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How to write a book review...

... or at least, how to start one.  Robert Lawless, whose passing is reported in a previous post was a prolific, take-no-prisoners book reviewer.  The morning of the day I learned he had died, Robert sent me an email containing just the beginning of a book review he was working on. He often sent me these reviews asking for help with proofing, but this time I think he just wanted to share his thoughts on what he obviously thought was a pretty important and yet poorly-written book:
This fascinating and necessary book is unfortunately almost destroyed by an abrading, agitating, annoying, bedeviling, beleaguering, boring, bugging, chafing, disturbing, exasperating, galling, irksome, irritating, maddening, peeving, provoking, turn-offing writing style. The author is unable to state his ideas in a straight-forward fashion but instead either uses a completely unnecessary list and an artificial word created with a slash, such as in this headache-producing sentence: "Both theorized, developed, and made popular (in academic as well as in nonacademic/community spaces) the notion that gender (i.e., notions, constructions, and embodiments of femininities and masculinities) are socially, historically, and culturally created, performed, repeated, reinforced, and policed through discourse, institutions, and material practices such as clothing, fashion, or 'drag'" (p. 6). (Notice that this sentence begins nowhere and goes nowhere.) One more example to make my point: "Masculinities, for me, refer to a heterogeneous spectrum of differently situated masculine relocated and situated sex/gender formations and performances, largely in Philippine and diasporic contexts, which were important sites in my study, but also in other overlapping Asian, indigenous/Pacific, African American and European/white contexts, which were also relevant to my fieldwork but not central to the project" (p. 6). And, my last example: "While I agree with Halberstam that female masculinity can be a 'masculinity without men' (a central premise of his book), in chapter 4, I engage and analyze Filipino examples in which (Filipino) tomboy masculinities and manhoods (which I argue can be interpreted as an indigenous/Filipino formation of fe/male masculinity and manhood) are created precisely through proximities and social intimacies with Filipino males/men, specifically alongside working class Filipino seamen" (p. 6). "Males/men"? Give me a break! All three of these sentences are taken from page six where I got my first headache, and in fact I could not read more than five or six pages a day for fear of having to go on sick leave. I will not produce any more examples but will assure the reader that such sentences appear several times on every page of this 183-page volume--many of them far more headache-producing than these three examples. (Does the Press have editors?)
Many of Robert's complete reviews can be found at the Anthropology Review Database.