Monday, June 14, 2021

Needed: "cynical knowledge"

What people call "Critical Race Theory" should, in my view, be a component of a larger program of what Chomsky calls "intellectual self-defense." Or, if you prefer, what a professor of mine (r.i.p. Robert Lawless) called "cynical knowledge." This is a realization, developed through scientific observation and analysis of the facts of US history, that the pablum we are fed from almost all sides of our culture about how gloriously wonderful and beneficent the US has always been is no more than the "propaganda" and "mind control" that we deride when we see it in other nations.

We only have to look at the people jumping on Rep. Ilhan Omar for suggesting that the US has done bad things to realize that we desperately need this kind of knowledge. Otherwise, we just keep doing bad things, like ripping little kids away from their parents at the border, surely a Crime Against Humanity.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

"Tribal" again, encore

Still thinking about the popular use of "tribal" in referring to political or actual conflict.

Journalists and others call it "tribal" I think because they've learned somewhere that the societies we anthropologists think of as tribal (mostly small-scale horticulturalists and pastoralists) are always warring against each other, which of course they rarely do except in very special circumstances. Steven Pinker has exacerbated the problem by bleating about how much more peaceful we are now that we have large nation-states to keep our demons under control.

For me, "tribal" yields an admittedly somewhat fuzzy set of social and cultural features which set these sociocultural "systems" apart from larger-scale systems of the sort that Friedman was referencing. Maybe one of the most important is the distinction between small-scale shamanistic/communalistic religious cults and the larger-scale ecclesiastical cults at the center of mideastern conflict. Social fusion/fission plays a part in these conflicts. This is suggested by violence between Christian cults (Northern Ireland), islamic cults (Middle East etc.), and so on all over the place. They had fusion forced on them by external colonial powers, now they're striving for fission to preserve what they see as their identity.

So maybe the Social Imperative is at the heart of it all. SI promotes fusion, but too much fusion provokes crowding stress, and SI responds with fission?

Incidentally, I feel the same way about the gross misuse of "theory." This past year I actually heard Ira Flatow on NPR's Science Friday ask a physicist "when does a theory become a fact?" I meant to email him but never did....

Friday, April 23, 2021

"Tribal" again

 Tom Friedman was just on CNN pushing the “tribal politics” meme to describe our problems. Where is the Anthropolgy Word Police Squad?

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

"Neanderthal Thinking"

Holy coprolites, the work of anthropologists is never done!

We are being told that President Biden has charged the governors of Texas and Mississippi with "Neandertal thinking" (don't get me started on the spelling!) for their decisions to drop Covid-related restrictions.

How do we get through to him that any random Neandertal (early European Homo sapiens) almost certainly had more empathy, more concern for the members of their community, than these two troglodytic governors combined? Why? Because without doubt as children they were dependence-trained and thus sensitive not just to what their society owed them, but what they owed to their society reciprocally. Not independence-trained like these selfish, socially irresponsible "modern" USAniacs.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


I've been off the blog, really pretty much just off, for most of the last presidential term.  Every time I thought of writing about something, before I could get my thoughts collected something else happened that knocked the first thoughts off the road.  Now that we have a new, slightly more boring (i.e. "normal") president, maybe there will be time to think and write a little between events.

News: I have now received my two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.  My age (75 and counting) qualified me for an early vaccination.  Tomorrow (Feb 25) will mark two weeks since my second dose, so I should be able to go out the house without being terrified.

So, my thought for this first post of 2021:

Now over half-a-million dead from the virus! I still want to see the former president and his enablers indicted, possibly for negligent homicide although that almost seems too lenient. It could be genocide, since they seemed to lose interest when they learned that Black and Brown populations were the most susceptible to the worst effects of the virus.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Another August 6th

Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, followed shortly thereafter by the bombing of Nagasaki. So far, watching the News (CNN, MSNBC) I haven't caught any mention of it.

I'll let my past posts speak for themselves:

2009: An almost unmentioned anniversary

2010: The most destructive use ever of weapons of mass destruction

2011: Another August 6th

2012: Yet another August 6th

2013: August 6, 1945

2014: It's August 6th, again

2015: August 6, 2015

2016: August 6, again

Sunday, July 5, 2020

English is complicated?

Some folks on social media lately have been expressing concern about how "complicated" English is.  There are a couple of things a linguist might want to say about that.

First, we have to be clear that we are talking about the language, not the writing system.  The English writing system is indeed complicated, but not because the language itself is complicated.  The writing system is complicated because it was first developed for Old English or Anglo-Saxon back before the year 1000 CE.  It was developed by Christian missionaries who mostly used the Latin alphabet, and it was not bad.  The vowels a e i o u had their Latin qualities (pretty much modern Spanish).  A word like Moon (for the Moon) was pronounced like modern English moanHus (house) rhymed with modern loose.  All the written consonants in cniht (knight) were pronounced.  These sounds changed, and some disappeared, over the years, but how we write them did not change so much.  We can safely that English spelling is a nightmare.  George Bernard Shaw captured this with his humorous observation that we could spell fish as ghoti (gh from enough, o from women, and ti from nation).

If anything, English grammar has simplified over the years.  In Old English, nouns had cases like modern Russian and German, so the word for 'person,' folc, varied depending on whether it was singular or plural as well as whether it was being used as a subject, object, possessor, or object of a preposition: subjects and objects singular and plural folc; possessors folces, folca; prepositionals folce, folcum.  This meant that word order was somewhat less important in Old English. In these example, the words for king and bishop do not change form, but the definite article does (ϸ is a rune letter that represented the 'th' sounds):
Se cyning meteϸ ϸone biscop.    'the king met the bishop'
ϸone cyning meteϸ se biscop.     'the bishop met the king'
Old English verbs, too, were more complicated than their modern reflexes.  They were conjugated for person, number, tense, and mode.  One brief example, the verb dēman (to judge) in the present indicative:  (I) dēmde; (you) dēmdest; (she/he) dēmde; (we/you-all/they) dmaϸ.

While English has lost some of its complexity, the one thing that probably troubles adult learners most is the auxiliary verb (AUX) DO that makes an appearance in question-formation.  Note the following:
Statement:   Cats eat mice. 
Question:     Do cats eat mice?
Where did that do come from?  English is the only language I know about that forms questions in this way (though there may be others).  The answer lies in realizing that the basic rule for question-formation in English is "Move AUX" which means the Auxiliary verb is moved to the front of the sentence.  In sentences that already have an auxiliary verb, things are pretty simple.  Here the AUX will is moved to form the question:
Statement:   The cats will eat the mice. 
Question:     Will the cats eat the mice?
There appears to be no AUX in the statement.  Or isn't there?  It turns out that all English sentences have a place for an AUX, but the place can be unoccupied.  But to follow the "Move AUX" rule and form a question, if the AUX position is empty, we have to create a "dummy AUX" and then move it:
Statement:   Cats ___ eat mice.    →    Cats DO eat mice.
Question:     DO cats eat mice?
Just one more bit of complication.  Suppose the sentence is Our cat eats mice.  Look what happens:
Statement:             Our cat eats mice.
Prep for question:  Our cat DO eats mice.  →    Our cat DOES eat mice.
Question:               Does our cat eat mice?
Note that the -s on eat moves to AUX before AUX is moved to form the question.  There are explanations for why this happens, but they will take us too deep into the weeds of English syntax. For now, let's just say that while English is not as complicated as many people think, it does have its quirks.

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