Saturday, June 27, 2015

Yay Marriage

First of all, let me toast the five justices on the Supreme Court who ruled, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that states cannot make laws prohibiting people who love each other (or not) from getting married merely because those people are of the same sex.

But secondly, I feel obligated to point out that Chief Justice John Roberts is not the anthropologist he seems to think he is. I hasten to add that being a chief justice, instead of an anthropologist, is not a sin, though I would also suggest that the world would be a better place if more chief justices were, in fact, anthropologists. 

But maybe that’s just me. 

Anyway, here’s the problem: Justice Roberts wrote, in a dissenting opinion on the Obergefell v. Hodges case, that “the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs.”
          Whoa – Justice Roberts, get ahold of yourself! These sweeping assertions about marriage across cultures and in human history are, in a word, balderdash. Here’s why: different societies around the world have had lots of different ways of thinking about marriage and about the place of gender identity in marriage. 

            Let’s consider the Han Chinese, one of the cases the Chief Justice so casually submits as evidence. Traditional Han Chinese marriage was a very different sort of thing from the one-man-one-woman arrangement implied in Justice Roberts’ dissent. First of all, and as is well known, an awful lot of Chinese marriages were polygamous in the past. Furthermore, there were numerous cases where, if a betrothed man happened to have died before his wedding day, the betrothed woman would wind up marrying not him, but his ghost. Though these marriages did have at least a vague sense of heterosexuality about them, I would suggest that Justice Roberts not call on the traditional Han Chinese as friends of the Court here unless he wants to invite a docketful of cases where forlorn individuals demand the right to marry the ghosts of their departed lovers. But maybe he would be OK with that, as long as the supplicant and the departed were of opposite sexes.

            Concerning the good people of southern Africa’s Kalahari (and I would encourage Justice Roberts to refrain from using the pejorative term “Bushmen”), I have little to say except that their marriages were sometimes polygamous. On the other hand, the Nuer people of northern Africa are well known in anthropological writings for female-female marriages. These lady-to-lady marriages were generally undertaken when a lineage, lacking sons, sought descendants through the marriage of one of its daughters to another woman, a woman young enough to bear children. It was then up to the young bride to find hooking-up opportunities among the local lads so she could get herself with child and thus provide the family with descendants.

            Finally, I’ll leave aside the Carthaginians and the Aztecs in favor of some well-known Native Americans of the old west where “two spirit people,” that is, people who combined male and female qualities, have been known and written about for many years. Will Roscoe has described these folks fairly recently in The Zuni Man-Woman and in Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America. May I suggest to you, Chief Justice Roberts, that you put one or both of these on your summer reading list?

            George Bird Grinnell also wrote about these male-female individuals decades ago in The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life. He noted that among the Cheyenne, some people who were regarded as male by virtue of their sex organs, got married to men, also penilly endowed, and thereby assumed the role of wife to these men.*

            So now, Justice Roberts, do you have anything more to say about the kind of marriage that has “formed the basis of society for millennia?”


            I didn’t think so.

            I will give Justice Roberts this much, however: though he is anthropologically ignorant, at least he is not a mean-spirited bigot. He is not, in other words, Antonin Scalia, who wrote in his vitriolic dissenting opinion that the supporters of same-sex marriage are “enemies of the human race.”

            I guess we will let history make the final judgment as to who in this issue is the real enemy of the human race. In the meantime, isn’t it wonderful when an institution that represents us all, like the White House, reflects a sentiment that reflects what is best in us?


       * For a wonderfully entertaining fictionalized account of Cheyenne life which includes a man-woman character, let me recommend Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, also available as a film starring Dustin Hoffman.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Donald Trump for President

Yesterday Donald Trump announced that he is running for president. As a public service, and as a way to express our deepest feelings about this development, Culture World has decided to write an open letter to Mr. Trump.

Dear Mr. Trump.

What an amazing day! You have astonished the world with your bold announcement. Of course, some people are saying things about you like, “That Trump is a bigger idiot than I realized,” and “Ha ha ha ha ha!” and “I wonder what his position is on the Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act?”

OK, I haven’t actually heard anyone say that last thing, but my point is, you need to ignore these people. After all, most of them are not rich.

You, on the other hand, are, “really rich.” You have a total net worth of $8.73 billion, a point you made, not to brag, but just to let people know this important fact.

But Culture World knows you’re a sensitive guy, and therefore implores you not to let the critics get you down. People may say things like, “When did Donald Trump ever run for office?” or “Donald Trump sucks,” or “Donald Trump’s head looks like a glistening Easter egg covered in orange grass,” and so on. But don’t let this get to you, because…you’re Donald Trump! No other candidate can say that.

And there are ways to fight back. If, for example, while you’re standing at some podium, a sudden gust from the AC causes your comb over to fly up, you can just say, “This AC was probably designed by Obama!” or something like that.

You know what a loser Obama is. Sure he brought the economy back and saved the auto industry, but you would have done things faster and better. For example, if you had been president in 2009, you would have let the auto industry die, and then started your own super-duper auto industry. If only you had been president, we would all be driving around in awesome Trumpmobiles today!

As you said in your speech yesterday, America is not a great country these days, but with you in the White House, America would be great again, because you know how to handle the Chinese. The Chinese are now building a military island in the South China Sea, but, as you so wisely pointed out, America under Obama won’t build a military island because of environmental regulations. No wonder Obama is turning us into a Third World country, what with all his worrying about the environment. Stupid planet.

And don’t let those Republicans block you from the debates. I know that some of them are saying, “Wait - we can’t let the clown car get even clownier.” But what do they know? They never showed their greatness by writing The Art of the Deal. Only you have proven yourself to be a great leader, a great businessman, and a great author. If they try to block you, here’s what you do: buy Puerto Rico and turn it into the fifty-first state! Then you could elect yourself to be a senator from Puerto Rico. Heck, with your money you could elect yourself to be both senators from Puerto Rico. The Republicans wouldn’t dare turn someone away who is two sitting senators! Game over.

Culture World has so much confidence in you that it would bet its entire budget on your victory. And you should do the same. You should offer to give your fortune away, the entire $8,737,540,000, to the Nature Conservancy if you are not elected president. What do you have to lose? Nothing! Because there is no chance you can lose -- because you are DONALD TRUMP!

    The Great Donald Trump (Courtesy of David Becker/Getty Images)

With Warm Regards,
Culture World

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Greatness of Generations

Some years ago I had a brief exchange with a very sweet lady who, having been born around 1920, was of my parents’ generation. She was boastfully teasing me by pointing out that unlike me, she belonged to “The Greatest Generation.”

“But,” I replied, “your parents are really the greatest generation because they were the ones who raised you. And I’d like to know why you guys were all so incompetent as to raise a bunch of out-and-out losers like us baby boomers.”

She did not reply.

OK, my response was not entirely legit, since crediting parents with their children’s accomplishments can only make sense (and then only sometimes) in the context of individual families, not entire generations.

On the other hand, how can an entire generation, like, for example, the World War II generation, be identified as great, while its forebears and descendants lurk in the shadows of mediocrity?

It can’t.

Actually, talking about generations like this is arrant nonsense (though it does give me an opportunity to use “arrant,” which is one of my favorite words).

Anyway, here’s the scoop: what happened in the case of the WW II generation is that a famous television personality, Tom Brokaw, wrote a book in the 1990s honoring them just as some of their most prominent members were fading from public view. George H. W. Bush, for example, a Navy pilot who had demonstrated admirable courage in combat during the war, stepped down in 1993, as the last member of his generation to occupy the White House.

But Brokaw went overboard with his argument, claiming that this generation was the greatest not just in American history but in world history, largely because they fought the good fight against the Nazis and the imperial Japanese.

From Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe series in The Stars and Stripes 

I don’t want to be thought unappreciative of my parents and their cohort (my dad was a WW II era pilot, stateside), but I do feel obligated to mention Russia’s 1940s generation. It was the Soviet military, after all, that did most of the work and suffered, by far, the bulk of the casualties in destroying Hitler’s war machine. The entire world is very much indebted to the people of the Soviet Union because they were the ones who, in Churchill's words, “tore the heart out of the German army.”

But I wouldn’t even agree that the Soviet Union’s WW II generation deserves to be labeled “the greatest” - despite their suffering, sacrifice and success.

Generations, after all, are collections of people of a certain age who find themselves in circumstances beyond their own control. It is hard to see how they can be described as responding to these circumstances by virtue of sterling character traits with which they are endowed, though apparently their parents and offspring are not. The baby boomers who went off to fight in Vietnam in 1965 were inspired by the same patriotic fervor as their parents had been in the 1940s, but unlike their parents, many of these boomer vets came back from that misguided war soured and disillusioned. It wasn’t that their characters were different from those of their parents; their war was different. And, it may be worth adding here, the boomers were sent off to fight that dreadful war because Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both members of the so-called greatest generation, lied about our need to fight it.

One thing for which the world will always be indebted to the World War II generation is their handling of victory. Both Germany and Japan, because of the wisdom and generosity of the post-war occupations in those countries, flourish as prosperous and stable democracies today. This is largely due to the policies promoted by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and the people of their administrations. As progressive liberals, they promoted such transformational policies in the defeated Axis nations as…

strong labor unions,
redistribution of property to the poor,
restraints on corporate power, and
gender-neutral voting rights.

In other words, one of the greatest things about the “Greatest Generation,” was the liberalism with which they helped transform the right-wing dictatorships of Germany and Japan. Did Brokaw make note of this? Don’t know, since I never read his book.

Anyway, thank you, Parental Generation, for this and other gifts. But please forgive me if I reject the idea that of all the generations the world has known, yours is the greatest.