Sunday, October 31, 2010

"How Liberal Are You?" (Reprise of 2005 Quiz -- You Were Warned)

As promised in yesterday's post, here is an old op-ed piece of mine, from 2005.
Look Inside, Will You Find a Liberal?
The Ledger, Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Robert L. Moore

Whether you know it or not, you may already be a liberal. Most Americans today have qualms about the death penalty, believe that Social Security should not be privatized and think gun show retailers shouldn't sell assault rifles to nut cases.

Yet, these same Americans are unwilling to label themselves as "liberal." Obviously this is because the vast, right-wing conspiracy is so cunning it has fooled millions of Americans into thinking they're not liberal when they actually are.

I'm here to put an end to this.

To do so, I have devised a simple, fair-and-balanced quiz that will let you know just how liberal you really are. And I mean "fair and balanced" in the Fox News sense. That is, I will write whatever suits me, and if anyone disagrees with me, I'll accuse them of being biased.

Simply answer a, b, or c to each question below.

1. Social Security, which has ended widespread poverty among America's elderly, has long been targeted for destruction by conservatives, but today:

a. We should "strengthen" it by dismembering it into private accounts.

b. We should adjust it as necessary to ensure its perpetual preservation.

c. We should use it as a blunt instrument to beat up on the GOP.

2. Since 1980, a large and growing proportion of America's wealth has been shifted away from the middle class and into the pockets of the superrich. This means:

a. This question is inciting class warfare.

b. We must ask whether upsetting the traditional balance of wealth and power will undermine our democracy.

c. The fat-cat Republican scheme to own everything and turn us into serfs is working.

3. Gay people:

a. Love Satan, which is why they refuse to do sex right.

b. Have been shown by a growing body of scientific evidence to be responding to undeniable, natural proclivities.

c. Are cool, except for those Log Cabin Republicans -- what's up with them?

4. Many Americans have been led to believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 massacre, even though the special committee appointed by the president established he was not. This means:

a. Saddam was involved -- and questions such as these only help the terrorists.

b. Some politicians have found it useful to mislead the public on this issue in order to advance their self-serving agendas.

c. No one died when Clinton lied.

5. The economy today is:

a. A-OK!

b. Problematic given current oil-price rises and the ballooning deficit.

c. Doomed and can only be saved by next year's surge in "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Kerry" bumper sticker sales.

6. Concerning the Iraq War:

a. Mission Accomplished!

b. The costs in lives and treasure have been so high that our strategy in that war, and perhaps even the war itself, may have been terrible mistakes.

c. "W" stands for "Warmonger."

7. The "W" in Dubya really stands for:

a. Wonderful.

b. Walker.

c. What the heck is he thinking?

To score: Give yourself one point for every c answer, two points for every b and three points for every a.

If your total is:

12-13 Yes, Virginia, you are a liberal.

9-11 Dennis Kucinich is your man.

7-8 Are you sure you're not a communist?

14 You're just plain wishywashy.

15-16 You're a conservative.

17-19 Tom DeLay is your man.

20-21 Are you sure you're not a Nazi?

Honest Abe - The Original Modern Liberal, famous for using big government to provide justice for the oppressed (thereby infuriating southern conservatives!)

Robert L. Moore, a native of Lakeland, is a professor of anthropology at Rollins College in Winter Park and director of international affairs at the college's Holt School.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Groovy as Ever

Last week my Vietnam War class cornered me during a discussion of the 1960s counter culture and forced me, in the interest of honesty, to admit that I had experimented with marijuana in my youth. Had I been completely honest I would have pointed out that I carried out a very thorough series of experiments, running approximately 3,000 tests over a period of fifteen years beginning in 1967. My experimenting tapered off and ended shortly after 1982 when I married my beloved wife who does not share my scientific curiosity on these matters.

At any rate, at the end of the test series I was able to conclude that the lyrics of the Band’s Music from Big Pink are much easier to hear and understand when you are stoned, but it is not a good idea to attempt to balance your checkbook in this condition. Science marches on.

Music from Big Pink - Worth listening to even for squares

The counterculture of ca. 1965-74 is of continuing interest to me. Of course it occurred during my college “coming of age” years, and it seems to me that whatever is going on in an individual’s life during their late adolescence and young adulthood winds up permanently coloring their worldview. For one thing, people seem never to tire of the music they learned in their youth, and are less likely to go for new musical trends that emerge when they are 30 or so.

But the counterculture was significant even for people who did not live through it. I think of the beginning of this movement as the "swell-cool divide" because it was at this time that the slang term “swell,” which had become wildly popular during the 1920s youth rebellion, was phased out and replaced by the new, all-purpose slang term of approval, “cool.”

Some other dimensions of change marking this divide stemmed from the Civil Rights movements. First there was the African-American movement led by people like Martin Luther King, and this was quickly followed by a resurgent women’s movement, and movements demanding equality for Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and gay Americans. The counterculture aligned itself with these movements, while conservative institutions opposed them. These battles are not over, but the trend continues to favor counterculture pro-Civil Rights values.

Anti-Vietnam War protests were also crucial for the counterculture, and, in fact, the peak counterculture years of 1965 to 74 are particularly marked by this ongoing war.

And let’s not forget the sexual revolution. Before 1965 premarital sex was considered naughty for males and disgraceful for females. Post-counterculture rules have changed. When Mary Richards (of the 1970s' Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Lou Grant mused about how many affairs a woman was allowed to have and still maintain her reputation, Mary came up with the answer: six.

See how things have changed?

And then of course there were haircuts and clothing styles. It was possible, in 1968 for example, to know something about a young man’s political ideals and attitude toward pot smoking simply by his haircut. Women of the counterculture also had favorite hairstyles, typically long and “natural.” However, nothing females did was quite so striking and, for conservatives, so obnoxious as was long hair on males. From the conservative "establishment" point of view, any guy with a beard or long hair was in need of a bath and was probably a dangerous criminal.

A short and entirely true story will illustrate this. In the summer of 1968 our family was staying at a vacation resort on Longboat Key. I, with my beard and appropriately long locks was in the swimming pool with my brother and sisters. My Mom sat poolside and was soon joined by a friendly lady from another family. That lady nodded toward me and remarked to my mother, “You have to wonder about some of the creepy characters staying at this place.”

“Before you say anything more,” my mother replied, “I should warn you that he’s my son. And yes, I do think he looks creepy.”

Thanks, Mom.

The counterculture also completely overturned student dress codes. Pre-1965 college students dressed as though they were going to church; post-counterculture students dress as though they’re headed for the beach.

Finally there is the environmental movement. The counterculture embraced the ideals that promoted limitations on consumption and waste, and protection of the environment generally. On the first Earth Day in April 1970 students on my campus in California buried a V-8 engine as a hopeful symbolic gesture highlighting the dead end that our oil-based economy was leading us down.

In a way the counterculture may be said to have won almost every fight it had with the conservative establishment except two of the most important ones: peace and economic justice. George W. Bush proved it was just as easy to drag the country into a dreadful war through deceit as it had been in 1965, and Ronald Reagan showed that the tax code could be rewritten to favor the rich over the middle class and saddle the country with a humongous debt while doing so.

The Tea Party, with its preponderance of white males, seems like a rearguard action by those who wish there had never been a 1960s counterculture. President Obama, in some ways, represents the counterculture, which is perhaps why so many Tea Partiers hate him. He has admitted to smoking marijuana in his youth, and he built his reputation by his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War. Then he broadened his support during the primaries with an extremely eloquent speech on the issue of race relations.

But perhaps his most unforgivable sin was his rejection of the high paying positions at prestigious law firms that were offered to him right out of law school. Instead of taking these jobs, he dedicated himself to community organizing in impoverished areas of Chicago. This is just the sort of choice made by thousands of counterculture youth who joined the Peace Corps or VISTA. But it is not the sort of choice likely to impress Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck.

Which is to say, the dramatic clash of cultures that began circa 1965 continues. Interestingly there are a lot of issues that the counterculture succeeded in getting the country to accept and as a result we are in many ways much more liberal than we were in 1964, even though we may not realize it. At least according to recent polls, those Americans who describe themselves as conservative far outnumber those who call themselves liberal. But do we really know our own hearts?

A few years ago, as a selfless public service, I composed a quiz that was designed to reveal our misperceptions about our unconscious liberal tendencies. The quiz may be a little dated now, but I think it might be worth reviving for my next posting. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Love, Marriage and Human Nature

To me, one of the cool things about anthropology is that it can help us understand human nature. My interest in human nature pits me against most of the Brainy Ones of the discipline today. According to the most admired anthropologists these days, we should forget about broad issues of human nature; instead we should study specific individual cultures where we can “identify the deployment of discursive strategies of negotiated dynamic gender hegemony blah, blah, blah.” Or something like that.

You might say that if you’re not talking about power and exploitation in anthropology these days, you’re part of the problem, or so the anthropological heavyweights would have us believe. But I am stubborn enough that I don’t care what the big shots think, and so I go about my merry way trying to figure out what is constant and fundamental in human nature.

I once had a brief conversation with the renowned Professor Jared Diamond in which I mentioned human nature. Diamond abruptly stopped me in mid-sentence and suggested that I not use the phrase “human nature” because it implies a too great constancy in human behavior across cultures.

Of course I understand variability across cultures, and I was about to let the eminent professor know this when I was interrupted by a colleague standing next to me who was even more anxious to impress this academic celebrity than I was. The result was I didn’t get to make my point to Dr. Diamond and so now I picture him getting up every morning and shaking his head as he thinks, “That Rollins College anthropologist really should acquaint himself with the basics of human variability!”

Oh well.

Back to my main point: Despite the current obsession with human variability, I’m still interested in things that all people do and that they do because these are rooted in their biological nature. Consider marriage and love, for instance. Almost every society known to anthropology expects most adults to get married at some point and to symbolize this marriage with a public wedding of some sort. But then there are the Mosuo, an ethnic minority from the picturesque mountains of western China. The Mosuo (aka Moso, Mosso or Na) are lovely people and very friendly as I found out when I visited them in 2008 along with my friend, Professor Wei, and three of our students.*

Mosuo Houses on Lugu Lake, Western China

The Mosuo are sometimes described as matriarchal, but they are not, as is evident as soon as you walk into a Mosuo household and notice the women doing most of the household chores. Could women doing most of the household chores be a basic, invariant feature of human nature? Just Kidding.

Mosuo Lady with Grandchild

Anyway, what most Mosuo do, instead of getting formally married, is follow a practice known in Chinese as “walking marriage,” in which men visit women in their bedrooms late at night when the household is asleep. There are no ceremonies in which a man and a woman acknowledge this relationship and it can be ended at any time by the woman refusing to admit the man into her boudoir, or by the man not showing up to visit the woman.

Young Mosuo Couple - Just Friends

So “getting married” is not a universal cultural precept. But falling in love might nevertheless be a universal feature of human nature. Many Mosuo do seem to fall in love. This substantiates a point that my friend, Professor Jankowiak of the University of Nevada has been arguing for decades: Humans are biologically wired to fall in love, and most people do so at least once in a lifetime.

The Mosuo are only different from every other culture in the world because, even when they fall in love, they don’t always institutionalize their affections in a public wedding ceremony. Actually, some Mosuo do get married, and some get married only at middle age after pursuing various “walking marriages” in their youth.

Falling in love, it turns out, has a lot to do with brain chemistry. It appears that surging dopamine and falling levels of serotonin can be found in the bloodstreams of people who are madly in love. These chemical traits are also found in the bloodstreams of people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Surprise, surprise.

I wonder if the day may come when people who have fallen out of love may be able to annul a marriage on the basis of induced insanity.

Plaintiff: “Your Honor, the defendant drove me crazy and broke my heart by flooding my brain’s Ventral Tegmental Area with torrents of dopamine when she wore that little black dress on our third date!”

Judge: I find for the plaintiff. Defendant is hereby restrained from similar provocations in the future.

But if all of us are programmed to fall crazily in love because of our brain chemistry, what makes human marriages so variable? This is where cultural differences come into play. There are almost as many different ways to get married across the globe as there are Mormons in Utah.

Speaking of Utah, that state harbors a conservative splinter group of Mormons who follow the original teachings of Joseph Smith and who therefore favor polygamous marriages. In fact, among this Mormon minority, the more wives a man has in this life, the higher his status will be when he gets to heaven.

It seems a little depressing to imagine that status competition could continue for us even after we get to heaven, but some men might say they would be willing to endure this if it involved a triple marriage to, say, Laura Linney, Isabella Rossellini and Salma Hayek.

Of course, this leaves aside what the women in these marriages face. They, after all, will also enjoy elevated status in heaven only if they share their husband with lots of co-wives.

My main point is this: I think we Homo sapiens have some basic wiring that shapes a lot of our behavior -- though I grant that the big shots who rule the anthropological roost are right to say there is a need to explain all the variation we find as we look at one culture after another. It’s just that for me, things that are the same everywhere -- like love -- are a bit more interesting than things that vary dramatically from culture to culture -- like marriage.

And I might add that, no matter what Frank Sinatra says, the Mosuo case clearly proves that these two things do not go together “like a horse and carriage.”

*The Mosuo way of life is well described in Chuan-kang Shih's Quest for Harmony: The Moso Traditions of Sexual Union and Family Life

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Custer’s Real Last Stand: The Swell-Cool Divide of 1965

I was recently stunned by my freshman class when I asked them if they knew who George Armstrong Custer was, and not a one could identify him. This is not my way of getting all school-marmy on today’s youth about their lack of historical knowledge (I’ll save that for a later post). No, the truth is, as Clay Shirkey might say, the only surprising thing about this scenario is my surprise.

Custer, for those of you born after 1965, was probably one of the 20 or 30 most famous Americans in history up until the 1960s. He was best known for the Battle of Little Bighorn, universally known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” where he and his entire command were wiped out by a contingent of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by the renowned Sitting Bull.

In a popular 1960 song, for example, Larry Verne portrayed a comically frightened trooper on the way to Little Bighorn pleading, “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go.” The most memorable line in the refrain was, “A coward I have been called, cuz I don’t wanna wind up dead or bald!”

So, in the old, pre-1960s days, Custer was truly famous. But after all, why should he have been? He was a brave and effective cavalry officer in the Civil War, and continued as a brave and genocidal officer during the wars against Native Americans in the 1860s and 70s. In other words, he was one of dozens of similar but more obscure figures in American history.

What made him famous were his marriage to the daughter of an influential judge back east, and his ambition to become famous and perhaps politically powerful after racking up what he apparently hoped would be impressive victories in the Indian Wars.

Custer’s ambition, his excellent connections and his flamboyant personality did make him famous in his day. But his role in the slaughter of indigenous families turned him into something of a villain during the cultural watershed of the 1960s. Vine Deloria’s 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, slammed him as did Arthur Penn’s popular 1970 film, Little Big Man. In the latter, Custer is portrayed as a vainglorious loon who leads his men into certain death at the Battle of Little Bighorn because he believes that “a Custer decision” is infallible and incontrovertible.

In other words, whereas the pre-1960s “swell generation” raised Custer to glorious heights, the subsequent “cool generation,” with its openness to Native American viewpoints and suspicion of military conquest, pulled him down into dusty obscurity. This is where he remains today, if my freshmen are any guide. And, frankly, as far as I’m concerned, that’s where he really belongs.*

Sitting Bull - He Had the Last Word

*For more on the swell - cool generational divide, see the Culture World post of December 11, 2010. (Back to the future!)

P.S. For a straightforward account of Custer’s life and personality, I have seen the following book recommended by reliable reviewers: The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Friday, October 15, 2010

When Heaven and Earth Change Places

You know how Frankenstein’s monster felt when throngs of angry citizens came after him with clubs and torches? Well, I do, because I’ve had a lot of experience reading student evaluations of my teaching.

OK, my evaluations are not all that bad (or I would have been fired long ago), but nonetheless, the ones that express dissatisfaction can be harsh. At the end of each semester I dread the prospect of reading a student’s comment that says something like, “Professor Moore is a lot like Bob Newhart would be if Bob Newhart were really boring.”

(Though, since current college students were born mainly in the 1990s, it is decreasingly likely that many of them can now identify Bob Newhart. -- who was not at all boring, by the way.)

For those who may not be in the know, student evaluations are the report cards that students write about their professors at the end of the semester. Unlike the grades the professors dole out, the students’ evaluations are anonymous, as they must be, to ensure candor. Not that we professors all have small, vindictive hearts. (It just seems that way in the movies sometimes.)

In addition to official campus evaluations there are various on-line professor evaluation sites. My favorite student once clued me in to such a site when she said to me, “Hey Dad, someone on RateMyProfessors said you are a Communist.” Of course I have no idea who wrote that anonymous, on-line comment, but whoever it was, they obviously can’t tell the difference between a Communist and a curmudgeon.

Different institutions handle student evaluations in different ways. The administrators at my own college, in a spirit of fiendishly sadistic exuberance, encourage every student to evaluate every single professor in every course. Naturally this comes back to torture them when they have to sit down and read all these comments at the end of the year. Ha!

The thoughtful professor always knows how to “interpret” the comments that students may make in their evaluations. For example, if a student writes, “Professor Moore is too difficult!” I interpret that to mean, “The level of difficulty in Professor Moore’s class is just right!”

I interpret the comment, “Professor Moore is disorganized,” to mean, “Anyone who gives me this much homework has no regard for how badly this disrupts my ability to improve my Grand Theft Auto game skills!”

If a student were to write, “Professor Moore is a lot like Bob Newhart would be if Bob Newhart were really boring,” I would interpret this to mean, “Professor Moore is a lot like that lovable TV character, Bob Newhart!”

Of course there are other ways to respond to student evaluations. If I were to order in popular breakfasts for my morning classes, say a box of warm Krispie Kreme doughnuts and a case of Diet Coke, this might well improve my evaluations, though some might consider this response on my part to miss the spirit of self-reflection. Cynics.

On the other hand, it might also make sense for me to respond to student comments by trying to improve my weak points. On the matter of organization, for example, I happen to have the perfect plan to overcome this perceived peccadillo right here among the papers on my desk. Well actually it might be here in one of these piles of papers, or it could be in one of my file cabinets. In any case, if I ever find it, I will be able to transform myself into a veritable organizational genius. Then we’ll just see who deserves to be flogged with such harsh and callous comments as “could use a little work in the area of organization.”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tea and Koch

Get ready, my fellow Americans, to see a bit more of your freedom slip away. Corporate money, which already dominates our political and economic landscapes, is preparing to dominate it further, and to do so with the help of the Tea Party.

Tea Party activists tell us that the democracy established by the founding fathers and strengthened by presidents like Lincoln and FDR, is the enemy of freedom. But our democratic government is not our enemy (at least not when it is relatively free of corporate influence).

The real threat to our freedom comes from the concentrated wealth of big corporations, those elitist bastions that are governed by the principle of “one dollar, one vote.” And the Tea Party is an extension of these bastions.

The leaders of the TP, of course, claim to be ordinary Americans, representative of grass roots anger aimed at unresponsive politicians in Washington. But the fiction of the TP’s grass roots has been thoroughly debunked, not once, but over and over.

Jane Mayer’s August 30 New Yorker article, for example, revealed the influence of the billionaire Koch (sounds like Coke) brothers on the TP movement, a measure of influence that they tried to keep concealed. Mayer writes that "By giving money to 'educate,' fund and organize Tea Party protesters, [the Koch brothers] have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement."

I imagine that most of the ordinary Tea Party foot soldiers are not aware that corporate money is behind their activities or that this money is designed to serve its own particular economic interests. They seem to have simply bought the right-wing ideology that portrays democratic government as the enemy of freedom, and so they march against "Washington" unaware of the moneyed interests that fund and help organize their activities while scheming to -- literally -- profit from them.

More evidence for the Tea Party's special interest funding comes from Frank Rich’s telling October 3 article in the New York Times, where he writes, “Big money rains down on the ‘bottom up’ Tea Party insurgency through phantom front organizations (Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security) that exploit legal loopholes to keep their sugar daddies’ names secret.”

Rich points out that most of these wealthy donors have succeeded in hiding their identities, but he then goes on to list those whose names have been recently uncovered by reporters. He also notes that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, in addition to directly funding the TP with $2 million, provides it with what amount to free advertisements on the Fox Network and in the Wall Street Journal.

Fox News is to the Tea Party what Pravda was to the Soviet Communist Party: a public relations operation pretending to be a news source. If it weren’t for Fox News and the billions of special interest money that fuels the TP, it would most likely amount to no more than a scattering of conservative voters upset that they lost the last election.

In fact the TP follows the conservative Republican (and Fox News) line slavishly even when this line contradicts itself. Start with the initial TP complaint about the deficit. If the deficit were the real motivation of TP leaders, they would have vilified Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (whose economic policies created the bulk of our current national debt) and then heaped praise on Bill Clinton for balancing the budget and creating a surplus.

Why don’t they? Apparently because Fox News and the other corporate interests behind the TP have other interests.

Currently the Bush tax cuts that helped create our huge deficits are scheduled to expire. The Tea Party and conservative GOP line says that we must not let any of them expire, but keep all of them in place, even those for the very wealthiest Americans. These tax cuts for the wealthy -- who do not face the stresses of unemployment and foreclosure -- would increase the national debt by more than a trillion dollars in the coming decade. But no matter, the TP wants to hand this money over to America’s corporate elite even though it will fall on the rest of us -- and our children -- to cover the debt these tax cuts create.

So, is the TP really concerned about the deficit? Or is it simply a well-organized and funded front for the same Wall Street tycoons and corporate millionaires who have dominated American politics since the 1980s? And who, by the way, through their domination of American politics over the past thirty years, have managed to siphon most of America’s accumulated wealth into their own coffers while holding middle class incomes down.

When conservatives say they favor “small government,” what they are really saying is that they favor a government so weak that corporate and Wall Street money can continue to have their way in screwing the American middle class. And the Tea Party is here to help them, while hiding the debt this movement owes to its behind-the-scenes benefactors.

We have seen what the domination of moneyed interests does to us all as recently as 2007 and 2008 when our inadequately regulated economy took a nosedive that we only pulled out of through the effects of the 2009 stimulus. Well, brace yourselves, amigos, and get ready for more of the same, as the pro-corporate special interests lick their chops in anticipation of a November takeover of a big chunk of Congress. Those of us who trust George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR more than we do Charles and David Koch will do what we can to hold off the attack, but if I had to choose a word to describe our prospects, I don't think it would be "optimistic."