Saturday, December 31, 2011


Modern Mexico was built partly on a socialistic foundation. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled that country for most of the 20th century, allowed rural Mexicans to control precious farmland through communal ownership, and protect it from the greedy hands of the millionaire class. Every village had perpetual control over its farmland and distributed it to resident families for them to farm as they needed it. On this basis, most of Mexico’s tens of millions of peasants lived in relative peace and economic security for decades.

Deb Bennett and I lived in Pustunich, a Yucatecan village, during the summer of 1970, when I went there to do some research on Maya identity. While there, our friend, Armando, told us a story about how the poor peasants of Pustunich organized a kind of “Occupy Pustunich” rebellion against the local “One Percenters.” (The peasants didn’t refer to their rich neighbors as “One Percenters,” of course, that’s my editorializing. They just called them the ranchers.)

The conflict began because the ranchers, who owned thousands of head of cattle, refused to fence their herds in, and the cattle began to wander onto the village lands and devour the crops there. The villagers pleaded with the cattle barons to put up fences, but the ranchers refused to act. When the peasants went to the local government to complain, the government, being in the pocket of the rich, did nothing.

So the village men got together and decided to kill the cattle that were on their land. They were all part-time hunters, so they were well enough armed to take down all the straying cattle and they acted quickly to do so. They vowed not to take any of the meat of the cattle for their households, to avoid being accused of selfish motives, and then they sent a message to the local government saying, “If you come to arrest any of us, you will have to arrest all of us, and if you try to do that, we will resist.”

Within a matter of days, fencing went up around the cattle ranchers’ pastureland. End of problem.

Our constitution guarantees us the right to bear arms solely for the purpose of organizing a local militia, and, in effect, this is what the Pustunich villagers were doing in their 1960s uprising. For them, the essence of their freedom was not in the murderous power of the guns, to which they rarely referred (and which, not being gun nuts, they didn’t glorify). Their freedom and their economic security were based on their capacity for collective action, and that’s what they emphasized when they recounted their story.

Socialism is a kind of patriotism – patriotism being a matter of our looking out for each other in our community and our nation. It does, in fact, take a village to properly raise a child, but the people in that village need to see each other as rooting for the home team – as the Pustunicheros did.

Our men and women in uniform, in fact, are part of a kind of socialistic organization. The overriding principle in the U.S. Army, for example, is concern for the group as a whole. The individual who acts for his or her own profit or glory is a lousy soldier. That’s socialism.

I wouldn’t actually call myself a socialist, but I would certainly like to see socialism treated with more honesty in our media and in our culture generally. But the vast right-wing conspiracy that dominates our media has sold us a bill of goods on its nature. Americans have been trained, like Pavlovian dogs, to react with hostility to anything or anyone that can be labeled as “socialist,” even though socialism offers real potential for the promotion of freedom and justice. The people of Pustunich knew this, but we in the U.S. have been trained to think otherwise.

On a lighter note, here are some pictures from Pustunich and other sites in Linda Mexico that Darla and I took during our 1990 stay in Merida.

Pustunich House

Pustunich Hatmaker with His Family

Backyard Vegetable Garden


In Pustunich, everyone sleeps in hammocks - and they often make their own: Hammock-Making Rack.

Turkeys would sometimes wander into homes in Pustunich. Revenge for the humans came in the form of turkey tacos - a Yucatan staple.

Pustunich Family Livestock

In the City of Merida: The Municipio or Local Government

Mexicans Love Their Children. A Children's Parade in Which the Youngsters Are Dressed Up in Local Garb.


Little Guerita Grace Watches the Parade on Dad's Shoulders

In 1990 Darla and I saw many welcoming signs in which the folks in the city affectionately referred to Americans as "gringos."

Adios, my fellow gringos.


Friday, December 23, 2011

This I Believe: On Noah's Ark and Individualism

There are apparently still six or seven American voters who have not yet made up their minds to detest Congress. Last week, in an attempt to win these last few holdouts over to the “Congress Sucks” bandwagon, Speaker John Boehner orchestrated a roadblock against a bill that would have extended tax breaks and unemployment compensation for millions of Americans.

Boehner’s scheme seemed to be working until, under pressure from Senate Republicans and the Wall Street Journal, he caved. Consequently, there may still be a few citizens who continue to believe that Congress will occasionally do the right thing.

Speaker Boehner

There were actually a number of good reasons for supporting the bill that Boehner tried to kill. First, it benefits tens of millions of Americans, particularly those whose extended unemployed status has kept them in desperate poverty. Secondly, it would give a needed boost to the economy when those citizens spend their extra income. After all, it is these very citizens who are America’s real job creators, not the corporate fat cats on whom the GOP seems to have an undying crush.

Of course, Tea Party Republicans had a powerful rationale for opposing the bill, namely that President Obama favored it. Tea Party doctrine says that anything Obama supports must be evil, socialistic and Kenyan, so they felt obligated to take a stand against it, but to no avail.

It is possible to move beyond the petty politics embodied in last week’s dispute, beyond the tiresome posturing that has spawned deadlock after deadlock in our government since the 1990s. There are, in fact, real philosophical differences that divide left from right, Democrat from Republican.

Leaving aside the hostility to gays, to non-whites and to non-fundamentalists that motivate much of the Republican base, we can consider the real discernible differences in ideas about how the economy works that divide liberals from conservatives. The essential difference boils down to a belief in individualism which conservatives embrace but toward which liberals are leery. The conservative view (as I, an outsider, understand it) holds that some people become rich and successful because they are hard-working or clever innovators or bold and prescient risk-takers whose efforts make the economy surge. So, if the government will simply back away and let the best people strive, the economy will naturally work out a just system of rewards while at the same time generating robust growth from which all, rich and poor alike, will benefit.

It is hard for me to write those words, actually, because they seem so patently false. But there you are. Right wing, anti-government hyper-capitalists are hereby invited to let me know if I have your philosophy wrong.

I would actually agree that there is an element of truth to this ideology, but it is a very limited element. It is true that, as a rule, a hard-working individual does better economically than a lazy one, given the same opportunities, etc. It is true that risk-taking investors help promote innovation and diversification of the economy. The problem is that the limited truth embodied in this ideology is pumped up by conservative propaganda into a kind of religious fervor. Conservatives seem to believe in this ideology with the same single-minded intensity that Pat Robertson believes in Noah’s Ark -- and in the face of similarly damning counter evidence. But evidence counts for little to those whose beliefs are based on religious fervor.

I’ve heard the conservative argument, for example, that the Federal Reserve is an evil institution that should be abolished because it entails government intrusion in the economy. Yet there is widespread agreement among economists that the Fed, since it was created, has muted the effects of most of the recessions over the past hundred years. During the hundred years prior to the creation of the Fed, the U.S. economy suffered one devastating panic after another.

The FDIC, a government program, has prevented the disastrous unregulated bank failures that impoverished thousands of middle class families in the 1930s.

The Social Security Act has made the lives of tens of millions of retired people comfortable when, before it was enacted, the misery and humiliation of the poorhouse was a common end-of-life experience for the elderly. Do right-wing efforts to “privatize” or otherwise destroy this government program really make sense? Is Social Security an example of government evil? If not, why argue that government intervention is always bad for the economy? Same thing with Medicare, unemployment insurance and the G.I. Bill.

On the G.I. Bill, I have to point out that a beloved gentleman of my acquaintance who, through hard work and intelligent effort lifted himself from Depression-era poverty to millionaire prosperity, once told me that the single thing that made the biggest difference in his life was the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill, this liberal Democratic program, this entitlement, allowed him to get a Bachelor of Science degree when, as a young man during the Depression, he never imagined there would ever be any way for him to attend college. Oddly, as a conservative Republican, he continued to rail against “government entitlements” throughout his life. It’s like a religion, I tell you.

This topic is too big to cover adequately in a blog post, but let me just end with a handful of questions for which I have never found convincing conservative answers: If effort and ability determine who gets rich and who stays poor, why is it that the overwhelming majority of Americans live and die within the same class into which they are born? Why is it that no child, born as a migrant worker, has ever become a senator, governor, or, to my knowledge, powerful CEO? Why did the American economy grow so rapidly during the heyday of liberalism (1945-79) and why has it done so much worse since the rise of conservatism? Why, during conservatism’s rise, have the “one percent” managed to suck into their own coffers such a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth? Did these one-percenters suddenly become more “hard-working and intelligent” after 1980? And, finally, what impressive personal qualities made George W. Bush a solid member of this privileged one percent?

 From America's Top One Percent: George W. Bush

Sunday, December 11, 2011


My gut-feeling says that President Obama has about a 53% chance of getting re-elected. This is close enough to a toss-up that we might as well call it a toss-up.

His advantages are that he is an obviously intelligent and well-intentioned man who has tried to avoid ideological extremism while striving to bolster the economy and provide some protections (like access to health care) for the poor and marginalized.

His main disadvantage is that the economy is improving only very slowly and, though he has done a lot to prevent a depression and to push us in the right direction, he will be, as presidents always are, blamed for the weak economy if weak it still is next November. He’s like a firefighter who struggled to put out a raging house fire, but is now being blamed because he hasn’t restored the damaged parts of the house to their original mint condition. So, the voters are threatening to send him packing and bring back the arsonists who started the fire in the first place. Short memories, the voters.

One of the worst consequences of an Obama defeat would be the packing of the Supreme Court with right-wing ideologues. Republican presidents are in the habit of appointing justices who are unbendingly conservative, which is to say, pro-corporate. One obviously problematic consequence of the pro-corporate bias of the current court is the Citizens United decision of 2010 which enhanced, in Justice Stephens’ dissenting words, “the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering.” But “enhancing the corrupting potential of corporations” is what conservatives are all about, so we can expect a Republican-packed Supreme Court to produce a “Corporations Gone Wild” electoral environment.

So what kind of people would a GOP president apppoint? Well, think about Dick Cheney’s good buddy, Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia was a driving force behind the Bush v. Gore decision which, on the basis of the privilegio de favoritum candidatum principle, shut down the ballot recounting following the 2000 election. The conservative justices held that continuing to count the ballots would have resulted in more democracy than was good for the country. Scalia and his right-wing pals seemed to think the Florida voters were being uppity in favoring Al Gore over Bush and Cheney and needed to be reminded who was boss. Clarence Thomas, an appointee of George W. Bush's dad, was also a strong supporter of the Bush v. Gore decision.


And there’s more. When, in 2006, Scalia was confronted with criticism from citizens who continued to fault him for his part in Bush v. Gore, he responded by saying, “Get over it…that was an election ago.”

Now there’s a legal principle for you, the “Get Over It” postulate. I wonder how Osama bin Laden might have made the same argument to the Seals as they burst into his lair last spring. “Are you Americans still resentful over 9-11? Come on, that was two or three terrorist attacks ago!”

Anyway, it is people like Scalia and Thomas who will dominate the Court for decades to come if a Republican wins the 2012 election. A shady, pro-corporate Supreme Court wouldn’t be the only horrible consequence of a GOP victory, but it would certainly be among the worst.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

He Touched Me

So Herman Cain is suspending his presidential race. Well who can blame him? After all, several women have totally made up a bunch of stories about him having harassed them sexually and now here comes this Ginger White lady claiming they had had a long-term sexual affair. But, as Mr. Cain has clearly explained, she was merely his “secret friend about whom his wife knew nothing” for 13 years and that’s all she was.

Somebody isn’t being straight with us here and, according to Mr. Cain, it’s the media. After all, it’s the media who keep reporting on this army of women that Mr. Cain never approached sexually in any way, and it's the media, as the good candidate has repeatedly stated, that we should blame for his downfall. See? This is really all Brian Williams’ fault.

Don’t forget that Herman Cain is a businessman and not a politician. As several people have pointed out, this means he would make a terrific president. For sure we don’t want professional politicians in the White House. We tried that with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lord save us from that lot. And I bet not a one of them could answer questions about Libya any better than Herman can.

What we want is someone that businessmen all over America can point to with pride as a non-politician. We want Herman Cain! Or someone of his character.

Oh, Herman, isn’t there a chance that you’ll reconsider? There can’t be that many more women out there that will keep making up stories about your horny ways.

And note that a recent poll in Florida showed that 15% of Republicans in that state still want to vote for you, even now, after Brian Williams has done his dirty work. These are probably the smartest 15% in the whole GOP, and they are bound to have some influence on their fellow Republicans in the upcoming primaries.

All I’m saying is, do you really want to give up? Aren’t you the Cain who launched a thousand pizza trucks and dazzled the peerless powers of mediadom? Is there no chance that you’ll reconsider? Oh Herman, we can’t believe you would leave us now – not after having touched so many of us in such a special way.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Doing Fieldwork in Anthropology

Last week Darla and I went to Montreal where the American Anthropological Association was holding its annual convention. Montreal is an interesting, bilingual city where store clerks routinely greet customers with “Bonjour Hi!” so as to cover Francophone and Anglophone bases all at once.

Since Darla speaks French, she could launch into an involved conversation with the clerks, most of whom seemed to be at home in that language. Meanwhile, if they tried to address me, all I could do was toss out the few French words I know in order to make the best impression possible: “Bonjour! Mon Dieu! Breezheet Bardot!”

By coincidence, while the anthropology conference was in session, a review of three books on Afghanistan came out in the New York Times Book Review under the title “Applied Anthropology” The review praised Noah Coburn’s Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town for its clear-eyed, detailed and complex description of power relations in the town of Istalif, and noted that Coburn did not consider foreign intervention helpful to the local Afghans, no matter how well-intended. I haven’t read Coburn’s book yet, but I did hear him discuss it at last year’s AAA meetings, and I gather that it is an example of cultural anthropology at its best: meticulous, even-handed, and based on careful, long-term research undertaken in the community described.

Istalif: Famous for Its Pottery

(Photo by Noah Coburn)

This long-term-residence-based research is known as participant observation, and is a hallmark of cultural anthropology. Its appeal is that, assuming the researcher establishes rapport with the local people, he or she comes to see the world largely through the same lens or lenses as they do, an accomplishment that may not be possible in any other way. I know from my own experience that living in the People’s Republic of China in 1993-94 gave me an understanding of life in that country that the reading of many dozens of books had failed to provide. Not that the reading was a waste of time; it just didn’t quite cover some of the details and subtleties of life in China that authors ordinarily don’t think to mention.

Engaging in participant observation is referred to as “doing fieldwork,” and in graduate school, we regarded those students who had completed their fieldwork with a kind of awe that in the military is reserved for combat veterans. And sometimes fieldwork can feel like combat, given the insects, diseases, unfamiliar food, rough living conditions, and intricate local customs to which the fieldworker must often become accustomed. Admittedly, anthropologists are rarely shot at while doing fieldwork, but during the most trying days of field research, being shot at would seem to be little more than one more irritation making life barely livable.

But really, for the most part, fieldwork is enjoyable. It involves learning about a way of life that you are interested in and it almost always gives birth to friendships that can last a lifetime.

Of course there are those scholars who criticize participant observation as too subjective to be useful. These critics may have a point. Or, they may just be too chicken to spend a year living in a bug-infested thatched hut learning about kin groups and subsistence among the Nambikwara.

Having spent most of my time doing urban anthropology, I’ve rarely stayed in thatched huts, though some of the Hong Kong dives I lived in during the 1970s had their share of bugs. Really big bugs, as a matter of fact.

My friends, Clay and Carole Robarchek, did live with a couple of forest-dwelling tribal peoples and have written about their experiences in a series of articles and books. For over a year they participated in and observed the lives of the Semai, a famously gentle group of rain-forest cultivators in the mountains of Malaysia. As likeable as the Semai generally are, Clay did say that he sometimes lost patience at being teased by them about his lack of such basic survival skills as the ability to procure food from the jungle. “I got to the point,” Clay once told me, “that I wanted to bring some Semai back to California, put them in front of a vending machine and say to them, ‘OK, feed yourselves.’”

Semai Kids

But honestly, fieldwork experiences tend to be very rewarding. And these days they are extremely varied. Vanessa Fong, an expert on China’s youth, talked about her current research at this conference. Since many of the young people she has been writing about for the past few years have left China, she has undertaken research by purchasing “round the world” plane tickets. These allow her to go from city to city virtually without limit, as long as she travels in one direction, and with them she is tracking down young Chinese in the U.S., Japan, Australia, Britain, Ireland and other places. The world, it seems, is her field site.

Despite the criticism that participant observation has been subject to, I expect its usefulness will live on. Bill Jankowiak made an interesting observation during his AAA presentation this year, when he quoted the late, great British anthropologist, E. E. Evans-Pritchard as follows: “If the Romans had written about social theory and had also done ethnography (i.e., participant observation) in their day, what would we be most anxious to read today? Not the theory, but the ethnography.”

Bloody likely, that.

Professor Evans-Pritchard, Colonial Era Anthropologist,
with Azande Friends, ca. 1930

Saturday, November 12, 2011

GOP 2012

The GOP debates are starting to feel like media enhanced waterboarding. If they go on much longer, I can see myself in the not-too-distant future screaming, “Stop! Stop! I’ll tell you anything you want, just call off Bachmann, Cain and Company!”

On the other hand, I have to grant that the torture has helped reveal the candidates’ characters and personal quirks. They haven’t really clarified much about policy differences, though, since all of the Republican candidates are slavish followers of the same handful of principles:

1. Barack Obama is unworthy to be president because he is (choose all that apply): socialistic, Muslim, Kenyan, wrong about EVERYthing, just plain evil.

2. “Obamacare” is a communist scheme designed to deprive us of all our customary liberties.

3. The government is the enemy of freedom. Only when we shrink the government and let Goldman Sachs, BP, ExxonMobil, R.J.Reynolds, and so on be themselves, will we be free once more.

4. The money we pay in taxes to the (evil, alien) government never does us any good (except when it pays for bombs to drop on Middle Eastern people).*

5. The economy was in great shape until Obama ruined it.

6. Abortion is murder and so are many forms of birth control. And so is Obamacare.

7. Ronald Reagan descended from Heaven to lead us to the Promised Land and if we keep saying his name over and over, we may get there yet.

But back to the candidates’ characters: for starters, Michele Bachmann is just plain dumb. Admittedly she does have a kind of cleverness, the kind that enables you to say things that appeal to the grossly ignorant, i.e., her base. But this won’t save her. What's truly amazing is that Bachmann believes that she can be president, even though she understands less about the world than a bright fifth grader does. How dumb is that?

Rick Perry, ditto. Although, to his credit, he seems to have proven that you can be Governor of Texas while understanding less about the world than a bright fifth grader does. Hmmm.

Herman Cain. Wow. The fact that he still commands a respectable following says something about the human capacity for self-deception. The self-deception I’m talking about is that of his followers, not Cain himself, who, I believe, knows what he did vis-à-vis the women who have complained about him. OK, there has been no trial, but the evidence made public so far, and his ever-changing explanations, are compelling enough that only an absolutely self-deluded fan could believe his claims of innocence. If he were to get on the GOP ticket (very, very unlikely), we could look forward to the pleasure of him on the campaign trail saying “I did not have sex with that woman. Or that one. Or that one either. Nor those two. Nor…”

Ron Paul, Mr. Ten Percent, has the most devoted coterie of followers in the GOP. I wish his unique foreign policy ideas could get more play in the media, but his economic notions are just as doctrinaire and irrational as those of his fellow Republicans. Like them, he claims that he wants to shrink government and thereby give Americans more freedom; he doesn't seem to understand, however, that the ones who will fill the power vacuum if our government is weakened will be those very undemocratic institutions that control the nation’s wealth: e.g., ExxonMobil, Citigroup, etc.

Newt Gingrich is, for me, the scariest of all the GOP candidates. He’s an intelligent man, but one who seems to think ethics are for wimps. I won’t take the time to go further into details about him here, but whenever I hear Gingrich’s words, I’m reminded of what Lily Tomlin once said: “No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.”

Not with Newt, anyway.

Which brings us to John Huntsman, a smart and seemingly decent guy. He doesn’t have a chance.

Mitt Romney is almost certain to get the nomination. He does have problems, many of which stem from his having run for governor on a reasonable platform in Massachusetts, but now having to back away from its most sane principles in order to conform to the right-wing nuttiness that dominates the GOP primaries. This makes him look like a champion flip-flopper, a problem he could have avoided had he been smart enough to start his career in, say, Mississippi or Oklahoma, where right-wing nuttiness is the equivalent of comfort food.

Assuming Romney does get the nomination, he’s going to have to pick a right-winger for his running mate in order to secure the GOP base. He certainly will not pick Bachmann, Perry, or Cain, which means he just might go for Gingrich. Is America ready for such a ticket? A classical stuffed shirt that spins this way and that in the wind, backed up by a conniving schemer of Nixonian proportions? Time will tell.

Suburban Americana

*Ron Paul gets a pass on this parenthetic clause, which is probably why Republican voters aren’t going for him.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Slam City

If James Lipton should ever ask me “What profession would you not like to do?” I’ll have a ready answer: prison guard. And anyone who has spent as much time as I have in Colorado’s state penitentiary would no doubt answer the same.

OK, maybe some clarification is in order. From 1978 to 1981, I was teaching at the University of Southern Colorado (now renamed Colorado State University – Pueblo) and I decided to earn a little extra money teaching overload classes in the evenings. One of the most reliable populations for these classes comprised the inmates of the state pen in Canon City. You could say they were a kind of captive audience.


Anyway, my experiences with the inmates were generally rewarding, but those with the guards were sometimes chilling. I can’t fault the guards too much, since they were dealing with a population that included some rough characters, but I got the distinct feeling that a few of them didn’t regret having to occasionally come down hard on the inmates. They seemed to regard the opportunity to do so as one of the more rewarding perks of their occupation.

During my first visit to the maximum security facility, as I made my way through the great clanking initial gate, the guard who checked me in sneered, “They’re all animals.” I didn’t anticipate that they would all be animals, but I knew for sure that I would never ever want to hold a job like the one that guard had; a job that would require my intimidating and dominating an unpredictable, surly and recalcitrant mob - though I have known teachers who would describe their duties in exactly those words.

The prisoners' attitudes were mirror reflections of the guards' in some ways. One day I brought Ashley Montagu's book, On Being Human, to class, and, upon seeing the title, one of them said, "The guards need to read that."

The inmates turned out to be similar to the night school students I taught on campus. They were mainly in their twenties and thirties, they’d had some real life experiences (!) and they seemed genuinely interested in the material. One inmate confided to me that he thought the murderers were the easiest guys to get along with inside the walls. “You know, one day a guy blows up at his old lady and does her in, but otherwise he’s cool.” OK, not all of the dudes were particularly advanced on gender relations issues, even for ca. 1980.

I made it a point to treat the prison students the same as I did on-campus students, and generally, when classes were in session, I didn’t much think about where I was. I do recall one occasion where I would have been well advised to remember where I was. I had been trying to emphasize that human societies do not rise and fall due to the nature of the people who make them up. “After all,” I said, “Georgia was originally settled by prisoners!”

Oops. There was a ripple of chuckles and shuffling feet followed by a deep but quiet voice from the back that said, “Yeah” with an unmistakably ironic tone.

Had the NTB Award been in play that year, I could have been a winner. (For more on the NTB Award, see the January 26, 2010 post.)

I actually liked most of the guys, and a couple of them finished their sentences and wound up in my classes on campus. The only time I felt truly uncomfortable (outside of dealings with a few of the more unsavory guards) was when one student stood about two inches from my face and argued with me about a grade. Instinctively I felt an urge to step back, but I thought that if I did that he would step forward and maybe feel empowered to press his case harder, so I just stood there holding my ground hoping things wouldn’t get physical. They didn’t, and he eventually seemed to accept my counterargument. Whew.

I recall one short course that began at mid-semester, on April 1. On the very first day, I strode up to the front of the classroom and said, “Welcome to Nuclear Physics 401!”

A chorus erupted: “What!” “Physics???” “What the hell?!”

I smiled, “April Fools.” The guys seemed to get a kick out of that.

I believe there are an awful lot of people behind bars who just shouldn’t be, and an awful lot more who wouldn’t be if life hadn’t shafted them as children in one way or another. In fact, I would put incarceration rates and the treatment of prisoners in the U.S. as one more way in which we resemble North Korea or Zimbabwe more than we do Japan or Switzerland. Some of our other Third World symptoms include our lust for the death penalty, our love of guns, our lack of a public health care system and our outrageous disparities in wealth.

I know most of these crude features can be attributed to the influence of conservative politicians, and I realize that some of them have been deteriorating further as conservatism has taken hold of much of our culture. Where prisons are concerned, my experiences have given me a particular sense of regret about how badly our system works, and I get the impression that things are worse today than they were in 1980. The prisons-for-profit movement is one of the creepier aspects of this downward trend.

Prisons for Profit
by Tiresias Speaks

I do hope we move to a more enlightened perspective eventually. In the meantime, I’m thinking that maybe I’ll spend a little time after retirement volunteering as a tutor in a local facility, unless my longtime companions (laziness and cowardice) decide otherwise. In any case, just don’t ask me to be a guard.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What Makes Us Gay?

In the summer of 1966 I was a midshipman in the Navy serving on the USS Long Beach, America’s first nuclear-powered surface ship! And no, I don’t think this early exposure to radiation is responsible for any of the personality quirks that some people claim to observe in my behavior.

U.S.S. Long Beach

Anyway I was reminded of this summer experience today because I’ve been reading about the evolutionary bases of homosexual behavior in humans. What I was reminded of in particular was a peculiar experience I had out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean one afternoon. I was looking at a couple of my fellow sailors who were engaged in working on some piece of equipment on the main deck when, inexplicably, I started to feel, welling up within me, a certain attraction for one of the guys. It wasn’t that I wanted to grab him and get right down to business, but it was definitely a feeling of tender affection that I had never felt for any guy before that moment. He seemed to sense something and looked up at me, so I quickly looked away.

We never got to be friends, and I don’t remember his name, though, for some reason, I do remember his home town. The rest of the summer cruise included my more or less avoiding looking at him lest he feel I was putting the moves on him. I did wonder at the time if he might have been gay and that something about his possible gayness had triggered an involuntary response in me. I wasn’t worried about being gay myself; I had a girlfriend and knew where my primary interests were. But I did wonder if I was somehow “part gay.”

Being gay in 1966 was no picnic, and, though I was happy to hang out with gay guys, I would have been afraid to have to face the difficulties that actually being gay would entail. So, though I was sure I wasn’t gay, I did wonder what having this odd attraction for this guy meant. He did remind me of a guy to whom I was very close, and it did take place on a ship with an all-male crew in the middle of the ocean, so maybe those factors were at work. To this day, I still don’t know what it means, and until this moment I’ve never spoken or written about this long-ago incident. To be honest, I’ve rarely even thought about it.

Dude, can you see yourself here?

Research on the evolution of male homosexuality is forced to grapple with the fact that Darwinian selection favors those types that reproduce at higher than average rates. This wouldn’t seem to include gay guys, so a big Darwinian question is, “Why do gay men occur in human populations at a steady rate of about 3%, give or take a point?” If gay guys reproduce at a lower rate than heterosexual guys, then, natural selection should, ultimately, result in all males being heterosexual. But that’s not happening.

In fact other species have been shown to include predictably constant rates of homosexual males, even though the actual labeling of individuals as hetero- or homosexual seems to be an entirely human enterprise. Sheep populations, for example, generally include rams that prefer rams over ewes at a steady rate of about 8%, though no rams have ever claimed to possess supersensitive gaydar.

There are a number of explanations for the viability of homosexuality, and one of them is that among humans, at least, gay males tend to be related to females who are more fertile than average. So, the DNA that partially explains male homosexuality may be the same genetic material that promotes high reproductive levels in females.

I wonder if there might also be social factors underlying the genetics of gay males. Could male homosexual behavior itself have proven useful to human groups in some contexts? If so, could it have been useful for most males to be, in some sense, “part homosexual?”

Scientists have come to the conclusion that, among men, genetic and other biological processes explain the bulk of sexual preferences. Neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality is based on choice. The latest memo has apparently not reached Sarah Palin, but maybe she’s too busy doing other important stuff to keep up with this topic.

At any rate, I believe this would be an interesting question to pose to all of our presidential candidates: “Do you believe that men choose their sexual orientation?” It might be depressing to hear what they say, but it would be a favor to historians and to our long-term sense of justice if we could get their beliefs on record. After all, it won’t be long before intolerance toward homosexuality has the same cringe-inducing effect that other forms of bigotry already command.