Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tea Party - 1 America - 0

Saturday morning I was sitting at a sidewalk table at The Sandspur Cafe enjoying a morning that, though somewhat globally warmed, was otherwise quite pleasant. But suddenly I saw standing beside me my neighbor, Liberty Valiant. Liberty (who changed his name last year – he used to be Howard Snud), was wearing a tri-corner hat festooned with dangling teabags, which is the way he’s been decking himself out lately. He quickly joined me and, ordering a pot of tea began to exhort me to join the teabag revolution.

“Washington has failed to keep a balanced budget,” he argued, “we need to go back to the values of Ronald Reagan!”

“Reagan?” I responded, “You know Reagan actually plunged the country into heavy debt. And by the way, he also resorted to raising taxes in order to improve the situation.”

“That’s not true!” Liberty exclaimed, “The Ronald Reagan I know would never have done anything like that.”

“But it’s in the history books.”

“History books written by liberal professors,” he replied. Then, noticing my expression, he added, “No offense.”

“None taken, I guess. So what do the Tea Party’s alternate history books say about the Reagan presidency?”

“That Ronald Reagan defeated the Soviet Union, saved the POWs being kept in bamboo cages by the Viet Cong, invented the Internet, balanced the budget without raising any taxes, and when he died, took his place at the left hand of God.”

“Wow. No wonder you guys like to mention him all the time. And what do your Alternate History books say about Barack Obama?”

“Well, obviously he’s an African Communist who wants to kill our grandparents with death panels and replace our constitution with Muslim Shariah law.”

“Liberty, don’t you think we’re going to have trouble agreeing on anything if we can’t even agree on things like, ‘The president is a Christian,’ and ‘Reasonable governance depends on compromise?’”

Compromise is a word the gutless use when they mean surrender. Real Americans never compromise! Never! Never! Never!” His face began to turn bright red and a series of strangled choking sounds forced themselves from his throat, so I rushed to pat him gently on the back.

“Hey, cool down, Brother Liberty, there must be a way for us to find some common ground here. I mean, for one thing we all want to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debts, right?”

Recovering from his fit, he looked me in the eye and asked, “Why?”

“Why?? Well, for one thing defaulting would force us to pay higher interest rates which would stifle our already weak economic growth. Unemployment would get worse and we’d very likely head into a double dip recession. That’s for starters.”

“Well maybe that’s what your liberal economic textbooks say, but that’s not the whole story.”

“Well, what does the Tea Party say the whole story is?”

“Sure, America would surrender its traditional position as the bedrock of the world economy. The dollar would collapse in value. The economy would plunge into deeper recession. Joblessness would get worse. But you have to look on the bright side.”

“Bright side??? What bright side?”

“Well, if all that were to happen, Obama probably wouldn’t get re-elected.”

Hey - You Forgot NPR!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Why Are We Are So Lazy That We Sometimes,,,Oh, Whatever...

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell why things take longer than they should. Laziness is always a possible explanation, but I’m not sure psychologists have quite reached a basic understanding of laziness. Or perhaps they have, but I’m just too…pressed for time…to track down their findings.

A lackluster student was once challenged by his professor with, “Are you afraid of hard work?” “Not at all,” he answered, “I generally avoid hard work, but it’s out of laziness. Fear has nothing to do with it.”

Yet I sometimes think that fear does keep people from seeking a job, tackling a project or writing a scholarly paper. I wonder about myself. Would I would write more quickly if I didn’t face a kind of nervousness over being judged on the words I put on paper?

For the past six weeks I’ve struggled with an article on the emotion and meaning of swearwords and slang. I’m happy with the result which is almost ready to send off to the publishers, but I was hoping to finish this article in June so I could go on to another essay about the end of arranged marriages in China. The China paper will have to wait, given the approaching fall semester, but in the meantime, here’s the gist of it.

The End of Arranged Marriage in a North China Village

For several summers in a row I visited a northern Chinese village that I will call Pine Hill and interviewed elderly men and women whose weddings took place just before and after arranged marriages were outlawed in 1950. I wanted to understand how the promotion of love-based marriages by the Chinese Communist Party affected the young men and women of the New China.

Pine Hill Village - Main Street

The first two things I discovered were that, even though the government had done away with arranged marriages, most rural parents had not. Fathers, in particular, were unwilling to let their children choose their own husbands and wives. Arranged marriages continued to be the norm in Pine Hill for over a year after the 1950 Marriage Law had made them officially illegal.

Pine Hill Peasant Home


Village Kids

But almost everyone I interviewed told me about a particular couple who changed everything when they got married (in 1951, as I recall – I’m too “pressed for time” to consult my notes right now).

I’ll call the boy Lin Jiefeng and the girl, Wang Meili. The father of Miss Wang (family name first in China) refused to let her marry young Mr. Lin, even though the two were hopelessly in love and his parents had approved the match. The couple had actually fallen in love under the auspices of the Communist Party, since they had worked together in the village communist youth league where they first met. Previous to the rise of the Communist Party in Pine Hill, young women would have been kept in their homes as virtual prisoners and would never have been allowed to meet and spend time with village boys. The Communist party youth league changed all that for Miss Wang, Mr. Lin and thousands of other young Chinese so that by the 1940s love was blossoming all over the hills of “liberated” China like poppies after a summer rain.

So, as the story goes, one day, after months of arguing fiercely with his daughter, Mr. Wang lost his temper. His tantrum was triggered by his overhearing neighbors gossiping about his daughter’s determination to “follow her heart” against her father’s wishes. He went home, confronted his daughter, and, while pounding the floor with a heavy pole, loudly demanded that she never see Lin Jiefeng again.

In tears, she ran outside and into the house next door where her aunt lived. The father followed, but the aunt stood in the doorway and tried to calm him down. While she did so, Meili climbed out of a back window and ran to the house of her beloved Jiefeng. The image of Meili running through the village with tears streaming down her cheeks is a vivid one in Pine Hill, even today. Quite a few of the aged peasants I interviewed claimed to have seen the crying Meili, and some said they also saw her father coming after her later with his heavy pole in hand. But to no avail. Jiefeng’s family took Meili into their household, and the marriage went ahead in accordance with the new law and in spite of Meili’s father’s stubborn resistance.

But then the story got bigger. The local communist authorities got wind of Meili and Jiefeng’s tale and publicized it widely as an example for young people in villages all over the county. Newspapers helped spread the word. As a consequence of their marriage, the great wall against love marriages, in place for centuries in rural China, crumbled into dust almost overnight in Pine Hill County. Meili is happy to report that her father was eventually reconciled with his daughter and son-in-law.

Happily Married for 60 Years - And with a Story for the Ages

What we see today in the Chinese countryside is a kind of semi-arranged system. Because young people sometimes have trouble meeting prospective mates (particularly given that in some villages almost everyone is related to everyone else), parents often step forward to help their children hook up (so to speak).

But the parents can only introduce and encourage. By law and now by custom, they are not allowed to force their children into arranged marriages. Sadly however, there are still some parents in various obscure corners of rural China who manage to coerce their children into unwanted marriages.

A typical semi-arranged scenario is the one I recorded in Shandong province in 1994. Here, a peasant mother of my acquaintance introduced her son to a nice young lady from a neighboring village whose family she knew. When the couple met, they decided they liked each other, and eventually decided to get married. And so they did, complete with a ceremony in which the young man led his new bride into his home with a long red silk cloth, just as his father and grandfather had done in generations before. But this time the bride could choose to drop the cloth and walk away had she wanted to. She did not.

A Shandong Lad Leading His Bride to Her New Home

Maybe next fall I’ll get a chance to write this all up as a formal publication. Courage permitting.

More Scenes from More Marriages

Hong Kong Wedding Couple from British Colonial Days (1974)


A Must for a Chinese Wedding, Colonial or Not

Bowing to the Ancestors and Other Spirits - Old School Ritual

A Christian Wedding in Beijing, with Wedding Singer (2007)

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

On the Evolution of Flow

A certain nephew of my acquaintance recently posted on his Facebook site a series of thoughtful paragraphs about happiness and spirituality that included the challenge, “Try explaining that, evolutionary biologist!”

Actually, at the risk of sounding excruciatingly professorialistic, I will point out here that evolutionary biologists don’t deal with these issues. In fact, since all competent biologists work on the basis of Darwinian premises, the phrase “evolutionary biologist” is repetitiously redundant, like “mathematical mathematician.”

The folks who try to answer questions like the ones Brad poses are 1. evolutionary psychologists and, 2., (my personal favorites) anthropologists.

One very brainy psychologist who knows a lot about the exhilarated state of mind that Brad calls “that in-between place” is Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi

On Top of the World

Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s work is difficult to discuss, mainly because his name is almost impossible to pronounce. Once you get past that, it’s a snap. For me, I can approximate the pronunciation by saying “Chick sent me high” (which sounds kind of like claiming that a mischievous female chef spiked my brownies with a dose of weed).

But that aside, Csikszentmihalyi is famous for introducing the concept of “flow” to the world of science. Flow is an exhilarated state of mind wherein the flowee is faced with challenges that just match his or her capacity to deal with them. In sports, this is sometimes described as being “in the zone,” but, in general, it gives the person experiencing it the sense that the world is where it should be and he or she is right there on top of it. I think this is what Brad means by “that indescribable in-between place.”


En Fran├žais

Dr. Csik writes that, in flow, one loses one’s sense of time and ego as attention is dedicated to the challenges at hand. I suppose you could say that for less immediately pressing challenges, like cutting up onions and carrots for a delicious soup, attention need not be utterly absorbed in the task, but one’s sense of meeting such a handle-able kitchen-based challenge amounts to a kind of flow experience, one that culminates in the satisfaction supplied by the final culinary presentation.

But why should we take such pleasure in these in-between or flow experiences? An anthropological answer would have to be based on identifying the Darwinian advantage provided by the seeking of them. Think of two ancient pre-Homo sapiens hunters whose group is in need of protein. My male bias comes in here as I focus on large game hunters at the expense of female-focused activities like bringing home baskets of mongongo nuts. But for now, with apologies to potential feminist critics, I will proceed with the comparison of two hunters, Zango and Lurch.

Mongongo Nuts

Zango knows “flow.” His serotonin receptors have evolved in such a way that he gets a thrill out of joining up with the other hunters and facing down a water buffalo with his spear. Consequently, he is able to add lots of calories to his group’s meals.

Lurch, on the other hand, is content to sit around the campfire playing with his mongongo nuts. His group would be denied the higher level of food that Zango’s group enjoys. Over time, the Lurch-type brain dies out through natural selection, while Zango and his kin reproduce. You might say that flow was “selected for” in our evolutionary past because it favored those types in whose brains it had, by a series of mutations, found a home.

Of course, evolutionary explanations like this only tell part of the story. Explaining human behavior is an endless challenge, and it's one that sends some people into the exhilaration of flow. And as we attempt to explain, we shouldn't forget that there are endlessly different ways of being human.

People everywhere are in some ways the same, whether Korean, Moroccan, Haitian, Portuguese or whatever. Presumably every normal adult in the world has the capacity to experience flow.

But humans are also different, not only by virtue of individually inherited character traits, but also by virtue of culture. And culture is a very powerful shaper of human behavior. Why do some of my Chinese friends not feel satisfied after a meal (even one with the proper proportions of calories and nutrition) unless it includes rice, noodles or steamed buns? Because their culture, learned from childhood and therefore so deeply instilled as to be second nature, has trained their brains to think of rice, noodles and baozi buns as essential components of a meal.

We don’t just eat food, in other words, we also eat culture – in the form of the symbols that our culture tells us really are food. Sure, a bowl of Special K may provide you with all the calories and nutrients you need for a well balanced meal, but you won’t get my pal Zhang Ming to believe it. His stomach longs for a breakfast of baozi, and preparing and consuming top quality baozi every morning no doubt puts him in a groovy state of flow.

Baozi - Breakfast of Champions

Sunday, July 10, 2011

War Is...

This Week’s Pop Quiz

1. War is

a. Good
b. Bad
c. Kinda cool when the good guys win

2. An example of a “warrior” would be

a. A young Cheyenne brave on his way to raid a Pawnee encampment
b. Lieutenant William Calley of My Lai fame
c. An SS trooper marching into Poland in 1939

3. The experience of war

a. Brings out the best in men
b. Brings out the worst in men
c. Can give a combatant a uniquely exhilarating sense of being alive

I’m afraid I have no answers.

I recently finished The Forever War, Dexter Filkins’ firsthand account of his experiences in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If I were to do an Amazon review, I’d give it four stars. On the positive side, it does vividly portray the experiences of combatants and civilians. On the negative side, I found his style of both writing and reading (I listened to the audiobook) a little too Hemingwayesque. Filkins seems to want to heighten the drama of his scenes by draining his voice of all expressiveness. The result is a reading that sounds almost phony in its “just the facts, Man” flattened monotone.

More serious than this were some comments in the conclusion. Filkins wrote that after returning from Iraq War combat zones, he found it impossible to talk to people who had not been there. I gathered that he was implying that his experiences gave him an understanding that others could never hope to achieve, and that this made his perspective somehow superior. I believe that part of him wanted to honor the men he had observed in combat, but, IMHO, to glorify the psychological transformation that combatants sometimes experience is misleading, even dangerously so.

I admit to being fascinated with war in my youth. I played endless games of Gettysburg and Tactics II with my friends in junior high school, and read avidly about the Civil War and World War II. These particular wars attracted my attention because they exemplified great moral clashes in which the good guys were at times on the ropes, but, through courage and perseverance, ultimately triumphed.

But having read scores of firsthand accounts of combat, and having heard accounts from men with combat experience, I’ve come to drastically revise my vision of war. It is still interesting, but it is also horrifying. I no longer see war as a clash of worthy opponents like a medieval jousting match; to me it’s more like the Black Plague – cruel, remorseless and beyond human control.

War as Colossus

(Believed to be by Goya)

Here’s the lens through which I now view war: Think of all the guys you knew in high school. Now, arm them with guns and turn them loose in a faraway country where they don’t speak the local language and where they know they can dominate any civilians they encounter. What will be the result?

If your high school is anything like mine was, this is a frightening prospect. Most guys can be expected to behave themselves under these circumstances, but then there is that minority who will take advantage of their new-found power. If only 5% are bad apples, this will mean that for every 100,000 men we deploy, about 5,000 of them can be expected to take advantage of opportunities to rape, steal and needlessly kill.

This is one of the many things I find wrong with the word “warrior.” “Warrior” carries far too many good and glorious connotations about the real nature of war, which is brutal, destructive and often grossly unjust.


The Third of May 1808

War also damages many of its participants psychologically (not to mention physically). In 2004 I traveled to Vietnam with a group that included several veterans who were hoping to benefit from the counseling services our group provided. I heard many unforgettable stories on that trip, but the one I remember best was told to me by Bill, a former Marine. Bill still felt dreadful, 35 years after the fact, for having tripped a booby-trap that exploded and killed his buddy. Bill was on his second tour with the group.

Naturally, I don’t want to denigrate the men who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. I can’t help but admire their courage. But I also think it’s frighteningly dangerous for us to imagine that armed eighteen- to twenty-year-olds make effective cross-cultural communicators or ambassadors of good will.

In Afghanistan, for example, every year that our armed forces spend there makes us less popular with the locals. President Obama made a mistake in sending additional troops there. Trying to separate the Taliban from the local Pashtuns would be like the British trying to separate the colonial militia of Lexington and Concord from their fellow Americans. And, when things are finally seen as going badly in Afghanistan, the military will inevitably try to blame Obama for bringing the troops home too soon. But he’s not. He’s bringing them home too late.

In sum, I believe we will be a better country if we

- drastically reduce our military spending

- end our deployments in wars of choice

- require that the power to declare war lies entirely with Congress
(as it used to)

- require any president seeking a declaration of war to emphasize, in a nationally televised speech, that war entails the killing of civilians, including children, as well as psychological trauma for many combatants

Then, maybe, we’ll be able to get our heads on straight about what war really is, and, in the bargain, overcome our economic woes.


Massacre of the Innocents

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tom Brady is a Communist

I will start today’s cunningly incisive analysis with a quick review of the past dozen NFL championship teams. The Superbowl® winners in each year since 2000 were:

2000 St. Louis Rams
2001 Baltimore Ravens
2002 New England Patriots
2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2004 New England Patriots
2005 New England Patriots
2006 Pittsburgh Steelers
2007 Indianapolis Colts
2008 New York Giants
2009 Pittsburgh Steelers
2010 New Orleans Saints
2011 Green Bay Packers

What leaps out from this list is the fact that no team has managed to win more than two Superbowls in a row over the past twelve years. In fact, no team in Superbowl history has ever won more than two Superbowls in a row. In other words, in the NFL, those on top are commonly overthrown by aggressive up-and-comers.

What accounts for this pattern? Close regulation and official intervention on behalf of the underdogs. Every NFL game is regulated by a swarm of referees who make sure that dangerous behaviors like clipping are kept to a minimum -- as are roughing of the kicker, late hits on the quarterback, kicks to the groin and brass knucklings.

If the NFL were to loosen its rules and reduce the number of refs to one per game, if it were, in other words, to deregulate, many of these brutal tactics would become commonplace. Furthermore, if the NFL were to deregulate even more by dropping the system that allows weak teams to have first choice during recruiting season, we would soon see two or three winning teams getting so rich and powerful that they would become permanently entrenched at the top of the NFL. All other teams would be driven steadily down the totem pole, some finally disbanding as they lost games, fans and financing.

Competition in the NFL works because it is so closely regulated as to be downright socialistic. In other words, Tom Brady may call himself a Patriot, but he’s obviously a Communist!

OK, that may be an overstatement, but still...

If careful regulation and a helping hand for those at the bottom work so well for the NFL, why don’t we apply these principles to our economy at large? Because...conservatism.

Since around 1980 and the rise of conservatism, Americans have been propagandized by well funded right-wing institutions like the Heritage Foundation and Fox News to believe that “deregulation” makes us free, and that providing help for people in economic distress is socialistic and therefore evil.

What we have seen in the U.S. economy over the past 30 years is the opposite of what we’ve seen in the NFL. In America, since 1979, the top 1% of earners have tripled their earnings in relation to those of the middle class and the poor. This top 1% now "earns" about one quarter of all the new wealth in any given year.

During this same period, the average CEO has gone from earning 42 times what the average worker earns, to earning 531 times what the average worker earns.

If the NFL were like our weakly regulated economy, the Patriots and Steelers would gradually attract the largest fan base, the biggest incomes and the best and meanest players until no other teams could touch them.

Of course, the fat cats who control Fox and other right-wing organizations can be said to follow a kind of air-tight logic, if we assume that they care more about getting rich personally than they do about abstract notions like “fairness” and “competitiveness.”

This logic: If millions of Americans are homeless, jobless and desperate for work, wages will go down, and therefore the profits of people like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes will go up. It’s quite logical. And benefiting from the desperation of their fellow citizens is what the more ruthless of America's wealthy conservatives call “earning an honest living.”

Even Americans who are not coldly conservative are inclined to buy into the idea that regulation is inherently bad. Alan Greenspan is famous for touting the anti-regulation philosophy of Ayn Rand during his long years as head of the Fed. Of course, when our recent financial crisis almost threw us into a new Depression (and would have except government intervened to prevent it), Greenspan admitted that his anti-regulation philosophy was wrong, wrong, wrong.

It is a shame he didn’t come to his senses earlier, but how could he, having been brought up in privilege and, over the past few decades, subjected to a conservative drumbeat of anti-regulatory propaganda.

PBS ran a fascinating piece on Frontline recently called The Warning in which Greenspan and his anti-regulation allies were shown to have stymied public servant Brooksley Born. Born was the head of an agency that attempted to regulate the sale of derivatives, a task she tried to take on because, being very smart, and a dedicated public (i.e., government) servant, she saw that the unregulated derivatives market threatened to wreck the American economy.

Greenspan -- backed up by Robert Ruben and Larry Summers -- refused to listen to Born’s warnings for a number of reasons, one of which was that she did not have a penis. But despite her non-penile handicap, Born proved to be smarter than Greenspan and Company, a point which was brought home when the derivatives market brought the economy down throwing millions of Americans out of their jobs and homes.

It was at this point that Mr. Greenspan said, in effect, “Oops. I was wrong about regulation being bad for the economy. Sorry.”

He now presumably nurses his wounded conscience with mint juleps in some Park Avenue luxury apartment or Stamford mansion.

America would be better off if we treated our economy the way the NFL treats its teams. I know that critics of this view might argue that we can’t make this comparison because NFL teams are made up of skilled and ambitious professionals who can be counted on to strive, while ordinary people are sometimes striving-averse.

I have two words for these critics: Shut the #*@! up.

OK, perhaps a more nuanced counter-argument is called for here. It is true that the national economy will never be as neat or as intensely competitive as is the NFL. But it is also true that a national economy that is closely regulated and that offers advantages to the disadvantaged (like the NFL does) would be a more just and more genuinely competitive society.

Of course such a competitive and relatively fair system would make it harder for people like Roger Ailes to stay on top and to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. But, in my opinion, this is not reason enough to reject government regulations.

The Great Tom Brady -

Power to the People!