Sunday, August 28, 2011

Beware Oprah

We Americans have a constitutionally guaranteed right to our own beliefs no matter how loony they may be. If we want to believe that God flooded the entire world and annihilated humanity because he thought we had a tad too much attitude, we can.

But what about our right to subject everyone else to our own belief system? There doesn’t seem to be such a right, at least not according to the American Constitution as I remember it. However, don’t try telling that to the leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation or NAR.

Last Wednesday on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross spoke to Rachel Tabachnick, a researcher who has been looking into the NAR and finding some surprising things. For starters, the NAR folks are hard-core fundamentalists. Really hard-core. They make ordinary fundamentalists look like a bunch of abortion-loving sissies.

According to Tabachnick, the NAR guys believe in Dominionism, which is the idea that it is their duty to take over government, business, education and all other major institutions in order to help bring about the End Days. According to them, these institutions, as of now, are under the control of demons. Yes, demons.

Obviously, most of us do not believe that demons are running everything. So far, all they seem to control are Goldman Sachs and some of the other major investment banks and corporations. But are we to believe they also control the Red Cross? Our public schools? The University of North Carolina? Duke? (Well, maybe Duke).

Are we to believe that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is controlled by demons? Most Americans, I’m guessing, would agree that the NAR is overestimating the extent of demon control here.

They're Everywhere!
(According to the NAR)

The NAR sometimes gets quite personal about its accusations. They believe, Tabachnick says, not only that gay people are controlled by “demonic spirits,” but that “Oprah Winfrey is a precursor of the Antichrist.”

Wow. Does Stedman know about this? Or could he be…? Never mind.

I suppose that those of us who don’t see Oprah as Antichrist material can dismiss the NAR’s ideas out of hand. After all, what influence do they have in America?

Hmmm. Maybe not a lot right now, but here’s an interesting tidbit that Tabachnick turned up: Texas Governor Rick Perry, who recently vaulted to the status of front runner among Republican presidential candidates, preceded his campaign start-up with a prayer rally that was organized with the help of NAR-linked people.

Tabachnick specifically identifies Lou Engle and Mike Bickle, the latter being affiliated with The Call and the International House of Prayer (not to be confused with IHOP of pancake fame).

Now, I do not believe that Rick Perry is going to be our next president. His beliefs are just too nutty. (Full disclosure: Back in 1980, I thought the same thing about Ronald Reagan.)

But no, even for Republicans, I think Perry just goes too far outside the boundaries of What-a-Sane-Person-Can-Believe Land. And his affiliation with the anti-Oprah fanatics is just one example of his loopiness. There is also his famed declaration that it might just be time for Texas to secede from the United States.

Admittedly there were more than a few among us who raised no objection to the idea of Texas leaving the union. Indeed, the thought can be downright comforting. But nonetheless, does it make sense that the voters would choose as U.S. President a man whose most famous declaration before entering the race was “We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot.”?

What really might cause an eyebrow or two to be raised here is not Rick Perry per se, but the association of Rick Perry with a bunch of people who think the rest of us are now under the control of demons and that only by our falling under NAR “Dominion” will we be saved. It’s enough to make an atheist say, “God help us.”

And, by the way, why aren’t there hundreds of Americans out there on the front lines right now with fists flying against these fundamentalist wackos? I imagine the wackos themselves have a theory: Their enemies, they might argue, have orders from Oprah telling them to cool it for the time being. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

White People Are Awesome

White people are awesome! We really are. – John Oliver

J-Ol said this in the context of his enthusiastic review of The Help, a film in which an awesome white lady showed her bigoted neighbors what’s what as she led the struggle for civil rights way back when. Actually, I haven’t seen The Help, so this description is based only on reviews and other secondhand sources. But I think I know enough to appreciate John Oliver’s snarkiness.

John Oliver - Awesome Guy

When the civil rights movement gained steam in the 1960s, a lot of us liberal white people found ourselves well positioned to feel good about ourselves. You might say, paraphrasing Churchill, that “never in the field of human conflict have so many benefited so much for doing so little.” Really, all a guy had to do in those years to feel good about himself was not be a raging bigot. It was awesome (for some of us).

Of course, the story of racism is by no means over, despite what bigoted blowhards like Rush Limbaugh would have us believe. The more I learn about the way racial prejudice works and has worked, the more complex, occasionally subtle and downright horrifying it seems. A wise and gentle white woman of my acquaintance has said more than once, on reading about racial abuses of the past, that she would have wanted to explode with rage had people treated her daughter the way African American children were customarily treated in the past. Naturally, exploding with rage was not an option for those tens of millions of African American parents who wanted to remain alive for the long-term benefit of their children.

I have heard some white folks say things like, “What about black prejudice against whites?!” Yes, I’m guessing there is some of that out there. I wonder where it comes from.

But back to the real problem: Racism has gone underground to an extent, but it is still very much with us. And, though it can be found far and wide, it is most pronounced among those who call themselves conservative. Last Tuesday in the New York Times, an article by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam (Crashing the Tea Party) pointed out that Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white and “they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.”

Imagine, if you will, that scientists have invented a Bigot-o-meter that measures the intensity of racial and ethnic prejudice of individuals and gives them a score from 10 (Rush Limbaugh) to 0 (Mohandas Gandhi). If everyone with a score of over 2.5 were denied the right to vote, I believe the Tea Party would lose most of its influence. In fact, the Republican Party as a whole would have trouble winning any elections at the national level.

Absent a Bigot-o-meter, there are other ways to identify people who harbor in their hearts more prejudice than becomes a fair-minded and reasonable person. One indicator is an individual’s approach toward the immigration issue.

Now we know that there are millions of immigrants who have come into this country from Mexico and other Latin American countries without legal documentation or have been born to such people. They have come here to escape economic hardship in their home countries, and they have found that many American corporations will make it easy for them to get jobs as fruit pickers and such. You could say that these companies have offered these low-paid workers a welcome mat, and we who have been able to buy inexpensive fruit and vegetables due to low labor costs, have benefited from this arrangement.

Obviously, this is no way to police a border or organize an economy. Something needs to be done. But what a given individual claims should be done is a litmus test of prejudice almost as accurate as the imaginary Bigot-o-meter.

If you see someone angrily denouncing these undocumented aliens, insisting on labeling them as “illegal,” claiming that “anchor babies” present a huge problem for us, declining to acknowledge the benefits that some corporations derive from this cheap and docile work force, refusing to acknowledge the economic benefits we as purchasers of inexpensive foods enjoy, and refusing to acknowledge that the services these workers purchase ultimately result in job creation, then I’d say you’re looking at about the equivalent of an 8.5 on the Big-o-meter.

Of course anti-immigrant bigotry isn’t the only kind of racism that still flourishes in the seedier corners of our society, but it is the one that now stands front and center in our ongoing political debate. If we could all work together - black people, white people, immigrants and so on - to get a handle on the real problems that a leaky border engenders, and do so without the anti-Hispanic vitriol that pollutes current discussions, then maybe we would have a right to say that we Americans are awesome, and we wouldn’t have to specify color to do so.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Corporations Are People, Too

Last week Mitt Romney made headlines when he said, “Corporations are people, my friend!”

Actually, it would have been totally cool if Governor Romney had gone all Shakespeare on us. He might have said, “Hath not a corporation hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Is it not subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a dude is? If you prick Halliburton, does it not bleed? If you tickle ExxonMobil, does it not laugh? If you poison BP, does it not die? And if you wrong Goldman Sachs, shall it not revenge?”

Frightening prospect, that last one.


Hath Not a Corporation Tentacles?

Actually, the one quality that all commercial corporations have in common is a structural dedication to sucking in as much of our cash as they possibly can. The Governor helpfully pointed out that this money winds up in the pockets of actual People, but the Corporations themselves are not so much People as the shell games that wealthy People use to make themselves wealthier.

Exhibit A: Enron. Some of the People behind Enron got caught and paid a price for that particular shell game, but not all of them did. Some got off scot free with their pockets well stuffed.

Exhibit B: Halliburton. Who can forget the billions that Halliburton’s People raked in through the Bush administration’s no-bid contracts? Governor Romney is asking a lot to encourage us to be kind and thoughtful toward those shysters and spinmeisters. Maybe we could begin to see the humanity in Halliburton if its actions didn’t reek of belligerence, callous greed and utter contempt for the public’s well-being. People like that we don’t need, even though I’m sure Governor Romney finds them just dandy.

Mr. Cheney is People Too, and Governor Romney Will Thank You to Feel His Pain!

(From Jesse's Cafe Americain)

Exhibit C: AIG, Citibank, and the rest of the Wall Street stage props that Romney’s People relied on to siphon our money into their pockets. These Corporations were like kabuki costumes that strutted across the public stage, both huge and feeble, while crying out to be saved – for they were “too big to fail.” But weren’t the People wearing these logo-crested costumes, the same People who continued to pocket fat bonuses out of the money we gave them? Are they too big to jail? And now, does Governor Romney really want us to seek them out in their Park Avenue apartments and Connecticut mansions and - if we can get past their security guards – step forward to offer our condolences for the pain and suffering they’ve endured in this collapse? Some of them, after all, were once worth billions by virtue of the Corporations they hid behind, but having to rely on direct taxpayer donations, they’ve seen their fortunes dwindle down to mere hundreds of millions.

Maybe Governor Romney could suggest the proper way, according to the People in his class, for expressing sympathy in such situations. Are there special Rich People’s Hallmark stores with sympathy cards that say things like “So Sorry to Hear about Your Being Reduced to a Semi-Billionaire. But Don’t Despair – President Romney Will Restore Your Life to Its Former Fullness!”

Notice how the People that Governor Romney loves have not been held accountable for wrecking our economy and throwing millions of us out of our jobs and homes. The Governor seems to want us to hate President Obama for doing nothing more than saving the economy that Romney’s Corporations blew to smithereens. But since Obama only saved the economy from total destruction and did not, in fact, make things perfect again, Romney and the other Republicans are ready to string him up.

It is true that President Obama was not adequately aggressive in forcing accountability on these ruthless, greedy, and irresponsible Corporations and that select group of People they serve. For this he can be criticized. As far as I’m concerned, however, there is room for a degree of forgiveness here because, first of all, he is not in a position to do everything he’d like to do. Pro-corporate Republicans like Mitt Romney are still powerful enough to stall and undermine his efforts. Recently they succeeded in blocking the appointment of Elizabeth Warren to head the new United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Commission, for example. In that position she would have been an ideal defender of consumers’ rights, but for that very reason Romney’s Corporate People hate her. And so they blackballed her. I wonder if Governor Romney recognizes that the consumers and taxpayers who have been getting screwed by the Corporate People are also People? Or do People only count in the Governor’s book if they’re hiding behind Corporate Logos?

In the money-saturated arena that is American electoral politics, even well intentioned leaders like Barack Obama are sometimes obligated to restrain themselves to avoid being cut off entirely from any chance of re-election. If all the big money sources available for political contributions go to Romney’s Corporate People, then those People will win virtually every election and we will find ourselves living under the authority of an undemocratic Corporatacracy. In fact, this is what the Tea Party and other right-wingers seem to be striving for.

As I have argued in an earlier posting (Lie to me – September 4, 2010), our political leaders would be much more responsive to voters, particularly those voters who don’t have tons of Corporate Cash to throw around, if we could make them less dependent on private money in their campaigns. Most private money is, after all, Corporate-filtered money, and its influence in the electoral process is downright corrupting. But then, those benefiting from this corruption are People; specifically, they are Governor Romney’s favorite People. And, these People, by virtue of their access to Corporate money, have “hands, organs, dimensions, etc.” that are a whole lot bigger and grabbier than what the rest of us people can bring to the table. They have pricked us well and good, all right, and we are still bleeding.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why Get Married?

Last night, Darla and I had a lively discussion with some of our friends about relationships and how different the approaches of women and men can be where love and intimacy are concerned. Too lively for me to recall it all here. Instead of doing that, I’m going to talk about what I’ve been reading lately on this topic. Now pay attention.

Why is it that men, much more than women, play offense where sexual relations are concerned? The usual, quick and easy answer combines Darwinian principles with an economic cost-benefit analysis that goes something like this: A sexual encounter costs a male very little, biologically speaking. Not too much in the way of metabolic resources are given up as fifty zillion spermatozoa are sent on their way, like so many little kamikaze swimmers, hoping to become part of something bigger. For the lucky one, the payoff is penetration of an egg, mixing of DNA, and presto, creation of yet another Homo sapiens. All this at a minimal cost to the producer of those zillions of kamikazes.

For the egg producer, however, costs are huge, HUGE! A human egg, in itself, is much larger than a spermatozoon, and therefore much more costly for the body to produce. Furthermore, while men have the potential to produce millions upon millions of sperm (which in itself seems to explain a lot), women only ovulate 400 or so times in a lifetime. Compared to a spermatozoon, a human egg is a rare and precious thing.

But for women, the real screwing (so to speak) comes with pregnancy. In order to replicate her DNA in the next generation, a woman has to make a tremendous investment in time, energy and physical resources, while the man, theoretically, may have done nothing more than jump on her bones for a few minutes before taking off for the next whiskey bar (and mating opportunity).

The traditional scientific thinking, which much popular thinking has followed in recent decades, simply considers the vastly different cost outlays for reproduction between females and males, and says, therefore, Males Seek Quantity, Females Focus on Quality. In a nine month period, it would not be too hard for a charming Cad to reproduce his DNA a hundred times over. But even the most brazenly liberated female is unlikely to reproduce herself more than once in such a time span. Obviously, where human reproduction is concerned, nature is no more fair and balanced than FOX News. The popular view has it that Darwinian principles compel males to seek lots and lots of mating opportunities with a variety of females, while females seek an enduring bond with one high quality male.

There could be some truth to this, but it’s obviously inadequate to explain a number of things. For example, if these are the only principles at work, why should males agree to settle down at all? One explanation goes like this: Human infants are so helpless, and their mothers so undermined in their physical capacities during pregnancy and the years of infant care that an extra adult is required to guarantee the survival of the offspring. In other words, our charming but deliriously sex-crazed cad, who wanders the landscape impregnating dozens of women, may actually never see his reproduced DNA survive in any of his offspring because without the care, protection and extra food resources that this potential Dad could bring home, the babies of all the Moms he knocks up won't survive. So, the payoff for him is to stay with a female to ensure the survival of their offspring.

Of course, there’s more to the argument than this. If Dad is also still a Cad, he may stay with Mom to ensure his offspring’s survival, but at the same time seek to have secret rendezvous with potential Moms in the neighborhood, with the idea that those Moms will find other Dads to help care for his offspring – those new mates being deceived into thinking the offspring are their own.

“Dose eediots,” as Arnold “Dad-Cad” Schwarzenegger said in True Lies.

All this Darwinian analysis is likely to make a romantic soul depressed and/or cynical. It’s also likely to be misleading. There are new ways of looking at the origins of marriage, though some of these are no more sweet and romantic than the traditional one I just sketched out.

Canadian anthropologist Bernard Chapais has offered an intriguing explanation for human pair bonding that sees our ancestors as having gone through a phase of polygyny, or multiple-female “marriage” before moving into the pattern that most humans now display, where male-female bonds are monogamous. Even in societies that allow for plural marriages, most marriages are monogamous. Given that the vast majority of marriages worldwide are monogamous, this seems to be the basic program on which humanity’s DNA has settled in order to replicate itself.

Professor Chapais

Chapais, in Primeval Kinship, makes the point that a primate (which is what we are) that lives in a troop or community (as we do) and practices generally monogamous pair-bonding (ditto) is quite unusual. None of our closest relatives - chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas – do anything like this, so why do we?

Bonobos - Lots of Love, No Marriage

Another point that contradicts the classic Darwinian explanation is this: the traditional notion that a woman needs a husband to help care for her newborn doesn’t seem quite right in light of the general food sharing typical of hunting-gathering bands. That is, if you happen to be a Kung hunter in South Africa, or a pre-horse-era Comanche in Texas (or the landscape destined to eventually devolve into Texas), you will live among a band of communist property sharers. This is the original human condition. It is not the case that a hunter in such a society would bring home a wildebeest or antelope and then bargain with the others in the group, trying to sell it at the highest price.

No, these hunter-gatherers share. When one man brings in the meat from a major kill, everyone eats. There is no hoarding or trading of this vital resource.

Given this, why would a woman need to be pair-bonded to a male who would serve as her provider and that of her helpless infant as well? Every male (and female) in the camp would help her baby survive.

Well, the answer is involved, but part of the story relates to male competition for mates. In a polygynous society, there is a Darwinian payoff for a male to have as many mates as he can manage. Doing so maximizes his chance of passing on lots of DNA. So, in multi-mating arenas like those we see on the Discovery Channel - where bighorn sheep bang against each other with skull-splitting mash ups, the best skull splitter gets the most females and becomes the Darwinian champ.

But when humans became skillful hunters – maybe two million years ago, give or take – having males clash over mates became suicidal for the group. A man who fights for access to females using the tools at hand – clubs, spears, poison-tipped arrows – is likely to kill his rival. And then, probably be killed by the next mate-seeking hunter who comes along.

This is not good for the evolution of the species, so, the Chapais-influenced argument goes, humans evolved into a species whereby something like marital rights were recognized, and the social pressure implied by these rights greatly diminished the tendency for men to kill each other over women. Didn’t completely eliminate it, obviously.

Voila, marriage is born as a socially recognized and more or less respected institution defining sexual and reproductive rights and responsibilities.

By the way, I noticed long ago, in my anthropological readings about hunting-gathering societies, that the single most common source of violent conflict in such groups seemed to be competition among males over women.

Anyway, I am pretty much convinced by Professor Chapais’s model wherein human pair bonding, and all the love and lust that go into it, evolved through some kind of group dynamic, perhaps via polygyny and very likely with reference to the need for skillful hunters to minimize their murderous tendencies, at least toward members of the in-group.

There will be a quiz next week.