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.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Governor Scott vs. the Liberal Arts

Nobody has ever accused Florida Governor Rick Scott of being too smart for his own good, but if anyone were to level such an accusation against him, I would be the first to leap to his defense. Last week Governor Scott solidified his reputation as Florida’s Philistine in Chief when he said, “Is it a vital interest of the state of Florida to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

The governor argued that taxpayers should be spared the expense of educating their children in such fields as anthropology and psychology. I can understand why he’s hostile toward psychology. No doubt he’s aware that people who can understand the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) are the very ones who are likely to regard him as a “sociopath with narcissistic tendencies” or something along those lines.

Governor Scott

Diagnosis Pending

But why would he single out anthropology? Of course his daughter was an anthro major at William and Mary, and the governor may resent having paid her tuition while she pursued her education there. But there must be more to it than this.

My own guess is that he believes that anthropology is accurately represented in such films as Krippendorf’s Tribe, in which (the otherwise respectable) Richard Dreyfuss plays an anthropology professor who engages in an elaborate academic fraud by claiming to have discovered a lost tribe in New Guinea.

Well, let’s just say that the odds of Richard Dreyfuss or anyone else finding a lost tribe in the forests of New Guinea are pretty near zero. Of course, there may still exist “lost tribes” of sorts, but these are most likely to be along the lines of homeless people living under freeway bridges in Miami or Orlando. It’s true that if anyone is going to “discover” such tribes and bring them to the public’s attention, it would be anthropologists. But this should be a plus in Governor Scott’s eyes, since one of the few things he’s anxious to spend taxpayer money on is drug tests for poor people. Right here, under these freeway bridges, there lurks a veritable gold mine of untapped drug-testing opportunities for him.

To say the least, Governor Scott shows an unbecoming lack of gratitude toward students of the liberal arts, many of whom have helped keep him a free man over the past few years. Before he left Texas and skedaddled down to our state, he was CEO of Columbia/HCA, a medical company that got into hot water for a wide range of illegal activities including kickbacks to doctors, fraudulent billing practices and a host of other dirty dealings. Scott was forced to resign his position, but how, I wonder, did he escape indictment? I don’t know the details, but no doubt he retained a team of expensive lawyers who, I’m willing to bet, had not been physics or engineering majors in college. Same thing goes for the attorneys who fought the recent employment discrimination suit against Solantic, his spouse’s company (which, by the way, makes a good deal of money in drug testing).

The governor has been taking it on the chin lately for his attack on anthropology and the liberal arts. Some of the criticism has reached the national level, one good example being Rachel Newcomb’s article in the Huffington Post. Other national media have taken to lambasting the governor for his anti-anthropology position, including Mother Jones. And here in Florida, the St. Petersburg Times published my critique. Well, these are all very good for the time being, but I’m afraid that the only remedy for what ails us in Florida comes, after all, not in words, but in numbers: 2014.

Ruth Benedict - A Wise and Well Educated Anthropologist

Saturday, October 8, 2011

They're Here, and Just in Time

Lots of news this week: Steve Jobs, American iCon, has died, the Occupy Wall Street movement is finally getting lots of media attention, and the amazingly talented Cyndi Lauper, now appearing at the local House of Blues, continues to misspell her own first name.

Occupy Wall Street is the real story, and I say this even though I consider their claim to be “the other 99%” of Americans an exaggeration. This is because they don’t represent that roughly 28% who insist on voting against their own interests even when a stone blind bat could see the unhelpfulness of such a tendency.

The 28% I'm talking about includes those people who still approved of George W. Bush in 2008, after he had dragged us into two wars, (one of which was unnecessarily long and the other absolutely unnecessary), had shifted the tax burden away from his super-rich friends and onto the backs of the rest of us, and, finally, led the economy into the worst disaster we've seen since the 1930s. So, who are those 28% that still approved of Bush even after he brought about Mondo Catastrofico? I don’t know, but I don't think they sympathize with the Occupy Wall Streeters. In other words, these good Wall Street demonstrators might want to change their slogan to “We are the other 72 percent!” Admittedly not too catchy, but more accurate.

The 28 percent who tend to vote for and support the interests of the super-rich (i.e., the one percent) would benefit from a more enlightened understanding of human nature. Such an understanding might convince many of them to see the errors of their ways and, who knows, maybe even get them to admit that G. W. Bush did not deserve their unwavering devotion.

Ganz bestimmt, Herr Goethe!

From Wikipedia

The key feature of human nature that needs to be more widely understood is that which binds us, against our own will sometimes, to our fellow humans. This feature is rooted in our brain chemistry, which in turn is a function of evolutionary processes that have made Homo sapiens the all-time mammalian champions of mutual help and support. When we are behaving naturally, we tend to feel for each other, share the sufferings of each other, and strive to help each other.

Such a statement is likely to provoke denunciations of “Kumbaya singer!” from the ranks of the 28-percenters, but, let me assure you, I like Kumbaya no more than I like pickled pigs’ feet, which is to say, not very much.

What I do like are the neural and behavioral studies, now arriving in an endless stream, that have identified mirror neurons and other brain components that underlie our inability to separate ourselves from each other. Call me a socialist if you must, but current research proves beyond a doubt that we are, above all, social creatures.

Admittedly, we can be trained to disqualify certain fellow humans from any right to our sympathy (i.e., dehumanize them), whether they be racially, religiously, ethnically or politically different. But this takes training. Our natural impulse, particularly when we are face to face with each other, is to look out for each other.

But, you say, what about murder? War? Enslavement? Rape? Theft? Going through the express check-out line with more than 10 items? Yes, these things do happen, and they are anti-social, but they are, except in the most dysfunctional of societies, newsworthy aberrations. What is not news is the constant, neuron-based, tide-like pull of the social impulses, the ones that mark us as inescapably linked to each other.

Here’s another possible objection to the “We are social” model: What about the benefits of capitalism, the encouragement it gives to individualistic, competitive striving?

I grant that a measure of competitive striving is also natural to us, and can be constructive, but only when channeled along socially responsible paths. Our problems today stem from the all-too-numerous examples of destructive, anti-social striving, the kind of striving that has characterized, for example, Enron, Halliburton, BP, the tobacco companies, Goldman Sachs, Citibank and other outfits whose natural habitat is Wall Street. Their striving has been aimed at personal enrichment even at the expense of social devastation.

Which brings us back to the OWSers. The “99 percent” they promote is more an aspiration than a reality, but it still speaks to the fact that the American economy, since about 1980 has been steadily drawn into the clutches of the super-rich - that one percent who use their money to buy Congress and the White House and then engender laws designed for their own benefit and at our expense. Theirs is a destructively selfish competitive striving.

Eliminating, or at least drastically reducing, the influence of their money on our elections would go a long way toward compelling our elected leaders to pay more attention to us than to those who fund their campaigns. The most obvious device for accomplishing this would be publicly funded federal elections.

Of course these same moneyed interests would claim that publicly funded elections amount to a “government take-over,” but the truth is that government is where our democratic rights make their home. The main problem with our democratic house today is not that it is governmental, but that it has been steadily taken over by non-governmental, moneyed interests. Wall Street represents these interests, so the OWS movement is a big, fat, bold step in the right direction. Even though some of these protestors seem unfocused, and, this being New York, they bring with them a healthy dose of the theatrically bizarre, they still, in my opinion, deserve our praise and support. If they manage to effectively focus our sustained anger they will indeed be the people we have been waiting for.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dusty Quagmire

Last week I watched Armadillo, a film that follows the actions of a Danish combat platoon in Afghanistan. I was surprised at how similar the Danes were to the American troops I’ve seen in similar documentaries - down to their buff, tattooed bodies and their rough teasing and jostling of each other.

Spoiler alert: The film concludes with the platoon leader telling his men that there should be no talk of their having shot and killed wounded and helpless enemies during their recent dust-up with the Taliban because "nothing like that actually happened." This little drama followed right after scenes of the engagement referred to, a fight in which the soldiers killed wounded and helpless Taliban. I wonder if some sort of Copenhagen court martial is in the offing.

This film brought home to me again just how bizarre America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan is. We went there to get Al Qaeda, which no longer has a significant Afghanistan presence. Most of the local Afghans don’t like us, and many of those who do are simply enriching themselves by pocketing our financial aid. Afghanistan today is looking more and more like Vietnam in the 1960s.

But how many Americans understand Vietnam of the 1960s? Two of our recent presidents certainly didn’t. George W. Bush argued that we made a mistake, not for getting into the Vietnam War, but for getting out of it.

OK, you’re probably thinking I’m cheating by citing George Bush, one of the most bodaciously ignorant people ever to occupy the White House.

He was, however, president, and yes, there are millions of Americans who would vote for him next year if he ran against, say, Barack Obama. The same can be said of Ronald Reagan, only more so.

Reagan was at least as ignorant as Bush, and even more popular. Like Bush, Reagan seemed to enjoy unnecessary wars. His killing fields were not in the Middle East, but in Central America, where he justified his backing of terrorists and other right-wing factions by claiming that Nicaragua was a lot like Vietnam.

And what was Vietnam like? According to the history that flourished in Ronald Reagan’s head (but nowhere else in the cosmos) Vietnam’s Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, refused to allow elections in his country once it had gained independence from France.

But outside of Ronald Reagan's head, that is, in the real world, Ho Chi Minh actually supported an election while it was the United States that did not. In fact, according to a 1954 Geneva agreement, elections for the leadership of Vietnam were scheduled for 1956 and representatives from Canada (NATO), Poland (Pro-Soviet) and India (neutral) were supposed to observe the polling and make sure it was free and fair.

The U.S. blocked these elections because, as former President Dwight Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs, experts on Vietnam agreed that Ho Chi Minh would easily win any popular vote. He was, as Republican Senator Thruston Morton said, Vietnam’s George Washington. He had led the fight that freed Vietnam from French rule, and by doing so had made himself the hero of the Vietnamese people, both north and south.

So why did Ronald Reagan claim the Ho Chi Minh prevented the election? The short answer is that where history is concerned, Ronald Reagan was not exactly a genius. Actually, you could also say that about President Reagan’s understanding of economics. Or government budgets. Or race relations. Or environmentalism. Or education. Or…OK, Ronald Reagan was not very smart about almost everything, but he was a “Great Communicator,” and this made him popular. I guess the questions to ask here are, “If his thinking was so divorced from reality, what, exactly, was he communicating?” and “Will the American public buy any brand of idiocy, as long as it’s presented in an affable, folksy manner?”

Please don’t answer those questions. I’m depressed enough as it is.

Ketchup is a vegetable!

Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do!

Nicaragua is close enough to invade Texas!

- The wisdom of the Gipper

The real story of America’s war in Vietnam is this: Our government lied to us as it dragged us into a thoroughly pointless fight against a popular leader, and in doing so threw away lives, treasure and the trust of the American people – something that hasn’t been recovered yet, and for good reason. The war in Afghanistan, like the earlier one in Vietnam, is a pointless exercise whose only goal seems to be a demonstration of American strength.

But does it demonstrate strength to dribble away our resources, shed American and Afghan blood, and do so with no possibility of success? If Ronald Reagan were alive today, he might claim that it does, but I’ve got to say, for me, the answer is a big fat no.