Friday, September 18, 2009

Who Are We, Anyway?

This post came together from several sources:  a Newsweek article reviewing a study at the University of Texas on the reactions of very young children to people of other races (See Baby Discriminate); Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times about Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina (may his giblets wither) calling Pres. Obama a liar; and a post on a blog called Religion Dispatches called "Fear of a Black President," by Jonathon L. Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. 

Start with the Texas study, which explored the attitudes toward race in a group of Caucasian families near Austin.  The article is fascinating.  Most of the parents in the study couldn't, literally could not, discuss race with their children, beyond mouthing platitudes like, "Everyone is equal."  (I loved the 7 year old who eventually asked his mother, "What does 'equal' mean?")  In the total absence of guidance from their parents, children concluded that:  white people were nicer than black people; black people were more likely to be mean than white people; or (to generalize) "people like them" were better than "people who aren't like them."  This is pure tribalism; frankly, this attitude is what drives much of the conflict in Afghanistan.  In families where the parents did discuss race frankly with their children, the children concluded that skin color didn't matter much.

If you don't talk about something with your children, the conclusions they draw on the subject may not be what you expect.  Note, parents, that this applies to sex, too, but that's another post.

Maureen Dowd, of course, drew the obvious conclusion that a Southerner like Rep. Wilson, when he shouted, "You lie!" at President Obama, implicitly followed it with the time-dishonored epithet, "boy!"  Her column concluded (reluctantly, she says) that the screaming objections to Obama and his policies really are racial.

Of course they are.  As the U.Texas study found (remember, Texans are generally considered Southerners), children form racial attitudes very very early.  Children raised in the American South more than 40 years ago (including my late father, and also Joe Wilson, who is 62) were openly taught that black people are by nature inferior to white people in all ways.  So if you were a small town failure with a small job, whose high point was a couple of beers with the boys on Friday night, you could still reassure yourself that you were better than "them," just because you were white.

It's very hard for Bubba to defend that position when the representative of "them" is Barack Obama.

"Fear of a Black President" begins with this comment:
Ever the statesman, and often candid to a political fault, President Jimmy Carter asserted this week that much of the animosity directed toward President Barack Obama is “based on the fact that he is a black man.”
God bless Jimmy Carter, who speaks his mind.  And he's perfectly right.  Prof. Walton's point, which I strongly recommend you read in full, is that the real problem isn't so much that the ranters can't tolerate Obama's blackness, as that they can't tolerate any change in their personal perception of their own superiority as white men:
President Obama can’t win with these folks because they are blinded not just by his race but also by an uncritical devotion to their own. His pigmentation rather than his policies cut against the grain of what these persons wrongly consider “natural” or “American.” More specifically, his very being is a haunting rejoinder to such white Americans of what they are not—indeed what they have never been. This African American man with an Arabic name has dared to usurp all of the cultural and cognitive tropes that white supremacy has historically claimed for itself. He is calm in the face of their unrestrained emotion. The more illogical they act the more rational he comes across. And, of course, the more eloquent and erudite he presents himself, the more he provokes the Joe Wilsons of the world to mindlessly blurt out, “You lie!” 

I've been slapped down before for suggesting that we'll never move forward as a country until we can learn to judge and react to a person (thoughts, actions, ideas), and not a skin color - and that includes our judgements of ourselves.  I still think it's true; the hysterical reaction to President Obama confirms it.  What I don't know is how we get there.  But I suspect racism is like alcoholism - you can't quit doing it until you admit you have a problem.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Driving in the Desert

I recently did the "cross-Sierra shuttle" for my husband, who wanted to climb Mt. Whitney:  I dropped him off in Kings Canyon, then picked him up 9 days later in Lone Pine, on Highway 395.  In the meantime, I drove to Las Vegas to visit my sister.

During that week or so, I drove something like 780 miles, maybe 680 of it through the desert, in three separate sessions.

Driving through the basin and range country always fascinates me.  You have a long way to go, and the traffic is often quite light, so everybody drives as fast as they can - I drive as far over the speed limit as I think I can get away with, so I'm regularly passed by people who think they can get away with more.  The immediate roadside whips by, but there's nothing on the immediate roadside except sagebrush, and the occasional dead truck tire, so you focus on the landscape.  The road can be anything from a 2 lane highway to Interstate 15, and you share it with a steady procession of big rigs. The traffic all moves at roughly the same speed; occasionally a car passes a truck, or a truck passes a truck, at a relative speed difference of maybe 5-10 miles an hour.  It's all very stately.

The landscape is flat, with mountain ranges rising on both sides, anywhere from 5 to 30 miles away; the road trails across the middle of the flat part, and eventually vanishes into a notch.  You have a lot of time to watch the mountains rotate past you in slow grandeur. 

Occasionally you pass a highway turnoff, which leads to a dirt road, which leads over a low hill to - who knows?  A ranch?  An abandoned mine?  Once in a while the dirt road will lead to a solitary house, a mile or two back from the road, with a couple of outbuildings, surrounded by empty desert.  It's hot as the seven hinges of Hades - I don't think I saw a temperature below 95 on my car thermometer the entire trip - and you wonder how they can possibly live in that bare building, with no shade trees.  There are no shade trees, of course, because there's no water for them, which leads you to wonder where the people in the house get water.  It seems a little outside the range of the Alhambra man.

Driving through the basin and range country makes you feel very small and fragile.  The mountains are huge, and they loom over you.  If you ever took geology, you may remember what an alluvial fan is - you can see a lot of gorgeous examples of them.  The rock colors are beautiful and subtle.  All you can think is, I hope the car doesn't break down, I hope the air conditioner holds up.  Between Tehachapi and Barstow there is one settlement (I hesitate to call Kramer's Corners a town) that's right on the road (Highway 58) - you pass the towns of Mojave and Boron, but they're off the road a mile or five.  I stopped in Boron to find a rest room; I didn't see a building taller than one story (how would you keep the second story cool?).  The town seemed to huddle under the lash of a furnace-hot wind; and yet, the people were friendly and helpful, I saw an antique store, they have a museum to the twenty-mule team era.  They didn't have a gas station that I saw; they must drive to Kramer's Corners for gas.  What must it be like to live in a blast furnace?

For that matter, what must it have been like to cross those deserts, not in an air-conditioned car at freeway speeds, but on a horse, making maybe 20 miles a day (horses can go faster than that but they have to have water)?  Or in a Conestoga wagon behind a span of oxen (10 miles a day)?  Terrifying and beautiful. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Islam in Oakland

It doesn't surprise me to see Muslim women in Oakland; I see the standard wrapped headscarf all the time.  It did startle me, the other day, to see a woman walking along Telegraph Avenue wearing the full niqaabThis isn't the full-coverage Afghan burqa, but you've probably seen photos of Saudi women wearing something similar - full black, head to toe, except for a narrow slit over her eyes.  She was pushing a double stroller and accompanied by a small boy, about 4 or 5 years old.  Since I was driving a car, I didn't get a photo, but I did think about taking one.

On one level, it's her religion, and I defend her right to practice it.  But on another level, the niqaab really gets to me.  Islam as a religion imposes a great deal of physical modesty - men and women are both expected to keep themselves covered except in the presence of spouses.  But you'll never see a Muslim man who covers his entire body except for his eyes; only women are expected to do that.

I don't know enough about Islam to evaluate the differences among the various requirements to cover the hair, or more; and I've read interviews in which Muslim women explain that covering themselves makes them comfortable, and if so, more power to them.  But it bothers me.  It disturbs me in a way I can't quite define, that has to do with personal empowerment, and equality, and the absence of choice.

It also disturbs me in a way I can define:  concealment of identity and purpose.  I don't really know whether that was a woman pushing that stroller.  It was a human being wearing an all-enveloping black robe that revealed only the eyes.  (I don't recall whether I could see the hands or not.)  I assumed it was a woman because men don't wear the niqaab.  But there've been cases in Afghanistan when male suicide bombers disguised themselves in burqas to get past checkpoints.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thoughts on Climate Change

In the August 2009 issue of Scientific American (no link; they now require a digital subscription; your library has the issue), author Kate Wong considers some of the reasons the Neanderthals may have died out, since there's now considerable evidence that they coexisted with homo sapiens for around 15,000 years.  Analysis of isotopes trapped in "primeval ice, ocean sediments, and pollen retrieved from such locales as Greenland, Venezuela and Italy" seems to show that, during a period known as "oxygen isotope stage 3" (OIS-3), which ran from around 65,000 years ago to 25,000 years ago, the climate became wildly unstable heading into the last glacial maximum: 
So rapid were these oscillations that over the course of an individual's lifetime, all the plants and animals that a person had grown up with could vanish and be replaced with unfamiliar flora and fauna.  And then, just as quickly, the environment could change back again.
The Neanderthals were preliterate; they had no way to pass information on hunting, edible plants, survival techniques, and so on, to the next generation, except orally.  Later in the article, Ms. Wong notes that until around 30,000 years ago, neither homo sapiens nor Neanderthals lived long enough to be grandparents; around that time, homo sapiens began to live to see their grandchildren - but not Neanderthals.  Living long enough to be grandparents is a tremendous evolutionary advantage - additional help in child rearing, plus the transmission of learning and experience to the new generation.

Was it lack of the ability to pass on workable survival techniques that did in the Neanderthals?  Or was it merely those wild climate swings, themselves?  How would we cope with a climate that took an area from forest to open grassland within a generation?  How will we, if it happens to us?  The climate swings the team studied covered 40,000 years - longer than recorded human history.  We're worried about human caused climate changes (well, some of us are) - we need to remember that climate changes we didn't cause may be just as significant and just as threatening.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Climate Change Data

A recent newsbrief from Scientific American reports that climate change skeptics are using normal variations in scientific data on the climate to attack the principle that the climate is changing, caused by us - a principle believed by 97% of the 3,000 scientists surveyed by the University of Illinois in January.  Apparently an automated system of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) published obviously incorrect data on Arctic sea ice, and the skeptic community went nuts - "they don't know what they're talking about!"  In fact, NSIDC discovered it had a faulty sensor, fixed it, corrected the data, and audited all their past data; but - "they don't know what they're talking about."

OK, the first point here is that if we provided a genuine education in the scientific method, enough people would understand peer review and data revision in the light of new information that these arguments wouldn't fly.  But, regrettably, we don't.  Even the students who manage to graduate with the ability to read and write stand a sporting chance of not understanding the concepts that drive scientific investigation, or the idea that it's possible to correct errors.

But the paragraph that really caught my eye summarized the opinions of one Marc Morano of the site Climate Depot, a leading climate change skeptic:
Rather he believes that “lack of warming in recent years” has helped his cause—although this decade is the hottest in recorded history, there hasn’t been a record-breaking year in 10 years. Moreover, recent papers suggest that natural climate fluctuations might continue to mask the expected warming trend for up to three decades.
You can boil a living frog to death if you start him out in a pan of cold water and raise the temperature very gradually.  Are we sitting in a pan of water?  How hot is it, anyway?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Night Out in Las Vegas

First, let me say that Carlos Santana was great:  wonderful band, awesome rhythm section (all three of them), fine lead singers, and of course the man himself on lead guitar.  Santana is the most relaxed performer I've ever seen on stage, leading to a continual game of "where's Carlos right now?" as you look for the velvet shirt, the cap, and the red electric guitar.  He wanders around and stops to play wherever he is when his next lick is due, occasionally exchanging a high five with another musician.  And the lighting designer is a damn genius.  You couldn't really see Santana clearly from halfway back, but the video monitors did continual close-ups of him (and the others) - his face is mellow and warm, and totally focused on his music. 

Now let's talk about the venue:  the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.  The concert was in "The Joint," their performance venue (recently upgraded, according to the web site).  I agree with their hype about the sound system and the lighting, both were excellent; but the web site raves about "seven VIP luxury suites and a prestigious VIP level." Don't think this implies any sort of luxury for the schmucks down on the floor.  We sat in folding chairs (cheap folding chairs), locked together to make a row.  Worse, the peon who numbered the chairs in our row (in chalk, by hand, on the underside of the seats) couldn't count; our tickets were for seats 4 and 5, and the seats in our row were numbered "3 4 6 7...," so they effectively sold us a non-existent seat. The ushers on the floor finally got everybody settled in, and the seats really were quite good, except for the six-foot dude in front of me who spent almost the entire concert standing up and grooving.  Fortunately the two video monitors gave a continuous if disjointed view of the stage action.

I brought earplugs with me.  I can't imagine why I didn't think to take them to the show.  I think my hearing has largely recovered.

No place that seats 4,000 people can realistically be described as "intimate."

I give points for effort to the casino staff on the ground, but my overall impression of the place was of poor maintenance and tacky patrons.  The bathrooms were dirty; one of the handicapped stalls in one bathroom had been out of order so long they'd removed the door and were using it to store cleaning supplies.  The other "handicapped" stall was barely wide enough for a walker or wheelchair, and had not been cleaned since someone puked in there, despite the fact that the restroom had an attendant.

Now for tacky patrons:  I've never seen so many cheap hookers - obviously cheap hookers - in one place in my life, even on earlier trips to Las Vegas.  (We usually go to shows in the higher class casinos.)  Even on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland.  Waiting for the valets to retrieve our car was a runway show of the latest in 5 inch stiletto heels, micromini skirts, and push-up bras.  Oh, and thongs.  They had a sign on the door saying "dress code after 6 PM."  Given what we saw before, during and after the show, I shudder to imagine how people dress before 6 PM!

Another plus for the casino staff on the ground:  when the valet captain saw my sister's walker, she jumped our ticket to the front of the line, saving us probably 40 minutes.  But the valet staff was edgy in the extreme, and tonight - 2 days later - we found out why.

They were being busted.  The police raided the casino that night:  narcotics and prostitution, in an area somewhat oddly called "Rehab" ("the ultimate Vegas pool party").  As we tried to drive away (it must have taken us 10-15 minutes to clear the casino driveway), we saw medical techs, and assumed somebody'd had an accident; but we also saw a K-9 unit, which isn't usually dispatched to an accident.  But it sure is dispatched to a drug bust!