Monday, January 15, 2018

Young Indy raising my kids

With my kids I recently started watching the third boxed set of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the 1990s show that had its hero going about the world in the early 20th century, meeting important historical figures and having lots of adventures.  Watching this series with my boys has made we weepy, but in a good way.

I remember years ago, in my early 20s, I dreamed of seeing the Young Indy shows, which I'd largely missed out on as a kid.  At that moment in the early 2000s, the series was old enough to no longer be available, but not yet old enough to merit a nostalgic release or re-release.  A few years later, maybe when I was living in Spain, I learned that they had either come out or were going to come out as a DVD boxed set.  Still years later, I finally ordered a box to reach me in Colombia via my mother.  At that moment I was fixing up a house in our town, and my wife and kid were living far away in Bogota.  At night, after a long day of office work, followed by a few hours working on the house in the evening, I would settle down in my room amidst the rubble and dust of the rehab, and watch an episode of Young Indy.  The boxed set was excellently put together, in that each episode of the show was accompanied by two to four documentaries on subjects from Norman Rockwell to ballet to Jan Smuts and apartheid. 

As I watched these shows, I dreamed that they could someday be a major self-contained source of entertainment and education for my largely TV-free infant son, when he was older.  Starting about two years ago I finally exposed my two boys to the show, and we've been watching an episode every few weeks ever since.  It just makes me sublimely happy to have this thread running from my lonely days in a drafty abandoned house, to occasional reunions with my family in the elegant Parkway neighborhood of Bogota, to a precarious few years in our DC-area apartment, to our present, comfortable reality in Central America.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Reasons for hope in the new year

Here is an interesting bit from a website that seems to dedicate itself to reporting positive developments in world issues like climate, environment, health, and economic development.  In many raw indicators, the world got better in 2017 than it had been before.  I still worry about two juggernauts that don't necessarily manifest themselves in a one-year snapshot, but that could bring us all down in the years to come.  One is the rising tide of ethnic and other resentment, and the anti-democratic shifts in much of the world.  The second, and larger still, is the seemingly inevitable march of climate change, which despite the good news reported in the above article, has probably already reached a tipping point at which no improvements we make in CO2 emissions can reverse the phenomena of massive methane release from the Arctic that is already underway.

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 29, 2017

De jure and de facto segregation

Here is an interview with the always compelling and lucid Nikole Hannah-Jones.  She lays out very clearly that much of the segregation we see today in schools in housing is not just an accident, or an unavoidable legacy of a racist past, but rather that there continue to be laws and actions promoted by lawmakers that maintain or advance segregation.

Beyond this though, I think it's time to get away from the debate about whether or not segregation is intentional.  Ms. Hannah-Jones says, "I have worked very hard to dispel the myth that somehow segregation that’s not required by law is less harmful, so we should be OK with it."  Often debates about systemic racism, which includes segregation, get bogged down in discussions about the personal character of specific people, usually white people.  But let's remember that the whole reasoning behind the Brown vs. Board decision that really pushed desegregation forward was not that segregation is only bad if it's done by mean people.  No, it was that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal", whether or not they are separate because of explicit meanspirited decisions.

Again, the author says it best:
Once again, we spend so much time trying to prove whether people are doing something racist or not. Can we get in the hearts and minds of how a parent is making a decision? We can’t do that. And really, it’s irrelevant. What we know is that whether people are explicitly racist or not, the patterns that we have seen since the founding of public schools remain the same. And that is: Not only are white parents taking an inordinate amount of public school resources, but segregated black schools are getting less of everything.
This continues to be relevant today, perhaps more than ever, because explicit segregation laws are illegal today nationwide, but at the same time segregation is as bad as it's ever bad, especially in the North.  Even within single school districts that are diverse overall, like in Chicago, we see segregation that reflects housing patterns and test-in school policy and a number of other factors.  Even if there were no ill will involved, it is clear that this arrangement is harmful to all involved; it produces some of the academically worst schools in the country for black and Latino students, and a handful of high-performing schools where "lucky" students succeed at the expense of their less fortunate neighbors.

The most powerful passage from this interview is something I've seen and cried about myself.  "You see these little black boys and black girls come in and they’re so excited to learn. They don’t know yet how little we value them. They don’t know yet that we’re going to shuttle them into inferior schools where they’re never going to have the opportunity to become someone like me. By middle school, you see that light is gone already. You see that they understand by the schools we built for them, just how little we think of them."

Here's the kicker, where the author draws together how racial fears and the commoditized vision we currently have of education, make this segregation so entrenched. 
And then you add into that the way we marketize the language of schools. To be a good parent you need to shop for every advantage for your child even within a public system, which is supposed to be about the common good. We’ve converted the idea of a public system to serving the individual needs of parents.
So you take this racialized history of education, you take all of the racial fears that white parents have about black children, and then you put on top of that this market-based idea of public schools. It creates a system that we have now.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Postscript on Among the Believers

I wrote a pretty scathing review of VS Naipaul's Among the Believers a few months ago, when I was just about a quarter of the way through it.  I wanted to follow up and soften some of my criticisms for, as the author of another book that I read recently and praised, Naipaul adopted a changing voice throughout the course of the book.  He started out naive and churlish, but gradually became more understanding of the dilemmas facing the people he spoke with in four countries that in that moment, 1980, were just beginning to grapple with the apparent inconsistencies of trying to infuse Islamic values into a modern state.  I feel that Naipaul's questions became less rhetorical and more genuine:  How can values from 8th-century Arabia inform the creation and governance of a just, functioning society in the late 20th century?  This softening in Naipaul's tone was aided by the fact that his journey happened to begin with the most hardline, uncompromising (and in many ways the most dysfunctional) Islamic governments in Pakistan and Iran, and end with places like Malaysia and Indonesia that have dealt for centuries with complex relationships between culture, government, and even other religions.

I have almost 40 years of hindsight since the book was written, and I can now view both Naipaul and his interlocutors in a more magnanimous way.  The revolutionaries and professed theocrats that he spoke with reject out of hand a demonic West.  Naipaul rightly points out the incoherence of declaring a rigid separation between a place like Iran or Malaysia and the rest of the world, especially when these places rely on the same fruits of modernity and of the "universal culture" that we all do--electronic gizmos, modern medicine, cutting-edge university learning, even the common canon of lots of novels and movies and TV shows.  I feel though that the absolutist arguments put forth by these, the first wave of political Islamists, aren't those put forth today, when the call of even the most fervent radicals is to somehow combine the fruits of modernity with a more Islamic system of values. Likewise, actual thinking people (aside from Breitbart-style talking heads) on the other side rarely feel the need to dogmatically defend a mythical "West". 

I obviously am not saying I agree with the prognosis of even these more mature, nuanced Islamist preachers, nor do I necessarily think it is very viable.  But the total incoherence of denouncing modern innovations while relying on them to do your denouncing, no longer seems so prevalent today.  As political Islam, or Islamicized politics, have become ascendent in different parts of the world, the difficult, boring, unromantic work of actually governing has demanded an acceptance and use of many modern institutions like Constitutions, division of powers, and other elements that were missing from the vision of many of Naipaul's interviewees who had only gotten as far as calling for a purer faith to guide leaders and subjects.  Even extreme cases like ISIS, that make deft use of modern technology to promote a vision totally antithetical to modern human values, either last a few years tops before they collapse under their own weight, or they remain as an insignificant peanut gallery criticizing those who govern while not governing anything themselves.

In my more pessimistic moments (which is to say most of the time), I don't believe in the progressive vision of human history.  I've said as much in a past blog post discussing the book Liberation Theology, in which Gustavo Gutierrez lays out a very directional, modern vision of history as a gradual progress towards something (in his account, this something is communion with God, but my point here is that he sees history as linear progress). I understand that the Medieval Europeans believed in history as a repeating cycle, a wheel of fortune in which better times were following by worse times, in an unending circle, not a line headed somewhere.  Things don't keep advancing or getting better; rather we are doomed to continue repeating the mistakes of the past.  This is also a Classical Greek mentality, an underlying suspicion that base passions will ultimately override or undercut any rational endeavor or noble progress.  When I am feeling this way, I see examples in the way that modern liberal democracy, itself a very progressive, modernist way of living and making history, is now being questioned and undermined by ethnic nationalism, that timeless, nonprogressive passion that we thought had been thoroughly discredited by the Second World War.

A brief caveat--nowhere am I calling into question that the history of scientific knowledge has indeed been one of clear progress, of today's innovators building on the lessons and achievements of prior thinkers and researchers.  I'm more talking about ideas, specifically the question of how best to run a society.

Recently though I've had more optimistic moments in which I do see history in a progressive light, precisely in terms of advances in the way we think of how to run a society.  This doesn't mean that societies today are necessarily better or more democratic than those of yesterday, but rather that they do seem to be building on the successes and mistakes of the past, and blundering through to an incrementally more effective or more legitimate way of running things.  Most places are not just repeating the mistakes of the past.  In the case at hand, I feel like the countries Naipaul profiles, and many others that started experimenting with how to embed Islamic ideals into the global framework of representative democracy and human rights, are at a very different place today than they were almost 40 years ago when he wrote about them.  Today we have examples of countries where religion encroaches on a strict, almost dictatorial secularism (Turkey), places where an officially Islamic state contains a lot of secular institutions, both within and outside of government (Iran), and lots of countries in between where Islamic law coexists more or less prominently and more or less easily with secular democratic institutions.  There are places like Nigeria, where some federal states are in part administered by sharia law and other jurisdictions with lots of normative Christian legislation, and places like Saudi Arabia, where a strict theocratic state avoids mass popular uprising through a mix of repression and monetary enticements to the populace. The question of how much cultural or religious idiosyncracy you can add to the liberal democratic model before you totally denature it, isn't exclusive to Muslim-majority nations. Whenever we debate which values and ideals to teach in our schools, how cultural minorities should be included and accommodated in our society, even whether to keep or abolish the Electoral College (which is of course an institution that intentionally overvalues the rural side of our character), we are figuring out how to apply pure democratic ideals to a messy real world context.

In short, the panorama that I see is of all countries in the world (not just the ones with a Muslim majority population) grappling with how to bring the Enlightenment ideals of representative democracy into a complex, ethnically diverse 21st century where human rights are to be respected, community and tradition should be given a certain due, patriarchy and other hegemonies are increasingly called into question, and the continued existence of our very planet is at peril.  I don't say that I know of many places where all of these challenges are being addressed very well, but I do feel that, at least in the types of developing countries that Naipaul wrote about in the 1970s and 1980s (not just the Muslim countries), today's governance systems have managed to work out and move beyond some of the apparent impasses that existed back then.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Media manipulation in Romero's time

I just finished a great biography of Archibishop Oscar Romero, which I mentioned briefly in a prior blog post.  I just wanted to share a few highlights that really struck me.

I have long been worried that we seem to be in an era that is different from all prior ones in terms of how media has become so effective at manipulating public opinion, to the point that what is good is labeled bad, and vice versa.  To my thinking, it was as if we had come to a sort of epistemological end times in which even factually incorrect or morally abhorrent arguments could be framed and defended as being true and noble.  I even wrote a blog post in which I mused that the right-wing dictatorships of 1980s Latin America would have done better to simply spin their enemies into submission, instead of making them martyrs.

You can imagine then my surprise to find that Archibishop Romero had in fact been subjected to a vicious and ingenious spin campaign, not instead of but in addition to the very real violent repression.  It heartened me to some extent, first off to know that this trend I was seeing as unprecedented had in fact been deployed before, and secondly to see that it hadn't been that effective in the long term (though perhaps it is more effective in an age when we are so removed from direct contact with the world that a mass of people regard propaganda as being more real than reality itself).

Anyway, here are some amazing examples.  Just a month into his possession as archbishop, when Romero was really still trying not to offend the oligarchy too much, he was assailed by full-page ads taken out in the newspapers, and attributed to non-existent religious-sounding groups like the "Association of Catholic Women".  They even published a prayer for the exorcism of evil from the archbishop's soul, accusing him of sedition and incitation to violence.  This from the death squads that were massacreing unarmed civilians left and right!  There was a weekly magazine created for the express purpose of criticizing the Archbishop's sermons and actions.  Again, this only a few months into his term as archbishop, when he was still very equivocal in his political positions.  This magazine routinely referred to him as Monsenor Marxnulfo Romero (his real middle name was Arnulfo).  It was distributed for free in large companies and factories, and even government offices.  I can only imagine that there must have been an entire misinformed mass of working-class people who accepted these assertions at face value and sided with the murderous oligarchy.

A few years later, a group of his fellow bishops sent a letter to the Vatican accusing Monsenor Romero of being manipulated by Marxists and guerrillas.  This letter claimed that the plague of murders of priests had not been in fact carried out by government-allied death squads, but rather by their own guerrilla comrades, who suspected them of treason.  And the government orchestrating the violence was portrayed as a helpless victim, unable to ensure order because of the instability sown by Romero.

From there it got worse, with frequent (false) reports of the Archbishop's death on national news, as a tactic to intimidate him, and finally the reading of a list by the head of state repression, that placed Archbishop Romero as number two among public figures who had been infected by Communism and needed to be purged.

The last thing I wanted to share from this book is a line that I really liked.  In early 1980 (two months before he was murdered), "imminent civil war was in the air, and Monsenor Romero refused to accept these omens, more as a question of duty than for well-founded reasons; in effect, when all rational evidence is exhausted, hope remains an ethical obligation."  I have recently felt that hopefulness is the only right attitude to assume in many contexts, even when it is unrealistic, so it was nice to read such a reflection from a much nobler mind than my own.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

For a diverse philosophy

I ran across this really cool article about the relevance of philosophy to daily life and professional careers.  More than this, it highlights the importance of studying philosophies from the non-Western canon.  China and India apparently have very well-developed bodies of formal, written thought that can expand our understanding of the human condition and reality because they approach these things from a different angle than Aristotle and his descendants.  The author also argues for more exposure of students and professors to philosophy from less-prominent voices within the modern West (Afro-Americans, feminists, Latin Americans), as well as Native American and African philosophies of the past and present.  I don't know much about philosophy, but the author's arguments make sense to me.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Neoliberal explanations of racism

Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates is the latest target of a Cornel West beef.  I didn't know about this, and I'm frankly not too interested in learning the details beyond what's summarized in the article I'm about to cite.  What I really want to share though is this deft article's treatment of when economics are or are not useful in understanding white supremacy as it has been lived in the US during our history (hint--economics alone are usually not very useful in explaining racism).  Here the author summarizes a way of thinking that he characterizes as a neoliberal reading of white supremacy (and which he now views as a flawed line of thought, after having espoused it for a time):

In my idealism, I believed that white supremacy could be explained and solved by tying this nation’s actions to the Darwinian greed of capitalism and the apathy toward minorities who stood in the way of the supremacy of Western civilization’s need for domination. I believed that white people would never accept the inherent evil of white supremacy without its being tied to the macro-political reality of free-market economics.

Neoliberals are perfectly willing to discuss how the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a byproduct of capitalism and how the Industrial Revolution was the real death knell for slavery. They will talk about patriarchy as a part of cultural anxiety. But if anyone mentions the national complicity of white America in historical racism, they, like West, will accuse you of “fetishizing” white supremacy, with the clarion call that heralds the wincing of white people who refuse to realize the permanent strain of white supremacy that is still infecting America:
I agree with the author's current reading, namely that white supremacy is something that transcends a pure economic logic.  I don't know why this should be so hard to fathom--there are plenty of things in life that don't adhere strictly to economic incentives.  Love, childcare, eating habits.

I guess this assertion, that white supremacy is not purely an unintentional side effect of our market system, often draws resistance from people because it implies malice.  If white supremacy were simply an unpleasant collateral effect of an apathetic capitalist machine, then there are no guilty, conscious participants, and the ensuing oppression is a faceless thing.  If, on the other hand, you assert that white supremacy has always been a force unto itself (of course interacting with economic conditions, but not limited to them), then you are implying that there were and are moral, social, cultural aspects to the maintenance of white supremacy that have little to do with faceless market forces.  No, these aspects were and are enacted by human beings making their own choices every day to perpetuate the system.  Oppression is no longer an impersonal, accidental thing that just happens.  No, in this understanding of white supremacy, oppression is the very point, which implies that many people are capable of being nasty and hateful in a way that defies economic or any other good-faith analysis.

Here's the author's closing:
Ask the mothers and fathers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown Jr. about the “socioeconomic injustice” that pumped bullets into their bodies. Ask the children who attend inferior inner-city schools because white people don’t want to live next to them about the complexities of Wall Street. Macroeconomics, patriarchy and “pre-Du Bois thinking” never tossed a résumé in the trash because a black-sounding name was at the top.