Saturday, February 17, 2018

Is the United States a "developed country"?

Whenever the United States performs poorly on an index measuring human well-being, people tend to pull up charts comparing us to various European countries to show how sad our stats are. 

If this is useful, that's fine. But I'm not sure it's an entirely fair comparison. 

Is the United States a "developed country" the way many European nations are? 

I wonder this because places like France and Britain (and Belgium and the Netherlands and Germany and Portugal and Spain and I'm running out of breath) used to have colonies all around the world that they looted and exploited--and then eventually left under the face of mounting local pressure. 

The United States did its own share of overseas colonial adventuring, but also dehumanized and enslaved and oppressed and exploited millions of people right here in our own borders. And I'm not convinced that we've addressed that legacy thoroughly enough to become a "developed country." 

I suspect that if you lumped together statistics from France or Britain or Belgium and their former colonies, the United States would look more average. 

Maybe at the end of the day, we need to stop thinking about how we're doing as a "developed country" and start asking when we're gonna lived in a better developed world. 


Friday, January 12, 2018

Is Mia Love right?

Yesterday, President Trump used charged, abusive language to argue about Haitians and a few other groups of immigrants. The underlying argument, I think, was that those populations should not be part of a comprehensive immigration deal because he doesn't respect their nations of origin.

A number of conservative as well as liberal figures have expressed outrage at his comments. Among them was Mia Love, a conservative Republican representative from the congressional district next to mine, whose parents are immigrants from Haiti. "The president’s comments are unkind, divisive, elitist and fly in the face of our nation’s values," she said. "This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation."

I think it's hard to argue with any of that. I might quibble: I think there's a difference worth noting between words that are simply "unkind" and active expressions of contempt, for example. The President wasn't just sort of rude to anyone from Haiti--he used language designed to strip away value from them. Ugly language for an ugly purpose. With, I might add, a long and ugly history. But overall? Unkind, divisive, elitist, and unacceptable is a great list.

What stood out to me far more than Love's initial criticism of the remarks, though, was a claim she made in the tenth paragraph of the Deseret News report of her response.

"I doubt that a comment like that would have been made," Love said, "if somebody like me was sitting across the table from him."

Is Mia Love right about that?

My first reaction was to think that Love is too optimistic. President Trump doesn't seem to have much of a filter in general: would it really change the way he spoke or thought if one Haitian-origin representative from a faraway state were in the meeting?

But then I remembered President Trump's visit to China. After raging against the country on the campaign trail and in Washington, Trump seemed downright complimentary of the country and its leadership when he visited. He even complimented them on their past economic dealings with the United States, going out of his way to say that it was only natural that they would watch out for their own people's interests and blaming any past problems in trade agreements on former U.S. presidents.

It's not the only time something like that has happened. Donald Trump may not have been as complimentary, but he certainly clammed up during his campaign visit to Mexico. It's hard to think, actually, of instances where he's insulted groups or individuals directly to their faces.

The man can mouth off in all caps to millions on Twitter. He can rage at rallies while addressing his base. But face to face interaction does seem to affect his behavior.

And it seems like the face itself matters. There were plenty of people in the room with President Trump yesterday who were upset by the sentiment he expressed and the language he expressed it in. But he would have had to think ahead to realize that they might be upset, and perhaps to wonder whether the offense would be only political or also personally.

Would things have been different with a black face in the room? Especially if he vaguely remembered to connect that face with the very country under discussion?

Maybe Mia Love is right. Maybe some words would have been harder to say, some thoughts just a little harder even to form, if she'd been sitting there.

And if she's right, it's an insight with use far beyond the Trump White House. If she's right that we respond to the subconscious cues around us, that we respond to the visual and the visceral even when we can't quite grasp the implications of our ideas at a fully realized rational level, then Mia Love made a really important observation about human nature, and an important argument for diversity in counsel in a broad range of political, corporate, religious, and social settings.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The El Paso Problem

My grandma's grandfather, Helaman Pratt, first went from Utah to Mexico in 1875 and his descendants have been wandering back and forth over the border ever since. My grandma herself spent her growing-up years as far south as Mexico City and as far north as southern Idaho--with many of those years spent in the area around El Paso, Texas. 

Now, the borders around El Paso were defined in the mid-1800s by the Rio Grande. But as my grandmother told me when I was a child, the river never did know or care that it was a border. So from time to time, it's up and changed course.

Which creates an interesting dispute: where does the border go when the river shifts?

You could look up past disputes and find several different answers from several different negotiations. But if you were the judge, what would be your initial impulse?

Does the border remain at the place where the river was when the border was first negotiated? Or is it better to just say the border moves when the river does?

There are more complicated options, of course, for those of you who prefer detailed jurisprudence. Are there other factors which need to be taken into account to determine whether the old course or the new course of the river should be followed? Should the new border somehow split the difference between the river's old and new courses? Etc.

I think this is a fascinating problem. I would love to hear your responses: where should the border go when the river shifts and (perhaps more importantly) why?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

April Fools' Day in an Information Society

Holidays tend to either express or invert the values of their culture. A simple example of this is Mardi Gras/Carnival and Lent in Catholic cultures--one holiday to acknowledge the excess the culture works against; another to showcase the values of restraint and repentance the culture strives for. In the Jewish holiday calendar, built in an agricultural society, the pairs are similar but with the values almost reversed: feast days celebrate the abundance the culture strives for; fasts give a picture of that joy overturned.

This April 1st, half of what I saw on Facebook was a barefaced lie. It was glorious. As usual, Google itself contributed a generous budget to developing elaborate April Fools' Day jokes. For one day, the Internet's aspiration of granting instant access to reliable information was tossed upside down. Carnival for an information age.

I think April Fools' Day will only get bigger and more important as the internet continues to shape our culture. It's a holiday well-suited for our age.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Witches, Jews, and Acceptable Verbal Abuse

I have been writing today about witches.

Using American communists or communist sympathizers in the McCarthy era as my starting point, I made four observations about characteristics of the witches in a given society, :

1) A witch stands against the basic assumptions of the virtuous group's social vision.
2) A witch evokes very real memories of persecution and fear.
3) Even a drop of Satan's blood is enough to make someone a witch.
4) It is seen as an act of virtue to expose and isolate a witch.

As I wrote, it occurred to me that these four principles may help explain the Christian persecution of Jews during the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Since most European societies were built on Catholic political thought, Jews called into question the dominant society's basic assumptions as surely as people who blatantly resist scientific or democratic principles in America today.

Jews were popularly associated both with memories of early persecution of then-minority emerging Christians by the more established community of mainstream Jews and with false accusations of responsibility in all sorts of missing child cases and other tragedies. In addition to believing Jews committed more crimes, Christians were probably also more likely to remember any crimes Jews were alleged to commit, giving an extremely skewed popular image of the threat of violence and ill-will represented by the Jewish community.

Even Jews who converted to Christianity were often faced with prolonged skepticism about the completeness of their conversion (and persecuted when it was suspected that they had retained any vestiges of Judaism whatsoever). And there certainly wasn't room in most European societies in the Medieval and Renaissance eras for Jews to offset their religious identity with other merits as a way to enter mainstream society,

And because Jews were seen as far from the dominant social and legal order, Christians probably felt virtuous for abusing them in much the same way that we are socially rewarded for verbally degrading people whose political views are farthest from our own today. It would be interesting to compare the things hard-core conservatives sometimes say about liberals and hard-core liberals say about conservatives today with the things pre-Enlightenment European Christians sometimes said about Jews.

We have changed since those days. We are certainly more tolerant about religion, and we have protections in place against physical abuse and segregation. But are there still shadows of the old European treatment of Jews in the ways people from different ideological camps interact with each other? 

I wonder how the Merchant of Venice would play out today if it were set in a college theater department with the merchant as a straight-laced, traditional-marriage Republican in a sea of progressive Democrats. Would we be offended if part of his plea deal (after being outwitted by a man dressed in drag to disguise himself as the female Department Chair) was a pledge to vote for equality and register as a Democrat? 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cultural Differences Between American and Indian Dogs

So...for all the cultural differences between people in India and America, one of the most striking differences I noticed was between dogs.

American dogs I've met are almost always curious about new people, either for social or territorial reasons. If you get close to them, they want to sniff you or bark at you or just stand close to you for long enough to make some internal canine judgments.

But the stray dogs I walked past on the streets in Delhi and Dhudike were nothing like that. They seemed perfectly willing to adapt themselves to traffic patterns without worrying about who owned what space and didn't show direct much direct interest in human beings at all. I don't remember a single one sniffing me or barking at me, though I must have walked past a few dozen.

The dogs in Delhi did get loud sometimes at night. They'd howl or bark (probably at each other), though the sounds were different than I'm used to from backyard dogs in my neighborhood.

I don't remember the dogs in Dhudike making much noise at any time. I wonder why that is.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Memories of Mahipalpur, New Delhi

On December 26th, I arrived in India for the first time in my life on my way to my cousin's wedding in our village in Punjab. Before I met up with other relatives to head to back to the old family house, though, I had one day in New Delhi on my own.

Instead of going to any major site, I decided to spend that day simply by walking out of my hotel and away from the main road to take a look at what life was like in that part of Delhi.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer abundance of social life on the progressively narrow streets. There were people everywhere talking, laughing, working, playing cards, eating, drinking juice or tea, walking, waiting, greeting each other, selling wares from doorways or from carts, driving by on bicycles and motorbikes and sometimes cars while honking regularly, looking down from balconies or rooftops--the streets were completely alive. I remember thinking: this must have been what it was like when Jesus was alive. Streets like these are where Christianity comes from.

There was also seldom a hard line of separation between the streets and the buildings. Construction guys worked from piles of gravel poured right on the side of the street and took bowels-full at a time to reinforce the lower stories of buildings that were completely open for me to see the process. Lots of finished buildings seemed open still: I looked in on a sewing factory with fifteen machines and a handful of people at work that was just open to the street; I saw into warehouses, clear to the back of shops, into the windows of houses three doors back from the alley.

It was actually difficult sometimes to keep track of what counted as a street and what was more like an internal hallway in a housing complex. The streets themselves were sort of like I imagine capilarries: getting narrower and quieter as they divide until they're just little walkways---it's a very different feel from the hard distinction in an American suburb between a street, a driveway, and a sidewalk. There were plenty of dead ends, so that it was quite difficult to keep track of where I was after the first hour or so, and plenty of construction, so that it never quite felt like your location was permanent anyway.

I was still out and about when a nearby boys' school got out and boys in red sweaters poured through the streets in happy streams for a while. A few minutes later, a girls' school got out, too, and girls in blue and white came streaming through the area from a different direction.

I remember stray dogs wandering through the traffic, pretty much minding their own business and keeping their heads low.

I remember a shoe repair man sitting down on one of the big, paved streets on the edges of the area I was exploring, holding a customer's sandal between his feet while he stitched it back up with his hands.

On one edge of the neighborhood, I saw a giant trash dump which I used as a landmark. Like everything else, it was open--big and small paths led in and out, people came looking for useful things and left when they'd found what they wanted. There was a big cow grazing there.

A few people absently watched or nodded their heads when I came by, but nobody seemed to think it was unusual to have me wandering through their neighborhood and looking around. Maybe I looked just Indian enough to seem fairly normal. Maybe enough other people wander out of the hotels and back into the streets for a while that local people are used to foreigners in their streets, though I sort of doubt that. Maybe things are just open enough that no one's used to worrying about who's looking around or expecting them to have any reason for it.

In any case, it was a beautiful day. I know New Delhi has all sorts of problems, but it was really wonderful to get a sense of the energy, openness, and sense of community in one corner of Mahipalpur, a few blocks back from the airport hotels and travel agencies on the paved road out front.

I think my ideal neighborhood would be a cleaner version of that place.
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