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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hostess and the House of Saud

Yesterday in the car, my wife and I got talking about the recent demise of Hostess Brands, Inc. (longtime maker of Twinkies, Wonderbread, and other mainstays of American pop culture) after their bakers' union turned down a pay and benefits cut. We'd heard some people blame those union members for bargaining themselves out of 18,500 jobs. We'd also heard, though, that union workers had agreed to pay cuts to save the company after a previous bankruptcy just a few years before. And so we wondered: when would you accept a pay cut to save your company? When would you vote for your own employer to go under? 

With limited information on the Hostess case, we decided we'd probably have voted against the pay cut. After all, what's the point of sacrificing just to extend the decline of a dying concern? If changes American eating patterns have made pay cuts the only way for Hostess to survive, why not just let it go and try to find work with a company better in touch with the industry's future?

Now--if I felt like company leaders understood why Hostess was struggling, I said, and if they had a clear plan to turn the company around and get wages up again, then it would be much easier for me to make a short-term sacrifice to keep the company alive.

In short, I said, I would make a sacrifice to back a leader with a plan for success but would have very little loyalty to a leader who allowed his or her own company to decline and then expected me to fix it. And with a union potentially multiplying workers' anxiety as well as influence, it might be quite difficult for a leader of a failing company to really convince anyone he was worth a second chance. 

Which is when our conversation turned to the House of Saud.

I once read that before the late 1700s, the interior of the Arabian peninsula was typically ruled locally, with various families and tribes competing for dominance. Periodically, one family's leader would defeat another, and still other families would align themselves with him in exchange for promises of security. Gradually, the leader of that family might come to rule much of the peninsula as people rallied around him after military victories--but a leader's rule ever lasted long, because the first defeat not only limited his expansion, it also shook the loyalty of all his subjects. A losing leader was less likely to have his former allies show up for the next battle, and therefore more likely to lose again--starting off a chain reaction that resulted in rapid decline. In the end, many once-great leaders died as little more than village patriarchs, or even as exiles and wanderers, no longer supported even on their families' native lands.


And so it was with Hostess: a weak leader can't hold a coalition together on a "sacrifice because we're weak" slogan. They should have known they were doomed: people are naturally inclined to support the ascendant.

And yet--if we support on the ascendant, aren't we also doomed (like Arabs in the 1700s) to the insecurity of rapid cycles of change? It's human nature to want to side with winners, but people who change sides too quickly risk their own stability and security, which are also powerful motivators for supporting a given ruler or boss. So how can a leader keep a coalition together through ups and downs long enough to establish stability?

One possible answer comes from the House of Saud. In the mid-1700s, a local chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud joined forces with a preacher named al Wahhab: ibn Saud swore to govern in a way that would promote al Wahhab's vision of a purified, fundamentalist Islamic order. Ibn Saud won battles, to be sure, but it wasn't just his military ascendance supporters were drawn to. They also bought into his ideological vision. Even when ibn Saud suffered defeats and setbacks, allies who valued that vision were willing to stand with him. Within just 70 years of their adoption of Wahhabism, the heirs of ibn Saud ruled an area just larger than they do today.

A possible corporate parallel can be found in Apple under Steve Jobs. At various times, Apple has been ascendant and weak. But its core supporters have remained committed because of their faith in the company vision even at times when its fortunes seemed to be running low.

Thinking about House of Saud, I theorized that ascendance, security, and vision are the three main glues all types of different governments and companies use to keep their organizations together.When a country or company loses these three things, it's likely to lose the support of its people soon afterward. The stronger it can keep each of the three, the more claims to people's faith and support it has to fall back on.

Hostess probably had an inspiring vision once upon a time. Maybe back in the Depression its workers took pride in their ability to provide people with affordable, technologically-sophisticated bread. Maybe in the 1950s and 1960s, they took pride in their ability to give hostesses a startlingly convenient way to share obviously complicated desserts with their guests. Along with that vision, workers in those eras probably enjoyed a sense of ascendance as they saw their company uniting with other regional bakeries into an industry powerhouse. They probably also developed a strong sense of security as company leaders promised them reliable benefits packages and wages above the industry average.

The advantages Hostess has probably didn't disappear all at once. But the culture around them shifted. As inexpensive turned to cheap, the company's talent for lowering the bottom line by extending the shelf life of goods probably lost much of its lustre. As people began to value the wonders of the natural over the wonders of technology, the company likely lost more meaning.

And with the vision slipping, ascendance probably settled into plateau and then market share erosion. When a product becomes uninspiring to make, odds are it will soon struggle to sell.

Finally, probably after years and years of subtle warnings, Hostess found itself unable to meet its old promises of security. They asked their workers to accept a pay cut in 2009 and got it. But they lost the last leg of their legitimacy in the process. When they had to come ask for concessions again without a vision or a hope of ascendance to support them, it was over.

And maybe we'll live to see the same happen to the House of Saud. The personal behaviors of some members of the ruling family have undermined their credibility as heirs to Wahhab's vision--which may also itself lose cultural power as hardline Muslim governments around the world fail to thrive. Their credibility for providing security was compromised during the first Gulf War, when they had to ask the United States for assistance and accept American bases on their lands. And their ascendance is certainly in jeopardy if the world transitions from oil--or if their oil runs out. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Identity as Social Technology

I've been thinking lately about the idea of identity. And it's occurred to me that most of what we talk about as part of identity is less about "who you are" than about what aspects of yourself you choose to emphasize to connect with others.

Here's an example: anybody can mix whole wheat flour and water, roll it out and add oil, then cook it, eat it, and enjoy it. They could even share the word roti for describing it. But that's just something you eat. It's part of what you do, but not part of your identity.

For me, it's also part of identity because eating roti is a piece of social technology I use to connect myself with other people. It reminds me of my grandfather and of other members of the Gill family. In some sense, it connects me to non-Gill Punjabi who also, presumably, feel a certain emotional and family as well as dietary connection to rotis

Another example: let's say you listen to a song. You may like it or dislike it, but it's only part of your identity if you see your attitude toward the song as being a part of my belonging in a larger group. You may be subconsciously using your dislike for country music, for example, as a way to connect to other urban, sophisticated people and to distance yourself from rural populations in the South and West. Or you may be emphasizing your connection to a certain ideological group by emphasizing your appreciation for related music.

In any case, it seems like whether we're talking about stories, food, values, or practices,the point of most of what we associate with identity is to connect with others.

Which is why I'm a bit puzzled at how much people today seem to want to find a totally unique identity. I mean, every person is already unique--it seems to me that the point of most elements of identity is to counterbalance your natural isolation by building stronger bonds with others.
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