Simple Acts of Kindness and Love

Forgive my dorkiness. This is close to my heart. 

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I found it is the small things– everyday deeds of ordinary folk — that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”

Why I Keep Thinking about a 2nd Civil War

It is a blessing and a curse of being a social animal that we are often aware of what the other social animals around us are thinking. If online activity is any indication of what people are thinking, then things are not great. Every day for the past year, I have found that the most viewed essay on this site, by far, has been something I wrote in 2019 about who would win a second civil war in the United States.

Perhaps I am giving this too much attention. But maybe not. A significant percentage of Americans have been deeply worried for a while. In an October 2020 poll, 61% of people agreed with the statement: “I’m concerned that the U.S. could be on the verge of another Civil War.” Another Yougov poll from the same time found that 56% felt that the country would see “an increase in violence as a result of the election.” A smaller poll from December reported that 71% of Trump voters and 40% of Biden voters believed “we are headed into a civil war or significant upheaval.” (Upheaval and civil war were not defined, however).

When I play the scenario out in my head, I think the possibility of another civil war is remote, at least not in the sense of replicating the original one. Although there has been chatter about secession in a few states (Texas, Wyoming), this has little momentum. And while there are certainly regional political differences, they do not fall along neat boundaries akin to northern and southern states. There is no Mason-Dixon line. Rather, the main divide seems to be urban-rural, within states rather than between them.

Even within states and within counties, there is plenty of political variation. While many counties voted overwhelmingly for Biden or Trump in 2020, most did not. According to one analysis, fewer than 600 out of roughly 3,000 counties (excluding Alaska, for some reason) voted over 80% for either candidate.

Alternative ways of looking at the 2020 political divide in the US. On the left, the percentage of vote for Biden and Trump by county. On the right, results by population size. Source.

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The Children of This Earth

And still they teach you in your school
About those glorious days of rule
And how it’s your destiny to be
Superior to me
But if you’ve any kind of mind
You’ll see that all human kind
Are the children of this earth
And your hate for them will chew you up and spit you out

-Damien Dempsey, “Colony”

The Year in Review: A Window into Darkness

You plant a demon seed. You raise a flower of fire.” – Paul Hewson

 

The number of views on my site have dropped off noticeably in the final three weeks of 2020, and I am relieved. Perhaps that doesn’t make much sense at first. Who doesn’t want people to read their stuff? Let me explain.

This year was not a good one – the pandemic raged across the world, and divisions in the U.S. were tense and palpable. I saw this indirectly on this blog. In 2020, the most read essays on this site, by far, pertained to the topic of another civil war in the U.S. These were the five most read posts in 2020, along with the year I wrote them, and the number of views:

Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S? (2019) 9,340 views

16 Reasons We Should Have Another Civil War in the U.S. (2020) 1,394 views

Humans are (Blank) –ogamous (2011) 731 views

Dangerous Speech & a 2nd U.S. Civil War (2020) 684 views

“To Tame the Savageness of Man” (2015) 648 views

 

So, that’s three posts related to civil war, one about keeping our baser impulses in check, and one about sex and love. Go figure. Two were older essays, and the other three were written in the last two years. And, unlike previous years when some of my essays were shared on social media, this year the vast majority of my visitors arrived on their own via Internet search engines.

This is a small blog with a funny name, and it doesn’t get much traffic. To see a post that I wrote last year skyrocket above the others, it made me notice. In fact, the “Red States versus Blue States” post is already the fifth most read essay on this site, even though it is just a year old and I started this blog in 2010.  The graph below shows how it compared in terms of views with other popular posts in their first two years. As you can see, most started with a little flurry of activity, and then trail off. “Red States vs. Blue States” did something different. Few people read it in 2019, and then it took off a year later, mid-2020.

I noticed that the spike in views were tightly linked with current events. From the George Floyd protests in the summer, the North Carolina police officer caught on tape saying that he could not wait for another civil war and a chance to kill Black people, the killings of Aaron Danielson and Michael Reinoehl in late August, the people shot and killed by Kyle Rittenhouse, Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power in September, Trump telling militia groups to “stand back and stand by,” the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, the actual election itself, the pushing of the false narrative that the election was stolen. The site views ebbed and flowed, almost perfectly along with the national news. Continue reading

Revisiting the Hmong of French Guiana

I recently saw this France 24 video on the Hmong of French Guiana. I haven’t written about this much here on this blog, but I actually did some of my Ph.D. research with the Hmong in French Guiana years ago (here’s an article I published in the Hmong Studies Journal). It made me nostalgic to see the village again, as well as some familiar faces. My research assistant, KaLy Yang, and I were treated very well by the people in the two main Hmong villages (Cacao and Javouhey), and I think of the people there often.

French Guiana (or Guyane) is certainly one of the more unusual endpoints for the Hmong diaspora. As refugees from Laos, many Hmong resettled in the U.S., Australia, and France, after the Vietnam War, with lesser numbers in Canada, Germany, and Argentina (in fact, I met one Hmong man who originally resettled in Argentina before moving on to Javouhey). When people first learn there are refugees from Southeast Asia in the Amazon rainforest, it usually elicits a powerful reaction, either confusion or amazement. But then you learn the history, and it makes as much sense as any diasporic endpoint in a small, interconnected world where migration (voluntary or not) is common.

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A Poem on Refugees & Forced Displacement

“Home,” by Warsan Shire.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

You can find more information on Warsan Shire, as well as the full text of her poem, here.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

And what did you hear, my brown-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazing
I heard ten-thousand whispering and nobody listening
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughing

I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-going to fall

The Chances of Violence & the U.S. Election: Lessons from Emile Bruneau and Reading Intentions

I learned a few days ago that Emile Bruneau had passed away. I did not know Dr. Bruneau personally, but I knew of his work in conflict resolution. I previously referred to some of his research in a post on dangerous speech and dehumanization. It is also clear from the tributes to him on social media that in addition to his valuable research, the world has lost a really wonderful human being.

Having lost my own brother as a young adult, premature deaths like Dr. Bruneau’s (or Chadwick Boseman’s) resonate with me. They remind me of how fragile our lives are. His wife shared something that Dr. Bruneau wrote that made me a little emotional, both for its bravery and optimism in the face of something as potentially terrifying as one’s impending mortality, and because it reminded me of something that occurred to me too when I contemplated my brother’s death: that a part of us really does live on in the minds of others. He wrote:

“I just had a thought: I learned in physics that our physical mass never actually touches another – the outer electrons of each repel, giving us the illusion of touch. As a neuroscientist, I learned that our brains don’t really see the world, they just interpret it. So losing my body is not really a loss after all! What I am to you is really a reflection of your own mind. I am, and always was, there, in you.”

I’d like to share a few more of his words, to help keep his image reflecting in my mind, and perhaps yours as well. Not just for the sake of sharing, but because he really did have some important things to say.

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Hope & the Summer of Anger

I’ve had this quotation from primatologist Frans deWaal in my head for a long time. Sadly, I think it’s relevant now for life in the United States:

“Humans have something of the bonobo and the chimpanzee in them, which makes them bipolar in character. Most of the time, actually, we like to have a peaceful relationship with everybody around us. But at the same time we can be aroused to a point, under certain circumstances – either by political leaders, or by an invasion, or by some traumatic event – that we start killing, and not killing on a small scale like chimpanzees do, but genocide… When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” — Frans de Waal, primatologist (source)

The two pieces of this passage that mean the most to me are that: (1) peaceful relations are our default preference, and (2) mass acts of violence require being goaded or aroused by some external push factor. 

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One Single Tribe

“We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”

Rest in Peace, Chadwick Boseman

 

I tried. 

You Are My Cousin 

Human Family (We Are More Alike, My Friends, Than We Are Unalike)

Thresholds of Inclusion

 

 

The Wrong Kind of Violence, Part 2

Sean and Julia
Gareth, Ann, and Breda
Their lives are bigger than
Any big idea

Paul Hewson

 

 

I ended Part 1 with a quotation from Robert Sapolsky, who wrote (to paraphrase): We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence… When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.

Do we “love” violence in the right context, as Sapolsky suggested? Perhaps sometimes. When the news broke a week ago that Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, had his death sentence overturned, local sentiments were mixed. The Providence Journal (located 50 miles south of Boston) asked its readers whether Tsarnaev should spend his life in prison or face another death penalty trial. Several responded with a variety of brutal ways that he should be killed. As we saw in Part 1, people are often more at ease with violence if they feel someone has failed as a moral agent so badly that they deserve to be hit, kicked, beaten, shot, killed, etc.

Attitudes toward the death penalty in the U.S. have fluctuated significantly over time. In the mid-1990s, roughly 80% of U.S. adults were in favor of the death penalty for some convicted murderers. By 2019 this dropped to 56%. Support for the death penalty is lower in Boston, however, even in cases where terrorism affected the lives of many locals. In 2015, about 30% of Bostonians felt Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, while 60% felt he should be sentenced to life in prison. The upshot is that attitudes toward state-sanctioned violence are not set in stone. There is variation in opinion among individuals, across time, and by geography. It is pliable.

Victims of the Boston Marathon bombers. Source.

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