Our Species’ Perilous Infancy

“I’ll meet you further on up the road.” 

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Dragon’s blood tree on the island of Socotra, Yemen. Source.

 

I sometimes wish we could fast-forward through this messy period of human history. I imagine that our descendants will be embarrassed by how sectarian and insular we were. It will probably take generations, but it seems almost inevitable that the world will keep shrinking until it becomes the prevailing wisdom that all people share a common ancestry and that our commonalities outweigh our differences.  

Yet, here we are. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise in Europe, with many people increasingly angered by the influx of Muslim refugees. In the United States, I.C.E. is rounding up and deporting people who have lived here for decades and who pose a threat to no one, including military veterans, a doctor, a mother of four children, and a college professor. President Trump infamously referred to several countries — including El Salvador, Haiti, and all of Africa —  as “shitholes, and implied that people from those places should not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Left unspoken, this presumes that a country’s political or economic struggles are a reflection of the character of all of the people who live there.

A common refrain in these stories is the perception that outsiders are a threat, either in the form of direct violence or indirectly to “our way of life.” Again, in 2016 when Trump was still a candidate, he visited my home state of Rhode Island for a fund raiser and suggested that thousands of Syrian refugees were being resettled there without any screening and that they were akin to a Trojan horse:

“We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.”

At the time, there was one resettled family from Syria — a young couple and their three beautiful young children. The calculated wielding of fear as a weapon against five harmless human beings struck many people, including me, as cynical and reprehensible.

As for the threat to “our way of life,” a state senator from New Jersey named Mike Doherty epitomized this sentiment when he said that the U.S. should limit immigration from “non-European” nations that are not part of a “Judeo-Christian culture” because: 

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“Is Destroying Water Left for Migrants a Crime?”

I recently saw the video below featuring the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, under the title “Is Giving Water to Migrants a Crime?” However, an alternative title could have been “Is Destroying Water Left for Migrants a Crime?”  In the video, we see U.S. Border Agents in southern Arizona destroying water left by volunteers for migrants crossing via Mexico. We also learn that one of the group’s volunteers was arrested for “harboring two undocumented immigrants and giving them food, water and clean clothes.”

The area is home to the Sonoran Desert and is notorious for migrants dying from the heat and dehydration, from hypothermia (in winter), and from injuries and getting lost during the exhausting journey.  Between 1999 and 2013, an estimated 2,400 people died in the area, according to the organization Human Borders. Certainly, more have died since. According to Betzi Younglas, a volunteer with the organization, “When the US began walling off the border cities and erecting a barrier right across Texas, they thought the danger of coming through here would deter the migrants. But they underestimated their desperation.”

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Therefore, groups like “No More Deaths” are literally saving lives. Leaving aside the nuances of the debates about undocumented immigration, most (reasonable) people would agree that crossing an international border without proper paperwork should not be a death sentence (though here is an unreasonable example).

It occurred to me that border agents who damage food and water supplies left for migrants is something that would not be tolerated in war time. In 2016, referring to the war in Syria, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon bluntly stated “Let me be clear: The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime.” Of course, this applies to the deliberate deprivation of drinking water as well. According to Leslie Alan Horvitz and Christopher Catherwood’s book “The Encyclopedia of War Crimes and Genocide” (2014: 406-7):

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8th Anniversary at a Crossroads

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” – Ruth Benedict

“Imagine what seven billion people could accomplish if we all loved and respected each other.” – Anthony Douglas Williams

 

I just received notice from WordPress that it is the 8th anniversary for this site. To be honest, I have not been feeling too great about this site lately. Readership is down noticeably, and it has been harder to get the attention of my targeted audiences. I’ve even contemplated folding the tent.

Surely, part of that is me, as I’ve found it hard to maintain the volume of essays compared to prior years. Perhaps it’s merely the nature of today’s Internet. Eight years ago, there were fewer personal blogs and sites to compete for readers’ attention, and people seem to prefer shorter, more digestible, essays before moving on to the next item on their list. I understand. Time is finite, and we have things to do. 

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Putnam, Past, and Present

If you live in southern New England as I do, it can be hard to avoid the name Putnam. Putnam Cottage, Putnam Memorial State Park, Putnam Monument (Brooklyn), Putnam Monument (Hartford), Putnam Street and Putnam Pike in Rhode Island, Putnam House, Putnam County (several), Putnam Farm, Put’s Hill, Putnam Pond.  My cousins grew up right near the town of Putnam Connecticut. There’s even a beer named after Putnam, brewed in Connecticut of course, and described as “full of flavor and unabashed amazingness.”

Traveling through the area, there are road signs for all of these memorials, dedicated the Revolutionary War general Israel Putnam, who was called “the provincial army’s most beloved officer” by historian Nathaniel Philbrick. Putnam was born in Massachusetts and lived most of his life in Connecticut, so it makes sense that any monuments of him would be found in this region. It’s interesting to note that many of these tributes were established years, decades, or even nearly two centuries after Putnam’s death in 1790. The town of Putnam, Connecticut was named in 1855. His monuments in Hartford and Brooklyn were dedicated in 1874 and 1888, respectively; the state Park was created in 1887, and his statue there was made in 1969.

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Israel Putnam Monument in Brooklyn, Connecticut. Source.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1976) once told a story of a sociologist who studied equestrian statues in New York, noting the relationship between the number of feet the horse had in the air and the status of the rider. One foot in the air connoted something different than two feet or none. One observer argued that the study was complicated by the fact that people didn’t ride horses anymore. Because horses were largely obsolete, societies were less restrained in how they could consider and present them. To which another observer replied, “It’s true that people don’t ride horses anymore, but they still build statues.” Continue reading

Monuments to Dignity

“War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” Adrienne Rich

 

Last month, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote a thought-provoking essay on Sapiens titled “Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War.” In it, he compares the ways that some war monuments in Germany focus largely on the victims of war, rather than glorifying combatants. These include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Gusterson wrote:

“Whether you like the design or not (and opinion is divided), located in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, it is a very public proclamation of Germany’s declared responsibility and remorse for the Nazi Holocaust.”

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.  (Source)

 

Statues and monuments are all over the news these days, including the debates over possibly removing Confederate statues across the southern U.S. (and to a lesser extent in other regions). Statues and other public memorials have the power to influence the way we think about what is valued by the state, and perhaps what its citizens should value in turn. The fact that statues and monuments are semi-permanent means that sculptors, and the people who commission them, can impact minds for generations.

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Imagining a Worthy Goal

“All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

– Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities” (1983: 6)

 

“The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

– Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot” (1994)

 

Yesterday’s events in Charlottesville were heart-breaking. They didn’t come out of nowhere, but they felt like an exclamation point on a period marked by increasing social division. Like most Americans, I find the views expressed by the so-called alt right to be abhorrent. As a child, I thought that progress was inexorable, that my generation was more inclusive than those before, and that my kids’ generation would be even more inclusive than mine. That’s not how things go, I suppose, at least not without lots of bumps in the road.

Taking a very long-term view of the future, I’m still optimistic. I can’t help but feel that future generations will mock our ignorance, and that the communities they imagine will be based on accumulated wisdom. What’s the alternative? To be perpetually bogged down in counter-productive, short-sighted conflicts and social divisions? Maybe. Maybe the immediate incentives to gain an advantage by oppressing or stepping on top of others is too tempting. Maybe not. Maybe people can recognize that non-zero-sum relationships based that are mutually beneficial (win-win) are more enduring than ones that rely on a win-lose model (zero-sum) which only create long-term resentments.

What is a long-term worthy goal for humanity? I can imagine a few goals, and yours may differ from mine. But nowhere on my list is a narrow-minded, parochial desire to prop up one group of people above all others. Such a goal is a failure of imagination.

“A People Orientation” (A View from Anthropology and Astronomy)

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’ ”

— astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell

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“Earthrise,” 1968 (Source: NASA)

 

Sometimes, a simple shift of perspective can make all the difference in the world. Whenever I have to drive somewhere new, I always look at a map. Sometimes, it’s an old hard-copy version, though the majority of time I’ll use an online one. That view from above is very helpful, but sometimes at ground level there are nuances which I may have overlooked (an unexpected left-lane exit), or road changes, or construction that may have altered since the map was created. Both perspectives – on the ground, and from the sky – are correct; they just give us different views of the same thing. 

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Shifting perspectives. Source.

In the Edgar Mitchell quote above, a dramatic change in perspective – in this case a view of earth from the moon – created a sense of the unity of humanity, as well as a frustration that people back home frequently fail to rise above their parochial squabbles on the ground. That notion seems to recur among astronomers, astronauts, and astrophysicists. Perhaps it is an inherent benefit of their big-picture view. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the standard bearer for this sentiment:

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