Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear! (Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” 1785)
This will be a short post. I was thinking of people’s perceptions of the present and the future, with all of the messiness in the US right now: the coronavirus pandemic and the inadequate government response, the BLM protests in the streets against racism and police brutality, the social divisions, the high unemployment rate, and the dual crises of climate change and species extinctions. Things don’t feel great right now.
Some people have tried to predict what the US will look like in the near future, ranging from dystopian hellscapes including the end of the country engulfed in food shortages, unchecked spread of COVID-19, and even civil war. Others have suggested there will be a return to normal with a new, less divisive, administration that will be more proactive in tackling the pandemic and stabilizing employment in an FDR-style presidency.
Predicting the future is not easy (though some, like Peter Turchin have tried). I was thinking that we perceive our current social environment similarly to how we perceive velocity in a car or plane. When a vehicle’s speed is constant, it becomes almost imperceptible to us since we are also going at the same speed along for the ride. In a commercial airplane at cruising speed, people walk freely through the aisle without noticing much. The same applies to the earth, which is rotating at over a thousand miles per hour (and so are we). It’s only when the vehicle slows, accelerates, or turns do we feel the shift.
I’d say that something similar happens in how we perceive other aspects of our environment. A 70°F day (21°C) may feel warm or cool depending on the season or what the temperature the previous day was. Anyway, here’s my point: the way the world feels right now depends on context and how we perceive not only our current position, but the change in direction and where we might be headed.
If yesterday we had just experienced a horrible period that was worse than this one, such as — oh I don’t know — the Bubonic plague, or maybe the Rwandan genocide, then today’s situation would feel pretty good. But perceptions are not always the best guide. As the first cases of coronavirus reached the US, most people reacted with trepidation, since it was new and the future seemed uncertain. Then people became attenuated to the situation over a few months, like the proverbial frogs being slowly boiled. Then almost every state eased their stay-at-home orders, even though the number of new cases per day is higher than when those lockdowns were initiated.
I suppose what I’m saying is to remember that as bad as things are right now, they could always get worse. Hopefully not. With foresight, planning, and effort, we can get momentum going in another direction.
“And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
This is for my friends and relatives (that is, all of you) around the world who are trapped by a coronavirus lockdown, a siege, a refugee camp, a detention center (the Bay Area, Italy, Wuhan, France, Syria, Lesbos, Yemen, El Paso, Juárez).
We watched the documentary below in a class I teach on anthropology and war. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever shown in a class. Before the period began, I warned students that it contained graphic violence and that they had the option not to watch. They could choose not to stay, without it counting against the attendance portion of their grade. A handful of students chose to leave.
For those who stayed, we were pretty emotionally exhausted by the end of the period. However, I think most people agreed that it was worth watching to see the extent of the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which many people did not know much about. I thought I’d share it here, for anyone interested.
With the news that Alexandre Bissonnette was sentenced to 40 years in prison, I wanted to go back to one of the more moving speeches I’ve heard in a while, which I don’t think should be forgotten. Bissonnette pleaded guilty to the crime of murdering six Muslim people and wounding nineteen others in a Quebec City mosque in January 2017. Shortly after the shooting, Imam Hassan Guillet tried to salvage something good from the horrific act, by describing the lives of the deceased and the loved ones they left behind, as well as Bissonnette himself:
“Khaled, Aboubaker, Abdelkrim, Azzedine, Mamadou and Ibrahima chose the place they wanted to live in. They chose the society they wanted to be theirs. They chose with whom they wanted their children to grow. And it was Canada. It was Quebec.… It is up to the society to choose them the same way they have chosen this society. They had their dream to send their kids to school, to buy a house, to have a business and we have to continue their dreams. We have to continue their dreams the same way they extended their hands to the others. It is up to others to extend their hands toward them.
Now unfortunately, it is a little bit late. But not too late. The society that could not protect them, the society that could not benefit from their generosity still has a chance….
The hands that didn’t shake the hands of Khaled or Aboubaker or Abdelkrim or Azzedine or Mamadou or Ibrahima, that society can shake the hands of their kids. We have 17 orphans. We have six widows. We have five wounded. We ask Allah for them to get them out of the hospital as soon as possible.
Did I go through the complete list of victims? No. There is one victim. None of us want talk about him. But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette. Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head. This little kid didn’t wake up in the morning and say ‘Hey guys instead of going to have a picnic or watching the Canadiens, I will go kill some people in the mosque.’ It doesn’t happen that way.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, certain politicians unfortunately, and certain reporters unfortunately, and certain media were poisoning our atmosphere. We did not want to see it. We didn’t want to see it because we love this country, we love this society. We wanted our to society to be perfect. We were like parents, their kids [are] smoking or taking drugs and your neighbor says that your kid was taking drugs, I don’t believe it, my son is perfect.
We don’t want to see it. And we didn’t see it, and it happened.
Actually here my friends in Quebec, you know a couple of months ago, a certain period of time ago, someone came and put a head of a pig in front of the mosque. The [person] responsible for the mosque they said ‘No, it was an isolated act.’ Nobody is against us and we aren’t against anybody. They acted very generously and I am proud of them and this is what it should be.
But there was a certain malaise. Let us face it. Alexandre Bissonnette didn’t start from a vacuum. For political reasons, and what is happening the Middle East and unfortunately, for ignorance, a lot of things happened.
This guy was empoisoned. But we want Alexandre to be the last one to have a criminal act like that. We want to stop it. One of the definitions of madness is to do exactly the same thing and expect a different result.
If we do exactly the same thing, my friends, we will have exactly the same result. Are we happy with the result? Are we happy with six dead, five wounded, 17 orphans, 6 widows and a destroyed family which is the family of Alexandre Bissonnette and maybe his friends too?
We don’t want that. So let us change. I am getting encouraged with what we have heard from our Prime Minister and Premier, from our mayor yesterday, from a lot of our leaders, I am very proud and I thank them, and I am not surprised.
But all I am saying, we should start changing words into actions. We should build on this tragedy. God gave us a lemon, let’s make lemonade out of that. Let’s make lemonade. Let’s build on this negative and have a positive.
Let’s go from today to be a real society, united. The same way we are united today in our sorrow and in our pain, let us start today to be united in our dreams, our hopes and our plans for the future.
Let the future that our friends planned for their kids, let us build this future ourselves too. In this way we will respect their memory. Revenge will do nothing.”
This is an interesting video on neuroscience and one individual’s story of getting over a relationship. A while back, I did a series titled “Humans are (Blank)-ogamous,” including romantic love. What I find intriguing about the video is the idea that someone could possibly look at their own brain in operation and use that as a way to intervene and improve someone’s mental state.
It reminds me of a fortune cookie I once read: “Love is like war; easy to begin but hard to stop.”
By the way, Skunk Bear is the best.
I just got notice from the American Anthropological Association about my session for the annual meeting, to be held this November at the San Jose Convention Center.
Mark Toussaint organized the session (“Knowledge Production and Framing in Biological Anthropology: Perspectives and Case Studies”) and invited me to talk about research on war-affected populations. We’re scheduled for Friday, Nov 16, 2018 from 10:15 AM – noon.
This is a brief follow-up from the last post I wrote about the cruelty of separating children from their parents. According to a poll by The Economist and YouGov, a substantial number of Americans approve of the Trump administration’s recent policy to separate children from their parents who cross the border without documentation. The good news is that a plurality of people responded that they strongly disapproved of the policy, but about a third of those polled approved of it at least somewhat, while roughly one-fifth strongly approved. The results of Question # 31 were as follows:
Do you approve or disapprove of separating families from each other, including minor children, when the adults are arrested for crossing the border into the United States without proper documentation?
•Strongly approve … 18%
•Somewhat approve … 14%
•Somewhat disapprove … 15%
•Strongly disapprove … 38%
•Not sure … 15%
This is disappointing.
Yesterday, I was at my son’s baseball game. It didn’t go very well for his team, and in the car ride home we talked about how things went. I reminded him of the expression that mistakes are the greatest teacher.
Later in the evening, I found out that I didn’t get the distinguished teaching award at my university.
When I told my family, without hesitating my son replied: “Was the winner named ‘Mistakes?’ “
“I’ll meet you further on up the road.”
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: