If the current flag of the State of Minnesota is problematic due to its treatment of our Native people (and it is), one might assume the Apartheid-era flag of South Africa was worse. Actually, that would be an incorrect assumption. The architects of apartheid didn’t think to make their flag a tool of that particular form of repression, though it was full-on colonial, and needed to be replaced when the New South Africa emerged in April 1994.
After Apartheid was lifted, I began to work in South Africa, doing archaeology and helping with some development projects. It was then that I heard the story of the new flag, from the white liberal citizens with whom I worked in the Limpopo province.
One thing you need to know about South African culture (and this permeates all subcultures) is that if there are four South Africans having a conversation about something, there will be five opinions about that topic. Or at least, this bit of self-deprecating humor is about the third or fourth thing you’ll hear about South African culture from any host, and South African hosts are both warmly embracing and funny. So when the idea of a flag for the New South Africa came along, the only way to move forward was with an infusion of wisdom, and who among the citizens of South Africa was most wise and able to make this happen with minimal stress? Nelson Mandela, of course.
I was told that Mandela’s idea was this: Have a contest of sorts, or otherwise, get some flags in competition to use as the new symbol. Then, pick one but with the proviso that it would only be the new flag for a year or two, during which time, a diligent effort would be made to come up with the actual new flag.
Another expression describing South African culture may have been, according to my friends, “If you’ve already done something, why do it again.” That is not only sensible, but probably universal. In any event, once the temporary flag emerged, and yes, it was hated and complained about by many, it went into use, people became accustomed to it, and in a very short amount of time, fell in love with it. The idea of replacing it was forgotten, and at some point (1996 to be exact) the new flag was made official in the final draft of New South Africa’s rather amazing constitution. (Give that constitution a look when you have a chance you will be amazed.)
One important point about the design of the flag: there is no official description, and no two people agree on what it means. The flag is unique, I believe, in that it has more colors than any other nation’s flag, and that certainly means something. I think it means: we have a lot more colors available for use these days for flags than they did in the 17th or 18th century.
It is hard for a person who thinks about, knows a little about, evolution to reconcile the seeming contradiction that females should be smarter than males, particularly in the language arts, knowing what we know about brain development in mammals. This is because, while there are great writers and speech makers among women, there are more men famous in these area. We can reasonably assume that the greater number of famous male authors and famous male speeches through Western history is due to bias imposed by the patriarchy. We know this because the numbers have shifted to something much more like equality in recent decades. But it is still hard to see how, if women are expected to be better than men on average in using words, that this supposed biological fact does not show itself somewhere, or somehow.
It is easier for a person who studies behavioral biology to get this. Colnsider Big Men in cultures that have formal Big Men. There are of course big men (small b, small m) in all soceities, in some way, but the role of a man as a Big Man is especially clear in societes that have a word for it, and a social and political position so defined. One of the great and classic ethnographic examples Ongka, a New Guinea big man from a tradition region, the star of a documentary called Ongka’s Big Moka. Ongka is a Big Man, a leader among men, seen as the Big Man for a large community which is in bellicose relationship with neighboring groups. In the documentary, Ongka devises an attack on his neighbors, in which he will attempt to defeat their Big Man. The attack requires the accumulation of a huge store of valuable goods, which includes Australian cash, a Land Rover, many bushels of Yams, and large numbers of rare forest bird feathers and domestic pigs. During the course of accumulating this wealth, Oka talks, and talks, talks. Ongka incessantly shows up ina aprt of the villafge, and talks about how he is the Big Man, and how he with the help of the villagers will defeat the neighboring Big Man1. Ongka shows up, gives his speech, and leaves with some pigs to add to his larder, and some yams, which will be used to feed the pigs. He may get a feather or two. And, over the months of time during which this happening, the polygenous Ongka adds a wife or two a well.
Eventually Ongka is ready to defeat his neighbor, and a ceremony is arranged. The two men face off. This is not a symmetrical battle, this is Ongka on the offense, and the man he is going after absorbs the attack, survives or loses, but has the option of attcking back at a later time. Ongka gives the biggest and baddest speech of them all, but the speech is not to ask for help, but to accompany what has been laid out. The feathers, pigs, yams, money, and Land Rover have all been arranged to look quite impressive. No marketing rep at Target could do a better job at making the goods look so good. This is the a largest Moka (that is what the ceremony is called) anyone can remember. Ongka’s Bit Moka has defeated his enemy, and Ongka tells him so in the last chapter of this round of his Big Man narrative.
This may look like a man being great at what men are great at, giving speeches that get him goods, mates, fame, and power. That would be the more naive or amateur evolutionary view of the thing. But if we add one level of theoretical sophistication to the model, we might see that this is actualy a man being good at what men are handicapped at. Linguistic skill is more easily come by in women than in men. Traditionally, remedial reading programs are frequented by boys, not girls. Typically, UN simultaneous translators are more often women than men. In many societies, women move at marriage between groups, and in places where language areas are small and heterogeneously mixed up, many young girls are expected to quickly learn, if not already have, high proficiency with a language that was not her birth language.2 In mammals, all males are females that have become masculinized to varying degrees in development, and in the brain, this masculinization can not be done by adding structure, function, or features, but only by literally wiping out brain tissue. It is thought that this process goes a bit farther in some boys, ultimately causing modest language related deficits. The details and degree to which this happens is not well understood, but it is generally agreed that it happens. Baby girls have better hearing discrimination of language phonemes than do boys. Average starting age for linguistic (verbal and reading) milestones are earlier for girls than boys. And so on.
So from a behavioral biological point of view, Ongka is handicapped, and is overcoming his handicap by being very very good at a behavior in which men tend to be limited relative to women. There is a great deal of theory and study surrounding the “handicap principle” (look up Zahavi’s Handicap Principle). If he can do that mentally, he must be an exceptional male, at the high end of the bell curve for the men in his society. No wonder he gets the extra yams.
I know I’ve been a little disdainful in this essay of amateur evolutionary thinkers. Let me be clear: I love amateur evolutionary thinkers. The non-specialists who take on evolutionary biology as an interest are in many areas more important, and their activities more impactful, than actual evolutionary biologists when it comes to preserving and sometimes even saving science from religiously or politically driven attacks. That is very much appreciated. The average actual biologist is a lab rat or a field drone, collecting data, running it through the peer review process, usually ignoring and maybe being unaware of the “war on science” carried out by the right win in congress, right wing parents in vulnerable school districts, and all those yahoos on the Internet. If it weren’t for the non-scientists who happen to love science, we would be doomed. But at the same time, people want to know the details, understand the nuances, and enjoy learning more things about the thing you know about already. So that’s what this is.
Here’s Ongka’s Big Moka:
To be accurate and clear, I don’t actually know what Ongka is saying in these speeches, it is not clear in the documentary, but I’d like to find out. ↩︎
She and most others in her society probably already had familiarly with most or all of the languages spoken in the region, but it is only women that have to rely for their own social comfort or even safety to become proficient at their new family’s primary language and dialect. ↩︎
I think most American progressives would agree that a form of government that does not have a monarchy is better than one that does. So, it is not surprising that so many people see the death of the Queen of England* as a moment to consider ridding Great Britain and the United Kingdom of any vestige of monarchy. I mean, why not? Many Americans on the opposite of any known political spectrum from progressives saw the end of the Trump Presidency to be a moment to consider the end of democracy and installation of a fascist MAGA state!
But I wonder if monarchy-hate is fully appropriate, given some of the reactions I see from actual subjects of the Queen/King. Said subjects seem blind to the argument that the monarchy is a burden on the budget, has no practical use, and is linked to a history of colonialism and repression. Or are they?
Here is why these ideas may be misguided if not just wrong.
The monarchy has not been the prime mover in colonialism and repression since well early in the 18the century. The monarchy is a part of, and an increasingly no-effective part of, the British government during the last 300 years of British colonial advancement, colonial retraction, and colonial separation. One could easily argue that the parliamentary part of the British government is more responsible for everything that happened than the monarchy. Not to let the monarchy off the hook. I’m just saying that if you have a small gang of thieves and get rid of one of them, you still better keep checking your pocket to see if your wallet is still there.
The portion of GDP attributable to the monarchy is difficult to determine. The annual cash flow of the monarchy represents about one one-hundredths’ of a percent of the British GDP. The annual cost to taxpayers is about 3 one thousand’s of a percent of the British GDP. The total value of the monarchy (if you sold it off tomorrow) is between 2 and 3% of GTP. So, the monarchy is a low-maintenance very valuable asset, assuming that it produces some payback.
Compare it to sports. In America, we have no monarchy, but we do have sports. Sports takes up more American cultural space and energy that the monarchy takes up British cultural space and energy, I would assert. Or at least, they are in the same ballpark, as it were. Sports value as a percentage of GDP is about 2 tenths of a percent in the US. Small nationwide, but huge compared to the equivalent annual cash flow of 1 one hundredths of a percent for the British Monarchy. American sports are a burden on the American budget (every time a city is asked to build a new stadium or bail out a team, or as a function of increased vandalism and criminality associated with sports culture) but with limited practical use, and linked to a history of segregation, racism, nurturing of violence and criminality, and overall stupid behavior. One could argue that sports has advantages, and one can argue that the monarchy has some value too.
I’m agnostic, and I prefer to follow the lead of British progressives. It is their monarchy, after all.
Americans tend to think we threw off the monarchy centuries ago because we did not like it. That is not what happened. America rebelled against unequal tax and representation by our government (we were part of Great Britain) as it applied to the Americas, and against home-country (UK) rules against killing Indians. Our government in London told us we had to stop grabbing land that wasn’t ours. The British government was on the verge of getting rid of slavery, which Brits in the Americas (our forefathers) did not want to do. Our revolution was not about being a democracy instead of a monarchy. It was about us being an out of control asshole on the world stage, not held back by certain British sensibilities. So fellow Americans, maybe lose the impertinence, OK? Not a good look coming from one of the very small number of countries that maintained slavery longer than everyone else, and then converted slavery into something as close to slavery as possible for the next rest of time.
Finally, I suspect most people who are down on the monarchy are not aware that the role of the British monarchy in the British government is not to rule, but to be dignified. Like this:
*I know I know, she is not the “Queen of England” except that she is, but also, Queen of some other things too. As an American I’m not into getting sidetracked by the whinging about the complex national identity associated with that which is British-ish and related.
I once had tableware where the teaspoon and the tablespoon were almost the same size (in the same set!). I was annoyed, but it worked. Now I have tableware where the two spoon types are vastly different, with a huge gap in between. I like both of these sizes, but something seems to be missing. This leads me to propose a new, third type of table-ware-spoon: The coffee spoon.
Note: “tablespoon” in some countries or cultures is a serving spoon used for serving at the table, but in the US and I believe many other locations, “tablespoon” is a large spoon used for eating at the table. Meanwhile, don’t forget that as a unit of measure, tablespoon is 14.8 ml, aka, 0.50 US fluid ounces, but 0.51 Canadian/UK ounces in Canada. An Australian tablespoon as a measure is 20 ml, or 0.68 US fluid ounces. So be careful.
Did you know that in the old says, in Europe, people carried their spoon around with them, like if they went to someone’s house for dinner? But the place setting concept was invented (ca 1700) and that led to the rise of the table-spoon, table-fork and table-knife, implying that these items would be there at the table when you went to sit there. Over that century, many other tableware items were added, including the mustard-spoon, salt-spoon, etc. Among these was the soup-spoon, which today, we may properly conflate with the tablespoon (and lose that annoying hyphen). Ultimately, bowl-bolting anything from soup to ice cream would require either the soupspoon/tablespoon size spoon, for soup, or the dessert spoon for the ice-cream.
To get back to my own personal first world problems: as noted, I now have a tableware set where the teaspoon is very small and the tablespoon is very large. I like the differentiation, but I think the in between zone could be served with a middle size spoon. I therefore think we should have three tableware spoons. Perhaps the large tablespoon, the diminutive teaspoon, and an in-between spoon should comprise the panoply of table spoons, with the new in between size set at the standard teaspoon size time 1.5.
What is the standard teaspoon size? Well, one third of a tablespoon is how I learnt it, but apparently it is more complicated. From wiki: “The size of teaspoons ranges from about 2.5 to 7.3 mL (0.088 to 0.257 imp fl oz; 0.085 to 0.247 US fl oz). For cooking purposes and dosing of medicine, a teaspoonful is defined as 5 mL (0.18 imp fl oz; 0.17 US fl oz), and standard measuring spoons are used.”
In Western culture, at least, we have a healthy fear, or an unhealthy fear, I can’t decide, of Artificial Intelligent. That fear may be justified, but any such justification is a product of our culture, not rational discourse. I say that with certainty because that’s how everything is, as I’m sure you already know. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be afraid (or that we should). I’m saying that like almost everything else we claim to believe, we didn’t work it out in a Baconian framework, but rather, came to that belief using the same process of mind we come to most of our beliefs by.
So, where does the cultural trait of fear of AI in Western society come from? The same place all cultural traits come from. Movies. (And other conduits of received knowledge.)
I’m teaching a class on a related topic, and in so doing put together a series of video clips that I thought I’d share. Have a watch, and feel free to discuss. You’ve seen most of these already.
I am not a music person, in that I can name musicians or songs, or, Heqet forbid, actually sing. In fact, music is to me something like tiny physics or higher math. I know it is interesting, and I like to read or watch well written stories about it, but don’t ask me to explain anything. So, if I were you, I’d stop reading this post right about now.
I am a fan of U2, and I had assumed I was a fan because they make good music. But more recently, I realized that I like U2 also because they saved us from the 1980s.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with Guns N’ Roses, Queen, Metalica, AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Journey, or Motorhead. Probably. Well, to be honest, I can’t name a single song any of them ever made. But my impression is that most of these bands were continuing traditions that date back to the late 1960 (which ran from 1971 to 1977), and not doing a lot of innovation. Doesn’t matter, I’m not an expert. But I’m pretty sure U2 innovated.
Their greatest album is probably Joshua Tree. A couple of years ago I went to the Joshua Tree (revival?) concert performance at the Big Corporate Thingie Stadium* in Minneapolis. It was the best of concerts, it was the worst of concerts. Best because it was one of the great bands of the century (last century; too early to tell for this century) performing their arguably best album with all their own retrospect sewn in. Worst because Big Corporate Thingie Stadium was not built for musical performance despite the oversize duvet covers they hung on some of the walls. That stadium was built, more than any other stadium built to date since Roman times, to have the worst acoustics possible, which is necessary to confabulate the visiting offense during football games.
Eagle Rock produced a documentary on The Joshua Tree (1999), which includes conversations with U2’s members. (Did you know one of them is named The Edge? Well, that’s Mr Edge to you. Me and The, we’re on a first name basis. I wrote him a letter recently. It started out, “Dear The,” But I digress.) Anyway, the conversations are revealing because they pin down the ways U2 stepped aside from what was going on, musically, in the middle of the 1980s, and how they scraped against, and punctured through, the envelope everyone else was operating in. The thing is, U2’s hard turn from the usual direction “immediately catapulted the band into the category of rock superstars.” This catapulting caused the innovation by this group to be fully real, to not just fade away. Innovation, breaking away from traditional producing methods, paying attention to the rhythm section (aka drums), producing the album in a house instead of a studio, embracing encouragement over competition. All these things and more.
Joshua tree was in part a response to an ongoing takeover of of America by extremist Republicans (not recognized by most at the time) and similar deterioration of humanity going on elsewhere, and thumb in the nose to the stolid keepers of the musical way of the time (see list of bands above).
I won’t discuss the how or why here, but the album came along at a time in my life that was well suited to that particular soundtrack. That, however, means almost nothing compared to the meaning for the mothers in Chile.
A century and a half ago, my ancestors came forth on this continent because they chose a risky move over near certain starvation in Ireland. Just under a half century ago my distant cousins came forth to address America with a series of questions and inspirations. When you think about it, there is nothing more American than starvation. It also turns out that there is nothing more American than a foreign band adopting us as their errand child. Also, just so you know, Yucca brevifolia is endemic, nothing more American than the Joshua tree.
Songs on this album:
Where the Streets Have No Name
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
With or Without You
Bullet the Blue Sky
Running to Stand Still
Red Hill Mining Town
In God’s Country
Trip Through Your Wires
One Tree Hill
Mothers of the Disappeared
U2 Band Members past and present:
Larry Mullen Jr
*I prefer not to partake in the “naming rights” scam, thank you. I refer here to the stadium the Vikings play in.
Imagine that there is a trait observed among people that seems to occur more frequently in some families and not others. One might suspect that the trait is inherited genetically. Imagine researchers looking for the genetic underpinning of this trait and at first, not finding it. What might you conclude? It could be reasonable to conclude that the genetic underpinning of the trait is elusive, perhaps complicated with multiple genes, or that there is a non-genetic component, also not yet identified, that makes finding the genetic component harder. Eventually, you might assume, the gene will be found. Continue reading Is Human Behavior Genetic Or Learned?→
Short Answer: 25 years, but a generation ago it was 20 years.
Long answer: It depends on what you mean by generation.
In US-biased Western culture there is a Biological Generation, the Dynamic Generation, the somewhat different Familial Generation, what is sometimes called a Cultural Generation but that should really be called a Societal Generation, and then there is the Designated Generation and finally, the Historical-Long Generation. You will find some of these terms identified on genealogical web sites, Teh Wiki and elsewhere, and some of them are introduced here. (References provided below.)
More broadly speaking, humans have identifiable meaningful generation-related terminology and cultural concepts in many but not all societies, and when it does occur, it is more common to find the concept in age-graded societies or societies in which marriage arrangements are fairly strictly enforced (or at least strongly hoped for) by the ascending generation.
A Biological Generation
…is simply the unscaled transition from one parent to one offspring. In humans, the Biological generation does not have a standard length but there are limits. So you are in one generation, your mother the previous, your child the next one after you, etc. regardless of when any of you were born. As long as your Uncle Willard does not marry your Sister Betty Jean, this is not complicated; This is what people often mean when they use the term “generation” but not what they mean when they ask the question “how long is a generation.”
A Dynamic Generation
…is a concept used by anthropologists but not usually with this term. This is similar to the biological generation but applied more broadly across a group of people. You (Ego) relate to everyone else of your age as being in your generation (your siblings, your parents siblings children, etc.). The first ascending generation (your parents and those in their generation), the second ascending generation (grandparents and their generation) etc. go one way in generational time. Going the other way, your children and their generation are the first descending generation. Your grandchildren and their cohort members are the second descending generation. Etc.
Those methods of reckoning generations have to do with the relationship between people. Another reason to reckon generations is either to do demographic (or economic) analysis or to test and analyze genealogies. For this you want to know how long a dynamic generation (or a biological one) usually is. For instance, a genealogist wants to know this: From the point of view of some long-dead relative, is the time span between the birth date of a grandparent and the birth date of a great grand child … thus, the span of time of four complete generations … reasonable? If such a span is 200 years, that means that an average of 50 years time passed from birth of a person to that person giving birth to the person in line. Implausible. If the total span is 40 years, that means ten year olds were having babies (on average). Also implausible. Either way, some part of the hypothetical genealogy is messed up and it’s back to the church records, vital statistics, and Mormon database for you. This is a Familial Generation.
In the “old days” (whenever that was) people often used the value 20 to represent Familial Generations. So, a person born on the first day of a century may well have had a great great great grandparent born around the beginning of the previous century. Today, with lager age at first birth for women being the rule, we tend to see 25 years as the recommended estimate for Familial Generations.
A Cultural or Societal Generation
…is a cohort (a bunch of people born during a specified range of time) with a name that has some sort of meaning to those who use it. The following are widely recognized, given here with the midpoint of the generally accepted range of birth dates:
Baby Boom (Boomers) 1955
Generation X 1968
Generation Y 1975
Generation Z or I 1992
(See comments below for people fighting about these names and dates. I accept Teh Wiki as the final word on this, so I take this list as perfectly accurate and complete.)
Several things are noticed in this list. The first three relate to major historical events (World Wars, the Great Depression) while the later ones are vague, stupid, and obviously little more than lame attempts by people who wish they were part of a generation to name themselves. This leads to the X and Y generations to be floating in broader time ranges (see Teh Wiki) and very arguable. The Z generation is clearly an afterthought. I assume everyone was so focused on the Millennium that they forget to be in a generation for a decade or so, and then had to catch up.
Some of the more primitively sexy and exotic tribal cultures of the world of the world have a strict age grading system. This is where individuals are in a specific age-defined stratum, and there are several strata. Often there are different age-grades for males and females, and often there are more age-grades for males than females. Individuals of a particular age grade always X and never Y (fill in cultural prescriptions for X and cultural proscriptions for Y). The Pokot of East Africa are one example. These age grades can be termed Designated Generations and include not only groups like the Pokot but also Americans who have very strongly age-graded designations.
Check out our new science podcast, Ikonokast.
Among the Pokot males of a certain age wear a certain hairdo. Males of a certain generation get married. All the important things you can do or not do are defined by one’s age grade. As young men age they want to move to the next age grade, and often take serious risks to do so. In one Pokot group, the boys of one age grade would typically wear the hairdos of the Ascending Generation. Males in the Ascending Generation would then beat the crap out of them. When the beatings became too common and severe (sometimes deadly) the Ascending Generation of the Ascending Generation (the “Elders”) would declare that it is time for everyone to move up one generation, and a ceremony would be held.
In that particular group the ceremony applied to many different villages, and representatives from each village had to bring to the major chief’s village one head of cattle. The cattle were all slaughtered and the fresh meat laid out on racks to be guarded from lions and hyenas overnight by the chief, alone. If any of the meat was taken by predators, the chief was fired and a new chief appointed, everyone was sent home and were required to return with a fresh head of cattle, and the ceremony was re-started with the new chief. But I digress.
The Historical-Long Generation is my own invention. This is the period of time that is just short enough for a person to have a conversation with another person about shared memories where those memories are separated in time by the maximum amount possible for our species. Let me explain further:
Just today, the last surviving US veteran of World War I died. When I was a kid, I went to (or marched in) parades in which there were lots of veterans. Most vets in the parade were of World War II. Korea was not ever represented. The Viet Nam Vets were busy in Viet Nam being Viet Nam soldiers, so they were not in the parades. But World War I was represented by the grandpas and there were a lot of them.
And, leading all of the veterans in the parade was this one guy who looked quite dead, eyes closed, not apparently breathing, wearing a 19th century Slouch Hat and covered with a blanket and slumped in wheel chair pushed by members of the VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, and he was the only remaining veteran in town of the Spanish-American War. I know he was not in fact dead because he was in the parade several years in a row. That war was in 1898, and the parades I remember must have been from the mid 1960s. I assume he was a drummer boy, perhaps 10 or 11 at the time of the war. The last surviving vets from Civil War were similar: Boys who served in the military as aides or drummers. The point is, one could argue that a historical-long generation is about a century, because that old guy and I share involvement in an event … marching in those parades … that link two memories, the parade and the war, which were about 100 years apart.
I have an even better memory. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on Januray 1st, 1863. When that happened, a toddler who’s last name was Alexander and who was born as a slave in the Carolina’s became free. Later, his family moved to Albany, New York. In around 1968 or 1969, my father asked me to accompany our congressman, Representative Samuel A. Stratton (famous for introducing the bill to give us Monday Holidays, I am told) to an old tenement building in “Teh Ghetto” and bring him up to the third floor to meet Mr. Alexander, the now old former infant slave. I did so, and we all chatted for a while. I was about ten, and Mr. Alexander was closer to 110. He had memories of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that were similar to my memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy: Vague, mostly about the aftermath and not the event so much, but seemingly real. We shared memories that were a century apart in time, and in this case, interestingly parallel.
So, the Historical-Long generation is a century. If you meet me and shake my hand, you are shaking a hand that has shaken the hand of a man who was an American slave. Meaningless, yet profound.
Do not read this until you have time for the equivalent of one or two chapters in a book. But if you can settle down for a while and you care about messaging, and your copy of “don’t think of an elephant” is across the room and you don’t feel like getting up, dig in. Also, please respond, tell me what you think. This is a set of thoughts in progress.
Here is my message: Use training in “Framing,” “Race Class Narrative,” or similar ways to improve your communication abilities to become a better producer of messages in the same way an athlete uses strength and aerobic cross training to become a better athlete. Message training is to the hopeful messenger what running 5 miles a day and pumping iron three times a week is to an amateur softball player. You will get better. Continue reading Do not read this important message!→
One day I returned home and realized I had forgotten the shampoo. It was a devastating revelation.
You are probably thinking, “First World problem,” right? Well, it wasn’t because at the time I was living in the actual co-called “Third World.*”
Home, for me at the time, was one of the most remote non-polar research sites ever. “Going to the store” meant driving across nearly impassible roads for a day, a ride that would cause enough damage to the old Land Rover to require some $500 of repair on average. Then a few days in a sort of city (Isiro, Zaire) where I would spend considerable effort assembling the food and other supplies for a stint as long as I could manage, hopefully 4 to 6 weeks. Basically, as much as the old Land Rover could hold. Then, the trip back. So, going to the store was a week out of my research time, costly, and dangerous (because of the roads).
I had taken a shower the morning of my return to the field, at my friend Bwana Ndgege’s house, and left the shampoo in the bathroom. Yes, devastating.
What I did not know at the time was this. Later that very morning, Bwana Nndege saw the bottle of shampoo in the bathroom. He picked it up and walked out in front of his house, which was located in a part of the city where one might see people waking around on their daily business, but not too many people. Shortly, he saw a man walking down the street, and hailed him over. Bwana Ndege did not know this man.
“Say, do you happen to know the researchers that live in Ngodingodi, a research village down the road past Wamba, on the Mambasa road?”
“There is still a road there?” the man asked.
“Truth be told, not really a road any more, but they go town there with their land rover. The blue one with the different color doors. Know it?”
“No, not really, never heard of any of this,” the man answered.
So, Bwana Ndege handed him the shampoo, and said, “Well, anyway, could you pass this on to someone who might? They left it here this morning.”
“OK, no problem,” the man said, taking the shampoo.
Now, I should mention, that the good people of the Eastern Congo are averse to crime, and are honest. There are, of course, criminals there just like anywhere else, but such is not your average Zairois. At the same time, a bottle of shampoo is a commodity people save up for, feel lucky to have, and desire. Handing this man the bottle of shampoo with only the vaguest instructions or prospects like this would be similar to finding a random person on the street of an American city and handing them a short stack of loose ten dollar bills and asking them to pass it on to someone who might pass it on to someone etc. with the hope that it gets to a city 500 miles away, and to a particular vague address. It just would not work.
So what happened next?
About three weeks after I returned, sans shampoo, I was up in the hilltop research camp working on some notes, when I smelled something different. I asked one of the local people who worked there what that might be. She sniffed the air, and said, “Maybe the nomads?”
There is a local tribe called the Bahama (or Wahama, or just Hama) who rarely pass through with their small herds of cattle. Cattle don’t live in this forest, and can’t survive the parasites, but a couple/few times a year, a Hama man will pass through with a couple dozen head. Probably, some circumstance in his life and business makes passing through a zone where some of his cattle will get sick better than going some other route. One can imagine.
Anyway, she was right. The smell was the cattle coming down the road. We stood on the top of the hill and watched as a couple of dozen long horned Sanga cattle passed by, followed by a few straggling calves and a Hama man driving them. He glanced up the hill and saw me, which caused him to sprint up the path and issue a greeting.
“Hey, what’s new?” (Standard greeting in the area: “Habari gani?”)
“No news,” I replied. I asked our local employee to get the water bottle and cup, assuming he wanted a fresh drink. Which he did.
As he appreciatively downed the liquid, he asked me, “Is this Ngodigodi? The place where you white people work?”
“Yes, it is,” I replied, bemused that he would know that, since our presence was semi-secretive, in order to avoid drawing attention to our neighborhood, which would in turn potentially mess up the folks who lived around us.
That’s when he pulled out the bottle of shampoo and handed it to me. “Some guy up the road a ways told me to give this to you.”
In sum: First world problem and third world solution.
The thing is, this was not an unusual event. It was normal.
Well, it was a somewhat extreme and amusing, story-generating version of normal. Normal is more like I go to a guy’s store and say I want to exchange money, and he says he can’t but he knows someone who can, and it turns out that is also the guy I’m hoping to get a rebuilt fuel injector from, and he is the sibling of a person who is offering bags of ground cassava for pretty cheap, but they all live in different places but are visiting relatives, and somebody needs a ride across town. Three people, actually, with stops along the way. So, after three hours of driving around with people and stuff, three hours of meeting and greeting, counting out giant piles of near worthless local currency, goods and services being exchanged, a couple cups of tea and a chupa of beer or two, and at the end of the day, I end up completing an important bank transaction in the land without banks, my truck will get fixed, and we can eat for a month, all stuff I would have done in the US in less than 45 minutes, but here, it is a series of social events bound together with a ToDo list, and a full day’s activity.
Yesterday morning my wife stopped at her usual coffee shop to pick up the coffee she ordered in advance on line. The barista’s kid was sick so he was not there, and the shop was closed. But the person working at the adjoining business said, “yeah, he’s out, but I’ll tell him you get a free coffee tomorrow.” Then this morning, she stopped by and a third person who also did not work there said, “are you the person who gets the free crafted press? Here, saving it for you” and so on. A series of trust-based events to fix a supply chain problem, a supply chain problem that is an amateur version of the Big Giant Supply Chain Problem that every human being who lives anywhere that is not the First World experiences daily with all things, where it is simply the way it is, all the time.
A supply chain problem in the US could be called a First World problem, but really, it is something a little different. It is the thin but heretofore persistent veneer of the First World sloughing off in a spot or two, revealing the fundamental Third World nature of human society and economics, underneath it all. The great First World accomplishment is re-organizing the Third World reality so things run more smoothly and everything takes less time. The benefit is that a term like “supply chain problem” is a bemusing neologism rather than a daily descriptor for most Americans. The cost is the dehumanization of the system.
Just hours after the coffee exchange, I happened to see in a newspaper report another neologism: Skimpflation. The New York Times muses: “The quality of many services has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic — a problem that the NPR show “Planet Money” has labeled “skimpflation.”” What the Gray Lady and its commentators do with this concept is to launch on a Biden-Leveling screed meant to keep the fight between the left and the right even-looking, which is a crime that paper commits every day. But what they hit on, accidentally, is the point I’m making here. Two points, really. 1) Third World life is just under the surface, and 2) If you get your expectations in order, this change we are having has some serious benefits; it isn’t all down side.
There is a third point. This is all Trump’s fault. And the Republicans. By ripping apart as many systems as they could, and by encouraging rather than fighting the Covid pandemic, they damaged or broke all the things that matter to most of the people, while leaving the rich intact. We are now more like Zaire/Congo than we ever were. (Like our postal system, on the verge of collapse. Many countries don’t even have a postal system. They just have this guy who happens to be walking down the street, or a muzungu with a working vehicle who happens to be going across town…) The Republican goal is to turn the US into a sea of Third World humanity with the supply chain ever broken, with a small wealthy and somewhat larger and less wealthy ex-patriot-esque community living behind walls in some serious priv. That is what Republicans always wanted, that is what they are finally getting.
The world where that story of shampoo happened unraveled, several times, in the intervening period between then and now. Hundreds of thousands have died violent deaths there, or worse, and there was even a systematic holocaust. A region about a third of the United States with a population of about a fifth of the United States has been living in economic strife and social upheaval because that top-heavy post colonial system eventually blows up. We will have that here as well, if the Third Worlding planned by Bannon, Trump, McConnell and the other Republicans is fully realized.
We could be rescued, of course, by a fascist superhero of some kind. Yes, this is Hitler’s playbook being applied. It is a very plausible scenario. Fear creates a movement, spiritual and physical terror, propaganda. Or, as they say in Mein Kampf, “Angst schafft Bewegung, spirituellen und physischen Terror, Propaganda.” Hitler’s program worked because Germany of the time was a broken society with a broken economy and a balkanized government. The White Supremacist program wouldn’t work well in an America that wasn’t beaten and damaged. Lucky for the Republicans, this handy dandy disease came along just in time to put us on the mat and hold us down long enough to create the beginnings of a Third World society, in which a movement could grow, spiritual and physical terror could be applied, and propaganda deployed. MAGA, insurrection, CRT/Replacement Theory.
Perhaps it is time to start stocking up on shampoo.
Note: The term “Third World” is considered inappropriate to refer to countries previously referred to as “Third World.” Untwist your shorts, I did not use that term to mean that in this essay. Thank you very much, re-read if necessary.
Why do we like The Great British Baking Show? It lacks a chef who’s whole shtick is to be an asshole. The judges are fair, consistent, and open, even if the White Supremacists at The Sun are annoyed when a British-born Bangladesi from Bedfordshire wins. The judging process is meant to be entertaining, educational, and encouraging, if sometimes very baudy. The contestants reflect interesting diversity in both their own backgrounds and their diverse approaches to cooking. There is interesting and evolving interaction between the people on the show. We like the tent and the challenges it creates, especially in some seasons.
And of course, many of us watch the show to see the crashes.
Rituals are things people do in a more or less consistent matter, often to the extent that the manner of doing is more important, or at least, more persistent, than any possible original reason for doing the thing. Ritualized behaviors are all around us, even in highly modern settings like medicine. As a possibly apocryphal example, I will refer to the story of the oven roast. Grandma had the best recipe for a roast beef, and passed it on to daughters, not by writing it down, but rather, by showing how to roast the beef, and the daughters wrote it down. That recipe was passed on, in written form, to grand daughters, and one day one of the grand daughters roasted the beef for the whole extended family for Sunday dinner. One of the younger folk marveled at the great roast beef, and someone else noted that it was grandma’s recipe.
“But what makes it so good, better than when I cook it,” an in-law said.
“I’m not sure. Maybe it is cutting the end of the roast off before putting it in the oven?” said the granddaughter who had done the roasting that Sunday.
Promethean Secular Frontier (PSF) is an educational/secular humanist page meant to provide a community for discussion on various topics ranging from the natural sciences (astronomy, physics, geology, biology/evolution, etc), to social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, etc), to philosophy (religion/theology, epistemological, rationalism, morality, etc). Our goal at PSF is to bring concepts that are different for laymen audiences and make them understandable and easily digestible to people seeking knowledge. PSF also wants to create a community that promotes inquiry, skepticism, critical thinking and secular humanism.
Small correction: I was a faculty instructor at Harvard, but actual professor (later) at University of Minnesota.
Once upon a time in the Congo, there was a democratically elected President; Some* called him the “Big Man.” The Big Man was elected every seven years by a majority of 97.8%. The people loved him because before he became President, war was everywhere, and just before that, the colonial overlords and punishers were everywhere. You couldn’t get a break. Then after a brief interlude of a different duly elected president who died in an unfortunate execution, Big Man saw to it that there would be no more wars.
Well, not exactly. He had wars, and the people of the Congo were given the opportunity to get jobs fighting in the wars, but they were all in adjoining countries, and they were all paid for by the United States Congress. So no war without taxes, and that was good. Continue reading What is Freedom?→