Saturday, December 31, 2016

Not fifty, but a thousand shades of gray

"Can you explain to me this gay thing?" she asked.

"It is complicated," I replied.

In the first place, I am not sure if I have enough expertise to talk about this. On top of that, the usual complaint is that my responses are always way longer than what the questioner had in mind.  I suppose I don't like to merely give the bottom-line, consistent with my philosophical approach to life that it is never merely about the destination but also about the journey itself.

So, without any expertise I launched into a lengthy explanation.

"It is not as if things are black-and-white when it comes to being gay.  Most researchers now talk in terms of sexual fluidity" I started.

I keenly watched out for any glazed expression. Or the eyeball disappearing after having been rolled way up. No signs.  There was an attentive posture.  I got encouraged.

"The this-or-that approach is modern.  In olden times, it seems like people might have been way less rigid about this than we are now."  I went on and on and on.  Interestingly enough, there were even questions posed and it became an interactive session!

A few days later, I read this awesome essay by Siddhartha Mukherjee, on sex, gender, and gender identity.  Yes, the same Mukherjee whose book on cancer won him a Pulitzer.  This essay is an excerpt from another book of his: The Gene: an Intimate History.

Mukherjee writes:
The distinction between the three words is relevant to this discussion. By sex, I mean the anatomic and physiological aspects of male versus female bodies. By gender, I am referring to a more complex idea: the psychic, social, and cultural roles that an individual assumes. By gender identity, I mean an individual’s sense of self (as female versus male, as neither, or as something in between).
Across the world, as we begin to move away from the old collective arrangements that denied an individual's sense of self, we are beginning to see even the supposedly conservative societies having to face the complexity of sex, gender, and gender identity.

Strictly from a genetic perspective:
Sex, one of the most complex of human traits, is unlikely to be encoded by multiple genes. Rather, a single gene, buried rather precariously in the Y chromosome, must be the master regulator of maleness. Male readers of that last paragraph should take notice: We barely made it.
If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you know about the geographic migratory path of my maleness that came from the African Savannah.

Anyway, even from a genotype/phenotype perspective--without the cultural/socialization aspects--the story is complex:
In 1955, Gerald Swyer, an English endocrinologist investigating female infertility, had discovered a rare syndrome that made humans biologically female but chromosomally male. “Women” born with “Swyer syndrome” were anatomically and physiologically female throughout childhood, but did not achieve female sexual maturity in early adulthood. When their cells were examined, geneticists discovered that these “women” had XY chromosomes in all their cells. Every cell was chromosomally male—yet the person built from these cells was anatomically, physiologically, and psychologically female. A “woman” with Swyer syndrome had been born with the male chromosomal pattern (i.e., XY chromosomes) in all of her cells, but had somehow failed to signal “maleness” to her body.
Imagine that!  What a complication, right?  In the extended family, we have had at least two cases of girls who were biologically girls but who never reached that sexual maturity in their teens.  I wonder if they too could have been chromosomally male?

But do not jump to conclusions about this chromosomal aspects:
Women with Swyer syndrome are not “women trapped in men’s bodies.” They are women trapped in women’s bodies that are chromosomally male (except for just one gene).
Pause for a second and think about this: "women trapped in women’s bodies that are chromosomally male (except for just one gene)" Head-spinning, right?
How can we reconcile this idea—of a single genetic switch that dominates one of the most profound dichotomies in human identity—with the fact that human gender identity in the real world appears in a continuous spectrum? Virtually every culture has recognized that gender does not exist in discrete half-moons of black and white, but in a thousand shades of gray.
Every single fucked up homophobe, condemning people to hell-on-earth based on some fucked up religious interpretation, should be locked up in a room until they read and understand all these complex issues.
At the top of the cascade, nature works forcefully and unilaterally. Up top, gender is quite simple—just one master gene flicking on and off. If we learned to toggle that switch—by genetic means or with a drug—we could control the production of men or women, and they would emerge with male versus female identity (and even large parts of anatomy) quite intact. At the bottom of the network, in contrast, a purely genetic view fails to perform; it does not provide a particularly sophisticated understanding of gender or its identity. Here, in the estuarine plains of crisscrossing information, history, society, and culture collide and intersect with genetics, like tides. Some waves cancel each other, while others reinforce each other. No force is particularly strong—but their combined effect produces the unique and rippled landscape that we call an individual’s identity.
Like I said, it is complicated.


Dead viruses tell no tales

A "kumbabhishekam" is in the works for a temple in the old country. In grandmother's village.  That temple is dedicated to the god(dess) who, according to the believers, protected them from the dreaded small pox.

Belief and faith continue despite the knowledge that it is not any god or goddess who protects the people or curses them with pox. It is not any god who worked to eliminate small pox; recall this post from a few months ago after reading Dr. D.A. Henderson's obituary?  About how he worked in godawful conditions in India to wipe the virus off the face of the earth?

No, this post is not to beat up on faith.  This being a new year, I want to celebrate. By noting something extraordinary.
It took a major Ebola epidemic that led to more than 11,000 deaths, but we now finally have a successful Ebola vaccine candidate in development. If approved, the vaccine would vastly reduce the likelihood of ever seeing another major Ebola outbreak.
You can imagine my excitement here--given my posts here on the urgency to address the awful disease.  I urged here, and on Facebook, to donate to MSF for their phenomenal service during that epidemic.  Thrilled I am with this news.
[The researchers] decided to try something called "ring vaccination," a public health method used to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. It involves immunizing the immediate contacts — friends, family, housemates, neighbors — of a person who falls ill with a virus to create a protective ring around them to stop transmission.
As soon as a new Ebola case was diagnosed, the researchers traced all their contacts for a total of 117 clusters (or "rings"), each made up of about 80 people. They then randomized the rings of people to get the vaccine either right after their friend or family member had been diagnosed or after a three-week delay.
Their preliminary results were so positive that the researchers changed the trial design so that everyone got the vaccine immediately, including children.
Yep, the same public health method that was used by Dr. Henderson in his remarkable war against small pox.

It is remarkable how such progress happens despite all the horrible politicians and governments.  One can only imagine how much the world would have been a better place if only we humans had at least a little bit of an understanding of our fleeting existence here and, therefore, our priorities.  Oh well; stupid is as stupid does!

I hope this Ebola vaccine delivers what it promises.  And I wish that the success will energize the search for something like a vaccine that can stop dead another dreaded ailment--malaria.

For now, this news about the Ebola vaccine is good enough for me to wish you all a happy new year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Happy New Year? We're gonna take it to the top!

In the new year ... :(

To think that he is the standard-bearer of the GOP and now is the face of the US! ... shame on the dirty rotten Republicans for electing him!  How fucked are we!!!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How fucked are we!

A couple of months ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote about a mother/daughter in Aleppo.  After reading that, I took his suggestion and started following them on Twitter.  It has been nothing but tragedies after tragedies. It was surreal to look at photos and videos.  Of bombs falling. Of dead people.  Dead children.  All via their tweets.  In one, the daughter--all of seven years old--noted that her friend died in the bombing. I have no idea how a seven year old deals with the death of her seven year old friend :(

As the Syrian army entered Aleppo, the tweets showed the panic, which culminated with this:
A day later:
And then a few hours ago:
For now, at least 12 hours ago, they were alive.

As bombs were falling and making the mother/daughter homeless in Aleppo, the president-elect tweeted this:
When the president-elect is on a completely different war path, what can one do?  Especially in the case of Aleppo, after all the "never again" that the world has uttered over and over again?
what is missing from the international community is nothing more than the actual building blocks of a community – common values. Let’s get right to the heart of the problem. We cannot have a community unless we respect the truth and seek it out; unless we share a broadly similar definition of good and evil; unless we can discriminate between what is important and what is not; unless we are united by shared emotion; or unless we distinguish between values and interests.
In other words, we cannot have an international community unless we hold these values to be universal.
So, then?
We must also fight – and that means speaking out.
But, will the speaking out matter when the president-elect is only concerned about his own ego and he is sucking up all the oxygen in the room?
It may seem useless, but we must never stop speaking out against this. Because it is political. And because it is crucial.
Speaking up is the only action that I know.  So, I will, like with the op-ed, the maniacal Facebook posts, and the maniacal tweets.  And, hopefully sooner than later, here via an open blogging space as well.

ps: I drafted this post a few hours ago. I checked for the Aleppo mother/daughter tweets; yes, they are alive.  But, they tweet this:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Elections and consequences ... like in 1933

Every election is a consequential one.  Not merely this recent one.

The elections of 2000, which was the first one in which many of us learnt about popular vote results not aligning with the eventual selection of the president, was consequential.  Had Al Gore been in the White House in September 2001, the US might never have invaded Iraq, and the eventual chaos that we see today all over the Middle East might never have been created.  We might never have set up the torture regime and the surveillance state.

In 2004, John Kerry seemed to have a real chance at unseating the disastrous Bush and he was "Swift-boated" into defeat.  Had Kerry won, John Roberts would not have been nominated to the Supreme Court.

The GOP was not really in the running in the elections in 2008, but almost pulled one off in 2012.  That near-loss was also why trump referred to Mitt Romney as a loser and a choker who could not close the deal.

The consequences are not merely at those highest seats of power.  But, this time is different.  The consequences are being felt immediately in all kinds of corners of the country, including college campuses.

The neo-nazi white supremacist group wants to get to colleges.
[Richard] Spencer talked of the movement’s next target: colleges. He plans to speak at Texas A&M and the University of Michigan in the coming weeks and is convinced that the alt-right will appeal to students weary of politically correct campus cultures.
“I think there’s going to be a huge crowd,” he said. “The world is changing.”
He pulled his phone from his pocket. Giddy, he played a video taken at Michigan, where more than 100 students were filmed chanting “No alt-right! No KKK! No racist USA!”
He played it again.
“We’re getting under their skin,” he said. “I take a sadistic pleasure in that.”
What do Spencer's larger goals include?  An all-white country. 
“We need an ethno-state,” he said in a 2013 speech, “so that our people can ‘come home again,’ can live amongst family and feel safe and secure.”
The president-elect's chief strategist, steve bannon, provided the publishing platform for groups like spencer's.  Neo-nazi white supremacy people will soon be in the Oval Office, and parading on college campuses.

Meanwhile, there is another kind of a pressure being applied: A list of college professors who are too liberal for the hard right that calls them "anti-American":
So how does it feel to be in the cross hairs of Professor Watchlist? "It would’ve been humorous a few months ago," said Greg Hampikian, a professor of biology at Boise State University, in Idaho. "It’s not funny now."
To Mr. Hampikian, the list represents a strain of illiberal thinking that’s currently accumulating power. He was named to the list, which he called "absurd," for writing a satirical op-ed about his state’s campus-carry law for The New York Times in which he asked state lawmakers when he could shoot his students.
"They are putting normal people on the list," he said. "That’s what’s frightening. That should wake people up."  
It is beginning to escalate.  Rebecca Schuman is one of the higher education columnists whose columns I read regularly.  She is an adjunct faculty as well.  One of her tweets says it all (after her column that criticized the watch list):
Hey, only a few months ago, during the campaigns, the president-elect used language that was only a shade better than this, right?  When that kind of a language did not prevent him from being elected, and in fact helped him win votes, then we should expect such behavior to be normalized, right?

And why 1933 in the subject line?  The white supremacist group's leader told his people:
“Let’s party like it’s 1933,” he declared, referencing the year Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor and the Nazis embarked on the creation of their own ethno-state.
Elections have consequences.

Monday, November 28, 2016

I do what I can ... in this post-truth world

In my private world, which includes this blogging space, I can let my emotions about the political happenings show.  But, in the public, I am calm and sober and rational.  I leave my personal takes in my office before I head to my classes and do not even reveal my political preferences.  Engaging in the classroom is no different from engaging in a democracy.  Despite the horrible human beings who have been elected to powerful offices, I still believe in the Michelle Obama mantra that we go high even as they go low.

Despite all my worries about my personal safety, and my emotional safety, I decided that I have a responsibility to continue to do what I can do--write op-eds.  Later in life, as I lay dying, even in this I want to tell myself that I did what I can do.

So, I have sent the editor my op-ed essay, which builds on this post.  In my email to the editor, I wrote:
I hope this essay will work for the RG and--more importantly--will not draw too many hateful responses. While the hate messages in the past were not a big deal to me, the contemporary political air does make me pause ... such is life, I suppose.
And now for the op-ed essay ...

I went to Washington, DC, for a meeting with fellow elected officials of the American Association of Geographers, in order to discuss, and act on, items related to our beloved academic organization. It was a mere ten days after the election and, hence, there was that much for me to observe and understand.

Like how the taxi drivers--from and to the airport--were both dark-skinned immigrant men. And both had Muslim names. The doormen at the hotel were also dark-skinned immigrants. The housekeeping woman who knocked on the door as I was getting ready for the meeting apologized in her Spanish-accented voice. The dark-skinned restaurant waitress spoke with a West Indian accent. The coffee place at the airport departure gate was staffed by three women, who looked like they were Somali or Ethiopian, and their English was highly accented.

It takes quite a few immigrants to keep the capital running, it seemed like.

In the courses that I teach, immigration as a concept always gets interesting, not the least because I am an immigrant myself. Over the years, I have found that it is typical for students to include in the class discussions their own personal experiences with immigrants. When they do, students almost always talk about the farm labor being mostly immigrants, which is understandable. More than one "native" student has also commented about how in their summer jobs they simply could not keep up with the speed and ease with which the immigrant laborers were picking fruits from the bushes and trees.

Students talk about the immigrant doctors and nurses too. Here also, it is not unusual for students, even those from small towns, to have had exposure to foreign-born healthcare workers. Such interactions are possible because about a quarter of America’s physicians and surgeons are immigrants. A high percentage of them come from South Asia and the Philippines. I, too, have firsthand experience on this front—after my “native” born primary care physician retired, my files were transferred over to a physician from the Philippines, with whom I have been consulting for a couple of years now. The added bonus is the respect for my age that I get from him because of the carryover from the old culture, similar to how I interacted with the older and now retired physician!

About 42 million in this country are foreign-born, which includes naturalized citizens, green-card holders, those on various categories of visas, and undocumented immigrants. From the Muslim taxi drivers in DC to the pear-pickers in Oregon, from the physician in rural Tennessee to professors in universities, the foreign-born account for more than 13 percent of the population in the country. Oregon’s is slightly lower than the national rate—nearly a tenth of state’s population was born outside the US.

Contrary to popular perception, Mexico is no longer the leader when it comes to the origins of the foreign-born. In 2014, Mexico was third—yes, third—after India and China, with Canada and the Philippines rounding out the top five countries that sent the most people to the US. If the current immigration trends are to continue, projections are that within a decade from now, the percentage of the foreign-born will reach nearly 15 percent, which will be the highest ever in American history.

This change in the immigration pattern is easily observable. In reviewing a book on Indians in America, The Economist magazine notes that a century ago a government commission concluded that Indians were “the most undesirable of all Asiatics” and that “the citizens of America’s west coast were “unanimous in their desire for exclusion”. Things changed in a hurry over the last three decades. The same west coast of America is now home to some of the most successful Indian-American immigrants—from the CEO of Microsoft to motel-owning Patels. Of course, well before the stereotype of Indian immigrants in the Silicon Valley, the television show “The Simpsons” featured Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and his convenience store for a good reason—it seems like most convenience stores in the country are operated by immigrants.

This complex immigration pattern will take on yet another dimension with Nikki Haley, the current governor of South Carolina, who is the president-elect’s nominee to the United Nations. She will become the first Indian-American member of a President’s cabinet after the Senate’s confirmation.

Given that immigration was one of the driving issues in the recent elections, the new administration might be compelled to address it. But, severe restrictions on immigration will be a loss, and will have significant effects not only on the demographic composition but also on the economy and politics—even right in the nation’s capital.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ding dong. The dictator is dead!

I will take time out of criticizing the wannabe dictator in order to talk about a real one.

fidel castro is dead.

About sixty years late!

When I was young and naive, I too was charmed by castro and che.  I loved the fact that castro was a pain that America could not get rid.

And then I grew up.

I came to understand castro's atrocious system of suffocating the fundamental rights of people that even most Indians take for granted.  I came to understand che's role as executioner-in-chief for castro's murderous dictatorship.  The tortures of political opponents and prisoners.  When I heard Cuban-Americans talk about how they were forced to flee Cuba, I got to understand how everyday life was affected because of castro's megalomania.

In my transition years, in order to fit in with the left-leaning circle, I tried to fake my appreciation for che and fidel.  But, after a while, as with most things in life, I figured that living an honest life was worth more to me than to be associated with people who worship the killers that castro and che were.

I read a few notes by famous Cuban-Americans.  The jazz musician Arturo Sandoval had a moving post, from which I have excerpted the following:
The dictator of Cuba has died, FINALLY!!!
I've been waiting for this day for so many years of my life, but unfortunately after 58 years of a horrible dictatorship, the damage that he has done to our country will likely be impossible to fix quickly, and may take a few generations to repair.
I thought that when this day arrived I would be jumping on one foot for hours, but unfortunately what I'm thinking about now are the multitude of people who lost their lives because of him. He destroyed a beautiful island and made us emigrate from our beloved country. He separated our people and he taught our people how to hate one another other.
He was worse than evil, the kind of person that Hell even turns away. And it pains me that he's passed without ever being prosecuted for all the crimes he committed.
The death of that dictator perhaps won't make a damn difference when there are plenty, like the orange monster, cannot wait to become dictators, throw opponents in jail, torture people, and spread hate.  But, I rejoice in the fact that not even a dictator can escape death.  I look forward to celebrating after Mugabe dies.

A horrible human being as the face of the US!

The one holiday for which people do not expect gifts.  Instead, they prepare all day to buy stuff that might or might not become gifts a month later.  If only we remembered the original Thanksgiving!

The original one is a wonderful story of freedom, religious refugees, and globalization, if we choose to look at it that way.
What many Americans don’t realize, however, is that the story of those early settlers’ struggle, which culminated in what we remember today as the first Thanksgiving feast, is also a tale of globalization, many centuries before the word was even coined.
In contrast to all that, we now have a president-elect whose splash into the campaign waters began with his rant against Mexicans and the refugees from Syria.  The president-elect "blames" globalization and globalists for whatever he considers to the problems that ail working class Americans, who apparently do not think it is strange for all that to come from a businessman who actively promotes his brand all over the world.

My daughter remarked that I am posting umpteen negative things about the president-elect in my Facebook page.  I don't think she knows about the umpteen things I tweet about the president-elect.  It is difficult not to talk/blog/tweet about this orange monster who will soon become the spokesman for the entire country.  "He is a horrible human being, and I want to keep reminding people that he is a horrible human being," I told my daughter.

I am utterly shocked at how rapidly people and the media are normalizing the president-elect as a human being, despite all the filth that he threw around in every possible direction over the months of the campaign, leave alone the years prior to that.  It was, therefore, immensely cathartic, to read, and to re-read, Charles Blow's column in the New York Times, where he nailed it with "No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along":
You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions.
I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people. I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.
It was a wonderful column. Raw, yes. Visceral, yes. But, on the mark.
No, Mr. Trump, we will not all just get along. For as long as a threat to the state is the head of state, all citizens of good faith and national fidelity — and certainly this columnist — have an absolute obligation to meet you and your agenda with resistance at every turn.
While Blow has figured out how he will work in these dark times, I am continuing to fumble around, without a clear idea of what my role is as an intellectual, as a citizen, and--above all--a human being.  One thing is for certain: My tweets and Facebook posts about the horrible human being that the president-elect is will continue.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A day without the brown-skinned immigrants

I went to Washington, DC, to meet with fellow geographers.  It was only a week after the election and, hence, there was that much more to observe and understand.
Like how the taxi drivers--from and to the airport--were both dark-skinned immigrant men.  And both had Muslim names.
The doormen at the hotel were also dark-skinned immigrants.
The housekeeping woman who knocked on the door as I was getting ready for the meeting apologized in her Spanish-accented voice.
The dark-skinned restaurant waitress spoke with a West Indian accent.
The coffee place at the airport gate was staffed by three women, who looked like they were Somali or Ethiopian, and their English was highly accented.

It was, and still is, surreal to think that the White House, which is only twenty blocks away from the hotel, will soon be the home to one whose campaign beat up on immigrants--legal and illegal.  Even more surreal it is to think that the First Lady will not be one who was born in America but an immigrant herself, who may have even briefly worked illegally when she arrived here.

I suppose this happens to be an entertaining theatrical moment to metaphorically--and, sometimes, literally--beat up on us brown-skinned immigrants with funny accents.  It certainly got the votes for the president-elect.

In the courses that I teach, immigration as a concept always gets interesting, not the least because I am an immigrant myself.  Over the years, I have found that it is not unusual for students to think about their own personal experiences with immigrants.  When they do, students almost always talk about the farm labor being mostly immigrants, which is understandable.  I particularly recall one "native" student's comment that he simply could not keep up with the speed and ease with which the migrant laborers were picking the pears.  Students also talk about the immigrant doctors and nurses, who too are almost always brown-skinned.  (South Asia and the Philippines send quite a few thousands of physicians and surgeons and nurses to this country.)

Imagine if all the immigrants, including me, were gone, which is what the white supremacists explicitly want, and something that the white nationalists have voted for.  From the Muslim taxi drivers in DC to the pear-pickers in Oregon, to the physician in rural Tennessee.  That will be no different from the scenario that was dealt with in a Hollywood movie from a few years ago--A Day Without A Mexican.  ... to be continued, I am sure ;)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

White nationalism is not new to the GOP

Consider this:
The fundamentalism that the Republicans had embraced went beyond religion. It simplified the world in general; it rolled together many different kinds of anxieties—schools, drugs, race, buggery, Russia, to give just a few; and it offered the simplest, the vaguest solution: Americanism, the assertion of the American self. Practical matters were in the party’s printed platform and remained locked up there. ... there had been very little of purely political discussion. Americanism had been the theme of the convention, now defiant, now sentimental, as in Mr. Trump's acceptance speech. Fundamentalism, in its Republican political interpretation, was not just a grim business; it was as stylish as Mr. Trump himself. The Republicans were “pro-life.” That meant anti-abortion; but during the week another, metaphorical, meaning began to be attached to the word. To be pro-life was to be vigorous, joyful, and optimistic; it was to turn away from the gloom and misery of the other side, who talked of problems and taxes.
Are you thinking that there is nothing new?  Are you wondering where the catch is?

I had blogged about this before, back in 2012.

You are now asking yourself, "how could Sriram have blogged about Trump in 2012?"

Good question.  In that post in 2012, I made referenced to Mr. Romney, not Mr. Trump.

Now, aren't you shocked that the paragraph that seemed to be really about Trump was actually about Romney?

That is nothing compared to the shock that I am going to administer to you.  That 2012 post about Romney itself was actually a report by V.S. Naipaul on the GOP convention in 1984, when Reagan was nominated for a second term.  So, let's recap, shall we?  The paragraph that described the GOP, its presidential candidate, and its party loyalists from 1984 was equally wonderfully descriptive in 2012 and 2016 also.

The big difference between 1984 and 2016 is this: Reagan used the political dog-whistle to remind the GOP white loyalists about blacks and immigrants.  Trump ditched the dog-whistle and went for the straight talk.

Back in 2012, one of my favorite commentators--Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote:
After Obama won, the longed-for post-­racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified.
Yes, racism intensified.  So much so that the NY Times spends some time helping us understand white nationalism and white supremacy--how they are similar and how they are different.  It is almost as if we are back to 1950, before the Civil Rights era.  And the white racism swung the election.
But for the fact that much has been made of the white working class riding to Trump’s rescue, it’s not entirely shocking that the GOP standard bearer won the middle- and upper-class white vote: It’s been this way for some time, for several decades, in fact.
Instead, what’s most arresting is that middle- and upper-class whites voted for this particular candidate. 
Think about that for a while.  Middle- and upper-class whites voted for the guy who threw shit at every possible group except white Christian men.
If social economic status – especially education – is a gateway to a more tolerant, democratic society, why did middle- and upper-class voters back someone who represents the antithesis of such values?
The answer, my friend, is no different from the past:
My reading of history suggests that the boundaries of American identity intersect with whiteness, patriarchy, xenophobia and homophobia. This means that anyone, any group that falls outside of such a definition of American identity, is considered beyond the political community; they’re aliens.
Rapid social change, which poses a threat to this truncated version of American identity, activates anxiety and anger on the part of those who lay claim to this identity. The America with which they’ve become familiar is changing too fast. Hence, the slogan for the Trump campaign: “Make America great again.” This suggests that America, in its present state, is defective in some way and needs to return some previous version of itself.
So ... is there anything positive at all in these dark times?
Trump’s victory, in light of all of his antics during the campaign, makes it all but impossible to deny the continuing currency of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia in the United States. It’s on display for all to see. This could be a good thing: It forces us to reckon with who we really are. Is America really about the democratic, progressive values professed in the founding documents? Or, are we really the small-minded, bigoted place Trump’s election represents?
If we hope to maintain a claim to exceptionalism, we must find our way back to the values on which this country was founded, ones that include equality and freedom.
If Trump and his supporters really wish to “Make America great again,” perhaps they should go all the way back to these founding principles. Only this time, they should leave behind the racism, sexism and nativism.

Monday, November 21, 2016

You can unfriend .. but you can't hide

I was beginning to think that I won't have a seatmate and that I will enjoy all the space, when she walked to the seat adjacent to mine.

She was small--perhaps only an inch more than five feet.  And skinny.  And looked about 75 years old.  With the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth further confirming the life experiences that she has had.  She put her handbag on the seat and got ready to put the carry on in the bin above.

There was something about her that prevented me from asking whether she needed assistance placing the bag above.  She seemed so confident and sure-footed, I was certain that I would end up offending her if I asked her that.

As people get older, they hate us younger folks patronizing them.  I had a hard lesson on that even from my father.  As we were crossing the street near my parents' home, with traffic coming from left and right, I made an error--I put my arm around my father's back.  He gave me one look that made it clear that I had crossed a line.  Lesson learnt.

She sat down.  We started talking.  She was everything that I had made up in my mind.  An educated woman, who had a career and raised children, and was now doing interesting stuff in her retired life.  She had come to the country's capital for personal research work--into her family's history.  And now she was heading back home.

We talked about the recent elections, of course.  Talking about the elections has been therapeutic.  At the professional meeting, which was the reason for my travel, we found ourselves constantly talking about the election aftermath during the breaks--so much that we referred to the meeting as a group grievance counseling!

The 75-year old next to me had some interesting family stories to tell regarding the election.  In the days leading up the fateful day, her grand daughter-in-law (as she referred to her grandson's wife) unfriended her on Facebook.  Another grandson Facebook-messaged to this grandmother that she should stop messaging him because she was becoming too intense.

"You are small. And you are funny. And you talk so pleasantly.  I cannot imagine you as being harsh.  Or, do you have a dark side?," I asked her laughing all the way.

She covered her face for a second.  And then with a big grin she said, "I speak softly.  But, I am told that I carry a velvet hammer.  And I stand my ground and hold myself."

I can believe that--which is why I felt that I should not offer to help her with her bag.  She might have punched me with the velvet hammer ;)

Her reasons are no different from mine.  It is not about him claiming the other party's credentials.  It is not about the party. It is not about the ideology that bothers us.  It is about him.  He is everything abhorrent.  He is perhaps the most recognizable face for what a human being should not be.  She apparently tried to get such points across to the grandsons and the young wife, who unfriended her because of that.

I too have unfriended people on Facebook when I could not stand their virulent anti-Muslim posts. Their anti-immigration posts. Their defense of misogyny and the violent talk against women.  I went the same route that the grandma did--I tried to constructively engage with them as much as I could.  But, their posts were getting meaner and meaner and ... I finally decided not to be associated with such humans.

Taking this blog private, too, is an unfriending of the part of the world that actively defended him and voted for him.  But, both the grandma and I know that unfriending does not help.  "I am consciously looking at where I can spend my energy so that I can be of help" she said.  "Me too." I replied.  And once I sort that out, and if by then he has not clamped down on free speech, then I too will start friending the world outside.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Progress means changing the world ... for which we need empathy

Over the years, I have come to appreciate John Rawls's "veil of ignorance" a lot.  I mean, a lot.  (Click here if you need a ninety-second briefing.)

Unlike Rawls's theoretical structure of an original position, we have the real world to deal with.  It is this world, not a hypothetical scenario, that we have to work with.  Which means, we need to figure out how to understand what it might mean to be a person of the type that we are not.  The "other" could be a different gender from us.  A different religion.  Different skin color.  Different upbringing.  Different whatever. If we begin to understand the circumstances in which the others might find themselves, then, well, we are beginning to have that wonderful aspect of what it means to be human: Empathy.

It is not the emotional empathy that I am referring to, like when we see the stereotypical photo of a fly buzzing around a poor kid with a runny nose.  Nope. As Roman Krznaric explains in the video that I have embedded in this post (or you can watch here) it is cognitive empathy.  We imagine what the people in Aleppo are going through.  We imagine what the homeless in the nation's capital experience when they are only a few blocks away from the President's palace.  We imagine what the hijab-wearing Muslim is worried about as a result of the elections.

Krznaric referred to Adam Smith, which, of course, intrigued me.  Smith, is often hailed by the free market and the pro-business people.  (Pro-business is not the same as being pro-market.)  However, that is cherry-picking from what Smith had to say.  Smith not only wrote about the invisible hand and the power of self-interest, but was a moral philosopher.  Krznaric quotes Smith about empathy.  The think-tanks and the business lobbies conveniently forget that Smith was quite a philosopher.  Either they forget, or they are not even informed about it--perhaps the latter!

Krznaric quotes from Smith's other book, A theory of moral sentiments: " ... by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels."  When the president-elect said all those horrible things only a couple of weeks ago when he was a candidate, many of us worried that it reflected an utter lack of an ability to "fancy with the sufferer"--a complete and total lack of empathy.  There will be situations during his presidency when he will have to be the comforter-in-chief.  There will be situations when he will have to weigh whether or not to bomb a place or a country.  There will be situations when his policies might have drastic effects on people.  But, when he lacks empathy ... progress will stall.  We might even regress.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Progress always comes with risks

As we zig and zag towards a better world for all of us, one thing is for certain: Progress isn't natural!
most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so.      
Progress simply does not happen.  It does magically appear.  One has to work hard for it, especially because there are quite a few who passionately oppose the direction that progress points to.  Why would they want to oppose it?  Nor is this anything new.  Our default, hardwired, condition is to block progress, it seems.
even the greatest optimists underestimated the power of technology’s progress in taming electricity, making cheap steel, flooding the world with abundant high-quality food, and doubling humans’ life expectancy while cutting the hours people spent working by at least half—to name but a very few of modernity’s achievements.
I have laughingly commented many times to students that we might now look at the peoples of the past and wonder how they could have thought what they did.  But, by the same token, we ought to remember that we too will be laughed at by the peoples (or whatever the mutated species we will be thanks to technology!) of the future.
The belief in progress has always had opponents, many of whom stress the costs of technological advances. In the 17th century, the Jesuit order fought tirelessly against such godless innovations as Copernican astronomy and infinitesimal mathematics. During the Industrial Revolution, many writers, following the lead of Thomas Malthus, were convinced that unrestrained population growth would undo the fruits of economic growth, a belief that still had adherents in the late 1960s, such as Paul Ehrlich. Nowadays, unsubstantiated fears of monstrosities created by genetic engineering (including, God forbid, smarter people, drought-resistant crops, and mosquitoes that don’t transmit malaria) threaten to slow down research and development in crucial areas, including coping with climate change.
All those are progress as we think about in terms of science and technology.  And then there is progress in terms of how we treat fellow humans.  An overwhelming majority among us will not want to go back in time and live in those dark times when most humans were considered less than equal to a privileged few.  There is, of course, a hardwired default state within us to maintain that sense of privilege and power, which is what the recent elections also revealed.  The president-elect's chief political strategist, who has extensive ties with the darkest elements, said:
The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get fucked over.
Until election Tuesday, most of us were rejoicing over the progress made all over the world.  People are living longer.  Diseases have been wiped out or contained.  People are richer than ever.  Apparently this progress does not go well with some, who are adamantly opposed to anybody who is not an American (preferably white American) climbing out of poverty and into the middle class.

Tyrants have tried their best to oppose progress.  Millions died in the two great wars in the first half of the twentieth century.  Dictators and authoritarians try to put up hurdles all over the world.  While people will die as a result, progress cannot be denied.  To quote Martin Luther King, Jr.:
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Zigzagging through this blog

"Could it really be that there are so many xenophobic people to vote for him?" she asked.

Ever since the election results, I have been cautious to talk politics.  Even in the old days, people typically refrained from talking about politics and religion.  And now, there is tension in the air.  The small-talk that I have so much enjoyed over the years now seems like a perilous landmine territory that is best avoided.

As much as I am disappointed, dejected, and depressed about the results, I understand that with age comes a responsibility as well.  A responsibility to at least say something positive, for others to look forward to.  With students, I told them "trust the institutions.  Have faith that the various institutions that we built up over the years will lead us in the right direction."

Maybe students bought that; maybe not.  I knew I was only faking it.  I have no faith that the institutions will do their jobs.  History has ample evidence of institutions quickly succumbing to the powers.  Even the supposedly independent institutions.

Yet, with the checkout cashier at the grocery store, I offered optimism.  "If you look at our history, we have overcome all kinds of horrible things.  I suppose progress is not always linear," I told her.  I think I was a lot more real about this, compared to what I told the students.

It was comforting, reassuring, that I was not the only one who thought that way.  Even the philosopher-in-chief said similar things:
That's the nature of democracy. It is hard. And sometimes contentious and noisy. …. Sometimes you lose an argument. Sometimes you lose an election. You know, the path this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back. 
It is not easy to understand such zigs and zags.
Obama, the zig, was a guy so cool in the eyes of much of the world that he got a Nobel Peace Prize before he’d had a chance to do much. (At the time, in his first year, the U.S. was fighting two wars.)
Trump, the zag, is a hurler of insults, a raw orator you can’t turn away from if you can bring yourself to tune in, a boor with women, a peddler of falsehoods that made millions of eyes roll but spoke to a larger truth in the eyes of supporters.
Foreigners shake their heads at a country that over the years defines cool, then represents what crazy looks like.

And in this zigzag:
a nation that is pretty upbeat about the job the cool black president is doing hands the reins to a man who spun conspiracy theories about Obama’s country of birth.
The zigzag means that I need to understand my place in this zag.  I started blogging when the first zag began--in 2001.  Most of my blog-posts in the couple of years after 2001 were rants that provided cathartic relief.  And then my personal life also took a zag.   I took a break from blogging, and then when I returned, I deleted all the previous posts in one click.  All gone.  I then started afresh.

I start anew in this latest zag.  If you are reading this, consider yourself special--you are part of my latest zag journey.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Blexit: An exit from blogging

Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. ... will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted. The African-American Other. The Hispanic Other. The female Other. The Jewish and Muslim Other. 
David Remnick writes that the presidential election result is "An American Tragedy."

This brown-skinned, bearded "other" is concerned about his personal life since last night ... for now, I have decided to suspend my blogging, in order to take stock of how public I want to be in sharing my views.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Langston Hughes said it first: Make America again!

I read Harry Belafonte's op-ed in the NY Times.  He begins by quoting a few lines from Langston Hughes, and works that poem throughout the essay.  Belafonte writes: "What old men know, too, is that all that is gained can be lost."

Make sure you read that essay.

I have blogged about the poem that Belafonte refers to.  It has a powerful message.  The following is a re-post from this past summer:

e.e. cummings said it best for, and on behalf of, people like me::

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

And "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!                          

Sunday, November 06, 2016

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

Way back, when I was a kid, going to grandmother's village was always a lesson on how "advanced" life in the industrial town was.  The village had no indoor plumbing. Only a few hours of electricity, and even then the low voltage sometimes made candle light more luminous than the incandescent bulbs; the fluorescent bulbs would keep blinking until one of us ended its misery by switching it off.  People in the village looked way poorer. There was no road to speak of, and the bullock-cart was a luxury!

At the same time, I was also aware of how "backward" our industrial town was compared to the big cities of Bombay and Delhi, which I had never been to at that time.  I felt like I was an urchin from the slums whenever we visited a wealthy relative in Madras--they had a huge refrigerator where the yogurt--curd, as we called it--was stored, and it was wonderfully cold to touch when served.  And then there was the fabled America.

Later, in graduate school, I would come to understand these are examples of "spatial inequality."  Highly unequal spaces.  Despite all my personal experiences with spatial inequality, I wonder if things are getting even more lopsided.

Consider this:
As anyone looking to buy a new car these days knows, a number of technologies already cede certain tasks to the vehicle. These include windshield wipers that turn on when they sense rain, brakes that engage automatically when the car ahead is too close, blind-spot detectors, drift warnings that alert the driver when the car has strayed into another lane, cruise control that maintains a set distance from other vehicles, and the ability of the car to parallel park itself. Tesla cars go further. In “autopilot” mode they are able to steer, change lanes, and maintain proper speed, all without human intervention. YouTube is full of videos of Tesla “drivers” reading, playing games, writing, and jumping into the back seat as their cars carry on with the mundane tasks of driving.
How about the following as a contrast, as an example of spatial inequality:
Readers in rich countries may well consider electric lighting mundane. But in northern Rwanda, where fewer than one in ten homes has access to electricity, simple solar systems that do not rely on the grid—and use a battery to store electricity for use at night—are a leap into modernity. A service once available only to rich Africans in big towns or cities is now available for just a few dollars a week.
While we in the advanced countries are celebrating the arrival of driverless cars, and beer trucks that drive themselves, merely getting a bulb to light up a home is a big deal in "a continent in which two of every three people have no access to power."

Take a moment to think about these contrasts. Especially about ""a continent in which two of every three people have no access to power."  And think about how these are merely two of the examples of life in contrast.
Of course, grandmother's village now has roads. But, electricity 24x7 is yet to be the case.  It has been years since I last went there, but it is doubtful whether all the houses have indoor plumbing.  There has been progress, yes, but the spatial contrasts seem much more than before.

The more the years go by, the more difficult it has become for me to understand the world.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The First Amendment in Life

"Boy is it wet outside!  It has been a wet month," I said.

This was a few days ago at my local grocery store.  I placed my items for the cashier to, as we said in the old days, ring me up.

It was chit-chat time.  She was new, which is the story these days--I rarely see my familiar cashiers.  I suppose the familiar faces fading away and newer people coming in is by itself a statement on life.

"I suspect this is going to be a wet year," she replied.  It already has been.  Nearly record-breaking at that.

"Oh well ... we can't do anything about that anyway" I chimed in.

She paused.
She looked up.
With an air of defiance, she said, "I have my right to complain about the weather."

We both laughed.

We do complain a whole lot about all kinds of things.  Maybe we ought to rewrite René Descartes's famous statement to "I complain, therefore I am."

Were we humans always complainers?  Did cavemen gesticulate their complaints even before humans invented a language to communicate?  Was it an early caveman who was the first to record a one-finger-salute?  Are we homo complainers?

I am ready with one of my favorite complaints--the stupid, stupid, stupid, daylight savings time.  It ends this weekend and we will return to regular, standard time.  But, this "standard" time is only from November through mid-March, for some measly four months and a few days.  So, if daylight savings time is for nearly eight out of the twelve months, then shouldn't that be the standard time, and from November through March the non-standard one?

Why do we have this stupid, stupid, stupid system?  One word: Business.  Yep, it is all because of the powerful business lobby, which does not care about the non-dollar effects.

Oh well.  I reserve my right to complain about this time change nonsense.  It is there in the Bill of Rights.  If not, well, this caveman reserves the right to use his middle finger ;)

Friday, November 04, 2016

Your virtual reality versus my reality

In all these years of using Facebook, I have never even bothered to look at the ads, which I treat as nuisance.  When Facebook started feeding news and "trending" items, I could not be bothered.  But, I routinely heard from students who had read something "news" because it popped up in the "trending" category.  Whenever I asked those students whether that was all the news that they read, ahem, it was.  That was when I really started worrying about Facebook--about its powers to filter the news across to the gazillion users.

It is ironic that while I marvel at the phenomenal opportunity that I have to read unfiltered news, there are many whose news only comes from their Facebook feed.  But then, it is not as if in the old days most people read newspapers either.  However, now Facebook has the attention of those for whom all the news that it is fit to print is whatever they see within that walled space.

Apparently, there has also been plenty of pro-Trump news, propaganda, in Facebook.
These sites plagiarize or aggregate stories, both real and fake, from right-wing U.S. sites, then slap provocative headlines on them and post them to Facebook. Some of the most popular stories, Silverman reports, include false claims that the pope endorsed Trump, that Gov. Mike Pence called Michelle Obama “the most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had,” and that Hillary Clinton will be indicted for her use of a private email server. These stories garnered far more engagement on Facebook than legitimate investigative stories from the likes of the New York Times.
If that got your attention, this will interest you even more--this is like a cottage industry in "the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000)" not because they want Trump to win:
Rather, they’re doing it for profit. A 16-year-old who runs a site called told him it’s averaging 1 million page views per month. He declined to share revenue figures, but in theory that could translate to tens of thousands of U.S. dollars per year—many times more than Macedonia’s median income. The 16-year-old told Silverman he experimented with pro-Bernie Sanders news during the primary, but found pro-Trump content far more popular on the social network.
Fair and balanced, Facebook style!
Facebook is overrun with viral dross that's misleading voters, fueling partisan rage, and—according to an analysis of the data on hyper-partisan news sites by BuzzFeed in October—benefiting one candidate far more than the other.
That's not the only problem with Facebook.  Remember it is all about advertisements and the money.  If news is all distorted, then you think there could be something messed up with the ads too?  If you thought so, well, you are correct:
Facebook’s system allows advertisers to exclude black, Hispanic, and other “ethnic affinities” from seeing ads.
By now, you should start freaking out.
Imagine if, during the Jim Crow era, a newspaper offered advertisers the option of placing ads only in copies that went to white readers.
That’s basically what Facebook is doing nowadays.
Facebook is running into problems with the law.
A lawsuit seeking class action status filed in California federal court on Thursday alleges that Facebook's ad targeting options violate federal fair housing and civil rights laws, which make it illegal to show a preference for certain groups of people in housing and employee recruitment advertisements.
It is a strange future that we are walking towards like zombies.  

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Glad to be living now

First, read the following:
If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history, and you didn't know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be, what time would you choose? Paleolithic? Neolithic? Ancient Greece or Rome? Medieval times? Elizabethan England? Colonial America? The 1950s?
Think about it.

Think again.

Remember, that in this thought experiment "you didn't know ahead of time what nationality you were or what gender or what your economic status might be."


So, which moment in time would you choose?

My answer is no different from the one the questioner asked: I would choose today.

What if I were one of the struggling plebes and not a rich dude in Rome? Or a serf? Or a slave? Or ...
 “We are fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,” he opined, adding that “it's been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We're wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.”
I agree with him.  This is the best of times all over the world.  It is phenomenal.  Of course, you would never come away with such a feeling if you were to listen to Adolf Trump.

"why the doom and gloom heaped on us by politicians and pundits"?

Micheal Shermer, from whose column in the Scientific American I excerpted those quotes, gives a few explanations.  To me those explanations are rather immaterial.  I am amazed at how much we can't seem to think about the big story of the phenomenal success on various fronts that we humans have achieved over the past two hundred years.  Our inability to situate an unfortunate event against a an appropriate measure over time blows my mind.

BTW, the questioner who posed that thought experiment?  Our philosopher-in-chief. Thanks, Obama!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Andalusia Of Love

As I have often mentioned here, thanks to the rather prosaic schooling back in the old country, I never got educated about the role that poetry plays.  Well, ok, not really. It was school that failed in educating me about poetry.  Popular culture did that wonderfully.  Kannadasan's poetry, for instance, set to wonderful music, taught me a lot about emotions and the human condition.

Now, looking back, I find it rather strange that while the day-to-day cultural behavior discouraged public displays of sadness or love, the same culture actively sought out Kannadasan's thoughts on those emotions and more.

Much later in life, I did get acquainted with poetry.  I still remember an English literature professor-colleague talking about what poetry does that prose often does not, and how in a few verses, sometimes even in a few lines, a poem conveys the emotions that we feel, or want to feel.

Bob Dylan being the recipient of the Nobel prize in literature makes me wonder whether Kanndasan's body of work would easily surpass Dylan's contributions.  I am no Kannadasan expert, nor am I a Dylan expert, but ... Or, up in the Hindi belt, there is Gulzar.  Maybe it is time to retire the Nobel in literature and peace ... but, I digress.

Poets and poetry and emotions.  I was reminded of all these because I listened to two poetry/music related segments on my favorite radio station.  One was an interview with Phil Collins, whose concluding words in the interview says a lot about the human condition:
my life's the same as everybody else's, you know. You're making it up every day and you're just hoping you're making the right decisions.
That's all there is.  Maybe, as my grandmother often prefaced in her prayers, we hope to wake up.  And after we wake up, all we can do is to hope that we make the right decisions.

The other poetry/music segment was about a Lebanese composer/poet/musician/... Of course, I had no idea about him; I am amazed everyday at how much I do not know!
Marcel Khalife is a Lebanese composer, singer and innovator on his instrument, the oud. Khalife performed his first concerts amid the rubble of bombed-out buildings in Beirut during Lebanon's civil war. Now, decades later, he is one of the most prolific figures in Arabic music.
It was a review of his latest album, "Andalusia Of Love."  If you are like me, you perhaps wonder why a Lebanese is fascinated with Andalusia, which is all the way over in Spain.  Here's why:
Andalusia is the southern part of Spain where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together for centuries during medieval times. For Khalife, that history is an enduring reminder that peaceful cohabitation is possible for people of these faiths.
What a lovely fascination to have, right?  The coexistence before the expulsion of Jews and before Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.  Despite his experiences of the brutal life in Lebanon during its atrocious civil war days, here is Khalife passionately believing that peaceful cohabitation is possible.

There's more:
Khalife himself is a Christian, but throughout his career he has set to music the words of a Muslim writer, Mahmoud Darwish, one of the most beloved Palestinian poets.
I spent a few minutes reading a few poems by Mahmoud Darwish.  I liked the poem that I have included at the end of this post, maybe because I could understand it the most.

Artists and poets, I envy them so!
Artists and poets, I thank them so.

I belong there
By Mahmoud Darwish

I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.
I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell
with a chilly window! I have a wave snatched by seagulls, a panorama of my own.
I have a saturated meadow. In the deep horizon of my word, I have a moon,
a bird’s sustenance, and an immortal olive tree.
I have lived on the land long before swords turned man into prey.
I belong there. When heaven mourns for her mother, I return heaven to     her mother.
And I cry so that a returning cloud might carry my tears.
To break the rules, I have learned all the words needed for a trial by blood.
I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a  
single word: Home.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Go ahead. Be a nabob of negativity

Hey, does the following make sense to you?
المشاعر السلبية مفتاح الصحة النفسية
Before I tell you what the means, allow me to discuss something with you.  Remember, I noted in yesterday's post that you can't selectively edit me out--you have to put up with my boring stories also ;)

Quite a few months ago, I noticed something interesting in the New York Times.  A select report or a column included a link for the Chinese version or an Arabic version.  Once, I even tweeted the "foreign" language version just to see if there was an audience for it.  And there was.  (I have no idea how to quickly search through my tweets and track that down!)

As much as we (ok, I) beat up on modern technology, I, like many, am an ardent fan of it.  Without the modern communication technology, you, dear reader, and I would not have even met, right?  And here we are exchanging ideas, debating, all thanks to the modern marvel.  If we want to pass along a column to an English-challenged friend somewhere, we can send them the Chinese or Arabic version too.  (I suspect that the FBI has opened a file on me for using the Arabic characters in this post, and for repeatedly writing "Arabic". Hehehe)

So, back to that Arabic phrase.  It was there in this Scientific American piece on "Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being."  Now, go ahead and check that link out for the Arabic version.  (Click that link only if you are white-skinned; the FBI will track you if you are brown-skinned. Haha!)
Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time. In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment.
“Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
Are you thinking what I am thinking?  Why is a psychology expert in the College of Engineering, right?  Yep, this is how I read things, my friend! ;)

The complexity of life means that we can not, will not, be happy all the time.  There will be moments of other emotions that we classify as negative.  Remember the Pixar movie, Inside Out, in which sadness plays a key role?
Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life's ups and downs. “Remember, one of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences,” Adler says.
Our life experiences are not mere facts, right?  Those experiences are loaded with emotions.
Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state.
Or, as I tell people--if they ever check with me--I tell them to honor those emotions and not deny their existence, or drown them in alcohol.  "What you feel is what you feel" is how I have come to conclude about the negative emotions.  To honor them and work through them is the way to do it.  "Learning how to cope with those emotions is the key."  Indeed.

If only I could convey these to the angry members of ISIS.  Hey, can you white readers send ISIS the Arabic version of the Scientific American piece? ;)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Solitude in the technologically connected world

I think that I have qualities that will piss people off day in and day out.  But, maybe there are at least a couple of things about me that appeal to somebody.  And maybe a couple of different things about me appeal to somebody else.  But, here is the problem: Anybody who wants to be friends with me has to work with the entire me, right?  After all, they can't merely get those one or two things and then vanish.

If you agree with me, then you are my kind of a person.  But then that is also why you are here, reading the crap that I post every day.

But, if you think about seriously enough, you will immediately see that you can get those one or two things from me and then vanish.  Are you thinking how?

For instance, the moment I start talking slowly about something that absolutely fascinates me but is boring to you, maybe you start doing a quick check on the emails.  Or the Facebook feed.  Or you are sending a text message to your colleague at work about the meeting tomorrow. Or, you ... now you can begin to see how you can choose to get what you want from me, right?

Of course, this is not anything new.  In the old days, people simply zoned out.  Students' minds drifted off into worlds far away from away from our galaxy.  But, what is new is, well, let me give you an example.  Recently, I texted an older friend about swinging by their place to say hi and chat for a while.  A couple of minutes later, the text reply that I read shocked me.  The message said that they were at a funeral service for a friend.  Before the days of the smartphone, when we attended a funeral service, we had no choice but to be physically and mentally be at the funeral service.  Not anymore.  Whether it is a funeral, or a wedding, or my classes, or a board meeting, or whatever, we have started being here and in a gazillion other places all at once at the same time.
Why does this matter? It matters to me because I think we're setting ourselves up for trouble -- trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection. We're getting used to a new way of being alone together. People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere -- connected to all the different places they want to be. People want to customize their lives. They want to go in and out of all the places they are because the thing that matters most to them is control over where they put their attention. 
I like how Sherry Turkle puts it: We want to customize our lives.  Which is what I see even in students in my classes.  You warming up now?
Across the generations, I see that people can't get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right.
With the technology for which the smartphone is merely a forerunner of even smarter stuff coming our way, we are almost instantaneously editing our lives and our interactions with others.  But, this is far from the approach to understanding who we are--as individuals and as humans.
 Human relationships are rich and they're messy and they're demanding. And we clean them up with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring. 
Are you with me now?
We expect more from technology and less from each other. And I ask myself, "Why have things come to this?"
Exactly.  Why have things come to this?  What is the inner force propelling us faster and faster along this route?
technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We're lonely, but we're afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we're not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.
We are making life unnecessarily complicated for ourselves.  Instead of admitting to the awful burden that loneliness and working towards eliminating that problem, we seek the illusion of companionship that technology provides us.
 if we don't have connection, we don't feel like ourselves. We almost don't feel ourselves. So what do we do? We connect more and more. But in the process, we set ourselves up to be isolated.
How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don't have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we're not able to appreciate who they are. It's as though we're using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self. We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we're at risk, because actually it's the opposite that's true. If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely.
So ... any suggestions?

Really, you need suggestions after all the posts on such topics?  Tell you what ... nothing will be new in the following:
Start thinking of solitude as a good thing. Make room for it. Find ways to demonstrate this as a value to your children. Create sacred spaces at home -- the kitchen, the dining room -- and reclaim them for conversation. Do the same thing at work. ... Most important, we all really need to listen to each other, including to the boring bits. Because it's when we stumble or hesitate or lose our words that we reveal ourselves to each other.
Even to the boring bits.

We will put that to a test here.
Let me tell you about my ... hey, listen to me.
DO NOT run away from me ...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Not this shit again

Julian Assange and James Comey have delivered all the October surprises that we did not need.  It didn't matter to me; I was done with my ballot last weekend, and signed, sealed, and delivered it last Monday.  If everything goes well, on the evening of November 8th, the world will breathe a sigh of relief that the US dodged electing the guy who could be the greatest recruiting poster for all the disaffected crazies in the troubled Islamic countries.

The American elections have been one heck of a reality TV show around the world.  But, there are far more compelling human dramas unfolding in real time.  Tragedies, with no end in sight.  No, this post is not about Syria. Nor about the migrants. Nor about Yemen. Nor about ...

It is about Venezuela:
a relatively large, relatively sophisticated major oil producer just three hours’ flying time from the United States has just become the second all-out, no-more-elections dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
The courts have suspended what would have been a referendum to recall the "loathed authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro."

A referendum that Maduro would have lost; there were eight voters lined up against him for every supporter, according to surveys.  Given such intense opposition,
how does Maduro retain enough support going forward to hang on to power? Where is his genuine source of support at this point?
You want a nanosecond to think about it?
People with guns. That includes the military of course, which has been given enormous privileges during the last 18 years. [It has] been put in charge of mining businesses, been part of the oil industry, and smuggling, and cocaine, and a lot of other things.
"Includes the military" because it is not merely the military:
It’s the paramilitarization of the ruling party. So [the] PSUV, or Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, has what are called colectivos. [These are] sort of grassroots supporter civilians who are armed and organized. What they are is paramilitaries. They are armed civilian groups that support the government. The degree of tactical cooperation between the armed security forces and these paramilitary groups is shocking now and really, they’re not trying to hide it. And these days there’s Twitter—you can’t hide things even if you want to. 
So, ... what next?  If life in Venezuela has already gone from bad to worse to worst, ...?
We are in deeply uncharted territory here, so to try to forecast it now is really, really dicey. There’s a sense in the opposition now of learned helplessness. [A sense of,] “we’ve done a lot, we’ve done a lot to try to get rid of these guys and they’ve worn us out every time, and we’ve failed every time and the country has gotten worse and worse and worse.” So in a way, that’s the hardest thing to get over. Part of the reason that people reacted to the offer of the Vatican mediation the way they did is precisely that: Not this shit again.  
"Not this shit again" can equally apply to the presidential campaign here in the US too.

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