Thursday, February 28, 2019

Are you stressed?

As one who has always loved puns, when a younger person recently talked about being stressed, I couldn't help sharing with her a neat word play with "stressed."

It all depended on how one looked at "stressed."  From the last letter to the first, it is nothing but "desserts."

Apparently there is a more serious connection between stressed and desserts--there is a "desire for chocolate and other carbs during tough times."  But why so?

It is all because of one organ. 

No, not that organ; you and your dirty mind!  I am referring to the brain, of course:
Although our brain accounts for just 2 percent of our body weight, the organ consumes half of our daily carbohydrate requirements—and glucose is its most important fuel. Under acute stress the brain requires some 12 percent more energy, leading many to reach for sugary snacks.
But, what if one is chronically stressed, which then makes them eat all the time?
Often the only way out of such eating habits is to leave a permanently stressful environment. So although many tend to be hard on themselves for eating too many sweets or carbs, the reasons behind such craving aren’t always due to a lack of self-control and might require a deeper look into lifestyle and stressful situations—past and present. Once the root cause of stress addressed, eating habits could ultimately resolve themselves.
Eating is not always just about the eating.  And not eating can also cause problems:
If a person craves chocolate in the afternoon, I advise him or her to eat chocolate to stay fit and keep his or her spirits up. That’s because at work people are often stressed and the brain has an increased need for energy. If one doesn’t eat anything, it’s possible the brain will use glucose from the body, intended for fat and muscle cell use, and in turn secrete more stress hormones. Not only does this make one miserable, it can also increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke or depression in the long run. Alternatively, the brain can save on other functions, but that reduces concentration and performance.
Yup, have a dessert if that's what can straighten you up every once in a while.  But, if you are leaning on desserts every time, maybe you need to look at what the stress agents are, and change them for the better.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

How much do the rich owe the poor?

First, read the following excerpt:
It is impossible to imagine Bill Gates’s wealth without Bill Gates’s ingenuity and effort. But it is far easier to imagine Bill Gates’s wealth being produced by someone other than Bill Gates within the institutions of modern American economic society than it is to imagine Bill Gates generating Bill Gates’s wealth in a different time and place – in France in the 1700s, or in the Central African Republic today – in which society was or is less tolerant of entrepreneurial capitalism and the accumulation of personal billions, and where the community of engineers that gave rise to and became America’s tech sector is absent. Indeed, at some point in Microsoft’s history it was Microsoft the information-processing organism that was more critical to Bill Gates’s wealth accumulation than Bill Gates himself. People, essentially, do not create their own fortunes. They inherit them, come to them through the occupation of some state-protected niche, or, if they are very brilliant and very lucky, through infusing a particular group of men and women with the germ of an idea, which, in time and with just the right environment, allows that group to evolve into an organism suited to the creation of economic value, a very large chunk of which the founder can then capture for himself.
That paragraph can easily be used as some kind of an ideological  Rorschach test.  Upon reading that, one can get pissed off and defend Gates's gazillions, or one might applaud in agreement that Gates has been unfairly hogging it all.

In the essay, by Ryan Avent, from which I had excerpted that paragraph, he makes an argument that will certainly make one sit up:
The wealth of humans is societal. But the distribution of that wealth doesn’t rest on markets or on social perceptions of who deserves what but on the ability of the powerful to use their power to retain whatever of the value society generates that they can.
His follow-up sentence?  "That is not a radical statement."

I want to get back to the example that Avent uses. Bill Gates has made gazillions.

Could Gates have amassed that wealth if he were in the Central African Republic? The answer is easy--he could not have.

Could Gates have made it that big back 200 years ago in France. He could not have.

Which means, there is something special about the very specific time period over which Gates was able to make his gazillions. The question then is how much Gates owes society for the special circumstances in which all these were possible.

Bill Gates, his wife, and Warren Buffett, have all made it abundantly clear--through their interviews and speeches over the years--that they fully recognize how lucky they were to have been in this special circumstances that made possible their gazillionaire status. Buffett refers to even being born in the USA as having won the "ovarian lottery." In addition to their humanitarian views, this is also a reason for them to turn almost all of their wealth over to the foundation that then spends it on various domestic and international projects.

After quoting Adam Smith and the wonderful advantages of trade and specialization, Avent writes:
Secure in the knowledge that societal growth would not reduce redistribution (and could indeed increase the value available for redistribution by increasing global output) the incentive to draw the borders of society tightly would be curtailed. The challenge, of course, is to create the broad social interest in an encompassing redistribution. How to do that?
Isn't that the challenge that I have been struggling with all my adult life!  How do we create the broad social interest in redistribution that is needed along with the open borders, trade, and specialization?  How do we develop a social contract that will include redistribution, which the ideologues from the right hate, while also allowing for free trade that the ideologues from the left hate?

Avent writes that Adam Smith the philosopher wrote about that too.  "The force of human empathy can be made to serve either openness or societal mercantilism."

Here again the problem is that we are far more empathetic to people like us, but not towards others who are completely unlike us.  We conveniently forget that deep down we are all humans, but only view each other through nationalistic or religious or ethnic, or whatever divisive lens we want to use.
There is a better answer available: that to be ‘like us’ is to be human. That to be human is to earn the right to share in the wealth generated by the productive social institutions that have evolved and the knowledge that has been generated, to which someone born in a slum in Dhaka is every bit the rightful heir as someone born to great wealth in Palo Alto or Belgravia. ...
Rich societies can find ways to justify their great wealth relative to others: their members can tell themselves stories about the great things they did that others could not have done that made them wealthy beyond imagination. Alternatively, they could recognize the wild contingency of their wealth, cultivate human empathy, and do what they can to extend the wealth of humans to everyone.
If only we had more empathy.  If only even a couple of million among the 63 million had even a little bit of a respect for the value of empathy!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Separate ... and unequal

I hated my undergraduate college for a number of reasons.  At the top of the heap was the air of intellectual apathy.  Nobody cared!

There were a few good things that also came about from that miserable experience.  Topping the list was the fact that for the first time I was interacting with my peers fully cognizant of our respective religions and castes.

All the way through high school, while there was no ignorance of the religious and caste differences that existed, the college experience was new.  We were adults and seeing each other for who they were in the highly stratified Indian society.  It was a quick immersion learning experience for me.  And I learnt a lot.

At the first major semester break as all of us prepared to head home, one of my peers said he was staying back in the hostel (dorm.)  Out of a genuine interest, I asked him why he was not going home.  His reply was not one that I would have ever imagined in a million years.

He explained that back in his village, even the kids of upper-caste folks would call his father by name and order his father around.  Therefore, he didn't want to go home and deal with those issues.

I was stunned.

As kids from an industrial town, whenever we went to grandmas' villages, we could never bring ourselves to calling any of the domestic workers by name.  If we wanted them to do anything, we would simply walk up to them and tell them whatever it was.  The discomfort of childhood had now grown into a serious issue in adulthood.

As some of my cousins and I in the extended family started getting away from the traditionally arranged marriages, and instead found our respective spouses, I began to understand that there also existed various levels of tolerance and intolerance.  An Iyer/Iyengar marriage was not the most blessed event but was acceptable.  A spouse who was a brahmin from another language/culture was, well, ok.  Then began an exponential decrease towards intolerance and hostility.  At the rock bottom of non-acceptance and potential excommunication was marriage to a Muslim or a Dalit.

Caste and religion continue to wreak havoc in the old country.

I had always hypothesized that most immigrants to the US bring along with them oversize baggage of religion and caste.  Maybe people have written about them and I have missed their work.  This multi-part series from PRI's The World and WGBH promises to look into it.  "Dalit activists and respondents to a 2018 survey say that — when surrounded by others of Indian descent — caste bias follows them to the land of the free."  The four-part series, will "explore this stigmatizing effects of India's caste system that immigrants have imported to the United States"

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Why eat?

Back when I was a high school kid, a classmate, who managed to get a hold of catchy statements from somewhere during those dark days before the internet was invented, said "eat to live, but do not live to eat."

Sounded good to me.  But at home we seemed to have struck a wonderful mix of both--we lived to eat well to live ;)

Even in this eating well, we often remarked that we tended to eat a lot more than normal if we had company, especially if our favorite relatives were visiting.  Everything seemed tastier too.

Life in these modern times is very different.  It feels like four hundred years have gone by, yet it has barely been four decades.  Our eating habits are dramatically different from the past.

One of the major changes has been that we seem to have less and less shared dining experiences and tastes.  We live in an age of ever increasing personalized food, as much as we have personalized movie-watching.  Every where we turn, the "we" and "our" are rapidly yielding to "I" and "mine."

If that is the way we prefer, then the market delivers:
Nick Popovici is one of the entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of these firm expressions of preferences. He founded Vita Mojo, a small London chain offering ultra-personalised healthy meals to busy workers in the City of London in 2016. Popovici argues that we will soon reach the point where special diets are the norm, and the food businesses will succeed by accommodating them.
Ultra-personalized meals, as if mere personalized ain't enough!
When Vita Mojo first opened, Popovici and his colleagues didn’t know to what extent customers would embrace the personalised meal. The café also offers pre-assembled dishes and Popovici, who was inspired to set up the business after suffering from debilitating food intolerances, imagined that around 10% of customers might go for a fully personalised meal. He was staggered to find that, from the start, more than 90% of customers chose that option. He reckons that the desire for personalised meals was there all along, “It’s just that no one asked people whether they wanted it before.”
Sure, it appeals to our unique tastes.  But, eating all things including what we don't like much is pretty much a lesson about life itself.  In life, we have to deal with all kinds of unpleasantness, right?  We cannot really ultra-personalize our life!
Popovici told me that he recently got in a big argument with René Redzepi, a Danish chef, who felt that personalised nutrition contradicted food’s true purpose, which, as Redzepi sees it, is to bring people together in a kind of communion.
We are fed by more than food when we sit down and break bread. When we eat the same food at the same time, we are brought a little closer together. A human alchemy occurs. Maybe you wish the sauce contained a fraction more garlic and I would like it more with an extra pinch of chilli, but to pay too much attention to these tiny selfish differences would be to miss the bigger transformation, which is the unifying of flavours, of conversation and of company.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Money, meaning, and happiness

"I just work, work, work," he said. 

His wealth is way above average, but he does not want to call it quits because he doesn't know what he would then do with his spare time.

He asked me if I have changed my car.  I told him I have, and that it is a small little car.  His is a northern European luxury car.

He has added quite a few pounds since I last saw him. He doesn't have the time to regularly exercise, he said.

He is not the only one either.  I know of quite a few--my age and older--who work despite being well-beyond a comfortable retirement savings and investment.  And they also complain about not having time for the things that they might enjoy.

Such is the life of the wealthy and the miserable!

It is not as if they have not heard, or read, or talked about the cliche that a dying person does not ever think that they should have spent more time in the office.  Yet, the lure of money keeps them doing time in the office, even when they hate themselves for doing that!
One classmate described having to invest $5 million a day — which didn’t sound terrible, until he explained that if he put only $4 million to work on Monday, he had to scramble to place $6 million on Tuesday, and his co-workers were constantly undermining one another in search of the next promotion. It was insanely stressful work, done among people he didn’t particularly like. He earned about $1.2 million a year and hated going to the office.
“I feel like I’m wasting my life,” he told me. “When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless.”
Earns $1.2 million and gripes.  It is more than the work being meaningless--it is about the feeling of a meaningless life.

Perhaps they never constantly ask themselves a simple question: "What if today is the last day of my life?"

I have blogged in plenty about meaningful jobs that may or may not pay well, versus bullshit jobs whether or not it pays well.  I, for one, am glad to be doing something that provides me with meaning, both at work and in my personal life.

The author of the piece in the NY Times that got me thinking about these, Charles Duhigg, is a journalist.  A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.  And, with an interesting academic credential: He is an MBA from Harvard Business School!  He writes:
Some of my classmates thought I was making a huge mistake by ignoring all the doors H.B.S. had opened for me in high finance and Silicon Valley. What they didn’t know was that those doors, in fact, had stayed shut — and that as a result, I was saved from the temptation of easy riches. I’ve been thankful ever since, grateful that my bad luck made it easier to choose a profession that I’ve loved. Finding meaning, whether as a banker or a janitor, is difficult work. Usually life, rather than a business-school classroom, is the place to learn how to do it.
I am all the more convinced that I am a lucky guy!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Faster, faster ... and even faster!

One of the ideas that I try to get through to students (and in social conversations too) is this: Science and technology are developing faster and faster at speeds that are beyond our human abilities to understand, adapt, and--more importantly--look into the future.  In my intro classes, I routinely tell students that the world as they experience 25 years from now will be wilder than their wildest imaginations.

One of my favorite ways of conveying this to them is for them to imagine a middle-aged human from 10th century being transported into the 15th century.  Not much of a change in the way society works. 

I then ask them to imagine transporting a middle-aged human from a hundred years ago to today.  Students begin to see where I am going; after all, when even their grandparents can't keep up with this world the grandparent of the grandparent will be metaphorical (and literal too?) roadkill in a nanosecond.

If only people listened to me!

If needed--so far nobody has ever asked me to defend my theses--I can easily direct them to this essay by an evolutionary biologist.  He provides a thought experiment that is along the ones that I suggest to students:
Imagine this thought experiment. An infant born on the Pleistocene savannah is switched at birth with another born in 21st-century America. Each would undoubtedly grow up to be a functional member of her society: hunting mastodons or gathering roots and berries in one case, and perhaps running a hedge fund or piloting jet aircraft in the other. Now, delay a few decades and switch these two individuals as adults; the results would be disastrous for both. The biological nature of these individuals will be comparable whereas cultural evolution will have produced qualitatively different circumstances in the two cases, such that individuals carrying only their shared biology into each situation would find themselves woefully unable to function in the other’s cultural milieu.
Yep. Woefully unable.

Our biological inability to keep up with the changes is also a reason why we have a problem even understanding the fact that in a mere 200 years we have heated up the atmosphere and oceans like never before.  It is almost as if our biology is still in the late 19th century, while the science and technology of day is rapidly leading us in a hyper speed into the future.
Insofar as the combustion of fossil fuels generates millions of tons of carbon dioxide, which, via the greenhouse effect, absorbs heat from the sun while preventing much of it from being radiated back into space, our technological hare has set the pace. This phenomenon is largely due to the industrial revolution, barely more than two centuries old, during which time our biological evolution has essentially remained unchanged. Rapid cultural evolution has bequeathed us 50 percent of the problem: the physical and chemical half. At the same time, slow moving biological evolution has left us both reluctant to acknowledge the problem and—even when that psychological roadblock is surmounted—often disinclined to do very much about it.
What's the connection with our biology?
Our biologically evolved selves are quite good at perceiving events that are prompt and threatening; those that are slow-moving, although equally threatening, not so much. A fire in a building and people run outside. A slow moving fire in the Earth’s thermal budget and people hardly notice. For nearly all of our evolutionary past, it was not adaptive to detect such slow-motion changes, and so our ability to do so is limited. 
As the author comments: "An enemy with an upraised club was one thing; a raised ambient temperature—no matter what its cause—would have been quite another."

No wonder the evolutionarily lagging trump and his toadies immediately react to the sight of a brown-skinned immigrant at the border, and point at snow as negation of global warming.  By the time the 63 million evolve to where the rest of us are, well, ...

Oh,  I forgot; most of the 63 million deny evolution too ;)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Father, what does lying mean?

The title of the post that ended the series on Jill Lepore's book was this: Lying is as American as apple pie.

Of course, there is nothing exceptional about lying in America.  Everybody lies.  It is universal.  In the modern world, businesses are experts at lying.  How many years has it been since the Bhopal tragedy, for instance, and how truthful has the criminal business been?  Or, how truthful has the Indian government been?

Businesses routinely lie. Which is why we often joke, because there is nothing else that we can really do, that "business ethics" is an oxymoron!  A short piece at Harvard Business Review begins like this:
Many of the corporate scandals in the past several years — think Volkswagen or Wells Fargo — have been cases of wide-scale dishonesty. It’s hard to fathom how lying and deceit permeated these organizations.
Wait a second, aren't lying and deceit important and fundamental values in money-making?!

At least these businesses do not pretend to be moral compasses that point to people the direction to heaven and hell.  Lying, as we have always known, is very much a part of the culture of institutionalized religions too.  As if the Roman Catholic church has not messed up with people's lives enough and then lying about every crime that they have been involved with, the latest--as shocking as it is--continues along the path of lying and deceit that the institution has always done:
[The] Vatican has confirmed, apparently for the first time, that its department overseeing the world’s priests has general guidelines for what to do when clerics break celibacy vows and father children.
“I can confirm that these guidelines exist,” the Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti wrote in response to a query from The New York Times. “It is an internal document.”
Think about this: The Vatican has developed procedures on what to do, what to say, whenever one of its priests end up fathering children.  And these procedures are to ensure that the word does not get out.  Systematic lying and deceit are fundamental values in religion too!

The Vatican even has a specific phrase to refer to the children of priests: "children of the ordained."  And, of course, there is no "official" estimate of the numbers of "children of the ordained."
The children are sometimes the result of affairs involving priests and laywomen or nuns — others of abuse or rape. There are some, exceedingly rare, high-profile cases, but the overwhelming majority remain out of the public eye.
Just awful! 

Keep this, too, in mind when the Pope or any of his underlings chastize the business world for not working for the greater good.  Nor should you ever be fooled by any business that pretends that it never does anything evil.  And, don't get me started about politicians and governments.

Bloody liars they mostly are!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

You don't know jack about Booker

As Democrats step forward stating their interest in the presidency, we are beginning to know more about them.  Like how Cory Booker is a vegan.  A vegan; not a vegetarian. I had no idea!
Booker, who became a vegetarian in the 1990s and a vegan in 2014, has said his last nonvegan meal was on Election Day that year.
How about that!

Perhaps because I read that news, or who knows why, Pocket recommended a news story about my favorite fruit/vegetable from the old county--Jackfruit.

A post about this fruit is one of the oldest in my blog, in its second version.  As I wrote then:
Back in India, my mother cooks the young, unripe jack fruit--before it develops into its huge size--in a couple of different ways.  One of my favorite dishes.  Am drooling when I think of it.
I think it is one of those dishes that is fast disappearing from the urban kitchens.  Unfortunately.
Which brings me back to the news story that Pocket recommended. It is about jackfruit.  Thousands of miles away from the home of the fruit--Kerala--"in food trucks in Los Angeles, vegan eateries in London – and now even at Pizza Hut– jackfruit consumption is surging among diners looking for an ethical alternative to meat."

Who woulda thunk that!

As kids, we learnt from others--who perhaps had tasted beef and pork--that the green jack dish tastes like meat.  Like shredded or pulled beef or pork.  But, to think that now this is going global, far, far away from the "god's own country" from where the name "chakka" became "jack."  It is a fascinating world in which we live.
From a starting point of virtually zero, jackfruit exports, including to the US, Europe and Britain, grew to 500 tonnes last year, and could reach 800 tonnes by the end of 2019, according to Kerala’s agriculture minister, VS Sunil Kumar.
“The vegan trend in western countries will help [jackfruit farmers] tap a booming global market,” he said.
I wonder if Cory Booker has tasted the traditional idichakka thuvaran.  Maybe Malayali Indian-Americans ought to serve him that at a fundraiser. 

I am already looking forward to a lunch with idichakka thuvaran ;)

Monday, February 18, 2019

What to do with the racist "thinkers" of the past?

One of the African-American commentators that I often check in with, Charles Blow, had a timely reminder about Abe Lincoln: Tweeting on Lincoln's birthday, Blow writes "He signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He was also a bonafide white supremacist."  Blow also included the following text from the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates:

Somewhere else, Blow had argued that it is not inconceivable for a person to sincerely believe there should not be any slavery or mistreatment of people and also sincerely believe in the supremacy of their own kind.  We humans are capable of way worse, we forget.

Today, I was reading a book in which the author notes that the political philosopher David Hume was no different.  A quick Google search turns up more than I wanted to know, like this one that Hume wrote about 250 years ago:
“I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.”
Any complexion other than white!

Did these "enlightened" Europeans even forget their tiny bit of interactions with the Moors?  Had they not even heard about the awesomeness of China or India?  Or Egypt? Or ...?

The more I learn, the more I am shocked at how awful the past had been.  Of course, to many hundreds of millions, like the Dalits in India, such ill-treatment is not stuff from the past, but is a continuing horror story.

The consolation is that at least today things are nowhere as bad as they were in the metaphorical yesterday--despite the best efforts of the supremacists in the US, in the old country, in Hungary, in ...

But, seriously, Lincoln too? :(

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Can you hear me now?

I received emails in response to almost every op-ed that I wrote.  A few were hateful, yes.  But, for the most part, people were decent even when disagreeing with me.  I always replied to them, except the "haters and losers," to use the current president's words.  To me, there was no second thoughts about replying; the whole point in writing op-eds was to engage with the public on important issues, and I loved that engagement.

As a reader of commentaries, I have also written a few emails to authors.  I don't recall ever emailing when I disagreed with the author because I fear that critical engagement is not what most writers like, even though I love that.  I have emailed almost always rejoinders in agreement.  Many of them have replied, mostly with nothing more than thanks.

Even recently. After reading this essay in the context of the Sabarimalai controversy, I wrote to that author.  That was a month ago.  A few days after that, I wrote to another author who had engaged with the public on correcting the narrative about Aurangzeb.  And a couple of days after that, I emailed another author in response to her commentary about the status of women and caste in India.

I never received a reply from any of them.  

And, oh, in case you thought that it is the awfully arrogant men who don't reply, well, all the three are women.  And, oh, if you thought it is because they are Indians, or Americans, well, one is an Indian, a second is an American, and the third is an Americanized Indian.  There!

A contrast to these is my favorite contemporary public intellectual--Jill Lepore.

I wrote to Jill Lepore a couple of days ago:
Dear Professor Lepore:
After years of reading your essays in The New Yorker, for the first time I read one of your books--These Truths.  I enjoyed reading and learning from it.  Thanks.
While reading, I was also blogging about it, adding my own thoughts as well.  The following was a comment a few days ago at the final post in the series:
I have been following your writing with great interest. I have a question: What makes America great? My daughter - a very bright 12 year old - is being taught history by a gifted teacher who told them a history of the United States very much in line with the Lepore thesis that you have explored in this blog. So I asked her: if America is all this, then what makes it great?Perhaps you can answer this question?
I suggested in my response that I will be most delighted to read what his daughter wrote in response to the question, "what makes America great?"  I am yet to hear from him.
It then occurred to me that this is a question that I should direct to you.  Or, maybe you have already written such an essay that I can read up somewhere?
Thanks again for your awesome writings in everyday simple language that makes reading them a pleasure.
Jill Lepore writes back:
So glad you enjoyed the book. I think my answer to that question is in my next book, which is called "This America: The Case for the Nation."
I suppose Jill Lepore sets the bar high.  Good for her!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Vegetarian ≠ Healthy. D'oh!

I have forever complained to anybody who would listen to me that it is incorrect to assume that being a vegetarian is synonymous with healthy eating.  My favorite is to point my finger at the huge mounds of rice on any plate, or the number of pooris.  Even worse, the fried snacks of a gazillion types. And the sweets, omg!  There is nothing healthy about all these.

In other words, there is vegetarian, and then there is healthy vegetarian.

Most of the people in, or from, the old country, that I interact with seem to be of the former kind.  Systematic research has already identified one aspect of such a life: Diabetes.  Despite all the research, people in the old country talk about the genetic reasons behind diabetes, when science shows otherwise.

There is also one other ailment that ties them together: Heart disease.

More than three years ago, I blogged about Masala, as in Mediators of Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America, which is a systematic study of 900 South Asians in the US. I quoted there from a NY Times story:
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and rates have risen over the past several decades. South Asian immigrants to the United States, like me, develop earlier and more malignant heart disease and have higher death rates than any other major ethnic group in this country. The reasons for this have not been determined. 
This Masala study was initiated because "traditional cardiac risk models, developed by studying mostly white Americans, don’t fully apply to ethnic communities. This is a knowledge gap that must be filled in the coming years."

A recent NY Times report informs me that the results have started to come in:
Heart risks tended to be greatest in South Asians, the Masala researchers found. In one recent study, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, they found that 44 percent of the normal weight South Asians they examined had two or more metabolic abnormalities, like high blood sugar, high triglycerides, hypertension or low HDL cholesterol, compared to just 21 percent of whites who were normal weight.
The Masala researchers also found that using the standard cutoff point to screen for diabetes, a B.M.I. of 25 or greater, would cause doctors to overlook up to a third of South Asians who have the disease. “Many of them may never get to that B.M.I. and they will have had diabetes for years,” Dr. Kanaya said.
Yep, a healthy looking South Asian who is mostly vegetarian could also be on the verge of a heart attack.
Most of the participants in the Masala study are first-generation immigrants, and the researchers found that their cultural practices also impact their disease rates. Cardiovascular risks tended to be highest in two groups: those who maintained very strong ties to traditional South Asian religious, cultural and dietary customs, and those who vigorously — embraced a Western lifestyle. Those with lower risk are what the researchers call bicultural, maintaining some aspects of traditional South Asian culture while also adopting some healthy Western habits.
Why the discrepancy between the two groups? Simple: mostly because of dietary behaviors.
But vegetarians who eat traditional South Asian foods like fried snacks, sweetened beverages and high-fat dairy products were found to have worse cardiovascular health than those who eat what the researchers call a “prudent” diet with more fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains (and, for nonvegetarians, fish and chicken). People who eat a Western style diet with red and processed meat, alcohol, refined carbohydrates and few fruits and vegetables were also found to have more metabolic risk factors.
If only people listened to me and understood the importance of sanitas per escam!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Elections have consequences

It does not really surprise nor shock me that neither my adopted country nor the old country is really doing anything about climate change.  Both are DINOs--democracies in name only.  But, at least they are DINOs and not anything worse!

I have no say in what India does or does not do; that's up to Indians to worry.  I am pissed off at the US that apparently cannot be bothered about climate change.

Bill and Melinda Gates write about the challenge of climate change in their annual letter.  And they refer to a summary by IPCC:

I am not a big fan of all this "philanthropy" work that rich people do.  They hire an army of accountants and lawyers to figure out how to avoid paying taxes.  They also hire lobbyists to advocate to lower taxes for the filthy rich.  These taxes are what society needs in order to address our collective problems--from homelessness to higher education to ... yes, climate change too.

After such immoral but legal tax avoidance, these rich dudes then prioritize whatever they want to prioritize--over which society has no influence whatsoever.  I mean, for instance, when was the last time you heard about billionaires donating big money to struggling public universities that serve the underprivileged, and how many times have you heard about billionaires donating to elite universities that serve the privileged? On the other hand, had they paid their fair share of taxes, public universities and colleges won't be in such shit streets.  The tragic irony is that after subjecting public universities to such a financial crunch, they point their fingers at those same public institutions as failures!

I digressed.  At least I got that out of my system!

Now that there is Democratic control over the people's chamber of the Congress, there is at least a little of reason, logic, science, and evidence, that is being brought into climate change discussions.
The Science Committee hosted its first climate hearing of 2019 on Wednesday, after two other House committees had already held theirs. In sharp contrast to recent past Science Committee climate hearings, there was bipartisan agreement that climate change is real, human-caused, and harmful. The hearing brought up a number of possible policies to help America reduce and prepare for global warming, and participants aired their differences regarding the best way forward.
"bipartisan agreement that climate change is real, human-caused, and harmful."  "participants aired their differences regarding the best way forward."

Elections have consequences.

The 63 million who voted for climate change denialism--after all, this is a hoax, according to their deal leader--are unhappy with Democrats, especially the young and the fearless women, going after these pressing problems, I guess.  I wish we could make them even more unhappy, and real soon.

ps: More than six hours later, I read this commentary by Joseph Stiglitz, in which he writes:
Apple, Google, Starbucks, and companies like them all claim to be socially responsible, but the first element of social responsibility should be paying your fair share of tax. If everyone avoided and evaded taxes like these companies, society could not function, much less make the public investments that led to the Internet, on which Apple and Google depend.

The profane and the sacred

More than a month ago, I wrote to the author of this piece--in the context of the controversy over women entering the temple at Sabarimalai.  The god at Sabarimalai apparently cannot deal with "unclean" women--the menstruating kind.  So, the god banned all females between 10 and 50 from coming to his home.

In my email to the author, I used quite a bit of material from my blog, especially this post of mine.  I suppose there are many topics for which I can easily copy/paste from my blog.  But then that has always been one of the reasons for my blogging.

I then forwarded my email to a few women in the extended family.  I am sure a man talking about menstruation is not the easiest topic for women in the old country!

Men ought to talk more about this topic.  Talk as in to understand, to learn, and to empathize with those whose lives get complicated--unnecessarily--only because they are women who menstruate.

Three years ago, in a post in which I argued that taxing feminine hygiene products is asinine, I embedded a Ted talk by a man, Arunachalam Muruganantham.  He did all that and more--he went about designing a machine that would help women make inexpensive sanitary napkins.

The story of this "Pad man" has been told in popular culture.  How his entrepreneurship has helped out girls is the subject of a documentary that has been nominated for an Oscar.
For [the director] Zehtabchi, the most revealing moment of the project was when she went unannounced into a coed classroom in Kathikhera and asked the teacher to have the students define a period. The teacher called on a teen-age girl and asked her to stand. For two and a half excruciating minutes, the girl writhed, unable to answer. “We discovered that, yes, there was a lesson in the textbook about menstruation and the female body, but that the teacher had actually skipped the lesson because she was uncomfortable,” Zehtabchi said.
For a land of talkers who are highly argumentative even when in agreement, people in the old country avoid all the important topics altogether.  Like menstruation.  I hope they will talk more openly, honestly, and with science and evidence.  If they do, then they will also start treating women like how they ought to be treated as equals, and not as second-rate humans.

But then I live in a country where the current president, when he was a candidate, was upset with the questioning from a female journalist and decided that her questions were because "There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."  Some day, the sooner the better, men will realize their mistaken ways.  Until then, we need many more Arunachalam Murugananthams.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why read!

Whether it is a department meeting, or a session at an academic conference, there is always something to process, for which I need to be engaged.  For this, I take with me a notebook and a pen.  I occasionally jot things down--not merely those on which I need to follow up on later, but whatever comes across as new to me.  I don't transcribe the proceedings; what I note down are the ones that I want to make sure I commit to my understanding.

Blogging, and serious reading, are along the same lines.  Even if I were not an academic--oh, thank heavens I am one!--I suppose this would have been my MO. 

It was, therefore, exciting that my approach found at least one audience, who commented: "I have decided to read like you - making notes and keeping them for reference in a blog or a Word file - like signposts."  Yes, like signposts.

A few years ago, I blogged about the pleasure of slow reading and thinking, and I had included there this wonderful graphic:


Treat reading like an exercise, even when it is for pleasure.  And, yes, choose a printed book.  A few years ago, my daughter thought she would help me out by gifting me a Kindle.  I gave it a try, but could barely read through even a few pages.  I abandoned it.

That post was six years ago, when distractions were fewer, compared to now.  Since then, I have abandoned Facebook, and made sure to never ever sign up for WhatsApp and all other apps.  Time extends before me, like how it used to in the past.  Reading is wonderfully possible even in this age of constant and annoying distractions, which are also designed to be addictive.
We know perfectly well—we remember, even if dimly, the inward state that satisfies more than our itching, clicking fingers—and we know it isn’t here. Here, on the internet, is a nowhere space, a shallow time. It is a flat and impenetrable surface. But with a book, we dive in; we are sucked in; we are immersed, body and soul.
When you do sit down to read, do not read them all at once.  If you do, then the chances are that you won't remember any damn thing later; all you will have done is kill time! 

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Empire State

Where we are today--whoever "we" are--did not happen as some kind of an accident. The paths can be traced back--the paths from the past that led us to where we are at this time and place.  As the recent blog-post series on Tamil and the United States show, I like to understand these historical paths in a way that I can then relate to my own life. 

Jill Lepore's single-volume history shows that the US being a military, economic, scientific, and cultural powerhouse today did not happen out of sheer luck, nor of any divine plan.  In response, the comment here raises an important question: "What makes America great?" 

While I have provided some thoughts in a rejoinder, the reality is that my decision to live in America was not because I thought it was great or the greatest ever.  I knew enough that the country had its own warts, and the longer I live there, the more I understand the blemishes, which are simply too many.  But, as the imperialist, racist, white supremacist, Rudyard Kipling wrote about his own life:
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea! 
My decision to live in America, and in Oregon--my own Sussex by the sea--does not mean that I will deny the warts and all, or try to mask them either.  As I noted in my response, I have distaste for jingoism.

Of course, I could easily lead a life without ever examining my Brahmin past, or critiquing America.  But, that is an unexamined life.  Which is also why I followed up on this essay in the NYRB, where the author begins with:
It is hard to give up something you claim you never had. That is the difficulty Americans face with respect to their country’s empire. Since the era of Theodore Roosevelt, politicians, journalists, and even some historians have deployed euphemisms—“expansionism,” “the large policy,” “internationalism,” “global leadership”—to disguise America’s imperial ambitions. According to the exceptionalist creed embraced by both political parties and most of the press, imperialism was a European venture that involved seizing territories, extracting their resources, and dominating their (invariably dark-skinned) populations. Americans, we have been told, do things differently: they bestow self-determination on backward peoples who yearn for it. The refusal to acknowledge that Americans have pursued their own version of empire—with the same self-deceiving hubris as Europeans—makes it hard to see that the US empire might (like the others) have a limited lifespan. All empires eventually end, but maybe an exceptional force for global good could last forever—or so its champions seem to believe.
Yep, face it: America has been, and is, an imperialist force.  Unless there is a serious change in American politics--which is highly unlikely--this imperialism will continue into the future too. If only we would stop maintaining this empire!
“Imperial retreat is not the same as national decline, as many other countries can attest. Indeed, imperial retreat can strengthen the nation-state just as imperial expansion can weaken it.”
So, what makes America great?

Your call!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Calapooia and an Indian-American

In 2002, my academic "job talk," when I came to interview at the university where I now work, was scheduled in the Calapooia Room, on a fateful Ides of March.

Until then, I had never heard of Calapooia.

I didn't think much about "Calapooia" until I started interacting with the campus and its people in the fall of 2002.  


Through those previous 15 years of my life in the US, my understanding of Oregon was the caricature that was mainstream: A land of tree-hugging hippies. The story began with that, and ended right there.  With life now in Oregon, for the first time, I was exposed to place for what it was, and I had a lot to learn.  And I had to learn them fast, if I wanted to engage with students with ease and to be able to converse with them about what they knew and were curious about.

Oregon, too, was Native American lands.  

The Calapooia were one of the many who had lived here for, well, ever.  It took a while for European settlers to come out west.  But, they did.  And when the settlers reached these lands, the story was no different.  Remember Jill Lepore writing this:
Between 1500 and 1800 roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried twelve million Africans by force; and as many as fifty million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease.
When Native Americans did not die of disease that Europeans brought with them, wars with the European settlers did them in, or they were simply forced out of their lands.  One of the notorious expulsions led to the Trail of Tears.  

Over the weekend, the current president of the US refers to it in a mocking tweet:

63 million voters, including people I knew well, voted for this horrible human being.  People with whom I have broken the proverbial bread, more than once!  

The president mocks and threatens by referring to the "TRAIL." Leave alone his continuing use of "Pocahontas," which is atrocious.

63 million of my fellow Americans, many of whom are serious Jesus followers!

Seriously, 63 million voted for him, fully knowing what an awful human being he is?  What does that say about them?

If I were to ask the Calapooia about all these, they would probably shrug their shoulders and remind me that the annihilation began in 1492.  This is nothing new! 

Saturday, February 09, 2019

It was (also) six years ago ...

After submitting an essay (fingers crossed that it will be accepted for publication) in which I quoted Franz Kafka, I was reminded of another Kafka story that I referred to in a post about the old life in the old country.

The following is from 2013:

Pattamadai was one grandmother's village, and Sengottai was the other's.  Boy was it a pain to travel from one place to another, though they were barely forty miles apart!

View Grandmas in a larger map

It rarely took anything less than four hours from the time we left one doorstep and walked into the other grandma's home.  Four tiring hours for forty miles!
The main road in Sengottai
The bus stop at Sengottai was practically at my grandmother's backyard.  A few minutes before the scheduled arrival time, we were there at the stop by the post office.  And then the long bus ride, with stops that seemed to occur every two minutes.

Pattamadai bus stop was a long, long walk from home.  About a mile, perhaps, which seemed infinitely longer on those sunny summer days.
The road home from the Pattamadai bus stand
Walk we did if we didn't have anything heavy to carry.  If not, via letters--the ancient days before even landlines became common--we would have pre-arranged for a bullock-cart.  Yep, bullock-cart.  We kids then competed for the car equivalent of "riding shotgun."  To sit up front, with sometimes the bulls farting and shitting as they walked, was somehow very attractive to us then.

But, we couldn't complain much about such travel conditions because the elders had even worse stories from their childhood days.  The complicated logistics and travel that took up an entire day were big reasons why they rarely traveled at all.  If it was out of the range of a bullock-cart ride, well, forget about it then.

A few of the extended family getting set for a short trip
(From parents' collections)
Thus, in those days, it was all too common for the elders to chalk out auspicious days for travel.  Yes, even for a travel over those forty miles.

Once, it was just us three siblings traveling, and we got bored at Pattamadai and got tired of the heat and the mosquitoes.  We preferred to return to Sengottai, but weren't allowed to leave for two days because they were considered inauspicious.

Life was not easy, in the old days, and a belief in such auspicious days for travel was one way they thought they could deal with the probabilities of things going wrong.  After all, that we are mortals is not any new wisdom, and those astrological superstitions helped them deal with the uncertainties of life.

Franz Kafka writes about the uncertain life in the story, The Next Village:
My grandfather used to say: "Life is astoundingly short. To me, looking back over it, life seems so foreshortened that I scarcely understand, for instance, how a young man can decide to ride over to the next village without being afraid that -- not to mention accidents -- even the span of a normal happy life may fall far short of the time needed for such a journey."
If we think of Sengottai or Pattamadai or Kafka's village as metaphors of various stations in life to/from which we travel, then we can equally, and forcefully, argue that given the uncertainties related to the decisions we make, it is amazing that we venture into new areas, literal and otherwise.

Yet, we take those chances.  We humans have been taking those chances ever since walked upright and wandered out of Africa.

Perhaps, in the future, we might even go to Mars. Or somewhere else where no man has ever gone before.  It is, after all, yet another village in this grand cosmic life.

Friday, February 08, 2019

It was six years ago ...

India is gearing up for elections.  Pakistan had its a few months ago. The US cannot wait to get out of Afghanistan. trump wants more troops in Iraq because he wants to keep an eye on Iran, even as he prepares for another photo op with the North Korean killer..

Here's a re-post from six years ago ... the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Combining ideas from a few past posts, this is a "meta-post" on the year ahead in the Indian Subcontinent:

Beginning with this spring, it will be quite an eventful year in South Asia, to say the least. General elections in Pakistan are scheduled to be held in March. In Afghanistan, before this year ends, US troops will be drawn down to slightly more than 30,000, and presidential elections are set for April 2014.  Sometime by May of 2014, at the latest, India has to complete its general elections, given that its parliament’s term expires by then.

Will all these transitions be peaceful?

Many a pundit—this word itself having its origin in India—have had eggs on their faces when trying to predict the future. Thus, one can’t definitively answer that question and can only think through some of the major issues that could work against peace in that part of the world.

Bombs have been routinely bursting in Pakistan. As of writing this, more than eighty were killed in the last major incident in the southwestern part of the country, in the city of Quetta. In these nearly two months of 2013, more than 400 have been killed by bombs. A particularly worrisome aspect of these bombings is that they indicate worsening sectarian conflict, with militant Sunni outfits intent on cleansing the areas of the Shia. As if this internal violence weren't enough, bombs have been regularly raining from the US operated drones, above the frontier areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The militaries of India and Pakistan have had some tense situations at their borders, over the past couple of months. In January, three Pakistani soldiers were killed by the Indian forces, and two Indian soldiers also died. One of the dead Indian soldiers was found beheaded and the other had been mutilated. Earlier this month, another Pakistani soldier was shot dead by the Indian forces. These are symptoms of the tense, hands‐on‐the‐trigger, situation that exist at the Indo‐Pak border and in Kashmir.

All is not well within India’s borders south of Kashmir too. On February 21st, two blasts rocked the Indian city of Hyderabad, which has been rapidly growing as another information‐technology (IT) center, along with Bangalore and Chennai. Three college students were among the 17 killed, with more than a hundred others injured. It is suspected that the Indian Mujahideen carried out these blasts in response to the hanging of a terrorist convicted in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001.

Meanwhile, politicians are amping up their campaigns to project themselves in front of others to become the next prime minister of India. One leading candidate is Narendra Modi, who brings along with him a huge baggage of anti‐Islam and pro‐Hindu activities. There is enough worry that the Indian electorate, tired of corruption and weak governance, could elect Modi, despite the dark shadows of his rhetoric that invokes memories of the old national socialists and fascists of Europe.

Because of Modi’s role in the riots in the state of Gujarat, in 2002, the US has over the years refused to extend a visa for him to visit this country. Recently, the US assistant secretary, Robert Blake, stated that the US policy on Modi remains unchanged. "There is no question of changing or revising or softening.  We may revise depending on the Indian justice system completing cases against him," he said. I am glad that the US continues to maintain this position even though the European Union has softened its stance against Modi sensing his ascent.

Across the Khyber Pass, in Afghanistan, nothing seems settled. If everything goes on schedule, then presidential elections will be held in April 2014. The last elections, in 2009, were a big farce, thanks to the extensive fraud committed by President Hamid Karzai and his allies. How “clean” the elections will be this time around is anybody’s guess.

It is quite possible that all these geopolitical issues could sort out by themselves and a year from now South Asia could be calmer and more peaceful than it has been in recent years. On the other hand, it is clear that it will merely take a proverbial match to strike a huge fire, given the explosive elements in place.

With our preoccupation over Israel and Iran, and to some extent over North Korea, we don’t seem to be paying enough attention to the Afghanistan‐Pakistan‐India issues. Perhaps we are keen on bringing the troops back home with the hope that later we don’t even have to open an atlas to locate those parts of the world. But, bringing the troops home, which we should have done a long time ago, doesn’t mean that we can afford to overlook the region. We will hope and wish for a peaceful year in South Asia, with our eyes and ears wide open.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

It was eight years ago ...

With every passing year, I am more and more concerned that fewer and fewer people engage in serious reading.

Here's a post from eight years ago.  (Substitute whatever is your pet peeve in place of Jersey Shore, which is now passé)


Based on Ray Bradbury's warning, I imagine that books engage in self-immolation when Jersey Shore is on!

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

It was nine years ago ...

Over the next few days, I am going to (re)publish posts from the past, while I take a break from blogging new material.

Today's is from February 14, 2010.  Yep, almost nine years ago.

From a wonderful collection of Valentine's Day themed photos, here is one with the following caption:
ALLEPPEY, India—The Kerala waters, 1987

Monday, February 04, 2019

Lying is as American as apple pie!

The relentless campaign about Barack Obama being a Muslim and a Kenyan.
The swift-boating of John Kerry.
The whisper campaign that John McCain fathered a daughter with a black woman.

From Jill Lepore's book, I come to understand that rare was a really truthful moment in American politics and elections.  Sure, Lepore could be a narrating the story with her progressive bias.  But, it is not as if she is working with "alternative facts."

Consider, for instance, the election of 1934, in which Upton Sinclair, "an eccentric and dizzyingly prolific writer still best known for The Jungle ... decided to run for governor of California."  As a prolific writer, Sinclair had established quite a paper trail.  And that's where his problems began.

Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, who later became a couple, "like most California Republicans, were horrified at the prospect of a Sinclair governorship."  So, they huddled themselves in a room, and selected sentences from Sinclair's writing. 

Newspapers were partisans (faux news is not all that new!), and the "Los Angeles Times began running on its front page a box with an Upton Sinclair quotation in it"--the quotes, of course, taken completely out of context.  Sinclair lost.

Lepore writes, "as Sinclair argued, voters were now being led by a Lie Factory."

Whitaker and Baxter continued to fine-tune this new art of negative campaigning, especially lying, which seems to be a part of being a Republican!  They wrote the book on this, as they say.
Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. ... Never explain anything. The more you have to explain, the more difficult it is to win support.  Say the same thing over and over again. ... Simplify, simplify, simplify.  A wall goes up when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think."
Like trump's MAGA; Drain the swamp; Build the wall; Lock her up; Repeal Obamacare; No collusion; Fake news; ...

In all the lying and cheating in order to get elected, the powerful whites could not be bothered about the plight of blacks. Not even about lynchings!  For all the things that we credit FDR for, his "New Deal programs were generally segregated, and Roosevelt failed to act to oppose lynching."  And when FDR refused to support an anti-lynching bill in 1933 , because he needed the Southern Democrats votes in Congress, "the anti-lynching bill died."

Across the Atlantic, in the continent from where the European settlers came and wiped out the natives and then imported humans from Africa in order to dehumanize them as slaves, a powerful populist also effectively used lying and negative campaigning--particularly about minorities.

On Tuesday, the president will use the stage in Congress in order to further engage in lies, damn lies, and fear-mongering, in the grand old white American way :(

Sunday, February 03, 2019

The idol of all Morondom

In the old country, back in my growing up days, there were quite a few elders who behaved as if their words were definitive truths derived from the gods.  In sarcasm, a few would comment on the side, or behind the backs,  வசிஷ்டர் சொன்னா வேத வாக்கு (There are so many layers to explain. I will leave you with only one, which is a Wiki link to the sage Vasishta.)

The deeper question is about the truths.  These Truths, which Lepore explores in the history of the United States.  The Declaration of Independence declares that "we hold these truths to be self evident."  Turns out that every bit of that phrasing is up for discussion.  "We": who is the we?  "These truths": Which truths?  "Self evident": Are they self evident?

The current president does a mockery of truths in every possible way.  The racist voters and enablers of his seem to operate under an impression that "if Trump says it’s true, it must be. After all, he became President."  trump has become the adjudicator of truth to the 63 million, though it seems like a few of those 63 million may have had a Damascene conversion of sorts!

The story of the United States has been a struggle about "these truths."  And this played out in many contexts, including in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. (Also, check out this old post of mine, from almost five years ago.)

Jill Lepore writes that for Walter Lippman, the trial and the battle between the two lawyers--William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow--wasn't merely about evolution itself:
[It] was about how people decide what's true--does truth derive from faith or from reason?--and more deeply, what happens in a democracy when people can't agree about they decide what's true.  Does the majority rule?
"if Trump says it’s true, it must be. "  When he says, for instance, that there is no climate change, given that the electoral majority agreed with him, then it must be true that there is no climate change.

Lepore continues to write about Lippman's insights:
What were the implications for democracy? If a majority of voters decided that Charles Darwin was wrong and that evolution shouldn't be taught in schools, what was everyone else suppose to do?
Lepore quotes Clarence Darrow who could not agree with Bryan's assault on science; Darrow considered Bryan "the idol of all Morondom."

Well, Darrow could not have imagined trump, whose handpicked Secretary of State called him a fucking moron; in contrast to trump, William Jennings Bryan comes across as Vasishta!

Saturday, February 02, 2019

But ... what about Native Americans?

In Jill Lepore's narrative, I am now into the 20th century, more than 400 years after Columbus "discovering" India.

After some of the detailed descriptions early on about the asymmetrical interactions between European settlers and Native Americans, and then later about the Trail of Tears, Lepore's narrative does not say much about the original inhabitants.

Now, Lepore herself writes about readers who would question her on why she had skipped something or the other.  As she writes, no single-volume history of the United States can cover it all.  I think that including it all will be like trying to draw a true-to-scale map of the world.  (Was this in Alice in Wonderland?)  But, still ...

I figured I would not be the first person to think of this.  As a truly curious person would do in this internet age, I googled for it.

Sure enough, this essay from The Los Angeles Review of Books pops up, in which the author writes:
Indigenous absences are not a minor fault with These Truths. They lie at its core and they bear weighty consequences for the story that emerges. In a book that confidently bills itself as “an account of the origins, course, and consequences of the American experiment over more than four centuries,” the marginalization of indigenous people is a fundamental problem.
Any historical account will be contested, yes.  But, still ...
Methodology may have been a problem from the start. Lepore has a reliance on written literacy and record-keeping as powerful determinants of history and memory. The “history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail,” she asserts, adding, “most words, once spoken, are forgotten, while writing lasts.” She makes this claim partly through a contention about the “literall advantage” supposedly maintained by Euro-American colonizers over peoples of indigenous and African descent, who oftentimes used non-written forms of expression and communication.
I don't understand why academics use "methodology" when they mean the research method.  Anyway, that is beside the main point, which is that when Lepore's method is to let the people speak for themselves, and for which she relies on the written word, well, what happens to the stories, the truths, that were not written down but were passed down through the spoken word or through images?

Lepore is a sharp intellect, and a phenomenal communicator.  I am sure there were reasons about which she is confident.  But, still ...
[Scholars] of early America and Native America have produced marvelously fine-grained reassessments of literacies, communication, and meaning production. You can now browse entire library shelves that illuminate the dynamic, enduring processes through which distinctive Native communities have transmitted information: knotted quipu strings, woven baskets, petroglyphs, standing stones, oral traditions, songs, dances, gestures, cornfields, clothing, sand and bone maps, and so much more.
Understanding the non-written is not an easy task.  And, like in the case of the Indus civilization, not being able to decode their inscriptions is another challenge altogether.

Such complexities ought to make us even more interested in understanding the past--what we may have been taught and told might not be anywhere close to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  What a shame that instead of a collective investment in such pursuit of truth, we are even closing down history departments, as if the truth is the one that Henry Ford declared: History Is Bunk.

Friday, February 01, 2019

The darker brother ... and sister too

It was a coincidence, and a tragic irony, that the previous post, on the first day of Black History Month, was in a series on Jill Lepore's book and ended with a note on lynching. 

As I have noted many times in this blog, I am simply amazed that young blacks are not pissed off with an anger that the world had never seen before.  It is to their credit that they are this non-violent.  I am confident that had I been born into a black family, my anger and emotions would have ended my life a long time ago!


To mark the month, which I have done in the past as well, the following is a re-post from last year.

About eight years ago, after the "Tea Party" activists essentially took over the GOP, as the anti-Obama approach became the only guiding principle for that party, and with the intense opposition to Obamacare uniting all factions within that party, I started worrying about the meaning of the "take the country back" that the maniacal Republicans were mouthing off.

It was in that context that for the first time ever I blogged about Langston Hughes' poem.

Since then, Republicans have made it crystal clear what they meant by taking the country back.

Thus, during this Black History Month, it is most appropriate to re-read Hughes.

I, too, sing America.
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

I like Jill Lepore's narration for many reasons, one of which she herself writes about:
My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves.  I've pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness. The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist ... the teller of truth.
In this, Lepore provides the raw and emotion-laden sentences of slaveholders and abolitionists, of conservatives and progressives, of Lincoln and Davis, ... All these then provide me the evidence to be the critic and call fouls, which I have done in every post that is about Lepore's book.

A reminder again that we are testing out the question that Lepore laid out:
The American experiment rests on three political ideas--"these truths," Thomas Jefferson called them--political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. ...
Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?
We know already how much America does not fare well regarding these truths within its ever expanding boundaries.  How about outside its political boundaries?

In the late 1880s, America had an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to "these truths" when the Spanish-American war began in 1898.  "Cubans had been attempting to throw off Spanish rule since 1868, and Filipinos had been doing the same since 1896."

A glorious opportunity to help Cubans and Filipinos with their natural rights and help them regain their sovereignty, right?  "Under the terms of the peace, Cuba became independent."

Do not celebrate, yet, for there is more: "Spain ceded Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States, in exchange for $20 million."

Filipinos fought for their independence and were now stuck with the US as their ruler!
A U.S. occupation and American colonial rule were not what the people of Philippines had in mind when they threw off Spanish rule.  The Philippines declared its independence, and Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo formed a provisional constitutional government.
American revolutionaries declared their independence from a far away England, and a hundred years later, the Philippines was declaring its independence from a far away US.  A 100 years makes a huge difference about independence.  And, of course, Filipinos not being white folk also mattered!

Aguinaldo worried about "how bitter is slavery."  Yes, "slavery" was the word he used!

The war began.
From its start in 1899, the Philippine-American War was an unusually brutal war, with atrocities on both sides, including the slaughter of Filipino civilians.  U.S. forces deployed on Filipinos a method of torture known as "water cure," forcing a prisoner to drink a vast quantity of water; most of the victims died. ... Eight million people of color in the Pacific and the Caribbean, from the Philippines to Puerto Rico, were now part of the United States, a nation that already, in practice, denied the right to vote to millions of its own people because of the color of their skin.
trump now not caring about Puerto Rico is, therefore, not really new. He is merely practicing good old American politics of white supremacy; at least he tossed the people there a few rolls of paper towels!

Lepore writes that this war "dramatically worsened conditions for people of color in the United States."  The jingoistic war chants "filled with racist venom, only further incited American racial hatreds."
"If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched," the governor of Mississippi pledged in 1903.
It was now separate-but-equal--and with lynching!

At this stage, do we really need to check for the answer to this?
The American experiment rests on three political ideas--"these truths," Thomas Jefferson called them--political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. ...
Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?