30 March 2010

Ethnic Soup or: Teaching Diversity to Glenn Beck

(This was written for Sociology 205: Ethnic Groups in Contemporary Society.  Topic was "compare and contrast the adaptation strategies of the Hopi, the Amish, and the Rom/Gypsies.  How have their strategies helped to preserve their cultural identity, and have they been successful in allowing them to adapt to their position of isolation from the dominant cultures of their respective regions?"  I got an A on the paper.  The teacher wrote, "Very opinionated as usual, but you back up your opinions and argue them well.")

    For the Hopi, their belief in the Fourth World and the Great Spirit and all that other Native stereotype material facilitates their isolation from and lack of assimilation in the society of the people who conquered them. Not to be overly harsh, but the football coach in that movie we watched in class summed it up perfectly; the Hopi have no innate competitive drive, no sense of victory and defeat, and if left to their own devices would be quite unaware that there was anyone in their little corner of the wasteland but them.
    Cultural isolation is helped along when the culture occupies land that their conquerors do not want. For the Hopi, they occupy lands that are so far to hell and gone in the desert that even the most ambitious science-loving agronomist would not have the cheek to attempt large-scale irrigation projects on the land. The Hopi practice a subsistence farming that has a very strong religious component, since indeed nothing short of divine intervention, even in cases where the people are living as sustainably as it is possible to live in an agricultural society on the whole of the gods' green Earth, can make that corn grow and keep the Hopi from starving to death.
    It would be politically correct of me if I were to attribute this to their wonderful religion and spirituality and family values...but that simply is not the case, and to claim such would be to spit in the face of isolationist Native American tribes who, despite their best prayers to their own gods and Great Spirits, still found themselves in the unfortunate position of being on land the white man wanted and with no means to defend it. The Hopi were a lucky geographical accident (from their point of view) or a sign that the gods have a sense of humor (from ours).
    Adaptation? When your spiritual outlook is to live minimalistically off of what little the land can offer, it can hardly be called poverty when you are not up to the contemporary ethnocentric standards of your conquerors. As such, it would be far simpler and more to the point to suggest that the Hopi isolation is simply a matter of wanting to be left alone and having the dominant culture say “well, if you like it out to hell and gone in the desert, knock yourself out.” If the white man had figured out how to make the desert bloom on a large scale, it would have been every bit as expedient to simply wipe them out.
    Contrast the Amish. What happens when your religion, skin color, and appearance make you quite able to, if you so desire or you are on a “rumspringa”, be indistinguishable from “ordinary white people”? Generally nobody gets it in his head to land-grab. The Amish have a nice little racket going by basically staking out some historical territory in the middle of Pennsylvania, having enough of a cultural background in the European forebear cultures of modern America to live within a legal system based on property rights, and being harmless enough to be left alone.
    Who, truly, can argue with the Amish? “Christian America” takes a look at them and thinks “well, what they're doing is rooted in the Bible”. When at least on paper you have the same general religion as the dominant culture (albeit with one hell of a twist), you're going to have a measure of familiarity that a Great Spirit-worshipping Indian tribe simply does not have. Hopis are exotic. Amish are just white people with the Jesus dial turned up to 11. Just about anything they could think to do would be perfectly adaptable for them.
    It is particularly instructive that the Amish allow their most impressionable members of their community, the exploration- and curiosity-minded adolescents, free rein to essentially sin like the Devil Himself. This is “be it ever so humble, there's no place like home” put to an empirical test! Amish boys get girlfriends, Amish girls drink and party and screw around, and yet the overwhelming majority of them get it out of their system in remarkably short order and pledge themselves completely to the Amish church, truly choosing of their own free will the lifestyle so roundly used as a byword for backwardness in this country.
    Someone is putting one over on us here. Once the outside observer watches rumspringa in action, it becomes self-evident that “there's something to that whole Amish thing, isn't there?” For the Amish, their limited engagement with the outside world is tremendously adaptive! The very people in central Pennsylvania who would be in a position to curtail the Amish activities if they so desired take a look at them and think “they're good neighbors, good Christians, and all-around nice folks.” For a culture trying to maintain their separation from the outside world on a broad scale, nothing could be more adaptive than engagement and earned respect that stops well short of assimilation. Nobody says of the Amish that they're uncoachable on a football field or uninterested in being respectable people the way white folks who deal with the Hopi often do. The Amish have pulled the ultimate trick on the world; they've created a completely foreign, alien, unique culture right in the middle of the dominant one and managed to make themselves look only slightly unusual in the grand scheme.
    At last, we come upon the Rom. Or the Romany. Or the “damned thieving Gypsies”, as the locals in Europe like to warn travelers. Here we have people who seem to go out of their way to make their hosts hate them wherever they go, which is a pretty neat trick. They've done a great deal in the Balkans and on the shores of the Black Sea to earn their reputation, so much so that Hitler killed three million of them in gas chambers and nobody seems to have even noticed or cared. Even the Nuremberg tribunal didn't seem to think the Gypsies were worth the effort.
    Then again, when someone calls you “unclean” and ostracizes their own kind for associating with you for any reason other than to literally beg, borrow, or (most often) steal, that's not exactly a recipe for racial and ethnic tolerance. The Gypsies haven't grasped the principle of “when in Rome”. While the Hopi cling to their tradition on their ancestral lands and the Amish engage freely with the outside world even while maintaining their own distinct cultural identity, the Gypsies act like they're above the very people they are ultimately dependent upon to keep from starving to death. There's a major lack of survival instinct in play there and it contributes to the continuing marginalization of the Romany people throughout the world. Why would a dominant culture want to tolerate them? They don't stay put on marginal land. They don't respect the presence of the dominant culture in which they exist as an enclave (albeit a mobile one in the Gypsy case). These are tremendously maladaptive strategies! All but openly saying “be racist against us! We want you to!” is no way to keep an ethnic group together!
    The sheer refusal of the Rom to touch anything that is not itself Romany on pain of a sort of ethnic death penalty from within is about the only thing keeping them from descending completely into walking stereotype territory. Thanks to the fact that they fear jail the way Dick Cheney fears honesty, they can be at least kept under something resembling control, but this does not speak well of them! Being constantly on the wrong side of the law of literally every country in the world in which they have ever appeared tends to contribute to a marginalization that, while on paper it appears to be exactly what they want, is in practice a disaster for the health and well-being of their entire group! They get no health care, no food assistance, no wealth or real property beyond what they can pinch off the locals, and they are essentially a people-in-waiting to be chased out or killed off. It is pure foolishness and could not possibly be more maladaptive if it tried. Unlike the Amish, who blend in, and the Hopi, who live well on the margins, the Gypsies invite their own destruction.

24 March 2010

1500 Words of Bostonian Jingoism.

(Regular readers of this space know that my Core Humanities professor ardently believes that I'm wasting my talents in accounting and that I should be a writer.  This is the most recent paper I wrote for his class---I got an A on it.  I share it here so you may make up your own mind about whether my writing is any good.  Comments are welcomed---I'd like to know what my own readership thinks!)

On Bradford: Instead of Landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock would Land on Them[1]
March 10, 2010

    A long time ago, on a continent far, far away[2], a bunch of guys in silly hats with their belts notched way too tight got their sorry hides chased out of England and were so bothersome and onerous that even the famously tolerant Dutch told them to get lost. Thus began the journey across the ocean of these schmucks to found a colony in a place that would not become interesting until a bunch of potato-munching, hard-drinking Irishmen showed up two and a quarter centuries later and finally made the place worth a damn. The schmucks were the Pilgrims. Their leader, one William Bradford, decided in his infinite wisdom to chronicle the journey for the edification and to the consternation of everyone who would grow up in New England forevermore, and the friendly neighborhood Indians decided to take pity on them, knowing they would get their revenge on the white man in the form of school kids bored to tears by the historical re-enactment society field trips in grade schools centuries later.

    If all this sounds a bit glib, it is only because I am not keen on tired recitation of tired old tropes that have been beaten to death. Any American who does not know this story backwards and forwards “would seem to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”[3] Just for completeness sake, guys in funny hats show up on boat called Mayflower, damn near starve to death because they are long on religious piety and short on survival instinct, get bailed out by natives, thank the natives for their trouble by killing them wholesale with guns and smallpox, get into a shooting war over some guy named Phil[4], survive a few winters on their own, then their chronicler runs the joint for a few years as governor before calling it a life in 1657.

    Of particular interest is that Bradford was a very religious man; the man cannot go two sentences without throwing his god into things. Bradford's history reads like a chronicle of divine intervention rather than the work of mankind, a tendency that marked the cultural history of Massachusetts for most of its first two and a half centuries before baseball was invented and became Boston's unofficial religion with the creation of the Boston Red Stockings Base Ball Club[5] in 1871.

    Some things are good when they are dry. A white wine, Nevada's climate in the summertime, and a basement come to mind. Not so with Bradford's prose. The Puritans were notorious for being humorless, stick-up-the-butt[6], prim, uninteresting people, and nothing captures this zeitgeist quite like Bradford's writing. The man was clearly up on his Scripture, in writing style as well as religious value. Genesis, chapter five, leaps immediately to mind.[7] What jumps out at the reader is the lack of imagination. Bradford was a journalist and as such took pains to record facts that, while useful to historical re-enactment societies, tends to lull the casual reader to sleep.

    Consider the passage from Book I about a braggart of questionable constitution which has gained a measure of renown: “...But it pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.” Schadenfreude? Without doubt. Clever? Only to the extent that the aforementioned Biblical chapter is clever. It is a Jack Webb[8] stab at a joke if indeed Bradford's sense of irony extended beyond an irony so blatantly obvious that even a Puritan minister with a tree branch in his rectum could see it.

    Bradford goes on like this for decades. Every meticulous detail is sorted, categorized, and cataloged in a manner one would normally expect from a meth addict at three in the morning. Bradford is, as a leader, reflective in many ways of the people he leads, all of them as humorless and religiously inclined as he.

    Except Morton of Merrymount. Even Bradford broke character when the subject of “a kind of pettifogger” in possession of “more craft than honesty” came up. Speaking of Bible verses, if the chronicle of the history is Genesis 5, the chapter on Morton is reminiscent of Mark 13:6: “For many shall come in my name, and shall deceive many.” Bradford cannot contain his distaste for this opportunistic swine and takes every opportunity to throw pot shots at him.

    On the whole, however, it is likely for the best that Bradford was so thorough and consistent, for in his history we find the roots of knowledge about ourselves as Americans. The work bears the mark of a man concerned with the quality of his efforts, surely a commentary on the fabled New England work ethic which persists three and a half centuries after William Bradford's death. Attention to detail, commentary with moral purpose in its words, and a profound distaste for those who would disrupt the order? A better statement of the New England weltanschauung can hardly be conceived.[9]

    This is not to say I wasn't bored out of my skull reading it. Bradford's style is historically interesting, to be certain. However, his command of literary devices leaves a lot to be desired. As I read, I found myself thinking “I could rewrite this and make it funny, but then I'm not a Puritan in a silly hat.” At the same time, reverence for the form aside, the work does display a lot of elements that are instantly familiar to even the modern New England mind. Had Bradford come along three centuries later, well what you have there is John Kerry at a Red Sox game. Still humorless, prim, and with a bat in his posterior[10], but in step with the culture of his time and place.

    The problem with reading about the first Thanksgiving when one has grown up going on childhood field trip after childhood field trip to historical re-enactment sites is that to read the actual history is to picture underpaid people in period costumes acting like living anachronisms. The real thing almost seems anti-climactic, like my mind pictured guys in Indian suits looking like Chief Wahoo[11] who couldn't get jobs at casinos rather than living, breathing, on-the-reservation natives.

    Then again, a surefire way to be branded a heretic is to show a sense of originality in a place so devoted to order that even those who value order are like “Dude, switch away from decaf.” Had Bradford thrown a few jokes in there, someone would likely think “Yea, verily, I doth laugheth, and surely this be signs of the influence of the Devil.” There's a good reason Bradford doesn't read like George Carlin.[12] If he did, they'd burn him at the stake.

    Not to belabor the point (except to the extent that 1500-word papers don't magically write themselves like the Sorceror's Apprentice scene in Fantasia), but this prim and proper attitude still persists in Massachusetts to this very day. Liquor stores aren't open on Sunday. Before 1985 it was illegal for any business at all to be open on Sunday, and even now any hourly workers working on the back end of the weekend get paid time and a half, which has the net effect of closing any business that doesn't rely heavily on weekend customer traffic. Most of the old “blue laws” (as they are now known) are repealed piecemeal where they are repealed at all. Massachusetts did not even ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939![13] In the 1790s there was so much opposition to the notion of dismantling the state religion set up by the Puritans that the state could not get a convention together to approve it. It took the action of eleven other states to force the hand of the Bay State and by dint of Constitutional procedure force Massachusetts to accept the First Amendment.

    All of the above is by way of explaining just how deep those Puritan roots run through the culture and politics of New England to this very day. In Bradford we see the roots of Ye Olde New England cooperation and civic and state pride. Not for nothing is America's six-state northeastern corner often regarded as if the United States ended at the Hudson River. The cultural stereotype is true, and every effort made by national corporations to alter the zeitgeist of the Bostonian has run into about the same level of open-mindedness as Roger Williams' suggestion in the 17th century that perhaps the doctrine of the Puritan church needed a bit of a rewrite. Said Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe: “Nobody test-markets a product in Boston. The data they would gain would be useless in any other market.”[14]

    Suffice to say that it may be as dull and dry as the instructions packaged with a piece of IKEA furniture, but On Plymouth is nonetheless a read worth the while for anyone trying to wrap his brain around why all those guys with funny accents and Red Sox caps are the way we are. To understand Plymouth Plantation is to understand New England, and to understand New England is to understand a twentieth of the US population.[15]

Footnotes, Annotations, and Stuff That Didn't Quite Fit:
1. Title is a lyric from Cole Porter, “Anything Goes”.
2. Star Wars, of course.
3. Quote from the New York Times' infamous editorial suggesting Robert Goddard was an imbecile for his work in rocketry. The Times retracted the editorial in 1969 when we landed on the moon.
4. King Philip's War, that is. The mental image of yelling “Hey Phil” at an Indian chief is funny.
5. Member of the National Association of Base Ball Clubs, the first attempt made at a major professional baseball league. The club would, through time, evolve into the Boston Red Sox.
6. Why the choice of words? Because I figure the reader's right sick and tired of flat, uninteresting prose. You're welcome.
7. “And ____ begat _____, who lived _____ years and bore ______ sons and _______ daughters, blah blah blah, yada yada yada.”
8. Joe Friday from Dragnet. “Just the facts, ma'am.”
9. Well, besides “Yankees suck, go Sox”.
10. Any joke worth doing is worth overdoing.
11. Mascot for the Cleveland Indians and convenient racial stereotype for the sorts of people who get offended by stuff like that.
12. Not least of which is because Carlin only needed seven words to make his point. If he'd lived in 17th-century Massachusetts, his act would've been “The 15,000 Words You Can't Say in Plymouth Plantation” and the joke would've taken all day to tell.
13. And then only because someone pointed out that they hadn't and it finally came time to give up the ghost.
14. Prologue, Curse of the Bambino.
15. According to 2000 US Census data. New England population: 14.2 million. US population in 2000: 283.6 million.

(The teacher commented: "Quite enjoyable.  As usual fine comic writing.  May the spirit of New England carry on!")

22 March 2010

Assigned Lively

What an interesting day.  I could eat the shifting perspectives with a spoon.

My Mondays and Wednesdays are usually polluted by a hefty dose of cognitive dissonance and boredom in the morning.  I start my day with a white-guilt diversity class, which is then immediately followed up by a US History class heavy on the "yay white people" Manifest Destiny point of view.  It's roughly akin to being a dog and getting kicked and petted in rapid succession.  It makes my brain hurt and bugs me that I'm wasting good money in student loans that need to be paid back on these fluff classes.  Well-rounded is all well and good but not when it's essentially coming out of my salary after graduation.

You may also be aware of a little radio project I'm working on (see previous entry on this blog.)  Working with my writing team, casting voice actors, wrangling bugs and herding cats, it's a combination of the practical application of my business major and the realization of a lifelong love of creative endeavor that, well, those of you who read me regularly know how writing and creating is a true passion that far exceeds even the unbridled joy of noodling out intricacies in the tax code and pursuing the conquest of the CPA exam.  If I could write and produce content for a living I would in a heartbeat.

Well, today the beams crossed.  I had my classes of dull in the morning and had to hightail it across town for the radio project's creative meeting (something I usually reserve for Friday afternoon) right in the middle of the afternoon.  I then made my way back to campus for my math class at 5:30 and by the time my day was all said and done (and with the sun still shining---hooray for spring and Daylight Saving Time!), I could not possibly have been in any better of a mood.

There's hope for this old life yet.  And besides, any day where I check the mail and see my power bill is only $70 coupled with a notice that I'm eligible for at least $5500 in federal grants and aid I won't have to pay back thanks to an expediently-processed divorce making me look like a welfare case?  That's just a really sweet bonus.

18 March 2010

Givin' 'Em the Business II

No sooner do I say I need to do more writing than I spend six days doing exactly that---nowhere near my blog, of course.  Go figure.  Anyway, I've got a good excuse and it's high time I brought everyone up to speed.  Since the last iteration of this ran five weeks ago, the "starting a business" part has come damn near front and center in my life.  My stated primary goal remains to become a CPA by 40, but it seems to me that "radio producer by 33" is one hell of a B story.

Since mid-January, a team of writers and I have been working on creating an old-time radio drama that we're going to put up in podcast form when we launch in May (the week after finals---I'm not so foolish as to attempt something like that during college cram sessions!)  Tomorrow is the voice acting casting call for the show.  Recording is in April once our scripts are finalized.  Holy crap, this thing is actually coming together.  We're going to have six episodes done and recorded by launch day!

As if that weren't enough, although I've focused my efforts on one show, I'm part of a group that is doing some video/new media production and getting a stage troupe started.  I met with the main guy from that group over coffee this afternoon on a beautiful spring day and talked creative writing and the MSR project (Mystery Ship Radio, my company which he is also a part of).  He wants writers for that and may end up hiring on a bookkeeper, which means lo and behold, my accounting major background is in play!

And just because leaving well enough alone isn't really my style, I'm also considering an entirely new writing project once the first show is launched and largely handling itself.  Then again, I'm on spring break.  Once the stress of school comes back full force next week (three, count 'em, THREE major papers due in the next two weeks!) the last thing I'll want to do is develop new content!

Still need to buy that damn day planner.  I don't do well tying that sort of thing to my computer and I don't own an iPhone or anything of the sort (I'm doing all of this on the starvation budget of a college student---you'd think I was 20 again!)

So, umm...yeah.

12 March 2010

For My Next Trick, I'll Make My Stress...Disappear!

At long last, spring break is upon me.  Seven weeks into classes, I've learned that my limit has been reached; I've already cut over 12 hours from my schedule every week as I move toward the goal of "degree, radio show, and girlfriend, and to hell with everything else".  I can now say I'm down to only 45-48 hours of work where before it wasn't unusual for me to go over sixty.

I have sadly neglected my writing outside of personal and professional responsibility; I hope to remedy this in the coming week.  Stay tuned.

02 March 2010

Rerun Racket

I notice I haven't had much to report in this space of late.  This has been due to a variety of factors, and in an indulgence of my right to bloviate for its own sake, I'm going to simply recap them here.

First and foremost, all the news that's fit to print is news that's been printed in this space before.  My core humanities prof continues to lean on me to develop my writing toward a career therein and continues to insist that my accounting adventures are a profound waste of my intellect.  My girlfriend continues to be awesome and I fall more deeply in love with her by the day, all the while praising the gods for bringing her to me.  My social-butterfly late blooming continues to, well, bloom lately (tomorrow, if I get a moment to write it, will be Social Misadventures V.  But that's a big if.)  And my academics continue to kick ass (my disappointing 88.5/100 on a math test notwithstanding.  I was shooting for at least 92.)

So my life's in reruns.  Plus I'm staring down the barrel of yet another week where my school and work obligations total out to more than 60 hours (could run to 68!  New record!)  Stay tuned in this space...I might get the requisite five minutes in order to create something for your entertainment!