A Letter to Sign: Incompatibility of Intolerance with American Values

I just signed an open letter by Prakash Kashwan of the University of Connecticut, to be submitted to the New York Times by 23 December 2015 (Please click the link here to sign). It justly rails against the growing intolerance directed at Muslims in this country.  He notes, for instance, how fear is growing apace.  Drawing on US history, he observes that fear can

“…disconnect us from reason and have devastating consequences. The reduction in immigrants’ rights codified by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the restrictions on free speech established by the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII were all policies born from fear, and all resound throughout history as stark contradictions to American values.”

A more recent example of this kind of contravening of dominant American values was what is now termed the McCarthy era.  In the 1950s, the fear of Communism grew so great in this country that anyone suspected of Communist (or even Socialist) leanings was branded as an enemy of the state.  The House Committee on Un-American Activities, initiated in 1945, grew in power and influence, reaching its heights of oppression in the early to mid-1950s, with Joseph McCarthy leading the anti-Communist crusade, supported enthusiastically by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  Their victims were denied due process of law, lost their jobs, and were discriminated against in ways that we now recognize as patently unjust (see e.g., http://www.trackedinamerica.org/timeline/mccarthy_era/intro/).

Let us hope that our fears of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban do not stimulate a repetition of such shameful policies and behaviour.  Islamic extremism, like the Communism of the mid 20th century, carries with it actions and policies that we also abhor; but that does not mean we should paint all Muslim citizens and immigrants, most of whom are peaceful good people, with this damning brush.

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On Trump, Hitler and other Tyrants

We had a visit last night from an interesting young man.  He was here as an exchange student, getting an MBA at Cornell.  Of German stock, he is bright, articulate, and—amazingly—interested in discussing all sorts of topics with an elderly couple!  He helped us put the finishing touches on our Christmas tree.  He stood on a stool and carefully draped strands of ‘icicles’ over each branch, high up toward the top, while I continued putting them on the back of the tree.  As we worked, he told me about his grandparents’ experience of World War II.  One grandfather had been pressed against his will into service in the SS, the dreaded Nazi band of soldiers.  Because of his grandfather’s reluctance, he had been branded on the chest, with the letters SS, so that he could not later deny his involvement or avoid continued service.  His other grandfather was in the regular German Army, and had been captured by the Americans and put in a prison camp.  The young man said that Hitler had come to power in a legitimate election, but that immediately on gaining power, he had obliterated his political opponents, and taken absolute power in the country—against the will of much of the populace. We discussed the draw for many of being the world’s most powerful nation and a member of an elite group, set apart from others; how seductive such claims seemed for some people, for many people.

Our conversation strengthened a worry that has been growing in my own mind as I have listened to the claims and aims of the US Republican candidates.  The most recent Republican debate (17 December 2015) further reinforced my worries.  The topic throughout was terrorism, with an occasional sidebar on immigration.  The antagonism to and fear of Muslims was pervasive.  Some called for an absolute ban on all Muslims coming into the country and an expulsion of those refugees who are already here.  Donald Trump was the most  dramatically anti-Muslim.

  •  Is this not similar to Hitler’s ideas about Jews, and other ‘undesirables’ like Gypsies and gays?  Does it not go against our own traditions of welcome?

He compounded this repugnant thought with similar ideas about Mexicans and others who come to this country from the South.  He planned to make an impenetrable wall between the US and Mexico to keep out these ‘undesirables’ as well; and to deport immediately all those currently in the country illegally.  What irony that candidates, Cruz and Rubio, children of immigrants, are among the most bombastic against America hospitality to those in need.

  • Think of the Soviet building of the Berlin Wall, and all the pain and suffering that went along with that attempt to control people’s movements across borders. 

But these were sidelines. 

The center pieces of Trump’s proposed policies and those of most other Republican candidates included their intention to ‘make America strong again’, to take back America’s role as the ‘leader of the (free?) world’; and to do this by bombing Syria and ISIS to smithereens.  Trump said it more clearly in Iowa: “They have some [oil fields] in Syria, some in Iraq. I would bomb the s— out of ’em. I would just bomb those suckers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes. … I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.” (http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-bomb-isis-2015-11).

  • What about the populace in those areas? we may ask. 

Trump went further, suggesting we hold the families of US enemies hostage, to force their compliance. This echoes the reasoning of the anti-hero Trotsky:(http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/red-guard-into-army/red-guard-into-army-texts/order-of-the-chairman-of-the-revolutionary-war-council-of-the-republic/). 

  • Do we really want to emulate Trotsky?  Is this really the kind of leader the US populace wants our president to be?  A killer of innocents?

How are these plans and goals different from the goals of the German and Russian demagogues whose goals and practices the US has long decried?  We fought World Wars against Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler; and we engaged in decades of a global Cold War with Russia, fighting against policies and practices similar to what Trump and his cohorts propose!  We deposed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in large part because of his treatment of his own people (also partly defined by religion) and his invasion of Kuwait. 

  • How would this differ from keeping Muslims out of America and invading Iraq and Syria?

Many of the Republican candidates (Trump, Carson, Cruz particularly) speak in simple language, reducing complex conditions to absurdities, yet apparently this resonates with a portion of our own populace.  Cruz speaks of the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’, planning to obliterate the ‘bad guys’.  Trump speaks in short sentences composed of very simple words (cf. sample above).*  Are they appealing to ‘the uneducated masses’?  Perhaps.

Noticeably missing from this debate was evidence of the Christian faith of the candidates, a standard stock in trade for many Republicans—pulled out with remarkable regularity to impress believers.  Perhaps the clear incompatibility between what they were saying and genuine religious feeling was one reason for the omission.  Compare their responses with those of the current German leader, Angela Merkel, who, unlike her historical predecessors, is opening her arms and her country to those in need. 

To me, these Republican candidates are appealing to the baser impulses of humanity:  racism, religious intolerance, machismo, fear, and a love of power.  They are dangerous in the same ways that Hitler was.  We must remember the parallels and guard against them.


*I’d guessed 3-4 word sentences might be the average, but the typical quote above averages nearly 6 words, probably a more accurate estimate.  Just out of curiosity, I wondered how long the average word was: In the 7 sentences above, the average word length was 4.2 letters, ranging from 2-7 letters.  The 7 letter words were ‘suckers’ and ‘nothing’.

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Are We Moving Toward Genocide in the US?

Magnus Fiskesjö, a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, just gave a talk entitled  “The Future of Genocide in Asia: Burma and Elsewhere”.    He began with a discussion of the unique human nature of genocide, in comparison with other animals (which do not commit genocide); and spoke at some length about our human perceptions of reality being our own varying creations, in interaction with some true reality, that our capacity to create also means we can imagine or create unrealistic fears about other human beings.  This was setting the stage for his foray into genocide in Southeast Asia.  

His primary example was from Burma, where some influential people have been maligning the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, some of whom came from Bangladesh.  The government has passed legislation designed to curb births and marriages among them (an action that is counter to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide).  Using the Burmese example, he noted how persons in authority (religious, secular, local) were, in some cases, able to counter such tendencies, downplaying the purported dangers posed by the maligned group.  Until recently, when Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in a fair election (attested by many international observers), Fiskesjö had feared the nation was moving toward genocide—partly because of the failure of the previous military government to downplay or counter outrageous and inaccurate claims made against the Rohingya.  He has become encouraged by her election.

However, I was in fact frightened by the patterns he identified, from his more general study of genocide globally.  He provided examples (of both true genocide and tendencies in that direction) from Germany, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, China, and the US.  He then examined genocide historically, and laid out some of the typical pre-existing conditions that led to the occurrence of actual genocide:

  • countries at war—resulting in a portion of the population used to considering enemies less than human
  • an ignorant and isolated populace
  • governed by something other than a ‘stable democracy’
  • worrying changes in the terms of reference used in daily speech (use of language that dehumanizes the potential victims)

He argued persuasively for looking to history to identify these patterns, and for being alert to signs of these patterns in our own country and others.  This was what frightened me.

  • The US has been in one war or another for decades; we have accumulated many people who have been exposed to the dehumanizing effects of war. 
  • Although we have had in the past a comparatively good educational system, concerns about its current quality have emerged, and our media do not provide the kind of balanced and accurate coverage that was the case when I was young—resulting in quite amazing ignorance of the rest of the world, given the communication infrastructure available in the country.  A case can be made for a level of ignorance within large sectors of our population that is worrying.
  • Our political system, once an excellent example of a stable democracy, has ceased to function as intended.  The two main parties are poles apart, unwilling to compromise about anything, with resulting failure to govern.  Our ‘stable democracy’ may in fact be a thing of the past.
  • Most worrying of all is the speech of Republican candidates for president—perfect examples of ‘people in authority’ whose words are listened to.  The terms they have been using, about Mexicans, Syrian refugees, Muslims, fit perfectly into the kinds of speech identified as a precursor in cases where genocide was an ultimate end-point.  Obama and other Democrats strive to counter these remarks, but there is no denying that these hate-mongers have a stage on which to speak.

History suggests we should beware of these tendencies, taking every opportunity we have to counter this kind of speech, to restore our democracy, to reduce ignorance, and to work toward global peace.   As individuals, of these goals, we have the most power to counter this kind of speech; and to be aware of the dangers these patterns pose.

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A Mini-Upswing and a Mini-Downswing in American Politics

Last night, on 13 October 2015, the five leading Democratic candidates for President of the United States had their first debate.  I sat glued to the TV for two and a half hours, interested in what they had to say, pleased with the collegiality and substance of the discussion.  I embarrassedly admit that, if I had ever heard of Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley or Lincoln Chafee, the three lesser known candidates, I did not remember anything about their positions—so I wanted to know what they thought.  The tone of the debate was sharp but never vindictive.  The candidates expressed their own plans (loosely), they critiqued each other’s records and ideas, highlighting differences among them; but their mutual respect seemed unanimous.  The moderator, Anderson Cooper, generally asked questions with substance and relevance for the American people (Hillary Clinton’s emails aside). The debate was informative and….civilized.  I came away with clear pictures of what the candidates wanted to do on key issues:  gun control; the Middle East and military involvement; climate change; Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act; Wall Street; crime; social justice; immigration; and women’s rights. 

The contrast between this debate and the Republican one a few weeks ago could not be more stark.  The Democratic candidates spoke civilly to each other.  They were generally truthful in their pronouncements.  They informed the audience of their perspectives and their differences. They shared their ideals for the country.  They focused on substantive issues that we all care about—identifying existing problems and suggesting ways forward to address them.  The passions these Democratic candidates exhibited had to do with their ideas about how to move the country forward, not about their antagonisms to individuals, competitors, or groups (like Planned Parenthood, which has become an underserved whipping post for the Republican Party).

After listening to all candidates, I find myself still torn between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  That Hillary has the experience, intelligence, and inclination to lead is without doubt.  I consider also the fact that she would be our first woman President; that is worth something to me as a feminist.  Although she is a little too much ‘establishment’ for my taste, a little too moderate, I could very easily live with her as President. 

I knew little about Bernie Sanders until this campaign began, but I have received his regular pronouncements on Facebook and have been increasingly impressed.  He focuses on issues of social justice, and his ideas about how to reduce the disparities that so severely plague us these days speak to me.  My own substantive inclinations are closer to his than to Hillary’s.

But Hillary may have a greater chance at beating the Republicans in the general election.  This is at least the common view.  Given the purported American hostility to the idea of ‘Socialism’ and Bernie Sanders’ explicit espousal of elements thereof, this view may be correct.  Yet, his campaign has gained momentum from the very beginning.  He urges the American people to rise up and join him, to fight back against injustices, to require our government to address inequity and iniquity.  And he is raising money from ‘the little people’, not from the industrial magnates and lobbies.  I find his goals consistent with my own.  But ultimately we must have a candidate who can beat the Republicans.  Seeing the two debates, one after the other, has made that ever clearer.  The Republican candidates, without exception, express views that would be dangerous for the world, for the American people, and for generations to come.

The debate precipitated an upswing in my mood about politics.

This morning brought me back to reality—the downswing.  The headline on the front page of The New York Times, a newspaper that many Republicans consider the PR wing of the Democratic Party, was ‘Hillary Clinton Turns Up Heat on Bernie Sanders in a Sharp Debate’.  Although the article, if read in full, gives a more accurate and balanced portrayal of what transpired, many readers will stop at the headline.  The authors, Michael Barbaro and Amy Chozick, go on to outline many of the issues discussed, concluding that the discussion “…was thick with foreign and domestic policy concerns, rather than the personal insults and colorful exchanges that have characterized the Republican forums.”  But the slighting of Bernie Sanders’ campaign and debate status are clear.  It sounds as though he wasn’t able to respond, when in fact, he was;  Hillary’s ‘seat’ was just as hot as Bernie’s.  Bernie Sanders had included the ‘corporate media’ among those causing problems in the American political system; one can easily imagine that this headline is a mini-payback for his remark.  In my case, at least, and probably for anyone who actually listened to the debate, it backfired—reducing my respect for the NYT, reminding me of the dangers and power of biased media.  A related fear comes from the fact that we have allowed our media to be owned by a very small number of corporations, which  now have inordinate power to influence the news we receive. We used to have laws against such near-monopolies.  It’s time to bring those laws back!

So…the political beat goes on.  American politics is not dull.

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On Water and Tranquility

As I sat cross-legged on my cushion, preparing for my yoga session, a gentle voice urged me to “Think of a peaceful time when you were filled with tranquility.  Focus your awareness on that experience and keep it in your mind as we carry on.”  I was flooded with such images: 

*I sat on a bench in a rough structure, high on the banks of the Telen River in East Kalimantan , enjoying the comparative cool of late afternoon after a hot day working in the rice fields with my hosts. I watched the wide brown river slowly meander around the bend to the South.

*I paddled alone in a simple wooden canoe around Danau Sentarum Wildlife Reserve in West Kalimantan.  The day was calm, and I could see the low brushy trees reflected perfectly in the still lake water.  Each canoe stroke disturbed the image as it entered the water, but the perfect vertical symmetry soon returned—reality above, reflection below.  The silence was only disturbed by the canoe paddle breaking the water’s surface and an occasional cry of a kingfisher—a brilliant turquoise flash—as it swooped across the water before me.

*I lay in a hammock strung between two tamarind trees on the island of Alor in eastern Indonesia.  Waves broke on the beach a few feet away, and I could see other islands in the distance, beyond the white sand and beautiful clear blue sea. A light breeze kept the air at a pleasant temperature, and I had an interesting book in hand.

I was unable to choose, so I simply imagined all three.   

Today, I began reading a book entitled Blue Mind, by Wallace J. Nichols (Back Bay Books, New York, 2014).  Its subtitle initially put me off: ‘The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected and better at what you do’.  But I’m finding it fascinating, especially so in light of the recent experience at yoga, when I selected such water-focused experiences as times of outstanding tranquility.  The book’s author contends that we have a special affinity (and emotional need) for water, based partly on our evolutionary background (we came initially from the water).  He argues that the time has come to incorporate more serious attention to emotion as we examine ourselves scientifically.  The book is full of interesting findings from neuroscience (and elsewhere)—only recently available because of advances in medical technology—that support the idea of a special human connection with water (and also with the color blue).

As I read, I wonder how much the shortage of water in the Middle East might contribute to the perpetual conflict that seems to bedevil the region.  An interesting thought…I read on.

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Recycling a Call to Action

A few nights ago, my mother, my friend Shelley Feldman, and I went to a concert entitled “Women of Woodstock”.  I imagined beforehand that the songs would be a nostalgia trip, prompting in me, perhaps the urge to sing along.  I did not imagine that the concert would fill me with the passion and tenderness that marked the Woodstock era.*  The four singers and three instrumentalists beautifully recaptured the emotions of the time; they sang songs that varied from the loud insistence of a Janis Joplin style, demanding political action, to the soft love songs that epitomized our Utopian belief in human goodness, in the capacity of human beings to love each other and live in harmony.

‘Rise, Ye Oldsters!’ (below)was written some years back, perhaps a decade ago when I feared GW Bush’s re-election, a fear that proved justified.  It recognizes the need to stand up and be heard.  But it fails to capture the full range of what ‘the 60s generation’ sought.  Besides our political and anti-war activism, we had Utopian longings.  We imagined, and experimented to bring about, a world in which justice prevailed, in which people were treated equally and well, in which human diversity was acceptable, even sought. 

I just read a paper by Marshall W. Murphree in which he roughly quotes G.K. Chesterton: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  This brought to mind my feeling about many purportedly collaborative approaches to international development:  rather than fail at implementing a difficult approach, the name was kept but the genuine effort was abandoned.  It seems that the 1960s goals have likewise been abandoned, in large part surely due to the difficulty of implementing them.  We often acknowledge that anything worth doing requires effort, in this case, sustained effort.  We globally have given up, we have been faint of heart.  It’s truly time for the youth (and oldsters like me) to raise our voices, and loudly demand a better world.  It will not happen without such demands.

Rise, Ye Oldsters!

An Australian television show brought it all back. In 1972, a photograph that captured the horror of the Vietnam war was widely circulated. It was a little girl, running naked down a road, with arms outstretched, screaming in pain. She had been hit by American napalm a few moments earlier. The TV program featured the girl, now a woman, and documented her life since.

For me, the images brought back vividly the passion and anger of my generation as we saw our government making mistakes that meant death and destruction in another part of the world. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s young people ranted and raved, wrote letters and articles, demonstrated, had sit-ins, and discussed these abuses publicly and privately. And finally, in 1975, the US withdrew from Vietnam.

From my point of view—nearly 40 years later—the same mistakes are being made again, or at least mistakes with similar effects on the ground. People are suffering and dying, their homes and infrastructure are being destroyed because of American bombs, weaponry, funding and policies.

Yet, the youth are silent. Almost everyone is silent. And those who do speak out, complain more about the expense than the death and destruction.

Events suggest that we are needed again. It is time for the ‘60s generation’—now in our 60s—to make our voices heard again. Most of us are still capable of ranting and raving, of writing letters and articles, of demonstrating and holding sit-ins. We can still discuss these issues publicly and privately—and loudly!

An election is upon us, an election that can make a difference if we elect the right people. It is time for us to do a repeat performance. Let’s do it!

Again, in 2015, an election is upon us.  This time, if it’s possible, the views expressed by the Republican candidates are even more anti-humanity than those of George W. Bush and his advisors.  The hopes and imaginings of the 1960s appear to be fading even further into the background, as those of us now in our 70s move out of the ‘command generation’ even more concretely.  There are those, like Bernie Sanders, who speak up for the kind of world we imagined so long ago.  I hope that his growing popularity represents an openness in the American citizenry to such humanistic values, that there might grow a movement of people who want and demand (and create) a world of peace and fairness and natural beauty.  If we do not, we Americans will not suffer alone; the whole world will suffer with us.  We humans are united on one small globe on which the US has inordinate power and influence, for good or ill.  Only we can make certain it is for good. 


*The Woodstock concert itself took place on 17 August 1969.

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American Republican Politics – Scary

A few nights ago, I forced myself to listen to the two Republican debates on television.  The first debate consisted of the four least popular candidates, as determined by polls; and the second displayed the 11 most popular.  Having 15 candidates for one party’s nomination, in the US, is in itself noteworthy.  It certainly hasn’t happened in my lifetime (since  1945).  I expected to be distressed by the tenor and contents of the debates, and my expectations were not disabused.  However, my anticipation was nowhere near as frightening as the reality.

Every last one of these candidates expressed his (and [the lone] her) desire to de-fund Planned Parenthood.  They seemed, without exception, to believe that Planned Parenthood obtained living babies and watched for them to die so they could ‘harvest their organs’ for subsequent sale.  I do believe that Planned Parenthood personnel, in cases where dying children and fetuses have usable organs, would hope and try to use those organs for the good of other children who need them.  This is a logical and humanitarian thing to do.  I have been listed as an organ donor myself for decades (though probably my organs are a bit too old these days…).  Who would truly want a viable organ to be wasted when some child in need could benefit? 

I simply do not believe Carly Fiorina’s impassioned declaration of having seen a video of a living baby kicking on a bed in a clinic, with Planned Parenthood personnel coldly discussing harvesting its organs.  I do remember having seen a video of Planned Parenthood personnel sitting in a pub or coffee shop, discussing the upcoming death of a fetus or baby and their intention to act quickly to save those organs for subsequent use.  The wording used by the particular person was insensitive; I grant that.  But one common mechanism—particularly when relaxing with friends—for dealing with the necessity to perform difficult operations / procedures is to protect oneself by flippancy and humour.  Medical students are famous for misbehaviour when dealing with corpses in their anatomy classes—we all recognize it as a coping mechanism.  And I suspect the insensitivity expressed by the Planned Parenthood worker was just that.  In any event, turning one interchange of that sort into an across-the-board condemnation of a whole national institution that has done countless good deeds for young women (and men) is patently ridiculous.  Yet every single Republican candidate believed Fiorina’s image (or pretended to), and supported the idea of de-funding Planned Parenthood (which has now happened in the House; whether it will pass the Senate remains unknown).

This is frightening enough for American women, many of whom—particularly those in financial straits—have depended on Planned Parenthood to supply health care and birth control. But even more frightening to me is the near unanimity with which these august personages expressed their readiness to invade other countries, to ‘stop talking and start acting’ on the international stage.  Most wanted to tear up the agreement with Iran; most wanted to send troops into the Middle East; all wanted to show strength, often by acting apparently unilaterally and pre-emptively.  Oddly, Rand Paul, a Libertarian and a bit of a nut case in his own right, was the voice of reason on international affairs.  They also want to build a fence between the US and Mexico.  One, Ben Carson (the popular black physician, at the time of the debate No. 2 in the polls of Republican candidates), wants to make it double, with a highway running between, from one side of the country to the other!  They all want to repeal Obama Care, which has made health care available for so many who did not have it previously—including my own son and daughter in law!

A perhaps more fundamental worry that was reinforced by these debates is the lack of respect these candidates have for the truth.  Carly Fiorina’s attacks on Planned Parenthood were completely false (Since the debate, she now holds the No. 2 Republican spot in the polls); Jeb Bush spoke of how his brother had ‘kept America safe’ (a statement that is particularly jarring given that 9/11 happened on his watch and he got us embroiled in disastrous and unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among many other harmful and incompetent  actions).  Trump linked vaccination to autism, reinforcing the strange movement to avoid vaccinations [The movers and shakers in the anti-vaccination group obviously weren’t around when I was a child: children died of whooping cough, measles, diptheria, and friends at school were paralyzed by polio!  I myself became dangerously ill with measles, prior to the availability of a vaccine; and I watched helplessly as 9 children died in the village of Long Segar, East Kalimantan in October 1979, where vaccines were not available].  The debates were full of patent falsehoods.  The environment was notable by its absence as an issue. Acceptance of the neo-liberal economists’ doctrine (low taxes = good business), so obviously flawed if one pays any attention to the changes in policies as they relate to economic recoveries, was universal. 

Most of these candidates are extraordinarily worrying:  Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson all show obvious lack of common sense and express views that would endanger the world and the country.  Lindsay Graham seems intent on believing that ISIS is literally on our doorstep, ready to invade.  Marco Rubio speaks his dangerous views unusually articulately. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, George Pataki, and Rand Paul would seem to be among the lesser evils—though they too entered the competition to appear as right-wing as they possibly could. At least the first three of these appear closer to the ‘middle of the road’ than most others. Donald Trump, the frontrunner, though obnoxiously bombastic, seemed slightly less out of touch with reality than the rest (to my surprise)—though his ability to fund his campaign on his own and to whatever extent necessary makes his candidacy (and his popularity) scary as well.  It’s a kind of absolute power.

I console myself, not entirely successfully, with these hopes: 

– that these views are not as popular with the electorate as with those running for office.  These 15 seemed intent on out-doing each other in their Tea Party leanings.  Perhaps they will self-destruct, and some reasonable Republican candidate will emerge.

– that the US political system is unwieldy enough to prevent most actors, if elected, from accomplishing all that they set out to do (as we’ve seen, sadly, with many of Obama’s efforts).  The balance of power has some advantages when nut cases are elected.

Two issues come to my mind that one would think/hope might enter the candidates’ minds.  The first is that loving and being proud of America does not necessitate hating (or even being unaware of) the rest of the world.  These candidates surely love their families, as well as their country.  Can they not see that loving the Earth and the people who inhabit it is as consistent as simultaneously loving their family and their nation?  Why do they put this firm conceptual boundary around this country?  Do they not see how interconnected the world has become, that we really do have to manage to get along?

The second is the simple fact that actions have consequences.  Tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement will encourage Iran to go nuclear and it will necessitate continuing sanctions that are adverse for the people (women, the old, the sick, the children, even the men!) of Iran.  We know what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan after we sent troops there—surely we cannot escape some responsibility (though not all) for the mess that exists in the Middle East these days—and now in Europe too!  Will sending our youth into battle again really help, or simply exacerbate the conflicts—spiraling up perhaps to a World War III?  Fencing off Mexico, even if it could be successfully accomplished, would stop or hinder the flow of workers who currently fill labour needs in this country.  My son and his wife own a small business in Oregon.  They struggle mightily to get reliable American workers (their legal immigrant workers are the most hardworking and dependable)—representative of a wider and longstanding trend: This country was built by immigrants, as people often forget.

The format for the debates is better, I think, than it has been previously, as it provides the candidates with a clear opportunity to express and exchange their views.  Having four candidates allowed for more indepth discussion than was possible with eleven. I anticipate that the Democratic debates, with fewer candidates, will be more interesting and also, given my own views, much more encouraging.  Let’s hope so!

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‘Open Access’– a Quagmire or a Panacea?

Having lived in the ‘Developing world’ or the global ‘South’ for about half of my life, I am very aware of the paucity of research materials available to would-be researchers there.  I have welcomed the idea of ‘open access’ publishing with great enthusiasm from my first introduction to the idea.  That enthusiasm grew further when I returned to the US in 2009, and found myself in the incredibly luxurious position of having access to Cornell University’s library system.  Having such access means that with a few strokes on the keyboard of my computer, I can instantly download decades of relevant journal articles.  I can go to any of the more than 20 libraries on campus and check out books for up to a year at a time; and I can order books, typically delivered in a few days, from libraries all over the world, for shorter periods.  Many of my colleagues and almost all of the students take this access for granted; they’ve either always had it or have had it for long enough to have forgotten what academic life is like without it. I have not.

In Bogor, Indonesia, where I lived for more than a dozen years, I had access to the tiny library of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR, for whom I worked).  It was focused on global forestry issues (somewhat less central for an anthropologist); and toward the end of my stay there, I had access to a small number of current electronic sources.  This access was still far better than the typical Indonesian researcher.  There has not been a significant library tradition in the country; and correspondingly there are few libraries.  Those institutions that do have a library have been (in some cases, until recently) poorly staffed with people who have had no library training and few books to manage.  Budgets for library acquisitions are practically non-existent, and journal subscriptions similarly.  Finding a relevant book or obtaining a reprint has been a significant and unexpected bonus.  Similar conditions apply in many countries (see Edmonds 2014, for some comparative access statistics).

The disadvantages rendered by this state of affairs for Third World researchers are difficult to exaggerate.  In planning research, the extant research on similar topics remains unknown; when analyzing findings, one cannot compare what one is finding with what others have found; when writing up and trying to publish one’s analyses, one is criticized for not having cited relevant literature.  The lack of access to relevant literature functions to exacerbate the gap between research in the ‘West/North’ and that in the ‘South’.

So.  With this background, I have welcomed the idea of open access more perhaps than most people.  I am now in the midst of sorting out what it actually means in practice, and I thought my experience might be of broader interest.  My colleagues, Bimbika Basnett, Marlene Elias, and I have submitted a book on gender and forestry (Gender and Forestry:  Climate Change, Tenure, Value Chains, and Emerging Issues), Volume I, to the publisher Earthscan/Routledge.  Although most of the book is new material, five of the 18 chapters have been previously published in journals.  We arranged with Earthscan to print 500 extra copies of the book, for free distribution in developing countries (funded by CIFOR); and we negotiated the right to post the book on CIFOR’s website nine months after the book is published—to give Earthscan some time to sell it beforehand.  Earthscan made it very clear that we would need explicit permission to reprint and publish the five articles on line eventually.

We first obtained permission from the authors of these five articles; and then sent messages, outlining these details, to the editors of the journals asking permission to reprint.  In one case, we were sent on to the publisher (Taylor & Francis).  The editors of the other four articles responded positively; Taylor & Francis requested a fee of nearly 600 British pounds for the one article.  Even they, though, were willing for us to use the article in book form; they balked at the Open Access requirement.  As the correspondence continued, we gradually realized that at least one of the other four editors had not noticed the Open Access element in our initial letter.  I initiated further communication with this editor—from whose journal we hoped to reprint two articles.  He had not in fact realized we were talking about Open Access; and only after considerable discussion did we obtain his agreement (despite his firm personal commitment to the idea of Open Access).  The journal’s need for ongoing income was one complicating factor, although this journal was not designed as a money-making proposition—they still needed operating funds.  Another issue was that Earthscan would be making money that should by rights have gone to the original publisher.  At this point we await further news from the remaining two editors/publishers.

Meanwhile, I was contacted by Elsevier, which is the publisher of World Development, in which I have a recent article.  They invited me to pay for Open Access for this (new) article.  CIFOR had decided a couple of years ago that researchers should be moving toward Open Access for all their publications.  The decision was made by my institution to pay for Open Access in this case.  The cost:  an exorbitant US$1800.  In the course my discussions with the not-for-profit journal editor mentioned earlier, I learned that he had agreed to publish in Open Access an entire special issue of his journal for $200, though the usual fee from his publishing company was $1000 per article.  There is definitely little clarity in this evolving world of Open Access.

Prior to getting totally embroiled in this complicated situation, I had personally contemplated its possibilities repeatedly because I participate in ResearchGate and Academia.edu—two repositories for people’s own publications, which are then accessible to other participants.  In posting a paper, I was rarely certain whether I was in fact allowed by the publishers to do so.  In most cases, I took the risk and posted my own work, hoping that if indeed I was not supposed to, the relevant ‘publication police’ would not notice. 

Soon I will be further embroiled.  We plan to produce a second volume on gender and forestry, to be called The Earthscan Reader on Gender and Forestry.  We have imagined (and still plan to try) reprinting ‘classics’ in the field, and distributing in the same way as we planned for the current Volume I, outlined above.  Our dilemma:  How do we anticipate how much each chapter will cost us, for budgeting purposes?  And can we persuade publishers to let us distribute freely or for minimal sums?

The costs of Open Access, at least many of those passed on to authors, editors, and institutions, can obviously be prohibitive for developing country scientists, researchers and institutions.  I agree with Edwards (2014) who urges the development of a ‘Do it Yourself’ (DIY) model to move Open Access forward.  Another useful idea Edwards proposes is the development among scholars of a ‘gift culture’, with free sharing of our ideas, plans/designs, research, and findings.  She argues persuasively that there is in fact a long history of such traditions among scholars, on which we could and should build. We really need to be figuring out ways to pay for the true costs of actual publication of these materials, while minimizing adverse impacts in a world where financial and informational resources are so inequitably distributed.  Charging more for those who have more is one partial solution; persuading governments and donors to pay a larger share is another.  Perhaps publishers could agree on a low upward limit for such charges; or seek some other avenue for funding publications than through (often exorbitant) page charges or charging for Open Access.  Perhaps the Open Library of Humanities (https://www.openlibhums.org/), of which Edwards write, may be a partial solution.  I, for one, will be very grateful if Open Access becomes the norm.


EDWARDS, C. 2014. How can Existing Open Access Models Work for the Humanities and Social Science Research? Insights 27:17-24.

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On ‘The Invention of Wings’

I had no idea what I was getting in for when I innocently picked up The Invention of Wings (2014, Penguin Books, New York) in an airport bookstore. I needed something to entertain me on a couple more flights.  I’d just finished a rather under-whelming anthology of mysteries.  As I quickly scanned the bookshelves in an airport store, I looked briefly and unsuccessfully for  a John Irving novel that had been recommended.  When I saw a book by Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The secret Life of Bees (which I vaguely remembered reading and enjoying), I opted to try this newer one. 

But this story is far heavier than The Secret Life of Bees, partly because it includes considerable faithfulness to actual events.  Sue Monk Kidd takes her inspiration from the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, who are best known for their involvement in the abolition and feminism movements of the mid 1800s in the US. Kidd adds a mostly fictional slave girl who is about the same age as Sarah and who is given to Sarah for her 11th birthday.  The book is divided into six, two to three year segments, beginning in 1803, when the girls are children, and ending in 1838, when they are middle aged.  It alternates between portrayals of events (many real) from the perspective of the elite southerner, Sarah, and mostly imagined ones in the life of her slave, Hetty.

Kidd’s character development is exquisite, bringing the reader fully into the lives of these two women—so fully that I found myself in tears repeatedly.  She also brings several second-rung characters fully to life (Sarah’s sister, ‘Nina’, Hetty’s mulatto mother, Charlotte, and others).  The device of separating the flow into six distinct segments allows the story on the one hand to portray a sense of history, as broader events in American society unfold; and on the other, to take the reader along the progression of these women’s lives.  Stories told by Hetty’s mother, Charlotte, about her own mother and her Fon tribal background, even bring the reader back into their past.  Kidd weaves a complex story that is sufficiently gripping that I read it from one day to the next.

As I child, I was horrified by slavery (like the protagonists in this book), and I remember learning about and admiring the anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Sojourner Truth’s rousing refrain “Ain’t I a woman?”.  I grew to adulthood in the 1960s when we were confronted (as we are again today) with the racial inequities that continue to plague our society (not to mention the gender inequities that came again to the fore in the 1970s).  I remember on my first trip to Zimbabwe in 2002, seeing a black woman picking cotton in a cotton field with a turban wrapped around her hair. The image I’d learned in my childhood of slavery was of just such a woman.  I didn’t know if she picked her own cotton or that of someone else, but the image, and the sorrow and pain that went with it, was powerful enough to move me to tears.  I couldn’t watch.

And that is how powerful Kidd’s book is, as well.  She brings it all to life, from the guilt and internal conflict that thinking southerners felt to the cruelty of those who thought only of their trade and their comfortable way of life to the pains the slaves suffered whether by having a child or spouse sold out of their lives or being beaten or tortured for minor (or major) failings.  One passage sticks in mind: Hetty says to Sarah “My body might be a slave, but not my mind.  For you, it’s the other way round.” 

The way that concerns about slavery and women’s rights came together was never so clear in my mind.  The women who began speaking out publicly (against ideas of proper decorum) were responding to their own consciences, which forced them to speak up and speak out against slavery.  But their behaviour was maligned, they were treated as pariahs, and they became aware of how their own voices and thoughts, even as white women, were muted.  They realized that they too were shackled.  Similarly today, people who try to address ethnic and gender inequities together are criticized for diluting the efforts to right ethnic injustices.  In the Grimke’s day, even male abolitionists maligned them, saying the sisters’ efforts to link slaves’ and women’s rights were divisive, splitting the country when slavery was ‘the real problem’—forgetting perhaps that half the slaves were women.

These issues are beautifully and powerfully captured in this book. It’s a novel, but its spirit rings true.

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Anticipating a Visit from the Elders

The elders, three of them, arrive in a few hours.  They include my 91 year old mother and her two friends from the UK, one 90 years old, the other 80.  As I approach 70 myself, I am struck by the irony of how times have changed.  My whole life—on the fairly rare occasions when the topic of aging has passed through my mind—I’ve considered 70 to be pretty old.  I imagined I’d be slowing down substantially, perhaps enjoying a peaceful old age, one of quiet contemplation, perhaps doing some writing based on my long life’s experience.  I imagined that I might be the object of my children’s concern, as my body and perhaps my mind deteriorated, that I would be the recipient of some care, though of course I hoped not much would be needed.  Instead, I have benefited from the longer lifespan of those in the western world; I am comparatively active and healthy.  I’ll be the youngest and the healthiest among the five of us who will be in my home over the next week. 

Children and grandchildren always remain in our minds, occasionally (in my case) needing attention.  But I find my mind occupied increasingly with concerns about my mother.  How serious is her forgetfulness?  How dangerous is the fact that she continues to drive short distances (she’s had the good sense to curtail her own driving to daylight hours, good weather, and a 3 mile radius from home)? How worried need we be when she takes long trips on her own?  How can we balance her remaining good sense with her occasional peculiar decisions—granting her the human right to self-determination as long as we possibly can?  We cannot avoid the fact that as we age, others eventually may have to take over the responsibilities we have shouldered.  It’s a great relief that my son and his wife live with her, so we needn’t worry about unattended falls that might leave her to die alone and unable to rise on the floor or in the bathtub—the latter nearly happened to my similarly aged mother in law a few years ago.

As the elders’ arrival draws near, I go over my house with elder needs in mind:  I have bought the extra sanitary pads of various thicknesses, in case of need; added to the supply of toilet paper in each bathroom; opened the ‘Wet wipes’ (as these are both needed and difficult for extra-old hands to open) and taken the toothpaste tube out of its box (again, hard to open).  We have rearranged the bedrooms, adding comfortable chairs (into which the elders won’t sink so far they will not be able to rise) near the beds where they will sleep.  The beds are made with extra pillows in case these are needed for arranging elderly bodies in positions that minimize the pains of arthritis.  We learned that the two visitors are fairly fit, so we are putting them upstairs; my mother is not, so she is downstairs—where she won’t have to maneuver stairs.  Both beds have extra blankets, as the elderly get cold easier than the rest of us. 

In imagining what entertainment to provide we have had to consider the short distances my mother can travel on foot, and the importance of flat surfaces for her walker.  We opted out of a boat ride, as getting her in and out of the boat would be difficult.  The two visitors are good walkers, so we will have to figure an entertainment that allows both walking and sitting—like Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods, which has the Lab of Ornithology connected to it, with nice chairs and telescopes for looking at the birds, as well as beautiful walks.  My mother wants to visit Watkins Glen, at the southern end of Seneca Lake (the next Finger Lake to the West): a nice ride for the group.   Such a trip will obviate some of the dilemmas of walking long distances.

I have listened to the advice of my 72 year old cousin, who has lived here longer, and has also had more visits from her own aged mother when she was still alive.  Lime Hollow is a nearby nature center that is flat and that I have never visited (which will be nice for me as well).  And if it rains, we can go to the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell.  We wondered if we could get a temporary ‘Handicapped sticker’ for our car.  We remembered that on weekdays elders get into New York’s State Parks free.  We also remembered that old people need a lot of rest—so we don’t want to schedule all the time or too many things on one day.

As I consider all these things, in anticipation of this visit, I realize again that I am of an age where such care might have had to be taken with me; and that the time will come—sooner than I would wish—when I will need all these considerations as well.   I recognize that my stamina and physical strength are far less than they used to be; I bemoan my inability to remember names of things multiple times every day (though thankfully the names do still eventually come to mind); my reflexes are not as quick as they used to be, my balancing ability less reliable.  There’s no doubt all these things indicate my own aging process.  But I find myself surprised at my good health, what stamina and strength I do have—a pleasure and a relief. 

As I struggle sometimes with the need to care for others, I realize that these same considerations are going on all over the US (and other countries in which people live longer), as people remain healthy longer and/or simply live longer.  Old people are caring for still older people.  I’m grateful that I remain healthy and strong enough to do it;  that we, as a family, share what care my mother needs; that she remains so healthy and active; and that I am blessed with her continued living presence on earth.

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