Posts tagged ‘politics’

We Are the Yanomamo

Yanomamo village from the air

Before I was an archaeologist, I was a cultural anthropologist.  I even have a master’s degree to prove it. Cultural anthropologists love to study other cultures around the world, ostensibly for the purpose of bringing back observations that shed light on our own culture in comparison.  And one of the tribes we studied was the Yanomamo.

The Yanomamo are a hunter-gatherer group that lives in the Amazon rain forest.  Their villages aren’t made up of lots of individual homes; instead, they build a single, shared shelter for the whole group.  There is a ring-shaped roof with a single wall along the outside of the ring, roughly divided into sections where individual families live, sleeping in hammocks and cooking over open fires.  The center of the ring is a large, flat shared living space where most community activities take place.

Surprisingly, unlike American towns and cities, Yanomamo villages tend to all be roughly the same size.  Of course, young people get married and their new spouses move in, children are born, and the village grows over time.  But at a certain point, when the populations gets too large, the village divides.  Squabbles add up over time, factions develop, and one faction leaves to build their own village.  Maybe it’s a function of too much genetic distance between people — I’m willing to sacrifice for my parents or siblings, but not for my second cousin’s wife who I have no blood relation to.  Maybe as the number of people increases, the local resources — food, building materials, and other supplies —  become scarce and people begin to argue when there isn’t enough to go around.  Whatever the cause, larger numbers means more bickering, and eventually it gets bad enough that someone moves out.
We Westerners tend to think of hunter-gatherer groups like this as less developed than we are — primitive, backwards, uncivilized.  The truth is, while their technology may be less developed than ours is, their way of life tends to be perfectly adapted to their environment.  They maintain groups of just enough people to support themselves nicely based on what they can find nearby.
Meanwhile, here in the US, we are in the middle of a recession.  There aren’t enough jobs and money — resources — to go around these days.  And I have noticed, while we are living in an environment with scare resources, we are doing an awful lot of squabbling.  We’re dividing into factions.  There’s rich vs. poor, Republican vs. Democrat, Tea Party vs. liberals, citizens vs. illegal immigrants, working poor vs. welfare freeloaders, fiscal conservatives vs. social safety nets.  I see lots of people who are angry at Them, and They are the people who are competing for the resources we don’t have.  And it’s not just the U.S. — look at Germany vs. Greece, the British people vs. youth mobs, American vs. Chinese workers.  If we were the Yanomamo, this fighting would result in a division, one faction would leave, and then there would be enough to go around for the people who were left.  The problem is, we spend all this time dividing into factions, but there’s nowhere for us to go.  We have created a globalized economy, and there is nowhere that anyone can go anymore where they wouldn’t still be sharing the same global economic pie.  No matter how much we fight with one another, we’re all still stuck in this mess together.
Do you know why Americans are so often obese?  Because we are genetically adapted to love high-calorie foods — sugars, fats, and salt.  This was a great adaptation when we were hunter-gatherers, who spent most of our days walking from place to place and engaged in physical labor, and food was sometimes scarce.  Even as we changed and became farmers and herders and even city-dwellers, the amount of physical work we needed to do and the scarcity of these foods meant that we were still in pretty good shape.  But now that we have machines to do our work and carry us around and our jobs have us sitting at desks most of the day, while at the same time those high-calorie foods are easier and easier to obtain, that adaptation isn’t working for us anymore.  It’s making our situation worse, and our health along with it.  The trait that was helpful in one setting hurts us now that our circumstances have changed; it’s called an evolutionary mismatch.
I think our tendency to point fingers and fall into factions during bad economic times is another mismatch.  And the longer the economy stays bad, the more we point fingers and fight with one another, when what we really need to do is overcome this tendency towards anger and division, and work together to find solutions.  Just like many of us need to eat lower-calorie, high-nutrient foods, and do more physical work during the day in order to lower our collective health risks.
We all know that we need to eat right and exercise, yet it’s often really, really hard to do.  So is there any hope that we’ll collectively realize that all this political infighting is hurting us as a nation, and start working together to solve our common economic woes?
I’m afraid the answer to that question is, fat chance.

Women’s Choices

I have to say, I hate the new Beyaz commercial with something close to a burning passion.  How can a commercial for birth control, something that was a key component of the sexual revolution, be so sexist?  How did the ad agency get so far off track with this one?

The premise of the commercial is women walking through a store, shopping/making choices about what they want in their lives.  This should be brilliant, because birth control does, in fact, give women more choices when it comes to their lives.  The main problem, in my eyes, is that each woman in the commercial only gets to choose one thing.

It starts with the line, “You know what you want to do.  But you never know what you might want tomorrow.  It’s good to have choices.”  You see a woman grabbing a diploma from a pile labelled “graduate school.”  Then two women check out a selection of pictures of men labelled “significant other.”  One of the women snatches a picture out of the group just ahead of a second woman, then smirks as she walks away, leaving the second woman to look after her in disappointment and disbelief.  In the next shot, the woman who missed out on the guy smiles and reaches towards a choice that we don’t get to see, but from the angle, you get the impression it is somewhere else in the store.

Then there’s a fourth woman who passes over a picnic basket labelled “picnic by waterfall.”  You see her continue past a display with a stork in it.  The stork, with a lavender bundle held in his beak, steps out of the display and chases her, offering the bundle repeatedly, but she smiles, refuses, and walks away.  You next see her walk up to a model of the Eiffel Tower, labelled “Trip to Paris,” and take hold of the tag.

We then switch to a fifth woman, who looks at a selection of houses and cars, labelled “buy a house,” then chooses one and puts it into her shopping cart.  The final scene is the woman who refused the stork, sitting behind the wheel of a car full of women with the Eiffel Tower model strapped to the roof of her car.

By the time we’re done with the commercial we have been given a slew of symbolic messages about womanhood and our choices.  Right from the start, we learn that women are fickle and don’t know their own minds from day to day.  Next we see that women need to fight over men, who are their only potential “significant others.”  Sure, lesbians typically don’t have to worry about birth control and aren’t Beyaz’s target demographic, but there is still an assumption being made.  And why emphasize sexual competition between women?  Why not have both women choose a partner from among the large selection of possible mates and both be happy with their choices?  Then there’s the insistence of the stork, which I can only assume refers both to a woman’s own biological clock “going off” and the pressure from her family/friends/society to get down to the business of making babies, since that’s what women are made for.

But the worst aspect of the commercial is the fact that it makes it look like you have to choose between grad school and a baby, travel and a baby, even home ownership and a baby, and the fact that a woman doesn’t want to get pregnant at a particular time in her life doesn’t have to be tied to the things she would rather be doing.  Sure, having a child makes some things a little bit more difficult, but it’s not an either/or proposition any longer.  I know several women who went to grad school, owned homes, and had babies all at the same time.  I know multiple cultural anthropologists who took their toddlers with them to live overseas while they worked on their graduate or post-graduate research.  I also know women who do not want to have a child right now regardless of the fact that they currently have a partner, own a house, and have their degree — they’re not putting off kids for the sake of something else.  And I know working and stay at home moms, with and without degrees, who rent and own houses, with boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends/wives, and on their own, who have made the decision to have a child without giving anything up in the process.  And whether a woman doesn’t want a child now or doesn’t want one at all, her decision to use birth control isn’t about the fact that being a mom limits her choices.  It is no longer a trade off that women have to make.

I understand, many anti-teen pregnancy campaigns stress the decisions that teens need to make, and the limits that having a child can impose on young girls’ lives.  But in that case, you are encouraging young girls to think about the consequences of their actions and choose one of two things: birth control, or abstinence.  Beyaz is being marketed to adult women, and selling it with the message that having a child means the death of your dreams is sexist to say the least.  Women today have more choices than ever — I would rather see the women in this commercial fill their symbolic shopping baskets with a variety of choices, instead of having to pick just one.  We have the ability to find the combination that works best for us.  And to suggest that those choices wouldn’t be possible with kids?  The 1950s called, Beyaz, and they want their antiquated gender myths back.

One of the monotone facts rattled off in the background of the commercial is the fact that this birth control includes folate, which helps prevent birth defects for women who conceive while on or just after ending use of Beyaz.  So that means it’s safer for women who are on birth control and accidentally or intentionally become moms.  Why not emphasize the variety of reasons why women choose birth control?  The message could be, if you’re not ready yet for kids, if you’ve had a child and want to wait before having more, or if you’ve finished having kids, Beyaz is the right birth control for you.

Oh yeah, that’s right.  Mirena already stole that idea.  *smile*

Hide, Unfriend, or Ignore?

a difference of opinion?

Facebook is a weird place.  It makes it very easy to keep tabs on people.  You can say yes to the friend request of someone you had English class with in high school but never hung out with, or the wife of an old childhood pal, or someone you only knew at work.  And it isn’t until you friend these people, and you are suddenly privvy to their own personal data stream, that you may realize you have some major differences in opinion.

I have heard and read several studies that claim that the Internet and social networking sites allow us to meet more people that are exactly like us, rather than fostering diversity and interconnectedness.  I like to think that I am an openminded individual, who is happy to associate with people who do not share my political views or personal ideals or even religious beliefs.  Hell, T and I have very different political beliefs, so we just agree to disagree, and we don’t talk politics too much.

And there’s the rub.  All these people you friended because you used to know them in a certain context are now sharing their most deeply-held personal beliefs 24-7 with all of their closest friends and family.  And you.  Subjects that would never come up during a 40-hour work week are suddenly posted, shared and ranted about on a regular basis.  Whether you agree with them or not.

Maybe they posted something that is completely contrary to your beliefs.  And you can’t resist making a comment to contradict them, which turns into a comment battle.  Or maybe it’s the other way around — you post something, and get a torrent of criticism or unwanted advice.  I’m sure that everyone on Facebook has run into this problem before.  But what do you do about it?

The first time I ran across this phenomenon was with the spouse of a former high-school classmate.  I had no interest in going to war with someone I had never met in person, so I simply hid her posts.  The next time around, it was a former classmate themselves, someone who had opposing political beliefs to mine and liked to stir the pot.  And I always took the bait.  I finally decided I had to do something, if only to save myself a small amount of mental anguish each day.  Unfriending seemed unkind, so hiding his posts was the easy way out.

But then there was a third person.  Someone I had been close to during our freshman year of college, but had not been in touch with for over 10 years before Facebook reunited us.  This person had become born-again in the intervening time, and frequently posted points of view I disagreed with, both religious and political.  For a little while, I commented on the posts I disagreed most violently with.  In one case, I found myself in an exchange with another of his friends, with several volleys of opposing opinion.  And then I realized something.

I was that person who decided to butt in and provide my unsolicited opinion when no one else wanted it.

My born-again friend?  Never commented on my posts he didn’t agree with.  And rarely replied to my annoying comments on his posts.  He was just stating what he believed to his friends who believed the same thing.  And he let me believe, and post, whatever I liked without comment.

And that’s where I realized that you don’t have to hide or get rid of people you have friended but sometimes disagree with.  Any more than you need to stop talking to your coworker as soon as you realize that they are a Green Party member and you’re a Libertarian.  You simply choose to not get into it with them, in the hopes that they will respect your right to believe what you like and do the same.  So when I see a Facebook friend’s post that I disagree with, I simply don’t read it.  And that way, I don’t get mad, and I don’t have to be that crazy person who is ranting in their comments.  And since I stopped meddling, I don’t seem to have the problem of people butting in and telling me my posts are wrong either.

Most of the time, it works that way.  Sometimes, I admit, I just can’t resist butting in.  Respectfully, of course.  But I do try to hold my virtual tongue.

And I’m sure that as soon as I have kids, and I start to share the choices I’m making as a parent, all that no-one-butting-in will be a distant, fond memory.  But that’s okay.

Because there’s nothing more boring than only knowing people who believe exactly the same things you do.  Just ask T.  *smile*

The Days After

If you looked at my Facebook wall, you wouldn’t guess that this election was “a referendum on Obama’s policies.”  Nearly all of my friends bemoan the fact that so many people voted against those policies before they really had a chance to get off the ground.  Does this mean I have a skewed view of what “most Americans” think these days?  Perhaps.

But one of my friends took a different view of the situation.  She blogs under the name Mom In A Million, and her post on the true effects of this election really got me thinking.  (She usually gets me thinking, which is why you should read her blog every day, not just this post.  But I digress.)

I’ve never been much of a political activist.  For years I didn’t follow any news outlet other than word of mouth — no email, no TV news, no daily paper.  As it became easier to get access to news on the web, I started with regular visits to  Then I met T, who insisted on watching both the national and local news each night, which got me a little more informed.  Then I started a job with a 90 minute commute during prime NPR news programming.  Suddenly, I have become much more informed, and also much more engaged, regarding politics in this country.

What MIAM’s post reminded me of was my recent experience with my current Senate representative.  I am a fairly liberal Democrat. I now live in Utah.  My Senator is Orrin Hatch. I pretty much figured I was screwed in this state, in terms of having my voice heard over the rest of his constituents in this state. But I have to say, when I have contacted his office, he has always responded.

When I wrote to say I’d like universal healthcare, he responded with a letter that essentially said, I’ll do what I think is best for my state, and that was OK. I am sure he got a lot more letters from his constituents telling him the opposite, and his job *is* to represent the majority.  They’re the ones that vote him into office.

But I also contacted him when Kyrgyzstan was in turmoil, urging him to let the State department and Hillary Clinton know that we should be helping them out. (It’s a little country that almost no one knows about, but I lived there for over 2 years, I know people who live in the south and in the areas where ethnic fighting was the worst, and I actually care.) I quickly got a letter back from Senator Hatch, saying he’d talked to Secretary Clinton about my concerns, and would keep me updated on developments. I was impressed that he claimed to have talked to the Secretary of State for me, but wasn’t going to hold my breath on a follow up.

And then one came. Seriously.

A few months later, I got a cover letter from him and an enclosed letter from the State Department with *my name* on it letting me know what the US decided to do to help Kyrgyzstan out.  I was very impressed.

So even a representative with fundamentally different beliefs than mine listened and did something on my behalf.

I guess the point of this is to say, if we stay engaged (something I have never done before), we can still have influence over the people who represent us in the government.  Even if we didn’t vote for them, even if we are disappointed that they won, when the fights begin again over legislation, we can pipe up.  We’re not limited to action just in election years. 

And these days, it’s so easy!  Just hop online, Google your representatives, and send them an email via their web pages.

I admit, I’ll never be one of those people who is dedicated enough to go door to door, or try to get petitions signed, or volunteer for a local campaign.  But I can send a quick email on the issues I find the most important.  And you can too.