147 Maximum Ape

Contingency is a fundamental concept in evolution. Chance events and the vagaries of history set animals along evolutionary trajectories that are less optimal strategies, and more strategies that make the most of a bad situation.  As the immortal Christopher Hitchens so simply put:

Even with all the advantages of retrospect, and a lot of witnesses dead and gone, you can’t make your life look as if you intended it or you were consistent. All you can show is how you dealt with various hands.

We know from experience the role contingency plays in each of our lives. At times*, it can outweigh the relentless driving force of adaptive evolution. Indeed, chance events may be our best explanation for why there are so many different types of animals and plants on this planet; without contingency we would likely be looking at a much more depauperate, uniform world.

For one thing we would not have snooker. For those US readers, snooker is basically gentleman’s pool. Matches can last several days, waistcoats and bow-ties are compulsory, and a butler is present to polish the balls. Do yourself a favor and google it. I spent my undergraduate days in Sheffield, the home of world snooker. Aptly named ‘the Crucible’, Sheffield’s premier snooker hall is filled with as much drama and intrigue as any theatrical show. The city comes alive during world championship season, with the excitement on the streets reaching fever-pitch levels. Frankly, to see that many people take something so silly, so seriously, is life-affirming. I like all sport for that reason, but as an evolutionary biologist, snooker lends a special appeal to me as it is the the most perfect physical embodiment of primate evolution.

No other animals on earth could even attempt snooker. Only several key innovations, unique to the history of primates, make snooker possible. Most obviously, in order to reach the table, one must affect an upright posture. This is not trivial. Most animals require all limbs for balance. Bears and horses can rear up on their hind legs temporarily, but certainly not for the 72 hours required to make it through the grueling 35 frame final in South Yorkshire.

Not only does an upright posture allow us to see the table, it also frees up our hands to hold the cue. Incidentally, freeing up the hands is our best guess for why we stood up in the first place, although then it was for picking berries off the forest floor, rather than phenomenal break-building. Of course, being upright is necessary but not sufficient. In order to deftly sink colors and control the cue ball, one also requires precision grip. The opposable thumb is another adaptation that arose to improve our ability to manipulate food, but again we can co-opt that adaptation (very common in evolution by the way) to different purposes.

So now we have the tools to physically play the game, but we have several adaptations to go before we can actually comprehend what we are doing, i.e. be any good at the game. For instance, it would behoove us to know what balls we were aiming at, and thus color vision seems a rather important prerequisite for snooker**. Even in pool, when the balls are numbered, the issue is not circumvented because the ability to count requires the final primate adaptation we will discuss.

We are a self-aggrandizing bunch, and our species will take any opportunity to laud it over the rest of the animal kingdom with our big brains. It is true that our cognitive abilities are the primary trait that set us apart from other species, and certainly without such processing power, we would not be tearing up the pool halls anytime soon. The main power that our big brains bestow upon us is that of foresight. Very few animals can look past the here and now, to predict future outcomes, or make plans. In order to be even remotely competent at something like snooker requires being able to at least guess where the balls are going to end up after you hit them. This seems pretty easy to us, but as I say, most animals do not have such clairvoyance. In addition, as alluded to previously, big brains are required for counting to any substantial number. With 147 points available on the table at the start of a frame, mathematical skills are as important for snooker as they are for darts. The games we play…

 

*mass extinction events are the most obvious example

**having said this, I have fond memories of my maternal grandparents glued to the professional snooker on a black-and-white television set! Adds an extra challenge for the spectator I guess, but it didn’t make any sense to me then, and it doesn’t make any sense to me now. 

Boer-ed to Death

They tell me that our brothers over there
Are defyin’ the Man.
We don’t know for sure because the news we get
Is unreliable, man.
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’,
But I’m glad to see resistance growin’.
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
From Johannesburg?

South Africa was one of the first spoils of the British Empire in the scramble for Africa. Along with Egypt, this colony formed the cornerstone of Cecil Rhodes’ infamous Cape to Cairo mission*. Despite the early acquisition of South Africa by the Brits, we were not the first white people there. The Portuguese had rounded the (now seemingly ironically titled) Cape of Good Hope** back in 1488, but it was the Dutch East India Company that established the first permanent settlement at Cape Town in 1652. It was more than 150 years before the British Empire turned its gaze towards the southern tip of Africa, seizing the cape in 1795 to prevent it falling into the hands of the French. The Empire might have relinquished the colony at the end of the Napoleonic wars, were it not for discoveries of diamond and gold deposits in the unexplored hinterland, that convinced the British to stay. And so, the stage is set for a century of Anglo-Dutch conflict, predominantly over mining rights.

I always attempted to put myself in the shoes of an indigenous tribesman, perhaps Zulu or Ndebele, watching the scene unfold. Europeans fighting Europeans, over to whom your land belongs. And for some reason, they have left you out of the discussion. Bewilderment and rage in equal measure, I can only imagine. In this country, the feelings must’ve been similar for any Native American unlucky enough to witness European’s slaughtering each other over land rights in North America during the Seven Year’s War, or overhearing the ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ rhetoric being spewed by true (albeit rather new) patriots at the outset of the American Revolution. The irony is palpable.

If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. We are experiencing the perfect storm of ignorance and indifference; a ferocious tide that acts to maintain the ‘ordinary’ status of racism. This is nothing new, of course, but becomes increasingly difficult to swallow as we accrue more and more history that highlight the errors of our past ways. Similar despair surfaces when I contemplate the current trend of European nations towards right-wing politics. If their is one continent that should know full-well the dangers of lurching to the right politically, it is Europe. And that history is far from ancient.  The frequent recurrence of this rapid, collective amnesia is yet another hindrance that can retard the pace of change, or even result in the rolling back of previous advances.

Luckily the solution is simple: do a better job of teaching history (and critical thinking) in schools. I would wager the majority of UK schoolchildren could not tell you a single thing about the Boer War; where and when it happened, who it was between, the fact that the Brits had concentration camps long before the Nazis, etc. This failing is unacceptable, and when you consider that the failure is intentional, in order to cover up previous atrocities, the current state of our education system is almost too dire to bare. Predictions for the future trajectory of education are marred with uncertainty, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that progress will only come if we want it.

 

*I’m not sure which is more depressing, the idea that this kind of land-grabbing jingoism constituted foreign policy, or the fact that we actually pulled it off; at the height of empire, you could walk from Cape Town to Cairo without leaving British sovereignty… man oh man, the good ol’ days.

**Hope has long since left the southern peninsular of Africa. Apartheid is back in international news, Namibian separatists are fleeing a crackdown regime in their home country, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring Botswana, civil war fears have flared up in Mozambique again, and following the death of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is experiencing yet another wave of hyperinflation; in most countries $50 million will get you a half-decent holding midfielder, but in Cecil Rhodes’ former playground, it won’t even get you half a banana.

 

Ornithology

“Scoo-ba-do dee, da do dup dee da
Scoo-ba-do dee, da dee do daa”

Charlie Parker was bestowed the moniker ‘Bird’ when he was still and obscure, fresh-faced alto player, bussing tables and blowing his horn in Kansas City. Like most music history, the origin of the nickname is steeped in mythology and apocrypha; no-one really knows where it came from. Ornithology, literally the study of birds, was one of his first groundbreaking bebop recordings that revolutionized the Jazz idiom. Overnight, Charlie Parker became the most famous jazz musician behind Louis Armstrong, and musical prodigies have been diligently studying Bird ever since. But what can scientists learn from the Jazz giants? from bird-watching? It transpires, that a better question is: what can’t scientists learn?

The quest for scientific knowledge has been described as ‘rigorous improvisation’. Fueled by creativity, science is a collective, drawing from a community of researchers working sometimes together, sometimes in opposition, but always with a common goal.  Sound familiar? Scientific quests capture the imagination, and new discoveries can be as jaw-droppingly spectacular as any Thelonious Monk small combo set, rocking into the wee hours. It is clear to all in observance that everything is being crafted on the spot, seemingly pulled from the ether, yet there is not a note out of place. If only researchers acted with such impunity!

Jazz also has much wisdom to impart on modern society. A microcosm of race relations, industrialization, corporate interests, and freedom in its purest form, jazz could be considered the american dream, incarnate. As an example, I would like to draw a parallel between the perceptions and treatment of black youth and early bebop musicians*. Both carry an heir of defiance that speaks to a peoples. When bebop was first codified, as the Nazi’s still controlled most of continental Europe, its exponents were vilified and condescended. The focus is always on the negatives: ‘bebop lacks commercial value’, ‘you can’t dance to it’, ‘sounds like Chinese music’**. People in positions of power use ‘youth’ as a similar catch-all term for the unsavory elements of society. Again, the focus is always on the negatives: ‘black youth commit all the crime’, ‘bunch of drug addicts’, disrespectful to authority’***.

What sort of attitude is that? Seriously. Jazz is the quintessential American art form. It stands for everything the United States purports to hold dear: freedom, creativity, unity… Indeed, the Nazi’s banned jazz, labeling it “Nigger-Jew music”. That’s a five-star review if ever I’ve heard one. Adolf Hitler was all too aware of the music’s power to transcend racial and ethnic boundaries and highlight the cultural sophistication of marginalized peoples. For some reason, modern society lacks that insight. Simply because we don’t understand young people, particularly young people of color, does not mean that we should denigrate them. These are two curious instances of unfamiliarity breeding contempt. Maybe we should view this as a positive; the only way is up? Familiarity assuages contempt? Or perhaps wishful thinking? Too early to say.

Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that Jazz originated in the most multicultural city in the US, New Orleans. Jazz captured the spirit of a nation, in the dizzying heights of the roaring twenties, and offered a beacon of hope to those that did not feel a part of the society to which they belong. Jazz is a celebratory music, filled with optimism (but matched with equal part realism). Even the tragically premature death of bebop’s father, following years of drug addiction and mental illness, was not enough to dampen spirits. People took to the streets, and reminded those grieving that art is immortal and the positive message of Jazz eternal. All across the country, graffiti etched on every available surface defiantly proclaimed: ‘Bird Lives’.

Jazz has a lot to teach us,  if only we care to listen.

 

*of course the analogy is somewhat stretched, given the fact that most early bebop musicians were also black youth.

**real quote! Even the stupendously brilliant Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway fell foul of such derogatory slurs. Nobody likes change I guess.

***another real quote! If I was in those shoes, I’m pretty sure I would lack any semblance of respect for authority too. Respect is earned. From what I can tell, young people from marginalized backgrounds exhibit extreme tact and restraint in the face of such appalling treatment. If you think they are disrespectful, maybe ask the question: why?

Pink Triangles, Silver Flames, and White Men

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

“Every man ought to be a macho macho man,
To live a life of freedom, machos make a stand,
Have their own life style and ideals,
Possess the strength and confidence, life’s a steal,
You can best believe that he’s a macho man,
He’s a special person in anybody’s land.”

Henry V gave one of the most enduring speeches in all of Shakespeare’s tomes. The Village People were similarly catchy. To this day, manliness is deeply ingrained into western society; a rugged, heroic, stereotype that every boy is inculcated with, virtually from birth. It is interesting therefore, that it has taken so long for men to examine the essentialism of ‘manhood’. As the Village People so humorously explain, it is all an act. To some degree, we all play the part, or assume the role, that seems appropriate based on our experiences in childhood. Indeed, this is precisely the mechanism by which stereotypes are perpetuated. Gone are the days of the extreme ‘knights of the realm’ style medieval chivalry, but the archetypal ‘man’ is alive and well. Personally, I honed my ‘man’ skills watching giants on the big screen, like Clint Eastwood, chewing cigars and shooting Mexicans, or Roger Moore, using his government credentials to excuse day-drinking and sexual harassment in the workplace. And as a child, I thought that’s what I’m supposed to be, I guess…

The concept of manhood (and womanhood for that matter) pervades all aspects of society, and is institutionalized to a large degree. These concepts however, are far from benign. Even those that do not aspire to the prevailing images of what genders should be are complicit in the performance if they fail to openly challenge traditional roles in society’s amateur dramatics. Passivity is tantamount to culpability. Thus, progress will not occur simply from the efforts of disadvantaged groups. All the toil and struggle for equity in society will be for naught, if the dominant culture is not on board. Men are critical to the success of feminism, just as white people are critical to the success of anti-racist ideologies, and heterosexualists to the success of the LGBTQ+ movement.

The question therefore, is not whether dominant groups should help, but how. I do not have enough lines to delve into this topic in any detail, but sufficed to say a good start is for people in positions of privilege to recognize that fact, and attempt to more accurately and comprehensively define their status in society. Once the structure of society (particularly at the top of the ladder) is revealed, only then can we critically evaluate and begin to challenge it.

There is further uncertainty, both in the ‘whether’ and the ‘how’ questions, regarding the interaction of different minority groups. Rallying together appears the only hope for the dominant culture to be effectively challenged. Each group however, has its own history of oppression and list of priorities, many of which cannot be reconciled. A good proportion of society identify with multiple minority groups, and therefore struggle to find true comrades in any. Even if common ground can be found, banding together may run the risk of diluting the overarching message, or silencing the voices of those that find themselves in the minority, in the minority. In Gore Vidal’s famous collection of essays (from which this blog takes part of its name), he summed up this problem, and the false dichotomy of ‘majority’ vs ‘other’, thus:

Jews, blacks, and homosexuals are despised by the Christian. I would suggest that the three despised minorities join forces in order not to be destroyed. This seems an obvious thing to do. Unfortunately, most refuse to see any similarity between their special situations. At one level, they are perfectly correct. A racial or religious or tribal identity is a kind of fact. Although sexual preference is an even more powerful fact, it is not one that creates any particular social or cultural or religious bond between those so-minded. Although Jews would doubtless be Jews if there was no anti-Semitism, same-sexers would think little or nothing at all about their preference if society ignored it. So there is a difference between the two estates. But there is no difference in the degree of hatred felt by the Christian majority for Christ-killers and Sodomites.

No simple solution exists to address these antagonistic forces, but the fact that the majority often treat minorities as a homogenous mass may be an indication that the path to change will (at least initially) come from combating this mindset and drawing lines between disadvantaged groups. Recognizing that some people’s minority status is multiplicative will lead to greater empathy, if not understanding. Secondly, dominant groups, typically white men, need to do a better job of defining the characters they are expected to portray, and then denouncing them. This seems much more agreeable than continuing to extol the virtues of the Chuck Norris mold.

I must confess, I am not a morning person, so were I born in the 13th century, I fear I would’ve been in that pitiful cadre of gentlemen ‘now-a-bed’. Also, I’ve never really been the fighting type, and so even if the battle had been scheduled for the afternoon, I likely would’ve stayed at home. Yet I do not think myself accursed for my absence. On the contrary, I find it rather amusing that the band of brothers could not see the absurdity of their dedication, nor the potentially fatal consequences of their obstinacy.

I do not consider my manhood cheap, I consider it worthless. I have no intention of killing anyone to assuage insecurities regarding my masculinity. War is a mug’s game, and perhaps this is one area where we can tolerate such childish posturing. I for one am happy to let people fight each other in the apparently global quest to determine who is the manliest man, so long as the rest of us can carry on with important things, like enjoying a lie-in. In all other areas, we need to sort this nonsense out.

GMOs? GTFO!

You really think bananas used to just grow naturally in the forest? GTFO!

We’ve been modifying organism’s genes since the agricultural revolution. Somewhat belatedly (12,000 years hence), people are beginning to voice concerns about genetically modified organisms. For those people, I have bad news; genetic modification is practically the definition of domestication. We select crops and livestock for desirable traits, from large udders in dairy cows, to high-yield maize, and seedless fruit*. Although farmers prior to 1866 didn’t know the mechanisms behind what they were doing, they were doing it nonetheless. Without genetically modified organisms, civilization would not exist.

So why the recent bruhaha? My thoughts come straight from the school of my namesake, the incomparable George Orwell. George Orwell was a staunch advocate of language, and provided one of the gloomiest foretelling of what would happen were we to lose it. The ministry’s prime weapon was language, either to incite violence and ill-will, or to placate citizens into a languid stupor.

We live in the information age, where everybody is too busy and overwhelmed with data to evaluate things outside of their field of expertise in any depth. Thus, we all must make snap judgments concerning the world around us. In other words, we must judge books by their covers. This is why language is more important today than it ever has been. If we had infinite time to research topics, or canvas expert opinion, the choice words used in incendiary headlines (or provocative tweets, if you want me to be current) would pale into insignificance. However, if these headlines are the only things that people read, the language means everything.

Politicians know the power of language, and hence they talk about ‘military conflicts’, because war has become rather taboo, and ‘enhanced interrogation’, because as a society we agree torture is wrong. As Orwell puts it:

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

My favorite** of these political deceptions has to be ‘waterboarding’. Drowning someone to make them confess to any crime you put before them is morally reprehensible, but I might consider going waterboarding myself on the weekend; sounds like fun for all the family! It would be rather amusing if it was not so sinister. When you begin to realize that every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is carefully calibrated to trick the public into going along with any despicable, harebrained scheme they concoct, it ceases to be just an interesting psychological novelty. Again, Orwell knew the severity of the problem:

“if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Just as the right words can convince the unsuspecting public of just about anything, the wrong words can generate mass outrage and mob opposition to rather benign concepts. Enter ‘Genetically Modified Organisms’. I’m an evolutionary biologist by trade, and would wager my training in genetics is more appreciable than the average person. Even I however, will admit that it sounds like something out of a horror film. ‘Genetic Modification’ conjures up images of mad scientists messing around with radioactive waste, giant spiders with wings, or even some kind of zombie apocalypse. The steadfast resistance to an idea without having the slightest notion of what that idea entails is lamentable. We mustn’t let imagined fears brought on by a revulsion to scary words jeopardize the progress of civilization. We risk losing one of the best chances of feeding the planet due to a knee-jerk reaction from people who lack even a basic understanding of agriculture, let alone molecular biology.

Unless scientists pay closer attention to the psychology of language, future technological and scientific advances will continue to fall by the wayside under the weight of public disapproval. If politicians are manipulating language to satisfy their own self-interests, and preying on people who lack the time to investigate spurious claims, we must do the same. We were on the right path when we talked about ‘golden rice’, but we dropped the ball sometime in the 1990’s. GMO’s may sadly be a lost cause, but I implore scientists to learn from the witless tricksters in power, and fight fire with fire.

Okay, that seems like enough words, hopefully they are the right ones.

 

*It seems unlikely that nature would devise an organism that could not reproduce on its own now doesn’t it? And of course, when I say unlikely, I mean ridiculous.

**perhaps favorite isn’t the right word…

Beyond the Chessboard

Se recuerda cuando Varadero era para ricos y nada más
Y por la playa, playa tan hermosa
El pueblo no podía ni caminar
Aquello estaba en manos de los míster
Y casi solamente se hablaba inglés
Hasta que un día se formó la corredera
Y desde entonces Varadero del pueblo es para ti y para mi

There are more variations of possible chess games than atoms in the universe. Unfortunately, despite the rather fitting simulacrum of it being white’s game to lose, racial politics are far more complicated than chess. In a previous post, I highlighted the failings of a colorblind ideology, and to see society as only black and white is still a form of colorblindness. The false dichotomy of race in America stems as an artifact of history. Both of the landmark cultural revolutions in the United States in the last two centuries, the Civil War and Civil Rights, were ostensibly black and white. The Civil War particularly, left a legacy of bitterness and resentment in the southern states, and established a deeply entrenched racial feud, divided solely by the color line*.

In reality of course, race represents a spectrum, more like the colors of a rainbow, a symbol famously co-opted by another diversity-championing group. Indeed, the analogy is fitting. Anyone with a basic physics background is aware that the myriad hues generated after a summer shower represent varying wavelengths of visible light. Hence, when we categorize color into the classic seven groups (ROYGBIV), we are making a gross simplification to facilitate our understanding of the phenomenon. The same is true for race. We are dealing with a continuous trait, dictated by the common ancestry of all life on earth, but we discretize it for simplicity and convenience. But we must be careful; working with well-defined categories makes it easier to justify unequal treatment of individuals that fall into those different categories.

Throughout history, the ruling elite have attempted to limit access to education to all those unfortunate enough to not fall on the favored end of the race spectrum. Such policies have their root in the overwhelming inclination of people in power to maintain the status quo. Ignorant masses are passive and malleable. Educated masses are unruly and capable of riposte. Speaking on the Civil War, DuBois notes:

“the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.”

Fear-mongering is a common tool employed to stall, or halt entirely, policies that encourage multiculturalism in schools. Of course, those who adopt such a stance fail to recognize the fact that fear of a backlash is tantamount to an admission of guilt. If white people hadn’t acted so abhorrently, they would have nothing to worry about. Thus, despite the clear need to make education accessible to all, it is whites that most obviously require schooling. Access to education will be for naught, if the ruling class is not taught the fallacy of white supremacy, and introduced to a diverse array of societal perspectives to broaden their cultural horizons.

Without early intervention in the public-school system**, narrow-mindedness and archaic stereotypes will continue to flourish. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. From this, it naturally follows that even positive stereotypes cause harm. They are still stereotypes, they still paint incomplete pictures, and of course, they still use whiteness as a benchmark on which to measure all other races. The pervasiveness of stereotypes in society acts as a bellwether for the degree of multiculturalism that society has achieved. The fact that a society still clings to racial stereotypes is an indication that not enough effort has been made to learn about cultures not your own.

In the grand scheme of things, our experiences are so narrow. Richard Feynman used to compare the scientific process with trying to figure out the rules of chess, when you are only allowed to see a little corner of the board from time to time. This analogy extends nicely to everyday life. One of the most wicked curses of the human condition is to only glimpse the world through such a narrow lens. In the context of race, many have not had the wealth of experience required to overcome stereotypes, and continue to misinterpret the nature of reality. We can expand our field of vision through experience, and many have revelatory “a-ha!” moments when a swathe of new truths is suddenly revealed, and our preconceptions shattered. The progress of society appears to be on a similar trajectory; long periods of stasis punctuated by dramatic social and cultural revolutions. Feynman’s closing words seem apposite:

“Unlike the chess game, though… In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics when you discover new things, it becomes more simple. It appears on the whole to be more complicated, because we learn about a greater experience; that is, we learn about more particles and new things, and so the laws look complicated again. But if you realize that all of the time, what’s kind of wonderful is that as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while, we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which it turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”

Experience is the enemy of ignorance. Critical thinking skills help too. If the education system wants to lead the charge for racial equity in society, which indeed it must, teachers should provide opportunities to develop critical thinking skills and broaden experiences. Once our children are released from the pervasive monochrome ideology, we can move past the overly simplistic black-and-white model of society, and extol the contributions of all creeds and colors.

People are much more complicated than chess, but the game still has much to teach us about society and the nature of human experience. Simplification is always the first step in understanding, and as such chess provides a nice jumping-off point to begin the discussion on race. We just need to make sure it is not the end of the discussion. Incidentally, as I write, the top 5 FIDE rated chess players from the United States, representing the 2nd, 8th, 11th, 20th, and 35th in the world rankings respectively, are Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez Perez, Hikaru Nakamura, and Jeffery Xiong.

 

* As an aside, the Civil War was not an end to slavery, just as the Civil Rights movement was not an end to racism. Slavery is alive and well in western society; capitalism operates as a form of economic slavery, from which death or incarceration represent the only avenues of escape.

** and you have to get them young! The school-to-prison pipeline is a clear indication that it is never too early to challenge and remedy societies racial inequalities.

The Plaster Race: Papering Over the Cracks in Western Society

Twenty-one years in captivity
Are you so blind that you cannot see
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear
Are you so dumb that you cannot speak
Free Nelson Mandela.

From the immortal works of Joseph Mallory Turner to the rainbow stripes of the pride flag, color is a preeminent feature of the human experience; color is something to be cherished. Yet a new swathe of left-leaning types are avowing colorblindness when it comes to race in society, and parading their affliction as a badge of honor. As a self-proclaimed liberal, I do not enjoy being lumped in with such ilk. Hailing from the British Isles, my definition of liberal is very different from that most espoused in the United States. I do not declare myself to sympathize with any one political party, but I am simply ‘alive to the dangers inherent in all forms of power and authority’*. American liberals need to take note. Whilst well-meaning in intention**, the naivety of liberals has contributed to the ongoing racial inequality and institutionalized oppression in American society. Colorblindness rejects people’s cultural heritages and can perpetuate, or even exacerbate, racial injustice. To quote the incomparable Christopher Hitchens, ‘the denial is so often the preface to the justification’.

The attitude of burying one’s head in the sand, in the vain hope that the problem will be resolved by the time you reemerge, is preposterous. Not to mention the immense level of privilege that is required to ignore race – we are not all that fortunate. It would be laughable if not so damaging. Chief amongst the perpetrators of misguided colorblind policies are our school systems. Indeed, they may represent the root of our problems. When teachers adopt the policy of blanket treatment for their students, they are grooming their pupils into faceless drones that lack any sense of individuality. These policies are enacted operating under the assumption that all pupils are starting off from the same place, and therefore when presented with the same opportunities, each has an equal chance of success. In modern society, this is simply not true, and will only act to perpetuate racial inequalities and preclude remedial action.

Colorblind ideologies are tantamount to identity theft. Race should be, nay must be, acknowledged. The antithesis of colorblindness is multiculturalism, wherein differences between members in society are recognized and valued. Again, the schools have a very important role to play here. Children must be taught about ethno-racial diversity from the outset, and educated as to why multiculturalism should be celebrated. To me this seems reasonably straightforward. Massive strides can be taken with the minimum of effort: history and geography classes can become more global in extent, and more closely tied to current affairs; biology classes can spend more time on humanity’s African origins and broader evolutionary concepts to promote the kinship of all life on Earth; music classes can abandon the European Conservatory template and give more weight to the folk traditions and cultures that have shaped 20th century popular music. Just three examples from a ‘multicultural curriculum’.

More challenging will be an overhaul of the standardized assessments that are ingrained in our measures of academic achievement. Standardized tests have many flaws, not least that they were developed with only white men (boys, I should say) in mind. Ergo, the tests are not standardized at all. On the contrary, they are extremely biased. This bias is indicative of the inherent bias in society as a whole; a society that is much more easily navigable to those that the society has been built around. We are all products of society, but only some of us fit the mold.

In the annals of history, when classrooms had more testosterone than televised wrestling, and were paler than frightened milk, treating everybody the same way probably came at little cost. Indeed, it makes sense. Today however, it makes no sense. We need to open our eyes to reality. We must learn from each other and band together, in order to address the systemic problems in our society. Otherwise we will remain in our cultural infancy, with the blind leading the blind.

 

 *Karl Popper, 1962

**the flawed philosophy likely stems from a bastardization of MLK’s dream.

Novel Narratives and Legion Lenses: The Importance of Historical Pluralism

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Lift every voice and sing.

At the turn of the 20th century, James Weldon Johnson captured the frustration of a peoples whose voices were not being heard, and raised a call to arms to those whose stories were not being told. History is written by the winners, and if anybody has ‘won’ the last century (or indeed the last five), it is white Europeans of privilege. Marginalized people must speak out, for the good of society, and for the good of history. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and if our interpretation of history is distorted and incomplete, we certainly cannot learn much from it. Revisionist history is not a new idea (the long-standing debates between the Whig interpretation of history and Marxism have been raging for decades and show no signs of abating), but has developed a new dimension in the context of Race Theory. It is clear to see that the importance of these types of discords (Whig vs Marxist) is not to elucidate which interpretation of history is correct (that would be futility epitomized), but to raise the consciousness of historians to the plurality of their discipline. The history of race relations in the United States is in dire need of revision and expansion. By telling every story, we combat the willful omission/expunction of, or sometimes well-meaning obliviousness to, the salient problems that haunt our annals and still plague modern society.

It should be noted at this point that giving voices to the untold narratives of history is necessary, but not sufficient. George Orwell warned us as such. If the public continue to engage in ‘doublethink’*, then the myriad stories and interpretations of historical events will have little social impact. Indeed, doublethink is a tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase, as it actually represents the complete lack of thinking (in order to maintain the paradox in one’s brain, and not critically evaluate the discrepancies). No, rather we are looking for something more along the lines of DuBois’ ‘double-consciousness’, whereby we should hold two contradictory historical narratives in our mind simultaneously, with the aim of accepting the fact that people have entirely unique perceptions of the world, each shaped by that individual’s experiences and sense-of-place in society.

Once we reconcile the pluralistic nature of reality, and gain an appreciation for the tapestry of history and its myriad interwoven threads, we will open the door for empathy. We are past the point of purporting ‘color-blindness’ when it comes to the issue of race, the ideological equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand. Claiming to not see race is not only ineffective at combating institutionalized cruelty, but also denies people their identities. Running the gamut from classrooms to cemeteries, diversity is something to be openly discussed, and hopefully celebrated. Championing diversity in this manner, taking multiple perspectives into consideration, facilitates critical thinking by highlighting biases in particular narratives, thereby reducing our own biases. This is akin to comparing how Fox News and CNN report the same stories, or indeed which stories they chose to report. Only with breadth of experience can we combat the majoritarian history currently espoused by the powers that be.

We live in the technological age, where the majority of people are overwhelmed by the cacophony of information that besets their everyday lives. Thus, we must often settle for a very superficial understanding of issues outside of our area of expertise. It seems likely that our penchant for single, linear historical narratives stems in part from this predicament. A single story is much neater and simpler to grasp than the convoluted reality, and may be the only story that people afford the time to digest, if they afford any time at all. Nevertheless, if we do not confront the messy nature of history, real social progress will remain a pipe-dream. I am reminded of the old business adage: ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee’. History is transforming before our eyes into a lumpy, cumbersome creature, but I for one would take a camel over a racist horse any day of the week.

 

* “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Status Quota: Civil Rights and the Fallacy of Progress

Alabama’s gotten me so upset,
Tennessee made me lose my rest,
And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam!

The exasperated cries of Nina Simone carry as much force as they did when she first declaimed them in 1964. This begs the question therefore, why so little progress?

The optimism of the civil rights movement, and its promise of racial equality in America, has all but faded into obscurity. Indeed, it has been replaced by legitimate frustration and anger at the snail’s pace of change and the militant resistance (literally) to social reform in this country. The oft championed legislation that resulted from the movement now seems like a token gesture, with some scholars opining that whatever progress was made in that turbulent decade has actually been rolled back by the powers that be. And who are the powers that be? Rich white people, of course.

In my youth, I had reservations about the lasting impact of civil rights on American society, and I am relieved to find I am not the only person who questions the rose-tinted view we typically ascribe to that period of history. I was led to believe (from my white teachers) that rational debate and peaceful protest had finally won over the old Masters, and had spurred them to enact anti-discrimination policy, out of the goodness of their hearts, now that they had seen the light. I hope you can all see the fallacy here; these people don’t have goodness in their hearts, they don’t even have hearts, they have dollar signs where their hearts should be.

This brings us to one of the founding principles of critical race theory; people in power, typically politicians, will do and say anything to remain in power. Thus, we see progressive equality legislation not as a moral deed, but as a pacifying concession to assuage the bleating of the proletariat when they get too raucous. In hindsight, the idea that politicians are not experts in, or even care about, the plight of African Americans seems rather obvious. The politicians I am familiar with don’t appear to know anything. I’m reminded of the fierce wit of Bertrand Russell in his 1932 essay, in which he explains:

“There are not only those who give orders but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two different bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.’

And Bertrand would know; ‘politician’ was one of his myriad hats, and he had white privilege in spades.

Politicians are not guided by a moral compass, but rather by their own self-interests. Such people learn enough (and only enough) to discern which side of the argument suits them, and proceed to voice fervent support for that side. If the side they pick happens to align with public opinion, then politicians get to clamber upon their high horses, and declare themselves champions of the people. Give me a break. This concept is more tactfully described as ‘convergent interests’ in the CRT literature, but I’m not sure it deserves such equanimous language.

The civil rights movement has been touted as a textbook example of convergent interests. Protests in the sixties were fierce enough to topple the status quo, and with their jobs at stake, rich white men rallied, decrying: “Crisis! Something must be done!” That ‘something’ of course being anything that would maintain the status quo, even if it meant letting black people drink from white water fountains. Perish the thought.

This brings us to the crux of the issue; people in charge adore the status quo. This puts them in the minority (for once!). Privilege begets privilege, so long as the status quo is maintained, and thus resistance to change is the default position for anyone in power. Ergo, progress is painfully slow and undertaken begrudgingly. I developed a mantra to this effect when friends and colleagues would declare their unwavering fondness for western democracy and representative government. My glib reply?

Progress does not happen because of politics, but despite politics.

Social upheaval is permitted not to empower the masses, but to placate them. If inaction is more likely to topple the status quo, politicians will spring to work, otherwise they are lethargic as a cat after 5 hours alone in a seafood store.

I’m not sure how we address the debilitating conditions that minorities continue to endure into the 21st century, but much like the treatment of debilitating drug addictions, the first step is admitting we have a problem.

We have a problem.