Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Tragic Day for USC

In light of the tragic murder of two USC students early this morning, I thought I would post a monologue I wrote and performed a couple of years ago at USC:

Fuck South Los Angeles. Fuck the crime, fuck the people, fuck the University of Southern California for being right-smack-dab in the middle of the fucking ghetto. UCLA gets Westwood, Pepperdine gets Malibu, and what the fuck do we get? The University Village. I didn’t always feel this way about our school’s neighborhood. Actually, until last winter, I loved it. I loved feeling a part of the inner-city culture. I loved telling my friends back home that I lived in South-Central Los Angeles. I loved feeling like one of the proletariat. As a connoisseur of hip-hop, I took special regard to the fact that I was living in the 213, and punk police were afraid of me. And, since freshman year, I have walked the streets of South Los Angeles alone, at all hours.

Then, last November – on election night, actually – I got mugged.

A car full of guys pulled up to me on the street, and one “gentleman” got out.

“Yo, lemme have this.”

And he grabbed my cellphone. And I, like a little fucking pre-pubescent boy, let him have it.

Now, you may think that this experience would have turned me off to living in our area. But no. Call me crazy. Call me naïve. But it didn’t. I still walked alone. I chalked my experience up to living in the big city. It’s just a part of life.

Now, about a month later, the house I live in near campus got broken into. My housemates and I were all away for the holidays, and some enterprising thieves took advantage of our absence. Over $17 000 worth of stuff was taken from our house.

This set me over the edge. Here I am thinking I’m some sort of “man of the people” who’s in touch with the working man, with the gangster, with the petite bourgeoisie, but I’m really just a dumb, naïve college kid who liked feeling blue-collar. People are getting killed in this neighborhood. People get mugged all the time! Girls are getting fucking raped! Why in the name of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did I ever like living here?

----

“God, I hate living here! Fuck this neighborhood!”

“Ryan, what happened?”

“As I was skating home, I went by that apartment where those gang-bangers live, and they were drunk or something and started shouting shit at me.”

“What did they say?”

“Oh, I dunno, they just yelled at me. Told me to fuck off or something. I just kept on moving.”

“No. Fuck that. That’s so screwed up. I’ma go talk to them.”

It was a Thursday evening at the beginning of the semester. One of my housemates, Ryan, had just gotten back to the house. I already had a couple drinks in me, and that liquid courage was working its magic. “I’ll be right back!”

“No – Dan… don’t go talk to them! It wasn’t the normal guys! I’ve never seen these guys before!”

“Nah nah it’ll be fine. I’m just going to talk to them. See you guys in a bit.”

As I walked up the silent, oppressive street to confront my friend's tormentors, my mind began to race.

Daniel, what the flying floozit are you thinking?! Who knows what these guys are going to do? Jesus… it’s kind of dark outside. Oh, God. I should just turn around. Well, I’m already halfway there now. Nah. What’s the point of turning back? It’ll be fine. Will it? Probably. Or maybe not. Fuck. I’m going to end up like that one kid last semester. I’m going to get fucking murdered. What the fuck am I doing?! Fuck!

Isaac: “Man, look at this mufucker…”

Rocky: “Yo, nigga, whatchu lookin’ at?”

Two young Latino men were pissing on a light post.

Isaac: “You hear us, mo’fucka?”

“Hey guys… what’s goin’ on?”

Isaac: “Yo nigga – lemme ask you somethin’. You like The Beatles?”

“…Yeah?”

Isaac: “You like The Verve?”

“Yeah… they’re alright…”

Isaac: “Nigga, you like Oasis?”

“Yeah. Actually… I really like Oasis. I saw them live when they played at the Staples Center in December.”

Rocky: “No shit! Us too! Lookatchu’ lookin’ all like Liam Gallagher with your walk.”

Isaac: “Man, come over here, nigga. No homo my nigga, but you seem cool.”

And so it happened. I had an instant rapport with these two guys, because we were both Britpop fans. Next thing I knew we’d gone through the entire twelve-pack of Modello.

Rocky: “Man… we need to get some more beer…”

“Tellya what. Here’s why I was comin’ over here in the first place. You were yellin’ at my friend as he went by on his skateboard, and I was goin’ to ask you why you did that. But ya’ll are cool… ‘smy bad. Lemme getchu some more beer.”

Isaac: “Aww, man, it’s cool. That was your friend? My bad, man. We cool. No homo, man, but we cool.”

A car pulled up. Fuck! I’m gonna get killed in some sort of drive-by bullshit! I should go… what am I doing? Offering to buy them more beer? Okay. Okay it’s just some girl they know. Whew. I’ll just walk down to the corner store, get some beer, have a couple more drinks with ‘em, and go home.

Or maybe I’ll just tell them I’m going to get them more beer and then go home.

But. No. I don’t wanna do that… these guys have been nothin’ but nice to me, and I just drank a bunch of their beer.

“Tellyawhat… I’ma go down to Lee’s and get us some more beer.”

Rocky: “Nah, dawg. They don’t like to see us over there. Lemme drive you to another place.”

“Why can’t we just go to Lee’s? What’s wrong with that?”

Rocky: “You heard of the Harpy’s? …Well. Nevermind. Lee’s pays us money and shit. So they don’t like to see us in there. Just lemme drive you. Come on, you trust us, right?”

Trust you?! Trust you!? Of course I don’t fucking trust you guys! You’re breaking rule number one, Daniel! What the fuck are you thinking? Don’t get into the car with him!

“Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

Fuck. This is getting serious. Like, serious serious. I shouldn’t joke with myself. We’re… uh. We’re not just driving down the street, either. I’m fucking riding with a gang member – a drunk gang member – and I don’t even know where the fuck we’re going.

Okay. Um. Oh, we’re here. Wherever here is. Vermont and somewhere.

We walked up to the store, which was, by the way, clearly a gang operation. There was a big bouncer-dude inside watching the place who Rocky seemed to know intimately. I bought another twelve pack of beer, and we drove back to outside their apartment.

And there I stood with these two guys. Isaac and Rocky. Rocky went up to his apartment and brought down his vinyl copy of Dig Out Your Soul, the latest Oasis album, which he had bought on his last trip to Manchester. Rocky was, apparently, an aspiring musician. He also had a court date the next morning for Grand Theft Auto.

Isaac was on probation, so he couldn’t leave the state.

A few more of their friends showed up, and I met them, too. I even met Isaac’s Mom for a couple minutes when she leaned out of her apartment window to yell at us to shut up. 

Isaac: “Yo nigga, you wanna smoke a blunt?”

“...Sure.”

I was all in.

I looked at my phone. It had been over an hour and a half since I left my house.

Rocky: “Yo homeboy, I’m tryin’ to get paid. I need to go to Commerce.”

Isaac: “I feel you nigga. Lemme go inside to get my gun.”

Rocky: “You wanna come with us?”

“No! Nope. I’m good. Hey, thanks for the beer, and the weed. It was nice to meet you guys.”

And so I left. But not before I got Rocky’s number and Isaac promised that they “had my back if I ever needed anything.”

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I made a lot of good decisions that night. Because I didn’t. I certainly laid myself prostrate before the hands of fate. What produced great material for a solo performance could have also become a news story: NAÏVE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA STUDENT MISSING – LAST SEEN WITH KNOWN GANG MEMBERS.

But nothing bad did happen. I don’t know why it didn’t. But maybe – just maybe – the world isn’t as dangerous as we all like to pretend it is. Yes, people do get mugged. Young women have been raped. And that’s fucking inexcusable and terrible. But these are rare occurrences, and can often be avoided. Yes, we don’t live in Westwood, where everything is sanitized, expensive, and glitzy. But we can go to Westwood when we want. Meanwhile, we live in the real world, where we are constantly reminded of just how lucky we are to be in college and not in a gang. But gang-members are real people too. They like Oasis and The Beatles, just like you and me.

----

Hey everyone, please be careful out there. And if someone tries to carjack you, or mug you, or whatever, for God's sake, just let them have whatever they want.

A few of my fellow bloggers also have excellent posts about USC's relationship with its neighborhood, in light of the recent tragedy. Check out the Chunder Tribune for a great op-ed about USC forcing gentrification on its environs.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Solitary Confinement: A Tragedy of American "Justice"

Imagine spending the rest of your life in a 6 x 8 foot cell. Food is delivered to you twice a day through a slot. Perhaps you are let out for an hour of solitary exercise, or perhaps you aren't. Your books, radio, even the light above your (steel or concrete) bed are all privileges that can be taken away from you as punishment. Now, imagine that over 20,000 people in the United States are in this very situation.

Sadly, none of this is hypothetical. The United States has 5% of the world's population, 25% of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners in solitary confinement -- certainly more than any other rich country. Placing prisoners in solitary confinement has become something of a "new normal" in the state penitentiary system; most new prisons are built with solitary confinement wings, and some prisons have been built with the sole purpose of housing prisoners in solitary confinement.

Now, the most well-known supermax prison in the United States is ADX Florence, in the Colorado grasslands. This is where some of the country's most notorious criminals are held, nearly all in solitary confinement. Inmates such as Barry Mills and Tyler Bingham of the Aryan Brotherhood, Zacarias Moussaoui (the alleged "20th hijacker"), Oklahoma City Bombing conspirant Terry Nichols, and Theodore Kaczynski, the unibomber, are all housed at ADX Florence. Finding sympathetic voices for these individuals is nearly impossible, and, indeed, it is hard to argue that they have gotten anything less than what they deserved.

The prisoners housed at ADX Florence are not the problem. The problem is the other 20,000 inmates held in solitary confinement throughout the country in the state penitentiary system. There is a veritable mountain of scientific evidence that shows that human beings are insatiably social creatures. Deprive a person of meaningful social contact for a time, and he becomes irritable and depressed. Deprive him from any form of social contact for an extended period of time, and psychosis will almost certainly present itself, even in perfectly sane individuals.

The fact is, solitary confinement has become a form of prison punishment, a kind-of pall that hangs over the heads of nearly every inmate. ADX Florence is designed to house extremely dangerous, psychotic, or otherwise highly risky inmates who could not be held in other prison facilities. But in the state prison system, inmates can be placed in solitary confinement simply for breaking prison rules, or being suspected of gang involvement, or any other manner of non violent actions.

Placing people in solitary confinement who will eventually be released back into the general prison population, and in many cases out onto the streets onto parole, is a recipe for disaster and recidivism. Many people who have spent an extended period of time in solitary confinement describe the conditions as mind-bendingly torturous. Inmates will often go on hunger strikes when placed in solitary confinement. Some will even attempt suicide. Many survivors of long-term solitary confinement sentences describe the sensation of "soul-destroying loneliness."

Placing our citizens, whether convicted of a violent crime or not, in situations such as these do not mesh with our ideals as a community, or as a nation. And we do not have to do it. Britain is a prime example: they have certainly had their share of serial killers, gangsters, and terrorists, and the British government even experimented with solitary confinement in 1960s and 70s. However, today the British government houses fewer than 40 inmates in solitary, and focuses on rehabilitating and properly handling their problem inmates. There is hope in America, too. Some states have begun remodeling their high-security prisons to focus on building a sense of community amongst their inmates, and not having to resort to threatening them with solitary confinement. Besides, we can always send the "worst of the worst" to ADX Florence.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Let them in!

Once upon a time a group of three friends went to see a late showing of a movie. There were two 17-year-olds and one 16-year-old. We walked up to the ticket office of an AMC and attempted to buy tickets to a PG-13 movie.

"One ticket to 'School of Rock,' please," I said (don't judge me!).
"OK, that'll be $6," replied the twentysomething man in the ticket office. Yes!, I remember thinking, he's not going to ask my age. Much to my chagrin, as I got out my wallet and reached inside for the cash needed, I heard, "Oh, may I see your ID, please?"
"Yeah, sure," I replied, and I placed my ID on the window of the ticket office, hoping he would overlook my young age.
"I'm sorry, but I can't sell you tickets to that movie," he said.
"Oh, well, it's not rated R, is it?" I asked. I knew perfectly well the reason he wasn't letting me into the movie had nothing to do with its rating, but I still held on to a faint hope that he would let me in.
"No, but it lets out at 12:15," he said.
12:15. 12:15! That's only 15 minutes past curfew, I thought. Rather than making a scene and continuing my attempts at subterfuge and deception, I said, "Oh, OK, well, thanks anyway," and left the ticket office.
My friends turned around walked away with me, and we began to talk. First, we discussed what had just happened, and how I could have perhaps changed my behavior and successfully a gotten ticket to the movie. After that subject was exhausted, we decided to go to one of our cars and decide what we would do with the two hours or so that we had to burn.
God forbid we actually go home.
Eventually, after loitering about the parking lot, going to a fast-food restaurant, and driving around with no particular destination in mind, we decided to call it a night, and after a few more escapades, I arrived home around 12:15 a.m.
Now, I don't know if minors in the great city of Los Angeles get this treatment -- in fact I think they probably don't -- but seemingly minor annoyance is faced by millions of teenagers throughout America. This particular story took place several years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I understand why there is a curfew in Tulsa; I even realize there is a necessity for it. The thinking behind it is, "What in the name of God's green Earth could a minor possibly be doing that is productive after midnight?"
It is true that there are minors who are "up to no good" in every city, and that they are often mischievous late at night. This is true of any demographic, not just under-18s. However, it is equally true that there are minors out late at night who are not breaking any laws, and even have the blessing of their parents to be out.
Not long ago, I thought the main purpose of curfew was to give police officers the ability to charge minors with an infraction when the police were reasonably certain that the kids were breaking the law in some other way, but simply could not prove it.
In other words, if an officer came across a group of kids who were right next to a wall with fresh graffiti on it, he could ticket them because they were out past curfew, even if he couldn't prove that they had actually defaced the wall.
Now, what I just described makes sense. However, what simply does not make sense is enforcing curfew at movie theaters. In the story I told earlier, my friends and I had two whole hours to burn before our parents expected us home. Instead of simply going home, we stayed out until the time that the movie would have ended.
This scenario is similar for many young adults in those two limbo years between driving age and coming of age.
Attending movies at the theater is a safe, productive way for young adults to recreate. So why turn away teenagers from one of the only venues of recreation open to them late at night?
Instead of seeing a movie and then going home when they are expected by their parents, minors are turned away from the theaters, and they then have nothing to do for two hours.
This policy creates problems, rather than solving them.
Turning minors away from late-night movies generally will not make them go home. Therefore, it does not prevent curfew violations in any large way. It simply eliminates one of the few things for minors to do late at night, and leaves them with nothing to do for several hours, which increases their chances of getting into trouble.
Mother always said, "Idle hands breed the devil's work."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The failed states of Somalia and Haiti


The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic

In 2010, a catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake shook the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and its surrounding environs. Most sources agree that 300,000 people died in the quake and  over a million lost their homes[1]. Meanwhile, in Somalia, the country has entered its third decade without a central government of any kind. Despite these horror stories of globalization, there is almost no coverage of this peculiar symptom of the modern interconnected world.

This year on the campaign trail, as most years in recent memory, much ado has been made by candidates on both sides of the isle about "losing American jobs to foreign markets" and "globalization." However, the only person who seems to be calling a spade a spade, so to speak, is President Barack Obama. Although it did not receive much media attention, Barack Obama gave a speech in Mumbai in 2010 in which he finally made a coherent argument about the simple fact that globalization and global economic interconnectedness is never going away. In this speech, the President warned against those who "see globalization as a threat," and admitted that the "interconnected world[2]" of modern trade is never going away. Essentially, globalization is broadening interconnectedness throughout the world political system, not just taking American jobs. Because of globalization, nation states are becoming more dependent upon each other to maintain their own security. Although globalization has only recently entered into the popular vernacular, various waves of the phenomenon have been occurring for centuries. Unfortunately, most of the focus on globalization in the media has been on either the positive aspects of this phenomenon -- i.e. the BRIC countries and their rapid economic growth -- or on the perceived negative economic effects being felt in the United States. However, there has been almost  Somalia and Haiti are examples of failed states that have been affected by globalization.

The “country” of Somalia was a British and Italian colony until 1960, part of a second wave of colonialism globalization. The colonialist period of globalization was characterized by the domination of Europe in world affairs. The Westphalian system[3] created by the European nation-states was spread throughout the world through colonization. Although colonization is certainly not a major part of globalization today, European expansion engendered the global economic and political system we experience today. Colonization spread the Westphalian system and made the concept of the sovereign “nation state” the ideological and practical norm throughout the world. So, when the British and Italians withdrew from Somaliland, a new nation formed uniting the two separate colonies. As with many former colonies, after the colonizers left, a period of instability followed. In 1969, Mohamed Siad Barre formed an authoritarian socialist state that essentially forced stability on the people of Somalia. In 1991, the regime collapsed and the state broke up into a number of factional groups. A UN mission attempted to stabilize the state in the early 1990s, but pulled out in 1995 after the United States withdrew its forces (due to an outcry by the American public after 19 American soldiers died in a military operation to arrest one of the factional leaders). Although the factions that are in power have changed, the nation of Somalia has failed to provide even basic state services to the people living within the supposed territorial confines of the “country.”

Because Somalia has no central government of any kind, it is not recognized under the Westphalian system by any other state. Maps published in other countries show Somalia’s boundaries as being those previous to 1991. The competing fiefdoms in Somalia cannot provide any common Westphalian territoriality. Furthermore, the state is not sovereign. It cannot resist incursions by its neighbor, Ethiopia, nor can any of the governments provide any form of “freedom from want” or “freedom from fear” to its people. A UN mission was forced to enter the state and end famine in the early 1990s, without the UN mission, many more Somalians would have starved.

A second country that has also been a victim of the legacy of colonization is Haiti. Haiti was the first part of “The New World” that Christopher Columbus landed on in 1492. In twenty-five years, Spanish settlers had essentially annihilated the natives who lived on the island. In the late seventeenth century, Spain seceded the Western half of the island of “Hispaniola” to the French. This half of the island became Haiti. Because the natives had been killed and otherwise absorbed into the colonizing population, Haiti became predominantly populated by African slaves. In the late 1700s, the slaves in Haiti revolted, and in 1804, Haiti declared its independence from France. Unfortunately, the country has always been plagued with economic problems. The economy of Haiti was founded on Mercantilism, and when Haiti declared its independence, the state lost the valuable trade of its former colonizer. Today, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The state plays no part in the globalized trade system, and the country has been plagued by central governments that have not provided sovereignty, security, or economic subsistence to the people of Haiti. Despite the rapid humanitarian response by the international community after the 2010 earthquake, the scars of Haiti's most recent disaster will be felt for decades; far longer than a disaster in nearly any other country in the world.

The examples of Somalia and Haiti show a sad and relatively unknown effect of globalization. Somalia and Haiti are failed states because of a previous wave of globalization. Unlike many other former European colonies that have been able to begin contributing to the globalizing world of commerce, trade, and politics, Somalia and Haiti lack even adherence to the Westphalian system. Furthermore, unlike other failed states that are of great importance to the globalized system either economically (like the Congo) or politically (like Afghanistan), Somalia and Haiti have relatively no important natural resources. Although the Congo is certainly a failed state, it is getting injections of capital from the trade it does in Coltan and diamonds. Afghanistan has become central to the United States’ “War On Terror.” Somalia, Haiti, and other failed states like them, were colonized and then left without the ability to become stable nation states without their colonizers. Unfortunately, the modern wave of financial globalization is passing these failed states by.



[1] Significant discrepancies in the death toll estimates exist. An unpublished USAID report claims that fewer than 100,000 people lost their lives:
BBC News. (2011, June 1). Report challenges Haiti earthquake death toll. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13606720
However, that report has been called into question by other people in USAID itself:
Trenton Daniel, AP. (2011, June 4). US: Flaws in death toll report on Haiti quake. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=13758738
Regardless, tens and probably hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and the continued effect on Haiti is evident.
[2] Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times. (2010, November 06). Obama appeals to business leaders in India. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2010/nov/06/world/la-fg-obama-india-speech-20101106

[3] Wikipedia. (n.d.). Peace of Westphalia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_of_Westphalia

Those left behind by globalization

One of the few images in existence of Sentinelese tribespeople

On December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.3 earthquake struck off the coast of Northern Sumatra. The earthquake shifted the ocean floor, displacing a great deal of water, and causing a humongous tsunami (Arya, Anand S, G.S. Mandal, and E.V. Muley 52). The earthquake was the second largest on record; its magnitude only surpassed by the Chilean earthquake of May 1960, which had a magnitude of 9.5 (Arya, Anand S, G.S. Mandal, and E.V. Muley 52). The subsequent tsunami caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, with estimates ranging from 216,000 to 275,000 (Tang, par 3). The wave propagated across the Indian Ocean, causing deaths as far away as the Horn of Africa (Arya, Anand S, G.S. Mandal, and E.V. Muley 51). Amidst the terrible death and destruction, anthropologists feared that the Indian Ocean’s few remaining indigenous bands and tribes had been wiped out by the catastrophe (Leroi, par 1). However, about a week after the tsunami, it became apparent that not only did the tribes survive, but also few of their peoples had been killed by the giant waves (Misra, par 4). Immediately, there was a great deal of media attention devoted to the indigenous peoples living off the coasts of India, Thailand, and Myanmar. There was a great deal of speculation as to how these bands and tribes – seemingly so “primitive” – were able to withstand one of the greatest natural disasters in history.


Two groups of indigenous bands – the Moken and the Andaman Islanders – reside in different countries with different policies, but have had very similar experiences with regard to the recovery effort from the tsunami and pressures from the outside world. Both groups have seen a huge increase in the interest of outside journalists, non-government organizations, and even the governments in whose territory they reside. Even so, the governing strategies of the countries in which they reside are very different. This difference extends to their policies regarding the indigenous people living in their territories. Despite experiencing different policies between the Indian government, which controls the Andaman Islands (Arya, Anand S, G.S. Mandal, and E.V. Muley 53), and the governments of Thailand and Myanmar, where the Moken reside (Bauerlein 58), both the Moken and the Andaman Islanders are feeling the pressures of a globalizing world. The forces of expansion and modern development in India, Thailand, and Myanmar are jeopardizing the cultures, beliefs, and very existence of the Andaman Islanders and the Moken.

The Moken live in several island groups off the coasts of Thailand and Myanmar (Bauerlein 58). They are a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer culture, and they tend to spend much of the year living on small boats, fishing to procure subsistence (Arthorne, par 1). During the monsoon season the Moken build huts on land, but throughout the rest of the year they subside by fishing and trading on the coastal waters (Budjeryn, par 27). They claim to learn to “swim before they can walk” (Arthorne, par 1). Adult Moken are able to dive to over 200 feet in depth; they use this ability to scour the sea floor for shells and catch fish that are out of most humans’ reach. The Moken have learned to control the reflex in their eyes that occurs when exposed to water, allowing them to constrict their pupils while swimming. This practice allows them to see clearly in the ocean, without the need of goggles or other tools (Bauerlein 58).

The Moken are direct descendants of the Austronesians, the first humans to arrive in Southeast Asia, tens of thousands of years ago (Misra, par 9). The Austronesians migrated to the Moken’s current location about four thousand years ago (Budjeryn, par 26). The Moken are animists and spiritualists who have many myths, most of which are centered on their close relationship to the ocean (Athorne, par 3). The Moken have a creation myth that explains their life as sea-nomads, which is passed down orally to each generation. According to Jacques Ivanoff, one of the few anthropologists to compile an ethnography about the Moken, the myth is a symbolic description of the Moken’s lifestyle, which is often very hard and rife with poverty (14-15). In his ethnography, Ivanoff describes the creation myth:
“Gaman, a Muslim Malay, was the consort of Queen Sibian but was enamored of his young sister-in-law Kèn and became her lover. By this act Kèn transgressed society’s taboo against “mounting,” i.e. taking the place of, one’s elder. Outraged, Queen Sibian decreed that thereafter it would be forbidden to dwell on land, a ban symbolized by her ordering Kèn to be cast into the sea (lemo Kèn—the “immersion of Kèn”) and that thereafter boats must be dugouts hewn from a single balk of timber, with indentations fore and aft (“a mouth that eats and a rear that defecates”), symbolizing the unending cycle of ingestion, digestion and evacuation.” (15)
The myth of Gaman and Kèn is a seemingly ubiquitous motif shared between all human cultures – forbidden love. However, unlike many similar stories in the Western tradition, this story has a different message. The myth conveys the taboo of disobeying one’s elders (Ivanoff 15), whereas myths that are more familiar in the West tend to support the idea that “love knows no boundaries” and that people should be free to choose with whom they fall in love. Amongst the Moken, it seems to be more important to obey one’s elder than to fall in love with whomever one pleases.

The myth of Gaman and Kèn is not, of course, the only myth amongst the Moken. All of their myths convey lessons and knowledge that needs to be passed down from each generation. One such myth, the myth of the “laboon,” saved the Moken from the 2004 tsunami. According to the myth, spirits of their dead ancestors who are angry send the laboon, which washes over the world. Before the laboon arrives, the ocean recedes much more than the lowest tide. When the Moken elders saw the ocean do this before the tsunami, they warned their kin and ran inland to higher ground (Athorne, par 3). No exact tally of Moken deaths due to the tsunami is possible, because of their nomadic lifestyle, but only one fatality was ever reported to the government authorities in either Thailand or Myanmar – a handicapped boy who was left near the beach in the rush to get to higher ground (Budjeryn, par 29).

Water receding from the beach just before the tsunami hit

The Andaman Islanders are actually a group of independent tribes, each with their own separate cultures and languages, but with the same ancestors (Mukerjee 236). The four separate tribes are the Great Andamanese, the Jarawa, the Onge, and the Sentinelese (Mukerjee xvi). They are semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers (Budjeryn, pars 3-10), just like the Moken. The Andamanese seem to have forgotten how to kindle fire – instead, they keep fires burning constantly in special hearths (Mukerjee 234). Like the Yanomami, they cannot reckon numerals greater than two (Mukerjee xiv). Many anthropologists believe these four tribes of humans to be some of the most isolated peoples on the planet, especially the Sentinelese, who live on a tiny island west of the main Andaman archipelago (Mukerjee xiii).

The Sentinelese have never been formally studied by anyone (Goodheart, par 2). In fact, most attempts to contact them have been met with hostility. Since Marco Polo’s expedition to the Orient in 1290, there have been rumors of the ferocity of the Sentinelese (Mukerjee xi). There have been a few instances of brief contact with the Sentinelese, the most notable of which occurred in January 1991, when a Sentinel tribesman approached a boat containing representatives from the Anthropological Survey of India and took a gift that was offered to him (Mukerjee 229). Naturally, little is known about these tribespeople. It was estimated that between forty and 250 Sentinelese were alive before the 2004 tsunami, but no definitive tally was possible (Budjeryn, par 10). The Sentinelese speak their own unique language, however there is some evidence that the Onge and Sentinelese languages are mutually intelligible (Mukerjee 228).

The Great Andamanese, Jarawa, and the Onge all have had much more contact with the outside world. These three distinct tribes all have their own languages (Glass, par 2), but they also have a great deal of interaction with each other (Cooper 96). Generalized exchange between the three major groups is very common, and there appears to be a good deal of movement between groups of Andaman Islanders (Cooper 96). Although all four tribes of Andamanese reside in a very small area, protein scarcity is not a problem. Unlike the Yanomami, the Andamanese have a nearly infinite resource of protein from the ocean. Therefore, negative exchange is very uncommon (Cooper 96). Furthermore, the Sentinelese have removed themselves from the proper Andaman archipelago and now reside on their own tiny island a few miles away from the primary island group. Perhaps most interestingly, all of the Andamanese tribes have very low birthrates. Anthropologists believe that a complicated system of physical adaptations and cultural beliefs kept their population in equilibrium with their small habitat for thousands of years. Unfortunately, increased contact with outsiders and pressure from settlers has caused the population of the Andamanese to decline enormously (Mukerjee 130).

Genetic evidence and the anthropological record suggest that the Andamanese settled on the archipelago some time between 30 000 and 60 000 years ago (Mukerjee 237-238 & Goodheart, par 9). They are the direct ancestors of the first Paleolithic settlers of Asia from Africa (Mukerjee 240 & Goodheart, par 9). Zarine Cooper, an archaeologist who published a study of the Andaman Islands, theorized that the reason the Andaman Islanders formed separate tribes with different languages has to do with the distribution of resources. Citing Radcliffe-Brown’s study of the Andamanese, Cooper postulates that the Andaman Islanders long ago organized into groups dwelling either inland or on the coast. This distinction gave rise to different cultures and languages (Cooper 96). This theory is supported by physical evidence that suggests that the ancestors of the Andamanese immigrated to the archipelago during the Ice Ages. When they arrived, the settlers all shared a common culture and language. However, as the ice caps and glaciers melted, the islands became flooded, and the settlers separated into groups (Mukerjee 236).

Just as the Moken have the myth of the laboon, the Andaman Islanders have their own myths about giant waves. The knowledge of these myths helped them recognize the warning signs that a tsunami was about to hit on December 26 (Budjeryn, par 8). After the tsunami, the Indian government sent aid teams to the Andaman Islands. All of the Great Andamanese and Jarawa survived the tsunami, and most of the Onge survived, as well (Glass, par 6). The Indian government also reported that all of the Sentinelese appeared to have survived, after a government helicopter flew over their island. The helicopter’s appearance prompted a Sentinelese tribesman to fire an arrow in its direction (Glass, par 8).

The Indian and Thai governments responded differently to the plights of the Andamanese and Moken, respectively. The governmental responses were tempered by their previous policies toward the tribespeople. About 1000 Moken live in islands off the coast of Myanmar, where they continue to practice their traditional nomadic lifestyle. It is believed that most, if not all, Burmese Moken survived the tsunami (Bauerlein 58). Unfortunately, little more is known about the Moken living in Myanmar because of the government’s insular policies (Bauerlein 61). Only around 200 Moken remained in Thailand at the time of the tsunami (Budjeryn, par 26), however, much more is known about their relationship with the government.

Before the tsunami, the Thai Moken had been forced to live in a national park in the Surin Islands. Because the border between Myanmar and Thailand is closed to civilian traffic, Moken cannot visit their affines and kin from neighboring bands. The Thai government forbade them from cutting down trees under any circumstances, which prevented the construction of new boats, ending their nomadic lifestyle on the sea (Bauerlein 61). The government began marketing the Moken as an attraction for tourists; some Moken even began to make a small livelihood selling crafts and giving tours of their village to curious sightseers (Griswold, par 1). Many Moken had begun to venture to the mainland for work, although they would usually return. Unfortunately, they also returned with the diseases of the mainland. Alcoholism has begun to plague Moken men. In November 2005, at least ten of the 200 Thai Moken had contracted AIDS, and five others had already died from the syndrome (Athorne, par 10).

Although the Thai Moken escaped the tsunami, their entire village had been destroyed, including the modern amenities they had come to rely on – such as stoves, battery-powered televisions, and modern boats. The government transported them to a temporary shelter in mainland Thailand. There they were given food and a small amount of money. However, after only a couple weeks, the Moken decided to return to the Surin Islands. The government donated material for them to rebuild their huts, and they began to prepare for the inevitable return of the tourists (Griswold, pars 1-9). Recently, there have been reports that land speculators, wealthy investors, and a few Thai government officials have begun to develop the coastal areas where the Moken had lived before the tsunami, forcing many of them to relocate to different areas further inland (Kazmin and Panwadeee, pars 1-6).

The Moken are experiencing the dilution and absorption of their culture into the modern Thai society. The Andamanese are experiencing a similar plight, but they are receiving better protection from the Indian government. Unfortunately, this protection may be too little, too late. In the 19th century, when the British first settled the Andaman Islands as part of their colonization of Asia Minor, the Andaman Islanders had a population of about 10 000 (Budjeryn, par 6). The Andamanese, isolated for tens of thousands of years, had no resistance to the foreign diseases that the British carried. By the end of the 19th century, syphilis, measles, and influenza had decimated their population (Mukerjee xvii). When the British ceded control of India in 1947 and the country received its sovereignty, settlers began to arrive from the mainland, causing the population of the Andaman Islands to increase exponentially. Currently, the population of the Andaman Islands stands at about 350 000 (India Says Reclusive Aborigines Safe, par 19), of which only about 500 are Andamanese (Mukerjee xx).

Before the tsunami, the Indian government had a policy limiting access to the Andaman Islanders, especially the Sentinelese (Mukerjee 223). Although India allowed extensive development in the Andaman Islands, the native settlements were deemed strictly off-limits (Goodheart, par 7). This policy limited the amount of information that was available about the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge, and the Sentinelese. It also protected their culture, to some degree. Nevertheless, all of the Andaman Islanders had some contact with the Indian settlers and all but the Sentinelese had become very familiar with the modern world by December 26, 2004. Many of the Andaman Islanders had become alcoholics, just like the Moken, and their population has begun to decline again, after beginning to recover slightly (When the Spirits Threw a Boulder in the Sea, pars 16-20).

Of the approximately 1700 Moken and Andaman Islanders living in the Pacific Ocean, less than twenty-five perished as a direct result of the tsunami. Afterwards, the Indian and Thai governments exerted a considerable amount of effort to ensure the safety and survival of the ancient tribes. The Indian government temporarily abandoned its policy limiting contact with the Andamanese to provide them with the material to reconstruct the huts that were destroyed in the tsunami (Arya, Anand S, Gz.S. Mandal, and E.V. Muley 62-63). The Indian government even attempted to aid the Sentinelese, although the arrow they shot at the helicopter sent to investigate their situation seems to have convinced them otherwise. Even without the assistance of the Indian and Thai governments, there was little risk that the Moken or Andamanese would have been destroyed by the tsunami. The Andaman Islanders have been living on the archipelago for tens of thousands of years, and the Moken have been sea-faring nomads off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand for several thousand years; it is very likely that both cultures have endured cataclysmic natural disasters in the past, and the 2004 tsunami was no different. The impending destruction of the Moken and the Andaman Islanders because of acts of nature, it is because of their fellow human beings.

The tsunami made the plight of the Moken and the Andamanese ever more obvious, but their culture and lifestyle has been slowly degraded since the arrival of the British in the 19th century. Evidence of their enculturation is everywhere – Moken have begun to wear modern clothes, participate in the modern capitalist economy by giving tours and selling trinkets to visitors, and fall prey to modern diseases, such as alcoholism and AIDS. The Andamanese were victims of the same fate as the American Indians: their population was decimated by exposure to pathogens to which they had no resistance. After nearly becoming extinct, their population levels began to rise a little, and they began to venture out of their enclaves on the Andaman Islands to trade and learn about the new settlers who had become their neighbors. Unfortunately, the Andaman’s population levels are again facing decline as they encounter new problems, such as the loss of their old traditions. Many young Andamanese are leaving their elders to work in modern society. Unfortunately, most Andamanese lack the skills necessary to be successful and they end up becoming beggars and vagrants (When the Spirits Threw a Boulder in the Sea, par 42). The Moken are experiencing the same problem, as well.

Enculturation of immigrants can be very beneficial to the immigrant culture as well as the society into which they are assimilating. For example, the enculturation of Chinese immigrants into American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been very advantageous to both American society and Chinese society in the United States and China. However, more often than not, the process of enculturation is incomplete. Groups of people are assimilated into another culture, but they are not educated or respected. This happened to the American Indian throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The same appears to be happening to the Andamanese and the Moken. They are slowly being assimilated by modern society, but they are not being educated or respected. The Moken have been unable to retain their customs because of the ignorance of the Thai government, and the Andamanese are retaining their cultural identity, but when they attempt to assimilate into modern society they are rebuffed for a lack of skills. The stage has been set for the Moken and the Andamanese to become a poor, second-class group of people in the modern globalized society, without skills or much opportunity to improve their position. The Onge are perhaps the tribe of Andamanese who are most aware that their way of life is ending. They say that their “god has died” (Mukerjee 118). They believe that they do not have a future.


Works Cited


Arya, Anand S, G.S. Mandal, and E.V. Muley. “Some Aspects of Tsunami Impact and Recovery in India.” Recovery from the Indian Ocean Tsunami Disaster. Ed. Rajib Shaw. Emerald Group Publishing, Ltd: United Kingdom, 2006. 51-66.

Athorne, Scott. “The Life Aquatic.” Sunday Times Magazine 20 November 2005. 48.

Bauerlein, Monika. “Sea Change.” Mother Jones 30.6 (Nov 2005): 56-61.

Budjeryn, Mariana. “Survivors of the Tsunami.” Cultural Survival Voices 14.1 (2005): 14.

Coooper, Zarine. Early Settlements in the Andaman Islands. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002.

Glass, Nick. “Tsunami Disaster: Stone Age Life of Island Tribespeople Helped Them Survive Black Sunday.” Independent on Sunday 16 January 2005. 21.

Goodheart, Adam. “On the Remote Andaman Islands, the Tsunami May Have Washed Away the Earth’s Last Mysterious Strangers.” The Boston Globe 2 January 2005. C1.

Griswold, Eliza. “Sea Gypsies.” The New Yorker 24 January 2005. 36.

“India Says Reclusive Aborigines Safe on Remote Islands.” Agence France Presse – English ed 30 December 2004.

Ivanoff, Jacques. “The Myth of the Moken: Twixt Land and Sea.” UNESCO Courier November 1994. 14-16.

Kazmin, Amy and Uraisin Panwadeee. “After Tsunamis Come Speculators With Eyes on Thai Coastal Land: Villagers Trying to Rebuild Face Rival Claims to the Plots They Lived On.” Financial Times 19 February 2005. 2.

Leroi, Armand Marie. “A Family Tree in Every Gene.” The New York Times on the Web 14 March 2005. 
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/14/opinion/14leroi.html

Misra, Neelesh. “Reading Winds, Waves May Have Saved Ancient Tribes on Remote Indian Islands.” Associated Press 4 January 2005. International News Section.

Mukerjee, Madhusree. The Land of Naked People: Encounters With Stone Age Islanders. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 2003.

Tang, Alisa. “Mourners Remember 216,000 Tsunami Victims.” Associated Press 24 December 2004. International News Section.

“When the Spirits Threw a Boulder in the Sea; the Tsunami and the Tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” India Currents 19.3 (Jun 2005): 18.

Monday, April 2, 2012

So this is just about the coolest thing ever...

video

This was taken by the Expedition 29 crew of the International Space Station, as they travelled from the Caspian Sea in the Middle East to the South Pacific Ocean. Most of the lights are cities (such as New Delhi, Lahore, Calcutta, and Islamabad), with Bangkok being the most brightly-lit city in the clip. The green and purple lights towards the end are fishing boats and oil rigs off the coast of Thailand.

Also, I never knew lightning looked so cool from space.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Social Responsibility of Artists


In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy said the timeless words: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." This phrase became the founding concept of the Peace Corps when Kennedy created the service organization in 1961. President Kennedy's message was simple-- the citizens of a healthy democracy must all have a hand in the continuation, cultivation, and improvement of their nation. The purpose of the State is to provide services to the populace that individuals and collectives would be unable - or hard-pressed - to provide otherwise. However, the citizens of the State must not become complacent in their receivership of State services. A populace that has no hand in the administration of the State will quickly become disillusioned, and a cadre of professional politicians will seem very disconnected from the majority of the people. Unfortunately, this can be seen in the considerable political discord that is currently wracking the United States. Although many pundits have argued that the intense political rhetoric that has been seen in the United States since President George W. Bush's reelection (rhetoric which has only intensified since President Obama was elected) is caused by the "24-hour news cycle" and the ever-increasing use of the internet, I believe these are symptoms rather than the underlying cause. The political discord in America is in large part a factor of a populace that is disconnected from the decision making process. Although there is no institutionalized disenfranchisement practiced by the US government any more (at least, not legally), many members of the voting public feel disenfranchised because they have no hand in the production of the services they enjoy. People pay taxes and vote once a year or so, but other than that, they feel no connection to Washington, or even in many cases, their local governments. If we, as a nation, are to reverse this trend of political disillusionment and discord, we must refocus our political culture on "reinfranchising" the millions of Americans who feel as though they have no hand in their government. Although I have never distilled my ideas on this issue to such a degree before writing this essay, I have long struggled with this concept, and how it relates to me, personally.

A couple of years ago, when I was near the end of my undergraduate collegiate career, I was seriously considering joining the Peace Corps, and following President Kennedy's advice. I wanted to "serve my country" in a specific, established way, but I did not (and do not) agree with the purpose of the military, so I saw the Peace Corps as the perfect solution to my desire. I would be able to have a positive influence on people who needed it most, "do good," and serve as an ambassador for the United States of America in other parts of the world. Despite these ideals, when I left school, I decided not to join the Peace Corps and instead devoted my efforts to pursuing a career in acting. Since then, I have struggled with the question of purpose -- not for myself, but how I can marry my desire to achieve personal success in my chosen art form -- performance -- while also "asking what I can do for my country." Essentially, I am facing the age-old question tackled by Chekhov, Sartre, and many others: what is the social responsibility of the artist?

Alright, here's the plan for the rest:
Darwin's Bulldog- Thomas Henry Huxley: THH was essentially a "public intellectual" before the turn of phrase was used. He resolutely defended Darwin's ideas on evolution, and his seminal debate with Samuel Wilberforce led to the wider acceptance of evolution. Essentially, THH used his public persona to reach a wider audience than Darwin was able to with his "Origin of the Species." Although Darwin wrote "Origin" to be accessible to a wide audience, many in England could not read, or did not have enough experience in reading scientific writing to understand Darwin's work. THH spread the word, essentially, by using what amounted to a bully pulpit in a riveting public debate that stole the interest of the public. In the modern era, for better or worse, public intellectuals do not have the same influence that THH had in his day. Fewer people pay attention to public intellectuals, but many many more are interested in the exploits of "celebrities" and the trivia of popular culture. Artists, and perhaps more specifically actors, serve to disseminate ideas and knowledge that would otherwise be unknown to the wider public.

Examples of artists doing what I described: Star Trek The Next Generation, various other science fiction works, Blood Diamond, Amistad, Do the Right Thing, Contact(?), and, older examples, On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, and even things like Julius Caesar, by Will Shakespeare.

Furthermore, beyond disseminating knowledge and discoveries, the modern artist can give us moral teachings. Many "family movies" have politically correct and non-subversive messages, like "love & friendship" (Toy Story) or "family matters" (The Incredibles). However, there are more subversive messages that have been spread by film and television, like the on-screen kiss between Denzel Washington and Ashley Judd in "The Pelican Brief" or the black presidents in "24." Although Hollywood has often been criticized for either being TOO subversive or not being subversive ENOUGH, it will often surprise us with an unexpected message. We might have a black president because of the messaging from Hollywood over the past decade or so-- that it's ok to have one.

So what should I do about this? Should I keep acting in commercials that push products that I may not agree with on people, with the expectation that it will get me further in my career and be able to do more things that I agree with? What sort of compromises should I be willing to make? How much should I weigh my personal desires with my desire to "do social good?"

Ugh, I don't know. Maybe I'm just selfish. Maybe I'm no better than anyone else. But maybe it doesn't matter.