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Name an Indian Tribe

Dana Goldstein posted some of the questions from the revised US citizenship exam, among which is this one:

Name one American Indian tribe in the United States.

It would be interesting to see a chart of the answers given by applicants to #9 after that question has been in use for a while. I bet Cherokee and Navajo would be far and away the favorites.

Were I writing a test of "information it would be good for every US citizen to know," I would probably have made this question a bit more challenging and specific -- something like "Name (one of) the indigenous tribe(s)* that are native to the (county/state) where you live." Of course, a question like this would potentially invite a lot of controversy in terms of which tribes the exam-graders officially recognize as living where, and you'd inevitably get some Asatru follower suing to have them mark him correct for answering "white people." (My answers at various times would have been Erie, Susquehannock/Lenape borderland, Oneida, Nipmuc, and Tohono O'odham.)

*Since some indigenous groups in the US are not American Indians, e.g. native Hawaiians.


Hillary On Sanctuary Cities

It's not often you'll catch me praising Hillary Clinton, but in last night's presidential primary debate I think she did a good job of explaining why the only people who should be enforcing immigration laws are ICE officers:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, would you allow the sanctuary cities [cities where local police do not enforce immigration laws] to exist?

CLINTON: Well, in addition to the general points that have been made that I agree with, why do they have sanctuary cities? In large measure because, if local law enforcement begins to act like immigration enforcement officers, what that means is that you will have people not reporting crimes, you will have people hiding from the police. And I think that is a real, direct threat to the personal safety and security of all the citizens.

So this is a result of the failure of the federal government, and that's where it needs to be fixed.

RUSSERT: But you would allow the sanctuary cities to disobey the federal law?

CLINTON: Well, I don't think there is any choice. The ICE groups come in and raid individuals, but if you are a local police chief and you're trying to solve a crime that you know people from the immigrant community have information about, they may not talk to you if they think you're also going to be enforcing the immigration laws.

CLINTON: Local law enforcement has a different job than federal immigration enforcement. The problem is the federal government has totally abdicated its responsibility.

ETA: Kudos as well to Bill Richardson (who you will also not often hear me saying anything good about) for starting his response with "You're asking me first because I'm Latino, aren't you?" and ending it with an explicit endorsement of increased legal immigration.


The Free Market Status Quo Assumption

There's a pernicious ideology surrounding environmental issues in this country that I like to call the "free market status quo assumption." FMSQA means that we assume that whatever environmental problems exist are the result of entrepreneurs satisfying consumer preferences in the market, and that therefore any change necessarily involves expanding the reach of government.

I'm not a "free market environmentalist" who thinks that leaving the market to its own devices (or creating government programs that contain market mechanisms) will solve all of our environmental problems. The free market is often to blame for environmental problems, so there are many cases where FMSQA is accurate, including the paradigm case of environmental protection: pollution regulations. FMSQA is a "pernicious ideology" because it's applied across the board, coloring our views of environmental issues where it is false. A surprising number of cases of environmental degradation are created or subsidized by government action.

I won't spend much time on the easy cases where government activities directly damaged the environment: the military is exempt from many environmental laws and acts accordingly; the Forest Service not only instituted damaging fire suppression policies on its own land but actively worked to stamp out fire use on non-federal land; the Army Corps of Engineers tried to drain all our wetlands and channelize all our rivers; government offices are enormous consumers of energy and paper, etc. I'm more interested in cases where the government's role is more subtle.

Sprawl is a good example. Suburban life is so closely associated with the American Dream that it seems obvious this phenomenon is driven by the market and that coercive government intervention would be needed to change things. But in fact government policy is a key contributor to sprawl, making it far easier to live there and far harder to find an alternative. Zoning regulations are a key player here, mandating low-density development, prohibiting "mixed use" neighborhoods where people can walk to the store or to work, and requiring huge parking lots around each new store. What's more, existing towns' governments provide massive subsidies in the form of utilities infrastructure and services like police and fire protection to new development, often at a net loss after you factor in the tax breaks they give in a quixotic effort to lure business to their area.

Transportation is another sector where FMSQA fails (and which contributes to the problem of sprawl). People love to gripe about being taxed to support mass transit. But in fact the alternative -- highways -- is far more generously subsidized by the government. Funds for new roads flow freely and with few conditions, whereas getting government aid to build a train requires jumping through hoop after hoop -- matching funds, cost-benefit analysis, etc. Evening out the disparity in either direction (making it harder to build roads or easier to build trains) would dramatically increase the availability and desirability of taking a trip by less-polluting rail. (At this point in history a case can be made for reversing the disparity, giving disproportionate subsidies to rail in order to correct the historical imbalance.)

Finally, let's talk about logging. Obviously, logging of our nation's forests (which can degrade ecosystems even if it doesn't ultimately reduce total tree cover) is just the free market satisfying demand for paper and wood. Except that logging in our National Forests is subsidied by the government. The Forest Service's expenses in arranging a logging sale, building roads to give loggers access, etc (not to mention the expense of managing the forest in the years prior to the sale) frequently exceed the revenue gained from the sale. In other words, we're paying logging companies to cut down our trees.

The Problems With Prison

This article doesn't go into a lot of detail about the specific mechanics of how prison does its dirty work. It focuses mostly on the effects of removing so many people from society and the failure to reintegrate them, overlooking the psychological, social, and physical trauma inflicted by the experience of living in prison. Perhaps it's a deliberate attempt to present the aspect of the anti-modern-prisons argument that's most appealing to people who sympathize with the "tough on crime" view. I also wonder about the effect of prison on prison guards -- both those who are directly employed by prison companies (it would be interesting to do (or to read if it's already been done) a sociological study of a town like Florence or Eloy, Arizona whose economy is largely dependent on prisons), and on all of us who are effectively the authors of laws that see prison as an appropriate way of dealing with crime. And then there's the effect of prison on the immigration system, as so many immigrants (many of whom are being threatened with deportation not because they're here illegally but because they served a prison sentence for some crime) are being held "non-punitively" in prison in conditions the same as those for convicted criminals (or worse, since immigration detainees are barred from many of the programs like GED classes that citizen convicts can participate in).

Nevertheless, it's encouraging to see that there's scholarly support for, and increasing political attention to, the view that the modern prison system, rather than restoring people and communities damaged by crime, actually functions to destroy people and communities and thereby breed more suffering and crime.

... In this view, the system takes men with limited education and job skills and stigmatizes them in a way that makes it hard for them to find jobs, slashes their wages when they do find them, and brands them as bad future spouses. The effects of imprisonment ripple out from prisoners, breaking up families and further impoverishing neighborhoods, creating the conditions for more crime down the road. Prisons have grown into potent "engines of inequality," in the words of sociologist Bruce Western; the penal system, he and other scholars suggest, actively widens the gap between the poor - especially poor black men - and everyone else.

... The issue has arrived on the public agenda in part because of the work done by a handful of leading sociologists. Western's 2006 book "Punishment and Inequality in America" is a key work in this new scholarly movement. Devah Pager, a Princeton sociologist, has been making headlines since her dissertation, completed in 2002 at the University of Wisconsin, demonstrated how a criminal record - even for nonviolent drug offenses - made it nearly impossible for black ex-convicts in Milwaukee to land a job. This month, a book based on that work, "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration," appears in bookstores. And the sociologist Lawrence Bobo, who left Harvard for Stanford two years ago but is returning in January, has been investigating how the growing black prison population is eroding African-Americans' confidence in the rule of law.


The Sexual Politics of Meat

I recently finished Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat, the most noted (contemporary) statement of the connection between vegetarianism* and feminism, and I was rather disappointed. In the early chapters she raises some interesting issues, which I had thought would be the main focus of the book, such as how meat eating is coded as masculine. But they end up underdeveloped as she pursues her (exaggerated, IMHO) concern for how vegetarians and vegetarian arguments are "silenced" in a patriarchal-omnivorous culture.

Throughout the book, Adams dwells on -- though rarely comes right out and stands behind -- a number of what I find to be the least compelling arguments for vegetarianism. Early in the book she repeatedly brings up the "if you saw how animals are slaughtered, or even just really thought about where your meat comes from, you wouldn't be able to bring yourself to eat it" argument. Of all the arguments that allow vegetarians to be painted as overly sentimental (and implicitly apolitical), this is number one. Further, I don't believe it's true. The insulation of meat eaters from the slaughter process is a recent and culturally specific development (though granted, so is the degree of brutality in modern meat production). So while modern Westerners may experience some shock when directly confronted with the realities of meat production, history seems to indicate that people are quite able to reconcile themselves to a fairly direct involvement in the slaughter of animals (much like men can fail to be horrified by the violence against women that they personally inflict). Indeed, in some cases people positively revel in the violence of the slaughter process that led to the meat on their table. Explicitly accepting, rather than hiding, the connection between animal-killing and meat-eating has become a common way of staking a claim to the legitimacy of an omnivorous menu and rebutting the above-mentioned vegetarian argument.

Adams spends a lot of time talking about the additional connection drawn by many early-20th-century Romantics between feminism and vegetarianism and pacifism. It's unclear precisely how much she buys this argument (though she does insist that Hitler was a health-vegetarian rather than an ethical-vegetarian and hence doesn't count as a counter-example). The evidence for this view is rather slim -- the fact of some overlap among activists for these causes, and certain conceptual parallels between the issues (parallels which, however logically valid, would have to be instantiated in a culture in order to be pragmatically efficacious).

She also seems to agree with the claim that a vegetarian diet is healthier than an omnivorous one, though she is unhappy with vegetarianism motivated solely by health considerations. I used to be exhibit one for the feasibility of an unhealthy vegetarian diet**. Connected to this is the claim that humans are "naturally" (anatomically and evolutionarily) herbivores. This argument is inconsistent with archaeological evidence, and gains its plausibility by attacking a straw-person counterargument that humans are naturally wholly carnivorous. Adams (following some comments by Plutarch) expands the naturalness argument in a particularly odd direction. She finds it significant that standard human meat-eating (in contrast to a chimpanzee-like opportunistic omnivory) requires a great variety of apparatus which is both artificial and serves to distance us from the animal -- implements for hunting or stock-raising, butchering tools, cooking fires, and seasonings. It's true that there are few animals that we could easily eat without such interventions. But the same is true for most vegetables -- have you ever tried eating raw wheat off the stalk, or uncooked potatoes? And in any case, the most macho-patriarchal forms of meat-eating are precisely those that involve the fewest processing steps -- e.g. bloody steaks and frat boys swallowing live goldfish.

Ultimately, though, I think my problems with this book are disciplinary in origin. Adams writes from a lit-crit perspective, but what I'm interested in reading would be written from an analytic philosophy or sociological perspective. My assessment of the book is in part a product of trying to translate what Adams is saying into a philosophy or sociology idiom.

* Though she says "vegetarian," it seems she's probably referring to veganism, though her precise position on what she calls "feminized protein" -- milk and eggs -- is hard to make out, and is typically sidelined in favor of focusing on meat (and the fact that it requires killing animals).

** American cuisine's tendency to downplay vegetables and rely on meat for many nutrients means that simply cutting out meat from one's diet can worsen it from a health standpoint -- you wind up eating too much cheese, white flour, and overprocessed soy substitutes.


I'd like to be able to say that the reason I didn't blog for two weeks was that I was off doing something to actually combat racism or ableism or whatever, but in reality I wasn't doing anything special or worthwhile at all.


"Natural" Hair

I'm a bit reluctant to comment on the "hair politics" issue, since my own head sports just about the whitest hair possible -- thin, perfectly straight, and styled in the "short-with-a-part-on-the-side" way that every non-balding white man in a position of power seems to have*. But a passing comment in this Angry Black Woman post caught my attention because of the way it invoked the idea of "naturalness." She says:

I know mine looks best when framed in curls, which is natural for me. Dreds or braids would be natural, too.

My first thought was to find it odd to classify dreadlocks and braids as "natural." As far as I can tell, both involve quite a bit of work (and in the case of dreds, often some application of styling product). While it may not be as much work as the "unnatural" option of straightening black hair, I don't see an obvious cleavage that would lump dreds and braids in with leaving your hair alone.

But I think there are two senses in which dreds and braids could be classified as "natural." One has to do with the motives for choosing a given hairstyle. There is a presumption in the progressive hair politics position that very few black people would consider straightening their hair in the absence of racism (i.e. unnatural exogenous interference) teaching them that curly hair is bad. But racism is much less of an explanation for why black people would choose dreds or braids, since racist whites condemn those styles as much as they condemn minimally-styled black hair. I think it's tricky, however, to presume that any choice is an obvious natural one, particularly if it involves a significant investment of time and effort (as putting in braids or dreadlocks does).

The other way that dreds and braids can be considered "natural" is by focusing not on the style or stylist, but on how the hair is read by others. A big part of racism is casting the oppressed race as more "natural" in a pejorative sense. Racism holds that black people are less civilized, more prone to undisciplined passions and a failure to take responsibility. Dreadlocks and braids are distinctively black hairstyles, and are thus by association more "natural." Straightened hair, on the other hand, is "civilized" (or "professional," professionalism being the ultimate expression of unnatural-in-a-good-way) because it resembles the white-based beauty standard. What's more, the various hairstyles are taken to connote something about the person who has them. A black person with un-straightened hair is taken as someone less willing to play along with society's demands. From a racist perspective, not playing along is generalized into being dangerous, unpredictable, and immoral -- hence "unnatural" and animal-like**.

*When I was younger, my hair was literally white, i.e. it lacked color. It darkened over time, and last year when I got my new Arizona driver's license, I was officially listed as having "brown" hair.

**Though as Mary Midgely has pointed out, the kind of undisciplined human behavior usually condemned as animal-like rarely has anything to do with the way real animals act.