Thursday, September 23, 2021

"The Bears of Blue River" and the supernatural

I had a great 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Brown, and there are many things I remember vividly about that year, like the fact that we moved our desks into different formations over the course of the year, and the beautiful student-teacher, Miss Anderson. Maybe these memories are so vivid because my family moved to France after that year, where the school and education philosophy was so different (disciplined and rigid). I especially remember the books we read. I was a member of an advanced reading group of about eight classmates, and we met in a small circle in the hallway to discuss books like Oliver Twist and Captains Courageous, in abridged “young reader” form.

I also remember that the whole class read a book about a boy that hunted bears. I remember that some classmates liked the book so much that they read it multiple times (reading a book multiple times is something I’ve never been tempted to do; there are so many new books to read!). Though I remember being really taken by the book, and remember that the stories were based on life in Indiana back in the frontier days when there were wild bears running about, I did not remember the title or author, or the plot. A decade or so ago I asked my old 4th grade friend if he remembered the book and knew the title, but he did not remember it.

Balser & Tom shot wolves and caught cubs
A couple of years ago, when back in Indiana, I mentioned this to a family friend, Pat, who is a retired teacher, and she immediately knew the book I was talking about. In fact, a few days later, she gave me the book: it is The Bears of Blue River by Charles Major, originally published in 1901 by an Indianapolis lawyer who became a writer of fiction. Most of his more popular work focuses on English historical fiction, but The Bears is young adult fiction, and based on Indiana, so it is currently published by Indiana University Press as part of a “Library of Indiana Classics” series. (The book is no longer under copyright, so I'm taking the liberty to reproduce some of the charming original drawings from the book.)

Balser shooting a bear
The hero of the book is Balser, a boy described as being about 13 or 14. There are many aspects of the story that make it enchanting for an American reader. The story is set in the 1820s, when Indiana was a new state and was still frontier. The discussion of Indians as bloodthirsty kidnappers of children is certainly dated and makes a modern reader feel a bit awkward, but other details of daily life—like what they ate and how they cooked their foods—are fascinating. The book describes hunting and fishing as easy because wildlife was so plentiful. Balser and his brother get up early on the day that a frost and heavy wind overnight will have knocked nuts out of the trees, and go into the forest with a cart they themselves made to collect the nuts. Their eagerness to get up early to go “do work” sounds impressive, but it is clear that since they are collecting food for the family, their work is more meaningful and thus exciting (or so it seems).

Liney saves Balser
And there is a love interest; the neighbors (who live several miles away) have a daughter, Liney Fox, and she and Balser both like each other. Balser saves her from being kidnapped by an Indian, and in a later chapter, she saves his life by putting a flaming torch in the face of a bear that was mauling Balser. Early in the story, Balser is given a gun as a gift by a stranger he helps, and he goes out hunting with it. He hunts to kill scary bears, and to provide food and pelts for the family. His hunting is described as “sport and recreation,” and like the trips to gather nuts in the fall sound like a lot of fun. These are the kind of adventures American boys grow up dreaming about—at least in mid-20th century Indiana.

Reading the book as an adult (I don’t think this counts as re-reading the book, like some of my classmates did in 4th grade!), I notice that while the tales of hunting bears are fun and dramatic, they are totally unrealistic. Even in the 1820s, I doubt parents would allow their 14 year old son to organize a hunting party with a friend (the friend only armed with a hatchet) to kill a large bear that is so large, fierce and frightening that some people claim it is demonic. In addition, Balser is mauled by bears twice, and bitten on his foot one more time, and yet only suffers 2 broken ribs and wounds that heal in a couple of weeks. Frankly, I’m skeptical. But it makes for some good stories. 

Another aspect of the book that I notice is the aspect of the supernatural. The “one-eared bear” (AKA “demon bear”) appears suddenly, as though he sprang from the earth, and similarly, disappears suddenly, so Balsar and his dogs do not see where it went. This “magic” is not explained in the book, but the bear is later spotted again, and dispatched, ending speculation among most residents that it was a demon. In another case, a “fire bear” glows like fire in the night. The chapter ends:

Many of the Blue River people did not believe that the Fire Bear derived its fiery appearance from supernatural causes. They suggested that the bear probably had made its bed of decayed wood containing foxfire, and that its fur was covered with phosphorous which glowed like the light of the firefly after night. 

The firebear

The book also begins a story that involves an explosion with a note, like an epigraph, that states:

Note: The author, fearing that the account of fire springing from the earth, given in the following story, may be considered by the reader too improbably for any book but one of Arabian fables, wishes to say that the fire and the explosion occurred in the place and manner described. 

At the end of the chapter, the author explains that this explosion was caused by a “pocket” of natural gas that was ignited by a torch. Thus, the author is hinting at the supernatural, but insisting that in the end there are natural explanations for all these unusual phenomena, even though, as in the case of the one-eared bear, he may not always know how to explain them.

The fire bear, the author tells us, was blamed “by many persons, especially of the ignorant class,” for fires that broke out in haystacks and barns. Balser dismissed such ideas and believed Indians started the fires, but “seeing is believing,” so was convinced it was a “fire bear” once he saw it. The author later tells readers that the bear glowed because it had laid in some phosphorescent bacteria, so was not "on fire" at all.

Tom shoots the firebear
 Another superstition about the Fire Bear was that anyone who saw it would die within three months. This the author describes as a “superstition,” but our hero Balser believes it, and especially since his girlfriend Liney also saw it, he feels he has no choice but to kill the bear to save their lives. They get the idea that to fight this Fire Bear, they should have a charm. Liney creates a charm by praying over a piece of jewelry. Interestingly, she starts to worry that it is evil to rely on a charm. Her worry parallels the Christian argument that potions and traditional remedies were witchcraft and thus the work of the devil. But Balser says that it is not evil, because in praying, Liney is asking God, and it is God that is making the charm. The author’s naturalism ends the discussion with a paragraph that reads like this, in its entirety: 

The charm worked at least one spell. It made the boy braver and gave him self-confidence.

This is a common argument in research on magic: that it serves primarily (and perhaps only) to give confidence in the person using the spell or amulet. In the book, the author describes the beliefs, creates tension and lets the reader wonder, but in the end shows that natural explanations are best.

One cannot help but wonder whether stories we read in our youth influence and shape us. In this case, I’m amused to see a children’s book from 1901 that reflects my current “academic” views on the supernatural. The fact that my views match this author’s also suggests that my views are not new at all, but over a century old, and merely reflect Western modernism.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Covid and Anti-vaxxers

A friend of mine who is a doctor lamented the fact that the Covid vaccine, which was developed in under one year and that works with astonishing 95% efficacy and thus should be viewed as one of the crowning achievements of scientific medicine, has become mired in political controversy. He wondered if it had to be this way. Could different leadership have led more people to accept the vaccine? 

Ezra Klein, in one of his recent podcasts, also asks what would have happened in the counterfactual world where Mitt Romney was approaching the end of his second term as president (having defeated Obama in 2012) when Covid-19 broke out: if he had promoted masks and vaccines, would opposition to the vaccine and to masks have still appeared?

 Tara Haelle, a science journalist who covers the anti-vaccine movement, has an opinion piece in the NY Times that I think clearly shows that Romney would not have been able to prevent the anti-vaxxers.

She shows that anti-vaxxers have been organizing since the early 2010s, and that they had adopted the strategy of arguing for their misinformed opinion with the argument of “freedom” since at least 2015. In that year, California pass a bill to eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements, in response to the growing number of children not vaccinated and the resulting outbreaks of measles. Republican Texas state representative Jason Villalba proposed a similar bill, but his proposal led to an uproar and the bill was never taken up for a vote. Just for proposing such a bill, Villalba was primaried from the right and lost the primary. Even though his primary challenger went on to lose the general election, it became clear to Republicans that supporting vaccines was politically dangerous. After reading Haelle’s article, I suspect that Romney lost in part because he was not able to motivate the anti-science anti-vaxxers. (As an aside, people seem to forget that the election was actually fairly close; Romney is now widely viewed as a “loser” and people have all sorts of reasons for why he lost. Someone just told me yesterday that he lost because he did not campaign hard enough. Oof!)

 Still, looking at other countries’ reactions to Covid, one can’t help but feel that with different leadership, the current disaster in the US did not have to be like this. Further evidence that leadership is important comes from how Republicans have flipped on vaccine mandates in Missouri in just a few years. In mid-August, our local newspaper reported that Missouri’s legislature in 2014 unanimously passed a bill requiring all college students who live on campus to be vaccinated for meningitis. Meningitis is not that common; its incidence peaked at 1.5 per 100,000 in 1981, and in part thanks to vaccines, has declined to 0.11 per 100,000 in 2017. But it is a serious illness; the CDC says “About 10 to 15 in 100 people infected with meningococcal disease will die. Up to 1 in 5 survivors will have long-term disabilities,” including brain damage.

 It's astonishing that in just 6 or 7 years, Republicans in Missouri have gone from pro-vaccine to anti-vaccine, from agreeing to a vaccine requirement to arguing that vaccines mandates are an attack on civil liberties. 

Missouri’s current Republican governor, Mike Parson, in 2014 was a state senator, and he voted for the meningitis vaccine requirement. Now is against requiring a Covid vaccine, saying “The Government doesn't have a place to play in mandates of the vaccine.” (The ACLU has argued, correctly in my opinion, that vaccine mandates or requirements are not a violation of civil rights but actually protect everyone's civil rights. You can see a clear Opinion piece on this here.)

 Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s current Republican Attorney General, was then a state senator and voted for the vaccine mandate. Now he’s against masks and vaccine mandates, calling them part of the “dystopian biomedical securitystate.”  (See video here.) It is not irrelevant that Schmitt is campaigning for the Republican nomination to run for the open senate seat next year.

 Most surprising, some Missouri Republicans even want to passa law making it illegal for businesses to require their employees to getvaccinated for Covid-19.  Usually Republicans are against regulating businesses; now, over the issue of Covid, they are reversing their usual stance. This is especially surprising in Missouri, which is an “at will” employee state, meaning that unless an employee has a contract, they can be fired for any reason (the only exceptions are termination based on “race, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, or disability.”) 

It is astonishing that we are in such a polarized country that even viral infections and deaths do not change the minds of people who insist on individual “freedom.” Alabama and Mississippi have run out of ICU beds, repeating the tragedy we saw early in the pandemic in Italy and New York City. But this time it was entirely preventable. Yet people persist in their arguments that vaccine mandates are oppression.

As one doctor on the radio commented, the truly sad aspect of this current phase of the pandemic is not only how unnecessary all this suffering is, but also how we in the general public have become used to these high numbers of deaths. 

AHARON SARELI: ... one of the challenges of this last delta wave compared to the last summer, when we were hit by a massive surge as well, is that last summer everyone seemed to be in the battle against COVID together. It's almost like the world was holding its breath.

And I think one of the challenges with this surge is that if you're in the hospital, if you're a physician, if you're a health care giver or if you're a patient that is seriously ill or dying from COVID, you're in it and you're faced by what we've been talking about. But for the rest of the community, if you step outside of even Florida hospitals, life goes on. People are driving around. People are in the streets. People are going on about their lives. And I think that we've almost become numb as a community to what COVID is doing to those patients that chose not to become vaccinated and are now paying the price. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

St Louis' 4th of July Parade and Civil Religion

Corvettes on parade

On Saturday July 3rd, we went to the St Louis "America's Birthday Parade." Parades are common across cultures, and often they are a way for a community to emphasize and build up its identity. Americans have been celebrating Independence Day with parades since shortly after the Revolutionary War. But nowadays, parades do not attract the same crowds as in the past. This year's parade certainly was affected by Covid-19, though no one there was wearing a mask, even though there were plenty of children too young to be vaccinated. I suppose the people who are cautious enough to wear a mask did not attend. The St Patrick's Day parade in March had been cancelled because of Covid, so the Irish community brought their giant inflatable leprechaun out for Independence Day. 

Sparse crowd on Market Street
I was struck by how similar parades are cross-culturally. Each "troupe," be it a band or a float or a balloon, was preceded by a banner that named the group in the procession. A decade ago, I saw a neo-Medieval procession to a palio-like horse race in Ferrara, where they also had banners and bands leading each team. Like religious processions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, St Louis had a variety of bands and music, as well as floats, and displays of dancing and athleticism. No shamans in trance in St Louis, but there were athletic young girls doing flips going down the street, and very energetic dancers. 
St Patrick's Day Parade Committee banner

Banner in front of band, Ferrara 2010

Banners and fa pau in Shau Ki Wan, Hong Kong

These flag handlers reminded me of the flag acrobats in Italy, though in Italy they throw the flags in the air and catch them (usually) on the way down.
Flag handlers, Ferrara 2010

Music and bands are nearly universal in parades. Here the marching bands were mostly high school bands.

Some of the bands are on floats.
Paddlewheel boat float

Amusing "ambulance"
Float from local Chevy dealership
And this being America, there are many cars.

Patriotic Chargers
One of the more interesting parades in the anthropological literature is a parade that used to be held by the Tang lineage in the New Territories of Hong Kong. The Tangs were the big landowners of the Yuen Long area. They paraded along the boundaries of their territory. Their purpose, from a political point of view, was to show other lineages, and their tenants in outlying villages, how powerful and numerous they were.  I did some brief research in a village that was located next to a small Gun Yam (觀音) temple that belonged to the Tang, a place they would visit annually on their parade. (This is described in a book chapter by James L. Watson entitled "Fighting with operas: processionals, politics, and the spectre of violence in rural Hong Kong.") These parades are a bit like the way dogs mark their territory. And they are also reminiscent of the Unionists' parades celebrating victories over Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, the Independence Day Parade in St Louis has a somewhat similar political origin. The current parade began as part of a "Veiled Prophet" parade. The Veiled Prophet Organization was a club for the elite men of St Louis. It was founded in 1878, a year after white and Black workers held a major strike that shook the city. Once the strike was broken, the elite sought to heal the wounds, but on their terms. The Veiled Prophet Organization held a debutante ball and a parade, which essentially expressed who was in charge of the city. People have protested against the Veiled Prophet for years, claiming it was elitist, racist, and sexist (see 1969 article on protests in the St Louis Post Dispatch and a 2014 article in The Atlantic). Just last month, Ellie Kemper (an actress from Missouri) was criticized for having participated in the debutante ball when she was 19 (she was crowned "Queen of Love and Beauty") and she apologized. (Vanity Fair had a good analysis here.) The Veiled Prophet Organization has adapted and changed over the years, and the Veiled Prophet Parade that used to be held at the time of the Ball in October has become a "Fair St Louis" parade over July 4th. 

In general, I find that most people who did not grow up in St Louis are shocked at the Veiled Prophet as a cultural institution, but those who grew up here or have lived here a long time take it as normal, simply part of the culture. There is so much that could be said about the Veiled Prophet. Maybe some other day. Right now I want to focus on the "America's Birthday Parade" and on the custom of parades in general (realizing that by doing so, I'm whitewashing the role of the Veiled Prophet in St Louis).

I had never noticed that people hand out candies to children along the parade route, but I saw this in St Louis and then found a picture of the same practice in my files of Hong Kong's Shau Kei Wan parade for Tam Kung.

Of course, these similarities between religious and secular processions are not mere coincidences, but are evidence for the theory that nationalism is the "civil religion" of the United States. This is the theory that rituals like Thanksgiving Day, 4th of July parades and fireworks, and the singing of the national anthem and reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are ways Americans create a common understanding of who they are. These secular rituals are necessary because no one religion unifies the country. 

And, furthermore, the similarities also suggest that what we label "religion" is really not a separate domain at all, but is simply one form of symbolic thinking and ritual behavior that all humans engage in. This is a growing argument in the anthropology of religion and in religious studies, which sees the Western definition of religion as culture-bound. Indeed, Chinese did not have a word for "religion" until about 1900, when the neologism zongjiao 宗教 was introduced. Of course, Chinese had all sorts of rituals and ideas (e.g. ancestor worship and the emperor's offerings at the Temple of Heaven) that Westerners called "religious" (actually, they called them "superstitions," but that is another problem), but only in the West, where Papal authority was separate from the "secular" authority of emperors and kings, did a notion of religion develop.

This is a big topic I hope to write about in the future. In the meantime, it helps me understand my local parade as a ritual of integration, and historically as a display of power.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Biden-Harris Inauguration: "And the Flag Was Still There"

I have never paid much attention to presidential inaugurations before. In fact, I remember more than one person in rural Taiwan in January 1985 asking me if I was going back to the US for Reagan's 2nd inauguration, and I thought it was the most ridiculous question I'd ever been asked. First of all, I never even watched the news coverage of past inaugurations; it seemed like meaningless pomp. Secondly, I was not some sort of VIP who could actually attend the inauguration. 

But after four years of norm-breaking and two months of lies about the election being "stolen," and then most importantly, after the mob insurrection at the capitol building, I found myself unable to concentrate on anything but the transition, and ended up watching at least five hours of TV coverage of the inauguration.

Mostly I just felt relief that what to me has been a nightmare of stoked divisions, pettiness and hate is over. I was surprised that I also found several moments moving. I don't believe in rah-rah jingoism, but had to smile when Lady Gaga pointed to the flag over the capitol building when she sang the part of the national anthem that goes, "And the flag was still there" (CNN missed the moment, but you can see her turn around and point to the flag in the video here; start at about the 2:00 point). 

And I was moved by the young poet Amanda Gorman (video here), which is surprising because I don't normally care much for poetry. But the way she spoke, and the way she moved her hands, as well as the words she chose, spoke for many. 

In part, she said:

We've seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.

Biden's inauguration speech also focused on how democracy has survived but takes constant effort. Here is what he said, along with the annotation from the Washington Post:

We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed1.

1 Throughout the speech, Biden intersperses the idea that democracy and our system of government have triumphed over threats, while acknowledging that victory isn't final. — Aaron Blake 

By 9:24 pm when I took this screenshot of my phone, the New York Times expressed many Americans' sense of relief that we had survived Trump with democracy intact. The Russian commentators who gleefully said the US was falling apart and that American democracy was a sham were shown to be wrong (at least for now).

The January 6th insurrection has changed a lot. A number of commentators on TV said that Americans took their institutions for granted, but seeing them at risk, and seeing how vulnerable institutions are to violence and "the big lie," has made people realize that democratic institutions need to be fostered and constantly rebuilt, and cannot be taken for granted. 

I have to admit that I always took for granted the peaceful transfer of power, and did not fully understand until this year how important and significant it is (though I remember my father saying so). Even when Al Gore conceded in 2000, I saw it as necessary once his legal remedies had been exhausted. I tended to see it more as Gore accepting the inevitable, rather than sacrificing for the good of the country, even though the sacrifice narrative was widely used in the press. 

We studied "The big lie" of the Nazis in school, but I thought that applied to other times and other places; I never would have imagined that it would apply to the United States today. Gore could have continued to contest the election; he had justifiable complaints that the Brooks Brothers Riot by Bush supporters, the bias of Republican Secretary of State Kathleen Harris, and the partisan 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that stopped the recount had essentially stolen the election, an election in which he had a majority of votes and only lost the Electoral College vote because of Florida's messy and disputed 537 margin of votes. But Trump created (with the help of Fox News) "the big lie" that he had actually won the election in a landslide and that it was stolen from him, simply by saying it over and over, and attacking anyone in his party who disagreed and dared to admit the truth. And as of mid-January, a CNN poll found three quarters of Republicans still did not believe Biden won the election legitimately.

The "bully pulpit" describes the power that a president's words have. Yet, sometimes presidents are able to use it, while other times they are not. Reading Obama's recent book, I'm struck at how often he was not able to convince people that what he viewed as thoughtful and balanced policies were reasonable, and yet Trump, by repeating "the big lie" that there was fraud in the election (indeed, he started saying this even before the 2016 election), managed to have most Republicans believe it. That this was possible in an open society with a free press, and over 200 years of institutionalized democracy, still surprises and worries me. 

Basically, this shows the plasticity of culture; people often think of culture as fixed, as rails along which the train of society moves, but it is actually more changeable that that. A democratic culture needs to be constantly reproduced. This means that everyone has a responsibility to support and renew democratic institutions if they are to last. Yes, for now, the flag is still there. But everyone needs to re-focus their attention on core democratic values. A recent study showed that only 3.5% of respondents would change their vote if their preferred ideal candidate did something blatantly undemocratic. That has to change; voters have to care more about the democratic process itself. And if they do, the polarization of society will also decrease. Hopefully the members of the evenly divided Senate will be forced to re-learn the art of compromise, and the dysfunctional polarization can be reduced. 

This is in everyone's favor, since Democrats may control all three branches of government for now, but they won't forever. In fact, if tradition holds, they will lose seats, and control of congress, in the mid-term 2022 elections. And hopefully the flag will still be there.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

The Cynical Opportunism of Josh Hawley

Sometimes politicians take positions just to advance their career and gain more power, even if it goes against their moral conviction or their constituents’ desires. Dramatic examples are Boris Yeltsin, who championed “Russia” when he was president of the Russian Soviet Republic and thereby undermined Gorbachev's power and led to the dissolution of the USSR, and Boris Johnson, who was widely accused of taking the “leave” position on Brexit because it was the only apparent way he could become prime minister. They seem to view this as their shot at power, and decide to seize it.

Hawley signals to protesters on the way to the Capitol Wednesday
Josh Hawley, who is the junior senator of my current state of Missouri, took a similar shot, but it has failed spectacularly. It has long been clear that he was not going to settle for being a senator. He was going to be running for president. While there is nothing wrong with ambition, Hawley stands out for his cynical dishonesty. Even before the Capitol insurrection, commentators were noting that his gambit of challenging the certification of electors was rash and dangerous, and that he certainly knows better, having gone to Stanford and Yale Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

When he ran for senator against the Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in 2018, he was accused of opportunism (see this NY Times article, which includes the ad he had run two years earlier accusing politicians of climbing ladders, which people were saying now applied to him). As a candidate, he claimed that he was in favor of forcing insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions (a policy that had been part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), AKA “Obamacare”), but at the same time, as attorney general of Missouri, he joined a Texas lawsuit that would have eliminated the ACA. He had joined the suit to prove his Republican credentials, and yet claimed that because his eldest son had a rare degenerative bone disease (a pre-existing condition), he would not risk coverage on pre-existing conditions (see ad in the article). Yet that is exactly what his lawsuit was doing. He was widely criticized for that at the time (see article that refers to his ad as "a national joke"), but in the polarized environment of 2018 Missouri, he still handily defeated McCaskill, and became the youngest member of the senate (then at 39 years of age) after only 2 years as attorney general.

In the argument over certification of votes, Hawley saw a chance to stand out from the pack. He was the first senator to announce that he would challenge the results. He did this even though McConnel had strongly urged his fellow-senators not to join in the objections of representatives. If no senator had joined, the objections would not be debated.

It is worth remembering that back on Nov. 10, a GOP official was quoted as saying of Trump’s claims that the election had been stolen, “What’s the downside for humoring him?” At the time, many assumed that the truth would ultimately come out and Biden would take office. But as Trump persisted with his lies about election fraud, and his followers overwhelmingly believed him despite no evidence being presented and over 60 court challenges being turned away, the cost to the nation became clear. Hawley’s challenge was therefore much more serious than merely a procedural or legal issue, even though it was clear it would fail, because it fed into the Trump argument that the election was unfair and stolen. And as many commentators noted, he surely knew better, which made his position even more cynical. Furthermore, he was putting other Republicans in the awkward position of having to choose between certifying the election (a mainly ceremonial task that is legally required) or joining in Trump’s fantasy.

Many representatives voted for the challenges because they fear being primaried from the right. Josh Hawley does not have that excuse. He did this to stand out, to try to inherit the Trump vote.

Hawley did not actually say that there had been fraud or cheating in the polls. He said he was objecting to the Pennsylvania legislature allowing mail-in ballots, saying that would require a constitutional amendment. Setting aside the fact that the legislature was Republican-controlled and that the US Supreme Court had already ruled and disagreed with his argument, he was being very clever: he did not join Trump in saying the election was stolen, but he left the impression that he agreed with Trump. He could claim that he was making a point of law, while most Trump supporters (voters he was courting for his run for president) would interpret it as saying the election was stolen and see him as loyal to the president.

He also was clever in saying that he was doing this on behalf of constituents who had concerns about election fairness. He argued that further investigation would reassure the public. In fact, as the Trump mob marched from the Trump rally to the Capital, Hawley’s office sent out a fundraising appeal that said, “But this is not about me! It is about the people I serve, and it is about ensuring confidence in our elections....That’s why I am standing up on behalf of the people I serve to relay their concerns to Washington. For conviction. For principle. For our country. For YOUR VOTE.”

This argument is specious, however, because he himself did nothing to correct his constituents’ false impression that the election had been unfair. As Romney said, the solution was to tell the truth. Instead, Hawley tried to take advantage of the situation to get more visibility and publicity, and to get the Trump vote when he ran for president.

Instead, he’s being pilloried. The AP has now run a story headlined “‘Great damage’: Republicans recoil from Missouri Sen. Hawley.” Former three term MO Senator John Danforth, his mentor and someone who had promoted his career, has been quoted in multiple sources as saying that supporting Josh Hawley’s career was the biggest mistake of his life.

As an aside, John Danforth is a senator from a different era. Already in 2000, he was not willing to join Bush’s legal team in fighting to win Florida, arguing that it was unseemly and unlikely to succeed. And on Nov. 18, he wrote in an op-ed in the St Louis Post-Dispatch that Trump’s attempts to delegitimize Biden’s victory was not conservative but radical. And just on Jan. 4th, he wrote an op-ed in the NY Times along with three other former senators calling for a return to civility and bipartisanship in the senate. Hawley's behavior was the exact opposite.

Even after the occupation of the Capitol building, Hawley persisted in making his case; his only concession was to decline to make a speech in favor of the motion to decertify the Pennsylvania electors, since he had already spoken in support of the Arizona motion. 

The repercussions keep coming. Simon & Schuster has cancelled the contract for the publication of his book criticizing big tech. Predictably, he makes himself the victim and claims it is a violation of his First Amendment rights. Though I’m not a lawyer and he is, he should know that the First Amendment prevents government censorship; it does not require publishers to publish anything. One of his biggest Missouri donors, David Humphreys, disowned him and called him a “political opportunist,” and has been quoted as saying “Hawley’s irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous tactics have incited violence and further discord across America.”  He is being shunned.

In addition to the occupation, one more thing changed that undermined Hawley’s calculation. With the loss of both run-off senate races in Georgia, it became clear that Trump was not helping Republicans get elected. People started to blame Trump for the Georgia defeats and distancing themselves from him, and the insurrection in the Capitol added to the sense that Trump is a spent force. Hawley missed his cue and continued holding on to Trump.

David Von Drehle, in what now looks like a prescient commentary published Jan. 5th, notes that Hawley’s elite background makes him an unlikely successor to Trump, and that Trump voters are not likely to follow him anyway, though they may enjoy the show he creates as a highly educated elite trying to sidle up to Trump. Trump himself used and spit out all those who tried to use him to advance their careers, from Jeff Sessions to all the other presidential primary candidates who hoped to inherit Trump’s followers and thus held their tongue only to be mocked as “Lyi’n Ted Cruz” and “Li’l Marco Rubio.”

It is not clear what the future is for Josh Hawley. His career certainly seems in tatters now. It is not likely he will have to resign, and I doubt a Republican could win a primary against him in four years when he is up for re-election, but certainly his plans to run for president in 2024 are over. But it is still a bit sad to see someone take their shot and fail so spectacularly. Except that his shot was so cynical and undemocratic that the result is probably what he deserved.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Holiday Cards and Gender

When my wife applied for her first job, shortly after moving to New York City in the mid-1980s, she addressed her cover letters to “Dear Sir or Madam.” At the time, I thought that sounded awkward, and had suggested that “Dear Sir” was generic enough to include women. She disagreed, and it is a good thing she did. The job she got was with a small law firm that had a male and a female partner, and they tossed out all the applications that said “Dear Sir,” which as I remember it now, was about half the applications. In my defense, female university students were still referred to as “girls” in the Midwest back then, and I had just learned to say “women,” which was standard on the East Coast. The culture was changing.

Words change meaning, and have different meaning in different places. In Hong Kong, female university students rejected being called “women” because that implied they were married. I remember one student saying “woman” had a sexual connotation, implying the person was not a virgin. Female students preferred the term “girl.”

When we were in Hong Kong, we often did not find time to write Christmas or New Year cards. With the end of semester rush (including grading papers, final exams, and preparing for trips over the holiday), it was often impossible to get the cards out. One year we sent them out after Christmas from my parents’ home in Indiana. Twice, I think we sent out Chinese New Year cards since we were so late. Gradually—and perhaps because we did not always send cards—we also received fewer cards. I thought email and social media would perhaps kill holiday cards. But in fact, now that we’re back in the US, we’ve started getting a lot more cards. I’m also making more of a point to send cards (though it does not look good for this year; I’m procrastinating by writing a blog post).

Card from MO Attorney General, using holiday to build name recognition 

One thing that surprises me is how many cards we get that are addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Joe Bosco.” There are a number of problems with this way of addressing the card. First of all, “Joe” is informal, what people call me in everyday life, but if one adds the title “Mr. and Mrs.” then it seems the intent is to be formal, so it should be “Joseph.” Is there anyone whose birth certificate says just “Joe”? (Actually, I just looked this up, and the answer is, unfortunately, yes; “Joe” is the 705th most common name of 2019 [just below Lochlan and ahead of Carmelo, and poor “Joey” is 776th, right after Clyde], while “Joseph” is 24th). 

But more surprising is how my wife is eliminated from the address. The female half of the couple becomes just the appendage of the male, since only the male is named. This reminds me of a famous article in anthropology, “The named and the nameless: Gender and person in Chinese society” by Rubie Watson, which talks about how in the past, married women in south China were virtually nameless and how their names did not appear on their tombstones.

This way of addressing cards is especially surprising because most of the cards we get are from people we know through my wife’s professional contacts. In fact, most cards are from people I barely even know, but that she knows through work or boards on which she serves. They may know of me, but in many cases we’ve not even met.

I suppose that people write their cards like this because they are being traditional. The sending of holiday cards itself is traditional (not to say anachronistic). And the holidays are a time of traditional foods and rituals. But really, people should at least address the card to “Mr. Joseph and Mrs. Sara Bosco,” (or, if they want to be very hierarchical and proper, “Dr. Joseph and Mrs. Sara Bosco”--even though I'm not a “real” doctor). Or better, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph and Sara Bosco. Maybe “Joseph and Sara Bosco” (removing the titles) is better still, so it doesn’t look like my surname is “Joseph.” And, if we remove the title, then they can justifiably shorten my name and write “Joe and Sara Bosco.”

 And come to think of it, since they are really writing for my wife, they should put her name first: “Sara and Joe Bosco.” We never get cards like that; the “tradition” (aka patriarchy) of putting the male first is strong. It is hard to actually get angry at people who follow tradition; they probably worry that if they change the order they might offend me. (As a result, they offend my wife!)

 It is time to update these traditions, and to address cards with a bit more thought.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

"Among Us" and Family

Screenshot of the game
The multiplayer online game “Among Us” has become a hit with my adult children and their cousins. In this time of pandemic, when nobody can go out (at least those who understand the risk and those who do not want to spread the virus don’t go out), they are meeting up online to play a game that requires bluffing and arguing. Basically, the game has up to 10 players, and one or two of the players are randomly assigned by the computer to be “imposters,” meaning saboteurs and assassins who murder “crewmates” on a spaceship. Crewmates do not know who the “imposters” are; they have to guess and vote them off the spaceship before being killed in order to win. At any time, any player can call a meeting to vote on identifying the imposters. Players move about the spaceship completing tasks (like repairing the spaceship) in silence and only discuss who they think is an imposter during timed meetings. The original game only has texting, but my children use the VoIP Discord, and only unmute when there is a meeting. (This is to prevent a crewmate revealing the murderer when they are killed, by exclaiming something like, “Oh Anna, how could you!?”) 

Here is a 4-minute video introduction to the game.  When I first watched this, I was totally confused. But the game is very popular now, and even got additional attention because AOC has been playing (see here). 

The 2000 New Year t-shirt
What is interesting about the game is not only that my children have been playing two or three times per week for the last month or so, but that they play with their cousins who are spread coast to coast and did not grow up together, and not with other high school or college friends. They play with cousins related through my wife’s parents. My mother-in-law’s sister happened to marry my father-in-law’s brother, so the “cousins” are actually all the grandchildren of two Yang brothers who married two Hsu sisters. They are called the South Bend Yangs and Urbana Yangs, in reference to where they grew up. This is the original “Yang Gang,” a term the family has been using at least since we had a reunion for the turn of the millenium in December 1999. 

These “cousins” (which includes both first cousins and second cousins) range in age from 36 to 16 and are spread out across the country, from Maine to Seattle, San Francisco to Columbus, OH, and in Omaha, Chicago and Kalamazoo. All of us in my generation are amazed that these cousins, who really only get together about once a year, are choosing to play this game together, and not just once, but regularly.

To understand how this has happened, and why we are so happy to see this, we need to step back and talk about “family.”

When I was doing my first fieldwork in Taiwan in the mid-1980s, many Taiwanese would say to me, “We Chinese value family, not like you Americans.” This used to irk me, because not only did I think family was important in the US, but conservative politicians had been claiming that Americans needed to return to “family values,” which seemed like something no one could be opposed to. I think pretty much every culture claims to value “the family,” though what they mean by “family” will vary by culture. In my father’s Italian-American family in Detroit, the eight siblings met at a lake where they owned 13 acres with some cabins. In the 1950s and ‘60s, my uncles and aunts brought all their families to the lake every weekend during summers. After my grandmother died in 1959 and the next generation started having children of their own and moving to different suburbs, the lake was used less often, but clearly family was important for them too.

There are certainly differences between cultures, and even within one culture, there are differences between families. In part, this depends on individual personalities, but it also depends on peoples’ expectations of what a family should be like. Still, these individuals’ expectations are themselves shaped by culture. I remember a Taiwanese-American student complaining that though her relatives in Taiwan claimed they valued family, they never ate dinner together. Of course, they ran a restaurant, which made eating together rather difficult! And eating together, while valued in the US, is not the only way a family stays together. 

The logo of the 2006 shirt
When I was just starting to date my now-wife back in high school, I phoned her to ask her on a date. I remember hearing her ask her mother, saying, “Mom, can I go to a movie with Joe this Saturday?” And I heard her mother say no, because her older sister was coming back home from college for the weekend. My “potential date” then said to me, “No, I can’t go.” This excuse sounded made-up, the equivalent of “I’ll be busy washing my hair.” If she really wanted to go, I would have expected her to say, “I’ll have to call you back.” Then she could have argued with her mother. I assumed she did not want to go out with me. But to my surprise, my potential date still seemed quite friendly when we met in class the next day, leaving me confused (which is actually the perpetual state of most teenage boys). It turned out that in the Yang family, the kids were expected to be home when older siblings were visiting.

This emphasis on the siblings spending time together with family took many forms. It included eating dinner together and visiting friends as a family, parents and kids together. Another instance I remember is that a few months after we got married, we went to visit my wife’s older sister and her husband in their new home in Maine. My wife’s brother and his wife also went up from Boston, and the younger sister, who was also working in New York City, came up too. That is already fairly remarkable; four siblings making a point of getting together for a long weekend. But more notable was that the parents paid for the 5th and youngest sibling, who was a high school senior, to fly from Indiana to Maine for the mini-reunion. We had fun together, but I don’t think we did anything special (except the food, I imagine; the Yangs always emphasize food); I remember we played “Trivial Pursuits,” which was a new game then. But the point was being together, creating memories and camaraderie together.

The 2002 t-shirt

The Yang family has emphasized getting together and having reunions for a long time. Well before Andrew Yang used the term “Yang Gang,” the South Bend Yang family were making t-shirts for their annual Yang Gang Reunions. It all started with nearly annual weddings in the 80s and early 90s, and once there were children and busy work schedules, more deliberate destination reunions were planned. Many have been in large houses, where groups could go off and have fun during the day and return for a big family dinner and games in the evenings. The entire “Yang Gang” today includes my wife and her four siblings, a spouse or partner for each, plus 15 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren, plus the 17 Urbana Yangs, for a total of 43 people. My in-laws subsidized the reunions to make sure everyone could come.

These reunions are the foundation upon which the players for the “Among Us” games are selected. The reunions created relationships and sympathies that now have a life of their own, and develop further through the game.

Sadly, there has not been a 2020 reunion. Even the memorial for my father-in-law who died (not of Covid) in July had to be held online via Zoom. A full memorial, and reunion, has to wait for the end of the pandemic. But it is heartwarming to see the cousins use the internet to maintain and strengthen their bonds. Yes, it is only a game. But it is from simple things like this that social relationships are made.

Today is my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. Two days ago, we celebrated via a Zoom party with over 100 participants in about 60 Zoom windows. It was organized by her children and grandchildren. This led me to think about how unusual her family is, in solidarity and closeness. Cousins visit and assist each other, and look forward to family reunions. And it comes from decisions she made over the years, from not letting her daughter go on dates when her sister was in town, to sending her youngest son to Maine to be with his older siblings for a weekend, and to subsidizing family reunions. And as a result, her grandchildren play “Among Us,” among family.