Wednesday, April 20, 2022

An Individualistic (and Ridiculous) Ruling on Masks

 When I lived in Austria, my Hausfrau (landlady) would hear stories about America in the news and say, "Nur in Amerika ist es möglich!" (Only in America is this possible!) I remember she once used this expression when telling me that a local Austrian band that was touring the US was stiffed by their American promoter and had no money to come back home.

I could not help but think of this expression when I read yesterday that a federal judge in Florida overturned the CDC’s mask mandate. There are three aspects of this story that make it unbelievable, and culturally significant.

1) The political. What kind of crazy country is this that a 35 year old judge, one appointed by then President Trump after he had lost the election, can declare that the nation's top health officials do not have the authority to require people to wear masks? Judge Mizelle had been rated not qualified (for lack of experience) by the American Bar Association, but she was rapidly confirmed by the Senate along party lines anyway. Our public health measures are decided by her? Republicans and the group that brought the lawsuit (Health Freedom Defense Fund) complain about unelected officials making rules (“Unelected officials cannot do whatever they like to our personal freedoms just because they claim good motives and a desirable goal”), but the judge was also not elected, and was named to the bench in a most unseemly manner, too.

2) Mask science: Opponents of mask mandates often say that wearing a mask should be voluntary. This misunderstands the science of masks, which shows that they primarily work to prevent sick people from spreading the virus, more than protecting the wearer from others who are sick (though it helps in that too). Here is the CDC’s current view:

Masks are primarily intended to reduce the emission of virus-laden droplets by the wearer (“source control”), which is especially relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others (estimated to account for more than 50% of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions). 

Of course, masks alone are not the perfect protection, but they do work by reducing transmission.

3) Individualism. I have always bristled when Asians comment that Americans are individualistic, because Americans are also joiners and are not selfish, as is often implied. But in this case, I have to agree that it is American individualism that is distorting Americans’ understandings of masks. It has long been noted that the Sony Walkman was developed in Japan so listeners would not disturb others, while Americans bought the Walkman to socially distance (if you walk around with headphones on, no one will disturb you). The judge’s ruling that the Public Health Service Act of 1944 covers only “sanitation” and not “hygienic steps” like masks a) treats masks as an undue burden, and b) seems to prevent any public health measure. She's quoted in the NY Times as ruling:

“If Congress intended this definition, the power bestowed on the C.D.C. would be breathtaking,” she wrote. “And it certainly would not be limited to modest measures of ‘sanitation’ like masks.”

If the government’s broader interpretation of the agency’s powers were accurate, she added, the C.D.C. could require businesses to install air filtration systems, mandate that people take vaccines, or even require “coughing into elbows and daily multivitamins.” 

Of course, health authorities have required vaccines for decades. There is an individualistic, indeed, selfish, streak in her logic that is truly amazing to me.

It is shocking, and very disturbing to me, to see Americans unable to understand that wearing a mask is not primarily to protect yourself, but to protect others. This type of individualism is a dysfunctional, anti-social perspective, that when combined with a lack of scientific understanding of mask use, and a hyperpartisan political environment in which unqualified judges are named and then can make major decisions, bodes ill for the US. Nur in Amerika ist es möglich!

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

A Data Point in the History of Email

I have been trying to cull files and get rid of "stuff," and came across a folder labeled "Letters" that began after my arrival in Hong Kong in August 1992, and interestingly ended with a copy of a fax I sent in October 1994. As I looked through this odd time-capsule-like folder, I realized that the reason the folder ended was that by 1995, almost all correspondence had switched to email. The few letters I received after that would have been filed under the specific topic; I no longer used airmail for regular correspondence, so the file folder went dormant. This file provides a date on when that shift occurred, a shift I was hardly aware was happening.

When I first started my administrative/post-doc job at the East Asian Institute of Columbia University in August 1989, I read about this new form of communication, electronic mail, and suggested to my boss that we should get it for our research project. Email turned out to be very helpful for planning a trip to Taiwan that December to study an election, because we could communicate very quickly with our colleagues in Taiwan on the itinerary and arrangements.

When I contacted the Information Technology people at Columbia that August to set up our email account, email was brand new. They told me that we had to put money into a non-refundable account in advance to cover the costs of email. I asked them how much it would cost per message, or per byte, and they said they did not know, so we initially put only $100 in the email account, and we thought we'd see about topping it up later, depending on how much it cost. Keep in mind that email in those days was not user-friendly; we had to learn all sorts of UNIX commands, and it only worked by logging into the mainframe computer from my office. But it was fast; because of the time-zone differences with Taiwan, we would get a reply overnight. 

We were never approached by the Information Technology Dept. to top up our account. At the end of the year, I checked our budget to see how much we had spent: only $0.79. (Unfortunately, the Information Technology Dept. kept the remaining $99.21). For the next year, Columbia decided it was costing more to collect the money than it was worth, so email was free.

That was 1990. In my Letters folder, I found a September 1993 letter from the Assistant Director of the East Asian Institute at the time. She thanks me for mailing her some receipts from Hong Kong, then adds:

I have resisted e-mail so far. I know that people love it, and it's convenient and cheap, but, but, but, people already have so many ways to get me. As it stands, there is phone mail, and regular mail, and people coming through the door at all hours of night and day, and messages, and, and, and. But I feel myself breaking down, because [the director], too, has been pestering me about getting it. His latest not very subtle message was that he would teach me how to use it.

Till then, snails will be my model. 

Thanks for writing. 

There are only a few more letters (from other people) in my folder. And then, the world shifted to email, and the folder stopped growing. It is interesting that four years after I was among the first at Columbia to use email, she was still under the impression that this was a new and optional technology. And by about a year later, everyone was on email. The change was gradual and it is hard to remember when it happened. This file shows the timing of that change, at least for my academic circle.


Thursday, February 10, 2022

Connection & Separation

People like to believe the idea that we are all connected by “six degrees of separation.” This is the idea that between me and any other person in the world, there are only five persons, each of whom know each other and have a personal connection, i.e. six links. The research to support that notion is pretty weak; Stanley Milgram’s famous research that popularized the notion actually had at most 30 percent of seeds actually reach the target person; some psychologists even consider “six degrees of separation” an academic urban myth (see Psychology Today article here). 

What strikes me about this concept, however, is the separation, not the links. Some people enjoy “connecting,” meeting new people. To me, however, meeting people I will never see again is sad, almost depressing. Maybe I’m an introvert, or maybe it is because my family moved every two or three years until I went to high school, so I lost friends and contacts after every move. I value permanent connections and friendships, not brief encounters. Of course, this is a stupid approach, because you can’t have long friendships if you do not start with the encounters. Plus, nothing in life is permanent; we just have to go with the flow.

This was brought home to me this weekend when we went to a St Louis Symphony concert celebrating the Lunar New Year. Though we are being very cautious about going out and even about meeting people because my 91-year old mother-in-law is staying with us, we decided that since everyone in the symphony hall would be vaccinated (and mostly older), and everyone would have masks on the entire time, it was relatively safe. We were especially eager to go because the guest conductor was going to be Elim Chan (陳以琳), who in December of 2014, at age 28 and while still a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition, the first female conductor to win the competition in its history (and one of only 5 females among 225 entrants in this overwhelmingly male occupation) (see NYTimes article here). We had read about her while living in Hong Kong, because she was Hong Kong born and raised, (see SCMP article here [paywall, after intro], for example). So we thought it would be fun to go see her conduct in St. Louis.

Elim Chan’s visit was held in partnership with the St Louis Asian American Chamber of Commerce, and through friends we were invited to meet Elim Chan backstage after the concert. Due to a bit of miscommunication, the person who was to take us backstage did not meet us at our seats after the show, as we expected, and we ended up waiting in the hall while the ushers cleaned up, searching for lost glasses and gloves. All this time we could actually see Elim on stage, deep in discussion with a musician. 

I was ready to abandon the whole thing. To me, what was the point of meeting her briefly, since we will never see her again (or if we do at a concert in, say New York, we certainly will not be able to meet her backstage). My mother-in-law, on the other hand, suggested we just call out to her to get her attention; I’m not sure whether my wife or I were the more mortified.

Finally a kind usher went and found our contact person, who very apologetically came and took us backstage, where we met and chatted with the conductor for five or ten minutes. She was charming and gracious, and said she was happy to be able to speak Cantonese with my mother-in-law.

And it turns out we have some connections. Elim Chan did her final two years of high school at Li Po Chun, which is a branch of the famous United World College located in Ma On Shan, very near the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Our daughter has a good friend, Bettina, who was one year behind Elim at Li Po Chun, and Elim knew Bettina. Bettina’s father was a colleague of mine at CUHK, and we knew him and his wife socially as well.

My mother-in-law asked Elim Chan if she knew Tsung Yeh, currently the director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. She said she of course knew about him, and that he was up there, indicating with her hands that she considered him to be in an exalted position. My mother-in-law noted that she was good friends with Tsung and his wife, because he had been conductor of the South Bend Symphony for 28 years before his retirement in 2016. South Bend is her home town. In fact, I also met the conductor many times, and enjoyed a long conversation with him in the O’Hare United Airlines lounge in the early 2000s, where he taught me many interesting things about conducting and we speculated on why his baton, which could really be a lethal weapon, was never confiscated or examined by TSA. He also had consulted with my parents, who were teachers of Italian, on the finer points of Italian pronunciation, so he knew my parents well.

We took pictures before we left; only then did we lower our masks briefly for the photo. And I was glad we had stayed and was really charmed by Elim’s graciousness. She may have had more interesting people to talk to than us, but she did not express that. A few of the departing musicians stopped by and complemented her on how efficient she had been, because it turns out that due to the heavy snowfall on Wednesday and Thursday, they were not able to hold rehearsals on those days as planned.

As we left and walked to our car, I reflected on this brief encounter. Though I very much enjoyed meeting her, I’m sad we’ll probably never meet again. And I thought about Tan Dun. The first piece performed by the symphony was composed by Tan Dun. I actually met him shortly after he arrived in New York. I remember that he was very friendly, and that he was surprised and amused that I spoke Chinese. He lived in an apartment across the street from me, on 113th street, in an apartment that was an “anthropology apartment.” I don’t know how or why, but that apartment had had a series of anthropology grad students living in the apartment over the years; the apartment even had a bow and arrow hanging on the wall, and as I remember it, no one seemed to know who they had belonged to. Ashraf Ghani, later the president of Afghanistan, had lived in that apartment four years earlier, I believe—at least, I met him there, when Ghani was finishing his notoriously lengthy dissertation.

So as pleasant as meeting Elim Chan was, there is also a sadness in it for me. It highlights the impermanence of relationships in the everyday flow of life. Not only is the notion of “six degrees of separation” a myth, but most of the “connections” we make are fleeting and fade away. Such is life.

Friday, December 17, 2021

College Football Has Gone Crazy

College football has gone crazy. My friends in Asia and Europe will be confused, so let me try to explain what has happened, and why it is so crazy. (This is a long post, so I've listed the main points at the end, if you want to jump to bullet points).

First, the facts. On Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, the University of Southern California (USC) announced that Lincoln Riley had been named head football coach, with an annual salary of over $10 million. The 38 year old had been head coach at the University of Oklahoma, with a salary of $7.672 million. This news stunned the sports world; there had been rumors for days that Riley would leave to coach at Louisiana State University (LSU), but he had strongly denied them. So the fact that he left, albeit for a different school, was surprising. Oklahoma and USC are both schools with a tradition of great football; it was unprecedented for a coach to leave a school like Oklahoma for another great school, and the salary levels seemed very high, keeping in mind that the average coach in the professional NFL earns $6.7 million. 

Reaction by a star player
Then, a day later, another bombshell: Brian Kelly, the coach at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, announced he was leaving to become the head coach at LSU. Again, a stratospheric salary: $9.5 million per year for 10 years guaranteed, with incentives that make it worth over 100 million in all. And apparently these deals come with additional perks, like cars, insurance, and travel allowances. Notre Dame is a private university, so we do not know his salary, but it was probably around $5-7 million. Kelly himself had once said that the Notre Dame head coach job was not a stepping stone; it is the pinnacle of coaching, a “destination job.” He had also said just a week earlier that he was not leaving, "… unless the fairy godmother comes by with that $250 million check, my wife would want to take a look at that first. I'd have to run it by her," Kelly said. 

But he had also indicated that he understood that to cement his legacy at Notre Dame, he had to win a national championship. This is something he was not able to do in the 12 years he coached there, from 2009 to 2021. Notre Dame has won a national championship 11 times, but not since 1988. In the 2021 season, he surpassed the fabled Knute Rockne in number of games won (105), and he is also the first ND coach to win 10 or more games in four consecutive seasons (though, to be honest, it is easier to do that now that teams play 12 or 13 games per season than it was when I was young, when there were only 10 games plus one bowl game each year. And until 1970, Notre Dame refused to play in bowl games, saying it interfered with student-athlete’s final exams. How quaint.) 

Brian Kelly did take the team to the championship game in 2012 and to the playoffs in 2018 and 2020, and lost badly each time (14-42 Alabama, 3-30 Georgia, and 31-14 Alabama, though actually, in 2020 Alabama beat Ohio State 52-24 in the championship by an even greater margin, but everyone focuses on Notre Dame being “blown out” because Notre Dame has not won a New Year Six bowl game [Rose, Cotton, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta or Peach] since the 1993 season.)

Brian Kelly knew that unless he won a national championship, no bronze statue of him would be erected outside the stadium along with the statues of Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz. Early in the 2021 season, when he was about to win his 106th game, he said: 

"I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history," Kelly said during a conversation with CBS Sports this week. "The coach that won more games that hasn't won a national championship. That's where I'll sit."  

So the fact that Kelly is leaving Notre Dame suggests he essentially decided he was not going to be able to win a national championship at Notre Dame (see pundits saying this here). 

One can only wonder whether Kelly viewed Notre Dame’s academic standards as an obstacle to winning a championship. It is rumored that Lou Holtz left Notre Dame in part because the administration would not bend academic requirements enough. Many commentators note that recruiting should be easier for Kelly at LSU. Notre Dame recruits nationally, but athletes also need to be good students and there has to be a good match with the Notre Dame culture (which can be very conservative). Notre Dame’s graduation rate of 97% is also much higher than LSU’s 66% (which is in fact the second worst in the country).

Of course, the money is significant, but really, once you are earning even $5 million a year (and he’s been head coach at Notre Dame for 12 years, so has been earning big money for a long time), is the additional money really the main attraction? Athletic director Jack Swarbrick and assistant coach Tommy Rees each said that they think after 12 years, Kelly was ready for new challenges. While Kelly is considered a good coach, there will always be doubts about his talent until he wins a championship.

But I want to emphasize that I think a good coach does not just win games, but has to mold teenagers into men. He is a teacher. He has to help players develop to their ability, whether it is to contribute to the team or to go on to play in the NFL, and for life after football. Overall, Kelly was a good coach.

My friends in Asia are justifiably stunned at the prominence that sport plays in American universities. College sports, especially football and men's basketball, are major social activities and money-makers for many campuses. In fact, I once heard that then CUHK vice-chancellor (equivalent to university president) Lawrence Lau, an economist who came to The Chinese University of Hong Kong from Stanford University, tried to make sports more prominent and a focus for university community solidarity, but it failed miserably. CUHK students don’t wear CUHK t-shirts, either; there is no rah-rah "student spirit" and "school pride" of that sort in Hong Kong. 

There are other aspects of the Brian Kelly story that are significant. First, one needs to understand that Notre Dame considers itself, and is widely viewed, as a special place. This is what makes Kelly’s departure so surprising. Skip Bayless is a TV pundit who said he was shocked by Kelly’s departure. He covered ND closely while a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, attending many games in South Bend and knows Notre Dame well. He said: 

“It [Notre Dame] is a great place, I can’t tell you. We will talk about what Lincoln Riley said at his opening press conference about he’s going to make USC the Mecca of college football. To me, Notre Dame is still the Mecca, to me. It represents everything that’s great about college football, all rolled into one. It’s the movie Rudy, it’s “Play Like a Champion Today,” it’s those golden dome helmets that they wear, it’s the coolest gold that I’ve ever seen, it just comes off the TV screen and gets in your eyes, it’s so gold. The legacy, of obviously Rockne, of “play one for the Gipper,” all of it. There is no greater tradition than this one. I love my Oklahoma tradition, but woof, it’s not this. ... 

“He [Kelly] was made for Notre Dame, because he is Irish Catholic, he grew up in the Boston area, ...he was made for that throne there that is Notre Dame football.”

One thing that was shocking is that when Kelly announced he was leaving Notre Dame, his team still had a good chance to make the playoffs this year. As it turned out, Notre Dame ended ranked #5 on the following Sunday, and everyone knew this year’s team was young, so unlikely to be able to win the championship. But it was shocking that he would abandon his team just one week before they knew whether they would make the playoffs (only the top 4 teams make the championship playoff). He had to take the job right away because LSU needed him to make sure the players they had recruited stayed committed to LSU. Signing day when high school players commit to colleges is Dec. 15th. But Kelly knew he was abandoning his team when he left for LSU.

The rapid increase in college coaches’ salaries is crazy. “Craziness. In a period of seven days, we now have four coaches – Tucker, Riley, Kelly and Penn State's James Franklin -- making significantly more than the average NFL coach (average salary: $6.7 million).” College football has become extremely commercialized, with magazines focusing on high school prospects, coaches flying on private planes to visit potential recruits, the evolution of what is called “the transfer portal” that allows more and more so-called scholar-athletes to switch schools (like free agency in professional sports), and these astronomical salaries. In 40 states in the US, athletic coaches are the highest paid public employee in the state! 

Highest-Paid Public Employees according to Fast Company magazine.

Some aspects of this commercialism may actually be for the better; the transfer portal prevents players from being “owned” like slaves by the team they happened to choose when they were 17 years old. (And the fact that over half the football players are Black makes this comparison very uncomfortably relevant.) Notre Dame tries in some ways to fight this tide and insist that athletes are students first, by, for example, not having athletic dorms. But in many ways, it is a losing battle; Notre Dame held out against a separate dining hall, but now has one. They used to prohibit freshmen from playing varsity, but that changed decades ago. At the same time, Notre Dame added to this commercialization when in 1990 they signed a television deal with NBC to broadcast all home football games, from which the university earns $15 million per year.

Increasingly, people realize the system is crazy. Pundits on Yahoo said Kelly’s move was “shocking”  and the “latest example of sport gone mad.”  The article in the NY Times said:

“If you equate it to college education, it’s insane,” Jackie Sherrill, the retired Texas A&M University football coach and athletic director, said of the industry and its soaring coaching deals. “If you equate it to business, it makes sense.”  

A player's tweet accepting the business logic of the move
In my conversations with some friends, I’m shocked that they simply accept Brian Kelly's move as normal, because he followed the money. I have a lot of problems with that, and it is not just because I’m nostalgic for a simpler time when salaries were lower. The idea that the value of a coach is whatever the market is willing to pay is wrong, because “the market” is not a pure market. This belief in “the market” as an impartial arbiter of value is an example of “market fundamentalism,” a belief that fails to recognize how the market is shaped by laws, policies and ideologies. Coaches would not be paid so much if the universities had to pay the players, for example. And rules prohibiting players from switching teams also prevent a real market from emerging. Universities could also make a lot of money offering sexual services on campus (at least in states where sex work has been decriminalized). There are some things that are just morally repugnant and that we do not tolerate. Ten million dollar salaries for an athletic coach should be one of them. Just as CEO salaries in the US have gone through the roof since the 1980s (in a way that has not happened in Europe and Japan), so too have coaching salaries exploded (see list here). There are many factors causing this explosion; one of them is the Great Man Theory, which assumes one leader can make all the difference. Leadership is important, but even coaching takes teamwork, and the leader's role is often exaggerated.

I also object to these huge salaries for college football coaches because they do not fit with the mission of a university. Knute Rockne was a chemistry professor at Notre Dame. Coaching football was an extension of his teaching. He was paid like a teacher. Ara Parseghian retired in 1974 at a salary of $36,000, equivalent to $203,000 in 2021 dollars, also like a star teacher. Nowadays, football is a side hustle for university, one that brings in millions of dollars. And winning championships bring in alumni donations. Little by little, universities are turning into sports clubs that have universities on the side. I even know of young people (some are relatives) who choose to go to large state schools because they have big sports programs. (An aside: A Washington University in St Louis student compared the atmosphere surrounding the 2016 Presidential Debate between Clinton and Trump, which was held on campus, to a Division I athletic event, which the school does not have!) Forbes even ranks football programs like they rank companies and billionaires; Notre Dame’s football program is rated 8th in revenues and 5th in profits. What does “profits” even mean here, in the case of "non-profit" universities?!

“This “amateur” model of college sports yields $18.9 billion in annual revenue to universities and the NCAA, millions to coaches and athletic department officials, and essentially nothing to the athletes upon which the industry depends.” (LA Times opinion)

Notre Dame has benefitted tremendously from this commercialization, going from a small Midwest Catholic college to the #19 National University according to US News & World Distort Report. The football victories under Rockne and Leahy put Notre Dame on the map and made it the favorite of most Catholics and many others. Money from the NBC TV deal has allowed Notre Dame to give over 6,000 undergrads a total of $80 million in financial aid, plus scholarships for grad students. Because Notre Dame is a valuable brand, income from t-shirts and other gear has also been extremely valuable. 

But the whole system rests on the free labor of players, who are only given scholarships. Some players are from families so poor that their parents cannot afford to travel to see their son play. Yet these young men generate over $1 million each for their universities. As a NY Times article notes (see original press release here):

“Professional-level payouts for college coaches are only possible because colleges and the N.C.A.A. illegally collude to directly restrict compensation for the mostly Black athletes so that the mostly white coaches and industry executives get to keep all the profits for themselves,” said Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “That’s shameful.”

The players are non-union, and at many schools (though not at Notre Dame), the school can cancel the scholarship if the players are injured or turn out not to be very good.  

Many pundits heaped contempt on Kelly for abandoning his players before they even knew whether they would be playing for the national championship.(See one example here.) Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote:

For those who say you can’t blame Kelly for accepting a contract from LSU that is expected to be well north of $10 million per year, that’s bollocks. There is nobody to blame but Kelly for a classless, gutless exit before the kids he recruited to Notre Dame even know whether they’ll have the privilege of playing for a national championship.   

Some of this is nostalgic idealism, like children finding out their teachers are paid a salary and don’t teach only out of love. But there is no doubt Brian Kelly’s reputation has suffered, perhaps unfairly. He was roundly mocked for putting on a fake Louisiana accent when he first addressed LSU fans at a basketball game (see viral video here and an ESPN commentator here who calls him “unlikeable”) and also for some supposedly cringeworthy dancing with a recruit.

The real problem is that after praising Notre Dame for so many years, his conversion to an LSU Tiger is a bit jarring and unconvincing, mercenary even. So maybe there is hope, since by criticizing and roasting Kelly, fans are insisting that football is NOT just a business. (Having said that, Tommy Rees has a very generous interpretation of Kelly's motives in this Red Line Radio podcast.)

Notre Dame football will be fine. Their new, 35-year-old coach Marcus Freeman was mobbed ecstatically by the team when he was introduced to the players as their new coach on Dec. 3rd (see video here), and most of the assistant coaches have decided to stay at Notre Dame rather than follow Brian Kelly to LSU. Tommy Rees told the team: "I love you guys. I love this place. I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I'm committed to doing everything we can to get to that point. This is where my heart is, and my heart is with you guys." (Video here.) With a young, popular and energetic coach, Notre Dame football is cool now. But the contradiction between money and college life is growing sharper.

Final point: These salaries should convince everyone that the anthropology of sport is not just some trivial topic barely worthy of study. Clearly sport, and American football in particular, is symbolically and economically very important in American culture. Both private and public universities are willing to pay obscene salaries to coaches, for athletes to play a game that, like gladiator contests, often leaves them with severe brain and other physical injuries. Why do we do that? From one point of view, this is as “exotic” and “irrational” and at the same time culturally important as other topics ethnographers have studied. The anthropology of sport deserves a more central place in the academy.

Key points:

Salaries of college football coaches have gone through the roof and are obscene.

Notre Dame’s football coach Brian Kelly left for LSU for a new challenge, and to win a national championship, perhaps realizing it would be difficult to do so given the academic standards of Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly abandoned his team when they still had a chance to play for the national championship, though this year’s team was not the strongest, and in the end, the team ended up ranked #5 so did not make the playoff.

College football has become extremely commercialized, though it is supposedly an amateur sport. The fact that these high coaches’ salaries are possible because of the free labor of mostly Black athletes should make everyone squirm.

The common view that we should accept what the market will pay as just a measure of a coach’s real value is an example of market fundamentalism, the belief that the market is impartial and always right. It also relies on the “Great Man Theory,” the ideology that one leader can make all the difference in an organization.

These high salaries also conflict with the mission of a university, turning it into a professional sports club that has a university on the side.

Notre Dame has benefitted tremendously from this commercialization, and has contributed to it, even as it presents itself as fighting for amateurism.

Brian Kelly’s reputation has been hurt by the move, which suggests there is still some resistance to commercialization.

Notre Dame football will be fine; the new coach is popular with players and most assistant coaches stayed at Notre Dame.

The anthropology of sport is not just studying a trivial game, but worthy of a more central place in the academy given the economic and symbolic important of sports in American society.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

On Thanksgiving

 I love Thanksgiving. But it also makes me squirm.

Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday. In Canada, it is more of a harvest festival, and since it is celebrated on the second Monday in October, the holiday is not as long a holiday as in the US. In the US, not only is it the holiday with some of the year’s highest travel volume, but it also is a holiday that is practically religious in tone. It celebrates national unity with a just-so story of "the first Thanksgiving," and that is a problem.

On the one hand, I love the story of the Native Americans helping the English colonists, teaching them to farm better, introducing new foods like maize and squash, and helping them survive in the new country. It is the kind of help to refugees, to visitors, to guests, that nearly every religion and tradition calls for. It is a story that should embarrass all Americans who seek to militarize the Mexican border and who are so hostile to even allowing refugees apply for asylum. (Oddly, many of these so-called “patriots” even call themselves Christian, and yet they take a very un-Christian stance on refugees.) This is a story of cultural communication and mutual understanding. 

On the other hand, the story is also the first step in Americans’ displacing, killing, cheating the Indigenous People of their land and way of life. Far from a story of “brotherly love,” it is a story of the beginning of colonization and genocide. It is little wonder that the Wampanoag regret helping the colonists. That makes the Thanksgiving tale a strange thing to celebrate.

First, some debunking:

--Thanksgiving has not been celebrated continuously since the “first” one in 1621; harvest festivals giving thanks were common, but it only became a national holiday in the US under Lincoln, who wanted to create a national holiday as a symbol of national unity;

--The native Wampanoag people were not invited to the first event; they came because the English colonists shot their weapons in celebration, and the Wampanoag thought they were under attack, so came armed ready to defend them;

--Just 54 years later, in 1675, the settlers turned on the Wampanoag, then led by the son of the chief who had welcomed the English; thousands of people were killed and many were sold into slavery or indentured servitude, ending all organized resistance to English settlement in New England.

--There was most likely no turkey at the first Thanksgiving, but lots of seafood;

--The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were not the first colonists in America. Americans have emphasized the story of the Pilgrims to create an image of the founding Americans as religious people seeking freedom in a new land. The first settlers (who survived) were the colonists at Jamestown, VA, who came looking for lucre.

--The story of the first Thanksgiving creates an image of friendly Indians sitting down for a meal with the Pilgrims and then leaving, effectively giving America to white people. It is really the first chapter of the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Note that this story only became popular in the late 1800s, when wars with Indians were effectively over. And by removing the violence and death involved, it hides the colonization of the country by the settlers.

There are an increasing number of stories explaining the real origins of Thanksgiving, such as this Smithsonian Magazine article

So Thanksgiving should really be a time for Americans to think about how our current wealth is based on the wealth stolen—literally stolen and cheated—from the native Indigenous population.

People are coming to recognize this, so it is increasingly common for seminars, concerts and plays to begin with a "Land Acknowledgement," a recognition that we are standing on occupied land. I have mixed feelings about these statements, and I think many of the speakers who make these statements also feel uncomfortable, because they often stumble as they make their statement. (If you have not heard such statements, here is an video example of the statement that was made at a Stanford Law School convocation ceremony.)  

I feel a bit uncomfortable about these Land Acknowledgements, and of course, they are meant to make us feel uncomfortable, I know. But the problem I have with them is that they seem merely performative. What is the point of making these acknowledgements? Are we supposed to feel better afterwards? Are they proposing giving the land back? It seems like empty talk.

It turns out, I’m not alone in feeling this way. Akhil Gupta, who just finished his term as president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), mentioned in his Presidential Address Saturday that the Stanford Land Acknowledgement should be rewritten (he taught at Stanford for many years).

Present Land Acknowledgment

“Stanford sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Ohlone people. Consistent with our values of community and inclusion, we have a responsibility to acknowledge, honor, and make visible the University’s relationship to Native peoples.”

Proposed Land Acknowledgment

Stanford sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This land of 8200 acres is currently worth US$19 billion. We are sorry that the founder of the University, Leland Stanford, while governor of California, supported legislation and raised a volunteer army to kill Native peoples. We also regret that although we offer preferential admissions for alumni and donors, we have chosen not to offer preferential admission and a free education to all Native students. 

Obviously, the last part is a bit tongue in cheek, but it highlights the hypocrisy of claiming “consistent with our values of community and inclusion” but then offering NOTHING to the Native population. And the part of raising a volunteer army is not hyperbole; Leland Stanford was truly evil, worse than a war criminal (you can get a bit of the story here.)

Serranus Hastings, whose donation led to the founding of California’s oldest law school, was also involved in Indian massacres. “Hastings and Stanford built their colossal fortunes, in part, on California real estate.Both men thus profited from the theft of California Indian land. Having helped to facilitate genocide, they then used some of their wealth to create institutions that have benefited many people.” But the institutions do not really address or redress the crimes their founders committed.

How to address these crimes is not a simple issue. Roy Rapaport, another former AAA president, wrote back in 1969 that in many cases, money cannot compensate for some things. You can understand this idea, he says, when you think of a question such as

"How much money is your integrity (or honesty or vote) worth?" 

Any value in dollars that you suggest will destroy the value you are seeking to buy. He continues: “It follows that attempts to mitigate the violation of strongly held values through cash awards may be taken by those to whom they are offered as insults heaped on previous injuries. The Shoshone, for instance, have refused to accept a cash award of tens of millions of dollars as compensation for what they construe to be seizure of their lands by the federal government in violation of the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863.” You cannot right a moral wrong just by paying some money. 

Interestingly, a group of Indigenous anthropologists has asked the AAA to suspend land acknowledgements until more thoughtful and effective statements can be written. They argue that statements that say that Indigenous peoples acted as “stewards” or “custodians” of the land, and statements that refer to “ancestral homelands,” “relegate Indigenous peoples to a mythic past and fail to acknowledge that they owned the land,” and so “tacitly affirm the putative right of non-Indigenous people to now claim title.”

They also note that nothing is said about what is to happen next. The implication is that non-Indigenous people are now saying, “What was once yours is now ours.”

They also note that these statements fail to acknowledge the violent trauma that came with the theft of land from Indigenous people—“the death, dispossession, and displacement of countless individuals and much collective suffering.” In fact, most Americans prefer to think of the Native population being “pushed off the land” or “forced onto reservations,” which, when you think about it, are euphemisms for the murder and theft by the colonists.

The Indigenous anthropologists also worry that “pretendians”—people who are not official members of a tribe but claim to be Native Americans—undermine Indigenous rights by masquerading as indigenous people. This raises the important point that being Native American is not a racial category, but a political issue; one needs to be registered and recognized by a tribe to be of indigenous descent. It is not about genes. 

So this Thanksgiving, you don’t need to give a formal Land Acknowledgement, but all Americans should think about who should rightfully own the land we live on. People like me, whose family arrived after the worst of the genocide had already occurred, cannot hide behind the excuse that they and their family did not do it. In my case, for example, my father’s family came in 1920, but his family would not have moved to the US from Italy had the continent not been seized from the Native peoples. My uncles did not go into farming or mining, so only claimed the small plot on which the family lived, but clearly they benefitted from the great wealth of the country, as wealth based in part on the stolen patrimony of the indigenous population. Americans got much more than squash and maize from the Native Americans. And that is something we should ponder, on this the 400th anniversary of that first Thanksgiving.

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.