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.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Election day as a poll worker

I spent election day as a St Louis County poll worker, in a mostly white working-class district of what people call “South County.” There are many aspects of this election that depress me, but the kindness and civility of everyone involved gives me hope.

Because of the pandemic, I was not initially eager to serve (I’m close the age category considered at high risk but don’t have any other medical issues), but when Trump called for 50,000 poll watchers, I felt the need to respond. 

In the US, only poll officials are allowed to stay in the voting area, so Trump’s call seemed ridiculous, but since there was a shortage of poll workers this year (which led to the number of county polling places being reduced from almost 400 to about 230), I decided to volunteer. I say “volunteer,” but I should note that I will get paid $225 for my work. But no one in my polling place did it for the money. We were seven election officials who worked in three bipartisan teams of two (with one extra Democrat rotating in other positions as people rested) and four nonpartisan “safety coordinators” helping with lines and disinfecting.

Polling place before opening
The day was very long; I had to report at the polling place, which was an elementary school gym, at 5:00 am, and the polls opened at 6:00 am. We were there until 7:00 pm. We were supposed to have an hour lunch-break, but that was impossible; it would have put too much of a burden on the colleagues left to work. I took a 30 minute lunch break in my car, and that was the only time I was seated all day.

My job was “Safety Coordinator II,” which meant that I was responsible for wiping down the voting areas after each voter left. I did that for 13 hours. It was exhausting. We were given only two containers of 300 wipes, so we had to use the wipes on multiple voting areas before getting a new one. The containers claimed the wipes “kill 99.9% of bacteria” but did not say anything about viruses, nor did it say it had over 70% alcohol. The ingredients did list many types of alcohol, but it also listed “aqua,” which is just a fancy (Italian) word for “water,” so I’m not so sure that all our wiping was more than theatre.

I was not told what to wipe, so I decided to wipe the desk surface and the parts of the chair that people likely touched, especially the top of the backrest and front of the seat. The other Safety Coordinator II was a young woman, and she wiped seats, but I stopped doing that when I realized it took too much of the wipe’s moisture. Many people seemed reassured that we wiped the voting area and thanked us for doing it. But a small number of people refused to sit down; some just leaned over the table and filled out their ballot, and one woman just stood next to a table we had set up as extra voting space. When I said to her “You can sit at that table,” she replied angrily, “I’m not sitting down! No one should be sitting down.” I’m not quite sure what their theory of infection was, but I assumed people’s clothes and underwear served as masks of sorts that would prevent any virus from infecting them from below.

One awkward detail I learned is that some people sweat when they sit, and leave a wet mark on metal chairs. This is especially common with heavier people, but not the heaviest people.

I wore a surgical mask all day (and changed mask at my lunch break), and wore nitrile gloves all day as well. The gloves were bright orange, which was convenient because they helped me motion to voters to help them find empty seats. But I do wonder if, as I leaned over to wipe the seats and the desks, did I inhale virus being spread by an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic Covid-19 patient? I guess I’ll know within 14 days.

Poster on face covering
Everyone was required to wear a mask in line and in the voting area. It was the job of “Safety Coordinator I” (not me) to make sure everyone wore a mask and stayed 6 ft apart in line. They also handed out the pens to voters. The pens had a stylus at one end to sign for a ballot on an iPad, and a black ballpoint at the other end for filling out the ballot. We told voters they could “keep the pen as a souvenir” but the pen did not have any writing on it. This was an improvement on the August primary, because it meant we did not have to wipe and reuse pens.

The voting process is interestingly baroque. There are three stations that operate simultaneously to process each voter. Each station has two poll workers, one Democrat and one Republican, and their equipment includes an iPad, which displays the voter’s address and allows him/her to sign for the ballot, and a printer that prints out the double-sided ballot on 14-inch paper. Each voter needs to produce an ID or the sample ballot flyer mailed to their address, and this gets scanned. Both officials need to approve on the iPad and actually initial the printed ballot. These two officials have to work right next to each other; even wearing a mask, there is no “social distancing,” and after 13 hours together, I would be surprised if an infected person did not pass the infection to their partner.

The voter then takes their ballot and finds a space to fill it out. The spaces are just tables with cardboard partitions for privacy. The process of filling out the ballot would be much faster if voters were given wide markers, but they have to fill a box with a normal pen, and since there are around 25 items to vote on, it will take 6 minutes even if the voter only takes 15 seconds to fill in each box. (As an aside: one voter did not understand me when I said “fill in the box”; she insisted she had done so with an X, and then corrected me, saying, “Oh, you mean I have to shade in the box.” She made me feel like English was not my native language! I see now that “to darken some bounded area” is the second meaning of “shade in.”) If a voter needs to look up information, it will take longer. Missouri does not have a box that allows one to vote the straight party ticket; one man commented to me that it would be better if we did. And they do not provide or allow markers. It Taiwan and Hong Kong, voters have an ink-stamp in the voting booth and the just stamp a check mark in a large square. That makes voting a lot faster. It is interesting, though, because ballots there are much shorter; they do not vote on the vast number of offices, judges, and propositions that we vote for in Missouri.

After the voter has finished making their selections, they take the ballot to a machine they call “the Verity,” which refers to a company that makes the ballot machines. It can scan the ballot no matter what side you insert first. After about 6 seconds, it either confirms the ballot was read correctly, or spits it back out and tells you that there is some error. Sometimes voters accidentally mark a second candidate, or they fail to notice the choices on the back side of the ballot (this happens to a surprising number, maybe 10 percent). Since the back side of the ballot includes only questions about retaining judges and constitutional amendments, many voters have no opinion and so either purposely left it blank or decided to approve the ballot in the Verity machine even though leaving it blank was actually an oversight. (You can see a video from the manufacturer here or below) 

One big advantage of the voting system in St Louis County is that if the voter makes a mistake filling out the ballot, they can be issued a new ballot. The ballot with the mistake is taken back and marked “SPOILED,” and the voter can try again. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, if your stamp mark is outside the box, the ballot is spoiled, and they cannot give you a new ballot because the ballots come pre-printed and are limited to the number of registered voters (to prevent ballot stuffing). One family must have spent about 40 minutes in the polling place, as one member made repeated mistakes and had to get a new ballot twice, for a total of three ballots.

In the past, voters put the ballot in a folder, and the folder was presented to the machine to preserve secrecy. Now, the poll workers who run the Verity machines can see who you voted for as you put the ballot into the feeder. Most people held the top and bottom of the ballot together so other people could not see who they voted for. But as a poll worker, and one who was near the voters as they filled out their ballots and put them in the Verity machine, I noticed that it is very difficult to see the ballot and identify who they voted for. It is still quite private, even if voters flash their ballot around.

All the ballots are collected in boxes under the Verity machine, and at the end of the night, they were removed, put into a neat stack, and put in an orange bag for a supervisor to deliver to a drop-off point, along with the disk drives in the Verity machines that include the totals for each race. These totals can be easily uploaded, which is why the results of the election were known just hours later. I was a bit surprised that we had all the ballots scattered across two tables as six of us created a neat pile, but with bi-partisan judges present, there could not be any hanky-panky. Plus, the paper ballots were only back up in case of a recount or technical malfunction.

The Verity is next to the exit, and voters left at that point, with their stylus/pen as a souvenir (though many chose to leave it next to the Verity machine). All voters got an “I voted today” sticker.

Everything went smoothly, but there were a few issues. In the morning, I suddenly saw an attractive woman in line; I was so tired, it did not immediately occur to me that she seemed “attractive” because I could actually see her face. She had apparently worn a mask on in line outside the building, where the Safety Coordinator I was checking, but later took it off. A supervisor went over to talk to her, and then a Republican poll worker escorted her out of the gym without incident. I’m not sure what he told her, but the rule is very clear that voters were not allowed in the polling area unless they were wearing a mask. Alternative arrangements had been made at the Board of Elections office in Saint Ann; persons not wearing a mask could vote in an outdoor tent. The woman had waited close to an hour in line, but still preferred to leave rather than wear a mask. Another woman came in with only a clear face shield; that should not have been allowed, but no one said anything to her. I estimate that about a quarter of voters were not wearing the mask properly, either leaking too much around the nose or not tucked under the chin, and one person wore a mask that looked more like a screen because I could see his mouth through it. None of this was commented upon.

As soon as the polls closed at 7:00 pm, two of the four Republican poll workers took off their masks; not only were they putting all their fellow workers at risk, but I’m pretty sure that was against the county mask mandate. Everyone else kept their masks on, so that I will never recognize my fellow workers because I did not see them without a mask. It is also interesting that a few years ago, Republicans passed a “Voter ID Law” that requires voters to produce a photo ID, but no one checked the photograph, and no one had to take off their mask to prove who they were. A Middle Eastern woman all dressed in black, with her hair covered in a black chador and wearing a black mask, almost looked like she was wearing a burqa.

I was probably overly cautious, but I made sure I did not wear any red or blue clothing; I wore a yellow oxford shirt and grey sweater. Voters were not allowed to wear any partisan clothing or other items, like a “Make America Great Again” hat. I did get the impression some people may have worn Cardinals hats because they were red like MAGA hats, because they also often wore a T-shirt with an American flag on it, but not everyone with a Cardinals hat voted Republican. One woman wore a T-shirt that said “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic when you could just be quiet.” Another had a T-shirt with an American flag on it and the words, “Just honor it.” Not much doubt about their politics. One Black woman had a mask with the words “Black Lives Matter” stitched on the side, and a supervisor—herself a person of color—told the woman to lower the mask a bit so the writing would not be visible. The supervisor told me later she was not sure if BLM was allowed, but did not want any controversy or complaints. This same supervisor had told me earlier that other people in line had said they were uncomfortable with the woman not wearing a mask, though I did not see anyone complain or make comments.

Part of the line outside the school at 1:00 pm
Our line was 150 persons long at the start of the day, and shortened to about 75 over lunchtime, but got longer again after lunch, to almost 200. We processed about 150 voters per hour. Finally, at 6:10 pm, there was no line. We continued to process a few people who came in, but they did not have to wait in line. This year, voters could vote at any polling station, and did not have to go to the one in their district. There was also a new app this year that told voters how long the lines were at each polling place, and some late voters were coming from a nearby library, where the line was still very long. One woman told me she had been in our line in the morning but realized she did not have time to wait because she had to go to work, so she came back after 6:00 when she got off work.

I have two final take-aways from the experience. First is the realization that a huge number of voters have no idea what they are doing. They probably know how they want to vote for president, but are increasingly unsure as they go down the ballot. The district I was in had some immigrants and non-native English speakers. Some were like an Arab man who sheepishly told me that this was his first election and he wanted to know what to do. He was well-dressed, seemed educated, and spoke fairly good English, though he had to translate for his wife who seemed to know no English. They seemed to know how they wanted to vote but were not familiar with the ballot layout and voting system. A family of four Asians, perhaps Burmese, had to have their ballots re-printed multiple times because they made mistakes. One man had chosen multiple candidates for each office, and we had trouble explaining to him that he had to choose one for each office. Several immigrants had trouble with this. While immigrants were more likely to have major errors and require help, plenty of native-born people were confused and/or did not fill out the whole ballot. One man in his 30s asked me if the constitutional amendment “to extend the two term restriction that currently applies to the Governor and Treasurer to the Lt. Governor and Secretary of State, Auditor and the Attorney General” meant that they would also have a limit or if it removed the limit.

One older lady read the proposal for Constitutional Amendment No. 3 and asked me if I could help her decide, because her note said to vote against it but it seemed to make sense to her. She herself added, “You probably aren’t allowed to tell me, right?” to which I agreed. That Constitutional Amendment passed by 51% to 49%. It was pushed by the Republican Party to undo an anti-gerrymandering reform proposal passed by 63% of voters two years ago. This amendment was purposely phrased in such a manner to be deceptive, because the first clause bans gifts from paid lobbyists to legislators (which is already heavily limited) and “reduces legislative campaign limits” but does so insignificantly. The main clause is the third, which reversed the reforms passed in 2018. In addition, I found out today, the day after the election, that this amendment also removes children and the undocumented population from the population for each district, giving more power to rural areas (where the population is much older than in cities and where there are few undocumented workers). Commentators note that this further cements the Republican Party’s structural advantage in the Missouri legislature.

You might say that this is clever political maneuvering by the Republicans, which is a valid point. But with so many races to vote on, it is hard to focus attention on these propositions and amendments. Americans are used to accepting the results of elections, even when so many of the voters are uninformed. As I mentioned, many people did not even bother to vote on the second page of the ballot, and these important amendments are at the very end of the ballot. In a close vote like this one, 51%-49%, with many voters confused, the result is essentially random. 

This reminds me of E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s discussion of how the Azande made important decisions. When they needed to schedule an important trip or venture, they would consult an oracle. Their most famous oracle is called a poison oracle, because benge, a poison made from plants, was force-fed to a young chicken, and a question is posed to the oracle: “If this is a good time for the venture, kill the chicken” or “...spare the chicken.” The result told them what to do. Evans-Pritchard is famous for arguing that as a way of deciding things, it is as good as any other. We, as modern Westerners, see this as absurd because whether or not the chicken dies is random, affected by the amount of poison fed to the chicken, the poison’s concentration, the health and strength of the chicken, etc. But I’m sure that many in China are looking at our elections and thinking our results are just as irrational and random as the “poison oracle.” All we can say in our defense is to quote Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

The level of ignorance among voters is a bit depressing, but another aspect of the experience is more uplifting. Quite a few people thanked us for volunteering, and one woman told us that she would order six pizzas for us, and sure enough, 30 minutes later, a Domino’s deliveryman brought us six pizzas. I was struck by how uniformly polite everyone was, with nearly everyone saying “Thank you,” as we pointed to empty seats for them or wiped areas. The Democrats and Republicans checking IDs and printing ballots and running the Verity machines never had any arguments or disagreements. Even late in the day, they were cheerful and polite to all voters. We knew who was of what party because we needed to make sure there was someone from each party at each machine, but someone coming in and watching would not have known who belonged to what party. No politics was discussed at all, even obliquely. No one said anything about the outcomes, or even that this election was close or nerve-wracking. I had two conversations with workers where the topic of what we would do the day after came up, and no one talked about staying up late to following the results. The civility and courtesy of the whole process made recent talk of possible violence and even civil war seem ludicrous. This was not only “Midwest nice”; it was also democracy in action.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Confusion on Pandemic Protocols Demonstrates We Have Poor Leadership

 The social website "NextDoor.com" is a platform where neighbors can discuss local issues. I first learned about it when my sister-in-law used it in her neighborhood to call out for a request to borrow a wheelchair, and a neighbor of hers (who she did not know) offered to lend us a wheelchair for free. It seemed like a nice idea. You have to be a neighborhood resident to participate.

Sometimes, debates that break out on NextDoor are very revealing of cultural issues in American society. I find, for example, that some people are very scared by shootings, and find it necessary to reply to a story by commenting with a few words like "Scary!" or "That's awful." While it is true that shootings are horrible, I don't feel the urge to post such messages, and I also note that few of these shootings are robberies or random. I view them more as sad and worrisome signs of social disfunction than as personally scary.

Yesterday there were over one hundred posts in just a few hours responding to a mother who said her small children, 2 and 5, were being harassed two little boys and using foul language in the neighborhood park. She threatened to call the police and post pictures of the boys on NextDoor if the parents did not reply to her message. This led to an outpouring of comments, most saying that one should never post pictures of minors on social media without permission, and criticism of the threat to call the police, given the problem of police violence. The mother replied with a very measured message, thanking the poster for letting them know of the problem, and saying that foul language and bad behavior was definitely not tolerated in their home and she and her husband would be talking to the boys and going to the park with them in the next couple of days. But she also pushed back at the threats to call the police and post the boys' pictures. Her reply was great; many of the comments were embarrassing, so I did not read most of them.

A few days earlier, a Black WashU student who lives in an apartment with other Black female students wrote to complain that neighbors had called the police on them, once for her roommate screaming loudly in frustration over something, and another time because they were making too much noise playing music at 10:30 pm, celebrating a birthday. The police had been very disrespectful and actually made the birthday girl cry. The student, very reasonably, asked that neighbors come over and talk to them before they called the police, as they did not mean to bother anyone, and police encounters for Blacks are fraught with danger. This led to a vigorous back and forth, as some said they should have known that quiet time in University City starts at 10 pm, others saying it is not right to expect people to confront neighbors since people have guns and you don't know how they might react. One writer accused the student of being privileged for being able-bodied, because she would not have been able to go up the stairs to the women's apartment to speak to them. When you read some of these exchanges, you can't help but feel that social media makes conflict and polarization worse, not better.

Today a dispute is brewing on my NextDoor feed over Covid and masks. Here is the first post:

Laura Central West End West

Covid-19. I’ve been riding my bike or walking in Forest Park and I always wear my mask. If I don’t see anyone near me I occasionally pull it down but mostly just keep it on because many times people ride or run right next to me from behind without masks on. I’d say 95% of people at the park do NOT wear masks. And they don’t stay 6’ away either. What’s up with that? Missouri’s numbers are high and this is probably the reason. It’s so frustrating. Please please think of others. At least wear it on your neck and pull it up when you walk, run, or ride next to someone.

Of course, this leads to replies like this:

Central West End West
I don’t wear a mask outdoors. I try to stay well separated, but I don’t believe that passing by someone is dangerous. Indoors is very different.
Central West End West
Just wear the mask, please. Indoors or out.

B.B.  • Central West End West

Dosage makes the poison. COVID tends to transmit in longer (15 minutes or more) close interactions in areas with poor ventilation. There is almost no chance of transmitting COVID in an incidental pass while running or biking. Masks certainly reduce the chances of transmission, but the chances of transmission outdoors are near zero.
You're pretty dumb to be wearing a mask out doors. I haven't been wearing a mask for months. There's no Law Karen! I'll never wear a mask unless it's super crowded and we have to.
West End 
Not dumb, just socially responsible, considerate, and intelligent. If others were the same, the infection and death rates from Covid-19 would be much lower. To be in denial about this isn't smart, it's irresponsible.
Amber • Academy
You go outside to get fresh air. Not wear a mask. Most people wont wear one outside so you assume that risk. The chances of it being transmitted passing by in 3 second timeframe isnt likely. Mask should be worn indoors wheres there an inclosed space. Just dont sneeze on anyone and its not a problem.

Central West End West

I don’t believe the evidence points to there being much risk with a quick pass without a mask while walking/running/biking. I don’t think I’d be able to wear a mask while running or biking in Forest Park. 
I also think it’s important to give people space outdoors. I’m often frustrated when groups of 2 or 3 take up a lot of the path when I’m running outdoors without a mask, and I can’t get 6 or even 3 feet away.
Central West End East

There is essential no danger of infection from briefly going by someone outside, several feet away (excepting, say, someone coughing or sneezing in just that  correct instant with the breeze in just the right direction). Walking on a busy sidewalk is a different matter, as then you are passing many people fairly close together, and passing time is much longer. But jogging or biking in the park, you are almost certainly not near anyone for more than a half second.

Central West End East

So ridiculous! There is fresh air all around you and you are poisoning your lungs with breathing your own breathe, just stupid! Keep riding that bike and being a Karen, sooner or later you will be too sick to ride it, so stupid!

Skinker DeBaliviere

I agree with you, Laura. I wear my mask when I take walks at the park and then distance myself when someone is walking toward me. It is the responsible and safe thing to do.

And on it goes. Social media provides an interesting insight into our culture. And it ain't pretty.

For the record, I do not believe it is necessary to wear a mask in the park. If the issue were not so politicized, and if we were not also arguing over whether it's necessary to wear masks in stores, for example, then we'd have a consensus based on available science. But clearly while we have lots of opinions, there is no agreement on what we should do. The CDC's advice is not entirely clear, though it seems to take the precautionary principle; it says in guidance on visiting parks:

Wear a mask as feasible. Masks are most essential in times when social distancing is difficult, including when hiking on trails that may be popular or crowded.

 It's easy to urge everyone to wear a mask "as feasible," but the advice gets ignored if it does not seem to square with other advice we're given, such as the notion that people need to have close contact for 15 minutes or more to be at risk. If our Dear Leader were not intent on trying to "avoid panic" and denying the seriousness of the pandemic, then maybe such divisions would not be so sharp.