Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Information Culs-De-Sac

Many news agencies today are known more for their political leanings than their journalistic integrity. Journalism, for many people, has become simply another form of entertainment. This has led to increasingly polarized discussions of key issues, as not even the basic facts of a discussion can be agreed upon. When news outlets only serve to reinforce the biases of their consumers, they are failing in their fundamental duties. I certainly understand the need for specialized sources, and that many are serving a niche audience. However, in an age of intellectual laziness, where many people can't understand the difference between opinion and research, it is hard to justify such low standards are being continued.

However, it is hard to imagine a rapid improvement in the state of the mass media outlets. Particularly when Faux News had its best year ever, in terms of ratings. This is especially disheartening as repeated polls have shown that Fox News viewers are among the most poorly informed. Until these supposed 'news' agencies begin challenging the respective biases of their viewers, it is difficult to imagine coherent debates on important issues.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

A recent article highlights the stunning and tragic statistics on violence against women in the world. It is something that often goes unreported and is unknown. I am continually amazed at how unaware people are regarding these issues.

Issues of violence are often closely linked with issues of power. This is particularly true for violence against women. Women all over the world face systematic discrimination. This is most exemplified in many middle- and low-income countries where women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food but only own around 1 percent of the land. This huge power differential creates a situation where women are not represented in society. Their marginal position opens them to violence of all types, much of which comes from a woman's family or acquaintances.

I hear solutions such as education pushed as panaceas to this problem. Even in countries with high education there are still fundamental inequities in pay and power which are experienced by women at all levels of society (e.g., pay disparity gaps, likelihood of experiencing poverty and hunger, etc.). Until women have the opportunity for substantive political representation, their situation will not change. Those countries where women have the largest political power (meaningful inclusion in ruling parties, civil society, and bureaucracies) are those with the lowest levels of violence against women. Some will ask what comes first, respect for women or women in positions of political power? I would say that they reinforce and sustain each other, but must be backed by all who would favor a more just world.

People rejoiced the overthrow of the Taliban, believing that the role of women in society would change in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Many people falsely believe that women are in a substantively better position than they were under the Taliban. A recent article highlights that this has not been the case. Violence against women continues and under the lawlessness created by this war, it is hard to track. Women leaders in Afghanistan face serious risks of violence against them and their families. The central government is powerless to stop it, even within Kabul. And even if it had the power, it is unclear whether it would expend any of its resources to tackle this problem.

The adoption of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 was a bold gesture which has not been sufficiently supported. The future is murky on women's rights. While progress has been made in these 30 years, the structures that created such discrimination then have not fundamentally changed. Until we take a serious look at what underlies women's marginalization, we stand to simply repeat the injustices of the past.

Google Waves of Grief

I recently received my invite to Google Wave and am finding it quite interesting. I have always considered myself an early adopter of new technologies and this is quite an interesting one. However, I continue to be troubled by the lengths to which companies such as Google will go to secure market share in China. Their willingness to censor links is deplorable and it is really difficult to understand how they could find such moves ethical.

The possibilities for international collaboration made possible through Google Wave simply highlights how contradictory censoring the internet for Chinese consumption is. What steps has and will Google take to censor users from China using Google Wave? At what point will Google and other companies like it realize that there is no market share worth fundamentally undermining the human rights of others? It is hard to imagine how these decisions were made, or how those who made them can continue to pretend they are doing no harm.

If silence is consent, then censoring under the direction of a totalitarian state is collusion. History never judges such treason lightly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Funny and Seriously Troubling

I recently came across a website that I am now completely obsessed with. The website is called Ask an Astrobiologist and is a NASA page. At first glance the website doesn't seem like anything unusual until you start clicking through the questions that he receives. As questions are submitted via the internet, the questions are often baffling. The Astrobiologist answering them, David Morrison, does not suffer fools gladly, as the expression goes. He takes a very firm hand with the lunacy that pervades the internet and implores people to develop critical thinking and critical researching skills. With all the disaster movies that have been coming out, or will be coming out, he gets a lot of crazy questions asking if those things are true, or demanding to know why NASA is hiding this stuff from them. There are also heart-breaking questions from people clearly confused by the massive amount of misinformation they find online. I wish more people would speak this clearly with the American people on a whole host of issues. The lack of understanding of many of the questioners points to deeper failures in the education system. Some of my favorite excerpts from the site:

I saw an episode of "The Universe," on the history channel, that showed NASA landing a probe on the asteroid Eris, or Eros. A week later another episode explained that Eris, or Eros, was a dwarf planet in the Kiper Belt. (1) If Eris is a dwarf planet out past Pluto then how could NASA land a probe on it? (2) Is Eris a dwarf planet or an asteroid that NASA put a probe on?

You are confusing Eros (a near Earth asteroid) with Eris (the largest known dwarf planet). Eros and Eris are different just as Washington is not Wilmington, and Paris is not Paros, and in planetary science Titan is not Triton. Different words mean different things. If you do not make this distinction, you will misunderstand many things you read and see on TV. For more information on either Eris or Eros, try Wikipedia.

People are saying that a solar flare is going to hit the Earth in 2012 and "toast" us alive. What is this site all about? I even saw their commercial on tv! I just want to know the truth and be prepare if something is really going to happened. AND I recently saw a commercial on Discovery's History Channel where a lottery entry has begun to "save yourself" from the 2012 doomsday event; however, it was not specified what this event may be or how these winners would be saved. AND I found this website with very believable information. Is it really true ? AND I saw this commercial on tv about the institute for humanity continuity and I am very scared.

About dozen people have written to me this week about ads for the Institute for Human Continuity. This is just part of the publicity for the science fiction film “2012” to be released in November. Let me be clear: (1) Nothing bad is predicted to happen in 2012. The 2012 doomsday is a hoax. (2) There is no Institute for Human Continuity. It is a fake website created to generate interest in the film. (3) Neither the film nor this website are based on science. This is fiction. (4) The creation of a fake website to publicize a film is called “viral marketing” by a analogy with a computer virus (look it up in Wikipedia). (5) It is important to learn to distinguish fiction from fact, and Hollywood film plots from reality. Here is what I wrote in this subject a few months ago in my “Twenty Questions” about 2012: The pseudoscientific claims about Nibiru and a doomsday in 2012, together with distrust of the government, are being amplified by publicity for the new film from Columbia Pictures titled “2012”, to be released in November 2009. The film publicity includes creation of a faux scientific website ( for “The Institute for Human Continuity”, which is entirely fictitious. According to this website, the IHC is dedicated to scientific research and public preparedness. Its mission is the survival of mankind. The website explains that the Institute was founded 1978 by international leaders of government, business, and science. They say that in 2004, IHC scientists confirmed with 94% certainty that the world would be destroyed in 2012. This website encourages people to register for a lottery to select those who will be saved; a colleague submitted the name of her cat, which was accepted. I learned from Wikipedia that creating this sort of fake website is a new advertising technique called “Viral Marketing”, by analogy with computer viruses.

I'm really worried about supernovas and hypernovas. I'm specially worried about stars called Betelgeuse, Eta Carinae, Antares and WR 104, as there is a lot of conroversial information on the internet about these stars. I Know pretty well the situation about WR 104, as you have answered it also, but the rest of the stars i mentioned are still a mystery. This is really worrying me as i can't sleep when I worry about these things (yes I'm a worryer and a bit of a cosmophobic), so it would be very helpful if you could give me the information I need so I could go on with my life.

I can think of no reason why any of the stars you mention should be considered threats. I don’t know what specific information will calm your fears, but these are just ordinary stars going about their business like the other 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy...If you are finding many websites that claim controversy about these four stars, my advice is to stop using such misleading sources of information. The Internet is filled with misinformation and disinformation, most of which should simply be ignored. One of the most valuable aspects of Wikipedia is that it is up to date and reflects the knowledge of real scientists. If anyone thinks they are falling for the crazy ideas of cosmophobia or are having trouble sleeping because of fear of astronomy, please check out Wikipedia or other reputable sources (such as Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazines) and forget the pseudoscience.

Why isn't there more media coverage of the 2012 doomsday? Explain to me what I am seeing in the video for HR 8791. Why did you guys finally decide to coordinate with other countries for the global space station or be in such a rush to find a planet that will support life. The biggest news today is the Health Care Reform but if you look at the words at the bottom on CNN they read that NASA has discovered a planet.

There is not more media coverage of the 2012 doomsday because the media realize it is a hoax. Fortunately most of the media prefer to write about real things, and they understand that 2012 is an Internet and UTube cult phenomenon without the slightest bit of evidence to support it. The only HR 8791 I know of is a Congressional Bill (HR stands for House Resolution) that has been the subject of a spoof by the satirical humor publication Onion. I hope you are not taking this spoof seriously. This sort of humor works only if readers can recognize the spoof...

Usually the astrologers use our planets to explain the present, past and the future life of we humans. Is there really any link between the planet alignment and its movement with the human's life or a person's zodiac sign?

No, there is no link — astrology is not science, or prediction, but an ancient religion that is unrelated to modern science...

There are certain people who believe that global warming may in fact be true, but at our current rate it is too late to do anything about it.... My question to you is, what do you think is the better solution for global warming. Invest billions into trying to find solutions to fix the problem. Or invest the billions of dollars of research into learning to live with global warming?I am surprised that you refer to “people who think global warming may be true”.

Global warming is about as sure as anything in science that deals with a complex system like Earth climate. We know the rapid increase in greenhouse gases is producing a rate of heating that overwhelms any of the much slower “natural” processes that influence global climate...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking Action - Getting Started, Getting Informed

Michael Moore's newest release, Capitalism: A Love Story, has stirred a lot of emotion and has been overwhelmingly well-received. The biggest criticism I hear is that he doesn't lay out where to go once you leave the theater. I find this very interesting given that the movie is about raising awareness and highlighting the problems and contradictions in the economic system in the U.S. and to a large extent globally.

The desire to have Moore not only lay out the problem, but also the solution, gets at one of the key reasons that this movie was made. Americans have let themselves be led around for too long, by media, by politicians, by their churches, etc. Only when people take a serious look at their lives and the lives of others will they really be able to say what they actually want. It is critical for Americans, and others, to get a better idea of how the norms of society inform both our individual goals and the appropriate means for attaining those goals.

This creates a situation in which many Americans have a difficult time imagining alternatives to the current system or even realizing the problems inherent within it. In our daily lives, the inadequacies of the current system can seem obtuse and distant. By taking a step back, we can begin to understand that there could be a different way, but this also will require action, not continued resignation. Engaging with history and the current realities in other countries can begin to show that what we take for granted is much more malleable than we realize. Systems change over time, often as the result of events that were seemingly minor at the time.

I am beginning to realize one of the biggest weaknesses of the American education system is teaching the ability to differentiate between good and bad sources of information. While not something that can be taught overnight, the key for me is to verify the expertise of the person or persons presenting the information, and whether their accounts are contextual. By contextual, I am referring to that they aren't simply stating a fact or facts as permanent or infinite. For example, you often hear a current belief expressed as timeless. For example, the idea that the U.S. is and always was a Christian nation. A simple historical review would dispel this notion; however, most people lack the skills to carry out such a review.

In many cases, media outlets underestimate their ability to educate as well as inform. An educated populace is complementary to an informed populace, but they can be very different. I see many people that are clearly informed, in that they are aware of current events, and have taken positions on key issues of the day. But often, these people lack sufficient education, to make their positions coherent. By education, I am not simply referring to schooling. I am also referring to a broader education, which requires engaging with history and taking a broader perspective than is found in most newspapers and textbooks. Similarly, I see many well-educated individuals, who clearly have grappled with difficult issues and are well-read in theory and/or history. However, many of them are unable to take the understanding and apply it in a coherent way to reality. In becoming so obsessed with the details of some historical period, or some theoretical perspective, they lose interest in the complexity of the everyday political and social issues.

I think it is critical for people to think about the deficiencies in their perspectives and try to get a better understanding of why they think what they do. It is important to come to terms with the biases and inadequacies of both our scholarly as well as contextual knowledge. This often requires seeking out new and varied sources, so that we are able to have a more coherent internal narrative. Key to this is identifying that just because you agree with an analysis or the conclusions, doesn't make the analysis accurate or coherent. Similarly, just because you disagree, it doesn't mean that you are missing something. Sometimes alternative perspectives or sources are just inaccurate or incomplete. By engaging with how they came to their conclusions is just as important as what conclusions they came to. Also important is to not fall into the trap that there are two sides to every problem or issue. Problems are much more complex than such a duality would allow. And the solution to any given problem doesn't lie between two expressed extremes. In all likelihood any given solution will favor some and infuriate others. Such are the complexities we face.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Solution: Educating Yourself on the Basics

Upon seeing how many Americans and Britons don't understand evolution and even reject its existence, Richard Dawkins took it upon himself to write a book that would bring the discussion back to its foundation. In The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, Dawkins strips the discussion to the basics and then shows what sorts of evidence would have to be present to show that evolution has taken place. From there he builds the indisputable case that evolution is a fact and that to deny otherwise requires a level of cognitive dissonance, not skepticism.

Dawkins would know about skepticism when it comes to evolution. He has been one of the central authors in changing the way the mechanisms of evolution have been understood. He, like many, identify that Darwin had a good start, but that Origin of Species is far from a complete accounting of the complexity that is evolution (nor was that Darwin's goals). At Utah State University, they offered a course in which you read Origin of Species and identified what things Darwin got right and other areas where he was off the mark.

Until people take the same intellectually curious approach that great scientists take to big issues, we will continue to have moral politics and biblical debates where policy discussions and mutual respect should be.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Problem: Debating an Issue You Don't Understand

Kirk Cameron, the actor turned wacky evangelical, is back peddling his overstated and horribly confused wares. A recent video release by himself and Ray Comfort, author of one of the most poorly written books I have ever read, have teamed up again to take their version of evangelism to a whole new level of absurdity. The video itself is hilarious. Kirk sitting backwards in a chair (what is this a 90s PSA?) making absurd statements about how evolution is the antithesis of Christianity and that Darwin's ideas played a key role in Nazi crimes against humanity. Now I can fathom how evolution makes people who believe the earth is 6,000-10,000 years old uncomfortable, but to make such blatantly untrue and egregious statements is just irresponsible.

Their awesome plan is to take Darwin's original treatise on evolution (which is now part of public domain) and put in a 50 page "special introduction." It appears to be special in the same way people call their dog that can't stop running into walls, "special." They will then hand these out at campuses across the U.S. in an attempt to debunk the "myth of evolution." Now handing out a free copy of Origin of Species is all well and good, but to put in 50 pages of conservative evangelical babble serves no one. People that would even CONSIDER reading the 50 page special introduction would NEVER read Origin of Species, and vice-versa. Cameron's and Comfort's narrow, ignorant, and inaccurate understanding of reality indicates clearly that neither have read the original text that they will be giving away, nor have they read any modern works on evolution. Anyone looking at the evidence, religious or non-religious, with an appreciation of rules of evidence and the scientific method cannot but identify the facts of evolution and how it has given rise to our current biodiversity. To claim otherwise is to simply ignore the vast historical literature and on-going scientific work in any field related to biology.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Filibuster: Moderating Force or Minority Tyranny?

I recently ready an interesting article that argued that the Senate filibuster should be abolished. While not necessarily the most important issue on its own, the author linked it to wider issues of fairness and democracy (and to the current health care reform). While he didn't touch on numbers, it re-energized my concerns about about the massive power rural states have in the Senate. To me, reforming the filibuster would be one possible small step toward making the Senate more democratic. These rurual states would be amongst the first to fight such a measure.

In my undergrad, I grappled with the issue of the Senate being undemocratic in the sense that its votes are not proportional to state population (as the House is, though not completely). The filibuster increases this undemocratic leaning by allow 41 senators, which could represent a small minority of Americans, to block a vote on nearly any issue. In a country of 304,059,724 (estimated as of July 2008), Senators representing the twenty states with the lowest population plus one senator from the 21st lowest population state could conceivably hold nearly any bill from ever receiving a vote. Seven of these states have less than a million residents, eight have between one and two million residents, and the final five each have less than three million residents. The 21st state, Iowa, has just over three million residents. Combined, the population of these twenty states, plus half of Iowa, adds up to 32,637,771 or just over ten percent of the U.S. population. The fact that nearly 90 percent of the population can be outvoted by this small minority clearly indicates that at the very least dissolution of the filibuster is something to consider, if not wider reform of the system for electing Senators.

Luckily, getting rid of the filibuster simply requires a majority vote, while any larger Senate reform would likely require amending the U.S. Constitution. Some will argue that the filibuster has been used in the past to moderate debate and force compromise. They will say that despite its undemocratic nature, it provides some protection from majority tyranny. While I accept that protection of the rights of the minority are fundamental under any legitimate democracy, requiring super-majorities to even be able to vote on a bill often hampers the policy-making process through allowing powerful lobbyists to influence the votes of a few against the will of the many.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Social Determinants of Ignorance

In a very disconcerting sign of the times, a recent poll found that nearly half of Americans were accepting the fear mongering and fallacious charges against health care reform. One of the most concerning findings was that forty-five percent of respondents thought that the current health care reform proposal would likely "allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." While I am aware that this charge is out there, I assumed (wrongly, as usual) that any responsible person would try to verify this extreme and dangerous claim.

This got me thinking more broadly about how easily the public is misled and where this comes from. I have heard many people blame the individuals themselves for their ignorance on these issues; and I will admit I do have some sympathy for that view. However, taking a more sociological view, I am forced to look beyond the individual and examine the social nature of these misunderstandings. This brought me to some recent findings on beliefs about evolution.

The Pew Research Center recently released a study that contained some pretty depressing findings regarding the public's knowledge (or beliefs) regarding science. They found that eighty-seven percent of scientists agree with the statement that "Humans and other livinging things have evolved over time due to natural processes." For the general public this number dropped to a dismal thirty-two percent. In the study they also break down the findings demographically which provides some interesting insights and show clear social patterning across age, eductation, and religious beliefs or lack thereof. The social patterning and the clear lack of widespread scientific thinking amongst the majority of society speaks to something more structural than individual.

Part of the problem certainly lies within the education system, but clearly, many people who end up being scientists began in the same schools as those that will go on to believe Obama wants to kill your grandmother. Thus, improved education alone would likely only serve to close the gap somewhat. It would seem a more lasting solution would have to involve making scholarly and academic findings more approachable. Allowing people to be involved in education throughout their lives. Until Americans can tell the difference between a legitimate reliable source and the ramblings of conspiracy theorists, or fear mongers, we will continue facing these one-sided debates. Debates where the facts are on one side and anger, fear, and ignorance are on the other. I don't mean to belittle anyone's opposition to health care reform, as I have written previously about its inadequacies. However, a real, informed debate about health care simply isn't possible in the U.S. because the knowledge gap is so big. Providing people the tools to close that gap and setting up structures to do so would reap benefits far beyond the political sphere.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Health Care Reform Blues

With reform unlikely to happen before the August recess, the likelihood of reform becomes less clear. After swings in momentum both for and against reform over the past few months, it has been interesting to see how quickly some ideas have fallen away under pressure, and how others continue to be recycled and brought back to the fore. It seems likely that we will have some sort of "reform" at this point, in that a bill will likely be passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by Obama. The question is will there be any actual valuable reform to a problematic and burdensome system or will it merely push off necessary reforms for another decade or so.

I think one of the most interesting developments has been that the Republicans in both the House and the Senate have decided to drop developing their own bill, after promising to do so since the beginning of the reform effort. While I can understand the desire to focus all of their attention on the current resolution being discussed, it seems that they are only falling into the trap of being the "party of 'no'" label which has been wielded against them expertly during the current Congress.

I also think it is dangerous for the Republicans to place so much hope on the Blue Dog Democrats. While allies on some issues, they are, at the end of the day, still Democrats. They know they can only push so far before they overstep their power and incur undesirable repercussions (such as the bill being moved to the floor without a committee vote). The Blue Dogs may claim that they are the beacon of fiscal conservatives and small business, but there are many ways to allay their fears and still have a bill that will be faced with obstructionism by Republicans.

I am often surprised that the current bill, even in its most liberal versions, is itself a comprise; not necessarily a good one. Many Americans, rightly in my view, favor an even more robust public system than is currently written into any of the House or Senate versions of the bill being floated around. The high costs of care (as I have discussed in previous posts) are not simply due to the high-cost treatments or expenditure disparities. They are in large part due to the cost of "doing business" under a for-profit system of health care. One of the key advantages of a single-payer system is the sense of solidarity that it brings amongst those involved. When people are all paying into the same system, there is an acknowledgement that while some are paying more, it is often for the greater good.

One final point about perceptions of U.S. health care. It is often stated, without any support, that America has the best health care in the world and that people from other countries flock here due to long wait times elsewhere. However, both these characterizations are false; but more importantly, they indicate that the debate is simply focused on the wrong sets of issues. Even if the U.S. had the best health care in the world and people did come for care unavailable in their homelands, simply stated, the U.S. health care system is unsustainable. Right now our costs continue to rise much faster than either the economy or costs of living. As health care continues to eat up revenue, we will be forced to cut other programs to pay for the bloated and overpriced care we provide, while still having worse health outcomes (and worse quality of care, in many cases) than countries with cheaper, more sustainable systems. To pretend that the problem is only quality and access fails to address that it is the costs that will become increasingly prohibitive and untenable.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Political Poetry

I have been becoming more interested in political poetry as of late. I never had much interest in poetry but had come across a few poems in my undergrad that I had really enjoyed but never really followed up on. Some of my favorite authors have poetry but I never really dug into it. Lately, I have found that poetry can tell of human suffering and crushing inequalities in a way regular writing just cannot. Here are some highlights.

The Nobodies by Eduardo Galeano

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn't even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who don't speak languages, but dialects.
Who don't have religions, but superstitions.
Who don't create art, but handicrafts.
Who don't have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the
police blotter of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them

Let American Be America Again by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!

United Fruit Co. by Pablo Neruda

When the trumpet blared everything

on earth was prepared
and Jehovah distributed the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other entities:
United Fruit Inc.
reserved for itself the juiciest,
the central seaboard of my land,
America's sweet waist.
It rebaptized its lands
the "Banana Republics,"
and upon the slumbering corpses,
upon the restless heroes
who conquered renown,
freedom, and flags,
it established the comic opera:
it alienated self-destiny,
regaled Caesar's crowns,
unsheathed envy, drew
the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tacho flies,
Carías flies, Martínez flies,
Ubico flies, flies soaked
in humble blood and jam,
drunk flies that drone
over the common graves,
circus flies, clever flies
versed in tyranny.

Among the bloodthirsty flies
the Fruit Co. disembarks,
ravaging coffee and fruits
for its ships that spirit away
our submerged lands' treasures
like serving trays.

Meanwhile, in the seaports'
sugary abysses,
Indians collapsed, buried
in the morning mist:
a body rolls down, a nameless
thing, a fallen number,
a bunch of lifeless fruit
dumped into the rubbish heap.

(Translation by Jack Schmitt)

Militant by Langston Hughes

Let all who will
Eat quietly the bread of shame.
I cannot,
Without complaining loud and long.
Tasting its bitterness in my throat,
And feeling to my very soul
It's wrong.
For honest work
You proffer me poor pay,
for honest dreams
Your spit is in my face,
And so my fist is clenched
To strike your face.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Must Read For Everyone

I just finished Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano. I am amazed at how much I learned from the book and how lyrical and engaging the entries were. Galeano takes on all of human history, and even a little pre-history, through short entries that engage with anything and everything: major events in human history, famous (and infamous) historical figures, great people whose names are now lost to history, etc. His populist approach and keen sense of history create a rich and engaging view of how things have changed over time but how discrimination, hate, and violence have always marred our actions. Heather and I were lucky enough to attend his reading the week the book came out a month or so ago. I have never seen the bookstore, Politics and Prose, so packed full of people (and they bring in some huge names for readings). Some excerpts from the book:

Brief History of Civilization

And we tired of wandering through the forest and along the banks of rivers.
And we began settling. We invented villages and community life, turned bone into needle and thorn into spike. Tools elongated our hands, and the hand multiplied the strength of the ax, the hoe, and the knife.
We grew rice, barley, wheat, and corn, we put sheep and goats into corrals, we learned to store grain to keep from starving in bad times.
And in the fields of our labor we worshipped goddesses of fertility, women of fast hips and generous breasts. But with the passage of time they were displaced by the harsh gods of war. And we sang hymns of praise to the glory of kings, warrior chiefs, and high priests.
We discovered the words "yours" and "mine," land became owned, and women became property of men and fathers the owners of children.
Left far behind were the times when we drifted without home or destination.
The results of civilization were suprising: our lives became more secure but less free, and we worked a lot harder.


Two thousand six hundred years ago in the city of Miletus, an absentminded genius named Thales liked to go for a stroll at night to gaze at the stars, and as a result he frequently fell into the ditch.
Perhaps by asking the stars, Thales discovered that death is not an end but a transformation, and that water is the origin and meaning of all life. Not gods, water. Earthquakes happen because the sea moves and disturbs the land, not becasue of Poseidon's tantrums. The eye sees not by divine grace, but by reflecting reality the way the river reflects the bushes on its banks. And eclipses occur, not because the sun hides from the wrath of Olympus, but because the moon covers the sun.
Thales, who had learned to think in Egypt, accurately predicted eclipses, measured with precision the distance of approaching ships on the high seas, and calculated the exact height of the Keops Pyramid by the shadow that it cast. One of the most famous theorems is attributed to him, as well as four more, and it is even said that he discovered electricity.
But perhaps his greatest feat was of a different kind: to live godless, naked of any religious comfort, never giving an inch.

The Loser

He preached in the desert and died alone.
Simón Rodríguez, who had been Bolívar's teacher, spent half a century roving Latin America on the back of a mule, founding schools, and saying what no one wanted to hear.
A fire took nearly all his papers. Here are a few of the words that survived.
  • On independence:
We are independent but not free. Something must be done for these poor people, who have become less free than before. Before, they had a shepherd king who did not eat them until they were dead. Now the first to show up eats them alive.
  • On colonialism of the mind:
Europe's know-how and the prosperity of the United States are for our America two enemies of freedom of thought. The new republics are unwilling to adopt anything that does not have their stamp of approval... If you are going to imitate everything, imitate orgininality!
  • On colonialist trade:
Some think prosperity is seeing their ports filled with ships - foreign ships and their homes turned into storerooms for goods - foreign goods. Every day brings another load of manufactured clothes, down to the caps the Indians wear. Soon we shall see little golden packages bearing the royal coat of arms containing 'newly processed' clay for children accustomed to eating dirt.
  • On popular education:
To make students recite by rote what they do not understand is like training parrots. Teach children to be curious so they learn to obey their own minds rather than obeying authorities the way the narrow-minded do, or obeying custom the way the stupid do. He who knows nothing, anyone can fool. He who has nothing, anyone can buy.


Every year, chemical pesticides kill no fewer than three million farmers.
Every day, workplace accidents kill no fewer than ten thousand workers.
Every minute, poverty kills no fewer than ten children.
These crimes do not show up on the news. They are, like wars, normal acts of cannibalism.
The criminals are on the loose. No prisons are built for those who rip the guts out of thousands. Prisons are built as public housing for the poor.
More than two centuries ago, Thomas Paine wondered:
"Why is it that scarcely any are executed but the poor?"
Texas, twenty-first century: the last supper sheds light on the cellblock's clientele. Nobody chooses lobster or filet mignon, even though those dishes figure on the farewell menu. The condemned men prefer to say goodbye to the world with the usual: burgers and fries.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Health Care is a Human Right

With all the discussion of health and health reform, some key facts have been overlooked and, for the most part, insufficiently examined in the debates. While there has been some acknowledgement of the high cost of treating chronic diseases, rarely is it raised that treatment of these diseases accounts for 75 cents of every dollar spent on health care in the U.S. This fact helps us understand that while coverage for everyone is a crucial and fundamental right, the goal of keeping down costs requires more acute awareness of where the money is actually spent.

Another key fact that is discussed infrequently is the high concentration of health care expenditures in a small population. A recent study found that five percent of Americans are responsible for nearly HALF of all health spending in a given year. An earlier study found that it was over half. Also, almost half of the U.S. incurs little to no health care costs and thus the other 50 percent make up about 95% plus of the health care spending. This concentration is interesting at other levels as well. The top 30 percent of spenders make up 90% of health spending; while the top 10 percent make up nearly 70%.

These statistics speak the need for a more holistic view of reform. Increasing quality, decreasing costs, and expanding coverage all are worthy goals but they cannot be goals divorced from the social reality of health care needs. Both studies find that the elderly are more likely to bear the burden of high expenditures. Also, they found that people with chronic conditions had much higher out-of-pocket expenses than average. Better, more cost-effective treatment is needed for these folks. Often their situation is compounded by the fact that they may reach their lifetime spending cap and lose coverage. In turn, due to pre-existing conditions clauses, they may have an extremely difficult time getting other coverage, and if they do it will be exhorbitantly expensive until they are so drained of money they can qualify for Medicaid.

All these factors indicate the importance of having a coherent, nationally focused health care reform. The reform must be tailored to meet the needs of different populations and levels of care. However, everyone should have to have insurance; at the very least, catastrophic coverage. It is in the best interest of the long term health of the American people and in the best interest of our financial well-being, both individually and as a society. People without insurance coverage that require medical treatment incur higher costs and are much more likely to face bankruptcy as a result. Of course, there must be subsidies to help those who would not be able to afford coverage themselves.

During the current health care reform I have continually been dismayed by the process and how easily many of those involved lose sight of the overall goals and the purpose reform serves. We don't need reform for the sake of reform. Sure the system is broken, but a patchwork solution will only push the need for a more significant reform off the radar for another decade or two. We have hard decisions to make. Until we face those decisions with a sense of history and an eye to the future, we will continue to create policy that only serves to line the pockets of those who are currently abusing the system.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Simply Unconscionable

As many have probably heard by now, Dr. George Tiller has been murdered in his own church today, most likely by a right-wing extremist. Dr. Tiller happened to perform abortions, including some of the extremely rare late-term abortions in the U.S. Though abortion is legal, there are clearly many in America that would rather scare women and their doctors back into the dark ages in terms of reproductive care. Gruesome images of aborted fetuses, 24-hour surveillance of clinics, and websites dedicated to outing anyone who visit those clinics are only some of the scare tactics these nouveau-fascists use to intimidate and harass. Their callous disregard for human life around the world and laser-focus on abortion smacks of hypocrisy at best and mindless, savage hatred at worst. Their "pro-life" stance extends only to abortion, not to real issues that would save lives around the world or improve the lives of people suffering here in the U.S. 

Anti-choice activists lack of nuance and understanding is most clearly shown in their disdain for sex education and attempts to block any sort of abortion rights or access. There will always be the need for abortions. While the number will fluctuate over time, it has overall decreased significantly since the 1980s even as the U.S. population has increased rapidly. With better sex education and improved birth control methods, that curve is likely to keep declining. Women would much rather be able to use the variety of birth control methods to keep from getting pregnant rather than have to resort to abortion. Abortion is often the last resort of people who simple had no other option. Those with any empathy at all can imagine an infinite number of situations where a woman would not be able to access or utilize birth control. Lack of affordable birth control is one of the major reasons that the vast majority of abortions are received by poor and low-income women. Other countries handle this better by providing free access to birth control and training on how to use out. However, even the most effective birth control isn't fool-proof and accidents will happen. Women and their doctors should have all the tools available to make the right decision for them. This is not simply a matter of morality and common sense, this is a matter of women's basic human rights. 

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A World of Gray

Contrary to the views of many, one of the biggest signs of political maturity, for me, is not moderation of your views over time but understanding that issues are much more complex than how they are presented. We often hear about issues at their lowest common denominator; with only buzzwords and soundbites to think about. People often discuss that the truth is somewhere "in the middle" between two perceived extreme positions. Often reality lies somewhere else completely. For nearly all issues of importance, there is no simple dichotomy of options. While most people lack the time or the incentive to come to fully understand the complexities of a particular issue, it is easy to understand how people increasingly talk at each other instead of to each other. When people are coming from completely different world views with large informational asymmetries, it is difficult to have a serious discussion.

Part of this problem lies with the current media, but also schools at all levels, and our political leaders also don't make things any better. The American people are often treated as less capable and intelligent as they really are. I have often agreed of the sentiment that Americans are too dumb and lazy to engage politically. Though I believe this premise is off target. It isn't that Americans are either dumb or lazy; or if they are, it isn't because of their individual actions alone. Just as there are large structural factors that lead to poverty and poor health, there are equally important factors that lead to a lack of intellectual sophistication or a deep engagement with civic, social, political, and economic issues. Often the causes interconnect and compound each others. Some examples include poor quality schools, acute and chronic childhood stress, penalization of the working class and the working poor, and virulent economic and social inequality. These are just some of the many forces that stunt development and hinder progress throughout the life-course.

Until we come to understand the social causes and the social reasons, we will continue to "blame the victim", as it were. Your average American has little real training in critical thinking or even basic empiricism, and this hinders their ability to sift through the noise and then incorporate information into a coherent worldview. Often, they don't have the time either. Probably most importantly, having a complex understanding of a particular issue or set of issues does your average citizen little in the long run. Unless it is something they do for work, the knee-jerk reactionary position they read in a flyer or hear on the radio is sufficient to engage with the debate, even if superficially. Adding layers of complexity can even lead to a fatigue as you realize that the change you desire will require much more than a petition or a protest.  Part of this is also the way our political system is set up. A couple big reasons (which I have discussed in previous posts) include the lack of risks of non-voting and the much heavier time investment required for Americans than for Europeans in countries with parliamentary systems that have coherent party systems.

Next time you think "stupid Americans", take a step back and look at it socially. It is much better to think "why would someone believe/do/say this?” Once we come to see that peoples’ actions and views are the result of a multiplicity of forces and experiences, we can begin to empathize and identify that the ignorance is the problem, not that the person is fundamentally flawed. We all have the capacity to learn and grow. When I hear someone deride another as a hypocrite or a “flip-flopper”, I become uncomfortable. Has there not been a time when each of us has realized our previous view was flawed or inaccurate or that in practice some of our ideas are not practical or desirable. As one of my best teachers said “everyone has the right to be a hypocrite.” By this she meant everyone has the right to grow and change and even contradict themselves in life. When we begin to internalize that lesson we see that maybe things aren’t so black and white, for others as well as for ourselves. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Immature Politics

While I try to remain optimistic about the political landscape and the possibility that Americans are capable of understanding complex issues, something like the "Tea Party" protests come around to shake that optimism. I am a huge fan of populist anger and outpourings of that sentiment, however these recent protests don't meet those standards. The intellectually lazy and misguided protests were organized around an extremely wide range of issues, some more disturbing than others.  Some issues (though the whole thing lacked a coherent message) included socialism (seriously, are you kidding me), communism (where are you people getting this), big government, and the always easy target "high taxes." The protests seemed less like a coherent statement and more like a temper tantrum for an increasingly marginalized and powerless wing of the Republican party.  It is pretty easy to have a protest against such strawmen and pretend that it moves any discussion forward. I am always amazed by the people protesting these issues and how little they understand about the role of public spending in all aspects of their life. Everything from the safety of our food, to our education system, to the roads we drive on are all dependent on government subsidies. Many often pretend that it is the market that allows this to happen, but there is no part of the market that is not dependent on government regulation and subsidies, either directly or indirectly. Taxes are a necessity and the best we can do is ensure the accountability of the spending and push for more transparency. Working to assess the quality of the spending and adjusting public policy accordingly allows for a more coherent and effective system. 

However, as people who actually study these issues will tell you (as opposed to those taping tea bags on a hat), much of the problem of the perceived "high taxes" is a result of the increasingly regressive tax system in the U.S. As a result of tax cuts and increased legal loopholes, the wealthy in the U.S. are paying less in taxes than they did during the Eisenhower administration. By one analysis, reverting to a more progressive tax system would bring a net revenue of $450 billion dollars a YEAR. While raising taxes during a recession is not a good idea, it is something that will have to be addressed at some point, hopefully in the near future. A more progressive taxation system would benefit all Americans. Decreasing the massive inequalities in the U.S. would do a world of good in a variety of areas. Inequality negatively affects things like health, anxiety, social activity, political involvement, and social well-being. A real tax agenda would work to create a tax code that is fair for all but progressive in focus. However, my optimism for such a system is extremely low. Tax issues are complex and I don't hold much hope that the public will come up to speed quickly (or at all), particularly given the media's lack of complexity on the issue (given their barron's are among the wealth elite that benefit from the current system).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

More Hoovers than a Vacuum Store

Republicans are once again harping on the deficit like it actually means something in the short term. In their attempt to be the oppositional party, they have taken up the failed notions of Herbert Hoover in trying to balance the budget at the time of a severe economic downturn. Mainstream economists (I am still not sure why we are listening to them given recent events...) acknowledge that the actions of Hoover certainly increased both the depth and length of the Great Depression. Most economists recognize that short term spending to stimulate lending and thus allow capital for projects is a key step for any recovery.

In related news, Bushvilles are springing up across the country. I am still amazed that people don't understand that when you cut social services and depend on private charity you are setting yourself up for disaster. Many private charities and non-profits depend on donations or membership fees which decrease in a downturn, particularly one as severe as this. Combined with a lack of adequate social services, it is not surprising that people are having to turn to tent cities in hopes of weathering this storm.

The most disheartening thing about this recent trend is that once someone becomes homeless it often begins a cycle that is difficult to break. Because they have no permanent address it is extremely hard to get a job; without a job, income is difficult to come by (except through illegal and often dangerous means). This is compounded by the rapidly rising unemployment rate. While no one is a fan of paying higher taxes, clearly the U.S. is failing it citizens in a variety of ways. Demanding these tent cities be removed only pushes these people out of the small amount of safety they had as a group. While some are saying we are reaching the bottom of the downturn, I remain skeptical. For all our sakes, I hope they are right.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

You Can't Kill an Idea

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the failed uprising in Tibet and the one year anniversary of the crackdown on Buddhist Monk demonstrators, tensions are running high in the region. It is amazing that despite China having one of the largest armies in the world, they are utterly afraid of a relatively small group of monks. The fact that all foreign journalists and international tourists are being kept out of the region at this team speaks to their ongoing concern about what more protests could bring. Though I was extremely disappointed by Hillary Clinton's lack of providing either carrots or sticks for improved Chinese treatment of Tibet, I was sadly not surprised. This unwillingness to press for Tibet's independence (or autonomy, or even well-being) is one (of many) of America's major foreign policy failings. 

Many apologists for the policy argue that due to our need for China to buy up our debt and help stabilize the region, we cannot denounce their policy for fear of backlash. As any student of international relations can tell you, this simple dichotomy of do nothing or incur the full wrath of China is a false one. There are many gradations in policy that could be used to thaw relations and tie Tibet to other issues where there is mutual interest between the U.S. and China. One of China's biggest fears is international perception of the Tibet issue. Having closed door conversations on the matter that lead to an actual softening of China's position could be an advantageous option for all sides. 

One thing is for sure, we must not fall into the same malaise and inertia that has kept our human rights policy so anemic. We have a president that believes in the rule of law and inspires people around the world. America has the obligation to continue to provide hope to those in duress. We must not turn our backs on causes we know are just. We can no longer sustain regimes like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, and many more to continue on the path they are on. Increased diplomatic efforts must be used to forge consensus on shared goals and to facilitate slow, positive changes to happen in these countries. By sustaining these regimes, we only increase the difficulties we will face when we are forced to deal with them eventually and further the suffering that those oppressed by these regimes experience. 

The Dalai Lama puts it well:

If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.

Our callous disregard for the consequences of our actions cannot continue. Though change won't happen overnight, we must act in positive ways to increase the well-being of those least capable of doing so themselves. 

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Times Are Tough

It is hard to believe how things have crumbled so quickly: The economy, housing, banking, employment, the stock market, consumer confidence, and the list goes on. The fact that the GDP recently sunk 6.2% indicates that this current downturn may be more severe than most were anticipating. In downturns like this it is those individuals at the margins, the poor, the sick, those without adequate job skills or training, that are the most affected. When I hear bankers who receive government help complaining about their salary being capped at $500,000 I can't help but cringle. The people are increasingly being asked to support the poor business practices of these banks and other industries that were paying exhorbitant amounts for sub-par performance. These excesses were cheered by many during better times as proof of America's superiority. When CEOs are making 400 times the amount earned by the lowest paid workers in their company something is extremely wrong. For the last twenty to thirty years both the share of wages and actual wages have become increasingly concentrated at the very top.

This concentration of wages and wealth has led to an increasingly untenable situation. The rise of underemployment and poor quality work laid the groundwork for the current depth and breadth of the current downturn. After peaking at nearly 30% in 1979, the unionization rate of the U.S. has steadily fallen by half to less than 15%. While the U.S. has always had among the lowest unionization rates, the steady decline has been coupled with an increase of part-time and full-time work without benefits or worker protections. Combined with a culture that pushes consumption over conscience, it is not difficult to imagine how so many Americans were in a precarious situation even before the downturn. Even as the downturn was in its earliest stages, many dual-earner families were increasingly having to add additional part-time work to cover the increased costs of gasoline and other consumer goods. Others were taking part-time jobs in fear that their main source of income may not be as reliable as they had believed. 

Americans must come to see that working together in solidarity and demanding adequate treatment as workers only serves to strengthen our position, not weaken it. The pittance that is paid in union dues serves not only to increase your power over your work, but increases the standards across whatever industry you are a part of. The greatest gains of non-unionized workers in the twentieth century have been as a result not of employer benevolence, but as a result of workers organizing in other places, but in the same industry. The employers knew that once these non-unionized workers saw the disparities, they would also begin to organize. This led many companies to improve their conditions if only to delay unionization at their own plants.

While unionization is only one piece of the larger picture, it remains one of the best tools workers have to increase the accountability of companies to workers and to society more broadly. The fact that the car companies are blaming their union contracts for their economic woes only shows how inadequate their business model had become, all while paying their CEOs and other top-level managers ridiculously high wages. Luckily, Obama is much more aware of the value of labor than most presidents in recent memory. Giving American workers a say in their workplaces can only improve the economy, their work, and, most importantly, their lives. 

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Wait... So These People Are The Threat?

"Fidelity": Don't Divorce... from Courage Campaign on Vimeo.

Anyone who voted for or supported Proposition 8 should be ashamed. How could the love and cheer expressed by these families be a threat to anything except intolerance and bigotry? I, for one, believe that justice must not be denied. People should have the right to live a life they have reason to value, free from violence and hatred. Like all policies based on hate and ignorance, Prop 8 will eventually be overturned and will fall into memory. Don't believe you have all the answers. Don't be on the wrong side of history. Denying rights to a group based on outdated biases never remains unchallenged. Respect the rights of others to live a life that challenges yours, its the only way the world ever changes for the better.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


With the Republican Party flailing and try to find its way in an evolving political landscape, the election of Michael Steele, the first African-American to lead the party, smacks of the Palinism (picking someone because they bare a superficial resemblance to some popular candidate) that seems to be pervading Republican decisions. While I hope the move is a genuine sign of change, I hesistate to imagine that being likely. With around 95% of African-American voters voting for Obama and, similarly, an overwhelming majority of Latinos (around 66%), Republicans have a lot of work to do in order to appeal more widely. As the U.S. demographically shifts to being a minority majority country, the increasingly white, rural, ultra-conservative, and xenophobic GOP of people like Rush Limbaugh will not suffice. At this point I honestly can't imagine how this change would take place, and it will take a lot of soul-searching on behalf of Republican leaders to bring about such a large change in strategy. 

However, though Democrats clearly came away with a huge victory this year, supporters need to be wary here as well. While many in the Democratic party speak of grassroots change and reference progressive issues, when the time comes to defend those issues, they are often forgotten. The most recent example was a provision in the stimulus package that would have subsidized birth control and family planning services for the poor. This measure was lambasted as shelling out millions of dollars, when in actuality, all real estimates highlighted that it would save the U.S. far more money than it would cost. At the first sign of protest, Democrats dropped this provision from the bill without so much as a fight, only to not even be able to garner ONE Republican vote for the stimulus in the house. This rapid capitulation doesn't bode well for the rest of the session, I hope I am proved wrong.

I guess it doesn't take long for optimism to die...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fairness vs Injustice

Issues of race, gender, and ethnicity have been a hot issue in recent weeks. Many in the media are writing about whether the election of Barack Obama represents the beginning of a "post-racial" America. This notion, that race no longer defines a person's status and trajectory, is in theory interesting but in reality serves only to further marginalize those who suffer under the yoke of injustice. The very fact that it is such a big deal to elect an African American president speaks to the fact that we have not come as far as many seem to hope. 

Race and ethnicity have always been tricky and taboo subjects not only in the U.S. but around the world. Most people take race as a given category that people fit into, largely ignorant of the fact that races and ethnicities are socially constructed. By socially constructed I am referring to their origin in the historical context in which the categories are created and then changed over time. For example, in many countries in Latin America, race is viewed extremely differently. In some countries there are fifty or more gradations of perceived ethnicity on a spectrum of white, black, and indigenous. In many of these countries, while skin color is taken into account, other factors like wealth, dress, and social status serve to determine a person's "true" ethnicity.

We often lose sight that when we talk about someone being African-American or White, that these categories lack real meaning and are just the most current incarnation of labels. To try to homogenize such diverse groups of peoples into simple categories often leads to spurious assumptions. For example, the issue of hypertension in African Americans is often tied to a variety of things, from genetics to adaptive selection during slavery. However, these simple notions break apart when we understand that genetic differences between any two given African Americans are larger than between any given African American and a person of any other race. We know definitively that the genes that affect skin color have nothing to do with hypertension, particularly on the large scale that is proposed. However, social forces have been found to be the most likely candidate for being the reason for higher rates of hypertension. Feelings of stress/anxiety and perceptions of discrimination have been found to play a major role in creating higher rates of hypertension among almost all populations. This has been found to be particularly true among African Americans. I don't for a moment want to imply that just because these categories are socially created that they do not have power. They have real power in how people are treated, how they are perceived, and even how they perceive themselves. However, their overwhelming power does not mean that knowing they are socially constructed is fruitless. It allows for a better understanding of what can and must be done to bring about a more just and equitable system.  

I don't want any of the above to take away from the overwhelming happiness I feel about Barack Obama being elected President, but we have to keep in mind the vast inequities suffered by African Americans and other marginalized populations. There is much work to be done, and understanding where we stand is a good place to start.