Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Strange Case of Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal is a Caucasian woman (that is, a child of two Caucasian parents, as attested by a birth certificate and a physical resemblance). These days, she says, she "identifies as Black." She doesn't like the term "African American," possibly because it has more of a hard-edged, biological component to it. "Black," however, is more flexible. (Update: Bingo! In a recent interview, she says "I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black, and there’s a difference in those terms."). "Black" can refer to a culture as much as it can to an ancestry, and to a socially imposed status as much as to either of its other meanings, so "Black" is what she calls herself.

She also identifies as the mother of one of her adopted brothers, of whom she has custody, and as the daughter of a black man named Albert Wilkerson. She also identifies as having been born in a teepee, having some Native American ancestry, having hunted for food with a bow and arrow in her childhood, and having lived in South Africa. None of these statements appears to be true.

Finally, she identifies as having been persecuted through her life. She says that, as a child, she and the other children were scourged by her parents with a whip that she likens to a slave whip. The blackest children in the family were, she says, whipped more severely. (Her brothers deny having been whipped). As an adult, she identifies as the victim of hate crimes that were duly reported to the police. No arrests have been made. In fact, circumstantial evidence points to her being the person responsible for at least some of these alleged hate crimes.

The number of false statements that she has made or let stand are either evidence of lying, if she knows they are false, or confabulation, if she doesn't.

As I've read the unfolding oddness of Dolezal's story, I've also read the passionate opinions of people who say that she has every right to call herself black and those of people (many of them black) who say she has no such right. I think the opinions depend on how the speakers conceive of their own identities.

Some people say that they are this or that--English, Chinese, Christian, male, old, socialist, or whatever; they fall into these categories quite unproblematically and without volition. As Dolezal describes the process, "I was socially conditioned … to be limited to whatever biological identity was being thrust upon me and being narrated to me." So, pretty much, is true of everyone. For many of us, the conditioning sticks.

However, others say that they identify as a member of this or that category. In many cases, there may be a genetic or hormonal reason for denying an assigned identity in favour of some other one. However, I don't think that most people who come out as, say, homosexual or transsexual necessarily "Deny thy father and refuse thy name" (as Juliet asks of Romeo). Dolezal did.

I think that a person who is his identity has a hard time understanding one who only identifies with it, and the opposite is just as true. Essentialists don't understand existentialists, and vice versa. So, we have much shouting over whether the white woman Rachel Dolezal can rightfully claim to be a black woman.


NOTE: The excellent site now has a page on Rachel Dolezal which I assume will be kept up to date.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Some Linguistic Evidence on the Populating of the Americas (At Last!)

Both DNA evidence and linguistic evidence tells us that the Americas were populated in "waves" that were separated by thousands of years. The last pre-Columbian wave was the Inuit's. As specialists in Arctic life, the Inuit came to occupy much of Alaska, Canada above the tree line, and even Greenland over the last thousand years.
Eskimo-Aleut Languages

South of the Inuit lands is a huge stretch of North America populated by speakers of the Na-Dené languages, and another outcrop of Na-Dené in the American Southwest. The former includes Tlinkit and Cree; the latter, Navajo and Apache. The family also has a few members on the West Coast.
Dene Languages Map
Logically, a wave of Na-Dené speakers must have arrived in North America before the Inuit, but when? Another question is whether there are any relatives of Na-Dené languages still spoken in Asia to give us more information about the immigration.

In fact, there may just be. A linguist named Edward Vajda has spent ten years doing the detailed, exacting work necessary to convince skeptical colleagues that Na-Dené languages and Yeniseian languages, an obscure set of extinct or threatened Asian languages, belong together in a Dene-Yenisian language family. On the whole, he seems to have convinced many, as his claim is based on every hallmark of the linguists trade: connections in morphology, vocabulary, reconstructed sound changes, and a reconstructed ancestor to both Proto-Na-Dene and Proto-Yeniseian.
Dene-Yeniseian Languages Map

He was also able to support the link between the Asian and North American groups with some DNA evidence. The Wikipedia page on the language group says,
In his 2012 presentation Vajda also addressed non-linguistic evidence, including analyses of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups, which are passed unchanged down the male and female lines, respectively, except for mutations. His most compelling DNA evidence is the Q1 Y-chromosomal haplogroup subclade, which he notes arose c. 15,000 years ago and is found in nearly all Native Americans and nearly all of the Yeniseian Ket people (90%), but almost nowhere else in Eurasia except for the Selkup people (65%), who have intermarried with the Ket people for centuries. Using this and other evidence, he proposes a Proto-Dené-Yeniseian homeland located in eastern Siberia around the Amur and Aldan Rivers.
However, the story is not quite so simple as it seems. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that the early speakers of  this language group were long-term residents of Beringia, a land mass that connected Asia and Alaska. This land was a refugium during the last ice age: an environment of trees and grassland unlike the heavily iced north of Asia and North America.
Beringia During the Last Ice Age

When the climate changed, leading to the submerging of their homeland, people who spoke some Dené-Yeniseian language moved both east and west, I'm not sure when. A University of Alaska web page gives useful links to the work so far.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Wisdom of Terry Pratchett, and Police Killings

Terry Pratchett is a name that I had tucked away in the back of my mind for a rainy day. I had come across a quotation of his--"If cats looked like frogs we'd realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That's what people remember"--and, as a true lover of cats, I was struck by the pointedness, the accuracy, and the humour in the quotation. One day, I was sure, I was going to look up this fellow's books and see what else is in them.

That day came a couple of months ago, shortly before Sir Terry died. The Vancouver Public Library provided me with Night Watch, Thud, Snuff, Going Postal, Making Money, Small Gods, and Thief of Time. The Kobo Book Store has since provided me with others. The first three of the books I had mentioned feature Sam Vimes, a watchman (police officer) in a grubby, industrializing city-state called Ankh-Morpork. Ankh is on one side of the river; Morpork is on the other. They combined their names as well as their government just as Buda and Pest did back in 1873.

I like Sam Vimes. I like the fact that he resents the upper classes, even when he increasingly, and unwillingly, is forced to enter them. For example, in Feet of Clay, he looks at the sedan chair that the city's ruler had given him as a wedding present.
Lord Vetinari knew that Vimes loved walking the streets of the city, and so it was very typical of the man that he presented him with something that did not allow him to do so.
Nevertheless, he had to use it. His wife expected it, and Lord Vetinari would have his little joke, but he would use it in his own way. He ordered one of the bearers into the sedan chair and prepared to take the bearer's place.
"'It's a nice morning,' said Vimes, taking off his coat again. 'I'll drive myself.'"
 Similarly, I was charmed by Vimes' detestation of the game of chess, which is explained in a footnote in Thud.
Vimes had never got on with any game much more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks round, the whole board could've been a republic in a dozen moves.
This passage reminds me of my dad, although he taught me chess and played it with me on many occasions. We had been living in various places in Whitehorse, Yukon: old RCAF housing then an apartment, but both mum and dad had good jobs, so the time arrived when we bought a new house in the "good" part of town, in Riverdale. My dad seemed a bit upset by the move, though, not happy at all. I asked him why. "Well," he said, "when the revolution comes, we'll be on the wrong side of the barricades."

Now, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, though pure fantasy with trolls, dwarfs, goblins, wizards, dragons, and the like, allowed him to explain his views on numerous issues facing our world: illicit drugs, intolerant religions, secret police, the art of government, and gun ownership. The link between his writings and the subjects of police killings and state-sponsored brutality interests me most right now. There have been a number of well-publicized cases of killings of unarmed men and women, some of them already in restraint, some of them actually running away, and none of them a danger to the officer at the time of the shooting. The FBI keeps track of the fatal shootings that are voluntarily submitted by police departments, but the sum vastly understates the number. A quotation in a Washington Post article, I think, explains why.
“They are used to giving commands and people obeying,” said Stinson, who previously worked as a police officer. “They don’t like it when people don’t listen to them, and things can quickly become violent when people don’t follow their orders.”
That wouldn't be the police officer's point of view in any service run by Sam Vimes. Pratchett explains in Snuff:
It always embarrassed Samuel Vimes when civilians tried to speak to him in what they thought was “policeman.” If it came to that, he hated thinking of them as civilians. What was a policeman, if not a civilian with a uniform and a badge? But they tended to use the term these days as a way of describing people who were not policemen. It was a dangerous habit: once policemen stopped being civilians the only other thing they could be was soldiers.
Can we say that he (whether Vimes or Pratchett) is wrong? I don't think so.

The idea that a police officer is a civilian is odd, to a North American, odd to the point of being disconcerting, but Pratchett is not North American. He is English, very English, and the police in his country were formed according to principles laid down by Robert Peel. One of these is
...police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform. They exercise their powers to police their fellow citizens with the implicit consent of those fellow citizens. "Policing by consent" indicates that the legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public is based upon a general consensus of support that follows from transparency about their powers, their integrity in exercising those powers and their accountability for doing so.
In other words, policing is a genuine alternative to military intervention, not an alternative way of delivering military intervention.

It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that the origins of the police here in Canada and in the US lie in a different tradition than Robert Peel's. The RCMP's name in French includes the word "gendarmerie," meaning a paramilitary force. Its uniform, too, is based on the British Army's uniform. The American police had a complicated origin but, in the West, the posse, called together by a sheriff, provided armed defence against armed and violent individuals and gangs. Where there was no sheriff, the vigilante or the lynch mob provided the same service. In some parts of the country, the police, vigilantes, and lynch mobs were, at least in part, intended to protect citizens from slaves and minority groups. Nevertheless, it is never too late to keep in mind the ideal that police should think of themselves as civilians who are helping to protect civilians. Not bombing houses from the air in Philadelphia nor drawing handguns on teenagers at a pool in Texas nor firing fifteen shots into a couple through their car window in Ohio.

Sam Vimes had other points of view, well expressed, that coincide with my deepest beliefs. For example, what would he have said to the photographs that came from the US military prison at Abu Gharib?
He'd have said this (as he did in Thud),
Beating people up in little rooms...he knew where that led. And if you did it for a good reason, you'd do it for a bad one. You couldn't say we're the "good guys" and do bad-guy things.
(Italics are mine).