Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On getting closer to those "Anythings can happen": Presidential Elections 2010

In the summer of 2006, three booms! sounded in the middle of the night, each about half a minute in succession. Alarms sounded, but no sort of hysteria. I thought little of it, an engine backfire or something, and went back to sleep. The next morning I found out that those explosions were truck bombs planted by the guerrillas outside a police training school two blocks from my cousin’s house where I slept. Two days later, I was in an uncle’s living room in Cali, where they were telling me about a car bomb that detonated just that morning outside a police station, killing 6 and wounding a dozen or so others, 10 minutes walking from where they lived. They had even walked over to see the damage. The re-election of Alvaro Uribe as President of Colombia led to my first experiences with political violence.

One week from today, Colombia’s political landscape will be in the middle of possibly serious changes. The elections which will see Alvaro Uribe, who has held presidential office for the last 8 years, out of his term, will likely demand run-offs in the coming months. The top contenders are Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s Minister of Defense, and Antanas Mockus, a progressive Green Party candidate and former mayor of Bogota, credited with cleaning up the city to somewhat more human levels. Run-offs will likely come down to these two. Talking to an Australian friend last night who has lived in Colombia for 7 years, he predicted things will likely continue as usual if Santos wins, and if Mockus wins, he could do something to piss off the paramilitaries and in the worst case, get assassinated, in which case Colombia would fall into political chaos.

Around a cozy fireplace in our hostel, my friend tells me and other travelers what he remembers about traveling on election weekend of 2006, going to the bus terminal and seeing so many police officers, and so many helicopters overhead in the cities, on the roads. People stopped being friendly, and tensions were high, as it felt like people thought something could happen at any minute. A walk this afternoon to the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, three blocks up from the Plaza del Bolivar and a zone of government offices, the streets are smattered every half block beginning at the library with officers in full fatigues, and AK-47’s. In one corner, three officers stand casually, talking, and, like sleeping babies in their mothers’ rebozos, AK-47's hang lazily on their backs. Over time, this may become normal to my eyes. For now, it is still surreal, and I steal glances, hearing my Colombian friend in my head, now finished with his police obligations, tell me how surprisingly easy it was to fire such a destructive weapon. And I recall how, from those first explosions in Tulua, to my cousin getting robbed on the beach, to my earrings getting yanked off my ears in Oaxaca, that, to someone for whom such experiences are typically virtual via movies or TV, the most impressive thing about violence is how casual it is.

Needless to say, wandering the streets of Bogota next weekend, or traveling between cities, is worth thinking twice about.

Like other tourists that I talk to today, I had no idea, in 2006, what was going on, that it was even an election year, or the weight of the political events that were taking place. And as Uribe had no option to run again this year (though he did try), there is much more at stake, with what feels to me like an Obama-style campaign as Antanas Mockus has risen from bottom to top through new media and garnered support from nearly every [level-headed] student, professor, and person under 30 in the country. Other than a few bricks through some windows, the U.S. experienced nothing like what parts of Colombia are likely to experience in the coming days. When I talk to tourists here in the hostel, they tend to be surprised about the risks and the possibility that they could be affected. As they/we tend to float above the social and political events in the places they/we visit, they/we are not used to having to change our itineraries for such causes. Unless worst-case-scenarios happen, travelers likely won’t be affected too much as they only tend to pass through Colombia for a couple weeks on average on their routes through South America. With a little more understanding of what is going on, I am eager and apprehensive to see what kind of changes will take place this summer, and how they will affect the day to day lives of myself, the Colombians around me, as well as travelers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

they can't kick me out now: orientations to citizenship

This is my first trip to Colombia as a Colombian citizen. I never realized how still unstitched I am to the social fabric of Colombia until I thought about how I would go about doing things here that I do back home. What are the things that every Colombian learns and repeats since grade schools, the equivalents of our George-Washington-crossing-the-Delaware-River-and-chopping-cherry-trees, and stop-drop-and-roll-in-a-fire? If I had to teach illiterate adults to read in Spanish, what methods and content would I use? What is the Colombian equivalent of “a” for “apple?” Until a couple weeks ago, I didn’t even know what the emergency number was (911, my mom told me). If I want to volunteer for an organization, how do I find, and quite literally, how do I talk to the person that would help me with that?

How does citizenship change the way people approach me? When DAS can no longer kick me out or pay fines for staying more than 60 days or for working or volunteering anywhere, and that graffiti tag "Fuera Yanquis de Colombia" no longer applies, how do other Colombians, how do I, come to terms with having all the documented access that they have but lacking the social networks and cultural-linguistic protocols for different civil situations, such as say, finding a job? Making a doctor’s appointment? Getting a driver’s license and handling a car accident? What should I expect when I call the police or get a medical exam? How do I deal with handing over my Colombian ID and explaining that I’m not really from here, so you’ll have to explain to me what to do...? Or, in more social situations, with being stereotyped as an American tourist girl and then I explain that, legally, I am as Colombian as the native-born? I guess the only way is to burrow through it like a gopher and be ready for some possibly awkward positions.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Does Salman Rushdie believe in his own magic? A few notes on Midnight's Children and Garcia-Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude

I was only a few pages into Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children when I had started making comparisons with 100 Years of Solitude, by Colombia’s own literary idol, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Both begin with one patriarch and trace several generations, often revealing the fates of their characters before the stories had come to them. A Wikipedia note of Rushdie as a “magical realist” got me thinking more about the worlds that Garcia-Marquez and Rushdie created in their respective stories. In MC, Saleem, the narrator, rather persistently doubts and questions the [what we would regard as] supernatural, with a kind of self-consciousness for what his readers might or might not believe. The ghosts of MC live in completely separate, intangible worlds, having only secondary effects on tangible characters. In nearly all cases, from the ghost of Joseph D’Costa to the prophecy of Saleem’s life, to Saleem’s telepathy itself, they are all reducible to coincidences or contrivances of their characters’ hyperactive imaginations. The ghosts and the magic of Macondo, on the other hand, make up every day life as much as any other character, to a point where one child character is assumed body and soul into the heavens.

Rushdie is notorious for his relationship with religion (and, in contrast to his truly engaging storytelling in Midnight's Children, disappointingly lacks creativity of position in his non-fictional literature on the subject - he offers himself up as the voice of the pet “Other-come-to-his-senses” in the panel of New Atheists... but I prefer not to get into this here). As he is a self-proclaimed atheist, I wonder if it is to be expected that his ambivalence toward the non-material permeate the world of Midnight’s Children. I sense that what Rushdie does not doubt is the impact of belief on the actions of believers, and the ability of actors to create and ascribe greater significances to the smallest things in one’s own life - we see this in Saleem’s story, who finds himself reconciling the pain of all his family’s trials by tying them with the events of India, to whom he convinces himself that he owes some great purpose, only to finally lose all sense of hope and purpose once he would literally get castrated by the state-sanctioned sterilization campaign of Indira Ghandi.

While I think that the different approaches to magic in these two works may have something to say about their authors’ beliefs in the non-material, what are perhaps more justly accessible are the authors’ approaches to writing. If it is true that Rushdie himself struggles to distinguish between the origins of the natural and the supernatural, perhaps the story is his battleground, or his negotiating table, between secular-Western and traditional Asian systems of belief. In MC he acknowledges the power of metaphor and meaning, but he himself, in the form of his main character, will not dive headfirst into that wonderland, will not even allow himself the godly role of author, where he can create entire worlds to say something about the world outside them. But it is perhaps this very frustration with the impotence of dreams and the delusory nature of the non-material (especially compared to that violently-materialized illusion of the state) that Rushdie hoped to convey in Saleem.

Although I don’t know enough about the personal religion of Garcia-Marquez to speculate on how it paints his writing, I can say that 100 YoS is not so [explicitly] preoccupied with distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, or between the beliefs of the reader and the contrivances of the narrator. Might I hypothesize, then, that Garcia-Marquez insists on the undoubted, unquestioned, and uninhibited integration of the natural and supernatural, where djinns and ghosts are materialized beings rather than just metaphors, to resist those secular-materialist-Euro-American systems of belief? Could Jose Arcadio Buendia’s determination to find a daguerreotype of God, to the consternation of his wife and neighbors to where he must spend his last days hogtied to a tree speaking an incomprehensible language, also be a comment on how an obsession with the strictly-material could drive one to antisocialization and, ultimately, madness?

Both 100 Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children are set in the midst of radical historical changes, and both seem to be commenting on how traditional systems of belief are affected by new world orders. Rushdie seems to do this rather consciously, through the repeatedly tested and ultimately destroyed quixotic beliefs of a single character, while Garcia-Marquez tries to capture the responses of several characters, over several generations, to the sequential cultural invasions in Macondo. Recalling the integration of [let’s just say] unnatural and natural events in 100 Years of Solitude, and comparing them to the persistent questioning of the supernatural in Midnight’s Children, I thought to myself, “Rushdie doesn’t believe in his own magic.” Now I am thinking: that was the point.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

resisting the smartphone

As the screen on my humble Razor phone starts flaking out to the point where I cannot receive text messages without the whole thing seemingly short-circuiting and going black, a friend suggests that I should get an iPhone. Or a Blackberry, I suppose, in my case. The temptation hovers. GPS and Google maps (the biggest draw - not because I believe that they necessarily help people know where they are - rather I have a knack for getting lost sometimes and hate it), weather forecasts for planning daytrips, better quality photos, and that cool Shazam application that tells me the name of a song I hear so I can get it later...

A UCLA study posted on MSNBC reported that 25% of iPhone users surveyed think of the phone as an extension of themselves. My non-smartphone (dumbphone, shall we?) is definitely an extension of myself. I am constantly [sub]conscious of whether or not its ring is within my earshot, and we all know how a part of us feels like it’s missing when we accidentally lose our cell phones, leave them at home, drop them in the toilet, etc., well before smartphones came along. We are used to attaching ourselves to other things anyway, like keys and wallets. This is something I accept, especially because someone calling me is a particularly active mode of communication, as opposed to texting or instant messaging. When I am not calling or being called, my consciousness of it turns way down to the same level as say my keys when I go out. I put it away and forget about it til the next time I am using it for spoken communication.

I come home and open my laptop, which, despite my love-hate relationship with it - mostly for reasons to follow, I concede is easily one of the best $1000 investments I’ve made in recent memory. I immediately log on to my 3 e-mail accounts and Facebook (Facebook has become more of an obsession lately since my latest trip in Colombia). After assessing that there is nothing else for me to read or respond to, I fall under that spell that doesn’t let me get up from my computer even in my most idling stretches of time in front of it. That impulsive clicking and flicking from window to window, tab to tab, Facebook profile to photo album until I shake myself free or until the icon of a response to one of my wall posts appears. Everyone knows what I’m talking about. On this radio show, Dr. Dan Gottlieb talks about the impact of “interactive” media on attention and anxiety. I, and anyone else that’s had to write a paper in the last 15 years, can extensively relate. As text messages, e-mails, and Facebook posts become that much more accessible through a smartphone, the more I feel that my mental peace and focus is threatened. The last thing I need is the computer that follows me, or the phone that turns the knob of my consciousness of it much higher than a normal phone when I’m not using it.

There’s no doubt that I may feel more pressured in the future to get one as I compete with other people who have iPhones to say, respond faster to e-mails (at least, these days, try getting a gig on Craigslist without constantly stalking the website and your inbox). I may even willingly give in. On this round of new phone consideration (I still look nostalgically on the days of my now-discontinued slide-up Kyocera), I opt to resist. Dumbphone it is.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Making Room for Each Other: My Position on the "Science vs. Religion" debate

The Short

The New Atheist movement criticizes religion based on the worst actions of its so-called adherents. My largest problem with the New Atheism is that of scientifically trained people going out of their way to insult religion. Being a Catholic school refugee, a friend of anti-Islamophobic activists, as well as a biology major, I have some experience with both scientific and religious cultures, and find value in both. I also claim to be an anthropologist, or someone who tries to understand how sets of ideas influence the thoughts and actions of people that are exposed to them. In addition to being a statement of my personal position between these two approaches to making sense of the world, I like to think this is also my humble ethnologic critique of what is popularly known as a “culture clash.”

This treatise on my current beliefs is based on a refutation of scientific determinism endorsed by the New Atheists, whose poster-boys such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens insist that the world would be much better off without religion. I am a scientist, but I believe that science has limits as to how much it can inform the individual search for truth, and the pursuit of social well-being. I feel similarly about the dogmas of religion, who for the everyday individual are just as believable as those of science. I am also a spiritualist, or a non-materialist, or an extra-materialist, or maybe just a hopeless romantic when it comes to literary interpretations of the world, in that I believe that reality is ultimately subjective for the individual, and that every person will inevitably fill in the gaps between their experiences of the physical world and the “objective” reality of science with constructed narratives, and that these narratives are necessary for all individuals to function in the world.

I should also mention that I have not done much reading on the science-religion debate (though I intend to), and that many of my philosophies arise from reflections throughout my general educational, personal, and cultural experiences. Over periods of time and series of relevant events and occasional readings, I have been constructing a view of reality that is nervous-breakdown-resistant, which I imagine to be the goal of everyone’s personal epistemology. I intentionally did not refer to other sources for this writing as a meager act of rebellion against flanking my own thoughts with those of others’ as though they belonged to someone else first (that's what's awesome about blogging).

Making Room (The Longer of It)

Why I am not “religious”

Many people will die a lonely death. No religion, science, or spirituality can alleviate the pain of this truth. People who profess to the major “Western” religions tend to trust in a heaven, an afterlife, or a judgment day that will redeem or make up for the void created by such miserable events. I do not believe these things, so in turn I believe there is very little possible redemption for the actions and circumstances of the individual beyond his / her time on this earth. I believe the only after-life is the story that living humans preserve for the deceased and the legacy of one’s living choices, and their impact on the living’s actions. There is only one stage (in the Shakespearean sense) of life as humans can ever understand it. For a “non-believer” like myself, this realization is hard to grapple with, so that every other belief about finding and creating redemption in any stage is banked on hope.

I also do not believe in an interventionist God who makes optimal decisions about how to run the universe based on some plan he’s created for himself, or at least not one that I could ever count on knowing. This (for the most part) saves me from being angry at a God who lets people die miserable or alone. Thus you could say that I believe that humans are alone in their decisions, and, barring natural and cosmic events, the sole determiners of their own fate as a species. I think most atheists agree with me on that point, but there are also many things that I am specifically not saying. For example, it is not to say that all self-identifying religious people believe in that particular idea of God. Nor that I don’t believe in other metaphorical understandings of God. Nor that humans do not inherit a certain legacy of fate that is defined by our nature, and has been described in so-called religious texts such as Genesis. Nor is it to say that I don’t ask for things anyway.

The limitations and responsibilities of science

I am a scientist. That means, in addition to having a degree in biology, that I understand and believe in the [need for an] idea of an objective reality, and in the ability of science to provide us with knowledge about that objective reality. Science, to me, is a method of understanding the world by induction through repeated observation and falsifiable experimentation. Problems begin when science presents itself, like many religions, as a system of belief.

Most people, including scientists, do not typically acquire their understanding of the world scientifically. Just as most of us will not scientifically investigate whether or not our parents are our parents, nor will we have the interest, time, or resources to investigate whether the sun is a star, or whether basketballs and golfballs fall at the same rate, but we will continue to believe what our families and scientists tell us because we have been raised to trust them. To the extent that the individual does not participate in the scientific process of acquiring knowledge that does not directly impact his everyday life, the universe as told by science is a narrative that functions similarly as religion.

Even if we were all able to learn about the world scientifically, it would still not produce a knowledge that humans can fully comprehend. For example, materialists contend that there is no reality outside of the physical reality, and that thoughts, feelings, emotions are simply the products of neurons firing in the brain, but this, while intellectually comprehensible, like many scientific facts, is not within the grasp of human physical experience. I know that my body is made of cells, because I have seen them under microscopes (and didn’t rack up a $30,000 debt for nothing), but “I” don’t consciously participate in their processes. Ultimately, the physical world to me is the one that I can physically manipulate, which, compared to the one they say is out there (or in there), is not very much. This is not to say that I believe that there is an “extra-physical” reality that is simply undetectable by any group of the human species (though I could argue the existence of an “extra-physical” reality for myself in the case of the planet Neptune, underwater volcanoes, and China, because I have never directly experienced any of them except in pictures). This leaves a huge, intangible space to be filled in with ideas that are as consequential as our physical interactions with the world. Material / shared objective reality exists, but it is not the only realm of human experience.

Science and religion are both motivated by the instinctual human need to understand the universe outside one’s very superficial physical experience of it. Humans, including scientists, have an instinctual, unavoidable tendency to fill in the void beyond their sensual experience with their own narratives. We interpret the world through fluidic, illogical abstractions that are clumsily expressed in words. I believe that these narratives are powerful, necessary, consequential to the actions of humans in the physical world, and therefore, real. Science has contributed significantly to these narratives, but they are not limited to what science has to say about them. However, science, as a culture, must recognize itself as a piece of that narrative whose contributions are limited to what can be measured, falsified, detected directly or indirectly by human senses, and translated into numbers, and that there are many things very relevant to the human experience that science may never explain due to these limitations. Furthermore, scientists, as humans, should not imagine themselves immune from this constantly negotiated story, and should assume some moral responsibility in the impact of advances of scientific knowledge on their social and physical environments.

Science need impose itself on religious doctrine only insofar as it claims to be scientifically founded (and wrong). I support every effort to make sure that “intelligent design” and 10,000 year-old Earths never get taught in a science classroom. However, it is wrong of any member of the scientific community to make sweeping judgments about everyone who professes a non-materialist creed based on these strict (and rather unfaithfully materialistic) interpretations of religious texts. The scientific community could do better to 1) present science as a method of acquiring knowledge rather than an alternative system of belief, 2) be a little more sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of its students, since some of its greatest achievers come from many cultural and devoutly religious histories, and 2) fill in the void of social responsibility left by Tuskegee experiments and atomic bombs, i.e. make science look a little more human, even if it many don’t like to believe it is. In turn, religious institutions have no place in trying to push unscientifically founded claims as science, because 1) its epistemology is not rooted in the material world, 2) what can be proven physically is no longer a matter of faith, and most importantly, 3) choking the dissemination of scientific knowledge will allow scientists the exclusive ability to manipulate the world and society without the scientifically-informed will of the public. Instead of hurling insults at one another, both “sides” could do much, perhaps better on the community level, to create a middle ground of open inquiry about how to understand the world and the group and individual’s places in it, which is, when it’s not about selling books or keeping paying congregants, is what concerns most people.


What I have written here will likely become much more refined as I read more, but I wanted to write myself an introduction to these cross-cultural epistemological and social problems. I meant mostly to talk about epistemological limitations of science, and why I am not a scientific fundamentalist-zealot. There is much more I hope to cover in terms of its not-so-scientific relationship with society. Why do I pick on science? Most simply, because I have been more indoctrinated by scientific culture in recent years than religious, and because I believe that the sophomoric, proselytizing style of the New Atheists pose a new threat to the responsible integration of scientific knowledge into society.

As for me, I am absolutely fascinated by the universe as it exists around me, and I am grateful for the methods and tools that the scientific tradition has given us to understand it more than superficially. At the same time, I think it was a trick of God (or evolution) to give us the mental and physical tools to access and perceive of worlds beyond our own that we can never directly experience, so that we are destined to forever question, live in doubt, and in turn, faith. My understanding of this world is constantly modified, through interactions between my internal-emotional, superficial-physical, and extra-physical worlds, and I try to keep myself open to this negotiation. The more I insist on things being a certain way, chances are better that contradictory experiences will produce destruction or delusion, and progress will fail. Similarly, when science and religion abandon doubt, they both fail.

Friday, October 30, 2009

putting myself in their shoes

There's nothing like getting into my literacy students' heads and experiences by way of trying it myself - learning a new writing system in a second (or third) language. Learning Arabic definitely puts me in their shoes. After trying to make my way through a short article in Arabic, I notice that the words I read in Arabic break into three categories of non/comprehension:

1) the 98% I sound out and don't understand
2) the 1% I sound out and do understand
3) the other 1% that I can recognize without sounding out, like السلام عليكم (salam alekum) and such

For some time I have stressed phonics on my ESL students, I now believe, at the expense of word-recognition strategies. That is until I realized how much we really read by recognition of words.

Do we really have a library of thousands of words in our heads so that we don't really read letters so much as word shapes? According to the National Institute for Literacy website:

Rapid and effortless Word Recognition is the main component of fluent reading. Words that beginning readers initially sound out through Word Analysis or phonics come to be recognized as whole units after readers encounter them repeatedly in connected text.

At least I can say that I figured it out on my own before checking with other sources (like I probably ought to have done...). In any case, I think regardless of how much formal training teachers go through, that is, more than any other way, how we learn to teach.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Everybody has a car...

... but my grandpa has a donkey...
- Children's Arabic song (supposedly)

Unemployment reading project #2 (after Foucault's History of Sexuality Vol. 1) is finish my Teach Yourself Arabic book. Even though I teach ESL, I underestimate how mind numbing trying to learn a new language can be. (Sorry, students! May I have more mercy on your lesson plans!)

In the interest of trying to mitigate the pain of rote learning, I tried out this Arabic song lyrics blog. While it can be very helpful, I found it is only really good if you a) already know the sound of the song's lyrics or b) are willing to learn them. Let's say I am not huge Arabic-pop music fan, and appreciating the better music is more likely to come with learning more Arabic...

Let's not hurt ourselves, I say. I found this humble gem of a Lebanese children's tune. Indirect objects, old words, new verbs, all in less than 6 lines, and put into a sing-along-able mp3.

kelloun andoun siyyarat wou jeddi 3andou hmar
bi rakkebna khalfou wou byakhedna mechwar
woul bolice bi safferlou
bi idou bi acherlou
siyyarat bit zammerlou: pap pap pap!


Everybody has a car but my grandpa has a donkey
He lets us ride behind him and takes us for a walk
And the policeman blows his whistle at him
With his hand he makes signs to him
All the cars honk at him : Pap Pap Pap.