The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years

I've not been as good about updating as I would have liked. This last years has been chaos - I spent seven months working in Taft (and working very long hours at that), have had to deal with a number of personal issues, and then the winter holidays came up. I'd like ot promise that things will be better next year, but I really have no idea, it depends on my field schedule.

At any rate, I do notice that I have picked up many new followers (look at the bar on the left side of the screen), and my daily visitors has been growing slowly but steadily. So, people are reading. So, I'm going to try to update more often, if life allows, and I will also try to make the posts higher quality.

So, there ya' go.

Happy New Years, folks, and here's a few photos that I took in the forest near my home that I hope you'll enjoy.

And, finally, the road to the FUTURE! (not the least bit pretentious...)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Finally, someone who gets it!

I have managed to shock and amaze my friends and family by not only finding a woman who finds me attractive, but also in convincing her to stick around for more than a few months (in fact, we've exceeded two years now). In truth, I am more than a bit surprised and even more grateful that she has tuck with me - I can be difficult to deal with - but she has, and this is a right groovy thing.

Kaylia has many wonderful qualities, but there is one in particular that I have found is very important to me and is, unfortunately, not particularly common - but Kay has it! This quality is constant curiosity. Kaylia asks questions and tries to figure things out even when she is finding answers that don't jive with her previously held beliefs, which is a wonderful thing and something that is a great pleasure to be around.

For myself, I have a history of getting involved with women who either viewed my own tendency to do this as an amusing (and potentially annoying) personality quirk, or who simply didn't want to acknowledge it at all. One ex-girlfirend, after describing how strongly she fielt about music, asked me to tell her what I was passionate about. My answer: curiosity, finding out about the world around me. Her response: "ugh, that isn't something that a person can be passionate about!"

And so, I have been delighted to finally find someone who not only indulges this tendency of mine, but who even seems to enjoy it. When we travel, Kaylia points me to the science museums, she tries to get me to read non-fiction with her so that we both are learning simultaneously and can discuss what we have learned, and she becomes excited when she sees or hears something new.

We have been watching the old Carl Sagan series Cosmos, and in the first episode, Sagan describes how Eratosthenes made a fairly accurate calculation of the Earth's circumference in the year 230 B.C. by measuring the shadows of sticks in Alexandria and Syene on the summer solstice and working out what the curvature of the Earth would have to be. This is, to me, one of the coolest stories in science - an individual, through simple curiosity and intelligence, works out a fundamental fact underlying the world in which we live.

However, other people tend not to find this story as interesting as I do. Most folks look at me with a "what the hell is wrong with you?" look on their face when I go on about this, others simply tell me what I can go do with myself. So, Carl finished telling the story, I wondered how Kaylia would react.

She looked over at me, smiling, and exclaimed "THAT is so cool!"

Yeah, she's a good match for me. Any wonder that I love her?

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Reason for the Season

Today is Christmas Day. There is, as always, a lot of talk about "the reason for the season". The Christians will tell you that it's Jesus (and a vocal minority will say that it is only Jesus), many Non-Christians will point out that Christmas steals rather heavily from earlier Roman and northern European Pagan traditions, and smart-alecks will say that the reason for the season is axial tilt.

I'd like to go mid-range here, not back as far as axial tilt, but farther back than the usually cited Pagan traditions.

On most parts of the planet, winter is a time of shortage - the plants are not fruiting or nutting, some animals are hibernating, the cold outside makes gathering food a difficult proposition especially in climates where it snows, shorter days provide less daylight in which to do any form of outside work (and, depending on the environment, may provide opportunities for predators), and people who had been free to come and go from each other's company are forced to deal with each other more closely than in other parts of the year. For many cultures, winter is a time of enforced inactivity, it is a time when the days have become short and cold, and a time when social stresses may increase due to people being closer together. Mid-winter especially is often a prelude to the hunger of late winter.

It is, therefore, no wonder that people choose to have celebrations in mid-winter. The solstice may be one reason - the realization that days will begin getting longer and warmer is certainly cause for celebration, but the social an psychological problems that stem from cold, dark days and nights and increased population density in the settlement require a release, and a joyful, celebratory release is generally preferable to a violent, destructive release.

The celebration may take many forms - communal feasting, many day long displays of the shaman's power, ceremonies intended to restore the sun and/or renew the world, the giving of gifts to restore social bonds between individuals and thus strengthen the community - regardless of the form, the basic purpose is the same: blow off steam, get everyone on a good footing with each other, and help people to deal with the stresses of the cold months.

Depending on what one takes as the cut-off point to count a creature as a member of our species, humans have been around for at least 500,000 years, and it is likely that winter celebrations or ceremonies have been part of our cultural make-up for at least that long, and perhaps longer (we know little about the religious and ritual lives of modern humanities direct ancestors).

So, yes, Christmas borrows it's time from Saturnalia and its finery from northern European Paganism, but even these traditions borrow from much earlier predecessors. By celebrating the winter festival, whether you call it Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, or anything else, you are taking part in one of humanity's oldest rites.

Enjoy it, we do it for a reason. I hope all of you are having a good day today, regardless of what you call it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve Eve

Tommorrow is Christmas Eve, and like most people in the United states, I am preparing for the festivities. Apparently, the fact that I am not a Christian and yet am celebrating a holiday on December 25th bothers some folks, which I find odd.

Over the last year, I have seen a rather stupid local controversy go down over a religious display in a public space. My own feeling is that, provided that everyone has the right to put up their own display (religious or not), I have no problem with religious groups being allowed to do so. Basically, it's everyone or no-one, nobody gets special rights to occupy the public spaces, regardless of the time of year.

This view has landed me in many arguments with many people around town. The basic thrust of what I often hear seems to be that an atheist such as myself should have no right to voice their views during the December holiday season, and that a non-Christian has no right to celebrate Christmas.

Well, first off, I am a member of the community just as much as any Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Pagan, Elvis worshipper, or priest of the Great Green Arkleseizure. If members of those groups have the right to make their thoughts and beliefs known, whether through holiday displays or through other means of expression, then I also have that right. And I think that it is right and good that members of all of these groups have such rights - I was very happy to see that, despite the forementioned stupid controversy, the annual Hannakuah display is present downtown. I would also be very happy to see a Christian display, a Pagan Yule display, and an atheist seasonal greetings display. All of this would be to the good. The end of the calendar year has aspects that all members of our society can celebrate regardless of religious view, such as the knowledge that the days will begin getting longer again or that we are halfway through the cold months, and in Thanksgiving and New Years we have holidays that are easily observed by those of every religious stripe (and the fact that there are multiple holidays - note the plural "s" - is the reason why "happy holidays" is a perfectly appropriate greeting despite what some half-wit activists may claim).

Okay, so what about non-Christians celebrating christmas. I have noticed that this raises many people's hackles. But here's the deal: Christmas is thrust on all of us. Aside from the most essential functions, our government shuts down, our work schedules are impacted, traffic patterns are disrupted by increased commerce, and our media are essentially turned into Christmas-cheer delivery machines. If you are a Christian this may seem all right and good, but if you are not, then you have two options: you can feel alienated and hurt by the fact that your entire society is hell-bent on celebrating a day from which you are excluded, or you can do what most of us do and find ways to join into the celebration and enjoy yourself.

Is it any wonder that most of us choose the second option?

The simple fact of the matter is that because Christmas is thrust upon all of us we aren't "hijacking" Christmas, we're actually finding ways to integrate ourselves into the broader society. We're taking part in the joy of our communities. Importantly, we are finding ways to seek some sort of common ground with people who we disagree with on many other things. I think that this is all to the good.

So, if you are upset at the notion that Christmas is treated as a secular holiday by non-Christians, then work to have it stopped being federally recognized, protest merchants who advertise Christmas sales, and don't start singing Christmas carols at strangers whose religious beliefs are unknown to you. In short, work to stop it from being a significant day for non-Christians rather than complaining when we take part in something that is going to be forced on us anyway.

But, I would suggest that you do something more productive. Nobody can take your religious beliefs away from you simply by enjoying the holiday season (or, if they can, then your beliefs are pretty damn weak to begin with). Accept that the fact that Christmas has been thrust on the society at large means that there are now two simultaneous holidays: the religious Christmas holiday celebrated by Christians at this time every year, and the secular Christmas holiday celebrated by many people Christian and non-Christian alike. It does no harm to anyone to recognize this basic fact.

At any rate, let's knock off the nonsense. Conflict and screaming about a non-existent "war on Christmas" does no good and only makes people look like idiots. But realizing that this time of year has become important as a time for everyone to gather with family and friends gives us all some common ground and pulls us all together as a community.

So, happy holidays, season's greetings, super solstice, and, of course, merry Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Barbie Doll Blues

Christmas is coming soon, and I have nephews and a niece. As a result, people have been pitching all manner of toys to me as gift ideas*. When people hear that I have a niece, they invariably suggest either stuffed animals or Barbie Dolls. Now, I have no interest in giving her a Barbie Doll - she has plenty of relatives who will give her soon-to-be-forgotten plastic toys and I see no reason to be one of the crowd. But what does interest me is the reaction that many of my friends have when they hear that someone recommended that I give my niece a Barbie Doll.

"Barbie damages the psyches of little girls!" they'll usually exclaim, "These people want you to start feeding your niece an unrealistic idea of what a woman should look like that will cause her to have body perception issues for the rest of her life!"


In truth, I had thought this myself for a large portion of my adult life. It seems intuitively correct - if a young girl's first image of what a woman should look like comes from a doll that is little more than a grotesque caricature of a human, then this image would likely get burned into her memory. In of itself the doll might not be that bad, but within the context of a mass media that routinely broadcasts unrealistic images of women, the doll becomes a gateway into a world of poor body image and hypersexualization.

But, of course, a child has another context in which they see the Barbie Doll - as a toy. The average little girl may have a Barbie, but they also have many other toys, many of which are themselves also grotesque caricatures of the human form - really, have you ever actually looked at a Raggedy Ann doll? This context seems to be almost universally ignored when people speak about the alleged evils of Barbie, and yet it is the primary context through which a child will interact with the doll.

I hadn't considered the possibility that Barbie was perhaps not harmful until I read an article about seven years back in which the author pointed out that, like so many pieces of "common sense", nobody had ever bothered to actually look for evidence supporting the claim that Barbie leads to poor body image. It was something that was asserted (primarily beginning in the 60s and 70s), and people either accepted or denied the claim based primarily on their social and/or political leanings, but nobody ever actually bothered to test the hypothesis. Instead, both those who accepted and those who denied the claim built up edifices of rationalization to support their claim, never bothering to actually do a reality check.

In other words, it's possible that Barbie is harmful, and it's also entirely possible that Barbie is not harmful. Nobody actually knows, but everybody thinks that they do. Even if the plastic bubble-head is harmful, it seems pretty damn reasonable to point out that it is likely harmful as a very small part of the cultural context in which girls grow and women live, and there are many bigger and more important targets than she-of-the-plastic-joints.

But try saying that to many of the people that I know.

I have found that to tell someone who believes Barbie to be harmful that there simply isn't any evidence to support that belief is an invitation to be assaulted by a barrage of rationalization, vague anecdotes, and just-so stories about the evils of the injection-molded little miss. Sometimes they'll direct me to an essay on the subject, but looking for evidence within the essay usually yileds only more of the same rationalization, vague anecdotes, and just-so stories. And yet, the only actual study that I can find that even discusses how girls view Barbie Dolls suggests that girls do not view her as a model of what they should look like.**

So, where does that leave Barbie? Well, I won't buy Barbie toys, but because I don't want to give my niece yet another thing that will simply end up forgotten in a landfill, not because I think that I am doing her emotional damage. If you are serious about helping girls and women improve their self-image and make themselves better people, then focus on the bigger issues: sexism in the workplace, the lack of strong female role-models in the media (the glut of negative role models), and the disturbingly high rates of sexual assault. Tackling these things will do far more good than demonizing a plastic airhead.

* with the help of my girlfriend, I went a very simple route - books, science kits, and indie puzzle games help to grow their brains and contribute little to landfills and overall consumerism, and as such I am I favor of them)

** By contrast, I have found that telling people who think that Barbie is not harmful that there is no evidence to support their position usually results in them shrugging their shoulders and ignoring me for the next hour or so.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Politics of Science Terminology Abuse

The World of Weird Things website has posted a top 5 list of abused science terms. The list is pretty good, my two favorite inclusions being the terms "toxin" and "quantum" which mean some very specific things in science, but are used in nonsensical, pell-mell ways in New Age belief.

But this brings to mind something that I have noticed before. The list at World of Weird Things leaves off the word "theory" - for my money, the all-time most abused science term. The reason, and it is a legitimate one though it is unstated in the post, is that the list reflects an intention to criticize the New Age forms of pseudoscience, which tend to be left wing, rather than the creationism/environmental denial forms of pseudoscience, which tend to be right wing.

This is not a criticism of World of Weird Things, the new age pseudoscience is just as deserving of criticism as such right-wing nonsense as creationism and global warming denialism - and as the left wing version has given rise to the anti-vaccine movement (which is now bizarrely gaining traction on the right, with a Democrat president being in favor of vaccines - evidence that pundits are only concerned with attacking "the opposition" and not with reality) it is has now created a public health hazard. But it is interesting, and the different vocabulary illustrates some differences between the left and right when it comes to science denial.

The adoption of terms such as "toxin", "energy", and "quantum" show an attempt to steal the legitimacy of science without doing any of the work. To be sure, many on the left wing of science denial will flat-out attack science, but it seems more common for them to adopt the terminology and act as if they are actually working within the framework of science when they are, in fact, developing sophisticated ignorances of science and actually undermining it by abusing the terminology. In short, this particular form has created a false edifice that looks "sciency" on the outside, even fooling many who buy into it, but is wholly vacuous on the inside. It has a tendency to filch terminology in order to make it look as if the pseudo-science is on the cutting edge and is the harbinger of advanced scientific knowledge when it is often (read: typically) actually just peddling re-packaged nonsense that is centuries old.

On the right, there is a tendency to use such terms as "theory" incorrectly to claim that science never actually proves anything*. Out of the Intelligent Design movement, there has even been a new pseudo-scientific jargon developed with gems such as "irreducible complexity". The basic thrust is that the jargon stolen from science or generated by pseudo-science is a jargon of uncertainty or denial - a claim that what is known is not actually known so that it may be safely ignored and old dogmas maintained. It sometimes creates a gap into which a god can be inserted, at other times it simply gives the proponent of an idea or policy the plausible deniability necessary for them to advocate for the status quo when change is necessary.

Certainly, there are those on the right who falsely claim scientific credibility (just as there are those on the left who openly attack science) such as the creation "scientists", but typically the intention is to cast doubt on science rather than co-opt it, and this is reflected in the jargon adopted.

There is another important difference, though. A large part of right-wing science denial is politically motivated - it begins with people attempting to push policy and then bleeds in to the broader culture. Global warming denialism is an obvious example, but even creationism, though coming from religious beliefs and therefore not necessarilly political, has abused science jargon largely through political attempts to force creationism into educational policy. Left wing science denialism comes largely from the New Age movement as it blossomed in the 1960s, and although it has political implications, was not crafted specifically to move a political agenda.

Both right and left wing science denial is equally concerned with supporting pre-existing assumptions rather than fairly evaluating new information, and both have a stubborn refusal to accept inconvenient truths and realities at their cores. However, they do take somewhat different courses, one usually trying to masquerade as science the other trying to deny the effectiveness of science. Certainly, there is crossover (not all creationists are right-wing, not all believers in Reiki are left-wing), and there are people in both camps who adopt the tactics of the other side (and increasingly there even seems to be some rather strange examples of bleed-over between both sides), but as a general rule, this does seem to describe the behavior of both sides rather accurately.

*Technically correct, but over-simplified by these people. Science deals in probabilities - what the evidence shows is what is most likely to be correct, and the strength of the evidence is directly proportional to the accuracy of the supported claim. There is always the possibility of a new piece of evidence proving the previous beliefs wrong, but the more evidence there is supporting a claim, the less likely such new evidence becomes. People who argue that something (usually, though not always, evolution) is "only a theory" pretty much always try to assert that their own arbitrary belief is just as valid if the "theory" can't be proven 100% true - this is bullshit, as an arbitrary belief with no unequivocal supporting evidence is not only as well supported as a scientific theory (which by definition has supporting evidence) but is, in fact, far more likely than not to be proven wrong by new evidence.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What the....?

I have always found inappropriate juxtopositions hilarious, so regardless of the science/religion content, I find this funny. But, is it just me, or do these two look like they're somewhere around the age of 12?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Flumes of Tulare County

So, last week and the week before, I was performing survey on a hydroelectric project in Kern and Tulare Counties. We were required to look for archaeological sites within 15-meters (or 50 feet for the metric-phobic out there) of the waterways (flumes, canals, tunnels, etc.) and within 10-meters (or 32 feet for those of you still not in the 20th, let alone 21st, century) of all access roads and trails. This is pretty standard for a hydroelectric project. We found very little, which is good for our client, if a bit anti-climactic for us.

We were primarily working in canyons, so to say that we were surveying access trails means that we spent a large amount of time clinging to rocks and trying not to fall off of narrow trails. It also means that, where flumes were present, we had to walk along on top of the flumes, as the slopes on either side of the flumes were usually too steep to hold archaeological sites* or allow us to walk without constant danger of rolling down a steep, rocky slope. This means that we often were on wooden walkways over aluminum pipes standing somewhere between 50 and 100 feet above a rocky creekbed. When we were in those types of places, we were usually clinging to the wire "hand rails" and not really in the mood to take pictures, so the photos below were taken when we were in more gentle terrain.

Early in the project, we actually were pretty cavalier about walking on the flumes. Then, towards the end of the first day, we found ourselves in a place where a fire had taken out some of the supports and the flumes had collapsed. After that, we were all a bit more nervous when walking on them. In truth, it was perfectly safe, and we knew that, but that didn't stop us from being freaked out.

So, here y'go - a few photos from my most recent time in the field (photos by Chris Rohe):

It really pisses me off that taggers will put their mark even in a place like this.

Chris poses in front of the flume system

A view across the Tule River valley from the project area

A segment of the flume system

Me, walking on top of the flume

It looks like I'm proudly surveying the land before me, I'm actually taking a break after crossing a rather scary drainage.

* One nice thing about steep topography is that it severely limits the types of sites that one might find. Rock art, cache caves, and a few specific types of historic sites are found in this terrain. But large vilage sites, historic homesteads, and other site types that tend to take a large amount of time to record tend to be located in flat, livable places. So, while it's sometiems scary, survey in steep areas is usually fast.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Gaming in a Haunted Hotel

My two main hobbies are Role-Playing Games and collecting ghost stories. So, this past weekend, I had a rare opportunity to combine the two by taking part in my friend Matt Steele's Dead of Winter gaming mini-convention at the Brookdale Lodge in Felton, in the mountains of Santa Cruz County.

It was a fuckin' blast! Loads of fun were had by all, and I am really hoping that it happens again next year.

The hotel itself is reputed to be haunted, and it can be a damn creepy place under normal circumstances. We happened to be there during a large winter storm, and so it was even weirder a place than normal.

The Brookdale lodge is a conglomeration of several different buildings - three buildings containing hotel rooms and a few shops, the lodge itself which contains the hotel's lobby, a strange room below the hotel's swimming pool through which you can watch swimmers (when the pool is open) - kinda' a voyeur's creepy dream, really - a stage, two bars (only one of which is currently open), and the brook room - a large (and formerly opulent) dining room built above a creek channel, with the creek visible (and audible) from all parts of the room. The last building is a log cabin that has been connected to the rest of the building by a hallway. Our games took place in the log cabin, with four tables set out and a a group of players surrounding each table. For a convention-newbie such as myself, this was ideal - all of the players were there by invitation, and each of them was an excellent player, leading to some of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I have ever had. I tried some new games, and was pleased with both their ease-of play and their overall effect, and my fellow players were a fun, friendly bunch who were nothing short of amazing to game with.

Matt set up a great event, and his long-time partner Lisa deserves a lot of credit for keeping things running smoothly even when matters began to go awry. The general feeling amongst the players was that if Lisa was around, the situation was well in hand and all would be well - we were all very, very grateful.

And things did go wonderfully awry (no sarcasm, it really was great). The theme of the mini-con was horror games - every game ran had a horror plot line, most of them with a supernatural bent. In the storm, we quickly discovered that portions of the Lodge's roof and ceiling have gone missing over the years (though thankfully not in our play area) and water poured inside and pooled on the ground in many of the rooms. Some of the walls had experienced excessive rot from years of neglect, and water and cold air came in through them. The end result was that, between the ghost stories already in circulation about the place and the lodge's decrepit state, the place was creepy as hell and really fed the mood for running horror games.

Towards the end of the first game session on Saturday, the lights went out. We were able to continue with sufficient light between flashlights and the daylight that made it in through the locked window shutters, but with sunset approaching, we needed to do something. Luckily, Lisa and a few of the attendees quickly gathered electric camp lanterns and candles and began to bring some light into the gaming room, even if only in small pools at each table.

For any other event, the loss of electrical power and a decrepit building would have been a detriment. For this event, it was a boon. The reduced lighting, added to by the fact that we had to pass in the dark through one of the allegedly more haunted rooms to get to or from the gaming room, added to the surreal, creepy feel. The damp under our feet when we walked into or out of the gaming room added to the on-edge feeling essential to a good ghost story (and by extension, a good horror game). The games became more fun, and the attendees more excited. When power was restored around midnight, many of the attendees demanded that the lights be turned off near their tables to preserve the atmosphere that had built up during the evening.

It was, to put it simply, fucking awesome.

While there, I naturally went about looking for things to add to the ghost stories that I have collected for this place. There were a few other visitors, not related to the gaming con, who were there specifically to stay at a haunted hotel, included a pair of teenagers and the mother of one of them who were there as a sixteenth birthday present. They reported hearing voices and then a crash from an empty room - not unusual for a building with weird acoustics, a gaming convention, and a deteriorating roof, but they were good and spooked (it probably helped that some of my fellow gamers took to jumping out at people in the dark).

I also took a number of photos in the darkened lodge, such as:

And here's an interesting set. Both of these were taking in the Brook Room, less than 30 seconds apart. I have no idea why one has fog over it and the other doesn't. My girlfriend suggests that the foggy photo may have captured my breath (it was very cold, and out breath was condensing), and I suppose that this is a perfectly plausible explanation.

While it likely has a pretty simple explanation, seeing this appear on my camera's view screen on a dark and rainy night was an eerie experience.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I hope that this happens again next year, as I would love to game these people again.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hotel Joy

I have found that even people who are familiar with what I do tend to think of archaeology as being somewhat of a glamorous profession. In order to disabuse people of this notion, I figure that it is high time I write about the hotels in which we stay while doing fieldwork.

I have written before about one crappy hotel in which we have had to stay. I wish I could say that that cess pit were the worst and last of it. Unfortunately, it was not. For your reading pleasure (?) I present a short description of the hotels that I have known:

Napa, CA
The Discovery Inn was the first hotel that I stayed at as a supervisor with my current employer. It was the subject of an earlier entry. My room had strange stains in the bathroom (which, aside from the stains, appeared to have never been cleaned), dried spit (at least, I keep telling myself it was spit) on the walls, and a general dankness to the place. One of the other supervisors had a bathtub that filled with sewage due to problems with the plumbing at the hotel. Oh, and a guy in the parking lot kept trying to get me to sell him drugs (I don't think I ever managed to convince him that I wasn't a dealer).

Fun place.

Visalia, CA
Visalia is a growing city in Tulare County. On the whole, it was a pretty good place to stay. However, the hotel in which we stayed, I believe it was the Lamplighter Inn, was a bit odd. The rooms were clean, and the service was fine, and so to that I have no complaints. However, the entire place had a strange smell about it, rather like air freshener that has been sprayed in an unsuccessful attempt to mask the odor of a recently soiled bathroom. In addition, frighteningly realistic-looking plastic food was placed at various places throughout the hotel, raising and then dashing the hopes of some nice fruit, or some tasty chocolate cake. The other denizens of the hotel were a strange lot, often given to long rambling (and very drunken) conversation late at night outside of other people's hotel rooms. On the whole, it wasn't the worst experience I have ever had at a hotel, but it was a remarkable strange one.

Taft, CA
I dealt with three different hotels in Taft. The first was the Topper. This was an increasingly run-down little place that had probably been built in the 40s or 50s. The manager was an affable fellow, and seemed aimed to please. Unfortunately, he was saddled with a place that would have been more successful as a cautionary tale than as a successful hotel. The rooms were about the size of shoeboxes, with the air conditioners and televisions curiously suspended in places that appeared to have been calculated to be concussion-inducing. Every morning began with the crew tallying the number of cockroaches in each of their rooms to see who was the winner. The room nearest the courtyard entrance (also the main entrance to the hotel) was occupied, apparently permanently, by someone who seemed to spend all of his time smoking pot and blowing the smoke out his window.

The next hotel was the Caprice. Most of the rooms were simply dirty - I once walked from my shower to the bed to get dressed, and the soles of my feet became blackened on the 20-foot walk - and, again, cockroaches were everywhere (we used to time them for the purposes of "cockroach races"). None of my crew trusted the staff to wash the sheets in between residents - many of us actually brought our own blankets or sleeping bags and slept above the blankets that came with the bed. The mattresses were strangely stained, a few even having clear and obvious blood stains on them. Many of the rooms had obvious (and mysterious) water stains all along the bases of the walls. Add to this that either A) the couple who ran the place had no communication, or B) they were trying to rip us off. On more than one occasions, a crew member had to leave early due to illness or another project, and each time one of the managers tried to charge me for un-used nights, claiming that the person had not checked out, when, in fact, they had. Also, after we had payed for rooms, the management decided to try to rent our rooms out from under us to other people.

I was pissed.

The last hotel, the Holland Inn, was the nicest hotel in Taft, but that's not saying much. On the plus side, the hotel was clean, the cockroaches less omnipresent than the other places in Taft, and the staff never tried to rip us off. On the downside, the staff never payed any attention to the "do not disturb" signs on the room doors, openly admitted to mucking about with our personal belongings when we were out at work, and the owners (who lived on the East coast) refused to actually pay to have the advertised amenities (such as Internet access, ice machine, and fire alarms) working. Still, it was better than the other two places, and so we were fine with it.

Lancaster, CA
Our hotel was located on the Sierra Highway, a major thoroughfare in the Mojave desert, and near Edwards Air Force Base. The rooms were fine, if unremarkable. However, the portion of town in which the hotel was located had been conquered by cockroaches. I was on the second floor, and as such was cockroach-free. However, the entire first floor was over-run with the buggers - one night I sat in the lobby (the internet connection in my room had gone out) and watched as a group of cockroaches seemed to migrate from hiding places inside of a wall on one side of the lobby to hiding places inside of the wall on the other side of the lobby.

Note: The people of Lancaster do not wish to admit that their town has been infested with la cuca rocha, and so they refer to the little buggers as "Japanese water beetles." do not be fooled, my friends, these are the same little coprophagous sewer dwellers known to every other North American city.

An aspect of being located on the Sierra Highway was that we were very close to the 7-11 in which Lancaster's "ladies of the night" waited for their clientele. If I walked by there at night, there was a 75% chance that I would be propositioned by a prostitute. One particular evening, I was out walking while on the phone with my my girlfriend when a prostitute asked if I was interested in "a good time". I declined and continued on my way. Kaylia asked who I had been speaking with, and when I answered, she was rather shocked.

Shaver Lake, CA
For a small town, Shaver Lake has a suprising number of lodging options. One of the hotels featured green shag carpeting - we kept expecting a leisure-suit wearing John Travolta to wander into the room - which appears to have never been cleaned. The water from the taps has an unwholsome brown color with a strange aroma. It didn't appear to be rust, which would have been expected from an old hotel, but neither did it appear to be sewage. All in all, not the worst hotel on the planet, but far from the best.

Bakersfield, CA
Bakersfield is a fairly large side, with a population approaching 1/2 a million counting the unincorporated subburbs. There are many hotels here, and many of them are quite nice. We don't get to stay in any of the nice ones, however. This otel, the Americas Best Value Inn, is far from the worst. The management is friendly and professional enough and the rooms are clean (more or less). However, there is a weird, schizophrenic mix of what is present/working and what isn't. For example - there is a very nice, well-maintained indoor pool, very nice. On the other hand, the heaters in several of the rooms are on the fritz, the driers in the laundry facility don't quite work, and there is a prostitute who keeps coming to the building looking for business. Also, we're next to a truck stop (which probably explains the prostitute), and as such we get to hear the sounds of air brakes and clanging trailer parts all night long.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Damn Fine Journalism

Ah, The Onion, how I love thee.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Archaeological Roshamon

Several years back, I read an article in a journal called The Masterkey about a pictograph element* painted onto the walls of one of California's Spanish missions. For the life of me, I can not remember which mission it was, but I think that it was Mission San Miguel Arcangel. The pictograph had been painted over, and was only found by archaeologists due to the deterioration of the paint on that wall. The author of the article stated that the pictograph had no doubt been created by a neophyte**, and that one of the mission's priests no doubt forced the neophyte to paint over it, in order to rid the mission of the image.

As far as it goes, this is a perfectly reasonable explanation and I have no problem with it. There is a fair chance that this is exactly what happened, but there is also a fair chance that something else happened. This explanation assumes that the only reason why the pictograph would have been painted over is because the Spanish priest made the neophyte do so. This assumes two things: A) the neophyte intended for the pictograph to be openly displayed, and B) the only reason why the neophyte would paint over it was because a priest forced him/her to do so. If either of these assumptions is incorrect, then another explanation would be required.

And this gets into a really, really interesting, and really, really frustrating aspect of the archaeological record. There are often many different possible interpretations of any one item or event, and which one seems the most probable depends on the base assumptions that a person makes.

The interpretation of the covered pictograph given in the article essentially views the neophyte as being overpowered by the Spanish clergy. There is an element of truth to this - the neophytes' lives were very much regulated by the clergy and the soldiers with whom they worked - but it assumes an essentially one-way power relation between the missionaries and the missionized, and ignores that human power relations are never one-way affairs. Even in horribly brutal police states, power relations are never strictly one-way, so why should we expect that this would be the case in the Spanish Missions? Let's consider a few other possible scenarios.

Let's say that the neophyte, recognizing how much control the Spanish have over his life, decides to do something that, while not necessarily changing his situation, makes him feel better about it. He decides to paint the pictograph on the church wall, as a way of making a mark that will annoy the priests. A priest sees him and makes him paint over it, and the result is what the archaeologists found two hundred years later. This version of the scenario is pretty similar to the first one presented, but with one important difference: the original version gave no reason why the neophyte would create the pictogram, the motivation of the neophyte was, in fact, missing altogether, irrelevant to the discussion - after all, the Spanish had the power, who cares about the motives of the neophytes? But these motives do matter in anthropology and archaeology - we are seeking to understand both what people do and why they do it, and motivation is supremely important. As such, we have to consider that the neophyte was not a nameless cog in the historical machine, but an individual acting within their situation, and this means that, while we can't know the neophyte's motivation for creating that specific pictograph, we can be sure that one existed.

Okay, so let's try another scenario. The neophyte, being in a bad situation on the mission, wants to assert himself in some way (yeah, I'm assuming it's a male, because I'm a male, and therefore I'm using my own pronoun because I am tired of typing he/she/ him/her, etc. - extra key strokes deduct time from the rest of my life - but I am aware that it could have been a woman). He paints the pictograph, but it is not important that the pictograph be visible, just that it be there. So, before a priest can see it, he paints over the image. Now, whenever he is in the church, he knows that a piece of his own culture is hidden among the holy relics, and perhaps he has his own private joke or perhaps he has a sense of power from having outfoxed the clergy in this small way. Now, we have the same physical result, but the sequence of events is different and one of the actors vanishes.

It begins to look like Roshamon, doesn't it?

It gets worse. Or more interesting, depending on your mood.

Consider a quick fact: rituals and objects (including rock art and the creation of rock art) with magical power are often hidden away so that only the initiated may see them. Now, try this scenario on for size...

The neophyte believes that the pictograph has mystical power. He paints it in order to exercise supernatural power, and then covers it over because it doesn't matter whether it's visible or not (perhaps it even needs to be hidden in order to manifest its power). This interpretation is in keeping not only with the pictograph found within the church, but also with the placement of pictographs in prehistoric Native Californian contexts, and even with the historic record that speaks of native religious symbols being placed in locations where it was assumed that the Spanish would not find them (incorrectly, as shown by the fact the the historic record speaks of it).

My point in writing this entry is simply this: it is frequently assumed that the archaeological record speaks for itself, that what archaeologists uncover is the absolute big "S" and big "T" Scientific Truth. But the reality is messier. Archaeologists are able to make a remarkable amount of sense of the material record of the past, but we do so by relying on theoretical models of human behavior. Although some parts of the archaeological record have very clear meanings (hmmmm, all of this deer bone pretty clearly indicated that these people were reliant on deer hunting!), other parts are far more ambiguous, and what the archaeologist makes of them will depend both on their own personal assumptions and on the theoretical models that they employ.

*pictographs are the technical name for paintings on rocks, and an element is an individual image from a rock art panel

**Neophytes were the native Californians who became converts at the missions

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Odd Music Video

So, I was putzing about online, unable to sleep, and I came across this, the video for Princes of the Universe, the theme from the original Highlander. I was struck by something about this video - you have a film with all manner of music-video friendly images: sword fights, indoor lightning storms, buildings filled with demonic spirits, panoramic views of the Scottish highlands, and one seriously freaky villian. What scenes do they include in the music video? Why, scenes of the hero walking to work, sitting around in his living room, and meeting a friend in a park. No, really, that's what's in the video.

It's just...well, an odd choice.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Clinging to the Cliff

As my friend Liberty would say - No shit, there I was, clinging to the rocky side of the mountain, looking for a passable route across a sheer rocky cliff, all the while knowing that the ground below my feet was so badly eroded due to post-fire devegetation that to try to continue forward would result in me sliding to the rock exposure below, and then falling several hundred feet. I was coated in soot, scraped up from the plants and sharp rocks that I had been encountering, and seriously in need of a cold caffeinated drink. I was safe at the moment, but I needed to get to the other side of the cliff, and going backward seemed unlikely to help in this goal.

It was this afternoon, about five hours before I wrote this post.

While I was in this odd position, a thought cam into my mind, no surprise as it is the same thought that has been coming into my mind for some time now: Well, my life sure has changed in the past eight years.

Eight years ago, in December of 2001, I was working in the marketing department of a large, multi-national computer hardware company. I had a few different functions, mostly dealing with databases and preventing pompous salesmen from mis-using company funds to bribe clients into buying more product.

I was bored, and from the boredom came depression. With the depression, I let myself become a lousy employee (and while my feeling about these types of large companies is far from pleasant, I do feel guilty about my lack of quality work because A) I was being paid, after all, and should have worked harder, and B) my boss was, and still is, a good friend, and I let her down). But, when your work leaves you depressed, it's time to go, and so I prepared to go, applying to graduate schools and finally getting accepted. Oh, and my company helped by laying me off, which is fair enough (see above point about me being a lousy employee). Being laid off rather than fired allowed me to collect my severance package and use it to help fund grad school.

After two years of classwork, I began to hit the workforce, and spent a rather larger amount of time outdoors than I had previously been used to. Don't get me wrong, I was never a pasty-faced shut-in, I have gone for daily walks and routine hikes in the area surrounding my home since I was a teenager, and bicycling has long been a favorite form of transportation. But, there's outdoors, and then there's outdoors - hauling equipment, doing field analysis, and generally spending 8-10 hours continuously outdoors regardless of weather, and then following this up with afternoon/evening time spent outside either doing other work or engaging in recreation.

And then I finished my degree, and began working as a field supervisor, and eventually as a project manager. All of which led to me clinging to the rock on the edges of a cliff, looking for a way across.

In the end, I took the safe way out, I climbed down the slope to a safe bench of land and walked for a quarter mile, to a place where I could climb up to the other side of the cliff (sorry Bat-fans, I left my whip at home and therefore couldn't use it to latch onto protruding rocks and branches and swing across).

There are times when my job frustrates me, but what keeps me coming back is the fact that I find myself in strange situations. It makes for good stories, and some exciting days.

But, had someone told the depressed, bored, marketer me that one day I would be getting paid to cling to the side of a mountain, considering whether or not to do something reckless, well, I would have thought that the person telling me this was nuts. The possibility of having a job in which things that most people have to seek out get plopped in my lap, well, that was a wild dream. My life has changed considerably in the last eight years, and it has changed for the better.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Storycorps, Archaeology, and History

Stick with me, this will get around to archaeology and history.

As I drove out to Porterville this morning, I listened to a BBC radio documentary on the StoryCorps project. for those unfamaliar with it and uninterested in listening to the documentary (though I recommend that you do, it's quite good), StoryCorps is described by it's promoters as an oral history project, people arrive in pairs, sit for 45 minutes in the Storycorps booths, and just talk, usually with one interviewing the other. There is no set agenda or particular topic that Storycorps requires, just that two people have a 45-minute conversation. If both members consent, then the recording goes to the Library of Congress.

Most of the people familiar with StoryCorps have gained their information about it from excerpts of the recordings broadcast on the NPR show Morning Edition. Frankly, I never much cared for these broadcast excerpts, usually finding them uninteresting at best and painfully shmaltzy at worst. In fact, my disinterest in StoryCorps is such that I had thought I'd deleted the BBC documentary from my iPod before heading out this morning. I'm glad I didn't, as the documentary on StoryCorps is far more interesting than the broadcast excerpts.

I had previously been unaware of the fact that the sessions were 45 minutes long and that NPR's broadcasts included only a very small segment (which would explain why they are often so befuddling and annoyingly incomplete). I had also been unaware of the sheer volume of sessions recorded, with multiple permanent booths and several travelling booths.

Which brings me to archaeology and history.

One of our recurring problems is that we miss the full context in which to make our data make sense. For example, my colleagues and I often find ourselves baffled by enigmatic historic artifacts because the people who used them found the artifacts so dull and commonplace that they never bothered to write anything about it down - if you assume it's always going to be there and that its purpose is obvious, why bother to describe it?

But, of course, when technology changes, the use of the old tools is often forgotten. The same is true for minor social customs, settlement patterns, and pretty much any other common, every-day thing that is likely to end up in the archaeological record.

Likewise, historians tend to skew their work towards the people who were able to and/or bothered to write things down. So, historians of Rome or Medieval Europe, for example, will often focus on the wealthy or the rare lower-class rabble-rouser because these are the people who either left their own writings or about whom things were written. Much of the day-to-day minutae, almost all of the lives of the lower classes, and things that might be considered embarrasing to the authors tend to not make it into the historical record.

The value of a project like StoryCorps is, if the recordings are indexed in such a way as to allow proper research, they can provide information on the day-to-day minutae, the common and unremarkable habits, embarrasing incidents, and all other aspects of life that tend to not be written down, but do come out in conversations, and, whether we're aware of it or not, do tend to influence human behavior in some very profound ways. Some of the stories already detail aspects of family history that are of great interest to historians and historic archaeologists. Others are likely to provide a treasure trove to our future colleagues.

So, while I may not be so interested in hearing the schmaltz that tends to get played on the radio, I am rather excited to know that a potential tool such as this is going to be available to future generations of my own profession. It's a wonderful idea.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Screams of the Vegetables

...and now back to your regularly scheduled nonsense...


Monday, November 30, 2009

Anthropology, Secret Societies, and Modern Politics

In a previous post in which I wrote about the political organization known as the Family, I wrote about how their philosophy was really just the latest re-packaging of the concept of the divine right of kings. I also mentioned that the Family is rather reminiscent of a common anthropological phenomenon.

Unfortunately, the vocabulary that anthropologists use to talk about this particular phenomenon is remarkably similar to the vocabulary that conspiracy believers use, or to terms that have become pejoratives and been stripped of their descriptive meaning in common use. So, please, keep that in mind when reading this. I am not assuming that the Family is a vastly powerful arm of the Illuminati or some such nonsense. The terms I use (which will include "secret society" and "cult") I use because they are the correct anthropological terms, not because I am trying to go for shock value.

Okay? Okay.

So, anyway, in anthropological terms, the Family is both a secret society and a cult. A cult is simply a group that is organized around a shared set of rituals and/or beliefs. By the anthropological definition of the term, every religious group is a cult, and arguably many political and social groups would also be considered cults. Secret societies are, just as the term suggests, organizations that keep some important aspect of themselves secret. Some may keep their even their existence secret, but this is unusual. More often, secret societies are well-known to exist, and even their membership may be well known. What they keep quiet is typically what goes on behind closed doors. Most secret societies are organized around a central set of beliefs or rituals, and most (though not all) secret societies are, by definition, cults.

In the case of the Family, they are not what I suppose you could call a "strong" secret society. While they try to not attract attention to themselves, and they don't publish their membership, they also don't go through great pains to hide their membership or their ideals, even letting a journalist (Jeff Sharlet) live in one of their houses and speak with many of their members. Nonetheless, they do strive to prevent their members from mentioning associations with the Family, especially when proposing policy that the Family favors. And the organization of the Family involves placing members into "prayers cells" in which each member keeps their eyes on the other members (the Family describes this as "keeping them accountable), which "encourages" members to conform to the group's norms and keeps information generated within the Family in small circles.

So, while the Family doesn't go through the efforts to hide itself or its membership that some groups have been known to, and has even allowed its general philosophy to be learned by a journalist, it does qualify as a cult and a secret society: it tried to remain more-or-less hidden while working in its area of influence (by preventing its members from flaunting their membership, especially when doing policy work), it is organized in such a way as to keep scrutiny on its membership, and it is organized around an esoteric (arguably mystical, with its origin story involving the founder receiving a personal message from Jesus) understanding of a major religion.

So, in order to understand this better, let's put this into a broader context.

Cults and secret societies are nothing new. Every human society that we know of had a religion, and therefore had cults. The concept of elite cults, those that cater to/keep an eye on the powerful, is probably as old as human social hierarchies. Cults are neither new nor alarming. So, let's stop worrying about that for the moment, shall we.

What about secret societies? Well, these have been pretty common. In most cultures, there are organizations that engage in the transmission of specialized ritual knowledge only to the initiated, and the initiated may only come from one segment of society. In some groups, this means that all men are members of one cult and all women are members of another. In other cultures, only members of particular lineages are allowed to be members of a particular secret society, while in still others it is based on wealth. Very often, it is held that the beliefs and concepts in which initiates are trained would be dangerous (sometimes even physically dangerous) to non-initiates.

In prehistoric California, along the Santa Barbara Channel, there was a secret society known as the 'Antap (the term 'Antap comes from the native word for Jimson weed, a hallucinogenic that was used in society rituals). In order to be a member of the 'Antap, one must be initiated as a child, having had the membership purchased by one's parents. Without being a member of the 'Antap, you would be hard-pressed to rise to a position of prominence. At the same time, there is evidence that the eligibility for membership was largely dependent on being from the correct, "noble" lineages. If one looks into the mythology of the region, there is evidence that the 'Antap were feared as powerful sorcerers and/or shamans. So, in this region, a Secret Society was used to organize leaders, and also possibly to create a threat of supernatural power to those who might oppose the existing power structure, though it may also have served to give the belief in supernatural power to those who were in power so that they might be more bold.

Moving into ancient Rome, we find another sort of secret society - the mystery cult. These were cults in which initiates were introduced to new or esoteric beliefs regarding either the known and popular gods of Rome, or else were introduced to new or foreign gods. Membership was often (though perhaps not exclusively) reserved to those who could afford the cost of early fees or offerings. These organizations might serve the psychological needs of their members better than the Imperial cult or the ethnic cults, and/or they might serve to make social connections and help form political alliances between members of Roman society.

Even early Christianity, though different from the mystery cults in many ways, had many aspects of the secret society - members often kept their association quiet, meetings were held in secret, and while the tenets of the religion weren't exactly secrets, they were so widely misunderstood that they might as well have been.

Continuing up through history, we see elements of Secret Societies in the way that Medieval priests were considered to be the only people allowed to read and interpret the Bible. The Jewish Cabala, long before it was the celebrity belief du-jour of Madonna, began as a mystical movement (or rather, several mystical movements, as there are several Cabalas) that had many aspects of the secret society as well. Many trade guilds were essentially secret societies organized around the protection of the artisans and tradesmen that were members.

During the Renaissance and up through the enlightenment, many new secret societies formed. Some were attempts to resurrect ancient Greco-Roman mystery cults, others were new political and/or scientific organizations. Most of these were short-lived (ironically, the Illuminati, probably the most feared of these secret societies in modern conspiracy-mongering circles, lasted only a few decades before falling apart), but some, such as the Freemasons, continue to this day.

On into the modern day, secret societies are still common. The Freemasons, and other associated groups, are found in almost every town in the western world. Fraternities and Sororities, with their central rituals, initiation practices, and assumed lifetime membership, are themselves secret societies. The Mormon Church, with its desire to prevent non-members from entering the Temples, is structured as a secret society. There are numerous secret societies within Catholicism, and even a large number in mainstream Protestantism.

And, generally, there's little wrong with this. When people go on about the Mormon temples, or the Skull and Bones club, or the Knights of Malta, or any of a number of other groups, I am filled with a gigantic sense of "so what?" Most of these organizations have only minimal impact on non-members, and are simply the latest manifestations of very old human organizational principle, and really nothing to be too terribly worried about.

Some of these practices can even be useful. While a jury is not a secret society, there are elements of the secret society structure that are involved in jury formation and selection. Likewise with military and police departments - not secret societies, but borrowing from some of the organizational principles. Intelligence organizations - oh, yeah, heavy secret society elements there, too. Which is, like it or not, necessary for these sorts of organizations to function.

Where they should be scrutinized, and laid bare, is where groups such as the Family try to influence public policy that impacts all of us, and not just members. Secret societies in religion and social gatherings are fine, but in a government in which the public is expected to take part and make informed decisions? Well, having a group that tries to not be seen influencing public policy is horribly distorting to that process (in fact the Family leadership often talks about how their strength is their invisibility). So, here's to the journalists telling us about such groups.

But, always keep in mind, this sort of organization is nothing new, and long after the Family is gone, other groups will do the same thing, just as other have in the past. It seems to be a basic behavior that is embedded in the human social fabric. And also keep in mind that while such groups are bad for a government such as ours, there are many other factors at work - such as generally financial political corruption - that are much worse. The Family is simply the latest in a long line of secret societies. We shouldn't pay it more heed than necessary simply because it looks mysterious, lest we lose sight of other, bigger threats.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Photographic Evidence of my Dark Side Connections

I promised in an entry earlier this week that I would post some photos from the presentation that I gave at Lucasarts, so here they are (please note, all of these photos came from my girlfriend Kay's camera, and most were taken by her).

Jawas dig me.

I have written before about various different...for lack of a better word I'll call them "adventures" that I have had due to my career path. Whether it be getting stuck in the mountains, encountering boats in the desert, having near-panic attacks on helicopters, battling macrobiotic dieters, being attacked by hornets, or having weird run-ins with cattle, I have had some very, well, unique experiences. Of all of these, though, the coolest by far happened recently, and that was the opportunity to speak at Lucasarts, one of the subsidiaries of Lucasfilm.

As stated in the previous post, what made this so cool wasn't simply the chance to give a talk on anthropology and use Ewoks and Sand People as my ethnographic examples (though that was very cool), it was also the chance to talk ot some very enthusiastic costumed hobbyists, meet many Lucasfilm employees, and get a tour of Lucasfilm's San Francisco facilities(courtesy of my friend Stacy, who set the whole thing up to begin with).

It was a damn cool day, and here's the photographic evidence.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, the day started with me meeting a group from the Twin Suns Star Wars club from the Visalia area. The fellow in the photos is Barry, who dresses as Obi Wan Kenobi, and in this photo looks as if he is threatening me with a lightsaber (he was actually showing off his prop-building prowess, which is quite remarkable).

After meeting the fine folks from the Twin Suns, we headed to the main lobby, with this delightful statue out front:

Not to quibble, but I really think that Yoda should have been en-pointe with the water spraying from his mouth.

You might think that Lucasfilm would be a wild place, filled with whimsy and amazing things, but as shown in this phot, it really is just a workplace like any other:

At the lobby, we met with the Stormtroopers of the Golden Gate Garrison of the 501st Legion, where Kay, her sister, and her father all were interrogated by these minions of the Empire.

...and then time came for me to give the talk:

...leading to the Stormtroopers bringing me in as one of their own. Now I can force the galaxy to do my bidding! (see how Francisco cowers in fear!)

Members of the 501st Legion, Twin Suns, and myself, Kay, and Stacy

But I hid my connection to the Dark Side well, and even the old Jedi Master still sought my counsel:

After the talk, we took the tour. These buildings were filled with movie propos, special effects models, and alot of photo opporuntities. Here's a selection:

And, as a parting gift, here's a photo to warm the very cockles of your heart. Jar-Jar Binks getting what he deserves:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Divine Rights, Ancient Mythology, and Modern Politics

Earlier today, I was listening to an interview with Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who has been writing extensively about the semi-secret sectarian political organization known as the Family. As I listened to the interview I was, as I always am when I hear discussions about this group, by the way in which this organization embodies two things that I remember well from my academic training. The first is historical, the second is anthropological. I'll write about the historical one today, and the anthropological one in the next week or so.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Family began as a religious organization dedicated to recruiting powerful individuals, especially politicians, in order to advance a political agenda that included union-busting and an advancement of lassies-fare free-market economics. It had this agenda because it's founder, one Abraham Vereide, claimed that Christ came to him in a vision and announced that the Christian churches of the world had it all wrong, and that Christians should not be ministering to the poor and downtrodden, but rather to the wealthy and powerful so that the wealthy and powerful could re-shape society into a more Christian mold, thus (allegedly) improving society for everyone. Mind you, by "improving society for everyone," what the leadership of the Family actually means is that they wish to force everyone to obey their own particular interpretation of Christianity, and as this group is both very power-friendly and has a strong current of anti-Catholicism (which they manage to keep under wraps for the most part), their vision of Christianity is likely one that not even most hard-right-wing Christians would recognize.

The organization has traditionally focused on economics, but has recently begun adopting many of the causes of the modern religious right (anti-abortion and anti-homosexual politics), and then running with them. And it has long reached outside the U.S. in its search for powerful men to whom it wishes to minister. It was tied in to U.S. Support for the regime that led to Somalia's current problems, and more recently it has backed Ugandan politicians wishing to push for the death penalty for homosexuals*.

The rationale given for the backing of these sorts of disgusting individuals is that the Family holds that the New Testament is a document not about the things most of us think about - hope, faith, tolerance, etc. - but rather a document about power. David Coe, the current leader of the Family, will often say that those 20th Century men who most understood the Gospel were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung. He will immediately follow this up by saying that he believes these men to have been evil, and that their policies were reprehensible, but that their rise to power represents that they understood, and that they rose to power because God wanted them there and they are therefore God's representatives on Earth.

And this brings us to the historical concept that this reminded me of - the family's core philosophy is nothing other than a modern re-packaging of the concept of the divine right of kings.

The divine right is a mythological construct, it is a model that seeks to make sense of the condition of the world by reference to the supernatural: if God controls all, then nobody can reach a position of power unless God wants them to do so. Since God controls all, anyone in a position of power, therefore, is there to carry out God's will.** Although it reached its apex with the Medieval Period, it was nothing new even then, and there is archaeological evidence that this sort of belief has been around for as long as humans have had permanent social stratification (so, for at least the last 10,000 years or so).

This concept began to be eroded in the west with the rise of a middle class during the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods - even the Magna Carta, though preserving an aristocratic social order, helped to ease this out of the way. Governmental changes in northern Europe during the Renaissance introduced new, non-monarchic models, damaging the divine right concept even further. By the late 18th century, it was struck a fatal (though slow) blow by the rejection of monarchies in what would become the United States and in France (though France reinstated a monarchy, and an empire with Napoleon Bonaparte, before too terribly long).

By the dawn of the 20th century, royalty was becoming obsolete, and by the middle of the century, even powerful countries that retained a monarchy (such as the United Kingdom) either relegated their monarchs to largely ceremonial roles or greatly diminished the monarch's power and influence.

And so, here in the early 21st Century United States the notion that anyone is divinely appointed rather than being selected based on merit seems weird and un-natural. However, this belief is itself the creation of a modern mythology about American meritocracy (the actual rode to power in the modern U.S.A. is paved with many different materials, merit only one of them, and sometimes a minor one).

Regardless, the idea that those in power, whether there through inheritance, conquest, or election, are chosen by God is a natural consequence of the belief that God is all-powerful. That even most religious people in the western world today don't recognize this speaks to the fact that most people don't really think through the propositions that they claim to believe to their conclusions. In some believers, such a belief can actually be beneficial to social cohesion after political upsets ("well, I voted for McSmarty, but McBrainy won, such is the will of God, and I suppose I'd better work to make things good under McBrainy"), but as is shown by the rather odd alliances formed by the Family, and by pretty much all of Medieval history, this can also be a destructive force in that it provides a way for those who support despots to persuade themselves that they are doing what is good and right.

The Family's activities are, at any right, proof that ideas that most of us had thought dead with the end of the chastity belt as a fashion accesory are in fact alive and well. Perhaps it's simply a permanent part of humanity's cultural landscape.

* Listen to the interview for further information, and while you're at it, write to the White House and your elected representatives and let them know that you oppose these sorts of human rights abuses. Uganda is dependent on U.S. assistance in a number of ways, and as such, we can do some good here.

** A similar idea underlies the trial by combat: clearly you can not win a fight unless God wants you to win it, so whoever wins a fight must be on the side of God's righteousness and therefore should be the winner of a trial.