September 29, 2005
Describing "Hobbit Man"
Peter Brown, an Australian paleoanthropologist, visited the anthropology department today and gave a lecture earlier this evening to the USF community. Brown was the one who discovered and first described Homo floresiensis in 2003 after him and his team uncovered miniature yet distinctly human-like skeleton and other remains. The discovery completely rocked the anthropology community and anyone interested in human origins. Soon, television documentaries and magazine features dominated the headlines with news of “Hobbit Man,” a long-lost direct human ancestor. First described in Nature, the discovery has been most prominently featured by National Geographic, who sponsored the investigation.
The anthropology department was fortunate enough to have Dr. Brown give a special mini-lecture this afternoon where he shared some casts of H. floresiensis. Needless to say, he was quite knowledgeable and willing to speak about the debate surrounding including the finding in the genus Homo. It was a very rare glimpse (for me at least) into the very down-to-earth, human process that goes into describing such a revolutionary discovery. For my “being in the right place at the right time” moment of the semester I was asked to show Dr. Brown our biological collection that I am working with for my graduate assistantship. For someone who has a somewhat limited knowledge of paleoanthropology the task was a bit nerve racking but I managed not to confuse my hominid species too badly.
The most entertaining part of the lecture this evening was Dr. Brown relating his experience of dealing with the media frenzy surrounding the find, which he mentioned had quite a bit to do with the label of “Hobbit Man” (apparently his choice for a nickname, Flo, never caught on). It’s embarrassing for any serious scholar or student of anthropology to refer to a major discovery as a Hobbit, but the important thing is that it’s getting people excited about human origins and the growing amount of evidence in support of evolutionism.
I was going to compile a list of links related to H. floresiensis but talkorigins.org has already done that for me on their very good page about H. floresiensis.
Posted by Will at 09:09 PM
The Oldest Archaeologist in the World
For my graduate assistantship I've been working on re-cataloging and organizing the biological anthropology collection in one of the labs. I was taking some photos for the database and caught the following rare glimpse of the oldest archaeologist in the world. Unfortunately, all contextual information has since been lost:
Posted by Will at 10:18 AM
September 28, 2005
"Site Q" discovered in Guatemala
From Reuters UK:
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A Mayan city whose fabulous art has beguiled collectors for decades but whose true location was until now a mystery has been pinpointed in the jungles of northern Guatemala, scientists said on Tuesday.
'Site Q' has been a Holy Grail of archaeology ever since an exquisite set of Mayan artworks from the period A.D. 600 to 900 showed up in U.S. and European museums and galleries in the 1970s.
Now researchers have found a sculpture at ruins long known as La Corona in Guatemala that matches the mysterious gallery pieces, said Salvador Lopez, Guatemala's head of historical monuments.
Statement from Yale U is here.
Posted by Will at 09:00 AM
September 27, 2005
Attack of the USF Elevator
While children are starving in poverty all over the world and the victims of one of the worst natural disasters ever struggle to get their lives back together, I have this heart-wrenching saga of my latest near-death experience:
So I was at the USF library to catch up on some reading and I decided to treat myself with a $17 cup of Starbuck's coffee. I found myself a cozy little corner by a window on the fourth floor and began to read an article. It was then that I remembered earlier in the day my professor had e-mailed everyone study questions about the articles. I cursed myself for not printing them out at home, packed up my belongings, and headed back down to the first floor computer lab. Printouts are eleven cents per page. Usually people pay with the cash stored on their student ID card, but I asked the attendant if they took cash. Naturally they didn’t so I proceeded to put exactly eleven cents on my card so I could turn around and print something. Well, the document ended up being three pages so I said “screw it” and proceeded to head back to the elevator. Ah, an elevator door was still open as if it were waiting for me. I picked up my pace and headed toward the elevator only to realize that it was about to close. As it was closing I extended my arm in order to stop the door from closing. At the end of said arm was my hand which was holding that cup of Starbuck’s coffee that I had purchased earlier. Quite to my surprise the doors did not reopen upon closing in on my coffee-dependent arm. I stood there for a moment and realized that I was holding a cup of coffee inside the elevator but the rest of my body was still in the lobby. Instead of freaking out I did the next logical thing and turned the coffee cup sideways in order to dislodge my hand, seemingly unaware of the consequence. It was split-second decision I had to make: loose the $17 cup of coffee or free my arm from a 1970’s-era elevator that lacked the necessary “don’t close on human body parts” safety feature that we all rely on to catch a last-second ride in a departing elevator. I made it back to my comfortable corner on the fourth floor and finished my reading. Surprisingly, the elevator attack was the highlight of my day and something that I can look back on and laugh about.
The moral of the story: just because elevator doors open for people's body parts in the movies doesn't mean that all steel jaws of death have the same respect for your extremities.
Posted by Will at 11:52 PM
September 26, 2005
This is Bulls Country
There's a good story in the Tampa Tribune today about this weekend's game with 9th-ranked Louisville where South Florida walked away from their Big East debut (!) with a 45-14 win.
Read the piece online here.
Posted by Will at 12:51 PM
September 25, 2005
Xavier and Dillard
I never bought into the overt racism accusations by some people in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, but I do believe that race will unfortunately play a role in the rebuilding of the New Orleans area, which is predominantly black. There is a story in today’s New York Times about Xavier and Dillard Universities, two historically black institutions that were each demolished during Katrina. As the article alludes, they are being overshadowed by the larger rebuilding process especially at Tulane and Loyola, two other much larger (and richer) New Orleans universities:
When most people think of higher education in New Orleans, they are more likely to think of Tulane or perhaps Loyola than Xavier and Dillard, two small historically black universities scrambling to get back on their feet. But in the parable of race and inequality left behind by the floodwaters, one chapter still to be written will be the fate of places like Dillard and Xavier, which suffered far worse damage than their wealthier counterparts on higher ground and have tiny endowments, limited resources and students who are almost all dependent on financial aid.
My point here is not that I believe Xavier and Dillard will be completely forgotten in the rebuilding process. They will rebuild like the other universities but it’s going to be especially hard for them given the generally smaller budgets and much smaller student population, most of which is on some sort of financial aid:
"I don't have an endowment I can take money from," said Dr. Norman C. Francis, the president of Xavier. "If I can't recover the money we expected for the first semester to pay faculty and staff and pay our bills, we're standing here naked. We have nothing. And what we're looking for now is the help we need so we won't be severely crippled in our ability to come back."
I am optimistic because from what I can tell universities from across the country have been very generous in their willingness to accept displaced students and otherwise help alleviate the strain that faces the 75,000 college and university students in the New Orleans area (Both Tulane and Loyola have extended the use of their facilities to Xavier in the event they aren't ready for the planned reopening in January). As with the countless small towns that Anderson Cooper never made it to, we cannot forget about the smaller, historically black institutions of higher education that have been destroyed and that may provide one of the only routes out of poverty for some.
Posted by Will at 11:58 AM
September 24, 2005
Graduate School Tip #38: Printing Stuff
I have learned a valuable lesson, but not the hard way. It was no news to me that I would be doing a large amount of reading in graduate school because a good part of training to be an archaeologist has to do with being acquainted with the enormous body of academic literature. This includes articles from academic journals and books that are available online through my friendly university library. The very first article I printed as a graduate student was about 50 pages and a few subsequent articles completely drained my first ink cartridge. Since ink is expensive and the free Dell ink jet that came with my laptop wasn’t “designed” for high-volume printing, I discovered the joys of online printing via FedEx-Kinko’s. The biggest benefit of printing through Kinko’s is that you don’t have to fight the on-campus computer lab crowds that consist of procrastinating undergraduates and clueless sorority girls who don’t know how to use a public printer (“um…I hit print, like, 30 times and it’s still not coming out”).
The tip is as follows: simply aggregate every journal article and printed document you know you will be reading over the course of the semester (sometimes a professor will do this for you and sell it in the bookstore as a reading packet). Use a full version of Adobe Acrobat to merge all of these files into one huge PDF file. Log on to the FedEx-Kinkos website, upload your document, and have it sent to your nearest store for pickup later that day. So far I’ve printed about 750 pages for the entire semester at a cost of under $50. I know I sound like a corporate bitch here but the FedEx-Kinkos thing really is great. I created my own account and will do all of my high-volume printing through them in the future. Thanks Kinko’s! [insert sparkling, plastic smile here]
Posted by Will at 04:09 PM
September 23, 2005
50 Most Cited Works
Boing Boing pointed me to a list of the most cited works in the Arts & Humanities Index from 1976-1983. Not surprisingly there were a couple of Chomsky entires as well as Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (the most cited work) which I had the pleasure of reading only last year as an undergraduate. Other notable entries include Being and Nothingness by Sarte (#29), and Levi-Strauss' The Savage Mind (#39). Although not necessarily a "best of" list, I'm willing to bet the books included were cited for a reason. I'll put them all on my "to read" list.
Posted by Will at 01:55 PM
September 22, 2005
Incredibly Preserved Mummies
Now this is Indiana Jones material: The Washington Post reports from Argentina that three highly preserved Peruvian mummies are at the center of a debate on whether or not to display them to the public in a museum. The photo that accompanies the story is eerie to say the least.
Posted by Will at 07:20 PM
I Have a Dirty Mind
It seems that I have finally decided what direction I want to take down the oft-exciting and adventurous road of archaeological inquiry (that’s a stupid way of saying I know what I want my master’s thesis to be about). My advisor and her husband, both Mesoamerican archaeologists at USF, direct a field school and do research at a Pre-Hispanic Maya site in Honduras. USF’s graduate program is in applied anthropology (one of the few in the country), which is one aspect that initially attracted me to USF in the first place. The prospect of doing archaeology and making a real-world different at the same time is what truly excites me about my current situation. The co-director of the Honduras field school mentioned that some of his research was in sustainable agriculture and how archaeological research could be used to inform contemporary farming practices in the region. Ever since I took undergraduate courses on South American Indians and Environmental Anthropology I have been fascinated with fishing and farming practices of indigenous peoples from thousands of years ago all the way to present day. To make a boring story short I realized last night (after a few beers, of course) that I was going to have the opportunity to research sustainable agriculture in Palmarejo. I’ll be developing my thesis over the next several months and will hopefully be carrying it out next summer.
Photo: Me getting my Milpa farming skills on.
Posted by Will at 01:13 PM
Dorky Blogger Fun
The following nerdy blog "game" is making its rounds and I couldn't resist (props to Pharyngula):
1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
Mine from June 17:
"For scientists bred to tolerate and even enjoy the often harsh conditions of field work, an anthropologist "forced" to serve in the Amazon reads like a cheesy joke, as the Times Online headline suggests."
You can follow this thing back a few posts. It'll be interesting to see how many "generations" it goes.
Posted by Will at 01:12 AM
September 20, 2005
I'm Still Alive
I’m not dead, just swimming under a sea of journal articles, hominid crania, and one bad anthropology text (as decided by my classmates and professor). I’m able to come up for air every few days in the form of a much-needed alcoholic beverage with some friends, but other than that I am starting to see what once was my social life drift slowly away like Tom Hanks’ “Wilson” in the film Castaway.
Posted by Will at 09:51 PM
September 16, 2005
The Failure of Creationism: Made for TV Movie
I can't be the first to notice this, but if there is ever a Lifetime Original movie about the dramatic failure of Creationism, the choice for the part of William Dembski is obvious:
Steve Buscemi as William Dembski:
I'm still trying to figure out who would play Paul Myers. Any ideas?
September 15, 2005
Playing the Game
Last week "Ivan Tribble" wrote another column at the Chronicle of Higher Education where he expounds on his first article that got many academic bloggers fired up. Quickly: the first article condemned blogging as at best a risky activity if one hopes to find a decent tenure-track position. He explained why making your thoughts and opinions available in such an easily accessible and universal medium as the internet is too much of a risk for potential job applicants and a liability for potential employers. One reason alluded to by Tribble is the compulsiveness of blogging: one can rant and rave in the heat of the moment and publish the results at the push of a button. Even if one decided to subsequently delete such a blog entry, search engines and archiving websites have already snagged a copy that can show up in internet searches down the road (for example if a hiring committee chooses to “Google” a job applicant).
Tribble clarifies himself in his second article but stops short of reversing himself. His overall tone was reduced from a condescending critique of academic bloggers to a friendly warning against publishing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like. He obviously heard the uproar created by his first column and responded accordingly and I find little to disagree with in his second piece, even thought I have the feeling he still views academic bloggers as dangerous to the institution of academia.
When I started Nomadic Thoughts a few months ago I did so with the full knowledge that anything I write could potentially be read by anyone in the world, including my graduate professors and colleagues. The very people that would be awarding me a master’s degree could very easily stumble upon this website by doing a Google search of “anthropology blogs” and browsing through a few links. Obviously that didn’t stop me because my motivations for becoming an anthropology blogger were such that I wouldn’t have to worry about what I published. Nomadic Thoughts isn’t a political blog so I really don’t have to worry about my political views coming back to haunt me if and when I decide to pursue a career in academia. Some of my posts are indeed prompted by my political views about a subject but only when they have something to do with anthropology, culture, or society.
Academic bloggers do indeed have to use a certain degree of discretion and self-censorship when publishing to the internet and not only because it could have a negative impact on one’s career. Most academic bloggers I read have tenured positions at universities so they do not necessarily have to watch what they say. Even so the likelihood of a controversial blog post getting them in trouble with the administration is slim unless the controversy crosses over into other media, such as the student newspaper or the local news. As someone who is contemplating a career in academic realm I am cognizant of the possibility of my blog posts now affecting my evaluation as long as ten years from now. That does not stop me from posting what I feel are valid opinions, political or otherwise.
Posted by Will at 03:13 PM
North Carolina hasn’t been washed away yet by Ophelia and relative to Katrina, they’re getting off pretty easy. Wilmington, home to my alma mater and my girlfriend, was hit today with high winds, rain, and some flooding. Classes have been cancelled since Monday. There’s lots of power out and downed trees but nothing major to speak of as far as I know. I find it ironic that as soon as I leave for one of the most hurricane-prone states in the nation my ex-state gets one head on. In four years at UNC-Wilmington I only experienced one significant hurricane and even then there was no mandatory evacuation in my area (the Outer Banks, on the other hand, are always evacuated). Simply put, I’ve been pushing my luck and I’m sure the moment I publish this post a ‘cane will start brewing in the Atlantic.
Posted by Will at 01:02 AM
September 14, 2005
Natural Law: A Realization in Class
Graduate school is starting to get good. Tonight in my seminar course we talked about, among other things, natural law and its role in the philosophical roots of anthropology (appropriately, our text is Adams’ The Philosophical Roots of Anthropology). Essentially, the notion of a natural law (whether it be divinely ordained or not) has been around for centuries even in the context of human society and culture. In other words Greek philosophers onward have always been wondering whether or not there are universal human governing principles that dictate how we act culturally and within society. A fair yet very broad definition of natural law would have it as the idea that there are universal rights and wrongs regardless of the basis of such universals and that societies act and progress within this framework. The book goes into much detail about the variants of natural law and how these have influenced the development of anthropological thought.
With that out of the way, I had one of those epiphanic moments that both delights and humbles the individual. In the course of attempting to digest and understand the rather dense material presented in Adams’ volume I didn’t get a chance to really contemplate the meaning of natural law and how it fits into my own personal worldview. I hope to expand on that here and explain why I believe that there is no such thing as a natural law, divine or otherwise.
My unbelief automatically precludes a divine source of natural law so that didn’t take much thought or deliberation. I was left with the possibility of a natural law whose source is nature itself or at least something not divine or supernatural. Therein lies the problem: roughly a third of a three-hour class meeting was devoted to discussing natural law and not even a vague idea of what its source may be was produced, if indeed natural law does exist. Adams had the same problem and avoided tackling the question presumably because there is no clear answer, as the history of debate surrounding natural law attests to. I was struck by the similarity between attempting to define natural law coherently and attempting to explain the existence of God coherently: it can’t be done. There are inherent contradictions and circular reasoning that cannot be escaped. I realized that natural law was impossible and that human beings are governed by nothing more than their own free will and the environments in which they live.
I voiced my opinion in class to little reaction because I feel we were becoming quite fatigued with the issue, but it did resonate with at least one of my colleagues who followed up with me during the break. I explained to her that I am beginning to view natural law as a religion in itself with its own set of contradictions and inescapable circle of reason (as I mentioned above). Some might argue that opposition to murder and an incest taboo are cultural universals. Indeed they appear to be but I reject the notion that they have any sort of underlying chain of continuity connecting them to all societies. I reject natural law for a number of reasons but I will mention only the most important now because my brain is tired. First and foremost, to subscribe to natural law is to deny the ingenuity, uniqueness, and free will of all human beings. Just as I don’t believe that a supernatural deity had anything to do with the creation of the earth and its inhabitants so I don’t believe that we as a species are governed by a similarly ethereal notion of natural law.
September 13, 2005
Crime on University Campuses spikes at the beginning of each semester, study shows. University officials baffled.
Ever since the invention of the printing press colleges and universities have been ripping off students with textbooks. OK, maybe not that early but it has been a time-honored tradition to charge ridiculous amount of money for seemingly inconsequential reading materials. I have had friends who were charged as much as $200 for a single volume with accompanying compact disc or other supplemental material. Here at USF, one of the cashiers at the bookstore was telling me their most expensive book this semester was a Spanish text ringing in at about $175. And we have all seen the “textbooks” that university bookstores sell that aren’t even bound together; they’re simply a shrink-wrapped stack of pages masquerading as a required reading. The most expensive book I’ve purchased in the past four years has been Fundamentals of Physical Education for the basic Phys. Ed. course required of all undergraduates at UNC-Wilmington. That book was around $80 and was softcover, spiral-bound, and consisted mostly of tear-out worksheets that we had to turn in weekly. A racket for two reasons: you could not sell back the used textbook and it was co-authored by one or two P.E. faculty at UNCW. Therein lies conflict of interest that so many students have complained about over the years: professors assigning their own books for required reading in their courses.
The Daily Pennsylvanian has this story today about this issue and cites a handful of examples, including Robert Sharer using his The Ancient Maya for an anthropology course. Perhaps I’m a little bias because I study Mesoamerican archaeology myself but Sharer’s book is pretty much the definitive volume on the Ancient Maya. It’s huge, almost 900 pages, but I found it new on Amazon.com for a little over $20 last year. Most books are much cheaper on such sites as well as off-campus stores as opposed to an on-campus bookstore so it must be granted that there are options for students. The article describes how some students see a conflict of interest with professors assigning their own books but one author makes the point that sometimes they really have written the most useful material for their uniquely-designed course.
I’m not so much bothered by the perceived conflict of interest as I am of the obviousness of the racket that publishers and universities have. They knowledgeably sell grossly-overpriced material to consumers who traditionally have a limited income (if none at all) and then turn around and give them much less during buyback at the end of the semester. Granted, many times a volume is so obscure that the cost of printing a few hundred copies for a university will jack up the price considerably but more often than not I see flimsy paperbacks and pencil-thin hardcovers selling for much more than other outlets are charging.
Posted by Will at 08:51 AM
September 11, 2005
Religion Majors on the Rise
My father sent me this article that reports on a recent increase in undergraduate religion majors and an overall increase in students taking religion courses:
A report from the American Academy of Religion said that the number of religion majors increased 26 percent from 1996 through 2000 and that total enrollment in religion classes rose 15 percent.
As I started reading I thought of why I decided to take on a religion major in addition to anthropology and almost prophetically (no pun intended) the article said:
Professors cite three possible reasons for the increases: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spurred many students to learn about Islam and their own religions; recent immigration has made Americans more curious about their new neighbors' faiths; and Christian evangelical students seem more comfortable studying religion on campus.
The first two reasons are what got me interested in religious studies. As I've mentioned on Nomadic Thoughts before, the 9/11 attacks had a profound impact on me not only emotionally but intellectually as well. I had the sudden desire to try and understand what happened instead of just sit back and run my mouth as so many people have done since. 9/11 happened around the time I lost what little faith I had so having the opportunity to expand my understanding seemed only logical.
One reason the number of religion majors has not risen even higher, professors say, is that many students and their parents worry they won't be able to get good jobs with the degree.
That's why anthropology was my first major...
Posted by Will at 11:42 AM
September 10, 2005
The Socialization of an Anthropologist
The party last night was fun and much-needed. I was finally about to socialize with the many colleagues that I’ve met over the past two weeks. The Mesoamerican archaeologists (the few of us that there are) sort of naturally gravitated together where we shared war stories, gossiped about the field antics of the professors, and even took some cheap shots at sociology. At the end of the night I walked away more convinced of the fact that archaeologists really do have the most fun out of all the subfields. Rebut if you wish but there’s no denying it. By the way, I went with Amstel Light and I wasn’t the only one. Tonight I’m supposed to go downtown to Tampa’s Cuban district, Ybor City, with my new friends but I have the distinct feeling that the hundreds of pages of reading I still have to do before next week’s classes wont read themselves. As a student of anthropology I have a valid excuse: “I’s just doin’ me an ethno-graphy.”
Posted by Will at 05:36 PM
September 09, 2005
There is an anthropology party tonight, my first as a Bull. I’m still contemplating what kind of beer to bring because I have to make a good first “social” impression (I’ve already made my “academic” impression). Bud Light or Miller Light would seem to frat boy-ish and might diminish my chances of being perceived as an intelligent person who is able to carry on a coherent conversation in the presence of alcohol. At the same time bringing something like Newcastle, Negra Modelo, or Red Stripe would be cliché (at an archaeological conference I went to back in ’03 I doubt there was a bottle of Newcastle left in the entire city of Charlotte). Bass is one of my favorite beers but the high quality of it might give the wrong impression as well (i.e. I'm better than you because I drink Bass ale). I have concluded that I must go import but avoid the obvious. Ideally, at an anthropology party everyone would drink a beer from their geographic area of interest but unfortunately stores don’t import Belikin, the “Beer of Belize." I am thinking of going with Dos Equis. It sticks to my general geographic area of interest (Mesoamerica) but doesn't come across as pretentious. I'll let you know how it goes.
Posted by Will at 03:02 PM
September 08, 2005
Two down, fourteen to go
Week two of graduate school has come and gone and I’m left with a few preliminary observations. First, a university roughly three times the size as one’s undergraduate institution will have an exponentially greater amount of automobile traffic at any given time. That being said, I predict that the market for new and used vehicles in the region of Tampa Bay will collapse within five to ten years because by that time every citizen will own at least one car, many times two to three vehicles. Late this afternoon I got the bright idea to go to the recreation center on campus and work out. I left at about 5:20 and got back to my apartment complex at about 6:05. The humorous thing is that I never left my car or entered the rec center. I got so fed up with the traffic that by the time I got to campus I decided to turn around and go back. I had already wasted what little free time I did have today driving to my destination. I did however discover my complex’s fitness center, which I had all to myself for the duration of my Stairmaster workout. Unfortunately this means that I’m giving up on the rec center for the time being not reaping the benefits of my student fees. Besides, the rec center doesn’t have a resort-style pool right outside the window that provides some pleasant scenery (that usually walks away before my workout is over).
Another observation I made over the past two weeks is that I’ll be using more printer ink and paper in one semester than I have in the past four years of undergraduate work. It’s not that I’m writing that much more (yet) but I have reserve readings that are in some cases entire chapters of books. My little Dell printer has been getting a workout and at $35 a cartridge, black ink is my black gold. Oddly enough, Dell is the only manufacturer of compatible cartridges.
September 06, 2005
Last Katrina post, I promise
As I feel many people are in the country I am starting to get “hurricane fatigue” in that I’m simply tired of talking about the week-old natural disaster, the mind-numbingly depressing aftermath, and the implications of it all. It’s what I’ve thought about the most over the past week and watched the most of on television. I must embarrassingly admit that the best field coverage on the usually integrity-challenged cable news networks came from FOX’s Shepherd Smith. A bit emotional at times but I simply cannot help but applaud his constant frustration at the whole situation which came to a head when he blew up during a live exchange with Bill O’Reilly on The Factor. I hereby nominate Shepherd and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin as our next presidential administration. But I digress.
Tonight in my master’s pro-seminar course we talked a bit about Katrina in terms of progressivism, an anthropological theory that has society and culture progressing forward. At its extreme, progressivism holds (or held) that non-white races are in a lower stage of development that Europeans and that the latter is not necessarily the end of social progression but that were at least far more advanced artistically, intellectually and culturally. This really got me thinking.
Going back to Katrina I have written how much has been made of the fact that very little was done in the initial response to the subsequent flooding and displacement (and ultimately death) of thousands of Americans. There is a degree of progressivist thought that is very much alive today and that resulted in our being caught off guard by the aftermath of Katrina. By this I mean that traditionally the United States views itself as more advanced and thus somehow superior to most, if not all, other nations. While we do have the most powerful military and strongest infrastructure in the world our realization of this is simply out of control. This is nothing new. In the years following World War II Americans were indoctrinated with the idea that we were inherently better than other countries and that because we are able to help so many other nations we must constantly pat ourselves on the back. The obviousness of this doctrine has subsided a bit but the seed that was planed back then has sprouted and resulted in pure, unadulterated arrogance.
When we were hit below the belt on September 11th, we had an excuse: the Muslim world was jealous of us and our freedom and everything that we represented. Therefore, we must rise from the ashes of the World Trade Centers and show that we will not let our freedom fall at the hands of a few religious fundamentalists that don’t share our values. When Katrina hit we had no one to blame that resided outside the borders of the United States and thus outside of our comfort zone of a supremely-endowed way of life. Even 9/11 couldn’t do that because we had that outside entity to blame. We were caught completely off guard and for the first time in many years we became aware of our own vulnerability. All we could do as a nation is watch in horror as our own government failed us at many different levels. To an extent this could be said of 9/11: some “saw it coming” and could thus blame the government for lack of action, but Al Qaeda’s attack didn’t have the same visual obviousness as Katrina. We were one hundred percent sure that Katrina was going to attack the United States and that devastation would ensue.
Posted by Will at 11:12 PM
September 05, 2005
From the Outside Looking In
You know the Katrina situation is bad when people from third-world countries are shocked at the federal and local response (quotes taken from different parts of this Reuters story):
"I feel very sad about the situation in New Orleans at this time. It looks like a conflict in Africa. The U.S. as a superpower should have done more to solve the situation," said Edith Thompson, a restaurant owner in the capital Monrovia.
"The slow pace in response we have seen after Katrina was due to institutional constraints. I don't buy the racial line. I can liken bureaucracy to asking an elephant to do gymnastics," he said.
"For them as a great nation, I was surprised by the looting. You expect people to pull together," said George Sempa, a telecoms worker in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
"The floods in the U.S. are a natural event that transcends America's power. Despite all their technology and money, they weren't able to do much," said Samba Thiam, a student in the Senegalese capital Dakar where the worst flooding in 20 years have brought chaos in the last few weeks.
"It is not enough to have a warning system. You need to sensitize people to take warnings seriously. Tell them: 'Forget your attachments, you need to get out."
There's much debate happening about the shortcoming in government response to those affected by the hurricane, but it's easy to loose sight of the fact that the United States is and has been for a long time looked up to by many other nations (why I'll never know). They look up to our culture in general and try to emulate it by wearing American clothes, listening to American music, and devouring American television and films. On a more profound level, it seems to me that these same nations revere the infrastructure that allowed us to take care of our own people like other nations could not. This is the biggest reason why I think the handling of Katrina is a worldwide embarrassment. I'm not one to care about superficial appearances but how does it "make us look" when a country as arrogant as the United States completely fails to respond to a natural disaster within its own borders? If 9/11 and now Katrina fails to humble us as a nation, what the hell is it going to take? The story quoted above is a reminder that Americans live in a bullet-proof bubble that cannot be burst by the worst diasters.
Posted by Will at 12:15 PM
September 02, 2005
More on Katrina and Anthropology
I received an e-mail today from a fellow grad student about a professor at the University of Texas who is initiating an informal response from the academic community regarding Hurricane Katrina and what, if anything, different disciplines could contribute. He initially posed this invitation to his grad students at Texas but it made its way to USF anthropoplogy listserv so I was prompted to build on my previous post about Katrina and the possibility of an anthropological perspective. The following is what I submitted.
It is not immediately obvious what, if anything, the field of archaeology can offer to the understanding of and response to the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are after all concerned with the material remains of past cultures and societies. In one disturbing sense any academic endeavor carried out in the immediate disaster area will ultimately be a study of a past society. Archaeologists several hundred years from now may excavate in New Orleans and be able to correlate data with historical accounts of a great flood that happened back in AD 2005. It is unknown what conclusions they may draw.
In a broader context, the field of anthropology has much to offer to the study and documentation of Katrina. One news reporter spoke of a “leveling effect” whereby every private citizen within the disaster area suddenly became equal: all had lost virtually everything. Money no longer held any value and one could no longer be judged by their material possessions. It is obvious however that an overwhelming majority of those “left behind” were of the lowest economic class in the country before the storm. They simply did not have the means to evacuate the city when the government demanded it. These people were herded into the Louisiana Superdome like cattle to ride out the storm only to emerge on the other side as headless chickens. Government officials initially did little to displace the survivors from the area after the hurricane had passed. Indeed there was little that could be done in such a devastating aftermath. Looters practiced their trade with callous indifference to law and order while others had no choice but to participate just to survive.
The dynamics of the entire situation beg for anthropological insight. Overnight the Superdome was transformed into a new society with new rules and new survival tactics. New Orleans was no longer and its former citizens found themselves facing the challenges of a lawless, third world nation. This was a unique situation in which people who had very little to begin with had even less. How did they react, adjust, and cope with this new social environment? What effect did cramming twenty thousand people into a concrete structure have on the mentality of these people? Surely exhaustion, devastation, frustration, and confusion were the most prevalent. However I feel there was something less obvious going on inside the walls of the Superdome. With little social order to speak of and even less infrastructure guiding the actions of the survivors, what knowledge and abilities did they put into use over the past several days? How did they deal with unrest? These are anthropological questions whose answers can serve a purpose. That purpose make become more obvious in the coming weeks and months but it is safe to conclude at this point that by studying how the people affected by the hurricane reacted and acted will be integral to planning for similar future situations.
Posted by Will at 11:48 PM
Guest Bloggers at Savage Minds
I am excited to learn that Savage Minds has brought on two guest anthropologists-bloggers, Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz. They each have a pretty impressive background as evidenced by Rex's introduction. My interest in them has to do with Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History, a book they co-wrote partly in response to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. As many of you know, a debate raged a few weeks ago about Diamond and GG&S in the wake of the PBS/National Geographic television special with the same name. Some Savage Minds writers were highly involved in that debate so it will be interesting to see the results of adding yet another qualified opinion. I look forward to Drs. Errington's and Gewertz's posts.
Previously on Nomadic Thoughts:
More on the Guns, Germs, and Steel Special on PBS
GG&S Episode One Review
GG&S Episode Two Review
My psuedo-interview with Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel: Final Review and Analysis
GG&S Debate Heats Up
Posted by Will at 04:09 PM