Apps for refugees

The “Ankommen” app from the Goethe Institute

A newly created app, “Finding Home”, created by the advertising firm Grey Malaysia, together with the United Nations, gives some insight into what refugees experience, allowing users, according to the AP, to “walk a mile in a refugee’s shoes” by simulating the daily struggles of a fictional Rohingya Muslim, 16-year old “Kathijah,” forced to flee her home in Myanmar and striving to set up a new life in Malaysia. Through the app, users simulate her experience by peeking in on Kathijah’s phone conversations.

For real-life refugees, using phones for communication and for cultural integration can be a real lifeline. I’m currently writing a piece for Language Learning & Technology on smartphones (given the 10th anniversary this year of the iPhone) in which I discuss this topic:

While language learning may not be an issue of central importance in the lives of many of our students, learning a second language, along with the cultural framework that comes with it, is a matter of crucial importance to one population – migrants and refugees. For these groups, mobile phones are a powerful instrument in potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) situations, as reported by the European Union Institute for Security Studies:

Migrants are linking up online to cross borders and meet their basic needs. They are using smartphones to share tips and geo-positional data as they cross North Africa. They rank and rate Afghan people-smugglers, trying to hold the criminals accountable for the safe transport of family members. On Google they share tips, such as to avoid exploitative Istanbul taxi drivers or evade new EU border controls.

The kind of device migrants use will vary with the individual and place of origin. One account has shown that among young Syrian refugees, 86% owned a smartphone. A number of mobile apps have been developed by NGOs and government agencies to help migrants in a variety of areas, including language learning, cultural integration, and practical day-to-day living. Some apps aid in the process of migrants making their way through intermediate countries to their final destination. InfoAid helps refugees in Hungary, while Gherbtna is aimed at Syrians newly arrived in Turkey. The Mobile Legal Info Source helps navigate Turkey’s legal system. The Crisis Info Hub offers support for new arrivals in Greece.

In Germany, the hoped-for destination of many refugees, a number of apps have been created targeting the immigrant population. The Goethe Institute, along with federal agencies dealing with immigration and employment, have created “Ankommen” (Arrival), available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, and German. As do other such apps, it is designed with minimal technical requirements, so as to be usable on older phones. It features three branched areas: German language study, German asylum procedures, and tips on living in Germany. Integreate offers a similar service for refugees in Germany. It’s available in five languages and features information specific to one of the 80 German cities targeted. Daheim (At Home) offers a meeting platform for new arrivals and German natives, designed for language learning and intercultural exchange. The ReDi School of Digital Integration in Berlin is developing “Bureaucrazy” to help refugees make their way through German bureaucracy, featuring language help and practical information on filling out forms in German. The school also has started a program teaching refugees how to code and create mobile apps.

Of course, not all refugees have smartphones, but we are seeing costs coming down dramatically for Android phones. At the same time, feature phones are becoming “smarter”, with features that used to be reserved for expensive smartphones. As those developments continue, it is likely that phones will represent an ever greater lifeline for those finding their way to a new home and for those seeking resources to help them establish a footing linguistically and culturally in their new homes. Vice news has a recent story on this topic.

Big changes

Here in Richmond, we saw amazing shifts in the weather last week, after 8-9 inches of snow (20-22 cm) on Saturday, the temperature dropped to 0° F. (-18° C.) early in the week, but then went up to 68° F. (20° C.) on Thursday. That big change, however, pales in comparison to the political change we will be experiencing in the US this week, with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The two men could hardly be more different in temperament, bearing, and convictions. As many have commented, the big concern many have voiced in the Trump presidency is not only in the kinds of new laws which may emerge, but also in the example that he represents in terms of acceptance of people different from himself, in race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or ableness. In my classes on intercultural communication, we talk about the importance of having leaders who are tolerant and counter-act stereotyping. Given the high profile and influence of the US President, the danger is that the attitudes in evidence in the White House may shape the views of the young and impressionable. In a country on its way to becoming minority white, that development is troublesome.

A big change is coming to the press in the US as well. That was clearly in evidence in the Trump press conference last week, which was highly adversarial. As he has done in the past, Trump deflected questions on topics that put him in a bad light, while using props (in this case stacks of folders) to assert the reality of his positions. He is not someone who is bothered by fact-checking – he simply makes up his own facts and ignores stories which expose his twisting of the truth. He exemplifies our post-factual political world. This makes the job of the press during the Trump presidency both more difficult and more important. It was announced today that the White House press corps may be moved outside the White House, allowing for additional kinds of press to be represented, including bloggers and reality show hosts. We are likely in the next four years to be bombarded with greatly contrasting press reports on what’s going on in Washington, D.C., making it all the more important for US citizens to engage in critical assessment of information sources.

Last night my wife and I attended a concert by folk singer Greg Brown, a terrific song writer and story teller. He ended with a song about the transition, with the refrain “Trump you won’t get this” after listing the things important to him such as love, music, and family. It may be that many Americans will respond to developments out of Washington with a turn inward. That’s understandable, but it’s good to remember President Obama’s comments in his farewell speech last week, namely that in a democracy the most important position is not the leader of the government but the citizen.

As we grow older, it’s more difficult for a lot of us to accept big changes. Part of that may be physical, as Greg Brown sang in the concert last night in relation to bones:

Trump President “because of me”

Example of fake news spread by social media

Example of fake news spread by social media: Pope endorses Trump

An article today in the Washington Post features Paul Horner, who apparently makes a good living off of posting fake news on Facebook and other online services. Of the many posts, some appeared as news on Google, such as the Amish committing to vote for Trump. In the interview, he prided himself on the effect his fake stories had on the election:

My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.

The irony is that Horner asserts in the interview that he “hates Trump” – he assumed, he says, that his stories would be fact-checked, but clearly that didn’t happen. Since the election there have been a number of stories on the influence of fake news on the outcome, particular on Facebook, although similar comments could be make about Twitter. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories actually generated more likes and total engagement than real news stories.

It’s not just that people are misled by fake news, it’s also the case that the skepticism that fake news has engendered has led to distrust of news media in general, something that was quite apparent in the presidential election campaign, as discussed in an article in the New York Times today. As President Obama commented in a press conference in Berlin yesterday, the high volume of “active misinformation” makes it difficult to know what to believe, and, in the long run, can endanger democracy.

Many folks were shocked by the election of Donald Trump, in part because of social media reinforcing their already-held convictions that Hillary Clinton was certain to win. The “echo chamber” of the Internet seems to be particularly strong when it comes to politics, feeding user stories that online clicking and browsing habits and algorithmic analysis has indicated you want to see. A story in the Wall Street Journal, “Blue Feed, Red Feed” shows how different the information provided was for those Facebook users identified as Democrat (blue) from those profiled as Republican (red).

It seem that it’s more important than ever for us all to become informed and critical consumers of news and to try to seek out ways to break out of our personal bubbles and get different perspectives on what’s happening in our world. It’s also important to be engaged enough in what’s going on to vote in elections. A story today in the local media here in Richmond reported that, ironically, 5 of the 12 students arrested last week for blocking a highway while protesting the election of Trump had not voted.

Brexit: Turning inward

brexit2There are many ramifications of the vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union. Most of the attention has gone to the possible economic consequences through the UK’s loss of access to the EU single market. Of course, it’s likely that special trade deals between the UK and the EU will be negotiated, possibly along the lines of existing relationships between the EU and Switzerland or other non-EU countries like Norway, but the uncertainty over how and when that will be worked out has worried markets and companies doing business in the UK. Uncertainty exists as well in respect to the status of foreigners currently in the EU. No longer being an EU member brings to an end not only the free movement of goods but also that of people. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has a record of have a tough stance on immigration. There are already some indications that anti-immigrant attitudes are now being more publically expressed, as the Brexit vote seems to signal that such views are now mainstream in the UK, and therefore able to be voiced openly. It remains to be seen whether such voiced sentiments will result in violence against foreigners.

There has been less media attention paid to the cultural and educational consequences of Brexit. One concern for universities is the likelihood that UK scholars and students will no longer be able to participate in EU programs and projects, at least not with the same full access as EU member states. Much of the research done in recent years in an area I am interested in, educational technology, has been driven by funding from EU grant programs. In fact, in my experience with EU colleagues, it has been difficult to get them on board with any kind of teaching or research project that did not involve EU funding. Being out of the EU is likely to mean UK scholars will be as much on the outside as those from the US. The situation for students is similar, with the potential exclusion from the widely popular Erasmus exchange program, which has made it easy for students from EU countries to spend a semester or more at a university in another EU country, with full credit towards their degrees. There are numerous other EU arts and culture programs as well.

The Brexit vote is symptomatic of a worrying trend towards nationalism, accompanied frequently by xenophopia, a distrust of globalization, and a feeling that one’s own culture must be defended from all outside influences. This is by no means limited to the UK. We’ve seen similar sentiments expressed in the US presidential campaign as well as in political developments in Western Europe and elsewhere. Excluding other cultures from enriching a national culture is a sign that that culture is likely to be stagnant and in decline. As a visitor to the UK, I would much regret the absence of Indian influences on British food culture – it would be sad indeed to have to rely only on fish and chips and shepherd pie.

Miss Japan: Is she Japanese?

Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto

Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto

The recently crowned Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, is an unusual beauty queen selection for Japan, as she is hafu, or mixed-race Japanese, having an African-American father and a Japanese mother. After she won the contest, according to a recent NY Times article, some people posted messages criticizing the judges for selecting someone who didn’t look Japanese. However, more Japanese had positive things to say about the selection

Ms. Miyamoto grew up in Japan, where she says other children often shunned her because of her darker skin and tightly curled hair. That experience has driven her to use her pageant victory as a soapbox for raising awareness about the difficulties faced by mixed-race citizens in a country that still regards itself as mono-ethnic. “Even today, I am usually seen not as a Japanese but as a foreigner. At restaurants, people give me an English menu and praise me for being able to eat with chopsticks,” said Ms. Miyamoto, who spoke in her native Japanese and is an accomplished calligrapher of Japanese-Chinese characters. “I want to challenge the definition of being Japanese.” Her self-proclaimed mission has raised eyebrows at a time when race relations are receiving new scrutiny in Japan, which had long seen itself as immune to the ethnic tensions of the United States.

Japan is usually portrayed as an extremely homogenous culture, with age-old traditions characterizing the way of life. In fact, there are still few immigrants, as the government keeps tight restrictions on the flow of immigrants into the country. As the article indicates, Japan’s relative diversity comes from the ethnically mixed children of marriages between Japanese and foreigners, which is a small but growing population. Ms. Miyamoto’s father was a sailor in the US Navy and returned to the US soon after Ariana was born. She reports that she had to endure many taunts growing up, with other children and even parents called her “kurombo,” the Japanese equivalent of the N-word. It remains to be seen whether having Ariana represent Japanese beauty will contribute to changing views on what it means to be Japanese as well as to people with dark skin becoming more accepted in Japanese society.

Irish in Ireland

Talk-IrishI’m in Limerick, Ireland for a conference and have just been watching Irish TV (RTE 1) which was broadcasting live a session from the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas, meeting in Dublin. The Members were giving condolence speeches following the death of 5 Irish students and one Irish-American in Berkeley, California, when a balcony in an apartment collapsed during a party celebrating a 21st birthday party. A couple of things struck me. One was the fact that a number of the members spoke in both English and Irish. Irish is the national and first official language of Ireland but it is spoken natively by only 5 to 10% of the population here. In certain areas within Ireland, there is a much higher percentage of speakers. But the members speaking in Irish were not all from those areas, and certainly not all, judging from their accents and hesitancy in speaking Irish, were native speakers of the language. In fact, Irish has been on the rise in recent years here, with a number of elite schools in Dublin offering immersive instruction in Irish. Traditional music sung in Irish is a booming industry. Similarly, in Wales, and Scotland, the Celtic languages there, namely Welsh and Gaelic, are thriving, which has long been the case in Wales. Unfortunately, the last native speaker of Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, died in 1974. But there have been substantial, and largely successful revival efforts. So, why were the Members of the Irish Parliament speaking Irish? I assume it’s because Irish has such a strong symbolic and national significance in Ireland, as an important aspect of Irish identity. Given that, it’s no surprise that politicians here would find it important, especially at a time of national tragedy, to speak Irish as a gesture of solidarity.

Another thing that surprised me in the TV coverage of the tragedy in Berkeley was the mention of “J1” visas, the work-exchange visas the Irish students were on. This came up incidentally by Members and others interviewed without any explanation of what a J1 visa is. Apparently, it is so common for Irish college students to go to the US to work or study in the summer (especially in the Bay area of California) that no explanation for Irish viewers was needed. In fact, the Irish Ambassador, talking about the tragedy, mentioned how sad it was that this had happened “at the beginning of the season”, namely the season of Irish students going over to the US. Of course, there is a long tradition of the Irish coming to the US, including the mass migration during the potato famine of the 19th century. During the session of the Parliament, there was mention of the “Minister for the Diaspora”. That there is such a minister in the Irish government is a telling statement of how many Irish and their descendants live outside the island.

The brings me around to another language note, namely the use of the term “Plastic Paddy”, to refer pejoratively to those outside Ireland claiming (unjustly or not) to be Irish, but not having any real knowledge of or experience with actual Irish culture. Paddy is a diminutive form of Padraic (“Patrick”). According to Wikipedia, “This is a reaction to and defiance of the diaspora-based celebration and increasing commercialisation and sponsorship of St. Patrick’s Day as being demeaning to the Irish. It can also be used in a derogative term for Irish people who support English football teams; while Irish journalists have used the term to characterise Irish bars in Sydney as inauthentic and with the ‘minimum of plastic paddy trimmings’.” This identification with a group to which one has only a tenuous relationship is sometimes called “symbolic ethnicity”. It brings to mind something else in the news recently, namely the controversy around the white woman, Rachel Dolezal, who headed up a local branch of the NAACP, and who identified herself as African-American. I’ll save that for a later post.

Surprising Iowa


Students at Des Moines North High School

I have been spending time over this Thanksgiving break with family in Iowa. It’s a state with a strong farm tradition and where traditional values have s strong foothold. My children growing up always looked forward to visiting Iowa, as they could count on things not changing radically from one visit to the next. Yet Iowa can surprise. It was one of the first states to make gay marriage legal. In terms of demography, Iowa is not known for its diversity. But an article in the Des Moines Register this week pointed to significant shifts in the population which mirror the demographic trends in the U.S., where for the first time white students are in the minority in U.S. public schools:

A model of this new American student diversity is right under our noses, which might surprise people outside Iowa. In Des Moines, the public school system has been “minority majority” since 2011. National Journal discovered this last month, writing that the school district could be a “model for urban schools” in blending students that speak 100 different languages and dialects and come from Myanmar, Mexico, Thailand and more than 20 other countries.

The article chronicles how schools in Des Moines are dealing with the needed increase in English language instruction. That lack of English proficiency has led to overall lower scores on standardized tests. The principal of the Des Moines North High School had a refreshingly positive view of the changes in the student population:

“We represent the world,” said Des Moines North High School Principal Michael Vukovich. “It’s an advantage. We don’t have to leave the U.S. to learn about different countries. We have all those cultures in our hallways…We don’t focus on proficiency as much as growth. Assessment tests are a weak predictor of success.”

The Des Moines school district is unusual in Iowa in terms of diversity. The state is predominantly rural, and, as in other rural areas of the U.S.,  there is less ethnic diversity than in urban areas, while the politics tends to trend conservative. In fact, politically, Iowa has had an interesting mix of progressive and conservative elected officials. It was the state that gave Barack Obama the initial boost he needed to win the Democratic primary in 2008. In the recent election, however, Iowa went a different way, replacing one of the most progressive U.S. Senators, Tom Harkin, with a political newcomer, Joni Ernst. She made a splash in the early days of the campaign by touting her farm experience castrating pigs, which she said would be helpful in “cutting pork” in Washington, D.C. Although she focused her campaign on her Iowa farm roots, critics have pointed to the variety of far-right views and conspiracy theories she has embraced in the past. After her election, she commented that she was looking forward to going to Washington and “making them squeal”. Let’s hope that she learns from the experience of the Des Moines school district, that it’s possible to work together with people different from you in fundamental ways, and that it would be good to shift her rhetoric from castration to cooperation. Maybe barn raising would be a good farm symbol for what the U.S. political system needs today.

Not the nanny!

lam-bright-family-photoThe latest installment of the NPR “Code-Switch” series had an interesting segment on multi-racial families in the U.S this week.  Such families have become much more common, with 15 % of marriages being interracial or inter-ethnic, but that doesn’t means they are universally accepted. The story highlights the experiences of a couple with an African-American father, a Vietnamese mother, and two children.  The mom recounts that when she her daughter to a local park, she was ignored by the other moms or was asked if she were the nanny and if it was ok with the family that she spoke Vietnamese to her charge.  The encounters inspired the mom, Thien Kim Lam, to create a blog called I’m not the nanny. The article points out that more and more interracial families are touting their mixed heritage as a positive thing. Surveys in the U.S. show that that over 2/3 of Americans would accept multiracial marriages in their families.

It’s not always easy for the children in biracial families.  Thien Kim Lam recalls that when her daughter was 2, she threw a tantrum because her skin wasn’t fair like her mom’s and her hair was curly. The take-away for the mom was that it’s a good idea to talk about race and to make them aware of their special status: “Teaching them their Vietnamese culture, but then I also reiterate that they’re American. That’s what makes them American; that they have this great mix of cultures.”

Turks in Germany

turksInteresting piece today on NPR on the changing situation of Turkish “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) in Germany today.  These are workers who were brought to Germany in the 1960’s with the expectation that they would go back home after a few years.  But instead, the Turkish workers stayed in Germany and brought their families to join them – jobs were much better paid in Germany and the political situation in Turkey was unsettled. Today there are 2nd and 3rd generation German-Turks, who often stand between two cultures. The report indicates that increasing numbers of Turks are going back to Turkey.  In contrast to the economic problems in the European Union, the Turkish economy is doing well.  The earlier Turkish ardor for entering the EU has cooled considerably.

Another aspect of that movement back to Turkey has to do with the attitude changes in Germany (and Europe generally) since the economic downturn of the past few years.  Racism and islamophobia have increased, as jobs become harder to come by.  In Germany a group of neo-nazis murdered Turks over a period of several years.  This has led to much questioning in Germany about police lack of interest and/or competence in fighting violence against foreigners from far right groups.

One of the interesting twists in the story about Turks returning to their home land is the reverse culture shock described by one of the young returnees, who had gotten used to the sense of order in Germany society:  “He was surprised to find a Germanic desire for order welling up in him one day while walking down Istanbul’s teeming downtown thoroughfare, with masses of people jostling this way and that. ‘You know, I can’t understand why all the people are walking like this! And one day I was nearly to cry, “Stop! You go right and you go left!”, ‘ he says.” .Anyone experiencing everyday German life quickly sees the real life acting out of the German saying Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

Boston bombers: Internet’s role


Chechen fighters on the streets of the capital, Grozny, in January 1995 (Wikipedia)

How do you figure out who you are?  Obviously a complex process with input from a lot of different directions – family, school, friends, religious faith, meditation, work, online roles, and more – with which goes into the mix to create our persona different for each individual .  For a lot of people what they perceive as their home culture can have a powerful influence on shaping how they see themselves.  This may be the case even if the connection to that culture is remote and tenuous.  Since the Boston Marathon bombing there was been a lot of speculation about the relationship of the Tsarnaev brothers, the suspected bombers, to their home land of Chechnya. In a recent article in The Economist, the Brothers’ difficulty in accommodating to life in the U.S. (more so for the older of the two), may have lead them to seek “mental refuge” in their home culture (and possibly religion).

With the exception of a recent visit by the older brother to the region, most of that contact with the culture appears to have come through Web sites and online chats.  According to the article, “The internet and social networks that served as a channel created an illusion of engagement without experience or memory. The brothers never fought in the Chechen wars or lived in Chechnya for any length of time. Yet their lives and their sensibilities seem to have collided with its violent and tragic history.” The target they selected (the United States), apparently at least in some part out of loyalty to their cultural heritage, seems strangely at odds with the Chechen patriots on the home ground.  The latter fought the perceived (and real) repressor of Chechen rights and freedoms:  Russia. Could it be that the Internet today serves as an amplifier and, at times, a distorter of a culture’s views and values?

Boston bombers: Not Czechs

chechnyaWe don’t as yet know much about the motivation of the accused Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, but it does seem certain that they had no connection to the Czech Republic, the EU member country in central Europe, formed from the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, along with Slovakia. Chechens are an ethnic group from the North Caucasus region in Russia. Given Americans’ notorious ignorance of geography, it may come as no surprise that the Chechen brothers were quickly identified as “Czechs”. There is a long list of tweets, Facebook messages and even news reports that attack the “Czech” terrorists and call for a reprisal attack against “Czechoslovakia”. The Czech ambassador had to issue a clarification about who Czechs were. There’s speculation that the Brothers were Muslim extremists, with some evidence that the older brother’s views had in fact recently been moving in that direction.  Ironically, the Czechs are one of the least religious peoples in the world, with the largest faith, Roman Catholicism, followed by just 10% of the population.

There are many U.S, Americans with Czech roots and festivals celebrating Czech-American heritage. There are far fewer Chechens in the US., partly because of immigration quotas but also due to concerns since 9/11 about immigrants from Muslim countries where there are active extremist elements. Is it really a problem that Americans misidentified the cultural origins of the bombers?  Many of those posting the misinformation didn’t think so, responding, when the error was pointed out, that it was all the same, after all, weren’t they all Slavs (another mistake).  This is an indication of the lack of knowledge about the world outside the US, but it’s also an indicator of a more serious issue, the tendency to avoid nuanced views or to make fine distinctions.  Blanket condemnations, a disregard for facts, and a refusal to think critically have led many Americans to be uniformed citizens, with sometimes disastrous consequences when they cast votes or help decide what should be taught in schools. Maybe we shouldn’t place all the blame on the willfully ignorant and conspiracy theorists (the “Czech” bombers must be connected to the explosion in the Texas fertilizer factory, as there are is a sizable Czech-American community there), our politicians have become adept at, as Paul Krugman puts it, “how to lie with statistics”, purposely distorting reality to fit their political aims.

Cowboy up!

John-Wayne-Cowboy-PosterA recent story on NPR talked about the high rate of suicide in Wyoming (highest in the US), with most of those committed with guns – Wyoming also has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the US.  The story deals with a woman whose two sons killed themselves with guns.  She said that talking about suicide isn’t easy and in Wyoming its connection to guns makes it even tougher:  “I think we have a cultural norm here in Wyoming where, for lack of a better word, you know, cowboy up, you know, be tough, you know, don’t – it’s not OK to get help.”  Guns are of course a core part of cowboy culture, as is rugged, self-sufficient individualism. But it’s not just Wyoming.  In the US cowboy culture is still idealized (note the popularity of Toy Story cowboy) and a large part of the cultural history of the United States.  It’s bucking up against that culture that makes gun control such a difficult step.

It’s not just the USA.  One of the other countries with a very high ownership of guns is Switzerland, yes that neutral, peaceful Alpine republic.  Depending on how it’s measured, Swiss gun ownership is number 3 or 4 in the world.  Switzerland has a strong tradition of a militia-style army, with compulsory military service for men (or longer alternative civilian service) who stay in the reserves till the age of 30.  Those serving in the army keep their Army-issued rifles at home, ready in case the French invade across Lake Geneva, or, the Teutonic cousins pour in from the north.  The substantial part that weapons play in Swiss life (Schützenfeste – shooting festivals continue to be popular) is in marked contrast to other European countries, where it is quite difficult to obtain a firearm.  As in the US, gun ownership is embedded in Swiss cultural history.  The Swiss are proud of the independence they fought to achieve from the Habsburgers in the 13th century, which in fact led to the founding of the federal Swiss state.  The weapons used, especially the halberd, were mostly fashioned by farmers, yet they defeated the mighty Habsburg knights.  Since then, of course, the Swiss have had many occasions when it was important that they be able to guard their borders against intruders.

In both US and Swiss cultures, weapons and armed citizen farmers were an important part of the founding of the nation and have become national myths, William Tell’s heroic fight against Austrian tyranny or George Washington’s ragtag army defeating the mighty British redcoats.  Weapons are part of the DNA of both cultures – the attachment is visceral and deep.  We can talk all we want about safety and security or the traditions of hunting and fishing, but attitudes in the US towards gun ownership go much deeper than that. For many Americans restricting gun ownership tears at the fabric of their cultural identity.

One of the indicators of how deeply guns are embedded in the American cultural DNA is the large number of gun metaphors we use, as discussed in a recent NPR story:

In January, when Vice President Biden concluded a week of meetings at the White House over how to curb gun violence, listen to the words he chose to describe the complexity.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We know that it is – there is no silver bullet.

BLOCK: And as for when he’d make his proposal?

BIDEN: I’m shooting for Tuesday. I hope I get it done by then.

BLOCK: No silver bullet. Shooting for Tuesday. Just two examples of how pervasive gun language is in our everyday speech. Think about it: We bite the bullet, sweat bullets, ride shotgun, stick to our guns, jump the gun, go ballistic, and shoot from the hip. If she’s a straight-shooter, he’s a real pistol. Oh, he’s a little gun shy. What a hot shot. Son of a gun.

It would be an interesting socio-lingusitc study to see if in fact American English tends to use more such expressions than is the case in Britain or Australia.

Cossacks return

Cossacks1Ethnic tensions have a long history in the Caucasian foothills of southwestern Russia.  A recent story in the NY Times evokes a group familiar from Russian history that seems to be coming back in that part of Russia, at least in the Stavropol area, namely the Cossacks.  The Cossacks are a legendary fighting group (usually pictured on horseback), somewhat akin to the cowboys of the American Wild West, fighting at the frontiers of the expanding Russian empire, including battling the Caucasian tribes.  Tolstoy’s Cossacks illustrates that side of their history.  In today’s Russia the Cossacks are evoked in support of Russian nationalism; according to the article, “In his third term, President Vladimir V. Putin has offered one clear new direction for the country: the development of a conservative, nationalist ideology.  Cossacks have emerged as a kind of mascot, with growing financial and political support.”

Apparently, men in Cossack uniforms are proliferating in Russia. According to the article, “Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.”  The newly reinvigorated Cossacks in the Stavropol area (where Tolstoy’s story is set) are running up against the demographic dynamics of the area, namely that Muslims from Caucasian ethnic minorities (Dagastani and Chechens) are increasing, while numbers of ethnic Russians are decreasing.  The Cossacks are not universally welcomed in their law enforcement role, as, in contrast to the police, they have no official status and are therefore not bound by the same legal restraints the regular police force faces.

Love Hunters

PeoplesSquareMarriageMarketArticle today in the NY Times about marriage brokers in China, a time honored tradition there, but one that has changed significantly in recent times. The article tells the story of two different spouse searches, one in which a parent plays the role of matchmaker, as is often the case these days in China, and the other – new to me – of agencies being paid exorbitant amounts of money to find the ideal mate. In the latter case, the resources that go into finding a spouse are extraordinary.  In the instance described in the article, there were multiple teams of love hunters (up to 8 in each team) scouring multiple cities for the exact match to the demanding  requirements.

The other extreme are the parents who spend much of their free time in city parks at marriage markets trying against the odds to find a partner for their son or daughter.  Despite changes in Chinese society, it’s still expected that people in their 20’s get married.  Women in particular need to find a mate before they turn 30 or risk being labeled “leftover women“(剩女 shèngnǚ). It’s as awful a way to sum up someone’s life as is the label “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants.

Rise of the Nones

empty-church-with-wooden-benchesInteresting series this week on NPR about religion in the United States.  Today’s broadcast was about the increased number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion.  The data is based on a Pew Research Center study released in October, 2012.  The study indicates that about 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, a percentage that has been on the rise in recent years.  The percentage of those under the age of 30 is higher, about 1/3.  Harvard Professor Robert Putnam was interviewed for the report.  His explanation of the drop among young people:  rebellion – based on disillusionment of a generation coming of age during the “culture wars” in the U.S., which created a toxic mix of religion and politics.  He associates the lack of interest in organized religion with the lack of participation by young Americans in civic organizations.  I would offer a different perspective – I assume that under 30’s have simply re-directed from conventional social institutions to online social media.  Maybe the Church of the Internet has replaced the brick and mortar versions.

Putnam points out that even with the drop indicated by the survey, the U.S. stats in terms of religion are high: “Even with these recent changes the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world…The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian, so we are a very religious country even today.”  What has been very striking to me is the radical drop in religious affiliation in Germany.  The wonderful medieval cathedrals throughout Germany are virtually empty on Sundays.  More and more Germans are leaving the Catholic and protestant churches.  Part of the reason may be financial:  if you are a (Christian) church member, you have to pay a church tax.