Tag Archives: Nationality

Those Genetic Ancestry Tests

6 May

Lollipop (Image by Jackie used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Our neighbors recently told me that their adoptive daughter had been musing about her background. Little was known about her biological family because her birth mother had requested anonymity at the hospital. Her file contained almost no information other than a note from a nurse that the birth mother seemed to be Russian. I wondered aloud if the nurse could tell the difference between a Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian or Bulgarian accent. After all, I had met a boy who spent a good deal of time believing his birth father was Turkish, only to later find out that the social worker who wrote it down had made an error (as we all do in the course of a work day), and that his birth father was in fact Arab. Our neighbors said their daughter was interested in taking a genetic test.  

My father and his siblings recently took such a test. After long wondering whether their great-grandparents, who had anglicized their Slavic surname upon immigrating to the U.S., were Polish or Belarusian, the test had an answer: they were probably Eastern European. I had to laugh. Our family’s study of historical records and names has given us far more specific information about our ancestors’ origins and cultures than the DNA tests have. 

Indeed, the DNA of one of my father’s siblings was estimated to be 30% Western European, whereas another’s was estimated to be only 2% Western European. That’s because we all inherit half of our genes from one biological parent and half from the other, but not necessarily the same halves as our siblings. So are you not very British at all if you inherited a lower percentage of those genetic markers than your sister, even if your surname is British? Surnames of course can also come from step-parents. And DNA tests render invisible all the cultural heritage and influence of adoptive parents anywhere in a family tree.

And as Sarah Chodosh warns at Popular Science, “all of your ancestry data is mostly an estimate. That’s why companies attach a confidence interval to your results. They may say you’re 48 percent Eastern European, but that they’re anywhere from 30 to 80 percent sure of that result. Most people focus on the 48 percent and forget that the results aren’t for certain.”

The popularity of direct-to-consumer genetic tests has exploded over the past year in the U.S., where they are unregulated. The country’s identity as a nation of immigrants inspires many to be curious about their ancestors that left the Old World for the New. But why only claim them as your ancestors? If you consider yourself Irish because someone in your family tree emigrated from Dublin, why not consider yourself Scandinavian seeing as the Vikings founded Dublin? When does identity start and when does it stop?

As philosopher Alva Noë explained at NPR, DNA tests can currently explain some things about ancestry, but nowhere near the whole story:

Consider: Even if you are a descendant of Shakespeare, there is only a negligible chance of your having any of his DNA. This is because autosomal DNA gets passed on randomly. Shakespeare’s kid probably had 50 percent of his DNA; his kid in turn, on average, a quarter, and so on. Within 10 generations, Shakespeare’s DNA has spread out and recombined so many times that it doesn’t even really make sense to speak of a match. Putting the same point the other way, each of us has so many ancestors that we have no choice but to share them with each other. Moreover, we don’t share any DNA with the vast majority of them. True, you will share Y-chromosome DNA or mtDNA with very distant ancestors, but these make up a vanishingly small percentage of your total ancestry.

Indeed, if you go back far enough, we start to share ancestors, which is why everyone with any European ancestry is related to Charlemagne. Does that make our DNA more interesting or less? Rarely do I meet people here in Germany who are interested in any of their ancestry that reaches back farther than their great-grandparents, unless they have an unusual surname, a claim to nobility, or an interest in nationalist politics. 

This is important to bear in mind as a heated debate continues in the U.S. about genetic studies of different human populations and/or “races.” You can read about the arguments from those who fear more fodder for racism and those who believe any such fear is idiotic political correctness, but so far Ian Holmes has summed it up best in his article “What Happens When Geneticists Talk Sloppily About Race”:

It’s common for natural scientists to eschew questions of linguistic semantics, preferring to steer debate to technical issues. This relates to how we define ourselves professionally: Science as a discipline seeks objective truth via empirically testable hypotheses, not subjective questions of public perception. “Now we’re just talking semantics” is a line that often signals imminent consensus, in friendly arguments among members of my profession.

But when speaking publicly about race, language matters. Regularly in American history, slavery, discrimination, and other forms of racism have been justified using distortions of science and pseudoscientific ideas. The U.S. program of eugenics was second only to Nazi Germany’s, which it directly inspired and informed.

Indeed, clear and conscientious communication from scientists is key because most of us do not understand genetics very well. And the general public is quick to apply social values to scientific facts researchers may have assumed would be perceived as neutral. With reports like “You’re probably Eastern European” or “you’re probably French-German,” many people are making broad assumptions about their heritage, unaware that these tests tell them next to nothing as to what language their ancestors spoke or which holidays they celebrated because these regions were very culturally diverse in the age before nationalism and mass media, which are very new inventions. Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted didn’t speak the same language, despite what romantic Hollywood portrayals would have us think. As recently as 1880, three-quarters of the people living in France didn’t speak French.

Ethnic identity is more often a matter of a piece of paper than a gene. Because politics happen on paper. And it’s politics that define borders, decide which languages and dialects are taught in schools and which are not, which religions are allowed to practice freely and which should be made to not feel at home, which people we decide are Us and which people are Them.

The most famous moment on the PBS show Finding Your Roots was when Larry David, who has had a long career in comedy that often highlights his experiences as a New York Jew, discovered some of his ancestors were Southern slave-owners. Such a revelation came from studying legal documents, not genomes, because there is no such thing as slave-owner DNA.

An American-German couple I know are working to obtain a U.S. passport for their son who was born here in Berlin so that he will feel a connection to his American heritage. Will that do it? I know a Norwegian man with a U.S. passport who spent less than year in the States. He was born there and the family then returned home after his father’s job transferred him back to Oslo. His older sisters, however, spent five years there and remember them well because their memories were formed after infancy. They don’t have a right to citizenship because they weren’t born in the U.S., but culturally, they’re more American than their passport-holding brother.

Records on ancestry are few and far between for the descendants of colonialism’s victims. For most of Western history, their ethnic identity has often been dictated by laws intended to uphold racial hierarchies. The American One Drop Rule was invented to prevent the descendants of slaves and slave-owners from inheriting the latter’s wealth. Clearly it can be poignant to discover with a DNA test that your ancestors didn’t just come from “Africa” but a specific region in Africa – even if it is a big, diverse region with just as many conflicts between groups as there have been in Europe and the other continents over the centuries. The case of South African Sandra Laing famously revealed the resilience of racism based on appearance despite changes in the laws regarding ancestry. Or, in the words of Black-ish:

 

Maybe grouping humans ethnically based on ancestral DNA markers will destroy many prejudices, but maybe it will cement many others. The story of human history is the story of various groups embroiled in conflicts, many of which have ramifications well into today. This is why we cannot afford to be careless when we talk about genetics and heritage.

But perhaps we can also be careful without being too serious. My grandmother would frequently tease her son as he reported new genealogical findings, asking, “When are you going to finally tell me that I’m a Russian princess?”

Hopefully never, I joked to my partner. All families should be valued, but I for one would not be pleased to find out that mine was thoroughly inbred.

 

As in many of my articles, the identities of many of the unnamed people cited here have been altered to protect their privacy.

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The Real Reason You Should Learn A Foreign Language

27 Apr

Language Scramble (Image by Eric Andresen used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Emily Sanford speaking, how may I help you?”

“Yeah, hi, I just got put through to you by one of your coworkers, and that guy can barely speak a damn word of German! Why do you hire foreigners? Because they’re so cheap?”

“I’d be happy to help you if you could tell me why you are calling, sir.”

“I need to ask about where to distribute some flyers your company mailed me, but I really want to know first why on earth you hire foreigners? I mean, seriously? Is it to save money?”

I pressed him for the details about the flyers, suppressing the urge to blurt out something in German to the effect of, “I American. I no understanded what you say me in Deutschy language.”

Contempt for immigrants who can’t speak the local language at the C1 Level or higher seems to pervade every country. I’ve witnessed an initiative to make English the official language of my parents’ tiny village in Upstate New York after some white farmers heard two words of Spanish on the street, and I’ve been yelled at here in Germany by surly locals for speaking English in public. These complaints are usually steeped in the explicit or implicit stance that if you can’t speak the language, you shouldn’t be here.

Yet speaking a second language is unlike any other skill. Plenty of fiercely intelligent people are terrible at foreign languages and, unlike being terrible at arithmetic or project management, this weakness will render any of their other talents virtually invisible if the job market does not operate in their mother tongue. Speaking the local language flawlessly and eloquently is the best bet to integration in any society. And if it doesn’t happen to be a language you grew up speaking, it’s a lot of work.

I speak German, French, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Dutch, but “speak” is a relative term. I can hold basic conversations in Russian and Spanish, but they’re always peppered with errors. (Im probably the American equivalent of the intelligible but amusing foreigner who says things like, I vant you to come sit on de table.) A few years of self-teaching have led me to understand almost anything written in Dutch, but I can’t understand the nightly news and I can’t say anything not in the present tense. My in-laws in Stockholm sweetly praise whatever I dare to say in their language, but I miss most of the details of whatever they say among themselves. After starting a book called Swedish In Three Months seven years ago, I’m still on chapter four.

I’m fluent in German and French, but “fluent” is too simplistic a word for the complexity of what it denotes. My German feels about as good as my English was back when I was in middle school. That is, I can say almost anything I want to say, but I sound a lot less diplomatic and nuanced than I would like to. I still learn new words every day. (Added to my vocabulary this week were “chisel,” “epic,” and “sexual exploitation.”) Explaining an intricate issue like a budget report to a superior at work can still make me falter. I occasionally hear myself using the wrong gender or preposition, an instant giveaway that I’m foreign.  And because double-digit numbers in German are said in reverse order (e.g. “twoandthirty” instead of “thirty-two”), I hate taking down numbers. Always have and always will.

This is why it would be deceptive of me to simply say, “I speak seven languages.” To Brits and Americans, it sounds like bragging, and to Europeans, it sounds suspicious. After all, it’s an unspoken but well-known fact that Brits and Americans who fancy themselves cosmopolitan love to exaggerate whatever knowledge of a foreign language they have, especially when they’re in the company of those who can’t possible test them on it. As British-Canadian satirist Christian Lander writes at Stuff White People Like:

… two years of college Italian does not confer fluency.  For the most part, these classes will only teach a white person how to order food in a restaurant, ask for a train schedule, and over pronounce words when they are mixed into English. Amazingly this small amount of proficiency is more than enough to warrant inclusion on a resume under “spoken languages.”

… When you hear a white person say that they speak your native language, you will probably think it’s a good idea to start talking to them in said language.  WRONG! Instead you should say something like “you speak (insert language)?” to which they will reply “a little” in your native tongue.  If you just leave it here, the white person will feel fantastic for the rest of the day.  If you push it any further and speak quickly, the white person will just look at you with a blank stare.  Within a minute you will notice that blank stare has shifted from confusion to contempt.  You have shamed them and your chance for friendship is ruined forever.

Finally, though they won’t admit it, white people do not believe that learning English is difficult. This is because if it were true, then that would mean that their housekeeper, gardener, mother-in-law … are smarter than them.  Needless to say, this realization would destroy their entire universe.

Indeed, my linguistic repertoire doesn’t sound at all impressive to the 216 million people around the world who speak four languages or more. Most of these people live in Africa and, unlike me, their range always encompasses completely unrelated languages like French and Bangangte, or English and Wolof. 45% of my Facebook friends speak two or more languages well enough to say or describe whatever they want to say. For them, and half of the people on earth, speaking more than one language is like knowing how to drive or swim. Sure it requires dedication and practice, but it’s not something you flaunt once you learn how to do it. You just do it.

Conventional wisdom says it’s best to be complimented on your language skills by a native speaker.  But if that native speaker is monolingual, they will only notice what you can’t do.  It takes a polyglot to appreciate how far along you are because they know just how much work goes into what you’re trying to accomplish. Anyone who’s lived 24 hours a day in another language knows about the headaches, the falling into bed exhausted at 8 pm, the horrors of meeting someone who talks fast.

Tech reviews across the Interwebs have been abuzz this year about a new language program called DuoLingo. The online program claims to be revolutionizing the way Anglophones learn other languages via the addictive nature of video games. That DuoLingo inspires passion and dedication is wonderful, and after checking out the advanced German program, I’m impressed with how authentically modern the dialogue is. (None of that old school drivel still found in too many online programs: “I am charmed to make your acquaintance. Which way to the discotheque?”) But I’m skeptical of the company’s insistence that you can learn a language without ever speaking to people.

Does the game teach you how to develop an intelligible accent? Does it teach you how to dive into a dinner conversation with sentences shooting at you from every direction? And, perhaps most importantly, does the game warn you about the crucial cultural connotations of certain words? To cite just a few examples, in German a “Pamphlet” isn’t just a pamphlet, it’s a manifesto. The word “deportieren” means what it sounds like except it’s only used to describe someone being sent away to a concentration camp. And you will come off as crass if you ever call a German woman “Fräulein.” As with all my knowledge of German slang, I learned these lessons from German people, not dictionaries. Language is culture and there are no cultures without people.

And just like every culture on earth, every language is a moving target. What sounds hip and what sounds sophisticated and what sounds rude and what sounds stuffy differs from generation to generation, from place to place, and from person to person. It’s exhausting, but it’s also pretty cool. In an increasingly homogeneous world, the most resilient differences are linguistic. American tourists are often disappointed to discover that businessmen in London dress more like Bill Gates than Winston Churchill, or that women in Barcelona don’t walk around with roses clenched between their teeth. But no matter the visual monotony, their ears are guaranteed to be confronted with new music.

Yet, despite its shortcomings, I suspect that DuoLingo’s personless approach to foreign language learning is exactly what many bilingual wannabes yearn for. In my experience, the number one reason adults will avoid or give up learning a foreign language is not that they dislike grammar or are overwhelmed by accents – it’s that whenever you try to speak a new language, you are bound to be laughed at.

Unlike learning to dance or sew or build a shed, you can only master a language by repeatedly practicing in the company of experts—i.e., native speakers—who are not paid to have the patience of teachers. No matter how good you are, the moment you venture out of the classroom to talk to others, someone will smirk at you and someone will correct you and someone else will get frustrated with how long it takes you to say the simplest thing. Someone is bound to make fun of you. And adults do not like being made fun of.  

They don’t like being corrected mid-sentence or being told they sound “cute.” It reminds them of being back in school, and they’ll do anything to avoid it. This is why trying to learn a foreign language from a romantic partner often puts strain on the relationship. Sure it’s fun to proudly whisper “I love you, my sweetness” to your boyfriend in another language. But it’s exasperating to try to discuss a film you just watched together and see a smirk creep across his face as you say, “I think that part not so good, but other part a little, little okay, but it hard understand why the… the… the… what’s the word?”

Adult pride can be so sensitive that there are debates as to whether or not it’s rude to correct a grown person’s linguistic mistakes outside of the classroom. I’m of the camp that insists on gulping down our pride because, as my French hostess told me my third day in Provence, “Do you want to learn French or don’t you?!” Her commitment to this credo was proven when she shouted grammatical corrections to me from another room while I was talking on the phone.

But there are other conflicts where the rules for etiquette are not so clear. My partner and I recently told a Danish-German couple about our latest trip to Stockholm. We had had a few tiffs about my being left out of the Swedish conversations and his relatives being left out of the English conversations. 

Our friends nodded knowingly. “The answer to that problem,” the Dane said with a grin, “is that it’s incredibly rude of them to leave you out of a conversation by speaking a language that’s hard for you, and it’s also incredibly rude of you to insist that everyone switch to a language that’s hard for them just for your sake.”

Indeed, being excluded from anything is a nasty feeling and nothing excludes like a foreign language. Then again, once a couple is fluent in more than one common language, the ability to speak in code is a pretty sweet reward. (Ex: “Do you mind if we change the subject, honey? I don’t want to hear him get going on this again… ”)

Many adults insist that they would have become fluent in a foreign language if only their parents had paid for early lessons because kids pick up languages better. There is truth to this argument children living abroad for a year or more are indeed more likely to become fluent than their parents are, but few understand why. I do not believe the pop science assumption that kids have an easier time learning languages because they are neurologically predisposed. Studies at Cambridge University—and my own experience as an English teacher in Berlin pre-schools—show that kids above the age of three start off a new language with the same bad accent and tendency to make mistakes as adults do. The three advantages children do have over adults are all social.

First of all, while they don’t exactly enjoy being laughed at, kids are far less self-conscious about making mistakes than teenagers and adults are. Secondly, immigrant and expat kids can easily be immersed in the local language simply by being enrolled in school, as opposed to their parents, who must first land a job in the language and therein already demonstrate some proficiency. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, kids have a lot less to learn to achieve fluency in their age group than adults do. A first grader’s mastery of a language involves being able to talk about Disney films and their favorite flavor of ice cream and all that other stuff found at the intermediate level of any language course. Fluency for an adult means being able to engage in debates about the next election or to write business letters or to make witty jokes with a killer punch-line, all skills for which we each need 12 years of schooling just to master in our first language, never mind a second one.

Learning a foreign language takes a lot of patience and a sturdy ego. In return, it endows you with empathy for students of your own language. And with this empathy it is not rude to smile at a non-native speaker’s mistakes or to poke fun at languages and accents. It’s hilarious to hear someone with a thick German accent try to say “weather vane” (usually comes out as “fezzerwane”), and it’s just as hilarious to hear Americans try to say, “Geschlechtergleichberechtigung” (“gender equality”).

When I was staying in Tokyo two years ago, my friend Kazumi would call me to dinner. “Em-i-liiii!”

Hai!” I’d reply with exorbitant enthusiasm.

This always made her and her fiancé burst into giggles. “So cute how you say, ‘Hai!’ ” she would smile.

“So cute how you say my name,” I’d smile back.

This exchange would not be so innocuous if one of us were portraying the other’s accent as a sign of stupidity, or complacently refusing to ever leave our own linguistic comfort zone.

When Brits complain about the invasion of other languages and dialects, they ignore that millions throughout Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and the Caribbean gave up their first language for the King’s English lest they face punishment. When Americans insist that they shouldnt have to learn another language because immigrants and foreigners should learn theirs, they ignore that more than three-quarters of us are descended from ancestors who had to learn English as a second language. Many Americans seem to believe they did it so that we wouldn’t have to. But if they want to fully comprehend what exactly their ancestors achieved and what exactly they’re asking of immigrants today, then they will have to try to do it themselves. If I had wanted to be truly fair to my caller so angry about my coworkers German, I would have switched into my own language and waited to see how well he fared. 

Learning a foreign language is not about picking up enough exotic words to be able to show off at dinner parties.  Its about understanding why foreigners make mistakes in our language by exposing ourselves to the mistakes we are bound to make in theirs.  It’s about both the guest and the host, the tourist and the immigrant, not giving anyone attitude for failing to speak flawlessly to them in their own language. Its about forging a path to greater empathy, until it expands into your own backyard and all around the world.

 

 

Heritage on St. Patrick’s Day? It’s Complicated

16 Mar

IMG_1606(Image by Folke Lehr)

 

Along with millions of other Americans, I used to boast a bit every March 17th: “You know, I really am Irish.” It’s a common American pastime to cite one’s known heritage, either as demonyms (“I’m English and Irish and… ”) or percentages (“I’m a quarter Irish, one eighth Polish…” ). I still believe in self-determination, but having lived in Europe for nearly a decade, I have ceased to rattle off these titles. Not only is the latter a vain attempt at exactitude with no chance of ever being exact—we’re not even really sure if my great-grandmother was Polish or Belarusian—but it resembles the sort of puzzle-piecing that only pseudo-scientists of suspicious political convictions find relevant. And it makes Europeans laugh. And then correct me. “No, you’re not Irish. Your ancestors were Irish.” Which is true.

While Americans sometimes refer to their ancestors’ nation as their “homeland,” they usually can’t construct a sentence in the country’s official language and certainly cannot name the country’s current head of government, the second largest city, or any of its history that isn’t directly related to U.S. history. At best they know a handful of expressions, a recipe or two, maybe the region where their parents’ parents’ parents lived. For this reason, their claims to nationality usually strike the natives as silly.

But the melting pot concept is often admirably used to celebrate diversity. It bungles any sense of loyalty and prevents jingoism. I can’t really argue that the English are “naturally” evil for what they did to my Irish ancestors when my last name is Sanford. My known ethnic heritage is a split between some of Europe’s most notorious conquerors (English, German) and their victims (Irish, Polish). To claim only one or two of them as “my people” feels ridiculous. If I ever have children, their great-grandfathers will have fought on opposite sides of World War II.

Then again, not everyone’s heritage is such a hodge-podge, and plenty of conservative genealogists try to prove why the blending of certain cultures is “better” than the blending of others. That the perpetrators of segregation, Nazism, apartheid, aristocracy, and the internment camps are the most famous fans of genealogy causes me to cringe whenever anyone claims pride in having Irish or Italian or Icelandic “blood.”

Such pride is much more understandable when coming from minorities who have been made to feel that they don’t belong in the country they were born in. My grandfather, Michael Sullivan, was the grandson of Irish immigrants to America. He was the oldest of 9 children, my mother has 43 cousins, and I’ve never tried to count how many of us there are in my generation. He often began sentences with the word “ ’Twas,” and liked to sing folk songs that seemed to have come from Ireland, but may very well have originated in immigrant settlements in the States. This is the extent of my experience with his Irishness, but his was far more profound. He grew up in a time when he could easily find signs reading, “Irish need not apply,” and “mick” was a word he hated in the way that only people who have been called a slur do. When he married Barbara Tupper and her grandmother found out he was Catholic, she crossed my grandmother out of the family Bible. All this made John F. Kennedy’s election in his lifetime radical. It is my grandfather’s story and it is important. But it’s not my story.

An attempt to make it my story would feel intellectually dishonest and pretty flaky to boot. As Andrew O’Heir writes this week at Salon: “Irishness [in America today] is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, ‘Celtic’ tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything.” Indeed, my middle name endows me with no expertise when it comes to picking out Celtic music or Irish books and films. I can’t tell what most Irish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists any more than I can tell what Finnish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists.

As said before, taking an interest in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia. But it often comes with the temptation to flaunt minimal efforts like feats of greatness. Claiming credentials based on ancestry feels not entirely wrong, but not entirely right either.

The boundaries of countries and ethnicities are as blurry as our sense of self. Heritage is often seen as the recipe that resulted in an individual, yet there are so many more ingredients to the recipe. Yes, I wouldn’t be here today if the branches of my family tree were arranged any differently, but I also wouldn’t be here today if my parents had slept together in April 1981 instead of March. And placing too much importance on genetics insults any families who cannot or choose not to have children using only their own reproductive cells. Family is what you make of it.

This is not to say that everyone should always downplay their roots. Children with at least one parent who emigrated from another country often have undeniable ties to their ancestral culture – in any case, ties that are far more likely to be based on fact than fictitious romanticizing. Most of what constitutes our inexplicable sense of culture comes from traditions and foods and pastimes we experienced growing up, and great writers like Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart, and Sandra Cisneros show that growing up with two cultures affords you special insights into both. If my German partner and I ever have children, we plan to raise them bilingually (English and German) and bi-culturally (Thanksgiving and St. Martin’s Day), teaching them anything there is to teach about where their mother grew up and where their father grew up. Whether or not to add some Swedish into the mix—my mother-in-law came from Stockholm—is a point of endless debate between us.

If we ever have grandchildren, it will be interesting to see how they approach their American heritage. If they’re at all ashamed or excessively proud, I’m determined to discuss it, but if they’re merely disinterested, so what? I predict that my great-grandchildren will not feel any strong connection to their American heritage, nor should they. As my partner points out, maybe they will be half-Czech or married to a Burkinabé and have their hands full raising their own children bilingually. Cultures and people move and morph constantly throughout time and space.

When I finally traveled to Ireland two years ago, there were traces of culture that seemed somehow familiar. And that was moving. But most of the charm—“The Irish Sea really is that green! They really do sing in the pubs!”—came from recognizing things I’d grown up seeing in movies, not in my grandfather’s house. And I also found traces of culture the following year in Amsterdam that were faintly familiar to me because, although I have no known Dutch forebearers, I grew up on Long Island.

My most impressive sense of belonging in Ireland came from the fact that I was not the palest person around. Not by a long shot. (Hence my captioning the above photo taken on the cliffs of Howth in an e-mail sent to friends: “If there’s anything Sullivan about me, it’s my complexion.”) Lookism can be a very powerful force. But it does not have to be. In Dublin, we were never once served by someone who didn’t have a Slavic accent. If the current flood of Eastern European immigrants end up staying in Ireland, their children will have much more of a claim to the place than I do.

They’ll at least be able to remember the name of the prime minister, after all.

 

 

Picking & Choosing Our Tragedies

21 Apr

World travel and communications recorded on Twitter

(Image by Eric Fischer used under CC license via)

 

What a week.  A suicide bomber in Pakistan killed four people.  A fertilizer plant explosion in Texas killed at least fourteen people.  Sixteen people died in a goldmine collapse in Ghana.  President Obama and members of the U.S. Senate were sent letters laced with poison.  A journalist in Mexico was assassinated, presumably by agents of the drug wars.  At least 65 people died in terrorist attacks in Iraq.  More than 150 people just died in an earthquake in Szechuan.  And after two young women and a little boy were murdered by bombs at the Boston Marathon, it felt surreal if not uncomfortable to see my last post about America’s inexperience with bombs at home emblazoned across the blog.  But what to say? 

For most of the week, we had no trace of a motive for the Boston bombing.  And now that one suspect of Chechen origin is dead and his brother is in custody, we still don’t have anything we could officially call a reason.  Polemicists on the right and left are using the event as “evidence” for the necessity of their own political agendas, arguing that we should have used drones, or that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should face a military trial, or that we need more surveillance cameras everywhere, or that the two suspects seem more like the psychotic teens of Columbine than terrorist operatives.  As John Dickerson observed in Slate yesterday:

We need more restraint and less wild guessing. Free-flowing debate in the search for meaning is a part of these moments and a part of the human condition, but … In these fast-moving times when the only thing that is certain is that the first piece of news has repeatedly been wrong, perhaps those lawmakers and pundits who want to be part of the final conversation should (paraphrasing Mike Monteiro) follow the Quaker rule: Be meaningful or be quiet. 

Of course, we all like to think ourselves meaningful.  But so far, with no official motive, the only irrefutable point any politician has made thusfar came from the Ambassador from the Czech Republic, who urged the media to note that Czechs and Chechens belong to two different countries located over a thousand miles apart.

Distance and borders matter, obviously, since none of us are equally horrified by every single one of this week’s tragedies.  But why?  I had friends in the Boston area who were stuck at home during Friday’s lockdown.  (Two were hoping to be allowed out in time for them to make it to the annual birthday celebration of their late brother Bill, whom I wrote about at this time last year in a post on grief.)  But I’ll hazard to guess that most of those glued to the news updates from Boston did not have loved ones there.  The story dominated the headlines across the ocean in Germany, in France, in the U.K.  Everyone seemed to be watching. 

The simplest reason for this is that people are naturally empathic, upset to see others upset and, in the words of the Czech ambassador, “It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.”  But dead people in Pakistan and Iraq no longer serve as reminders of that fact.  They instead represent our ability to compartmentalize, to exile certain tragedies to a semi-numb region of the mind, either because they seem too frequent for us to commit to or because we want to believe there is some crucial difference between Us and Them, protecting us from their fate.  It’s not malicious of us to compartmentalize in this way—to tear up upon sight of the beautiful little boy in Boston while not even checking to see if any of the victims in Iraq were children—but it’s not fair either. 

And so I stared down my last post about World War II bombs, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable, wondering whether it was callous of me to not say anything about the tragedies going on in my old home country, yet knowing World War II would never have happened had my new home country not embraced a dangerous idea of what makes a country “home.”  Borders are always bizarre.  In a digital age, distance is all in the mind.  I’ll never be able to rationally explain why some things feel “close to home” and others don’t.   I’ll always care more about the safety of those I know personally than those I don’t, but I’ll never be completely comfortable with this fact because ignoring our common humanity is what builds borders and facilitates cruelty.  I’ll always tear up if you show me a picture of an innocent victim.  I’ll always try to remember to ask why we are shown pictures of some victims, and not others. 

Or, as a friend in Boston observed during the lockdown, “It is so hard to be inside on this gorgeous, beautiful spring day.  Minor problem, but reminds me how lucky we are most of the time to feel safe outside our homes.”

 

 

It’s So Easy To Take Peace for Granted

14 Oct

(Via)

 

The European Union has won the Nobel Peace Prize amidst the hardest year it has faced since its inception.  The E.U. founders certainly had no idea what they were building when they did—the goal was simply to control German coal and steel so that Germany could never rebuild its war machine—and the ensuing peace among member nations that is now over 60 years old was not something anyone would have bet on at the time.  Nor would anyone have imagined that E.U. membership would later mean abolition of the death penalty, but it has. 

I detest the austerity policy in place now during the economic crisis, but the E.U. is more than that, just as the U.S. is more than Wall Street.  The Euro Generation that emerged 15 years ago doesn’t identify with austerity but with European peace, universal healthcare, the welfare state, religion out of politics, and the determination to simultaneously open borders and promote multi-lingualism while protecting minority languages and cultures.  To them, nationalism is pointless at best and cataclysmic at worst.

Of course, bureaucracies are never as pretty as the ideals behind them.  And some of the criticism this week has been fair.  (Der Spiegel claims that awarding former E.U. leaders such as Jacques Delors would have more effectively spotlighted the ideals of the European peace project.)  A lot of the criticism has been ridiculous, if not offensive.  (Many on the far left are echoing the sentiments of critics on the far right, comparing police brutality in Greece and Spain to World War II.  Not helpful.)  The debate should keep going, but I’m personally taking the moment to remember how I felt 13 years ago when I read Eddie Izzard campaigning against Europhobia in the UK:

“I believe that we are on to something really good here, if it means that we stop rolling tanks across one another’s borders and stop killing each other. There are 800 million of us Europeans and we’ve been killing each other for centuries.”