Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

NAMBLA Moves to Afghanistan

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

There’s so much to say about this report[1]. I’ve been reading Ghost Wars, the history of CIA/Afghan activities leading up to 9/11, so I’ve gotten a feel for Afghanistan’s Pashtun culture. Where previously I felt like Pashtun society and its version of Islam were obviously Medieval, I now realize they are more like Amazonian tribesmen than third-world peasants. Having seen The Kite Runner film, I was familiar with the man-boy love situation over there, but had no idea how pervasive sexual abuse was for young boys in Afghanistan.

To summarize the report, because of Islam’s requirements to cover women, and its presentation of women as “unclean”[2], and because of the limited economic and social access to women in the remote hills of Afghanistan, homosexuality is absolutely rampant among Pashtun tribesmen. And to make things even worse:

…homosexuality is indeed prohibited within Islam, warranting great shame and condemnation. However, homosexuality is then narrowly and specifically defined as the love of another man. Loving a man would therefore be unacceptable and a major sin within this cultural interpretation of Islam, but using another man for sexual gratification would be regarded as a foible.

The sex act is OK; it’s the love that’s wrong! Scarier still is the pervasiveness even in the cities like Kandahar:

Dr. Mohammed Nasem Zafar, a professor at Kandahar Medical College, estimates that about 50% of the city’s male residents have sex with men or boys at some point in their lives.

And then this:

They reminded me that one of the country’s favorite sayings is “women are for children, boys are for pleasure.”

Any hope I had for Afghan culture to begin to advance toward modernity just took several steps back. Their combination of hyper-rural isolation with restrictive religion make hillbilly Southerners look like genteel Victorians. The level of traumatic psychological damage these cultural cross-wirings are causing Pashtun children absolutely boggles the mind.

It’s interesting to me that all this loveless pseudo-homosexuality is happening as a result of purely cultural and developmental factors. This gives strong support to the concept of homosexuality as a developmental rather than genetic phenomenon. I’ve long suspected that sexual preferences are based more strongly on developmental factors rather than intrinsically genetic ones. Fortunately one side effect of all this man-boy love is that many of these Pashtuns won’t produce offspring.

I wonder if this report will make the rounds to the conservative/Christian blogs, and I wonder what effects it might have. Will it be used as ammunition against Islam as a whole? Will it motivate them to demand we leave Afghanistan?

Whatever happens, the deep well of sadness I have for Afghanistan just got a little deeper.

1.) Try your best to ignore the spellcheck-enabled typos. These sorts of reports don’t tend to be sent to proofreaders I guess.

2.) I’m fascinated by the cultural construct of “unclean” in societies whose terrain consists primarily of dirt. They are so afraid of what is right under their feet. Perhaps rightly so? If they had more flora under their feet, would they still care? Amazonians don’t seem to.

In Banks We Trust

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Niall Ferguson was on The Colbert Report yesterday and I was excited to hear him say that, basically, money is trust. Since most money is kept in banks, and since banks don’t have your money sitting in a safe somewhere[1], then money is an abstract entity that only exists as a numeric concept that you trust a bank to maintain accurately.

It’s almost like money exists in a quantum state until you go to the ATM.

He went on to point out that money is only worth what everyone agrees that it is worth. I don’t think enough people are aware of this fundamentally psychological law of economics. Perhaps if there were some way we could all convince ourselves that our dollars are worth more, we could reverse inflation. But getting 300 million humans to agree on anything is a tall order. And yet, we all generally agree on what $1.00 can buy. Perhaps economics is a form of mass hypnosis?

Getting everyone to agree on something reminds me of my other pet theory: that all forms of government might be equally successful if only everyone involved agrees to support the system and thoroughly commit to its ideals. The only reason monarchies and dictatorships fail so often is that they’re the forms of government most susceptible to corruption. Communism might have worked if everyone involved, politicians and people, were committed to the ideals. But power corrupts every time, and while the USA certainly has its share of corruption, it still has one of the best systems devised for distributing power to prevent corruption. You won’t come up with anything better as long as human beings are involved.

Speaking of corruption, this reminds me that the root of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme is this: people simply trusted him.

1.) As we all learned from George Bailey.

The Chain of Academia

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

I know XKCD.com has done well when my brain returns to it weeks later as I drift off to sleep. Here is the gist of a recent ponderable:

Sociology is just applied Psychology
Psychology is just applied Biology
Biology is just applied Chemistry
Chemistry is just applied Physics
Physics is just applied Mathematics

It left me wondering where the Arts fit in, if at all. Are literature, art, or even philosophy merely applied sociology? Perhaps they aren’t involved at all since they’re not SCIENCE.

On Williamsburg

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

I’ve been meaning to organize my thoughts on this topic for a few weeks now (for anyone reading this that doesn’t already know, yes, I’m back in New York), but I’ve been devoting entirely too much time to playing Scrabble on Facebook with Shelley.

My first venture into Williamsburg was to find some guitar shops[1] I’d read about. I’d heard a great deal about the area as a haven for indie rock hipsters (which is to say, I watched this), and after finding my way around Bedford Street’s book vendors and amazing record store[2], I was actually impressed to find a neighborhood apparently dedicated to things I like. Admittedly my evaluation was surface-level, as I didn’t actually interact with any of the region’s denizens. I did not “make the scene” as the youngsters no longer say.

From the long view, Williamsburg seems to be a rather nifty enclave populated almost entirely by people in clever t-shirts. What’s not to like? Bars full of twentysomethings, a park full of kickball enthusiasts…books, records, guitars. I felt like the Bee Girl at the end of the Blind Melon video.

However, I have a tendency to see the best in any given person or situation. I often miss people’s flaws. Or at least I don’t see anything worth complaining about. It’s entirely likely that the average Williamsburg citizen is as shallow and status-seeking as the Manhattan social climbers of the capital S society set so well documented by Clay Felker’s New York magazine. If that’s the case, then it’s just another flight in the spiral staircase of irony that hipsters invariably construct. In attempting (or at least appearing to attempt) to opt out of fashion by shopping at thrift stores, and to opt out of popular music by listening exclusively to self-consciously unpopular music[3], indie rockers paint themselves into a cultural corner: can any lifestyle founded on obscurism authentically grow? If so, would it not be populated entirely by mutants?

At some point, inauthentic aping is inherent in the growth of any subculture. I’m reminded again of that quotation from Eric Hoffer that says that every cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and degenerates into a racket. Clearly indie rock hipsters have been a business for some time now. You can buy ironic thrift store knockoff t-shirts for $30 at Park Plaza Mall in Little Rock, and CBGB t-shirts at Hot Topic. The racket period has apparently set in now that you can buy those same knockoff shirts at Goodwill in Williamsburg for $2. If irony were gravitational, Williamsburg would be a Black Hole.

Still, the frosted side for the kid in me stops and says, “quit thinking.” Maybe it’s OK to enjoy this cast of Fellini-esque characters in studiously ratty tight jeans. Clearly I’ve joined them to some degree. I like odd t-shirts, Pabst, Chuck Taylors, and I carry an army surplus satchel, but I draw the line at tight jeans, ironic moustaches, stubble and Parliament Lights. I also listen to Winger unironically[4]. Thus I have no credibility in anyone’s eyes, really, but my own. But mine are the only ones that matter to me.

1.) One of which recently sold me my new Les Paul.
2.) Where I bought a great CD of orchestral music from the Seattle World’s Fair.
3.) And becoming insufferable critics of anything on a major label, while promoting an endless series of crummy bands like so many Emperors with No Clothes who become just as disposable as anything Top 40. The constant search for the Next Hippest Band Ever That You’re Not Cool Enough to Know About invariably breeds the same cycle of disposability as the pursuit of the Next Hottest Bland Pop Star. When Vampire Weekend’s 2nd album comes out, will anyone care?
4.) Perhaps the next stop on the Circus of Irony tour is the legitimization of 80′s metal, but I doubt it. Posers built on irony can’t accept posers built on hairspray. They’d have to stop taking themselves seriously to do it.

Racketeering

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Twice this week I’ve come across this quotation from Eric Hoffer[1]:

Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

The more I think about this statement, the more I realize how much it applies to religion, politics, pop music…even websites and magazines. As soon as a great idea spreads, it gains followers, and as soon as something has followers, it tends to lose focus, gain weight, and die. If power corrupts, then apparently popularity kills.

Upon reading more on Hoffer, I came across this little gem:

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.

This is a perfect distilling of what I have always suspected to be the case among people who are excessively prideful in their nationalism, religious fervor, or racial superiority. When you have nothing to call your own, when you have nothing about yourself to take pride in, you have no choice but to attach your identity to the various labels and teams assigned to you by fate.

1.) His Wikipedia entry screams conflict, as it appears that conservatives and liberals are fighting to prove their positions with his words.

Love on Paper

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

One of my biggest beefs with the universe is that there is no reliable way to get to know someone well upon first meeting them. Initially all we have is the physical presentation, and that seems to suffice for most people[1]. It’s always seemed unfair to me, though, that conventional methods for meeting new people (i.e. bars or other social gatherings) take so much time and are so often unrewarding. My problem I suppose is that I’m looking for rare people[2], and they are, by definition, hard to find.

I’ve noticed that when I’m attracted to someone that there are specific things I can point to about that person that appeal to me. Generally, the more I’m attracted to someone, the longer the list of things I love about them. In fact, my ex-girlfriend Natalie once gave me a list of over 100 things that she liked about me. I gave her one as well. And I could do something similar for all the women on whom I’ve had crushes.

As I look at other people’s relationships, I tend to think that they’re just running on random emotional/psychological attraction: tiny causes and effects too subtle or unconscious to be verbalized or quantified. Most people have a physical and emotional template that they’re attracted to for whatever Freudian/evolutionary/behavioral reasons. For myself, I know that in addition to that stuff, I’m also attracted to talents and passions. When I see an attractive woman, I can appreciate the physical beauty, but a part of me stops and says, “you don’t know this person, how could you love her at first sight? Chances are far greater that she’s boring.”

I am reminded of one of the final episodes of Freaks & Geeks where Sam finally gets to date the girl he’s been idealizing all year, and it turns out she’s pretty and sweet but dull. I wonder how many of my junior high and high school crushes would fall into this category. Given the benefit of time, and knowing who those particular women became, I’m sure the answer is: “the vast majority.” Had someone pulled me aside and asked me, “why are you attracted to this girl?” I would have had no demonstrable answer other than “she’s pretty.”

Still, the instinct remains. I could fall in love every day with a pretty girl on the street, but what’s the use in acting on the attraction if the odds are so heavily not in my favor that she’ll be intelligent, insightful, creative, etc.? How does anybody fall in love and have it all balance out?[3] I sense that it’s probably easier for uninteresting people to fall in love because uninteresting people are largely interchangeable. All they have to do is achieve whatever level of socio-economic success and wear whatever clothes meet the societal standard of the day. Being charming and clever are helpful, but those alone won’t help you in the dimly sparkling social jungle that is the New York bar/club scene where love, sex and romance are just another sport at which to compete[4].

So what do oddly shaped, non-interchangeable people do? How do they find each other? Is it even possible?

1.) The fashion industry as a whole is predicated on this predicament.
2.) The Internet has greatly expedited this process, thankfully. Even at a local level (thanks, MySpace).
3.) Based on a discussion I had with two divorcees recently, the answer is, “they rarely ever do.”
4.) I’m trying to think of a satirical swipe to make at Sex and the City here but frankly it’s not worth the effort.

Gender and Class Divisions in the Toy Department

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Experiencing the toy department in Dalhart’s Alco reminded me that, particularly when I was growing up, there were always the same divisions among the toy aisles. The Baby aisle, the Girl aisle, the Boy aisle, and…the Motorhead aisle. Technically also a Boy aisle, the Motorhead aisle is filled entirely with cars of various sorts. From what I recall as a youngster, the denizens of the Motorhead aisle were from the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. What does it say about that demographic that their toys are entirely based on real-life objects? The Boy Aisle contains spacemen, pirates, talking animals, Lords of Rings, robots…all these fantasy characters. And these toys are more expensive. I guess it’s just another way that lower class kids are cut off from dreams and things larger than the day-to-day grind by lack of access. Not to say that they’re entirely prevented from having an imagination, there’s just no commercial support from toy companies. And Hasbro with its $8 Star Wars figures isn’t helping any lower-income parents. Of course having no money for toys certainly can force some kids to make their own fun and be more creative, but I’d wager that’s a much smaller portion of the total audience than those who just end up playing with cars and not using their imagination.

Yes I know this blog entry is rambling and thesis-free, but these are just thoughts running through my head that I’ve attempted and failed to organize and you’re the beneficiary of my failure.

Overheard

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

Today at the local coffee shop in Laramie, a young co-ed from the University of Wyoming was talking on her cellphone as she sat down to the table behind me. She said something to the effect of, “You went on a date? Who dates these days? It’s like chivalry and good housekeeping; nobody does it anymore.”

I didn’t get a clear indication of what has taken the place of dating in modern courtship, but I assume it has something to do with text messaging, Facebook and MySpace. I for one welcome our New Courtship Overlords. I was never very good at dating in high school or college. I’d just hang around groups of people until a particular girl and I felt mutually affectionate enough to kiss. It seemed to involve less pressure than the expectations and demands of proper dating.

Meds, Part 2

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Note to readers of the earlier post on this topic: I caused some confusion by referring to “depression” not as clinical depression but more as general unhappiness. The clinical definition of depression is better suited to a discussion of antidepressants, and I’m more interested in unhappiness caused by societal factors.

Nevertheless I asked Heath what odds he’d give on clinical depression being caused primarily by external societal forces rather than purely internal ones, and he had this to say:

This question is both good and bad. First, allow me to address part of your question using a hypothetical situation.

Andrew, an American of middling intelligence, purchases a home that is objectively beyond his financial means. He also drives a fine car (he’s leasing) and collects wines. Andrew relishes the envy of his friends and relatives, that is until restructuring in the loan industry causes him to declare bankruptcy and lose his house[1]. Subsequent to the loss of his home, Andrew becomes depressed.

What is the cause of Andrew’s depression? There isn’t any one cause. Andrew’s materialism caused him to make decisions that ultimately led to the loss of his house, but Andrew will probably be more likely to blame his bankruptcy, the proximate cause of his suffering. We can apportion blame many different ways. I’m inclined to agree with Andrew, since it’s his head, and the drawbacks of materialism are probably the last things on his mind. Still, I can see Colter’s point that the ultimate source of trouble is society[2]. It seems plausible that a lack of fit between an individual and the larger society could lead to depression. I believe that more immediate and salient factors are more likely to have an effect on an individual’s mood.

This ends the good part.

Here begins the bad part: the distinctions “purely internal” and “purely external” are bogus. Depression is a maladaptive response to events (internal and external) characterized by pervasive negative emotions. It will always have internal and external factors.

1) Dear homeowners, please pretend it actually works this way. Whether this is factually accurate isn’t important to the proof.

2) Right — who here is part of society? You? Right then, you’re under arrest.

Meds

Friday, September 14th, 2007

Brian and I were discussing yesterday the high number of people we know currently on antidepressants. Much has been written about the rise in prescriptions for these meds, but I have to admit I haven’t really paid much attention. Obviously there are more and better meds available today than ever before, but are people more clinically depressed today than in the past? If there are, then here are some of the things that Brian and I speculated to be the most likely causes:

  1. Increasingly empty societal values (unhealthy body images, materialism, MTV)
  2. The erosion of religious fervor leading to a rise in existential crises
  3. Increased leisure time to contemplate 1 and 2
  4. Food additives, preservatives, pesticides, growth hormones, etc.

I’m leaving out purely neurochemical causes because I can’t believe that America in 2007 simply has greater numbers of purely neurochemically imbalanced individuals (people who, simply as a physiological or genetic fluke, have bad chemicals on the brain) than in, say, 1950. If we truly do, then #4 is the most likely culprit.

Whatever the cause, I’m still made very uneasy by the prescription of antidepressants to treat any of the four above causes.