Saturday, April 11, 2009

Poetry Captures Reality

One of poetry's several merits is its ability to crystallize a truth in a single group of words. In response to a horrifying tragedy, Haley Patail wrote about a murderer, "When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail," encapsulating an insight into the criminal mind.

Writing about the deceased victim and a funeral, she wrote, "I would go and give words to the dust-heavy air if it would change something, I would pretend that I know how to kneel in pews if it would make me feel right about this." The poet has recognized two spiritual truths here: that our songs and prayers do not change the fact that our loved ones have gone into the next life, that we bitterly grieve because we miss them; funerals are for the living, not for the dead - to remind the living about God and the afterlife - a reminder which will neither bring the deceased back into this life, nor ease our mourning, but a reminder which centers and stabilizes us by placing the events into a global, objective, and neutral frame of reference. By stating that our spiritual meditations neither "change something" nor make us "feel right about this," the poet has communicated these two truths in an efficient economy of words.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once made a comment to the effect that, if one wants to investigate eternal truths, poetry can often do a better job than philosophy.

Sometimes, Bigger is Better

Robert Kennedy was a major figure in the politics of the 1960's. His speeches and actions, as Attorney General of the United States, and later as a candidate in the primary elections, have been much studied and discussed.

One of nine children, Robert Kennedy was the father of eleven. He was tremendously popular in the press, in part because of this family image. Many of his eight brothers and sisters have earned their own fame in American politics, as have his children, and his numerous nieces and nephews.

The popularity of the Kennedy family stands as a paradox, given the hatred directed toward large families by much of the current media culture. Forty years after the emergence of the Kennedy political profile, the family remains influential in partisan government, but American culture has abandoned its respect for having children.

Statisticians, however, are not surprised by the success of the Kennedy clan. It has been shown that there is a strong correlation between large families and various indicators of success: the more children born to a married couple, the more likely those children are to earn good grades in school, do well on standardized tests, and to not commit crimes; further, those children will do better at the university, and are more likely to rise to positions of leadership in their communities and careers.

These are averages, of course. Exceptions do exist. But the general trend is undeniable, and not too surprising: to manage a large family, parents will need to be intelligent and organized, and the children will likely have these traits also.

Contrary to stereotypes in the electronic media, higher education levels among the parents also lead to larger families: married couples with college educations will likely have more children than those with less education.

Ever since Thomas Malthus wrote about population, it has been clear that sustainable, renewable, and environmentally responsible resources on planet earth can support world populations many times larger than the current six or seven billion. Overpopulation, which was considered a threat in the 1960's and 1970's, is not a danger.

Which leads us to a mystery: why, then, is there such antipathy toward families who have more than two or three children? This is a field for research. Although sociologists have advanced a number of theories, there is no clear cause for this irrational hatred - or, perhaps there is a clear cause, but nobody has yet discovered it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Is Obama Black, or Simply African-American?

America's obsession with racial politics is fanned daily by the press. An unending stream of articles continues to examine Obama's status from the perspective of his skin color.

A recent variation on this theme is to examine the quality of Obama's "blackness": in Detroit, a survey received responses like: "He is not black enough" or "That is what you get, when you have a mixed child raised by a white mother."

These responses point to a painful and divisive topic within American society: at the intersection of race and culture, the situation of mixed-race children is highlighted to an uncomfortable degree.

Obama, like Alicia Keyes and Halle Berry, is the result of a brief marriage between a Black man and white mother; after the marriage disolved, he was raised by his mother. Young Barack did not grow up in the "hood" of Harlem, Watts, or Detroit. He grew up in a middle-class, college-educated, white extended family. He may be African-American, but Detroiters are wondering if he's Black.

And not only Detroiters. Black Entertainment Television's Jeff Johnson notes that there's a difference between "Obama the president" and "Obama the personality," saying, "he's my president, and not my homie."

Obama's life has hardly been that of a "homie": a private prep school in Hawaii from fifth grade until his senior year in high school; before that, a paradoxical mix of private Roman-Catholic elementary schools and a Madrasah in Indonesia. His life experience places him far outside the mainstream of African-Americans. He spent no significant amount of time in the continental United States until after graduating from high school; after that, he was at Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

Obama's mother is from Kansas, and studied Anthropology and Russian at the University of Hawaii and the University of Washington. Obama's father was separated from his mother long before the couple's actual divorce, and so young Barack had no formative influence from his African father as a child.

Americans continue to try to understand their new president: is he Black? is he African-American? is he Hawaiian-Kenyan-Indonesian?

How does he view the African-American culture, if he grew up in an white extended family, away from the major Black urban centers? How does he understand American society, if he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia?

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Race Numbers

No, this isn't about NASCAR. The numbers mentioned are statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, reflecting the population of the Ann Arbor area:

74.68% White
8.83% Black or African American
0.29% Native American
11.9% Asian
0.04% Pacific Islander
1.21% from other races
3.05% from two or more races

These numbers are based on the census from the year 2000, revised according to subsequent surveys and calculations.