Apartheid Dragonslayer

The hunter or warrior specialized in fighting a particular kind of enemy is a classic fantasy trope.  The dwarven goblin-killer, the cleric with a knack for exorcising possessing demons, the well-armored knight with a notch on her shield for each dragon she slays, the hunter who knows from a pattern of broken branches the age of the werebear that stomped through this forest last week: these are well-worn archetypes found in great variety in fantasy literature and its freestyle derivative, roleplaying games.

They also provide an interesting opportunity to talk about racism. Continue reading “Apartheid Dragonslayer”

Apartheid Dragonslayer

Shifty Lines: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

After the binge that was Shifty Lines: South Asia, a smaller helping of international relations is in order.  And as Ukraine and Russia still have some sorting out to do before their situation makes enough sense to summarize in this space, we will visit a less grandiose conflict: the Cyprus crisis.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire set up many of the conflicts explored in the Shifty Lines series, in particular those in the Persosphere, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Balkans.  The wholesale revolt of southeastern Europe against Ottoman rule took place in large part because of the emerging ideas of ethnic nationalism and self-determination, which prodded the long-suffering peoples of the Balkans to expel this latest empire and make their own way in the world.  At the same time, similar sentiments elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire had little chance to develop before they were commandeered and squelched by older European powers, in particular the French and British.  Where southeastern Europe divided into new nation-states that have mostly held steady (what became Yugoslavia being a notable exception), the re-colonized Ottoman possessions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant remain divided along colonial lines that serve as persistent sources of conflict.  The island of Cyprus is at the intersection of these two patterns.

Continue reading “Shifty Lines: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”

Shifty Lines: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus


I’ve never really thought of myself as a person of color.  I’m Hispanic, on both sides of my family, but that’s not necessarily what people see.

Mom has a look that blends into the swarthy shades of whiteness that define the region surrounding New York City and even more so South Florida, invisible against the Italians whose struggle made southern European shades acceptable in the United States.  But she has the low hairline and dark curls that made Carmen Cansino unacceptably “Mediterranean” for movies in the 1930s, the traits that led Cansino to undergo electrolysis, skin bleaching, and relentless hair dye to become Rita Hayworth, finally “white” enough for success.  For those who know what to look for, she is unmistakably Hispanic; to everyone else, she’s another dark-haired white woman who speaks with a Hoboken accent when she’s excited.

And Dad?  Dad has the ruddy complexion of someone who has worked hard jobs in the sun for decades, but it’s there all the time, even in the years he spent managing grocery stores and apartment buildings.  His edges are sharper than hers, his accent different enough that I hear it as no accent at all until he slips a little Cubanism into his sentences.  He, too, could tell people he was Italian or Greek or unqualified “white” if he wanted to, except that he actively cultivates the most Cuban mustache in the history of Cuban mustaches.  He, too, is invisible to people who don’t know what Hispanic people look like, or who don’t talk to him.

In the places where I’ve been, middle-aged white folks who spend a lot of time in the sun get talked to in Spanish first.  Sometimes, they answer in Spanish.

Continue reading “Off-White”


Shifty Lines: South Asia

This installment of Shifty Lines takes us to another region of Asia.  After looking at ethnolinguistic divides in north Asia, the Persosphere, and the Caucasus, we move now to the region known variously as the Indian subcontinent, “India,” and (most correctly) South Asia.

A Succession of Empires

South Asia has been the seat of empires throughout its history, starting from before the Indo-Aryan invasion with the Indus Valley Civilization.  Almost universally based in the north, these empires differed in how far into the subcontinent they conquered.  The early Mahajanapadas only edged into southern India, while the Maurya and Gupta Empires controlled virtually all of South Asia, including the Maldive Islands.  The rest of the time, southern, Dravidian India was independent under the Chola, Chera, and Pandya dynasties, with the Cholas managing to conquer much of India and parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia in the 10th century CE as well.  Sri Lanka was part of some of these South Indian empires, establishing a Dravidian minority alongside its Indo-Aryan majority.  During these periods of empire, the characteristic native religions of South Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism, became established, with Buddhism spreading into East and Southeast Asia as well.
Empires based in South Asia rarely crossed the Himalaya and Arakan mountains that separate modern India from Burma and China, while their borders with the Persian Empire were much more fluid.  The Himalayan regions of Nepal and Bhutan likewise retained their independence throughout most or perhaps even all of these imperial periods.  Thus, while the empires of India were the equals of any of their better-known neighbors and trading partners, they did not succeed in conquering a region vastly outside the currently recognized boundaries of South Asia.  These geographical limitations set up the next phase of India’s history: the Muslim conquests.
Between the 7th and the 15thcenturies CE, South Asia faced repeated invasions from Muslim powers, including the Umayyad Caliphate that conquered Spain.  The combination of invading armies from Persia and Central Asia and Arab mariners establishing trading posts along India’s western coast introduced Islam to India, which would eventually become home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of Muslims.  Numerous kingdoms became sultanates ruled by Persian and Central Asian conquerors, most notably in Delhi, while the south responded by uniting into the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire to repel further attackers. 
Muslim dominion in South Asia culminated with the Mughal Empire, during which Central Asian conquerors gained control over almost all of South Asia extending into Afghanistan and even further northwest, while never penetrating the southern tip of the Deccan.  Like many ancient empires, the Mughals exerted their power through vassals and tributary states, rather than having direct control over their vast holdings.  This decentralization, combined with Mughal appreciation for South Asian culture, led to the development of numerous syncretic and idiosyncratic forms of Islam in South Asia, many of which persist as the majority religions of various South Asian groups to this day.  Still, Islam was still widely viewed as a foreign intruder in Hindu-majority India, especially when subsequent Mughal rulers began rigidly enforcing Islamic norms and legally penalizing non-Muslims.
The Mughal period collapsed into a series of smaller empires much like the ones that had preceded them.  Former vassal states became ascendant, conquering virtually the entire region over the ensuing century.  In particular, the Maratha Empire emerged from central India to usurp Mughal control over most of South Asia, and the Sikh Empire became a formidable military force that conquered Punjab, Kashmir, Himachal, and nearby regions.  The Marathas were the last Hindu empire to rule in India, and their navy kept Arab, Portuguese, and other invaders at bay until the British conquest.
{Warning: This is a LONG one.}

Continue reading “Shifty Lines: South Asia”

Shifty Lines: South Asia

The Speedy

Every Hispanic person in the English-speaking world gets this question. One and all, we must all eventually confront…Speedy Gonzales.

Speedy Gonzales, the fleet-footed cartoon mouse with an outrageous Mexican accent and ethnic costume who spends his time outsmarting and outrunning various cartoon gringos and peninsulares in the service of his large family.

Speedy Gonzales, that bit of Latin America amidst the classic Americana of Loony Tunes that brought at least a little of Mexico’s rich culture to American attention, however flawed.

Speedy Gonzales, who predates the rest of the classic still-relevant Hispanic cartoon characters on Anglophone media by decades and was, for eons, our only representation in the medium.

Speedy Gonzales, who made sure that every single frigging time someone learns my last name, I hear catch phrases.

Thanks to that fifty-year-old cartoon mouse, being a GonzaleZ in the English-speaking world means hearing way too many “¡Ándale arriba!”s thrown your way and no one ever spelling your surname correctly even though it’s the original Spanish spelling minus the Anglo-confusing accent mark.

I kind of resent the little guy for that, if nothing else.  But the rest of my feelings about the Speedy aren’t quite that simple.

Cartoon Network ceased broadcasting Speedy Gonzales in 1999, citing concerns that the segments were racist.  After all, that accent is so heroically overwrought that Chris Tucker couldn’t do an impression of it.  Speedy’s costume is arguably not even Mexican (that’s a San Fermín festival kerchief, from Spain), making his Mexican-ness clueless as well as ham-fisted.  The majority of the other Mexican characters aren’t any better, either.  Where some are fairly well-done depictions not at all out of place in Revolution-era Mexico, the rest are all always wearing the same filthy outfit complete with a sombrero no matter what time of day it is.  And they spend almost all of their time smoking, getting drunk from clay bottles, and dancing to Mexican music.  Speedy’s brother Slow Rodriguez shoots someone in the face for antagonizing him.  This nonsense comes from higher up in the same well of racism that gave us Bugs Bunny’s blackface hunter, and needs to be acknowledged if we are to be critical consumers of popular culture.

But the thing is, Speedy is the hero.  He spends all of his time tricking equally outrageous caricatures of white Americans and wealthy Mexican landowners into dynamiting themselves, and he does it all for the love of his friends and family.  He’s determined, snarky, inventive, and virtually fearless.  And he almost always wins.  Is it any wonder that Mexicans in particular are awash with affection for Speedy Gonzales, who gives Americans who think they’re all lazy poncho-clad alcoholics and bandits their comeuppance?  Is it a surprise that Speedy Gonzales has become a cartoon role model, held as a dependable and capable heroic ideal by thousands of Latino families?

He even sings Cielito lindo correctly.  Not a garbled mishmash of Spanish-sounding syllables designed to sound familiar to Anglophone ears—he sings the actual words, in all their cloying sweetness.

If anything, Speedy Gonzales is a potent, almost tragically unsubtle commentary about class relations in Latin America.  It’s an even more powerful escapist fantasy of a scrappy Latino showing some overly entitled gringos what’s what.

And when you’re from a lineage that still gets on Anglophone TV primarily when the writer needs a drug runner or an abusive husband or a cuckold or a dark-haired beauty to bring sympathy to a street gang, it doesn’t matter that Speedy Gonzales is from elsewhere in Latin America, at home in a desert you’ve never seen, singing Cielito lindo instead of Guantanamera—you hang on to that.
The Speedy

The Oppressor’s Puzzle

[TW: Bouillabaisse of racist, sexist, and similar language.]

I hate the word “hate.”

It’s one of those words that’s easy to use and hard to use well.  Isn’t it obvious that Focus on the Family hates gay people?  Isn’t it obvious that David Barton hates atheists?  Isn’t it obvious that libertarians hate…anyone who’s ever asked them for anything?

But, that’s not how any of those people tell it.  What every one of those groups writes about their enemies is far more substantial than any mere “We hate.”  They enumerate an endless series of grievances as the basis for their assertions that gay people and atheists and the poor deserve whatever punitive oppressions they are advocating.  Moreover, they all assert that some beneficial end would be achieved by acting against those groups.

And it’s often just as convincing to argue that, within that delusional framework, every one of those people thinks they’re saving the world.  For if it actually were true that ending marriage discrimination might prod the omnibenevolent Alpha and Omega to explode some tectonic rifts on American soil, the case might hypothetically be made that continuing to obstruct equal rights was a matter of public safety.  Even such stereotypically hateful figures as Adolf Hitler are on record insisting that their actions served a greater good.

So why do we call them hateful?

It’s because we need to believe that we’re better than them.  It’s because we need to believe that there’s some special quality about them—their seething pathological hatred—that makes everything about them grotesque and untouchable.  It’s because we need to believe that people like that are rendered so alien, so “hateful,” that they hold no examples that the rest of us might need to notice.  It’s because far too many of us want to believe that the absence of hate means that nothing we do is harmful.

It’s because far too many of us want, when we’re called on something we’ve said that’s sexist or anti-trans, to be able to say “But I’m not a sexist!” or “But I didn’t mean to be offensive!” or “You should know me better than to think I’m anti-trans!” and have that be the end of it.

But that’s not how it works.

Oppressing other people is more than actively, consciously, “hatefully” advocating against them.  It’s more than intentionally wielding their identifiers as insults.  It’s even more than consciously holding bigoted opinions like “East Asian people are poor drivers.”  It’s about a climate of oppression.  It’s about societies that hold as implicit, subconscious givens that this or that group is abnormal, other, lesser, and treat them accordingly, often without even realizing it.

And every time we use “cunt” as an insult, or make a “dumb Polack” joke, or regard people with dwarfism as a novelty, we contribute to that climate.  Sexist, racist, anti-gay, anti-trans, ableist, and similar othering language is as surely harmful as a physical blow, and every instance thereof is a reinforcement of the targeted group’s outsider status.  For how good would you feel if a salient attribute of yours was so universally regarded as negative that other people could be insulted by being likened to or associated with it?

Here’s the thing, though:

The harm of racist, sexist, and other oppressive language and similar behavior has nothing to do with “hate” and everything to do with results.  That harm manifests every time someone’s joking remark about “girls not being good at math” undermines a promising woman’s confidence in herself.  That harm manifests every time some boss’s flippant comment about “spics” reminds his Guatemalan accountant of how his entire ethnic group is a designated political scapegoat for half of the United States.  That harm manifests every time a “midget tossing” novelty sign prods some bar patrons to ruin a little person’s evening for shits and giggles.  That harm manifests every time teenagers use “gay” as a synonym for “worthy of derision” and their closeted friend is reminded of why she doesn’t come out.  That harm is there regardless of whether anyone meant it to be.

The damage that oppressive language and similar behavior does has absolutely nothing to do with whether the person using it is “hateful.”  Whether someone’s excuse for calling women “cunts” is “Women should be second-class citizens and I’m putting them in their place” or “I’m from Europe and ‘cunt’ is practically a punctuation mark for me,” they’re still reinforcing the idea that it’s bad to be associated with vulvas. Even though they may not believe any such thing.  The harm that is bound up in words like “cunt” and “wop” and “midget” and “retard” is not magically repelled by the self-proclaimed beneficence of the person using them.

But some people would like us to think it is.  A disturbing subset of humanity seems to be convinced that the harm done by these words is somehow purely contingent on whether the person issuing forth a nonstop stream of hurtful language thinks of themselves as “a sexist” or “a racist” or “an absolute spherical bastard.”  Worse, they seem to think that anyone who experiences the hurt that is bound up in these words without such a hateful caricature being nearby is “oversensitive,” “hysterical,” “overreacting,” or “not giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.”  As though whether it fucking hurts that your identifier is the go-to slur for something inane and uninteresting somehow depended on whether or not someone was pointing that slur at you.  As though whether the person stabbing you meant to hit your aorta changes whether you’re going to need some paramedics.

As though whether someone “meant well” is relevant to an assessment of how much harm they did.

But it’s not.

The harm is NOT a property of “hateful” people, or of “oversensitive” victims.  The harm is a dictionary fact enmeshed in our society.

And it is our duty to not harm each other.

Not to insist, while we’re stabbing someone in the psyche, that it’s their fault it hurts, for not thinking well enough of the person currently stabbing them to realize they’re not “bad people.”

They’re not “bad people,” you see, so it’s okay that they insist on doing harm.

But after a while, it becomes really, pointlessly hard to tell apart someone who’s doing harm because they want to do harm, and someone who’s doing harm because they can’t be bothered not to and how dare you ask them.

Really, pointlessly, astronomer’s-puzzle hard.
The Oppressor’s Puzzle

Why I am an Atheist – 2 of 3

Miami was an interesting transition.  Elizabeth, New Jersey was founded in 1665 and was once the capital of New Jersey.  It had stairs and pointed roofs and narrow streets and snow every other year and about 120,000 people.  Miami was founded in 1896, about 75 years after the United States acquired Florida, and hosts about 400,000 people in the city and ten times that in the surrounding metropolitan.  Everything in Miami is longer, flatter, wider, and hotter.  In a way that just isn’t true in the American Northeast, the wilderness is around every corner.  We found knight anoles in our mango trees and blue mangrove crabs under our cars.  I probably had more affection for our New Jersey life than any of us, and I found this new place lovely.
Continue reading “Why I am an Atheist – 2 of 3”
Why I am an Atheist – 2 of 3

Fouling the Well

I had an encounter today that reminded me why I never subscribed to the ideas of “live and let live” and “what’s the harm?” that more ecumenical atheists like to levy at their “militant” counterparts.

I was walking back to the lab after picking up some groceries when a smiling old man handed me a pamphlet and muttered something I couldn’t make out. The pamphlet’s cover made it look like something spreading awareness about prejudice and discrimination, so I accepted the pamphlet with a smile and kept walking.

As I examined the literature I had just received, the back cover gave away its agenda. Some of you might already be familiar with Awake! Magazine, the less overtly religious counterpart to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ well-known propaganda outlet, the Watchtower. As I kept walking, I scarcely noticed the five or six other men standing in a group further up the street, handing out other pamphlets, including issues of the Watchtower and a charming little tract explaining that the evil demigod Satan is in control of the entire world other than the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so naturally the JWs are the only path to salvation.

This issue of Awake! (available here as soon as I find a link) devoted its first few pages to listing and offering Biblical injunctions against a variety of types of bigotry that people experience (naturally leaving out anti-LGBT sentiments), and the rest to encouraging the victims thereof to turn to the Jehovah’s Witnesses for succor.

I was barely halfway through my day, and my irony meter had already explodedThe Jehovah’s Witnesses, an organization that is elite among its fellows for tormenting its favorite minorities to the point that they commit suicide, and using that fact to torment them some more; that encourages the oppression of women and children so vociferously that entire organizations are devoted specifically to RESCUING THE WOMEN AND CHILDREN OF ABUSIVE JW FAMILIES; that, effectively, practices ritual child sacrifice via denying sick kids needed medical care and telling them they’re going to Hell if they complain about it; is trying to tell other people that they’re the answer to discrimination!? And they’re doing it on a street corner DIRECTLY ACROSS FROM A COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER THAT SPECIALIZES IN TREATING DRUG ADDICTION? AND THAT I HAVE ONLY SEEN HOMELESS PEOPLE ENTER?

The KKK may as well advertise themselves as the solution to racism.

I did not make a scene this time—I who make a game out of talking circles around Mormon missionaries until they can do nothing but stammer out how the horror stories I experienced firsthand by dating one and having 50 more as tenants in my parent’s rental property aren’t what the Latter-Day Saints are really like. I was too shocked by the scene I had just witnessed. Even ambulance-chasing lawyers draw the line somewhere before standing outside a drug-addiction treatment facility looking for people to con.

I was long gone, and not about to walk back seven blocks to shout at these predators, but I wanted to. I wanted to stomp back to the corner where the pizza parlor looked at the community health center and berate them. “Where do you get the GALL required to sell yourself as the solution to a problem you go out of your way to create? How do you sleep at night, knowing that you’re selling to the abused women and children and minorities of the world the very same poison that they get everywhere else, and calling it the antidote? How can you stand to gather here outside a place where some of the most downtrodden and desperate people in Ottawa come for aid, stomp on them even harder, and demand they thank you for it? Have you no shame!? “

I wanted to tear their rhetorical throats out. I normally face missionaries with a mix of amusement, pity, and irritated contempt, but this time they brought out rage. These people far exceeded any missionaries I had ever encountered for sheer, brazen opportunism. Every religion’s stock in trade is selling tainted water, but this group was camped out in the driest desert it could find, manning a tainted lemonade stand. I knew that this kind of shamelessness wasn’t even especially unusual among the more evangelical cults, but seeing it in action…made my blood boil. It reminded me why I feel bad every time I DON’T give one of these monsters hell.

The fact that an organization like this is not criminally prosecuted the moment it sets foot anywhere in the civilized world is a black mark on every nation. All of them.

Fouling the Well