On Ideology and infrastructure

Infrastructure is expensive. That’s the way of things.

Major infrastructure shifts are even more expensive. And the U.S. in general has lagged behind on major infrastructure developments for about 40 years now. Ever since the Reagan era, no one wants to commit public resources to providing better infrastructure here at home— we hear the cry of “socialism,” and “big government.” This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be very wary of socialism, or that big government isn’t a problem. But perhaps that shouldn’t push us away from being concerned about our infrastructure. We have spent more and more on wars and entitlements of various kinds, but with better infrastructure and better education, we wouldn’t need quite so many entitlements, and often, these wars are unnecessary, and products not of national defense, but flat-out imperialism.

Too many fight this perspective, it seems — and such is partially a problem tied to the intense U.S. cultural focus on localism and individual liberty.

Our public education systems are a messy patchwork, our national highway systems are incredibly expensive to maintain, and the need for road expansion just to have the parking for individual cars often exceeds our capacity, especially in the crowded Wasatch Front area of Utah where I live.

Limited government, and fiscal responsibility are important components to a nation that wishes to remain free. The road to serfdom is not only paved with entitlement, an ignorant public, a shrinking middle class, and corporate welfare, but also with inflexible ideology.

My experience and my instincts both tell me that ideology makes for bad policy — not because there aren’t effective and true ideologies out there. No — ideology itself, in its axiomatic inflexibility (not to mention the frequently inflammatory rhetoric so often intertwined in its presentation) is too simple to explain and account for the varieties of our reality.

Libertarianism, in all its anti-big-government glory, and its admiral wish to protect civil liberties above all else, can be blind to systemic societal problems. And the voluntaryism espoused by its adherents never can, by itself, make major dents in improving our quality of life. (And regardless of its effectiveness, voluntary is difficult to define– the definitions of “voluntary” and “coercion” are fuzzier than many Voluntaryists would like to admit.) The intense focus on individual liberties, and the disregard, disdain, or outright disapproval for any group action that encourages or enforces cultural norms — these negative reactions will destroy community, eventually.

Libertarianism, at its core, makes assumptions about human nature that treat individuals not simply as independent actors, but ones only minimally affected by the conditions of mortality, by psychology, by social conditioning. The zeal of Libertarians is infectious, and powerful, but too often, this zeal leads to blaming the poor for their circumstance — which may be fair at times — instead of finding systemic ways to lift them out of their condition — which doesn’t have to be fair or unfair to be wrong.

On the other end of the spectrum, Communism, and all of it’s Socialist cousins — are just as guilty, if not more so. Socialism, in it’s zealous desire to build a community that allows the individual to flourish without exploitation by the state or the corporation, does the inverse: it makes community meaningless — or simply annihilates it, because of assumptions about human nature that ignore or subvert any notion of a fundamental human nature, human roles or relationships. Socialism says: we can build new societies any way we want, and so of course we should. But this is dangerous when we perceive human beings to be more flexible than they really are — and here’s where it gets weird. Human beings aren’t a Tabula Rasa, or a blank slate — but this is the fundamental belief that socialist ideologies almost always purport — but individualists, including Libertarians, make this assumption too. This is why I’m drawn to conservatism as much as Libertarianism (although I will frequently agree with the latter group about civil liberty policies). I like conservatives because they believe in a fundamental order to the universe. But like a good anthropologist, I hesitate to believe in absolutes, and instead am more willing to accept that there are, generalities that will never fundamentally alter (I do not claim to be an anthropologist of any variety, but I do admire them at times). And like a good historian (which I do claim to be), I believe that context never vanishes, and that it always has significance.

Ideologies often focus on what human beings deserve, and I have big objections and problems with the very concept of desert (not a dry biome characterized by a lack of rainfall, but a social and moral concept revolving around notions about what ought or ought not to be given to certain people — or simply ought to be, period).

We have spent centuries studying both empirically and religiously, what people’s needs are. What we have never been able to do, is get any sort of real consensus on what people deserve. What people deserve can’t be studied empirically, because such study must rely on answering the is-ought question that philosophers have debated, politicians have assumed the answer to, religious leaders have conflicting messages over, and that business, and the general public, have too often ignored.

I don’t trust ideology. I don’t believe in Utopia (not of man’s making). And I hesitate to make drastic changes to society — such changes require intense study by experts and generalists, and should be made carefully and with precision and sensitivity.

But I do believe in progress. And from where I’m standing, it has been too long since American Republicans have believed in the same — too long since they’ve recognized what it means to truly be conservative.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Gun Problems

We have gun problems in the U.S. We’re not alone– many nations have gun problems. Ours are interesting in part because of our profoundly exuberant and resilient ‘gun culture’, as well as our constitutional protection of gun rights.

The right to bear arms has been argued to be both a private, individual protection of individuals against crime, of individuals and citizens against big government, and of course there’s the argument that it’s not about individuals so much as it’s a protection of the citizenry in general’s ability to form militias.

I don’t know which of these were meant to be protected by the U.S. constitution. Perhaps all of them are. I do believe that which of them is most valuable should also be weighed against the cost of fundamentally altering the original document by new amendments, or by radical reinterpretation (especially narrow interpretation) of the meaning of the 2nd amendment. Whatever the exact meaning of the 2nd amendment, it is embedded deeply in American culture, for good or for ill. Which means that discussions of gun safety, gun rights, and gun control are especially heated.

I have few ideas about ways in which discussion of guns in the U.S. can change for the better. There are 2 ways I know of to attempt to reconcile positions that are enormously different. The first is compromise. The second is innovation. They are not mutually exclusive. Gun rights advocates and gun control advocates need to stop ‘talking past each other.’

A stereotypical conversation about gun rights and problems might go like this:

Liberal: “We should really do something about these crazy shooters! Wouldn’t less guns and more difficult access to guns make it harder for them to be as violent?”
Conservative: “The 2nd amendment guarantees my rights to bear arms and defend myself from these shooters.”

These two haven’t really talked about the same thing– not yet. And usually the argument doesn’t get past this problem, although the particulars will vary and it may go on a long time. Liberals object to all the solutions conservatives propose, and vice versa. Part of this stems from the fact that gun violence is hard to study, and to some degree has been made more difficult by the attempts of the NRA to make gun studies harder to do, or to prevent funding for such studies. On the other hand, liberals are just as guilty as conservatives; they are notorious for ignoring or dodging the argument that says that CCWs, armed guards, and better police presence can reduce violence by making criminals think twice about what might happen if they attempt a crime. Conservatives and liberals both appeal to studies and statistics from various places in the world, but usually neither group accounts very well for the cultural differences or the contexts for many of these things. Conservatives will cite Switzerland as an example of a highly armed society where crime is minimal– but ignore the fact that the requirement for military service in Switzerland is very different than our military structure in the U.S., or they make the argument broader by claiming that Switzerland’s model of required military service would be beneficial. But that’s a different kind of claim. Simple small changes are easier to talk about than enormous shifts in military requirements, and the cultural differences between Switzerland’s historically (fairly) homogeneous people and the diversity of groups in the U.S. (and the ensuing cross-cultural internal struggles or lack thereof) are difficult to incorporate into a solid pro-gun argument.

Liberals on the other hand will cite countries in which firearms are effectively banned, like Japan or Britain. There are problems with these categorizations, too, the most obvious of which is Britain’s high violent crime rate– there is more to these pictures than liberals usually choose to portray. In addition, these arguments are not likely to even appeal to an audience that regards firearms as something fundamentally different from what liberals categorize them as.

Liberals see guns as a tool with a single function– and little nuance to that function. According to them, the gun is a device to kill with, and a handgun in particular is designed for killing people, not animals. And of course there are also liberal groups that don’t even recognize hunting as a valuable or legitimate activity, but that’s another argument entirely. But this is exactly where I think the divide becomes important– how we regard a tool, and the level of nuance which we give it.

Conservatives too, are guilty of ignoring nuance, as they portray firearms as simply protective devices for law-abiding citizens, and ignore virtually the entirety of the community and individual instances of the abuse of firearms in the name of justice, so-called ‘Manifest Destiny’, or again, ‘protection,’ that dominate the historical U.S. landscape, especially the mid-west, the west, and the south of the U.S. Here I refer to the attitudes that generate police militarization, a problematic development that in recent years has both libertarians and liberals outraged quite often. Some will want to dismiss this as unrelated to the issue of individual firearm ownership, but there is likely a deep connection between the issues, when one focuses on the psychology of guns.

Both conservatives and liberals ought to be more willing to attempt to grasp the values the other group has before they even begin to engage in an argument. Essentially, both groups approach the gun issue with a typically closed mindset about what they will or will not agree to as solutions for the problems we face.

Guns are a tool. Understanding what kind of tool they are, and the psychological implications they have for differing groups– these matter to the discussion, but they are seldom discussed (in my experience).

Previously I mentioned compromise and innovation as solutions to our bi-cultural impasse. Compromise is valuable, and I think with a better understanding of what each group values, all of us will be better able to come to compromises that we can settle for. But the superior component in this is innovation. Innovation tends to ask if there is another way entirely– some way that would allow both groups to have their way, or would redefine circumstances such that the problem disappears, or says both sides are wrong or insufficient– and sends them back to the drawing board. Innovation will help us. We must be imaginative if we want to come up with ways in which gun-rights and gun-control can be adequately addressed. I have ideas of my own, but I’d like to let them cook before I bring them to the table. In time, I’ll make a post on my own suggestions.


Filed under Law, Philosophy, Politics

Parental Rights and the Public Education Classroom

Recently a Utah legislator proposed a parental ‘bill of rights‘ regarding the education of their children. The idea seems to be that parents will agree to be more involved with their children’s education, and will then get more of a say in how they are educated.

This is very poorly thought out (read: not at all). I’m convinced that this legislator has no idea what it’s like in a Utah classroom already.

From a theoretical perspective, rights cannot be had without the exercise of responsible behavior. As it stands, parents have little say in how the state educates their child, officially. I don’t approve of this legislator’s position, but it seems to be a response to the parental demand for more say in how their children are educated. In some sense, it would have to be contractual. In general, I think this would be disastrous, because we don’t have a society that gives parents pay enough to spend extra time with their kids’ teachers and schoolwork anyway.

We effectively outsource the education of our children to professionals because it’s effective. (This is not to suggest that innovation and adaptation won’t occur, but that there are at least some good reasons for what we do right now. I honestly wonder how effective it will remain.)

Teachers spend years learning how to manage a classroom full of children and get them to grab a hold of the information and skills they’ll need. They are trained on how to do this. Some of them are better than others. The only advantage a parent typically has is that they will know their children better (ideally), and therefore know how to adapt materials to their childrens’ needs. But I do believe that the great variety of experience and training of a teacher will weigh in heavier most of the time.

This is not to say that homeschooling or private tutoring can’t be extremely effective, but they usually ‘cost more’ in some sense. They require more investment for a parent anyway– in their own education, or in their willingness to learn alongside of their children as they move through subjects. A parent must also seek the materials for their children to work with, and find activities to engage their children. This is literally a full-time job. To be fair, I also wonder if

This is not to say that I discourage homeschooling. I encourage it, and am proud to be from a state that endorses and has a great support system for ‘dual enrollment’– where a student to can attend part of public school, but also obtain homeschool credits. (My current understanding is that this is limited to Junior High and High School, but I’m still learning about it.  Here’s a link with the legal mumbo-jumbo.)

This dual enrollment program is far more effective a resource than some parental bill of rights would be. And it is already in place. With that said, I’ll be watching this development carefully. If this becomes some method by which to prosecute ‘irresponsible’ parents, or it becomes clear that this is a ‘classist’ kind of a program that essentially widens the gap between children who recieve time and attention from their parents, and those who do not then I’ll have to condemn it even more strongly.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Black Friday as a Wholesome Tradition and Destructive Force

Yesterday I did the unforgivable. I shopped on Black Friday. To be fair– I was not up at 5 am, or 7 am, or even 8 am. I didn’t leave the house until 11:10. And furthermore, I had already decided what I was going to buy– and it was only one, relatively inexpensive item. I had been shopping for dress shoes for about 2 weeks, and had decided on one pair in particular. It should be noted here that my taste in dress shoes is a bit eclectic, and while I’m generally picky, I’m even more picky about my shoes. I drove to the mall, went to the shoe section of the department store, and asked about the shoes I had already tried on. I picked up a pair in my size (at a 65% discount), and went on my merry way.

Perhaps I can explain further. For about 10 years now, I have essentially espoused the position that Black Friday is a day on which one should hang out at home all day long. Which I have done, faithfully during that time period. And I still espouse the position that Black Friday is generally terrible and that it is not an event worth participating in, as a general rule. But I had a thought today.

Having studied some anthropology in school, I began to wonder how a cultural anthropologist would explain Black Friday as a… familial phenomenon. The stampedes of Black Friday, the wanton materialism are atrocious. The products purchased largely originate in places where working conditions, governments, and life in general are all pretty terrible for those involved of the production of our phones, shoes, t-shirts, toys, etc.

But some of this is a product of circumstances and infrastructure over which most of us have little direct control. And some of it is such clearly awful behavior on the part of the shoppers, that no one in their right mind would condone it, myself included. However, I began to wonder where Black Friday has come from. I’m sure there are many contributors, but among them are one that I’ve seen among my female relatives. My wife doesn’t shop for fun the way some do, but she really enjoys shopping with her mother and sisters. Women bond over shopping– I don’t know how that works, to my knowledge I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Women bond over cooking, too. And sometimes they bond over other things, like running/aerobics/yoga, or even particle physics, right? But, they like to do things together, and in some sense, Thanksgiving AND Black Friday share this thing– a common activity and purpose. In some sense, shopping on Friday is an extension of the family gathering that began the day before. This can be low-key and fun, or high-intensity and stressful, or half a dozen other things. My point is that it doesn’t have to be this awful, terrible thing. And it doesn’t have to be all about the deals and doorbusters. A friend of mine and anthropology student says that we should “Consider Black Friday to be not just a ritualized tradition, but a liturgical tradition.” It marks the passage of time, and the coming of the Christmas season– and shopping, for whatever reason, is something long associated with the Christmas tradition (even before the advent of our current version of Consumer Capitalism).

Here’s what I think anthropology might say: Traditions have a measure of stability that lend them both authority and a ritualization that grants them similar respectability. Cooking your turkey a specific way, or having certain games, or having Thanksgiving in a particular location– all these can have similar weight, emotionally speaking. But Black Friday has a couple of complications it adds to the Thanksgiving weekend.

First, it is changing and expanding rapidly. In this sense, I think I can say that it’s clear that Thanksgiving and Black Friday have yet to come to a position of balance. Because of this, some people are working on Thanksgiving that didn’t used to– retailers, mostly. (Combined with the recent economic crunch, and the rapid winnowing of the economic mobility of the poor, lower, and middle class in the U.S., this is particularly irksome, understandably, and I think that retailers and larger corporations would be wise to listen to their employees on these matters– I don’t really have a solution to that problem, but I think there are  systemic solutions out there, mostly because I believe in creativity and innovation.)

Second, enter the context of American Consumer Capitalism, which, in a general sense, pervades our modes of life in the U.S. This is not to say that there are many that resist this force, but they have not been successful in creating many pockets where it does not reach. So, the social activities of Black Friday are intensely driven by modes of the thinking that pit us against one another– in ways that could be theoretically (physically) harmless, but that are in practice the cause of many injuries, and it appears, even deaths, in the mad race for the newest, shiniest thing at the supermarket. Black Friday is not unique in that it is shaped by consumer capitalism, but it is still unique somehow as a liturgical moment in the American cultural landscape. This may be partially because unlike many other holidays, Black Friday is a modern invention not tied to the state (unlike say, Memorial day), and it’s connection to Christmas is tenuous at best, and virtually non-existent in some cases. It is a day whose sole purpose seems to be surrounded by, driven by, and immersed in the need to buy– to consume, to acquire– yet this doesn’t quite encapsulate it either. As my friend noted to me, “It’s not just a big sale.  We have those all the time.”

He sums it up well. “Black Friday is camping out in the cold so you can save 50% off on a game system — with other people. Black Friday is about pushing past bodies of other people in order to get what you want. Black Friday is about swearing at other people who can’t drive or drive recklessly. It’s about the insane, frenetic interaction with other people that makes it Black Friday.”

Somehow, Black Friday is both communal and competitive. It is a communal experience in that it has, with some pushing and shoving, made its way into the American liturgy, and therefore affects virtually all Americans (except perhaps expats). If one could hope for something truly positive to come out of Black Friday, I don’t see that it will be an economic benefit– at least not one across the board. Nor does it bode well for our cultural development. Americans are made up of such diverse groups, that this shopping frenzy is notably appealing across cultural divides. And yet it does nothing to truly unite us.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Truth in Storytelling

There is a power in storytelling. Our stories have the power to tell us the truth about the world, and reaffirm that truth in ways that change our behavior for the better. They can teach us things that are untrue, be they ugly fantasies, self-deception, false ideals– in this way they can be our undoing.

I’ve found myself watching a number of popular animated films lately. Wreck it Ralph, The Sword in the Stone, Cars, Pinocchio, Brave, Howls Moving Castle, and my all-time favorite animated film, How to Train Your Dragon.

I’ve noticed some patterns in the more modern stories. Perhaps they reflect the culture and values of today. This would be unsurprising. I intend to suggest something more radical, perhaps? My suggestion is that not only does that which is popular appeal to the masses, but that there are truths that can only be discovered through storytelling. While I do not believe in an axiomatic world, in which a single, or even a few axioms, can describe and work out all the problems of our world, I certainly do believe that there are fundamental components to human nature. Anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and scientists may (and do) disagree on this point.

I am certain that the best of stories speak to us something true about ourselves– not you and me as individuals, nor society at large (which one, eh?)– but rather both at once. And these best stories will rise to the top. They will consistently be the stories that become timeless.

Of my favorite animated film I will say that the appeal it has is one of an individualistic culture. Hiccup, the main character, finds a way to be his best self– and in doing so, he also serves his community. He is a naturalist, an animal lover, and an engineer. His talents are in his ability to build and create, and his inquisitive nature and problem-solving ability. These, in the end, transform his way of life first, and then transform those around him.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Kennewick Man, Media Bias, and NAGPRA

Kennewick Man, Media Bias, and NAGPRA (note: I wrote this in the Fall of 2008, and got around to editing and posting it in Fall of 2012)

The Kennewick Man controversy has possibly altered the landscape of American archaeology and anthropology like nothing has before. It has exacerbated the already turbulent relationship between the archaeological community and Native Americans. In the realm of archaeological finds, it has impacted the American public more quickly and more profoundly than almost anything previous. It seems to be a sort of archetype of current American archaeology. Yet it is but one example of the U.S. Government’s and the American archaeological community’s interactions with the Native Americans. The history of American archaeology has been plagued with ‘racial science’ and disregard for the Native Americans, their desires, and their needs as peoples. The Umatilla Indians have struggled with the Kennewick Man controversy directly, including the detrimental effects of media distortion on the issue. On the other hand, there are increasing examples of American-Indian groups that could be said to be abusing powers granted them by the government where archaeology is concerned.1 Media spin, unclear language in NAGPRA law, and inflammatory language and actions from both the Umatilla indian Tribe, and James Chatters, the initial forensic anthropologist to study the skeleton ‘Kennewick Man’, have served to make the Kennewick Man issue far more complicated than it had to be.

Before the introduction of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), the various attempts of the government (and others) at protecting the Native Americans were largely ignored, thwarted, forgotten, or just plain ineffective—with the exception of the Indian Reorganization Act, which effectively dismantled the previous Dawes Act, and attempted to give the Indians some tribal autonomy and land base.2 And although NAGPRA hasn’t ended all the difficulties—it has given the Indians some powerful federal backing. NAGPRA in a nutshell states that Native Americans have a right to a proper burial—mandating that all Native American remains and burial artifacts in government museums must be cataloged and available for repatriation to appropriate tribal organizations. Also, any remains or burial artifacts found on federal land that may be connected to a tribe must first be offered to said tribe. This is where Kennewick Man comes in.

Kennewick Man was discovered the 28th of July of 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River during the annual hydroplane races. The discovery of a human skull on the bank of the river was brought to the attention of the local police, and eventually to James Chatters, a forensic anthropologist3. Chatters searched the area and found a very nearly complete skeleton. His first impression was that Kennewick Man was a settler from the 1800’s, based on the remains of an early homestead among the bones.4 However, as he examined the bones, Chatters found a spear point in the man’s hip. Such is unusual—especially for an 1800’s settler—so he sent some samples of bone to a facility to have radiocarbon dating done. The results showed that the bones were ancient—about 9,000 years old. This gave Chatters mixed feelings; this was an amazing find and there was a great story to tell that could be had from studying the remains, but it may not be told at all, considering that local Indian tribes might want to bury the remains, and could be granted that right by NAGPRA.5 Chatters was right; The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation made a claim for the remains—as did several other groups, including the Nez Perce tribe.6 The legal logistics became complicated very quickly, and the lack of clarity in NAGPRA became apparent.

Many voices were speaking about the ancient skeleton, and not many were very clear. Of course, the news media listened to all of them—as generally it should, but often enough, put it’s own spin on things to attract attention. They drew some conclusions that, upon a closer examination, were ridiculous. A great example of this was the oft-quoted statement from James Chatters, “I’ve got a white guy with a stone point in him.”7 Chatters was often frustrated by the twists the media gave to the story, and repeatedly attempted to correct the notion of the remains being called ‘European’ or ‘Caucasian;’ he insisted that it wasn’t the case.

The Umatilla Indian tribe has ended up dealing with quite a hassle, and perhaps they were a bit of a hassle themselves. There are only two repatriations they’ve been involved in, and one has taken thirteen years, and has finalized in the repatriation of some human remains, and a number of funerary artifacts from the former Maxey Museum, now known as the Northwest Museum. 8 The other is Kennewick Man—which, as of 2012 is still in the Burke Museum in Seattle. They have the problem of skepticism toward their religion and their oral history and its validity. This is compounded by different voices, including scientists, politicians, white supremacists, and bad media confusing the issue. Even the Asatru, a Norse pagan group, claimed that Kennewick Man was their ancestor. The issue was blown so out of proportion and distorted by the media so quickly, that clear, relatively unbiased sources have been scarce.

A prime example of these distorted sources is found in National Review in July of 1997. There was an article published entitled “Devolution,” which stated, “Scientists believe that Kennewick Man may represent a people who migrated from Europe over a North-Atlantic land bridge, only to be later subsumed by Indian latecomers. (Might the Indian-style spearhead lodged in Kennewick Man’s side be a clue?) The Umatilla Indians would rather we not know.” This doesn’t present the Indians request in a fair way—instead of telling us why the Indians disagree with the scientists desire to study the bones. Instead they present the Indians solely as opposers of scientific inquiry. It may be granted that the National Review is not peer reviewed—but little that reaches mainstream audiences is, and such is part of the problem. We live in a world that is shaped and presented by the media—often very poorly. The aforementioned article continues, saying, “Although Kennewick Man is clearly unrelated to any American Indians, the Umatillas nonetheless may have a case under a post-modernist provision of NAGPRA.” It can claim such based mostly on ‘caucasoid’ traits forensically determined by the aforementioned anthropologist Chatters. But there are problems with forensics and morphology (study of bone structure) relating to the age of bones.

Scientists have also told us that skull shape and bone structure vary greatly from generation to generation.9 The idea that morphology can help determine a person’s origins or relatives has long been associated with racial typology—a touchy subject for this case.10 And although such does not have to be the case, and morphology can be useful, the terms used can lead back into racial typology again. In addition, morphology tends to apply best within the last couple hundred years, and by a thousand years, it can be pretty uncertain.11 So the idea that such information tells us that Kennewick Man is unrelated to modern day Native Americans is fairly inconclusive—although it may point us in some interesting directions. Instead, it is more likely that Kennewick Man is related to a great many modern day tribes.12

According to the popular opinion, the inconclusive scientific evidence weighs in more heavily than oral tradition. It would appear that we have inconclusive evidence on both sides—until we look at the wording of NAGPRA.

(e) Evidence. Evidence of a kin or cultural affiliation between a present-day individual, Indian tribe, or Native Hawaiian organization and human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony must be established by using the following types of evidence: Geographical, kinship, biological, archeological, anthropological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion.

(f) Standard of proof. Lineal descent of a present-day individual from an earlier individual and cultural affiliation of a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony must be established by a preponderance of the evidence. Claimants do not have to establish cultural affiliation with scientific certainty.13

Noticing the specific statements “geographical … folklore, oral tradition,” “preponderance of evidence” and “do not have to establish cultural affiliation with scientific certainty,” it can be concluded that such evidence is likely to be taken lightly in court, and dismissed—as it has been for the last 200 years—hence the specific inclusion herein. There are scientists today, who examine with great curiosity the folk tales and oral traditions of many tribes, finding clues to the past there, although this approach isn’t typical.

Religious claims are generally not considered as seriously as other, more analytical or science based claims are, for the simple reason that they often aren’t provable by in court, or in the lab. But when the Umatilla Indians ceded their lands to the U.S. Government, nowhere in such treaties did they cede their rights to their dead, or their rights to a proper burial for them—or their ancestors.14

It’s possible that Kennewick Man came from somewhere else—and thus is not ‘native,’ and so wouldn’t be subject to NAGPRA, but Chatters himself in an early interview said that he was probably born within 200 miles of where he died, and that he is very probably an ancestor of modern American Indians (assuming he had children).15

The Umatilla Indians claim their legal rights to the skeleton. Found on their website is some of the history of their legal struggle. One of their religious leaders, Armand Minthorn, says “…(NAGPRA)… as well as other federal and state laws, are in place to prevent the destruction of, and to protect, human burials and cultural resources.” He also claims the support of four other tribes in the northwest area, all of which have similar religious beliefs. The Umatilla Indians worry about destructive tests in particular and seem to feel that scientific testing in general is a ‘desecration’ of the remains.16 Many other tribes have made similar claims across America, but it is unusual for such an instance to provoke such heated debate among those in mainstream America—it is usually left to the scientists and scholars to sort things out with the tribes.

However, there are those in the scientific community that claim that many Indians are overzealous, vengeful, and/or unreasonable with their claims and requests.

So there are other parts of the story. The Haida tribe, of British Columbia wasn’t satisfied with the usual. From a publication in ‘Politics and Life Sciences’:

…museum workers and officials were required to participate in Native American rituals on the museum grounds for the spirits of the skeletons, as well as to attend a “Feast to Show Respect.” Another request of the Haida was for the destruction of casts made of some of the bones. No scientist will ever be able to study this large collection again.17

These sorts of seemingly vengeful acts may be what some scientists fear– the idea that their profession will come under increasing attack by Native Americans and supporters until the life is choked out of it entirely. Perhaps such is an extreme example– but their have been such clamps on science before in the United States—the Milgram and Stanford experiments in the 1970s. Both of these were also judged based on human rights. Such a position is supported by David Walker, ethnographer.18
The magazine Preservation, claims that “Chatters nearly lost his forensic consulting business because of tribal pressures.”19 If the Umatilla Indians felt that Chatters was threatening their way of life—they apparently weren’t entirely above threatening his. In fact, the first contact Chatters had with the Umatilla Indians after the discovery was a phone call from the cultural resources office of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It was an irate Jeff Vanpelt, who had been presumably informed by the Army Corps of Engineers.20 Jeff seemed ready to tear Chatters to pieces when he had hardly had enough time to know what he was working with. Jeff continued to exacerbate the situation in other ways by being generally uncompromising and disagreeable, as well as by attempting to discredit Chatters and destroy his reputation with the Coleville tribe of eastern Washington, at which he was somewhat successful (Chatters had worked with the Coleville tribe cooperatively for years).

And interestingly enough, when it was granted that the Asatru could perform their rituals—it was demanded that they in no way alter the state of the bones, yet the Umatilla Indians had been allowed access to the bones, “Scientists complained that the bones were being tampered with in the federal storage facility; and, indeed, various ritual items had been placed among the bones and some bones were missing.”21 The concern here was that the cedar boughs in with the bones would ‘damage’ them, or change moisture content and make studies of the bones more difficult. The Indians also worried about destructive studies—and in putting cedar boughs in with the bones, it’s possible that they could ‘damage’ the bones—skewing information future studies—so it seems ‘damaging’ the bones is defined differently by each side.

It is interesting to note the lack of comparison from the media with regard to other ancient skeletons, or which there have been discovered 3 dozen or more in North America. References to comparable archaeological finds seem not to make it out of the peer-reviewed journals. One of these was discovered after Kennewick Man and is virtually unknown. The site was known to a few as “On your knees Cave,” and is in Alaska, on Prince Edward Island. When compared to the Kennewick Man discovery, the remains found in Alaska have been treated far differently. David Thomas uses the discovery in Alaska to provide a model for a hopeful future in relations between tribes and others in his book, Skull Wars.22 In stark contrast to the discovery in Washington, the scientists who discovered the remains in Alaska chose immediately to notify and work directly with the local Indians, even having natives as interns to help them with the study process. After DNA studies as well as other analysis, the skeleton was turned over completely to the tribes involved. Recently, Timothy Heaton, professor and department chair of Earth Sciences at The University of South Dakota, was invited to a reburial ceremony in Alaska.23 >Such isn’t a far cry from what James Chatters had done for some time when dealing with the Coleville tribe.

There are many things that went wrong to make the Kennewick Man case such a problem. Many hope that the Kennewick Man case will be the last of it’s kind, but that isn’t necessarily likely. There are problems with NAGPRA’s vague wording, and lack of specific instructions in some areas. There are those Native Americans who now have political power, and will not seek to use it for useful and just ends—but may instead use it for retribution on those they consider usurpers to their lands, and desecrators of their ancestors. There are scientists that are becoming more aware of the Native American groups, and their needs, and desires, but struggle with how to compromise with them. And then there’s the media, who aren’t concerned with the resolution of the issue, nor an accurate record of what went on, but instead are trying to be as catchy as possible—even if it puts the wrong spin on things.

Yet there is hope for a more cooperative future, as demonstrated by the Maxey repatriation, and the dig at ‘On Your Knees Cave.’ There must be a compromise, and there must be forgiveness. James Chatters was mercilessly attacked from almost the very start, and it only served to inflame the situation. There were poor choices of words—one Chatters’ part, and more especially on the part of the media—in describing Kennewick Man, who later has been stated to be morphologically similar to any groups living today,24 and finally there was confusion between the Army Corps of Engineers and those more directly involved in the NAGPRA legislature.

1 Elizabeth Weiss, 2001, “Kennewick Man’s Funeral: The Burying of Scientific Evidence.” Politics & the Life Sciences 20, no. 1: 13-18. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed November 29, 2008).

2 David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and The Battle For Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 64, 182, 191.

3 Virginia Morell, “Kennewick Man: More bones to pick,” Science 279, no. 5347 (Jan. 2, 1998): 25; “A Conversation with James Chatters.” Friends of the Past. Available from http://www.friendsofpast.org/forum/chatters-conversation.html. (accessed Nov 22, 2008).

4 “A Conversation with James Chatters,” http://www.friendsofpast.org/forum/chatters-conversation.html.

5 Ibid.

6 Thomas, xxii.

7 Ibid., xx.

8 Becquer Medak-Seguin, “Umatilla tribe to reclaim Maxey artifacts,” http://www.culturalheritagelaw.org/news-issues/news-issues-in-cultural-heritage/umatilla-tribe-to-reclaim-maxey-artifacts/ (accessed Dec 1, 2008).

9 Thomas,105.

10 Ibid., 37, 113

11 Ibid.,232; Jeffrey Kluger, “Who Should Own the Bones? – TIME,” Time Magazine, March 5, 2006, http://aolsvc.timeforkids.kol.aol.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1169901,00.html.

12 James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 65.

13 “NAGPRA: Determining Cultural Affiliation within NAGPRA,” http://www.nps.gov/history/nagpra/TRAINING/Cultural_Affiliation.pdf: (Accessed Nov 28, 2008)

14 Thomas,235-236

15 James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, 65

16 Armand Minthorn, “Human Remains Should Be Reburied,” Ancient One/Kennewick Man, September 1996, http://www.umatilla.nsn.us/kman1.html. (accessed Sept 2, 2008)

17 Weiss, Elizabeth. “Kennewick Man’s Funeral: The Burying of Scientific Evidence.”

18 Thomas,236.

19 Jack Meinhardt, “A Bare-Bones Controversy ,” Preservation Online: Magazine Archives – July/August 2001, http://www2.preservationnation.org/Magazine/archives/arc_mag/ja01books.htm (accessed Nov 29, 2008); James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, 92, 93, 108

20 James C. Chatters, Ancient Encounters, 57-58

21 Meinhardt, “A Bare-Bones Controversy.”

22 Thomas, 270-273.

23 Phillip Carter, “USD professor to accept award at re-burial ceremony,” September 22, 2008, https://www.usd.edu/press/news/news.cfm?nid=1415 (accessed Nov 30, 2008).

24 Joseph F Powell, The First Americans: Race, Evolution, and the Origin of Native Americans, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 11. 


Filed under Uncategorized

Publicly Funded Election Cycles — A Suggestion and Analysis from Ben

Today’s post is a guest post, and a method of ‘kick-starting’ a friend’s new blog; I am posting his first entry here. I hope his careful insight and analysis of issues is helpful and interesting. Ben is a long time friend of mine. He has Master’s degree in Public Policy from BYU, where he focused on microeconomic theory. He has worked as a financial analyst. His hobbies include math, Russian, Chess, hiking, and Ultimate Frisbee.

He entitles this post:

How to Stop Money and Partisanship from Ruining Our Political Process.”


The Problems

Political parties

The politics surrounding the recently passed health care bill has brought public attention even more to a problem that has been steadily growing. Political parties have been growing stronger and generally less willing to compromise since the mid-nineties. This leads to politicians voting and acting in ways that appeal to various political parties rather than the general public. In addition, appealing to a party does not necessarily imply appealing to party moderates. Those seeking political office need to appeal to those who will vote in their party’s primary election, which is not representative of the whole party (not to mention the general public). We see the influence of political parties reflected in the party line votes that so often come out of Congress. When one party doesn’t hold a filibuster-proof majority in Congress (or if a party has a few defectors) we often end up with gridlock and no bill gets passed at all. This unfortunately means that our political system is more like a football game with a red team and a blue team, invoking all the hysterical behavior that football fans can muster.

Money in politics

Another problem we face is the influence of money on political campaigns. Those running for office spend large amounts of money on their campaigns, and those with less money seem to have less of a chance of winning office. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can contribute to political campaigns,i leading President Obama to comment that this gives “the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington.”ii

How much money is spent on political campaigns? According to a story by Politico.com, “the 2008 campaign was the costliest in history, with a record-shattering $5.3 billion in spending by candidates, political parties and interest groups on the congressional and presidential races.”iii At the time of the writing of this article, Barack Obama had already raised over $86 million and Republican candidates had raised a total of more than $80 million for the 2012 presidential election cycle.iv

The Solution: Publicly Funded Debates

We can weaken the influence of political parties and fix the problem of money in political campaigns at the same time. I propose we move to a system of government funded debates. Following is an example of how this would work for an election of the president of the United States. At the beginning of the debate cycle, people will meet at town meetings throughout the nation. At this meeting, anybody who wants may come to the front and explain why he or she would make a good president. People at the meeting can ask them questions and they can debate with other potential candidates as well. At the end of the meeting, everybody present votes for someone at the town meeting. The top two winners will go on to the district level.

A subsequent, larger, meeting will be held at the district level and those who won the town meetings will participate in a debate. After the debate, the people at the meeting vote again to select a candidate to go to the state level. By the time the debates are at the state level they will be broadcast on T.V. and voting will occur at polling stations. From the state debates, winners will go to regional debates, and finally about four or five candidates will appear in series of televised national debates. These debates will be followed by a (ballot) vote and the winner of the vote will become the next president.

Along the way, candidates will also have the opportunity to give 30 minute presentations of their ideas without facing interruptions or immediate questions from other candidates. (They will be facing plenty of that during the debates.) These presentations will have rules: the candidates will have equal time for their presentations, and equal resources available for preparing them. They will not be allowed to play music. They will not be allowed to merely slander their opponents.

Notice that this process says nothing about party affiliation of those who enter the debates.

Anybody with any point of view may enter the debates at the lowest level. Those who do enter the debates are required to follow certain rules. They will not be allowed to direct an organized campaign. If other people want to put signs in their yards saying vote for so-and-so, they may, but the candidates themselves communicate with the public only through the official debate process. This would be a temporary restriction of the candidates’ free speech which they would knowingly and willingly agree to so long as they choose to remain in the debate cycle. They are allowed to say whatever they want in the debates of course, but they won’t be able to call corporations or other politicians and promise political support in exchange for campaign support.

These rules governing candidates in the debate cycle will be enforced by an election committee. The purpose of this committee will not be to make subjective decisions about what people can say during a debate, but rather to set up and organize debates according to predetermined rules. As for questions put to the candidates, they could come from the general public, but the system by which questions are selected, among so many being entered, will have to be designed and planned, and so that may be left to an election committee as well. This choosing of questions should follow an orderly and transparent process.

Recent debates between Republican presidential candidates are a step down from traditional debate formats and could be described as “antagonistic press conferences.” The debates proposed here should be better designed. Candidates should be given adequate time to explain their positions, including complex positions. They should be given time for rebuttals and cross-examinations.


Not every problem solved

The campaign system proposed here leaves many problems unsolved. In the first place, democracy has always had the problem that a candidate can make many fair promises to the electorate in order to gain votes only to do something different. Candidates would try to win votes based on good looks, good speaking skills, and emotional appeals. The public will have difficulty understanding the technical details which must necessarily be considered in order to make good policy decisions. Without technical details, political debates are often more about persuasively appealing to people’s ideologies, rather than a careful cost/benefit analysis of all available options. We already have these problems in American politics, and they are probably too hard to solve right now. The publicly funded debate system described here does solve some problems however, and it may be worth switching.

No more money in campaigns

The problem of money in campaigns would be almost completely solved. Whether or not you had a lot of money to contribute to a campaign would matter little. An average American could potentially become the next president of the United States. (This would be unlikely however, because other candidates would probably point out your complete lack of political experience.)

Weakened influence of political parties

The Constitution says nothing about political parties. They came into existence on their own. They are held in place by candidates’ need for campaign support. If campaigns were publicly funded, and anyone were allowed to enter the political debates and potentially show up on the ballot, regardless of party identification, political parties would be greatly weakened. Candidates could still say their political philosophy matches that of Republicans or Democrats (or Libertarians, or Socialists, etc.) but because candidates’ points of view would not be held in place by the need to appeal to a party base, these distinctions would become blurred. Without the need to identify with a party in order to appear on the ballot, the mechanism for keeping party ideologies uniform would disappear. Political parties would fade away. Few things could be better for our government than this.

Third party” representation

There would be no “third party” candidates because parties would disappear. Nevertheless, those who hold a point of view that would, under the current system, be considered a “third party” point of view would have a much better chance of being elected. Right now we say that a candidate is “far-right” or “center-left,” etc., but under the public funded debate system, a candidate can have views from both the left and the right, and from things that don’t fall well into that dichotomy.


In order to fund debates, some tax money will need to be used. Overall, the total amount spent on political campaigns would be far less, but it would come out of taxes rather than from individuals choosing to donate. Spread out over so many people, the tax burden per taxpayer would be very small, probably less than five dollars per year. It is worth this cost if it will solve the problems with our current system.

Need to appeal to everyone at once

Right now a candidate running for president can go to Iowa and tell the Iowans that he or she considers nothing in this nation more sacred than the right to receive corn subsidies. Then he or she can go to Utah and explain why nothing stands out more prominently in the Constitution than the right to personally own an AK-47. In the publicly funded debate system, the whole nation would be watching nationally televised debates. What the candidates say to one they say to all. While it is true that voters can find videos of what candidates are saying throughout the nation, most Americans do not have the time to follow all the candidates so closely. Nationally televised debates provide a good setting for Americans to listen to candidates’ positions explained in full in one sitting.

Change in media coverage

Should we implement this system of federally funded debates, the nature of media coverage of the candidates and their platforms would change. We would not see a series of sound bites from the candidates on the news every day. Candidates often play an image game where they try to make their opponent look bad by making fun of something dumb their opponent said, or digging up some third grade essay that their opponent wrote. The media loves to cover these entertaining antics, but what is good for T.V. ratings is not always good for understanding candidates’ views on the issues.

Sometimes people complain that the media picks a winner in elections. Indeed, more media coverage can lead to better name recognition and a better shot at winning. A publicly funded debate is a controlled setting wherein candidates get roughly equal time. Based on the way televised debates occur now, it seems more like a forum where arguments are actually made. By making candidates respond to questions they will have to address issues rather than merely play the image game. Furthermore, as explained earlier, debates could be better structured than the style already shown on T.V., to improve the quality of arguments made.

No more campaign slogans

Candidates will have to package themselves differently. Politics now is full of slogans possibly because it works as something simple that candidates can use to flood the media. Under the debate cycle campaign rules, candidates won’t be allowed to organize some massive distribution of a slogan. They have to look good in debates. Slogans would have to be mixed up with complicated arguments, rendering them less effective.

Higher turnover

This process will likely result in much more turnover, which could be a good thing. Incumbents would face a tough battle every election against the newbies. In other words, the value of political experience to winning an election would be weakened. Some might see this as an advantage because they don’t like the idea of having career politicians. Others might see this as a bad thing. Right now, members of the House of Representatives, who face an election cycle every two years, are incentivized to prefer policies with short term gains even when they are bad in the long term because they are worried about the upcoming election cycle. If we consider it a bad thing to threaten incumbents so greatly, because that threat will lead to shortsighted behavior in office, we can give them an advantage by not requiring incumbents to enter at the lowest level, but giving them an automatic bid to the debate at their level. They would still face a significant challenge at this level. This is an issue that could be further explored later.

Fewer people paying attention to politics

Because debates are more boring than sound bites, fewer people will pay attention to what candidates are saying. Right now, there are so many signs in people’s yards, sound bites on news programs, T.V. commercials, etc. that it is almost impossible to be unaware that campaign season has come. In the publicly funded campaign system, candidates will be restricted to the controlled debate cycle, resulting in less media coverage. Nothing will necessarily prevent political commentators from talking about the candidates all they want. Nevertheless, because the whole thing will be less festive, political commentators would not be able to find an as large an audience as they would during a traditional campaign season.

Fewer people voting

Because campaigns would not be as well advertised, fewer people would vote. We might expect those who are public spirited to vote however. These voters would be better informed about the candidates, because the debate system makes forces candidates to answer questions rather than play the image game (compared to what we have now). We would be trading a larger number of voters for better informed voters.

No pre-filtering

One might make the argument that candidates would be more technically competent under our current system. Part of gaining a party’s nomination is appealing to party elites, and these elites may have better political savvy than the general public. These elites want their party to win in the short-term and long-term. If party elites are partially responsible for selecting candidates, they will filter out those who appeal to the general public but lack true political skill, because they realize that a poor politician from their party will threaten the party’s standing in future elections. Individual non-party system candidates don’t face this kind of peer assessment.

Implementing the Publicly Funded Debate System

Implementing the publicly funded debate system will not be easy. Unfortunately, creating such a system would almost surely require an act of Congress, and no group would feel more threatened by such a system than Congress. In order to implement the debate system, the idea needs to gain widespread public support. Then the public would need to pressure Congress to make it happen. Since this still hasn’t been tried, it might be a good idea to try it in elections for local government offices first and work out the kinks. Once the system is working well, the public will be able to point to positive results as an argument for implementing the system nationwide. Right now, there is more dissatisfaction with the political process than ever before. This gives us an opportunity to change the system for the better. We should use this widespread dissatisfaction to improve the process for future generations.

Details need to be worked out

The above describes the basic idea of how a publicly funded debate system would work. At the same time, some details still need to be filled in. For example, what should be the rules for people entering the debates at the lowest levels? At a low level, an influential businessman could organize many friends to come to the debate and vote for him. This might make the low level debates into a competition to see who can get the most friends to show up. Also, possibly so many people would want to be part of the debate that none of them would have sufficient talking time. It might be a good idea to impose some kind of rule that ensures that only those really serious about contending for office would be part of the lowest level debates. Readers of this paper are thus invited to contribute their ideas for improving the system described here.

This paper contains a survey of areas that any campaign reform proposal might have on society, including what issues need to be thought about when implementing such a system, and how the change could benefit (or possibly harm) government decision making. One proposal for diminishing the influence of money on politics through publicly financed campaigns has been discussed, but many of the observations made here would also apply to other ways of publicly financing campaigns. Plenty of room is still open for discussion.

-Ben Warner

i This was the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

iii http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1108/15283.html. The record breaking amount was as of the time the story was written in November 2008.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized