Sunday, September 30, 2012

Big Brains and Southern Accents

I've lived in the south most of my life, and I've met people with pronounced southern accents who also happen to be Rhodes Scholars, Ivy League grads, doctors, scientists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. Yet when you enter the phrase "southern accent" in a web search, you'll immediately see words like "stupid" and "uneducated".  I discovered this yesterday, because I was searching for "smart people with southern accents". Why? Because I needed to find some examples to pass around.  I had just seen a particularly painful example of a dumb southerner, and it was hurting my soul.

It was on the Daily Show.  They were poking fun at the hard right's mistrust of science, and they choose to interview a socialite and occasional Republican spokesperson from Little Rock, Arkansas named Noelle Nikpour.  Ms. Nikpour claimed, in her thick southern drawl, that scientists were "scamming the American people right and left", and that ordinary Americans are just as qualified to judge scientific theories as scientists themselves.  The interviewer pretended to agree with her, and the stupidity of her statements just escalated from there.  She never even realized he was messing with her.  I thought she was probably an actress who was in on the joke, but no, she's a real person who occasionally appears on Fox News.  The clip was surely edited to make her look as dumb as possible, but if she's not an absolute bubbleheaded idiot, she did an amazing impression of one.  It would have been painful to watch if it wasn't so hilarious.

OK, so it was still a little painful. I'm from Arkansas too, and I don't want people thinking she represents everybody from my state.  And lord have mercy, I hope I'm not that dumb. But when I leave the south, people quite often assume I am, because I talk like she does.  I've had people talk to me for a while, get a puzzled expression on their face, and then tell me, "You're a lot smarter than you sound!"

They actually intend it as a compliment, which is truly bewildering.  I've also had people assume I'm very religious or conservative, or that I'm a racist.  I've even met a couple of people who seemed to be afraid of me because I'm from the south (and I'm not a scary person).  But here's the ironic thing:  I may have a southern accent, but when people hear it and assume I'm stupid, they're the ones being foolish, not me.  They're the victims of a fallacy:  the idea that you can take a stereotype about a group of people, and conclude that an individual from that group will match the stereotype.  It doesn't work that way.  For one thing, many stereotypes are unfounded.  But even if there's some basis for the stereotype, it still doesn't work that way, because a group average, and an individual from that group, are two very different things.

I'm not trying to deny some of the uncomfortable truths about the south.  I grew up here, but I've lived other places, so I know what's good and bad about it.  The fact is, there's some truth to a few of the stereotypes about the south.  On average, it does lag behind the rest of the country in things like education and literacy.  That's not because southerners are born dumber; it's because a complex mix of history and economics has left education tragically neglected in some parts of the south (though not in places like Austin, Athens, and Chapel Hill); and because ignorance, like education, is self-reinforcing.  Of course, everybody knows that racism has played a big role in southern history, and it's true that serious racism still exists here.  However, the south has no monopoly on that particular poison.  Here's an example:  It's hard to gauge racism in surveys, but if you look at how often people Google racist terms and jokes in different states, it's not just southern states. Yes, 6 of the top 10 are in the south (although number 1, West Virginia, is a border state that stretches far north).  But the other four are indisputably northern.  They are:  3. Pennsylvania, 6. Michigan, 7. Ohio, and 10. New Jersey.  This actually matches my experience.  I've heard plenty of racist talk in the south, but some of the most viciously racist things I've ever heard were said in a northern accent.

While it offends me when people assume I'm dumb or racist, it merely irritates me when they assume I'm conservative, simply because...I'm not.  It's true that I'm appalled by the excesses of the extreme right, but to say that all conservatives are dumb, racist, or poorly-educated would be making the very mistake I'm railing against here. I bring conservatism up only because it is one of the assumptions people make about southerners.  Southernness, conservatism (particularly social conservatism), lack of education, and racism are all somewhat correlated, but that doesn't mean they're inseparable, much less identical.  If you're a smart, educated, non-racist conservative, you've probably had people make the same assumptions about you, based on your politics, that they make about me, based on my accent.

In any case, if you randomly picked out a southerner, the person you picked would be somewhat more likely to be poorly-educated and conservative than someone randomly picked from the rest of the country.  Furthermore, if you randomly picked a southerner with a strong accent, you would be somewhat more likely to get someone who is religiously conservative or poorly educated.  That's because: 1. People who come from rural areas tend to have stronger accents, and people who stay in those areas are more likely to be conservative.  2.  Highly-educated southerners usually tone down their accents.  That's partly because of the prejudices I'm talking about here--they don't want their non-southern peers to assume they're dumb racists; an assumption that's as common as it is ridiculous.

But the fact remains that if you had ten-thousand randomly selected people with a strong southern accents, and ten thousand people from outside the south with boring newscaster accents (yes, that's an accent too) then it's probably true that more people in the southern accent group will be poorly-educated and conservative.  And yes, a few more might be more racists too, though that probably has as much to do with education as region (uneducated non-southerners are more likely to be racist than educated ones, after all).  So what does this prove about the person you just met, with that thick southern accent?  Not a damn thing.  The fact that lack of education, conservatism, and--possibly--racism are a little more prevalent among people with strong southern accents doesn't mean a particular person with a southern accent has any of those traits, or that a person without a southern accent lacks them.

Still, if you stop in a diner in some rural part of Mississippi where people have thick accents, you would be right to think you shouldn't make loud jokes about the religious right, or declare to a bunch of rough-looking white guys that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the greatest American ever. You would probably be right to think those guys don't have Ph.D's, too. Heck, you might even be right if you thought they were dumb racists.  But you might be wrong, too, and that's my point:  you can't take a statistical tendency of a group and arrive at any certainties about the particular representative of that group standing in front of you.  Likelihoods, yes; certainties, no.  If you meet me, hear my accent, and think, "Maybe I should watch what I say, he might be really religious or conservative", I have no problem with that, because it's a reasonable assumption...if you remember the "might be" part.  People who talk like me are more likely to be religiously conservative--but I'm not.  We all think in percentages.  Intuitive statistics are a vital part of the human mind.  We just have to remember the limits of that kind of thinking. I say "we" because I've been guilty myself.  Once I was at a music festival in Arkansas, and a hairy guy in overalls--with an accent stronger than mine--started talking to me.  I was thinking, "Who is this yokel", when he told me he was a dermatologist.  That "yokel" was an MD in a very competitive specialty--dumb people don't become dermatologists.  When he saw the look on my face, he shot me a knowing grin.  I knew that grin, because it's the same grin I give people when I say big words in an Arkansas accent, and see the confusion in their face. It's a grin that says, "You're the one being dumb, not me. Gotcha!" I grinned back. Touché, Doc.

Judging people by their dialect is dumb for other reasons, too, not just because it's an unwarranted and unfair generalization.  It's not just that people with accents might not match your stereotype about them.  It's also that the distinction we make between high-status and low-status accents is completely arbitrary.  There is no Platonic form of perfect English pronunciation, or even perfect English grammar, hanging up there in the sky.  There's nothing about saying, "You guys went to the store already?" that makes it intrinsically better than saying, "Y'all done went to the store?"  The first is the standardized way of saying it, but that's because of historical accidents that have more to do with social prestige and arbitrary pronouncements than rationality.  It could have gone the other way.  Of course, I realize that if someone doesn't seem to know how to speak in standard English, that probably does mean they're less educated, since people learn standard English in school (and grammar is easier to control consciously than accent--it's easy for me to speak in standard grammar, and nearly impossible for me to speak without an accent).  But poorly educated is not the same as dumb, and a non-standard form of English is not the same as a degraded form.  Languages evolve, change, and diversify, but no language has ever devolved into meaningless gibberish.  If you're a grammar warrior, you may be pretty skeptical about these claims. Well, this ain't the place to get into that, but I done wrote more about that here.

The point of all this is that it's time for southerners, and anyone else with an unusual accent, to show the rest of the country that we don't all match the stereotypes.  It's the people with the prejudices about accents, not the people with the accents, who are being stupid.  Smart southerners should point that out to them, and fight the "dumb southerner" stereotypes the media loves so much.  If I were a filmmaker, I'd be tempted to put together a video showing a bunch of brilliant people with southern accents talking about their accomplishments: "Ah'm a world renowned brain surgeon, and Ah have a southern accent." They wouldn't be hard to find.  At the very least, I'd like the next person who Googles "smart people with southern accents" to actually find something good, or at least find this post.  When I had the idea for this post, I was just going to make a list of smart, famous people who still sound like they're from the south. But I realized it's tough to come up with a list like that--not because it's hard to find smart southerners, but because a lot of southerners who've become famous have had to suppress their accents. Because of people's dumb assumptions.

But not everyone had to learn to talk like Tom Brokaw to get famous.  A southern accent is a good thing if you want to be a country singer, for example.  While "smart" may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of country singers, some of them, like Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton, are quite brainy (Kris Kristofferson was a Rhodes Scholar, though he didn't grow up only in the south).  A southern accent can also be useful for politicians, which may explain why half the presidents from the last few decades have had them (some of those presidents have even been pretty smart.  Bill Clinton may be morally flawed, but nobody can say he's dumb).  But most other famous southerners--people like newscasters and actors--have to be able to dial back their accent, at least some of the time.  Either it doesn't fit the part, or...well...people think it makes them sound stupid.  Of course, most brilliant people, wherever they're from, never become famous (maybe they're too smart).  You can be at the top of your field in medicine or law, and be a complete unknown to most people. I went to college with a guy with a thick north Louisiana accent.  Now he's a neurosurgeon.  He's not famous, but he's scary smart.

My point in all this is that, even though there are thousands of absolutely brilliant people out there with strong southern accents, it's hard to name many famous ones that aren't country singers or politicians.  But it only takes one counter-example to wreck a bad generalization, and there are plenty of those, even among famous people.  William Faulkner, Bill Clinton, Harper Lee, Martin Luther King, Jr, Bill Moyers, EO Wilson, Rick Bragg, Flannery O'Conner, and thousands of other bright, successful people are proof that having a southern accent doesn't make you dumb.  Most people know this, at some level, but it's a hard association to kick.  As I said, even I have been guilty of stereotyping people with thick accents, and I have one!  That's how pervasive the stereotype is.  That's a shame, but I can fight it.  The next time I hear someone speaking with an accent--any accent--I'm going stop and listen to what they're actually saying, not the accent they're saying it in.  Having an accent doesn't make people stupid.  But unfounded stereotypes and assumptions do.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Black Jack David and the Gypsy King: The Mythic Roots of a Folk Song

Not long ago, I left these Louisiana swamps to go home for the weekend, back to the Arkansas Ozarks where I grew up.  I guess I was a little homesick, because I loaded my MP3 player with traditional songs; mostly old Anglo-Americans tunes from the southern hills.  Some those songs strike primal chords in my emotions, because I've heard them as far back as I can remember.

I can't play a lick on any instrument, but my great-grandfather, Neal Morris, was a singer and recollector of old songs, and he can be heard singing on some of the field recordings collected by the great folk music collector Alan Lomax.  Neal's son (my great uncle) was the folksinger and folklorist Jimmie Driftwood.  My great-grandfather died before I was born, but Jimmie Driftwood lived until I was in my mid-twenties.  I never got to know him that well, but I went to his house many times as a kid; and listened to him and the rest of my extended family sing into the night.  Sometimes, I would fall asleep, and have to be carried out to the car.  That twangy mountain music would run through my dreams all the way home.  No wonder I still have an Arkansas accent.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Consent of the Governed: Why Americans Should Care About Syria

A few months ago, I went to Philadelphia for a library conference. I had some free time, so I went to Independence Hall and toured the room where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. At the front of the room was George Washington's chair; the very chair he sat in over 200 years ago while presiding over the constitutional debates. I stood and stared at the back of that chair, where there is a carving of the sun on the horizon.  I had just read that all through the debates, an aging Benjamin Franklin pondered that same sun, wondering whether it was rising or setting. When the delegates finally resolved their differences, and were signing the Constitution, he remarked that he was glad to see it was a rising sun.

I found this pretty awe-inspiring. So of course, I took a picture of the room and posted it on Facebook. But then, my friend Nora made a comment on the picture that was as powerful to me as standing in that room. “Amazing," she said, "makes me tear up actually considering events in Syria." You see, Nora grew up in the United States, but her family is from Syria, a country currently in the midst of its own struggle for freedom from tyranny. The Assad regime is responding to this movement by killing its own citizens; committing atrocities like sending out snipers to shoot children and pregnant women. Nora's grandfather was killed by that regime years ago, and she still has a grandmother and other family there. So far, over 24,000 people have been killed in Syria, many of them non-combatants, and many more have been detained and tortured, or have fled as refugees. It is the most deadly conflict going on in the world today, and much of the killing is deliberate, cold-blooded targeting of civilians by their own government.

Reading her comment, I realized that Nora knows better than most other Americans how great it is to live in a country free from this sort of tyranny. Most of us here are so accustomed to publicly disagreeing with our leaders that we take it for granted, rarely stopping to think how lucky we are. We don't have to worry that armed men will come for us in the night for speaking our minds. Nora knows exactly how lucky we are, because her family is from a place where they do.

Despite the horrors going on right now in Syria, many Americans don't think about the situation there very much. It's all too easy to forget about things we don't see on a daily basis; things that don't effect us personally. If you don't know anyone from Syria, the situation may seem remote and abstract. I'm not proud of this, but I admit I think about it more because I know Nora. She and her family are very real to me. I met them when I first moved to Louisiana, and needed a place to stay while I looked for an apartment. Nora had placed an ad for someone to sublet their apartment for six weeks. Her husband was a medical student at the time, and they were going to Miami while he did a medical rotation there. It was exactly what I was looking for. On my first night in town they asked me to sleep in their living room, even though they had barely met me. I did.  Later on, I got to know them. Nora is a beautiful, kindhearted woman, and her husband Luke is an incredibly nice guy from Canada. They have a two-year-old daughter who is honestly one of the most adorable children I've ever seen, with big dark eyes and curly brown hair. They're a lovely, intelligent family.  I hear Nora tell me about her grandfather, and think about what might have become of her if her father had never gotten out of Syria. I read about the children being targeted by snipers, and think about her beautiful little girl. What if she had been born there?

I'd like to ask you to put yourself in my shoes for a while. Imagine that you know a family like Nora's.  They aren't abstractions to you, but a real, flesh-and-blood family of bright, fun people who invite you over for dinner. You've laughed with them, played with their little girl, and hugged them all goodnight. Think about Nora's reaction to my picture of Independence Hall; how inspired she was by the American struggle for freedom, and her hopes that the Syrian people will attain such freedoms. Now ask yourself this: should we Americans should do more to help people in countries like Syria gain freedom from tyranny? I absolutely think we should. I think we should take another look at the Declaration of Independence, and realize that it promotes principles that should apply not just to Americans, but to all people. If you're skeptical about this, let's take a look at what it actually says.

Universal Principles in the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration was written in part to explain to the rest of the world why the American colonies were separating from British rule. It states that when people are separating from their previous government,
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 
The Declaration then begins setting out these causes, in some of the most famous and inspiring lines ever written: 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Of course, when the Declaration was written, it really did mean all men, and not even all men, but all white men. Women and minorities were not considered equal. But the ideas behind the Declaration proved, over time, to be more powerful than the prejudices of the men who wrote it. Today we can see the document as meaning that all people are endowed with equal rights. Notice it doesn't just say “all Americans”. The Declaration is a statement of universal principles...more universal, perhaps, than its creators were immediately comfortable with, but that's the danger of having such powerful ideas. They outlive their creators. They outgrow their creators.

Now consider the next lines:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In other words, governments exist for the purpose of ensuring the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The only just government is one whose aim is to do that. If it consistently fails, then its citizens have every right to abolish it and try to create one that does. Of course, the founders realized that doing so is an extreme measure, and only justified in extreme circumstances:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Abuses and Despotism

Things need to be pretty unbearable to justify a people rising up in revolution.  Which brings us back to Syria.  If you agree that the Declaration should be interpreted as stating universal principles--principles which should apply to all people around the world--then the next question is this: are the abuses by the Syrian government egregious enough to warrant the Syrian people rising up to overthrow it? The answer: absolutely. If you aren't already convinced of this, consider the video I'm posting below. Please read the description, and then decide whether you want to watch it. It is graphic and heartbreaking--a shocking record of real evil. You may want to just read the description, but please take the time to do that. As awful as it is, it shows the kind of thing that is happening, right now, to real people.

Here's the background: on August 25, after the Syrian government shelled the town of Daraya for five days, troops entered and began killing people--men, women, and children--often in close-range executions.  The video shows what happened next.  A pretty female reporter for the news channel Al-Dunya (private, but pro-Assad) walks onto a street littered with dead people and starts talking about how "terrorists" killed them; in the name of "freedom", she sneers.  After the cameras linger on bloody images of dead bodies, she approaches an old woman who has been shot several times.  She says, "Here is a woman still clinging to life.  We'll talk to her, and we will hear--and you will hear--what happened to her."  Before the woman gets any medical attention, she is interviewed by the reporter, who is trying to get her to say that rebels shot her. She says she doesn't know who did it, and worries aloud about what happened to her children. The reporter then interviews a woman who claims the Syrian army saved them from rebel forces.  In other footage, men say the same thing, but then say, "Nobody forced us to say this". They are, of course, surrounded by soldiers. The reporter goes on to interview a little girl in the back of a cart, lying between her wounded brother and her dead mother.  The traumatized child is still running her hands over her mother's body.  The camera lingers on a gunshot wound in the head of a dead toddler lying on the cart, then the reporter puts the microphone in the little girl's face and says, "Who is this beside you?"  The little girls says, "My mommy."  The video ends with footage of a mother lying on top of her child, still in the position of trying to shield him with her body.  But he is dead too.

To ensure that I won't be accused of stacking the cards here, I will tell you now that there are people other than the Assad regime saying that rebel forces killed these people, or that they were killed in some sort of botched prisoner exchange.  But I don't believe it. These people clearly weren't prisoners.  They were driving, riding motorcycles, and walking when they were attacked.  Why would small children have been prisoners? Also, it doesn't appear that they were caught in the crossfire of battle, because many of their wounds are too accurate, too precise.  The gunmen had time to take aim. It's clear that the Syrian army indiscriminately shelled the town for days, and the regime has a long history of murdering its citizens.  Human Rights Watch has actually documented the regime offering bread to civilians, and then opening fire on people in the breadlines.  Finally, the absolute callousness of the reporter in the pro-Assad video speaks for itself.  She is far more interested in glorifying the Assad regime than in the lives of the people she interviews, whom she treats like stage props. Most likely, she entered Daraya with, or just after, Syrian forces or pro-Assad militias, who then murdered civilians.  Then she calmly interviewed the survivors, some of whom were terrified into saying what she wanted them to say. I don't use the word "evil" lightly.  But this is evil.

What Can Be Done?

Based on this video, and numerous other reports of atrocities, it's abundantly clear the Assad regime needs to go. It's a government of oppression and murder; and should by all rights be replaced with a Syrian government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But here, of course, another question arises: What should Americans do to help? How do we know this government won't be replaced by a worse one (unlikely), or one that will bring more instability into an already volatile region (not as unlikely)? We don't, of course. The situation in Syria is a diplomatic nightmare, and that has helped perpetuate the tragedy. The Syrian regime has been a powerful player in Middle Eastern politics for a long time. It has dominated the government of Lebanon, and is closely allied with Iran. Not only that, but it has close ties to Russia and China, who have used their veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent the UN from taking any effective action to stop the killing. The Free Syrian Army, like any revolutionary army, has some unsavory elements, and has committed misdeeds of its own (though nothing like the massive and systematic atrocities of the Syrian government). Any good solution, then, will have to ensure that the new government in Syria doesn't start committing its own abuses.

It's an incredibly complex situation, and I'm abundantly unqualified to recommend concrete steps to solve it. I'm simply trying to convince you that the situation is tragic, and that we should care. We are lucky enough to have lived in a country that has implemented the principles in our Declaration of Independence well enough to prosper and avoid tyranny for over 200 years. I believe we should find a way--as Americans and as human beings--to help implement real international enforcement of these principles. Governments exist to ensure people their rights, and if they fail, they forfeit their right to govern. It's a shame upon humankind that we haven't learned to cooperate well enough to remove tyrants like Assad before they kill so many people. We can do better.  We should do better.

If you've read this far, you may be thinking of objections to my argument. That's fine, but let me make sure I'm making my actual argument clear, so I'm not misunderstood. I'm not saying Americans should pay more attention to problems in other countries than to problems here; nor am I saying we need an all-powerful world government. I'm saying we need more global compassion, and more effective global laws against human rights abuses. Really, any government that deserves to exist should welcome the idea of a fair, enforceable international law that states that if it abuses the rights of its citizens, it has to go. As long as such laws are fairly applied (and I know that's a big if) then no just government has anything to fear from them.  That may sound uncomfortably like the argument some make against people's right to privacy, but the difference is that governments aren't people.  Governments themselves don't have rights.  People do.

These are big, abstract ideas, and those can only go so far. To say the situation in Syria is tragic, and that we should care more and work toward better international laws—that's all fine, but it won't do the people of Syria any immediate good. So what will? As I said, I'm not qualified to answer that question. So I asked my friend Nora. I've reprinted her response below. Please...give it a minute of your time. Nora helped start an organization called the FREE-Syria Foundation, dedicated to helping people hurt by the conflict in Syria.  She recently met with Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria, to discuss FREE-Syria's efforts; and she is hoping to travel to Turkey to help improve conditions in refugee camps.  FREE-Syria's activities are entirely non-violent and humanitarian. The more support they get, the more good they will be able to do.  Once again, the situation in Syria is the deadliest in the world right now.  The Syrian people need to see their own rising sun, and Nora is one of many dedicated people working hard to ensure that they do.

Nora's Response:
    I think caring about the issue is a huge first step, and seeking more information is tremendously important. There's a lot out there, but I can be better about posting news about what's going on to help provide more information.

    - Spreading the knowledge, educating others, and raising awareness is another thing you can do—through social media like Facebook and Twitter--since the media are still not providing enough coverage about what's going on. 

    - You can also contact local media outlets in your areas to ask them to cover it more.

    - Contact your representatives and congressmen to see where they stand on the issue and what they're doing about it. Maybe even educate them about it if they're not involved.

    - You can try to find your local Syrian community and see what events they have: sit-ins, charity events, etc.

    - As far as donations, I recommend the Free-Syria Foundation, which I am directly involved with. Our goals are humanitarian relief, education, and empowerment of women. We have very little overhead, and our main focus is on children and women. We are registered in the US, very trusted, and have no religious/sectarian affiliations. 


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