Salsa Fuerte, Vergüenza Profunda

Yesterday was Ontario’s provincial election, a frustrating event for this American citizen.  Even if Canada were just enough to enfranchise its permanent non-citizen residents, that would not give me a say in how this peculiar country runs itself.  My status in Canada is, for now, temporary, and my voting will continue to be in the far more globally significant Florida, where a handful of badly filled ballots or a rash of felony convictions can be the difference between a drawl-feigning warmongering theocrat or an environmentalist deciding what the world’s largest army will do.  As it was, Ontario’s Liberal Party sailed into a majority government with no particular difficulty, a source of both elation and disappointment for Ontario’s progressive constituents.

Canada’s parliamentary system affords a much larger niche for third parties than the United States’s legislature.  In Canada, if one party’s candidates get 35% of the seats, a second party gets 40%, and a third party 25%, that 40% party will have to form a coalition with one of the others, and that coalition will select the Prime Minister and otherwise set the government’s agenda.  If a particular attempted coalition cannot get along well enough to form the government, the coalition dissolves and another one tries.  This entanglement between the executive and legislative branches means that the leaders of Canada cannot, usually, afford to ignore people who didn’t vote for them, and it means that third parties that manage substantial segments of the vote don’t necessarily disappear behind the ones that got slightly more, because they can become necessary coalition partners.  A system like this one still eventually converges on two parties—it takes a much more complicated system to preserve more than two poles indefinitely—but it takes much longer and affords those third parties and their constituents a much greater voice in the meantime.

Suffice to say, there’s a much greater possibility to vote one’s conscience in Canada, even if some situations demand voting for whoever stands the greatest shot at keeping the Conservatives out of a particular seat.

So it was with curiosity and interest that I surveyed the pamphlets and cards that the various candidates and advocacy groups kept leaving in our mailboxes.  Most of them were political boilerplate, a series of minor promises next to a candidate putting on the best trustworthy-and-not-smug mug xe could manage.  But I had to give one of them a lot of extra attention.

Did you know Canada has a Communist Party?


Shifty Lines: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

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

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


Shifty Lines: South Asia

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

A Succession of Empires

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


Vladimir and Ayn Walk into a Bodega

If it were only the different worldview, it might be easier to be a Hispanic-American atheist in the United States.  The US was born secular, and that spirit of permissiveness has made sure that no individual faith can claim a majority.  Roman Catholicism is the single largest denomination, and they and the agglomerated flavors of Protestantism together claim most of the United States’s people, but no faith can call itself the faith of Americans.  No faith is a given of American-ness the way Romanian Orthodoxy is for now built into the Romanian condition, or Twelver Shia Islam into the Iranian.  It is only by eliding the differences between Christian sects and pretending that fundamentalist Protestant home-churches have more in common with liberal Catholic non-church-goers than they do with Twelver Shia Islam that the people of the United States become a “Christian people,” and Americans who profess to some other faith, or none, become something Other.

If it were only refusal to partake of the rituals, it might be easier as well.  There is more to Hispanic-ness than the Catholicism that characterizes most of us.  Someone who doesn’t attend the local church’s Christmas show or baptize their children is still more odd than threatening, if they make the right apologies.

But there’s an elephant in the room that turns a Hispanic-American’s “I don’t believe” from mere blasphemy and cultural denial and rebellious affectation into a writ of enmity against kith and kin, no more and no less than treason.  A big, red elephant emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.


The Sochi Olympics, 1864 and Today

Ever since the site of the next Winter Olympics was settled, fury has filled the Internet, and with good reason.

Russia has determinedly passed law after law targeting its homosexual community for discrimination, oppression, and flat-out violence.  As of this writing, homosexual acts  put people in prison in Russia and any kind of political statement or advocacy that could be construed as suggesting that gay people are in any way an acceptable part of Russian society, including simply existing as an out homosexual or being outed, is illegal.  So important is renewing its longstanding alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and maintaining its authoritarian traditions that Russia has effectively made discussing its discrimination against homosexuals illegal.  Add in a police force so famously corrupt that thousands of Russian drivers keep dashboard cameras to document their accidents and the abuse they receive, and the stage is set for crimes against gay people to “mysteriously” go unpunished, and for incitements to violence to come from high offices and pulpits.  One famous set of critics of the Russian Orthodox Church has already faced heavy reprisal; more will follow.

Russia has not been friendly to gay people since at least the time of the Russian Revolution, whether it declared homosexuality a capitalist degeneracy to be extirpated or a crime against God.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this bigotry has asserted itself with vigor that similar monsters in the United States could only fantasize about, and which is met only with the vigor that similar policies receive in sub-Saharan Africa and Islamist theocracies.

All of this was happening as the International Olympic Committee deliberated in 2007 to determine which world city would be the site of the 2014 Winter Games, and it has continued in the time since the Committee decided to put the 2014 games in Russia and the 2018 games in South Korea.

These are far from the first Olympic Games to face controversy.  Games were held in almost-half-of-homeless-youth-are-gay Utah, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and most famously Nazi Germany.  Every one of these places exists in stark violation of the Olympic Movement’s stated philosophy.  None of those sites is compatible with the Olympic Movement’s exhortations toward “social responsibility,” “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” “the harmonious development of humankind,” or “the preservation of human dignity.”  Hilariously, the following command gets its own numbered point in the Fundamental Principles of Olympism (page 10):

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”
And then:

Don’t forget: 1936.  Berlin.  Nazi Fucking Germany.

So when it comes to not offering the honor of hosting the world’s preeminent athletic event in places determined to do evil to humankind…the International Olympic Committee has a pathetic track record.  I have no expectation that the IOC will move the Olympics from the Russian Federation, which is just as well—even stereotypically level-headed nations like Canada and Sweden hide disturbingly recent atrocities behind their polite, industrious facades.  The “world” event that is the Olympic Games would have a VERY short list of potential sites if it limited itself to places with even moderately clean human rights records, and they know this.  Being chosen as the site of an Olympic event is, in practice, little more than recognition that a country has the resources to build a gigantic facility in which the Games will transpire and the infrastructure necessary to support said facility.

Even this jaded writer, however, is aghast at the OTHER crime the International Olympic Committee managed to “overlook” in choosing the site of the 2014 Winter Games.

The IOC didn’t pick just any city in Russia.  The IOC decided on Sochi.


Shifty Lines: The West Indies Federation

As I’ve explored at length before, North America’s history has largely been a story of separate British colonies combining into larger independent countries.  This has made the formation of Canada and the United States in particular quite distinct from the otherwise similar independence movements in Latin America, which fragmented from approximately seven colonial units into 18 countries by the beginning of the 20th century.  However, there is one part of the Americas where the British legacy has not followed this pattern, and where it more closely resembles the postcolonial histories of Africa.  Since I vacation in this region regularly with my family, I’d like to give it the attention it deserves.

Rude Sustenance

Every family’s path is a story.  One does not have to reach far into the generations to find that their history and the world’s are deeply intertwined.  We are all children of history.

And my ancestors are the Cold War.

My father’s Cuba was less than a century removed from the pivot point where it decided not to become part of the United States.  The freshly independent colony styled its flag after the American flag and built undreamed-of wealth through its rich, mountainous soil and glorious climate.  It did so with a permissive business environment that let a whole new upper class grow itself out of the island’s natural resources while subjecting yet larger numbers of people to the kind of privation that only laissez-faire, libertarian economics can create.  My father’s family ascended through the social ranks in this developing society, as they tell it, through business acumen, quintessentially Cuban inventiveness, and a sprinkling of luck, beginning a story that could not have been more American if José Martí had failed to convince Cubans of their island’s distinctiveness.

My father was born in 1957, 59 years after Cuba’s independence from Spain was realized and with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary warpath through the island already beginning.  By the time he escaped the island eleven years later, the Gonzalez family’s holdings had been expropriated, Cuba was a Soviet satellite, and my grandfather had already been imprisoned for taking out that insult on the Communists during the 1961 American attack.

Dad got his American start as a child refugee fleeing a Communist government that stole everything his family had built.  He spoke no English, was accompanied only by his ailing mother, and would not see his father again until years later, in a story I do not yet fully understand.  He landed in New Jersey, long one of the United States’s receiving grounds for those who could no longer live in their original homelands and one of the country’s most vibrantly multicultural regions.

I will never fault him for the irrepressible, fiery drive that propelled him through school, taught him English, kept him working multiple jobs to help support his sick family, and got him into college-preparatory programs without a great deal of the aid that a modern student in similar straits would have received.  I will never fault him for the well-honed social intuition and work ethic that helped him rise, against his own desires, through the ranks of grocery-store management when his mother’s medical needs prevented him from continuing with school.  I will never fault him for the financial genius that got him into flipping houses in the 1970s and 1980s.  I will never fault him for the sheer willpower that kept him working full-time and renovating houses for sale the rest of the time, while Mom was doing the same, for over 15 years.  I will never fault him for the accumulated, experiential wisdom that enabled him to sell most of his investment properties and enter a loan-sharking semi-retirement at age 50 while putting three kids through university with no student loan debt.

I would not be an American if I did any less than beam with pride at my parent’s story.  It’s something that Horatio Alger might have written—the classic American tale of starting with nothing and ending with everything.

But it’s also the kind of story that affects how people see the world.  Poverty and struggle shape one’s mind and leave scars that no lifetime of riches to follow can ever dispel.


Shifty Lines: Russia

Russia is really big.

Russia is twice as large as the next-largest country even after shedding 14 smaller countries from its periphery.  Russia is the largest country in Europe and Asia even without counting the parts on the other continent.  Russia spans nine time zones.

It’s difficult to imagine, but Russia spent a great deal of its early history as “the empire without a coastline.”  The original, ancestral homeland of the people who would become the Russians is the general vicinity of Moscow.  While the East Slavs were still coalescing as a people, they bordered the West Slavs on the west, the Karelians and other Finno-Ugric peoples to the north, the Khanate of Kazan to the east, and the Nogai Horde to the south.  To reach a coastline and the massive economic advantages that come with access to the sea, the Russians had to conquer their way there.  And conquer they did, until they dominated much of the Arctic Ocean, Baltic Sea, and Black Sea boundaries and all of the peoples living therein.  Russia is smaller now, but its enormous expanse still contains numerous groups of people who do not see themselves as Russians and which the Russian state is assiduously trying to destroy.  We have already met the Caucasus peoples and their finely granulated quests for national self-determination.  Russia’s imperial designs have spanned much farther than these ongoing altercations, and tell a very familiar story.


Hispanic, Atheist, American, Me

Women in Secularism 2 was an amazing event, and one whose various liveblogs I encourage people to read.  The talks and panels were fantastic, despite being bookended by obnoxiously wrongheaded attacks on the conference’s very premise.  Short review: would do again.  And not just because fellow attendees and bloggers Kate Donovan, Jason Thibeault, Miri Mogilevsky, PZ Myers, and Ashley Miller kept the atmosphere awesome throughout.

Some things that were said, in particular by CFI-Transnational Director for Outreach Debbie Goddard, got me thinking.  It’s no secret these days that organized atheism’s roots in predominantly white, male, well-educated circles has often made it tone-deaf to the different experiences, priorities, and demands of people outside those groups.  It’s also no secret that some of these “outsiders” have far more to gain from abandoning religion than Western atheism’s white, male, well-educated old guard ever did or hopefully ever will.

Which brings me to the Sarlaac pit of contradictions that is being a Hispanic-American atheist.

Shifty Lines: North Africa

Africa looks to us as one continent, with perhaps the most recognizable shape of the lot and only the smallest land connection to Asia.  But for all its geographic continuity, Africa contains a continental divide as profound as any ocean, and becomes a very different place on either side.  Rather like Asia.  And the north side had five wars last year.  But what’s going on there?

The Sahara Desert separates North Africa from the rest of Africa, and its edge, the subtropical Sahel, translates as the “coastline of trees,” demarcating the ocean of sand.  Where the region south of the Sahel mostly evaded foreign conquest until Rome’s successor empires found it, the north spent much longer under foreign heels.  The ocean of sand proved a much more formidable barrier than the Mediterranean Sea.