Mapping American Social Attitudes

28 03 2012

I’ve found maps fascinating ever since I was a wee lad. I remember getting a globe for my birthday in 1986 and an atlas for Christmas in 1991, and getting new maps and globes over the years to watch the changes in national boundaries. I was shitty at math but adored maps. Maps say so much in pictures  about people, politics, migratory patterns, industry, the environment, natural resources, social attitudes, and loads of other hot, steamy, bloggable stuff. Looking at different maps of the United States, we can see a stark divide in political and social attitudes about race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Here I want you to take a look at some maps of the U.S. to see where different attitudes are concentrated. It’s amazing to see the clear patterning of regional differences, which in turn shows us where we have our work cut out for us in terms of achieving social equity.

We can start this work by looking at the political attitudes, which frequently overlap with social ones. Consider the following maps of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The first map shows states with red, Republican majorities, and those with blue, Democratic majorities; the second one shows this same information, but with a focus on population density.

As we can see, Republican voters were clustered in the south, the Great Plains, and the interior west, while Democratic voters were clustered in the northeast, Great Lakes, and west coast. As it so happens, the red areas also generally reflect sparsely populated areas, and the blue areas, more densely populated areas, revealing a correlation between cities and Democratic values.

But does the Republican-Democrat divide reflect something more than just urban versus rural? If we look at the following Gallup maps from 2011 and 2010, respectively, we get a better idea how conservatives and liberals are distributed across the country.

Not only are the northeast and northwest regions predominantly Democratic and urban, but they are also decidedly more liberal than the south and the midland. (The midland tends to be a grey area, as we shall see.) The ideological divide along geographical lines begins to deepen. Urbanity, Democratic politics, and liberalism begin to characterize the northeast and west coast while rurality, Republican politics, and conservatism begin to characterize the hinterland.

The regional difference comes into even sharper focus when we look at education and religiosity in America. Below is a 2009 Gallup map showing the most religious and most secular states in the country as well as a 2000 Census Bureau map showing educational attainment.

As the first map suggests, the south is much more religious than average, while Cascadia and New England are much more secular than average. The second map shows the inverse for education: the more secular areas tend to have better-educated people, and the more religious areas tend to have less-educated people, especially when we compare Washington state and Massachusetts with Mississippi. What this seems to show is that religiosity and lower educational attainment pattern together in the south, while secularism and higher educational attainment pattern together in New England and Cascadia (anchored by the cultural and educational centers of Boston and Seattle, respectively).

This ideological divide becomes particularly important when we look at the history of black civil rights in the United States. Consider these maps on slavery and anti-miscegenation laws:

It’s probably no surprise that the south consisted almost entirely of slave states, and the north and west almost entirely of free states and territories. Nor is it surprising that the map of anti-miscegenation laws so closely follows this pattern, with the south resisting the repeal of racist marriage laws until 1967, over one hundred years after slavery was abolished. The south wasn’t always overwhelmingly Republican, though: the region was full of “Dixiecrats” when the liberal Democrat and conservative Republican binary was not as stark as it is today.

But this general pattern of a blue, liberal region wrapping around a red, conservative hinterland doesn’t end with race; it also shows up in opinions about women, women’s rights, and sex differences, as illustrated in the following maps of women’s suffrage laws and attitudes about abortion.

In the suffrage laws map, the divide between a conservative south and a liberal north and west is slightly blurred. Large parts of the northeast joined with the south in resistance to suffrage, but vast parts of the west and northwest remained progressive on this issue, in stark contrast with the south. The north-south binary reappears, however, in the 2006 abortion map, which shows a northeast and west coast far friendlier toward reproductive rights than the south.

The south’s apparent concern for unborn babies seems incompatible with its poor record on child welfare. We see another stark regional difference looking at maps of state-by-state child poverty rates and overall child welfare across the United States.

On the 2008 child welfare map, children are better off in the lighter-shaded areas, which include Washington state, Utah, the Upper Midwest, and New England, but they are worse off in the south–the same part of the country where women’s rights, black civil rights, and post-secondary educational attainment tend to lag behind, and where religiosity tends to flourish. A very similar pattern holds for child poverty rates, with a dark band of impoverished children in the south and a lighter strip of well-off children in the west, north, and northeast.

No discussion of American social attitudes would be complete without mention of gay rights, which seems to be the social justice zeitgeist of our time. It’s everywhere in the news, at least in the United States, where everything is controversial. Once again, the general pattern we have been seeing holds true when we look at the maps below showing the advance of gay rights in the United States.

The first map shows the northeast, Midwest, and west coast taking the lead in knocking down old laws banning sodomy between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. Most of the south (as well as Mormon country) had to be forced by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling to catch up with the rest of the country. And, in typical fashion, the northeast, Midwest (Iowa), and northwest (Washington state) shine bright blue as the beacons in the gay marriage movement, while the south and Great Plains are steeped in a mostly dark blood red. We must take care not to lump the entire south into the category of “retrogressive”, however: one former slave state–Maryland–is now a gay marriage state. Now, that’s a remarkable transformation. How many states can say that they used to have slaves, but they will soon have legally married gay couples if all goes according to plan?

Certainly, looking at a few maps gives only a rough depiction of social attitudes in America, and much more investigation is required to yield a truly refined and nuanced portrait of the issue, but we can still get a general idea where American attitudes lie with respect to the rights of women, minorities, children, poor people, etc., by looking at maps. Cascadia and New England generally represent more liberal, educated, healthy people while the south generally represents the opposite. We can use this kind of knowledge to focus our efforts on helping those who have been targeted for oppression. It isn’t about judging ignorant rubes–it’s about demonstrating compassion for the underprivileged. With further research, and with the facts in mind, we can reach out to disenfranchised minorities, abused children, poor people who don’t have money for rent, young pregnant women with no access to reproductive health-care, bullied gay youth with nowhere to go, and the lonely, ostracised atheist or Muslim, with the goal of creating equity for all. This is the purpose of looking at social attitudes in America.

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Hillary Clinton, Gay Rights, and Cultural Relativism

12 12 2011

I’m not a cultural relativist. Sometimes customs are culturally relative, and sometimes, quite frankly, they are not. I don’t believe that sexism, racism, child abuse, animal abuse, rape, torture, murder, or homophobia are excusable depending on cultural context, because in each context these atrocities share the traits of hatred, violence, and exploitation committed against a sentient being. Let me get this caveat out of the way first: on some issues we are in no place to judge the practises of other cultures, and on other issues we most certainly are. In return, these other cultures are allowed to judge us on our faults. With that out of the way, LGBT rights are not an imperialist vision; they are a humanist one.

Given my wariness of cultural relativism, I was elated by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s amazing speech at the United Nations in Geneva. In her speech, Clinton declares that the Obama administration will defend LGBT rights as a part of its human rights and foreign policy, and that the President will command all government agencies operating overseas to defend LGBT rights through various diplomatic strategies. She makes several points about how and why the world community should end persecution of LGBT people: first, LGBT rights are human rights; second, homosexuality exists in all cultures; third, religious and cultural beliefs do not justify persecution of LGBT people; fourth, the world must confront persecution of LGBT people, not dismiss it; and fifth, we must employ practical means to obtain equality for LGBT people. All of these points are interesting and relevant, but the most provocative to me are the second and third points, which challenge the cultural relativism cited to defend persecution of LGBT people.

In her second point, Clinton challenges the assumption that homosexuality and LGBT rights are purely Western, imperialist conceptions being foisted on non-Western cultures. This is simply not true, Clinton shows, because homosexuality exists in every culture, and homophobia is a problem in every culture. It is, in other words, a human condition, and creating artificial cultural barriers to LGBT liberation would do a disservice to LGBT people:

Some seem to believe [homosexuality] is a Western phenomenon, and therefore people outside the West have grounds to reject it. Well, in reality, gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbours.

And just in case anybody insists there are no examples of efforts to advance LGBT rights in non-Western cultures, Clinton deftly turns the tables:

Being gay is not a Western invention; it is a human reality. And protecting the human rights of all people, gay or straight, is not something that only Western governments do. South Africa’s constitution, written in the aftermath of Apartheid, protects the equality of all citizens, including gay people. In Colombia and Argentina, the rights of gays are also legally protected. In Nepal, the supreme court has ruled that equal rights apply to LGBT citizens. The government of Mongolia has committed to pursue new legislation that will tackle anti-gay discrimination.

Clinton has obviously done her fact-checking (which is to be granted, given that she is America’s chief diplomat): heteronormative sexualities, if not exactly ubiquitous, are well-distributed among the world’s cultures, hence LGBT rights are a relevant concern to all of the world’s cultures. It is now common knowledge among well-informed people that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and intersexuality are not the product of a particular culture; they are a product of living organisms in general, from shellfish to human beings. It seems absurd, then, to say that these sexualities are the luxurious fad of one particular society (the West) of one particular species of animal (homo sapiens), hence it seems absurd to suggest that LGBT rights are relevant only to that society or species.

In her third point, Clinton criticises the notion that cultural or religious beliefs somehow justify persecution of LGBT people, and roundly dashes it to pieces. (I exaggerate, but still, she could have, and she probably would have if representatives of countries like Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan weren’t present.) She does this by comparing LGBT rights to the rights of other persecuted peoples. Specifically, she draws an analogy between crimes against LGBT people and crimes against women, both of which derive from patriarchal hegemony:

[The justification for persecuting LGBT people] is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

Cutting off a woman’s clitoris is universally wrong because it causes unspeakable pain, stress, and health problems for the victim, whether she is from Sweden, Somalia, or Seattle. This is because every person of every culture possesses a common human physiology; the nervous systems of all human beings are basically the same. I suspect every woman feels immense pain when she is mutilated, burnt to death, or stoned to death, despite the cultural situation. And when proponents of cultural relativism cite reasons for their stance, those reasons fall nothing short of pathetic: women shouldn’t be allowed to have sex with men other than their husbands, women shouldn’t be allowed to experience sexual pleasure, or women shouldn’t be allowed to live if their husbands die. Forgive me if I find these justifications more solipsistic than utilitarian, and hence hardly socially beneficial. They’re just the laws of self-serving tyrants who view women as mere incubators. Similarly, every gay person experiences unconscionable pain and horror at being hanged or crushed to death for being gay. Opinions, insecurities, and concerns specific to a culture do not justify violence against women or gay people, because we all share the same basic human physiology despite cultural context. I think this is what Clinton was pointing at.

I won’t mince words. Hillary Clinton is right, and the cultural relativists are wrong. Heteronormative sexuality is found everywhere in the world, and LGBT rights are no more culturally relative than women’s or racial minorities’ rights, because all are products of a common human mental and physical experience. For some reason, though, this is a sensitive topic for many anti-imperialists, who often happen to be from the West. It seems to me that a lot of this cultural relativist dogma stems from white, middle-class people who feel guilty about their colonial heritage, and they spout this disingenuous nonsense about relativism to soothe their own conscience. But think about it. Arguing that women’s or LGBT rights are culturally relative is basically discriminating against women and LGBT people who live in countries, like Iran, which don’t recognise their status, and that isn’t very feminist or pro-gay, is it? It isn’t even very pro-human, as Clinton showed, and I can’t help but respect her for sending such a bold, unapologetic message to countries which still use cultural relativism as a loophole to commit human atrocities. It was truly a satisfying vindication of LGBT rights.





Christians vs. Witches: the Atheists Arrive

3 07 2011

Previously, we discussed how the armies of Republican Christian politician Sarah Palin and pagan high-priestess Laurie Cabot were bearing down on one another. After an initial onslaught, they decided to withdraw and hold a match between the choicest champions of either side. Palin was not impressed with “losing” her champion to the side of the witches, and called on her forces to resume the onslaught against Cabot’s pagan forces. It is the ultimate duke-out. Thus, we continue.

Palin assumed the form of a huge and matted grizzly bear, wielding a Bible in one paw and a shotgun in the other. Cabot assumed the form of a flying cat-woman with a sleek, black body and batlike wings, wielding a staff in one paw—the staff, made of yew, was etched in an ancient Ogham incantation and glowed white—and a ball of blazing blue fire in the other. Palin levelled her gun on her shoulder, aimed at the flying witch-demon, and fired, but the shot was deflected partly by Palin’s own poor marksmanship and partly by the ball of fire, which shot from Cabot’s fist and burnt Palin’s paw, sending the shotgun a-flying.

“You’ll never best me, you Satan-worshipper!” cried Palin, rubbing her burnt paw.

“Satan?” asked Cabot, quizically. “I don’t worship Satan,  because I don’t believe in him. How can I worship something I don’t believe in?”

“Oh, he’s real enough!” cried Palin. “And he’s seducing you with his pretty words! He is the ultimate sleuth!” She was reading a page in her Bible when she said this. “Ever read C.S. Lewis?”

“Actually”, responded Cabot, “I think evil is the work of man, not some demon scapegoat. Satan is just an excuse humans use when they don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions. Humans cause evil, so humans should correct it. All evil comes from humanity, and it is the obligation of humanity to correct this error, not foist it conveniently on to some other force. It’s all about personal responsibility.”

“Lord in heaven above”, pleaded Palin, scanning a page in her Bible, which boasted a pastel-coloured, floral-print book-jacket edged with lace, “smite mine evil enemy as you would have an innocent babe of Canaan for being the child of a tribe occupying the land that your chosen people sought to conquer!” With those words, a stream of blood shot forth from the book and knocked Cabot to the ground—well, not quite to the ground, but she crashed into the Christ Church Cathedral spire. From the mass of crumbling roof she rose upright to meet her nemesis.

“You may abide in such a bloodthirsty lord”, spoke Cabot in a ringing baritone, “but I cannot!” With that, she pointed her staff at Palin, spoke a series of strange and mystical words, and shot a ray of pure light at her enemy, blasting her through a rooftop in the city-centre below. Her enemy struggled to her feet and found herself inside an Oxfam shop, asking, “What curious thing is this?”

“It is a shop where one selflessly donates to the poor and needy by buying things, such as books”,  cried the shopkeeper, a surprisingly spry old matron, “you know, those things one reads—without feeling the need to invoke capitalism or the myth of trickle-down economics in order to protect one’s wealth! Not that you would know what that means, you daft old chattering voicebox”, she snapped, pushing the bear-woman out the door and slamming it shut in her face.

“Curious indeed!” pondered Palin pawfully. “I never thought of that.”

“Chief-witches”, cried Cabot, “let us gather at the site of your fallen foe!” With that, Cabot and her chief battle-witches descended through the spires and steep roofs till they reached the cobble-stone street in a cluster before the pitiful Palin, who pawed vainly at the doorstep of the Oxfam shop. “Here”, said Cabot, “we must consider our next course of action while the armies battle above, given her”—and here she pointed at the bear-woman—“temporary disadvantage.”

“Well, we can’t just kill her”, said Doreen Virtue in a sweet voice. “At the very least, we have to judge her, but we have little time to spare at the present moment. Let us incarcerate her for the time being.”

“Ugh, such minor tasks use up my power”, sighed Cabot, considering both the army above and her fallen foe below. She could not await any further assaults, nor the re-ascent of Palin, either. She waved her staff in the air above, and the crystal atop the staff glowed with a beam of bright, opalescent, blue-white light. When this had acquired a sufficient luminosity, she pointed the crystal at the she-bear and blasted her with a cold ray of light, freezing her where she lay in a giant heap of ice. This task accomplished, she returned her glace to the enemy’s host above. They had metamorphosed into a bevvy of flying, braying moose-women. Startled by this spectacle, she raised her staff in the air once more, this time holding it horizontally with both hands, and recited a mysterious, arcane incantation. There was a brief pause.

“Witches, assume panther mode!” she bellowed. With that, a purple mass of light burst forth from her, weaved through the spikey Oxford skyline, and showered her soldiers above, transforming them into a throng of giant black cat-beasts.

“We still haven’t enough numbers!” yelled evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber from the side.

“Nigel Barber?”, mused Doreen Virtue with a soft but quizzical expression. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Oh, I don’t know”, he responded dully. “I guess I kind of like you guys!”

“Great!”, she said. “We’ll need all the help we can get. General Cabot, perhaps we can summon some friendly non-pagan forces with our psychic abilities!” she beamed, bloated with the soul of Michele Bachmann inside her.

“We are already here!” squawked Richard Dawkins, landing on a perch above in the form of a giant pteradactyl. “I have brought my forces to assist you, lady, as I see a need to protect humanity from the forces of evil.” Behind him hovered philosopher Daniel Dennet and evolutionary psychologist Susan Blackmore, in their normal human forms, as well as a number of other hardcore classical materialists.

“The atheists!” rejoiced Cabot. “I never thought you’d have come to my aid, given our differences on spirituality, the afterlife, and the mind-brain relationship. Your reputation for being cold, mean, stubborn, and blindly egotistical does precede you. Obviously it is not entirely deserved!”

Stay tuned to find out how the witch-friendly atheists fare against the Christians, and how the atheists are able to cope. Also, stay tuned to find out how the Christians and witches begin to employ their greatest assets against one another. The battle is peaking, and we need some serious forces to ensure that it is as tumultuous as possible. Expect the oddest things to transpire.





Christians vs. Witches!

30 06 2011

Oh my god. The other day I wrote the driest, most politically correct blog entry ever. The sad thing is that it was on one of the coolest and funniest things ever. I wrote about this blog on motherhood called Circle of Moms that was hosting a “best blog” competition for its subscribers. Basically, subscribers would vote on one another’s blogs through the Circle of Moms site–Circle of Moms was sort of the meeting place for voting on the blogs of its subscribers. (It’s a SEO strategy—everybody benefits when sites interconnect with one another through a site they all have in common.)

The competing blogs were categorized according to topic. One of these was “faith”, and it had a lot of stuff about “Biblical womanhood”, Biblical patriarchy, home-schooling, premarital sex, and all of that crap that Christian American soccer moms eat up like Starbucks protein bars. Anyway, a pagan mother submitted her blog, Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom, in the competition, and it was put in the “Faith” category, and boy, oh, boy, was there a shit-storm over that. Basically, acting as if they owned the “Faith” category, some of the Christian mothers descended on her like a flock of flying wolf-maidens and tore her apart, sending her nasty comments on her blog—after all, it is about witchcraft, magic, potions, and all of that scary stuff.

Ironically, however, the pagan mother won the blog competion. Guess why? The rest of the Christians defended her, sending her messages of support like “Oh, shit! We’re sorry! Christians shouldn’t act that way! We respect you and your faith tradition!” and even voting for the pagan mother’s blog as well as other pagan blogs. In fact, six of the top ten winning blogs were related to paganism. Now, six out of ten Americans are not pagan, so obviously the figures reflected this dispute. But in the end, people came together despite their different backgrounds. How about that for solidarity, girls?

Anyway, my blog entry on the whole debacle had to be polite and respectful-sounding, and I couldn’t tease any religions or make fun of anybody, because, well, it was a professional blog entry, and that makes sense—if I want to keep my job, I can’t do any dirty writing. But here and now, I can do what I want. And what I want to do is re-write that entry. I want to re-imagine it. I want to tell you what really went through my mind when I read about this hilarious catfight between Christian and pagan soccer moms, and the superbly elegant defection that led to an ultimate pagan victory. So read on.

The twilight slowly gave way to a lurid reddish haze which silhouetted Oxford’s innumerable stern spires, illuminating the soft, curvaceous, cottony English hills of the surrounding neighbourhood. On the town’s eastern border, with the rising of the sun, stood the daughters of Christ, and on the western border, the daughters of Earth. The former were servants of Yahweh, blood-god of the Israelites, and the latter, defenders of Nature, idol of the pagans. Both forces steamed with a heady passion and an impetuous lust. A hush fell over the gracious, still-sleeping city. The grizzly-mommy Sarah Palin, word-mangling publicity whore and leader of the Christians, flew forth to parley with her dread adversary, the numinous Laurie Cabot, leader of the pagans and high priestess of witchcraft in America.

“You will not refudiate my claim to the Throne of Morality!” clucked Palin in her grating Minnesota twang.

“I beg your pardon?” responded Cabot. “That isn’t a word. You cannot win the Throne of Morality with such illiteracy. Such neologisms are entirely ill-conceived.”

“Whaaat?” responded Palin. “I don’t care what you say, smarty-pants! I believe in Jesus Christ! He saved my soul from damnation when I accepted his sacrifice!”

“Well, yes”, replied Cabot with a roll of the eyes, “he did—by killing himself to propitiate himself for the imperfection he himself planted in you, so that you would no longer have to slaughter goats to propitiate him for your sins. Makes perfect sense.”

“Huuuh?? Stop trying to impress the people with your big words, you…you expert! It’s not as though people need to be treated like—”

“—like intelligent interlocutors? No, we wouldn’t want to treat the people with dignity, to address them as ladies and gentlemen. We wouldn’t want to hold them to such a high standard. Let’s talk to them like the retards we want them to be.”

“Grrrrrrr!” roared the angry grizzly-mommy. “I’ve had enough! Grizzly-women, attack!!”

Like a hive of wasps, the daughters of Christ ascended with the giant orb of the rising sun and flew like hawks at their enemy, through the spires of thriving schools and the steeples of long-empty churches, which jutted up mercilessly into the lightening sky. The daughters of Earth rose with the sinking moon as their harbinger of doom and shot at their opponent like a spray of arrows—a cloudy mass of horned bats and sharp-clawed cats. The two armies clashed with the bray of a shrieking eagle.

The leaders, Palin and Cabot, met each other head-on, their hosts crashing in behind them. Palin headed a phalanx of angels and grizzly bear-women that mauled and clawed at their opponents; Cabot’s vast host of flying cat-women and nature-spirits mauled and clawed and beat and savaged their aggressors. A frenzy of claws, bear-swipes, cat-strikes, bat-wings, and angel-wings blurred Oxford’s spikey skyline in a dark cloud against the early sun.

As the day dragged on, there was a temporary halt to the melee, and the two armies chose to employ their greatest champions. Palin submitted Michele Bachmann, U.S. Republican representative from the state of Minnesota, and Cabot submitted Doreen Virtue, PhD, doctor of counselling psychology and angel-whisperer from Laguna Beach, California.

Bachmann flew like a dragon toward the cloudy mass of light that was Virtue, and the light swelled to a near-blinding brilliance. Bachmann resorted to her chief power first, frustrating the light by constantly stating factual errors and making repeated, vacuous invocations of Jesus and God. For a moment, the light stood stunned and dizzied. At that point Bachmann lunged forth and slashed at the light with her bear-claws, but with effort the light regained its equanimity, invoking the angels. Gradually, like a trickle turning into a stream, a vast host of angels defected from Palin’s army and zoomed through the mass of clashing bodies to join Virtue, who absorbed them. The enlarged mass eerily invited Bachmann’s onslaught, unobtrusively absorbing and transforming the evangelical mommy into something like itself—a giant mass of bright, peaceful forgiveness.

“Fuck that New Age shit!” roared Palin. “I believe in the sacrifice of Christ Jesus! That sort of magical mumbo-jumbo is evil!”

“Why?” responded Cabot. “It was fair, and your champion was not killed; her consciousness merely melded with that of her opponent.”

“It’s the work of Satan! It says so in the Bible! Grizzly-women, draw now on the power of your Lord!”

“Seriously, you are one paranoid bitch. I have no choice—cat-women, attack!”

The rest will be conveyed to you in the following series of instalments, which will include such famous figures as Jesus, Stephen Hawking, and an assortment of individual angelic and divine personalities, among them the Archangel Gabriel and the Irish goddess of war and death, Morrígan.