What I saw in Washington, D.C.

Image may contain: one or more people, tree and outdoor

I will be writing about my perspective on the political implications of the November, 2016 election in other outlets, but the shift in the country is having many personal impacts that I will be writing about in the coming months.  I have been dismayed by the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and anti-lgbtq sentiment on display in the last few months, the blatant use of power by ICE and CBP agents, stopping individuals from places like Australia and even the former Prime Minister of Denmark at airports (not that these types of stops are new). The weekend that the first executive order on immigration was released I barely slept – but quickly realized that I couldn’t keep up that kind of pace. We are in a marathon not a sprint. I’ll have to pick my battles carefully and not get caught up in every issue where I have some expertise.

My last trip to D.C. was in 2013 for Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Since then, the country has, of course, gone through some major changes that I could not have foreseen at that time. I expected a very different place when I took a quick trip to Washington D.C. in late February. This trip was for a meeting at the American Political Science Association, and I was curious to see what the atmosphere would be like under the new administration.

I arrived early evening to my hotel and immediately headed to one of my favorite restaurants near Dupont Circle for some dinner. I rarely watch TV news, I tend to listen to NPR, but CNN seemed much more relevant as I sat at the restaurant bar in our nation’s capital. CNN was reporting on the breaking news that Reince Priebus had asked the FBI to discount the reports that Trump’s campaign had contacts with Russian officials. As I sat enjoying my meal, I couldn’t help but overhear a group of twenty-somethings discussing the political situation.  I chatted with them for a bit, sharing our interest in politics, and the need to understand populism and racism in the current climate.

The next day I made my way to the White House and was surprised to find it surrounded by fencing and no trespassing signs.

Image may contain: sky, tree, grass, bridge and outdoor

The obstructions are there ostensibly because of the inauguration, but this is the longest it has ever taken to tear down the stands and construction after the inauguration. It also conveniently keeps protestors away from the White House. I did find the peace protestors who have had a long-standing presence near the White House and they explained the situation – the Park Service has been accommodating, but they are subject to the dictates of the White House. It does not feel like the people’s house anymore. I’m glad I was able to visit with my boys while Obama was still President.

Image may contain: one or more people, tree, sky, outdoor and nature

Later I met with friends who talked about how the helicopters used by Trump and Pence would “buzz” the bike paths and I even noticed how the helicopters would fly low over residential areas – under Obama the helicopters would do their best to fly over the Potomac and avoid residential areas and the park. Friends who work in government agencies are concerned that they still don’t have agency heads, don’t know what will happen to their funding, and are concerned that programs that provide a lot of bang for the buck will no longer be funded, hurting the U.S,’s standing in the world.

These are the small changes that don’t get into the news – but they have great impact on those who work and live in DC, and ultimately, the way our government functions. We need to pay attention to all of these changes.

France, Muslims and Terrorism

Picture

As noted in this mini-documentary from CBS news “It sucks to be a Muslim in France”…

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/les-banlieues-seeds-of-terror

[I consulted with the producer of the mini-documentary as an expert on the topic]

One of my first trips to Paris as a graduate student in 1995 coincided with a series of terrorist bomb attacks, likely by Algerian Islamic extremists (CNN, 1995), that led to the removal of all garbage cans in the city. Many years later, as a professor working on a book project, I happened to stay in a hotel which was about a block away from where one of the busses had blown up during the 7/7 bombing attacks. Many have written about whether or not terror attacks like the 7/7 bombings or 9/11 have led to a securitization of immigration policy. What is different now is that Europe is currently experiencing the largest flow of refugees since the end of World War II, and most of those refugees are coming from Syria and other parts of the Middle East, meaning many of these migrants are Muslims.

Many European countries have faced terror attacks over the years and have taken a variety of measures to improve security. However, even though new measures may be taken to deal with security, such as stricter screening of immigrants and refugees, most European countries, including countries like Germany, France and Sweden, have remained open to refugees fleeing violence, whether they were Muslims fleeing conflicts in the Balkans or Iraqi minorities fleeing sectarian violence.

Europe has faced a challenge integrating Muslims from various countries and backgrounds. However, it is important to keep in mind that the recent attacks in Paris appear to have been perpetrated by so-called “home grown terrorists,” i.e., radicalized Muslims who were born and raised in Europe. This makes the connection between terrorism and refugees rather tenuous.

Perhaps a larger issue, in terms of integration, is the situation for immigrants, ethnic minorities and Muslim citizens, given that many of them live on the margins of society. Many are the targets of racism, but also have to deal with living in places like the suburbs (banlieus) of Paris where they have little educational and job opportunities. France has been trying to address this issue for many years, with a variety of policies, including antidiscrimination policy, as described in my book, Legislating Equality. Although the French government initially embraced antidiscrimination policy through its equality body, politics eventually reduced the impact of its activities related to racism.

Journalist and documentarian Rokhaya Diallo has examined these issues through the lens of Americans visiting France in her recent work, Steps to Liberty. Going back to the 1995 movie, La Haine (Hate) it seems that little has changed. However, I have seen a new awareness developing among various groups including Muslims and those who now consider themselves black and French. I have written about the impact of racial equality legislation on blacks in France in the book Invisible Minorities. These groups have the potential to develop as voting blocks and to impact politics in France, as well as other European countries. These political developments can be important to the integration of minority groups and may ultimately create a new outlet for the frustrations that can lead to radicalization.

 

 

 

 

 

A journey to Italy – with 8th graders!

My son’s 8th grade class at St. Francis School is continuing a tradition of a spring break trip to Italy, and luckily my son, Andrew, didn’t mind that I tagged along. We’ll be traveling across Italy for the next week, including stops in Venice, Florence, Assisi and Rome.

We took a bus from Austin to Houston, then traveled to Venice via Paris.  There are 30 kids on the trip, 4 teacher chaperones and 5 parents.  It is a great group to travel with, the kids are very well behaved and so far they have done a good job of listening and following instructions. Many of the kids slept on the plane, but it was still a very tiring and long first day in Italy.

DSC_0004
On the bus to Houston
Sorting out our bags at the Venice Airport
Sorting out our bags at the Venice Airport
DSC_0009
Waiting to board the Vaporetto (water bus) -there are no cars in Venice!
DSC_0013
Heading to our hotel on the water bus.
DSC_0026
View of the Piazza San Marco on the water bus

We were lucky that we had nice weather today, it was warm in the sun and I’m sure that will help with the jet lag. We arrived at our hotel around 1:00 and took some time to settle in a bit before going to get some lunch and gelato. We walked to Piazza San Marco, stopping to learn some facts about Venice along the way, including the way that the city was built on marshes by putting long pine trunks into the sandy ground and topping them with marble and bricks until they got above the water level. We spent about an hour checking out the Plaza, then walked over to the Rialto Bridge, the oldest bridge in Venice, dating back to the 1500s.

DSC_0045
In the Piazza San Marco
DSC_0052
Hanging out in Piazza San Marco

More pictures to come!

Moving on…

Much of my writing in this blog has been a way of processing my feelings of grief from losing people close to me. However, there are many forms of grief, as I was discussing in a twitter chat today (#SaturdaySchool).  In this instance I am leaving a university and city that I have loved and been deeply involved in, but this grief is combined with the excitement and joy of moving to the new position of Provost at Menlo College. This new position means a return to the San Francisco Bay area where we have many friends and family, and I will be very close to my alma mater, Stanford.

Austin and the University of Texas have been my home for the last twelve years, and they have been some of the most important and formative years of my career. My second son, Brandon, was born shortly after we arrived, and is proud to call himself the only real Texan in our household. We were warmly welcomed into an amazing community, Aldridge Place, where we have all made so many friends. But life goes on, and many of those friends have moved away over the years. My boys will be entering 6th and 9th grade next year, so they will be changing schools in any case. This doesn’t lessen the grief I know that they will feel at leaving their friends, but I know the move will also open new opportunities and horizons for them.

We are lucky that we have a few months to adjust to the prospect of change. There will be time for going away parties, in between house hunting trips. In the era of social media, staying in touch with friends in Austin will be easier than when we left Seattle 12 years ago. A new adventure is ahead of us, but I’m grateful for the times we have had and the friends we have made in this life’s journey.

Belize: The Forgotten Country?

Belize
Let’s Make Belize A Place We Can Be Proud To Call Home!!!

I took this picture during our last evening in Belize, near the light house in Belize City. This sign epitomized the feeling I got as we drove around Belize – a country that clearly has a problem of low self-esteem. As a social scientist, I couldn’t help but observe the class and race divides in the country.  One evening while we were in San Ignacio we had a discussion with the proprietors of our jungle lodge.  I asked them about the divides in the country and they noted that many of the hardest workers came from Guatemala, and the women favored these men as husbands.  The Belize of San Pedro and Ambergris Caye was very different from that of the Cayo District or Belize City.  Our hosts also noted that the people who lived in Belize City looked down on the people in rural areas, although it wasn’t apparent that the poverty in the rural areas was any worse than in Belize City.  In fact, we found it much harder to navigate Belize City without being set upon by children or disabled people begging for change.

Although Belize has gang violence, it is nowhere near the scale of that in Guatemala or Honduras which is leading to the flow of children and families to the U.S. (see http://www.immigrationtexas.org/2014/07/unaccompanied-minors-and-refugees-from.html).  A very small country, with a population of only ~325,000, and having only gotten independence from Great Britain in 1981, Belize seems to be struggling to develop a middle class.  There are expats from the U.S. and other countries who buy land and even develop businesses that employ many people, but poverty seems to be a persistent problem.

Flag of Belize
Flag of Belize

I was struck by a story from one of our guides who wanted to come to the U.S., just as a tourist. He had to save up the $250 needed for the application form, and then hope that it would be approved which it was.  Still he had to save up the money to actually make the trip, and he said it would be a couple of years before he would be able to make the trip, even though his visa had been approved.

When we visited the Belize Zoo, all of the signs were clearly written to encourage Belizeans to preserve and support their wildlife. Tourism has had a positive impact, for example, people realize they can make more money by helping breeders find iguanas for their preservation program rather than hunting them for food.

I plan to read more about the history of Belize, but given the current state of the country, the British had to have left the country in a very impoverished and under-developed state, and the country has had to work very hard to build an economy that seems to rely primarily on tourism. I felt very safe in Belize, and the people were very friendly and grateful for the tourists who came from the U.S., Europe, and even Australia. However, the border with Guatemala will be a concern as well as general economic development that can help the country build a middle class.  I am no expert on Central America, but I feel like I learned a great deal from our trip to Belize and I hope to learn more as I observe from afar.

Belize: CAVES! Barton Creek Cave, Cave Tubing & ATM

We are back in Austin and I wanted to take a little time to process our trip before writing this post on Belize.  Belize’s geology includes lots of limestone which leads to the development of caves.  They have many cave systems that were also used by the Maya as long as 1300 years ago. I hadn’t read much on the caves, and our guidebook didn’t give much detail on them.  I was very glad that we had a guide with us who could explain some of the reasons the Maya were thought to have used the caves.  We started this lesson during our trip to Xunantunich, where our guide Edgar explained that in Mayan mythology the caves were the underworld and where water came from.  When drought hit, the Mayans headed to the caves to try appeal to their gods for relief, and toward the end of the Mayans habitation of the sites like Xunantunich, they appeared to become more desperate and offered human sacrifices along with food and prayers.

We began our cave exploration with Barton Creek Cave, near San Ignacio.

IMG_2050 IMG_2083They have found evidence that the Maya used this cave for ceremonial purposes, and there are still some shards of pottery on ledges where they may have performed ceremonial rites.  There were lots of interesting formations in the cave:

IMG_2091 IMG_2068 IMG_2058 IMG_2051After the canoe trip through the cave, we went to the nearby butterfly “ranch” where the owner gave us a tour and talked about the various species that they breed and a “walking stick” that likes to hang out around the butterflies:IMG_2103 IMG_2107 IMG_2108 IMG_2112 IMG_2125

There was also a great variety of hummingbirds who would come to the feeders and even sit on branches for their portraits!IMG_2142 IMG_2137 IMG_2136The next day was dedicated to cave tubing, but the boys couldn’t resist trying out the zipline first:IMG_2150 IMG_2147After the thrill of zip-lining we had a long hike through the jungle with our inner tubes to get to the mouth of the cave:

IMG_2167 IMG_2177 IMG_2174The water was fairly low, so we often had to follow the rule of “butts up” to avoid hitting rocks, but we had a great float through the caves. Our guide told us stories about Mayan culture and history, and how they revered the caves as the underworld.  Lots of great formations, like in Barton Creek Cave. At the end, we had a nice float in the open, through a few small rapids – it was great fun:

IMG_2179 IMG_2185 IMG_2184That day ended with a visit to the Mayan site Cahal Pech. This site is currently being excavated so there were a few archeologists there who could answer some of our questions – they are working to fix some of the damage done in the 1990s by previous archeologists who tried to reconstruct parts of the site using bad methods.

IMG_2192The next day, however, was truly the most magnificient cave – we definitely saved the best for last.  Aktun Tinichil Muknal (aka, ATM Cave) was discovered in the late 1980s and has remained untouched (for the most part) and unexcavated so that visitors could enjoy the site as it was originally found, with artifacts left by the Maya exactly as they were 1000 years ago.  It is also known as the cave of the “Crystal Maiden” for the skeleton that lies at the end of the tour, at the to of a grotto.  They actually aren’t sure if it is male or female, but the presumption is that this body and several others whose bones you can see were ritual sacrifices.  We weren’t able to take any pictures, but check out this video to get an idea of what the interior of the cave is like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW9bdBVPeDQ

It was a pretty strenuous hike to get to the cave, then we started by swimming into the entrance and hiking through several narrow passages, in an out of the water.  To get to the main site of the artifacts, we had to climb a ladder, and then scramble on our knees through a narrow slippery area.  I still have a bruise or two and skinned knees to show for the effort, but it was totally worth it.  I would do it again for sure! This was definitely the highlight of our stay in the Cayo district.

Belize: Snakes, Tarantulas, Iguanas and Mayans

If you have a problem with bugs or lizards, the Belizean jungle may not be the best place to go – but we had a great time seeing these cool creatures (thanks Animal Planet). Last Friday was spent mostly at Black Rock Lodge, doing activities on their property, including a hike to the top of the hill, tubing on the river and a night hike to look at all the stuff that comes out at night.  One of those animals was one of the most venomous snakes in Belize, the “fer de lance” — luckily none of us is particularly scared of snakes, since Andrew was obsessed with snakes when he was younger and we all had to get used to them. However, Brandon is scared of spiders, and our hiking guide decided he was going to help Brandon get over his fear.  So he found a tarantula, and actually convinced Brandon to first touch it, then hold it – he was very brave! We saw a few more night creatures, including a very well camouflaged bird, scorpions, and various insects.

Brandon holds a tarantula
Brandon holds a tarantula

The next day we started out with a trip to the weekly market in San Ignacio. It was very colorful in a variety of ways.  Lots of produce, clothing and crafts.  Also, lots of people from different backgrounds, showing the diversity of Belize.  We stopped at one shop and bought a couple of items:

A stall at the market with nice crafts
A stall at the market with nice crafts

After the market, we went to the Belize Iguana Project at the San Ignacio Resort hotel – they do tours every hour, and it was a very hands on experience.  They started by showing us the larger iguanas, once they reach full size, they release them into the wild. We started with feeding them, and we could hold and touch them — one of them decided that Andrew was tasty!

Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Ouch!
Ouch!

When we went in to see the baby iguanas, they had one that had been born the day before, very tiny.  We got to hold the older ones (anywhere 3 to 10 months old) and Brandon held a bunch of them all at once!

Brandon covered in baby iguanas
Brandon covered in baby iguanas

After the iguanas, we headed to the Mayan archeological site that is just down the road from San Ignacio. My favorite guide on this part of the trip is Edgar Avila 501 624-2415 (a Belize number so you have to dial 011 from the US) – we met him at Xunantunich, where he offered to be our guide. This site has the second tallest pyramid in the Mayan world, known as El Castillo, or the castle. Edgar was very knowledgeable and helped us understand what we were seeing, including the numerology used by the Maya, the legends and why they built on high ground. We also hired him to guide us at the cave tubing which we would be doing on Monday – more on that later.

Masks on the side of the castillo
Masks on the side of the castillo
Looking at a stella
Looking at a stella
A view of the castillo
A view of the castillo