Glimpses of universes where the sky is a very different color

My parents, both born in 1940 and having grown up in the California Bay Area, were in their mid-20s during the so-called countercultural revolution which occurred in Berkeley, San Francisco and other locales during the 1960s. As a not-too-astute teenager, I recall once asking my dad if he or my mom had ever taken part in any “hippie” activities. The response was short and swift: “Heck no; we had to earn a living.”

For most young Americans, the 1960s wasn’t about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, it was about working, getting an education and raising families. It’s only because the media has chosen to portray the period as one in which all young adults participated in the Summer of Love that the former image exists.

I reminded of this type of myopia when I come across odd concepts that seem to sweep academia and other insular professions with regularity. While the rest of the world goes about working and trying to make do, these sorts, who seem to have a good bit of time on their hands, are hell bent on stirring the pot in trying to convince outsiders that their eccentric ideas are cutting edge, rather than on the fringe.

Consider a recent post in the blog of the American Mathematical Society by Piper Harron, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawaii. Titled “Get Out of the Way,” the first three paragraphs read thus:

Not to alarm you, but I probably want you to quit your job, or at least take a demotion. Statistically speaking, you are probably taking up room that should go to someone else. If you are a white cis man (meaning you identify as male and you were assigned male at birth) you almost certainly should resign from your position of power. That’s right, please quit. Too difficult? Well, as a first step, at least get off your hiring committee, your curriculum committee, and make sure you’re replaced by a woman of color or trans person. Don’t have any in your department? HOW SHOCKING.

Remember that you live in a world where people don’t succeed in a vacuum; most success happens on the backs of others who did not consent. You have no idea how successful you would have been if you were still you, but with an additional marginalization (not white, or not male, or not cis gender, or with a disability, etc).

Right now, I want to talk about gender equality because the fact that women aren’t actually a demographic minority makes certain arguments easier, but please know that actual solutions require women of color and trans people. Remember having white cis women run the world is no kind of solution.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harron is a black female. What’s more unusual is that this appears on a blog for a math society, rather than one of academia’s more “activist” areas, such as gender studies, law or political science.

I can’t say whether Harron is a competent mathematician or a competent professor, but I do know that she would not be my first choice to teach my children were they to attend the University of Hawaii. I’m leery of those who wholeheartedly engage in identity politics.

Here’s another tempest that’s apparently been swirling about for the past year or two: the question among literary sorts whether they should take a year-long sabbatical from reading “white, straight, cisgender male authors.”

No, really.

The goal is to focus on “marginalized authors to support them and broaden readers’ horizons.”

Heina Dadabhob, in a 2015 story about the movement for The Daily Dot, was aghast to realize that she was “reading fewer than 50 percent non-male authors.”

“Despite being an outspoken feminist, I was not reading or supporting many female authors,” she wrote.

I confess to not understanding this line of thinking. It seems incredibly narrow-minded, not to mention condescending, particularly the part about the need to “broaden readers’ horizons.”

And is it not a method of banning books – if only for a year – of authors who do not fit certain racial and gender categories.

I don’t need holier-than-thou sorts to tell me of the pleasures of Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Annie Proulx, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Lise Funderburg, David Sedaris or Pearl Buck, all of whom I’ve read recently. I also am not going to listen to some busybody tell me that I shouldn’t pick up Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and James Fenimore Cooper, all of whom I’ve also enjoyed recently.

Anyone who chooses not to read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors is as foolish as someone who chooses to only read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors.

Good literature is good literature, no matter who writes it.

Dadabhob finishes her piece in The Daily Dot with the following: “… almost everyone, regardless of gender or race, could stand to enjoy more literature from a broader range of authors.”

I would amend her statement to simply say that almost everyone, regardless of gender or race could stand to enjoy more literature – period.

(Top: the Bonfire of the Vanities, Feb. 7, 1497. Supporters of Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collect and burn thousands of objects, including art and books, in Florence, Italy.)

School board strikes a blow for the timid and fainthearted

Among memorable lines from the 1985 classic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one in which protagonist Pee-wee Herman tells admiring love interest Dottie that he doesn’t need anyone: “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Were that movie made today, it would seem likely that last word would have to be substituted, most likely with something bland and insipid, such as “nonconforming dissenter” or “quirky eccentric.”

The word rebel scares people.

Consider that the South Burlington (Vt.) School Board recently voted to drop the “Rebel” name at South Burlington High School for the coming school year. For more than 55 years South Burlington High School has used “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before. In its early years, the school had an old-style Confederate colonel mascot, but that was dropped decades ago.

Superintendent David Young told the school board in February that it had become “crystal clear” to him that the nickname “is interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included in our schools.”

No details were provided on how a word – one associated with individuals such as George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi – was “interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included … ”

According to an Associated Press story, the move to change the name came about because of a gradual shift in the largely white school, whose population is now nearly 20 percent nonwhite, said South Burlington High School Interim Principal Patrick Phillips. He said the nickname has created discomfort for some students.

I’m not aware of the racial makeup of South Burlington High, but according to the 2010 census, South Burlington itself was 90 percent white, 5.4 percent Asian, 1.9 black, 1.9 percent Hispanic. Two percent were classified as two or more races, and Native Americans, Pacific Islander and “other races” made up one-half of one percent or less of the town’s population.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that a significant percentage of non-white students haven’t moved into the school in recent years.

However, it seems somewhat condescending to assume that non-whites are automatically offended by the word “rebel.”

There had been a push to allow the community to vote on the mascot issue, but that was rejected by the school board.

South Burlington resident Sandy Dooley was among those opposed to a public vote.

“I think that every student, every child who participates in our education programs here in South Burlington has a right to be in an environment that in every respect supports his or her opportunity to take full advantage of what we’re offering here. And I think there’s ample evidence that the ‘Rebel’ identifier interferes with that,” she told the Associated Press.

Again, no evidence was provided on how the “rebel identifier” interferes with participation in education programs.

South Burlington students will vote today on three names to replace “rebels”: Huskies, Pride and Wolves. Inspiring. Jellyfish would seem more fitting, although it seems unfair to punish students for the sins of their lily-livered fathers, mothers and administrators.

No word on when the South Burlington School Board will take aim at striking Ethan Allen from its textbooks. After all, Vermont was founded by Allen and other “rebels” who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York.”

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

Others who could be in the South Burlington School Board’s crosshairs include the Founding Fathers, most certainly considered “rebels” by Great Britain; Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led a rebellion against colonial powers and helped Haiti to freedom in the early 19th century; Martin Luther, who rebelled against the Roman Catholic church and helped usher in the Protestant Reformation; Nelson Mandela, famed anti-apartheid activist; most any of the American Civil Rights leaders, who were considered rebels by Jim Crow advocates; and religious figures such as Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad.

Clear waters increase visibility to shipwrecks on Lake Michigan

For much of the year, visibility on Lake Michigan is obscured by either ice in the winter or algae blooms in warmer months. There is a window in the spring, however, when the water is unusually clear and a variety of shallow-water shipwrecks can be viewed from the air.

The US Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City has noted that this is the time of year when crystal-clear water conditions allow sunken vessels to be spied from above during routine patrols.

Two years ago, Coast Guard officials came across several shipwrecks in the area near Sleeping Bear Point known as the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, which is “one of the richest areas in Michigan for shipwreck diving,” according to the preserve’s website.

The lumber industry put the area on a shipping route. The North and South Manitou Islands, just north of the point, provided a somewhat sheltered area for ships hiding from storms, according to Smithsonian.com.

Map of Lake Michigan.

It is estimated that 6,000 ships have been lost on the Great Lakes over the years, with approximately 1,500 of these vessels having gone down in the waters of Lake Michigan, according to National Public Radio.

Of course, far more shipwrecks are beyond viewing. The lake, which covers more than 22,000 square miles, has an average depth of nearly 280 feet and reaches down to more than 900 feet in some locations.

While not much is known about many of the wrecks, a large number of which sank in the 19th century, they do include the James McBride, believed to be the first to carry cargo from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Michigan in 1848. The vessel,  a 121-foot brig, ran aground during a storm on Oct. 19, 1857, and her remains lie in 5 to 15 feet of water.

Like other Great Lakes, visibility on Lake Michigan decreases as the year goes on, due to algal blooms fueled by agricultural runoff. Warmer temperatures will likely nurture the blooms and obscure the wrecks in the summer, according to Smithsonian.com.

(Top: Shipwreck off the shore of Lake Michigan. Image taken in the spring of 2015 by US Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City.)

Proof of Turkish complicity in Armenian genocide revealed

Genocide stains the annals of the 20th century like a macabre decoration – from the Holocaust to Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainians to Pol Pot’s killing fields to slaughter in Rwanda.

The first official genocide of the last century began with the organized killing of Armenians by the then Ottoman Empire in 1915, an event that claimed as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or about 75 percent of all Armenians in what is today Turkey.

The liquidation – carried out under the cover of World War I – was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied males through massacre and forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and the infirm on death marches to the Syrian desert in which victims were deprived of food and water, and subjected to robbery, rape and massacre.

Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman perpetrators, has long denied a state role in the killing of Armenians. Despite the testimony of thousands of Armenian survivors, it has resisted the word genocide, saying that the suffering of the Armenians occurred during the chaos of a world war in which Turkish Muslims faced hardship, too.

Turkey also claimed that the Armenians were traitors, and had been planning to join with Russia, then an enemy of the Ottoman Empire. That position is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture with a majority of Turks sharing the government’s position.

Recently, however, Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said he has discovered a “smoking gun” that implicates the Turks, an original telegram introduced as evidenced in the 1919-20 trials connected to the deaths of the Armenians, in an archive held by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, according to the New York Times.

Akcam, who has studied the genocide for decades by piecing together documents from around the world to establish state complicity in the killings, said he hoped the evidence would remove “the last brick in the denialist wall.”

“The story begins in 1915 in an office in the Turkish city of Erzurum, when a high-level official of the Ottoman Empire punched out a telegram in secret code to a colleague in the field, asking for details about the deportations and killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia, the easternmost part of contemporary Turkey,” according to the Times.

A deciphered copy of the telegram was used to help convict the official, Behaeddin Shakir, for planning the organized killing of Armenians in trials held shortly after the end of World War I.

Turkish officials attempted – successfully – to place blame during the trials on a small number of officials, rather than the deaths being correctly expressed as a statewide effort. Those found guilty were either in hiding or given light sentences.

Soon after the trial most of the original documents and sworn testimony disappeared, leaving researchers to rely mostly on summaries from the official Ottoman newspaper. Turkey has been able to deny the genocide partly because so many of the records of the court proceedings were destroyed or somehow vanished, leaving only historians’ accounts and journalists’ accounts, which could be dismissed as biased.

“What we were missing in Armenian genocide is the so-called smoking gun because all relevant documents were taken out from Ottoman archive or all these materials – telegrams, eyewitness accounts, they were all gone,” Akcam told National Public Radio. “We didn’t know whereabouts of all these documents. And mainly, the denial strategy was ‘show us the originals.’ So I discovered in a private archive this telegram.”

The telegram would likely have remained forever lost were it not for Akcam’s sleuthing.

As Turkish nationalists were about to seize the country in 1922, the Armenian leadership in Istanbul shipped 24 boxes of court records to England for safekeeping, according to the Times.

“The records were kept there by a bishop, then taken to France and, later, to Jerusalem. They have remained there since the 1930s, part of a huge archive that has mostly been inaccessible to scholars, for reasons that are not entirely clear,” the publication added. “Mr. Akcam said he had tried for years to gain access to the archive, with no luck.”

He did, though, find a photographic record of the Jerusalem archive in New York, held by the nephew of an Armenian monk, now dead, who was a survivor of the genocide.

“The telegram was written under Ottoman letterhead and coded in Arabic lettering; four-digit numbers denoted words. When Mr. Akcam compared it with the known Ottoman Interior Ministry codes from the time, found in an official archive in Istanbul, he found a match, raising the likelihood that many other telegrams used in the postwar trials could one day be verified in the same way,” the Times wrote.

For historians, the court cases were one piece of a mountain of evidence that emerged over the years – including reports in several languages from diplomats, missionaries and journalists who witnessed the events as they happened – that established the historical fact of the killings and qualified them as genocide.

While many countries, including France, Germany, Greece and the Vatican, have recognized what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the United States has refrained from using that term, not wishing to alienate Turkey, a NATO ally and a partner in its fight against terrorism in the Middle East.

Akcam told NPR that the Turkish government must now develop new strategies to deny the Armenian genocide.

“They cannot deny as they have been denying over the years,” he said. “It is over now. There is no way to escape. They have to face this reality. This is a telegram with an Ottoman letterhead and we with the Ottoman coding system.”

(Top: Armenian mother kneeling beside her dead child near Aleppo, Syria, one of many who died crossing the Syrian desert during the Armenian genocide.)