On the removal of our Southern ‘heritage’

Bye Bye Robert E Lee

In the US South, in various places, confederate statues are being removed. In New Orleans Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, General Beauregard – all these relics of the Confederate past are being transported to a legacy of cobwebs, pigeon-shit and dust.

And so they should be.

A sizeable population of Southerns are angry about this. If you’re from the South you’ve heard these arguments that glorify the Lost Cause of the Confederacy a thousand times. Heritage not Hate. As a Southerner myself, believe me when I say it’s a heritage based on hate. It’s a heritage based on the immorality of owning other people, the auctioning of souls to be beaten, abused and barely fed to harvest cotton or sugar cane for a white man, all because these men thought they were morally superior to someone who was a different color from a different land.

Robert E Lee was a great general of the Confederacy, but he fought for the right for one man to own another. We like to think in the South that this ‘great man’ was full of dash and derring-do and somehow was not a racist because he was a ‘kind master’ to his slaves, or let them go (he ran out of money, he had to) because he was good. He was definitely good at his day job, but make no mistake, his day job was fighting for something base and immoral. There is nothing about the Civil War that was good. And it is true, the Civil War was fought for states rights. The right of people occupying a state to own other people, the right of Southerners to own slaves.

To many of us, racism seems like a simple issue. To many of us a racist is a white supremacist, a neo-Nazi, a member of the alt-Right or whatever the hell they call themselves these days. But these people are small in number and lurk on the edges of society, no matter how loud they may scream and how much news coverage they may get. But they are out there, they are identifiable. What is worse and harder to identify is the casual racism in the South (and indeed other places in the US and the wider world). The people who swear up and down they are ‘color blind’, that they see no race.

This is crazy and blind. Crazy you can’t fix, but blind you can deal with. Please don’t pretend that in the US we are all treated equally – open your eyes, read the statistics. If you are African-American you are much more likely to be incarcerated for a crime than if you are white. If you don’t ‘see’ color you are clearly blind and if you as a white person in the South can’t see how we treat our fellow Americans that are a different color then you are willfully blind and it is time to deal with it.

Harper Lee knew this. She knew about the incipient problem of casual racism, before anyone else knew that ‘casual racism’ was a thing. She wrote about it, not in To Kill a Mockingbird but in Go Set a Watchman. This is the book she wrote first and allegedly didn’t want to publish first (or ever?), perhaps because it is closer to our racist truth. It shows the sickening,covert underbelly of the racism encapsulated by ‘good people’. The subversive infantilization of the White Man’s Burden where most slave owners felt they were enslaving their fellow man for their own good, because they were ‘good people’. Or as Robert E Lee put it “The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race… How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

We in the South have to open our eyes and address this past, warts and all. We have to stop glorifying the Civil War, we have to set a Watchman, we have to keep our own eyes open to our own casual racism. Instead of insisting you don’t have a racist bone in your body – most people don’t think they are racist – open your eyes, look at your attitudes, check yourself. Don’t be Atticus Finch, he was not a ‘good man’, he is our lesson. Most of us aren’t a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ racists – but how many of us are ‘Go Set a Watchman’ racists? This is the question we need to ask ourselves.

I have the same desire as the Mayor of New Orleans, who said in a glorious, poignant speech on why it is time to rid ourselves of Civil War statutes and the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’:

I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — so we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.

Posted in Civil War Statues, Confederacy, Racism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The president needs a civics lesson

President Trump needs a civics lesson. First I would suggest that he reads the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. I know this might be hard for a president who doesn’t read, but it’s a short read. Alternately, he could maybe request that Bill O’Reilly read it out loud on his show if this is easier for him.

This is the 1st Amendment (The 1st Article in the Bill of Rights):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There are a few things in there he might need to learn:

1 – Congress shall make no law

Congress makes laws, not the president. The law of the land is set by the Legislative branch, not the Executive branch. The law of the land is upheld by the Judiciary branch, not the Executive branch.

2 – no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Trump’s proclaimed ‘priority’ to Christian refugees over Muslim ones is dangerously close to being violation of this.

I can imagine someone saying, “well they are refugees not American citizens”, but what the president is proposing is discriminating AGAINST someone based on their religion. This Implies there must be some kind of religious test to know whether or not your immigrants are your ‘selected’ religion’ or not. This is against the 1st amendment. Discrimination of refugees based on where they are from is also against the law of the land in America set by Congress in 1965 – namely the Hart-Cellar Act which abolished the national-origin quota system set up in 1924. The president either doesn’t know that it is illegal to discriminate based on country of origin for immigration, or he doesn’t care and thinks he is above this law. Let’s hope it is the former.

In the main, Congress doesn’t take kindly to the ill-treatment of any American. The Patriot Act – which was established directly after 9/11 – gave the president more powers than he usually has (I am strongly biased AGAINST the Patriot Act, I think it in itself was unconstitutional) most of which have now expired states the following :

(a) FINDINGS.—Congress makes the following findings:
(1) Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Americans
from South Asia play a vital role in our Nation and are entitled
to nothing less than the full rights of every American.
(2) The acts of violence that have been taken against Arab
and Muslim Americans since the September 11, 2001, attacks
against the United States should be and are condemned by
all Americans who value freedom.
(3) The concept of individual responsibility for wrongdoing
is sacrosanct in American society, and applies equally to all
religious, racial, and ethnic groups.
(4) When American citizens commit acts of violence against
those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim
descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the

It almost makes me wish the Patriot Act was back, because it is clear that the president is in violation of it, very minimally because the concept of individual responsibility is sacrosanct in American society. But not to the president, it appears, he is happy to blame whole countries of people, who are fleeing the individuals that are actually responsible for both domestic and international terrorism.

President Trump is not the only president to issue executive orders that are in violation of the law of the land and that over-reach executive power, The Washington Post has an excellent article on this. This, however, is largely besides the point at this juncture because Trump is the president NOW, and he is acting NOW.

While I am apoplectic about my president’s actions, I am proud to be an American. I believe in our system of government and our checks and balances are starting to work – faster than I thought they would:

Friday (Jan 27th 2017), Trump signs an executive order which includes

a 90-day ban on entry to the U.S. for visitors hailing from `countries of particular concern” when it comes to terrorism. The ban would apply to seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq

Saturday (Jan 28th 2017): people with valid visas were detained at the airport

Saturday (Jan 28th 2017) part II: American Civil Liberties Union goes to court on behalf of the detainees and

Federal District Court Judge Ann M. Donnelly issued a stay, blocking President Trump’s discriminatory policy from taking effect and preventing refugees and immigrants from being deported.

This is not over. There are still people stranded outside the US who legally reside in the US because of this unconstitutional move on the President’s part. The Judge’s order only covered the folks currently in transit and as such it’s only a first step. This deplorable action (in my opinion) by our executive branch is continuing to cause damage and likely will cause damage into the future.

As citizen of the US, I have the right to say all of this. I have the right to speak out against this. This fundamental right is ensconced in the US Constitution. I have the right to free speech. I also have the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Americans are using that right. People are protesting (mostly non-violently) – calling their representatives and senators in unprecedented numbers – as they should when they believe the government is doing the wrong thing. It is the 1st amendment of the US Constitution that gives us this right. President Trump would do well to remember this.

These are the things that make America great – our Constitution, Americans standing up to say this is not the America I want. Our country was built on immigration, the president himself has strong ties to immigration – his mother was an immigrant, his wife (and his ex-wife) is an immigrant. Increasing diversity, tolerance and ensuring equal opportunity for all citizens and soon-to-be citizens is what makes America truly great, and that is what I will try my utmost to help maintain.

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Goodbye David – my brother and childhood hero

My older brother, David McLain, died suddenly of a heart attack on August 18, 2016. He was only 51 years old and none of us saw this coming. He was a force of nature, my big brother, I already miss the hell out of him – right down to his more stupid jokes. I can still just about remember the sheer joy of me and David rolling down the hill in a big cardboard refrigerator box that my mom picked up from Sears. This is how I intend to remember him for the rest of my days.

Here, I have written out the eulogy I gave at his funeral, or as close as I can get to what I said as I only had written a portion of it at the time.

Me and David
David and I at John and mine’s wedding in 2008.

David was born on November 9th, 1964. I don’t know, because I came later, but I imagine he came into this world determined to live and wailing his head off. I imagine he was really trying to tell my mother a joke so she wouldn’t be in so much pain, and get them to laugh him into the new world.

He was born to Verna and Howard McLain – Verna from Elizabethton, Tennessee; Howard from Michigan. She’d only recently come back from 4 years in Brazil, he was a chemical engineer, war veteran, PhD – together they produced one of the most intelligent, creative, enthusiastic human beings to ever share this world with us or as my Dad might have said “Boy that guy’s got a lot of energy”.

As a kid, like an adult, David never sat still. Surrounded by a band of boys, who are in many ways also my brothers, he played basketball with Chuck, baseball with Mark, ran with (or from something they’d done) with Jono, played “Butts up” a game that only David could name and invent with me, John and Molly.

As a kid, like an adult, David was the speaker of truth. He wasn’t scared to tell anyone when they were lying – teachers, parents – despite this being a bad idea.

As a kid, like an adult he had a gentle, loving soul. He was my protector, he was my hero. He saved me from drowning when I was a kid, he saved me from falling out of ride onto the pavement at the TVA&I fair and I know he’s done the same for so many of you.

As a kid, like an adult he was determined and intelligent. He wanted to play guitar, he practiced for hours and hours. He practiced so much that my parents had to buy him a set of headphones so the rest of us could get some peace. He played the trumpet, he practiced for hours and hours, so much my parents had to buy him a mute. And math, well maybe not math, math he could always just do.

David also had some hard times but always worked to sort them out. When he almost died when he was 19 of Rocky Mountain Spotted fever, I am half convinced he came of it only because he was determined to brush his teeth. When in his early 20s he drank too much and ended up in the hospital for it, he was determined to stop and he did. David had a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and then god at MSc in Mathematics, both in about 5 years despite the almost dying and his bad bout with alcohol.

He got a job in computer programming before the rest of us knew what that even was. Then he started graduate school at the University of Maryland and gave me his car when he moved. He was so determined that car was fine that he didn’t believe there was anything wrong with it, even when it caught on fire.

He left graduate school to go back to programming and then along came Elinore. He was determined for her to have a good life, he was determined to be a good dad and I think he did that too.

As a kid like an adult, he was determined to laugh. He’d dance, he’d sing, he’d perfect a corny joke, just because he was determined to make us all laugh too. He made me laugh as a kid – mostly at inappropriate times such as now. He used to throw me down the stairs because he was determined this was fun for me. He made us laugh in church, at choir practice, at Boy Scouts, at the gas station, all the time, everywhere. He was determined to bring joy into all of our lives.

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Would you like fries with that ? (my time at the wonderful world of Wendy’s

I graduated from high school in 1986. I was 18, I had a job and a $600 Chevy Chevette and was living in an apartment with (too many) other folks and wasn’t going to University. I was gainfully employed at a wage of $3.35 per hour at the fast-food paradise Wendy’s, where the clockin/clockout culture ensured you didn’t get paid when you went to the toilet or took a 7 and 1/2 minute food/cigarette break. With the exception of those lucky folk on management track, we were *contracted* to work 39.5 hours a week with time and 1/2 for anything beyond that. Why? So the good folks that ran Wendy’s didn’t have to pay for health insurance.

You can’t really pay your rent and then have money to do novel things like eat, with a full time job at Wendy’s – even in Tennessee, even in 1986, no matter how many roommates you had. So I had a second job on weekends at Western Sizzlin’ steak house. Western Sizzlin’ (yes it really had that flirty apostrophe) wasn’t exactly a fine dining establishment and armed in my industrial weapons grade double knit polyester and rubber-soled shoes I ran the salad bar. It sounds easy, it wasn’t. It was a Friday/Saturday/Sunday night frantic slip sliding away on grease coated backroom floors to get hungry all-you-can-eat patrons a full bowl of pasta salad or one of the other 168 items stocked by the salad bar kind of job. Wendy’s had its grease issues too, where my first job of the day after my 8 AM clock-in was to pour the mop bucket of congealed grease from the day before into the collection vat – so Wendy’s could make some additional profit but selling it to cosmetic companies (yes, really). I still can’t bring myself to wear foundation to this day.

(this *was* me – thankfully I was spared this particular humiliation)

Yet being the physically-drained, covered-with-grease, working poor wasn’t the worst part of this. The worst part was that people treated you like shit. People you worked for (not with), people that you served. While there were certainly more than a few civil patrons, a large portion of the work-day was spent being regarded like something someone had stuck on the bottom of their shoe.
I was screamed at (too put it mildly) by a man in Porsche for being too slow – it was the lunch rush and only 1/3 of the staff had actually showed up that day. Why? Because maybe the bus service had been shut down, or their kid was stuck in hospital or perhaps they had actually escaped to a better world. He told me ‘I’ll have your job’ – I told him he could have it. I think the only reason I didn’t get fired was because the manager would have had to run the grill himself.

I had a senior manager watch me wash every single window in the restaurant by hand – because the squeegee was broken. He watched me without saying a word, waited till I finished the whole thing and promptly ran off to tell another junior manager to tell me I had to do it again with the squeegee because that was the way it was done. I thought I was expressing that can-do spirit of a good work ethic by hand-washing on a ladder. Instead I almost got fired given that I voluminously expressed my opinion about what exactly I thought that senior manager could do with that squeegee.

Eventually, I escaped, I got a job working the night shift at a gas station. This new employ – where incidentally I DID get eventually fired (but that is most definitely a story for another day) – was a definite improvement – if only because of the sweet farewell to double knit brown uniforms.

But this is the thing – I didn’t pull myself up by my boot straps, I was armed with the background and education that allowed me to escape, I was privileged. I was also lucky. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing into my future from 1986, but in the US, 30 years ago, state universities didn’t cost an exorbitant amount of money (like they do now) so it was a hell of a lot easier to go back to school. I grew up in a suburb, with a decent high school education, with parents who believed it is a good thing to go to college. This is not always an option, more importantly it doesn’t feel like an option. If you’re just working to stay alive and feed yourself and your kids, where can you find the time to go back to school? Money isn’t the only thing people used to say to me – but it is the only thing you think about when you can’t pay your rent. No one is patting you on the back up for working that minimum-wage job – even though you’re just trying to get ahead in life or feed your family, trying to get back to school or stay off the streets. At least now in the US, when you are among the working poor you have health insurance, so you don’t have hang out at the emergency room after hours to get treated for a broken arm – which is what you used to have to do, or doctors wouldn’t see you.

Whatever happened to my fellow Wendians I don’t know. Some of them went into management, some of them went back to college, some of them maybe went to McDonald’s (we were always convinced it was much better there; they had a clown). But I hope they aren’t working jobs where they are still treated like garbage and that they have nice managers (I had a few) and that they’re always nice to the next person that hands them a Frosty and a Single with cheese.

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Cervical cancer is not porn – Knox County schools shouldn’t cave to ignorance

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

― Joseph Brodsky

tags: books, censorship, illiteracy, reading 5672 likes
My hometown has made the international news. Is this for the fact that Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero was one of the few Tennessee mayors to fully support same-sex marriage? Or for the fact that Ms. Dolly Parton, our great lady of increasing East Tennesee literacy got her start in Knoxville?

No. Knoxville has gained international attention because some ignorant local mothers have decided that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is pornography. Yes, you read that right. A book about a woman with cervical cancer whose cells were taken (without her knowledge) and used to transform the life sciences, to this small corpuscle of ill educated women is really just porn. So unless these women have some kind of strange fetish or something – their insistence on banning this book from the Knox County School system is base, pathetic and plain ole’ bona fide ignorant.

Here they are on the T.V. (as we say back home) – sharin’ there self-righteous, sanctimonious opinions. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion. If you want to try and ban your kid from reading a book about cervical cancer because you think it’s porn, that’s your prerogative. I am totally sure your teenager is different and listens to his mama. I also hope you never end up with cervical cancer yourself. Besides the fact that you’d probably have a hell of a time explaining that to your family without using the word ‘cervix’, cervical cancer is horrific, so I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Insisting that Knox County school system to ban this book? This is crazy, sanctimonious and, I’ll say it again, just plain ignorant. You do have the right to you opinion, you don’t have the right to stamp all over everyone else’s rights, because of your ill-educated opinion. But go ahead, ask away (and bless your heart!) but Knox County School Board better say NO, in no uncertain terms, NO. In fact the board shouldn’t even consider your request. Knox County School System has a duty. This duty is to educate our children about the world, not censor them from it. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book and not just for scientific reasons. It is about people WITHOUT health insurance in the US, who don’t have a chance in hell of surviving such horrific cancer. This is a book about what it was like to be poor and African-American in the US in the 1950s. This is an important book. Yes it deals with female anatomy but female anatomy is not pornographic, or to quote Rebecca Skloot herself: a parent in Tennessee has confused gynaecology with pornography.

I really hope there is not some person sitting on the Knox County School board thinking ‘well they do have a point’. They don’t have a point, this is just plain damn ignorance. Knox County School Board if you ban this book or even consider banning this book you need to ask yourselves, what kind of message are you sending about women and girls ? What kind of message are you sending about how you educate? What kind of message are you sending if you even question that a book which deals with cervical cancer and mentions gynecology in a respectful, educational sense can be considered pornography? What kind of ridiculous precedent would this set?

I was educated in the Knox County School system. We read a lot of books. Books, that some ignorant parents such as these ladies would be appalled by. Of Mice and Men – murder! Death! Migrant working conditions! Romeo and Juliet – teens killing themselves over love (your children might get ideas)! The Crucible – Puritan man cheats on wife with young girl who then gets him killed! (one of these ladies current objections is that infidelities were mentioned – so she better get to work on The Crucible too). Not to mention The Canturbury Tales – Miller’s Tale anyone? So you better watch out Knox County School Board, don’t let ignorance set a precedent or they’ll be coming for your entire curriculum – and you’ll be left with a whole bunch of teenagers who can only read Fun with Dick and Jane

Knox County School Board, I hope we can count on you to do the right thing – ignore these fools and fight the good fight to rid their children of this kind of ignorance. Oh and congratulations Rebecca Skloot! The crazy ladies of Knoxville, Tennessee have just ensured that every kid in Knox County is definitely going to read your book!

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Documentaries – improving and diverting (a wee review)

I am enamored with Netflix. I am still stuck in my infatuation phase with Netflix and have sadly I have reverted to a teenager (OMG I can watch Netflix whenever I want to!). The existence of Netflix is far more exiting than when my parents bought that Betamax player (may they rest in peace). When I am exhausted, my guilty pleasure is cuddling up with my iPad and – you guessed it – Netflix. I started, however, feeling very guilty about watching things that were diverting (and clearly set in the 18th or 19th centuries). I have now opted for things that both are improving and diverting. Documentaries! which I love but have an added bonus of making me feel like I have a more adult relationship with streaming video joy.

So just in case you are in need of diversion which can make you feel less guilty about your Netflix addiction, and you want an opinion – here is my brief review of the top 3 Documentaries I have watched in the last 3 months.

1. Miss Representation

This is a great film about the focus on females being there ‘to be looked at’ rather than to add anything intellectual in films and the media. This documentary shows how even with even female politicians, the media (and we) focus much more on what they are wearing and their appearance than what they have to say. Not only are there are huge number of interesting men and women interviewed for this, many of which took me by surprise, there are young girls giving there opinons and asking some pretty damn good questions. ‘Why are there not many female protaganists in films?’ ‘Why do we care how girls dress, rather than what they have to say?’ This film also looks back at depictions of women in films, pointing out – quite rightly if you ask me (and remember at this stage in my special relationship with Netflix I have seen many of these films) – that many leading lady roles back in the 40s and 50s were much emotionally and intellectualy broad compared to modern cinema.

If you have a (UK) Netflix subscription this particular documentary will be no longer available after the 31st of this month – so act soon!

2. Blackfish

This is a film about Sea World and specifically Sea World’s treatment of Killer Whales. It is frightening and sad. I watched it three times. I would challenge you to watch those bent dorsal fins and not be saddened. Hopefully if enough people watch this, and speak about it, there will be no more Sea World’s in the future (I hope so). Free Willy, indeed.

3. Breaking the Taboo

This Documentary is about ‘the War on Drugs’. Specifically how the War on Drugs has failed. It interviews Bill Clinton, who emphasizes that the war on drugs has failed – a war when he was president he helped perpetuate (regardless of what you think of Bill, it’s pretty cool to see an ex-Pres say what he got wrong. This movie also emphasizes some ways in which maybe we can help drug addicts instead of criminalizing them. They also have the laudable goal trying to influence politicians (everywhere) by starting a global discussion on how to solve problems of drug trafficking, drug addiction. This is great, as opposed to the ‘isn’t this sad’ approach, the makers of this film have tried to start the ‘let’s make it better discussion.

So go for it, fight for women’s rights, whale’s rights and against the war on drugs – all from the safety of your couch.

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That dumb flag – It’s time to let it go

I miss my home town. I miss the sound of cicadids on a summer evening. I miss the construction of a fine, Southern sentence. I miss running around in bare feet. I miss catching fireflies and putting them in a jar – only to release them 10 minutes later out into the humid, dark night. I miss my rose-tinted lenses of childhood or to quote James Agee:

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

This is how I like to remember the South, through some sort of idyllic filter that overlooks the racism of the past. This halsian view ignores that there was a ‘white side of town’ and a ‘black side of town’, as a result of segregation. This fantasy of the golden South denies that a fair number of white people still use the N-word on a regular basis and still make jokes about African American’s eating habits. It is much more comfortable when I think about my home to live in a fantasy world, ignoring the fact that people still plant the Confederate Flag on their front lawn and scream ‘Heritage not Hate’ when you tell them they look like a bunch of loony white racists.

It’s been 150 years; the Confederacy lost that war. That war was started in a push and pull with the Federal government over State’s rights – specifically a State’s right to own slaves. Now you can try to tell yourself as much as you want that this was not all about slavery, but the Confederacy was exactly about slavery. The secession from the Union was predominately concerned with maintaining the economic structure of the cotton growing South which depended explicitly on slavery.

Especially in light of recent events, it is time that the South took yet another deep look at itself and worked towards letting this ridiculous, ignorant attachment to the Confederacy go. It is time we admit that our racial bias still exists and start to deal with it. It is time to walk away from the past. Like it or not my fellow Southerners, the Rebel flag is entrenched as a symbol of hate. It’s time for us from the South to disown that heritage of racist, bigoted bias and slavery.

Will getting rid of a flag stop racism? Of course not, but it will be a step towards disowning that heritage of hate. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. If any flag burnin’ is gonna happen, I vote for the symbol of Johnny Reb, hands down. I vote for standing up when someone uses the N-word, I vote for calling out our Southern brothers and sisters for off hand racial comments. I think Dylann Roof’s old friend said it best, his horror in this statement is evident:

“He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.” But now, he said, it seemed that “the things he said were kind of not joking”.

It’s time to pull ourselves out of this collective denial and stop pretending that we don’t have a problem with racism, we do. It is time for us to disown that dumb flag and move into the bright light of day.

I should point out that, this post was in part inspired by sentiments are shared by Allen Clifton, who wrote a somewhat similar post (before I did) for Forward Progressives entitled: I Have A Message For Those Who Claim The Confederate Flag Represents Their Heritage.

Posted in Confederacy, Racism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Cry, cry, cry (for backwards Nobel Laureates)

So this happened – at The World Conference of Science Journalism, at a lunch sponsored by Korean female scientists and engineers – just yesterday.

Tim Hunt on women

So as a human being, I am not sure I particularly care what Professor Tim Hunt, FRS thinks about women. I am however grateful I never worked for the man as it might have been pretty weird to be a female in his lab, because apparently you would have to run around with a big stick trying to avoid Prof Hunt’s affections. Not to mention the crying, it’s difficult to pipette when crying. It might be hard working for a man who seems to have the emotional outlook of an adolescent, where you would be in danger of falling in love at every stage of your research – not knowing where to turn. The Royal Society have distanced themselves from Hunt’s comments at this stage saying ‘Science needs women’ – I think Hunt would agree with that, you have to have women around to fall in love with and of course it is ok if they dabble – they can have their own labs – no boys allowed. Apparently, in the world of Tim Hunt segregation is some kind of reasonable modern answer.

As a professional scientist, I am annoyed. I am not particularly annoyed that Prof. Hunt thinks that – I don’t care what he thinks – I am annoyed that a well known, acclaimed scientist thinks it is somehow rational to stand up in public and say ridiculous things like that. Unless he is just completely unaware of his surroundings, which is doubtful, then clearly he wants everyone to know exactly what he thinks – after all he is at a conference with a whole heap of journalists. He wants the world to know that girls are a pain in the lab (for whatever reason he came up with) and that we should be segregated from the boys. Shall we step back into the 1950s? Do we women need to leave our Co-ed labs because we are married – after all we will merely tempt otherwise productive male scientists into falling in love with us – unless of course we are ‘ugly’ I guess, then it is OK.

Now clearly, no established scientific body, unless they are really as crazy as Hunt and fancy death by media, is going to publicly agree with these sentiments. What is terribly worrying about this is that it sends the message to women or any other minority in science that ‘You are NOT welcome’. It is not some cranky failed academic saying this, it is a Nobel Prize winner and Fellow of the Royal Society saying this. When someone this prominent in the scientific community says this – others are left thinking – ‘well who else thinks that? and ‘am I really not welcome’?

It is equally not fair to blame the Royal Society for Hunt’s comments – he made them, they didn’t – but it will be interesting to see what happens next. If I were the Royal Society I would be livid: statements like this set their diversity program back, making them have to work much, much harder in the future to give the message that they are not like that. A simple statement doesn’t do it, no matter how well meant. These messages don’t go away so easily, they have been around for a long time. ‘you are not allowed’, ‘you are a sexual object’, ‘you are a temptress’, ‘you shouldn’t be here’, ‘you must be kept apart’ – how often have women heard that?

If I am going to cry for anything, it will be for the fact that one flippant statement made by a fool might make 51% of the population feel unwelcome in a profession which should be open to all.

Posted in Tim Hunt, WCSJ, women in science | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

We’ve all got troubles (including the Open Science Framework)

Surprisingly to some and not-so-surprisingly to others, we scientists have our own fair share of troubles in the way we perform our day job – bias, fraud, irreproducibility, lost results, bad data management, difficulty in publishing non-conclusive results. We also have trouble with finding research funding, pressure to publish in high profile journals, pressure to ‘make it’ (whatever that means) in this big, bad scientific world. The list could go infinitely on.

Philip Ball’s recently published article The Trouble with Scientists, has a lot of interesting stuff to say about bias and reproducibility in professional science. As usual for Philip Ball, he presents a clear narrative and a balanced view of practising science as we know it. What is particularly good is that the article itself encompasses the difference between bias and out right fraud, in a non-blamey kind of way. He doesn’t couch scientists as evil, careless fraudsters – which seems to be implicit in many of these types of articles about trouble in science. Of course, I am a scientist and a human, so I might just be guilty of feeling a wee bit defensive.

The Trouble with Scientists focuses, in part, on a man (Nosek) who has a vision of a scientific utopia. A number of his ideas I agree with, such as trying to make data more open. Personally I think openess is less of a problem than having the ability to sift through all the nitty gritty details of someone else’s experiments, but nevertheless data being more open is not a bad idea in principle. Nosek’s vision is to correct some of the problems within professional science via an Open Science Framework. His idea

is that researchers “write down in advance what their study is for and what they think will happen.” Then when they do their experiments, they agree to be bound to analyzing the results strictly within the confines of that original plan.

As a scientist, I find this vision more than a bit naive and quite limiting. Active scientific research is not some sort of laboratory practical where you design an experiment and know the result beforehand. Nor is it binary, usually the answer is NOT a simplistic does-this-fit-my-hypothesis yes or no but more like ‘maybe’ or even ‘WTF?’. Usually results lead you to modify your original hypothesis, leading to further experiments. What Nosek’s vision seems to imply is that this is not the right way for scientists to think about their research, rather we scientists must stick within strict bounds and DO NOT DEVIATE, no matter how much you might think this is the way forward. This stricture perhaps would prevent error but I doubt it, I think more likely it would do much to stagnate scientific discovery- slowing science down to some kind of snail’s pace of tedium.

Recently my group published a paper where we put forth the hypothesis that water helps mediate protein folding in the initial stages of the protein folding process. Our data indicate that this might be the key to understanding how proteins start to fold in nature. What our data and analysis thereof DO NOT do is PROVE that this is the key to understanding how proteins fold in nature. We merely put forth this hypothesis, supported by our data. Based on this result, we are actively trying to prove or disprove (with the emphasis on disprove) our hypothesis, with further experiments. We also published this paper NOW (well OK 2 years ago but close to now) because we want to get that hypothesis out there in the literature so others can support it or disprove it. We do not want to wait until we can design the perfect, definitive experiment. In science definitive experiments are pretty hard to come by anyway, until we have technological advances or can build the LHC – look how long Higgs had to wait, and that was relatively fast for science.

gpg and water
A representation of water mediating a peptide to help it fold in solution (Busch, et al. Angew. Chem. 2013)

Our original experiment design/hypothesis was something slightly different. We merely wanted to look at the hydration of different functional groups in proteins. If we had been restricted to strictly sticking to our original plan, we would have ignored/overlooked this hypothesis from our data. Nosek seems to argue this is exactly what we should do have done and that if we came up with a new hypothesis we should log that into the book and then go from there. In my mind it is better to get your hypothesis out there ASAP so that others can have a look and either support or refute your findings. This seems a long way away from bias in my mind. In fact I would argue that getting your hypotheses out there in public helps TO eliminate bias. Of course we think we are right, it is OUR pet hypotheses, but the reality is that we may not be and that is where (we hope) the wider scientific community can help. A scientific community who is much less biased than we are about out own hypothesis.

Posted in Bias, scientific publishing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Women and Minorities have got it good, if they are fictional of course.

As all y’all know, because I am constantly reminding everyone, I am from Tennessee. I like to think I am not racist and I really sincerely hope I am not racist, but the culture I grew up in has a bad, complicated history with racism so I know I have to keep a watchful eye. I have to be vigilant. When I was being drug up in the 1970s, I remember my old aunt who said all sorts of crazy stuff about people who weren’t white and (protestant) christians. She believed so much in her misplaced superiority, she and my uncle moved home because the neighborhood they lived in had too many African-Americans move into it. My mother, suitably horrified by her much older sister, usually worked pretty hard to shuffle her away from me and my brother when she started talking about such things, as we – like most 6 and 9 year old kids – were incredibly confused by all of this. It wasn’t until I was older I worked out my aunt was just an ill-educated bigot.

When I was quite a bit older than 6, I taught high school science for a year. I taught in an affluent Southern town where the school mascot was the ‘Rebel’. The ‘Rebel’ was a slightly chunky Colonel Sandersesque cartoon Reb, complete with Civil war mustache and, amazingly, waving a Confederate flag. This was in 1999, I have to admit I was suitably shocked when I saw it waving in the breeze off the top of the school, but what did I do? Pathetically, nothing. Fortunately only a very short time after I arrived, the Rebels played a football game against another local high school. At this game, one of the parents of a player from the other school saw the Rebel fans a waving that ridiculous flag and took it up with the authorities. The result? The State of Tennessee made the Rebels get rid of their Confederate flag, thankfully.

While this tale makes the matter seem like a seamless affair, it wasn’t. The students, some of the teachers and parents were appalled their Rebel was getting a face-lift and used that classic Southern argument ‘heritage not hate’. While I am happy sit over a beer and pontificate about my civil war knowledge and the fact that war was NOT all about slavery, this ‘heritage’ argument is just stupid. It is especially silly in East Tennessee where most folk’s ancestors supported or fought for the Union, not the Confederacy. More importantly though, everybody and their brother that ISN’T from the South thinks that flag signifies racism, no matter how hard you try to reclaim it.

In order to prove their ‘heritage not hate’ argument my students polled themselves (anonymously, of course) to find out if they were indeed racist or rather if the school had a racist atmosphere. And what a surprise for a school that was about 95% white, they found they were not racist – hoorah! – thus proving that ‘heritage not hate’ was a plausible reason why they could still act like a bunch of fools and wave that flag around with impunity, because it didn’t mean racism. To them anyway. Fortunately, the state of Tennessee had other ideas.

If you ask most people if they are racist, they will almost certainly say ‘no’. Not very many people think they are racist, or sexist or chauvanistic themselves when you ask them. Not many people will likely even admit to being victims unconscious bias (which we all are). Of course I have no link for a study on this, but how many people do YOU meet that will just slap there cards on the table and say, ‘yep I’m a racist’. It is more likely they will say something along lines of “Now, I have a lot of friends who are ____________, BUT….” , which, at least in my experience, is a mechanism of putting forth some kind of non-racist credentials so then you can proceed to say whatever kind of biased statement you want.

As I am sure many (if not most) of you know there was a recent study in PNAS on how there was a 2:1 bias towards women being highered for tenure-track positions. There’s been much criticism of this study – such as from my fellow Occam T blogger Athene Donald. And how did the researches conduct this experiment? In their own words:

To tease out sex bias, we created fictional candidate profiles identical in every respect except for sex, and asked faculty to rank these candidates for a tenure-track job

Fictional characters, oh good, because that is realistic. I am sure they conducted their investigation properly, with these fictional characters, but what exactly do we learn from this? That in a fictional study, people will behave as they think they should behave and probably think they do behave. Unconscious bias isn’t easy to sniff out, even in yourself, so how exactly is this completely unrealistic study helping to change things for women, for minorites, for anyone that is not in the majority? It isn’t. The danger is that investigations like this can be used as a canard and a dangerous one that may just keep us in academia from addressing the real problems for diversity in STEM.

Posted in Racism, women in science | Tagged | 1 Comment