Monday, March 3, 2014

Afghanistan: The Irrelevance of Race and Nationality in the 21st Century (The Tattoo Question)

I spent some time in Afghanistan...

I read somewhere once that if you could create a single human who is most representative of the entire human race, based on the prevalence of all phenotypes throughout the global population, you would have an Afghani. 

For those who don't know, Afghanis are not Arabs. They are separated from the Arab world by Persia (now Iran . . . which is also not Arab) and are wedged against Pakistan (Indian subconinent) the "-istan" countries (all central Asian, former U.S.S.R.) and China. There are fair skinned, blue eyed Afghanis, distinctly Tibetan-Asian looking Afghanis and very dark, Punjabi looking Afghanis. Of course there are also interesting combinations of all of those.

The complicated racial and tribal composition of Afghanistan has definitely been a challenging factor for anyone who has ever wanted to get anything done there. In the context of my recent whirlwind of travel I find it indicative of a global reality. Race no longer means anything.

We identify with people who look like us. We gravitate toward the familiar. 

The thing that we call "race" is not really a scientific term. The clusters of phenotype expressions that we recognize as race (African, Asian, Latin etc.) are really just strains - variations within a 46-chromosome chassis that all humans share, regardless of how different they may appear.

Why are we so different? 

We're different because for the majority of human history, populations have been isolated to specific regions. Inuit people of the polar North tend to be short, heavy-set and eastern-Asiatic in appearance. Watusi people from the arid plains of Africa tend to be tall and thin. These characteristics are shaped by climate, geography and diet to name a few. Basic evolution dictates that shortness and stoutness will be prevalent among the Inuit because those qualities favor heat retention and the ability to easily convert sparse carbohydrates into fat. The tall, thin Watusi, inversely, are able to easily dissipate heat, and their light construction is well suited to hunting over great distances on foot.

Human strains are products of these simple environmental inputs. For the majority of our history it was impractical if not impossible for people separated by great distances, oceans, mountains and deserts to fan out and contribute to distant gene pools. Therefore, specific geographic regions tended to produce populations whose prevailing characteristics were more and more stark.

Watusi aren’t just tall, thin and black – they’re very tall, very thin and very black.

Since people sharing those characteristics were living among one another - the common appearance, the common language and the resulting common experience lent themselves to the perception of communality. When it all takes place in a specific geographic area, communality becomes nationality.

We identify with people who look like us. We gravitate toward the familiar. It is perhaps an unspoken understanding that those who look like us share our fate, and that conditions which are good for them will be good for us as well. We're cautious and uncertain when it comes to those who do not look like us.

Afghanistan is unique because people from that place look like everyone. It sits at a historical crossroads between east and west. A literal crossroads.

Today, descendants of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great drive around in wildly painted Chinese flatbed tractor-trailer trucks; speaking Urdu and Dari and praying to the God of Abraham. This is a place where geography allowed people to mingle. That's why the Afghani is the quintessential, generic human.

Leaving Afghanistan I was dropped into Dubai. Suddenly surrounded by families and children. Dubai also sits at a crossroads; a crossroads of ancient shipping lanes whose old port infrastructure still handles everything from palm oil to bats of raw silk. 

Dubai is still a convenient stopping point, but now it's a conduit for people going from Australia to London, Johannesburg to Amsterdam, or Chicago to Lagos. As you pass through the terminal you see just how completely those old barriers that gave humanity it's distinct strains are no longer relevant. People from anywhere can now go anywhere else in a matter of hours. Mountains and valleys no longer confine populations. A shepherd from Wales can meet a shepherd from Morocco at a sheep herding convention in Auckland. This is the way it is. 

Invariably, as people travel unlimited distances, they will meet other people, relationships will form, sex will be had and babies will be born who look a little bit Moroccan and a little bit Kiwi.

Back in the days of compasses and tall ships this happened in small doses, but now the floodgates are open. Now the whole world is a crossroads.

The Inuit and Watusi can meet in a breakfast buffet at the Days Inn by the airport in Charlotte, then run off and make a baby. You know what? . . . The kid will probably be gorgeous.'s downright silly for me to ascribe just about anything to my bloodline.

I have been debating a tattoo for quite some time. I think a tattoo should have some meaning. It should suggest something about you. 

When we take stock of who we are we tend to run through some familiar categories. Hobbies, work, family, meaningful experiences and of course . . . ethnicity.

A casual stroll through the Benson-Hurst neighborhood of Brooklyn (or a few episodes of "Jersey Shore") will showcase all of the tattoo options for Italian-Americans. Apparently, this is me. Unfortunately, I am not at all partial to golden bull-horns or Lamborghinis with red, green and white paint schemes so none of those would ever do.

A few years ago, Kasey and I went to Europe. When we were in Rome, we noticed the initials 'SPQR' were stamped into various things like manhole covers and lamp posts. I wasn't sure if it was the name of a foundry or a concrete company at first, but I eventually got the skinny. SPQR stands for "Senatus Populus Que Romanus" or "The Senate and the People of Rome". A Caesarian declaration! It's a remnant of the Roman empire! Cool!

It's smart, it's a little mysterious, it's essentially political, it looks cool as hell in a bold Roman font and it's indicative of my Italian heritage without being too guido. Perfect!

"SPQR" right across my clavicles!

But as is the case with me, certainty led to more questions.

I started really thinking about the whole "Italian heritage" thing. 

Do I love my grandma? Of course. Do I love meatballs? Yes. Would I love to retire in Tuscany? Absolutely Would I love to park my Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano on the glossy white marble floor of my garage, which is behind my retirement villa in Tuscany? Yes, yes, yes!!!

But what about you? Do you love your grandma? Do you like meatballs? How does the villa in Tuscany with the Ferrari on the impossibly clean marble floor sound to you? Are you Italian?

Maybe you are and maybe you aren't, my point is this: Being Italian is not a prerequisite for any of the above, therefore it is silly for me to ascribe my penchant for these things to my bloodline. In fact it's downright silly for me to ascribe just about anything to my bloodline.

Does my family have a distinct character? You better believe it, but how much of that is truly a product of something endemic to the Italian peninsula vs. the natural vibe that emerges due to overlapping generations of unique personalities? What about those who are adopted or are absorbed into the family by marriage? Are they outsiders? Do they struggle to fit in because they can't trace their DNA back to Italy?

The very notion is absurd. Of course they fit in. Of course they're family. If they yell, gesticulate, eat cannolis and swill red wine like an Italian, then I guess those behaviors ultimately have nothing to do with genetic predisposition. I guess those things are learned over years of Sunday dinners and Christmas Eve's at Grandma and Grandpas house. 

So if I declare something about my "heritage" across my clavicles, what am I really saying? I'm saying, 

"This informs my world-view and my perception of truth. This is a component of who I am. This is one thing you don't have to learn about me because I am writing it on my skin."

In a few hundred years, the ability to distinguish yourself as a member of one group or another will become more and more difficult and equally pointless.

I don't suppose there is any real harm in that, but when I consider the merging paths of all strains of the human genome  I fail to see the value or the point.

What we perceive as "race" has always been an affectation of geography and human logistics - two forces that have been overcome with global travel and instant communication. As our gene pools get wider and deeper, these little fantasies that we maintain about the unique cultural experiences that supposedly make us who we are will become less and less plausible. 

Eventually, the differences between the Italian experience, the Irish experience, the Nigerian experience and the Japanese experience will all be revealed as minor variations on the same theme. In a few hundred years, the ability to distinguish yourself as a member of one group or another will become more and more difficult and equally pointless.

Some may say, "But I love the diversity of the human race!"

Well don't worry. It's going to take more than a few generations to manifest itself, but make no mistake - it is the natural course.

Some may say, "My (insert ethnicity here) background is a major component of who I am and it will be a major component of who my children are as well. It's important to be connected to your past."

Your ethnicity is as much a component of your personality as you want it to be. There are members of every ethnic group that defy the stereotype and must constantly field accusations that they are not being true to who they are. In fact, they are exemplary models of being true to oneself. As far as connection to your past is concerned, you will hear no argument from me if you are extolling the virtue of knowing your history and gleaning wisdom from those who have come before you, but if you are suggesting that it is critical to embody something that a previous generation embodied you are wrong.

Who was your maternal great great great great great great grandfather? You can skip the stuff, I don't mean name and occupation, I mean who was he? What was he like? When did he first fall in love? What was his favorite color? What was his dream in life? When was his first kiss? What did he fear most?

Okay, so you really don't know him do you? Do you speak the same language he spoke? How do you think he would feel to know that his great great great great great great grandchild was speaking a foreign language in a foreign country? Does it matter?

How likely is it that your great great great great great great grandchild won't know who the hell you are or speak the same language you speak? Pretty likely . . . and honestly, who cares? 

Some may say, "I am a pure (insert ethnicity) and I can't stand the idea of my pure race being mongrelized!"

You aren't a pure anything except for a pure asshole. You are what's wrong with humanity and you are doomed. Your ilk exist in every strain of the human species and you all labor under the same infantile, simple-minded, ill conceived fantasy that propagation of your phenotype is tantamount to eternal life.

Well too bad you dunce! You're gonna die and your ideas will die with you.

Right, the tattoo...

So even though "SPQR" would look cool, I will refrain from calling upon my ethnicity because I am confronted with the reality that my race doesn't REALLY say anything quintessential about me.

I prefer to take full responsibility for who I am, without attributing anything to a place I've only visited and long dead relatives that I never had a chance to know.

So my new tattoo idea is this:

In bold, Romanesque font across my clavicles I will get "EGO SUM NON CERTUS"

Translation: "I AM NOT SURE"

Person: Is that a tattoo?

Me: Yes

Person: What does it say?

Me: It says Ego sum non certus.

Person: Hmm . . . What does that mean?

Me: I'm not sure

Person: You don't know what it means?

Me: I know exactly what it means.

Person: What does it mean?

Me: I'm not sure


It will be in latin, so it's a little pretentious (like me). It essentially suggests uncertainty and an eternal receptiveness to alternative versions of reality (that's totally me). It's 100% smart ass (me) and I will have my own private Abbott and Costello joke that I can enjoy at other's expense for the rest of my life.

This will say more about me than any golden bull-horn or red, green and white Murcielago being driven by Super Mario ever could.

Beside, like-a I say . . . I like a de Ferrari on-a de white marble floor in Toscana!!!

Whatsamatta you no listen!?!?!?!?

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