Sunday, May 20, 2018

Patriotism: Good, Bad, or It’s Complicated?

Spoiler Alert: It’s complicated.

Before I can talk about patriotism I have to talk about altruism. Webster’s Dictionary defines altruism as, “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” The dictionary also includes a second definition of altruism; one that I learned in my biology classes in college: Altruism is, “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.” Basically, it’s risking or sacrificing yourself to help others.

In nature, as in humanity, altruism is prevalent among close kin- for example, parents helping their kids, siblings helping each other, etc. Biologists theorize that altruism evolved because of a type of natural selection called “kin selection.” I.e., families bearing the genetic mutations that cause altruistic behavior were more likely to survive and pass on their genes than were families made up of purely selfish individuals. Thus the altruism genes spread throughout the species.

The parental devotion demonstrated by this orangutan is an example of altruism.

Altruism in nature is not strictly limited to closely-related individuals, though. Kindness to unrelated group members, and even to strangers, also occurs. That kind of non-kin altruism probably evolved because of the shared benefits for individuals cooperating in pairs or groups. It’s the “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” principle. The classic example is birds in a flock each contributing some time to predator lookout duties while the rest of the flock feeds. The individuals on lookout duty don’t have as much time to eat, but the whole flock gets the benefits of having an early warning of approaching predators, and there’s an understanding that every member of the flock will contribute some to lookout duty. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. For example there are complex and still-evolving theories regarding the cost-benefit tradeoffs of various selfish vs. altruistic behaviors, mechanisms for enforcing reciprocity of non-kin altruism, etc. To summarize, biological science has shown us that the capacity for altruism, the instinctive desire to help relatives, partners, group members, and even strangers, has been around since long before humans.

Human altruism is particularly interesting and challenging to study because of our high intelligence, and complex, hierarchical, social structures. Our considerations of altruism weigh costs and benefits to the self in relation to family, coworkers, community, religious/ethnic group, city, sports team, political party, state, nation, international alliances, humanity, and/or the global ecosystem. The relative well-being, safety, and stability that many modern humans enjoy, as compared with non-human animals that live short lives of constant stress and mortal peril, owes largely to our advanced (albeit imperfect) altruism. However, the overlap among the levels of human altruism creates a lot of potential and real conflict in our altruistic decision making processes. Consider, for example, whether you would serve your nation at a risk or cost to your family. Conversely, would you serve your family, at a cost to your nation? And would you serve your nation at a cost to humanity or the global ecosystem? These are difficult and important questions.

We are now ready to talk about patriotism, which, for the purposes of this discussion, I am defining as altruistic attitudes and behaviors at the level of state or nation. Patriotism is seen by many as unequivocally virtuous, but I’ll contend that patriotism can go a lot of different ways, and that it should be considered carefully in the context of broader ethical principles and the other levels of altruism. I will begin my “patriotism is complicated” thesis by outlining some kinds of patriotism that are bad. Then I will conclude with a recommendation on what I view as “good” patriotism.

Bad types of patriotism:

Bad Patriotism Type 1: Being patriotic to a bad country

*If your country’s goals or actions are bad, your patriotic support of the country furthers that badness.
*In a bad country, a noble alternative to simple supportive patriotism would be participating in efforts to reform the country. However, I think that trying to escape the country, or simply laying low in defense of one’s own life would also be understandable.
*Some criteria that I think could classify a country as “bad” are: 1) the government violates fundamental human rights, for example by endorsing slavery, 2) the government is seriously corrupt or incompetent, resulting in the suffering of its citizens.
*Some examples of countries that I think are bad, according to these criteria, are: Isis, Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Confederate States of America, Taliban-led Afghanistan, North Korea, etc.
*Note: There can be good people in a bad country.
*Also note: A country can be bad for a period of time, under the thrall of a particular bad group of leaders, but may not be permanently bad. For example, Germany has been a pretty good country since Nazism was defeated in WWII. The opposite can happen, too- a good country can go bad.

Bad Patriotism Type 2: Unquestioning patriotism

*I would define unquestioning patriotism as loyalty to country in the absence of any objective assessment of the quality or morality of the country and its actions.
*It is associated with a false assumption that the country is permanently and inherently good, and that everything the country does must be supported.
*In its extreme form, unquestioning patriotism views questioning as not merely unnecessary, but as actively unpatriotic. “How DARE you question America!?”
*A variation on unquestioning patriotism is unquestioning patriotism applied just to certain parts of the government. For example, some believe that the military, police, and president must have our unquestioning support, but that it’s OK to question other parts of government like the congress, the courts, and the IRS. “God damn the IRS, but how DARE you question the military!?”
*The reason this type of patriotism is bad is that it can easily lead to Type 1 bad patriotism, by failing to recognize and correct the country when it’s going bad.

Bad Patriotism Type 3: Misanthropic patriotism; aka "Hate-triotism"

*This is the angry type of patriotism that involves hating other people, both inside and outside the country, in order to strengthen a kind of in-group cohesion.
*It depends on the generally false notion that it’s those “others” who are a threat to the greatness or the security of the country, and that the others and their filthy ideas must therefore be subjugated or purged.
*Some of the hate is stirred up by demagogues, who intentionally provoke fear, jealousy, and hate against scapegoats both inside and outside the country. “The foreigners are taking our jobs!”
*Some of the hate starts when unquestioning patriots feel “attacked” by others within their country who do question things. (See American death skull "Love it or Leave It" t-shirt design.) Then strife grows between the questioners and the unquestioning defenders.

Bad Patriotism Type 4: Fake/Hypocritical Patriotism

*Practitioners of this type of patriotism emphasize patriotic rhetoric, displays, and symbolism while making relatively little effort to actually behave altruistically with regards to the country.
*Fake/hypocritical patriots are quick to condemn others for being or seeming unpatriotic.
*If you plaster national flags all over your yard and denounce those protesting the government, yet you refuse to pay taxes, you may be a fake/hypocritical patriot.
*Fake/hypocritical patriotism is common among politicians, who may use it cynically to manipulate unquestioning patriots into acting on their behalf.
*This is also known as “chicken hawk” patriotism.
*The song “Fortunate Son” by the band Creedence Clearwater Revival provides a good critique of this kind patriotism.

Good Patriotism:
*Despite all the ways that it can go wrong, I think that patriotism is an important type of altruism. It has a valid place in the nested hierarchy of the types of altruism- somewhere between altruism to family and community and altruism to humanity and the global ecosystem.
*Over thousands of years there has been a general expansion of our species’ bubble of altruism from small family groups to tribes, cultures, city-states, and broader levels of organization. But the instinctive sense of in-group mutual interest kind of fades and weakens at the broadest levels. Likewise, our logistical abilities to organize and care for our groups are increasingly challenged as the groups become broader. For example, we may not yet have the will or ability to ensure universal medical care at the global scale, but we can do it at the national scale. Global goodness should be the ultimate goal, but national goodness is an important and achievable level to focus on to get us there, and patriotism can help with that.
*I don’t have a fool-proof prescription for creating good patriotism, but I think it can start with taking a sober inventory of the state of one’s country, including both its strengths and its faults, and working to make it better.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Race Report: Edisto Island Classic

Race: The Edisto Island Classic 2018

Date it happened: 12 May 2018

Location: In the saltmarsh creek backwaters of Edisto Island, South Carolina, starting at the Edisto Beach State Park boat ramp.

Course / Distance: There was a long race and a short race, both following the same out-and-back path through broad, tidal creeks. I GPS'd the long race at 7.9 km, and I reckon the short one was about 5 km. I'll post my GPS track when I get back to a computer with a usb bluetooth dongle.

Conditions: It was hot and sunny, with a slight breeze that picked up during the race. There was a strong ebb tide current at the race start, but the current diminished as slack low tide approached by the end of the race. A few places on the course were shallow. The area requiring the most care was the steep concrete boat ramp where we entered and exited the water. There were some minor injuries and embarrassments there.

Participants and Gear: There were around 58 participants, relatively evenly divided between the short and long races. About 1/3 of the participants were on SUPs, and the rest were on kayaks or outrigger canoes. I was surprised how many serious, surfski kayak racers showed up. Kayak racing must be more popular in the Carolinas than in Florida. As a new surfski paddler it was interesting for me to scope out the other racers' "skis" to see the differences in design that I hadn't paid attention to before. I realized there's quite a difference between the relatively flat bottom shape on a stable surfski like the Epic V8 as compared with the U-shaped bottom on a tippy one like the Epic V12. (Now I know why I'm having such a hard time learning on the V12.) One of the race organizers was paddling a weirdly modified surfski that had a gull-wing "training wheels" outrigger setup. It hovered out of the water most of the time but would prevent capsize if it touched down. My setup was a 14'x23" Riviera RP with a Riviera Bump 7.0 paddle. There were only a handful of other guys in the 14' sup class, but they all looked pretty fit and experienced, with fast equipment. There was an amusing moment when Ken Bowman and I met each other in person and both admitted we'd checked out each other's results and profiles on PaddleGuru. (Gotta size up the competition!)

Results: In the long race, the top 3 finishers were in surfski kayaks- Pete Green (0:36:37), Bruce Poacher, and Larry Dixon. Justin Schaay and his daughter were in 6th place overall in their tandem surfski. Anne Kelly was the first solo female surfski in 0:47:26. I was the first SUP finisher, with an official time of 0:47:44, though I think my actual time was around 0:52:34. Ken Bowman was second SUP, Ernie Eller third, and David Jeffcoat 4th. Jeff Hood and William Dion were the first OC2 and Krista Wilson was the first OC1.

Play by play: The race organizers anticipated the difficulty of staying behind a starting line while being swept forward by a strong current. Thus they arranged a start facing upcurrent, with a short upcurrent sprint followed by a hairpin buoy turn that would send us downcurrent into the longer portion of the race.

It was clear that the marsh shoreline had less current than the center of the channel, so the savvy racers bunched at that end of the line. It was controlled chaos as we all sprinted off together. Ken Bowman and I started well and I inched into his side-draft to stick with him and save energy. Moments later we were passed by a wave of surfskis who had better speed than us but hadn't accelerated as quickly. I slipped into their wakes and used their energy to help me get to the hairpin turn before Ken. Nobody had articulated any rules about not drafting, so I reckoned it was a free-for-all. Heading downriver I briefly drafted the surfskis. I was too slow to keep up with most of them, but there was a prolonged period where the slower surfskis were gradually overtaking me, and I would draft them for a while when I could.

After the first downcurrent leg, we turned into a different channel and went upcurrent. I employed the side-hugging strategy again. The bank dropped off quickly in most places, but some spots, especially around bends in the creek, I ran afoul of shallows that reduced my speed. The surfski paddlers call the drag-inducing shallows "suck water." The lead OC2 team was creeping up on me as we headed into the shallower, bendier section of the course, but I think they were more affected by the suck water than me. I could tell I was getting ahead of them as the sound of their grunting signals to each other faded out.

I didn't know where Ken Bowman was until the turnaround at the halfway point. I was relieved to see that he was 100 m or so behind, giving me some room to breath. For the second half I tried to paddle efficiently while maintaining a strong pace. It helped that the wind and current were at my back for most of it. I gained some distance on Anne Kelly when she stuck the nose of her surfski down the wrong channel. I very briefly drafted her but she wasn't having it and pulled ahead. In the final upcurrent leg to the finish I tried to keep pace with Anne by taking a route closer to the bank while she was more in the middle of the river, but she kept the lead.

It was delightful to cross the finish line as the first place SUP with my parents and aunt and uncle cheering from the dock at the boat ramp. Then dunking myself cool in the muddy creek was also nice. Here's my track from the race:

After everyone finished we made our way to Edisto's "Dockside Restaurant" where we had lunch on a covered pier over the water while the organizers did the raffle and awards. The trophies were made of driftwood debris topped with marsh grass baskets woven by a local Gullah artist. My mother is nuts for decorative baskets, so I was happy to give the award to her as an early mothers' day present.

I hope this race continues in coming years. It has a good, family feel, it's in a beautiful, quiet spot, and it's a great excuse for me to drive up for a little vacation at my folks' Edisto Island beach house. When we're not here you can rent the house yourself.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Race Report: Special Olympics Benefit SUP Races

Draft train early in the race: Packet Casey, Mark Athanacio, me.

Race: The 9th Annual SUP Luau Race benefitting Collier County Special Olympics.

Date it happened: 6 May 2018

Location: In the Gulf of Mexico at Vanderbilt Beach, Naples, FL.

Distance: The competitive race was approximately 5.7 km. The course was four laps around a big rectangle that was pinched like a bow in the middle. After the competitive race there were shorter races for the Special Olympics athletes, and "family fun" races. My track from the race is below.

Conditions: The weather was warm and sunny with hardly any wind. There were some tiny swells and wakes on the Gulf, which could occasionally provide a little speed boost.

Participants and Gear: There was a good group of Special Olympians, with a lot of family members and volunteers supporting them and participating in the family fun races. For the competitive race we had a smaller group, but it included experienced studs Mark Athanacio, Packet Casey, Cindy Gibson, and Meg Bosi, among other race-savvy competitors from the CGT tribe. There were no divisions by board size, so most people used 14' boards if they had them. Some of the women on 14s included Meg Bosi, Damien Lin, and Donna Catron, while Cindy Gibson went with her trusty 12'6 Hovie Comet. Packet Casey used a JP Flatwater 14x25; 2" wider than the 14x23 JP that he used last year. I used my 14x23 Riviera RP, with an 18.5 cm Fins Unlimited seagrass fin that I now use for anything other than perfectly flat water.

Results: Since this was a low-key local race focused mostly on the recreational paddlers and Special Olympics athletes, I don't think they are going to post our times. They did keep track of who got what place, though. Packet Casey got first, I was second, and Mark Athanacio was third. Next was Mark Hourigan on a 14x25 Infinity Blackfish, followed by the amazing Cindy Gibson, who was the first place female. Cindy was a bit ahead of new dad Justin DiGiorgio, who was a bit ahead of Bill Mussenden. I think the 2nd and 3rd place women were Meg Bosi and Jen Hayes.

Play by play: I haven't been as obsessive about SUP training this year as in previous years, because my mind and my hours have been more occupied with work-related goals and struggles. I've still been getting time on the water, but not doing such intense intervals training as I was doing before, and not going to the gym. For the past month I've also been doing about half of my paddling on my new surfski kayak. So I wasn't sure how well I'd perform in this race. I knew that I'd be in the top three with Packet and Athanacio, but had no idea who among us would be in the lead.

After the running start from the beach, Packet was first to the first buoy, closely tailed by Athanacio, then me. Justin DiGiorgio also had a good start but dropped behind after the first buoy. The nearshore leg of the course was tricky because one of the buoys brought us into shallow water near shore. There was some strategy involved in deciding whether to take the most direct path to and from that buoy, or to try to stay in deeper (faster) water as long as possible. Following Athanacio and Packet I also played around with trying to ride various parts of their wakes, or getting in clean water and riding the micro-swells and swell-rebounds from the beach. The numerous buoy turns were another opportunity for skill and strategy. One could either step way back on the board to do a tight "pivot" turn, or one could try to just paddle a wider arc around the buoy. Athanacio has a quick pivot turn technique, and he got frustrated with me and Packet for doing slower turns. I reckon that polishing my buoy turns could gain me a board length or two each turn, which in a close race like this could end up making a big difference in final standings.

We did the first lap at a wicked pace around 9.6 kph (6 mph), and I was hurting in the second lap. Athanacio and I had dropped a few board lengths behind Packet, and I proposed that we work together to try to catch him. Athanacio let me around and I put in a good effort for a half lap, with the intention to yield back to Athanacio for the next half lap. But somehow I ended up losing Athanacio, and then I wasn't inclined to wait up for him so I just kept paddling, trying not drop too far behind Packet. That's how things stayed for the whole rest of the race. At times I got a little closer to Packet, but his buoy turns and accelerations were great, and he put on an extra effort in the last lap to get safely out of my reach by the finish.

Though I didn't win first place, I really enjoyed myself, and felt pleased with my pace and performance. My average speed was 9.3 kph, which is quite good for me, especially in a race with a lot of buoy turns. They gave out beautiful, handmade wooden trophies for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, and had a little podium set up for us to stand on. I was pleased to be up there with Packet and Athanacio. My trophy says, "Special Olympics - SUP Race - 2nd place," which is slightly embarrassing because I got my trophy without having to overcome the disabilities that the actual Special Olympics athletes face. Maybe next year they can have slightly different wording on the trophies for the non-special athletes, or just give us a little ribbon or something instead of a whole huge trophy.

After the competitive race was over, it was delightful to watch the Special Olympic athletes in their surprisingly fast and closely contested race. I stood in the water by one of the buoys and helped direct the athletes. The course instructions were a bit confusing for me, and I imagine more so for the athletes. Good on them for paddling as well as they did.

What's Next: Next race for me is next weekend in Edisto Island, near Charleston, South Carolina: it's the Edisto Island Classic 2018. It will be a heck of a long drive, but it's where my parents live, and I'll be staying in their beach house there for a few days of vacation.