The Mayan Changes

People ask me all the time whether I believe the Mayan Long Count calendar predicts catastrophe at the end of 2012.   The answer is no, it doesn’t predict catastrophe, it simply speaks of great changes happening in our time.

I think I know what these changes are, we can already sense and feel them.  It’s one reason I’m traveling. I want to see a lot before the changes – and hopefully, see the world again afterwards.  For some places, these changes are going to be a good thing, for other places, not so much.

The primary change will be a change in ethos, in the manner of seeing the world.  One big part of the change is just about complete:  the world is linked together by a common worldview, by pictures and stories that unite nearly everyone.  Two Taliban suicide bombers in Pakistan today know that their story will be heard nearly everywhere.  Now, I’d like to know how much coverage the story got in Sierra Leone or Pingalap, and that’s part of my quest.  To do anthropology on a worldwide scale, one needs to know a lot about information flow.  I’m not exactly weak on information retrieval skills, so I’ll be posting what I find out.

The change in ethos, though, is it real?  Or is it just my imagination?  I’m enlisting the help of virtually everyone I know, and I’m studying history to find out.  Traditional history is virtually worthless, in helping an anthropologist to figure out culture changes.  Historians focus on whatever the documents tell them to focus on.  A few of them, and only recently, have decided to use a bit of archaeology.  But let’s face it, they do that only when forced to, as when they want to know what happened in the region they’re studying right before writing began.  There are some real exceptions to these comments about historians – hopefully, I’ll make it up to historians later, because I do admire and love history – it’s just not enough to help answer my questions.

Historians don’t typically use nearly enough material, physical data to inform their stories.  Economic historians have led the way in analyzing the transfer of goods, which often tells a different story than the historians do.  An anthropologist has to bring all of this together.  We have to make artifacts, goods and ideas speak to worldview and ethos.   Anthropologists are experts in social structure and language, as well – there are only so many ways things can be transferred from place to place, and only so many independent inventions.  Studying how language changes is another important source of information.

So is the world getting better or worse or staying the same?

One issue that’s been on my checklist regarding this question has to do with community.  I grew up in a small town, people did not lock their doors until the 1980’s.  The town had reached a population of about 20,000 by then, as opposed to the 8,000 people of my childhood.  Were there lots of break-ins?  No, and there still aren’t that many.  Violent crime peaked in the United States in the 1970’s, and my small town absorbed that news a decade later.  Since then, crime has decreased, especially during the 90’s.

Property crime, though, is on the increase where I live right now.  Is this a sign of impeding apocalypse?   We were victims of theft.  It was a small theft, as thefts go.  A woman down the street had $38,000 stolen from her savings account through identity theft.  Identity theft is the fastest rising type of crime where I live.  Usually, the person who commits identity theft is an acquaintance, a family member or someone else who has access to your home.  Bank employees and other people in positions of financial trust account for something like 12-15% of identity theft.  In our case, it was a neighbor we thought was trustworthy (more on that later).  She also had ties to banking.

But this week, a good friend of mine, whom I’ll call Elena, revealed that her entire world was turned upside down by a recent theft.  The thief was a family member.  Every semester, two or three students say they can’t turn in their work because a relative has stolen their laptop.  In one class, a quick survey showed that 1/3 of the class knew victims of theft by family members.  The age of the thieves was not surprising – usually between 18 and 30.  This semester, textbooks have been stolen.  At first I was skeptical and thought it was the old “dog ate my homework ruse.”  But some of these students I know quite well, and I realized why the books were stolen.  They were stolen the same week the bookstore put those “textbook buy-back/cash for books” signs up everywhere.  This is the first semester those signs have been up, by the way.  The result was that several people had their textbooks stolen just before finals.

In Elena’s case, the person was female, and the family is making excuses for her, even as one by one, people admit they have been robbed by this same person – sometimes more than once.  She steals jewelry.  She leaves behind the sterling, she steals only gold.

That’s because all these “we’ll buy your gold” stores have sprung up.  The items stolen from Elena were mostly sentimental:  christening bracelets and naming bracelets for herself and her children.  Her wedding and engagement rings.

The police are doing nothing, as they did nothing in our case.

In our case they said (given the facts of the theft):  It has to be a neighbor.  We agreed.  But, due to the small amount stolen, the police said they couldn’t put any time into investigating.  We did our own investigation and it didn’t take long to figure out who it was.

We called the police again.  Fingerprinting would not be done, it turned out, since these people had been in our home – invited – and it would be difficult to determine whether any prints left were from normal visits or thieving visits.  We know they didn’t steal while we knew we were in the house, we were watching them the whole time.  Did we ever really trust them?  That too is a question for the future.

The question today is, did people ever really trust each other?  In the United States, there’s this illusion that once upon a time, we were all honest and straightforward.  I think the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were predicated on a certain type of person being a citizen.  I think Plato’s Republic was similarly based on the idea that good citizens would be abundant – that only a rare person would be a bad egg.  Were the Founding Fathers and Plato simply idealists, whose ideas were so hopeful that we should be quietly laughing at them?

Or has something changed?  Is it possible to have a community of honest, straightforward people who don’t steal from family, neighbors and everyone else?  Is it possible to have pension fund managers that don’t take bribes to put money in banks overseas?  Is it possible to get bank employees that don’t practice identity theft?  Where are all those ATM card readers that are stealing information being made?  Are these underground ministries of crime a human universal – at least in big cities? Durkheim seems to have thought so.  Was he right?

We’re going to Paris.  Yes, there are pickpockets in Paris, as there are everywhere – but other than that, the time we’ve spent there has been extraordinarily peaceful and without worry about street crime.  So far, the suburb where I live is not ridden with street crime either – just identity theft and stealing from family and neighbors.  We used our credit cards wantonly all over Europe over the past few years – and not a single digit was stolen, not a single person grabbed that data and misused it.  I read the daily Paris paper as well.  They have their crimes of passion, but it doesn’t seem as if they that much financial malfeasance.

Here in California, well, that’s a different story.

The amount of emotional time and energy it takes to deal with a thief is not often talked about. Victims, like Elena and I, commiserate.  My boss, the operational CEO of the place where I work, had her identity stolen this semester too.  Like me, she felt like a bit of a fool.  Unlike me, she doesn’t think it’s someone she knows personally – but I think it is probably someone who had access to her office at work or to her trash at home.  If she’s like Elena and me, she and her husband have spent hours and hours pondering how it happened, blaming themselves, and simply feeling violated.  For Elena and I, the fact that we know the people – but can do nothing about it – really stings.  I do consider investing in identity theft insurance, like Howard Stern is constantly advertising.  But something is making me dig in my heels.

The police, it turns out, don’t have time to investigate such small crimes.  They really like to stay out of family squabbles and neighborhood feuds.  “Put up a bigger fence,” is what they said.

So is it a sign of the times when the police speak poetry to you, instead of investigating wrongdoing?

Good fences
make good ne
ighbors…

~ Robert Frost


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