Rooting for the Indians and Damn that Custer Anyway!


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Dances-With-WolvesWhen Dances With Wolves came out in November 1990, audiences throughout the country cheered as Kevin Costner and his Lakota friends killed U.S. soldiers in one of the final scenes of the film. The Lakota in this film were decent (perhaps noble?), and the soldiers had been as contemptible as any character could be. More than that, the soldiers were emissaries of an aggressive nation bent on taking everything Costner’s Lakota friends had. Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in the film. Of course we rooted for the Indians!

Two months later, American troops and attacked Iraqi forces that had taken Kuwait, and Americans cheered as bombing attacks appeared on CNN just about all day every day. Iraqi treatment of the Kuwaitis had been cruel and Saddam Hussein posed a threat to world peace comparable to that the great Hitler (as some would have it anyway). Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in history. Of course we rooted for the American forces!

The transition always appeared to me rather seamless. It was a very disheartening moment, an indication of just how powerless the left wing critique of American imperialism had been. For once, the American public seemed to have gotten the message, at least one some level, and then it went right out and repeated all the same mistakes over again. Just as sensationalist accounts of Indian atrocities had once fueled military aggression against them, lurid stories of Iraqi conduct fueled support for military action in the Gulf War. And once again, America expanded its military presence in the world, to what end, we are still learning.

There are differences between these stories of course, and we could haggle over the details, but I’m not particularly interested in debating the Gulf War here. What concerns me is the question of which difference made the distinction matter? I can’t help but think that difference was time.

I would say that the critical difference is also a question of entertainment versus reality, but of course few war movies have provided near the entertainment value that the Gulf War presented to the American public. Whatever else that conflict represents, it was also a tremendous achievement in the theatrical violence. Plus, the conflicts depicted in Dances With Wolves have real world analogs. The specifics may have been fictional, but the issues in question were quite real. no, the difference is time. Dances With Wolves depicts a conflict most Americans believe to be over, and that makes it safe to flirt with critical appraisal providing it isn’t going anywhere.

Dances With Wolves was a story about America’s past. Cheering for the Indians in a fictional skirmish about an event long ago didn’t pose much of a personal cost for the average American. Sure, there may be some jingoists out there who really couldn’t stomach the thought that any aspect of American history had been anything short of a gift from God himself, but any discomfort they might have felt at the final scenes of Costner’s epic was surely the price of their own extremism. More folks could flip loyalties for that one brief moment, and then flip them right back again when push came to petro.

Custer Little Big manThat’s hardly an unusual transition. It’s as easily done as shifting from present to past tense when the topic of Indians comes up in a conversation, or shifting from particular issues to a great big general narrative about the history of Indian white relations. The hat trick is of course the phrase; “what we did to the Indians.” What continually fascinates me is its appearance in otherwise focused conversations. You could be talking about some specific policy and its impact on some specific native community, and the next thing you hear is someone telling you that they really think it’s sad what ‘we’ did to the Indians.

…except the past tense undermines the ‘we’ part. Those saying this know very well they aren’t including themselves in the damned ‘we’ of that sentiment, not really. A good portion of the times I’ve heard this, the impact of the utterance was precisely to shift the conversation away from anything that ‘we’ really could be do anything about today. And that is of course my rather long winded point; it’s easy to root for the Indians in Dances With Wolves, much easier than it is to support them in present, and much easier to support them than it is to question attacks on any prospective enemy we have today. Whether it be casinos, tribal mascots, or tribal jurisdiction, the same folks who will happily root for the Indian in a fictional battle set in the remote past are much less likely to support the native side in present day conflicts. As to foreign policy? Well…

Bombs away!

But let’s stick with Indian-white relations for a bit. You can see the whole transition in a stanza from one of Alice Cooper’s more obscure songs, but to get the full effect, you have to listen to the full tune. (Don’t worry; it’s one of his less shocking pieces.).

In case you missed it, the relevant lines are as follows:

I love the bomb, hot dogs, and mustard.

I love my girl, but I sure don’t trust her.

I love what the Indians did to Custer.

I love America.

There they Come. There they go.

- Alice Cooper

The line about Custer fits with the rest of Cooper’s rhyme scheme, but the line about Custer is a bit of a twist. The over-the-top jingoism of Cooper’s song seems inconsistent with the celebration of a set-back to the march of American history. We wouldn’t expect Cooper to root for the other side. And then suddenly, he isn’t cheerful at all, or at least the song isn’t, as we hear an Indian war-party come and go accompanied to faux-Indian music right out of the movies. He drops his rhyme scheme and sings almost as an aside, “There they come,” and then “there they go.” And thus a line about the demise of Custer and his troops becomes a comment about the proverbial vanishing Indian.

It’s safe to root for him, because he’s vanished.

Cooper’s song celebrates an Indian victory in order to mourn a Native loss, and of course that loss is precisely what the voice of the song calls for, the removal of an obstacle to the America cooper loves so much. And then of course the song picks up again as Cooper continues to celebrate all-things red, white, and soldier blue. It seems likely that Cooper’s treatment was deliberately ironic; it seems equally unlikely that he appreciated the full depths of that irony.

alicecooper13I don’t think Cooper’s attitude is at all unusual. I’ve heard similar sentiments many times. I understand why my old professor, a Choctaw celebrated the Custer’s last stand, and I understand why Lakota and Cheyenne do today, but they are celebrating a victory, something their people did right. Folks like Cooper are celebrating a loss, and one has to wonder just what they think that loss means?

As with any other great cultural icon, what is said of Custer is often really said of other things. At this point he seems to stand in proxy all of western history. The man has always had his critics, but it was probably the movie Little Big Man that taught the public to think of him as a raving lunatic. The Custer of this film is as ruthless as he is incompetent, and he is clearly the voice of western expansion. In the real world, it was Horace Greeley who advised young men to go to the West. In Little Big Man, it is Custer who tells the main character, Jack Crabb, to go West. It is Custer who carries out the most horrible atrocities of the film, the ones which make that migration possible, and ultimately, it is Custer (along with his troops) who will pay the price for Western expansion.

I grew up with that vision of a Custer in mind, one shared by multiple sources of popular culture in the 70s and 80s. I can’t recall meeting anyone personally who defended Custer in my youth, not once. From time to time, I heard or saw echoes of Custer’s previous incarnations in popular culture, the heroic Custer of Anheuser Busch or the onion-loving Custer of some old movie whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I could easily think that heroic vision as deluded, but of course that was a Custer who belonged to someone else, one who had been slain literally and figuratively on the screen of Little Big Man.

While we can haggle over the facts of Custer’s career and the details of his final battle, the successful caricature of Custer doesn’t facilitate a pro-native view so much as a an easy dismissal of the larger problems of American expansionism. This is where Little Big Man fails in its politics. (It was of course also a commentary on Vietnam.) In framing the horrors of American Indian policy as a reflection of personal lunacy, the movie invited us all to feel far too much relief at Custer’s ultimate defeat. It’s simply easier for all of us if Custer can take responsibility for all the horrors of America’s Indian policies, easier because he lost, and in his loss, folks can well imagine that he carries those horrors with him into the grave.

All of which brings to mind the title of Vine Deloria’s old classic, Custer Died for Your Sins.

abu+grahib+photo+4To be sure films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves call attention to larger problems, but they also point to a way out which all too many Americans seem to have taken, the belief that the ugly side of American military can be laid at the feet of the occasional lunatic clad in buckskin.

Or perhaps to a cigarette puffing soldier who lost her moral compass somewhere along the way.

Because surely the problems don’t go any further than that!





An Uncommon Holiday Celebration


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???????????????????????????????Take a look at this image from an old Thanksgiving celebration. It’s part of an exhibit at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (which is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Anchorage).

These children are Alaska Natives, in this case Yupiit, which would have placed them a long way from New England during the mythic days of the first Thanksgiving celebrations. Still, I can’t help but shake my head at the notion that someone thought to costume these ‘Eskimos’ as ‘Indians’ for Thanksgiving.

So yeah, that happened.

What are the Necessities of Life?


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The_Necessities_of_LifeWhat are the Necessities of Life?

We meet the protagonist of this 2008 Canadian film in Baffin Island of the 1950s. Tiivii (played by Natar Ungalaaq) struggles for breath as he ascends a small hill in search of geese, his wife and children are just waking in their tent below. Upon seeing a boat on the half-frozen ocean, Tiivii sets aside the hunt and takes his family aboard for a series of medical tests. As the boat prepares to leave, Tiivii is told he must remain aboard, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves while he undergoes treatment for tuberculosis.

When next we see Tiivii, he is soon staring at a tree at the hospital in Quebec City, amazed at his new surroundings and quite unprepared for the coming hardships that await him. He does not fully understand his illness, nor does he realize how long it will take him to recover. He also has no idea how his family will fair without him.

An Inuit lost in civilizations? It’s an interesting twist on a familiar theme, that of a stranger in a strange land. The point is soon driven home as we see Tiivii struggle to master the use of a fork and spoon while the other hospital patients consume platefuls of pasta. He figures it out, but not before earning the derision of his roommates.

Through the story, we are invited to see the hospital and western civilization through Tiivii’s eyes, to see common utensils from the perspective of one who has never used them before and to imagine a common meal from the standpoint of someone has never eaten anything like it. We can also imagine his confusion at the sterile bathroom with its flush toilet; his longing for someone to talk to makes perfect sense; as does his desire to eat familiar food.

the-necessities-of-lifeWe’ve seen this storyline before, a person completely out of his element. It is often used to explore the differences between civilization and savagery. This was the premise for Dances With Wolves, and before that with Little Big-Man and A Man Called Horse. It’s a common enough theme in arctic films as well, being found in White Dawn and Snow Walker among others. What makes this film different is the trajectory of the stranger in this case; he has left a world unfamiliar to most of us, to enter one most of us will find rather familiar. We are used to seeing the story go the other way. Still Tiivii’s journey is compelling. Through his eyes, the western world becomes strange, unreasonable, and quite insane.

This particular twist on the stranger in a strange land contains an element of nuance, however, that would be easy to miss. Audiences may think they know what it means for an emissary of modern western society to live amongst primitives, but what does it mean for such an individual to come live amongst us, or at least the 1950s variation thereof? It would be easy to think that Tiivii spends the entire story marveling at the wealth and richness of the city. In the space of a few opening scenes he has made a transition from the life of a forager scratching out a meager existence on the tundra to a cosmopolitan center with all the wonders of contemporary society. Tiivii may see this world from the shelter of a hospital bed, but he does see it just the same. How could he possibly understand the complexities which have put food on his plate in that hospital, or those that enable him to flush that same food away in the porcelain toilet? It would be awfully easy to think of this as the story of a simple man lost in the wealth of the modern world
…except that would not explain the title of the movie.

necThe title comes to us in a scene near the end of the film, one in which Tiivii explains to a young patient named Kaki (Paul-André Brasseur) what it is like to be out on the tundra. Although Inuit himself, Kaki, has spent his formative years in the hospitals. He does not understand the kind of life his own people have led. Asked what his homeland is like, Tiivii explains:

Beautiful. Lots of mountains. From the top you can see everything. You can see exactly where you are going. Not like here, where there are trees everywhere and you can’t see ahead. There’s a huge island. It takes many days to travel around it. There’s everything you need, all the necessities of life. Seals. Caribou. Geese.

Tiivii’s face lights up with each point of his speech, but the point of the scene would be missed entirely if this was thought to be nostalgia. Tiivii’s speech provides the strongest hint in the movie as to just how he sees the world around him. It is not a world of abundance at all; it is one in which he cannot see the materials out of which to make his clothes much to less to build a home. It is a world in which he cannot see food or medicine. All of these things must be brought to him. If this is mysterious, it is not the mystery of a miracle so much as a perverse trickery, one which hides the means of life from him while doling out the necessities a little at a time. Far from marveling at the wealth of civilization, Tiivii has been lost in the desert the whole time. He doesn’t see modern miracles in plumbing or cutlery. Instead he sees a world of mostly useless materials.

I think this is the real genius of Necessities of Life, that it actually flies in the face of conventional notions of the difference between foragers and civilized folks. Ever since Nanook of the North, mainstream film-makers have marveled at the struggle of arctic hunters against hunger and the elements. Time and again, Hollywood’s ‘Eskimos’ have been portrayed as dwelling on the edge of starvation, and it would be awfully easy to see in Tiivii’s story just another chapter in that narrative, one in which one of these primitives actually gets to experience the wealth of modernity. And yet, what Tiivii actually tells us is just the opposite; wealth is waiting for him back home on Baffin Island, and he cannot wait to leave the extreme poverty of the modern world behind.

Merry [War on the (War On)] Christmas!


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If I was to list the things I hate about Christmas, that list might well include Black Friday, bland food, and blander music. Jesus isn’t on that list. Oh, I know that I’m supposed to be working hard to get the Christ out of Christmas, at least according to certain talking heads, because that’s just what atheists do. But seriously, it would never occur to me to try and scratch Baby Jesus out of this holiday.

…mainly, because Jesus isn’t a big part of Christmas to begin with.

Yes, I understand American Atheists did a snarky Billboard. With that and a pickle, they’d still be one sandwich short of a lunch plate. Some of us will laugh (I know I did), but this is hardly a credible threat to the Prince of Peace. And seriously, atheist kids can’t be the only ones hoping to skip church for Christmas.

Schaedenfreude for All!

Schaedenfreude for All!

…if you think about it, they probably aren’t all that worried about it.

The annual fake war on Christmas is always entertaining. When folks find ‘Happy Holidays’ offensive or suspect an entire agenda behind use of the infamous X in ‘Xmas’, I can’t help but laugh. But I like to remind myself when the explicit reasoning people use makes no sense whatsoever, that’s usually because it isn’t the one guiding their actual thought process.

I figure the war on Christmas is primarily good marketing for right wing pundits, and apparently for Kirk Cameron. Near as I can tell, Cameron has never really outgrown his character on Growing Pains, but the culture wars certain do provide him with plenty of grist for the still-vapid mill. This yearm he’s workig the Christmas angle. …meh! Anyway, the war on Christmas does two things near as I can tell; it helps Christian conservatives misrepresent the battle over civic religious pronouncements, and it helps those same Christians rally the faithful by wagging the dog, so to speak.

savingchristmas_smI know, I’m mixing my metaphors, yes, but what the Hell do you expect from a Godless bastard?

The battle over civil religion has been driven by concerns about the entanglement of religion in public institutions. This is not an effort to drive God entirely from the public sphere, nor is it an effort to enshrine atheism in that sphere. The question is simply whether or not government facilities ought to be making any kind of explicit religious expressions, whether it be a copy of the Ten Commandments or a Manger scene.

Now I’m not entirely sold on the value of opposing every cross, prayer, or hand-made sign with religious sentiments that makes an appearance on public property, but every time I’m tempted to support a compromise on these issues, some joker from the religious right (or ten of them) makes it a point to suggest those reflect the true Christian nature of this country. …and what seemed possibly harmless then becomes a great big slap in the face. In any event, those defending use of public institutions for explicitly religious expressions have some real questions to answer about how this squares with the establishment clause, and near as I can tell most of the culture warriors are too busy generating narratives that bypass the whole problem. The War on Christmas is just such a narrative. As long as every challenge to a public display of Jesus in the manger is really part of an effort to crush the joy of Christmas, the Christian right will never have to address the constitutionality of its public agenda. People will be too busy saving Christmas from godless grinches.

…just like in a television sitcom.

Vintage Christmas

Vintage Christmas

The larger and deeper misdirection here is also simpler. (It’s a multi-lered misdirection, really it is!) Jesus has been a rather minor theme in the actual celebration of Christmas for most of modern history. Sure, children sing the occasional Silent Night in a Christmas pageant, but they also sing Jingle bells. Were I a believer, I wouldn’t want to take bets on which one gets a bigger round of applause from the audience. But that’s just the tip of the pagan pine bough. The fact is that Christ is always playing catch-up with his own holiday, and last I checked, he was well behind the marketing professionals on this one.

These days I hear a lot of people talking about putting the Christ back in Christmas, as if simply saying the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ would provide them with a real victory. The fact of the matter is, though, that people have been saying ‘Merry Christmas’ for generations without meaning much more than ‘Yippee, presents!’ or ‘Hope you get a good bonus.’ Hell, even the more profound messages of giving and family togetherness are as easily embraced in secular circles as those of the truest of the True Christians™. The right wing culture warriors know this and they want to change it, or at least they want to be seen trying to change it.

Whatever else the war on the ‘war on Christmas’ is, it’s also a means of investing the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ with a new and more political meaning. It effects that investment by conjuring an enemy, so when you say ‘Merry Christmas’ now, you aren’t just wishing people a nice glass of egg-nog. Hell, you aren’t even just telling them to celebrate the birth of Jesus or wishing them all the blessings the Prince of Peace could possibly bring. When you say it now, you’re pissing off an atheist, and nothing says you love Jesus more than pissing off an atheist!

Good fun for all!

Only, most of us aren’t all that bothered by the phrase. Hell I say ‘Merry Christmas’ as often as I say ‘Happy Holidays.’ When I did a brief stint at a Jewish private school, i said ‘Happy Holidays’ more, but that certainly wasn’t about pissing off any Christians. Anyway, I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard. The phrase Merry Christmas just isn’t a problem for most unbelievers, at least not when Bill O’Reilly isn’t writing the script.


Coke, another “reason for the season.”

The real threats to the religious perspectives on Christmas have never been secularists; they have been the myriad pleasures of worldly ways. The threats have been train-sets and iphones, bicycles, and Barbie-dolls, well-spiked punch-bowls at office parties, gaudy lights, and near riots at the local Walmart. It’s these things that compete with Jesus for our attention on December 25th, and quite frankly, it isn’t atheists that are pushing them on people. It’s good-old American capitalism, and let’s be honest, Christian conservatives are hardly interested in fighting a battle against corporate capitalism. So, they’ve conjured up a scape-goat. This way they get to have their stale gingerbread and eat it too. Through the ‘war on Christmas’ Christian conservatives can pretend to fight for the spiritual significance of their holiday all the while going right along with the very practices that keep turning the conveniently imagined birthday of Christ into a hollow and impious event.

Don’t laugh; it works folks!

I can’t be the first or even the thousand and first scaped goat to complain about this little gambit, but well, it’s a white Christmas up here in the arctic, and I’d rather gripe than go outside. Plus, I’m an atheist. I’m supposed to be grumpy and grinchy. Some days I am happy to oblige.

Oh yeah, there’s one more thing.

Merry Christmas everybody!

An Uncommon Elf


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Wondering who this is? Well it’s Ronnie James Dio and his old band.

…no his REALLY old band.

This was Dio before Black Sabbath, before Rainbow, and well before Satan made his way into the man’s vocals. Heck, the lyrics seem almost normal, even wholesome.

I don’t imagine he would have flashed the hook of horns much during these years.


Pay No Attention to the Abe in the Corner!


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One of the most beautiful gifts of the internet is the ability to learn at a glance the wisdom of America’s founding fathers. In fact, one can often find these pearls of wisdom beautifully packaged in nice visuals. They are perfect for a tweet or a quick illustration, and so very informative. Most of all, they are ever so conveniently one quick google away.

Take for instance the warning these men left for us regarding the evils of big government! Thomas Jefferson is particularly valuable in this regard. Why you could almost imagine him to be commenting directly on current affairs couldn’t you? Isn’t Tom just swell?

(You may as usual click to embiggen any of these quotations)

Thomas Jefferson was particularly keen on the importance of political dissent.


Thinking along similar lines, our founding fathers spoke directly to the issue of gun control. I mean, these comments are just so perfect. You’d almost think some of these quotes had been written by folks working for the NRA. Check it out!

More than that! Our great founders were no friends of the nanny state. They were quite clear that people shouldn’t expect too much from government. It’s there to give everyone a chance, but folks really shouldn’t expect any more than that.

James Madison wouldn’t have any truck with this notion of a living constitution. He’d school the modern liberals right quick about that nonsense.


On religion, let me tell you, the founders of our great nation were clear about the importance of the christian faith!

Oddly, the founders were also pretty damned clear about the evils of Christianity. Apparently, they had strong views on that too.

…It’s just a little strange.

I know this is getting to be a tiresome theme in this post, but the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson is not to be outdone. At times, he could almost seem to be a motivational speaker. Watch out Tony Robbins!

Not to be outdone, George Washington even carved his legacy into this little gem about taking responsibility for one’s personal mistakes.


Honestly, the wisdom of the founding fathers would seem to be amazing at times. Sometimes their prescience is uncanny. It’s an amazing thing to see just how well-suited their statements can be to present-day matters. Luckily, that wisdom was not limited to the original founders. It was around in the civil war era too. Could anyone possibly be more on the mark than Abraham Lincoln?



Listen to Abe folks.

Paul Newman IS Homo Economicus: A Spoiler-Filled Review of Hud.


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51YVV4PKWJLSo, I finally got around to watching Hud for the first time. It was about a month or so back that I popped a copy into the disk player. I didn’t know what to expect really, but I’d heard it described as one of Paul Newman’s rebellious best. So, I sat back and prepared to watch him take on the world for the umpteenth time in my viewing history. He does of course, just as expected.

What I didn’t expect was that this time I’d be rooting for the world.

We meet Hud as he emerges from the house of a married woman, angry to have been interrupted by his nephew, and not the least bit remorseful about where he spent the night, not even when her husband arrives before Hud and his nephew can quit the scene. Not to worry though, Hud lays the blame on his nephew and they hightail it out of there. It’s a pretty damned low move, but just the sort one might expect from a devil-may-care young character Newman has played before. Still unwise to the story that would unfold before me I sat back waiting to see what Hud would do to make us forgive him for such flaws. To be sure, this character had the usual mixture of charm and seemingly forgivable flaws you might expect from such a role. I couldn’t wait to see where the plot would take him.

Make no mistake, however, this is not a film about redemption, reform, or freedom from convention. Quite the contrary.

So what is the story here?

Hud stands to inherit a ranch from his father, but a likely outbreak of hoof&mouth disease creates a dilemma for the family and their ranch-hands. Hud wants to sell the cattle before the veterinarian can diagnose it. His father (Homer) won’t hear of it. It isn’t simply that the two men disagree; they genuinely don’t like each other and their conflict over the cattle considerably widens the rift between them. Hud believes his father’s distrust to be the result of an accident resulting in the death of his brother (Homer’s other son). Hud had been driving, and yes, liquor had been involved. But Hud’s father tells us that wasn’t the source of the problem. Something about Hud had always bothered him, something about the way Hud treated others. Hud’s response to this new crisis served only to make Homer that much more uncomfortable with his remaining son, and with the prospects of his own legacy, the ranch.

As Hud takes ever greater liberties with those around him, I couldn’t help but side with his father. In time, all the more decent characters will leave Hud. His father dies’ a prospective love interest leaves town (for damned good reason!); the ranch workers are let go because there is nothing for them to do; and finally Hud’s nephew abandons him in the final scenes. I couldn’t help but cheer for each of them that got away, and in the final scene, as Hud slams the doorway of the ranch-house leaving us outside, I couldn’t help but feel a trace of relief to finally get away from him myself.

It was an awesome performance.

This is a film about conflicting values. Hud sees his many years working on the ranch as an investment, and he expects a return on that invest in the form of an economically viable property. The outbreak of disease now threatens that return, and his father’s moral scruples aren’t helping much in his view.

Over the course of the film it becomes ever more clear just how little Hud sees in that ranch besides the money it may one day provide him. His failure to find any meaning in the work he does for the ranch itself is matched by his failure to connect with those around him. Hud has his moments of course. Here and there, we could almost hope to think him human, but this character was made to disappoint us at every turn. It’s only fitting that he should end up with the ranch and nothing else. no cattle, no family, no friends, nothing living around him. There is little doubt that he will somehow make the ranch work, and still less that he will do so utter alone. In the end, that is the choice Hud has made, and he seems quite content with the results.

I can’t help but see in Hud a perfect avatar of homo economicus as libertarians seem to understand him, a perfectly functioning rational agent out to maximize his pleasures and minimize his pains. He sees in work nothing but the exchange value of his products and in other people only the chance to cash in those values for direct personal pleasure. The bottom line in his thought is pure profit, nothing more.

And so, he’s a villain, so what? Who today could possibly oppose such an approach to a business venture? Who but a communist? …or worse, a liberal!

…or Hud’s father, a cultural conservative in his own right. Hud’s father, Homer, isn’t looking to redistribute wealth, but he understands the value of work itself, something not entirely reducible to the dollar value of its products. Homer understands that in working men also produce themselves and their communities, and that this has a value, one that cannot be reduced to profits. The issue becomes most clear when someone raises the prospect of drilling for oil. We’ll let Homer speak for himself:

Hud Bannon: My daddy thinks oil is something you stick in your salad dressing.

Homer Bannon: If there’s oil down there, you can get it sucked up after I’m under there with it. There’ll be no holes punched in this land while I’m here. They ain’t gonna come in and grade no roads so the wind can blow me away. What’s oil to me? What can I do with a bunch of oil wells? I can’t ride out every day and prowl amongst ‘em like I can my cattle. I can’t breed ‘em or tend ‘em or rope ‘em or chase ‘em or nothing. I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in ‘em ’cause they ain’t none of my doing.

Hud Bannon: There’s money in it.

Homer Bannon: I don’t want that kind of money. I want mine to come from something that keeps a man doing for himself.


So, I watch this film and I see in Homer a vision of generations that seem well past in the present day political landscape, generations who say capitalism as it is practiced to day as a threat their own way of life, a force that would destroy the conditions under which they would work and earn a living. It has been far too easy for far too long to assume that the opponents of capitalism have always been communists. What too many people seem to miss is that moment in history when the juggernaut of modern corporatism first threatens to take away the livelihood of those content with free markets, a moment in history when some at least might have known the difference.

Irony of ironies!

It seems many of the film’s viewers didn’t see the difference themselves. Apparently, in 1963. Apparently, a good portion of the American audience saw Hud just as I had expected to. They loved him. they saw in Hud precisely the rebellious hero that i had hoped to, and not the merciless villain I felt the film had actually shown me. Film critic Pauline Kael even went so far as to argue that the audience was wiser than the film-makers insofar as they rejected its critique of capitalism and celebrated the villain as if he were a hero. That’s one way to look at it. Another would be to take that as a measure of just how much modern America and its sensibilities had in 1963 already been shaped by men such as Hud.


An Uncommon Sky


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(Clickinate to embiggerize!)

People often ask me about the northern lights. As it happens, Barrow isn’t really the best place to see them. It’s too bright in town, and we are a bit North for the most brilliant displays. I suppose that’s one measure of excessive northitude. …when you are too far north for the northern lights.

Just the same. The sky up here certainly does have its moments.

Black Hats and White Hats, Boomerang Bills, and Homeless Pets


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Auto-Kitty approves this message.

“Are you a no-kill shelter?” the woman asked as she readied a $20.00 bill for the donation box? The honest answer was ‘no,’ and my explanation didn’t help matters much, …at all really. With one corner already inside the box that twenty dollar bill did a U-Turn and headed straight back to the woman’s purse. Our consolation prize was a $5.00 bill.

And I thanked her.

…the bitch!

I’m writing that now, because I sure as Hell wasn’t going to say it the, and yes I do feel better. That wasn’t the only irritating moment that I recall from the year and a half I worked at a local Humane Association, but I suppose this is to be expected.  There is indeed something terrible about a conventional will-kill shelter. Looking at it from the perspective of the lady above, I had effectively told her that the organization I worked for killed perfectly healthy kittens and puppies, …and that I wanted money so that we could continue doing so. Under the circumstances, I suppose I should have been damned thankful to get a five.

Seriously, what a bastard!

It’s tough to find a sound patch of middle ground on some issues and this is one of them.

I had that job for about a year and a half, and this was hardly the first time I’d taken grief from someone in favor of no-kill shelters. There was the volunteer who wouldn’t step foot in our shelter. There were the interviews that ALWAYS raised questions about euthanasia, even when that was clearly not the issue at hand. And then there were the phone calls, the ones that went something like this; “I don’t want to bring him to you, but no-one else will take him, what do I do?” And of course there were countless times I heard people describe themselves as rescuing an animal from us, often one we had been at great pains to keep alive.

But this was all pretty minor stuff really. All in a day’s work.

I have to admit that it got a little under my skin the day that a volunteer from the local low-kill shelter told me with a smile that she heard her own shelter had just saved 12 cats from us. See, the problem was that we had plenty of room at the time, and none of these animals were in danger. In fact, giving them 12 cats had left our own cat kennels near to empty. We had given the cats to the other shelter because they were suddenly short felines, and I knew damn well the reason they were suddenly short. It wasn’t a pretty story.  I wanted desperately to tell the volunteer that her shelter hadn’t saved any animals by taking them off our hands on that day. Not at all.

Ah well!

This young lady doesn’t get called a name. She didn’t know. And anyhow I don’t feel as cranky as I did 3 or 4 paragraphs back. Still that was a bitter pill to swallow. Suffice to say I thought for a time there that a companion animal stood a better chance at our own will-kill shelter than they did with our low-kill counterpart. If I am hearing right lately, it sounds like the latter has cleaned up its act and both shelters are working together more lately. That’s a very good thing.

What bothers me about no-kill shelters is not the way they actually work, when they actually work at any rate; it is that their rhetoric tends to work just as well regardless of the details on the ground so to speak. If that woman with her twenty dollar bill really understood how our shelter worked and decided we weren’t a worthy recipient for her money, I would have been fine with that decision. But she didn’t. What she knew was one thing; we were the bad guys and that was about all there was to it.

I also remember a day that we ran out of room in our dog kennels and the local low-kill had been among the organizations that took a few off our hands. They took two, a pit bull and one other dog. I had been so relieved, because all of us loved that pit bull, even though she had been with us 6 months. At last she was safe, …except she wasn’t. Both of those animals ended up getting put down. And I never called the low-kill shelter again, not to help us keep one of our animals alive at any rate.

All of this had already happened on that day when a twenty climbed back into that woman’s purse and sent a five to take its place. I couldn’t help but wonder if the lady knew where people took their pets when the low-kill ran out of space? I also wondered if she knew just how many animals did get put down over there? Or if she could wrap her mind around just how many more animals we took care of on a fraction of their budget, all without the privilege of selective admissions. I’m guessing she didn’t. To her, I was a black hat. The other fifteen bucks were presumably looking to make their home with a white hat.

Circumstances vary from one community to the next, but in that community at that particular time there were exactly two-shelters in the area; one low-kill and one will-kill. The low-kill had begun with aspirations of no-kill policies and still maintained enough ties with the no-kill movement benefit from its reputation. We were open to any animal someone wanted to bring in; they could and did turn problem animals down. When they filled up, we got the overflow. When we filled up, first we turned to the phones, then we turned to the needles.

What so few of the local no-kill advocates in town seemed to realize was that when we were putting animals down it really was a community affair. If we were putting healthy animals down, odds were high that both shelters were full and all the fosters in town were overflowing. Hell, by then more than a few kind-hearted people had already taken more home than they could afford to feed. It really wasn’t a decision made in a vacuum, and when an adoptable animal went down it was literally because we couldn’t find anyone with the will and the resources to care for it.

By the time I left the shelter I had long since come to think of the total impact of the two shelters in terms of the total animal population for the region. Were were in competition for resources and public support, but both shelters contributed to the overall care of animals throughout the region. Our shelter was more efficient, but they could offer a reasonably higher guarantee of survival for any animal successfully placed with them.

…at least they could when they had their act in gear.

In some ways the competition between our shelters may have improved the odds of survival for the unwanted animals of the town. The no-kill movement was a positive force at our own shelter and I knew it. It was one of the reasons we partnered with Petsmart and Petco, went to countless adoption events, advertised adoptions widely, and even began working with Foster agencies. No-kill advocates had developed a lot of the techniques we used to help adopt out our animals, and pressure from such advocates had helped to ensure we used them. In that respect at least, no kill had a very positive impact on our own shelter. Still, some of its advocates could prove damned clueless about the details of animal welfare.

If anyone really wanted to help the animals in our region, a dollar in our donation box was at least as good as it was in that of the local low-kill shelter.

Arguably better at the time.

But you can’t tell some people that. I mean you really can’t.


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