Rural Murals


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Look closely

Just drove north of Flagstaff along Highway 89 up to Kanab. I used to commute from Flagstaff up to Tuba City for work, so a stretch of this was very familiar to me. I was pleasantly surprised to see one new element along the road, a certain amount of street art.

The subject matter is rather distinctive, but I can’t help thinking one of the best things about this material is the background.

An elderly Navajo working one of the craft stands told me there were a couple different people in the area putting these up. I don’t know much more.

Thought I’d share.

(Click to embiggen!)



P.S. My girlfriend tells me I’m not supposed to include the pictures of the child and a goat on account of she accidentally picked up a black ant taking pictures of those herself. We ejected the hitchhiker on the outskirts of Page. A little Hydrocortisol and a couple Advil had us on our way. The cycle of pain may continue once she realizes what I did here.  I’m not a praying man, but your kind thoughts would be appreciated.

Thanks Fido, It Was a Rhetorical Question


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This was many years back, and it may be too much information, but I still think it’s a funny story. Sad to say, it’s not fiction



The Culprit

How low can you sink in life?

That was my question, sitting there on the toilet seat, staring at the roll of toilet paper standing upright on the floor in front of me, my last roll of toilet paper.

…and realizing it was damned near out.

My cats were there to help me of course, as they always are when I head to the bathroom, but neither Fido nor Junkmail had any special skill in toilet-paper assessment. They flittered about my feet a little while before sliding one by one out the door and leaving me to ponder this new dilemma all by myself.

Would it be enough?

And might I need more before the day was out?

I knew I was also out of napkins, because I had used a bit of toilet paper for a napkin the night before. Presumably, I didn’t have any paper towels either. I would certainly have used one of those at dinner, if it’d been available.

So much for the store bought stuff!

I wondered if a few extra napkins from a fast food joint might be tucked away in a coat pocket somewhere, or perhaps stuffed into a space near the computer. Could I have set one to the side while downing a burger?


But of course, getting through the crisis of the moment was one thing; living through the next couple days was another. I really didn’t want to spend the five dollars remaining in my wallet on a package of toilet paper. So, this was a tough call.

I thought perhaps I could walk over to the mall and use their toilet, but wow! That’s desperation. When you can’t afford your own toiletries, you know life hasn’t turned out the way you planned.

I supposed I could get a single roll at the store for a little over a dollar if I remembered the prices correctly. That would leave me with about 4 dollars for other things. I preferred to buy in bulk, but that was no longer an option, much less a preference. In toiletries too, the inefficiencies of poverty prevail, even for those of us with no valid excuses for being poor. I had long since lost count of the stupid mistakes that had put me in this situation.


There was nothing feigned about that little moment of self-contempt. I was pretty pissed at myself. How much worse can things get, I wondered, as I reached for the roll? How much more pathetic?

In a blaze of black and cream-colored fur, Fido flew into the room, tackled the roll and tumbled into the far corner of the bathroom, just out a little beyond the reach of my hand, His claws and teeth whirling furiously about for a second or two before he darted out the door just as quickly as he’d entered it.

And there I sat, my hand still extended, staring at the pile of shreds that had formerly been my last roll of toilet paper.


Southern Paiutes As Portrayed in Las Vegas Area Museums.


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Clark County Museum

One of the dominant themes in Vegas area museums would have to be the struggle with nature. By ‘nature’ I of course mean the desert. It’s kind of fascinating to me as parallel themes dominate literature and cinema dealing with the arctic. It’s a pretty straight-forward notion in either event. Extreme environments help to frame a basic man-against-nature story-line, which is a common enough theme in fiction as well as some historical narratives, even a good number of anthropological works.

Where the arctic narratives focus on cold and the lack of food, Vegas area narratives focus on heat and lack of food & water. Both themes definitely have a little space reserved for the indigenous peoples of the region. “How did THEY survive?” would seem to be a common question, one which segways easily into stories about how WE survive now. The part about how WE survive typically morphs into a larger narrative about thriving civilization. Okay, so the North Slope of Alaska may be a little soft on the civilization theme, not that that’s ever stopped a runaway narrative, but more to the point, in Vegas that narrative steams full bore ahead to land us in a world of casinos, mobsters, and showgirls.

…but those narratives often start with Paiutes.

Okay, so sometimes these narratives start with older Puebloan societies or even Paleo-Indians, but even then the stories quicken with the arrival of Paiutes into the area. These were the indigenous community of Las Vegas when Europeans arrived, so they figure more prominently in plot-lines anticipating those casinos and showgirls. Not surprisingly, the Vegas area museums often use the presence of Paiutes in the valley to frame general questions about survival in the desert, questions that will then play well into later developments in the area. Their own modest use of the area sets the stage in these stories for the mega-resorts of today. And if that seems an odd contrast, that is precisely the point. A miracle in the desert, so to speak. It’s all the more miraculous if we catch a glimpse of its modest beginnings.


A Convenience Store (Not

Of course, American stories of progress often treat Native Americans as just one more feature of nature standing in the way of progress, but I honestly think most of these museums try to handle things a little better than that. Still, there is a bit of slippage here and there. Anyway, the topic is worth a little time on my keyboard, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?


What first got me interested in this was a visit to the Mormon Fort, a state park commemorating the first Anglo-American settlement in the Vegas Valley. It contains a number of exhibits, one of which enables you to watch a video recounting the history of Vegas from the creation of the fort itself up through to the development boom of the 1980s (about the time my own family moved into the area). It’s the story of a city built in the midst of a hot desert, and that story begins with the discovery of two springs by European explorers.

As with other such discoveries, it turns out someone was already there. According to one of my old anthropology professors, Martha C. Knack, the Vegas Valley was already home to about a 150 Paiutes with a variety of related communities nearby. It was at these Springs, a kind of Oasis in the middle of the hot desert, that the story of Las Vegas begins.

This story takes off when Brigham Young sends a small group of missionaries to build at Fort at the Springs to serve as a weigh station on the way to Southern California. According to the video, local Paiutes had used the Springs for irrigation projects, so there is little doubt as to a native presence at the Springs. Still, when those first missionaries up and leave, the video suggests that their major accomplishment was to prove that people could make a permanent settlement in the area.

…which of course leaves me wondering what about the Paiute? Hadn’t they already proved that?

This may not be as egregious as it sounds. I could well see white folks at the time thinking of it in that light, biased as it is, so I could see the point of calling attention to this perspective. Still, the commentary in the video is as invested in the bias as any Anglo-American might have been at the time the missionaries left, and so the resulting narrative does seem to erase the Paiute. There is enough information about the local Paiute around the rest of Mormon Fort and even in the video itself to contradict that kind of thinking, but the story-line has its own impact.

Could be worse, could be better.

Mostly, it could be better.


That said, the Mormon Fort is a great place in its own right. If you’re in the area, and have a little pocket change left, I would definitely go check it out.


I found a couple of interesting origin-narratives for the local Paiute, one at the Clark County Museum and one at the Springs Preserve. Each of these are Coyote stories, so it goes without saying that something is going to go terribly  wrong in them. That’s how trickster narratives work. Each presents the choice of a Paiute homeland as something of an accident. At the Springs Preserve, this accident seems to suggest that Paiute ended up in the wrong place. Coyote opened the basket early (somewhere between Las Vegas and Moapa). The Clark County variant suggests that people had already been escaping and heading in different directions, and Coyote closed the sack before carrying it a ways further and pouring out those who would become Paiute. Whether this means they ended up where they were supposed to go or not, I can’t tell from the source at the museum.

I’ve presented both of these stories directly below (a video and a picture). Of course this kind of presentation strips a lot of the context out of each narrative, but I think a bit of the flavor in such stories does come through. I find myself thinking of the accident in terms of the arid setting, as if it were meant to explain how Paiute ended up in such a dry location with its sparse resources. Still, I’m not sure how much of that would have been the point of the Paiute story and how much of that may be the rest of the presentations in which they occur. With so much of each exhibit devoted to explaining how these people survived in the local desert, it seems easy to think of this as the point of the accident, that Paiute weren’t really meant to be here, but perhaps just me. Either way, I can’t help thinking it’s an interesting way of thinking about how one’s people ended up where they are. Mistakes happen. Sometimes a mistake mean you ruin lunch, put up a video with bad sound quality, or end up with a low grade on a test.

…and sometimes a mistake create a world to live in.



Now the Springs Preserve is interesting in itself. This place is huge, and after four visits, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen everything. It contains the Nevada State Museum and the Origin Museum as well as a number of outdoor exhibits (one of which is the Paiute village where I recorded the origin story above). That story is one of several narratives relating to Paiutes that you can find in the Springs Preserve. The Origin Museum contains a couple more videos. One appears to be a straight-foreword history of Las Vegas beginning with the arrival of Native Americans in the area. It further mentions the brief history of interaction (including conflict) between whites and natives. A second, more dramatic video (set up in a stand of artificial tulies) appears to depict a Paiute elder greeting us (the visitors) as if she were meeting non-natives for the first time. She is friendly, of course, and explains a thing or two about her people’s survival strategies, but the video ends on a dark turn. She sees change coming, and it seems to fair to suggest this is an allusion to the hazards of contact and colonization.

Neither of these videos goes into much detail about the troubled relations between Paiute and non-natives, but each mentions them. Where the first is dry and a little up-beat, the second is cryptic and disturbing.

A quick listen to the Coyote narrative always seems to put things in perspective for me. Odd, I know to want to follow modern history with an origin narrative, but I doubt Coyote would object.

Oh, the videos!




The Springs Preserve also contains a history of Las Vegas as portrayed in paintings by the artist Roy Purcell. The only explicit mention of natives I recall seeing in this exhibit is a reference to Spanish raids on local Indians. That’s pretty much it. It’s an interesting history. I at least would have found it a bit more interesting if it had a place for the indigenous population. His website suggests that Purcell is working on Native American subjects now. This sounds promising.

No pictures are allowed in the Purcell exhibit, so I haven’t anything to show for that part of the Springs Preserve.


The Nevada State Museum (also in the Springs Preserve) doesn’t seem as focused on questions of subsistence, but it does have a few interesting pieces on indigenous peoples of the area. A life-size photo of Sarah Winnemucca had me wondering if she wasn’t a bit south of her usual residence. My personal fussiness aside, she certainly deserves a place in the Nevada STATE Museum. The museum also includes a video presentation in which a modern actress interprets some of her words for visitors at the Museum. Similar videos provide a glimpse of Wovoka’s prophesies, and a woman whose name translates to Little Willow teaches us a bit about basket-making. Please accept my apologies for the poor quality of the audios. To get the full experience, you’ll just have to go to the Museum.





CnNS4cNUMAELRKRThere is one other thing I really must say about the Nevada State Museum, and that it that it seems to contain the White Tree of Gondor. Oh, they call it a Great Basin Bristle Cone Pine, but I know the White Tree of Gondor when I see it. You can’t fool me!

I know, this has nothing to do with Paiutes, but seriously, I think the White Tree of Gondor deserves at least a mention. Don’t you?


I’ve written about the Atomic Testing Museum before, and I don’t have a lot to add here, except to note that the museum does reference the indigenous populations of the testing zones. It’s a smallish display by comparison, focusing primarily on cultural preservation. By some accounts Newe Segobia is the most bombed nation in the world, but that story falls a bit North of this post. It’s worth noting though, the general tenor of the Museum’s approach to Native Americans. They want us to know they are trying to do the right thing, but their treatment of the issue doesn’t really escape the largely pro-testing narratives of the museum as a whole.

Let me conclude with a smattering of selected photos from the museums. As always, you may click to embiggen.

The Eagles of Metlakatla


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IMG_20160702_101108So, I spent most of June on the Metlakatla Indian Reserve on in Southeast Alaska. It’s easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Its eagles were one of the first things I noticed about the place. It seems to have a lot of them. Locals seemed amused to see me clicking away at the local equivalent of pigeons, but to me they were damned beautiful pigeons, and so I clicked on. These are lazy eagles, or so one my students told me. They don’t hunt as much as eagles out and away from the harbor. These guys obviously get a lot of easy meals off the boats, I’m sure. And still, that doesn’t make them any less majestic looking. So, again, I clicked away.

When an eagle looks back at you, it’s hard to escape the notion that one is being judged. Yeah, judge me if you like dude; I got your picture, so there! It’s really hard  to get a decent picture of these guys in flight. I tried hard and almost managed it a time or two. I definitely prefer it when they perch in a tree and pose for me. They can judge all they like, just so long as they give me time to zoom in.

So, I figure, what could be more fitting for an Independence Day post than a bunch of eagle pics? Anyway, have a look!

(You may of course click to embiggen.)


Metlakatla is the only Indian reservation in Alaska. It began when William Duncan, an Anglican missionary separated with his church and brought a portion of his Tsimshian congregation from old Metlakatla to Annette Island, thus founding the community of New Metlakatla. It is still predominantly a Tsimshian community, though Tlingit and Haida, and a whole host of other peoples live there as well. Father Duncan’s faith isn’t the only one here anymore, but with half a dozen churches in a town of 1300, it is still very much a Christian community.

The town has a casino, but that didn’t get a lot of action while I was there, or at least I didn’t notice it. They also have a tourist ship, which seems to get a little business. (At least they did from me.) They also have a cannery, and this meant lots of outsiders showed up as the fishing season started. …Suddenly Russian could be heard all over the place. All in all, it was an interesting place.

(Click to embiggen. You know you wanna!)

I recall talking to someone before I went about activities on the island. She said, there were plenty of good hiking places. I asked if it was dangerous, and was told in reply that there were no bears on the island. So, I hiked a good 5 miles or so away from town out on the beach. Later someone told me they do have wolves.

…good to know.

Funny thing about beaches. It’s no real surprise that refuse washes up on shore and sometimes people leave stuff. They should know better, yes, but they do. What’s not so obvious is just why so much of it gets hung up or stuck on a tree branch.

(Don’t click to embiggen this stuff! Seriously, just don’t!)

One day, I had the oddest exchange. It went like this:

Stranger: Sorry to bother you, I had to check on my log.

Me: Your log?

Stranger: My log.

The mystery was somewhat resolved when a boat came to haul it away. The skipper told me it was going to be a totem.


For most of the time I stayed on the island, local fisherman used drift nets, but the very morning I left, they shifted to seine netting which was a bit more interesting cause you can see the floats.

(Click to embiggen!)

The eagles certainly found these nets rather interesting. They were very interested in seeing the results.


Happy July 4th everybody!


Thieves Road (A Review)


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Thieves RoadAside from being my birthday, last Saturday (June 25th) was the anniversary of Custer’s Last Stand. So, I suppose it’s fitting that I finished a book about the man that afternoon. A 336 page volume written by Terry Mort, it’s called Thieves Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s Path to Little Bighorn (Prometheus Books, 2015). No, the book doesn’t cover the events at Little Bighorn. As the subtitle suggest, this book is about Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills, which is to say that this book is about the reconnaissance expedition that lead to the war that lead to Little Bighorn. Officially the expedition had been tasked with helping to establish a Fort in Sioux territory. Unofficially, they were looking for gold. The discovery of that gold would lead to the Great Sioux War of 1876 (and among other things the death of Custer and his men). This particular expedition is a subject I’ve wanted to know more about for sometime, so I was happy to pick this one up.

I’ve written about Custer before, minor tangents here and here, and of course he is the principle villain in the movie Little Big Man, which is an all-time favorite of mine. So, anyway, this isn’t the first time things-Custerly have made their way into my blog. All references to significance of the date aside, it probably won’t be the last either.


For me, the most interest part of the book would have to be Mort’s efforts to connect this expedition to the political economy of the gilded age. All-too-often people (even historians who should know better) speak and write about the the events of western history as though their significance could be understood entire within the confines of life out on the frontier. We may appreciate that immigration is pushing folks out there or that the civil war affected the availability of troops, etc., but rarely does anyone make a serious effort to elaborate on the connection between events occurring out west and the larger patterns of U.S. and world history. Mort is definitely an exception to this pattern.

Mort links the effort to find gold in the  Black Hills to the financing the financing of the civil war (in particular the need to pay off war bonds in gold currency), to the failures of the Northern Pacific Railway (due in part to fears over Indian raids … fears ironically triggered by Custer’s own reports), and by a cascading series of bank failures stemming from post-war sales of Yankee wheat to Britain (a problem for Russian nobles). If all of that sounds interesting to you, then well, …you know what to do.

I am less impressed with Mort’s approach to activities of Lakota (Sioux) and Cheyenne during these events. He doesn’t embrace stereotypes, but his account of Native American lives never strays far from them. In fact, much of Mort’s approach to native culture and native actions in the days leading up to the Great Sioux War consists of a critique of the very stereotypes held by whites of the day (particularly those in western states). He gives us just enough to appreciate that those stereotypes are not accurate, but not enough to outgrow them altogether.

What makes this problem particularly interesting to me is Mort’s claim that the Lakota did not really want peace, at least not a lasting and general peace with everyone around them. This, according to Mort, would have left Lakota men without any means of proving themselves. In Lakota society, according to Mort, one became a man primarily through honors that had to be earned in warfare. Significantly, it is this incentive to raiding that provides the critical moment in history as far as Mort is concerned, because it was Sioux raids that provided the reason Custer’s expedition was authorized as a means of establishing a fort in Sioux territory (p.296). It was Custer, according to Mort that chose to combine this expedition with a search for gold, and it was of course the discovery of that very gold that lead to the Great Sioux War.

Don’t get me wrong. Mort’s treatment of the Sioux is very respectful, but respectful and a buck will buy you a beer. The question here is whether or not his treatment is actually fair to them, and frankly I don’t think it is. Mort places the ultimate responsibility for the coming war on their shoulders, and specifically on their interest in perpetuating war for its own sake. The critical moment in history, the moment when things could have gone some other way, is thus one determined by the Sioux themselves. To be sure, Mort has a lot to say about the decisions of any number of parties in events leading up to this war, but the foibles of non-natives are largely those of individuals in his treatment, and I at least cannot help but sense a kind of fatalism in the overall story. However Custer might stumble, his direction seems a foregone conclusion. This is not simply because we know the end of this particular story; it’s a sense that the U.S. would inevitably go after the Black Hills. It’s just what we do, at least when vast stretches of land lay in the hands of people like the Lakota and the Cheyenne.

The historical moment that settled everything was, as Mort understands it, the one in which young Indian men took to leaving the agencies in the summer and engaging in raids before coming back to those same agencies for the winter. For all we can say about the vagaries of finance, the consequences of greed, or the recklessness of Custer’s particular quest for fame and fortune, in the final analysis, the cause of the coming war at the close of the book is a feature of Lakota society.

…not ours.

To say that I am uncomfortable with this is putting it mildly. I suspect others might choose pick apart the centrality of warfare among Sioux and Cheyenne. For myself, I am more concerned at the failure to find comparable incentive to warfare in other circles, particularly in those of American society itself. Lakota are not the only society that has struggled with the question of what to do with young and violent men, nor would they be the first (or last) to answer that question by sending such men off to visit their violence on someone else. The honors accorded to warriors can be seen all across popular U.S. media, both in Custer’s day and our own. IF an eagle feather might be thought a cause of war to a Lakota, can a medal be any less for a U.S. soldier? If such honors may be thought the reason nations go to war, is this any less true of the U.S. army than it is for people First Nations?

Of course, we normally account for the warfare of nation-states by looking at the larger political and economic forces guiding hands of key decision-makers not the ambitions of particular warriors, and Mort does that very well for both the Indian and white side of this story. Yet, he sees in the actions of native warriors a sort of cultural pathology that seems absent in his treatment of U.S. soldiers.

It’s clear enough that Custer sought honors comparable to those of Sioux warriors, as Mort himself points out, but the cultural significance of those honors doesn’t seem as fatal in Mort’s treatment (except perhaps for Custer and his troops). Of course not every American male goes to war whereas such conduct would be far more normative in Lakota society, so perhaps there are some dissimilarities. Yet the same markets that provide for diversification of labor also create the need for resources that send particular troops to particular paces (like the Black Hills) even as others stay home. Mort himself does a great job of explaining exactly how that happened in this instance. So, if it is fair to say of the Sioux that they didn’t want a lasting or general peace, I think that is every bit as true of the U.S. (then and now). We may not all be warriors, but in a nation like the U.S. that simply isn’t how things work. We have the likes of Custer to secure needed resources for us.

As Vine Deloria might have reminded us, Custer died for our sins.


Oh Hell! (I’m Old)


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IMG_20160604_044613I remember as a toddler I didn’t like old people. Is that unusual? I don’t think so. Even still, I REALLY didn’t like old people. I couldn’t have been more than 4, but I distinctly recall my discomfort around them. It was their smiles that bothered me most.

What was that about?

I remember thinking I was supposed to smile back, and I also remember wondering what it was about a simple smile from a perfect stranger that was supposed to make me happy enough to smile back? The whole exercise seemed awfully damned creepy to me.  I couldn’t have explained it then. All I could do was not smile back.

Grumpiness came easily to me, even at an early age.

I think about this whole smiling-elderly thing now and then. In particular, I think about it when I catch myself smiling at a random toddler for no reason other than that random toddlers make me want to smile. I suppose I do want them to smile back, and I suppose my reasons are every bit as lame as I might have imagined back when I was too small to reach the middle shelf. Even still, I now smile and young kids in much the same way that they used to smile at me, and every now and then I wonder if they are as creeped out by that as I was.

I turn fifty today.


That’s not too old, I suppose, but it’s old enough. Old enough to feel it in my knees when I descend a staircase. Old enough find most contemporary music and just about all contemporary television programming lame as hell. Old enough to have a few genuine regrets. Old enough to have more stories than most really want to hear, and and old enough to think I might have learned a thing or two over the years. I expect that’s a foolish thought, but I can’t help thinking it. It’s a old-guy thing.

So, let me take this opportunity to pass on a few of the lessons I’ve learned (or at least that I think I’ve learned) over the years. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you take these lessons to heart, much less that you should actually try to put them into practice. (You really shouldn’t in at least a few cases.) Just smile back at the old fart who types them and pretend the whole advice-charade isn’t really all that creepy, even though we both know it really is.

So, here they are, just a maxims I try to keep in mind.

  • Anything not worth doing well is not worth doing at all.
  • It’s a sure bet, people will fit you into one stereotype or another. You might as well pick the one you’re most comfortable with.
  • Never go to bed with anyone you don’t want to wake up to.
  • Every good story needs a villain. It’s not a bad calling.
  • Let others argue about whether the glass is half empty or half full. The damned thing is probably leaking!
  • When people talk about tradition, they usually mean the way they themselves grew up. Most would never know if that had anything to do with the way things worked in generations past.
  • There is no cause to take revenge on an individual that would not make a better reason to say ‘goodbye’ and be done with them once and for all.
  • People don’t really have sex. Sex has them.
  • If you take a job you don’t like just for the money, you’ll probably blow the money letting off steam after work. If you take a job doing something important and meaningful, circumstances will likely suck the value right out of it. If your career is the exception to this dilemma, then seriously, go fuck yourself!
  • The word ‘ubiquitous’ isn’t.
  • Whatever terrible things you may find younger people are into these days, you can take comfort in the knowledge that their own kids will find it every bit as lame as you do.
  • Youth may be wasted on the young. Wisdom is no less wasted on the elderly.
  • Don’t kid yourself. It can always get worse.
  • Most new ideas are really just old ideas expressed in new vocabulary. …which isn’t really that new either.
  • You never will outgrow some of your more childish habits, interests, and hobbies. When you stop trying, you may count that as a kind of maturity in itself.
  • You probably will regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did, but a good many who might say otherwise didn’t live to tell the tale.
  • You will never ever ever ever be as comfortable as your own cat.
  • Confirmation bias means others consistently over-estimate the evidence that I am wrong.
  • Listen to people sharing their thoughts about God. You will never hear a more honest account of their own character.
  • Most of the things you are saving for antiquity will be thrown away when you pass on.
  • Publish a list like this and you will find yourself thinking up more long after you do. Also, you will keep wondering if this or that one wasn’t something you read before.

Oh that’s enough!

I should probably take a few of those out anyway, because they just aren’t that good, but I’m just not that concerned about it, and applying the first maxim. Anyway, I guess I will conclude with another thought about old people. (People older than me, dammit!) I don’t recall when I first noticed it, but I have come to  regard it as a constant of sorts. When I see elderly folks, no matter how old they are, I can’t help noticing something new about them. They play just like children. I don’t mean they jump and hop or that they kick a ball with the same energy as a yard ape. I mean that when they crack a joke or even simply smile at one, they might as well be children. It’s one of the few things a rickety body and a cluttered old mind seems to have in common with the growing spirit of a toddler, a certain delight in foolish things.

I wouldn’t say this is an objective claim by any means. Hell, it’s probably me trying to tell myself the path I’m on isn’t so bad, but anymore I just can’t help to see things this way. I don’t care how old someone is when they laugh and joke, they seem (if only for a moment to me) just as young as my old playmates from childhood. Even if their knees have long since said ‘no’ to stairs going up or down. If they know even less about pop-music than I do, and if they could tell you (albeit in a halting way) first hand stories about historical events long since past. You watch two old friends share a joke and they are in that moment much as they might have been at recess long ago.

I keep thinking this must have some relevance to my first point about old people and their smiles. Maybe it should tell me what that smiling stuff was about all  those years ago when I kept wondering what the Hell old people were doing smiling at me like that. I suppose I could sort it out if I really wanted to, but then again I’m too old to give it much more thought, or maybe I’m still to young to work it out. Anyway, the first maxim above still applies.

Anyway, get off my lawn!

…and stop smiling at me, dammit!


The Proof of Burdens


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IMG_20160605_113520Does God exist? In discussions between atheists and believers that question always seems to be on hold, because we seldom get past the other question, the one about who has the burden of proof in that debate. …and yes, these discussions are usually debates, at least in a very general sense of the term. So, we start with a simple (seemingly perfunctory question) who is going to prove what, but the burden of settling that very question proves to be our undoing. It seems absurd, really, like reading the preface to a book that turns out to last until the final page. Still, there is no point in wishing the whole thing away. There is a reason we keep getting hung up on this question.

Oddly enough, it matters.

One of the things that makes this question interesting is that this question resides at the intersection between reasoning and social practice. It’s one of many ways in which what we do when we talk to each other spills out a little past the range of what we actually manage to say in that conversation. What makes that especially interesting is that these are precisely the sort of conversations that are supposed to be maximally transparent. Were there something about a poem or a theatrical performance that escaped our immediate ability to describe its significance, well that would be just as many might expect, but in the realm of theoretical discussion and debate ineffables are horribles.

Bad burden of proof!

You spoil everything.

The topic of burdens of proof is often folded into questions about the meaning of ‘atheism’. Here, the question is whether or not atheism denotes the mere absence of belief in God or a belief that God does not exist. The first is usually considered the weak atheist position and second the strong one. While many in the atheist community will opt for one or the other as the best term to denote our own individual stance, Christian apologists often object to the use of ‘atheist’ in the weak sense at all. Countless Christian bloggers insist that the term ‘atheist’ ought not to be used for those who merely lack belief in God. So, we end up with two different vocabularies and a lot of bitterness between them.

The crux of the theist objection is usually a sense that atheists using the term to denote a mere absence of belief in God are effectively disavowing any burden of proof. Using the term in this way enables people to take a stance that will reject belief in God unless given sufficient reason to change his or her mind. They do not hope to provide a proof themselves to the effect that God does not exist. But is this fair? Apologists often suggest that those unsatisfied with arguments in favor of God ought to consider ourselves ‘agnostic’ instead of ‘atheist’. That many of us call ourselves ‘agnostic atheists’ doesn’t seem to help matters. So, countless Christian apologists insist that the only acceptable default position in this instance is ‘agnostic’ and that those of us adopting the label ‘atheist’ on the basis of no more than an absence of belief in God are shirking our responsibilities to any discussion we may have on the subject.


Alright! All that’s old hat for most us, right? So, why am I thinking about it lately? Actually, I have a range of observations on my mind. They may not be entirely new to others, but (thinking my keyboard), I am trying to explain them in a way that is at least a little new for me.


First, I still think much of the debate leans far too heavily on vocabulary, and as part of that tendency, an awful lot of people engaged in this topic resort to prescriptivist readings of ‘thuh dictionary‘. The term ‘atheist’ can be used to denote either of the positions mentioned above. It has in times past even been used to denote a lack of morals. We could probably find a few other uses of the term if we look hard enough, but my point at present is that there is only so much value that we are going to get out of debate over what the term itself means. If someone wishes to use the term atheist to mean the rafters of an abandoned structure, then we can probably say that’s a little too ideosyncratic to be all that helpful, but if someone is using the word in one of its conventional ways, a reasonable discussion ought to take it from there. The refusal to accept the self-application of a term in a manner consistent with one of its more conventional usages is I think little other than an act of social aggression and indication of bad faith, …to wit, a sign that one want to end the conversation soon.

Second, a burden of proof (BOP) is not the sole responsibility driving a debate of this type. I have often seen apologists speak of the issue as though the entire debate begins and ends with the assignment of a BOP. More to the point, folks often seem to assume that a party without a burden of proof has no responsibilities and thus enjoys an unfair advantage in the discuusion.

Here, I think formal debate (especially collegiate debate systems) may be an instructive analogy. In CEDA debate, for example, the burden of proof is commonly placed on the affirmative side (i.e. that which advances a resolution). Theoretically, this means that they must produce a compelling case for that resolution whereas the negative side may win either by advancing a case of its own or by simply picking apart the affirmative side. Does that give an advantage to the negs? Yes. But along with that, affirmative position gets the privilege of tacking the first crack at the issue. Yes, this means they speak first. It also means they get to define key terms and values. The other side may certainly take issue with any aspect of the case, including those terms and values, but it may not simply ignore them and construct a case using a completely different vocabulary and value system (at least not without first presenting a compelling reason to reject those of the affirmative side). Simply put, the negative side of such a debate carries a burden to respond to the case laid out by the affirmative position.

I’ve always felt that a similar burden applies in debates over the existence of God. If I am talking to a theist, I can of course say all manner of things about God (or rather ‘God’) as I understand the term. Heck, I could probably even try to prove that God doesn’t exist. The problem of course is that in doing so, I will have to have to define that God, and since I don’t believe in Her, it would be fair to ask where I got my definition? I can’t answer that question on the basis of metaphysics, because I can’t point to an underlying reality as the entity I wish to talk about. The basis for my answer must be drawn from the way other people talk about God, and it would probably be helpful if those people were folks who believed in Her. I can of course take a crack at it. I can use conventional definitions as I understand them, but this would put any believer who wished to take issue with my proofs in the ever-so-easy position of simply advocating God according to a different definition of the term. He wouldn’t even have to show that there was anything wrong with my own definition.

…suffice to say, I think such conversations go much better when the discussion is taylored to the views of the person I am talking to. I may expect him to take the lead in establishing a reason to believe as he understands Her, but I am also accepting responsibility to address that reason in terms he uses, or I find those terms unacceptable, to produce an argument to that effect. The responsibilities of each party in such a discussion are not uniformly equivalent for both parties, but neither have they been unifomrly dumped on one party alone. Is this the only way that we can set-up such a discussion? Definitely  not. Is it a reasonable approach to the topic? Well, I certainly think so.

Third: The fact that we (yes, even atheists) commonly speak of God using the conventions of a proper noun is a problem. This presupposes a level of familiarity that seems out of place with an entity whose existence is in question and whose nature is unknown. I can certainly understand how this manner of speaking would work for theists, but debating the subject in those terms does have the effect of injecting a circularity into the subject. It’s at least a little odd to presuppose direct familiarity with the very entity whose existence is in dispute.

Fourth: Speaking of names, and labels, there is an aspect to the label of atheism of atheism that I think apologists often miss. Specifically, it is the reason for my own preference for using the term ‘atheist’ as opposed to ‘agnostic’. What does it mean when you don’t have a reason to believe in God a god? Often I am told that if this alone, absent a specific reason to disbelieve in such an entity, the mere absence of a good reason to believer in one should leave me in an agnostic position. No reason good reason to believe and no good reason to disbelieve should leave me in a default stance, and many take it as obvious that that default stance is best viewed as agnosticism. It’s a pretty common argument. Suffice to say that I don’t find it convincing.

One concern I have here is that ‘agnostic’ too is an ambiguous term. Many take it as obvious that an ‘agnostic’ is simply someone who doesn’t claim to know whether or not a god exists. But of course that is simply the soft version of agnosticism. The term ‘agnostic’ is also used to refer to people who claim the existence of such an entity is inherently unknowable. I would not want to be associated with that position. Admittedly this problem is easily resolved with a single point of clarification, but frankly, I think the same is true of the term ‘atheist’. Either way, the vocabulary is going to take some clarification.

So, why do I prefer atheist? Because these labels do not merely refer to a stance in a debate. This brings us back to the notion of a burden of proof as something that connects our discourse about the world to our social actions in that world. We can say of a debate or a meditation on a claim that it ends in neutral position, that one is left without a compelling reason to believe one way or another. But of course the labels we used to denote our stance on these issues are not limited in their significance to the stance we have taken on any given intellectual question. They also give some sense of how we relate to the themes as they arise in our daily conduct.

It’s kind of funny. Questions about the existence of God can be raised in such an abstract way. In most debates, we hardly know what a yes or a no will mean in terms of our daily lives, but of course that’s only if we stick to what is considered in such an argument. In the real world, or more to the point, in our daily lives, we know very well what these things will mean, at least for ourselves. The answers appear when folks take hands to pray at the dinner table, when they invoke God in support of a political candidate, in opposition to abortion or the teaching of evolution. They appear in countless moral decisions, and countless explanations for the decisions make in their daily lives. It isn’t that any of this flows neatly from an efficient cause argument or Pascal’s Wager, but it’s part of what God means to believers (and yes, I’m back to personal-pronouning the deity). In a very real sense, it is for many, precisely what is at issue in those debates about the existence of God. It may well be that we can never really get from Paley’s watchmaker or Anselm’s being than which nothing greater can be conceived to the dictates of any particular believer’s personal faith, but it would be foolish to think the issue ends at QED.

It doesn’t for atheists either.

The time comes when you are asked to bow your head for a public prayer, to vote a political agenda predicated on the basis of scripture, or to refrain from this or that sexual act because of something else supposedly in a holy book somewhere.These moments do not wait patiently for us to resolve the intellectual questions we ask in philosophy class or to finally produce that one proof that settles the (non-)existence of God one way or another. We may not know if there is a god, or if that god really wants us to speak to him on Sundays, but sooner or later we are going to have to decide how we will act in this and countless other instances where folks typically invoke the the name of a deity. When such questions arise, we expect theists to act in certain ways, even those who may not be able to provide a single reason for their beliefs. A believer who has never once thought about to prove the existence of their god, one who may even be hostile to the notion that such a proof is valuable, will simply act on the basis of their beliefs, and it will be accepted that their behavior is partly a function of their belief in a god.

In such moments, I find the absence of God to be oddly significant, and I don’t think I am alone in this. Countless times I have stood respectfully by as a room full of people talk to someone I don’t believe to be there. I may have no particular proof that this person doesn’t exist, but I know very well that he has no current place in my worldview and that I will not be taking him into account in my behavior. I will not be consulting on moral questions. I will not be voting on the basis His will. I won’t even be experiencing nature on the basis of Her presence.I most certainly won’t be talking to him as the others do in these moments of prayer. At such moments, I am not suspended in indecision. Agnosticism has no bearing on these matters. And that is why the term ‘agnostic’ doesn’t resonate with me, and it never has. However one might characterize the default judgement of debates about the significance of god, in my daily live I am an atheist.

Fifth: It isn’t just self-described atheists who treat the mere absence of an affirmative belief as sufficient reason to invoke the term. In politics, one need to do no more than to oppose an explicitly Christian policy to find his stance labeled as atheism. Take for instance, David Barton’s claims that Barack Obama is really an atheist (a ‘Christian atheist‘) because he acts as if God is not alive. How often have pastors denounced the inability to lead prayer in the public schools as an atheistic policy? How often have apologists described modern evolutionary theory as atheistic because it did not incorporate references to god within it? Conservative Christians routinely rail against the atheism in policy debates when speaking of positions which seek only to remove active reference to God from public institutions. It’s easy enough to dismiss this sort of thing as a mere mistake, especially when so many who do believe in a god actively support some of these same policies and sciences, and yet there is a sense in which they are right. One can use ‘atheist’ to refer simply to the absence of god in a life, a belief, or a policy. How that relates to the sort of atheism that emerges as an intellectual commitment is a different question. I don’t expect many conservative Christians are asking it, but then again, perhaps they are not the only ones who seem to miss this question.


What makes this issue, or this cluster of issues, so difficult to resolve is the occurrence of a subtlety in the midst of a polemic storm. It’s not really a problem of vocabulary so much as it is marking relationships. Sign systems are full of instances in which one or another category becomes a sort of default value, and then problems arise when we have to sort just how much the default really tells us about any given case. It’s a bit like pronouns wherein the common fashion of using ‘he’ to denote a person whose gender we don’t know or don’t care about can well cause confusion (or worse!). What do you do when evidence and reason don’t quite resolve an issue one way or another? The answer isn’t quite a function of logic itself, but neither is it an entirely arbitrary choice. It’s a sort of judgement call. We have just enough leverage to reason over the issue, but not enough to resolve it achieve a reasonable solution of the problem.



Creeditize it! …or Don’t.


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US-ConstitutionLast week a man named Trebor Gordon, Pastor for the Harris County GOP, tried to block a Muslim, Syed Ali, from serving as a precinct chair for the Republican Party in Harris County, Texas.  As reported in Gawker, Gordon objected on the  grounds that Islam is not consistent with the principles of Republican Party politics.

A video of Gordon’s efforts can also be found on Youtube. Gordon’s argument, as quoted in Gawker is as follows:

If you believe that a person can practice Islam and agree to the foundational principles of the Republican Party, it’s not right. It’s not true. It can’t happen. There are things on our platform that he and his beliefs are total opposite.

“There are things on our platform,” Gordon went on to say, that he (Syed Ali) is, he and his beliefs are in total opposite.”

You may suspect this is the beginning of a GOP-bashing rant. Well, not today. I actually found the response to Gordon’s efforts rather encouraging (especially that of Dave Smith). Granted, I would love to live in a world where people just don’t act like he does, but in the real world, I take it as a good sign that the Gordon was voted down, by other members of the local GOP mind you. It’s a welcome reminder that there are sane and responsible people in the GOP. On this count, at least, I think they done right.

What fascinates me about this incident is something about the particular argument Gordon used. Well, actually two things. First, I’m always fascinated by the use of architectural metaphors in ideological matters, particularly in the rhetoric of conservative Christians. They will often tell us that atheists lack a moral foundation for our behavior. They will also speak quite often of Christianity (or belief in God in general) as providing the foundations (or alternatively, the ‘foundational principles’) of our country. There are of course endless permutations to this theme, and they are all highly problematic.

On one level I get it. These metaphors do communicate a sense that the ‘foundational’ beliefs or values in question are in some sense more important than others, or that the other beliefs and practices are in some sense dependent on the foundational ones. If you like the First Amendment, this argument seems to suggest, that part of our government comes (in some way) from Christianity. I get that much at least, so the trope isn’t entirely opaque, but I do think it’s rather telling that so much of this rhetoric takes place within the scope of this particular metaphor. I also think it’s quite telling that people making such arguments are often ill-prepared to flesh out the metaphor in literal terms. The same person who is quite sure that Christian values and beliefs are the foundation of our republic is often at great pains to explain what those values are and just how they actually generate the rest of the features of the republic at large. Take a way the architectural metaphor, and an awful lot of these folks struggle mightily to flesh out the details of their argument.

…or even to deal with them in any way whatsoever!

Now Gordon isn’t talking about America as a whole in that speech. The foundation he references in that speech is something belonging to the Republican party. Still, I do think it worthwhile to note that he has fallen into the pattern of a much broader fashion of speaking about religious and political ideas. To say that he leans a bit heavily on the architectural metaphor is putting it mildly. It is Smith that references the relevant features of the U.S. Constitution (namely the proscription against religious tests). Gordon has only his talk of foundations. THAT is exactly what I am talking about. The rhetoric of foundations consistently helped people to side-steps relevant details rather than to illuminate them.

…which brings me to a second and (to me) much more important aspect of Gordon’s approach to the issue. He has effectively taken the GOP platform to function as a creed of sorts. It isn’t enough to actively support that platform, according to Gordon. One must not, so it seems, hold views in opposition (or even potentially in opposition) to that platform. All of which is a very interesting way to speak of a party platform.

By ‘interesting’, I might mean ‘ridiculous’.

A party platform is itself the outcome of a political process. It has winners and losers even within the party, and many of those who lose out on battles over the construction of that platform can be expected to go on and support the party anyway. That’s how the process works.One doesn’t normally turn around and use that platform as a plank-by-plank litmus test of acceptable beliefs for party members, even party leadership. Creeds are used in precisely that manner to define membership in a religious community. Party platforms are not.

A party platform may represent the goals of a party in its relation to the outside world, but one wouldn’t normally assume that it represents the precise views of each member. To be fair, Gordon isn’t simply suggesting that a Muslim will be in disagreement with one or two items on that menu. He seems to be suggesting that a Muslim must be in disagreement on some very important points. What are those points? Well that takes us back to the whole ‘foundation’ metaphor.

An additional problem here would lie in the abstract nature of the argument. Gordon isn’t asking whether or not this particular Muslim, Syed Ali, is opposed to the key tenets of the party platform. He is arguing that a Muslim must do so. It’s in their nature, so it seems, or perhaps it’s in the nature of their professed beliefs.

It’s a kind of theology by proxy, an all-too-common one at that. Folks often assume they can draw inferences for believers (or even non-believers) on the basis of an assumed premise or two. This type of argument parallels the reductio ad absurdum, but it fails insofar as it ignores the embedded nature of the beliefs in question. A reducto ad absurdum can show us the inconsistency of combining different beliefs, but it can’t tell us much about how any particular individual relates to the people and institutions around him. Gordon isn’t arguing against Islam in general. He is arguing against a specific Muslim, and that makes the specific views and behavior of that specific Muslim directly relevant to the issue at hand. But Gordon doesn’t addres what Ali actually thinks. It is enough to know that he is Muslim. To call this approach dehumanizing is putting it mildly.


…which illustrates another point. People tend to turn mission statements, party platforms, etc. into creeds precisely when they don’t like the people they assume to be unable to vouch for the creed in question. I used to see this when I was a participant at Christian Forums where the members were at times expected to vouch for the Nicene creed and/or the Apostles Creed if they were to be considered Christian. Among other things, being recognized as Christian provided access to large parts of the forum denied to non-believers (who were largely confined to ‘open debate’ sections of the forum). I never had much problem with this as I just say ‘no’ to gods, but I lost track of the number of liberal Christian friends who had to explain countless times how their actions or beliefs could be squared with the creed(s). That conservative Christians did accept the creed, even though their own actions and statements could as easily be taken to suggest otherwise seemed to go without question. In the case of Christian Forums, where a creed was an explicit part of the forum policy, that policy provided endless grounds for personal back-biting and mean-spirited bickering, almost always at the expense of those more socially vulnerable than theologically off-base. Seeing the number of people hurt by that process did a lot to confirm my suspicions about how ugly religion could get. It also helped me to see that the problem had less to do with what people believe than how questions about beliefs are handled with in a larger community.


I wish I could say that secular folk are immune to this kind of behavior, but I can’t. I once joined a secular forum in which I had to press a button vouching for the fact that I didn’t believe in a god. After some hesitation, I pressed the button. After all, I don’t believe in a god, but I always regarded the policy as remarkably petty and quite dogmatic in nature. It was an ironic dogma to be sure, but I reckon when you start deciding who is and who is out of the club on the basis of what they do or don’t believe, you are well into dogmatic territory whatever the content of the beliefs in question. I had similar views when the old Internet Infidels website decided to allow believers to act as moderators. (I was a low-level moderator on that website at the time.) Many objected to the move on the grounds that a believer couldn’t possibly agree with everything in the mission statement for the site. I found myself thinking, “neither do I.” Simply speaking, there were a couple items on the mission statement that I didn’t agree with. I joined because of teh ones I did agree with, and (more importantly) because I wanted to help facilitate the discussions then taking place on that forum. No-one had asked me if I agreed with each item on that mission statement, and no-one had done this for the rest of the staff either. So, the argument that a believer couldn’t serve as a moderator for the site always struck me as an odd misunderstanding of the nature of both forum moderation and mission statements. It also struck me as an ugly double standard.  Making these arguments in public debates on the matter didn’t exactly make me popular, but I always found it odd that so many critical thinkers were apparently quite comfortable with the assumption that everyone on staff had to agree with every point in the mission statement.

Textbook dogma!


In life offline, one of my more frustrating experiences with policy-driven dogma came while I worked at Diné College (a tribal college) on the Navajo Nation. Faculty were expected to adopt an educational model known as Diné Educational Philosophy (DEP). It was a fairly elaborate theory, requiring us to divide our lessons up into four steps (generally portrayed as four individual quadrants of a circle), each of which was thereby linked to some aspect of Navajo cosmology. It was easy enough to do this, of course, and some of the Navajo faculty could do this brilliantly (and authentically). The rest of us, were doing it by the numbers of course, and the students knew it. I still recall the day one of my more traditional students shrunk in his seat as I drew a circle on the board and raised the topic. “Please don’t!” was all he said. He was absolutely right to do so. The man had been enthusiastic just moments before, but moments before I had been talking American history. Now I was speaking about Navajo philosophy and that was a subject he didn’t need to hear about from a white guy. It might have been my job to address the issue, but that didn’t make the moment any less ridiculous.

One of the more frustrating things about DEP was that its proponents often described western educational theory as top down and western religion as dogmatic. It seemed to be a forgone conclusion that Navajo thinking wasn’t any of these things. There was certainly some justice to this. After all, it was the white people that brought missionaries to the reservation and at one time instituted educational policies amounting to little more than government enforced kidnapping. There were so many respects in which I could see Navajo approaches to education were more flexible and less dogmatic than mainstream approaches; they just weren’t respects that had much to do with the official policies of the college. An educational policy incorporating explicit ceremonial themes mandated by administration, taught to faculty (who were mostly outsiders) and then imposed on students in the classroom was by definition a top down approach, and when that policy (along with its ceremonial themes) becomes obligatory, it is a dogma. If I was ever prone to think otherwise, I lost any grounds for doubt one day in a meeting as two of the Navajo faculty argued over the specific implications of a corn stock metaphor in DEP. One of them, I thought quite sensibly suggested that there was room for different approaches to the subject. The other insisted that we all must be on the same page when it came to that theory. The rest of us, being white, had little to do but wait to see how the indigenous faculty sorted the matter out.

I don’t mean to suggest that all the classes at Diné College were taught according to a set dogma. I do mean to suggest that this was official policy, yes, but that’s one of the beauties of actual human behavior. Sometimes the practice is way better than the theory behind it. People pursued a wide variety of approaches in the classroom, and (at least when I was there) many of those approaches simply didn’t match the vision enshrined in that narrow policy. My own approach was a bit more Socratic. I adapted my lessons to the classroom by asking my students how things worked in their world; they told me, and I worked their answers into the lessons. My students’ mileage will vary, of course, but I at least found that process to be interesting and rewarding. The official policy of the college didn’t help much.


So anyway, my point is that people often turn a range of bureaucratic communications into an obligatory set of doctrines. Mission statements, party platforms, educational procedures aren’t necessarily things that should call for total agreement from those working with them. They outline goals.  People in an organization can generally be expected to work toward the goals in such documents, but the notion that someone must agree with every point in such a document is an odd (if rather frequent) inference. Those taking such an approach often do a great deal of harm in so doing, and I generally make it a point to oppose them whenever and wherever possible.


Bringing the issue back to the relationship between Islam and American politics, I think Gordon’s approach touches on a particularly disturbing example of this sort of behavior. It has become relatively common to hear that Islam is not consistent with the U.S. Constitution. Ben Carson seems to have used this as an argument against allowing a Muslim to become president. Others have used this as an argument against allowing Muslim refugees into the country (or into western nations in general) and/or against the notion that Muslims are protected under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The thinking here seems to be that aspects of Islamic doctrine are inconsistent with basic principles of American government (including perhaps the establishment clause). Those pushing this argument will often produce texts from the Quran or related documents suggesting obligations contrary to American law and/or the Constitution itself. But of course that misses the point. The Constitution protects the right to believe any number of things, including those contrary to the constitution itself. It even protects a range of practices, at least those consistent with the constitution itself and the social arrangements made under its authority. That there are limits to these protections is clear enough, but those limits simply do NOT become an excuse to deny people protections altogether.

And of course once again, this approach amounts to a kind of fundamentalism by proxy. I have no count that there are Muslims who want to do things contrary to the law and the constitution. I also have no doubt there are Muslims who respect the law at least as much as the rest of us. How do you tell the difference? I reckon the answer to that question depend on what they say and do, not what a critic can spin off a cherry-picked line or two from the Quran for purpose of fielding an argument. In any event, the possibility that someone may believe (or want) something contrary to the Constitution simply isn’t an excuse for excluding them once and for all from the entire body of constitutional protections.

(Were it otherwise, Gordon might be in trouble!)

The notion that people must demonstrate consistency between their beliefs and the provisions of the U.S. Constitution is (once again) how people treat a creed, not a plan of government. The Constitution too, it would seem, is among the many things people tend to treat as a Creed even though they shouldn’t.

Of Trumps and Truth, and Another Look at that Megyn Kelly Incident


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Cersei-and-Joffrey-Baratheon-cersei-lannister-29431496-800-450When I think of Donald Trump and his campaign for President, it always takes me back to one of the early scenes in Game of Thrones. It’s one of the few moments in that series where Geofrey Lannister proved himself almost human. In the scene, he and his mother Cercei were discussing a fight he’d had a young commoner. He’d come off rather badly, but still Geoffrey’s mother, Cercei, praised him for bravery that he didn’t show and recounted heroic deeds that he didn’t perform. Just this once (it’s the only time that I can recall), the little monster displayed a trace of honesty and corrected her on the facts of the matter. For just a moment, it seemed to matter to Geoffrey that he hadn’t actually lived up to the narratives his family were spinning about him.

Cercei’s reply?

Some day you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it.

I always imagine Donald Trump as a man who learned that very lesson somewhere in the course of his life and took it very much to heart.


One of the most fascinating (and infuriating) things about Trump is the way he approaches questions of veracity. More fascinating still, the question of just why his fans support that approach. It’s easy enough to call the man a liar (and he’s certainly given plenty of cause), but it’s closer to the case to suggest that he keeps turning questions of truth on their head (perhaps in part by ignoring them). What is truth to this man? The answer to that question certainly isn’t what it is to the rest of us. And I still think Cercei’s quote is a good start on an answer.

One of the most frustrating things about Trump, for me at least, is his penchant for resolving complex problems and answering serious criticisms by simply declaring the case to be whatever he needs (or simply wants) it to be. Are there substantial reasons to believe he disrespects women? He simply tells us he always treats women with respect. Do his comments about Mexicans or Muslims reflect hatred and promote bigotry? He simply tells us he loves them and treats them well. Time and again, Trump answers serious questions simply by telling us the most convenient thing necessary to promote his own interests. Time and again, his claims are clearly counterfactual.

…and time and again, I hear Cercei telling us that truth is what a prince makes of it.

So many things about this quote seems so relevant, not the least of them being the image of a pampered aristocrat assuming the reins of power. It isn’t merely that Trump seems immune to basic fact checking or clear cases of debunkitation; he seems almost consciously to expect that the grounds of veracity itself will shift right along with his narratives. He has enough power to simply make some narratives stick, and he knows it. In time, his narratives (however disingenuous) may well become the standard by which other facts are assessed. So, he just presses onward. What counts as true is what he will make of it.

The notion that truth could be constituted in the exercise of power might seem a grad school cliché, but seldom do we see it in such a crass form, so naked, so obvious, and so orange.


Early in the campaign, Trump acquired a reputation as a ‘straight shooter’. Fans described him as a no nonsense guy who tells it like it is. All the tropes of tough love and brutal honesty were conferred on the gilded prince of kitch, which is of course at least as maddening as Trump’s antics themselves. Despite all the prevarication and notwithstanding countless instances of demonstrable falsehoods, one of Trump’s best qualities, according to his many fans, would seem to be honesty.

Does Cercei have an evil laugh? She must, because I could swear that I hear it right now.

She had to be laughing during Trump’s infamous exchange with Megyn Kelly. That’s worth a second look. Here it is, as taken from a transcript provided by Time Magazine.

KELLY: Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.

You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.”


Your Twitter account…

TRUMP: Only Rosie O’Donnell.


KELLY: No, it wasn’t.


Your Twitter account…


TRUMP: Thank you.

KELLY: For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.

TRUMP: Yes, I’m sure it was.

KELLY: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.


I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.

And frankly, what I say, and oftentimes it’s fun, it’s kidding. We have a good time. What I say is what I say. And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.


This exchange is fascinating, not because it’s intrinsically interesting, but because the narratives it spawned seem so very implausible on the face of it. Trump was insulted, and on his behalf Trump’s followers were also insulted. And thus Megyn Kelly became a right wing pariah for some time, which is hilarious, even if it is only a temporary problem. She became a traitor to countless right wing faithful, most of whom had sung her praises right up until that very moment. Yet, she was absolutely right? Trump himself bungled his answer, and that too seemed to count against Kelly. She had been the source of a genuine mistake on Trump’s part, and that was unforgivable. Like the Stark girls witnessing Geoffrey Lannister’s cowardice, Kelly had borne witness to something common men and women are not supposed to see.

Fire the witch!

What always fascinated me about this, is the fact that Kelly doesn’t appear to have set out for Trump’s blood in the outset. I find myself wondering if she couldn’t possibly have more to help Trump out with this question? First, she began by repeating the straight-shooter theme, thus paying the man a rather undeserved compliment and all-but answering the question for him. And then of course there is the whole ‘war on women’ theme, as if Trump’s personal rudeness had anything to do with the GOP’s campaign to restrict the rights of women in both the workplace and the field of health-care. It was a straw-man of course, and one Kelly skillfully placed in the mouth of Hillary Clinton. As tough questions go, this was a slow pitch straight up the middle, but it was too much for Trump.

And thus Kelly became a Pariah.

It doesn’t get much sillier than that. I can’t help wondering at her own internal monologue as she proceeded to spank Trump for his initial response. I can’t help but wonder if the word ‘child’ flashed through her mind as it did for so many others. And of course with Trump’s knee-jerk response he proved himself unworthy of her initial praise. His first reaction in this (as with so many other instances) had been to lie, and thus he was caught like a child with his hand in the cookie jar, telling us all it was just Rosie O’Donnell.

Did this shake the faith of Trump fans? Far from it! Well, it did shake their faith in Megyn Kelly and Fox News. They had stood for a moment as witnesses to the foibles of Prince Trump. Whatever facts or reasons Kelly might have had, they pointed only to her own disloyalty. The truth would be what Donald made of it, and it simply wasn’t Kelly’s role to stand against that.


donald-trump-mug_5fea106e0eb494469a75e60d8f2b18ea.nbcnews-fp-320-320For months after this dust-up, Trump, his campaign, and his fans simply kept telling us what a straight-foreword kinda guy he is. After awhile, you have to realize this isn’t simply a mistake, but it’s a damned odd epistemology. What counts as truth in this narrative is a willingness to tell someone something they don’t want to hear. It’s a common yarn that the “politically correct” left simply cannot handle the truth, as they say, and that the many epithets and racial slurs of right wing politics are a just brutal truth shouted in the face of milquetoast morons well deserving of any discomfort the whole affair may bring about.

The problem of course is that all this begs the question; is the source of discomfort really anything like truth? I for one can think of a few instances in which left wingers (or anyone for that matter) have thrown their weight behind some falsehood I wouldn’t mind seeing burst like a bubble cuddling up to a nice sharp needle. I can also think of a few times the left wing viewed seemed damned accurate to me, and all the cries of ‘political correctness” never did a damned thing to demonstrate otherwise. More to the point, the rhetoric of PC-bashing makes the particulars quite irrelevant, especially wielded as Trump does in his encounter with Kelly. PC-bashing makes of the entire range of left-wing politics nothing but a white lie, one just begging for that damned needle.

…and of course in Trump’s case ‘political correctness’ would eventually come to include things like not beating protesters. That might seem a novel use of the phrase, but of course making truth is hard, and sometimes it must be made at the expense of someone else’s nose.

Brutal honesty is understandable, but all-too-often brutal honesty is all brutal and no honesty. In support of this, Trump’s comments about women would be ‘exhibit A’ as far as I’m concerned. And yet countless Trump supporters seem not only to accept his deceits; they actually seem to count these deceits as evidence of his honesty. Honesty is functionally equivalent for rudeness in this story-line. What counts as truth is the ability to make liberals uncomfortable. If our discomfort is caused by counterfactual claims or clear errors in reasoning, well then those too seem to count as victories in the service of a higher truth. For truth is what Trump will make of it, and that truth is meant to make some of us miserable.


…which brings me to another feature of Trump’s relationship to honesty, that which makes his product irresistible, a sense of shared guilt. If you are like me, you can’t really bring yourself to believe that Trump’s fans actually believe the nonsense he spouts. Time and again, his reflex is to make a claim so obviously false it seeming doesn’t even seem count as a lie. Whatever else it is, is anybody’s guess. (We would need John Miller to explain it to us.) Time and again it seems painfully clear that anyone past preschool should see clearly that Trump is lying. But his fans still support him. It boggles the mind.

But only if you take the whole charade at face value.

They key to understanding Trump’s appeal, I think, is to understand that his supporters don’t really believe his crap anymore than the rest of us do. They simply see themselves as in on the con. If Trump is deceiving anyone it isn’t his followers, so the thinking goes. It’s someone else, someone square enough to take him seriously, to ask if his claims are actually true.

…someone like Megyn Kelly, who was, if only for a moment, foolish enough to think that when Trump said that he only insults Rosie O’Donnell, he actually meant that he only insults Rosie O’Donnell. Anyone with half an ounce of wit would have simply laughed and accepted this answer, knowing full well that it wasn’t literally true. After all, Trump had offered Kelly a perfectly standard whipping girl in place of an honest answer. Conservatives everywhere know that Rosie O’Donnell is fair game for any kind of abuse they care to heap on her, and the abuse of Rosie O’Donnell is a perfectly acceptable substitute for any answer to any more serious question, at least in front of the cameras.

That’s just how the game is played!

A moment of Rosie-bashing should have been enough. It would have been enough, except that for just that particular moment in recent history Kelly wasn’t hip to the con. No-one really expected Kelly, the audience, or anyone else to actually believe that Trump reserves all his misogyny for Rosie O’Donnell, but if Kelly is going to blow the con like that, she can’t really be in the fold.

This, I think is the key to understanding Trump’s reputation for honesty. It resides in a sense of truth as shared conspiracy. Those in the know cannot be expected to describe it accurately. That’s not what people in the know actually do. To speak the truth in itself would be an act of betrayal. And those who balk at the claims of Trump and his camp demonstrate only their own ignorance with every refutation they produce. Only a square would think it mattered that Trump’s claims were false, and only a complete square would make the effort to demonstrate this.

All of which brings us back to that wall Trump keeps telling us about. Is it important? Yes, but not because he actually means to build it. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. It really doesn’t matter, because as an immigration policy, a wall isn’t much. But it’s a damned important symbol, and Trump supporters know this. Trump’s wall is the ultimate in us versus them politics. This is what makes it a powerful symbol. With his wall, Trump demonstrated an absolute willingness to separate the people who count from those that don’t, which is what garnered him the support of so many who count as conservative in Today’s politics.

…all of which is kind of standard.

But what escaped my notice at first is just how much that wall suggests a kind of epistemology. It isn’t just the benefits of being American that will be locked up behind that wall. It is the truth itself. One might think that one of the hallmarks of truth would be it’s capacity to overcome boundaries, to enable people who disagree to check each others’ claims and arrive at a common sense of what is and what isn’t the case. This at least is what sometimes happens in the course of a reasonable argument. But that isn’t the vision of truth driving the Trump camp. No, their Truth is not shared. It too is locked up behind that wall, and it isn’t shared with the rest of us.

First rule of fight club and all that.

Truth in the Trump machine reside in the boldness of his lies. In the cockiness of claims that couldn’t possibly be accurate. Every time the rest of us struggle to decide where to begin with Trump’s latest round of hogwash, his fans see only a knowing wink, another reassurance that he knows what they know, and that we never will.

Which raises the question of just who really is in on the con? So many of Trump’s supporters count him as a hero for the common man. What counts as a common man? Well it isn’t a liberal. It isn’t a Mexican. It isn’t a Muslim. It may or may not include other minorities, but certainly not any rude enough to stand up for their own rights. Join Black Lives Matter and you are definitely out of the club. Trump himself may make personal exceptions for certain folks (like the London Mayor), but that is the privilege of a Prince, to make exceptions to his own rules. But the real question is whether or not the working class will get a share of whatever benefits Trump hopes to hoard behind his walls. He keeps promising more jobs, and that promise may seem empty, but in the interim he has plenty of scapegoats to offer. And of course those scapegoats remain in the dark. It’s one of the most tangible signs of Trump’s loyalty to his own followers, his honesty, so to speak, his willingness to lie to (and about) the rest of us.

Truth is what Trump will make of it, and that Truth will come at the expense of a lot of people.

I expect some will be very surprised to find themselves on the wrong side of that wall.



A Visit to the Alaska Veterans Museum


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A Guard Out Front

I was a little surprised to see a museum crammed into one of the small shops on 4th street in Anchorage. I was even more surprised to find just how much history they managed to cram into The Alaska Veterans Museum. It’s best to take your time in this place, because every inch of wall space in this venues contains something worth a second look, and maybe even a third.

The museum is of course a testament to the lives and work of Alaska’s veterans. For those of us interested in the history of Alaska, it also contains materials illustrating some of the more interesting parts of Alaskan history. No sooner had I walked through the door, for example, than the volunteer asked me if I knew where the last shots of the civil war had been fired. I suppose “the Shenandoah” wasn’t technically the right answer, but he smiled when I said it, and anyway, the point is they have a section for the history of this Confederate buccaneer up on the wall here.

…which had me smiling from the start of my visit.

The museum also features extensive coverage of the Aleutian campaign. It’s one of the quirks of Alaskan history. Where most of the lower 48 speaks of World War II as something that happened ‘over there’, some of the fighting actually did take place in this state. Not only did the Japanese bomb Dutch Harbor, they also occupied two islands in the Aleutian chain, all of which is well represented in the collections on display here at the museum.



The Alaskan Territorial Guard also gets prominent treatment here, though I am ashamed to say I didn’t get great pictures of that section. Just clumsy lensmanship on my part. The museum itself covers the history of this unit, comprised largely of Alaska Natives under the leadership of Major Marvin ‘Muktuk’ Marston. The unit (including a number of women) was charged with monitoring the coastline to act as a first line of defense. They also had to be on the look out for balloon bombs (sent over the Pacific in the hopes of starting forest fires in the U.S.).

The museum includes several outstanding dioramas, most of which feature naval operations. I struggled to get a good picture of the aircraft carrier, but in the end I had to settle for a few close-ups. The model itself was just too big to get in a single shot.

I was unfamiliar with the story of the U.S.S. Grunion, a submarine lost near Kiska, so this part of the exhibit was entirely new to me. One particular veteran, Percy Blatchford, had a section to himself. You can find him around the net as well. Each of the major conflicts of American history receive some treatment here, in each case focusing on the experiences of Alaskan military personnel.

A couple stories that didn’t get into the museum (at least I don’t think so) would include the Navy’s bombing of Angoon in 1882 and the story of Aleutian internment. They do cover the Japanese internment of Aleutians, but no mention is made of those taken off those Islands by the U.S. personnel. I’m not entirely sure I caught everything during my visits last month, and I am still amazed at the breadth of materials they got into the collection. As I understand it, they have a great deal more in storage, and that storage may be spilling into the homes of those behind the museum itself. It’s obviously a labor of love, so I suppose that is to be expected.

On one of my visits to the Museum, I had the pleasure of meeting Col. Suellyn Wright Novak who heads up the Museum. She had a number of great stories to tell, including that of the Alaskan Territorial Guard statue out in front. Some wonder why it doesn’t have a plaque on it? Those more observant have wondered why the information plaque is behind the guardsman. It turns out, the museum staff just didn’t want anyone to be run-over while reading the plaque from the street.

…good thinking.

I am posting a few pics here, but of course they don’t do the museum justice. As usual, you may click to embiggen.





Aleutian Campaign


Alaska Territorial Guard


Alaska Territorial Guard Etched on Baleen

The U.S.S. Grunion




And Finally


Best to read from the sidewalk

…or the comfort of your home.



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