Eye, You, and Donald Trump

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question from the audience at one of the New England Council’s “Politics and Eggs” breakfasts in Manchester, New Hampshire November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTS6IWM

I think I found the source for Donald Trump’s approach to public speaking. There is a clear precedent for his technique.

It’s Jane Elliot!

Jane Elliot is of course the Ohio grade-school teacher made famous for a classroom exercise in which she taught her students to discriminate against each other on the basis of eye-color. If you watch her in action, you can see the elements of Donald Trump’s rhetoric style unfolding before you.

It’s funny, because I’ve been thinking for some time that I have never seen anyone lie so readily, so easily, and in the face of such clear counter-evidence. Never have I seen anyone whose praise or whose censure was so obviously a function of his own self-interest. It is as if facts have no bearing on his evaluation of anything or anyone, and the only thing that registers significance in his evaluation of the world around him is what he wants to happen. Those who support his goals are terrific, and those who oppose him are failures, sad. I keep thinking, no-one I know of has ever been so obvious about it. But no. The man has a clear role model. If you watch Elliot teaching her students to mistreat each other, it’s all there. She may have meant her exercise to warn people against this sort of thing, but I can’t help wondering of Trump didn’t watch her at some point and say to himself; “Yep! That’s exactly what I want to be.”

Elliot set out to instill prejudice in her third graders in the space of a single day, and then to reverse that prejudice the following day, before debriefing the lot of them and ending the lesson. She didn’t have a lot of time and she wasn’t the least bit subtle about it.She employed all manner of tactics to communicate contempt for the wrong-eyed children in her classroom.

You might think Elliot’s lessons less relevant to real-world politics, because, well third graders, right? But of course, Donald Trump’s own rhetoric has all the features of grade school communication. Far from a detriment, it turns out childish vocabulary and simplistic arguments are actually one of the keys to his success. With his simple words and constant repetition of basic themes, Trump leaves a very clear impression. It is the single-mindedness of Trump’s presentation that seems to resonate with his supporters, and in that respect, his approach is very much like that of Elliot.

But does the nature of the message matter?

You bet it does.

It’s not just any simplistic message that Trump offers supporters; it is a simplistic message about who is a better person; them or someone else? In this respect, his approach mirrors that of Elliot. It isn’t merely that Trump advances a message of hatred; it is that he presents that hatred in terms of a clear pay-off. You are are better than they are! That is what Trump keeps telling people (whoever you are and whoever they might be). It’s an invitation to enter a world with a clear hierarchy of value, and to enter that world on the value-laden side of that hierarchy. You don’t even need to do anything. You are already better than the many scapegoats he offers you (Muslims, Mexicans, the Media, minority activists, etc.) Trump really doesn’t call on supporters to do much more than vote for him. Their role in his his America is to be the real Americans while the rest of us take our lumps. It’s this message that survives all the messy details. It is a message not the least bit undermined by questions of fact, reason, or even the evidence of the senses. In this respect, Trump is very much like Elliot teaching half of her classroom to think of the other half as lesser people.

When I watch Elliot tell a child (at about 5:20) that a blue-eyed parent would never kick his son while using the apparent claim that a brown-eyed parent had done that very thing, I can’t help but think of Trump’s many anecdotal attacks on immigrants. It shouldn’t take much critical thinking to see past the argument, but is that more important than the invitation to be better than someone else?

Apparently not for a lot of people.

When Elliot begins telling the Brown-eyed children they can’t use the drinking fountain (at around 6:10), and when she restricts their playground privileges, she is effectively telling the blue-eyed children they are special. The things they all used to take for granted now belong only to the blue-eyed children (at least for a day). The pay-off is not substantially different from that enjoyed by an audience assure more of their kind of jobs will be created while watching others threatened by cuts, told their own health-care will be taken care of (somehow) by cutting others loose, and of course their citizenship will not be sullied by the presence of certain kinds of people. (And no legality was NEVER the issue in Trump’s new-fangled Know-nothingism) We on the left haggle over the details of these policies as if they matter. To the average Trump supporter, I do not think they do. He may be right about this or wrong about that, but what matters most to those who support them is that he keeps elevating them above someone else. He does it free of charge. They don’t have to understand anything difficult; they don’t have to work harder (at least he doesn’t say they will); they don’t even have to listen very carefully. Being better in Trump’s world is as simple as saying yes to him and his gold gilded message. In scapegoating enemies domestic and foreign, Trump is telling anyone who cares to accept him that they are special. They get to drink at the fountain. Others don’t.

When Elliot tells her children that the brown-eyed people are slow or stupid, she creates the very facts she purports to describe. Elliot noted (at 13:15) how the student performance rose or fell with the changes in their status during the course of her exercise. There is little to distinguish this from the effects of social stigma and/or poverty on groups for whom prejudice is not simply an exercise. When Trump promotes such distinctions, he generates real harm.

(At about 12:10) “Do blue-eyed people know how to sit in a chair? Very sad. Very very sad.” …this one speaks for itself.

One might think that folks would see past such a thinly disguised gambit. Elliot is working with third graders. Surely, adults would know better!

Evidently not!

In the end, this may not be a question of what people actually think. It’s a question of what narratives they circulate. We keep hearing that Steve Bannon isn’t really an antisemite or even that Donald Trump isn’t personally against homosexuals, Mexicans, women, etc., but the Trump camp and its supporters keeps producing stories denigrating to these groups and anyone who gets in their way. Like Elliot, they may know better, but like Elliot, they do it anyway.

Except for one thing.

There will be no debriefing at the end of Trump’s Presidency. There will be no great learning moment, no sudden transformation of the whole situation into a great learning lesson. Whatever cynical reasons he and his supporters may have for throwing the rest of humanity under the bus, there is little reason to believe it will stop any time soon. The only credible promise this man ever made is that he would hurt people in their name, and for whatever reason, that was reason enough for a number of people last November. We can only hope that enough people come to their senses, and that if and when they do, something can be done about it.

In the interim, the Trump administration continues its own experiment in social control. The continue teaching us to humor this man’s fantasies, and to think of ourselves as better for doing so.

Let us hope the nation as a whole can respond a little more appropriately than Jane Elliot’s third graders!

A World Without Children, or at Least a Policy Without Them!

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Can you imagine a human being, fully formed without also imagining him or her embedded in a network of social relationships? Can you (or anyone) be a person without being among others?

Suffice to say that some people have tried.

This is part of the reason for interest in feral children, and of course we sometimes read of ancient experiments depriving children of exposure to language (or in some cases any human interaction). These experiments wouldn’t get past a human subjects review panel in a modern university, but the stories are certainly interesting. A large part of that interest comes from the prospect of finding a person who became a person without any significant human interaction whatsoever. What kind of person would they be? What kind of language would they have? How would they think? These stories are long on legend and short on data, but it’s not hard to understand why people would want to investigate such things.

…even if only in a story.

The thought experiments of certain social theories are not far off from such stories. So very many people have attempted to imagine the nature of a human isolated from social connections. Chapter XIII in Thomas Hobbes’ book, The Leviathan would be a good example. So, would be the calculations of many rational choice theorists, those attempting to find the self-interest in just about any human interaction. And of course, there are always the masturbatory fantasies of Ayn Rand and her cult of ‘objectivist’ fan-boys. (Honestly, I feel kind of bad mentioning her alongside serious thinkers, even those I disagree with, but with the likes of Paul Ryan and Ran Paul claiming inspiration from Rand, one must admit the woman remains relevant.) What these approaches have in common is a rather atomistic vision of social life. They take an individual human being as a given and problematize questions about how and why that individual human does what he does in relation to others. In effect, they reduce social life to individual psychology; tey reduce social interaction to individual self interest.

The problem in each instance, is that individual psychology is intrinsically social. You can’t be a person without being in relation to someone else, because you can’t become a person without relating to someone else. You wouldn’t survive childhood without someone feeding you, clothing you, keeping you clear of the neighbor’s dog, and giving you the occasional hug. You wouldn’t be who you are if your Mom hadn’t stared into your eyes and smiled at you until you smiled back. You wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere in those early days you didn’t notice that the great-big Mom-face smiled back when you smiled yourself. You figured that out long before you figured out the words for such things, or even the difference between you and the mom-face, or anyone else. And you wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere along the way you hadn’t learned to give a damn about such things.

Even the basic problem of solipsism seems to get this whole thing wrong. We don’t start as an individual and then figure out that others might (or might not) also occupy our world. We don’t figure out how to relate to them long after we’ve decided what we want in life. We don’t decide how to treat other people only after deciding what we want ourselves. We develop our own self-image in relation to those around us, and we base on desires and goals on a sense of the world that is already populated with other human beings, some of which (hopefully) we care about. (Thank you Martin Heidegger!)

All very academic, right? (Well academic, in a loose kinda bloggetty sorta fashion.)

Except, there are moments when theoretical atomism seems to mesh with the more pointed boundaries of compassion and empathy in real life. People don’t lack for reasons not to care about this group or that kinda person. Often as not, people seem to tell us who they do give a damn about in much the same breath as those they don’t. We care about us, but we don’t give a damn about them. What constitutes the difference? Race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, …you get the idea. Any number of categories will do. It’s a pretty familiar dynamic, one with sometimes startling consequences. Those we make our own, so to speak, we may treat with great care, but those we don’t, we may visit great cruelties upon them, often without a second thought.

It doesn’t help when people looking for reasons to reduce their fucks given for others to zero can make ready use of theories breaking all our social connections up into phantom gestures of self-interest. It doesn’t help when the dominant metaphors of government programs (or the lack thereof) come straight of the sociopathic imagination. Whatever the theoretical (de-)merits of atomistic theories, they become far more critical when they become the actual basis of public policy.

I am of course talking about the free market fundamentalists among us, those who consistently reject the case for public welfare wherever they may find it, or at least whenever it might require collective effort, and especially if it means anything resembling taxes. Time and again, libertarians (and often their more conventional conservative allies) will tell us we mustn’t have this or that program because it will violate the individual rights of tax-payers and produce inefficiencies in the market. If someone poor is to receive aid from the government, someone else must pay it, and that payment will be secured by force. Then we have to deal with all the moral hazards of people changing the rational choices on the basis of programs changing the natural inclinations of supply and demand. These are real problems, to be sure, but for some these problems are also damned convenient excuses for denial of social responsibility. If they have their way, progressive taxation is out. The social safety net is a bad idea (goodbye welfare, medicaid, and medicare, among other thigns). Every regulation is suspect, including those that keep poisons out of the air we breathe and the water we drink. And of course everything from schools to the post office would be better if privatized. Why drive on on a federal highway when you could take a toll road? For such folks, it goes without saying; whatever government can do, private business can do it better.

Why?

Because private business can be described as the actions of private individuals whereas government is of course a collectivist enterprise. To fall into this mindset, we have to ignore the collectivist nature of modern corporations, but hey, if the Supreme Court says they are people, then corporations are people. So, the actions of these incredibly powerful collective entities count as the actions of private individuals in the narratives of free market fundamentalists. We are supposed to believe that single-payer insurance polices are against the free market, but insurance corporations are not. There is a difference, I know, but that difference doesn’t really support the distinctions made in public policy. One is not individual while the other is collectivist One is not a function of free market policy while the other counts as a socialist scheme.

People vary in their source material, educational background, and rhetorical strategies, but somewhere in the din of all this free market noise, I can’t help but hear the echoes of Hobbes and the others. Hell, I can’t help but hear echoes of the Pharaoh Psamtik. He is the source of one of those legendary experiments I mentioned up above. According to Herodotus, Psamtik had two children raised without any communication in order to see what language they would speak. He was disappointed, according to the legend, to find the children grew up speaking Phrygian, but of course they would actually have come out of that experiment speaking nothing at all, and being hardly human. Such an experiment would be a disaster for the children.

Is it really all that different from the social experiments urged by those seeking to deny essential support to future generations? Time and again, the brave heroes of the free market tell us that individuals must rise above their circumstances, as if poor schools, poor healthcare, and poor infrastructure could be resolved by the platitudes of a motivational speaker or the narrative arc of a Horatio Alger novel.The denial of social responsibilities thus comes with a bundle of narrative solutions, all of which work much better for the narrator than they do for any real life protagonists.

These stories particularly don’t work for children. Often as not, children don’t even make it into the narratives of libertarian rhetoric. We get the stories that deny aid to adults (why should I pay for someone who won’t work and might even be taking drugs?), and then someone else has to point out that aid also goes to children.

In the end, I can’t help thinking the failure to account for childhood is the most critical feature of libertarian approaches to policy, but its not just a theoretical failure. It’s also a very critical failure of practice. Just as atomistic theories of individualism could never account for the way one becomes a fully functioning human being, the practitioners of atomistic policy cannot, and will not, account for the needs of children through public policy. They won’t even account for the needs of adult women who produce these children, not in any realistic manner. The wealthy can of course throw money at the problem, and damn the rest of us to Hell anyway, so it seems is the only real answer we will ever get from the free market fundamentalists. Of course, there are other boundaries beyond which social responsibilities can easily be denied.

If the atomistic mindset is inadequate, the consequences of its inadequacies do not fall upon all of us equally. Some need the help more than others, and the denial of it serves some better than others. Whatever the strengths and weakness of free market fundamentalism, it will always have a little extra appeal for those in power.

Some people are just a little more obvious about this than others.

When Truth Can’t Handle You!

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“You can’t handle the truth!”

It’s a popular response in political debate, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a powerful denunciation (delivered in the midst of an amazing performance), a line that serves both to deny someone the right to an honest answer and to place responsibility for that denial on those to whom the truth is denied. It’s the sort of response one could follow with a mic drop. Really it is.

What people seem to forget is that this is a line issued by a character who really is lying in defense of a crime he really did commit. When you keep that in mind, it puts efforts to use the line in real life in a whole new perspective.

When Farmers Plant Cadillacs

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Um… hello (Moni Pic)

I was so happy with what my girlfriend gave me for a post about Monument Valley, that I asked her to write this post about Cadillac Ranch, which we also visited this December. This is what she said;

No!

…sometimes the magic works. Sometimes she says ‘no’.

Anyway, she did send me a couple of her pics to add to the post, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

…but I still do.

We did stop by Cadillac Ranch this December. Arrived just at the golden hour and got a few pics. As this is basically a picture post, anyway, I think we’ll just get right to it.

(Click to embiggen)

Added a couple pics from other parts of Texas as well.

(You know the drill!)

Monument Valley

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16143701_10211829276472421_7117143568644666373_oSo my girlfriend and I were talking the other night and she’s asking me about my blog. I told her I should write something about our visit to Monument Valley this December, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say about it. I mean, I could say the usual stuff about it, …Blah, blah, …John Wayne, …blah blah Roadrunner cartoons – all very done-before. But I tell Moni I don’t have anything inspiring to put in with our pictures. So, I tell her she should write the post for me. Moni says she can’t write. I know she’s lying. So, I keep telling her she’s going to have to write the post for me, because I’m mean like that. Finally she says something like “you know what I think of Monument Valley?”

…and I’m like “got her!”

“What do you think of Monument Valley?”

She tells me it’s too stupid; she doesn’t want to say it.

I insist.

We repeat this about 3 times.

Finally, she starts talking. I grab a sheet of paper and start scribbling as fast as I can. These aren’t quite her exact words, but they are pretty close:

mac9gpvwTo me, it was a go deal to go to those places, because that’s what America was to me when I was living in Mexico City. That’s the picture that I saw when I thought about America. It’s been a very long time, but it was still a very big deal for me. It took me back to when I was a kid and I was just thinking about coming to America.

I think Moni needs to write more of my blog posts.

(Click to embiggen)

 

A Cosmogony of Gambling

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What to make of Indian casinos? I expect a lot of non-natives still don’t quite know how to answer that question. Maybe some Native Americans don’t either. But it’s an interesting question just the same, not the least of reasons being that anyone trying to answer it will have to struggle a bit with the larger questions about the politics of Indian-white relations. Some people handle that better than others of course. I’ve known some folks that seem to think of gambling as a kind of racial entitlement. These same folks don’t seem to think of Las Vegas or Atlantic City as a form of racial entitlement, but all foolishness aside, the topic does raise a number of interesting questions about jurisdiction and the economic impact of gaming in such distinctive communities.

miz3ezrd

The impact of Indian gaming on different tribes isn’t uniform. We’ve all heard the stories of wild success of certain tribes whose members became rich overnight. Most of us have heard speculation about the membership of certain tribes. Our incoming President had some words about Indian casinos back in the day. They weren’t any more thoughtful than the crap he’s spewing now. But of course these wild success stories are hardly typical of the many tribal casinos out there. There have been some disasters, or at least some scandals, as well. I recall once listening to Ron His Horse is Thunder, former Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe explain the significance of casinos in his own community. They provided a certain number of jobs, he told us. That was it. No miracle. No disaster. Just a steady livelihood for a certain number of people. That was his experience with Indian gaming. I hope I remember him correctly on this, because I reckon that’s a fairly common account of the issue. But of course all of these stories come with the benefit of hindsight.

It wasn’t too long ago that the entire subject of Indian gaming was uncharted territory, that the mention of reservation casinos raised all sorts of possibilities and few people had any real experience to bring to bear on the issue. It was around that time (the mid 90s) that I arrived in Navajo country. Numerous tribes had casinos at that point. The Navajo Nation was not among them. Some out there wanted casinos. Others didn’t. Folks kept a wary eye on the operations of other tribes, looking for some sign to help assess the prospects for gaming in their own community. In 1997 the Navajo General Council called for a referendum on the prospect of gambling on their lands. It was the second such referendum (a third would follow in 2004). It set the stage for a interesting debate which I followed as best I could.

Today, you can find a few casinos on the borders of the Navajo Nation, but in 1997 the answer was no. In some quarters, it was Hell No. The reasoning still interests me.

gambler10-2-97One of the most fascinating things about the debate over Navajo gambling in 1997 has to do with an aspect of Navajo origin legends. One of the greatest villains in these stories was a character, named Noqoìlpi, The Gambler. You can read more about him by clicking that link I attached to his name, but to put it briefly, this fellow just about wins the world and everyone in it by gambling. Frankly, I think there’s a lesson about the economic effects of modern financialization schemes and the growth of income inequality there in that story (seriously), but I’ll save that for another day. In 1997, the connection drawn by many on the Navajo Nation was a lesson about the evils of opening up casinos on the reservation. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of this argument, it certainly added a rich layer of meaning to an already interesting subject.

Of those working references to The Gambler into their arguments on the topic of casinos on the Navajo Nation, my favorite was the late Vincent Craig who ran an extended series of Mutton Man cartoons addressing this and several other issues in the Navajo Times. He really blended his own critique of gambling with a broad range of (extremely ironic) social commentary.

It all begins with a culture pill. .

Unfortunately, I don’t think I have copies of all the cartoons he ran on this topic. I don’t know that he got a cartoon in every edition of the Navajo Times, but I definitely have gaps in my own collection. Anyway, I collected enough to get the gist of his argument down. I’ll let Vincent and some of his colleagues tell the story from here.

Vincent Craig’s work (Click to embiggen):

A bit more on the subject, also from the Navajo Times (again, click to embiggen):

Pluto Stalks Our Travels

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cn5zi2gvuaaawqfThis summer my gal and I paid a brief visit to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff where we saw this little beauty here up above. It’s the telescope first used in the discovery of Pluto. Last month, we took a long road trip from Los Angeles to Freeport, Texas, and it really was Los Angeles.

Don’t let my girlfriend fool you with any business about Glendora or Azusa. Just different ways of pronouncing Los Angeles, as far as I’m concerned.

Harrumph!

Anyway, she and I took a trip, starting in some place Losangelish and ending at some place Freeportish. Along the way, we stopped at Cadillac ranch in Amarillo where we found this message…

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Coincidence?

I think not!

…okay, maybe, but I still think it’s amusing.

When Culture Appropriates You

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15871703_10211699926478752_5551079935863716489_nTo the left is one of my favorite images from a mural painted by Shonto Begay and Mike Scovel at the Fort Sumner Memorial in New Mexico. What’s to be memorialized at Fort Sumner, you might ask? It was the site of an internment camp, one which held the Navajo people for roughly 4 years (about 1864-1868). It also held Mescalero Apaches, but Begay’s and Scovel’s  mural is about the Navajo end of this story. Specifically, it is about “the long walk” to this place, still called Hwéeldi out in Navajo country.

What fascinates me about the image is a trick of context. It’s just one part of a rather breathtaking piece of art, but to me it’s definitely the most interesting. The larger mural wraps around the wall on both sides of a hallway at the memorial. If you follow the hallway, you come to a small movie theater where you an watch a short film about the long walk and the Navajo experience at Hwéeldi. The images are striking. Devastating. They depict a national disgrace, and in surrounding us with the images, this mural invites us to see that disgrace, not from the standpoint of objective observer, but from the standpoint of someone in the midst of it. Walking down that hallway, one is surrounded on both sides by images of people (Navajos) herded along by soldiers and scouts. The mural depicts a great deal of suffering, and it places that suffering all around us. Begay’s and Scovel’s work seems denies us the chance to step outside the event and view it as a disinterested party.

But when you come to this image, the immersion takes on a different significance. Suddenly, it becomes clear why all the solders seem to be facing us. The Navajo figures simply plod along, mostly looking in other directions, but the soldiers, they look right at us as we stand in that hallway.

It’s an interesting effect to begin with, but when you walk down that hallway, at some point that soldier’s rifle is pointed at you. The soldier in that painting doesn’t care who you are, what your ethnicity is. He doesn’t even care what your plans are later in the day. And as my girlfriend pointed out, his rifle seems to follow your movements a bit, at least for a step or two. (I swear it does!) It’s a rather brilliant move on Begay’s part, because it places his viewers in the scene more effectively than anything else. More than placing the viewers in the scene, it confers a specific role on the viewer, as one of those forced along the walk.

It’s just art of course. We will at some point walk on to other parts of the exhibit, and many of us will no doubt shake off the effect of the image a bit quicker than those whose family histories include stories of those lost along the way. Still it’s an interesting contrast with the many times non-natives have chosen ourselves to assume some aspect of a native identity. Whether playing Indian as school-children, wearing a headdress at some music festival, or aping the Tonto-speak of Indian characters in countless westerns, many of us have done it at one time or another. Hell, some people have made a life out of it! Countless non-Indian actors have played Indian on screen, and countless non-Indian characters have become Indians in the story-arc of a common movie theme. And of course there is the Washington football team! What all of these other examples have in common, is a choice to assume some part of native identity, if only for a moment. They also have in common that the identity assumed is positive. When we non-natives play at being Indian, we get something out of it. It may not be much, often little more than a momentary source of amusement, but the choice is ours, and when choose it, we do so to our own advantage.

That’s the genius of this particular image. It forces that same transformation on anyone walking through the memorial. For just a moment, it makes us play Indian, and to do so on terms we didn’t choose for ourselves. On terms no-one would choose for themselves! We will survive that moment of course, perhaps even without really learning much from it. Still, it’s an interesting twist in the narrative.

That moment, when the business end of a rifle points you right into the story.

***

Here are a few more images from the mural (click to embiggen)!

Christmas is What Christmas Ain’t

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Yep, me with hair, decorating a tree.

What makes a Christmas story?

Is it the threat? There always seems to be some threat to Christmas. Someone won’t make it home. Somebody else stole the presents, or maybe someone is going to stop Santa from spreading the presents. Perhaps someone is broke and thinking of taking the short route off a bridge just before the happy holiday. Whether it be a fantasy grinch, a real worldish villain, or simply a natural disaster of some kind, I’d be hard pressed to think of a Christmas story that didn’t feature some threat to Christmas.

Or is it the lesson? Christmas tales always have a lesson. Someone must learn something about the true meaning of Christmas. That true meaning always involves something about giving and/or grasping the value of our loved ones. Not uncommonly, someone in the story learns to shift their attention from material objections (i.e. Christmas gifts) to the other people in their lives (or perhaps the other whos in whoville). It’s a pretty heart-warming lesson.

Makes you want to go ‘awe’!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as likely to go ‘awe’ as anyone if the story is told well, but there is always something a little too pat about these stories. They can be damned formulaic, and damned trite. And when you consider their connection to one of the most overtly commercial rituals of the modern western calendar, it ought to raise all manner of red flags. Somehow, this holiday, which has been driven by commercial interests for the better part of at least a century keeps generating stories about how the stuff we are supposed to buy on account of it isn’t really what the holiday is all about.

Can you say ‘cognitive dissonance’?

I knew that you could.

(Of course I say it myself having just snuck a few presents under a tree.)

So, anyway, hoisting myself on my own petard here, I still can’t help thinking this particular profundity game is a bit more toxic than most of us care to admit. If it weren’t, then perhaps we could all enjoy a story where the main character suddenly realizes the true value of Christmas really is commerce. He could praise the virtues of conspicuous consumption and even acknowledge the often-competitive nature of gift-giving. He could see in the countless gifts nobody wants a kind of sacrifice to the invisible hand, telling us these white elephants are the price of keeping mom&pop stores going for another year. If the Market is well pleased with our pointless gifts, he allows the stores to stay in business, but if we fail to pay this tribute many tears will follow. Our fabulous Christmas protagonist could fairly acknowledge all of this in a toast before drinking his eggnog. Money is the reason for this damned season. Surely, there ought to be room for at least Christmas story with this as its moral.

But no. That kind of theme is always at best a artifact of conflict, a viewpoint to be overcome by the end of the story. However important money may be to this holiday, it seems to be equally important that we find something else more important in the whole thing after all.

And with that, we get our Christmas tragedies. Scrooge loses his edge. The Grinch rejoins civilization. And how many sitcoms end their holiday episode in bad sweaters and milquetoast grins. It’s enough to make a grown man want to groan.

So be it!

Even so, the money story may be a bit more profound than simple materialism would have it. In the end what makes money so central to Christmas isn’t the gifts we hope to get. It isn’t even the ones we hope to give. It’s the lives that continue to function because a good chunk of the yearly profits actually did happen after all. So, business owners get paid, and because they get paid, so do their employees, and so on, and so on. We can sneer at the crass commercialism of it all, but if Christmas doesn’t happen, some people really do suffer (and not because they didn’t get what they wanted under the tree.) Money may be a lot more central to this ritual than our typical Christmas story would have it, but then again money is itself a lot more profound than most of us would care to admit. So, perhaps it’s not so bad to see through that crass commercialism of Christmas to something a bit more humane. It’s almost as if all this smarminess is an attempt to work out the actual significance of what we all do to put food on the table.

Of course that just lands us in a new mess. The celebration of love and togetherness that we are left with in just about every Christmas story is of course idealized in the extreme. So, the love celebrated in all these Christmas stories always comes across a bit too pure, at least in the final joyous scenes. But how often does this have anything to do with Christmas as we live it? If for no other reason than the threat of politics at the dinner table, we should all be a little wary of the promise these stories hold out. And if the celebration of togetherness and caring ever jumps out of these stories and into our real lives it often brings a bit of a mess with it.

If Hell is other people – and it is – then Christmas (with its themes of love and togetherness) can’t help but bring a little horror into our lives. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Christmas is so rich. It’s full of contradictions, and those give rise to countless real-life Christmas stories every year. Sometimes they end well and sometimes they end badly. Mostly, our Christmas lives are as mixed as our Christmas narratives aren’t.

Ah well, horror too has its place in the grand scheme of things.

How else to explain fruit cake!

***

I recall as a child, my mother always planned week’s worth of work. She would bake every cookie imaginable. She would buy enormous quantities of gifts which she would wrap in all manner of beautiful ways. We would decorate the whole house in the most elaborate manner. We would sing carols, this year at least. And so on.

…She usually ended up scrambling to do as much as she could in the last day or three. It was never enough, especially not for her, and that meant Christmas Eve was an especially difficult evening. She was angry and depressed, and for me that meant at least a little phase where I would have wished the whole thing away. That moment always vanished by morning, but it was there.

Mom had one brother. He died on Christmas Eve while building the Burma Road during World War II. He had joined the military after getting kicked out of the house over drinking a single beer, so his death left a special kind of rift in her life, and presumably that of her parents. I can’t imagine how hard that holiday must have been to her. As a kid I really couldn’t.

For my mother at least, Christmas would always be a source of ambivalence.

***

I once got to play Scrooge in my Jr. High Christmas Production. I rather liked that Christmas. Seriously though, the opening scenes were way more fun than the closing ones.

***

In recent years, talk of a war on Christmas has me both amused and irritated. If there is anyone out there who genuinely objects to being told ‘Merry Christmas’, he or she is fairly outnumbered by those clearly upset by the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’.

Much like a horse, I reckon one shouldn’t look a well-wisher in the mouth. Those who keep congratulating themselves on saying ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays’ do little but show the insincerity of either wish coming from their own mouths.

When thinking about this one, I am often reminded of the year I spent teaching at an orthodox Jewish private school. The folks at that school said ‘Happy Holidays’, and yes, that was a generous choice of wording on their part.

You never really know when you are the one to be tolerated.

***

I still remember the year my older sister made up a decoration that said “Pax et bonum” (Peace and Salvation)  This was to go at the top of our tree instead of our star. We had a really great star that projected all these cool colors all around the room. I really loved that star.

I was a bit of a shit about the whole thing.

More than a bit actually.

***

One of my favorite Christmases ever was the one we celebrated on Easter Sunday. My nephew was serving in Iraq that year, and no-one in the family was the least bit interested in celebrating the holidays until he came home. So, we literally gathered around a Christmas tree and unwrapped presents on Easter Sunday.

***

I’m even a bit more fond of the Christmas we all agreed to forgo presents entirely and went as a group to Molokai instead. I wish every Christmas could be like that. Oh there was plenty of drama that Christmas, but it was drama that played out in Molokai.

Molokai makes everything better.

***

When I worked at an animal shelter, I recall that we tried to discourage people from getting pets as Christmas presents, at least not without giving the recipient a chance to choose the pet. Too often, pets given sight-unseen on Christmas day ended up back at the shelter not long afterward.

No-one is surprised when a blind date goes badly. Think about that next time you hand someone a puppy and expect them to bond for life.

***

Speaking of my time at an animal shelter, I once had to dress up as Santa Clause at a Petsmart. The idea here was to pose with people’s pets for pictures. This is a pretty regular thing as I recall, but I always thought it a very bad idea. These animals are already in a strange environment. Now you want them to sit on the lap of a guy with a fake beard and fake hair, gloves, and a wild outfit?

Damned lucky I didn’t come away with scars!

***

Speaking of the war on Christmas, people sometimes wonder what atheists say instead of Merry Christmas? This one mostly says ‘Merry Christmas’. Some folks think it odd to say ‘Merry Christmas’ when you don’t literally believe in Christ. They oughtta love Thursdays.

***

My girlfriend tells me there is a benefit to dating a gringo. Her (Mexican) family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve. We typically celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day. This makes it possible to be with both her family and that of her boyfriend when the actual celebrations take place. This doesn’t work so well when her family is in Los Angeles and mine is in Freeport, Texas.

She is an extraordinarily patient woman.

Her boyfriend can be a bit of a shit though.

More than a bit, actually.

***

Ah well. That’s enough random Christmas stories. Someone recently asked me about my favorite Christmas songs, so I’ve attached a few videos. All that said…

Merry Christmas everyone!

The Difference Between Being Drunk and Being a Drunk

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15168788_10211285138429310_1895936641296381200_oI just walked into my hotel. Its almost 3:00am here in Anchorage. I immediately walked into the gift shop and grabbed two sodas, a bag of Cheetos and package of skittles. Perhaps it was my clumsy movements. Perhaps it was the hour. My tunnel-vision stare, perhaps? Either way, I’m sober enough to know the night clerk had me pegged for drunk. He had that particular air of one who is humoring the completely addled for just so long as it takes to get them on their way. Fair enough, I thought. Yes, indeed, I did just close down a bar, and I’m at least 2 sheets (if not 3) to the wind. Perhaps I deserve the condescension.

Fair enough.

I recall once, when I briefly worked at a cabin resort, a particular school teacher used to come and stay with us. She would down a fair bit of wine and then fail to use out one pay-phone correctly. We were in the middle of Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, and Cell Phones simply didn’t work there, so that pay-phone was her only option. Having been told that the pay-phone wasn’t working, I would ask her what message she received on trying to dial out. If she could remember it accurately, I could tell what the problem was; whether it was her card,  a wrong number, or something else entirely. I knew the messages, and I knew what they meant. What I didn’t know what how to get her to take the message seriously in her state. She would just tell me the card didn’t work. When I asked what the specific wording of the message had been, she would look at me, weaving a little, and say; “It says it didn’t work.” In the end I let her use the house phone, because I just couldn’t unscramble the problem she had without her at least telling me what the message had been. I could clearly see that she thought me an illiterate ass for asking her questions she thought she had already answered. I, for my own part, wondered if should would even understand me when she was sober.

Mutual contempt is a mutal solace, I suppose.

Anyway, I reckon I thought about her much as the man at the hotel desk must have thought about me.

But I’m not just a drunkard! I’m so much more!

So, must many people have thought to themselves as they were treated as just another drunk by someone somewhere. It’s easy to consider yourself worth more than your own slurred speech and your blurred vision, but it’s a bit more difficult to think of a complete stranger who is clearly exhibiting such conditions as anything more than the sum total of his drunken idiocies.

It’s an odd thing. Those of us that do drink are bound to drink to excess at some point in our lives. And drinking in excess, none of us are particularly dignified. Yet some get pass, and others don’t. What makes the difference?

I can think of nights playing beer frizbee in grad school, vomitting in the sink of the basement beneath my friends apartment complex. Or was that another friend that did that? I don’t remember really. It’s been 20+ years and quite a few amber ale’s since that night. Still everyone was a friend there that morning. We were drunk, yes, but we were human. We saw each other home and we called to make sure everyone was okay the next day. We would never have mistaken each other for mere drunks.

My Dad drank a glass or three of Christian Brothers’ Brandy every night since pretty much the age at which I was old enough to notice (Okay, sometimes it was E&J). I never thought of him as a drunk, net even the night that he drove home at the wee hours of the morning and sat in the car inexplicably as I waited for him to come in. I finally went out to find him crying. He’d blown a bit more on the slot machines than either he or Mom normally allowed themselves to do that evening, and it bothered him a great deal. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” he said. I could hardly believe my ears. It was a couple hundred dollars he’d lost that night, hardly enough to blow the mortgage, but Dad was genuinely disturbed by the night’s events. That he’d driven home was another cause for concern, but I never could tell just how far under the influence he had been that night. Perhaps I didn’t want to. I can still count on one hand the number of times I thought my father was actually drunk, and I never thought of him as a drunk, but that night he called it himself. Perhaps, the nightly brandy mattered more than any of us thought it did.

…at least until the next day when the conversation that night was simply forgotten.

Whatever the damage done to our bank accounts, father had worked out a solution. Whatever had frightened him about his own drinking, he had worked out a solution to that too. He was prepared to face the day squarely, and I saw none of the doubt from the night before. I think I talked to him about it, but I don’t remember the details of the conversation. I suspect I was all too happy to find my way past the memory of that night. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw him drunk again.

Though I certainly did see the brandy. Just a glass or two every night.

If I cut my father an ounce of slack, I certainly didn’t cut that same slack for my neighbor. She too had a glass of something on the rocks every night after work. I recall her telling me about how her ex-husband stank of alcohol even when he was sober. She added this to the list of complaints about his abusiveness and general worthlessness. She told me all of this as she drank her own nightly glass of hard liquor, and you bet your ass I noticed. I thought of her as a worthless drunk, someone who buried herself in a glass every night.

Harsh, I know.

A double standard, I also  know.

I knew my father. I knew his goals and his values as well as his frustrations, and I knew his weaknesses as anyone who has ever loved another knew them of those they loved. Falling down drunk, he would always be the man I most admired in life. Of my neighbor, I knew mostly frustrations. I knew her to be a pain in the ass at best and a complete fuck-up at worst. I of course knew this mostly from the talk of my parents, and from my own encounters with her. It was easy to think of her as a mere drunk

I also knew that she had a Masters Degree in Archaeology, that she had raised two daughters despite an ugly divorce and who knows what else the woman had dealt with in her life. I think about that now and realize I should probably have found my way to giving her a little more credit than I did at the time. That she was capable of serious study was a mystery to me, and I never saw any of her struggles with a trace of empathy. She would always be a drunk to my eyes, even if she were sober, and my father never would be, not even when he was in fact quite drunk.

So what makes the difference between a drunk and a person?

I reckon that’s a good deal of the distinction itself, knowing the person in the first place, or at least having enough in common to imagine the person in the first place. Without that, it’s all too easy to think of someone who is actually drunk as someone whose drunkenness is a fairly complete personal account.

My neighbor in Fort Defiance always struck me as a drunk. I could recount the many irritations he inflicted upon me during my time on the Navajo Nation, not the least of them being his threats one afternoon to burn down the house with me in it. I learned of these the next day when his brother forced him to apologize to me. All I had noticed was that he was shouting something at me from outside. I had already written him off that day. Didn’t even realize the drama that was unfolding out there.

That same neighbor once told me that he was going to hitchhike to Flagstaff and get a job. This was well into the morning. He had awoken me on a work night, quite drunk and very depressed, and somewhere in the midst of telling me all his woes, this neighbor announced his great plan for turning his life around. I can’t remember what I said, but apparently I did express some doubt. He was quite offended. Asked what I meant by that,I felt fairly flat-footed for a moment. I fished around in my brain and finally came up with one thing which while very true was not nearly as judgemental as the thought that probably led to the comment in the first place. I knew that strategy wouldn’t have worked for me. I wouldn’t be able to just hitchhike into a town, totally broke, and land a job just like that. So, I said so. My neighbor was happy with that response. He took it as a sign of respect, and in a sense it was, albeit one which was quite consistent with the disrespect that had triggered my skeptical comment to begin with.

I did notice that he never actually hitch-hiked into Flagstaff and got a job.

Neither did I.

Not like that anyway.

I always thought of that neighbor as a drunk. I knew him to be a person, even cared about him, I suppose, but I never quite shook the sense that his life had been claimed by liquor. That neighbor used to sober up from time to time, and then he’d REALLY be a pain the ass. Mostly, he’d need a ride to work, because when he was sober he would inevitably get a job. When his brother (who lived next door) stopped giving him rides, the man would turn to me. I remember one summer, I would return from an effectively 16 hour day, starving, with a couple chapters yet to read so I could teach the next day and sure enough he wanted a ride to work. Oh how I wished his brother would give him a ride.

…or that he would go back to being a drunk.

Now there is a damning thought!

But I had it just the same.

And sadly, that wish did come true.

Damn me anyhow for wishing it!

Years later, I lived in Flagstaff. I used to go to a bar named Charlie’s once every week or two, mostly to watch a bluegrass band named Second Harvest. Loved their music! A friend of a friend once sneered at the place, describing it as a gay bar. I always figured it was a place where gay people would be welcomed, but not so much a dedicated gay bar. Just the same, it was my drinking establishment of choice.

I recall one night watching as a brand-new security guy glowered at two men dancing together. It was a spectacular display. Not them. HIM. The look on his face was one of utter contempt. I could just imagine him thinking of reasons to eject them, reasons he never quite acted upon. He did, however, find cause to eject one elderly Navajo man, an individual who though quite drunk had been sitting harmlessly in a corner. As the ‘drunk’ was escorted out and onto the street, I couldn’t help but wonder at the numerous college students boisterously enjoying their own states of inebriation throughout the bar. Some of them were even native, but they were dressed as college kids. They fit, so to speak. Many of those still in the bar were well past the drunkenness of the man put outside, but they were young and they were middle class.

They weren’t drunks. They were just drunk.

He was a drunk, at least as far as security was concerned that night.

They would probably think of him the same way if he had been sober.

Years earlier, I had already encountered that same privilege one weekend when I was doing research in Farmington, New Mexico. I came out of an Arby’s one afternoon to find an empty six-pack of beer in the back of my ‘tribee’ (tribal vehicle). It was a good thing I noticed before someone else did, but I couldn’t help wondering at the thought process of whoever put it there. Did he think he was going to get a Navajo in trouble? Would he have done it had he realized it was a white guy driving the truck? Or maybe it was someone who noticed the white driver, and thought to generate some trouble for the guy clearly out of place. I believe this was the same weekend a waitress invited me to a bar. She made a point to tell me it was where “our kind of people” hung out. I still wonder if she would have invited me had she knew where I lived, where I worked, or what kind of vehicle I was driving?

On a side note, I once walked into a random bar in Farmington. It was a short walk from my hotel, so I thought I’d skip over and drink a beer or three before going back for the evening. No sooner than I entered when I realized I was the only white guy in there, and several people where staring at me in not so friendly ways. Had I been with someone it would have been different. I would still have been a white guy, yes, but I would have been their white guy. I’d done that once or twice before. It works. In this instance I was alone and feeling very much like an intruder at that particular moment. What was I to do? Try to tell people I’m one of the good guys? Hell, I wouldn’t have listened to me. Why should they?  I also figured if I turned around and headed out immediately that would set off all kinds of red flags. If I stayed too long I figured someone would cause trouble. Maybe I could talk my way out of it; maybe I couldn’t. So, I sat down and ordered one beer.I drank it and left. As I headed out, I could swear I saw the bartender nodding, as if to tell me I played that one right.

Okay, that last story is probably all manner of confirmation bias, but anyway, that’s how I felt at the time. And I’m still feeling a little buzzed, so I’m leaving it on the page, against my better judgement of course.

My better judgement begins on the other end of a long sleep.

I lived briefly on the south-side of Chicago. By briefly, I mean 3 years, minus the summers. In any event, it was long enough to begin to recognize some of the homeless people in the area. Maybe it was my long hair but one fellow always insisted on trying to sell me incense. I bought a pack. (Think I gave it to a friend of mine.) It should come as no surprise of course  that many of these people appeared quite often to be under the influence of something or other. It would be easy to think of them as mere drunks.

One moment stands out particularly in my mind. Some young men in their twenties were talking to one of the homeless individuals. This one was often very drunk. In fact, he was often incapable even of asking for change. When he was that far into his liquor, the man would simply hold out his hand and groan, or mumble something he might have thought of as speech but which no-one but him could really parse. Anyway, the young men, were chatting and laughing. It was almost friendly, but not quite.

One of the young men asked quite loudly; “Do you remember me?”

Swaying a bit, the man slurred out a ‘yes’.

“Who am I.”

His answer? “YOU!”

Now THAT was a mike drop if I ever saw one.

So, what do all these stories add up to? Hell, they probably add up to porridge as far as I can tell. I’ve been drinking. Remember! But if I may take a moment to try and sense the make of the matter, I would guess they start with one obvious fact that drinking begets all manner of foolishness. All manner of terrible things happen once people start tipping those damned bottles. I’m fortunate enough to be one of those people who can stop after 2 or 3 beers and simply call it a night (many can’t), else I might have a lot more interesting stories.

…or perhaps others would have the stories about me.

More to the point, I’m often struck by the perception of drunkenness. Where drunken behavior is concerned, we can tolerate an awful lot from our own kind, however we choose to identify them. Strangers get far less patience. Cross a few social boundaries and the benefit of the doubt wears thin very quickly. Often as not, race and class can provide all the boundary one needs to think of someone not just as a drunk person but as nothing but a drunk, someone whose total value as a human being can be summed up in their smell, their slurred speech, and in whatever other foolishness they have brought with them.

Sometimes, you don’t even need that kind of boundary.

A few hours ago, I sat next to a man about my age, my ethnicity, and near as I can tell about the same economic status as my own. He was eating soup and struggling to get his head under control while the house band at Humpy’s played its last tune of the night. He was chatting quite a bit, though I couldn’t make any sense of it. Nobody else was in ear-shot. I still don’t know is he meant to be talking to me, or if he was talking to an old love, an imaginary adversary, or perhaps even his own guardian angel. Either way I thought of the man as a drunk. He was a bit further into his cups than me, to be sure, but I don’t figure that quite explains the distinction. To me, meeting the man under such circumstances, he was simply a drunk, no more and no less. I on the other hand was just drunk, and there was a difference.

At least until I hit the hotel desk.