How does Texas State Senator, Dan Patrick feel about a ruling by Orlando Garcia declaring a Texas ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional? He’s most upset! So upset, he has declared once and for all that marriage is between one man and another man. This would apparently rule out polygamy as well as both straight marriages and lesbian unions, which makes Patrick’s stance on marriage very unusual indeed.
…as least it would if he were serious about it.
This was of course a typo, or more like a thinko. …a brain fart? Okay, let’s call it a brain tweeto! But it was a glorious tweeto, just the same. No, I’m not talking about the simple irony of a pseudo-conservative Republican (or one of his staff members) tweeting something so unexpected. I mean to say, the mistake is actually quite revealing because Patrick’s tweeto could queer our whole sense of the politics at stake here (pun intended). All we have to do is take it seriously.
If only for a moment some folks could imagine a world in which the state of Texas (or any other such state) took it upon itself to legislate Homosexual unions, they might find themselves looking at the issue of gay marriage from a whole new perspective. The Christian right is frequently found howling in rage over the aggressive nature of the gay rights movement and (shudder) the gay agenda! What this ‘gay agenda’ means varies from one faith-filled narrative to the next, but moments like this one really do underscore the one-sidedness of the whole issue. The fact is, for all the controversial posturing on all sides, one thing we are NOT looking at here is a serious attempt to restrict marriage to gay unions. It seems imaginable only as a joke or a mistake of some kind.
But of course such a thing would be outrageous. Truly, it would! But what makes it outrageous to tell heterosexual couples they cannot get married when the Christian right constantly assures us that it is fair and reasonable to do this to those of homosexual persuasion? How is it that people who would no more accept this kind of government intrusion into their personal lives can do this without thinking twice to others?
People like Senator Patrick take for granted the power their own numbers give them. They also take for granted changes in custom that effectively polygamy from people’s from the table without requiring them to square it with their own stated principles. Most importantly, they take for granted the knowledge that government regulation of marriage will not interfere with their own lives, and especially their own divorces.
…apparently, they also take for granted the ability to blame someone else for the mistake.
Sometimes moving to a new location can change your place in history as much as it does your place on the map. I first noticed this a day or two after arriving in Barrow as I watched a small child drive an ATV down the street. No-one seemed to notice, not that time or the next. I’m pretty sure that it’s as illegal here as it is most places I’ve lived, but law on the books and law in daily life aren’t always the same thing. So, I saw this for the first time, and the word ‘frontier’ came to mind.
…and I smiled.
Of course, the notion of a ‘frontier’ (with all its ideological baggage) would seem to place Barrow on the cutting edge of history. That notion comes up from time to time, especially in the context of oil exploration and drilling, but also with scientific research, and other topics that people like to project onto a scheme of ‘progress’.
At other times, the logic of history places us behind the curve, so to speak. By “behind the curve” I mean that we fall behind someone else’s idea of the direction history is supposed to be going. It might seem more reasonable to think of the issue in terms of straight-forward disagreement, people do things that others don’t approve of, but the point is that people sometimes filter such disagreements through ideas about the general arc of history. It may be a history they urge on the public, or it may be a history they take for granted, but people often plot their values on some sense of an historical timeline. It’s not real history that I’m talking about; it’s an ideological projection of the way history ought to proceed.
I was reminded of this quite clearly the other day when a student of mine recently shared the video below. It starts with some beautiful outdoor shots of Barrow, AK, but (readers be warned) it continues to show the butchering of a Bowhead whale. The video might seem a jarring journey to some, but for most of us (I believe) here on the North Slope, the transition seems quite natural. A whale harvest is a joyous event as it means food for a lot of people. Much as the serene images at the start of the video, a whale harvest is prone to make us want to smile.
I asked what kind of comments, the video had gotten. A moment of scrolling later, I received my answer. The images of whaling had drawn criticism both on the video and on my student’s Facebook account. On the video itself one individual had written; “It’s really strucked up about how cruel people are to animals. It would be great for all animals and humans to go vegan and to respect each other.” I smiled and laughed as I recalled the first time I posted images of a whale harvest to my own Facebook account. I’ve since learned to post warnings and what-not.
This is one of the many ways that life in Barrow (and much of Alaska) differs markedly from that of the lower 48; hunting is a way of life for many people up here. It simply isn’t for the majority of people down there, and at least some of those people imagine all of history moving towards their way of life. The many artifacts of subsistence hunting are bound to rub such folks the wrong way. A friend once commented about the necessity to remove one’s furs before hitting the Seattle airport, and we both laughed. Surrounded by folks in all-manner of furs, I could only imagine the reception some of the day-to-day outfits of the North Slope would get in other places.
I remember once trying to find a gift for a friend who likes Native American art. A vegetarian with significant interest in animal welfare, she would not have appreciated the ivory earrings or baleen etchings locals produced, nor the many varieties of fur. Most of the native artwork here involves dead animals of one form or another, and that really should come as no surprise in a community where hunting is for many people a fundamental part of their way of life.
The issue isn’t simply a question of whether or not to support or oppose hunting, fur, whaling, and so on.; it’s also a question of how you frame the issues. There is a big difference between the commercial fur industry and the hand-made clothes of locals who’ve eaten the meat previously kept warm by that same fur. Likewise, there is a big difference between a whale taken for commercial purposes and those whose blubber will be shared out to the community. Whether or not that settles the issue is another question, but quite often I think people simply fail to notice the difference.
Which brings us back to whaling!
There is a world of difference between the significance of whaling up here and the meaning given to it in other places. This problem was all over a New York Times article on Spring Whaling published a few years back. Its author framed the whole issue in terms of ‘tradition’, then proceeded to worry over the use of technological innovation in pursuit of that tradition. I also recall a discussion of the Makah whale hunt on a random website (I can’t find it now). Participants simply dismissed the idea that native whaling could be anything but a token gesture, a practice akin to preserving a museum exhibit. A similar view can be found in one of the comments to this post, Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Ice-scapes at the blog, Cutterlight. In response to this post, a woman named Kirsten Massebeau wrote:
There is no humane way to kill a whale. Today we know whales and dolphins are higher beings. Sometimes these whales suffer for up to 5 hours after being harpooned. Isn’t it time we stop letting the word “tradition” be an excuse for doing something so wrong. Please stop murdering the people of the sea! You are obviously wearing store bought clothes and shoes. Surely you can see your way clear of murdering our ocean friends.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this woman (as with others) raises some legitimate concerns in her comment, but I also think there are legitimate answers to those concerns, and I think the whole thing thrown askew by a certain refusal to take the Native Alaskan population seriously.
What all of these examples have in common is a refusal to allow or even to imagine the practice of whaling in the modern world. They cannot even fathom the possibility that such a thing could occur in the present world. To many of these folks, whaling (or at least the indigenous version of it) is by definition a thing of the past, a mere tradition, and one gathers an empty one at that. This seems to be a common perception of whaling on the North Slope, and that perception injects a great deal of prejudice into any subsequent discussion. It is a prejudice shaped and defined by people’s ideological views about history as much as anything else.
Whaling here on the North Slope is first and foremost a native matter, but it affects us all. The effort to bring in a bowhead is not limited to the crew of a single boat. Extended families and friends all work together to outfit and support a given crew, and the entire community of the North slope accommodates the needs of those involved. Time off from work is granted without question when it’s time to cut a trail through the ice. Homework deadlines are extended when it’s time to butcher and cook the blubber. Blubber and meat are shared throughout the community following a successful whale harvest. Whaling is no quaint tradition on the North Slope; it is one of the most important economic activities taking place up here.
Seeing the importance of whaling to an entire community, the condescension of some of these random comments can be quite maddening. Of course these are merely random comments on social media, but they provide a telling glimpse into the way that the larger public closes itself to local realities. Folks just can’t seem to find room in their view of the present for activities such as whaling and subsistence hunting. Presented with evidence to the contrary, it seems a common response to construe such things in terms of a museum exhibit.
…even when that exhibit is real people going about their daily lives, very much in the present day.
Epilogue: The disconnect between people’s perceptions of whaling works both ways. I recently received a charming example of this when a student of mine who teaches in one of the local villages passed information about the New England whaling fleet of the 19th century onto her own native students. They wanted to know how the meat and blubber would be shared.
Photojournalist Ruben Salvadori started out with the intention of filming riots in East Jerusalem. In time, he came to shift the focus of his own camera to include the photographers around him. The resulting shift in perspective can be quite startling. It’s an ongoing project for Salvadori, and one that certainly seems quite promising.
It isn’t entirely clear to me how Salvadori’s own intervention will play out in the Palestinian crisis. He seems to be suggesting a layer of collusion between the Palestinian protesters and the photographers who cover them, but it isn’t clear that Salvadori means to limit his critique to such a partisan angle. One can as easily address the questions he raises to photojournalists embedded in conventional forces.
The simple inclusion of photographers in the field of vision provides a stark reminder that the images of world conflict do not come to from on high, or even out-of-bounds, but from people who are very much a part of the events they are filming. The stories told in these images are in some sense reflexive, they are also part of the violence itself, but realization of this fact seems to require a little extra work, an effort to shift our attention to this fact. Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing, helps to reveal that. Salvadori’s project does this as well.
We get a glimpse into the role that media plays on the scene of a conflict every once in awhile. I remember Gerald Vizenor‘s comments about the American Indian Movement helped to break the fourth wall in stories about Wounded Knee and similar events, at least for those who read his works. For many Americans, I suspect the most unexpected (and apparently unwelcome) peek behind the journalistic lens came with the landing of U.S. marines in Mogadishu. The image of combat-ready marines surrounded by photographers caused quite a stir back in the day. I recall quite a few folks lashed out at the photographers for endangering the landing forces with their presence. Few seemed to question the process by which a marine force had come to storm a beach guarded by scores of photographers in the first place.
It’s been some time since that shocking moment when Mogadishu queered the whole subject of war, and it’s good to see someone else tugging at the curtains again. The short clip Salvadori has presently made available (see below) raises more questions than it answers. It will be interesting to see where his project goes.
My friend, Mike, likes to make fun of the lyrics. I laugh, because It’s a fair cop. That doesn’t stop me from loving this song. It’s crude, and it’s angry, and frankly, I think that suits its subject rather well. When one thinks of war protest songs, Heavy Metal isn’t normally the genre that comes to mind, but perhaps this is one well-earned exception. Hell, I even like the cheated rhyme!
In fact this song has four places on my favorites play-list rather than one, because there are a few non-Sabbath versions of War Pigs that are well worth a listen. The Suck doesn’t add too much to the composition, but this apartheid era rock band seems so out-of-place in South Africa, they get triple credit for simply thinking of recording the song. Hayseed Dixie is of course funny as Hell, but I think they are as sincere about it’s message as anybody. Check out their remake of Holiday to hear these rednecks take sarcasm and bitterness right to 11. The most creative reworking of War Pigs may come from the Dresden Dolls. Theirs may also be the most earnest. Unfortunately, I don’t think they ever recorded it in a studio; one has only a few live bootlegs to choose from. The version below is the best I can find.
Postscript: Since writing this, I have discovered a couple new versions of this song; Brownout and Brass Against.
Yapto Soerjosoemarno is a middle-aged man. He is the leader of Pankasila, an Indonesian youth group three million strong. The camera follows him out onto a golf course where he explains; “Gangsters are free men. They want to live life in their style. Relax and Rolex.” A moment later he tells his young caddy she has a mole on her pussy.
And she smiles.
Of course all of this comes after Yapto explains that Pankasila had killed all the communists in Indonesia. It comes after he has spoken at a Pankasila rally, one in which he calls himself the biggest gangster of all.
What else could the young girl do but smile?
As he and his friends try on colorful gangster outfits, Anwar Kongo waxes on about his inspirations; Al Pacino, John Wayne, and others like them. He goes on to relate the story of how he once placed the leg of a table on a man’s throat before he and others sat on the table and bounced up and down, “having fun!” Those present place a bag of clothing under the table-leg and re-enact the scene, singing and smiling as they do.
Eventually, they declare the bag dead.
…these are just some of the opening scenes in The Act of Killing. This film doesn’t contain much graphic violence, but the significance of the violence does show is compounded rather heavily by the knowledge that it is in some sense real, that those in front of the camera are acting out real murders they themselves committed decades in the past.
The Act of Killing explores a wave violence occurring in the wake of a military coup in Indonesia. The coup happened in 1865, and most of the killing occurred within the next few years, but those who carried it out have been living in freedom ever since. Their friends and neighbors have (it would seem) been living in fear all this time, a point driven home quite clearly when the cameras follow several thugs into a market to shakedown Chinese merchants.
What makes this movie so remarkable is of course its unique approach to the subject. When filming the survivors of this bloody era proved too dangerous for them, and when the perpetrators proved all-to-willing to explain everything, Film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer, elected to focus on the killers. Finding his subjects kept imagining their actions in cinematic terms, he finally invited some of them to direct scenes of their own killings, and to stage them in the manner of their own choosing.
The resulting scenes are terrible in more ways than I can count. These aren’t professional actors; they are really killers, and their efforts to appear as they actually are seemed doom to failure. They just don’t have the skills to produce a convincing performance, but what sort of performance could be more convincing than a killing portrayed by its actual perpetrators? These staged productions are full of incongruous moments, just as one might expect from a story one learns by those who were actually there. A single narrator cleans up a lot of ambiguity, but a bunch of thugs trying to shape their own legacy? That is bound to produce more questions than it answers. In the interim, one is left with the image of a thug playing at being a thug in the full knowledge that he really is a thug.
One wonders what Jean Paul Sartre would have done with this?
The Act of Killing is far worse than this! It isn’t merely a farcicle study of bad faith, because victims of these atrocities are all over this film. Those killed are gone of course, completely silent all these years after their murders, but their friends and relatives are present, as are the memories of the community, and the knowledge of that community that these stories are indeed real, that the killers are just that, even now! For all the bad acting, and banal story-telling everyone knows that these people are truly dangerous men. Time and again, on-stage victims cry long after someone has yelled ‘cut’, and all the stroking and kind words in the world are of no avail for some of these people.
In one particularly brutal scene, a man tells us about his step-father, taken out in the night by a death squad. They found his corpse nearby in the morning. This story-teller explains this as he sits in a chair, about to play the victim of an interrogation and execution, and those who will torment him in the scene sit in stone silence. One wonders if they recognize the story, or if they may just be ticking off faces in their mind, wondering if one of them was this man’s step-father. No matter! The story is rejected, because there isn’t enough time to add it to their project, but one cannot help but think this story is just out of place. They are filming the glories of their own murderous past, not the horrors of their murder victims. A few moments later, the scene begins, and we watch a man who lost his step-father to the death squads play victim to the very men who carried out such killings. The acting is terrible, except for that of the the victim. He is, as you might imagine, absolutely spot-on! It would be an Oscar-worthy performance, except that it is difficult to call it a performance. …and when the scene is over, the man continues to sob as his interrogators move on to discuss the philosophical implications of their past.
Time and again, the gangsters in this movie return to the theme of ‘freedom’. They repeatedly explain that the word gangster means ‘free men’, (They are playing on the origins of the Indonesian word ‘preman‘, which comes from the Dutch term ‘vrijman‘, once used for those trading in the region without the sanctions of the Dutch east India Company.) These same gangsters proudly brag of being just that, free men. They have chosen ‘Born Free’ as the theme song for the film; it’s significance is driven home by a dance number during which one of Anwar Congo’s dead victims thank him for sending them to a batter place.
…and gift him with a medal.
The word ‘freedom’ seems both incongruous and yet oddly appropriate to all of this. It seems strange to hear such a beautiful word falling from the lips of men perpetrating so much ugliness. And yet, there is little doubt that their understanding of freedom must resonate with the stories of their own lives. Surrounded by people afraid to contradict them, these men are indeed free. They do as they wish, both on and off screen, and they have done so for decades. This freedom is not an ideal to be shared; it is a freedom hoarded by the few at the expense of the many. It is the freedom of a man to take liberties with a young girl on a golf course.
But of course it is also freedom to do much more than that.
I wish I could say this vision of freedom was unfamiliar, but it simply isn’t. It is present in many times and places, from the defense of a freedom loving and slave owning Confederacy to the liberation of Germany from the oppression of ‘Jewish conspirators’, or for that matter to countless instances in which the privileged exhibit their own sense of entitlement, never quite noticing how much they take from others. Freedom it would seem, can sometimes mean liberation from the lives of others. It is hardly an innocent word; we just aren’t accustomed to seeing it covered in so much blood. But is the more innocent sounding freedom we enjoy here in the U.S. really all that divorced from this freedom that demands its victims? One has only to look across our borders or follow our commodities back to the lands that produce them.
..or to realize that the slaughter carried in Indonesia following the coup in 1965 with the full backing of the officials in the United States. After all, this was also freedom from communism! Freedom for Anwar to kill was also freedom from trade barriers. That freedom was a small drop in the ocean of consumer freedom we enjoy here in America to this day.
I’ll leave that point to the side for the present, but this movie contains at least one other important connection to daily life in the United States. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the many layers of constructed reality in this film, gangsters playing at being gangsters and all that, but perhaps the most disturbing layer of this production lies in the role that gangster films may have played in the violence itself. The killers in this film are quite clear about their own inspirations being American gangster films. Many of these killers had been associated with the local movie theaters, theaters facing restrictions under the communist regime they would rebel against (it seems the film industry was suspected of plotting against the government of Indonesia). Recruited by the military to carry out the mass killings, these same men drew inspiration from movies depicting gangster violence. So the loop closes once again, as the pretend killers who really are killers turn out to have been guided by the actions of fake killers in the first place, the very same ones you and I watch with a clean conscience.
…and this dark and painful ‘reality’ proves to be far more surreal than any artistic contrivance one could possibly imagine!
Meet Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680). She is Mohawk and Algonquin. She is also the first North American Indian be canonized by the Catholic Church. She is the fourth Native American to become a saint, having been preceded by three central American natives. You might think that is what makes her uncommon, or might have thought it unusual that I am taking time to plug a Catholic saint (which is certainly an uncommon thing for me to do), and fair enough on both points.
What really interests me here is Kateri’s attire. Standing as she is here in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, I can’t tell if her attire is fitting or not. You see, she appears to be dressed as Pueblo, which is a little bit unusual (perhaps not fitting) for a Mohawk woman. How did she get so dressed? It might have something to do with the fact that Kateri’s sculptor in this instance was Estella Loretto of Jemez, which would make her attire fitting after all.
…but it’s still just a little odd.
Of course, for some of us ‘odd’ is good proxy for ‘interesting’.
Tekakwitha is portrayed in Iroquois dress inside the Cathedral itself. I would hardly have noticed that this was the same woman, and I have to thank my friend John for pointing this out to me. Just what to make of the changes in dress, I’m not entirely sure. A visit to a Catholic Church is certainly an uncommon experience for me.
Who could possibly forget Blazing Saddles? Certainly not anyone who watched back in the 70s. But who could forget the television pilot inspired by the same story, Black Bart. Apparently everyone, or at least everyone who doesn’t have a copy of the Blazing Saddles video. (It’s included as an extra.) The pilot features Louis Gossett, Jr. and a few other almost-familiar faces. It’s probably just as well that the series never took off, because this is hardly brilliant comedy. I expect everyone was a little better off without it. Apparently, this did air once, but I have no idea how some of these gags made it past the censors. …or if they did.
Still, it’s interesting to see this mighta-been series.