We Live in the Dumbest of All Possible Timelines.

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There is a reason idiots like Dave Bronson get into positions of power. It sure as Hell isn’t because people they make a public apology after equating mask mandates to the Holocaust. It’s because they make such comparisons in the first place. It’s because they are happy to pander to the first thoughts of countless idiots who learn about everything from medicine to history from Fox News and the half-remembered headlines their buddies regurgitate three beers into a Friday night. It’s because they give voice to the willfully obtuse, the unteachable, and the truly deplorable among us. Those people will celebrate Bronson’s idiotic speech long after his subsequent apology has been completely forgotten.

…and the lives lost while shameless opportunists play games like this instead of instituting responsible policies will never come back, not even when some of these fools finally come around.

Yes, that’s right. The present mayor of Anchorage defended use of the Star of David by anti-maskers in a public hearing. His argument went like this:

“We’ve referenced the Star of David quite a bit here tonight, but there was a formal message that came out within Jewish culture about that and the message was, ‘Never again.’ That’s an ethos. And that’s what that star really means is, ‘We will not forget. This will never happen again.’ And I think us borrowing that from them is actually a credit to them.”

Notice also that he explicitly identifies himself with those engaging in the practice.

I suppose I could explain why that is such an incredibly foolish thing to do, and a terribly stupid argument to make, but frankly, I think that should be obvious enough to anyone with any sense at all.

Sadly, that excludes more Republicans with each passing day.

@thebluealaskan

Anchorage Mayor David Bronson defends the use of the Star of David by #antivaxxer and #antimaskers at meetings of the #anchorage assembly. The faux Stars of David read “We do not consent.” #covid19 #antisemitism

♬ original sound – TheBlueAlaskan

Not One of the Biggest Marches for Women’s Reproductive Rights…

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…but probably one of the coldest.

and definitely the northiest.

Utqiagvik joined the list of communities throughout the U.S. that saw demonstrations in support of women’s reproductive rights today. About a dozen folks participated in this event, encouraged by occasional honks and waves from passing drivers. They gathered at the Barrow Whalebone Arch and marched out to the front of the bank building where, a few of the organizers gave speeches before the event came to a close.

This is a small voice from a distant corner of the nation, but it’s nice to hear it just the same. I can only hope it joins a chorus loud enough to be heard in all the right places.

(Click to embiggen)

Polar Bears Happen

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Way back when I first saw the ad for a social science professor at Iḷisaġvik College, I remember pulling up the college website to fight a polar bear alert on the front page. Now some might have found this a bug, but I can assure you that for me this was a definite feature. I really wanted to see this place. As it happens, polar bears don’t show up that often, and when they do, it seems that I’m always busy. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to get up close and personal with one of these guys; I just enjoy seeing them from time to time, and especially when I have a camera handy.

So, I’m sitting in the cafeteria during the orientation for this semester when a notice goes out telling us there is a polar bear on the beach, just across from our buildings. The point of the alert is of course to let us know that we shouldn’t wander out that way (at least not on foot), but they do sometimes have an ironic effect. I desperately wanted to take a really long bathroom break right then and then, but I managed to hold myself together long enough to take advantage of a legitimate lunch break.

…and then the bear stuck around for a couple of days. Apparently, a walrus carcass had washed ashore nearby and he was munching on that in between naps on the beach and out on the ice. Eventually the local Wildlife department moved the carcass, but not before I and half the town got plenty of pictures.

So, yeah! Polar bears do happen!

he had just woke up from a nap

Click to embiggen!

Of course Moni got the best pics!

Language in Schizopolis

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For me, Schizopolis is nearly entirely a personal pleasure. Almost nobody I know has seen it, and still fewer people seem to have liked it. Still it’s my all-time favorite Soderbergh film.

What is it about?

Well, I could tell you, but that’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of the whole thing. Really, Soderbergh says it all quite clearly at the beginning of the film; if you don’t understand it, you must watch the film over and over until you do, and you must pay full price for the ticket at a genuine movie theater. Nothing else will do!

Suffice to say that the movie is well-named.

What I do want to talk about here, for a paragraph or two anyway, is some of the language games Soderbergh plays around with in this film. At first these games appear to be just so much nonsense, part of the chaos at which the name of the film barely hints. In time, though, I can’t help thinking that Soderbergh managed to say something interesting through these games, something about the relationship between the meaning of words and the nature of human human relationships.

What do I mean?

One of my favorite sequences consists of an assignment given to the main character at work. He is to write a speech for a motivational speaker. The instructions for this speech would be a great take-down of the entire genre. What should be red flags in view of basic critical thinking skills turns out to be the very means by which some of these people will make connections to an audience full of vulnerable people. The next time someone asks me why I hate motivational speakers so much I should just link them to this video.

My favorite language games from this movie are those involving romantic connections, or the lack thereof. There are two main story-lines for this theme; one involving a womanizing exterminator, named Elmo Oxygen, and other another involving a couple whose marriage has clearly taken a turn for the worse.

Elmo Oxygen is an id in a jump suit. He does what he wants in people’s houses, and for the most part he does who he wants as well, because all the housewives seem to fall for him. (Really, it’s why they call for him in the first place.) What Elmo doesn’t do is speak in meaningful sentences, not for most of the film anyway. His flirtations always take place in a kind of code. He knows the code. The women know the code. We the audience, don’t even recognize that it is a code for a little while. It just sounds like nonsense, and then we start piecing it together. As I recall “Nose army” means “yes.” (Elmo hears this phrase a lot.) About the time, we can start to follow these conversations the story-line takes us someplace else, someplace just as odd, I can assure you. For a time anyway, the Elmo Oxygen story-line treats us to a delicious jumble of utter nonsense which actually turns out to make perfect sense. What is said in flirtation between Elmo and his lust-interests never really amounts to anything but the flirtation, and if that’s going well, one may as well say ‘nose army” as ‘yes.”

…the same goes, if it’s not.

For their part, the couple spend much of the film speaking in metapragmatic descriptors. Instead of using normal words to communicate; they describe what they are doing in the conversation. Instead of saying ‘hello’, they greet each other with words like “generic greeting.” Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” they say “sincere apology.” Their communication is always meta-communication, and that meta-communication remains disingenuous throughout their first few scenes in the movie. The only exception to this occurs when the husband turns to his daughter and suddenly speaks to her like a normal father would. When he turns back to his wife, he is once again going through the motions, or rather calling out his motions, because the content no longer means anything anyway. He and his wife do this for awhile.

…and then one of them starts speaking a foreign language.

This word-play alone was enough to sell me on the film. It’s an excellent commentary on the nature of romance, or the lack of it. What the Elmo Oxygen story-line and that of the couple have in common is the absence of substance in communication. What’s different is the reason for it. Elmo and his lovely companions don’t really say anything because they don’t have to. Whatever they have between them is working and the words themselves just don’t matter. Of course e could ask whether or not the shallow code that works so well for Elmo might also be devoid of substance because he really isn’t connecting after all, not in any meaningful sense, but he would surely be unimpressed with such vapid nonsense. In fact, the character would probably be off to some new conquest before we could finish asking the question. For their part, the couple no longer have anything to say to one another, and so they call out their moves instead of talking to each other, because these empty moves are the only thing that matters at that stage in their relationship.

Or in their break-up, anyway.

Oh yeah, …spoilers!

Dammit!

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“You’re not a dildo!”

This was the worst insult my friend, Dan Bunin ever leveled at me.

At least it was part of it.

Of course, he said this after having just called me a dildo in the first place. We were playing a game of D&D back in college, and zingers were par for the course. So was a certain degree of genuine bickering over details long since forgotten. Still, this comment seemed a bit much. Dan was genuinely frustrated at me at that moment, and the awkward silence that filled the room suggested I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I had just resolved to just move on when Dan announced his change of heart, and told me I wasn’t a dildo after all.

I knew better than to think I was totally off the hook here, so I just waited for the punch line.

“If you were a dildo, women would like you!”

…and the whole room burst out in laughter.

I couldn’t stay mad of course. I was too busy laughing right along with the others, but the joke served its purpose. Dan broke the tension even as he got in one more shot. Fair enough, I thought, and we enjoyed the rest of the game.

This was over thirty years ago, and I still chuckle every time I think of it. It was typical of Dan’s wit, and his humor. It’s also typical of the other memories he brings to mind.

I remember once shutting a door in Dan’s face for no reason whatsoever. He opened the door back up a moment later with a very confused look on his face. I really couldn’t think of a good way to follow that up, so I asked if I could borrow five bucks. Dan just laughed and fished the money out of his wallet. I remember once coming out of the library at UNLV and wondering what all the shouting was about down at the student union. Turns out Dan had just about picked a literal fight with the entire fraternity community. (All of them!) I remember countless dinners at Korean BBQs where the running debate was about whether to order two meals for every one person or just the usual three meals for every two people. I remember playing straight pool with Dan and his brothers at the Q-Club. Back then, making a really great shot was as likely to earn you an insult as it was to get you a compliment. Suffice to say, Dan gave plenty of cause to call him an ‘asshole’ during those games. I remember attending a few wild parties at Dan’s on New Years Eve, and I remember noticing when those wild parties had dwindled to a table full of old guys complaining about the state of the world. I also remember that a good portion of the open questions we came up with sitting around that table seemed to get deferred to Dan. In a room full of smart people who didn’t normally hesitate to study-up on a good question, we had somehow gotten used to the idea that Dan was the one who would actually know the answer.

Back when we were both college freshmen, I remember Dan once turning to me in frustration as someone else was talking and saying the guy was wrong, but he just didn’t know how to explain it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this sort of problem wasn’t going to plague Dan for long. His career as a successful trial lawyer has long since put to rest any lingering doubts as to his ability to explain why somebody was wrong.

I also remember speaking to Dan at the end of an online gathering a couple Friday’s back. He was excited for his coming vacation, and I couldn’t help but be happy for him. He and some other friends had been planning this trip all summer. I figured we’d talk again this coming week. I’d see him smoking a cigar with a drink in his hand, his partner Violet sitting beside him, and Dan and the others would tell the rest of us all about their adventures. I figured we would still be hearing the stories all the way till Christmas!

We won’t be having those conversations after all, not with Dan. To say that I am heartbroken doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

I was going to end this with a platitude about cherishing your friends while you have them, but that kind of schlock seems unworthy of Dan’s memory. I doubt anything I just wrote is worthy of that memory, really, but I’m trying not to make it worse here at the end. The truth is that Dan Bunin will be very sorely missed by an awful lot of people. The world always got a little smarter when he entered the room. It got more interesting, and it got a lot more fun. In his departure, Dan takes an awful lot to smile about with him. I can’t help thinking the world has just become a much more tiresome place.

Dammit anyhow!

The Mandela Effect Trumperates in Conspiratorial Oprahtations!

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I see people passing this meme around from time to time. It’s pretty devastating, actually, or at least it ought to be. This of course makes the meme an awful lot like a lot of criticisms directed at the Trump camp insofar as one could really wonder why this isn’t an end-game argument? Except, in this case, there is a clear answer. The quote in the meme is not real.

At least, it’s undocumented.

The quote really is just a bit too perfect, really. It seems almost as if it was made up for the sole purpose of discrediting the man along with anyone foolish enough to vote for him. And the unfortunate fact is that it was probably made up for just that very purpose. In any event, there is no evidence that Donald Trump ever really said this.

Too bad!

Maybe this would have got some folks attention.

Then again, so many other things that should have mattered when he ran for President didn’t, not in 2016 anyway, and not now for those still waiting for the second coming of the deplorable messiah.

In any event, a few other folks have checked into this quote (The Reno Gazette Journal, Snopes, Politifact, CNN, etc.); all have found the quote to be spurious. Several noted that the meme itself first made an appearance in 2015, but all of those who checked for an actual source have come up empty.

Significantly, the meme attributes the quote to a statement made to People Magazine in 1998, but the image likely shows an appearance by Donald Trump on Oprah Winfrey in 1988. More on that later…

From time to time, I have tried to suggest that people refrain from passing along this meme as it does not appear to be accurate, and of course I encounter the usual bullshit responses from people too keen on their delicious gotcha-game to give it up on account of pesky questions about evidence. (It’s a little bit more frustrating to see such weak sauce coming from folks you might otherwise agree with than it is to hear it coming from the mouths of the deplorables, but anyway!) I still figure anone who thuinks they have to use a likely fake quote to criticize Donald Trump has not been paying attention to the living train wreck that is his public life.

One thing does fascinate me…

I have frequently encountered people who swear up and down that they have heard Donald Trump make this very statement.

One of the reasons this caught my attention is the fact that I too once thought I remembered seeing a video clip of Trump saying this very thing. In the run-up to the 2016 election, I recall making a point to find the clip so I could post it on every corner of the net that I could reach. (I really wondered why a link to the clip wasn’t the obvious answer to every pro-Trump statement any republican could make? Only I couldn’t find the clip anywhere, nor could I find an audio-recording, or even a credible written source. I did find a clip from the episode of Oprah in which she interviewed him about the possibility of making a run for the Presidency, but Trump does not say this on that clip. (In fact, his tone is wrong for the quote anyway. In the clip, he is trying to sound moderate and thoughtful, not brash and rude as he appears in the quote, or pretty much at any time during his Presidency.) Realizing that was likely the clip I thought I had remembered, I chalked it up to a bad memory and accepted the fact that I was likely wrong on that subject.

Yet people still insist they too have seen the clip and/or that they know other people who can verify that Trump did in fact say the very thing attributed to him in this meme. When I Tiked a Tok about this in 2020, a couple people told me that they would look around the net and get back to me when they found it. When I Tiked another Tok about it a couple weeks back, well over assured that it was real. A few people even got downright testy with me for doubting the matter. All of which leads me to winder…

Is this the Mandela effect in action?

I know, pop-psychology is another net-hazard, but I can’t help thinking this instance might add up to a decent case for it. For those unfamiliar with the term, “The Mandela effect” refers to a shared memory that turns out to be false. It gets its name from a woman named Fiona Broome who had become convinced that Nelson Mandela had died in prison in the 1980s. She was also convinced that thousands of others shared this belief, all of which must have made his tenure as president of post-Apartheid South Africa from 1994-1999 rather surprising). Some might have their doubts about this particular source, but there are plenty of other examples of the Mandela Effect to be found. I’m not entirely sure why the notion of a shared false memory is all that surprising to begin with. We know that memory is a creative process, and it shouldn’t surprise us that perfectly public sources of information could skew the memories of more than one person thinking about any given subject. So, before, anyone goes off to see this as proof of an alternative universe wherein Trump actually did say this…

Oh man!

I suddenly realize I should have written this entire post on the premise that these are memories of an alternative universe in which Trump actually did say this, and perhaps even one where the Mandela effect really is proof that alternative universes do exist, but I can only hope that there exists an alternative universe wherein the American people were smart enough to say ‘no’ to this festering bloodfart back in 2016, but then, dammit, why do I have to live in the one where a whole buncha people just weren’t?

…Okay, so, before you go off thinking this effect points us to alternative universes, let’s just say this is just the sort of distortions that we ought to expect from perfectly fallible people trying to reconstruct our perfectly fallible memories in the present.

Anyway, the point, is I can’t help thinking the number of people who seem to remember seeing and hearing this (likely fake) quote might be a good example of the Mandela effect.

Other options?

  • One person told me the quote comes from Playboy magazine, but I have yet to see any direct reference to any specific publication.
  • Others have suggested the quote comes from an interview that Trump did with Howard Stern, but I think this is actually a reference to a clip in which Stern describes Trump as being contemptuous of his fan base. The stern clip is interesting, but its not Trump saying it himself, and I have yet to see any other relevant clips coming from Stern or any of his shows.
  • Quite a few folks have pointed to People Magazine, but this claim has been checked pretty thoroughly (see the fact-check links above), and nobody has found any evidence for it.
  • By far and away, the most common angle is to suggest that the actual quote comes from the Oprah interview that seems to be the source of the image contained in the meme. This is the most common clip from that interview. As you can hear from the clip, it does not contain the quote in question. A search on Oprah’s website, reveals a couple other clips that seem to come from the same interview, which appears to have occurred on April 25th, 1988. What I can’t seem to find, on Oprah’s website or any other source on the net, is any full-length recording of the complete interview. Apparently, others cannot find such a clip either.

The inability to find a recording of the complete Trump interview with Oprah creates an interesting problem. Why can’t we find such a recording? I for one have no idea. I don’t know how Oprah’s archives work, how thorough they were back in 1988, or just how common it would be for people to have at least an old VHS tape (or even a Beta) of the interview. I really haven’t assessed the odds against this absence of an episode actually happening by natural chance. For at least a few folks, however, this is all so damned suspicious. They will commonly tell us the complete clip has been scrubbed from the internet, and that the elites (including Oprah) have conspired to prevent any evidence of the quote coming out. We could talk about how likely this is (and here the Streisand effect might also make an appearance), or we could insist on asking for solid evidence for the authenticity of the quote, rejecting any excuses for the lack of it. That so many people swear they remember hearing Trump actually speak the words contained in the quote doesn’t count for nothing, but eye-witness testimony isn’t the most dependable source of information. It’s a little less dependable when it’s provided by random guys on the net. At the end of the day this leaves us with a larger question…

What do we do when we don’t know?

What do we infer (or simply assume) when we don’t get a definitive answer to our questions?

Short of any substantial evidence in support of the alleged quotation, this effort to suggest the absence of evidence isitself evidence of a larger conspiracy isn’t the least bit helpful. I like my conspiracy talk in the other guy’s camp where it can keep good company with the likes of Q-Anon fans, Birthers, and Truthers, none of whom have anything worthwhile to add to our present-day politics. I think it far more likely that all the people who think they remember seeing and hearing Trump speak the words in this clip are reading them into their memories of the common Oprah clip. It’s a shared memory, but it’s a false memory.

…and Trump is every bit as awful as any of us might remember. That memory isn’t false.

…and we don’t have to make up anything to criticize Trump.

…or the fools who support him.

Spurious Hitler Spuriates Furiously About Guns!

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Thanks to Moni for a certain modification.

The notion that gun control was the key to Hitler’s tyranny (and in particular to the holocaust) has become a standard talking point among gun rights activists. To say that this is utter and complete bullshit is an insult to bullshit, which somehow ought to be accorded more dignity than this perfectly idiotic and highly deceitful bit of right wing rhetoric. It is, among other things, an effort to co-opt the story of an atrocity for the convenience of an interest group defined largely by those in positions of relative social power, and frankly, one that has historically included a rather large number of Nazi sympathizers. Simply put, those harping the notion that gun control is the gateway to the holocaust includes far too many people who face no such threats themselves, consistently show little to no concern for those that do, and who frequently express views which would put them closer to the guard towers of than the inside of any concentration camps.

There is nothing about this game that merits respect.

Nothing!

For the present, however, I wish only to remark upon one thing; a funny little made-up quote that features prominently in the babblerized politics of the gun lobby. Yes, it’s the quote of the meme to the left, which isn’t really all that funny after all, I suppose.

Except that there is no evidence that Hitler ever said it.

Of course, quote mining is a childish and deceitful enterprise to begin with. A single line here or there, presented entirely devoid of context, is no basis for drawing conclusions about anything. So, even when the quote is accurate, those passing these contextomies around like the tokens in a collectible card game are certainly not doing anything of merit.

But the whole pathetic project does get a lot worse when the quote itself is fake.

Excuse me, …spurious.

Oddly enough, Snopes thinks they have a candidate for something that comes close to this quotation, so they give it a mixed rating, saying that the claim that he said this is partially true. I think they are being overly generous, frankly, but anyway…

Let’s have a look!

The quote comes from a book called, “Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944: Secret Conversations” which contains the following comments;

“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subjugated races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subjugated races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty. So let’s not have any native militia or native police.”

Of course, this passage does not match the wording of the quote in question, and those spreading that quote are not content to frame it as a paraphrase, so we probably shouldn’t let people get by with pretending to have an exact quote only to fall back on the pretense that it was only intended as a paraphrase.

It’s probably less helpful when someone else has to make that argument for them.

Anyway…

Snopes goes on to say that if you interpret “conquer a nation” in the spurious quote to mean making yourself a dictator over that nation, then sure, this actual quote from the actual Hitler would not fit the bill, because it is actually about the need to disarm peoples subjected by foreign conquest (eastern Europeans in this case).

If on the other hand, the phrase “conquer a nation” is taken to mean actually conquering another nation, then this quote might fit the bill after all because that is exactly what Hitler is talking about in the passage from the Table Talks volume.

The problem here is that the right wing use of this meme assumes the former definition, because the gun rights crowd is consistently using it as a means of commenting on domestic gun control. As always, the constant equation between gun control and disarmament is one of the central lies perpetuated by the gun lobby, but putting that aside, this quote doesn’t work at all if Hitler is really talking about how he means to treat subjugated populations of foreign countries, which Hitler is clearly doing in the table-talk passage. So, even if we grant the possibility that the quote could serve as a kind of paraphrase of the Table Talk passage, then the result is a passage that has no relevance to its present use by gun rights advocates.

So, even this bit of nothing much doesn’t mean what some folks might want it to mean.

Hitler simply didn’t say what some folks keep telling us he did.

At least, there is no reason to believe that he did.

Of course this is just scraping the surface of the garbage-heap that the present-day understanding of Nazi history among America’s ever-more fascist Republican base. Those closer America’s right wing gets to going full Nazi themselves, the more effort they put into redefining fascist policies and distorting the history so many of them now choose to emulate. Hell, I remember Glenn Beck once suggesting that empathy was the first step to the Nazi atrocities. If there was a time when America’s ‘conservatives’ would have known better, I can’t help thinking it is long since past. All of which is to say nothing of the not-even-post-hoc fallacy that goes with talk of a certain supposed gun control law, the Germans passed in 1938. In any event, the quote pictured above is fake.

Pardon me…

Spurious.

Northern Lights and Cold Hands

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Looking toward town

It’s been awhile since I have posted anything, and we are now in 24-hour sunlight here in Barrow, so I am missing the light displays we had this winter. The northern lights don’t always make a substantial showing up this way, but this year, they put on a show that wasn’t half bad.

Of course, being a grumpy old bastard, I’m not always keen to drive out of the light pollution here in town to take pics in the freezing cold, and it doesn’t help that my camera these days isn’t great for night pics, but my gal, Moni, is still blessed with joy when she sees them, and she is always happy to drag me out onto ‘cake-eater road’ where we can take these pictures and I can grumble about the whole thing here in this gigantic run-on sentence.

Yeah, that’s just how I roll!

Often as not, I am glad that Moni makes me go out and take pictures with her, but I’ll be damned if my fingers don’t stay mad sometimes for hours. Hot chocolate helps.

In any event, we gots pics!

I took mine with my phone, so they aren’t the greatest, but some of these are kinda cool.

(Click to embiggen)

“Seward’s Folly” by Any Other Tree

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Don’t hate us because we are on holiday!

It’s a holiday here is Alaska.

Seward’s Day!

“Alaska Purchase” by Fred Anderson

Yes, that’s right.

We celebrate, William Seward, the man who arranged the purchase of Alaska from Russia here in Alaska. We celebrate this man on the anniversary of the signing of the deal he made with Russia.

Not everyone celebrates this date, of course. Some folks question whether or not the Russians could have sold all that land, much of which they were nowhere near controlling in the first place. But in the logic of collective fictions like nation states, it would seem the move has stuck, to to speak. There are those who mourn the consequences, and I’m told some folks in Russia still wonder how the Hell that happened themselves. At the end of the day, this still ends up being a day off work.

Okay, I am still working today, but since a lot of my coworkers aren’t, that means fewer meetings and I can focus on the things I want to, which is a kind of holiday for me. Also, it means I have a little time to knock out a quick blog post.

About Seward!

I’m told the rest of America was doubtful about this purchase at the time it was made.

Something about “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s folly?”

Then again, some folks make way too much of a political cartoon; others have never figured out the difference between a catchy byline and the substance of an editorial. Writers took their shots and indulged in snarky quips back in the day just as they do now. It doesn’t mean they didn’t see the potential. The historian Richard Welch did a pretty good job of showing that public opinion was nowhere near as negative at the time of purchase as people typically assume. Still, it takes a touch of conflict to draw people into a story and the notion that Seward saw something in this state the rest of the country didn’t sure makes for an interesting first act. I suppose the third act in that version of story is statehood.

Or maybe the opening of a Walmart.

Or a Fred Meyers.

There are plenty of other ways of telling stories about the purchase of Alaska. One of my favorites can be seen in the Saxman Totem Park, just south of Ketchikan.

I posted a picture of it last year, right about this time.

…probably not a coincidence.

Seward Shaming Pole, 3rd Edition

Okay, so this pole may not be exactly about the purchase of Alaska, but it’s certainly purchase-adjacent. As to Seward’s Day, it’s right on point.

This is known as the Seward Shaming Pole. In fact it’s the third version of that pole, as the first two have succumbed to weather and termites. This version of the pole was completed just a few short years ago (2017). You can google up the earlier versions. As I understand it this one has its critics among the locals owing to the absence of certain features included in the earlier versions. I’m told a coat of white paint on the face was among the expected features. I only have this by word of mouth, so I’m not entirely certain what to make of it, but the differences do seem quite significant. In any event, this is the current version of the infamous Seward Shaming Pole.

What makes it a shaming pole?

Convention of course!

By ‘convention’ I mean the conventions of the Tlingit people. You might think of his piece as fitting into the totem pole genre within their own cultural order.

Hints that this particular pole is meant to shame rather than honor its subject are contained in the box upon which the figure of Seward sits and the red in his ears. (That red stood out more in previous versions.)

The red, I’m told signifies embarrassment.

The box?

Well that is loot!

Specifically, that is loot packed away in a bentwood box, one of the varieties of artwork thriving in the northwest coast cultural complex. In any event, the point is to suggest that Seward took a pile of loot off with him in the wake of a visit to the region.

How did he get the loot?

It was gifted to him in a potlatch ceremony, another of the cultural practices common to the southeast cultural region of Alaska.

So, what makes these gifts loot?

Because Seward never threw a potlatch of his own to compliment the one thrown for him.

To say that this is unacceptable is putting it mildly.

Emily Moore tells the story better than I could, but the essential details are this. William Seward came to visit the region in 1869. He was welcomed with a potlatch by Chief Ebbits of Tongass Village. As a leader of the Taant’a kwáan Teikweidí clan, Ebbits welcomed Seward according to local custom, granting to Seward the honors due to a another great leader. A feast was give in Seward’s honor and gifts were given to him. Then Seward went on his way.

It’s the going-on-his-way part that is a problem here.

The trouble is that a potlatch is not normally a one time affair. It is a gesture in an ongoing relationship. Once given, it is expected that a complimentary feast will be given to reciprocate the first. Doing so is a matter of obligation, and failure to do so leaves an imbalance in the relationship. It’s tough to tell what Seward may have thought himself, but for their own part Chief Ebbits and his clan most likely felt they were initiating a permanent relationship. When neither Seward nor any of his family ever showed up to answer the honor given to him, this cast the entire relationship in a negative light.

As this particular potlatch was given in honor of Seward’s role in leadership of the United States, the failure in this instance represents more than Seward’s own failure, it is a failure of the United States to acknowledge to live up to its obligations to Tongass Village and to the Tlingit people.

Some might be inclined to extend that out to Alaska Natives in general.

This is the history commemorated in that pole.

In another sense, this is direct commentary on that question about how two nations could swap lands neither one much to do with. If the purchase of Alaska is a done deal, so to speak, it is a deal done by two nation-states. The pole is a reminder of those not present when the deal was made, those whose own acceptance of the deal we celebrate today has been taken for granted all-too-often by the nation which acquired Alaska by means of it.

…which gives new meaning phrase “Seward’s folly.”

Agreements Be Damned!

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It has become fashionable to begin open discussion sessions and training seminars by going over a list of agreements with those present. The idea here is to elicit agreement from the audience for certain ground rules of discussion. Things like; “Be constructive,” “Be present,” or “Listen for understanding,” are commonly entered to a list of agreements. Each of these rules are supposed to encourage good speaking and listening behavior, and to help people get a sense for what is expected of them in the meeting to follow. The point of calling these principles ‘agreements,’ and for beginning to meeting by discussing them is, of course, to get some buy-in for the rules of engagement from those present in the session.

As these principles are almost always worded in nice positive terms, I imagine they also serve as a kind of comfort; a way of encouraging people to participate in what follows by encouraging them to act in good faith and to believe that others present will do the same.

It all sounds quite wonderful.

Frankly, these things always make me want to vomit.

Why?

First, this is fake buy-in culture at its worst. Like focus groups, an agreement list is often a means of disguising an executive decision as a group agreement. In this case the executive is often a facilitator, but the principle is the same; the group present is being asked to place its stamp of approval on a decision that has already been made. When a facilitator in a large meeting hauls out a list of ‘agreements,’ and invites people to say whether or not they support each individual agreement, they do so in a context ripe with group-think dynamics. Someone might get by with objecting to one or another item on a list of agreements, but they are just as likely to brand themselves the resident trouble-maker, and this is going to happen at the start of the whole meeting. Not to mention, everyone wants to get on with things. Voice enough objections and it’s likely to become a problem. Under such circumstances, there is a strong expectation the agreements brought into a meeting by facilitator are going to be, well, …agreed to. Hence, the notion that these are terms agreed to by a group is often a thinly-disguised pretense for a set of rules fostered by the facilitator.

There may be room negotiation, but some of the participants have a lot more room to maneuver than others.

What does the facilitator get out of this?

They get the ability to say that all those present agreed to the terms in the list, but that assumes the agreements were ever really open to negotiation in the first place, which often as not just isn’t true. Serious input is particularly unlikely in unfamiliar settings and with unfamiliar people, and it is even less likely in the workplace wherein people may have been directed to participate in meetings, often with their bosses present. Either way, the prospect of saying ‘no’ to a given agreement is loaded with unnecessary stress, and most importantly, that stress is unconnected to any standing interest. Somebody who is prepared to voice an opinion about an actual policy will think twice before picking a fight about an issue that will be over at the end of a meeting. So, the tendency is to pass on the invitation to weigh in on the agreements and see how things go.

Yes, people can say no to an agreement, and no, they cannot do so without at least some concerns about how their disagreement will affect their role in the meeting or even in the workplace at large.

A facilitator need not come with prepared agreements to get what she wants out of a group. She can disguise her agreements fairly easily. In true focus group fashion, a good facilitator just asks people what they think the agreements should be. She doesn’t need to show them a list of agreements or even tell them what she thinks should be on it. She can just ask them what they think. She will almost certainly get a number of suggestions about being respectful and constructive, etc. If others present in the meeting are familiar with these lists, they may even chime in with a few more of the current standards. Ask a couple leading questions, and someone in the group may just supply any missing items a facilitator really wants. If all else fails, a facilitator won’t be blamed for suggesting one or two herself, especially not if she waits till the end. It will look like she put others views before her own. They won’t realize that this item or two completes a list that the facilitator was ticking off from the very beginning. Do this right, and folks may actually think the resulting list of agreements are actually the result of a group process,

…well, except for that one item.

…and that other one too!

The positive nature of the principle can also be quite deceptive. I once attended a meeting in which people were told to take off their hats. Sitting there with my literal hat in my literal hand, I wondered what this meant. We were told that it meant people should forget their role in the work organization; that they should speak freely and without fear of consequences. I remember thinking that if this were true, none of us would have been there.

…most anyway.

And yes, I am quite serious about that. This particular meeting was scheduled an a terribly inappropriate time and many of us were stressing over the work we were not getting done while in this meeting, work that needed doing immediately.

More to the point, this was an incredibly naive thing to say, recklessly so, given that the point was made by an outside consultant who would soon return home while the rest of us went back to worth with each other, and with our bosses

…remembering who said what about whatever.

The potential for serious negative consequences was very real in this instance, and it was completely irresponsible for this facilitator to suggest otherwise. It’s one thing to encourage good behavior, and it is quite another to provide false assurance that such behavior can be expected of others.

In the end, the problem with agreements is all to simple; they represent a kind of two-faced use of authority. On the one hand, a speaker is using agreements to lock down the rules of engagement for a discussion. On the other hand, they are trying to distribute authority for those rules among all those present. It’s one of the many ways in which people uncomfortable with their own authority try to hide it from themselves and others, even as they use that very authority to control others. Some are more heavy-handed than others, and not every agenda is anything to be afraid of, but there is little positive to be gained from disguising an actual agenda or the authority used to advance it.

Frankly, I would rather a facilitator just told us what they expect from a group rather than pretend we are all making the discussion together. The rest of us can like it or we can lump it, but I figure a facilitator ought to do us the courtesy of acknowledging their own authority while exercising that very authority themselves.