Oh Hell! (I’m Old)


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

What was that about?

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

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

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

I turn fifty today.


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

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

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

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

Oh that’s enough!

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

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

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

Anyway, get off my lawn!

…and stop smiling at me, dammit!


The Proof of Burdens


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

Oddly enough, it matters.

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

Bad burden of proof!

You spoil everything.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t for atheists either.

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

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

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


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



Creeditize it! …or Don’t.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Textbook dogma!


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Cercei’s reply?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Your Twitter account…

TRUMP: Only Rosie O’Donnell.


KELLY: No, it wasn’t.


Your Twitter account…


TRUMP: Thank you.

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

TRUMP: Yes, I’m sure it was.

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

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


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

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


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

Fire the witch!

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

And thus Kelly became a Pariah.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

That’s just how the game is played!

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

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

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

…all of which is kind of standard.

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

First rule of fight club and all that.

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

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

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

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



A Visit to the Alaska Veterans Museum


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A Guard Out Front

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

…good thinking.

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





Aleutian Campaign


Alaska Territorial Guard


Alaska Territorial Guard Etched on Baleen

The U.S.S. Grunion




And Finally


Best to read from the sidewalk

…or the comfort of your home.


Irony Failure and the Success of Tradition


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Landing a Whale in the Fall

Landing a Whale in the Fall

When I first got into Navajo country (many years ago) my old boss used to laugh and say that Ricola was traditional Navajo medicine. I remember him singing the name lightly as he got out a piece. No, he wasn’t suggesting that Navajos had invented Ricola. As I recall, his throat used to get scratchy during all-night chants. His remedy of choice, Ricola, helped him get through the long evenings with his voice intact. His phrasing was intentionally ironic, of course, but my old boss had in fact made this commercial medicine part of his own traditional regimin.

You can find that sort of irony in all sorts of traditional indigenous activities.  It can produce the sort of wry humor of my old boss and his cough medicine, or it can give rise to deep suspicions. A lot depends on who is calling attention to the irony. The issue often comes up in my classes here on the north slope of Alaska where the dominant traditional themes are associated with hunting and whaling. The indigenous peoples of Alaska retain substantial rights to subsistence activities which include the taking game. That they frequently use modern technology in doing so hasn’t escaped notice, but what of it? That’s an interesting question.

The issue popped up a number of years back when the New York Times published a piece on the Fall whale hunt here in Barrow. Its title put the between technology and tradition front and center:

With Powerboat and Forklift, a Sacred Whale Hunt Endures

If the purpose of this rather clever juxtaposition wasn’t clear enough at the outset, one didn’t have to read far into the piece to see the point driven home rather clearly. In the very first sentence, its authors (William Yardley and Erik Olden) declare that “The ancient whale hunt is not so ancient anymore.” They go on to quote whalers themselves saying things such as “Ah the traditional loader” and “ah the, the traditional forklift.” And with that introduction, the authors go on to explore the paradox of traditional activities carried out with modern technology.

Suffice to say, many in Barrow were not amused.

Edward Itta, former Mayor of the North Slope, published his own response in the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN), suggesting that the authors had failed to grasp the cultural context in which indigenous whaling takes place. A subsequent ADN article focusing on Wainwright took the time to castigate Yardly and Olden for focusing on the nature of Fall whaling instead of Spring when whalers use walrus skinned boats. Yardley and Olsen too had commented this fact, but the point was easily lost in the overall narrative highlighting the use of technology in whaling practice.

I keep coming back to this piece, because the questions raised in that article keep coming back to me. Often it’s a student new to the region who fields the question in one form or another, is it still traditional if people can use modern technology? I struggle to get across the best answer I can. I can point folks to Iñupiat who can answer the question much more authoritatively than I can, but frankly, I think there is a reason I get these questions. As another outsider, I suppose, I may be thought a safe person to ask. I reckon they figure I won’t get mad.

…and I won’t.

This does strike me as an honest question, at least in the sense that those asking it usually seem to be sincere. Just the same, measuring legitimacy of native traditions by the use or absence of modern technology does skew the issue in some very toxic ways.

On one level, I find myself wondering if the Amish haven’t become the paradigm case for traditional anything in the minds of so many people. I reckon it’s up to Iñupiat to define their own traditions as they see fit, and to the best of my knowledge, there just isn’t anything in there against using the most productive technology available. The tradition is taking a whale, not doing it with a particularly pristine kind of harpoon, much less butchering it using only native equipment. The notion that using technology constitutes a failure of authenticity is an assumption coming from outsider.

It isn’t a particularly helpful assumption at that.

Which brings me back to the jokes at the beginning of that old New York Times piece. I can’t help wondering if the authors might have gotten the point of the humor wrong. Hell, it might have been their editor who skewed the whole piece, I don’t know, but in its final form that article clearly takes each of those jokes to be an admission of sorts, a subtle concession to the inauthenticity of the activities in question.

I read those with echoes of my own boss singing ‘Ricola’ in the back of my head.

It seems at least as likely that the point of the humor had something to do with the adaptability of tradition. The question may not have been, is this really traditional, but rather how could it be otherwise?


Not Yet (Nalukataq)

What makes whaling traditional? Yardley and Olsen touched on this when they noted the distribution of boiled muktuk (edible blubber and skin) to those present as the whale was butchered.

Much of the community comes to watch as a whale is burchered. More to the point, much of the community pitches in to help. Even more have helped in one manner or another to provide support for the whaling crews during the course of preparations. Where possible, employers grant leave to those engaged in whaling, and teachers accept absences during whaling season. We’ll work it out later. You would be hard pressed to find a resident of the North Slope who doesn’t provide some sort of support to whaling activities, even if it’s just acceptance of the way the whaling season restructures all of our other activities. Whaling is a community affair, and its impact on the community re-enforces numerous personal relationships.

The tradition is also found in freezers throughout the North Slope, many of which contain muktuk and other delicacies garnered from the whales. It can be seen when a successful crew serves a meal to any who come by their home, and you can see it again during Nalukataq (a Spring festival) when pretty much anyone can walk into a the festival square, sit down, and receive all manner of food from these very same crews. What makes whaling matter is the way that it shapes relations between people all over the north slope, and in that respect it continues many of the same patterns that predate the presence of outsiders like me who ask too many questions, and sometimes fail to learn the answers. If we’re looking for the traditional components of whaling, this is where you will find them.

This social emphasis too is complicated as Hell, but it’s actually relevant. We can ask, for example, how the use of technology ties subsistence activities to modern markets, how use of a snow-machine instead of a dog team changes the work regime for participants in whaling and hunting. We can ask how the presence of grocery stores changes everything, and how the jobs needed to earn money for modern goods and services change the lives of people all over the North Slope. The answers to such questions might also leave us with a less of pristine sense of what tradition means in subsistence activities, but they point to a different sense of the problems at stake in these issues and a different sense of the threats to community practice.


Nalukataq II

Simply pointing at a forklift is a bit of a gotcha game. Unfortunately, it’s a game played all too often by outsiders looking at indigenous hunting practices. More and more, I find myself thinking the game begins when people look in the wrong place to understand these practices. They come and they watch the whalers at work on the ice or harvesting a catch on the beach.

Where they ought to be looking is in those freezers.

…okay people, don’t come up here and literally look in people’s freezers.

My point is that people who want to understand the significance of whaling or any other aspect of traditional subsistence need to look at the way the work and the results are shared. They need to look at the festivals, the potlucks, the serving events around town, or simply at the moments when someone walks up and hands someone else a helping of food. That’s where the tradition is held together, and that is precisely why the damned forklift was traditional after all.

Just like the Ricola my old boss used to love.

R-i-c-o-l-a !!!





A Map is Not a Territory. …and Sometimes It’s Not Even a Map!


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IntroIf you are traveling around the four-corners, you might think your best bet for a map would be one covering one or more of those states.

That seems right, doesn’t it?

Don’t give me any flack about phones and GPS systems. I’m old damn it! I use maps.

Well, it turns out my friend Ken Ascher also uses maps, and he just gave me a quick lesson in how to choose the right map. …at least for the four corners area. You see, he was looking to find Tsaile, which happens to the location of the main campus of Diné College where I used to work.

Ken got a AAA map for Arizona and New Mexico and looked and looked. This (just below) is what he saw. You can look and look yourself, but you won’t find it. Tsaile just isn’t on that map. Oh, the little part of the map that I included in that picture does indeed cover the territory that includes the little community of Tsaile, but no, you cannot find Tsaile on that particular map.


You can stop looking now, it’s not there.

Seriously, stop!

Luckily, it turns out that AAA has a different map for “Indian Country” in all four of the four corners states. It isn’t as detailed, but its purpose is to highlight the features of Indian territory. And thus Tsaile makes an appearance on this map (near the upper right hand corner). Yes, it does. See, it’s right there.

Indian Country.2

Having seen it here in the “Indian Country” map, you can even pop your eyes back up to the map above and see where Tsaile should have been. No, it’s still not there. You can see where it should be, but it’s not there.

The issue doesn’t seem to be resolution. The Arizona and New Mexico map has a higher resolution than the one for Indian country. I somehow doubt that anyone hatched a plot to hide Tsaile from Ken. My guess, is that the criteria for selecting what to put on each map simply differs, and that the difference was enough to make Tsaile disappear (along with quite a few other things, actually). Luckily Ken found the other map and then found his way to Tsaile.

Okay, so this probably isn’t one of the greater injustices to occur in the all-too sordid history of Indian-white relations, but surely there must be a moral somewhere in this story. It might be just to remember that you can get a separate map for Indian country if your traveling through the area. It could also be that you should get as many maps as you can possibly find, so that you can check them all. Hell, it might even be that you should use your telephone GPS, but that way lies madness!

Frankly, I think the moral of the story is that I’m out of ice-cream, which may seem irrelevant to you, but you aren’t the one jonesing for it right now.

That aside, I’m going for the “get the Indian Territory map if that’s where you’re going” moral to this story. If you want to find your way around the reservations in the four corners, you’re going to want that map.

And with that I’m off to dream of ice-cream.

…or better yet frybread!

I miss frybread.

“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” …In Which I Read Snake Oil


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I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t the fate of prominent atheists to end up with Christian apologists for spokesmen. Okay, I don’t literally believe in fate (either), but let’s just say the pattern is starting to look a little too common.

Yesterday, I came across this charming little tweet from professional bigot, Matt Barber.


Barber’s link connects us to an article discussing an account of Hitchens’s personal life, as related in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton. Who is Taunton? He is one of the Christian apologists whom Hitchens debated in his later years. According to Taunton, the two had become close friends in those years, close enough for him to be present throughout much of Hitchens’s struggle with terminal cancer. According to Taunton, Hitchens gave serious thought to converting in those years. Taunton doesn’t say that Hitchens did convert, but he spends virtually the entire book exploring the possibility that Hitchens might have. The author of the article in Barber’s link, Al Perretta, contributes his own 2 cents by telling us that Hitchens own preemptive remarks about the possibility of a deathbed conversion indicate just how much he was thinking about it. If Taunton is content to imply the possibility, Perretta wants to make damned sure we get the hint. And then of course, we have the likes of Matt Barber who sees in the whole thing an opportunity to taunt unbelievers.

It’s a bit like a game of telephone. What Hitchens actually said and thought in private moments before his death we will never know, but we do get to see how Taunton’s account of it takes on ever more polemic significance as others proceed to recount the story. Honestly, I don’t doubt that Taunton and Hitchens were close friends, but I do think Taunton serves his friend poorly by using him in this manner. Damned poorly! Taunton may think his efforts restrained, even respectful, but he has made Hitchens into a commodity of sorts, a chip those in his own camp will now use shamelessly to promote their own views. Whatever respect Taunton may think he has paid Hitchens in writing this, it’s fairly gone by the time we get to the likes of Barber. I somehow doubt Barber will prove to be unusual.

The story is hardly without precedent!


I remember when Anthony Flew changed his views on the existence of God. As an active participant in Christian Forums, I lost track of the number of times someone came into the open debate forums to announce Flew’s ‘conversion’. More than a few would-be apologists really seemed to think this odd sort of authority argument would (or should have) swayed a number of unbelievers. A popular atheist had changed his mind. Shouldn’t we do the same?

The full story in Flew’s case would prove far more complicated than the conversion narrative continually promoted by Christian apologists. It doesn’t appear that Flew ever came to believe in the God of Abraham, though he did seem to adopt a Deist position on the existence of God, but this distinction was often lost in the words of sundry believers proclaiming the miracle of Flew’s conversion. Questions remain to this day about just how much some of Flew’s final work, There is a God,  really is the work of Flew and how much of it is really the work of Christian apologists. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that something was wrong in Flew’s very public change of position. Flew, a lifelong atheist thus spent his final days voiced, as it were by Christian apologists, his final position on the existence of God communicated by others, many of whom were all to happy to treat Flew’s newfound Deism as a victory for Christianity itself.

Had the Anthony Flew whose writings we all knew become a Christian, he certainly would have made a far more eloquent Christian than his latter-day friends made him out to be.

This sort of response may seem harsh, even disrespectful, but Flew’s final days certainly produced a number of red flags. We don’t normally learn the views of professional philosophers from their long-time debate opponents, and a  professional philosopher writes his own material. For reasons which may or may not be understandable, this did not happen in There is a God, and it isn’t entirely clear that he understood the full contents of that work. Whether or not Flew was clear about what he was doing in those final days, most of us will never know. That many in the Christian community were all-too happy to milk Flew’s shift of position for all it was worth and more is plain to see. Flew’s “conversion” left us all with more of a scandal to ponder than a novel argument on the age-old topic.

As with many public debates, I often found the terms of this one rather oddly skewed. I have often wondered if it is really appropriate to call the mere decision to believe in God a ‘conversion’. When people convert to a faith, they do a lot more than simply change their mind about the truth of a claim. They say prayers. They go to church. The embrace doctrines. They nest, as it were, in their new worldview. For his part, Flew seems simply to have decided that a God of some sort was an essential part of any explanation for the world as we know it. Yet, Christians still proclaim the truth of Flew’s conversion, seemingly immune to the fact that he didn’t end up in their camp either.


…and of course there is always Lady Hope!

My first exposure to this story came in some college classroom, a history class I believe. We were discussing Charles Darwin when someone interjected the comment that he had recanted toward the end of his life. The comment hadn’t been at all relevant to the discussion, and the instructor simply didn’t bite. So, we were back on topic in no time, and I found myself wondering what little story I had missed.

That little story was the story of Elizabeth Cotton, or ‘Lady Hope’ as she was called. She claimed to have spoken to Darwin near the end of his life wherein she found him reading Hebrews. Darwin expressed regrets about his scientific publications according to Cotton and discussed plans for holding a congregation in his summer house. If her account is true, then Cotton appears to be the only person to whom Darwin expressed these views. He didn’t tell them to his wife, a devout believer who might well have been quite relieved to hear of his newfound faith. Neither did he communicate them to any of his children or colleagues. But he did communicate these views to Elizabeth Cotton, according to Cotton anyway, and this fact was interesting enough to earn her a little bit of fame among Christian speakers near the end of the 19th century.


So, you see this latest bit about Hitchens is hardly without precedent. It seems that when unbelievers become believers, Christian apologists are often the first to know. Hell, sometimes they are the last to know as well. And sometimes they are the only ones to know at all.

I gather the rest of us are supposed to take their account on faith.


FaithofHitchensSo, how does Taunton pay his respects to his former friend? Consider the quotes he uses to open the earliest chapters of his book:

“Men despise religion; they hate it, and fear that it is true.” – Blaise Pascal.

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins have you never had the courage to commit.” – Oscar Wilde.

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis

“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.” Shakespeare.

…you get the idea.

These are the pithy little one liners that Taunton uses to frame each of his opening chapters. Yes, the point of each quote is every bit as obvious as it may seem.You might expect a book about a deceased friend to use quotations illustrating something admirable about him, even to outline qualities one might find worthy of praise. Taunton is of course using these quotes to take Hitchens apart.

In “A Requiem for Unbelief,” Taunton relates his personal history with Hitchens and explains his decision to write the book. He describes Hitchens’s life as one of rebellion against God (thus establishing from the beginning a narrative that refuses to take Hitchens’s atheism seriously). Taunton also describes Hitchen?” With this remarkably disrespectful tribute to an old friend, it is no surprise that Taunton would lead the chapter with a quote suggesting that people such as Hitchens must know deep down that he is wrong.

The notion that atheists really believe in God after all is a pretty common theme among Christian apologists. Taunton clearly means to use Hitchens’s life to provide an example of this, an anecdote to show us what so many apologists take for granted, that deep down the most strident atheist is really a frustrated believer of some sort. Thus, Taunton transforms Hitchens’s life into contemptuous dismissal of the very views Hitchens proclaimed throughout that very life. Hitchens didn’t really mean what he said, so Taunton would have us believe, and no-one knows this better than Taunton.

Next Taunton proceeds to tell us that Hitchens’s atheism is rooted in youthful rebellion (hence the line about courage to commit sin) and goes on to explain that Hitchens’s love of learning was little more than an effort to improve his skills in verbal sparring (hence the suggestion that an education was wasted on him). He then borrows from Hitchens’s own allusion to ‘keeping two books’, so to speak, to set aside virtually everything Hitchens ever said in public. Taunton extends this metaphor to suggest quite simply that Hitchens’s public atheism was a false front and that he held other thoughts in private. Who would know those private thoughts?

Taunton, of course!

Taunton’s friendship with Hitchens thus becomes an interesting authority claim, a basis from which to shred everything Hitchens told us about his own life and thought.

…and if your getting a little ill at this point, then I’m right there with you.

This is not the sort of book one writes about a friend. It isn’t even the sort of book one writes about a respected opponent. It is the sort of book one writes about an individual one has already dismissed. It is also the sort of book one writes about a bit of personal capital, an investment ripe for returns. In these opening chapters, Taunton sheds sleight on Hitchens character at every turn. The exercise is as crass as it is dishonest.

Toward the middle of the book Taunton’s narrative softens, but why shouldn’t it? He has already dismissed everything Hitchens ever fought for with a few condescending narrative themes. Having established the sad truth about Hitchens’s personal motivations, Taunton can afford to be more subtle in the later chapters. Following 9-11, Taunton wants us to believe Hitchens embarked on a long trajectory toward faith in God. He began to struggle with moral principles and to explore scripture. This, Taunton seems to suggest was the root of their friendship, and the basis for their many private conversations about Christianity.

Taunton recounts many of these discussions in extravagant detail. One could perhaps wonder how he remembers those details so vividly, but I’m more interested in the transition from argument to story-line. The conversations with Hitchens that Taunton describes are full of disputation, point and counter-point. They are discussions in which two men contest with each other over what is and what isn’t true. But of course, these arguments come to us within the larger frame of a story told by Taunton himself. Not surprisingly, the course of each argument flows nicely into the story-line Taunton has chosen to provide us. It is a story-line that resolves each of the disputes quite unsurprisingly in Taunton’s favor.

Taunton’s single-minded handling of the issue is hardly subtle. He consistently gives himself the final word and of course Hitchens concedes a number of things to Taunton, but only in these private conversations. Hitchens accepts arguments without rejoinder, at least in the chapters of Taunton’s book, and he takes correction without rebuke. The final chapters of this work are a record of debates clearly dominated by Taunton, at least according to Taunton himself. And of course each of these arguments provides another step in the story of  Hitchens’s transformation toward a believing Christian. Taunton stops short of claiming the transformation actually occurred, though he wants us to believe it may well have, that Hitchens might have made it to the one true faith as Taunton understands it. Hell, Taunton even assures us that Hitchens would never have converted to Catholicism. If he converted, Taunton would have us believe, it must have been to the right kind of Christianity.

If Hitchens never said anything about his conversion, what are we to make of that? Perhaps it means he didn’t convert at all, but perhaps, the story-line here seems to suggest, it is because he can’t. Hitchens was too committed to his own public personae, or so Taunton would have us believe. he couldn’t afford to tell us if he really believed in God after all. He was already too invested in a godless public personae. So, Hitchens couldn’t tell us how he really felt.

What are we to expect of a man who kept two books?

One of the more striking features of Taunton’s narrative is the pe-emptive arguments he lays out in the course of the book. Hitchens lack of an explicit statement of faith is easily explained by his allusions to keeping two-books of his own life. Will atheists object to this account? Well of course, but that is just because we are fighting over Hitchens body, as Taunton describes the issue. Atheists skeptical of claims that Hitchens either embraced Christianity or came damned close to it are just too busy keeping score. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant example of projection than that, but it seems to be par for the course in this book.

Taunton seems to regard his friendship with Hitchens as unimaginable in the eyes of many, especially in the eyes of unbelievers. That he also takes Hitchens’s willingness to become friends with a Christian to be evidence of interest in conversion suggests that if anyone has trouble wrapping his mind around such a friendship it is Taunton himself.

It seems clear enough that Taunton doesn’t really take the possibility of a meaningful life as an atheist seriously. We can’t even tell a child from a piglet, as he suggests. Our worldview denies the possibility of meaningful moral scruples, according to Taunton. So, if he encounters an unbeliever with a profound sense of moral values – if Taunton allows himself to see this in such a person – it can only mean one thing, that that atheist isn’t really an atheist after all. He is a Christian waiting to get out. Short of an actual conversion, this is the best Hitchens could ever be to Taunton. And so Taunton’s own inability to imagine his own friendship becomes proof positive that his friend’s character must really be as Taunton would make of it.


Hitchens, it would seem, wasn’t really an unbeliever, and the only people who know it are the Christians whose faith he denounced publicly throughout his entire life. All in all, it’s a pretty shameless production. Once again, we find an unbeliever really does believe in God after all, or very nearly so. The trouble is that he only told a believer about all of this, at least according to the believer.

Taunton may think this is a novel story.

I think it’s a rather tiresome cliché.



Rapture Blister Burn …Spoiler Alert!


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Catherine Croll (Anna Wyndham) writes about violent pornography. She’s a well known feminist and a successful scholar. So, what is she doing singing the praises of Phyllis Schlafly?

Well it seems that something is missing from Catherine’s life, and that something is the family that conservative anti-feminist Schlafly warned women about so many decades past. Coming home to help her ailing mother, Catherine finds herself living near her college boy-friend, Don Harper (played by Frank Delaney) and his wife. Don’s wife is Catherine’s own former friend and roommate, Gwen (Shelly Wozniak). The two of them have two children. Catherine can see that they are struggling, and yet she can’t help but envy them. Seeing them makes her rethink some of her own life choices, and a part of her wishes she could exchange her life for Gwen’s. Impossible, right?

But what if it isn’t?

As it turns out, Gwen has second thoughts about her own life, and Don? Well, Don still fancies Catherine. So, it just may be that she can have him after all. It may well be that she can step right into Gwen’s life as Gwen runs off to pursue an advanced degree of her own.

Yep! The ghost of Trading Places haunts this play. It does indeed.


20160415_101933There isn’t a lot of live theater on the North Slope of Alaska. No, there isn’t. Heck, there isn’t a lot of movie theater on the North Slope. Nope! Hell, there isn’t even a lot of television theater in my own home. (Okay, that’s my own choice, but still!). So, I often check to see if anything is playing at a local theater when I’m in Anchorage. This time the answer was yes, at Cyrano’s, and my schedule didn’t even stop me. So, there I sat watching the opening scenes of this play and realizing for the first time what it was about.

The play is Rapture Blister Burn, written by Gina Gionfriddo and directed by Krista M. Schwarting. It’s been playing at Cyrano’s since April 1st and it’ll continue running through the 24th. If you’re in the area, and if the F-word doesn’t scare you, it’s definitely worth seeing.

So anyway, there I sat, watching as a series of inter-related stories began to unfold on the small stage in front of me. Much of the action takes place in a class Catherine teaches during the summer. Put together at the last minute, the class ends up with exactly two students, Gwen, and a young college student named Avery (Olivia Shrum). When Catherine’s mother, Alice (Sharon Harrison) joins the conversation, the result is three generations of women gathered together to discuss feminist theory. We are soon treated to a quick and dirty version of Betty Friedan’s critique of domesticity, followed shortly thereafter by an account of Schlafly’s critique of feminism. Throughout this, the focus of discussion remains squarely on the trade-off between family life and a career as each of the characters weighs in on the (dis-)advantages of each.

20160414_201115I’m not normally a fan of explicit theory in a story-line. I always want to ask the writer to write an essay if that’s what they really want to do. In this case, however, all this theory really is part of a story. The real question here is how the women use these theories to make sense of their own lives and to communicate with one another about the decisions each of them face. We are asked to consider the theories, yes, but we are also invited to think about what each theory means to the characters invoking them.

Oddly enough, it is Gwen (the stay at home mother) who champions Friedan and Catherine (the single woman with a successful career) who keeps telling us that Schlafly “had a point.” Avery and Alice are there largely to provide a running commentary as each of the two main participants struggle to rework their own life stories in light of the course material.  This is very much a story about women in their middle-ages, women with enough life behind them to have a few regrets and with enough ahead of them to feel a trace of hope.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to say how much fun the dialogue can be in this play. each of the characters comes into her own at some point in the story. Even Don has his moments, but for my money Avery has the best lines. Perhaps, it’s just the wicked joy that Shrum seems to take in playing her. At any rate, she had me laughing. But then they all did at one time or another.

Catherine’s praise for Schlafly is ironic, of course. We are supposed to understand this is a heresy of sorts, and yet it’s a heresy born of a deeply personal dilemma. For all her success, Catherine is clearly not happy, and she sees in Gwen’s family something that is missing in her own life. She will of course get a chance to test this theory. She will get Don back, if only briefly. She will get a chance to take care of Gwen’s youngest child, and she will see this arrangement all fall apart before the end of the summer. Gwen will give up grad school and return home. Don will prove himself unwilling to keep up with a successful spouse and opt for the comfortable life he has already made for himself, leaving Catherine with little to do but take up her promising career once again and plow through her successful life without a steady relationship.

It is perhaps not such a bad fate for Catherine, so it would seem. She is free despite herself. In the end, we are told Schlafly was right, though perhaps the lonely fate of a successful feminist is not so bad after all.


I’m back in the North Slope now and still wondering what it was I watched. I find myself in the ever so odd position of feeling a bit out-cyniced. That doesn’t often happen to me. There is a story in here about families. It’s not a very pretty one. Don and Gwen are pathetic. They had created a family out of their own personal failures, and in the course of the story, they recreated it when their newfound courage failed them once again. Catherine and Avery are the only ones who walk away from the story with anything like a future, but they do so with little hope for families of their own. In Catherine’s case, at least, that is a genuine loss. She did want to have her cake and eat it too, and in this case she just isn’t going to get to do that.

So, how do I feel about this? It depends on the stories of the moral.

The play is at its strongest if we minimize the lesson. This can be a story about how life has a way of refuting our theories and foiling our choices. As a story about middle-aged people, this is also a story about how decisions once meant to create a life become the source of limitations inhibiting our lives. We see in this story how Catherine once sacrificed a relationship for a career only to find (too late) the choice cost her more than she imagined. Don and Gwen both chose a family life over career ambitions only to find their own family languishing in the lack of professional rewards. Each of these characters seems to find the down-side of their past decisions a bit more significant than they once imagined. It’s an excellent story about the many ways that simply being human can damned well get in the way of trying to be something else. That’s a lesson I can identify with.

As specific statement about feminism, I can’t help thinking the play is a bit more objectionable. It’s view of family life is especially grim, perhaps unfairly so. (By perhaps, I probably mean something more like “almost certainly.”) What the play says about career women seems still more egregious. It asks us to accept that this one woman, Catherine, must choose between a family and a career, and of course the real problem here is just how much we are generalize about her dilemma.And that is where I find myself wanting to back out of the premise.

It isn’t just that I think Catherine should have her cake and eat it too. I could swear that I know women who have done precisely that. I’ve dated women who’ve done that. Hell, I’ve worked with and/or for women who have raised families and enjoyed successful careers. I don’t doubt the stress of doing both may have made misery of their lives on at least a few occasions, and I don’t doubt the cost of trying to do both falls harder on women than it does men. I don’t even doubt that in some individual cases, handling both becomes too much, but the point is women have done it.

Of course, I can accept the premise that trying to have both isn’t working for a single character in a wonderful little play. But I can’t help thinking the story isn’t just about her. There is a reason, she and the others spend so much time telling us about feminist theory, and it isn’t because this is only a particular story of a particular woman and her particular set of friends.

Which brings us to yet another story. Whatever else this play is about, it definitely contains a story about feminism. But in this respect it is NOT a story about middle-aged women at all. It is a story about elderly and deceased women. I can’t help wondering at the choice of Friedan and Schlafly. These are the iconic figures that haunt the tales told by the characters in this story. This choice shapes the story in terms of gender politics as they were defined quite some time ago. I’m a little out of my element here, but I feel safe in suggesting other theorists might have provided these characters with an entirely set of questions to struggle with. It’s an interesting story, but I suspect one that missed a few options in the telling.

By ‘missed’ I might mean ‘denied’.


(Whenever I’m a Cyrano’s I can’t help wishing I’d been around for a few of these plays. …Jihad Jones?)





The Fog of Hedges


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thumb_624_default_bigFor me, The Fog of War (2003) is absolutely the gift that keeps on giving. I get more fascinated every time I watch this film. There are so many angles to it, so many sub-themes to explore. Lately, I find myself more and more interested in its language. The Fog of War was directed by Errol Morris (of the Thin Blue Line). It consists of a series of interviews with Robert S. McNamara, a man at the center of conflict throughout much of the twentieth-century. Few people could have provided more direct insight into the thinking behind some of the most terrible decisions of that era. By ‘terrible decisions’ I don’t mean poor choices so much as decisions with so much at stake, one can’t help tremble at the thought of them. That many of these decisions were also (arguably) also poor choices in the other sense, choices that cost the lives of countless people is also a big part of this story.

A lesser man might not struggle with such questions at all, resting certain in whatever rationalizations suited him best. But there McNamara is in the Fog of War, right on screen talking about those very decisions, and trembling at the thought of them, right in front of the camera. For a man with blood on his hands (and frankly, enormous quantities of it), McNamara is remarkably candid. Also remarkably thoughtful. Still, there are moments when his honesty fails him. Limits he doesn’t seem quite willing to cross, and possibilities he clearly doesn’t want to explore. In those moments, the hesitation is all over his language.

It begins in some of the first frames of the movie. McNamara tells us that in the course of his life he has been “part of wars.” Fair enough, one might say, but more fairly still he has been more than part of wars. He has been a driving force in wars, perhaps in some cases against his better judgement, but he has certainly been more than part of wars. The wording is mild, perhaps a simple lead-in, but the phrase just doesn’t do justice to the facts that will follow.


The film is punctuated with lessons drawn from McNamara’s experiences. It is Morris that pulls the lessons out of the narrative and presents them as bullet points for our benefit. The first lesson begins with the importance of empathy, not simply as a source of human kindness, but as a method of survival, a means of understanding adversaries. This alone saved the world from total devastation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to McNamara. Morris interrupts him to suggest that McNamara left out a few things in his account of the Russian motivations. Perhaps he didn’t like being interrupted. Perhaps, he wasn’t prepared to acknowledge some of the facts at issue. McNamara is reluctant to get into the issue of genuine Russian grievances, but rallies so to speak, even going so far as to add a few facts in their favor. Still, he wavers at the end, not quite able to come clean on his own role in some of those grievances.

Morris: “Also, we had attempted to invade Cuba.

McNamara: Well, with the Bay of Pigs, that undoubtedly influenced their thinking. I think that’s correct, but more importantly, from a Cuban and a Russian point of view, they knew, what in a sense I really didn’t know. We had attempted to assassinate Castro under Eisenhower and under Kennedy, and later under Johnson, and in addition to that, major voices in the U.S. were calling for invasion.

Every time I watch this film, I wonder what that means. In what sense is it that McNamara didn’t know that the U.S. had tried to assassinate Castro? Is this a fatal failure moral courage? Is McNamara simply unable to admit what he knew? Or is this a key to understanding the (dis-)organization of American diplomacy? Is it possible that he was the left hand, only dimly aware of what the right one was up to? Don’t know, but seriously, that’s a Hell of a hedge coming through an otherwise brilliant narrative.


McNamara served in the U.S. Air Forces during World War II, serving under General Curtis LeMay. He provided statistical analysis of U.S. bombing missions. I know paperwork, right? But sometimes the pen really is mightier than the sword, or even the canon. Clearly, McNamara’s reports were not simply filed…

McNamara: I was on the island of Guam, in his command, in March of 1945. In that single night, we burned to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in Tokyo. Men, Women, and children.

Morris: Were you aware this was going to happen?

McNamara: Well, I was…, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.

I analyzed bombing operations and how to make them more efficient, i.e. not more efficient in the sense of killing more, but more efficient in the sense of weakening the adversary. I wrote one report analyzing the efficiency of the B-29 operations. The B-29 could get above the fighter aircraft, and above the air defense, so the loss rate would be much less. The problem was the accuracy was also much less. Now I don’t want to suggest that it was my report that led to, I’ll call it the firebombing. It isn’t that I’m trying to absolve myself of blame for the firebombing. I don’t want to suggest that it was I that put in LeMay’s mind that his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed, but anyway that’s what he did. He took the B-29s down to 5,000 feet, and he decided to bomb with firebombs.

The first phrasing of interest here is the recommendation. This is a double hedge. McNamara doesn’t take personal responsibility in this statement. He submerges himself in a larger “mechanism,” but that isn’t enough, because that mechanism only recommends the firebombing “in a sense.” McNamara thus starts his answer to Morris two full shields removed from personal responsibility for the firebombings. He then goes onto assure us that the measure of efficiency he used was not simply the number of people killed but the effectiveness of the bombing in weakening the enemy. It is an interesting distinction, albeit one perhaps lost at the moment when the fires reached their victims. That McNamara struggles with this is clear enough throughout this and many other segments of the film. I don’t mean to suggest he is insensitive to the topic. Rather, his struggle seems to suggest the opposite. McNamara hasn’t quite explained his own role adequately to himself, and the result is the final mess of hedging about the question of personal responsibility. He denies it, but he also denies that he denies it. It’s easy enough to point to LeMay, and with good reason; it was LeMay’s decision. Still, I can’t help thinking that answer wasn’t even sufficient for McNamara.


Morris: The choice of incendiary bombs, where did that come from?

McNamara: I think the issue is not so much incendiary bombs. I think the issue is in order to win a war should you kill a hundred thousand people in one night, by firebombing or any other way. LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘yes’. McNamara do you mean to say that instead of killing a hundred thousand, burning to death of a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none, and then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise?

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay’s command. Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve. I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. The U.S. Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history; kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race, prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are, I’ll call it the rules of war. Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night. LeMay said, if we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say  I were behaving as war criminals.  LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if your lose and not immoral if you win?

This one of the most fascinating monologues I have yet seen in a film. McNamara seems determined to ensure we understand the full gravity of the situation, almost urging the case against himself and others. He wants us to know this was a terrible decision, perhaps even a crime. And yet, he builds a kind of defense into the narrative. It begins with his refusal to answer the question. He had been asked who was responsible for the decision to use incendiary bombs, thus generating more civilian deaths than conventional ordinance might have. Whatever else, McNamara’s speech here gives us, it does not give us a direct answer to that question.

The narrative also serves to shape questions about McNamara’s own role in the affair in terms of his relationship to his commander. It is LeMay’s thoughts on the subject which control McNamara’s story-line. His own decisions are thus framed in terms of what LeMay might have said in response to any argument against the decision to firebomb the Japanese cities. If McNamara himself might have objected, this story suggests, his concerns would have been simply overruled.

Lastly, McNamara deflects the moral questions onto humanity itself. Nevermind who was responsible for this particular decision. The real question is one that falls to humanity itself. How might humanity have handled such an issue? McNamara seems to suggest, the answer would take the form of a rule of war. The specific feasibility of such rules at that time (or any other) is not so clear, but seems to be how he wants to address the issue. And in the end, this means NOT addressing the issue of just who is responsible for burning all those women and children up during World War II. McNamara wants us to understand it’s a serious issue, but he is at great pains to avoid dealing with it too directly.


This may seem like a side-issue, but I can’t help thinking it points to a Hell of a drama in its own right. McNamara’s thoughts on his own family and the impact of his service as Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy contain some interesting hedges of their own.

That’s the way it (his role as Secretary of State) began. You know, there was a traumatic period. My wife probably got ulcers from it, may have even ultimately have died from the stress. My son got ulcers; it was a very traumatic, but they were some of the best years of our lives, and all the members of my family benefited from it. It was terrific.

I can’t help wondering how McNamara could say that his service benefited all members of his family while telling us the job may well have killed his wife. It seems cruel to me, even to point this out, and yet, it seems an important fact. Among the many who suffered through this man’s career, one may well count members of his own family. No doubt, this too has its reasons, reasons he doesn’t owe us, but as much as he gives is damned disturbing. And I wonder if that sort of story isn’t a bit more common than one might suspect.


Regarding the build-up of the Vietnam War…

There was a coup in South Vietnam. Diem was overthrown, and he and his brother were killed. I was present with the President when together we received information of that coup. I have never seem him more upset. He totally blanched. President Kennedy and I had tremendous problems with Diem, but My God! He was the authority, he was the head of state, and he was overthrown by a military coup, and Kennedy knew, and I knew, that to some degree the U.S. Government was responsible for that.

Here again, one seems to see McNamara posing as the left hand struggling to understand what the right hand was doing. Government is complex, sure, but I can’t help wondering; if I were in a more polemic mood, might I start a criticism of this war by asking just how in the Hell the CIA could give it’s blessings to a coup the President and his Secretary of Defence didn’t support?


Speaking of Vietnam, there is a fascinating moment covering the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Twice in August of 1964, the Destroyer USS Maddox reported attacks from North Vietnamese forces. These attacks have long been disputed, but nevertheless, they provided the rational for a resolution authorizing use of greater force by Lyndon Johnson. McNamara provides his own take on the details. One of the more interesting gems here is an audio-taped recording of a man on the Maddox reporting the attacks. Asked if he is sure that a torpedo had been fired at the ship, he replies in the affirmative; “No doubt about that, …I think.”


“What I’m doing is thinking it through with hindsight, but you don’t have hindsight available at the time. I’m very proud of my accomplishments, and I’m very sorry that in the process of accomplishing things, I’ve made errors.”

This line comes toward the end of the film as McNamara is beginning to summarize the whole thing. One might question whether or not ‘errors’ would be the most appropriate word to use for the sense of moral transgression that haunts this film. Perhaps, this may seem unfair. McNamara and those he served with had responsibilities some of us will thankfully never know. Had he done too little, he might well have faced similarly questions about the loss of American lives due to failure of nerve. So, does this render the whole issue a kind of practical calculation, a simple cost-benefit analysis? McNamara seems to have been well trained in such accounting. This might well be his honest sense of the issues. Sill,  one has to wonder at the use of ‘error’ to describe the moral significance of lives lost wasted.


What is morally appropriate in a wartime environment? Let me give you an illustration. While I was Secretary, we used what’s called “Agent Orange” in Vietnam, a chemical that strips leaves off of trees. After the war, it is claimed that that was a toxic chemical, and it killed many individuals, soldiers and civilians exposed to it. Were those who issued the approval to use Agent Orange criminals? Were they committing a crime against humanity? Let’s look at the law. Now what kind of law do we have that says these chemicals are acceptable for use in war and these chemicals are not. We don’t have clear definitions of that kind. I never in the world would have authorized an illegal action. I’m not really sure I authorized Agent Orange. I don’t remember it, but it certainly occurred, the use of it occurred while I was Secretary.

What is moist striking about this passage is the distance between McNamara and a decision for which he was clearly responsible. It seems plausible enough to suggest that he may not have been directly involved, or at least not in a way that fully impressed upon him the significance of this choice. Still, McNamara does acknowledge this happened on his watch. And yet he discusses the issue for the most part as though the responsibility must fall on the shoulders of someone else. Again, McNamara seems to look to the laws for answers to these questions, but that too seems to be a bit of a dodge. Does he really need a law to tell him not to poison people.

…also noteworthy hear would be the sense that something is odd about the claim that a chemical that strips leaves from plants might be harmful humans. McNamara doesn’t quite acknowledge that it is harmful. He is content to tell us that “it is claimed…”


Near the end of the film, McNamara relates the story of a protester. His account here is fascinating in many ways. What interests me about it at present is the way he frames the moral questions again in terms of humanity itself. This was a protester who died trying to communicate something to McNamara himself, but McNamara saw the significance of his death in the language of the man’s wife, as a question for all of humanity. Perhaps such questions are well asked of all of humanity, and yet I can’t help thinking that a question asked of all of humanity isn’t really asked of any particular person.

…or perhaps, more to the point, a person weary of answering such questions in his own life, weary of his own answers and the consequences of the answers he has given, might well prefer to have humanity itself grapple with those questions.

Anyway, we’ll leave it with this last quote.

Norman Morrison was a Quaker. He was opposed to war, the violence of war, the killing. He came to the Pentagon, doused himself with gasoline. Burned himself to death below my office. He held a child in his arms, his daughter. Passersby shouted, “Save the child!” He threw the child out of his arms, and the child lived, and is alive today. His wife issued a very moving statement, uh; ‘Human beings must stop killing other human beings.’ And that’s a belief that I shared. I shared it then and I believe it even more strongly today. How much evil must we do in order to do good? We have certain ideals, certain responsibilities. Recognize that at times you will have to engage in evil, but minimize it.



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