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.


Eight Tips for Writing an Eight-Tip Advice Post (Crazy Uncle of A Bullet Point Mind)


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If you make sense to people, they will only make sense back at you!

The internet is full of pages providing us with numbers.

Numbers and tips!

Numbers OF tips.

That’s right. The internet is full of posts containing a designated number of little advisatory gems. I don’t know how much use there is in reading these lists, but I’m convinced there must be a point to writing them. I reckon the wisdom must reside in the numbers. So, the secret to providing advice online must be to put the advice in the form of a list of useful tips. Most importantly, you have to number them. Then put the number in the title. Netizens love numbers. They will read all the tips you want to give them as long as you put them in a well-numbered list.

…I think.

Anyway, I’m gonna give it a try. I do have a list of my own. It’s totally full of good advisings too. At least I will have such a list when I type out a bit more of this post. Here are my tips! My, …um, [INSERT NUMBER HERE)-point list of how to do [REPEAT NUMBER]-point lists. Yeah, that’s right. I don’t even know the number of points on my list, but I will have a number when I’m done writing my list, and you’re gonna read it to.

The number anyway. You’ll probably skip the rest. Dog knows, I would. Anyway, here goes…

OneFirst! Number one! The main, first-most, and totally beginning number on my list list of numbered things on the list that is totally numbered. The point of that number is to, …um …Number you tips! Yep. You gotta totally number them. Otherwise people won’t know the count, or maybe they will forget your advice as they read through it. Plus, it might be that your advice really sucks, but at least the numbers will make sense, so if you give bad advice, you can at least give good numbers. That’s why you gotta make sure you give people tips and make sure you number them so people can count as they read your tips.

And anyway, numbering your tips makes them way more important.

“Look before you cross the street?” …Meh!

“Number 1: Look before you cross the street.” …Dude, that is so totally profound!

Trust me, numbers profundify the lamest advice, and if that isn’t enough for you, then I just don’t know what else to say. Just fricking number your tips, okay dude!?!

TwoTwo: At least half your advice can be totally obvious or completely meaningless. In fact, it’s probably better that way, because it leaves less for people to disagree with. You just have to use the right words. If you are giving advice on how to do a bang up blog, for example, then be sure to tell people they should produce ‘quality content’. That may sound to you like an obvious call to write good stuff, but that’s because you haven’t grasped the full nuance. See, words like “quality content” are just so qualitative, they will make people feel all somehow, and then they will think you’ve actually said something, and they will respect you more. Plus, think how important that advice really is. Your readers were probably planning to write something that sucked, but you totally steered them in the right direction with that advice. Isn’t that cool?

Oh, what do you care? It’s a hit to your website one way or another!

IMG_20160223_143321Drei: Use your advice to drag people by the nose through your website. This isn’t hard to do. You just add all sorts of links to each piece of advice, hinting each time that they can learn more about whatever they’ve just read if they click the link. This way the vacuous nature of your not-so-helpful advice will work to your advantage. People will think; “Oh, I just haven’t found the real information yet. I have to go to that link where I will learn everything I need to know about this and it will finally make sense.”

If you’ve figured out that nothing at the link has to actually make sense, then you are catching on. The point is that this practice will generate extra hits on your website, which will totally drive up your search rankings. Your readers won’t learn a damned thing, but fuck them anyway, right? Your advice is good because it’s good for you, good for your rankings, and good for your blog. It’s probably also good for Jesus, all of your fellow countrymen, and if you can swing the suggestion, starving children somewhere in Africa.

…don’t forget to shed a tear as you write that last one. Also finish your dinner.

SusieQuatroQuatro: Try to include at least one useful piece of information. It doesn’t have to be original. It doesn’t really even have to be all that relevant. Hell, you can steal it shamelessly from someone wiser than yourself. The point is that you want your reader to have something to hold on to. That way when they remember your post and can’t remember all the other stuff you said, because – CAN THE CAN, HONEY – after all you really didn’t say anything in most of your advice post, but when they think about that, they will hopefully remember that one thing, which probably didn’t come from you anyway, but they’ll remember it just the same. Then when their buddies ask why anyone should go visit your sight, they’ll say; “Oh I learned that one cool thing and some other stuff. If you go to the sight, you’ll see that one thing and all the other stuff too, and then you can remind me about all the stuff I forgot.” …which is of course totally cool for you, especially if their friends start following the links. No-one will remember the useless non-advice, but they’ll remember the one good point and think there were others that they forgot. If your lucky, they will even come back to check.

I know, I know. You’re worried that you may not have any really good advice to give, right? Don’t worry about it. All you have to do is find someone else who is worth listening to and use them as a source. The advice they give will be the one that matters. So, just pick something that seems superficially relevant to the topic. Don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be actually relevant, just as long as it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb and make people think it doesn’t belong in your post at all. Then you’re sunk.

Ashdla’: Be sure to write in short sentences. Also make sure that your grammar is nice and standard. It’s best to avoid run-on sentences. For instance, most of what I wrote in bullet point Suzi? That kind of writing is right out! (Seriously, don’t write like I do. It’s bad for the economy.)

Now you might think that the point here is to communicate more effectively, but you would be wrong to think that. The real reason is that your 8th-grade English teacher will haunt your fricking dreams if you don’t follow this advice. You don’t want that, now do you? I know I don’t. Seriously, Just leave me alone Mrs. Lawrence, will you please just leave me alone!

20160331_1311305) Some bullet points can be really brief. People won’t mind the break. Reading is hard.


20160331_131502Tallimat) Oh, brevity? That’s a good one! Reading is hard. Remember that point when you write stuff. People don’t like to read, which is one of the reasons that writing is hard. Writing is hard, because reading is hard. Maybe writing is actually hard, because reading seems hard, or maybe there is a lesson about laziness here, but the point is writing is really rude. I don’t know about the rest of this paragraph, but I am totally serious about this point. Writing is definitely rude. When you write something, you are asking someone to read it, and no-one wants to do that. So, don’t write anything, you rude mother-fucker!

…Alternatively, remember that whatever your write, your readers are just waiting for an excuse to stop reading. Why they started reading in the first place is a mystery to me and to you, and probably to them as well, but they are just waiting to bust away from your damned blog post and go do something fun. So you have to keep it brief, and you have to do stuff to keep their attention. Words like ‘fucker’ help with the last part. When I figure out how to keep it brief, I’ll write another post to let you know. I’ll probably even add it as a link to this post.

Seven SamuraiVII: Promise them money. I don’t mean that you should offer to pay your readers, though that might work. …No, it wouldn’t. (No-one wants to read.) Anyway, my point is that you should allude to financial success. Hint that people will earn a lot of money if they just follow your advice. Ideally, you should get that hint into your title as well, and into every other bullet point. In fact, you should probably get it into every bullet point, just to be on the safe side. Just keep suggesting that you’re offering people the keys to a successful career in whatever, and you’ll be fine.

Now you might the point of this advice is to get readers to think they can make money by following your advice, but that is totally not the point. Seriously, no-one is that stupid! The point of doing this is to convince other internet advice-bloggers to think that you are in the same business they are, and hopefully that you are really good at it. If you can sell that image to them, then those guys are totally gonna start coming to your blog, commenting, and hopefully referencing you on their own blogs. That will totally drive your hint count up, at least as long as you do the same for them. You won’t make any money off any of this, but it’ll be a gas to think that people came to your blog, even if most of them only did so in the hopes of getting you to come to theirs. They didn’t read your posts. Don’t forget that. No-one reads blog posts. But they will count as hits, and that’s cool.

See, no-one really believes advice on how to make money online, but some people evidently believe that others believe you can make money online. THAT, my friend, is your target readership!

20160331_133916восьмой: Wrap it up and hit the ‘Publish’ button. Seriously, just get on with it!

No seriously, just hit the damned button.



…No fair, using this advice for 10-point lists. It’s only meant for 8.


Libertarian Josey Whales


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JoseyWDon’t get me wrong. I owe countless hours of entertainment, and many profound lessons learned to Clint Eastwood and his lifetime of utter brilliance. In this post, I will of course repay him by attacking his work on one of my all-time favorite films.

I guess I am feeling lucky.

…or maybe it’s just a blog post, but anyway, that’s not the film I mean to ramble about. I’m thinking about Josey Whales. There is one scene in this film that really bothers me. Maybe it’s meant to. Hell, probably, it’s meant to, but in this case the bother skips out of the bounds of the movie itself and starts to become a real-world bothertation.

I am talking about a scene in which Josey enters a trading post to find two men raping a young Navajo woman right there in the building. He grimaces a bit, and we get the impression he doesn’t really approve, and of course he does what so many of Eastwood’s characters do in this film; he goes on about his business, at least until the men become his business. This character is a reluctant hero after all, not some white-hat good-guy. When the rapists decide to try and take him prisoner, Josey, …uh, …SPOILER ALERT, …shoots them both dead, thus effectively saving the woman from sexual assault even as he saves his own life.

It’s great drama, and one of the things that makes it great is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Would he have helped the young woman if the two men hadn’t gone after him? We might hope so, but the film itself gives us no reason to suspect he would have. What we do know is that he walked right past them, and right past his first chance to help her. The whole scene ends with a disconcerting sense that Josey has put an stop to a number of bad things without ever really making a decision to do so.

It’s good storytelling. Hell, it’s great story-telling. So what’s the problem?

I think of this scene every time I hear of Clint Eastwood’s approach to libertarianism. His take on the subject often described as “everyone leaves everyone alone” or some variant thereof. I actually rather like this expression, at least for a moment or two whenever I hear it. I can just imagine it being directed at some fussy bastard whose getting into other people’s business, in effect telling them to mind their own. I can get behind that sort of thing, sire I can. But then I find myself thinking that’s not really where this message is going, is it? Not in the grand scheme of things.

Time and again, we see libertarians in league with mainstream conservatives. On the topics of government aid to the poor and interference with the economy their messages are synchronous. On the topic of gender politics, their views clash, and near as I can tell the mainstream conservative themes win-out just about every time. This tells us a lot about the priorities at stake here, and I get damned tired of hearing a message that promises respect for individuals across the board only to see that message work consistently to the benefit of those already powerful at the expense of those struggling just to survive.

…which of course brings us right back to that scene from Josey Whales.

You could think of “everyone leave everyone alone” as a rule that might stop the rapists, albeit, it’s damned weak wording for a crime such as that. More to the point, I can’t help thinking it has more to do with Josey’s initial decision to go about his business, leaving the men free to hurt a young woman in his presence. I can’t help thinking that in that moment, Josey was minding his own business, just as the real Clint Eastwood seems to suggest we should all do.

Of course things work out in the end with Josey Whales, but they work out in the end because that’s the way the story is written. The bad guys go one step too far, thus triggering Josey’s own trigger, and it doesn’t hurt that they are foolish enough to let him get the best of them, just as all the other bad guys in that story do. Evil is vanquished in Josey Whales, but not because anyone has made a conscious choice to oppose it. Indeed, the movie seems rather set against the wisdom of such choices. No, the good that happens in this movie happens as if by accident, as Josey and his companions go about their daily lives, just trying to survive. And so the invisible hand of the writer seems to bring good  things from morally ambiguous behavior, much as the invisible hand of God in free market folklore.

It’s good storytelling, yes, but it’s piss-poor politics.

Pedagogical Metaphors From Half-Baked to Totally Stale


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20160105_233707Pedagogical metaphors are like a sober friend on your way out an especially good party. You can lean on him a bit. If he’s a good friend, you can lean a little more. Lean too much and you both fall in the gutter and he’s not gonna wanna party with you any more.

I was thinking about this as a medical professional gave a presentation on HIV awareness to my students this week. She came to a few of my class, and each time she made a point to tell us about macrophages, a kind of white blood cell that engulf and consume debris in our blood stream. Every time she got to this topic, she made a point to ask the students if they’d ever played Pacman.

This was a particularly dated metaphor, but oddly enough it seemed to work as almost all of the students had played this old game at some point in their lives. So, they got her point. Still I thought this an odd artifact of sorts. If it worked today, it must have worked so much better a couple decades back when Pacman was a common presence in just about everyone’s daily life. People might have walked by the machine back then (I did, right on to Asteroids), but they saw it, they knew it, and most had dropped a quarter or three in a Pacman at some point in their lives.


I want an Asteroids-themed lesson!

I couldn’t help wondering if this metaphor wasn’t more important to her own thinking than it was for the students. …if it wasn’t less a means of communicating with them than it was an essential crutch propping up her own approach to the topic. Then I remembered how much I love my soda wars (Coke and Pepsi) analogy when I talk about the Cold War. I know damned well the students don’t remember the cola wars. Most of them weren’t even alive when Pepsi set fire to Michael Jackson’s hair. But the metaphor just seems so perfect for me that I can’t resist using it, even if I have to teach the students about the cola wars in order to then use this to teach them about the cold war. (The punch line here, for those with enough morbid curiosity to damn a give, is that third parties were the real losers in the conflict). I use that metaphor a lot, but it’s probably more compulsive behavior than focused and well designed pedagogy. So, that’s at least one conceptual party-buddy that I’ve squashed on the curb in return for his patient efforts to guide my clumsy ass through a topic.

As to dated material, you can ask any student about my many pop-culture references, most of which haven’t made sense to young folks for at least a couple decades. I suspect the bottom line is that most teachers have a few of these tropes in our tool-box, little analogies that work for us more than they do for our students.

As my guest speaker moved on to discuss other things, I found my own mind wandering over the range of metaphors we teachers use in our lesson plans, wondering how many really help the students and how many get used for our own benefit.



I can think of at least one really great metaphor a friend of mine used to work into a first year seminar to teach the students at The Institute of American Indian Arts. She likened the educational process to flying a plane, and the steps necessary to learn a subject and pass a course to prepping for a flight. What made this metaphor work, mind you, was the part where the students actually got to fly a plane toward the end of the semester. Most metaphors stand or fall in words spoken, dribbled on a page, or splattered on a screen. Her metaphor literally took off, and it did so in the hands of her students.

You can’t get more cool than that!

We tried something similar here at Iḷisaġvik, comparing the educational process to whaling. That may seem odd to some folks, but the Inupiat community of the North Slope does engage in whaling and we are a tribal college, so this fit right in line with promoting the indigenous practices central to our own mission. That said, results were mixed, I think. Whether or not students liked the course, I don’t think that master-metaphor  was one of its major selling points. I was never entirely sold on the value of a master-metaphor in a class like that. The one they used at IAIA worked, yes, but I suspect it worked because it was linked to a uniquely personal experience.

It’s hard to compete with flying a plane, yes it is.

I expect the argument-as-warfare meme is all over my logic class. Ah well! For a borderline peacenik, I’m a veritable war-monger when it comes to syllogisms. But this is hardly novel, or even that interesting. Talking about arguments without using violent metaphors? Now that would be interesting. Hey look now, all I am saying is give peace a chance!

…okay someday, maybe I’ll take my own advice on that.

Other metaphors come and go. A topic may yield a race of some sort. An essay can become a veritable construction project. An idea may become rich (in sugar or money, I sometimes wonder). A fact or a sub-theme may become central to a topic. An event may serve as a trigger (World War I anybody?). We can meditate on a topic when we are really just talking about it, and a certain kind of speculation quickly becomes an experiment, or at least a ‘thought experiment’, when we want to endow it with a sense of the sciencey. Half-conscious tropes abound! Most of the time we don’t even think about these things.

Sometimes a student finds their own metaphors, and sometimes they even tell us about them. And sometimes those metaphors turn out to be gold, but I have to admit I’m a tough sell. I often grumble a little inside when I hear these things. Student generated metaphors often strike me as evidence the students have missed the point. I grumble! Perhaps these metaphors would be better thought of as evidence the student has a point of their own. Nah! That approach is just way too wholesome, and we’ll have none of that kinda thinking on this blog dammit!

Coming back to my, …um, …central metaphor in this post, I am wondering if a pedagogical metaphor might be better thought of as your drunk friend who invited you to the party in the first place. He’s the one that’s already three drinks on the road to happy-happy, and if you take the beer he’s offering you, then maybe it’ll be a pleasant evening (and a rich conversation), but you should always find your limit a little before he does. After all, there is a reason this guy is more dialed-in to the party scene than you are. So, it’s less a question of how hard you want to lean on your metaphorical friend than it is a matter of realizing he’s always going to want to do that one more shot that’s gonna totally do you in. Then you just have to say; “No metaphor! No more booze for me. I’m done for now.” …which is of course a metaphor for backing out of metaphorical implications that seem a little silly.

…and on that count alone this last paragraph is a total failure.

What the Hell would I know about parties anyway!?!


Landing in Barrow


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Just flew in yesterday from a trip to Minnesota. The plane usually approaches Barrow from the ocean-side, and this time of year that can be rather cool. I was seated in the aisle, so this could definitely have been better. Still, I think it’s kinda neat. I reckon the plane finally crosses over land at about the 1:06 mark. If you look closely, you can see shoreline. The Snow gets smoother.

Couple pics from the trip (click to embiggen):



Northiness Finds a Photo Filter


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IMG_20151012_115503There is a reason I put my picture posts for this blog in the category of “Bad Photography.” I really don’t know what I’m doing. I started taking pictures when I realized I lived in a place full of amazing sights I am very lucky to witness. As I’ve traveled more, I’ve found even more reasons to take pictures. What I haven’t done is learn enough about the settings on my cameras to make any intelligent use of them. Neither have I made much use of post-production technologies. Most of the pictures on this website are thus straight out of the camera using the most basic settings available. This summer, I began using Instagram, however, and with a little badgering from Moni, I finally starting using some of the filters available on that service. It’s still bad photography, of course, I wouldn’t produce anything else. (I do have principles, you know!) But I do think a few of these images are an improvement, so I thought I’d share a few of the Alaska-themed pics in a new post.

…er, this is that post.

(Click a pic to embiggen it. You know you wanna!)






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