Christmas is What Christmas Ain’t


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Yep, me with hair, decorating a tree.

What makes a Christmas story?

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

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

Makes you want to go ‘awe’!

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

Can you say ‘cognitive dissonance’?

I knew that you could.

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

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

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

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

So be it!

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

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

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

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

How else to explain fruit cake!


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

More than a bit actually.


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


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

Molokai makes everything better.


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

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


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

Damned lucky I didn’t come away with scars!


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


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

She is an extraordinarily patient woman.

Her boyfriend can be a bit of a shit though.

More than a bit, actually.


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

Merry Christmas everyone!

The Difference Between Being Drunk and Being a Drunk


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

Fair enough.

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

Mutual contempt is a mutal solace, I suppose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harsh, I know.

A double standard, I also  know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither did I.

Not like that anyway.

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

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

Now there is a damning thought!

But I had it just the same.

And sadly, that wish did come true.

Damn me anyhow for wishing it!

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

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

They weren’t drunks. They were just drunk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who am I.”

His answer? “YOU!”

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

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

…or perhaps others would have the stories about me.

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

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

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

At least until I hit the hotel desk.


The Ocean Wants to Be More Firm


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15055704_10211157809206159_5684896551570056852_nThe sunrise brought a couple sun-dogs with it this morning. By this morning, I actually mean almost noon, but the point is I went out with a camera to see if I could get some nice doggie pics. I wouldn’t say the picture does it justice, but anyway, here is what I got.

Cute little puppies, aren’t they?

Afterwards, I remembered that the ocean has been flirting with solid form lately, so after playing with the sun dogs I turned around and headed the other way for a block or two. Kinda slushy right now, but definitely not my flavor. I expect it will get properly solid soon. In the interim, my hand has suffered enough for my amateur camera games. I think I’ll stay inside and write a bit now.

Might as well add a few more pics from the last month or two. As always, you may click to embiggen.

A Milagro Bagpipe War?


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mv5bmjizmje3mdcwm15bml5banbnxkftztcwmjk0mjg4ng-_v1_sy1000_cr007071000_al_John Nichols, the author of Milagro Beanfield War once gave the keynote speech at a conference I attended in Colorado. If I recall correctly the name of his presentation was; “Everything I know about the West I Learned in New York.”

…something like that.

Anyway, the point of the speech was that the sort of problems he wrote about in work like Milagro Beanfield War simply weren’t really unique to the western states. They were much the  same as they were anywhere else. Big money can be a terrible danger to small communities. That is as true of an inner city neighborhood facing gentrification as it is a small town in northern New Mexico facing a major development project.

I thought about this last night as I watched You’ve Been Trumped (2011), the story of Donald Trump’s efforts to develop a golf course in the community of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Conflict between Trump and his team, on the one hand, and a small group of locals who want to hold onto their own homes and their own community provide the central theme of the film. At least one Youtube channel describes this film as a David and Goliath story, which seems fair enough to me. Perhaps, that’s Milagro Beanfield War was too, a David and Goliath Story. The same could be said of Local Hero (a film referenced in You’ve Been Trumped). We could certainly find other such stories if we looked, but whats most striking about this one is that it’s real. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking it was as if someone had taken Nichols book and reworked into a movie script based in Scotland. That someone would have to be Donald Trump himself. It’s almost as if he took that former story of a heartless developer stomping all over a local community and said; “Yep! That villain is what I want to be.” The rest of the plot seems to flow smoothly from there.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not the most balanced documentary I’ve ever seen. If there are arguments in favor of Trump’s development, this film makes little effort to present them. The story-line focuses squarely on the conflicts with those living near Trump’s development project.I do wonder just how representative those individuals may be, and just what the overall balance of support and opposition to Trump may have been in the local community. The movie leaves a definite impression  regarding such matters, but it doesn’t answer them squarely. That said, what this film does show is damning enough in its own terms. Within the narrow scope of Trump’s relationship to those resisting his project, the film reveals enough to condemn the man. Whatever might be said in favor of Trump’s development, the actions covered in this film are truly abysmal in their own right.

It’s fascinating to see how much of the ugliness we’ve seen from this man during his presidential campaign appears in this film from 2011. His abusiveness is on full display as Trump repeatedly describes one hold out (Michael Forbes) as a filthy man living a disgusting life amidst his own trash. His penchant for simply telling the most convenient story regardless of the facts at hand can easily be seen as Trump brags about his wonderful contributions to the environment by stabilizing local dunes even as the film repeatedly shows construction tearing up the land, diverting waterways, and disrupting the natural cycles of the local ecosystem. It’s also present in Trump’s claims to be serving the people of Scotland even as he wages a heavy-handed campaign of harassment against those Scots interfering with his plans for a business clearly aimed at tourists. And of course his easy dismissal of journalism can be seen in his demands for questions from ‘real journalists’ at a press conference, effectively dismissing those who might not support his business. We here in America have seen all this time and again over the last year. The people of Aberdeen had already seen plenty of it by 2011.

Of course others have seen similar treatment in countless places where Donald Trump has done business. This is just one of many instances in which one of Donald Trump’s grand schemes for development fell like a boot-stomp of a local community.

…which brings me to another interesting feature of this film. It helps to illustrate some of the foibles of popular right wing theories about the power-relations between government and big business. As with other populist candidates, much of Donald Trump’s appeal seems to be rooted popular resentment about elites. How such resentment could lead to support for a man who so clearly asserts aristocratic privilege over the mere peasantry is something of a mystery to me. Still, he does draw a great deal of his appeal from messages systematically distorting  the modern political economy all across the media. At least a portion of this can be seen in the movie.

Let us start with libertarianism! This school of thought generally counsels us to avoid government entanglement with business, and with people’s personal lives. In principle this applies to any number of things, but in practice, the message is more likely to carry the day when the issues at stake are progressive taxation, welfare programs, or any number of government regulations tying the hands of big business. It’s a school of thought that consistently tells us we should not look to government to resolve questions of economic inequality. Central to the force of this message is a vision of equity in which government officials treat all people with equal regard and government programs afford equal rights to all of us. You’ve Been Trumped presents us with countless situations in which the Trump organization uses  official power to defeat the mere peasants who stand in his plans. Those people suffer loss of electricity, water, and destruction of their property, to say nothing of a deliberate effort to block their view of the sea for the sake of doing just that. At each stage in this process officials are slow to listen to complains or respond to requests for assistance and quick to enforce rights claimed by Trump. It might be that particular disputes can be sorted out in the courts, but Trump’s organization clearly has the upper hand at stage in this process. The notion that this system is consistent with any formal sense of fairness is at best a laughable proposition.

Libertarians might object that they too wouldn’t support Trump’s use of municipal authorities to abuse local enemies, assuming of course that the abuses shown in this film stand up to critical scrutiny, but that hardly addresses the problem. What this film shows is the leverage that monied interests do get over every level of government authority in existence. It isn’t enough to moralize the issue, to stand on the sidelines and shout; “Hey stop, don’t do that.” The point is that this is exactly what happens when we allow substantial disparities in the distribution of economic resources. Those with more at their disposal WILL use those resources to skew government authority (something Donald Trump appears to have done throughout his long career as a public menace). Despite this fact, libertarian narratives continue to focus on the problems of aid to the poor. They offer no solution whatsoever to the sorts of problems shown in this film, but libertarians continually present themselves as underdogs hard at work fighting against ‘statist’ power. In practice that fight is virtually always a fight to take away what little help and what little protections those in need may have.When an actual aristocrat takes it upon himself to destroy the life of a man he deems to filthy to accord even the most minimal respect, libertarians are simply silent on the matter.

Anti-globalists provide one of the more consistent sources of support for Donald Trump in this election campaign. Alex Jones of Info Wars would have to be counted among his most visible supporters.  He and his own fans often speak of Trump’s detractors as globalists, thus framing the whole election in terms of support for, or opposition globalism. Trump’s support for Brexit, combined with promise to build a wall on the southern U.S. border would seem to have earned him a great deal of points with this crowd. But of course this only counts if you have a really myopic view of globalism. It is one thing to stop people at your borders, which is what Trump is happy to offer the anti-globalist crowd, but of course money and power can easily flow right over those same borders. Yes, Trump has also declared his opposition to a number of international trade deals, but this is a man who has also taken advantage of opportunities on the other side of the border throughout his career. Simply put, big money doesn’t need a special trade deal to take advantage of foreign workers and foreign markets, and this movie illustrates that very clearly. It is Donald Trump’s wealth that enables him to go to a foreign country and simply have his way with a small local community. Nothing in Trump’s political agenda suggest that he intends to stop such things, and a good deal suggests that he intends to continue them.

Trump is happy to control borders, precisely because restricting the movement of workers is critical to optimizing profits under global market conditions. A world in which cheep labor can be found to the left and rich buyers are over to the right is not a bad deal for people like Donald Trump. In this respect, he is the perfect candidate for the anti-globalists. He will make a show of national boundaries, one they can be proud of, but he will never actually challenge the power relations at stake in the global economy. Neither Donald Trump nor Alex Jones really want to see anything truly revolutionary happen there. That might disrupt Jones’ sale of dietary supplements or keep Donald from demolishing coastal communities for his jet-set customers.

In the end, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that Donald Trump could run as a populist candidate. He isn’t the first pampered elitist to pose as the hope of the common man. Still, he does seem to be one of the most clueless, and it does scare me that he could easily become our President. I’m not a fan of Hillary either, to be honest, but I worry that the whole nation may soon hand the keys to a problem child with a history of wrecking most everything he touches. More than that, his candidacy helps to illustrate precisely why the underdog themes of those on the right always ring so hollow for me. Time and again, they consistently seem David for Goliath, or perhaps the David of later years, the one who steals another man’s wife at the height of his own wealth and power for the David of David and Goliath, the one who actually does face down a more powerful opponent. Time and again, the right wing plays the underdog to government power, all the while ignoring real questions about who is really putting one over on whom. It’s a bad habit that some have fallen into. It’s a habit that may soon cost us all.

Just ask the people of Aberdeenshire.


On Chick Tracts


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I still remember the first time I encountered a Chick tract, but I can’t remember if it was the 4th or the 5th grade. I think I might have been hanging around after school for some reason. I do remember quite clearly that it was one of several that had been left scattered about the boy’s bathroom at my school.

This particular pamphlet contained a pretty generic story of a sinner who died and went to Hell. The pamphlet ended, as always, with a message of hope; we didn’t have to end as the character in the story did. Through Jesus we could be saved. In my charitable moments, I like to think that message of hope is the real point of these pamphlets, but frankly I think that might be giving a little too much benefit of the doubt. On that day it was clearly the message of fear that left its biggest impression on me. I remember the feeling of horror coursing up and down my spine as I read about the suffering of sinners damned to a lake of fire. The mere thought that this could be the world I was born into was enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck and keep it there. The suffering itself and the cruelty of the being who would inflict it stuck with me for days, as did the cruelty of anyone who could say of such a thing that the source of it was good and worthy of praise.

It’s more than a little fitting that my first encounter with a Chick Tract was in a bathroom, because my whole world got a little creepier that day and I don’t think it’s recovered since.

I grew up in a household filled with the ideas of Spiritualism and Theosophy, essentially the forerunners of modern day New Age thinking. I’d heard of people who believed in Satan. I’d heard of people who believed in Hell. In retrospect, I must certainly have known many who believed in the things talked about in that pamphlet, but I hadn’t ever really talked to any of them about it. What I heard of God and Jesus was all love and kindness, and so those who literally believed in Hell were (much like Hell itself) a remote possibility to me. To my family, such people were largely a whipping boy, an image of someone who gets it wrong conjured up mostly for the purpose of telling a story about how more enlightened souls get it right.

The Chick tract was the first time such people became real to me. They became real to me in the most caricatured form imaginable. On that day, the worst things said of organized religion by the adults around me had not come close to the pure malice of the story I held in my hands. Someone had left this with the intent that children would find it and read about it. Whoever that person was believed quite firmly in Hell, and they believed in it strongly enough to want to share that message with others.

…with children.

It didn’t escape me that the chosen mode of delivery was less than honest. Leaving pamphlets in a children’s bathroom is more than a little underhanded, and this fact was the icky icing on a whole cake of ugly. So, there I sat with this pamphlet, trying to wrap my mind around the twin horrors of this vengeful God and the fact that some people actually do believe in Him, and whats more that they love him. Suffice to say those horrors outweighed the significance of any hope the pamphlet might have had to offer. The vision of Jesus might have been the end of the story, but it’s most memorable moment for me (and I suspect others) had clearly been the lake of fire.

Could the world really be so perverse? Could people really be so morbid as to think this way? Those are the questions I kept asking myself after encountering that first Chick Tract. It’s all I could think of for some time afterwards. Eventually, I managed to put the whole thing behind me, but not entirely. It was a bit like some of the dirty stories my friends were beginning to tell at that age, or images of odd porn that somehow crossed my path. I hoped one day to make sense of all these things, but for the time being I found them simply disturbing and I preferred not to think about them much. To me, that pamphlet had always been a kind of pornography.

It still is.

I understand the author of that pamphlet, Jack Chick, has recently passed away, and it reminded me of that day back in school. I don’t wish to celebrate his death, but I’m also quite aware that his passing will stimulate a surge in public interest regarding the man and his work. I take no pleasure in his passing, but I do think his life’s work is worthy of a comment or two, critical as mine most certainly will be.

The next time I had cause to consider Jack Chick’s particular brand of pornography came in the mid 80s when I and my friends took to playing Dungeons and Dragons. “Dark Dungeons” would be Jack Chick’s main contribution to the Satanic panic of the era. I don’t recall when I first became aware of it, but the story-line always struck me as both laughable and deceitful. I didn’t really become fully aware of Jack Chick himself (or of his operation) until I joined a few discussion boards back in the early 2000s. It was odd to me, a bit like learning the name of a creepy caller. This was the man who had written that story from back in my childhood. He was the author of those morbid images, and he was the source of that sick feeling I had upon seeing them.

Good to know.

…but also a little disconcerting.

I recall only one other Chick tract with any degree of significance to me. It was about Navajo Medicine Men. Chick portrayed them as Skinwalkers, thus conflating healers with monsters, and of course ending the whole matter with a familiar pitch to Jesus. It was no more insightful than the hack job Chick did on D&D.

I’ve encountered a few more of Chick’s pieces over the years, but not many have really stuck in my memory. The formula is simple. Some worldly interest will lead a person down a very dark path toward Satan, death, and Hell itself, but Christians will offer them salvation. In the end, the reader is invited to accept Jesus and be saved. I understand others have been doing the work for sometime now, but the essential formula remains largely unchanged. I always wonder at the choices Chick and his successors make in these stories. Do they really believe the details of their claims? It’s one thing, for example, to believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a bad influence on kids, and quite another to believe that it is literally run by a cult as a means of initiating children into arcane magical rites. This is what fascinates me most about such work today. It isn’t testimony to faith, but rather the myopic interest in sordid stories about actual people real world world institutions. What kind of mind spreads stories like this? And how did they decide to produce them? With or without evidence, I can’t help thinking the bottom line is the same. Someone is getting off on these narratives. Whatever their interest in selling the hope of Jesus, someone is reveling in the vision of sinfulness a little too much.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no particular reason to condemn anyone for pursuing their prurient interests, at least if you can do it without harming anyone. What bothers me in this instance is the bad faith and the lack of self-awareness, the sense that someone could play so happily in the very imagery they seek to condemn in others. Perhaps more to the point, what bothers me about Chick Tracts is the sense that this is a pleasure taken in sordidness of others’ lives, a kind of hope that other people might really be worse than you could possibly know, and of course a hope that they will suffer in the end. This sort of thing is not unique to Chick publications, unfortunately, and one can often find preachers indulging in a kind of proxy porn. I suppose that was Chick’s particular genius. He found a particularly vivid way to present that kind of material. Whether that is to his shame or his credit is of course another question. For me the answer is clear enough.

I wish I could find something better to say about Jack Chick than this. It is of course tempting to follow an age old wisdom and say nothing at all, but Chick’s passing reminds me of that moment all those many years ago in which I first found one of his publications. Don’t get me wrong. Worse things have happened to me than the discovery of that creepy pamphlet. Even still, I can’t help thinking it wasn’t a particularly positive experience. For me, that will always be Jack Chick’s legacy.

It isn’t a good one.

Utqiagvik By Any Other Denali


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barriow-signI live in Barrow, Alaska.

Wait a minute. No I don’t.

I live in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

It turns out that the town of Barrow has elected to change its name to Utqiagvik, or at least we have initiated the process for making this change.

Okay. It’ll take a day or three to get used to, and I can certainly understand some of the reasons for opposing it, but on the whole the recent name change of the town where I live is fine by me. It’s a native designation for a primarily native community. I’m not that involved in local politics, but suffice to say that this is a local decision I am happy to live with.

Thinking about it, a little bit, I am reminded of the way people responded to similar change of names. It was a little over a year ago that President Obama announced the decision to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali. I recall immediately realizing that this would have little impact on the lives of Alaskans. To us, that was the name of the mountain, Denali, full stop. My favorite story about that change came from a guy on Twitter who related the story of how he learned Denali was Mt. McKinley when he moved to the lower 48 and people began asking about it. He had lived in central Alaska for a couple years, and nobody that he noticed had ever called it Mt. McKinley. So, he simply hadn’t made the connection until non-Alaskans began using the official term as far as most folks were concerned. For myself, the only reason I knew it was Mt. McKinley was because one of the many pilots who called attention to Denali as we flew over actually bothered to mention that it was called Mt. McKinley in the lower 48. If I hadn’t heard that, I might not have made the connection myself. To me, it’s Denali. It’s been Denali since I moved up here, and near as I can tell that’s what the mountain is to Alaskans in general. Sure, there are some other native groups with names of their own for the mountain, but to most Alaskans it is Denali. So, that change shouldn’t have been all that controversial.

…or so one might think!

It wasn’t really all that surprising, but it was certainly worthy of an eye-roll to find how many people viewed the move as an instance of political correctness. Obama was, in their view, caving to the social justice warriors of the world and adopting a new term just to placate Alaska Natives. We all knew it was really Mt. McKinley, so the argument seemed to run, at least it should have been, and it was damned silly to find this mountain whose name we already know getting its named changed just to keep some odd group happy.

I suppose it wouldn’t occur to some folks that the indigenous people in the area might have thought the same thing when the mountain was renamed in honor of one of the nation’s caretaker Presidents. It certainly didn’t occur to some people that the name change might have had overwhelming support throughout the state at large, a marked preference for both native and non-native alike.

There was, as it happens a political angle to this. President Obama was then preparing a visit to Native Alaskan communities even as Shell Oil was preparing to drill in the arctic; the renaming might very well have served to provide a token gesture of good will in advance of a potentially divisive moment of history. But if this is a problem, it is a problem of timing and ulterior motives. As regards the merits of the name change itself? No, that’s not a problem at all.

So the renaming of Denali one of those moments when PC-bashing rhetoric revealed its true colors as a form of political correctness in itself, and those complaining about the name change found themselves triggered, so to speak, by a symbolic issue of little genuine significance to themselves.

So, I wondered…

I wondered what certain ‘conservative’ voices might make of this recent name change? It seems an innocent enough question, doesn’t it? Ah, but in this case an ‘innocent question’ is another phrase for ‘damned morbid curiosity.’ That’s the only reason I can think why I would have found myself scanning the comments section at World Net Daily. I know. It’s a bit like scavenging a garbage dump except I can think of legitimate reasons to look through a garbage dump. As to looking at the comments on World Net Daily, I have only the aforementioned excuse, and it’s not a very good one at that.

But like any other miserable person, I am apparently interested in some company, so let me share with you what I found. The article itself was just a stub and a link to a piece from Alaska Dispatch News, but the comments? Oh, the comments!

Let’s see…

Well, don’t get to used to it, before long they’ll be telling us the muslims were there first.

Um, no. But it is fascinating that a perfectly real question about a community that really was here first would be so easily dismissed with a story about one that clearly wasn’t.

How many Inupiak actually lived in “Utqiagvik” prior to its being named Barrow? I would venture even fewer than lived in Iqaluit (which is in Nunavut) prior to its being named Frobisher Bay (which was its name until 1987).

Basically, this was copied from the 1987 Canuck folly of renaming Frobisher Bay as “Iqaluit”.

A bit more detailed than the other folks weighing in on the subject, which is it least interesting. It isn’t entirely cleat, nor is it clear why the renaming of Frobisher Bay is a problem. It’s not what this commenter would like to see, that’s clear enough, but he never does present a clear reason to believe his preferences should weigh more than the preferences of either community. …or that they should weigh anything at all, really.

Oh no… not another passport stamp within our own country !!!


Passport? Do we need passports now? I don’t think so. It is interesting though to think that the name of our little town could trigger the second coming? At least I think that’s what the writer is referring to. So, I guess Jesus doesn’t think much of indigenous names. Unless he does. Seriously I suspect the many churches of Utqiagvik are filled with Native people who may have prayed for this very thing, or given prayers of thanks afterwards. I could be wrong of course. Honestly, I don’t know what happens in churches on Sunday, but still. Seriously? He’s coming? Over this!?!

“To [rename Barrow] would acknowledge, honor and be a reclamation of our beautiful language which is moribund.”

Their “beautiful language” is dying is because to embrace that culture is a sure-fire way to wind up spending the rest of your life performing the Inupiaq equivalent of burger flipping. The young just aren’t interested and are leaving for better, easier lives, hence the moribund language.

Okay, this is an interesting narrative. To say that it affirms a kind of cultural imperialism would be putting it mildly, but it’s an oddly caricatured version of the local job market.Simply put, the North Slope of Alaska does not seem to be lacking for jobs, and in particular it does not seem to be lacking for jobs in which speaking Inupiaq would be anything less than a plus. Speaking Inupiat alone could be an issue, but English + Inupiaq? That’s a damned pay raise right there! If people are leaving that’s not it. If the language is floundering, that’s not why.

A barrow by any other name….


Dog gone it !! I missed Indigenous People’s Day again.

So somebody doesn’t give a fuck about indigenous people? Well fuck his fucks anyway.

‘It reclaims our beautiful Inupiaq language’
If memory serves me the people of Alaska recently voted to call Mount McKinley by its original Native-American name.

More than half the US states have Native-American names and there is a reason for that. Native Americans may have fought each other, as well as Europeans, but the Europeans admired Indian bravery and kept most of the Indian names of places for that reason.

Interesting. I don’t think warrior heritage is really the issue in either of these cases, but this does strike me as a reasonable effort to understand what’s going on. It’s nice to see that reasonable happens from time to time, even in odd places.

Well, if I ever have to go to Barrow/Utqiagvik I’ll have to visit the travel agency to book a flight. They’ll never understand what the hell I’m saying over the phone.


Unpronounceable Utqiagvik is so…so…PC!

Always amusing to see someone who has ideas about what other people should be calling themselves complain about their political correctness. And seriously, it’s really not that hard to pronounce. I mean, the ‘g’s around here are not like English ‘g’s but no-one has been executed for mispronouncing a ‘g’ in at least 5 years. Say it like it looks and no-one is going to bug you about it.

Now, knowing we are meant to have a republic, this is one of the few democracy style political decisions I can live with. Doesn’t bother me one bit to have a community decide on a name change…even if I have no hope of pronouncing it in this lifetime.

Nice to see a conservative voice in the comments at WND for a change.


Utki… Oh that was a rhetorical question, wasn’t it?

I guess we can call it The City Formerly Known as Barrow.

…or we can call it Utqiagvik.

We could have its name as ‘UTQIAGVIK’, but since this name seems to be unpronounceable or sounds and looks almost random to most people, I think nearly everyone will continue to call the town “Barrow”. Thanks, though.

Reply 1: It looks like a name some negro might give to their child.

Reply 1a: …could be an Icelandic volcano name

On the first comment here, I find the authorial ‘we’ interesting. If ‘nearly everyone’ is nearly everyone that lives elsewhere, then I suspect nearly everyone here won’t much give a damn. If nearly everyone were here, then well I suspect the vote would have been different.

On the first reply to that comment, I’m guessing this is one of those folks mystified by the way some folks keep calling him racist, but I’m sure I would have no idea why that would be the case.

On the second reply to that comments, I suppose it could, and that would be cool.

I went on a one night trip to Barrow um Utqiagvik back in 1993. Alcohol was prohibited but there was a speakeasy just a snowball throw away from the law enforcement building. I went on a school bus tour and the driver narrated. It was great. There was an italian restaurant that had excellent food. It was an expensive trip but worth it.

Right on!

Disgusting! We brought these people civilization, yet they still want to celebrate their savage ways

Reply 1:  Maybe they didn’t want to be brought into anything! Maybe they just wanted too be left *** alone.

Reply 2: Barrow had Eskimos. They were peaceful until corrupted by alcohol. The noble savages lived in the south and they too became corrupted after being turned on to petrol and alcohol too. The white man did it.

Reply 2a: All the white man did was give them God, civilization, and stopped them from warring among themselves over sparse resources.

Reply2a1: The black man and woman are the start of humanity.

Reply2a2: One more IDIOT that does not know their history the white man sold alcohol to the Indians in the lower 48 and in Alaska also….

Reply 2a3: When before that, they had only Peyote and Mescaline. Fine hallucinogens indeed. Good Grief.

Reply 2a4: I know the white man introduced them to alcohol. The point is that the indian moral character was so weak that their way of life collapsed because of it, so big government has to give them land and take care of them like orphan children

It’s always nice to see bigotry drop the white robes and show its face in the light of day, or at least the internet equivalent. That would certainly cover the first comment. What’s fascinating to me though about this exchange is the use of peyote and mescaline to undermine respect for Inupiat. Those plants are not found in the arctic, so this person is clearly treating the indigenous people of the Americas as one homogeneous group. That he also doesn’t seem to understand much about native use of these hallucinogens is of course par for the course. The mere presence of drugs in the Americas is, for him, sufficient cause to comment on the moral character of all of them.

…and we’re back to naked bigotry, bigotry that’s still going strong at the end of the thread.

Also find it fascinating that such folks could consider themselves conservative. There is simply nothing in conservatism that should contribute to such naked bigotry. And still…

Why don’t they just piut up a blank sign, since the enlightened indigenous people of Alaska had no writen language….or an alphabet for that matter?

I normally make it a point not to use people’s spelling and grammar against them, but I can’t help feeling amused at the difficulties this fellow has writing about the inferiority of those without a written language. I also find it fascinating to see someone hold the lack of a written language against any population. Suffice to say that Inupiaq is written now (hence the ability to write the name, Utqiagvik), and there isn’t much reason to hold it against Inupiat that they learned writing from someone else. …just like most of the peoples of Europe did at one point or another.

How about “Freezeyourassoff”?

Point taken.

been to Barrow, it’s a dump

Reply 1 – So is Detroit

Reply 2 – But it was fun for me. I visit the hood while there but the hooligans were safe. I ate fried chicken at the supermarket and while there checked out the prices of food items. Triple in cost! The beach I went to was cold but nice. It was fun for the one night I stayed.

Your face is a dump!

From now on people will say “so, you’re from Unpronounceable, Alaska”

Reply – Or, gesundheit.

Touché and thank you.


Pure projection.


Reply 1 : How do you pronounce this new name!!????

Reply 1a: I guess the Alaska Dispatch News never expected to get national coverage of this story. Either that, or it never occurred to the writer and editor that few people outside of the area would have the first clue how to pronounce the new name.

Reply 1b: oot-GHAR-vik

Reply 1b1: Thank you!

Reply 1c: Utqiagvik… pronounced just as how it looks.

Reply 1c1: It looks pretty messed up.

Reply 1c2: The same forward and backward … at least when I say it.

Reply 1c3: Haha, Okay! That makes my day. I can chuckle all day now.

Us Americans are so darn monolinguistic.


Reply 1c4: “Us Americans are so darn monolinguistic.”

I’ll bet the Romans were too when they were the dominant world power. And very likely whoever comes after us will be as well.

It’s ridiculous to suggest that people should learn a second language “just because” or that not doing so makes one small-minded. It’s about as intelligent as mocking someone because they can’t play more than one musical instrument.

But no doubt it makes you feel somehow more enlightened to make such comments.

And there it is, the right wing reaction to another name change occurring in Alaska. Its an interesting mix of outright racism and the usual complaints about short-sighted thinking associated with political correctness. Some of these folks have very specific objections, and those very specific objections often seem to turn on value judgements the authors take as obvious. In the end, it does appear that respect for native communities simply isn’t very high on the priorities of a good portion of these critics. At least a couple of these guys would appear to object to that value in itself. Others clearly think other things should come first. But what strikes me most about the whole thing is the ease with which this crowd picks apart a local issue in terms of national priorities and ideological assumptions.

I keep coming back to the one person who voiced the notion that the preferences of a local community ought to control the choice of its own name. All other issues aside, I can’t help thinking that’s the winning argument in this case. It strikes me as the sort of argument I would expect a conservative to make on the subject, and this one more reason why the right wing stance in America’s culture wars always seems so disingenuous to me. For all the fretting and fuming over left wing excess in these conflicts, it is as often as not the right wing that seeks to impose national agenda to the issue at hand.

…and proceeds to tell us it is someone else that is politically correct.

De-Ontologizing a Bear


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Still Ontological, I Believe

As I recall, the picture was a selfie. My student was one of many people who come up here from the lower 48 to teach somewhere in the K-12 system. She was taking a course from me to help satisfy her certification requirements to remain in the state system.

…And there she stood in the picture with a polar bear walking along the beach in the background behind her. No, she wasn’t that close. She was fine, but really, it was a fantastic picture. I could imagine her showing it to people and chattering on about it for years to come. I was happy for her, and just a little jealous, but mostly happy for her. It had to have been a cool moment.

…which is what I said.

To my surprise, a frown immediately captured her face and her shoulders slumped as she looked down. For all the coolness of the pic, it was evidently not part of a happy story. She struggled to explain why. It turns out that someone shot the bear mere moments after she had posed for the picture.

No, this is not a story of criminal activity, at least not that I’m aware of. The hunter was an Alaska Native, and yes, they are allowed to take polar bears for subsistence activities. Still, I couldn’t help but feel for the student in this instance. To see a bear go from shared space in a selfie to dead on the beach in a matter of moments must have generated a kind of moral whiplash.

(Clunky metaphor, I know.)

I can’t help thinking the sudden transformation of the bear from a living breathing subject that one might want to share space with in a selfie to a dead animal must have been a bit shocking. I suspect the issue here is more than the sudden death of the bear; it’s this sudden change in the way circumstances invite her to think about him. One minute, she was celebrating the presence of the bear, and the next it was no longer a presence to be celebrated.

Is a bear fit for a selfie? Or is it fit to eat (and perhaps to wear)? You can answer both of these questions with a ‘yes’, but it may be a little disturbing when both answers play out at the same time and in the same place, and most particularly, with the same bear.

I thought about this over the last week or two as a polar bear had been hanging out near the college where I work for several days. Wildlife had to shoo him off a couple times. For those of us at the college, he was both a source of excitement and at least a trace of anxiety. More than a few of us grabbed our cameras, but even as we took pictures, several wondered if he wasn’t a little too close. He wasn’t so close as to generate immediate alarm, but he was close enough to make us all a little more careful as we went outside. In time, we began to worry about his own fate as well. If he didn’t move on soon, would officials end up shooting him?

I don’t know what happened to the bear. I have some ideas as to why he was here, and I believe he moved on eventually, but I don’t know this for a fact. For the present, the possibility itself, that he could have been shot is the interesting point. What would it mean to me, I wondered, if the bear in these pictures had been killed within days (or perhaps hours) of my taking them? It isn’t simply the possibility that he might die on his own. Hell, cycles of life and all that! No, the point is that a picture of a bear that might be killed because he is close enough to take pictures of him makes for something of an ironic photo subject.

The whole thing reminds me of the old bit from Marshall Sahlins on how you tell the difference between an animal you can’t eat and one that you can. Perhaps, I think, taking a picture with a bear is a bit like giving it a name. It’s one way of imparting a sense of personhood to the creature, one way of making it part of the world of lives about which you have some fucks to give. This is especially true if you hope to tell tales of the creature at some later date. I suppose it depends a bit on the picture, just how much the taking of a picture actually imparts meaning to its subject, but a selfie with a bear is probably on the maximum end of the personalizing spectrum. (We put ourselves in pictures with people and creatures, we like, not usually those who loathe or simply don’t care about.) At the other end of this spectrum, I guess we’d have to count most of the pictures taken by trophy hunters over a fresh kill. If trophy pictures impart meaning to the animal, I can’t help thinking it’s one of conquest. In contrast, I reckon most of those taking a picture of a bear want to talk (and think) about their encounter with an exotic living creature. They might want to think of him, for a time at least, as alive and well and going about his business long after the picture-taking two-legged has found its way to warmer homes and (hopefully) eager ears. At the very least, such stories are compromised by the thought that the very encounter that produced an image of the creature in question could also have reduced it to meat headed for the dinner table.

Good to eat and good to selfie, but not at the same time.

So, if the camera ensouls an animal, so to speak, the gun would seem to do just the opposite, at least for some people. Beyond the actual act of killing an animal, the willingness to do so would seem to transform an animal into something less than personal; it shifts from an end in itself to a means of sustenance.

Or does it?

Certainly not for indigenous hunters. If anything, their own traditions are saturated with motifs attributing personhood to animals. Whalers up here consistently speak of the bowhead as giving themselves to the hunters voluntarily, and similar themes can be found in hunting traditions of indigenous peoples around the world. For example, the oral traditions of hunting peoples often contain references to a time when animals spoke as humans do. As often as not, the loss of this quality in such stories will occur by choice, and as often as not that choice is motivated by the needs of human hunters. In some stories, animals may still take human form under designated circumstances. The upshot is a world in which role of animal and hunter is the conscious decision of persons who must be respected if the relationship is to continue.

But I don’t think the notion of hunting as a respectful enterprise is entirely limited to indigenous traditions, or indigenous people in general. Talk of respect is quite common among hunters, all the more so for those who do so as a means of feeding themselves. Animal rights activists may well dismiss this as convenient rhetoric, but the lives of subsistence hunters are far more intimately involved with the cycles of nature and the lives of animals than those of your modern citizen. There is little reason to believe those who invest a significant portion of their thought and their activities on the animal world come away from this with little but a utilitarian sense of those animals. It might be different for commercial hunters, and likewise for a certain scale of commercial farmer, but the people I know up here who feed themselves from the ducks, the geese, the caribou, and yes, the whale, live lives fairly filled  with thoughts about these creatures.

Which brings me back to the shock that shock of becoming an unqitting witness to the harvest of an animal. I reckon, it must be a bit more unsettling to those who’ve never participated in such activities. Folks may know that their beef was once a cow; their bacon was once a pig, and their chicken was once, …um, a chicken, but most have never witnessed (much less contributed to) the process by which the one becomes the other. For the average consumer of market meats, the consumption of animals is easily imagined as an entirely objective process. Vegetarians may escape this tangle of dissonance, but a fair number of those uncomfortable with hunting are fairly caught right up in it. Their discomfort is at least partly a function of seeing (or thinking about) a process which normally occurs out of sight, but which is absolutely essentially to their own sustenance. In contrast, participating in single hunt can be a lasting reminder that the food on your table was once alive. I’m not saying, everyone draws this lesson, but I certainly did (it’s been a log time), and I believe I see similar views in those around me now.

…all of which means, ironically enough, that shooting an animal may not equate to depersonalization after all, at least not for everyone. I reckon, it will always be a bit shocking for those unaccustomed to such activities, and it would be that much more so for anyone unfortunate enough to be sharing a selfie moment with a creature just before seeing it go down, but the real difference in worldview may be less a question of those who appreciate the lives of animals and those who don’t so much as a question of those who remember their own lives come at the expense of others and those for whom that connection is fuzzy at best.

The bear, from a couple weeks back (click to embiggen). He is, I believe, still alive. I’m sorry the pictures aren’t that great. I of course wanted to stay much closer to a door than he was to me.

Good Without an Apology


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Saw this in Cedar City this summer (I think Moni took the picture.)

Atheists can’t provide a sound basis for their morality.

…it’s the kinder gentler version of “atheists can’t be moral,” which is a common theme among Christian apologists. To be sure, some folks go back and forth between the two messages, but at least some apologists do seem to keep a clear distinction between the claim that atheists cannot be moral and the claim that whatever morals we may have, we simply cannot justify them in rational terms.

Some folks express this position in the form of an architectural metaphor; we have no foundation for our ethics, so the argument goes. Alternatively, we cannot ground our moral principles in a sound basis of judgement; our morals aren’t based on anything objective, and so on. The sheer physicality of this rhetoric is always striking to me.

I know.

Metaphors happen.

Still, I can’t help thinking some of those using this language could stand to think about those metaphors a little bit. It would be nice if they at least recognized them as metaphors. As often as not, I suspect many of those producing such messages take these terms rather literally.

All that aside, lately, I’ve been thinking about this less in terms of the argument at hand and more in terms of the narrative about that argument. Questions about the nature of morality go back a rather long way in the history of western philosophy, to say nothing of countless other contexts in which people could ask about what people ought to do and whether or not they can provide a sound reason for their answer. This is not just one ongoing debate; it is many, and while that debate rages on with no likelihood of a clear winner, this story of the unique moral failure of atheism flourishes in its own right. The notion that atheists can’t provide an adequate account of the nature of morality may be a contention to be argued in select circles. It can also a story told about the difference between us and them.

…in this case, I’m a them. Damn! (Othered in my own blog post.)


First an anecdote!

This theme reminds me of a time a college friend took me to see Gary Habermas speak at his church. Habermas is a renowned apologist, so I was expecting to hear an interesting argument in favor of Christianity. Suffice to say that I didn’t. I don’t know how to convey just how unimpressive Habermas was on that occasion. I could hardly believe my ears. To this day, I wonder if I missed something important or if Habermas was just having an exceptionally bad day? I don’t know.

The whole performance got a great deal more interesting though after Habermas stepped down, and the regular pastor for this church took a moment to add a few thoughts of his own. The pastor himself struck me as a fairly nice guy. I couldn’t help but like him, but there I sat listening to him try to put Habermas’ presentation into perspective for his audience. What impressed the pastor was the notion that someone could field a complex and sophisticated argument in favor of the Christian faith. He ended his own comments by saying how good it felt to know that people of intelligence could defend the faith, that smart people did in fact believe in Jesus and that they could justify that faith.

So, there I sat thinking on the one hand that Gary Habermas might be a smart guy, but we sure as Hell hadn’t seen anything to prove it on that particular day. More importantly, I couldn’t help noting how much had been lost on the pastor. He had nothing to say on the topic at hand, or the arguments Habermas had made, nothing at all. The mere fact that Habermas had fielded an argument in favor of Christianity was what interested the pastor. Such an argument did exist, and its existence was a comfort to him. It should also, he thought, be a comfort to others attending his church.

This is what I mean by the narrative value of the argument. Habermas and people like him continue to make their arguments, and people like me continue to be unimpressed by them. Still, the arguments seem to hold a value in believing circles, a value almost entirely unrelated to the soundness of the arguments themselves, much less the impact of those arguments in contested circles. An apologist may fail to engage unbelievers entirely and still count as a success in believing circles. For some, it is enough to know that smart people defend the faith.

Toward what end is another question.


So what? Conflict is a common source of good narrative material, and conflict over religious beliefs is no different. We unbelievers have been known to tell a story or two out of season ourselves, but I don’t think we’ve established quite the market for selling to the non-choir, at least not yet. A few unbelievers may be working tales of battle into a profession of sorts, but we are generations behind the business of Christian apologetics. So, our narratives are generally more fluid, the pay-off less certain, and the likely consumers for such stories less obvious. When an atheist fields an argument against a believer, it is still reasonably likely that the believer is the actual person we are trying to communicate with. Christian apologetics, by contrast is full of people framing arguments in terms of a confrontation with unbelievers only to produce them for the benefit of other believers. It is in effect a business aimed at producing stories like those told by the pastor above, stories of reassurance.

Let’s come back to the notion that atheists can’t justify our own ethical principles. What does this contention provide when it’s construed in terms of narrative themes? I think the payoff is very clear, namely in the implied contrast. If we non-believers can’t justify our moral principles, so the argument seems to suggest, those who believe in God can. As much as people working this argument may be trying to tell us about the failures of unbelief, they are also claiming a victory for theism, or at least for specific variations of theism.

What is wrong with us, so the story goes, is we cannot justify our moral principles. We may be moral people, but our morality is lacking something, and that something is important. Don’t get me wrong; this story a damned site better than the argument that non-believers are inherently immoral, but this particular concession that we are moral without a sound reason damns us with faint praise.

What’s so infuriating about this is the difficulty of the issue. It really is very difficult to establish a rational justification for ethics. We can often establish reasonable connections between certain basic value judgements and more specific propositions (Kant’s categorical imperative could be used for example to suggest that one ought not to lie to someone else as that would entail reducing them to the status of a means to an end), but providing those basic value judgements with a non-circular justification is damned difficult. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s certainly difficult, and always subject to contention. Is morality deontological or consequentialist? Universal or some variety of relative? These are all pretty difficult questions, and belief in a god simply doesn’t provide an obvious solution to any of them.

When apologists pretend that atheists are uniquely unable to handle the matter, it always strikes me as a rather premature declaration of victory. As often as not, they seem to confound two or more sub-themes in these discussions. When for example a theist claims their oral principles are objective because they have been mandated by God, I find myself at a loss for words. Even an ultimate subject is still a subject, and a morality derived from the will of a subject, even an ultimate subject, is still a subjective ethics. …unless of course one can demonstrate that the subject (God) has Herself based her judgement on something objective. Or perhaps, there is an objective reason why we as subjects are obligated to do what God (that uber-subject) wishes, but that would be stretching the meaning of objectivity a bit thin. I can certainly understand someone expressing skepticism at any of the attempts to establish an objective or absolutist form of ethics, but atheists simply are not uniquely implicated in this problem. I’ve known Christians who handle this issue very well. They are not among those proclaiming to failures of atheist ethical theory to the faithful in their churches.


In the end, I think this theme has two significant practical implications:

First, it reverses the point of morality, at least for purposes of the narrative in question. One might expect that the value of ethical behavior would be in some sense be found in the behavior itself. Those hawking the notion that atheists are unable to demonstrate a sound basis for our moral judgements are, in those moments at least, shifting the focus of the work at hand. They are in effect, presenting the intellectual justification for morality as an end in itself. The point of morality is in such stories a bit intellectual exercise. I might do right by my neighbor, so the story goes, but I don’t really know why I should do so.

And thus doing right by my neighbor becomes just a little less important.

Second, this theme seems to produce a kind of moral hierarchy. There are those of us who do right, so the story goes, and those who know why we do right, or at least why we should do so. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise to see this kind of division of labor appearing as a theme in apologetics, but it is fascinating to see the way it takes shape in this rhetoric. The authority of the faithful seems to colonize the world at large in these stories, and those of us who are merely moral (at best) are just a little less than those that know why we should be so. Our actions are just a little less significant than those who claim to know the objective basis for moral principles. We can say no, as I surely do, but that’s to be expected of us. The faithful know.

But of course this isn’t simply a claim to authority over the rest of us, and it isn’t even a claim that privileges the perspectives of priests and pastors, much less the avergae everyday believer. It is a claim that privileges the perspectives of apologists. Simple pastors like the man I mentioned in the story above can do their best, but it is up to the smart people who defend the faith to do the real work of ethics. The rest of us, believer and unbeliever alike can be moral, sure, but our morality will always be missing something.

Which of course makes Christian thought into a rather esoteric enterprise.

And no, that doesn’t strike me as a good thing.





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The first time I recall reading a trigger warning it was in the off-topic sub-forum on a gaming discussion board. If I remember correctly, it was in the title for a thread about sexual abuse. That usage struck me then, as it does now, as a perfectly appropriate warning to some that the ensuing discussion was going to cover issues which some might find intensely stressful. I also understood the likely reason for this to be that some people might have had direct personal experience with the realities of such abuse. It has ever since struck me as a reasonable and positive thing to provide that warning in advance. It also serves as a good reminder to the rest of us that something we may regard as grist for the mill could have serious personal significance for others. I know that reminder has helped me to appreciate the weight of some issues. I can’t say that I’m always happy with my performance in dealing with these things, but I do think I handle these issues with more care now than I did in earlier days, and I credit that first encounter with a trigger warning with producing the difference.

Within a couple years on that same discussion the trigger warnings in the off-topic forum had multiplied beyond my wildest imagination. Countless variations of trigger warnings could be found in the title of one thread after another. I found it increasingly difficult to take them seriously, not because I couldn’t imagine someone getting upset at this or that topic, but because there comes a point where the likelihood that someone will become upset ceases to be a function of the topic and becomes an abstract possibility that is simply always there. People get upset, but it isn’t always because the discussion at hand is intrinsically dangerous subject matter. As I read the increasingly common little warning symbols, placed conveniently in square brackets, I couldn’t help but think the point was far more likely to be a statement about the values of the person employing the hashtag. Right wingers like to call this ‘virtue signaling’, and I don’t necessarily dispute the appropriateness of the label, though I do suspect the convenience of that buzz-term is a vice of its own. Whatever the purpose of the growing trigger-warning craze, I couldn’t help thinking then, as I do now, that the concept is subject to inflationary pressures.

As in, increased usage leads to decreased significance.

Where do you draw the line? I don’t know, but somewhere between a trigger warning fr sexual abuse and the many seemingly trivial uses I have seen over the years, the significance of these warnings does seem to change. Moreover, the expectation that someone ought to use trigger warnings, or that they must use them introduces a level of coercive authority into the equation. It wasn’t that long ago that a Dean at the University of Chicago denounced trigger warnings. In so doing, he clearly took them to be a mechanism for silencing those with whom one disagrees. But what about those who choose to use such warnings, some argued. Is that not permitted? And thus the renunciation of authority came  itself to be viewed as an assertion of authority, one itself worthy of denial. Who is oppressing whom and how is, it turns out, a bit more complicated than some would have it.

I guess I’m enough of an old fashioned liberal to want to have my free speech and use it too. I don’t like seeing efforts to silence speakers at public universities in the name of safe spaces, and that isn’t because I’m a fan of people like Milo Yiannopoulos. What I really don’t like is watching the careers people like that flourish as a direct result of the explosive outrage they specialize in …triggering. People like that have nothing to say, and they need the spectacle of outrage to provide the illusion of substance. I’d rather answer them. I would rather make the case against them, at least when that case can be made without fear and intimidation coming from the other side. I have seen right wingers drown out their critics, and I wouldn’t tolerate it. Lately though, a number of right wing sources have come to relish moments in which the left appears to be doing the same thing.

…is doing the same thing.

That too should not be tolerated, not the least of reasons being that it’s exactly what some of these hacks want from us.

This brings me back to the whole inflationary pressures thing. If the left wing over-uses trigger warnings, I think the same can be said of the right.

…well the ‘trigger’ part anyway, not so much the ‘warning’ part.

Time and again, I see folks respond to an argument for social justice by claiming its proponent has been triggered. Hell, I’ve gotten the response myself a time or ten, sometimes when I am more amused than agry. It’s fascinating to me, to see this cry of victory. As often as not, the signs of stress just aren’t there, or if they are, they are present to exactly the degree that one might expect from anyone else upon expressing disagreement. Yet, those proclaiming their opponents have been ‘triggered’ seem to hope those opponents are wallowing in distress, or at least they seem to enjoy pretending that is the case.

This is of course the hope of a troll, and it isn’t much worthy of anyone who claims to be advancing a serious point of view on any subject. But I suppose it does help to confound the issues, to ensure that no-one ever does take a trigger warning seriously. Still, I can’t help thinking for some it appears to be an end in itself, the prospect of making someone else feel bad.

If the notion of a trigger has lost some of its value in overuse by those on the left, it’s losing even more value as playground conservatives transform the term into a trophy of sorts. If they have their way, the public will be incapable of distinguishing between the psychological traumas experienced by some when dealing with sensitive issues and the irritation others feel upon realizing someone is wrong on the internet. This isn’t really conservatism, of course. There is nothing conservative about mocking women over their looks, disabled persons, victims of crime, or even minorities for pleading their own case in the public eye. Conservative politics may be resistant to a number of efforts at correcting social harms, but the growing orgy of right wing schadenfreude is an altogether different animal. Some people really do hope to inflict suffering on others.

To them a trigger warning is a symbol of hope.

It’s a hope I would see them denied.

Mother Earth, the Invisible Hand, and a Few Eider Ducks


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standingtallI’ve been thinking lately about the notion of Mother Earth (or Primal Gaia). She figures rather prominently in a lot of the literature I read back in grad school, and I frequently have occasion to revisit some of that material with my students. What has me thinking about this lately is a few discussions on the topic of climate change initiated by a colleague of mine. So, like I said, …I’ve been thinking about her lately.

To say that I find it hard to believe in such an entity is putting it mildly. I don’t literally believe that the earth itself has a will of its own. Even still, I can’t help thinking the notion of Mother Earth has a lot going for it. Near as I can tell, talk of Mother Earth conveys two things about the environment that are all easily lost in Her absence.

The first entailment is a sense of dialogue (or perhaps dialectic) in nature. So long as we think of the world around us in terms of objective data it becomes that much easier to anticipate the consequences of our own actions in terms of an essentially cause and effect sequence. We may recognize that some of the effects of our actions escape us at the moment, but that just doesn’t stop folks from thinking of their actions in terms of a discrete cause and effect sequence based on our present understanding of the world at hand. If I do x, the result is y. That seems to be how people think about objects.

Not other people!


People (and most living things) can be predictable, to sure, but they are never entirely so. My cat is meowing at me as I type this. I expect she will bring me a toy to play in a moment. That’s what I expect her to do, but she may surprise me. Likewise, I may surprise her. Maybe this time I won’t stop typing and toss the toy about for her to chase it. Likewise, my students may not do the assignments I give them; my boss may not count my workload as I expected; and the folks at Amazon may not package my latest order of chili paste as they have so many times in the past. Living things…

hunter(Pardon me. I’ll be back in a moment.)




As I was saying, living things always seem to add something else to the mix when they react to our own behavior. Sometimes, they even start things of their own accord. Therein lies one of the real advantages to thinking of the environment in terms like those suggested by terms like “Mother Earth.” It gets us out of the habit of thinking that we know exactly what She is going to do. …of thinking that the concrete effects we hope to bring about with any given action ever come close to a thorough account of our impact on the world around us. I can think my way to this bit of humility, but talk of Mother Earth suggests that notion from the very outset. If I think of the earth as a living thing, I don’t have to remind myself that burning carbon-based fuels may have unintended consequences. I can be sure of it. In this context and others, I can be sure that Mother Earth will always add something to the mix when she responds to me and others.

Oh sure, we can conceive of particular things in terms of fairly discrete cause&effect relationships. If I leave a Cocacola outside, it’s going to freeze and burst. Hit a ball with a bat and it will fly away.Better yet, hit a cue ball low with a well-chalked cue-stick and it will (hopefully) spin backwards after contacting the object ball. These are things we can imagine in relatively specific terms. But as our account of the object world expands, as we approach aggregate subject matter such as an ecological niche or regional environments, our ability to conceive of things in such neat terms starts to fall apart. Which is precisely what makes the notion of Earth as a subject in Her own right becomes a rather tempting option.

But I did say that the notion of Mother Earth conveys at least two things about the physical environment, didn’t I? Well the second is pretty simple. Thinking of earth as our Mother effectively conveys a sense of nurturing. More to the point, it conveys a sense that we are the ones being nurtured, and that we are dependent on her. Since She is a person, rather than a thing, or even a collection of things, this means we are dependent on Her good will.

The upshot of all this is a kind a moral responsibility, a sense that life itself entails a moral responsibility to earn the good will of the world that makes our lives possible. We could get to that sense of moral responsibility in other ways (even stewardship, perhaps), but I don’t know of any ideas that convey it quite so effectively as notions like those of Mother Earth or Primal Gaia.

For me , at least, She may be little but a metaphor, but for a metaphor, Mother Earth can be damned compelling.


featherSo, what has me thinking about this tonight? A film called People of a Feather. This documentary follows the efforts of an Inuit community dwelling on the shores of Hudson Bay (near the Belcher Islands)as to learn why the local population of Eider ducks is in serious decline. Following substantial die-offs in the 1990s, they asked the Canadian Wildlife Service for help in determining the cause. What they got in the way of help was Joel Heath, an ecologist who documented his years of research in this film.

This is a gorgeous film. Heath’s underwater footage of Eider ducks swimming about in search of shellfish is absolutely spectacular.  He also spends a good deal of time documenting the lives of local Inuit and filming the cycles of surface ice on Hudson’s Bay. One of the things I like most about this film is the way Heath leaves much of the detail without comments. He simply lets his camera linger on the scene and leaves us to piece together the details for ourselves. If Heath has done his job well, and he has, the footage alone is often enough to tell a story in its own right.

What the film does take the time to explain is just what is happening to stress the Eider ducks in this region of Hudson Bay. It’s worth knowing at the outset that these ducks do not migrate. Instead, they spend the winter along small patches of open water called Polynyas. The problem of course is that something is happening to the Polynyas. They have become significantly more unstable in the 2000s, effectively leaving the ducks without a dependable means of surviving the winters.

So, why is this happening? The simple answer is that the hydro-electrical systems used to heat the major cities of Canada have altered the currents (along with the salinity) of the bay. The Hydro-electric dams in the region typically release large amounts of fresh water into the bay during the water, effectively reserving the normal cycles of activity. The increasing instability of the polynyas may be just the tip of the iceberg here (ironic metaphor, I know). Heath’s work, and that of his Inuit friends thus raises questions about the total long range-impact of the power-grids used to support the mainstream communities of Canada. As people who rely on the natural cycles of the region to support themselves, the Inuit who initiated this research are felling the effects more directly than those living in the cities, but this is small comfort to anyone contemplating the long-term consequences of changes in the water system of the region. In effect, the eider ducks may have been a bit of a miner’s canary. Things are happening in the area that no-one really anticipated, and the questions are how much change will the hydro-electric systems brings about? How much will they be allowed to bring about? Are there alternatives?

People of a Feather doesn’t really answer these questions, though Heath does outline a few brief policy considerations as the credits roll. What makes this film great, however, is his patient development of the problem itself, and in particular his ability to help us understand just what this problem means to the Inuit living the area, Inuit who (it must be emphasized) saw fit to initiate the study itself and provided active support throughout its development.

This is one of those times when indigenous people got the details right. It’s a story of indigenous people working closely with scientists to address an important question about the natural environment. I’m reminded of similar efforts to improve the accuracy of whale counts along the coast of the North Slope here in Barrow. When scientists and Inupiat whalers disagreed about the number of bowhead whales in local waters , both groups devised new means of counting the whales. Turns out the Inupiat were right. (You can read about it in The Whale and the Super Computer by Charles Wohlforth.) Simply put, it pays to listen when indigenous communities raise concerns about what’s happening in the local environment. They don’t just give us grand abstractions like Mother Earth and poetic themes for movies, poems, and pastel-laden paintings. Sometimes, they really do provide the best resources for understanding particular things.

That said, I do find myself wondering about the story-line presented in People of a Feather. It’s not the most heavy-handed narrative, to be sure, but in this film it would be fair to suggest the hydro-electric dams appear to be the source of evil, so to speak. That isn’t because the people producing them mean to hurt anyone. It really isn’t. Rather, the problem is an unintended consequence of their function, a consequence felt most particularly by an indigenous population whose livelihood is determined as much by the natural cycles of Hudson’s Bay as it is by those of the modern market. Which reminds me of other narratives that could be told of this same issue, narratives about progress and development, of carving a civilization out of the frozen wilderness. These are the narratives that will be more familiar to people living closer to those power grids, and to most I suspect that will read this blog post.  In these narratives, the dams are good thing, almost a miracle, one that makes possible the lives of countless people. We could probably even point to a few benefits enjoyed by those in various indigenous communities. Those connections are there. How we sort the details, and what people want to do about them is another question. My point is that these grand narratives tend to predetermine the significance of the facts. It may not even be that the policy-considerations demand a choice of one value or another, but in the stories people tell about this such an issue the choice is often already made by time the plot starts to quicken.

…which may be the reason this film has me thinking about Mother Earth. This is one more instance in which something people didn’t anticipate turned out to be critical to the lives of some people (and some ducks). It’s also one case in which people have begun to sort those consequences out, just as we hope to be doing with issues like global, ocean acidification, and so many other issues in which the natural environment as a whole seems to be threatened, and along with it, us. Yet our understanding of these issues is always playing catch-up to the processes we’ve initiated, and frankly, it isn’t clear that this understanding is catching up fast enough. It’s enough to make us wish we had a way of talking about these issues that reminded us from the outset of just how much we don’t know about the impact of humans on the environment.

The temptation to call for Mother aside, it’s worth noting that comparable metaphors typically guide popular thinking (and policy) on the subject as it stands. Here I am speaking of the invisible hand of the market. Hell, the very notion of a market is a bit of a metaphor, an image that transforms known tendencies, tendencies with variable strength and effective) into a kind of thing that we can depend on. Do people in cold climates want a means of keeping warm? Supply will rise to meet the demand. The market will sort its way to a kind of equilibrium. One could easily apply such thinking to the process which puts all those dams on Hudson’s Bay to begin with, and it would help us to understand a few things. But this thinking too relies on the turn of a metaphor, and it too seems to distorts the facts in a few subtle ways.

One of the most interesting things about the invisible hand of the market deity is just how effectively it can be used to remind us of just how little we know about the economic impact of government policies. Time and again, market theorists remind us that each and every regulation (such as laws mitigating fresh water release in the Canadian hydro-electic system) will have unanticipated consequences. Time and again, free market fundamentalists will tell us to be wary of efforts to correct social ills. We may just make them worse! They are right, of course, except on the main point, because those truly devoted to this metaphor consistently tell us to let the market work itself out. It’s easy to think of this as a kind of humility, a recognition that being mere mortals, human beings cannot anticipate all the consequences of our own actions. The problem of course is that free market fundamentalists will only carry this logic as far as the market itself. How those unintended consequences will affect the balance of human relations to the environment is typically beyond the scope of their reckoning. Any humility we may learn from tales of the invisible hand seems ironically to leave us with an odd certainty in its own right, a mandate to leave unquestioned most anything done in the name of profit. For a lesson in humility, this takes us to a place that looks awful lot like hubris.

Stories of the invisible hand bid us to exercise caution less the market come back to bite us for every effort to legislate our way to a better world. They don’t do much to address the externalities piling up in the environment around us. In vie of these externalities, it is becoming increasingly clear that just about every cost-benefit analysis ever computed in human history has fallen short of a proper reckoning. I don’t see an adequate account of this coming from those devoted to the image of the invisible hand. If such is to be had, it will either come from painstaking empirical research, or from the language of another metaphor entirely.


…a trailer for you!