We all know the famous quote from Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It’s a great quote of course, one that invites us all to slip right into the role of the narrator, to imagine ourselves in Niemöller’s place. To make us think about how we ought to speak out early. But of course, Niemöller didn’t, not until it was too late, and neither did so many others, ever.
One question that’s been on my mind a lot though lately; the ones who come for people, what if they never came for you?
Or anyone like you?
What if the wrong people never made it out of those camps, not in enough numbers to get anyone’s attention?
What if there was no foreign power interesting in stopping them? At least none capable of it! No enemy troops to escort you and your neighbors through the killing grounds? To make you handle the nameless bodies? Or tell you what was done in your name? To make you see it or smell it.
What if those people, the ones who come, never bit off more than they could chew? What if they never gave you a reason to rethink your silence?
What if you were never the one who needed someone to speak out?
What sort of stories might you tell then?
Rosie the Riveter is one of those proverbial gifts that just keeps on giving. So, was Elizabeth Peratrovich. She would have been a contemporary of the many women who inspired this icon, which makes it just a little more interesting to see her standing in here for the women (whose real name was Naomi Parker) most of us envision when thinking about Rosie. This poster is part of the Unsettled exhibition currently showing at the Anchorage Museum.
Elizabeth was a major figure in the movement to combat discrimination against Alaska Natives in the 1940s. She is memorialized every February 16th, the day in which the Alaska Territorial Government signed the Anti-discrimination Act 0f 1945 into law. You can learn more about her work on civil rights at Alaskool.org. The quote featured in this poster is commonly thought to have been part of her testimony at the Alaska Territorial Legislature during hearings over the Anti-Discrimination Act. It isn’t entirely clear whether or not these were her exact words, though it probably says something about her actual testimony that it has become something of a legend in itself. The wit would certainly be right at home with other things that Elizabeth clearly did say.
Seriously, the woman kicked ass!
Apayo Moore, the artist behind this particular piece has the following to say bout it:
Compliments of a late night layover, my girlfriend and I were recently treated to a little lesson on the history of Anchorage. We were looking for a quiet place to grab a nap before an early morning flight back up to the ice-box when I noticed this series of posters on the history and geography of Anchorage.
These can be found on the second floor of the Ted Stevens International Airport, which seems to be an area reserved for office space. There really isn’t a lot of foot traffic along that area, which is part of why Moni and I were there to begin with. Anyway, I’m guessing the public doesn’t see these all that much. If they are published elsewhere, I’m not aware of it.
The logo on the lower-right hand corner suggests that these were prepared for the Anchorage Centennial in 2015. I don’t have anything in particular to add to these visuals. A lot of information has been crammed into each of the posters, but the context is pretty sparse. Still, it’s kind of an interesting glimpse into the city and its past. So, I’ll just leave these pics here.
You may click to embiggen, which is particularly helpful if you want to read them. I tried to at least ensure that the main text was legible here on the blog, but if you want to read some of the small text, you might try downloading it so you can magnify it.
It’s always fascinating to see the slippage commonly coming between a story and its headline, and again between a headline and a social media message about it. The hackwits at Fox News are always happy to provide examples of this sort of thing. Last week I couldn’t help but gripe about their misrepresentation of a major story on twitter. Today, the angle isn’t all that clear, but sloppy slippage is a habit that seems to serve them well.
What got my attention a few minutes ago was this tweet:
So, I see this and I am thinking; Really? I always thought Bonnie and Clyde were in their car when they were shot. Or was that just the movie? No, I’m pretty sure they were in their car. So, when was this? Just before they got in? How long before… No, this says the pic was taken was right before they were shot. But…
…and thus I clicked the link (which is admittedly to say that I fricking fell for this click-bait bullshit. Still kicking myself over that.)
So, anyway, and at the expense of providing a link to a common source of right wing propaganda, here is the story.
The opening passages of this story are fascinating in much the same sense that grading a freshman essay is often fascinating. By ‘fascinating’ I of course mean saddening. It’s not just the brief, blurby, writing style that jumps out at me. (Seriously, this is clearly written for people with the attention span of not-even-gerbils.) What really irks with a vengeance here is the complete inability to stick to a consistent account of the story.
Check it out!
Mini-paragraph 2 says the photo was taken ‘days before’ Bonnie and Clyde were shot down. Mini paragraph 3 says ‘shortly before’. I guess ‘days before’ could count as ‘shortly before’, at least if you aren’t paying attention enough to wonder why they are re-framing the time-scale in the very next sentence. Most sensible people would think that was at least a little odd. And most sensible people would think that change of wording does shift the meaning, at least a little bit. Either way, it would certainly be a stretch to say that ‘days before’ counts as ‘right before’ or ‘moments before’, as indicated on the Fox News twitter account.
So why do this? It really doesn’t seem like deliberate spin. It seems more like a short attention span. Perhaps, it’s the habit of a mind accustomed to spinning an inch into a mile every chance it gets. These micro-shifts in meaning can be damned useful if you are spinning a story with a purpose. A mountain is easily reduced to a molehill with a little crafty word choice. The folks at Fox News are well accomplished at this technique. Still, it’s a little odd to see this much slippage crowded into such a small and simple account. The only clear pay-off in this particular instance is the added dramatic value of the click-bait, but even that doesn’t explain the shear quantity of equivocation in the Fox account. The story itself uses two different time-frames, and that shift isn’t explained by the desire to generate click-bait. Neither does the use of two different time-frames on the twitter account. A subtle shift is one thing, but these guys are all over the place. I find myself wondering if these folks can stick to a simple account even when they don’t have an axe to grind on the story.
Seriously, I can’t figure out how this will help to advance the war on the poor. Neither will it enable the Manchurian Man-Child to gin up a war to help keep all our minds off the Mueller investigation. I can’t even tell how this proves Hillary killed Han Solo in the living room with a candle stick. It’s not all that agenda driven. It’s just drivel-driven. it’s also a hell of a way to hack up a simple story.
I often see maps of Indian territories pop up on the net. I like them. And then again, I don’t. I’ve seen also some of these same maps in classrooms and academic papers. In such cases, the narrative usually does a bit more to put the visual presentation in context, but on the net, that visual is often all you get.
…along with a couple hashtags, and sometimes a catchy title.
The specific subject matter varies a bit from map to map. Sometimes they purport to show linguistic variation. Sometimes, they show the culture areas used by anthropologists or the general divisions of Native American peoples into related peoples. Mostly, these maps purport to show the specific locations of various tribes.
…whatever that means?
Don’t get me wrong. The basic idea isn’t entirely off base, and it’s a lot better than silence on the topic, but the notion of an Indian tribe carries a lot of baggage, only some of which goes away if we replace the term ‘Indian’ with ‘Native American’. We can also replace ‘tribes’ with ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’.
…we still end up with plenty of baggage.
There really isn’t any vocabulary that just works here. You really have to pick a term, and just bear in mind the distortions it imposes on the subject matter. But my point here today isn’t so much to work over the vocabulary as it is to focus attention on the maps themselves. It’s great to have them, but they too can distort the subject matter, all the more so when the map circulates as a meme-in-in-itelf, so to speak, just an image without a narrative to go with it.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, we have a few of them actually. One of the first things going through my own mind is the other half of the contextualization schema. The maps give us a where. That leaves me asking when? These maps purport to show us where different Native American peoples lived, but they rarely give us a strong sense of when they lived there. This goes hand-in-hand with common assumptions about the timelessness of Native American societies. Folks are only too happy to imagine that most Indian peoples had been living in the same place since time immemorial, just waiting for the rest of us to show up and kick-start the history machine. All the timely-changey stuff must have come after Columbus, so the thinking goes. Before that, Indian peoples just stayed put, living in harmony without any real need for big changes like a major population movements.
All of this is of course, nonsense, and I think most people know it is, at least when the question is put to them directly. I repeat, they know it WHEN you put the question to them directly. Until then, I think folks fall quite easily into the assumption that Indian peoples rested in a kind of temporal stasis. Hell, sometimes Native Americans themselves fall into this assumption.Don’t be too surprised. Stereotypes often come in a user-friendly version, an ever-so-inviting role to play, for those who are willing. The noble savage may be a cliché, but it’s not one without its charms, and it’s easily as timeless as any of its less PC counterparts. In any event, folks often seem to imagine Native American societies as timeless communities.
Case in point?
I found this little gem to the left on twitter, at least I believe that’s where I got it. It’s pretty cool, really. It definitely matches my general sense of where various people should be. But then again, my general sense of where everybody should be rests on a skewed timeline. I expect them to be in certain places when the stories I read or tell about them in history class take place. So, if the different natives peoples are in the right place on cue for the historical narratives I expect to feature them, then the map matches my initial expectations, and I end up saying stuff like “it’s pretty cool.” The whole thing almost works, but it doesn’t take too many questions to bust up both those expectations and the maps that go with them.
When did everyone get where they are in the map above? It’s controversial question, and one that I may regret raising here, but still… See the Apacheans down there in the Southwest? You might think they had been there since time immemorial, right? Well the archaeological evidence suggests this isn’t the case. As I recall, the earliest evidence for Diné (Navajo) placement in the four corners area predates the Spanish by a little over a hundred years. They came along with the other Apachean peoples by means of a hotly debated route. Of course archaeological finds happen every day, so the historical evidence may change, and I may have missed a recent find or three, but the point is that these people arrived in the area within comprehensible time frame. This placement on teh map isn’t from time immemorial; it begins at the cusp of the 1400s, give or take a bit, and that enables us to place their entrance into a sequence of events for the region. They were still settling into the total territory on this map when the Spanish began exploring the region, arriving well after their Pueblo neighbors. Knowing that helps to put the map in perspective. Not knowing that invites an a-historical reading of the map.
Now look at the plains. The peoples placed there seem right to me, but it’s worth considering that many of them didn’t get there until well after the beginnings of the colonial period. Specific migration routes and the scale of ground shifted are of course open to debate, but I think it is fair to say that a great deal of the population on this portion of the map filled in after the beginnings of the fur trade, and even more importantly, after the horse began spreading through the plains in the wake of the Pueblo Revolt.
That would be a war the Indians won folks, not simply a battle. a war. But that’s another rant…
…anyway, the point is that the population of the plains as we now understand it changed a great deal during the colonial period. So, if the southwest takes on roughly the territories represented in the map just ahead of the colonial period, the great plains takes its apparently map-worthy shape during that very period. We can point to a time frame sometime on down the road that reflects this mapping, but by then other things have shifted. Case in point? The eastern seaboard. By the time the plains looks like it does on this map, the settler population is already pushing a lot of people out and away from the coasts. By the time Lakota, Comanche, and Kiowa have reached their positions on this map, the eastern seaboard should already be looking a bit white-washed.
These are just the areas I think I know something about (and admittedly, I am often wrong). The rest of the map is full of movement too. Some areas may be more stable than others. The amount of movement is itself variable.
So, what does the map represent? It really isn’t a clear snapshot of any particular time-frame. We really can’t locate a specific time in which all the territories assigned to various indigenous peoples really were under their control. Rather, it seems to be a representation of the territories controlled by various peoples during something like a period of peak cultural autonomy. …as perceived by white people. In a very real sense, each of these territories is set onto the map in precisely the locations at which we non-natives really became interested in the regions and/or first became aware of the native peoples in question. Fair enough as far as it goes, but to say that this leaves out a lot of information is a Hell of an understatement.
Speaking of non-native perceptions. Names are a bit of a problem here as well. I hope it will come as no surprise to learn that many of the names appearing on these maps are not those used by the people to refer to themselves. ‘Navajo’ was for example a Tewa term for open fields. ‘Sioux’ is usually described as a shortened version of an Ojibwa term (it has something to do with snakes). As I recall, there is a competing narrative for that one, but the point is that the name DID NOT come from the Sioux themselves. ‘Eskimo’ was a Montagnais term often translated as ‘raw fish eater’, though it is more likely to have meant ‘snow-shoe netter’. Each of these origin narratives is a complicated story in itself (information is problematic all the way down), but for the present, the point is that the names typically appearing on these maps generally come from the neighbors of the peoples in question. They made their way into the popular lexicon after European colonists asked some other tribe who lives over there. The answers to those questions then made their way into our history books and onto our maps.
This is one reason I like this map by Aaron Carapella. He makes an effort to identify the native names for themselves and get them onto the territory. That’s a big improvement. Of course, we still have the timeline problem mentioned above, but at least the names are a bit more authentic. I should add that they are more authentic because they are the names the people in question use for themselves, not because they are ‘original’, as folks sometimes suggest. ‘Original’ alludes to a timeless beginning. Talk of an original name just points us back to the timeline problem, but there is definite value in using the name people prefer to use for themselves. We may have to switch back and forth, or introduce a topic using the more popular names, but working with materials that provides the native terms helps to normalize them.
One additionally interesting feature of Carapella’s maps is the fact that he leaves off the territorial boundaries. The names of each people simply appear on the map without any clear sense of the boundaries around them. We are left to imagine the full extent of each native territory. This avoids one of the larger problems one commonly finds in maps of Indian territory, their tendency to construe that territory in terms comparable to that of nation states. We all know the convention, color-coded spaces with clear boundaries between them. This conveys both a sense clear boundaries between different Indian peoples and a sense of homogeneity within those boundaries. Every part of Cherokee territory on such a map is just as Cherokeeish as any other part. They are all equally blue, or yellow, or mauve. One gets the sense that someone could pinpoint the exact moment they stepped into (or out of) Cherokee land, or that of any other tribe. We can practically see someone stopping on a dime, just like the cops in an old outlaw trucker movie do when they reach state lines. That’s how modern nation states work. It isn’t clear that this is now native territories work(ed).
It isn’t that native peoples didn’t have territories. They certainly did claim specific lands, and even defend them from others, but this system would have worked without the benefit of a scientific grid defining the exact moment one would step over the line from one territory to the next (much less collection of maps to represent them). Of course, natural features such rivers or mountains, and so forth would be used as reference points, but thus too leaves open questions as to just where the boundary rested. Did a given people claim both sides of a river or just one? The answers would vary. The end result was of course a lot of overlapping claims.
I often wonder if some of these maps could be improved by representing the overlapping territories, Venn diagram-style, at least where such instances do occur, but of course, this leaves open questions about timelines and the adequacy of information as to how the territories on these maps have been assigned to begin with. It’s not as though the historical record is entirely silent on these matters, but there is something about the way these maps fill in the details with a little too much precision. Judgement calls have been made on these maps, and the way they have been made is erased by the nature of the maps.
The problem isn’t really unique to Native American territories, but at least as applied to modern states and nations the techniques used by the map-makers matches those of the powers that be a bit more. People who live in and around important boundaries may or may not live life in a way that bears out the conventions of cartography, but the powers that be will likely support the notion that we can pin-point exactly where one state leaves off and another begins. They will also support the notion that we know exactly who belongs on one side or another, if necessary with guns or walls. The trouble here is that these maps purport to describe the territories of a different world altogether, one which reckons turf a bit differently.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to have these maps, but they distort even as they inform. I’m always curious about the prospects of improvement. In the interim, I am reckon the best cure for the distortion is to be aware of the problems.
…of which, I hope I have at least scratched the surface.
Sundry Maps (Click to embiggen)…
It must have been a couple decades back. I was at a small party in Forth Defiance. Those attending included a number of officials in the Navajo tribal government. Fort Defiance serves as kind of a bedroom community for the capital of the Navajo Nation, so this was hardly unexpected. What none of us expected that evening was a quick lesson that began when our host asked if anyone knew the name of the main street going through the town? No-one did. As it happens, the name was Kit Carson Drive.
Apparently, it still is.
To say that most of the party-goers found this shocking is putting it mildly. It may not be obvious to some of my readers why a room full of Navajos would object to a street named after Kit Carson, but even the most cursory knowledge of their history would make this pretty well obvious. The man is popularly known as an old western Indian fighter, and as it happens, a good number of the Indians he fought were Navajo. When General James H. Carleton, the Army Commander for the Territory of New Mexico decided to go to war with the Navajo people, it was Colonel Kit Carson that he sent off to do it. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly, the heart of Navajo territory, destroying resources (just as Sherman might have) and letting winter bring his enemies in to surrender. This campaign, and the four years of internment at Hwéeldi (Fort Sumner) still constitute the darkest chapter of most historical narratives about the Navajo people. So, you can just imagine what it must have meant for people who can still tell you about relatives lost on the long walk to Fort Sumner to learn that a road right through their community bears the name of the man responsible for their deaths.
Kinda put a damper on the party.
You might think it odd that folks didn’t know the name of the road to begin with, but it’s hardly unusual. Folks don’t pay that much attention to street names out that way. Many of the roads don’t have signs at all, and I don’t recall seeing that particular name on a street sign when I lived out there (though one can certainly be found in Fort Defiance today). This party was the only time anyone ever mentioned it to me.
The old south isn’t the only place in this country with a questionable sense of public history from the Civil War era. Those in the Southwest have less to do with the war between the states than the early stages of the Indian wars which would dominate the interior west for a couple decades. Kit Carson Drive is one of many such examples. The Obelisk in the town square of Santa Fe provides another. It’s had its own share of controversies over the years, not the least of them being this dedication:
“To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.”
It should come as no surprise that this line acquired its share of critics over the years. It has had some defenders as well, to be sure, but plenty of critics. The sentiments might have seemed appropriate enough to those who erected it in 1868, but in the 1970s, sentiments had changed a bit, as had the political status of some of those ‘savage Indians’ referenced in the piece. So it really should have come as no surprise when calls went out for removal or modification of the monument. Today, at least, it may seem a little surprising to find the monument had Native American defenders, which apparently it did. Attempts were made to put the original wording into it’s proper context, so to speak, preserving it without appearing to endorse it, but some clearly weren’t satisfied with this way of thinking about the issue. Resolution apparently came in the form of a chisel, and the result is a monument with its own fill-in-the-blank question.
It seems, the American public is hashing out a new round of debates over public monuments, particularly those in the South. Some no doubt find the entire debate quite trivial. Who reads the placards on a monument anyway? Of course when people fight over seemingly trivial things, you can bet your ass they aren’t really fighting over the trivial things. It isn’t actually history (much less historical monuments) that has people up in arms over Confederate Statues, just as it wasn’t really history that caused a word to fall off the monument in Santa Fe. Such battles are always about the present. They are about the way that people think and use history to shape the present, and there are usually some very specific present implications in these battles.
People typically see the present interests loud and clear when they confront advocates of social justice. If anyone ever forgets this, the term ‘political correctness’ is right there to remind us that someone (or at least someone on the left) has an agenda. What folks are slower to get, it seems, is the fact that these sorts of gestures are hardly neutral to begin with. There is a reason James W. Loewen devoted a fair portion of his book, Lies Across America, to Confederate monuments, and it wasn’t because these monuments contain sober and thoughtful commentary on the actual history of the region. A statue to a confederate hero isn’t just a reference to history as such; it says something to those who those whose ancestors those heroes fought to keep in bondage. And a monument to heroes who died fighting ‘savage Indians’ may say something noble to those descended from colonists (Spanish or Anglo) in the American southwest; it says something else to those descended from those very ‘savage Indians’.
To be sure, complications abound. Some folks may have ancestors on either end or neither of his memorial demographics, and some people may have no dog in the fight at all. Also ironic usage happens. Not every Native American takes umbrage at the word ‘savage’ just as not every Native American objects to the term ‘Redskins’. But we should be wary of efforts to make these exceptions into the rule. The Washington football team has, for, example paid good money trying to find, cultivate, and promote just about any Native American willing to help foster the notion that the team name reflects anything but a racist stereotype. Were the team name really so bland, one might almost wonder what use it would have for people interested in such a martial sport! And of course we now have the Cheetoh-in-Chief (who has his own bullshit civil war monument) mourning the loss of beautiful artwork and a desecration of history with every Confederate statue that goes down. His language is so flowery and positive. You’d almost think these monuments held no serious political significance in the present age.
Of course the folks delivering the Nazi salute in defense of Robert E. Lee might seem to argue otherwise.
There are people, times, and places who don’t find it necessary to remove or modify monuments to their sordid past. Some of these might not even be terrible people, places, or times. But if the monuments to an abusive past aren’t so toxic, this isn’t simply because potential critics choose to let it slide; it’s because the community as a whole has somehow managed to handle the issues in question. When the dominant voices prove tone-deaf or outright hostile to the interests of those on the wrong-side of monumental history, then we are all a lot less likely to get along. Then statues get pulled down.
…or someone just shows up with a chisel.
Just a few pics of Canyon de Chelly (click to embiggen):
Someone I know and love likes to say that Game of Thrones is all fake. It’s fantasy, so there is nothing realistic about it. This same individual (whom I know and love) eats up reality TV like it was candy. I think he knows as well as I do that those shows are often contrived, but that doesn’t stop him from getting really into the moment that alligator is on the hook and the second guy in the boat can’t seem to find his shot. I know as well as he does that Westeros ain’t real, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying about the fate of Jon Snow. Each mode of storytelling works for one of us and not the other.
But what does realism have to do with it? Or anything else for that matter?
It’s easier to see the connection for reality TV, not because it’s more real in an objective sense, but because the theme is more central to the genre. Reality television purports to be showing us something about how people in some part of this world really do live. That’s a claim that goes a bit beyond the story-line itself and reaches into the mess of life we sometimes call the real world. That claim constitutes a significant portion of the genre’s appeal. It’s a bit like porn, actually. The dialogue may be utter crap, but somehow the sense that you are seeing something real makes it a little more interesting. At least I think that’s the point, or at least part of it. For myself, I just can’t get into it. Knowing just how much manipulation goes into the stories told in reality television, constitutes a bit of deal-breaker for me. Perhaps I would enjoy it more if I could suspend disbelief and just enjoy the stories, but how does that suspension of disbelief work when a sense of veracity is central to the genre?
…also, there is the expository crutch!
Reality television leans very heavily on the use of exposition. Far too often, for me anyway, they break away from the action to have one of the characters explain events to the audience in their own words. Without these moments we would be missing a lot of the plot-line. Reality television uses these moments to fill in the gaps. It also uses them to tell us what’s at stake in the action, often playing up the drama well beyond any significance we could draw from the events ourselves. …if we don’t get this fish trap to work we’ll starve! We need to fix the oil leak in our car or we’ll freeze to death on this mountain top. That chef needs to change his recipe or the whole business will go under! …you get the idea. They’ll repeat these narratives a few times each episode, just to make sure you get caught up in the point. Maybe, I’m a hard sell, but most of the time I just don’t believe them. More importantly, I find the whole convention damned tedious. When did so much exposition become good writing? I’m guessing that moment in television history came during the early episodes of MTV’s Real World and that first season of Survivor.
Remember Survivor? Remember the hype leading up to the first episode? This was supposed to be about people surviving on their own under primitive conditions. Only they couldn’t! Those guys really couldn’t do much to feed themselves and contribute to their own survival. But they did get just enough food and water from the show producers to survive so long as they didn’t waste their energy trying to survive on their own. So they mostly sat around and bickered with each other. Somewhere in there, I imagine, the production team must have had a collective panic attack. …My God, the whole story just ain’t happening! What do we do? The answer turned out to be high school soap opera, and thus the master script was born for just about every reality television program made ever since.
That’s how I imagine it anyway. It may not be real, but if you had me and five of my friends telling you the story of this blog post, I’ll bet it would pass muster for reality TV.
“…this really is a must write blog post for Dan. He’s at his breaking point.”
“I knew, I had to do post something today. This post was like a dark cloud hanging over my head.”
“If Dan doesn’t finish this post today, I’m pretty sure he’ll be eaten by black bears.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. Nobody reads blogs anymore anyway.”
I’m voting that last fucker of the island!
But let’s come back to the Game of Thrones! I get the concern. It’s fantasy. There are dragons. Magic works (except when it doesn’t), and well, hell, did I mention there are dragons? Clearly, some things about Game of Thrones are not real at all. Still, I think the show has two (maybe three) realisms lacking in many more ‘realistic’ genres.
First and foremost, it’s all the death, the gruesome terrible deaths, the ones that happen to central characters that we all know and love. Love it or hate it, George R.R. Martin’s penchant for killing off key protagonists has long since become the defining feature of the show. For myself, I love it, but there is a certain dwarf that better be in good health at the end of this coming season or I’ll, I’ll, …I don’t know what I’ll do.
Take that Martin!
People ask Martin about this all the time. I’m particularly fond of the answer he once gave The Independent:
“A writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die,” he told Galaxy’s Edge Magazine. “Particularly if you’re writing about war, which is certainly a central subject in Game of Thrones.”
He continued: “We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on an adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras.
“That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly.”
The author goes on to explain, slightly morbidly, that we’re all going to die at some stage as mortality is inevitable. “Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time.
“You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books.”
I take that to be a kind of realism. It’s not about authentic costumes or weaponry, or the details of some known historical event. It’s about the human cost of warfare. Martin is known to have patterned his fiction after some real historical conflicts (most notably the War of the Roses), but of course his work remains fiction. Hell, it remains fantasy-fiction. So, we have no baseline from which to compare his description of events to a known fact, at least not any he is obligated to render with accuracy. Still, Martin’s willingness to kill off the characters we care about tells us something about war that many more ‘realistic’ stories keep leaving out.
I would add that it isn’t just Martin’s willingness to kill important characters that sets his stories off from others. It’s his willingness to do it unexpectedly, suddenly, and often without any hint of heroics in the moment of death. Time and again, Game of Thrones invites us to identify with a character, to root for them, only to kill them
in the end.
…only to leave us watching as the struggle goes on without those whose story arc had once defined the whole meaning of the show for us.
That is a kind of realism, one largely absent in a good deal of historical fiction.
None of this is exactly Italian neorealism. But each of these genres effects a kind of realism amidst a story-line saturated with fiction. Where one purports to show us something akin to lives of people in odd walks of life, another aims to show us how human beings struggle to deal with terrible events. For either to work, something in story-line must resonate for the viewer (or reader). Each in its own way speaks to a sense of reality, though each also weds that sense of reality to a fabricated universe of its own.
Historical accuracy might be thought to present another type of realism, but of course historical films (and even documentaries) are saturated with their own contrivances. The blog, An Historian Goes to the Movies presented a very thoughtful discussion of the subject here, here, and here (and really throughout his entire website). In one of the most interesting passages in this series, he talks about the public’s penchant for scrutinizing the accuracy of material culture and fighting techniques in film while ignoring the historical accuracy of plot points:
I find it very striking that audiences apparently want a sense of accuracy about violence, but not about plot. They cheerfully accept absurd plot developments (like Isabella being way too young and way too far way to have an affair with Wallace), but will complain if the sword fighting looks too fake. (Compare contemporary film violence to that from the 60s, for example, to see just how much effort Hollywood has put into improving the realism of its violence.)
Imagine for a moment a film in which the emphasis was on accuracy of the plot, but not on accuracy of the costuming or weaponry. Picture William Wallace running around in a 20th century British military uniform carrying an AK-47 but engaging in fairly accurate political maneuverings.
Most people would react to that poorly, I suspect, because Hollywood trains us that accuracy means specific things and generally excludes other things. But theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare employ this device fairly frequently. Instead of setting his Richard III in the 1480s, like the historical Richard III, or in the 1590s, when the play was first performed, Ian McKellan set his version of the play in the 1930s, depicting Richard as a would-be fascist dictator. A particular favorite detail is the arrangement of 16th century poem “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” as a sort of Swing-era piece. The famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech becomes a political speech. It works beautifully, and while the setting isn’t faithful to the play as Shakespeare envisioned it, it works marvelously and offers a wonderful comment on the politics of both the 15th and the 20th centuries while still being true to the spirit of the play. This is a film making careful, clever use of its choices about historical inaccuracy.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this commentary lies in the comparison with Shakespearean theater. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the kind of bias he exposes here is just to expected from viewers, the comparison with Shakespeare shows us that it isn’t. There is indeed at least one genre which reverses the emphasis, taking us out of the realm of period dress and sword techniques and inviting us to dwell on the plot-line.
I want to underscore at least one aspect of this question about accurate plot-lines, namely the sense of a character’s world view. Historical plot-lines can be inaccurate for any number of reasons, but one of the most interesting and common inaccuracies would seem to be a penchant for reading modern thought worlds into the motivations of historical characters. In this respect, Mel Gibson is the gift that keeps on giving. Whether it be a southern plantation owner who doesn’t own slaves, or William Wallace crying ‘freedom’ as he is about to die, his historical characters typically speak to the sensibilities of modern peoples more than those of the era in which they purportedly lived. Whatever the (in-)accuracy of his dress or battlefield depictions, Gibson’s characters are often living anachronisms, thinking and behaving in ways that have less to do with the period than the social order of the modern day.
Here is another respect in which I think Game of Thrones is particularly good. For those of us who live in a modern republic, the logic of an aristocracy can seem quite vicious, often unnecessarily so. Why all the fighting? Is it vain ambition? And if these characters must fight for control of their worlds, could they not at least spare the children of their enemies? Even the title of the series points to the answer, but I believe it was Cercei who explained it best.
Again, this is fiction. Hell, it’s fantasy fiction, but it’s fantasy fiction pointing at a kind of world that has existed in human history, one many of us have trouble grasping. It’s a world in which heredity defines power, and even a child with the wrong bloodline is a very real threat to the powers that be. This too is a kind of realism, one which reminds us people in other times and places may not be able to act as we would, even if they wanted to. I admired Eddard Stark’s efforts to show mercy in this scene, and I expect I’m not entirely alone in this. But of course we call know how that turned out. We are 6 seasons into the show, and thus far, I have every reason to believe Cersei was right about this. Not just Certei. Martin too. This is Martin telling us something about the social order of a certain kind of world. His world may be fiction, but others like it would not be, and his story does indeed help to illustrate how those worlds work. Is it realism? Not quite. But you could learn a lot about real worlds from this kind of story.
So it seems the attempt to show us how certain people live in certain times and places always reflect the priorities of those who produce them. Are they trying to show us how people dressed, how a certain series of events unfolded, or how people thought about their lives in the context of the times depicted? One could find other priorities in a film, to be sure, but it would be a rare story that didn’t have some serious blind spots.
The funny thing about such blind spots is they can be hard to see at first, but once you find them, they can be equally hard to ignore.
Okay, so one of the ways I am cheating my way through this topic, so far, is that I keep picking examples where one can arrive at a reasonably sure sense of what the facts would say about a given issue, what would count as real if we chose to care about it. What about when you don’t know? What is realism when we don’t exactly know what the fact is?
Take the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner). Better yet, take the film Reel Injun in which director, Zacharias Kunuk discusses one of the challenges he faced in making Atanarjuat. He wanted to shoot some love scenes, but that raised an interesting question. How would two Inuits living essentially in the pre-contact era have actually made love. He couldn’t very well just have them start sucking face for foreplay, as would be the case in most love scenes, because Inuit in the precontact era didn’t kiss the way people do now. Lots of people have heard of an ‘Eskimo kiss’, which is essentially rubbing noses, or so we are told, but how does that work? Past movies set in the arctic depict this in rather comic terms, which was definitely not what Kunuk was going for. He wanted to portray this as accurately as possible. So, he talked to the elders in his own community and based his own love scenes on their answers.
So, is the ‘Eskimo kiss’ in Atanarjuat accurate? Is it realistic?
It seems rather likely that the answer is ‘yes’, but that isn’t entirely obvious. The elders Kunuk spoke to, might have been wrong. It’s certainly possible. Historical information isn’t carried in the blood, and customs change a great deal over time while people’s ideas about tradition are often rooted in the eras of their own youth. So, it is possible that Kunuk’s elders might have been factually wrong about an Eskimo kiss.
So what if they were?
Worst case scenario, the love scene in Atanarjuat is still the best answer that an Inuit director could come up with after speaking with Inuit elders in preparation for a movie with an Inuit cast and made essentially with an Inuit audience in mind. I can manufacture (as I just did) an objective question that Kunuk might have gotten wrong, but his answer is still the most authoritative I know of. It is certainly the most authoritative answer most of his non-Inuit audience will ever see. Whatever the facts of this topic, Kunuk’s portrayal is still a thoughtful expression of an Inuit perspective about the subject. That has to count for something.
So if someone asks me what is an ‘Eskimo kiss’, how am I going to answer them? I’m going to point them right to Atanarjuat, or maybe to Reel Injun. Of course, I could also say that an ‘Eskimo kiss’ is a silly western caricature of what different Eskimo peoples actually did, but then I’m still going to point them to Fast Runner, because what happens in Fast Runner is STILL the most authoritative answer to that question that I know of, at least on film. In effect, it is the most realistic film portrayal that I’m aware of at present.
The point here in this overly-belabored sub-theme is that realism isn’t always about objective facts. Sometimes it’s about perspective, Sometimes, it’s about the most authentic voice(s) you can find on a subject, the ones whose values and priorities are most relevant to a subject. This is particularly true of movies about exotic peoples, whether they be past civilizations, foreign cultures, or just the guy who does that really odd job. An outsider might manage a perfectly accurate portrayal of the lives of such people, but without some insight into their thinking, what would that be worth? Such insights must involve a native voice at some point. Better still when that voice can actually shape the narrative!
Will such a voice come with its own contrivance?
Also, there is no Santa Clause.
The Atomic testing Museum in Las Vegas would be among the more interesting places I visited this summer. The museum has two major exhibits, one for Atomic testing and one for Area 51. I’m really not sure what to make of the Area 51 section, and really I’d just as son not be picked up by the Men in Black, so we’ll just leave commentary on that aside for the present. Besides, the Atomic Testing Museum provides plenty of interesting material t consider.
Seeing the Dina Titus reading room in there made me smile. It’s been a long time, but I do remember my old Political Science Professor rather fondly. Her book, Bombs in the Backyard would be the most obvious connection to this facility, though I’m not entirely sure how much of a role she played in the development of the museum and it’s collections. She does provide one of the more critical voices in one of the films shown in museum. I find myself wondering if her views couldn’t have received more coverage.
I’d have to say the material collections in this museum are fantastic. I’ll include a few pictures, but they really don’t do the place justice. It’s worth a trip to see this stuff, so remember this place if you’re ever in Las Vegas and your hangover is under control. Of course you may also pick up a bit about Nuclear testing at the Neon Museum, because nuclear tourism was once so very Vegas. But of course the Atomic testing Museum is a long way from Neon. Much of it is drab green and grey, just like I remember my dad’s old military paraphernalia, which is very fitting I suppose.
There is a tremendously matter-of-fact tone to the presentation in this museum. As you proceed down it’s halls you will learn how scientists first came to understand the possibilities which would give rise to nuclear technology; you will learn about the rush to acquire that technology during World War II, and you will learn about the many twists and turns of the nuclear arms race which would follow. Also you will learn about the steps and procedures taken to set up and run the actual facilities in Nevada.What bothers me is just how unproblematic each step in this process would seem to be in the narratives this museum provides.
The Atomic testing Museum presents the rationale for each stage in the history of its subject in a very straightforward manner. It does the same with protests, and even with various decisions to scale back nuclear testing and/or to discontinue certain programs. I wouldn’t say that the museum slights the protest movement in an overt manner, but the museum leaves a strong impression that the development of nuclear technology proceeded along a rational course. Whatever the pros and cons of nuclear testing, and of specific events in the history of nuclear testing, the planning process behind that history was, at least as far as the narrators here would have it, utterly reasonable.
This is of course exactly how I remember those in favor of nuclear testing presenting the case for it when I lived in Nevada. It’s also what I see whenever I dip my toes into the history of Atomic power. For whatever its worth, this does appear to be the view of those who worked in the industry. And of course those who worked in the industry are strongly represented in the Museum and its supporters.
This doesn’t mean that the museum is insensitive to critics of Atomic testing, but it does mean that the narrative presentation at the museum provides a strong bias in favor of the grounds for testing in each of its various phases. Whether testing is right or wrong, so it would seem, the case for doing was always a function of careful, rational consideration. The problem is of course that this just isn’t entirely true. It may well be that the arms race was inevitable. It may well be that the bomb needed to be dropped on Japan, as so many still argue today. It may even be that we needed to keep testing for so many years into the cold war. All these things may well be (and yet they may not), but that doesn’t mean that each step in the process can be fully explained as a rationale decision by someone genuinely interested in pursuing national security.
There are moments in the history of Nuclear testing in which the larger narratives just don’t fully explain what’s going on; moments in which the fingerprints of Dr. Strangelove seem to be found all over the course of nuclear testing; moments in the mad scientist seems to upstage the soldiers and scientist doing heir grim duty for the sake of loved ones, the nation, and possibly the entire world. When I see images of U.S. troops marching towards ground zero of an explosion because someone wanted to see how the bomb would affect troop movements, I can’t help thinking that I’m seeing one such moment in the history of nuclear testing
I look at such an image and I can’t help but wonder at the supposed reason for putting those troops in harms way, at least on that particular day and in that particular manner. Was this really a serious research question? Or was someone doing that simply because they could? Because they could put people out there and expose them to great danger in the name of science, and because being able to put human beings in danger for any reason must be one of the surest signs ever that you are somebody and that what you do is important.
I’m fairly certain that I see one such moment in one of the smaller placards of the museum, that devoted to Operation Plowshare. The placard reads as follows:
The Atomic Energy Commission’s Plowshare Program was named after a Biblical verse referring to “beating swords into plowshares.” The program was intended to find peaceful applications for nuclear weapons.
The Plowshare program, initiated in 1958, sought to develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives to construct major facilities such as canals, harbors, earthen dams, and other engineering projects. Twenty-Six of the 35 Plowshare nuclear experiments were conducted at the Nevada test site. In 1961, the first off-site multi-purpose experiment, “Project Gnome,” near Carlsbad New Mexico was fired in a salt dome to study heat generated by a nuclear explosion, isotope and energy production, and seismic measurements. The most notable experiment in 1962 was Sedan, a 104 kiloton thermonuclear detonation, equivalent t an earthquake magnitude of 4.75 on the Richter Scale. The blast displaced 12 million tons of earth, creating a crater 1,280 feet in diameter and 320 feet deep. The crater could hold four football fields, end to end. Concluding the experiments in 1973 was Rio Blanco near Rifle, Colorado which focused on fracturing natural gas-bearing formations. The Plowshare program terminated in 1975 due to waning industrial interest and mounting public concern about the environmental consequences.
Not mentioned in this placard would one of the Plowshare projects never completed, Project Chariot. Project Chariot was an effort to build a harbor via nuclear detonations at a site just south of Point Hope, Alaska. Dan ONeill’s book, The Firecracker Boys provides a pretty thorough account of the politics behind this project as well as the opposition which eventually killed the project. Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson’s documentary, Project Chariot, also provides an interesting take on the subject, one focused the local Iñupiat population and their efforts to deal with the lasting impact of their brief encounter with an almost-bombing. I don’t particularly wish to rehash the full subject here, but it’s hardly a study in rational scientific inquiry. The Atomic Energy Commission ignored a great deal of science in planning the project, misrepresented the findings of its own scientists, lied to the people of Point Hope, and finally, when forced to abandon their plans to bomb the Alaskan coastline, the research team left radioactive material buried at the site without telling anyone.
I think about project Chariot when I read this placard telling us about the many successes of Operation Plowshare, when I see this matter of fact discussion of Plowshare’s goals and the simple decision to discontinue it. I think about the lives of scientists whose careers were trashed because they opposed it, and I think about the people in Point Hope today still unsure of just what did actually happen in their region, still wondering what effect it had upon them. In it’s pursuit of Project Chariot, the behavior of the Atomic Energy Commission was (as ONeill suggests) closer to that of kids with firecrackers, all-too eager to blow something up, than the sort of benign search for new ways to help mankind that one might expect from reading this placard on Operation Plowshare.
I think about all that, and I wonder how many similar stories never made it into the placards at the Atomic Testing Museum.
(Gallery. You may click the pictures. Don’t worry. They won’t explode!)
We meet the protagonist of this 2008 Canadian film in Baffin Island of the 1950s. Tiivii (played by Natar Ungalaaq) struggles for breath as he ascends a small hill in search of geese, his wife and children are just waking in their tent below. Upon seeing a boat on the half-frozen ocean, Tiivii sets aside the hunt and takes his family aboard for a series of medical tests. As the boat prepares to leave, Tiivii is told he must remain aboard, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves while he undergoes treatment for tuberculosis.
When next we see Tiivii, he is soon staring at a tree at the hospital in Quebec City, amazed at his new surroundings and quite unprepared for the coming hardships that await him. He does not fully understand his illness, nor does he realize how long it will take him to recover. He also has no idea how his family will fair without him.
An Inuit lost in civilizations? It’s an interesting twist on a familiar theme, that of a stranger in a strange land. The point is soon driven home as we see Tiivii struggle to master the use of a fork and spoon while the other hospital patients consume platefuls of pasta. He figures it out, but not before earning the derision of his roommates.
Through the story, we are invited to see the hospital and western civilization through Tiivii’s eyes, to see common utensils from the perspective of one who has never used them before and to imagine a common meal from the standpoint of someone has never eaten anything like it. We can also imagine his confusion at the sterile bathroom with its flush toilet; his longing for someone to talk to makes perfect sense; as does his desire to eat familiar food.
We’ve seen this storyline before, a person completely out of his element. It is often used to explore the differences between civilization and savagery. This was the premise for Dances With Wolves, and before that with Little Big-Man and A Man Called Horse. It’s a common enough theme in arctic films as well, being found in White Dawn and Snow Walker among others. What makes this film different is the trajectory of the stranger in this case; he has left a world unfamiliar to most of us, to enter one most of us will find rather familiar. We are used to seeing the story go the other way. Still Tiivii’s journey is compelling. Through his eyes, the western world becomes strange, unreasonable, and quite insane.
This particular twist on the stranger in a strange land contains an element of nuance, however, that would be easy to miss. Audiences may think they know what it means for an emissary of modern western society to live amongst primitives, but what does it mean for such an individual to come live amongst us, or at least the 1950s variation thereof? It would be easy to think that Tiivii spends the entire story marveling at the wealth and richness of the city. In the space of a few opening scenes he has made a transition from the life of a forager scratching out a meager existence on the tundra to a cosmopolitan center with all the wonders of contemporary society. Tiivii may see this world from the shelter of a hospital bed, but he does see it just the same. How could he possibly understand the complexities which have put food on his plate in that hospital, or those that enable him to flush that same food away in the porcelain toilet? It would be awfully easy to think of this as the story of a simple man lost in the wealth of the modern world
…except that would not explain the title of the movie.
The title comes to us in a scene near the end of the film, one in which Tiivii explains to a young patient named Kaki (Paul-André Brasseur) what it is like to be out on the tundra. Although Inuit himself, Kaki, has spent his formative years in the hospitals. He does not understand the kind of life his own people have led. Asked what his homeland is like, Tiivii explains:
Beautiful. Lots of mountains. From the top you can see everything. You can see exactly where you are going. Not like here, where there are trees everywhere and you can’t see ahead. There’s a huge island. It takes many days to travel around it. There’s everything you need, all the necessities of life. Seals. Caribou. Geese.
Tiivii’s face lights up with each point of his speech, but the point of the scene would be missed entirely if this was thought to be nostalgia. Tiivii’s speech provides the strongest hint in the movie as to just how he sees the world around him. It is not a world of abundance at all; it is one in which he cannot see the materials out of which to make his clothes much to less to build a home. It is a world in which he cannot see food or medicine. All of these things must be brought to him. If this is mysterious, it is not the mystery of a miracle so much as a perverse trickery, one which hides the means of life from him while doling out the necessities a little at a time. Far from marveling at the wealth of civilization, Tiivii has been lost in the desert the whole time. He doesn’t see modern miracles in plumbing or cutlery. Instead he sees a world of mostly useless materials.
I think this is the real genius of Necessities of Life, that it actually flies in the face of conventional notions of the difference between foragers and civilized folks. Ever since Nanook of the North, mainstream film-makers have marveled at the struggle of arctic hunters against hunger and the elements. Time and again, Hollywood’s ‘Eskimos’ have been portrayed as dwelling on the edge of starvation, and it would be awfully easy to see in Tiivii’s story just another chapter in that narrative, one in which one of these primitives actually gets to experience the wealth of modernity. And yet, what Tiivii actually tells us is just the opposite; wealth is waiting for him back home on Baffin Island, and he cannot wait to leave the extreme poverty of the modern world behind.