Thursday, April 30, 2015

quote to go along with the previous post

We all tell lies, just to keep them from each other, and from ourselves. But sometimes, rarely, something can happen that leaves you no choice but to reveal it--to let the world see who you really are, a secret self. But mostly we tell lies and we hide our secrets from each other and from ourselves. And the easiest way to do this is not to even know that you are.

-from the TV series, "The Honorable Woman"

something a friend and i recently realized about racism

My friend Sally and I were sitting in the living room of my last house-sitting house a few weeks ago, talking about racism and white privilege. Sally and I are both white, and white privilege is something we both think about and care about a lot, and we were talking about experiences we've had that have helped us understand our own white privilege (and hence participation in racism) better.

Jonathan's comment today, about how white privilege is actually a lot of what's going on with the anti-vaccination crowd, reminded me of that conversation with Sally, and so I'd like to share with you something we talked about.

Almost every white person I know does not want to be racist. Some of my white friends think about race a lot, and some of them only think about it a little, but pretty much all of them would be horrified to be seriously labeled a racist. They/we genuinely believe racism is evil, and they would all be saddened and scandalized to learn, as I recently did, that there is a town in Arkansas called Negro Head Corner. They/we are revolted by racist comments on the internet. Etcetera.

We are, in other words, well-intentioned progressive white Americans.

One of the assumptions I think that so many of us white Americans have had--myself very much included--is that if we were to have a racist motivation for any action, that we'd instantly recognize that racism inside of us, and it would feel icky. We think that to be racist must be an inwardly bad feeling, like you feel when you feel jealous or disappointed or even ill. We think we'd recognize the icky feeling of racism in ourselves, and since we don't have any of those icky feelings, we assume that we aren't racist.

We assume that because we don't have hatred for black people, we must not be racist, Or because we'd invite a black family over for dinner, we must not be racist. Or because we chat with our Mexican co-worker, or smile at the Vietnamese immigrant who's our server at the Vietnamese restaurant, that we must not be racist.

This is a dangerous assumption. It's like assuming that you'll know if you've been infected with HIV the minute the infection enters your body. So, as long as you don't feel sick, you assume you don't have HIV, and so you continue to have unprotected sex. Racism is so much like that. It's a virus. It's a quiet, dormant-seeming virus that's coursing through most of us white Americans, and it doesn't make us feel sick so we assume we don't have it.

I wish that this reality was known by white people. Being racist does not necessarily make you feel bad. You can be racist and feel great! You can be racist and feel happy, feel a tremendous sense of well-being and at-one-ness. Being nice and feeling good have absolutely no bearing on whether you are racist or not. I wish this was better understood.

Of course it is known by some white people, and a woman like Sally has my respect for the way that she is trying so sincerely to confront her white privilege, think about it, engage it, and try to figure out what to do about it. But the thing is that the central feature of the privilege that Sally and I have is that we don't have to think about it. We can choose to think about it or choose not to think about it. Whereas all the people of color in this country don't have that choice. I could very comfortably live in America my whole life and never give race a second of my time. And if I do think about it, I feel a bit self-congratulatory, a bit proud of myself, for being the good kind of white person. (And I get that feedback, too, from people of color. That I'm the good kind of white person. Which of course makes me feel even prouder of myself. I wonder if this is how progressive men feel, when they get pats on the back from women.)

Everything I'm saying can be applied to class too. You can be classist and never realize it, and never feel icky at all. Poor people live on the other side of town, and don't have any bearing on your life. You smile at them when you pass them on the street. No icky feelings happen. The end.

Gender is maybe a little trickier, because while white people can go their whole lives not interacting with people of color, and rich people can go their whole lives only very marginally engaging with poor people, we all have to engage people of the opposite gender. So, I don't know. Can you be sexist and never feel icky? That's not a question that I can answer.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

tamie's thoughts on vaccinations for children

A few weeks ago I wrote this letter to the editor here in Sitka, after going to a pro-vaccination talk given by a local pediatrician. I'd like to share it with all of you. It's not pro-vaccination and it's not anti-vaccination. It's about what I think is one thing that needs to happen in order for the pro and anti people to be able to really talk to each other.

Dear Editor:

Last night I attended by first “Doc Talk,” by pediatrician Dr. David Vastola, about childhood vaccinations. Few topics are as socially divisive as vaccinations! I appreciated Dr. Vastola’s thorough preparedness, and I learned a lot. He explained well what he (and the American Medical Association, and World Health Organization) views as an essential part of keeping not just one’s own children, but the whole world, safe.

However, there is one area in which I wish to quibble with Dr. Vastola, and that is in his explanation about why it is that the largest demographic (in the U.S.) currently refusing to vaccinate their children are educated, upper-middle class people. My memory is that he attributed this reality to that fact that that demographic is the portion of America that reads the most, and there is a huge amount of anti-vaccine literature available. The implication seemed to be that, although they read, they are not discriminating readers, and aren’t able to parse fact from snake oil.

As an educated, upper-middle class, white woman of child-bearing age(I don’t have children), I’d like to offer an alternate explanation. “Educated” means that most people in the demographic under discussion have gone to college, and many have attended graduate school. In college, particularly in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, one encounters implicit and explicit critiques of authority and the kind of hierarchical power structures that American medicine has historically enjoyed being at the top of. Every discipline from history to sociology to journalism is rife with stories of authority figures using their power for harm, or simply not knowing what the heck they were talking about (and so inadvertently causing harm). All of those disciplines, and a whole host of others, devote years worth of classes to deconstructing and criticizing the kind of authoritative, top-down worldview in which “experts” disseminate commands to the passive masses. And yet, that authoritative worldview is still the dominant one in the medical community. (Though I do not accuse Dr. Vastola or any other specific doctor of advancing that worldview.)

I think what we have is a deeper problem than what Dr. Vastola seemed to imply last night—that people don’t vaccinate their children because they read things, but don’t read critically. No doubt non-critical engagement with all kinds of media is a gigantic problem in America, and educated upper-middle class folks aren’t immune from sloppy thinking. But in the specific case of educated, upper-middle class people refusing to vaccinate their children, I believe there is a worldview clash taking place, in which one group of people are demanding the masses submit to the authority of science, statistics, and a medical worldview, and another group of people are resisting being (as they think of it) hornswaggled by the authorities (and hasn’t history given us limitless reasons to distrust authorities of every kind?). The situation isn’t helped, of course, when anti-vaccinators try to talk to doctors and are met with either derision or a gentle condescension, which only confirms their suspicions that doctors are operating within an antiquated and wrong-headed worldview. (Obviously these are generalizations; no doubt many doctors defy the norm, and quite plausibly Dr. Vastola is among them).

My point is this: until the American Medical Association and its members take seriously legitimate critiques of the power it has long enjoyed and assumed—until we can have a conversation about that—the vaccination conversation (a crucial converastion!) isn’t going to find its feet.

Thanks to Dr. Vastola, and to everyone who makes the “Doc Talks” possible.


This is a real advertisement for the Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall.

At the top it says, "Oh, look, a moose. Now, where's the mall?" And when you read that, you assume that the speaker is being sarcastic. You should be so lucky.

The text at the bottom reads: "Sure, taking in all that Alaska's great outdoors has to offer is nice. But taking in all that the mall's great indoors has to offer is even nicer. Especially on those really, really cold days. Just ask the moose. JCPenny, Nordstrom, Banana Republic, The Body Shop, Eddie Bauer, Gymboree, Sullivan's Steak House. 5th Avenue and C Street."

This advertisement is real, comrades. And it very nicely and succinctly sums up capitalism! I think that really, I should be thanking the folks at Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall for distilling capitalism onto one, slick page.

Monday, April 27, 2015

at the 1/3 mark, reflections on my new year's resolution

Now that we are 1/3 of the way through 2015, I'd like to reflect on how my New Year's Resolution for this year is going so far.

I have indeed stuck to my New Year's Resolution, by and large. To remind you, that resolution was to engage this year solely with the art of people who have been historically marginalized or are currently marginalized. In other words, to watch movies made by black directors, to read books written by lesbians, to look at visual art made by transgendered people, etc. Straight, wealthy, white men have had the dominant cultural voice for a reeeeeeeeeally long time, and consequently the majority of art and writing that I myself have been exposed to has been made by straight, wealthy, white men. So this New Year's Resolution grew out of a desire to engage with the creations of everyone else in the world (which is, in fact, the vast majority of people in the world; straight, wealthy, white men are by far in the minority!).

In these four months, I've stuck with my resolution for the most part. I've watched movies by Spike Lee, movies about women and black people and Albanian people, read books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Emma Donoghue, articles by Ta Nehisi Coates and Meghan O'Gieblyn, and listened to soul. There've been a few times when I've slipped, most notably to watch "Lawrence of Arabia," but mostly I've stuck to my resolution.

And it's been affecting me in ways I hadn't quite expected. It's to those affects and effects that I now turn. One thing that I hadn't quite realized that I'd have to think about so much is marginalization itself. I've been realizing that who gets silenced, and who gets heard, is a complicated matter in our society. For example, on Saturday I watched the movie "Citizen Four," a powerful documentary about Edward Snowden that I highly recommend. I may be an intellectual, but I'm not really drawn to documentaries, because most of them are boring. But "Citizen Four" isn't boring. It's surprisingly moving, and it's riveting, and it's about something that affects your personal and private life.

But here's the thing. When Edward Snowden decided to reveal that the United States government is spying on its own people, he was a rich, straight, white man with a lot of power. And yet, by choosing to do what he felt was the right thing to do, he became an extremely marginalized person, arguably one of the most targeted and scapegoated and ostracized people in the world.

So I've had to re-think marginalization. There are reasons that power wants to marginalize some people and not others, and those reasons tend to have to do with keeping those in power in power. Sometimes, engaging with the art of marginalized people is a radical act of resistance. But sometimes it's not really an act of resistance at all. The art of a gay man can be happily upholding the power status quo. The art of a black man can be misogynist. The art of a woman can be classist. The art of a poor, white man can be racist. It turns out that I've had to admit that being thoughtful about power and marginalization is a lot more complicated than just shunning books written by straight, white men. Although, I think that's a good start, because it's what got me thinking about all this stuff.

Speaking of straight, white men, hoo-boy am I tired of hearing the voices of white men who dominate speech or dominate physical space or dominate anything at all. Now that I've got these matters at the forefront of my mind all the time--because I'm trying to be extra-thoughtful about what I do and don't engage--I'm just so aware of how many straight, white men assume that it's Normal and Super Awesome for them to talk more, more loudly, and take up more space than women, people of color, gay people, and everyone else on the planet. Not all straight, white men are like this. But a lot of them are. And I notice it way more than I ever have before. And I have much less tolerance for it than I ever have before.

But then with marginalization on my mind, I also think more about ways that being straight and white doesn't guarantee you won't be harmed. But what I think that men should realize is that gender guarantees a whole lot more than men are usually aware of. And what white people should realize is that skin color guarantees way more than white people are usually aware of. And Americans should realize that that sweet blue passport still has so much power.

So that's my reflection here a third of the way in. Books and movies I recommend are over there at the right. I just watched "Kandahar" and it joins "Before the Rain" and "Ida" in being a fantastic war movie. In my book, the formula for a fantastic war movie = a movie that makes you feel sick at the very thought of war, and makes you never, never, never want to be anywhere near a war. Bad war movies are movies that make you feel a little jealous of people who get to be in war, or feel a little jazzed at the thought that maybe someday you might be in one. Disgusting war movies are movies that make you want to go join the nearest war. So, according to those formulas, the three movies I just listed are really great war movies. They will make you feel hopeless and absolutely despairing at the wars they portray. At the end of the movies, no hope at all will be felt. And that is exactly how war movies should be.

Not all the art I've engaged has been this bleak, certainly. Americanah was a delightful read, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was beautiful in addition to being sad, and "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" was inspiring. So far, I highly recommend making this resolution for a year.

P.S. Something about me--and I don't know if this happens to anyone else--is that I feel less depressed about life when I engage art that feels true. There's something about truth that gives me way more courage than sentimental Hollywood cheerful crap. So when I watch movies like "Kandahar" or "Before the Rain," I don't finish the movies and want to give up on life. I finish the movies knowing that they portray what is really happening in the world, and so I want to rally and fight for life. I feel like, "Terrible things are happening. All hands on deck! This is no time to sit around eating potato chips! Let's all figure out a way to help those who are truly powerless!" Whereas when I watch sentimental Hollywood cheerful crap, I feel very depressed and lethargic because it just seems like Distraction Method #792 in a very, very long list of distraction methods Americans have invented for themselves. Does anyone else ever feel this way? However, I think there's a difference between a movie like "Before the Rain" and self-reflective indie films that revel in artistically portraying pain and making suffering look compelling and interesting. Frankly, I think those movies might possibly be just as bad as sentimental Hollywood cheerful crap. Maybe even worse.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

psychotherapy & landscape

In a few days, I'll move from the house where I've been staying (the home of an essayist & naturalist) to another house where I'll be house-sitting (the home of a poet friend of mine). This has been a lovely place to be for six weeks. I'm so thankful.

While here, I found a book of meditations. I'd like to quote one of the meditations, written by James Hillman. I'd really be curious to hear what you people think of these words. They're about psychotherapy, and one key reason why it might not "work" very well in many contexts. The meditation begins with this editor's note: "Anima mundi describes the belief that our souls are not just within us but also in nature and in the world, and that damage done to the world is damage done to our souls."

Now here's Hillman:

"Let's take a husband and wife in a modern suburb, and they fight about drink and money and in-laws and love and little habits. Then he goes to analysis and she goes to analysis and the y ork on the relationship, and they are good sincere patients who try--group therapy, team or office therapy, family therapy, sex therapy--they get it all together as human decent people. They may even go to Church. And still there is a terrible misery going on, because the room in which they're set, its low ceiling, thin hollow doors, the bed, the dishes, the TV programs, the magazines, the light tubes, the furniture they have around them, and so on and so on, the whole world of material things, verbal things, institutional things in which their marriage is set is nasty, brutish, ugly, cheap, shoddy, vicious--without soul at all. Fake. How can they possibly straighten out their situation if the whole stage set including the lines in the script are fake?

"Wait--let me go on. Psychotherapy is something very strange in a world like this. It used to rely on a bourgeois world that had certain values and kinds of things, qualities, that had to be seen through, with irony, with skepsis. See the repressed. But that world has disappeared. The politics, language, education, institutions that upheld the marriage disappeared, the buildings, streets, lights, food, words, table and chairs are gone: but psychotherapy still works as if all that scenery is still around, analyzing the marriage with theories of 1920 in a 1980 set. Unless psychotherapy takes into account the sickness of the world, it can never really work, because the anima mundi is sick now. Pathology is "out there." You feel it on the highway, you feel it in the car, you feel it in your sense that something is out of tune, false or ugly or unemotional or without soul or vapid or sexless, tasteless. How can psychoanalysis justify itself, two people in a room talking?"

Sunday, April 19, 2015

learning about war

I highly recommend two movies about war. The first is "Before the Rain," a Macedonian movie somewhat in the style of the French Blue, White & Red series. The second movie is "Ida," a Polish movie about the after-effects of WWII. Both are in the very top tier of movies. Both do not remotely glorify war, not even one iota. It is impossible to imagine someone would watch either movie and have even the faintest desire to join a war or be in any way associated with a war.

The short story collection, "Redeployment," by Phil Klay, is also worth reading. Phil Klay was a Marine, and the short stories are about Marines in Iraq. The stories are well-written, gritty, insightful, and really depressing. Any piece of art that's about war and isn't really depressing is highly suspect.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

ha ha ha ha ha, oh einstein

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.
-Albert Einstein

Friday, April 3, 2015

and this is why i love alaska

This isn't from our local paper. But our local paper has a section like this, where every day you get to read about what the police are up to. And it's stuff like this, all the time.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

quote of the day

This is from "One of the Best Ones," by Bruce Cockburn. He's so hit and miss, BC. He has these smashingly great lines. But his melodies are often murderously boring. It's a strange thing. Anyway, here's the quote of the day.

There are eight million mysteries
In the naked body
Can't even sight on some distant horizon

Like the nine billion names of God
Don't bring you any closer
To anyone you can simply set eyes on

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


It's surprising, sometimes, where you find good thinking or good advice. Today I very randomly clicked on some LinkedIn link, which isn't even something I'd normally do, not even on a slow day. But, I did. And I found this short essay-ette by Aasif Mandvi, who's worked on "The Daily Show." And you know what? It's the best reflection on writing and art in general that I've read in a while. It's also some pretty darn good advice about how to live life well. I don't understand why it's hidden away on LinkedIn, but I'm glad I read it.

Here you go: