Friday, February 20, 2015

"Princess" Goes to Cleveland

This picture was taken at the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Texas, last April. We were on location filming a short movie entitled Princess.

Today the Burning House learned that the film has been accepted (among 180 out of thousands of submissions) to the Cleveland International Film Festival next month. This means it qualifies for an Academy Award, which is probably as close as I'll ever get to an Oscar, which is all right.

Mainly I am happy for the hardworking director of that film, a fellow by the name of Ross Marks, who discovered this screenplay written by one of his students at New Mexico State University and believed in his student's work enough that he produced a lovely little movie from it, assembling a good spirited crew of professionals and students training to be professionals.

Congratulations to them. And click here if you would like to see the film yourself

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

"Childhood Diseases" and Vaccination

Science education matters. It is, if you will, an inoculation against the spread of misinformation and fear. Such as the fear of inoculation itself. Vaccines.

Mistrust of authority figures is a different matter - and the mistrust is justified by the conditions under which we live. It is not, however, a reason to make bad medical decisions.

There is a measles outbreak in the United States, a disease declared eliminated in 2000. We had the disease under control due to a very effective vaccine. But the disease existed, fanned by travel and contact with unvaccinated people, as measles has a larger presence in some countries. In other words, by declaring it "eliminated" we were declaring the disease under control. Nonetheless, we now have an outbreak and as political leaders and would-be national candidates weigh in it is apparent that junk science has a great deal of currency. A United States Senator even claimed this week that vaccines lead to mental disorders, which he said on tape and yet tried, lamely, to deny that he said what he said.

A growing "anti-vax" movement is the major factor in the outbreak, but there is also this idea that these childhood diseases are minor, no big deal. Because these diseases have been kept under control for so long - thanks to vaccination - a lot of people forgot, or never learned, that these diseases can lead to complications with long-term damage, permanent damage, even death.

I learned this lesson when I got chicken pox at age 27.

My parents are positive that I had chicken pox as a child and in any case I had had the regular panel of vaccinations. I remember having mumps, as well, during my elementary school years. I don't understand how I could be re-infected, but there was no denying I had chicken pox. It was during my second year in graduate school. I fell ill and broke out, I went to a doctor and got the diagnosis, and he sternly told me to stay in bed. This was in part to contain my disease and also because the complications were extremely serious, including pneumonia and encephalitis. How long should I stay in? Until the pox had dried up and gone.

I was in bed for a month.

And I mean, in bed. I lived alone in an apartment on Candace Street in Providence. My girlfriend looked in on me but didn't stay long. It was easy to stay in because as my body fought this "childhood disease" I was drop-dead exhausted all the time. It kicked my ass. And itched. Oh, the itching. Nothing helped very much.

I did not get pneumonia or encephalitis, but I developed Bell's Palsy, which left half my face paralyzed for several weeks and to this day, 17 years later, my face still goes asymmetrical at times.

We think of childhood diseases as not a big deal. Kids get 'em, they beat 'em, they don't even remember having them. But these diseases are a big deal. Vaccinations don't literally eliminate these diseases. Elimination means "the absence of continuous disease transmission for 12 months or more in a specific geographic area" according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The media seems to love the question of whether vaccinations should be legally mandatory. This is distinctly a different question than, "Should kids be vaccinated?" The latter is a no-brainer. (We will get to the common objections in a moment.) Yes, vaccinate your kids. Yes. That's an easy question with a correct answer. The answer is yes.

The question the media wants to explore because it makes for good debates on television and lights up the libertarian left and right is "should government require you to do this thing?" Another United States Senator (we are electing some prize turkeys lately) even called question to health codes requiring employees who serve food to wash their hands after using the toilet, completely ignoring what is known - commonly known, in fact - about Eschericia coli bacteria.

What no one has said yet is that making it a legal requirement would not be necessary if we could defeat the misinformation and help people understand that vaccination is, from a medical standpoint, a settled matter and the ethical equation rather simple. We shouldn't need state coercion any more than we need a state to require us to look both ways, and once back again, before crossing a street.

But there is a lot of misunderstanding and fear about vaccines, a lot of strongly prevalent rumors. For heavens sake, we have a prominent and popular television personality insisting absent any scientific evidence that vaccines are linked to autism. At the same time, there is also a lot of mistrust of government and the medical industry, the former being in service to corporations in the latter, and the latter having been willing to push medications and cut corners on safety in order to enhance its profits.

People worried or unconvinced about vaccines should of course be free to make their own decisions - GOOD decisions, sound decisions, decisions based on good information and sensible thought. We have this fallacy that everyone is entitled to hold whatever opinion they like. Some confuse this with freedom of speech. But there is nothing virtuous or helpful in defending the freedom to spread bad medical advice or other false information. True liberty comes when one is free to make good decisions and hold sensible opinions. You don't get there through coercion and you don't get there by calling people stupid.

People aren't stupid for mistrusting experts and corporations and government bodies in a system like ours. Besides human fallibility, and the nature of science (which can be wrong, which is why scientific research is never finished), it is perfectly sane to feel alienated from institutions and authority figures under capitalism. Under for-profit medicine, we are used to be lied to, denied care, and in some areas of medicine overdiagnosed and overmedicated due to profit-driven marketing. What I'm arguing here is that under capitalism, human needs do not come first, and the way we are treated by our medical industry demonstrates this.

Also true, we haven't done a good enough job of educating people about the science behind vaccination. (Or educating people generally about science, starting in elementary education.) For a great many adults, vaccination is as mysterious (and scary) as magic. People hear things about hormones and preservatives in the shots, about mercury this and autism that, and then someone who has been given a platform on television spouts rubbish, and then a pandering senator affirms that rubbish; and large numbers of Americans instinctively trust such figures, even when they are lying or crazy; and the whole fire of ignorance spreads faster with the internet and social media.

Every question about vaccinations, no matter how basic or silly from a scientist's perspective, deserves an answer. If your doctor can't give you a good and informative answer or is not trustworthy, your problem isn't with vaccines, it's with your doctor.

Every question about how vaccines work deserves answers, including questions about the appropriate panel. For example, a lot of parents who are fine with vaccinations still wonder why HPV vaccination is appropriate for their children. There are questions about vaccines, their use, and how they are marketd, that are legitimate and deserve direct answers.

And in a system where medicine and medical care don't have anything to do with profit, some of the experiences that lead to widespread distrust would disappear. It would be "eliminated," in the sense that the CDC uses the term: doctors won't be any more or less fallible, but the context in which we ask questions would be vastly improved.

If good information and reassurance become endemic, you'll see a spike in compliance with vaccination - without coercion.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech

Periodically this blog falls silent during busy periods of time. Also, I have been writing a weekly column for the Deming Headlight, among various other jobs and projects. Since Unto These Hills  completed its 2014 season, I have not had a single day off from working on this or that. I make no promises about how often I can write in this space, but the murders in Paris at the headquarters of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent media coverage and social media chatter have moved me to write at greater length, and with coarser language, than the newspaper will allow.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is actually a very good novel. It is also highly satirical with respect to the Islamic religion, Islamic history, and religious despots such as the leader of the Iranian revolution. It was good literature and, at the same time, mocked some sacred cows and was genuinely offensive to some people.

And that is fair play. There is no right to be protected from hurt feelings or criticism. Religion is up for grabs just like any institution, leader, or social system. One can ignore it, or engage and rebut it.

A lot of my friends are getting carried away by the murders in Paris and failing to make some important distinctions. Defending freedom of expression is not the same thing as defending the content of someone's expression. It was easy to recognize the literary merit of The Satanic Verses. But The Interview is just a dumb movie and a lot of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were kind of icky and racist. That doesn't justify murder or terrorism, of course. They weren't "asking for it" (the way many people, including some supposed liberals, accused Rushdie of "asking for it" back in '89).

So let's make some useful distinctions.

In France, religion and race are intertwined in certain particular ways. Critiquing and satirizing religion is one thing; but some jokes/cartoons/memes are veiled (no pun intended) anti-immigrant swipes. Be careful what you decide to broadcast. We can defend freedom of speech without blindly embracing somebody's content.

Let's also be honest about what Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and yes, to some extent Salman Rushdie himself are doing. They are seizing on these murders in order to push their argument against all monotheistic religions, but Islam in particular. (They also make no distinction between the monotheistic Abrahamic religions and other religions, such as Bahai or Buddhism or Taoism, but nonetheless tar everybody with the same hate-filled brush). 

Richard Dawkins is rapidly turning into the atheist version of Fred Phelps. Freedom of speech, sure, but let's still call hate speech what it is. Fuck Richard Dawkins. Fuck Bill Maher. Fuck them for using this awful event to spew hate on my friends and neighbors.

(Sidebar: They're also soft on imperalism.)

And Salman Rushdie? He went through something unimaginable and the threat still lingers. (His memoir about his years in hiding, Joseph Anton, is astounding.) In 1990 he publicly embraced Islam hoping to end the terrorism directed at him. (It was pathetic and he eventually recanted his "conversion.") The reason it didn't work is that it was *never about religion.* It was terrorism. Terrorism wears costumes: religion, nationalism, etc. But terrorism is not Islam, just as terrorism is not Christianity, or patriotism.

One more distinction. Why is it that three young madmen running around with guns somehow define one billion normal people who observe the Islamic religion, but the policemen who was killed, who was also muslim, does not? On some level, conscious or not, that is a deliberate choice. The next time some Christian nutcase bombs an abortion clinic, will you be casting collective blame on all Christians? Richard Dawkins probably will. But he's an asshole.

Freedom of expression includes the freedom to be offensive. Defending it does not require us to agree with the offensive content or say things or consume particular media products just because someone tells us to. Saying something you are ordered to say is not "free speech." Especially when there is hate speech involved.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A bit of fun for a cause

I've been enjoying seeing posts about the "ice bucket challenge" to benefit the ALS Association, the organization dealing with the disease known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

And it was closing day of Unto These Hills.

And there was this amazing prop...just....sitting there.

So I made a volunteer PSA.

And I also donated. If you enjoy this, please share it. And also donate.

Monday, August 11, 2014

People around you are hurting

This post ain't really about Robin Williams, but we'll start with him.

Tonight I remembered a photograph I saw in a magazine from the 1980s -- People magazine maybe. A stupid television show called Mork & Mindy had made its young star, a comedian named Robin Williams, famous very quickly. A few years later after he became famous, he became a father for the first time. It was the kind of story for which People existed.

And this photograph I remember was very beautiful. It was the famous comedian looking like an ordinary young father, walking hand in hand with his toddler son, away from the camera, down a pier towards a pond.

That photograph was the first thing that flashed into my mind tonight when I heard about Robin Williams being found dead this morning. I didn't think about his movies or his drug use or the way he smiled at the camera in the music video for "Don't Worry Be Happy."  I thought about that picture of him with his son, a small boy reaching up to hold his hand.

We lose more people in our country to suicide than car accidents. I've lost an alarming number of friends and people I know to suicide. More people suffer from addiction and/or depression than we seem to realize, and even those who ask for help and get the care they need have a rough and uncertain road ahead of them; too many suffer in silence. Their friends and family often don't know what's happening, or don't know what to do. Sometimes the person in our midst who takes their life is someone we never knew was suffering that much. Sometimes, it's the person who seemed to have come through it and seemed to be doing great.

And I've noticed suicide is very hard on those left behind, who are often bewildered by the loss and surprised by their own reactions. It is easy to understand why some people feel very angry at people who kill themselves. Suicide usually isn't like a candle being snuffed out, but more like setting off a bomb in the middle of one's family and friends.

Instead of binge-watching Robin Williams movies, maybe we can think about this. Maybe the media can write about human suffering and how we can help each other instead of trying to delve into the lurid details of Mr. Williams's death.

Something as simple as checking in with somebody we know, somebody we know has gone through hard days, or we just haven't spoke with in a while, just "hi, thinking of you, how are you?" might make a bigger difference than we realize.

[Image:  I couldn't find the picture I was talking about. The boy's name is Zack, and I found a picture of him as a grown man standing next to his father.]

Friday, August 08, 2014

4th of July in Cherokee

One more "Desert Sage" post this week: I never posted my July column, a letter to Deming from Cherokee, North Carolina, about the strangeness of passing Independence Day on the reservation. It appeared in the July 10 edition of the Deming Headlight. So here's that.


This year Independence Day arrived while I was working on a reservation. There were fireworks and beer -- purchased elsewhere, for this is a dry county -- and the usual assortment of delicious unhealthy foods, and yet I was not exactly in the United States.

Cherokee, North Carolina is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who live on a portion of land that was once their nation -- land purchased from their conquerors, the United States government, or lands held in trust by them. Here by the Qualla Boundary in the Great Smoky Mountains, in the shade of a large casino and souvenir malls, there are historical and educational sites such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, an interactive replica of an 18th century Cherokee village, and a seasonal outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” that has been in repertory since 1950.

Frequent readers of this column can guess it is the latter that brings me here for the summer. Your correspondent plays a role in the history play – an historic Cherokee chief, no less – among a large cast, music, dance, and pyrotechnics. We perform six nights a week, typically for four to seven hundred people at a time. We are also rehearsing a brand new play that is in development, and some of us are working at the replica village as well.

The play dramatizes the relations between the old Cherokee Nation and the United States, especially the devastation of Indian removal and the Trail of Tears. A more direct description of the policy would be ethnic cleansing. Sixteen thousand Cherokee were marched to Oklahoma and a great many died on the way. A fragment of the Cherokee was able to remain in North Carolina and their descendants live here.

Even before the 4th of July came along, it had been a curious job. One of the historical criticisms of this play was that too many white actors were performing in “redface,” rather than having Cherokee performers play the major characters in their own history. This has improved, and now there are several Cherokee actors in the cast, as well as a mix of other ethnic backgrounds. Even so, today I share a dressing room with a distinguished Cherokee man, painting my face and donning a black wig. There is no avoiding the strangeness of the situation, and we share a great deal of laughter.

The streets are lined with gift shops and people dressed more like the Hollywood image of the American Indian, great feather bonnets and dance costumes, razzling and dazzling tourists and accepting tips for photographs. Generally, I stick close to the river, enjoying the children and dogs playing and people fishing, easing my mind’s grumpy chatter about all the disrespectful profiteering.

Before our 4th of July performance, the Cherokee Historical Association made a presentation. Combing out my black wig I wondered what kind of presentation this would be, considering the tale we tell – of Andrew Jackson, numerous violated treaties, land lotteries and Indian removal, of conquest and enclosure by the United States. Would they talk about the Declaration of Independence, the document that declared their conquerors’ independence from an older empire? A document that, for all its strengths, refers to natives as “merciless Indian savages?”

What they did, instead, was turn the 4th into Veterans Day, celebrating several area veterans. This may have been the most tasteful approach, to recognize service without additional commentary.

There were fireworks later at night, but after re-enacting Horseshoe Bend and the Trail, many of us were content to sit by a campfire and enjoy the mountain sky.

[Image: Soco Creek, Cherokee, North Carolina. Took this picture in July while I was looking for Yonaguska's burial site.]

Thursday, August 07, 2014

"Desert Sage" announcement

"Desert Sage" is a local editorial column for the Deming Headlight, originated by Win Mott in 2001. For nearly 12 years, Win wrote the weekly column himself, appearing on the Thursday editorial page. Beginning in 2013, the column was shared by Win, me, Lynn Olson, and Richard Thatcher -- all residents of Luna County, New Mexico, writing about national and world events with a viewpoint grounded in the place where we lived. I've been sharing my own monthly "Desert Sage" pieces on this blog.

Today comes the announcement that I will take over the column entirely, starting immediately.  Read Win Mott's transition column here.

So now it begins. What the heck do I write about this week?

[Image: Writing session at Cherokee Coffee in Cherokee, North Carolina. Here for another 9 days before driving home to New Mexico.]