Monday, May 28, 2018

Imagining Memorial Day

What does "patriotism" mean? What does it look like? How do we "do" it? 
It's Memorial Day and just feet from my study there is an American Legion post. There have already been services today in Deming, in honor of those we have sent to war, those who fell, those who were injured, those who lost dear ones in war.
Attendance at these services is not compulsory, but there are things we are expected to say or assent to in silence; and there are things we cannot say.
We are expected to state or silently assent to the notion that all of America's wars are fought in defense of "our freedoms." I can understand this pressure, because it is obscene to think that our young men and women who devote themselves to military service and promise to say yes to their government's orders would ever be misused.
It is taboo to state that we might honor combat veterans by reducing our military aggression, deploying them on more peaceful missions, and sending far fewer people into harm's way.
I will not be accused of disloyalty or disrespect for the troops in saying that I would like a patriotism that is about building community, addressing past wrongs (as a country built on displacement and extermination of indigenous peoples and human bondage - a legacy that is indelible), and building a viable society whose holidays, anthems, and social customs all reinforce an expansive commitment to justice, humane regard for all, and to leaving a beautiful place for coming generations.
Likewise I would like one day to see Memorial Day as a day that remembers a time when America evolved from a country that sent its children to wage wars of American dominance generation after generation, until a new generation redefined America's mission and purpose in the world.
It begins with our ability to imagine. So my Desert Sagey advice this morning is, whether you take a moment to thank a veteran (a very good thing to do any day of the year) or salute a flag or whatnot, to imagine what else might be possible, what more, what better.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Lonely Americans

Americans are lonely, reports health insurer Cigna.

10,000 people who responded - half of the survey - reported feelings of loneliness and isolation. 54 percent said they feel nobody knows them well. 2 out of 5 said they lack companionship and meaningful relationships. Previous studies have shown similar findings, and yet this one indicates that the problem is more severe with the younger generation.

There are some unsurprising correlations. People reporting more in-person interactions tend to score as less lonely. Work-life balance is also correlative: working too much or too little contributes to isolation, since many of our daily relationships reside in workplaces. Time spent on social media or staring at screens is associated with greater isolation.

There are cultural dimensions the study does not address.

We are, as Wendell Berry put it, a "footloose" culture, oriented around individualist models of progress and achievement, routinely moving away from family and friends to pursue personal opportunity. (Berry later revised his comment to say we are "wheel-loose.")

On one hand, we enjoy tremendous personal freedom. On the other hand, it is considered entirely normal to pick up and leave the people you love behind for months, years, or even forever, for a job or some other personal opportunity.

I've done this several times myself, and if you were to ask me, "Where are you from?" I would struggle to answer you. I am honestly not sure anymore. I know where I grew up, of course, but I left that place 18 years ago and have only paid rare, brief visits since, despite feeling like I miss it. I've lived in Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Deming. Where the heck do I belong? Couldn't tell ya.

If 54 percent of this one survey said "no one knows them well," a greater percentage than said they lack companionship or meaningful relationships, we are looking at a number of people who feel unknown even to what companions they have. They may even refer to some of these people, whom they say do not know them well, as "friends" in the casual manner we use the word.

On average, we move somewhere every few years: Americans average more than 11 moves in their lifetime. Tens of millions every year. That's a mass migration event every year.

There is also a medical reality here: social connection is related to better mental and physical health. If the conversation is primarily medical, however, we risk falling into a kind of scientism where we think about human connection as a treatment plan, with statistics and goals particular to improving some metric: "My social connection index didn't go up this month, I need to get out there and talk to somebody!" That wouldn't really be social connection.

We've done this with physical exercise: it's good to get out and walk or run or play with the kids and secondary to that it's good for your heart; if you're out for a walk or talking with your child and half of you is thinking about your heart rate or your cholesterol or your distance, half of you is not really doing what you're doing.

I even know someone who put her fitbit on a kid to help her meet her goal - saw saw the irony, but she did it. Because GOAL.

Anyway, what it boils down to is, a lot of people are unhappy, don't have the kind of friendships that can help them, and we barely even have a vocabulary allowing us to talk about it.

The picture that emerges is that a lot of us don't know where, or to whom, we belong, or even where and with whom we are now. How, then, would it be possible to know oneself?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The White House Correspondents' Dinner is a gruesome spectacle - let's end it

The annual mixer between the White House Correspondents Association, federal officials, high-profile journalists, and other celebrities is a gruesome spectacle and it would be well to retire it.

In a recurring pattern, the dinner was held last night, a comedian delivered a hard-hitting roast-style monologue, and the morning after the media is clucking about whether said comedian went too far.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's what a roast is. A roast is a series of jokes that go a bit too far. It isn't my cup of tea, either. Reading over comedian Michelle Wolf's routine, I see some jokes about the personal appearance of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. [EDIT: Strangely, the one that's getting the most attention, about "burning facts" and using the ash as eye makeup, isn't really a joke about her appearance - it's very clearly a joke about the administration's constant lying.]

I don't think I could attend a roast, even if I wasn't the one being roasted. My anxiety on behalf of the person being targeted would be overwhelming - unless it was clear they were in on the joke, but when they are in front of people being skewered the social pressure is to "be a sport" and take the beating, making it hard to judge whether they are truly all right. Here, again, the matter of consent.

On the other hand, where can we ground a discussion of personal cruelty, when this involves an administration that got itself elected on hate speech directed at Mexicans and Muslims, and an official who has repeatedly - routinely - misled the public about the administration that has exhibited pettiness and cruelty as a matter of routine? And to whom do we speak of decency, after 65 million Americans voted for such a person?

Anyway, I will never occupy this particular room myself, partly because of my station, but I would decline even if I were invited. (And you can hold me to that - I promise this post has NOT been written by a time-traveling hacker infiltrating my Blogger account.)

As a general principle, it would be incompatible with my public function as a journalist to be so chummy with the powerful. In my own local reporting, my relationships with elected officials are cordial, but there is a line I observe.

Beside that general principle, the White House Correspondents Dinner itself is a repulsive enterprise.

The first one was a small gathering of about 50 newspaper people and some aides to President Harding. With Coolidge, Presidents began attending, and the thing grew in size and prominence. There is a morning-of brunch for writers and participants that is seen as a high-status invite. The dinner is now a televised spectacle and part of a complex and deeply corrupt relationship between some of our top news organizations and the politically powerful.

First there is a spectacle of journalists yokking it up with the powerful people they are supposed to be reporting about, in a luxurious setting. Then a comedian gets up and roasts the President, other people present, and the media generally. Then the media criticizes the comedian over jokes that made anyone - especially the press - uncomfortable. Like this, from Stephen Colbert's famous monologue in 2006:
Over the last five years, you people were so good over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.
Yet I also remember Colbert as the comedian who made a cutesy video with Henry Kissinger - instead of placing the war criminal under a citizen's arrest. Maybe that would be a lot to ask. But how about not presenting Kissinger as a welcome, avuncular figure?

Or this, from Michelle Wolf last night:
You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn't sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He's helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you're profiting off of him. And if you're gonna profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money because he doesn't have any.

Predictably, this morning a lot of the media outlets present at the event are debating Wolf's "tone."

She closed her routine with a reminder that the city of Flint still doesn't have potable water for its populace. For whatever that's worth. A sad, defiant parting gesture toward one of many neglected travesties - neglected by both camps represented at this glitzy event. Flint is a disaster on the scale of a hurricane, and a political scandal that should have toppled Michigan's Governor. Instead, the Mayor of that city is filing lawsuits to get the state's attention. Moreover, the issue of lead infiltration into drinking water is widespread across the United States - a matter deserving of a great deal of attention, surely at least a tenth as much attention as the national media devotes to gossiping about what the Mueller investigation might dig up (and whether we will ever see the rumored piss video). But Flint might as well be in Yemen.

Anyway, back to last night's red-carpet affair.

One defense of the WHCD boils down to American exceptionalism. Isn't it great, some say (here's an example), that in our great country, we can mock our commander-in-chief and the comedian won't get beheaded? You won't see Putin or Erdogan putting up with that. God bless America.

According to my reading of the Declaration of Independence, that doesn't make us exceptional. The right to freedom of speech and to petition our leaders (or make jokes about them) is self-evident and not uniquely "American." It is, therefore, not exceptional. It is the floor.

Polls indicate public trust in news organizations and journalists is at a dismal low. It may not help to see journalists mixing it up in luxury with the ruling elite. Add to that, the fact that these dinners often give the podium to sitting Presidents or other officials who joke about their work - which involves mass deception and policies that cause human harm. We've had jokes about fruitless searches for weapons of mass destruction. We've had jokes about people suffering and dying. We've had jokes that punch down.

Why is anybody participating in that? Let's stick a silver-plated fork in this thing.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Nauseous Anniversary

What follows here are some sentences. Some will be short and uncomplicated. A few will be long, complex, and angry.

Before I vent some opprobrium, I reflect with respect on a local kid, a hometown war hero who won a gold medal with the U.S. Paralympic team at the winter games in PyeongChang, South Korea last weekend.

There is a good deal of pride in this community for a most impressive and determined man.

The call to service is unmistakable to those who feel it, and in that chapter of my life when I felt it and looked up my local Navy recruiter, what stopped me was the awful knowledge of what my country does with those who are drawn to serve. This was the era of the Panama invasion and the Persian Gulf War, when I was using my time in college to learn about the middle-east and our relationships with dictators around the world as well as monarchs in oil states.

Instead of joining the Navy, I interned at War Resisters League and got involved in political organizing. Service takes various forms.

However much I condemn the imperial violence of my country of birth, among the finest people I've met are some who signed up to serve without cynicism or guile, with a sincere belief in service.

To see the state deploy those led by such admirable notions, for base ends, roils my blood.

Like this young man in Deming who now competes with distinction in the paralympics.

Like a man I knew at Trinity Rep, a Persian Gulf War vet who uses theatre to help other combat veterans heal and thrive.

Like the man I met who survived the siege of Fallujah - the few things he was willing to describe made me terrified for what he didn't.

Like men and women I have met after performing An Iliad, who have paid me the honor of sharing some of themselves, where they had been and of their homecomings.

People who deserve their own individual sentences and much more.

George W. Bush took this local son, the one who "medalled" last weekend, a youth who had pledged his physical strength and intellectual alacrity to serve his country, and George W. Bush sent that young man to Iraq where a grenade changed his life but happily did not end it.

Yes, the Iraq War, this pox on the world, whose 15th anniversary passed this week without fanfare, a most nauseous anniversary in remembrance of a war built on lies, an illegal war of aggression supported by Democrats as well as Republicans, a "decision point" (to use a W-esque phrase) with economic, social, and ecological consequences that will touch generations yet unborn, that destabilized a region already tormented and paved a doctrine of endless war and the American executive's right to wage death as it pleases without meaningful Congressional oversight, popular support, without even taxation to pay for it (the Iraq War being funded through deficit spending), the policy we have to thank for ISIS and the legitimization of extremists who still advise presidents and give well-attended and well-compensated speeches about how to rule the world.

Yes, that was one sentence. I can only speak of this war in long sentences with clauses stacking my outrage like spent nuclear rods glowing poison.

When George W. Bush is trotted out to chat about his paintings instead of being cuffed and sent to the Hague to answer for what he has done to the planet, when Condi Rice or other figures from that administration are treated like honorable people instead of notorious war criminals and apologists for torture worthy only of public shame, when the Democrats who voted for that war and defended their votes for years are still spoken of as somehow being desirable candidates for the Presidency, I feel glowing hot bile in my throat for all the young men and women whose good faith and notions of service were put to such "use."

Yep, that was another really long sentence. If you read it out loud, spikes may shoot out of it, like a literary goathead. Such is the language I would hurl in the presence of those who pushed this policy. That's how much disdain I feel for the officials of that era. May shame leech on them and the leeches turn into hundreds of little screens playing biographical movies singing the stories of all the people who lost lives, families, communities and society, and personal opportunity for imperial aims, and all those paying the check for that policy even today. 

Damn them all. Shame them out of public service. Why do we play along with the notion that these are respectable and trustworthy statesmen and public servants?

Throw tomatoes at them. It's not like they'll lose their limbs or anything.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Protests and delinquency

There were no #Enough student walkouts in Deming on Wednesday, because the district is on spring break.

As I addressed in this week's Desert Sage column, students met with administration and have opted to write to legislators on their own and maybe stage some sort of event after break.

One member of Deming's Board of Education, Sophia Cruz, summed up her thoughts about student protests around the country by collectively describing students who participate in them as "delinquents." She did this in a public Facebook comment to the Deming Headlight's presence there:

I have not had an opportunity to ask Ms. Cruz about her views in more detail. She shared a link to a story about Aztec High School students engaging in a "non-political" alternative. In my column, again, I am suspicious of the notion of a "non-political" approach to a problem that is rooted in social disarray and injustice.

Sadly, some of the more prominent student activists from Parkland, Florida are being called worse things than "delinquents" and are actually receiving death threats. One of our country's odd contradictions is that for all our sanctimonious talk about our freedoms and how this proves we are exceptional, Americans tend to disparage acts of civil protest, villainize movements, and punish (or even assassinate) its effective leaders.

But who is "delinquent?" Is it the student who regards herself as a person worthy of consideration and entitled to some say in the conditions of her school environment, who believes she is entitled to speak to her elders about her own safety and happiness, who maybe understands that active citizenship means speaking up and standing on a humane principle?

Or could it be that society is delinquent, that its leaders have allowed it to deteriorate, to the point where teenagers are required to spend their business days in institutions where they do not feel safe from the presence of anti-personnel weapons even as they are systematically prepped to fill in bubbles on standardized tests, trained to think in multiple-choice sets rather than intellectual exploration, because all their schools see in them are tomorrow's employees, soldiers, and jurors?

Maybe they see that a few of their peers, who go to elite schools (like I did), get a more humanistic education and feel they deserve that, too.

Or, if not that, at least not to have to spend every day in grim buildings that often resemble prisons and even more closely as society discusses closed campuses, additional armed guards, law enforcement, and even armed teachers.

Maybe some view these options as building a tinderbox while allowing the underlying societal desperation to continue. We argue about guns but say nothing about economic misery, hunger, addiction, crumbling infrastructure, and human alienation from work or culture.

We address our sinking ship by pouring gasoline on the furniture.

That, to my mind, is the true delinquency. Not some students taking half an hour away from business as usual to express themselves as engaged citizens. I wonder only that their education did not manage to stomp that spirit out of them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

So help me, Monotheistic Entity

My job requires me to attend public meetings where people stand up and say things to flags.

Last night was our monthly city council meeting, where our newly re-elected Mayor took the oath of office along with two council members who were re-elected without opposition.

The oath concludes the vow with "So help me God," and thus I noted once again that our entrance fee to civic life is affirming belief in a deity.

When I recite the pledge of allegiance (which essentially began as copy for an advertising campaign) I omit the words "under God" (added during the Eisenhower Administration to distinguish us Americans from godless commies - I guess that showed them).

I do not assent that my citizenship requires taking a side on the question of whether anybody's flying spaghetti monster exists.

No one has called me on the omission, and as for the rest, I don't mind participating in a brief secular rite and paying respect to a symbol of the republic.

Yet is not a little monotheistic white lie simply the glue that holds society together? I question this, friends, though that is what we have been told.

The Supreme Court punted on this when a test case came before them, and it got kicked around in lower courts. The last ruling (in 2010) held that it doesn't establish religion to pressure people into saying they believe in an almighty God.

Well, it certainly appears to establish something.

Those of us who attempt to engage conversation about this are usually told that by talking about God, we aren't actually expressing a religious idea. We are told this is simply paying respect to tradition. The nation was founded, we are told, by people who believed in God.

(Not all of them, friend. The range of religious belief amid the revolutionary generation was diverse and complex and included non-theists. Thomas Paine may have been unusually outspoken about this for his time, but his critical views of religion were not alien to his generation.)

The little reminders of Judeo-Christian dominance that are everywhere, like "In God We Trust" being written on our coins, are actually used to argue that God doesn't really mean God, it means an idea of God, an idea that there is an authority higher than the Constitution that gives the Constitution its legitimacy. Because human legitimacy is not enough, I suppose.

None of this strikes me as persuasive. If I am in a social situation where I feel obligated to affirm the existence of a God in order to play along and behave like a citizen, then a particular religious belief is being established. It serves no practical purpose whatsoever. Let us recite secular oaths in the legislature and leave people to exercise their religious liberty on their own.

Anyway, we all got up and spoke to the American flag. We skipped the pledge to the New Mexico flag, which I rather like - a brief statement affirming friendship between united cultures. I haven't yet grasped which entities say the New Mexico pledge and when. I know they do it in school every day, in two languages. Flags get a lot of attention around here.

Anyway, the officers put their hand on a book and recited an oath that sounded secular enough - promising to uphold laws - and then the religious button at the end. I suspected the book was a Bible. I texted one of the council members and asked if that was so, and he wrote back that it was indeed, hadn't I noticed him getting burned?

I answered: "That's because God wants secular democracy."

I have heard of cases where officers requested to put their hand on a United States Constitution rather than a Bible, which seems more fitting. If, however, I am asked to consider "God" not as God but as a token of tradition that is the basis for our laws, then I affirm the following:

In the exceedingly unlikely event I am ever sworn into public office, I will insist on placing my hand not on a Bible, nor on the measly American Constitution, but on full-size stone tablets like the ones revealed to Moses.

And concluding my oath, I will turn to the assembly and recite, from Plutarch:

Let us begin with a prayer to Lord Zeus, the son of Cronus,
That he may grant these laws good fortune and acclaim.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Tale of Two Panchos

From left, Francisco Villa Campa and Rafael Celestino at Columbus Elementary School

Sometimes a great lede falls into your lap.

We do not do much breaking news reporting in Deming, but occasionally things happen.

In my first month on the job we had a pretty big freight train derailment near Lordsburg. We had a bank robbery in Deming that ended in a dramatic high-speed chase in Las Cruces. We've had some school threats, and of course we have the occasional homicide, suicide, police standoff, bad fire.

Sometimes we don't hear about things because no one calls us. We have a scanner, but we don't always have it on. When we do get a tip and I go out, there isn't a procedure for agencies to talk to press - and generally they prefer not to. The standard procedure is that I show up, officers scowl at me, I ask if anyone is authorized to speak to media, and they say, "Call the chief." Sometimes he gets back to us, occasionally not.

On Thursday, we actually got a tip that something was going on at Columbus Elementary School with multiple agencies and helicopters - including Border Patrol. Considering most of the students at Columbus are citizens living across the border in Palomas, that was intriguing.

Anyway, you gotta go. So I packed up my gear while Billy, my editor, worked the phones.

By the time I got there, the situation was over. A teacher reported hearing gunfire near the school, they went on lockdown, and the first agencies there were Border Patrol and the Luna County Sheriff's deputies. State police also responded. (Columbus has had no police force of its own for several years.)  Within an hour, the area had been swept, the school cleared, and the schedule was back to normal. There was not so much as an emergency vehicle on scene to photograph. I got interviews at the scene with the Superintendent (via mobile) and Columbus's mayor-elect, who showed up to see if he could help.

So now what? I had driven down to Columbus. And it was, coincidentally, the 102nd anniversary of the raid on Columbus led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa. We had already done stories about memorial services, fiestas, and the long horseback ride across Chihuahua, Mexico called the Cabalgata Binacional Villista. I decided to see what was up at the Chamber of Commerce, which had been busy planning these events, promoting them, and welcoming guests from two countries.

Norma Gomez, the Chamber director, was waiting for the all-clear at the school herself, because she was planning to bring two visitors to the classrooms: a Pancho Villa impersonator (Rafael Celestino from Durango) and the grandson of Pancho himself, Francisco Villa Campa.

Celestino was in full costume, complete with ammunition belt and a prop sidearm. Campa pointed to pictures on the wall and told me about them - in Spanish, which I followed as best I could. (My reading and writing are better than my auditory ability, but if the speaker goes slowly I can follow.) I took a picture of him next to a portrait of his grandmother when she was pregnant with his father.

Francisco Villa Campa, grandson of "Pancho" Villa

In our limited ability with each other's languages, we also managed to talk about cars. He drives a Jeep back home in Mexico City, and wanted to know how I liked my Renegade.

When Norma got the call from the school, we drove over with the two Panchos. Immediately on arrival, the principal asked "Pancho" to check the toy guns and bullets. The school had had an unsettling morning and, as he put it, "Everyone's a little sensitive today."

And so I watched a school principal disarm "Pancho Villa" while Villa's grandson looked on, laughing. Then the guys mingled with kids, knowing that a lot of them look up to Pancho as a hero (as opposed to the U.S. view of him as the guy who ordered a sneak attack that killed civilians), and reminded them that Pancho fought for education as a right - and that he didn't drink.

It turned into a nice story with video that got a lot of attention on March 9, also known as "Raid Day."