Thursday, January 18, 2018

SOCIAL MEDIA AS SKATEBOARD: You Can Fall Hard


Facebook impacted the group in two ways.  First of all, T. was using Facebook as the platform for storing videos.  It was convenient and things were moving fast, so no care was taken for backups.  Then suddenly on November 13, 2010, Facebook dropped the account.  No reason was given.  Months of work were erased.  Uproar from supporters ensued but there was only silence.  In a few years someone suggested it was because we were using the word “vlog” (conflating video with log or blog) but there was some commercial enterprise that wanted to copyright the term and paid to have Facebook recognize that.

The other incident was more social.  An international group of poets had formed on Facebook.  As happens, a split developed between those New Age/Mommie cultures who wanted poetry to be nothing but upliftingly beautiful versus a poéte maudit school of thought that wanted powerful language to express darkness and despair in a hostile society.  I don’t know how it resolved because by that time I had left Facebook forever.  But some of those poets continued to stay in touch.

Among them was Rachel Chappelle, a social anthropologist, who began to fund an independent provider based in India.  She was an invaluable definer and enabler of the work.  Called “Real Stories Gallery Foundation”, the website was blunt and forceful, but endorsed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, Nobel Peace Prize Winner,1984)  T. is listed as the Creative Director of the website.  It is a website suitable for boys at risk seeking expression and for those who work with such boys.  Others will be shocked.  

The work by the boys reflects their lives.  Part of it is a program called "Show Me Your Life," which sends small video cameras to boys everywhere in the world.  The results are edited into vids on the site.  One boy in Africa filmed from a hiding place on a roof, documenting violent attacks on women.  His assigned peer-mentor worried and with good reason.  The daring boy met death by machete.  Cinematheque was shaken.

In our Western culture much that is painful, disruptive, and hard to address is simply made “off-limits.”  That is, censored and voluntarily sheered away from by “nice people,” who just don't want to know about it.  The result is that such matters are demonized and exaggerated, which is very convenient for abusers and pimps, since there is always a contingent that wants to know danger, wants to experiment, and is willing to pay for access.

A third internet phenomenon was the powerfully popular Wikipedia, developed on the idea that people who cared about a subject would monitor and improve information about that subject, resulting in something more accurate than if an individual person edited.  This theory failed to allow for controversial personalities and vendettas.  T., like others, found that information was being controlled to portray him in the worst possible light, leaving out everything positive and even using his pseudonym as the index rather than his real name, perpetuating the hoax rather than resolving it.

Several of us challenged this in the way Wikipedia is supposed to be corrected, but found our comments were removed again.  I went a little deeper and discovered that Wikipedia DID have editors, but they were cloaked.  This editor had a pseudonym of his own:  “VizJim.”  I finally figured out that he was James Mackey, a Cyprus writer who was a fan of Gerald Vizenor, a noted Native American writer and professor.  

By chance I knew VizJim from “Reznet” an early “bulletin board” that at the time was obsessed by the issue of blood quantum and tribal enrollment as entitlement for writing about Native Americans.  (Truth disclosure: I got access to the bulletin board by passively pretending to be Blackfeet by saying I was from Browning, which I was.)  VizJim, when I looked through the rather skimpy number of Wikipedia entries about Native American writers, appeared to be esp. interested in denigrating gay NA writers.  I remembered that he had tried to start an internet “talking circle” of his own and had remarked somewhere that if this NA subject didn’t make him a reputation, he would switch to sci-fi.  He was earning a PhD in post-modern thought by correspondence with a college of Oxford University.  He had been harassing T. for years.  When I challenged him, he admitted it.

But he was not the worst of the stalkers.  A porn writer whose story had been rejected by T. in his editing years was a vindictive computer adept.  He could locate individual boys' personal accounts and would torment them with their pasts.  Sometimes he threatened to mutilate them sexually.  When I began to fight back, he sent me a warning that was accompanied by a distorted selfie with eyes that flashed red.  Finally the FBI was invited to visit him and he cooled down.  He was a pathetic man living in poverty.

Cinematheque thought I was silly to bother with such people.  After years of protests, Wikipedia did a bit of reforming.  The entitled young men (and a few women) who are behind the curtain running Wikipedia, simply didn’t know enough about indigenous people to be able to identify the unqualified guides who petitioned to manage certain categories.  People never remember that not everything in print in every source is not necessarily reliable, not even big-deal newspapers.  Wikipedia turns up as boilerplate everywhere without authorship or sourcing; it is "pop" info.

Going back to the Facebook poet group, which included Europeans, several were educated about the new post-modern theorists who fought all limits and faced all evils, deconstructing them, revealing their colonial subtexts.  Some of these people became friends of T..  Aad de Gids, a psychiatric nurse, philosopher and poet; Paul Toth, a poet and novelist; Dom Gabrielli, poet and olive oil entrepreneur.  Carolyn Srygley-Moore Is an American poet.  These people were sophisticated, adult and cosmopolitan.  Americans tend to think of boys-at-risk as juvenile delinquents who can be saved by a good scrubbing and some scolding.  These poet/philosophers knew how deeply suffering can change children beyond any redemption by conformity.  

Among post-modern thinkers, T. had read Foucault while I barely knew that Derrida and others existed.  Understanding these rebellious, sexually fluid, and enormously influential people became a self-assignment of mine, but I mostly watched their YouTube lectures rather than investing in a library.  I have limits.  At one point I wrote a long essay using the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to interpret Cinematheque for a journal called “Rhizomes”, guest edited by two post-grad women.  They considered it but finally decided it didn’t fit their journal.  I was bitter and T. laughed. 

On the one hand, these post-colonial adventurous thinkers were way over the heads of boys, but when it come to the Paris group, not so much.  In terms of background for social movements, courage for going forward, the cutting-edge thinkers were vital.  Their invisibility to standard vanilla culture was an advantage, a protection.  The reach of the Internet meant that Cinematheque was not just operating in one neighborhood, even if it was as impressive as Paris.  There was no limit on innovation and that became more true as the Internet developed.  But it was dangerous, as we have all discovered.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

YOU'RE ONTO ME -- THIS IS A BIOGRAPHY (unauthorized)


America is now a country where the President mocks the differently abled and few can tolerate the differently cultured.  The fears of some are fed by knowledge that various categories of people are being gathered into camps and then deported, or simply left there, like leper colonies.  This is no way to handle a pandemic and I don’t know that any other countries are doing it except in the “hell holes” created by war.

Some who are alert and have been following this blog lately have realized that I’m posting in bits a rough draft of the biography of Tim Barrus.  I don’t know where he is or whether he’s safe or even alive.  I haven’t heard from him for over a year.  The boys in his care are scattered to safe houses, if there is such a thing now.  They are doing workshops about survival for homeless youngsters, including those who resort to sexwork so need info about prevention and monitoring of HIV.  They still manage to post.  They still have their cameras.

I’m getting close to eighty.  If I don’t get this written now, it won’t ever happen.  Publishing?  I have no idea.  There are many forms.  But I joined this effort about 2006 and was co-writing blog entries for years.  T’s way was to choose a theme, name it evocatively, and then make entries that alternated with mine.  Sometimes he used a pseudonym and sometimes he did not.  At first I only used my own first name, Mary, which confused things because it’s an appellation used by gays, something like “Nancy.”  But I’m not gay.  T. called me "the writer Mary Scriver."

Since the boys were sexworkers — as T. had been which was one reason they trusted him — I had to do a lot of catching up by reading out here on the Montana prairie where no one gets AIDS and all athletes are above average.  Thank goodness for the used book market:  Abebooks, Alibris, Powells, and so on.  Gay culture is complex, international, and highly political.  T. suggested what to read and a surprising amount of it was online. 

Reservations (I do not mean Native Americans but rather tribal areas) are full of stories and at first that’s what I wrote, as well as stories from my five years in Portland, Oregon, as the first female animal control officer, and more from my ten years as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  Neither tribal people on reservations nor in urban re-locations were writing as much as the international gay community, but the two affinity groups had overlap and links, partly through the Internet. Gays read a lot and tend to be able to afford books and magazines.  Gay “Indians” tended to be bookworms.

When I started, I was already writing stories for ropeandwire.com but sometimes I could use “boy stories” like T’s template in both locations.  Then I wrote a short story about a mail order wife who could barely tolerate her homesteader husband’s advances until there was a terrible blizzard while he was gone.  Aware that he might not come back at all and was certainly unlikely to return until the storm was over, she dragged the tin tub in front of the fire and bathed with the last sliver of real soap she had.  But the husband, concerned about leaving his new wife alone, had struggled home at the cost of killing his horse, and staggered in the door with his saddle on his shoulders.  “That was the night they started their family.”  

The story was rejected by "Rope and Wire" for being too sexy for a “family-oriented” website.  I don’t know where they got their information about how families begin.  I was now writing for my own blog “prairiemary.blogspot.com" and for whatever blog T. had going.  This latter pushed me to be far more daring, with no limits on human behavior, though I was hopeless when it came to drugs.  There is an intriguing phenomenon that I hope to investigate some day:  lesbian authors who write compellingly about gay boys.  I’m thinking of Mary Renault (“The Persian Boy”) and Patricia Nell Warren (“The Fancy Dancer” which includes a Native American).  These books are cherished by young gays.

As time went on, I began to slip into the role I had played for my sculptor husband and at animal control:  researcher.  By 2010 HIV-AIDS knowledge was quickly accumulating and the meds were so improved that a person could be protected to the point of no longer being contagious.  T., whose father had once been offered a chance to become a medical doctor, kept up with the new information.  He had always maintained connections to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders.  The virus was no longer an automatic death threat, but maintaining the expensive pill regime that included frequent blood tests and strict dedication to a daily schedule was not easy.  Even I, with my diabetes rigamarole, get defiant and fatalistic.

Awareness at urban medical centers is one thing.  When boys became ill in places where there were few admitted HIV cases, T. often had to monitor meds and coach treatment.  He sat with the boy through the times of crisis, sending out a barrage of information and questions through handheld devices.  When the illness resolved, sometimes with death, he was often exhausted himself but instead of going to a medical facility, he chose a good hotel with room service and went invisible for a few days.

About this time the instrumentation for three scientific fields, neurology esp. in the brain; cosmology and quantum physics; and cell-level biology including DNA in fossil remains, exploded into realms of knowledge so vast that they exceeded our vocabularies and academic disciplines. 

In fact, deep time and unlimited space are such powerful ideas that they begin to be religious.  Now my U of C Div School methods were helpful.  This level of "Mandarin" seminary is not Bible study.  I am not technically Christian, though I was raised Presbyterian, but had a grounding in how spiritual concepts emerge in response to life, an “anthropological and phenomenological” approach that is an umbrella for all culture-based institutions.  While some were worrying about the Death of God, the concept of what a human being is has been completely transformed.

Whatever gods there might be must have been amused by our conversations, because T. -- raised Methodist -- has been a ferocious accuser of an all-powerful god who allows such a unseeing, uncaring, suffering world where the innocent are torn apart and the wicked feast on raw hearts.  I’d been a liberal, but more and more disgusted as a merit-based society in which academic terms failed to address Evil, even that created by human greed.  Still, I kept trying to find optimism.


T., on the other hand, became nearly Zen: walking the dogs, doing the laundry, cooking one big meal for the boys every day.  Until a punishing new political tide made that impossible.  There are many stories left to tell, American tales about surviving forest fires, camping out in the snow, making long cross-country drives to deliver supplies.  Surviving the wrecking balls by sticking together.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A NEW CENTURY




(PARTLY AN EDITED  REPOST FROM 1-16-18)

A publisher/scout who specialized in controversy and racial provocation; who had engaged Alice Randall, the revisionist African-American author of “The Wind Done Gone”, and been hauled into court over it; who was the agent of Sherman Alexie, spotted the Barrus short story in Esquire and believed it could be expanded into a book.  What this developer didn’t know was that Barrus was white, flat on his back in a Florida hospital, barely alive and facing a lifetime of racking pain from avascular necrosis (bone death) triggered by the meds necessary to keep him breathing during a bout of pneumonia that would recur again and again because that’s one consequence of HIV.  Barrus needed a double hip replacement and this developing publisher offered enough money — in those days as an advance — to pay for them.  Otherwise, he would be in a wheelchair.

Newly realizing what HIV meant in those days, not quite past the holocaust stage, he was in a special program for HIV patients in North Carolina when this publisher caught up with him.  He was in no shape to be writing a book.  Luckily, Barrus has always written and written, sending out stories as every free-lancer does, using pseudonyms as writers have always done.  He had a trunk full of stories.  “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” is a collection from the trunk.  

One story specifically written for the editor was an attack on his father, who had abused him nearly to the point of death throughout his childhood.  It was an exaggeration of true things, which the editor pushed hard to make more vivid — this was his editing philosophy: extreme sells.  Many essays were from Barrus’ life on the Navajo rez while his wife taught there, but he didn’t pretend to be Navajo except for using the name Nasdijj, which he had used before, several times.  He just phrased things in a way that let the reader assume.  

The editor, evidently not registering the HIV clinic or the clearly Scots/Irish appearance of Barrus, took the manuscript to Sherman Alexie, hoping for a blurb praising it.  Sherman told the editor the author was not NA and recommended it not be published.  He had not yet claimed that it was plagiarized, an idea that was debunked by a special panel convened by Poets and Writers after comparing works.

“The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” really was an expansion of the short story.  Journalists intent on exposing the “truth” went searching for the real “Tommy Nothing Fancy” but only found one of them.  There were several individual boys but usually there was a group of boys whom he taught to help each other, among other survival skills.  Barrus’ most propelling inner truth was the abuse from his father, whom he loved and admired for his vitality in spite of everything.  In this sequence of boys he loved (not sexually) and tried to save from death, he was trying to show his father what a father ought to be like.  

Former English teacher that I am, I ransacked the used book online stores for Barrus books and read them all, even “Mineshaft.”  (Eeeuuugggh.)  Then I read Jack Fritscher’s books, for whom Barrus had edited Drummer, a magazine celebration of men that Barrus called “Leather Lit,” meant to break up the stereotype of Nancy-boys, limp-wristed and effete.  Motorcycles were at the heart of Leather Lit, one step away from Hell’s Angels.  Barrus edited “Some Dance to Remember”, a novel by Fritscher and was much influenced by Fritscher’s academic and religious background. 

Geoff Mains, who had a doctoral degree in biochemistry, was the most eloquent spokesperson for this concept.  I’ve gone back to“Urban Aboriginals” repeatedly when thinking about addiction, serotonin, and the mixture of pain and pleasure.  While the editor at Knights Press, Barrus managed to get a finished copy of Geoff Mains’ 1989 novel, “Gentle Warriors”, into Geoff’s hands just before he died of AIDS.  (Barrus’ assistant was in the next room, also near death from AIDS.)  

Intellectual ferment, philosophical inquiry were a big part of the SF explosion.  There were readers in those beds.

Knights Press published two of his own books, “Genocide” which is another anthology which is the book Barrus thought was his best.  The other was “Anywhere, Anywhere” which has been presented as a play.  It’s about two veterans, one paraplegic, and was suggested by two men Barrus knew.  They are not father and son, but caretaking is key.  Barrus was never in the military and couldn’t be, never claimed to be, but had the claim projected onto him by critics who love to see hoaxes everywhere, thinking this makes them more perceptive.  Kevin Young has got it right: we love to be fooled and then for the trick to be revealed.  We ARE the tricks.

The critic that the NYTimes got to review “The Blood Runs through my Dreams” was a man who specialized in going to live in man-centered environments like prisons, trucking, train-hopping — then writing them up.  I never read the books so don’t know whether he wrote about the opportunities for MSM.  His praising review of Barrus' book was a little over-familiar.  Barrus, whose strategy in life is confrontation, wrote a rebuke.  The reviewer, evidently the last person in New York City literary circles who didn’t know Barrus, encouraged a recent graduate of his journalism classes to investigate and promote the idea of a hoax, which was shaping up as a cluster at the time, keying into “misery lit.”

As journalism goes, Fleischner’s article was pretty lazy.  He mentioned none of the above specifics and never talked to Barrus, only to a hostile former brother-in-law.  But he discovered Sherman Alexie, who was in LA making “Smoke Signals,” affronted all over again when Barrus was awarded the Poets and Writer’s “Beyond Margins” prize and quick to deploy the idea that white people writing about tribal people were raiding their intellectual capital.  Alexie had thought he would win this award and had the idea that it was specifically for Native Americans.

Legal notions of “intellectual property” and the exploitation of stories and concepts taken from tribal people were just taking hold.  No longer could one talk about Mickey Mouse without paying Disney.  This appeals greatly to all the displaced people who have been thrown out of both place and time.  Sympathy for them is deserved.  But there is no reason why they can’t write their own stories.  There is no quota.  Nor is it sensible for one demographic group to forbid another category of people to write about them, so long as it is real.  If it’s not, call it fiction.

Over the decades Barrus had written on sensational topics: HIV/AIDS, gayness, prostitution, porn, boys at risk, drugs, S/M, and more.  But the subject that caused outrage was supposedly claiming to be Navajo, when in fact he simply failed to prevent others from claiming he was Navajo — then condemning him for NOT being Navajo.  In America all indigenous peoples are sacred.  In a split way.

When the sensation-generating idea of grouping writers as hoaxers happened in the mid-2000’s, four of them were thrown together:  James Frey, who pretended to have served more jail time for more serious offences than he actually had; Laura Albert, who pretended to be a transgender truckstop prostitute; Ward LeRoy Churchill, an author, political activist, and professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder from 1990 until 2007; and Tim Barrus, who was known as “Nasdijj” and wrote three books under that name.  (He had used the pseudonym for many previous articles.)  He and Churchill were the only ones whose offences were Native American related.  Churchill at least looked like a movie “Indian” and had a courtesy membership in “his” tribe so he could sell art work as “Indian made,” since there was a law that non-members couldn’t do that.

Entirely ignoring the many well-known, respected, and admitted white people who over the years have written about tribal people, people frothed at the mouth over Nasdijj — even gatekeeper whites.  Partly it was that his background as a “porn” writer had made him vulnerable.  More than that was the enflamed suspicion that “low quantum” and unenrolled mixed-blood people were making lots of money by stealing the intellectual cultural property of tribal people.  This generated lots of money for lawyers but it eventually snuffed what had been promoted as a Renaissance of Native American writers, because publishers don't like lawsuits.

NA writers most harshly attacked were those with college degrees, arguably assimilated.  Also, there was a covert element of anti-intellectual politics, the suspicion that those people thought they were “better” than the others.  It would have been more helpful for the critics to simply sign up to earn degrees.  The main reason white writers could so easily sell writing about indigenous people was that the latter didn’t write or attempt to publish about themselves because of structural reasons (access) and because of the taboo on individuals becoming too important as the expense of the group.  Then there was the idea that there were secrets, possibly “witchy”, that should not be revealed in spite of all the avid New Age seekers.  And a concern that “Indians” should maintain a front of respectability as learned from missionaries.

Everyone skipped over “The Education of Little Tree,” “a memoir-style novel written by Asa Earl Carter under the pseudonym Forrest Carter. . . . He had been a Ku Klux Klan member and segregationist political figure in Alabama who wrote speeches for George Wallace."  No one minded that and the book, published by the U of New Mexico Press, still generates a nice income.  (For the University — Carter is dead.)  The book became a movie.  Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene are in it.

The difference is that “The Education of Little Tree” fits all the idealistic stereotypes, including German nature mysticism, but both Churchill and Barrus were bitingly political.  The "identity wars" over who is entitled to write about indigenous peoples continued in the US until two prominent and admired NA authors, who had been attacked as not entitled, committed suicide.  That stunned everyone and called a halt.  These days the wars are starting up again in Canada.  They have not recurred in the States, probably because no publisher wants bad publicity and law suits.

None of the four “hoaxers”accused of the crime of being middle-class white made much money by best seller standards.  Barrus, who had been in a wheelchair, could finally afford the replacement of both hips.  Small, steely, Sicilian Tina, his wife, guarded him through the search for the best replacement program, drove him through a labyrinth of highway construction to the hospital (she was a novice driver who had special training because of one bad eye), and stayed at his side while he recovered in a borrowed cabin.  It was her full-time job.  

The opioids he was taking included fentanyl suckers, which wrecked his mouth.  As soon as he took the first dose he was instantly hooked again, so the first task of his wife was to watch for the slight overdose of narcotic that would stop his breathing and the second was to stay by him through the despair of kicking the addiction into submission again, a process of nausea, diarrhea, delusion, aching, and impossible desire for more drugs.  

Meds for the pain, to prevent tissue rejection from the foreign objects that were now his hips, for HIV (still multiple drugs), and so on amounted to a whole tabletop of little bottles, each with a schedule that had to be carefully observed in order for them to be effective.  The meds cost thousands of dollars a month.  When the operation was paid for, there was no money for food.  The stigma from the evil of pretending to be tribal prevented loans and advances.  His family was estranged, but one relative sent a credit card.  

The photo often used for publicity was taken by Tina at the cabin.  T. is sitting on their woodpile — they were heating with wood.  He is painfully thin but Navajo is getting a little tubby for lack of long walks.  Still, the dog was as faithful as Tina.  Pretty soon T. was walking again.  But he was a pariah.

Dark before the dawn.

One of T’s closest friends, maybe the “Bobby Coyote” who urged him into walking to the Bosque Redondo, as described in one of the essays of “The Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams”, was a brilliant and celebrated artist.  As a youngster he had been part of the SF sexual explosion, a beautiful and elegant demimondaine.  Now AIDS had caught up with him and he needed to deal with his estate before he died.  He gave T. $100,000 and a newly available small video camera.  He was keenly aware of T’s photography.  “Go to Paris,” he said.  “No one there cares about these issues.

This turned out to be true.  Attending a demonstration demanding action against homelessness by putting up hundreds of small red camp tents along the Seine, he ran into a group of boys, sexworkers cruising for tricks.  He cost them money that night because they ended up in a tent, laughing their butts off, sharing stories, and bonding with each other.  This was the core group that became Cinematheque.  Those still living are now grown men, potent and resourceful.  


T. had become aware of the power of the internet to simply ignore traditional publishing by using blogs, which he invented by the dozens.  He wanted to fill them with stories and photos — then when the technology expanded — with videos.  The boys were wary, accustomed to guard their safety through secrecy, but arts demand publicity.  Beyond that, T. felt that their lives were defensible if unconventional and that public admission of that would come from knowing the reality.  The construction of postings were a group effort, which demanded thought and focus, pushing growth and insight.

Monday, January 15, 2018

NINETIES: STALKED BY DEATH

by J.C. Leyendecker

The Nineties went from joy to dire life-cursing disaster.  The peak came when T. sent in a poem to a competition for lesbian poetry as a joke.  The prize was a chance to crew on a tall ship whose crew was entirely lesbians.  T. won!  When he came to collect his prize, the women were startled, but then laughed and came through with their promise.  Those days high in the rigging of one of the most fabulous world-knitting human technologies, tall ships, sailing in glory under a tropical sky and then sharing the evenings with song, story, and friendship, were among the best of T.’s life.  Exalted is not too strong a word.

“In October 1998, one of the most savage storms in Atlantic history cornered a 282-foot passenger sailing ship against an exposed Caribbean coastline. With nowhere to hide and no time to run, Fantome turned to face Hurricane Mitch's assault of 180 mile-per-hour winds and 50-foot seas. As the eye of the storm approached, Fantome's satellite phone went dead. The ship and its 31 crew members simply disappeared, leaving only questions that won't go away.”

Now T. was stalked by hurricanes.  His beloved friends had died.  He was devastated, haunted, once-again feeling unreasonably that he ought to have been there to somehow save them or at least share their death.

Back in San Francisco AIDS had become, as one reporter put it, “a cauldron of death.”  In the course of his UN work, T. had taken his camera to Africa where the pandemic was even worse because of lack of meds and modern hospitals.  He helped to dig graves, row on row.  One of his most moving accounts was simply at dusk washing up alongside a volunteer nurse from the States, chatting quietly as she scrubbed her strong graceful arms.  In the end Africa overwhelmed him.  He vowed never to return. 

On June 19, 1993 he married his new partner, Tina, with his nearly-grown daughter as attendant.  They left for Taos where they taught in public schools.  Then Mariano Lake school, a small remote institution between the Navajo and the Zuni lands.  Exploring one day, they found Navajo, the badly injured little puppy, whose name became a great source of hilarity to the local kids.  

These years were the source of the many real stories in “Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams.”  Sometimes T. took Old Big Wanda, an F150 Ford pickup, to a campground where he could sit at a picnic table and write without distractions.  Navajo came along and at night, sleeping in the back of the pickup under the metal canopy, they listened to the coyotes howl nearby.  In a few years they returned to Florida.

The next fateful hurricane was named Georges and struck Key West in Florida in 1998.  At this time he and Tina were in a more conventional house than the tree-house where T. had lived earlier, the one with screens instead of windows and a giant iguana living at the base.  This second house, more proper, was damaged by the storm.  Working to clear up and repair the debris, T. inhaled mold and developed severe pneumonia.  Fungal pneumonia is difficult to treat because fungi cells are so similar to body cells.  He was saved only by heavy doses of prednisone.  When he finally recovered consciousness enough to push away the breathing apparatus, a face leaned over him and said,  “You have HIV.  You are lucky to be alive.”  

From then on he was always vulnerable to recurrent bouts of pneumonia, one of the most common side-effects of HIV infection.  But arguably worse was developing avascular necrosis which prednisone triggers in some HIV patients.  No one understands it very well, but it means death of the bones due to lack of blood supply.  Bones are much more than the body’s scaffolding; the marrow is an active organ that produces the red and white cells, platelets, and other elements of the blood as well as mesenchymal and hematopoietic stem cells.  The loss of bone density, which makes them so fragile that they break under the stress of walking, also means a loss of body renewal systems.  The pain is extreme.

Still weak and a little confused as he lay in the hospital, T. was handed a letter from Esquire magazine.  He had forgotten that he’d sent them a short story. about a Navajo father whose son was dying of AIDS, using a pseudonym, which he often did.  The magazine accepted the pseudonym as the author’s real identity.  Their acceptance of the story was contingent on their desire to believe this was real, not fact-checking. 

Editors back East know a lot about blacks and even about Latinos, but almost nothing about American indigenous people except what they’d seen in the movies.  Out West Native Americans have a split reputation between the stigmatized down-and-out people who drift into cities and the real people serving tourists on reservations while making standard rural livings on ranches and in small businesses.

The ideal Esquire man was the Arrow Collar Man, handsome, sophisticated — and covertly gay or “bi”, if their favorite artist (J.C. Leyendecker) was depicting his own world.  This story was a way to talk about loving the physical reality of a little boy without involving any women and without hinting at the scandal of politicized man/boy relations.  In a similar way the dreaded AIDS was displaced by fetal alcohol syndrome, which was the fault of women who drank — not men.  

The echo from real life, including the disagreement over the fate of the boy, is plain once that story is known, but Esquire didn’t know that.  For them the whole thing was a fantasy world anyway.  Esquire had a history of publishing respected and acclaimed authors, which was why T. kept sending them queries.  But over the decades their emphasis and understanding of writers had changed.  There was no agent involved.

The story didn’t reveal any secret ceremonies or anthropological insights, though a bit of poetic language of the vast Navajo reservation crept in.  It was mostly about fishing and taking the little boy along to learn that art.  Certainly it struck a chord in many people.  The backlash and political accusations didn’t surface until the book was published, and even then it was years before T’s real identity was disclosed.  Esquire, afraid of being blamed, hurried to be aggrieved and claim to be innocently deceived.  In the meantime T. used his promotional tours for the book to advocate Native American issues.



Sunday, January 14, 2018

PONDERING HOAXES

How to create a mysterious crop circle

Since I have a fifty year history with the Blackfeet, thirty years on or next to the rez and the other twenty in touch via media, I watch their doin’s with close attention.  Our lives are meshed in subtle ways.  Two political issues have been of interest. One is how the politics of African-Americans so dominate and define what race means and how it should be included in public life.  This tends to push aside, if not crush, the issues of tribal people.  The other is the ferocious emotion aroused — even on the part of white people — by the bogus literary category of “hoax” ginned up by yet another writer, sometimes a journalist and others an academic, but mostly a mix of the two.   Often about Native Americans and entitlement to that identity. 

The idea of a hoax seems to offend “gentle readers”, often women and youngsters, much more than it riles more broadly educated and experienced people.  Misleading author attributions have been common as long as there has been writing.  Sometimes they were purported to be “found” letters or journals to add credibility to stories of castaways or brothel adventures.  Once in a while they were meant to tease the reader, like “Naked Came the Stranger” in which each chapter was written by a different author or “The Painted Bird” which was simply a retyping of an award-winning book meant to reveal that the prizes were rigged.

There seems to be a relationship to anthropology when accounts sounded unlikely to conventional English-speaking middle-class readers — which aroused curiosity and incredulity at once — things like Margaret Mead’s account of teenaged female sexuality in Samoa.  Later scientists would revisit the place and make a reputation out of debunking Mead, who had been so honored that some proposed we should all act like South Sea Islanders.  Eventually writers found the internal worlds that always coexist alongside or under the commonplace: criminals, cloistered religious, immigrant communities, and “Indians.”  Stigmatized or privileged.  

Books that purported to reveal the “truth” sold well, but then were “re-revealed” to be wrong or fantasized.  Then the idea became that only the people from inside those separate groups should be allowed to write about them.  They were the only true “knowers” and interpreters.  And it was satisfying to think that former slaves and “medicine men” were now converted to a proper life — Christian, of course.  Members of stigmatized groups now restored to respectability via confession and Oprah.

A freak show element — like the story of Chang and Eng, the conjoined men, or the secret diaries of Hitler or Howard Hughes — was always popular.  Some people are so freaky that just a straight account of their lives can keep us breathless.  “Fire and Fury” comes to mind.  Publishers, whose business is profit, love best-sellers like this.  Now that computerized data can reveal so much, we are fascinated to read the “truth” about how many people consume online porn, what categories sell best, and that there are perversions we never heard of before.  Recently, the trend is to private civilians making home-porn vids, so profits are damaged by this “reality”.

In fact, we are no longer so incredulous about other countries or our neighbors, but rather challenged to develop our own identities, which triggers what scholars call “collective narcissism,” the celebration of origins or communities as defining worthiness.  This can be healthy pride and participation, but it can also turn toxic to be an excuse for persecution of others or to cover for individual failure to thrive economically or psychologically.  When conditions hurt people, they resort to their religion or ethnicity or sexual orientation — their roots — for reassurance and clues about what to do.

When one looks at lists of hoaxes, many are about the issues described above.  Adding to the toxicity is the idea that unentitled writers are making up stories, so that the crime of misery-lit hoaxes can be that the writer wasn’t as criminal as claimed or that miracle-recoveries from cancer or escapes from oppression were exaggerated.  The proof of crime is thought to be the enormous amounts of money writers supposedly made, which is a hoax in itself.

There are two broad categories of what the public considers especially problematic:  African Americans and Native Americans.  They do NOT have the same essential claims about primal identity, and it affects their political fortunes as well as their literary esteem.  I sort the two as being defined by their humanness or being defined by their relationship to their land.  Both are greed-based.

African Americans were physically dislocated and owned, ignoring their humanness on the grounds of their being stupid/uneducated, childish, and violent.  The category was defined by “blood” or so it was claimed though at the time very little was known about actual blood or DNA, which blood doesn’t carry since red blood corpuscles have no nuclei.  It was a poetic metaphor for SKIN.  African Americans were defined by their skin color, which was believed to be inherited automatically through generations.  The more “white” the skin, the less African-American.  Since white owners had sexual access to their slaves, the people tended to get more pale over time until they could “pass.”  Some of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants could pass and others could not.  Skin color is not like coffee and cream.

But because the people were “owned” and the justification for that was skin color, the law defined African Americans as being automatically slaves unless proven otherwise by the legal means of paper documents.  Once DNA analysis became widespread, people assumed that since skin color failed to be a bright line, then the genetic strings of code would be the replacement.  But it turns out that all humans are very much alike and only the frequency of certain alleles (groups of genes) can suggest a line of inheritance.  Suggest.  

So the indicator of “blackness” became cultural, often based on suffering and deprivation.  Ghetto or prison creds counted, even inside the group.  People who had made successful academic careers or who came from prosperous families were “not black,” Oreos.

The assumptions about who is or is not an American Indian/First Nations person keeps being attributed to “blood” but is actually “provenance,” that is, records of who begat whom over time.  The paper records were written by the military, hundreds of years after first contact.  Like ideas about African Americans this is based on European domestic breeding of plants and animals, so that in some minds being from one tribe or another is like being from one “breed” of cattle or sheep, usually developed in an area where certain qualities are more desirable than others.  Breeds of domestic animals are often named by where they were developed: Hereford, Shropshire.  Tribal names.

The original people of the North American continent, like people everywhere, had evolved to suit their ecologies.  The origin of the differences and solidarities of “tribes” are shaped by the conditions where they had lived over millennia, adapting to a corn-based ecology, a bison- based ecology, a salmon-based ecology.  Those who didn’t know how to manage their “place” would die or leave.  Those who were good at it had more children and became a tribe with its own story and morality, gradually becoming religious.

When Europeans came, they pushed most tribes out of their own ecology into places they didn’t know.  Europeans are ownership-based, tracing back to many territorial wars among kings, because land ownership and occupation is a key source of wealth.  (Ask Putin.) Domestic livestock and crops depend upon well-defended settlements and a bureaucratic domination like a king to keep records on paper.  They could not have imposed this system on North America so easily if it had not been for disease.  

At first Euros did not understand what was going on, but as soon as they figured it out, they didn’t hesitate to act on it.  Some sent contagious blankets to the People but Lewis and Clark carried vaccine and tried to make that a gesture of good will.  But they were deluded about what “good will” meant.  It was essentially land theft by people who lived on different continents.  The King of France sold the Louisiana Purchase to Thomas Jefferson.  No one actually living in the drainage of the Mississippi River detected any difference — it was all the exchange of paper far away.   Lewis and Clark were charged with defining and describing the Louisiana Purchase and were dismayed to discover it only went to the 49th parallel before the drainage turned north.  50 seemed so “symmetrical.”

To be plain, the defining injustice against African Americans is that of being owned themselves as though they were commodities.  But for the Native Americans it was about the land, its extent and resources.  Both were hindered by speaking languages other than English and by being oral cultures.  If the journals created by Lewis and Clark, now classic published books still selling well in many versions, had been written by Native Americans in English on paper and bound with gilt-impressed leather to carry to Washington DC and present to Jefferson, there would have been no need for expeditions and would have challenged European nations who believed they had ownership.  Legal Euro ownership of American land is a primal HOAX.

The implications of all this are immense.  A new world yawns before us in which the essential wovenness of all life, challenges to the concepts of both “owning” and “nations”, and technologies that allow the return of oral cultures will change the terms of everything.  


Saturday, January 13, 2018

ALL THE WICKED NARCISSISMS

Golec deSavala and her team

“Narcissism,” a contemporary pejorative often aimed at the entitled, started out as a little cautionary tale about vanity, a Greek/Roman myth.  A remarkably pretty boy admires himself in his reflected image on the surface of a still pond until he turns into a hyacinth flower with petals imitating his curly hair.  Along came Freud with his penchant for giving psychological syndromes names derived from myths and he uses it to designate someone so wrapped up in themselves and their own wonderfulness that they have no care for anyone else and might do damage to them.  This is the sense the conversation has used in reference to Trump.

Often the concept is used for artists, esp. men, who abuse the women in their lives in order to use the female energy and support for their art.  If the men are recognized as geniuses, the gender role (not the sexuality) of women can justify this, as in the word “helpmate.”  Think of Picasso.  This pattern of a dominant male with a subordinate female, may have roots in the agricultural division of labor in a patriarchal time when the man owns the land AND the woman, plus the children.  Think of Jane Austen novels. Men who didn’t justify the pattern with their productions begin to run into resistance and resentment.

Sam Vaknin is a pioneer in thinking about narcissism.  Diagnosed as a narcissist himself, he is easiest to catch up with on YouTube in short vids about various aspects, because by now he has defined many “kinds” of narcissism in his pedantic careful way.  Most dangerous is “malignant narcissism” which is predatory and consciously destructive.  One might put sexual abusers in this category, whether they abuse women, children or other men.  But it might also refer to money or power.  “Grandiose narcissism” comes from the conviction that one is simply more powerful, more effective and entitled than anyone else, and it can destroy the narcissist with overreach and retaliation from others who can defend themselves.

Now comes an idea from Agnieszka Golec de Zavala through a recent article published by aeon.com, an online magazine meant for thoughtful people.  She is a senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poznan, Poland.  She suggests “collective narcissists” who so identify with some category, perhaps ethnic or vocational or religious, that they cannot tolerate any criticism of the group.  “As opposed to individuals with narcissistic personality, who maintain inflated views of themselves, collective narcissists exaggerate offences to their group’s image and respond to them aggressively. . . .  They feel that their group merits special treatment, and insist that it gets the recognition and respect it deserves. . .  it amounts to a belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s group, and demands external validation.”

The next step is that when scientists at the University of Pennsylvania scanned narcissists’ brains with fMRI, they found that social rejection was particularly hard for them, and then subsequent research discovered that “people derive emotional pleasure from responding to rejection with aggression”.  Golec de Zavala and her team are now looking at whether this works as strongly between groups who threaten each other as between individuals.  They’re trying to go from bar-fights over who’s more Irish to riots of disenfranchised young white men waving tiki torches, so as to possibly find other ways to handle what can amount to an addiction to violence.  Sometimes this rises to an international level.

Saying Trump is a narcissist, which is an obvious limitation of his character when looking at his treatment of women, or even saying he is a “malignant narcissist”, meaning he deliberately does harm to others because he takes sadistic pleasure in it, is not enough.  His power comes from his "class narcissism", which is his enormous need to protect family image (not real relationship) and claim real estate and entertainment moguls as confirmation of value.

This country doesn’t just have a wealth inequity — only a few people with enormous amounts of money and the rest of us barely getting by — but also a class inequity based on education, which is just beginning to be discussed.  This keys into the tech revolution, which supports a new turn of mind that can handle code, gaming, and the torrent of new concepts and neologisms that tech and science generate.  These “youngsters” don’t remember World War, Depression, famous assassinations, and other reference points that would pull them into conversations with older people who have college degrees.  Some people estimate that 20% of the country belong to this group and those “outside” is can’t understand what they’re talking about.

It’s Archie Bunker and the Meathead all over again, but now Bunker is talking about the Shithead who doesn’t live in a gilded tower, obviously because he’s the wrong color.  The kicker is that Trump benefits from national class and education resentment without identifying with them personally — he thinks everyone but his own family is a shithead.  His ignorance is invisible to him.  If he ever shows a good example of his contempt for the Archie Bunkers, he will be gone.

One would think that the grace and probity of Comey and Mueller would be enough contrast to show up the vulgarian low-taste Trump, but what I see is that the same class narcissism that rules Trump makes many people scoff and sneer at these men.  Unlike their fathers, who saw the world when they were warriors and grew to respect those unlike themselves, these guys are the ones who broke their knees and were concussed on the football field and feel that is equivalent because they defeated the “Other.”

I watch how often the police procedurals celebrate those who “get their man” by breaking laws and cutting orders, withholding evidence and ignoring protocol.  To many people, those who don’t do such things are chumps.  Doing them means asserting the individual against bureaucracy, getting things done.  We love our gangsters.


Ironically, "collective narcissism" protects the underachiever, the ashamed, the failing person by merging him with others under a grandiose umbrella.  Stepping away from the group means being revealed.  So Golec de Zavala has some parsing to do.  Who is the iconoclast who acts in the name of justice and mercy, and who is just pig-headed?  Maybe the best way to find out is to reform the trough.