Archive for politics

AR Plates Stir Controversy

The news just came out and you’ll likely see it on local news stations tonight, but I thought I’d throw this up for those of you doing research on Arkansas culture and life. A recent set of Arkansas License plates with the letter combination of “NGR” have been deemed offensive, for the obvious reasons. That particular letter combination will no longer be used.

I don’t know if I would have noticed this at first. Not out of insensitivity but out of just pure-D myopia. I’m often distracted and don’t pay attention. I don’t even know my own license plate number. A lot of bloggers are hissy-fitting over the tired old “we’re too politically correct” and “the lady who noticed it is just suffering from white guilt” arguments. Personally, I think she did the right thing. I mean, there’s a reason why states skip certain letter combinations. If “FUK” isn’t acceptable then I see no difference here. There are just some unfortunate combinations and it doesn’t hurt anyone to avoid them. If you were young and single and female and got “HOE” as your letter combinations, I bet you’d ask for another one. I would.

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Insomniac Hillbilly says Respect Your Elders

A dozen years ago my parents bought some acreage in Newton County, Arkansas just north of Ben Hur (Yes, that’s a town. Last place in Arkansas to get electricity in 1976) on Highway 16 east.

The land itself is situated just about four miles north of Moore (which is really just a church and a cemetery). Their land stretches across both sides of Richland creek near Jack Jones Hollow and Hideout Hollow.

They own fifty-six acres with two cabins. One sits on a bluff overlooking the river. The other is across the creek on a low ridge overlooking a classic bottom-land hay field.

They’ve built a little “swimming hole” access to the creek on this side of the property and there are trails surrounding it. In fact, the famous Ozark Highlands Trails follows the back line of the property and crosses onto it when it hits road access at Richland Creek.

I start thinking about “the cabin” this time of year. We’re heading up there for the Fourth of July weekend. The way my parents ended up with the land is a long story, but I’m grateful they got it.

That much land up there is hard to come by these days, especially a plot entirely surrounded by national forest and a wilderness area.

A couple days ago I was out drinking at Pizza D with friends and the subject of the “Lord God Bird” Documentary came up, again, because that’s what people talk about when they are drinking — what movies they’ve seen lately.

As regular readers know, I recently reviewed the film.

One guy at the table, I’ll call him J, took the long view: as a species, we’ll be really lucky if we can get a couple million years in. We’ve adapted in the past and we’ll adapt in the future. Isn’t it better, now, to get what we can out of the environment?

J brought up the defunct effort 1970’s era effort by the Corps of Engineers to drain much of the Cache River basin. If the “supposed bird” (as he put it), was going to hold up economic progress, then wasn’t that a problem?

Another friend, who I’ll call C, who also happens to have his own 40 acres just a few miles to the east of our family land near Bear Creek, said over his beer that he agreed in the long run.

But, at the same time, he said, “As long as no one messes with the Ozarks in the mean time. I don’t care what happens after I’m dead, so long as the Ozarks stay exactly like they are until then.”

I pointed out the obvious problem: he was speaking out of two sides of his mouth. C was a little chagrined but kept his point, which is that he agrees we can’t really stop progress but he just doesn’t want it on his 40 acres.

Since I’m terrible at social graces — I never notice when men are concerned more for bravado than actually winning the argument — and since I’m not one to back down from these things, I started to preach my gospel of “respecting our conservation elders. ”

It goes something like this:

Look here, if it weren’t for people just like us who fought to keep the Ozarks they way they are, they wouldn’t exist now. Same goes for the Big Woods.

If it weren’t for various odd coalitions of grassroots groups — wilderness enthusiasts, hunters, tree-huggers, paddlers, climbers, hikers, and locals — neither place would exist in its current form. If you want to keep it the way it is, you gotta fight for it.

Cause the Corps of Engineers is pretty much one huge environmental disaster machine going back to way before the 1927 Arkansas and Mississippi River floods.

If we let them get their protractors anywhere near anyplace we love, there’s no other choice. Even our recent history shows us they are going to screw it up.

It’s not just here in the south that the Corps has managed to erase a place, or irrevocably alter a landscape forever and not necessarily to our benefit. Lake Mead is a very good example of the problem out West.

That’s the group, I said to J, who started the whole discussion, that you’d be putting in charge of “progress.”

J changed the subject to something about Mardi Gras.

C shrugged and said, “If I found that damn woodpecker on my land shoot it.” He flashed an evil grin at me.

At that moment, I decided that I needed to do more drinking when I go out drinking. My over sized glass of Coca-cola looked pretty lame.

Maybe alcohol would have smoothed away my natural tendency to throw out a rhetorical smack-down out when I get the least chance. But no, I opted to take my poison in the form of corn syrup and caffeine.

And so, being the true nerdette than I am, I ended up going all “persuasive rhetoric teacher” on their asses.

My shame over my social awkwardness vanishes when I think about those 56 acres in Newton County, though. There’s nothing more beautiful than the fog rising above the hay field and through the multi-colored leaves on a frigid October morning.

Image of the Ozarks in Fall

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On Hope (A meandering philosophy)

All this hullabaloo around Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama has me ruminating on racial equality again.  A lot of what Rev. Wright admittedly has some serious logic flaws.  For example, it’s obvious that the U.S. Government couldn’t pull off the development and transmission of AIDS to minorities.

After all, it is still the basic governmental machine that failed to rescue hundreds of people from New Orleans after Katrina.  The theory just gives the bureaucratic mechanism way too much credit. On the other hand, he’s also a man who had to have a singular focus on inspiring himself, and others, to rise above the conditions set for them by a racist society. 

It is really easy for white people to pretend to be offended by Rev. Wright. After all, he pushes all of our relatively-comfortable buttons.  The truth is, none of us middle-class white folk are truly threatened by anything Rev. Wright does.  We’re also not really threatened by the specter of African-Americans finally gaining some political capital in this country.   The real threat to “white America” might be our inability to adapt to a world in which the face of power and privelege is slowly, painfully beginning to change.

Coincidentally, I’m reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse right now. I just finished a chapter on the collapse of the medieval Norse Greenland colony.  The summary of their experience goes like this:  they failed completely to make useful contact with the Inuit, who came into Greenland sometime in the latter part of the Norse reign there.  Because they failed to cooperate, they exacerbated an already bad environmental crisis. 

The Norse hadn’t taken into account the precise nature of their environment and overused their available agricultural land.  The rest fell to erosion after the Norse switched almost entirely to sheep farming.  When sheep farming lost sustainability, the Norse found themselves in serious trouble. 

They didn’t learn to hunt whale or other large sea life from the Inuit. The didn’t learn to fish in the Arctic from the Inuit; they didn’t learn to replace their dwindling iron supplies with local alternatives; they didn’t learn to rely more heavily on seal. Instead, when they encountered the Inuit, the Norse mostly reacted by killing them.  Eventually, the Norse vanished from Greenland.  The Inuit remain.  

If I can be so bold as to sum up the entirety of human history, I’d say that another pretty obvious point is that continual oppressive domination of one group by another isn’t sustainable either.  Colonialism is a completely failed experiment, apartheid is as well, so is the “super-power” view of the world, and so is institutional and government supported racism.   If the vanished Norse teach us something, it’s that cooperation is a better survival strategy than domination.   

But whatever, right?  All of this kind of seems self-evident to me. I think, for a lot more people out there right now, it seems pretty obvious too.  Let me get real for a second, in case I’ve lost someone.

Here is where I stand: I’m a white girl from a small town in the south, raised in an upper-middle class household, and I have two post-graduate degrees.  I am privileged in many, many ways.  I’m particularly aware of my own privilege because I am trained in the Liberal Arts. 

Just as I was being born, Literary and Cultural Theory arose out of protest against the New Critics of the Modern era.  The Post-Modern era arose. Multiculturalism, identity politics, and new historicism took over.  All of this trickled down into graduate schools and, eventually, into the rest of our educational system.    By the time I hit kindergarten in 1980, integration was in full swing. Sensitivity toward other races became the American ideal, rather than the ideal of exclusion and domination that was finally put to rest during the Civil Rights Movement.  

This doesn’t mean that racism vanished, or even that governmental racism went away. There are too many examples of it in recent times to even begin to make that argument.    What it does mean, though, is that the American ideal began to change from the blatantly and open racist view of the past. 

Powerful organizations began to slowly become accountable for their actions via lawsuits.  While we may never wipe out racism entirely in our institutions, it is a pretty amazing thing we’ve managed to finally set up a 50 year old precedent of doing the right thing, mostly, in terms of civil rights.  

By the time I got to graduate school, the notion that all cultures are equally important was a bedrock of my personal philosophy.   I may note differences between cultures, but I fundamentally believe that people and all their stories have something to teach the rest of us.  I believe this because this is what I was taught to believe during my (gasp!) 23 years of American schooling (12 years of public school, six years of undergraduate, five years of graduate school).  In corporate-speak, this is a core value.  All other ideas spin off from this one.  

And you know what? I’m very proud of that. I’m proud that all my American education taught me to value equality and to shun racism. That’s a healthy and productive perspective.  Besides that, I like the fact that American society is so diverse.  I am proud that we continue to foster diversity and we continue to attract immigrants from around the world.  It’s this multiplicity of voices that makes the place really interesting. 

If you transport me seventy years into the past, I would have learned a very different lesson at the feet of all those teachers.  I would have learned the false, and dangerous, sense of superiority based on my racial heritage.  I would have been discouraged from exploring writing by women, or the Maori, or even the Ozark hillbillies by my graduate mentors. 

The values I learned, however, represent the pretty radical paradigm shift between a narrow, cold closed-perspective system (valuing literature based purely on, say, the sex of the author) and a wide-open system that tries to value and document the world’s real depths.   Because the secondary system opens up the most possible options for everyone’s survival, it’s obviously the most desirable.  

All of this is to say that Rev. Wright hasn’t quite made the switch with the rest of us. While his children and grandchildren were growing up with a completely different message, he was still telling himself another story.  Barack didn’t miss it, because he literally lived the new American paradigm.  I didn’t miss it, and I’m a white girl from the south. There are millions of other Americans of all races under the age of 40 that didn’t miss it either.  This was part of the American dream we got in kindergarten: racism is bad.

To me, this is the first and greatest hurdle the Civil Rights Movement needed to accomplish.  If the goal was to change the prevailing attitudes of millions of Americans, then it worked through the “multiculturalism” in schools and universities.  It makes complete sense to me that my generation would see a woman and an African-American man become major contenders for a presidential nomination.  We are the product of the new equality paradigm in America. 

This is not to say that anyone should stop fighting racism, in government or in society. Nor is it to say that from my obviously privileged perch I deem racism a completely dead social force.  That’s also obviously untrue.  We will continue to need people who fight for racial equality just like we need teachers and doctors and lawyers and janitors.  They serve a much needed purpose, which is to keep check on the majority perspective. 

As I get to the end of this opus here, I am left with just one more thing to say.  It is time that we started to recognize that for millions of Americans the world really is a multi-color bonanza.   Sadly for Rev. Wright, his world is still being broadcast in black and white; just like Pat Buchanan’s world is also a flat, color-poor place.    

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Interview with a Hillbilly Hijabi Woman

I don’t really keep in touch with many of my friends from high school. I ran away to Kansas immediately after graduation and never really looked back, until I was well into graduate school. Then I fell in love with with Arkansas again, warts and all.  There are a few people from high school that I couldn’t quite ever shake from my life, though.  One of those people is Robb McCormick, or Some Guy Named Robb.  Another one of those people is J. 

J is a woman who I always secretly admired and wished I could be. She’s also a little hillbilly, although I don’t know if she personally admits to it.  When we were in junior high, she had a pet possum.  I defy anyone to find a more Hillbillyesque pet. 

She was also a wonderful poet, scholar, and human being. After she grew up and moved away from Arkansas, she converted to Islam.  Recently, she agreed to answer questions about her experience in Hillbilly Land as a Hijabi woman and her relationship with home, religion, and political silence.  

Q. You grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks.  As we both know, this is definitely the Bible belt. Why did you decide to head down a religious path so different from your parents and the folks you grew up with? 

For a long time before my conversion, I had problems with different aspects of the Protestant Christian faith that I was raised in and kept trying out different churches to try and resolve this. I wondered why we were told not to follow the rules of the Old Testament if Jesus followed them (for example, keeping a kosher diet). I wondered why we weren’t even required to follow the rules of the New Testament (for example, I Corinthians 11:5 says it’s a shame for a woman to pray with her head uncovered, which was the origin of my hat wearing phase that you may remember).

Anyway, when I went through my divorce, it was a pretty rough time for me, and it made me sit down and rethink basically every aspect of my life. This is when I came across Islam and started studying it in depth. What appealed to me most was the simplicity of the faith aspect (believing that there is one God, no Trinity, no stuff that takes long metaphoric stories to explain), the fact that there was a nice straightforward set of rules that people are actually expected to follow, and an ideal of moderation (you do as much as you can as well as you can, and God doesn’t expect more or less from you than that).

Q. Why do you wear the hijab? I’m assuming, knowing you, it is a personal choice and that you aren’t pressured to wear it by anyone.  But I’m curious, beyond the religious requirements involved, why you would make that choice? Will you encourage your daughter to do so?

The first reason is that God tells me to. Actually, that’s pretty much it. However, I’ve learned to embrace the purpose behind it and the benefits that it is supposed to bring us. The idea is that men should respect women, and if we give them less to stare at, then they are more likely to behave. I will add, on a humorous note, that this isn’t always accomplished. I went to Austin where my cousin took me out to a bar, and I was actually hit on by a guy while I was wearing this full black head scarf. Now that is one bold dude.

Yes, I will definitely encourage my daughters to wear it, though I don’t think I would force them. An act of worship needs to be done by choice, or else it’s kind of pointless, right? My 10-year-old recently came to me and told me she was thinking of starting to wear it in a few weeks when her next birthday comes. We’ll see how that goes.

Q. Do you feel discriminated against when you come home to the Ozarks ever? If so, why?

Yeah, I do sometimes, but not more than in other places. I get more problems from people close to me rather than from strangers, who tend to find me a novelty. My old employer, who shall remain nameless, was practically cringing the last time I came through town and stopped in his place of business to say hello. He very obviously didn’t want people to see me there and was even more terrified that I might be moving back to town and would ask for my job back.

A friend of mine who was also from a small town in the Ozarks, became Muslim and started wearing the full face veil. She went back to her little hometown and wandered into the gas station, where the attendant thought she was going to rob him. No joke. She had to explain it was a religious covering.

I will admit I am scared to travel alone through unknown areas of the Ozarks where I feel I might actually be unsafe if I stumbled across a nest of KKK members or overzealous rednecks.

Q. How do you think it would be for you to live in the Ozarks now that you’ve changed your lifestyle? 

I did move back to my hometown, but for less than a year. In a nutshell, it was ok in a lot of ways, but awkward in enough ways to tire me out. The Girl Scouts wanted me to volunteer but didn’t want me to be the troop leader, though they were desperate for leaders and had no one else. When I ran into people I used to go to church with, they wouldn’t look me in the eye when we talked.

When my aunt and I asked my daughter’s teacher if we could come in and make gingerbread houses with the kids at Christmas, we were enthusiastically welcomed, but when I suggested I could have my daughter demonstrate Arabic writing and explain about our fasting during Ramadan, the teacher passed me off to the principal who told me that they were just way too busy with preparing for tests to take me up on my generous offer.

Q. Anything you miss about Arkansas and the Ozarks? 

Okra. My grandmother. Seeing everyone I know at a high school football game or wandering through Walmart. Spending summer days hiking up on Petit Jean or Mount Nebo.

Q. Do you feel like anything you learned growing up in the Ozarks had an impact on the choices you’ve made since you grew up and “left home” so to speak? 

I feel like I had to actually overcome a lot of what I learned growing up in order to make some choices that were right for me. For instance, it was a major, heartrending decision to do something that I knew would hurt and possibly embarrass my family, but I still made this choice because I knew it was right for me.

I didn’t leave all of it behind, though. I incorporated a lot of what I learned growing up into my current lifestyle… good manners, Southern hospitality, being kind to others with the expectation that they will do the same for you. I still say hello and wave to people who walk past my home (though that is not the standard procedure up here in New England), and a surprising number of them smile and say hello back. Simple things like that go a long way toward crossing religious barriers and opening dialogues in the community.

Q. Anything else you want to tell me about being a Muslim woman in the U.S.? 

It’s hard sometimes, but not in the ways you would think. There is a lot of room for different ideas and lifestyles, and most people may be curious about the way I dress but accept me once they get past the initial oddness of that.

The difficult part is the uneasiness that I feel over the probability that the government has my phones wiretapped and my emails tracked, and the fact that this prevents some people from wanting to be in touch with me. It’s having to grit my teeth and say nothing when the post office ripped open all 13 boxes of books that we shipped to our new home while we were moving, tearing out pictures of New York from my photo album and pulling my birth announcement out of my baby book because my birth date is 9/11.

It’s the humiliation of always being “randomly” searched in the airports and even having my infant son woken up so they could search his diaper. It’s the feeling of being gagged in a political arena, objecting to this war in Iraq just like I objected to the first war in Iraq, but not being able to say that openly because it was ok for an all-American girl to be a conscientious objector but not a hijabi woman. I hope that given enough time, this will change, but for now it’s something that I try to deal with in the best ways I know how and to speak up against when I get the chance so that my kids grow up with pride in their religious identity and not feeling like second class citizens.

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The Waldo Line & Musing on Politics

I’d always heard through family supposition that the Waldo line of my family came from Germany.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the name itself “sounds” rather German.  Either way, I fully expected the family to come from Germany. As Bryan Sykes points out in Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, mythology of origin shouldn’t be counted out.  It’s very often right.  But this time origin myth, and I, were both wrong.  Or sort of wrong.

My ancestors on the Waldo line may well have come from Germany, but they took a very long furlough in England first.   Until recently, I knew very little about the Waldo family.  While in the midst of my “database black hole” a couple of weeks ago, I found a set of grandparents I hadn’t been able to find before.  

This lead back from  Virginia to New York, where I discovered the first Waldo to come from Europe came from England.  He was one of the most agressive slave traders in early American history.  Cornelius Waldo has been on my mind ever since. 

 Especially today.  I watched Barack Obama’s speech last night after I got home from work. I think it was one of the best speeches on race I’ve ever heard.  He made it very clear that he understands exactly why there’s this huge gulf between blacks and whites in the U.S. He also made a point that I think is very hard to disagree with — the truth is, people of the lower and middle classes have more in common than they realize. Those commonalities have nothing to do with race. 

They have to do with basic problems that do need to solved in this country.  And while Pastor Wright’s language might be regrettable, it is definitely not surprising considering where he comes from and the challenges he has had to face as a black man in America. In fact, it is understandable in some ways. At the same time, if we continue to remain ‘stuck’ in that sort of angry phase, we will never move on to acceptance and forgiveness. Without acceptance and forgiveness, none of our problems as a country will be solved because we will be overwhelmed with what Obama calls “distractions.” 

The truth is, too, that this is a generational difference in how people relate to race in this country. Those of us in the Gen X and Gen Y categories simply do not have the same attitudes about race as the Boomer generation.   Maybe its because of more widespread school integration in the 1970’s, something our parents didn’t necessairly experience and never experienced to the degree we did. Maybe it’s a positive side effect of more cultural sensitivity in the schools and work places in general.

But here is the difference: I grew up in an America where most of the culture stressed the immorality and illegality of racism; I am the product of an America that incoporates the idea that racism is immoral into the very fabric of its school curriculum; I am the product of an America that on the surface says that all good citizens should believe in the equality of all humans, regardless of our personal prejudices.  That doesn’t mean that we didn’t (and don’t) know that racism is a serious problem that needs constant attention.  What is means is that we don’t ever question the bedrock notion that racism is a bad thing, a social problem instead of a government sanctioned social control method.

The Boomers did not grow up in that America.  They are still, in some ways, living in an America where that kind of injustice is, as Obama put it, “endemic.”  While the Boomer perspective is understandable, the continuation of that perspective is not going to get us very far in terms of solving our problems. 

At some point, we are all going to have to realize that the only way we can make a difference for all people in this country who are poor or oppressed is not to allow those who create poverty and oppression to pit small groups against other small groups. The only way we will end the war, fight poverty, and get our schools in shape is to work together across racial boundaries. 

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