Storytelling Against Mutual Genocide
Stories aren’t just stories. Because we humans tend to act out the ones we know best, we need to hear, understand, and tell a variety of stories that are adequately nuanced and humanizing. Otherwise, we are doomed to perpetuating cycles of violence. We also need shared stories to help hold us together and to provide some common points of reference. On numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed groups of people born before 1990 find sudden solidarity around a mutual commitment to having “more cowbell.”
Several weeks back, I spent the day at Costco. My laptop brimmed with grading and drafts in need of revision, so I camped out in the café while I waited for my tires. By lunchtime, the other tables had filled, so when an older gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly obliged. I asked him about the aircraft carrier on his hat and he swelled with pride as he spoke of cramped quarters, duty, honor, Custer’s Last Stand (family vacation), and Vietnam (his war). The landscapes of the western U.S. and the vast expanse of the Pacific spread before us.
Then we came to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, suspended over the battleship-turned-tomb in Pearl Harbor. My conversation partner leaned in and whispered, “I saw a group of Orientals chattering away there and I wanted to ask, ‘Does anyone here have a gun?’” (Subtext: he would have gladly used one on them.) He added, “They’re buying up all the land in Hawaii, you know.” At a loss for words, I sat back and wondered what I could possibly say to redeem the conversation and my neighbor. I wonder still.
Why would someone expand “the enemy” of his own war to include civilians from an entire continent? Surely part of the answer lies in the kinds of stories we tell. It has long been standard fare in wartime (viz. pre-war, preemptively aggressive) rhetoric for governments to weaponize the fear of their own populace against the civilian populations of enemy states, not merely their governments, as a tool for justifying and soliciting support for violence.
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One Step Away from Authentic Representation of Mental Illness?
A colleague asked what I thought of the representation of mental illness on Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (2023). Some people take casual questions casually. Six hours of Netflix, two hours watching interviews, and [however long it took me to write this blog post] later, I can state with utmost certitude: I am not one of those people.
Full confession: period melodrama is not usually my thing. I have seen zero Bridgerton (2020-present), of which Queen Charlotte is the prequel/sequel spin-off. To boot, this is my first venture into in Shondaland. And I am only one person. My own experiences of mental illness and of the mental healthcare system are not universal. I’m a part-time historian, but don’t give two flying flips if writers take liberties with the past when they write fiction. (Black German nobility in the 1700s? Natürlich!) Within those admitted limitations(?), my viewing of Queen Charlotte has left me feeling generally impressed and inspired, but with a profound sense of just how much work remains to be done for authentic and inclusive representation of mental illness.
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Why do Americans Practice Child Sacrifice?
I used to look down on the Aztecs and Maya of old, with their bloodthirsty and unreasonable gods. I lumped them together with the devotees of Moloch, a cruel deity of the ancient Canaanites to whom followers would offer up their children as a way of ensuring prosperity. I cringed when we sat down as a family to watch “Lost Cities with Albert Lin: The Great Flood”(2021) and learned of the mass child sacrifice that took place at Huanchaco some centuries ago. We had some explaining to do with the kids. “We’re so much better,” I thought. “So much more civilized. We’ve come so far!” Now I’m not so sure.
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14 Mix-and-Match Ingredients to Beware (from Umberto Eco)
What is fascism? I thought I knew. And I thought that the answer didn’t matter, because fascists were the stuff of history books. I was wrong. They have proliferated and, although they defy concise definitions, you can spot them if you know what to look for.
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Scrounging for Hope
When shadows fall heavy upon the land, I look for signs of hope. Lately, the shadows have weighed so heavy that I’ve been tempted to stop looking. Still, on unhurried days I walk our dog down along the river. It feeds straight to the Bay. I try to forget that it could flood our neighborhood, maybe for good someday if the sea level rises enough. The floodwall wears predictable layers of spray paint script. Much of it inscrutable, though one can decode the predictable bevy of profanities, as specific as they are explicit. But a few weeks back, I saw something new: “you are loved,” “keep going,” and “I am scared I don’t know what to do but I know I will survive and be glad that I did.”
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6 Toxic Elements in Contemporary Storytelling
A many-branching poison spreads through the land, touching many
news outlets, schools, houses of worship, and families. A new presidential
administration represents hope to much of America in the form of concrete,
inclusive policies. Because of this, some might be tempted to forget the
lessons of the recent past, along with the toxins that lingers, still spurring people
to fear, to hate, to trust the untrustworthy, and to doubt the trustworthy.
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An Open Letter to the Great Test Generation, Including the Class of 2020
have journeyed far to arrive at this point in your life. Further than you
realize, perhaps. The elements that constitute your physical being traveled
hundreds of lightyears across the millennia to arrive in their current form as
your body. Folk singer Joni Mitchell put it best: “we are stardust.”
are other parts of you beyond the merely physical. Those, too, have a long
story. Indeed, your story isn’t just your story. Your life is the latest
chapter in the story of your family. You are the descendant of survivors. Those
who came before you, your ancestors, lived, loved, worked, and risked their
lives, some of them more than others, so that you could be here today. Some
crossed borders, even oceans, to give you a better life. All made sacrifices.
All made mistakes, some moreso than others. But, in one way or another, all
lived so that you could live. In innumerable ways, who they were has given shape
to who you are. Never forget that.
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Confronting Toxic Power by Destigmatizing Mental Illness
It still seems hard to believe. Eighteen years ago last week, our nation suffered its worst attack since Pearl Harbor. For those of us who came of age during the comparatively placid 1990s, the new world disorder came as a particular shock. U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan ensued as part of the War on Terror. In addition to physical casualties, a generation of veterans remains burdened by the psychological, relational, and economic effects of long and repeated deployments. Despite a decline in violent crime overall in the U.S., the new era has coincided with an increase in mass shootings, proof of disproportionate violence against people of color by law enforcement, widening disparities of wealth, political gridlock, ecological crisis, and, especially recently, the scapegoating of immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, non-Christians, and those with mental illnesses as sources of America’s woes.
The America born on September 11, 2001, has reached maturity. But, like any new-found maturity, this is a condition fraught with internal-conflict, paradox, and room for growth. In a nation at odds with itself and with its neighbors, we Americans can remain hopeful of reconciliation so long as we can accurately diagnose this present madness. My own mental illness has helped me understand much that I might have otherwise missed, misunderstood, or refused to believe. On the basis of that experience, the time has come for me to shed what light I can. In the following analysis, my diagnosis serves as but one possible point of departure; people with other mental health conditions can doubtless offer further insights into the true state of things.
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Although unique in its scale and intensity, the Holocaust was not original. Less well known, contemporaneous actions by Stalin in the USSR sought to eliminate entire groups of people (specifically Ukrainian peasants by means of well-orchestrated famine) to accomplish the goals of the state. After the Holocaust, many have offered the twin vows “never again” and “never forget.” Yet, ever again, people seem to forget. 1970s Cambodia. 1980s Iraq. 1990s Bosnia and Rwanda. Early 2000s Sudan. Late 2010s Iraq (again). Today Myanmar—or, if not yet, probably soon. At least in the short-run, it is more comfortable for many of us to forget, to ignore, and to avoid learning such things in the first place.
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A Modest Proposal for Saving Graduate Higher Education in the U.S.
Every Christmas while I was growing up, my dad had a gift giving ritual with his parents. They gave each other cash. I became convinced that this was often the same amount. From meager means Grandma and Grandpa scraped together a modest living punctuated by moments of extravagance, like their trips to Vegas. The cash swap was a form of empowerment: here is some money that you didn’t have to spend on whatever you want. It was a symbol of financial freedom. But, in terms of the actual balance sheets, it changed nothing.
I am not an accountant. I do not purport to understand most of the details of the tax plan that Congress has in the works. I do understand how it would make tuition stipends taxable, devastating the overwhelming majority of Ph.D. programs, as well as many M.A. programs. The humanities and social sciences would be hit hardest. Whether as the direct or indirect result of impoverishing their graduate students more so than they already are (this is a thing), many graduate programs would close. (M.D., J.D., M.B.A., and other professional programs would be generally unaffected.)
The trouble is that, at present, programs charge students tuition (on paper) and then offer them a soon-to-be-taxed tuition waiver (often on the same piece of paper). Instead, affected graduate programs should reduce the tuition charged to students to zero—not net zero but actual zero—so that tuition waivers and taxes on them would be similarly non-existent. This would, of course, involve finding new ways of doing internal accounting for program costs and perhaps making admissions policies even more selective, but this could be done. Otherwise, it’s like Peter robbing Peter to pay Peter. Couldn’t he just leave his money where it is?