Coyote Crossing http://coyot.es/crossing Writing and photography from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts by Chris Clarke Fri, 11 Apr 2014 17:47:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ed Abbey on Cliven Bundy by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/04/11/ed-abbey-on-cliven-bundy/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/04/11/ed-abbey-on-cliven-bundy/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 17:44:04 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3831 Cliven Bundy's cattle illegally grazing at Gold Butte. Photo courtesy Rob Mrowka.

Cliven Bundy’s cattle illegally grazing at Gold Butte. Photo courtesy Rob Mrowka.

Overgrazing is much too weak a term. Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Weeds.

“I… suggest that we open a hunting season on range cattle. I realize that beef cattle will not make sporting prey at first. Like all domesticated animals (including most humans), beef cattle are slow, stupid, and awkward. But the breed will improve if hunted regularly. And as the number of cattle is reduced, other and far more useful, beautiful, and interesting animals will return to the range lands and will increase.”

(From “Free Speech: The Cowboy and His Cow,” 1985.)

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Oh, and speaking of the fun we used to have at Terrain by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/22/oh-and-speaking-of-the-fun-we-used-to-have-at-terrain/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/22/oh-and-speaking-of-the-fun-we-used-to-have-at-terrain/#comments Sat, 22 Feb 2014 18:52:56 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3817 I’m amazed I never got us sued. From the January 1997 issue, back cover.IndContrQuaire 4

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Revisiting Old Terrain by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/21/revisiting-old-terrain/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/21/revisiting-old-terrain/#comments Sat, 22 Feb 2014 04:17:08 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3810 terrainoct1996

 

The Berkeley Ecology Center killed Terrain a couple years ago. I visited the office a year ago and the one remaining staff person that remembered me apologized profusely, as if I’d be offended that they axed the journal I’d walked away from 16 years earlier. Honestly, I think it was inevitable. I’m surprised it didn’t happen a whole lot sooner. The center never really knew what to make of the publication, at least while I was editing the thing.

They didn’t kill the publication while I was working there, so I win.

Terrain was the monthly publication of the Ecology Center, at least during my tenure. When I left in October 1997 the Center’s Board of Directors voted, at my urging, to make the magazine a quarterly, thus cutting my successor’s duties by two-thirds. I think they also paid him more and hired an assistant.

But it was a monthly while I was there, which means that from June 1992 through that last issue in October ’97, I put out 62 issues of Terrain. (For those of you inclined to do the math, I took a month off in May 1995 to get married, and another in July 1996 for a vacation.)

It was a hellacious amount of work for almost no pay in a larger organization that was remarkably dysfunctional at the time, so my outward reminiscences since leaving have tended toward the gripe end of the spectrum. It was kind of like boot camp. Or one of those apprenticeships in Tibetan mythology where the supplicant gets told to build a master’s stone house with no tools, and then on its completion is told to tear it down and rebuild it a foot to the left.

When I left the job in 1997 I went to the desert. I took along one copy of every issue of Terrain I’d ever edited. On my first night out, in a campsite in the headwaters of the Owens River, I fed them one at a time into my campfire, in reverse chronological order. Three months later I was working at a similar publication put out by a more prominent organization, and there my boss (with whom I’ve reconciled since) was one of the worst I’ve ever had,  to the point where I gave notice a month into the gig which is a whole separate story to tell sometime, and that job was still better in many respects than my job editing Terrain.

And lately I realize that I could not be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t had that bad job. I can’t imagine having had a better bad job. I walked away from it, but — to fall prey to the predictable chiasmus — it never walked away from me.

I was supremely unqualified for the job when I took it. I’d written a column monthly or so for for the previous editor for a couple years, and helped with editing from time to time. And then that editor burned out rather dramatically, announced to the rest of the Center staff that she had hired me as her replacement, and then left. The next printer’s deadline was three weeks away. The process for producing Terrain involved editing the material, then printing it out in 12 point Times New Roman in 3.25-inch columns in Microsoft Word, then hand-waxing a paragraph or two at a time and pasting them onto big tabloid-sized cardboard flats.

My first issue was ready to go to the printer in an hour, and I noticed a prominent typo in the hand-drawn front page artwork’s headline. The artist had omitted a letter. After a moment’s panic, I improvised a solution.

sqeeze

That’s kind of what the job was like for the next five years: last-minute panic fixes with X-Acto knives.

Feature, not bug. I had to figure out how to make everything easier. I moved to page layout software from manual pasteup. I revolutionized the article submission process by telling people they needed to use email. I scrounged a copy of Photoshop 2.0. I found articles on Usenet and persuaded the authors to let me reprint them on treeflesh.

I also made every mistake possible. I misattributed articles. (The authors are mainly still speaking to me, thankfully.) I engaged in ransom note page design and typography. I took a very long time to figure out how to account for “dot gain,” the spreading of ink into paper, when preparing photos for printing. On newsprint, the beautiful photos I’d get of old-growth redwood forests would become muddy messes, hardly suitable to persuade readers that the old growth deserved not to be chopped down. (The issue was hot at the time.) I came up with some of the ugliest cover art in world history without meaning to.

I learned, in other words.

Not by myself, I hasten to add. A few months after I started a classmate of mine from the Landscape Horticulture school I’d gone to a few years earlier wandered in with a piece about horse manure. My garden columnist had just quit. I offered her the gig. She grinned fiendishly. Before long she’d taken the 1/4-time assistant editor job, which had previously been spent putting together a monthly calendar. Ron Sullivan took on that job and a whole lot else besides. There were months she worked full time on that 1/4-time pay. I’m pretty sure that was her idea. She saved Terrain from making more embarrassing mistakes in the editing department than I could possibly count. The writing in the rag got better. As did mine, from watching her work.

She brought in her husband, Joe Eaton, one of the best natural history writers I’ve ever read. He started devoting untold hours of volunteer time writing, editing, and fact-checking Terrain’s science. He also drew editorial cartoons worthy of Herblock or Feiffer. My (now ex-) wife Becky proofread and provided impromptu artwork. More volunteers joined. I was still working 50-60 hours most weeks, but the work I was doing in that time was better.

Within a few months we had the makings of an editorial board of five or six people. We met once a month to review the issue that had just come out and plan the next three. Though there were occasionally unpleasant politics on the ed board, and though some of those unpleasant politics were magnified by my increasing burnout as 1995 became 1996, the board was a core group of people committed to bettering environmental writing and reporting in Northern California. It was one of the best groups of people I’ve ever worked with.

In January 1996 we changed format from a free tabloid newspaper distributed in the Central Bay Area to a 40-page magazine, which we intended to sell for $3.00 a copy throughout California. The goal was to become the leading source of environmental news and ideas for Northern Californians. In retrospect, that was probably ambitious. We’d been planning it since 1994. Had I known then what I know now, I might have kept the free tabloid and expanded onto the early Web, just then coalescing. Terrain might have been much more influential if we’d staked out early turf online.

Then again, I was just barely able to check email in the office: I had to share a landline with the office manager.

We did good, though. We reported on Redwood Summer, on the ecocidal 104th Congress, on the aftermath of the 1991 Oakland fire and the 1995 floods in the Central Valley. We ran stories by Gary Nabhan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Winona La Duke. We reported on methyl bromide poisoning in Santa Cruz County schoolkids, and on the backlash against protection for the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. One afternoon having a meeting at the Missouri Lounge next door, Ron and I decided the house style included diereses wherever possible. Terrain blossomed with coöperatives, preëmptions, and microörganisms.

The 60-hour weeks took their toll, and I took that toll out on those around me. I drank too much coffee in the morning, then drank too much alcohol as I worked at home at night, waiting for my Quadra 610 to crank though sharpening one 500K Tiff file after another. Eventually I just couldn’t do it anymore, and in summer 1997 I told the Ed Board, which told the Ecology Center’s Board of Directors. By October I was sitting by that fire in the headwaters of the Owens River.

It took me a long time to let go of what we’d planned for Terrain: my old site Faultline.org was intended as Terrain’s heir, expanded to all of California, and it took a few years to admit to myself it wasn’t going to work.

It’s so clear now. All that work, all that thought and planning, all those illustrative mistakes and good habits forged almost accidentally? They make it possible for me to do the work I’m doing now. It’s not so much X-Acto knives and hand waxers and last-minute panic now.

This past week I saw a story I’d worked to break open since 2012 take the global stage. I didn’t get credit, and that would have been nice in some ways. But the story broke. The conversation changed. A place I care about got a bit more attention, and that attention was a bit more informed than it had been. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t spent that time in Boot Camp.

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Beacon project is up and running by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/09/beacon-project-is-up-and-running/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/09/beacon-project-is-up-and-running/#comments Sun, 09 Feb 2014 21:46:33 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3807 Here’s my inaugural effort:

Imagine that someone you love is dying needlessly. You make one plea for help after another, but to no avail. Instead, the health care providers you consult tell you that your loved one’s completely curable illness doesn’t exist. Or that her health is a lower priority than the other things they’re working on. Or even that she needs to be allowed to die so that her illness doesn’t spread to other, more important people.

That’s what it’s like these days for environmentally concerned people who love the desert.

Subscribers can read more here. You can keep track of new stories on my Beacon page, though I’ll post pointers here as well.

 

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Seven years on by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/03/seven-years-on/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/02/03/seven-years-on/#comments Mon, 03 Feb 2014 18:17:38 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3801 zeke-happy

Once upon a time there was a six-legged beast with two heads that ambled around the hills. One head was arguably smarter. The other head, as all who knew the beast agreed, was wiser and far kinder.

One day the beast split in two. Only a lesser part was left, and it tried to wander the hills as before. Eventually, after a few months of practice, it no longer seemed completely wrong to stagger around on two feet instead of six. It wasn’t the same, though, and the two-legged fragment knew it never would be.

Seven years on, the lesser portion of the beast that had been went out at night to walk in the desert. Its too-clever, too-stupid head tried to imagine how the wiser, kinder head lost seven years earlier would see the night, moon two days new behind a distant cloud, patches of stars shining faintly. Orion and Canis Major showed to the south.

The half-beast had never expected to live so long after the amputation. A mile into the desert it turned off its light, made its way home by scent and starlight the way it thought its lost better half would have done.

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Anniversaries by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/31/anniversaries/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/31/anniversaries/#comments Sat, 01 Feb 2014 05:29:14 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3798

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Desert journalism campaign update by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/29/desert-journalism-campaign-update/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/29/desert-journalism-campaign-update/#comments Wed, 29 Jan 2014 17:22:13 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3794 My project on Beacon is funded, and I’ll be writing a story a week for the joint on issues affecting the desert from Idaho to Sinaloa and Texas to Gorman, California. (You’ll need to subscribe to read them if you haven’t already, but the subscription rate — $5 a month — is dirt cheap, and it brings you everything by 65+ other writers as well.)

But because there is more than a week left in the campaign, my colleagues at Beacon have added another hurdle for us all to jump. And frankly, it’s a pretty cool hurdle. Here’s the update text from the campaign page:

We hit our goal with more than a week to spare. Thanks for your support.

Here’s my stretch goal.

At 85 subscribers I’ll be able to produce a series on the Owens River watershed, to note the 100th anniversary of the completion of the LA Aqueduct. Each piece will be shared on BEACON, and when the series is done, we’ll produce it as a small ebook and send it to subscribers as thanks.

I’ll need about 20 more backers to make this a reality.  Eight days and a few hours to reach that level: I think that’s doable. Because really, you’ll want to subscribe anyway. Might as well do it now.

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Help my new desert journalism project by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/23/help-my-new-desert-journalism-project/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/23/help-my-new-desert-journalism-project/#comments Thu, 23 Jan 2014 21:02:44 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3784 campaign

As of Thursday 1/23 4:00 pm.

I’m working with the startup Beacon to launch a desert journalism campaign, and we need your help.

Executive summary? If at least 50 48  47 people chip in $5 a month by February 8, I get  to dig up more important, unreported stories about the North American deserts.

Beacon’s an interesting platform. It’s a subscription-funded journalism project. Subscribers choose a Beacon writer to fund, with subscriptions starting at $5 a month (with lower monthly prices if you buy more than a few months at once). The writer gets the bulk of that money: about 3/4s, after overhead. And when you fund a writer, you can read everything else on Beacon as part of your subscription.

Right now that means that if you back me, you can also read the work of 65 reporters writing on topics ranging from environmental health to Somalian piracy. (I’ll be in good company. Great journos already onboard include science writer Arikia Millikan, envirojourno Amy Westervelt from the SF Bay Area, and my old colleague Molly McCluskey.)

In exchange for your support, I’ll write a story a week on issues affecting the North American deserts, from Idaho to Sinaloa to Texas to my backyard here in the Mojave. There are some opportunities for interactivity I’m still learning about which may be fun. And Beacon has put together some tastefully designed t-shirts for people who subscribe at the highest support levels.

So read the pitch, watch the video, subscribe if you are inclined (and thank you), and please feel free to share this with people  you think may find it of interest. Thanks!

desert journalism

The desert journalist at work, theoretically

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Listen up, Class by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/07/listen-up-class/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/07/listen-up-class/#comments Wed, 08 Jan 2014 03:35:45 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3771 Some rights reserved by emmajanehw

Some rights reserved by emmajanehw

This article is two years old, but it ruined my morning anyway.

These days I find myself close to desperately grateful that I never really pursued a career in academia. The American university is dissolving. Tenure was once a significant guarantor of academic freedom, so schools have naturally been doing away with it. Not by abolishing it, but by limiting it to an old guard and to a fraction of new instructors who prove they fit in with the corporate ethos of the school. The rest of the degreed have the possibility of theoretical future tenure track positions held out to them like crumbs to hungry sparrows at an outdoor cafe. The system promotes unwillingness to speak out among the tenured, and fighting for lower rungs on the ladder among the less-well-privileged.

It’s an inhumane and counterproductive system, not conducive to either education or research, and that’s not even getting into the whole issue of grantseeking, publication, and other emergent phenomena of the corporate university.

I get it.

But using the 1968 “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” a.k.a. the Kerner Report, as a metaphor for the increasing divide between two groups of people with post-graduate degrees?

1968 was a long time ago. “The Kerner Report” isn’t particularly a household phrase these days, 46 years later. The reason for the Kerner Report is probably a little better recollected: the year before, in 1967, riots “broke out” in African-American neighborhoods in Newark and Detroit, with more than 150 smaller disturbances in other cities, including Buffalo, where I lived at the time. 1967′s turmoil followed on the Division Street riots of ’66 in Chicago and the Watts Riots in ’65.

A good liberal, then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission in 1967 to study the causes of the civil unrest and make recommendations to correct whatever was causing the problem. The Kerner report came out a few months later, in February 1968. LBJ decided he didn’t like what it said and ignored the recommendations. A month later Martin Luther King, Jr., who had lauded the report, was assassinated in Memphis. More than a hundred American cities caught fire in the next few hours.

What did the report identify as the source of the anger that led to the earlier riots? The Wikipedia entry on the report calls it “black frustration at lack of economic opportunity.” That’s about like reporting a prognosis of hemorrhagic fever as “a health care concern.”

More accurately, the report identified persistent and often violent racial segregation imposed by white society on Black communities as the driver of the (centuries-old) resentments that fueled the riots:

In the 24 disorders in 23 cities which we surveyed… Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident-in itself often routine or trivial-became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.

In fact, the report identified police behavior as the most important of 12 social factors that caused the riots, which (at the risk of blockquoting this post to hell and back) I’ll list here, as an eyebrow-raisingly broad critique of how racism works in American society.

Although specific grievances varied from city to city, at least 12 deeply held grievances can be identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity: ‘

First Level of Intensity
1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment
3. Inadequate housing
Second Level of Intensity
4. Inadequate education
5. Poor recreation facilities and programs
6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms
Third Level of Intensity
7. Disrespectful white attitudes
8. Discriminatory administration of justice
9. Inadequacy of federal programs
10. Inadequacy of municipal services
11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
12. Inadequate welfare programs

There was a lot more to the Kerner Report than that: it ran close to 500 pages. The Report spends time talking about hopes having been raised by the Civil Rights Movement, the beginnings of urban police militarization and reactive white supremacist groups, the history of African-American migration into Northern city cores, “new media” (TV) flaunting a growing standard of wealth before the eyes of those who’d never attain it, and the beginnings of white flight.

Remarkably, the Commission’s recommendations were essentially that (as far as was possible without actually tearing down the basic structures of government) America utterly remake its society to eradicate racism. It was ambitious. “Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale,” said the report, “can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society.” Recommendations included ensuring African-Americans’ access to the decision making afforded other members of the community by decentralizing local government operations, training the police to stop being “abrasive,” stepping up media coverage of — and by — minority communities, that kind of thing: a classic Liberal, New Society approach to ameliorating the problem. In its day, it was dismissed by many on the left and on the street as Establishment happy talk. These days, it reads like utopian fiction. It’s worth a read.

It’s best known these days for one sentence: ”Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

That’s the sentence that apparently persuaded the author of the post I mentioned up top to use the Kerner Report as a metaphor for academic employment inequities. I understand the temptation: it’s a ringing, Lincolnian statement.

And it erases the vast majority of people in the country.

Given what I do for a living, many people assume I’ve had access to a college education. That assumption is not, strictly speaking, false, depending on how you define “access.” The mythology of Academia is that of meritocracy: the people who land there and do well are those who are intelligent and creative: the intellectually worthy.

I offer the fact that I started college at age 14 on a full scholarship as evidence that I have some insight into the meritocratic argument. I started at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1974, then transferred to the nearby State College in Buffalo in 1976, a few months before I predictably burned out. My schooling career was long on pressure and short on actual help from anyone, teachers or parents. I had absolutely no study skills or helpful habits, and while that hadn’t kept me from coasting through to graduate high school at age 13, college, was of course a different matter.

That was my college education, ages 14-16. At 16 I figured I’d go back when I was ready.

I felt ready at 20, in 1980. I stopped by the office of the chair of the PoliSci department at Buffalo State and talked him into admitting me to his department. It all went well on paper, until I applied for Financial Aid. Declined. My father had declared me a dependent on his taxes for the previous year. I hadn’t gotten any financial support from him all year aside from sneaking food from his fridge. He explained that he’d been paying child support to my mother, two years past his legal obligation to do so, despite the fact that I’d gotten no financial support from her either. (Neither had my siblings, and it turned out she’d hoarded the money for years only to have one of her boyfriends lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of it in Vegas.)

The several hundred dollars I would have had to pay in yearly tuition was not something either of my parents felt motivated to pay. I made other plans for my life. A couple years later, safely off my Dad’s tax returns and 2,700 miles west, I’d been talking to admissions counselors at U.C. Berkeley and getting hopeful when an Act of Congress stripped Federal financial aid eligibility from anyone who, like me, was required to register for the draft but refused to do so. I had spent the previous few years trying to build a movement to encourage non-cooperation with draft registration, and I wasn’t willing to violate that more important law to be able to fill in a financial aid form.

And that, 30 years ago, was that.

I am luckier than many, in that no one ever presumed to deny me access to higher education based on how I look or who I am. My lack of degree stems from a combination of parental neglect and political fluke, with a little bit of teenage ADD rebellion thrown in for good measure.

But just the same, I was forced to find other ways to educate myself. I like to think I have done fairly well at it. And the biggest push I ever got in the direction I ended up heading? My equivalent of the life-changing undergrad major? Was a minimum wage job that gave every indication, when I took it, of being a dead end.

Eventually I achieved what the intersectionalists call “passing privilege,” where postdocs and such almost always grant that I may actually possess some intellectual competence.

The point of all this biographical maundering is that that postgraduate degree is something I wanted, was denied, and will never have, despite being reasonably well-suited for a life of learning, thinking, creating knowledge, and sharing it. And that, along with occasional though thankfully dwindling encounters with prejudice toward the undegreed, means that it bothers the fuck out of me when people don’t recognize the privilege that a degree entails.

In 2012, according to the U.S. Census, 19,816,000 or so people age 18 and older in the U.S possessed either a Master’s or Doctoral degree: 8.4 percent of the total adult population. That’s about ten million fewer people than those in the same cohort — 18 and older in 2012 — that didn’t finish high school. The social disparities described in the Kerner Report are still reflected in access to higher education: only 5.5 percent of African Americans older than 18 in 2012 possessed either a master’s or a doctorate.

Those are rosier figures than in 1968, as far as African-Americans’ access to higher ed goes. But the point remains: 91.6 percent of American adults don’t have postgraduate degrees, and that’s 94.5 percent for African-Americans.

Which is as good a definition of an elíte as I can picture.

I reckon being a postdoc on a non-tenure track these days doesn’t feel in the slightest like being part of an elíte. You work godawful hours for poverty-level pay, are subject to abusive workplace politics, and face one frustration after another in doing what you sunk yourself several hundred thousand dollars into debt to be able to do: learn, think, research, and teach. It’s a sick system getting sicker, and Learning Writ Large suffers as bright, enthusiastic and talented young adults leave academia in droves.

But there’s just something nasty about using the Kerner Report as a metaphor for a class divide among a group of people who have something 90 percent of their fellow residents in this country will never have. Many progressive academics would shy away from calling negative paper review a “lynching” or comparing a declined grant proposal to “getting raped.” Aside from politer language, I don’t see how comparing the class struggle between tenure-tracked and non-tenure-tracked postdocs to a sweeping summary of the effects of 400 years of genocide and racism is any better.

There’s a line from the Kerner Report I think is a whole lot more appropriate in this context, from the report’s discussion of 1960s press coverage of race issues in the U.S. The press, said the report’s authors, “has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”

That has the ring of relevance somehow.

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A point of personal privilege by Chris Clarke http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/05/a-point-of-personal-privilege/ http://coyot.es/crossing/2014/01/05/a-point-of-personal-privilege/#comments Mon, 06 Jan 2014 03:28:45 +0000 http://coyot.es/crossing/?p=3763 … and the Social Justice Warrior and Roberts’ Rules definitions of the last word in the title are both relevant here.

About 15 years or so ago I wrote something for my then-local paper that mentioned cultural diversity, in passing, in a positive light. Shortly after it saw print I started getting hate mail. Mis-spelled and not particularly specific hate mail, mainly. I investigated a bit and found that a link to my article had been posted on Vdare, a far-right, racist and xenophobic site obsessed with Keeping America White. My saying mildly that cultural diversity was a good thing had pissed them off.

The hate mail kept coming, and it was a little unsettling at first, but about two hours after my discovery of the source my (then-)wife got home from work and asked what was wrong. I told her. She is the daughter of immigrants from a country not particularly approved of by the likes of Vdare, and I expected her to be upset. But she started laughing, and hugged me. “Good for you,” she said. “I’m proud of you.” Something about my life being lived so wholly in opposition to the hateful crap being spread by Their Kind that even an innocent statement of what I considered uncontrovertible fact — that having different kinds of people around is good — would piss them off enough to send multiple emails containing multiple violations of local and federal laws.

That was a long time ago, but I thought of it again reading the comments here. The backstory, for those of you who don’t travel in my circles on Twitter, is that Bora Zivkovic, a longtime friend of mine and this blog, was accused by several colleagues of behavior toward them that fits any HR definitions of sexual harassment I’ve ever read. Bora confirmed those charges and went offline in October. He came back online on New Year’s Day, in a fashion that many of the people who were upset over his revealed behavior felt confirmed that he just didn’t get what he’d done wrong.

Good summations of that latter position can be found written by Martin Robbins and Janet Stemwedel. My own position, for the record, is that such criticisms are quite correct, but that out of sincere gratitude for Bora’s friendship over the last decade I will continue to tell him honestly what I think, a favor he may not cherish in the slightest. (That’s my position, at least for now, and I’m not claiming it’s the right path for anyone else, least of all those Bora harmed either directly or less indirectly than he harmed me.)

In the spirit of that decision, I responded to a comment on Bora’s triumphal return post. That commenter suggested that certain gestures of intent to change brought with them an obligation that those with grievances forgive the offender. I replied that forgiveness doesn’t work that way.

Suddenly, the thread became all about me for a moment. It surprised me, and it was unsettling for a moment. Until I heard my ex-wife’s laughter in my head.

Bora deleted the worst of the comments, mainly including those that included scurrilous accusations against someone else as a weirdly imagined way of tarring me and one other commenter by association. But a few remain.

As it turns out, the comments were blowback from an internecine religious cult war in the so-called “skeptics’” so-called “community.” I co-blogged for a little while at Pharyngula, as most readers here will know, and during the eight or nine months I was there I moderated comments on my posts significantly more vigorously than my co-blogger PZ did.

There is a group of a dozen or so stalkerish obsessives who have decided it’s their goal in life to oppose everything that Pharyngula and the FreeThought Blogs of which it is the anchor tenant hold true, along with a couple other feminist- and progressive-oriented blogs in the social justice movement. When I signed on with PZ in late 2012 that was taking sides by default. It didn’t help that I was quicker to nuke their racist, misogynistic comments than had been the norm at Pharyngula. (That’s a criticism of PZ, sure, but it’s a friendly one: I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be tasked with moderating that whole place.)

That comment moderation wasn’t intended as taking sides in the religious warfare between FtB and its detractors: it was out of a sense of personal ethics that forbade me to let those comments stand. I also nuked comments from Pharyngula regulars, and eventually left the joint because of many of those regulars. But apparently my interference in  ”free speech” — of people for whom free speech means ability to spread hate without blowback — rankled some of the hate stalkers.

I’ve since winnowed down the social media contacts I made while posting there, to the point where I think I’ve rid my online life of the things I most disliked about the place. If there’s been a lasting effect of my participation there, it’s a sense that the skeptical and atheist movements have nothing to offer me whatsoever, and that time spent participating in them was time spent not making a difference in the world. When I left Pharyngula, the parting from working with PZ made me sad. It still does. But my readership immediately went up, as did the difference I have been able to make in the world.

I sent out a thank you email last week to people who helped me out in 2013, and in part of it I described a few things my donors’ support had helped me do:

  • Made agencies pay attention to the issue of how concentrated solar flux affects wildlife, indirectly forcing a state agency to face down a multi-billion-dollar corporation
  • Broke the story of how large solar facilities may look very much like lakes to migrating birds, with unhappy results for those birds
  • Revealed how California’s wind turbines are more dangerous than the national average
  • Helped raise awareness of the bad science behind California’s historic bobcat trapping laws, which helped pass the Bobcat Protection Act of 2013
  • Maintained a network of some of the best scientifically oriented environment bloggers on the planet.

I’m as self-effacing as the next guy, but I’m damn proud of the work I did in 2013: yes, at Pharyngula, but mostly elsewhere. So it took me by surprise to see that in the blinkered world views of those opposed to FtB’s more or less progressive stances, my relevance began and ended when I joined and left Pharyngula.

In comments on Bora’s post, I was called a “blog parasite,” which I think is a synonym for “coblogger asked to join a popular blog.” I was called a “clone.” (It was a somewhat popular conceit in that crowd to suggest that my writing was indistinguishable from PZ’s, an idea that both PZ and I found amusing. As would anyone with a better than fourth-grade command of written English. Our styles are quite different.)

Those attempts at insults were basically kind of hilarious. The fact that I was cast as some FtB partisan when I’ve done everything but salt the earth between me and most of FtB was even funnier.

But the obvious pent up quality to the nastiness was a little unsettling. I’m well aware, mind, that I’m only a tertiary target to these people at best. I’m not female, for one thing. I’m also increasingly irrelevant to their pathetic turf war, because I’ve written official skepticism and official atheism off as not worth my time and attention.

But the sheer unthinking and vile nature of the relatively small amount of crap aimed more or less at me in that thread was slightly unsettling, for a moment, until I heard that 15-year-old memory of chuckling.

My ex- reminded me that day long ago that having certain kinds of people mad at you is a mark of success. In my sadness at leaving PZ’s employ and my frustrated anger over the often abusive behavior of certain of his commenters, I’d started to feel like writing there had been a waste of my time. But if the memory of that writing even after six months is enough to spur vitriol in the walnut-sized hindbrains of the skeptics’ movement’s equivalent of Stormfront, then I must have done something right. Pissing off the hateful toads is like a big old “Arne Sacknussem” sign carved into a rock wall with an arrow pointing in the direction of “job well done.”

And yes, all this about comments trying to be mean to me is utterly trivial. Even if the comments weren’t devoid of substance, I’m not the important person here.

It was just a good personal reminder is all. And it’s certainly a bit self-involved to write 1,440 words on it, but hey, I’m a blogger.

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