After Tucson, #2 in a series

[Ed. note: Please forgive another sprawling disquisition on the emotional/ethical tangle in the wake of Tucson.  I get the feeling these are the first in a long series of such things.]

This is a parenting blog, primarily. Parenting as seen through my eyes, which are those of a white middle class gal who’s fairly gender-in-betweeney, and partnered with a woman. The parenting experiences are as influenced by those matters as you imagine they might be.  Which is to say, some of the time hugely; a lot of the time, not a whole lot. The biggest influence over our everyday lives is probably the white middle class part, I reckon, insofar as we have a lot of social movement, are in the majority, usually, and are tacitly aligned with the people in power in most places our family life takes us.  It feels like that, at least.  Where we’re disempowered it’s stark, but I’m thinking mostly because of the contrast.

On the other hand, since this is a single-authored, personal narrative-type blog coming on its sixth year soon, the topical orbit is beginning to swing wider and wider. My guess is that’s often how this sort of genre goes. Starts with one focus, eventually broadens to be pretty much what’s on the mind of the author type of thing.  Often, but not always, those broader topics are seen through that original lens. Insofar as what’s on my mind is often on the minds of other parents, middle class, white, lesbian, genderqueer or not, then we all have something to share with one another here. Often we help each other a lot, and I’ve said many times that I feel I’m very much more on the receiving end of that spectrum than the giving.  Which is why I continue to value this undertaking (and these sorts of undertakings, meaning blogs kept afloat by a sincere community of people) as highly as about anything in my life these days, outside of my loved ones, living and no longer.

Like many of you, since Saturday morning’s massacre in Tucson – what a very hard word to type, but it can be called little else – it’s been in my thoughts night and day.  Most every moment with my kids, particularly my daughter, I think about the utter, utter shock Christina Taylor Green’s parents must be feeling.  The remorse of the neighbor who lovingly brought the young girl to the event: hard to fathom.  The intensity of the hell Jared Loughner’s parents must be in right now: impossible to imagine. The remorse, trauma, grief, horror, and shock reverberates out through Tucson and the Southwest and into the nation, even the world.

Also the anger. The recriminations. The opportunism. The urgent analysis. All nearly instantaneously, days before the families of the victims were even capable of conceptualizing funeral arrangements.  Why could such a thing happen?! How?! And how can it be prevented? Or worse, can such a thing be prevented?  All this, despite the appalling truth that horrors like this are more than annual occurances, have been in this country for a very long time. There’s a nonpartisan consensus on a few things, though: stigma must be removed from mental health disorders, resources must be in place to help.  (The “mental health parity” provisions in the Health Reform Act  was designed, among other things, to do just that; many in mental health professions think they didn’t go far enough.) Less completely unanimous, but very hard to argue against right now, is this: high-capacity, semi-automatic pistols such as the one used in the massacre cannot, must not be a Sportsman’s Warehouse away from the mentally ill.

Beyond these two universals,  everything splinters very fast. Will any credible causal link can be made between the shrill, far too often martial tenor of our national political discourse right now and the very, very ill mind of Jared Loughner? His MySpace “reading list” looks like  the pile that would be left on the floor after several library book carts crashed into one another.  His clearest motive was to cause death and mayhem, and the search for politically coherence behind that feels like earnest but doomed tea leaf-reading.

Which is not to say that I’m not disturbed by the likenesses, in his rants, to the “sovereign citizen” rhetoric.  But I care less about the provability of a particualr causal link than I do about what we as a people choose to do at this point, in these days and weeks that we’re riveted on the subject. Tea leaf-reading, as astrology or palm-reading or any other ordered form of divination, seems to me most useful as an opportunity to discover what’s actually present, rather than what’s to come. To me, it’s a Rorschach test.  So when the national attention turned so rapidly – mine, included, initially – to the violent nature of so much of public discourse right now, we learned something. It’s on our minds. Irrespective of its causal influence in Tucson, Tucson has given us the excuse we need to stay on this issue until we get somewhere new with it. Violent discourse from high profile, influential figures in our civic life is very alarming to a lot of us ordinary citizens, and we want it to change.

The problem is, of course, that by “we want it to change,” most of us are actually thinking “we want others to change.” I’ve only been in my own skin – white, middle class my whole life, in between mannish and womanish my whole life, etc. – so it is very challenging to try to see anything I see from a different vantage point.  It’s not for lack of trying.

I’ve had motivation to see the world from another’s vantage point all my life (typical Libra!).  But I think I tried the hardest when I was a graduate student instructor at the University of Minnesota, teaching undergraduate writing, American Studies, and Women’s Studies classes.  You can’t really teach effectively if you can’t – even if just for a moment – inhabit the minds of the students in your classes. You have to be capable of imagining the subject matter from their vantage point, so that you may build the most effective handrails and pave the surest path for their journey from wherever they are to wherever you’d like them to try to get to.

This can be very challenging. I was teaching a composition class during the quincentennial of Columbus’ fateful stumbling into the Americas. In Minneapolis, urban home of the American Indian Movement, the quincentennial was a big deal. The Walker Art Center had an exhibit  by various artists reflecting on the quintcentennial, and I had asked the students to go look at it and write up a  review. As preparation, we explored the quincentennial from various writerly vantage points.  Teaching a class that’s required for graduation, in a state school enrolling upwards of 40,000 students, you get to meet a pretty good cross-section of young people. Leastwise, a good cross-section of the folks in the region struggling to get a college education.  The students I met over the course of my six years in grad school ran the gamut, from young men like Jared Loughner to young men like Daniel Hernandez.

An exchange with one young man at that time stays with me still. In a talk sketching out the historical context  of the quintcentennial, I made reference to the “decimation” of the native peoples in the Americas.

“What’s ‘decimation’ mean?” asked the student.

I can’t say much now to describe him, only that he was an earnest, if not hugely motivated, 18- to 20-year-old white midwesterner. Given the school, he very well could have been the first generation in his family to attend college; if he was like a typical undergrad there, their income was average, at most.

“’Decimation’ means literally reduced by a factor of ten, from the Latin root ‘deca.’ So the native populations before Columbus were one thing; after, only 10 percent of the original population was left.”

I can’t say what the other students in the class were doing or thinking at the time. Some probably knew the word, others were getting the hazy connotation focused into a denotation.

“How do you know?” the student asked.

“What? What the word means? It’s in the dictionary.” Or some such. I remember first just thinking he was fuzzy on the semantics.

“No, that the population was cut down to ten percent? How do you know? Is there any proof?”

I was a bit stunned. Rush Limbaugh and the neoconservative backlash were on the ascent at the time, beginning to have a measurable impact on discourse in colleges. It was the early 1990s, and educators from coast to coast, mostly in the liberal arts, were engaged in what would become a protracted and incendiary debate over the academy and the canon.  Revisionist readings of American history were just one way the shock waves were being felt.

When I was able to apprehend that he actually questioned that native peoples were decimated, I was able to answer him.

“Actually, yes, there is proof. White people counted the bodies.”  Thank heavens I’d been a teaching assistant in the university’s core American Studies course: I’m not an historian, and would have had little else to say to this question a few years earlier.

I went on. “The field of demography was becoming refined into a science during the first several hundred years of ‘contact.’  Precolonial and postcolonial American demographers were fascinated by taking account of everything: bodies dead from syphilis we brought over, bodies dead from typhoid we brought over, bodies left on battlefields. We have the numbers.”

I don’t recall if there was much more interchange after this. As ever, my intent was to keep all lines of communication as wide open as possible, to educate and inform using verifiable sources and persuasive argumention – modeling the method I was hoping to see in their writing, regardless of point they were setting out make. As an out lesbian in that climate, in front of such a generalist class,  I spent every teaching minute aware that it was as easy for my students to reduce and discredit me as it was for me to reduce and discredit them.   Whole character sketches were made of me and my kind in talk radio and elsewhere – lesbian feminist baby-killin’ witches, takin’ over yer university! – and the tacit daily challenge was to step to the side of that cardboard cutout and find a way to truly communicate.

That exchange and what it represented stuck with me a long time, though. A year  later my mother died; and I lost the part of my spirit that I needed to stay in the academy. A course or two shy of my PhD orals and several draft chapters into my dissertation, I left.  I needed the spirit to do a lot of things (suffer the egos! be prepared to be an itinerant worker! live far from the homeland I loved and that loved me!).  But a big thing I needed spirit for was to engage minds like that young man’s, semester in and semester out.  I couldn’t imagine not putting myself in the mind of that student, so that I could bridge whatever distance there was between what he thought and what I was trying to teach.  And yet doing so took me to places that were very hard for me to tolerate, not intellectually, but emotionally.  How can a white American not believe that the native population of the Americas was decimated by European contact?  Not knowing is one thing, not believing is quite another. The why part is quite tangled – if you’re a student anywhere but Arizona, where ethnic studies is now outlawed, you can spend years trying to making sense of the wherefores of colonialism, beyond the self-evidence of material gain.  The how of colonialisms, external and internal, evident and cloaked, take a good deal of study to make out.  It’s not teal leaf-reading, exactly; more like the kind of illustration where you have to look at it a long time, then suddenly it’s not a young Victorian woman, but an old one.  But that it happened is simply indisputable.

What separated that young man and me was not our race, or perhaps even our class, but a whole host of other things that, had I been less over-sensitive, perhaps simply more able to quarantine my emotional self from my intellectual self, I might have been able to teach more effectively. He, too, and scores of other students like him, might have been able to teach me, too.

We have a lot of work to do right now, all of us.  Work on improving access to mental health services and restricting easy access to assault weapons is an imperative part of that work. But working, from the grassroots up, to change the divisiveness of the public sphere we all create is another.  Even if it can be proved that Loughner never listened to the radio, watched the television, read the news, was aware at all of the rancor swirling around him.  We are, we care, and we can sieze this opportunity.

All of us who are parents learn (usually to our great consternation) that despite what we say to our kids, it’s our actions that they learn from most. How we are, every day, with everyone – loved ones, strangers, antagonists – is what teaches them the most.  I don’t think we’ll find the going easy at all.  And we all of us have relationships in our lives that are irreparable, which no amount of earnest communication from one party will fix. But what I do believe is that there are enough of us who care, deeply enough, about pulling ourselves to a higher plane, along with whoever else we can bring with us. This, out of the deepest respect for the people in Tucson who went out to their neighborhood grocery store to engage in the democratic process last Saturday morning and found their lives changed, or ended, there.  This, that their loss may not be in vain.

8 thoughts on “After Tucson, #2 in a series”

  1. An addendum which didn’t fit in the above, so I include it here, especially since it’s an aspect of the general concept up there that is important, i.e., reciprocity:

    One of my favorite students was a man in his late twenties, a returning student, an airline mechanic and father of two. He was Mormon and spent the better part of each week’s office hours earnestly trying to convert me, after we finished making sense of the strengths and weaknesses of his expository essay writing, upon which he was hugely motivated to improve. He was a hum-dinger, every teacher’s favorite student (if they’ve got a sporting attitude, I suppose), enthusiastically motivated to squeeze every drop of value out of his tuition dollars, since he was old enough to know damn well what a privilege it was to be sitting around, pursuing an education. We had a blast.

    When I quipped about his boundless missionary zeal to a (non-grad student) friend, she said: “You’re perfect for each other!” I was flummoxed, and asked why. “Because you’re trying to convert him, too!” That was the first time I realized that, viewed from a stoop and not the road, I was in the middle a two-way street (to take that further: my favorite image would be 3-D, and we’d be at a big ole intersection, host to way more than two vantage points). Godzilla and the Gila Monster, the ideology episode.

  2. Hugo comes in from his snowy walk home from school.

    What’s Blood Libel? He asks.

    Earth shifts a bit under my feet like when I first saw him in the incubator. A small felled nester shot from a split of sky. How quickly we opened our veins to infuse his blood supply. How fast we would part our flesh for our children. Everyone’s.

    Do you want the technical definition? I ask.

    What is it? Blood libel? Is it blood?

    It’s a term, an old name for an old practice where… (the teenager has materialized) it’s just a mean term to use as a insult to different groups of people. It’s a mean thing to say about Jewish people. It’s a hurtful thing…

    Teenager has crossed her arms over her chest. She looks at me looking at her…another hard explanation. (I love that she gets it. The hardness of making sense)

    It means we should go donate blood. You and I can’t, she says to Hugo. Cause we’re kids. Still. But Mommy and Daddy can.

    In our house giving blood is a common occurrence as we don’t pray. And cannot travel to Haiti. And many a time the teenager has yelled, You can’t solve EVERY problem in the world by donating blood! She’s right.

    But we have it give. We put into the pot. And though it seems none of our individual actions matter – we can’t see them on the faces of the people of AZ – but doing nothing, not talking about it, revising Tom Sawyer is not the answer for us. After a tiny paper cup of lemonade and two tinier cookies later we talk for over an hour about blood libel, college, and Legos Star Wars. It is a collective. We do what we can.

  3. You’re wrong about decimation. It was invented by the roman army. When an army unit had disobeyed an order, the officers walked down the lines and ‘decimated’ the unit, that is, they killed every tenth soldier as a ‘collective’ punishment and deterrent to the rest of them. So ninety percent remained, not ten.
    A very interesting post, though 😀

    • I know that origin of the term, and just didn’t explain it that way back at the time. So a classroomful of University of Minnesota writing students are now wandering around the world thinking the term meant the backwards of it actually does.

      Many think the term actually means “completely eliminated,” which of course it doesn’t, either. At least I had the Latin root part right.

  4. Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange (required freshman reading in college) argues that the Native peoples gave the Europeans syphilis, not vice-versa. (We gave them measles and various poxes, but not syphilis). There’s actually an interesting epidemiological path as syphilis transforms from being the “French pox” in England, to being the “Spanish/Italian pox” in France as it spreads from the original colonizers around Europe. I think (if I remember correctly), Shakespeare even referred to it as such in one of his plays. Crosby’s book was a fascinating read for what it’s worth!

    And I’m greatly enjoying reading your blog, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • See there? Yet another falsehood, spread by marginally competent graduate student instructors. Folks, send your kids to private school!

      Thank you for the correction, and the kindly words re: the blog (factual errors in early American history notwithstanding).

  5. This is an incredibly well thought and well written post – you hit the nail on the head with so much of what we’re all thinking and feeling in the wake of this tragedy. I, too, hope we as a society truly seize this opportunity to change the climate of the public sphere. We are in such desperate need of a shift toward acceptance instead of hate.

    On that note, I’ve been waging a personal battle ever since the Tucson tragedy to help change the discourse around “mental illness” that is rampant, as always, in the wake of something so frightening and terrible. I’ve corresponded with folks from NPR, CNN, countless blogs, etc., and few “get it.” But your insightfulness and own unique world view make me think you probably will. The term “mental illness” is thrown about so easily in regard to folks like Jared Loughner, but the truth is that while he can readily be called a psychopath, an in depth mental health evaluation is required to determine whether or not he also suffers from any “mental illness.” Psychopaths are inherently violent, “mentally ill” people are not (even those experiencing psychosis – psychopath and psychotic are two entirely different beasts). I was desperate to find this view represented in the media, and was encouraged when this appeared on Huffington Post:
    (CNN then finally came out with a similar story from a Columbia professor of psychiatry.)

    As a bipolar lesbian mom, I fight stigma every single day on this front. And, yes, my quotes around “mental illness” are intentional – feel free to check out my blog (in particular my About Me) for more on that. Suffice it to say, I go one step beyond differentiating who is and who is not “mentally ill,” and question the rampant diagnosis of “mental illness” altogether. It’s an uphill battle to say the least!

    Thanks for your compelling posts.

    • And thank you for helping (a) focus our understanding of this more carefully (I stand to learn a LOT), and (b) directing us to the HuffPo piece and your own blog for more.

      All uphill battles — whether to establish a culture of compassion or to educate, demystify, destigmatize, and enlighten around the life and health of the mind and spirit — go better with many of us pushing/pulling together. Glad to know you.

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