Friday, August 31, 2007

Electronic Friendship

This morning I took two friends to the airport, to see them off. They'd been visiting us since last Friday, and I was still heart-sick to see them go. We actually had several other people over as well, but these two were the last to leave; and now I'm all alone again.

I have never been good at making friends. In fact, I've been so bad at it that I've wondered at times if I'm damaged somehow, if perhaps I have some subtle form of autism or something that prevents me from interacting normally even with people I like and want to get to know. The past couple of years have been something of a miracle for me, then, because I've made these friends, and they are real and dear to me. There are a lot of factors that made this possible, but the key ingredient, I believe, was World of Warcraft.

I played WoW from around January of 2005 until about a month ago. Unlike many people, the entire time I played, I hung with the same group of people. They started out as a group of strangers, only a couple of whom I knew and those only because my husband played EQ with them years ago. But over the course of time, I managed to get involved in the lives of people I never knew before. I joke sometimes that I don't have a social life outside of a computer, but the truth is, I've never really had a social life before at all. Now, with my fibro pain and fatigue dragging on me on top of my basic shy and unfriendly nature, I think I would be entirely alone were it not for the universe that rests at my fingertips here.

Unfortunately, for many of the people who played WoW from the beginning, the game is growing old and stale. A lot of people have quit playing just because they're so bored, and my friends have all tended in that direction, with an added dose of jobs and school and marriages preventing them from spending time online. So everyone quit, some earlier this year and some later, but it was a cumulative effect, and by the beginning of August the guild was disbanded and people's accounts were canceled. And I was all alone again. So, my husband and I invited anyone with vacation time to spend it at our house.

Its the strangest thing, meeting someone for the first time when you've been good friends for years. After I got over the shock of looking at people straight on, the strangest thing was figuring out what name to say. Because everyone there, except for Rob's wife AJ, who never played WoW with us but was welcome anyway, had at least two names. For some people it was easy: Ted, for example, has always been Ted, through multiple character names and since before WoW existed. Jard, on the other hand, has always been Jard, and not Don, because he doesn't even look like a Don and no one even knew that was his real name for the longest time.

Almost everyone called me by my real name, also, because when we all switched servers in the beginning of 2006, I had to change my character name and no one liked typing the new one, so the old one stuck for a while and then people just started calling me whatever they wanted. The only exception was Traffa, who called me Bottle, which hasn't been my character name in a year and a half, but I kept calling him Traffa and not Raymond, so I guess it's fair.

It was a wonderful time, and now they're gone again, and I don't know what I'm going to do. Muddle along as usual, I guess. These people live all over the country, so I think the only thing to hope for is that another interesting MMO comes out soon, so I can once again meet people in a world where the barriers to interaction are low enough for me to cross.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Science Fiction and the Other

I've been reading Pam's House Blend off and on the past week or so, and it's been making me think. Her section on hair styles, specifically the implications of straightening or not straightening your hair if you have African hair, is particularly fascinating. Apparently there are people in the world who make a moral distinction between straight and curly hair. This shocks me a little bit. The idea that respectable, thinking people still care about race, still categorize people based on skin tone is almost unbelievable.

Believe it or not, it wasn't clear to me until recently just how prevalent racism still is. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, about an hour out of Seattle, and although my parents in many ways are religious nuts, the only categorizing I ever heard either of them engage in was Christian v. non-Christian, and even then non-Christians weren't worth less as people, they were the focus of Christ's love. I used to think that this attitude was pretty much normal for educated, intelligent people. I was aware that in parts of the country there were still people who thought African-Americans were stupid and lazy, but I assumed that no one took these people seriously, because they were obviously cracked.

Some of this, I think, was the area I grew up in. There wasn't the residue of hate from ages of slavery to deal with, and the racial divisions were based on less vitriolic things. Instead of there being this line drawn between white and black, there were many lines, most of which were really blurry, between white, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Thai, Native of infinite varieties, etc. So the biggest historical racial inequity was the genocide of the Natives, and even that was mostly accidental, through the introduction of diseases white settlers didn't realize they were carrying and so on. I remember being taught in school the story of the Whitmans, missionaries who began a mission in western Washington and ended up slaughtered after the tribe they were supposed to be saving ended up mostly dead from measles, as a parable of European arrogance and stupidity. I don't know why it was easier to demonize white missionaries than white slave owners, but it was.

The other major influence on my thinking about race, however, was my love of science fiction. By the age of 16, I read almost every science fiction book in my local library, and often read an author's entire canon by ordering books from the county library system. I was fortunate that the county I lived in included Seattle, which meant a ton of money for artsy things like libraries. A lot of it is a blur by now, but I remember at one point, I must have been 12 or so, reading a short story in this huge grey book full of great short stories from the whole history of science fiction. This particular story was written in the 70s sometime, I think, as a reflection on the civil rights movement. It was very simple: aliens had made contact with Earth and wanted to see how regular people lived, so they went out to restaurants and things. I believe these aliens were tall and blue and quiet. The story was told from the point of view of a waitress at a restaurant one of these aliens visited, basically speculating on what he felt and how he reacted to the people he met treating him with disgust. The message was, what's so special about us that we feel we have some right to treat them as though they're dangerous and untrustworthy and evil?

It's difficult to read science fiction for years and still hold onto us v. them thinking. The whole genre explores the idea of the Other and the Different and the Strange, seeking to know what these things are like. And after all, to know is to love, is to hate, is to be, is to eat... just ask Mr. Heinlein.

Which is why it's so striking to me to live now in St Louis, which claims to be the Midwest but really looks like the South to me in many ways. People here who are educated and smart and liberal still believe that black people are fundamentally different than white people. It's not correct to claim that black people are stupid or lazy or can't swim or are prone to violence, not really, but they are still an Other group. Its ridiculous. It really bothers me that not only can I not say that I wish I had a classical North African bone structure so that I could shave my head and still look beautiful, people who actually have North African bone structure still feel pressured to imitate 'white' hairstyles so that they're socially acceptable. I wish I could do something to change things.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

August 21

I often have trouble tracking time. I lose any sense of what time it is, or what day it is, along with my ability to tell the difference between what I've done recently and what I've thought about doing but haven't actually done. I often find myself panicking because I don't know whether my medical appointment is tomorrow or next week or next month, and on occasion I miss appointments because I forget that I haven't already gone, or I forget that they're not next week, or I forget about them entirely. In short, I am not much for anniversaries.

Which is why it's rather odd that I'm writing this today, considering that it's the 15th anniversary of the killings at Ruby Ridge. I think that perhaps these events are not common knowledge among the general population, so here's a summary. The Weaver family were religious nuts who believed, among other things, that the world was about to end in a gory Apocalypse, so they moved to a cabin in northern Idaho to separate themselves from the sinful world etc. They had a lot of guns and may or may not have been white supremecists. Regardless, they didn't hurt anybody. Randy Weaver was entrapped by an undercover cop into selling the guy two sawed off shotguns that may or may not have been illegal, and then was given the wrong court date to show up for a hearing.

When he missed the date, local law enforcement called in the FBI and the National Guard and something like 400 people descended on the Weaver's property. There was a standoff that lasted for something like two weeks, during which the government shot dead Sammy Weaver, age 14, in the back as he was running away and Vicki Weaver, while she was standing in the doorway of her house holding her infant daughter. Eventually it all went to court, Randy Weaver was convicted of not showing up for his court date, several FBI agents were reprimanded, and the surviving Weaver children got $1 million each on out of court settlements.

The reason I bring this up is the recent conviction of Jose Padilla for conspiracy to murder etc. Mr. Padilla in many ways is in a situation similar to the Weavers: he held beliefs that anyone would consider to be antisocial, but did not hurt anyone; he practiced his religion in an unconventionally serious way that removed him from regular society; the government took advantage of his position outside mainstream society to treat him as someone without the rights of an American citizen; he is permanently damaged.

There is no doubt that he was held without charge for years and treated in an inhumane manner. The more I learn about the techniques used on him, the more I am convinced that they constitute one of the most horrible torture systems known to man. Vicki Weaver may in some sense be less lucky than Mr. Padilla, but I am not so sure. There are fates worse than death, and the psychiatrist who interviewed Mr. Padilla for the defense thought that he may have been introduced to such a fate. Many people are, understandably, upset about this.

What puzzles me is the reaction, evident in this piece from Firedoglake as well as many other places in the 'liberal blogosphere', that says that because the government is currently Republican-controlled, in order to prevent this kind of thing happening in the future we ought to work very hard to elect Democrats. This kind of innocence about how power works reminds me of myself, when I was very young. I used to think that political upheaval would be useful; I even campaigned for a Libertarian one year in the belief that many of the problems with modern politics stem from the two-party system. And perhaps destabilizing the elite would have some interesting effects.

However, in my cynical old age (and oh, I am old these days) I have come to a different conclusion. Power is corrupting. This is a very simple idea that most people will agree with, but it's painful to follow it to the end. No matter how honorable your candidate for Congress is, in the end, electing new people to the same system of power will have zero effect on the level of corruption in the system. Maybe one person will hold onto their honor, maybe another will continue to believe in their ideals, but in the aggregate there will be no long-term positive effect of introducing new blood. It will only decay again into the same patterns, the patterns dictated by the system.

The only solution is to burn the system down and start again from the beginning.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Little Story about Occupation

Suppose for a minute that you're living in an anarchist society, with no central governing authority. You have your family and hangers-on in a compound with barbed wire and dogs and so on, and then on down the street there are other people in their compounds and generally things are moderately peaceful because this is an old anarchy and people have realized that starting fights is a dumb idea when the other person is as heavily armed as you are. Most fights, in fact, are inside of compounds, which are mostly run in an autocratic manner by the head of household, when some youngling decides they don't want to obey anymore.

Now, imagine that you hear of a compound a ways away from yours, small and poor and run by a real asshole. And the rumor is, this guy is a real piece of work, abusing everyone he can get his paws on, from his own children to the beggars outside the back door of his kitchen. This guy is so bad that he rapes his daughters, castrates his servants' children, tortures his wives and slices the toes off his nieces and nephews. Being a wise, kind and good anarchist, this bothers you, and on top of that you think this guy might secretly support your worst enemy.

So you take your homies and go down the road a ways, climb their wall and drag their leader from his bed and put him up against the wall and shoot him. His kids and wives and servants are just as mean and shifty as he is, but you figure you really shouldn't shoot them because it wasn't their fault their leader was an asshole, and anyway you want to put them to work, for you. Because after all, someone has to pay for their liberation.

What you didn't count on was the fact that the old geezer kept control by turning everyone in his household against each other, which makes people real hostile once the controlling force is gone. So they fight amongst each other, and things get nasty and you kill a great number of them, feeling guilty all the while. But somehow killing more people never makes the rest of them like each other any better, and while they'll act properly cowed in front of you as soon as you turn your back they're at it again, and on top of that the neighbors are all really pissed off at you for turning the view from their bedroom windows into a messy war zone. You've got yourself into a position where you can't stay; it's expensive and not working and making everyone mad at you and anyway, being wise and kind and good, you don't really want to kill everyone in the house, which is what its going to take to make them stop fighting. You also can't leave; these people demonstrably will kill each other if you do, and you can't in good conscience allow it; anyway if you did allow it your reputation would suffer miserably and you'd lose a lot of money in all your other endeavours. You're stuck.

So lets back up. Instead of breaking into this place and shooting it up, you stand outside it, with lots of guns and a bullhorn. And you announce, everyone in this situation that we find so horrible: if you'd like to leave and become a part of our peaceful and prosperous commune, come along and commit to being peaceful and prosperous and we here with our guns will make sure you get out OK. We'll escort you back to our place and get you settled in, but be warned- if you fight among yourselves or with us, we'll kick you back out again.

Once you announce this, and all of your enemy's people have abandoned him, the situation still isn't perfect. But you've gained a collection of very grateful and enthusiastic new commune members, and your enemy has lost his infrastructure base, and you're not pouring your money into buying more guns to kill more people way down the street somewhere. Your liberal bleeding heart is satisfied and you haven't actually had to kill anyone, let alone get stuck in a situation you can't improve and can't end and can't leave.

This is why people who say we should stay in Iraq for the sake of the children, like this guy, quoting Ambassador Crocker (via Digby):
"How will we feel if the movie doesn't stop, even though we've pressed the 'stop' button? What if the movie just goes on? And gets even uglier? And even uglier after that? .... We're talking here about the possibility of thousands of deaths, about religious cleansing operations, we're talking here about the possibility that there could be no Sunnis left in Baghdad because they'll all have been murdered, driven out or expelled. Is this what we want? And who will explain that to Americans?"
are totally wrong. I guess my point is, we can't stop ethnic cleansing if a community is determined enough to want it in the first place. All we can do is try our best to get people out of the way of the beast. Occupation is a very bad way to accomplish this; so bad, that I don't think it will even allow us to accomplish anything.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Crow

If I do get a tattoo of a bird (which is to say, if the VA ever gets me the back pay they owe me, the bastards), this is what it would look like.


Via Pam's House Blend, I found this 60 Minutes special, about homosexuality and gender. The most interesting clip I think is the one on the twins Adam and Jared, that claims that one of these 9-year old boys has a problem with his gender. The interviewer asks, if you were to tell a stranger what kind of person you are, what would you say? and Adam answers, "I would say.... I'm like.. a girl." and shrugs. It's evident that he's been told by adults in his life that he should think about himself in a certain way. The video includes a clip of his mother mentioning, with a very stressed affect, that she first noticed that something was 'different' when her son was 18 months old and he asked for Barbie dolls instead of GI Joe dolls. Other evidence that Adam has a problem: he plays with Neopets, stuffed animals, and likes pink and purple. Jared, on the other hand, is suitably male with firetrucks and toy soldiers and a Marines poster.

Now, its possible that this kid really is a homosexual and that his mother really did know that when he was 18 months old. I guess its a sign of social progress when a mother who suspects that her son is a homosexual buys him stuffed horses and Barbies instead of freaking out and beating him bloody, no matter how distressed she might be. I can't help but think that confining children to strict gender roles from very early ages isn't be all that beneficial, though. It's not as though a preference for firetrucks is something that is genetically male, or a preference for pink and purple is something that is genetically female. Firetrucks have only been around for 100 years or so, and back in the day purple was the color of privilege, more often worn by men than women. Forcing kids to think that they're stuck in the wrong body because of a "nontraditional" toy preference is something that comes very close to abuse, in my opinion.

Kids at play shouldn't have to fight these silly cultural battles. When I was nine, I wanted to be a knight errant. Not because I wanted to be male, but because I wanted to be a hero. I had read a lot of fairy tales, so I knew that knights got to do all the really neat stuff, like travel and be champion fighters and rescue people and make hugely important decisions about good and evil and so on. I did have some vague desire to be a princess as well, but my favorite princesses were the ones who rebelled against their pampered life, ran away dressed up as boys and became knights. My father made my brother and me swords out of wood scraps spray painted silver, and my mother made us stick horses out of broom handles and felt, and we ran around the yard hitting each other and no one ever told me that the joy I took in playing meant I was a lesbian.

Which is probably a good thing, because if I couldn't be a knight, what I wanted most was to be a dragon. Dragons had all the positives of knights- they were strong and wise, they featured prominently in interesting adventures, they sometimes even had magical powers- and on top of that, they could fly. Flight has always fascinated me, the pure freedom of it. When I gave up on being a dragon, because after all dragons are completely imaginary in a way that knights and princesses aren't, I decided that I wanted to be a bird. I daydreamed about it, about being small and light and flying over the tops of everything, able to go anywhere and see anything. I even went to the library and checked out those topical illustrated encyclopedias they make for children, to learn about flight and birds' skeletal structure and muscle systems and feathers. For a while I was mildly obsessed.

I managed to make it to adulthood without thinking that I'm a bird, though. I can't honestly say I love my body, but that probably has more to do with the relentless grinding pain and defeating exhaustion I've carried for the past four years than with any sort of body dysmorphia. I did get a tattoo of a dragon on my hip as soon as I turned 18, and I've been considering getting a tattoo of a crow if I ever have the money for it. It took me longer to give up on my dream of being a knight; I joined the Army with the intent of becoming a warrior, and there is still a part of me that hungers for it in spite of everything. I do think I'm lucky to have had parents who encouraged me to be whatever I could dream of instead of telling me who I was. It makes me sad for poor Adam, that there are no adults in his life willing to accept that he can be gentle and creative and still find his own way as the person he is.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Preservation of Human Habitat

From The Nature of Economies, by Jane Jacobs:

Think about habitats people have dwelled in and altered but haven't destroyed. Ask yourself, 'Why haven't they?' After all, people could have destroyed them...

And yet in most places, most of the time, people have managed to avoid destroying their habitats, including many they've occupied long and continuously. What could possibly have restrained our species? Something did, or else much of the earth, long, long since, would have been laid waste, then laid waste again as fast as it recovered- when it did recover. I'm speculating that our evolutionary endowments, like those of the great cats, elephants, bonobos, chimps, and others, must include traits that check habitat destruction.

Jacobs lists several possible human traits that could contribute to our failure to destroy the world (so far), including "the capacity for aesthetic appreciation," "fear of retribution for transgression" which she says covers both primitive superstition and modern scientific fear, and the propensity to engage in alternate occupations that don't affect the environment, such as talking or having recreational sex - she compares us to bonobos and chimps with their habit for sitting around grooming socially instead of eating everything in sight. She also includes "our inborn capacity to tinker and contrive" which I am less persuaded by. If human tinkering has in some cases relieved stress on the environment, it has certainly increased environmental stress in as many or more situations.

It's an interesting idea, that humans may in some ways be evolutionarily predisposed not to destroy environments when we have so much evidence that in fact, humans destroy environments. I only have to look out my back window and see the little rabbit that lives in my neighborhood making its way from one perfectly manicured lawn to another, for as far as the eye can see, and imagine the prairie that rabbit ought to be living in to understand that. And yet... the world is not a barren wasteland, devoid of all but cockroaches. Humanity certainly has the power to make the world a wasteland, or worse: with the nuclear weapons the United States owns, we could reduce the Earth from a planet to a large and mobile asteroid belt. And we haven't, yet. Obviously there are reasons why, and Jacobs has started me thinking about the idea, and what possible characteristics might be humanity's salvation here.

An ability to engage in long-term thinking seems to me to be right up there with aesthetic appreciation for why we don't destroy our own habitats. Even societies whose habitat modification only extends to domestication of herd animals know that allowing your sheep to eat every damn piece of grass in the field means next year you won't have any sheep. Long-term thinking plus basic self-interest means stewardship of the land, not raping it. But on the other hand, things don't always work out that way; Jacobs gives the example of cod fishing in Newfoundland, where scarceness of cod drove cod prices up, inciting cod fishermen to actually invest in cod-catching boats and such, leading to complete devastation of the ocean in that area in the early 1990s.

Earlier today a post I read on Balloon Juice made me consider another human quality that might act to preserve the environment. It was this post, comment #17, and it says, speculating on possible reasons for the invasion of Iraq, "It is a fairly safe assumption that they didn’t give a fuck about the various factions in Iraq. Some days I even doubt they care all that much about the oil and suspect they were just in a mood to trash a country. From a safe distance of course."

Whatever you think about the war, and whether it was begun over oil or family pride or foolish, misplaced idealism, consider that no one would read that and think, "But it's just not possible for someone to want to trash a country for no reason! People don't like to destroy things unless they really have to! Violence is something that you can only force into human discourse as a means to a good end!" Fact is, people do in fact like to destroy things, particularly other human things. And by things I mean people. Human history can be pretty accurately described as a series of violent atrocities committed by one group of humans on another, for a multitude of reasons, for as far back as we have records. It is still, in this enlightened age, somewhat counter-cultural to posit that war may be inherently evil.

The human desire to kill and/or disenfranchise large groups of other humans may not be a shoo-in for a characteristic that strongly defends the environment. War does have a nasty tendency to damage the air, water and land as well as those living on it. However, as Malthus said so long ago, war is a key check on human population, along with disease and 'immorality' like homosexuality and contraception. The bloodiness of the 20th century has surely reduced world population by large amounts. Anything that curbs human population growth, I would think, has some benefit to the rest of the environment.

Writing this, I am aware that it sounds morbid and cold, and it is. I am not even sure if its true or useful to view the situation this way. Fortunately, I'm not someone who has to worry about whether what I say is true or useful before I think out loud- or in type. Besides, I'm certainly not the first person who has ventured this opinion.

There will come soft rain and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire.

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly.

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

- Sara Teasdale, 1922