500 posts!

Well, this is the 501st post.

I began writing this blog, now called Unspoken Politics, on March 30, 2012. Since then, the blog has averaged two posts a week.

Number of posts by year

2012: 33
2013: 152
2014: 242
2015: 57
2016: 18 (so far)

Moving to a four-year university has reduced the flow of new content- not necessarily because I have less time, more that my work now includes a lot more writing that is similar to this blog. Anyways, this is a welcome milestone, and I hope the next year has a noticeable increase in traffic and wider exposure.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

2014 in review

 

Thanks to all who have read some part of this blog in 2014. Though this isn’t a blockbuster website, traffic did quadruple from 2013, which itself quadrupled from 2012. There is now a fairly active Twitter account tied to the blog (@MackayUnspoken), and almost 300 people subscribe through WordPress.

More content in 2015. There’s still chaos in central Africa, eastern Ukraine, and the Rohingya areas of Myanmar. Mass protests have stalled in Hong Kong, while radical left-wing party are on the brink of seizing power in Greece and Spain. We still live in an age of austerity, growing inequity, and environmental disaster. There is so much more to write about, because so much lies beyond the scope of cable news and social media. Immense problems need radical solutions.

Take care, looking forward to all this.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,100 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Pretty fireworks, and this journey is done

Celebration of Light fireworks show. Vancouver, June 30. GIF by Andrew Mackay
Celebration of Light fireworks show. Vancouver, June 30.
GIF by Andrew Mackay

The trip is over, and I have come back to the United States. Here’s a gif I made of the epic Celebration of Light fireworks competition that Vancouver has each summer.

Now, another stranger

Panorama of mountains west of Mount Whistler, British Columbia.
Panorama of mountains west of Mount Whistler, British Columbia.

By the way, you can click on any of these travel photos to see the big version. These are all huge pictures, you just have to keep them to a certain width to fit within the blog template.

Coming back into civilization, it is impressive how quickly you go from having some sense of familiarity with strangers to gaining complete detachment and anonymity. For most of this trip, there has been only one major road, with junctions often hundreds of miles apart. Thus you may pass a car or some cyclists, or they may pass you. At some point down the line, you will see them again. There is a sense of shared journey even if you don’t know anything beyond their car and the origin of their license plates (I played the game, and ended up with 34 US states and nine Canadian provinces).

Whistler is a giant tourist facility, even in summer. Besides mountain bikers and upscale shopping types, huge summer programs ferry blue-hatted upper-middle class children to the chair lifts and from activity to activity. This is the familiar feeling: to be lost amidst a large crowd going a million different directions. Even at home in the Bay Area, this is the environment I live in. At some point there are too many people and too many agendas and destinations. It feels odd to come from rural British Columbia and enter the system as a temporary outsider. No wonder people have culture shock when they move to a city, or from a rural environment to a developed country.

Black Tusk, Coast Mountains, British Columbia.
Black Tusk, Coast Mountains, British Columbia.

The natural scenery is now behind me, to be replaced tomorrow with the spectacle of the Vancouver Celebration of Light.

Colossus walks

Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia. Taken by Steven Mackay
Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia.
Taken by Steven Mackay

The Wood Bison is enormous. It’s a subspecies of the American bison, which gringos from Europe called buffalo. They are rather widespread in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, but not so much in British Columbia. Unfortunately, a large portion of the population are killed each year in collisions with cars. Not surprised, as this guy was spotted walking down the road- the white at the bottom is the partition between the road and the gravel side.

What you learn from several days in rural B.C. is that driving at night is a horrible idea. Besides the windy roads and frequent rain, there is also forest fire smoke reducing visibility, and several huge animals wandering about that you do not want to get in an accident with. Besides bison, there are stone sheep, caribou, moose, and both black and Grizzly bears. For various reasons, they all tend to congregate on or near roads.

As a tourist you often have the luxury of traveling in the day and hunkering in for the night. Those that by necessity travel during the night have much danger to consider.

An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Steven Mackay
An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Steven Mackay

Moose are big dudes. This male was full-size and very intimidating when he wanted to be. This was taken with a very long lens- he is in the rear of a lake next to the Alaska Highway. The travelers next to us said he had been in the same place the day before. With a look like that, he was clearly too powerful to worry about humans with cameras.

Compared to most modern freeways, the Alaska Highway is still very much in wild country. If not purely wild, it is wild-adjacent. Even though now it is a modern, fully-paved artery for business and tourism, no effort is needed to see vast wilderness and very little to see iconic animals of the Canadian West.

British Columbia, in all its forms

Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska. Photo taken by Andrew Mackay
Panorama of Salmon Glacier; Hyder, Alaska.
Photo taken by Andrew Mackay

Western British Columbia is some of the roughest country in North America. Any traveler has to drive east into the main road system, as there is no road down the coast to Vancouver. That means little internet, no cell service, and towns that challenge an urban or suburban dweller’s idea of scale.

Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Whirlpool Canyon, British Columbia. two rock formations have been tilted over time.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Stewart, B.C., for instance, is the sister town of Hyder, Alaska. The latter is the only SE Alaskan town you can reach by road, and has a population of about 85. Stewart is immense in comparison, at just under 500.

Despite that, the almost-wilderness of the west is much preferred to the oil and gas boomtowns in Alberta and northeastern B.C. While both sport many small towns, the coast has been settled longer. Stewart is in mining country, and is surrounded by historic buildings. A place like Fort Nelson or Grade Prairie has no history, they were built yesterday. Anything cultural is superior in these settled towns, as businesses and traditions have had generations to germinate and thrive. Notably the food. Oil country is a mix of fast food, bar food, and the occasional high-minded restaurant that seems unsure of its clientele or purpose. Stewart has the superb Bitter Creek Cafe, which would gel with upper-tier San Francisco eateries in terms of decor and quality. Before that, the Bell 2 Lodge on the way south from Watson Lake, Yukon has an incredible restaurant that understood the beauty of a butternut squash puree not nuked by heavy cream. If my hometown had one excellent restaurant for every 500 people, I would be ecstatic.

Boya Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
Boya Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

One trip, two provinces, two Canadian territories, and two U.S. states. Today I saw my first traffic light in six days, and 980 miles. What you learn about any rural community is that it’s not about size, but trajectory. Some energy boomtowns are growing so fast that you will routinely see 18-wheelers hauling entire prefabricated houses. Often the largest settlement is the worker’s camp just off the highway, rather than any established towns. Others are in sharp decline, on their way to ghost town status. There were people, once, but they have died or moved on to better and brighter opportunities.

Most, however, lie on the chain that ties ascendency to decay. They exist. In time, many mining communities like Anyox fell apart, their economies stalled and the sky came crashing down. Rule of thumb dictates that given time, what towns do survive will eventually become historic. Places like Stewart get a sort of interest added each year. Just like mass-produced crap from the 50s gain value in part because much of what was originally made was thrown away, th

West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Andrew Mackay
West of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Andrew Mackay

Like many long road trips, the path reveals contrasts. Look west, and it’s the unaccessible coastal range of B.C., look east and there is a massive set of power lines been constructed across the province to assist with energy extraction. Look south, it’s the vibrant and diverse city of Vancouver and its metropolitan area. Look north, and witness a series of First Nation communities that still deal with a great deal of inequity and isolation.

The northwest of the U.S. and Canada are a great experience, and there is some value in driving a circle route, rather than cutting across the provinces between Jasper and Vancouver. Beauty can often come from a view at a remote turnout. It doesn’t always show up in a guidebook.

Edit: Per the comment posted, I will reformulate what I said about Nelson and Prairie. Part of history is the present moment. What both communities have right now is sprawl and a whole town geared towards business executives, with tourists as a distant afterthought. This is unfortunate, as one is the main city before the Alaska Highway, and another is on the Highway itself. In terms of poorly-planned sprawl and hostility to pedestrians, it reminds me much of interior California, or the main freeways going through the American South.

Perhaps these communities will regain a sense of heritage that isn’t drowned in giant rigs and clearcutting. One would hope they are not consumed by the oil boom, and their scenery and appeal is not irrevocably harmed. Though Grande Prairie is quite a bit older than Stewart, no part of it would give you that idea. It’s one thing to have no history and be a sprawltastic community, it’s another to have history but be indistinguishable from one that does not.

A trip through two states, two provinces, and two territories

Spahats Falls, Wells Gray Provincial Park Taken by Andrew Mackay
Spahats Falls, Wells Gray Provincial Park
Taken by Andrew Mackay

In an ambitious journey, the past four days has seen my dad and I head from Seattle to Grande Prairie, Alberta. That’s about 800 miles, not including detours. Still to come are northern British Columbia, including Fort Liard in the Northwestern Territories and Watson Lake in the Yukon. Coming down on the western coast of BC, we will enter Alaska at the tiny ghost town of Hyder (which is for all practical purposes a Canadian town), and end up in Vancouver on the 30th.

While the first two days were gorgeous, including the pictured falls at Wells Gray north of Kamloops, B.C., and the narrowest point on the Fraser River at Hell’s Gate, since then it has been rather bleak. Western Canada is facing huge forest fires all, with hundreds added in the past couple days. All the smoke made the usually great views from Jasper not worth much, and it has been getting worse as we’ve worked out way north on the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies.

We hope to eventually get past the fires and return to clear weather. I have gotten used to the driving conditions of rural Canada, and find it if anything rather exciting.

Photos will continue to trickle in. I will be combining my iPhone 5S photos (like the pictured one, shot using the panoramic feature), and my dad’s work on a DLSR camera that takes rubbish pictures whenever I try to use it.

There is no normal

It’s common to hear those living with a mental illness to refer to normalcy. They may even wish to be normal. In my teens I was part of that camp; bipolar disorder was isolating, isolation being the common denominator of all mental conditions.

But then, the thought drums at the back of your skull. It grows until you have to face it – what on earth is ‘normal’? What are its characteristics, and why have I aspired to be it?

Really, when people have some kind of isolating characteristic, they aspire towards a statistical concept. Normal is the mean, or the median. It’s not a real, tangible thing. It’s like the all-American family with their 2.4 children. The 2.4 can’t be applied to a single, ‘normal’ family. And all these normal, average metrics are just a combination of variation, and include extremes. 2.4 is averaged from many zeroes, along with reality-show families with two dozen kids.

In the end, I am normal. I’m a part of the average, with a lot of people like me and a bunch that are totally different. Dysfunction and function exist in a complicated relationship – what is weird or immoral varies over space and time. Ask the next ten people you talk to if they can define what ‘normal’ is to them. You’ll get >1 ideas from that sample.

Part of ending the pain of isolation is to end self-isolation- in which people define themselves as outside certain boundaries and barriers. These barriers can be real and tangible, but they are also self-assigned. Even if certain legal and economic obstacles are removed in the struggle for racial equality, people must emerge from those feelings of inferiority or superiority that came with those policies. Just because those with mental illnesses don’t get locked up for decades at a time that often doesn’t mean the separation ceases to exist.