Revisiting David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries

During the holiday season I have a tendency to be the scrooge at every gathering of kindred spirits. I don’t necessarily celebrate any one of the holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or even Festivus. In fact, I view the entire affair with a sharpened cynicism. I stand ready to dish out harsh rebuttals to every aspect of the season. Gift giving? Just a scheme that preys on the wallets of our consumer culture and creates an abundance of unnecessary pressure and stress. Christmas trees? Came from the Pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and were once banned (along with the entire holiday) by the Puritans in the 1600s. Mistletoe? It’s actually a somewhat parasitic plant that preys on trees. Some varieties are even poisonous to you and your pets. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that my favorite moment of every holiday season is revisiting David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.

For those who have been fortunate enough to stumble upon this staggering work of comic holiday genius, you’ll know exactly why I love it. Sedaris affirms the Grinch in each of us. The story, first appearing on NPR’s Morning Edition thirteen years ago and later in Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice, chronicles his experience working as one of Santa’s little helpers in Macy’s Santaland in New York City. His dry wit and knack for satire captures the absurdities of Christmas while filtering out almost every ounce of obnoxious and feigned holiday cheer.

There is the New Jersey man who shouts to Santa, “I WANT A BROAD WITH BIG TITS” while his “small-breasted wife” looks on. Or the woman who instructs her son to pee on fake snow. Or the other woman who requests a ‘traditional’ Santa and is sent by Blisters (Sedaris’ elf name) to Jerome, the black Santa. And, of course, the bewildered foreigners (from Santaland Diaries):

Often the single adults are foreigners who just happened to be shopping… a Santa Elf leads the way to a house where the confused and exhausted visitor addresses a bearded man in a red suit, and says, “Yes, OK. Today I am good.” He shakes Santa’s hand and runs, shaken, for the back door.
But perhaps the most raucous and potentially offensive story is Sedaris’ eyebrow-raising comparison between Santa and, you guessed it: Satan.

Santa just happens to be an anagram for Satan. Just move the ‘n’ to the end and you’ve gone from a jolly fat man to the epitome of all evil. When Blisters and his elf friend Puff came to this startling realization, they couldn’t help but substitute Satan for Santa when overhearing Macy’s shoppers (from Santaland Diaries):

“What do you think, Michael? Do you think Macy’s has the real Satan?”
“Don’t forget to thank Satan for the Baby Alive he gave you last year.”
“I love Satan.”
“Who doesn’t? Everyone loves Satan.”
You get the idea.

This year, however, I’ve come to the realization that the similarities between Santa Claus and Satan are actually quite eerie and alarming. This is a man who annually makes a ritual of breaking into millions of homes around the world. We should be concerned.

Firstly, consider Santa's home base. The North Pole is a frigid, frozen wasteland over which Santa reigns. From what I understand of the North Pole, Dante apparently had it just right when describing the ninth circle of his Hell in the Inferno. It's also a frigid, frozen wasteland, albeit holding the damned spirits of Earth's worst sinners. In the center of that final circle resides Lucifer himself. Could the North Pole indeed be this ninth circle? If so, Santa would undoubtedly be Satan.

Then, of course, are the peculiar traits Santa possesses that we naively see as lovable quirks. We set out heaps of cookies on Christmas Eve to appease his gluttony and embrace his propensity to give gifts, which in reality only breeds greed in our world's children. Gluttony and Greed- two of the seven deadly sins so far, but we certainly aren't finished. We must not forget that Santa works but one day out of the year. That would be number three: Sloth. Number four, Pride, is undeniable. You can't turn your head in November and December without seeing Santa's proud, plump face. I'm still working out Lust and Anger, but Envy is an easy one. Santa has obviously got it out out for the Judeo-Christian conception of God. Christmas, after all, is supposed to have a whole lot to do with God. Santa, however, falling prey to his immense jealousy of God's all-powerful and all-knowing status, is quickly rising to immortality and simultaneously shoving the Christ out of Christmas. When did anyone but God figure out how to know when you've been good or bad? I think it's becoming frighteningly clear that Satan has hijacked Christmas.

There are, of course, plenty more clues. Santa's red suit is no doubt a reflection of the evil in his heart. And who else but a devil would bewitch reindeer to fly? This December 25th I strongly suggest locking all doors and windows. If you have a fireplace either build a raging fire (though I'm not sure even that can stop Satan) or install a trap to catch that evil, yet jolly and obese man. Help create a safer holiday season for each of us.

Bush's Most Frightening Policy To Date: Domestic Surveillance

I'm frightened now. Fear is building in my bones. An internationally illegal war, torture, affronts on civil liberties via the Patriot Act, domestic failures on every front, tax cuts for the rich, children left behind, New Orleanians left behind, unchecked environmental destruction, investigations into administration officials - all of these failures will haunt the legacy of the Bush Administration. But nothing compares to George W. Bush's latest achievement. From the BBC:
President Bush has revealed he authorised a US intelligence agency to eavesdrop within the United States without court approval.
My own realization of this disturbing development in the war on terror has been burning in my gut since the New York Times revealed the story. I feel like someone has injected a puddle of molten metal into my stomach. This weight is crushing me and the burning alerts me to the magnitude and urgency of this gross affront on civil liberties.

Battles are raging in the Senate this week over the USA Patriot Act. Democrats and a handful of Republicans (including Idaho's Larry Craig) are filibustering the bill, holding out against Bush's heavy rhetoric, which is being echoed by GOP leaders in the Senate. If the Senate fails to vote by Christmas then 16 provisions of the USA Patriot Act, many violating civil liberties, will sunset. But concerns over the Patriot Act, as with every other offense of the Bush Administration and the GOP Congress, now seem lightweight next to domestic spying.

It is still unclear to what scope this executive order is utilized. And that is what is frightening. This domestic surveillance of international phone calls is done without any judicial oversight. The specifics of the program are classified. There is no check on the president's power. Bush suggests, in offense to the basic American values of dissent, that the American people should entrust him to protect us while upholding the law and civil liberties. He claims this executive order will only be utilized against known terrorists. We have, however, no guarantee but his and that is not sufficient.

But Bush's justification for this egregious violation of law and liberty is certainly the most alarming development yet in this new storm clouding Washington. After September 11th Congress granted the President the power to use all necessary force against terrorism. Armed with this act and the second article of the constitution Bush seems prepared to go to any length in his crusade against terrorism. According to the administration, extrajudicial domestic surveillance was implied in the act passed by Congress after September 11th. On Tuesday law professor Greg Maggs told NPR's All Things Considered, clarifying the administration's position, that the 'Use of Force Act' utilized in Afghanistan and Iraq also "supersedes FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]". Louis Fisher, however, told All Things Considered that "it is not appropriate to take from a general statute like the 'Use of Force Act' some implied amendment to an existing statute" like FISA. Fisher adds that "no member of Congress in debating that [Use of Force Act] ever thought of any change in the FISA statute." FISA, for those unfamiliar with the act, created a special court to approve the very type of surveillance that the administration has now undertaken. FISA even includes lawful methods for immediate action. There is simply no reason for the administration to supersede FISA and the only legal manner in which to do so is through amendments in Congress, not a broad executive order based on leaps of law logic. The assumption that this executive order is legal is clearly a stretch.

Using the precedence of this justification Bush can now conceivably take any imaginable action against terrorism, no matter the inherent sacrifice of civil liberties. His power is virtually unlimited and unchecked. VP Dick Cheney unabashedly confirms that. Also on All Things Considered on Tuesday, Cheney was reported as stating his belief that
(quote by NPR reporter, as interpreted from Cheney), "especially in the area of national security, presidential constitutional power should not be impaired at all." If the administration gets its way, the United States presidency will go from being vaguely imperial to clearly tyrannical.

Our only hope is that Congress will stand up to the offensive new load of rhetoric currently being spewed by administration officials. Senators like Arlen Specter and Russ Feingold have already called for hearings. John McCain, still skeptical of the story, said he obviously would not like domestic surveillance outside of the FISA court. We've reached a crucial fork in the road. Ignoring the administration's new abuses will foster a precedence sure to haunt us forever, not to mention right now. Standing up to this blatant drift toward tyranny, however, might reign in this increasingly imperial presidency.

One Thousandth U.S. Execution Averted... For Now

Instead, the one thousandth execution in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 will take place on Friday, December 2nd. Today, Robin Lovitt was granted clemency by Virginia Governor Mark Warner. The scissors he had used (Lovitt, not the governor) in the murder he was accused of were discarded, casting doubt onto the accusations. The decision is commendable, but the thousandth execution is still imminent and inevitable. With determination and hard work, however, we will hopefully never reach the 2,000th execution in this country. The death penalty is state murder; a brutal form of legitimate revenge that inevitably puts innocents to death, offers no emotional relief for the victim's family, and is grossly racially biased. Capital punishment does not function as deterrence. The United States is in the company of nations such as China and Iran as modern practitioners of capital punishment. I'm inclined to spend the rest of tonight typing out a long post, speaking against the death penalty in a very in-depth fashion. I have other commitments, though, so I'll leave you with these online resources:

1000 Executions
NCADP (National Coalition Against the Death Penalty)
TCADP (Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty)
Amnesty International and the death penalty
Abolish the Death Penalty blog

Resist 'Black Friday'! Buy Nothing Instead...

This morning I heard wind of 'Black Friday' on NPR News 91. However, I also heard the editor of Adbusters Magazine describing the alternate for November 25th, 'Buy Nothing Day.' I smacked my head as I remembered the significance of today, not because I was on my way to work instead of on my way to the mall, but because I hadn't blogged about 'Buy Nothing Day'! I've observed this rejection of American consumerism before, and today was no different. I didn't spend a penny.

Sure enough, when I arrived home from work, I noticed buzz in the blogosphere about 'Buy Nothing Day'. I thought I'd join in by showing you where to read more on the holiday:

Happy Buy Nothing Day! (

Buy Nothing Day: Ignore Black Friday (All Facts and Opinions)

Buy Nothing Day (Official Page from Adbusters)

Buy Nothing Day UK

Google search for 'Buy Nothing Day' if the above links don't satisfy you!

War Is A Force That Gives Me Meaning

While delivering flowers today, in the midst of a soupy fog that caused me to turn on my headlights at two 'o clock in the afternoon, some gears in my mind started turning. I was listening to the This American Life podcast. A handful of American soldiers in Iraq who told their stories in blogs were reading those stories on the show. I was entirely consumed by the combat stories told by two of the soldiers. My reflexes took control of the van as the road I barreled down disappeared. These stories transported me to the battles. Two weeks ago, as an American-raised Afghani teenager spoke out of my radio from the midst of an ambush against US troops in Afghanistan, the same peculiar transcendence had occurred.

I realized then that war is a force that gives me meaning. Bear with me. I read a book just over a year ago called War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. It is written by Chris Hedges, a New York Times journalist who has lived in war zones that some of us never even knew existed. His book is about the hell that war is and the myths that cover up that hell to enable those in power to wage their wars. His title is all too true. For those that put their body and soul behind the war, the war gives them meaning and purpose- a rhyme and reason behind the dreary day-to-day task of existing. For soldiers like the ones that were heard on This American Life and others living war, such as Chris, war is a drug that destroys mundanity and provides a dangerous, but addicting thrill. For people like me, war is a force that gives us focus by opposing it. How could pacifism be so deeply ingrained in my being if there weren't such a counter weight as war to give my position strength? Pacifism would be an empty concept without war. Without pacifism, an immensely important piece of my existence would be gone. Life would be duller. War gives me meaning.

Its true that I abhor war. But it is just as true that I ingest this drug. I don't marvel at the machinery; the guns and the tanks and the bombs. I don't aspire to discard my ethics in order to hunt a faceless enemy. I do, however, imagine the excitement of breathing in war from within it. I imagine war filling up the emptiness of my life, translating every moment into a struggle for existence. I imagine war sharpening my mind and my resolve against it. I imagine living through the hell to come home and then devoting every ounce of my being to stopping this force that has benefited me so wholly. It's a paradox that I'll never escape. Opposing war gives me meaning. I will lose that meaning if I ever prevail.

The Gaping Hole in Downtown Boise

I recently received an email from a website launched to express frustration over the gaping hole in downtown Boise. If you don't live in Boise then you probably haven't heard that we have such a hole. A few years ago construction began on what was supposed to be the tallest building in Idaho, the Boise Tower. It would include condos, business space, stores and restaurants, parking, and more. However, construction never made it above the ground. For years now there has been a hole at 8th and Main, smack dab in the middle of downtown, with ugly metal foundation structures jutting out. Small walls have been built around it to keep it as much out of sight as possible, but out of sight doesn't translate to out of mind. One can still see the hole, and it doesn't help that on an adjacent building a giant poster proclaims that the defunct Boise Tower is "whats going up downtown!" Visit the The Boise Hole website to read more and express your own frustration over this eyesore and wasted space in our beloved downtown. If I had the power, I'd turn the hole into a public park to add a bit of natural beauty to downtown. Post a comment with your idea, if you feel so inclined.

Local Happenings - Global Write-a-thon

It gets discouraging. Two weeks ago: myself and one other at the weekly Amnesty International meeting. Last week: just me and four empty walls staring back at me. Tonight: I was once again joined by one other fellow activist, but no one else. Even though we are determined to do our small part in changing the world, it is disheartening when support and community are so scarce. But we'll press on, and here is what we are working on.

Amnesty International annually organizes the Global Write-a-thon on International Human Rights Day, December 10th. We'll be taking part, hopefully on a grand scale, by inviting the entire community to join us in writing letters of hope to human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience around the world for the holiday card action. We'll also be taking action on behalf of those same individuals, urging their governments to respect human rights. 

If that isn't enough, there will be actions pressuring the United States, China, and the UNHCR to protect North Koreans seeking asylum in China (see Seoul Train) - plus live music and some food and drink. Don't miss it: Saturday, December 10th in the Hatch Ballroom AB at BSU from 3 to 6 pm. I'll keep writing about this event as it approaches. In the meantime, if you live in Boise and are interested in Amnesty International, help us out! If you don't live in Boise, get involved in your local activist scene. This world isn't going to change on its own.

Local Happenings - Seoul Train

This evening I attended a screening of the film Seoul Train at BSU. The movie documented the plight of North Koreans fleeing to China for political asylum. China views the asylum-seekers as illegal immigrants moving between borders for economic reasons. That couldn't be further from the truth. The Chinese government refuses to grant asylum to North Koreans and forcibly repatriates them. They are not even permitted to escape to nations such as Mongolia, Japan, or South Korea, which would most likely grant them asylum. When these people are forcibly repatriated they face, at the very least, arbitrary detention. Many are presumably tortured and some are even executed (it is hard to be sure of all of the repatriated individuals' fates, due to the secrecy of the Kim Jong-il regime). The movie utilized footage from activists that have constructed an underground railroad of sorts, bringing North Koreans through China to eventual freedom in Mongolia or South Korea. It was a very emotionally effective film, crammed with both stunning stories of the journey these North Koreans face and in-depth insight and analysis of the issue. Check it out at

Upcoming Events:

  • Thursday, November 17th, Amnesty International will meet in the Foote Room of the Student Union Building at 5:00 pm.
  • Saturday and Sunday, November 19th and 20th, the Idaho Progressive Student Alliance will be in the parking lot of the Albertsons on State and 17th street collecting non-perishable food items, clothes, blankets, hygiene items, and water for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The collected goods will be trucked down to Baton Rouge later this month.

Our Damn President

This sort of talk from our commander and chief twists and churns my guts (from the BBC):
US President George W Bush has said too much is at stake in Iraq for politicians to make "false charges" about the reasons for going to war.

Amid new questions in Congress about the intelligence used to justify the invasion, he said it was "irresponsible to rewrite history".

Irresponsible to rewrite history? Are you kidding me? This isn't a president who is defending his policies, this is a president who is villanizing credible, reputable political dissent during wartime. Legitimate questions have and rightly should be raised about the road to war. The stakes for both the United States and Iraq are very serious, but we can't make good decisions now without understanding what brought us to this point. Bush's attacks are simply a refusal to gain a deeper understanding and frankly, this type of thinking from our commander in chief is a dangerous disease during war.

(check out the book War Is A Force To Give Us Meaning by Chris Hedges for more information on poisonous thought such as this during wartime)

Fair Trade Part I - New Shoes

(the following information on fair trade is severely limited to what i know. i am no expert on the subject. i am simply trying to provide a resource for people who are interested in fair trade, but don't know where to turn for information.)
"Fair Trade is a trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalised producers and workers... Fair Trade organisations (backed by consumers) are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade." -from FINE (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, International Fair Trade Association, Network of European Worldshops and European Fair Trade Association).
As I gradually developed in high school from a state of naivete and apathy to an active engagement with the world, I became increasingly concerned with the impact my money was making. I became a vegetarian in an effort to remove my money from the cruel and environmentally unsustainable meat and seafood industries. Eating organic always made me feel good, even though I couldn't reasonably accomplish that on a regular basis. Clothes, however, became my most urgent concern. There was no way of knowing whether or not my threads were manufactured in sweatshops, but I desperately needed reassurance that my money wasn't contributing to the oppression of poor people halfway across the globe.

A friend of mine had seemingly found a remedy by strictly buying American made clothing. In theory I had found a solution! It became apparent, though, that buying American made apparel is much more difficult than it sounds. I quickly discovered that almost every item of clothing I needed was made somewhere else! Though overseas factories aren't necessarily sweatshops, using this rationale to buy overseas clothing is shaky at best. I might be buying union made, socially responsible clothing, but it is just as likely I'm not. I'm not comfortable with the chances. I've been reduced to buying used clothing for two years now.

Though the used clothing option isn't really that bad (here in Boise there are plenty of great thrift stores and even a trendy boutique of used clothes called The Lux) it does present a few problems. Namely, shoes. Two years ago a friend gave me his shoes. They'’ve brought me everywhere, but it has been raining lately, and my feet never stay dry. Finding good shoes at a thrift store is near impossible. Until just recently, I didn'’t know where to turn.

Just a few weeks ago, a solution fell into my lap. At the weekly Idaho Progressive Student Alliance meeting at BSU, fair trade information was distributed and discussed. I learned more about what fair trade is, where to find fair trade coffee, and about fair trade organizations such as the clothing company No Sweat Apparel. Most importantly, I discovered how to walk in new shoes without, as No Sweat states, "“stepping on the worker who made... [my] shoes."”

My shoes are union-made in Jakarta, Indonesia. A card detailing the wages and benefits of the workers was included with them. Compared to regional labor standards, the people who manufactured my shoes are treated very fairly. With their wages and benefits, there is no doubt they are able to achieve a healthy, comfortable life. (click here to see the wages and benefits of the workers who made my shoes) Not to mention my shoes are comfortable, vegan-friendly, and even trendy!

Check out these websites to learn more about fair trade, or to buy fair trade products:

No Sweat Apparel
FairTrade Labelling Organizations International
Responsible Shopper

In the next installment of this series on fair trade, I'll report on my experience with Ten Thousand Villages, an organization that "provides vital, fair income to Third World people by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America." In Boise's Hyde Park there is a Ten Thousand Villages store that relies on volunteers as staff. I'll write about my experience volunteering there as well as generally about the organization. To visit their website, click here.

Local Happenings

I spent most of today at BSU for the POV Conference on human rights. Turnout was painfully low, and the Amnesty International table I was at received a miniscule amount of attention. It wasn't really discouraging, though, because it was obvious that the organization of the event was sub-par. However, I did learn of some upcoming events:
  • Seoul Train. On Tuesday, November 15th, as part of the Diverse Perspectives film series, the ITVS Community Cinema will show the film Seoul Train in the Barnwell Ballroom of the SUB at 5:30 pm. The film documents a humanitarian crisis as North Koreans attempt to escape their country. Parking is free in the SUB visitor lot. (The film also shows on Nov. 16th at Boise State West in Nampa at the same time in the 2nd Floor Lounge.)
  • "War, Peace, and Transformation." The Idaho Peace Coalition is sponsoring this presentation from Iraq War Veteran and Conscientious Objector Aidan Delgado on Veteran's Day. Come to the Bishop Barnwell Room of the SUB on November 11th at 7:00 pm.
Upcoming meetings:
  • Amnesty International. Thursday, November 10th in the Gipson Room (downstairs in the SUB) at 5:00 pm. Thursday, November 17th in the Foote Room (upstairs in the SUB) at 5:00 pm.
  • Idaho Progressive Student Alliance. Sundays at 5:00 pm. There should be a sign on the door of the Boyington Room (upstairs in the SUB) that tells you where to go.

Don't Just Vote!

Well. I didn't vote. Turns out I live a little less than a mile from the city limits. Even though I work in the city, go to school in the city, spend most of my free time in the city, and will move to the city fairly soon, the law says I cannot vote for city council members. I'm disappointed, because I wanted to vote, but I'm not angry. It makes sense. Instead of voting today, I will urge all of you who did vote to do more. Voting is just the beginning of active involvement with the world. There are a wealth of actions you can take after your vote that are capable of changing the world.

I've never been able to vote. But I possess a burning desire to change the world, so I've had to rely on other methods of effecting change. Though I can't wait until I can finally cast my vote, I doubt it will provide me with the same satisfaction that, for example, volunteering does. Here are some actions that you can take to make a difference outside of the ballot box:

  • Volunteer. There are countless opportunities everywhere. Here in Boise, I've volunteered extensively with Idaho Fish and Game. The work has included re-vegetating the riparian zones of Idaho's streams and rivers that have been decimated by cattle grazing, which is immensely important work.
  • Write a congressman, or even the president. Just pick an issue that stirs your soul and write. You can also utilize the resources of organizations such as Amnesty International if human rights concern you or if progressive politics concern you. Just search the web. You can find online actions everywhere!
  • Engage in grassroots activism. If there is some issue that deeply affects you, hit the streets. Some of the most profound change has happened due to people sitting where they are prohibited to sit or from thousands, if not millions, of people flooding the streets to demand change.
  • Discuss. Engage the people around you in real discussion about the problems that face our world. There is nothing wrong with open-minded discussions and arguments- they help us understand our world.
  • Be creative! I fasted last summer to raise awareness about the plight of refugees in Africa. Though I didn't actually change anything on a large scale, I did open a few eyes wider, including my own.

Bright Eyes in SLC

Last night I saw Bright Eyes live at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City. It was an incredible show! In the quiet between songs someone shouted, "Conor Oberst is Jesus!" Though I'm not quite that fanatical, Bright Eyes is just that epic. Oberst was bursting with passion as he played his songs. The band backed him up with a fabric of surreal music coming from an interesting mix of instruments, from a harp to a steel guitar to a trumpet. Oberst's poetry filled fans' minds with rich stories and profound observations that spilled out onto my pillow that night. There is an unquestionable otherworldy greatness to Bright Eyes that is undeniably evident live.

Bright Eyes, however, doesn't fit very well into the context of this blog. To make this post more relevant, I'll suggest that you check out the following video: Conor Oberst plays "When the President Talks to God" on Jay Leno (click the 'Watch Now!' link)

Local Happenings - POV Conference

The POV (Point of View) Conference at Boise State University will take place on November 8th and 9th next week. The theme this year is human rights. I actually don't know too much about this event. I am connected to it through Amnesty International. We will be tabling for the event on Wednesday, November 9th in Hatch AB of the SUB. I do know, however, that there will be some interesting workshops and film showings. Workshop topics include the death penalty, immigration and the dream act, the hague war crimes tribunal, and community arts and human rights. The films The Corporation and Hotel Rwanda will also be shown. I'm expecting an interesting event, and I recommend checking it out. Find out more at the POV website, or check out the full event schedule.

City Council Elections

Next Tuesday's elections will be the first time in my life that I vote. Last year I turned eighteen one week after the elections. While there is less at stake this time around, I'm plenty excited to cast my vote.

Before I vote, I'll add my two cents to the discussion. The prospect of Brandi Swindell being a city council member is ridiculous for too many reasons. She has no college education nor any experience related to the job she is applying for. While I am not crazy about Maryanne Jordan, she possesses extensive experience related to her job- a college education, co-owning a small business, and serving on the Boise City Planning and Zoning Commission, as President of the West Valley Neighborhood Association, and as Facilitator of the Boise Neighborhood Alliance. She has been involved with organizations relevant to a city council position, whereas Swindell's experience with organizations such as Generation Life, a religious right-wing organization, is completely irrelevant to a city council position. Regardless of Swindell's radical views or either candidate's out-of-state campaign donations, it just makes more sense to elect Jordan. This job should be approached in a pragmatic fashion, not an ideological one. Swindell certainly possesses an ideological fervor, but Jordan is very clearly the practical choice.

That said, I encourage everyone to vote on November 8th! Even though the ballots are small this year, voting is important. Of course, voting is only part of active involvement with the world. Vote, but don't just vote! (I'll write more about doing more than just voting next week...)

Profiles of the Candidates
Precinct Map (scroll down to 'Precinct Locator')
Boise guardian Story About Campaign Funds
Dan Popkey Article
Brandi Swindell's Website
Maryanne Jordan's Website

Local Happenings - Tunnel of Oppressio

I've been quiet for a few days, partly because I've been busy but mostly due to a tough break-up. I'm not going to waste your time writing about the break-up, not because it hasn't affected me deeply- because it has- but because this blog isn't a forum for that type of writing. That said, I experienced exactly what I needed yesterday. The Tunnel of Oppression happened very successfully on November 1st in and around the Hatch Ballroom (for a description of what the Tunnel is, refer to my earlier posting on the subject). From 9:00 am to 7:30 pm I was there as a Tunnel guide and with Amnesty International at the coinciding Social Justice Fair. Those long hours kept me busy- talking and walking- and therefore forced my mind to wander from the sorrow, loneliness, and self-pity that had taken up residence in me. The emptiness in my heart was eased by a community of engaged and caring individuals who are committed to changing the world, slowly but surely.

The Tunnel began with a scene depicting soft racism in the wake of Katrina. Three white middle-class folk sipped martinis and discussed their frustration at seeing poor black people receiving sympathy and government aid after the hurricane. Their language was no doubt incensing, but a bit unbelievable. However, the scene remained effective and provided an emotionally simple way of beginning the tour and easing into the next scene.

Four or five actors dressed in casual military attire and sporting pipes, knives, and cameras viciously attacked another actor dressed in a black robe and hood in the second and most effective scene. There was no question that the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib were unfolding here, and even though this was acting, it was severely disturbing. Audience members were encouraged to take part in the abuse but could only muster blank stares and sometimes tears. The actors recreated the photographs from Abu Ghraib with an eerie accuracy. After the scene, the audience shuffled their feet quietly away, taking with them an intimate understanding for the scope of atrocities committed in the War on Terror.

In the next scene a small group of immigrants struggled to cross the border amongst graves marked ‘unidentified’. Their struggle was amplified by an insensitive television journalist and armed militia men who beat back the immigrants. The depiction of the immigration struggle brought to life an issue that everyone knows of but no one really understands. The tour then meandered into a makeshift bathroom that provided the stage for different sorts of gender related oppression: two girls taunted a “dyke”, one of those girls then threw up in a stall in an effort to lose weight, a boy tried hard to be a man by using steroids, a young couple worried about an unwanted pregnancy, and a rape was attempted. We don’t know whether or not the rape was committed- we just heard her scream from behind a bathroom stall door. With the screams echoing the tour rushed through a brutal episode of Native American assimilation. As the audience exited the Tunnel, they became the victims of fierce anti-gay fury. Demonstrators shook hateful signs in faces and shouted dangerously at each and every member of the audience. Their hateful frenzy, albeit acting, caused one to know the pain of being hated for being homosexual, even if one is not.

The entire experience was tremendously effective. Though I wasn’t present in the post-Tunnel debriefing sessions, I gathered that public response to the tour was positive. Eyes and hearts opened to better understand modern forms of oppression that are often overlooked. It is difficult to deny these oppressions while they are staring you down. Oppression is evident when we hear the facts about its many forms today, but when our heart is involved oppression is not only undeniable, but is an affront to everything human within us. The Tunnel of Oppression very much involves the heart.

(If you wish to learn more about the Tunnel of Oppression, I recommend conducting a simple google search for it. I did so, but could not find a central website for it. It appears that the Tunnel is simply an idea that is interpreted differently by different universities around the nation.)

CD Review: Emmanuel Jal and Abdel Gadir Salim - Ceasefire

(CD review originally written for the Boise Weekly)

Ceasefire is stunning. This collaboration between Emmanuel Jal, a Christian from southern Sudan, and Abdel Gadir Salim, a Moslem from northern Sudan, sends a powerful message throughout the country in the shadow of war. For more than twenty years the Moslem north had battled the non-Moslem south until a peace agreement earlier this year. Sudan’s future, however, remains uncertain. Ceasefire is a powerful and symbolic cry for lasting peace that is urgently needed at this crucial moment in Sudan’s history.

The music lives up to the historical backdrop. Jal is a rap sensation whose popularity has exploded from Nairobi to all of Africa and beyond. Salim is a respected and popular composer, singer, and oud player whose songs reflect the musical traditions of Sudan. He is absent from about half of the songs, which are written and performed by Jal. The remaining songs are written and performed by Salim and his band but feature occasional bursts of rap by Jal. The result of this unlikely and eclectic collaboration is a vibrant and diverse fabric of sound that incessantly stirs up the soul.

Emmanuel Jal’s rap is soft but solid, and his talent is unquestionable. His warmly mellow voice flows over lively, energetic beats. Like his message, his rap stands in sharp contrast to the harsh American variety, and Jal’s style is much more listenable, despite the language barrier. He alternates with grace between each of the five languages (there are translations) on this CD, sometimes multiple times in a single verse. In between verses, joyous and hopeful choruses explode over the music, adding an exotic dimension that accents Jal’s laid-back rapping.

Though most of the songs concern peace for Sudan, one stood out for its address of another urgent issue in Africa. ‘Nyambol’ tells the story of a young girl who suffers abuse and then escapes a forced marriage to ultimately achieve an education and become “an important person” and “important leader” in her village. The song showcases both Jal’s rapping ability and his understanding that peace in Sudan, though extremely important, is just one of the many issues in Africa deserving the world’s attention. He shows definite promise for being both a musical messiah and force for social change in the future.

The ultimate lure of the album is Abdel Gadir Salim’s music. Jal’s tunes heavily emphasize a pop sensibility that is no doubt great, but Salim generates a deeper, more mature sound that is quite unlike any popular music in the States. His rich, textured voice gives off a wisdom that is only developing in Jal. When Jal jumps into Salim’s songs, however, Salim and his band help Jal achieve a clarity that isn’t as evident on his own songs.

If the historical backdrop, eclectic music, and important message of Ceasefire don’t cause your jaw to drop, then the personal histories of the musicians surely will. At the age of seven Emmanuel Jal lost his mother and was taken to a camp in Ethiopia where he was trained to be a soldier. In 1991, along with scores of other child soldiers, Jal was forced to walk hundreds of miles to join a rebel group. Abdel Gadir Salim once survived a brutal stabbing while attempting to hold a concert in Khartoum. Both musicians endured this unimaginable adversity to become important figures, not only in Sudan’s future, but in Africa’s future. I can image that Ceasefire is only the beginning.

(visit Emmanuel Jal's website)

Local Happenings - Tunnel of Oppression

Nobody is reading this blog yet... but that is alright. Hopefully I'll be able to gather some eyes and minds around the screen to hear what I have to say. Earlier this evening, the first Amnesty International of BSU meeting for the semester happened. It was pretty small, and just a bit awkward (like most first meetings, or maybe just most activist meetings), but definitely worthwhile. I mention it here because it inspired excitement in me for an upcoming event. On Tuesday, November 1st, BSU is hosting the Tunnel of Oppression. An actual, physical tunnel will be constructed in one of the ballrooms of the SUB. Actors will play out different scenes of oppression in the tunnel as guides (one of which will be myself) bring groups of people through to understand oppression in a more intimate fashion than we usually have the capacity for. The experience is supposed to be very eye-opening and emotional. For example, it is rumored that one of the scenes will depict a Fred Phelps anti-homosexual rally (Fred Phelps is the leader of the fiercely anti-homosexual Westboro Baptist Church) and another will stage the preparation for detainee abuse at a Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. Though there have been serious questions among BSU activists about the organization and execution of the Tunnel of Oppression, I have high hopes for the event. It is a delicate subject, so I can only hope that the people behind the Tunnel are serious and organized. I'll write more about the Tunnel as the date approaches and passes.

Local Happenings

I plan to make 'local happenings' posts a regular, informal part of the Friction blog. Whereas other posts will be thought-out pieces that have probably been extensively revised and edited, these posts will be informal rants about what has been happening recently here in Boise, Idaho. You'll find my take on significant news items; summaries of meetings, rallies, and other political events; upcoming events; and more.

Last Wednesday, I attended a public hearing in BSU's Jordan Ballroom concerning proposed changes to the graduation requirements for Idaho high schools. The proposed changes would drastically cut the number of electives while making 8 credits each of math and science (thats all four years of high school) required. They would also require students to pick electives with a career focus, require taking either the SAT or ACT to graduate, require a 'C' average of junior high and middle school students to move on to high school, and force students as young as sixth grade to consider career options. Students, parents, and teachers have reacted to these proposed changes with outrage, as have I. It is evident that these changes will cut down on such activities as arts, music, and other programs that enrich the high school experience and provide for a well-rounded education that colleges look for. That is the most common concern. In addition, I personally feel that such an emphasis on career consideration is ludicrous for anyone younger than high school age, and that career consideration in high school is hardly productive. I've graduated and still have no clue what career path I will follow, but that is perfectly okay. I am attending college and will eventually grow into something just right for myself. No one needs to be locked into a career path they chose in the naivete of high school. I also hold deep concerns about the plight of students who struggle with either math or science. Requiring such students to advance beyond the basics will not result on smarter students going on to college, but rather in more decisions to drop out of high school.

The public hearing was packed. They had to add additional seating at the last minute and there still wasn't sufficient room for everyone. After two hours of public testimony about the proposed changes, there was only one comment in support. Every single comment against the changes was met with tremendous applause. Many teachers, parents, and students spoke with great passion and emotion about the arts and music programs they feared would be lost. A genuine concern for the well-being of our future generations was clearly evident. I think it was fairly clear what the teachers, parents, and students thought about the proposed changes to their lives, and I hope whatever happens next reflects that sentiment.

Fasting for Darfur

Last September my eyes opened a bit wider than they already were. A headline that had wrapped itself around and through my heart morphed into an immense tragedy. Over 300 people, many of them children, died after undergoing horror when Chechen rebels attacked a school in Beslan, Russia. When I brought up the subject with my father, he told me about Darfur.

At that point in my life I already felt compassionate. I went out of my way to learn about the world and I yearned to be more active in the world. I wanted to make my views known; I wanted to help change the world to be just a little bit brighter. But I didn’t know the full scale of our planet’s woes. I failed to understand the true scope of human suffering occurring across the globe. When I heard about Darfur, my world exploded. I had to rethink everything. At that point, violent militias were ravaging villages in Western Sudan, a region called Darfur. They killed and raped and destroyed in a fit of genocide. There were stories of infants thrown and shot as if for target practice. Women were held as sex slaves for weeks. Refugee camps were terrorized. Last September, about two million Sudanese had fled their homes. They were facing starvation and fear. Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands had been killed. Thousands had been raped and countless villages had been razed to the ground. It had been happening for almost two years, yet I was just barely hearing of it. I knew right away that my world, the first world, was sleeping through this tragedy.

Rather than fall into despair and helplessness, rather than resort to being bitterly cynical, I searched for hope. My eyes had opened to better understand the true scope of human suffering on this planet. I needed to help ease that suffering.

Over the past ten months I have learned much more. I have heard the stories of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. I have felt despair and regret for the millions I was never able to save. I have heard stories of current human suffering from the darkness of Abu Grhaib and Guantanamo to the civilian massacres in Uzbekistan and Nepal, the loneliness of political prisoners in China to the plight of women across the globe, the hopelessness of children soldiers in Uganda to the hardships of being a refugee anywhere. I have retained hope by busying myself fighting against this human suffering, by taking steps to ease it.

Now, I feel I need to do more. Writing letters, signing petitions, attending rallies, and spreading the knowledge of human suffering are all important. But they aren’t enough. I need to give more of myself to feel as if I am actually making a difference, or making an effort. I must suffer myself if I am to understand the true scope of human suffering. I must suffer myself to open my own eyes wider. I must give up my privilege and comfort to achieve comfort for those weighed down by suffering. The actions I take to ease human suffering must be intense, emotional, and personal if they are to make any difference at all.

I have decided to fast for the displaced people and refugees affected by the crisis in Darfur. I will give up the ultimate privilege for three days and my thoughts will be with those who suffer. It is both an effort of solidarity with the people and a tool for raising awareness and action on their behalf. Others have made the decision to join me. We will fast and let our community know why we are. We will make an immense difference, not only in the world, but in our own lives.

I wrote the preceding piece about a month before I began fasting. I was immensely hopeful and determined then. I was sure that my action would, at the very least, create a sense of concern in the community for Darfur. As you will find out in the next piece, that wasn’t exactly the case…

When I decided not to eat for 72 hours, I envisioned a remarkable and moving experience. I imagined turning heads throughout the community. I thought that my fellow fasters and I would move people to care.

We fasted to generate attention for the plight of refugees in Africa. We wanted people to donate money to ‘Save Darfur’, an organization working to raise awareness about the apparent genocide in Darfur, Sudan. We urged people to sign a petition calling on Mr. Bush to do more to protect civilians in Sudan. In the end we made a measly $100. We didn’t even get 100- not even 90- signatures. We failed miserably.

Young people don't usually do muh, especially in Boise, Idaho. We aren’t out there trying to change the world. We are selfish, and people see us that way. In my naivety, I thought that if a determined group of young people gave up food for three days, people would listen. I thought people would become interested. But they didn’t. I’m still stunned and hurt. I’m still trying to figure out why.

On the first night of the fasting, I felt completely crushed by the world. I was miserably hungry, but that didn’t matter. As I was setting up our table (with information and petitions and such) at a vacant lot in Boise’s north end, three drunken men from a neighboring house approached and started lightly harassing us. We had heard them earlier blasting horrid music out of their open windows.

These men were the epitome of ignorant, selfish America. They started ranting to us about how immigrants and refugees of different races make life harder for proud white heterosexual males such as themselves. I tried my best to ignore them but I was really just clenching my fists and gritting my teeth, building up anger to release later. These drunks hovered around us like vultures for over an hour. They wouldn’t leave us alone. Eventually, they sensed my hostility and left, but it wasn’t over.

Later that night we were hosting refugees from Sudan who would speak and we were showing the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’. This was a public event, and it was shattering for me when no one showed up. Not one person cared enough to learn a little more about Africa, refugees, and how they might help. Even the refugees who were supposed to speak ended up not being able to come. I was crushed and angered.

We decided to show the movie, since there were ten to twelve of us there fasting anyway. The drunken metal-heads, however, were blasting their music loud enough to drown out ‘Hotel Rwanda’. We practiced patience for some time, but they wouldn’t quit. Four or five of us gathered as diplomats to politely ask them to stop or shut their windows for two hours. We knocked on their door but no one came. We shouted up the stairs but they didn’t hear us. We counted to three and yelled simultaneously and finally their leader stumbled down the stairs, beer in hand; a smoky, drunken stench behind him. His eyes were sleepy and empty. He spoke with a slightly obnoxious fake British rock-star-type accent.

He greeted us with hostility after we explained our dilemma and our simple request for the men. I continued to negotiate with the leader as an even drunker man without a shirt and with a sizable beer gut and incredibly greasy black hair practically fell down the stair well. He looked angry and dangerous.

By now, we had accumulated into a small group in their front lawn on the corner. The fasters were on one side and these drunks on the other. The drunkest of them seemed ready to attack. He began throwing racial slurs at us, because he knew we wanted to help black African people.

“I hate niggers!” he shouted. “Just kill ‘em all!”

He repeated it over and over again. His eyes were narrowed and full of hatred as he began barreling toward us. Fortunately, another of the drunks kept him from engaging us in some kind of combat. We were defenseless and hungry. We didn’t want to fight. We just wanted to show the movie as some kind of remedy to the devastation we already felt.

Up to this point I had kept my cool. It is best to remain a diplomat. Stay peaceful and avoid confrontation and we can work it out. My fists were clenched and my heart was breaking, but I somehow managed to keep my cool. I was very near the breaking point.

I broke when the drunkest man began to verbally attack my sister. I’m not sure what he said, because as soon as he said it I exploded. It was a cool explosion. I pointed a finger in his direction and told him to fuck off. I wasn’t gong to let this disgusting, greasy older man objectify and sexually harass my 16 year old sister. I told him to fuck off repeatedly and turned off my ears to his incoherent drunken rambling.

At this, the men angrily strolled down the street, looking for a bar where they might have an easier time being sexual predators and racist pigs. We were fasting in solidarity with African refugees, and these men were the militia to our refugee. We turned on our movie and I lay down in front of the screen, shaking and angry and hurt.

I didn’t watch the movie. I saw it, but I couldn’t think about anything but the utter failure of the evening. I felt like crying{see footnote below}, but I was too shaken and crushed to shed a tear.

Later, I took a walk with Hannah down to Hyde Park to retrieve a sign we had left there. Just being with her, someone who holds immense compassion and care for the world, comforted me. We sat down on the curb, faint from hunger, but also heavy with disappointment about the events of the evening. We held each other and wondered why people could be so awful. So careless. So ignorant. She reassured me that if we reached just one person, it was a victory. That is an easy way to remain optimistic, and it is true, but I wanted more. I expect more from my fellow human beings. I think Hannah felt the same way because she cried. I wanted to cry, but I was still too shaken and angered to shed a tear.

Seven or eight of the fasters slept at the vacant lot next to the drunken men’s house that night. I was one of them, and so were Hannah and my sister. We all crowded into the tent and hoped that after a good night of sleep, the second day of fasting might turn out better than the first. I was worried. I knew the drunks would be home sooner or later. They had left very irate at us, and I was worried they would harass us when they got back.

I was especially worried about sexual harassment. These men were completely careless. That, combined with being complete perverts and ridiculously drunk, was dangerous. After I heard them ramble home and turn on their loud music, it was hard to sleep. I held Hannah close, trying to push the men out of my head. When I heard noises or tricked myself into seeing shadows that looked like they came from the men, I stood up quickly and looked around. I didn’t want anything to happen to my fellow fasters, especially Hannah and my sister. Thankfully, the men were too drunk to do any damage, and they left us alone. But I still didn’t sleep much.

In retrospect, the whole experience seems educational. Though I am in no way suggesting we learned what it is like to be refugees, we gained a bit of perspective. The hunger and discomfort of that night, combined with the haunting potential of harassment or worse, turned my thoughts to the feeling that must come with being a refugee. After being forced from their homes by militias, civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region must live with the same feeling I experienced, albeit much more intense and real, for months, even years. They lack not only enough food, but also enough water. Their shelter doesn’t protect them from the heat or the winds. And the enemies they fear are far more potent and dangerous than three drunken men. Darfuris living in refugee camps live with a very real fear of militias armed to the teeth with guns, bombs, and other deadly weapons. The women in the refugee camps must constantly worry about rape, especially when they must venture from the camp to find necessities. If they are raped, the resulting stigmatization they face can be an insurmountable challenge. Clearly, what I felt is no where near the fear and worry that Darfur’s refugees must face on a daily basis. However, what I felt did help me gain some perspective.

If fasting for three days can’t raise any significant awareness about the plight of refugees in Africa (or awareness about any other issue), then what can? I decided to fast for the intensely personal nature of that action, but also because I thought it was a drastic action that could generate attention. What more can I do? I feel like I’d have to become a martyr to affect any real change.

There were, however, small successes in the midst of overwhelming failure. We made it on to two local television stations. That is a bit of awareness, but without action to follow, awareness seems futile. We also had two refugees speak to small crowds on the second night. David from Sudan and Morris from Liberia had great words to share with us, and they were enlightening and inspiring. The largest victory was the personal experience. Giving up such a normal privilege for Americans was eye-opening and inspirational. Dealing with the hunger and discomfort wasn’t easy, and seeing food was torturous. When I woke up the final morning, however, I felt completely cleansed and peaceful. I was weak- I couldn’t hold a comb up to my hair for long and needed help hauling tabling supplies to the car- but my mind felt sharp and my soul felt calm. It is hard to communicate the sensation. I recommend fasting to anyone feeling weighted down with life and looking for a small glimpse at inner peace. As a political statement, however, good luck. I’m quickly losing faith in humanity, but I won’t stop trying.

{footnote} The last day of fasting, I also felt like crying. I woke that morning with a renewed spirit. We had decided to table in the high-traffic Hyde Park area. We set up our table on the sidewalk and were making some progress when a nearby restaurant manager asked what we were doing. Thinking he was just another pedestrian, we told him and asked for his support. He proceeded to kick us off the sidewalk. I began protesting, explaining we could use a little good will because of the various set-backs throughout the weekend. He was cold- cold hearted- and he refused to lend us a helping hand. Hungry and immensely frustrated, I tried very hard to hold back tears as I aggressively took down the table to move across the street where there was less foot traffic. I sort of half-cried, while my friends calmed me down and helped us move across the street. Later, when the restaurant manager strolled across the street to return to us a small piece of trash we left by his restaurant, I told him to fuck off. I only say that to people when I completely lose respect for them. The drunken man and this restaurant manager had lost my respect. They are also contributing to my recent decline in hope.

Untitled Essay

All in all, despite everything, I am really thrilled to be alive. Despite all the heartache and turmoil ravaging the planet and its people, I am happy. Headlines can temporarily numb me, personal disappointments can shake my faith in humanity, but ultimately I will prevail, and I already have, so far. To be happy, or maybe to come close to a sort of inner peace, one must acknowledge despair and its deeply ingrained role in our lives. We must live with and be able to cope with atrocity- for it is a reality- if we are ever to call ourselves content. Atrocity is an inevitability but our ability to hold onto hope throughout the ordeal is not. The only way to keep a firm grasp on sanity, and a loose hold on happiness, is to remember that hope exists somewhere outside of our vision, and when we have time once again to look around, we will surely find it. Disparaged we may be, but that doesn't mean we cannot be happy. Happiness as a general content feeling, anyway, is a vastly different phenomenon than those fleeting moments of exuberance we feel at certain times, whether it be for the thrill of first love or the satisfaction of an extraordinary meal. We feel that momentary excitement from time to time, but that isn't what makes us happy.

To be happy, we must understand and experience more than those fleeting moments. We must have a relationship with both despair and exuberance; we must learn both to cry and smile- sometimes both at once. So when I call myself happy, do not picture me trapped in a cage of exhausting exuberance but rather learning to accept a content sensation for the long run- a feeling that constantly depends on cultivation and understood experience.

To be happy, or content, one must also invite the future which is already pounding down the doors we sometimes tend to lock. We must welcome this faceless friend to wrap us in its arms and deliver us through broken-down doors into unpredictable but entirely exciting new territory. We cannot fear the future. We cannot fear it because we cannot avoid it. A comfortable impossibility will ultimately lead to disappointment, and will only disrupt happiness. Understanding that tomorrow may be cloudy or much worse is crucial. I don't mean that we should expect the worse, or look forward to nothing. Instead, we should resist the temptation to surrender hope to failed expectations. Rather than formulate expectations, we might try instead to cultivate an intense yearning for tomorrow and all of the new days after that. We should learn to be content knowing not that good or bad will come our way, but that something- anything- is bound to come barreling out of tomorrow and into today.

But my words are hollow. I feel happy. I feel deeply in love with the world and I marvel at my simple existence in the midst of it. I feel grateful and lucky to live among such beautiful but difficult people, to uncover unsettling and incredible new discoveries about myself, to face such challenging times, and to feel a genuine satisfaction and mixed skepticism for what I make of my life. I'm happy for more reasons than I care to list here, or that you care to hear. Besides, I don't need to validate my happiness to you. Synthesizing my happiness into a few paragraphs of advice that is hardly universal ultimately means nothing. I just write this to reassure you that I'm okay. You may or may not care, but at least you know. Maybe, just maybe, my words will echo in the ears, long after this is read, of someone who needed a new outlook on their day. Don't forget that hope is intangible- it simply cannot burn up in the flames of our world's mistakes.

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