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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Tuesday, July 31, 2007

    My grandpa has passed away

    For those of you who follow my writings and my Yellowstone Web site, I received the very sad news that my grandpa, Kenneth Warren Macdonald, died of cardiac arrest last night at his hospital room in the Cleveland Clinic, where he was recovering from a stomach problem.

    There is so much that could be said about my grandpa; he had a lot to say himself, having written a long autobiography of his early life growing up during the Great Depression and fighting in World War II. He was a vibrant man, and if any man will be remembered, it will be him. I was not able to see him just before he died, but I visited him in the hospital when things started going downhill. That was in the middle of June. Up until the very end, he possessed his characteristic wit. The last time my dad saw him, my grandpa kicked him out of the hospital because he wanted to watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! That was quite appropriate, though that's not at all even the glimpse of a snapshot into who he was. My last memory of him was in the hospital ordering food, mocking the way room service was handled over the phone, and making jokes about the way hospitals charge patients for cable television.

    He was a funny man; he was a complicated man; he was a deeply imperfect man. He admitted in his autobiography to war crimes during World War II; he admitted to me in letters having long affairs against his wife, one ending when the woman he had a 10-year affair with died. He was not always the best parent. For years, he supported apartheid in South Africa. He was extremely angry with me for protesting after 9/11. Yet, he was also a very dynamic man, who changed so much as life went on. From neglectful father, he became the most incredibly loving grandfather (and a better father to boot). From cheating husband, he was there hand and foot with utter devotion to his wife during the last 20 years that she suffered from Parkinson's Disease. From war criminal, here was a man who voted for Dennis Kucinich in congressional races (though he was still a Republican). He was deeply beloved by so many people because he was so alive, so complicated, and so dynamic. You can't possibly understand how witty he was, how able he was in telling stories, how generous and loving he became.

    I miss him dearly.

    Practically, I will be mostly away from the Web site and newspaper over the next several days but not completely away. It's very hard to catch up, and so moments where I can post, I will. It is hard to concentrate. I am sad that my child will never know his great grandfather. It would have been beautiful to see. Even so, that's the cycle of life. I know my grandpa's vibrancy is not something that will easily fade. He touched so many people beyond his family in so many ways. A couple years ago, he told me that he had come to terms with his life. At the time, he had prostate cancer and an aneurysm in his heart that could have gone at any time. He was ready when it happened. I am happy for that; I am happy in a way that it happened a little more suddenly for him because he was in some ways prepared for that reality and was able to meet it head on. I know that's a strange thought, but I think that's where he was mentally. It was sad to me to think he almost died while on life support without his children having had a chance to speak with him as he was, laugh with him, and be with him fully before he was gone. He got off of life support long enough for that; the rest was just bonus. He was ready, though we who loved him, perhaps, aren't as ready to see him go.

    I miss you, Grandpa. I'll be coming home to see you, soon.


    Thursday, July 26, 2007

    Sounding off: Blue Angels blast through the Tetons

    I haven't forgotten about my other upcoming Yellowstone writing projects, but I can't resist a small comment this morning on a small news event in Grand Teton National Park this week.

    Yesterday, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide, the Blue Angels roared through the Jackson Hole valley in part to be photographed in front of the Tetons.

    According to one article:

    The Blue Angels, the famous U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron of F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters, will dip low over Jackson Hole on Wednesday and fly past the Tetons to be photographed, an airport official said Monday.

    It reminded me of my hikes last year in Yellowstone where the relative silence was shattered by fighter jets flying low over me.

    However, it also angered me. I doubt there was huge environmental impact, though no doubt the defeaning noise seems out of place. Yet, Grand Teton already has a damn commercial airport inside of it, and so one imagines that the few moments of noise can't compete with the perpetual noise pollution caused by incoming and outgoing commercial jets.

    What really bothers me are The Blue Angels themselves. Their tours are essentially military recruitment vehicles; they sell machines of death. In that respect, they romanticize war, and they help prop up the military industrial complex that is the greatest beneficiary of war machines like those the Blue Angels fly.

    The Tetons are majestic and romantic mountains; they rarely fail to inspire awe in us. How sad that their image is now being used to sell the appropriateness of death machines to the population. As bad as the Disneyfication of the national parks are, this very public use of the parks for a very public purpose is a million times worse. It also cannot fail to remind us of the sad history of the West and American growth across the continent that has led us to this place.

    When I was a child, I loved air shows. I didn't know what they represented; I doubt many people stop and give a lot of thought about what it all means. Now, the image of an air show on a sight like the Tetons that didn't need any improving only disgusts me. It helps me realize that my days in the anti-war movement are not gone simply because I now find myself more focused on this region of the country.

    What a bizarre and strange world in which we live.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2007

    Race and the national parks

    On National Parks Traveler a fascinating and important discussion has broken out on the issue of race in the national parks, inspired by an essay by Wayne Hare in The Salt Lake Tribune.

    The discussion is ongoing and contains a lot more than this piece I am sharing here; however, I think what I wrote this morning is enough to stand more or less on its own. I hope that people will go back to National Parks Traveler and join the discussion or post thoughts here.

    I think an interesting companion piece to this discussion was my essay Yellowstone and class. I find it interesting that some are arguing that the race issues can be explained simply in terms of the class issues, which is simply not the case. However, the faulty logic that produces both, as well as speciesism is one and the same. However, the application of this faulty logic through the different -isms creates very different realities for different people.

    Anyhow, here is what I wrote this morning.
    On July 17th, 2007

    First of all, it's a very interesting discussion, and I sense we are all taking it to heart. I appreciate Kurt's bibliography, though I'll insist that it wasn't necessary for us to have a serious discussion about this - it certainly adds to the richness of the discussion. I'm thankful to RangerX for being sincere and honest and putting himself out there on this issue, even if I vehemently disagree with him. And, I'm thankful that Wayne Hare has come in to add to his thoughts on the issue and see a lot to think about there.

    Secondly, specifically to Jon, be careful how you use statistics. Per capita statistics are general averages and don't speak to specific populations. While economic class is an important consideration in determining park visitation (and I least of all would ask us not to consider it), it's not the only thing that explains the statistics around visitation, according to the study by Dr. Roberts that Jeremy posted. Furthermore, the strong correlation between economic class and race at the general level is itself a source of concern for us. To the extent that race has been used as a cause for economic inequity, it is worth exploring whether the reasons for that are similar or different from those that cause various kinds of inequity in the parks.

    Thirdly, I think it's strange that we are talking about this problem in the parks as something that we think we need to do something about, as though diversity is spread in just the manner that Bush talks about spreading freedom to Iraq. It's not something we create; we don't just add a few numbers here, subtract a few numbers there, and voila have diversity. In fact, the language is still hierarchical, as though "we" make this happen. Here is where I can agree with RangerX to the extent that the answer isn't to set an artificial target of a certain type of person and make it our life's work to go out and get them; however, it's not because I think the target isn't so worthwhile, it's because I don't think the process is right. It still is paternalistic. The problem is much more deep rooted built on centuries of abuse and mistrust, perception, misperception, and deeply ingrained prejudices and stereotypes.

    Let me try to explain what I'm getting at from an example in my experience and also to let you know that I certainly don't have answers or a magic plan to end racial mistrust, just a sense that we need to challenge ourselves to examine the ways that racism infects us in even the most subtle, unintentional ways. For several years, I was involved with an anti-war group in Washington, DC, called the DC Anti-War Network (DAWN). DAWN is an open, non-hierarchical (meaning no leaders) group of people who met on Tuesday nights and planned actions together against U.S. militarism and against social injustice. It was for the most part a great and strange mix of people - socialists, liberals, libertarians, anarchists, gay, straight, atheist, Quaker, Jew, Muslim. In two ways, it seemed to fall short in diversity. There were often far more men than women; there were usually far more whites than people of color. On the second issue, that's troubling in a city that's 2 to 1 black to white. DAWN was an open group, allowed everyone to come in, met in a racially diverse neighborhood that was accessible to anyone in the city and most in the equally racially diverse suburbs, but the group was still with only a handful of exceptions, a group of whites. The question often came up on how to get more racial diversity in DAWN since it was embarrassing for the group not to have that racial diversity. One answer seemed to be that there was a group somewhat like DAWN called "Black Voices for Peace" that was founded and run by the late Damu Smith. I visited Black Voices for Peace on a few occasions and found a group that was almost the mirror of DAWN, overwhelmingly black, with a scattered white person. Instead of being non-hierarchical in the process, Black Voices for Peace was mostly run by Damu, though he had a board of three prominent people in the African American anti-war community who made the decisions. It was not a group that many people in DAWN would have felt comfortable, with prayers, without a voice in decision-making, much less so about race. Damu was a complicated man (he died a year ago of liver cancer) who had his own radio show, worked on race and environmental justice issues (though environmental justice is such a small issue in DC), and was often fond of speaking out against white people, even as he was quick to embrace and hug me. Anyhow, when confronted by the white/black divide in the anti-war movement, Damu said the problem was that white groups come to black groups out of their sense of guilt and look to bring them along. He wondered why after so many hundreds of years that whites didn't take the lead from blacks, from those who have been oppressed for so long. Of course, that would never fly to people in DAWN, not because they were adverse to the problems of racial oppression but because of the hierarchical way in which things had been framed. So, the reality has lingered on. In 2001, at Bush's first inauguration, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson spoke to a mostly African American audience by the Capitol. At Dupont Circle, a mostly white audience rallied. Even if both groups had mostly voted against Bush, were both upset that democracy had been dealt another blow, they did it separately (and perhaps unequally as well). I can list example after example of this and the charges of tokenization and so forth. For instance, when a white group wants racial diversity (as almost all say they want), they tend to trot out the same people of color time and time again.

    I've thought long and hard about the failures of DAWN on the issue of racial diversity. If the answer wasn't going out and simply recruiting people of color to join the group, and if the answer wasn't simply giving up one's beliefs and letting someone else control a group just to attain diversity, then what is the answer? I know that if I had any inkling of that answer, I'd be following through on it. It's not fun to live on these streets and be yelled at with racially derogatory remarks, at least a couple times a month. It's certainly not fun seeing how the gentrification of the city have plenty of racial elements as well, with the white population growing and the African American population declining. I live in an apartment building that happens to be about 90% Latino (mostly from El Salvador) - most of the rest are African Americans. English is the second language here, and there have been incidents of accusations against us because we are white. It's hurtful because I hate racism so much, but I have some sense that there are solid reasons where the pain being thrown back at me comes from. There are a million privileges I have had for being white, though I haven't asked for any of them. Nevertheless, I have some responsibility to do something about it. I strongly believe the first step is just this sort of dialogue where we talk about race, how it affects us, and listen to people. We're going to find all kinds of complex differences and experiences that explains why we don't just all get along, and we're going to have numerous setbacks. Yet, we have to keep talking about it. We have to learn from it. I had no idea when I moved to DC that perhaps my moving here was part of a process that could be tied to race. I thought I was just working on a Ph.D. But, that was naive of me. People are getting displaced constantly due to a lot of forces we are unwittingly a part of. We need to educate ourselves about them. My Salvadoran neighbors were in many cases displaced by political and economic upheaval in El Salvador's rural areas brought about by actions of the United States government. I didn't ever call for this upheaval; I've fought against it. Yet, whatever economic advantage I have, whatever social advantage, have led us to be the neighbors we are.

    We have to keep talking; that's how we'll build a rich diversity full of rich experiences. When I talked with Damu, I'll admit there were some ways I liked him less, but it was no longer about race but about ideas. I didn't embrace him as just a man whose color led me to embrace him but because he was a man struggling for the same things I was, albeit in different ways. It was the problem of race that separated us, made us suspicious in ways we can't always imagine (another reason to talk), but it was something else that kept us separated. That sounds bad, but that's progress.

    So, in the parks, I don't think you just go out and recruit people of color and "do something" about the problem of diversity. But, we cannot run away from the problem, we cannot be in denial that it doesn't exist, we cannot deny that we all as members of this society are part of its race problems. We need to talk and to listen. That's the only step that makes any sense to me. The research that Dr. Roberts shared, the experiences that Wayne Hare shared, that we are sharing now is extremely important. It undercuts the bogus logic of domination that has been part of race relations and environmental protection. It is the first step in a journey whose end we cannot map out, a hike into the wilderness, of a very important topic to us all, if we are truly to heal all the hundreds of years of abuse and mistrust. Let's hope that as we move to talk about other important issues, that we integrate this into our conversation, not just because we should out of some sense of guilt, but because we must if we are going to get a handle on the causes of everything else that's going on.

    Jim Macdonald
    The Magic of Yellowstone
    Yellowstone Newspaper
    Jim's Eclectic World

    For the full discussion both before and after, go here.

    Thursday, July 12, 2007

    Forthcoming Yellowstone essays

    It's been relatively quiet from the standpoint of my prolific keyboard. Besides a busy load at my real job and the endless preparations for the upcoming birth of my son, frankly the Yellowstone Newspaper has taken a great deal of my time to compile. It takes me 1 to 2 hours a day to keep it updated to my satisfaction.

    Anyhow, when I get some spare moments, I wanted to let you in on a couple essays I hope to write here. At some point in the not-so-distant future, I hope I can also contribute to the effort Mike Tercek has to get exposure to some writers on Yellowstone (see Yellowstone Spectator).

    In the near future, though, I expect to write a post inspired by the endlessly perpetuated and erroneous myth that Teddy Roosevelt founded Yellowstone National Park. I am not by any means the first person to be annoyed or to write about this (see this one), but I want to write about it and about myths in general. Some will argue that myths can serve a very good purpose, and I don't deny that. I deny that some of the myths that have been perpetuated about Yellowstone actually do serve a good purpose. The Teddy myth is among them, and I would also like to argue that the creation myth (namely that the Yellowstone National Park idea originated along the Madison River during the 1870 Washburn Expedition) is worth resisting as well, though Yellowstone's historian Lee Whittlesey - despite his great work in helping us to understand the history of the myth - has taken a far gentler view toward the myth itself.

    One really can't write about the West without coming to terms with the mythology of the West. I don't think we are after the "real" West as opposed to the "mythical" West; we are after trying to understand our reasoning about things today and how the interpretation of history and myth alike works in our reasoning.

    The other essay I would like to write has a very narrow focus and requires me to compile the available research. There are a lot of foreign seasonal workers in Greater Yellowstone. I think they are fantastic. However, I'm not so keen on the companies they work for, and I've been very curious for some time why the workforce in Yellowstone has shifted from large numbers of young domestic workers to large numbers of young foreign workers, often from a distinct set of countries. I do not plan to go at the entire question, but I want to focus on one claim. That claim is that the workforce has changed in part because the length of the season has changed due to changing visitation patterns. That claim is made by Xanterra in this article by Brodie Farquhar. I have a strong hunch that that is false, but I want to do the research and see for myself. Overall, visitation hasn't changed much in Yellowstone in the decade since the number of foreign workers has risen dramatically. However, have visitation patterns put more strain on the beginning and end of the summer season? Anecdotally, I can say that mid-to-late August looked about the same as I remember it - plenty of camping spots, lower number of tourists, and workers happy that the traditional peak of August 15 had passed. The year before in mid-May, Yellowstone also felt relatively empty. Experience with the Yellowstone Newspaper and blog traffic also sees mid-summer as being much more robust as far as blog traffic than the ends of the seasons.

    However, perhaps, I'm wrong. It won't settle the issue on foreign workers either way, but it is one of many points of curiosity.

    Anyhow, that's what I think will be coming, if life slows down enough to let it come. I think I hope writing it down publicly will commit me to the end product.

    Jim Macdonald