what i'm reading: sea people: the puzzle of polynesia

If the Hōkūle'a hadn't come to Port Hardy, this book might have languished indefinitely on my Books Universe List*. The List is very long. Often Books Universe is the place interesting-to-me titles go to die. Fortunately for me, a friend who is also excited about the Hōkūle'a asked if I had read Sea People. It sounded familiar, and yep, there it was in Books Universe.

Chances are you've never thought about how the islands in a vast portion of the South Pacific came to be populated. Don't let that deter you from reading this book. If you enjoyed Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Alfred Lansing's Endurance, Peter Moore's Endeavour, or books by Erik Larson or Simon Winchester, you'll enjoy Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson. (Winchester reviewed the book for The New York Times: it's worth reading.)

Sea People is packed with fascinating history, anthropology, and cultural exploration, told in a lively, very readable style. 

The word Polynesia refers to the Polynesian Triangle, bounded by Hawai'i to the north, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the east, and New Zealand to the west -- an area of ten million square miles

From the prologue:
All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and a set of customs, a particular body of myths, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a "portmanteau biota" of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went. They had no knowledge of writing or metal tools -- no maps or compasses -- and yet they succeeded in colonizing the largest ocean on the planet, occupying every habitable rock between New Guinea and the Galapagos, and establishing what was, until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world.
Thompson originally thought she would tell the story of these peoples, until it became clear that she could not -- because no one can. 
I imagined I would be recounting the tale of the voyagers themselves, those daring men and women who crossed such stupendous tracts of sea and whose exploits constitute one of the greatest adventures in human history. But, almost immediately, it dawned on me that one could tell such a story only by pretending to know more than can actually be known. This realization quickly led me to another: that the story of the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific is not so much a story about what happened as a story about how we know.
Thompson walks the reader through the different theories, over the centuries, of how the remote Pacific islands came to be populated. The reader sees Polynesia (and the world) through the lenses of different eras, from 18th century European explorers to 1950s academics to 21st century field scientists, through modern Hawai'ians resurrecting their cultural heritage. Through those lenses we see the limits of knowledge, and the fantasies, prejudices, and blind spots -- usually the results of colonialism -- of those exploring Polynesia, whether by ship or from their armchairs thousands of miles away.

Many of these past theories -- believed and advanced by the leading scientific minds of their eras -- are downright wacky and based on nothing but bigotry. The 1920s was particularly rich in this dangerous nonsense, as researchers of that era were obsessed with bogus racial theories.
Scientists in the early 1920s were working with an essentialist model of race as something immutable, definitive, and grounded in biological reality. . . . [I]nstead [of Polynesian history], what we see is a jumble of results reflecting not some truth about the data but a set of underlying assumptions about the people themselves.
Alongside and within these cultural explorations the reader meets some fascinating people. 

There is James Cook, the first European to make contact with people in the South Pacific. Although Cook represented a European empire -- and his arrival clearly represents the most cataclysmic event of Polynesian history -- Cook was not a genocidal conquistador like Pizarro or Cortes. He was an explorer and adventurer, and apparently truly hungry for knowledge. Thompson is not an apologist for imperialists; she offers a view of Cook that may not be widely known.

More fascinating than Cook is Tuipai, the Tahitian man who left his island home, voluntarily joining Cook as navigator and guide. Evidence shows that Cook had tremendous respect for Tuipai, and the men collaborated and exchanged knowledge across a cultural divide that can scarcely be imagined today. 

We meet Te Rangi Hiroa, also known as Peter Buck, whose mother was Māori and father was Anglo-Irish. A brilliant man raised with Māori and western education, Te Rangi Hiroa became an anthropologist, a physician, and an ethnologist. His life literally embodied both Māori and western ways of knowing; his contributions to the study of Polynesian peoples is incalculable.

We also meet Pius Pialug, known as Mau, the man thought to be the last surviving South Pacific Islander who could navigate in the traditional way, and Nainoa Thompson, whose passion, determination, and expertise revived those skills. Thompson set so many others on a path that would resurrect this essential piece of Polynesian culture -- and of humankind's heritage. 

These are just a few of the scientists, researchers, and adventurers that populate Sea People

Sea People ends with a meditation on "ways of knowing," a concept I first encountered fairly recently, in my personal journey of Reconciliation -- which folds into my lifelong fascination with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. 
To the extent that this history has been disentangled, however, it has been thanks to input of radically different kinds. At one end of the spectrum are the mathematical models: the computer simulations, chemical analyses, statistical inferences -- science with all its promise of objectivity and its periodic lapses into error. At the other, the stories and songs passed from memory to memory: the layered, subtle, difficult oral traditions, endlessly open to interpretation but unique in their capacity to speak to us, more or less directly, out of a pre-contact Polynesian past.  
These two angles of inquiry are in many ways opposed, and for much of the past two centuries the debate has oscillated between them, as first one and then the other was held up as the avenue to truth. In fact, both have been crucial to the unfolding of a credible history of the Polynesian migrations.

. . . . 

When I look at history, what I see is not so much the steady march of knowledge toward some final point of truth, but the complicated process of trying to figure things out -- a twisting, braided rope of intersecting narratives, a set of conversations between different people with different bodies of knowledge, different ways of thinking, and different reasons for wanting to know.  

* Formerly known as the Master List, this is my list of titles I've heard of or read about that are interesting to me. It is not a to-read list, as I'd have to live at least ten lifetimes to read them all.


real heroes for real reasons: female athletes moving the world forward

These days I can't blog about events or issues that are meaningful to me until they're old news -- which of course in today's world can mean only days or weeks past. The upside of my delayed response is an opportunity to use a wider lens and see more connections to develop. This is exactly what happened recently with several events related to women and sport.

Soccer players in Spain

In late August, players on the Women's World Cup champion soccer team refused to take the field until an incident of sexual assault or harassment was properly dealt with.

This was a brilliant and heartening episode for so many reasons. 

*** The majority of the players stood together in solidarity, backed by their union -- the oldest union in professional sport. Even after being threatened with fines and sanctions, most players continued their boycott, described in some media as "open rebellion". (Be still my heart!

*** Mainstream media reported this news factually and didn't mock the players. I have no doubt that right-wing media and social went berserk over this -- after all, it was "only" a kiss. But for the mainstream media to treat seriously and factually a nonconsensual kiss on the lips  is a huge change. I noticed as the story played out, the language changed from "unwanted kiss" to "nonconsensual" or "forcible" kiss.

*** Rubiales, who first took the usual tactic of portraying himself as the victim, then apologized, was finally forced to resign

Best of all, the players leveraged their spotlight and position of strength to focus on systemic changes. They won changes both symbolic -- the elimination of the term de futbol femenino (women's soccer) from the team's name -- and substantive, with steps that will eventually secure equal pay with the national men's team.

Tennis players in Forest Hills

Equal pay! What a concept. How fitting to see, just after the events in Spain, Billie Jean King celebrated at the US Open. Fifty years ago King won in straight sets to beat Bobby Riggs in the so-called Battle of the Sexes -- still the most-watched in tennis history. King spearheaded the drive to create a women’s professional tennis tour, equal prize money for men and women, and -- most importantly -- the passage of Title IX. The ascendancy of women's professional sports is a direct result of Title IX.

I have never been a tennis fan, but I remember very well the hype around the Battle of the Sexes. A school friend of mine pointed out that before the match, Riggs was touted as a master of a crafty game with lightning reflexes that compensated for his small stature. There was no way he was going to lose to a girl. After the game, he was suddenly "a 55-year-old man who walked like a duck". Commentators acted as if King had taken advantage of Riggs' advanced age.

In the present day, I love that Coco Gauff thanked King for making her US Open prize money possible. King's strength, commitment, willingness to fight -- and frankly, her tough skin -- ushered in a new era for female athletes.

Gymnasts saying no to winning at any cost

In the hypercompetitive world of elite and elite-aspiring sport, athletes routinely ruin their health and risk ending their careers in pursuit of victory. 

In 2004, pitcher (and homophobic asshole) Curt Schilling may have sacrificed his future to lead the Red Sox to victory in game six of the World Series. 

In 2008, Tiger Woods won the US Open while limping and in obvious pain from a badly injured knee. 

USA Gymnast Kerri Strug "heard a snap" and couldn't feel her left leg during her routine in the 1996 summer Olympics, but willed herself to finish, in her quest to secure a gold medal for her team.

These life-altering and potentially career-ending sacrifices are invariably hailed as heroic. Sportswriters and fans marvel at the players' mental toughness and unstinting determination. And those accolades perpetuate a culture where athletes on all levels -- amateurs, average professionals, and champions -- make dangerous choices in the relentless pursuit of the win. We'll never know how many young pitchers blew out their arm and burned their futures by following the advice of coaches who cared only for the short-term win. We'll never know the innumerable examples that must exist in every level of every sport.

Against this backdrop, the choice made by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles in 2020 was perhaps the most heroic of all. Biles chose her health over the win. 

From an essay by former USA gymnast Rachael Denhollander, author of What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth About Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics:

Simone Biles entered the 2020 Olympic Games with a record 25 World Championship medals and four moves so difficult that she alone out of all the world’s gymnasts could perform them.

But what took place on the competition floor made history in a way no one could have expected. On the first event of the games, which were held in July 2021, the athlete, who has an unparalleled ability to flip and twist, suddenly could no longer find herself in the air. Simone had “the twisties” — a complete loss of ability to perceive her body in space. The condition is known to lead to devastating injuries, as it nearly did for her that day. When she returned to the competition floor, it was to put on her warm-ups, give her team a pep talk and withdraw from competition.

I’ve witnessed many incredible moments in athletics, but as I watched from home that day, I knew I was watching a victory that redefined the others: Simone’s decision to value her own safety, on her own terms, above the voracious demands of an abusive and toxic athletic system. It was a moment so many of us had fought for, for so long.

Denhollander herself made an incredibly courageous choice: she came forward to tell how Larry Nassar, the sexual predator and former doctor for USA Gymnastics, had sexually assaulted her. She was the first player to speak out against Nassar. By the time the serial child sexual abuser was sentenced to 175 years in prison, more then 200 gymnasts had spoken out -- including Biles. Denhollander writes: 

We all knew that Mr. Nassar was a symptom of a much deeper problem -- a broken and abusive system that valued money and medals over the health and safety of its athletes.

Simone defied this system with both words and actions. Her choice to value her safety and well-being spoke the truth that human worth is not a prize we might someday earn. Rather, it is intrinsic to our very being.

Two years later, Biles returned to competition with a definitive win. But that future was unknown when she left competition to focus on her own health.

Here's the most important takeaway from this story: professional sports is work, and athletes are workers. 

[Biles's] triumph is so much more than the competitions she is once again winning, because it is laid on the foundation of the courageous choice she made in 2021. That, even more than her peerless athletic prowess, is what is inspiring her fans. And that’s what makes her victory resonate far beyond the sport, beyond any sport.

Professional athletes aren’t the only ones who face overwhelming pressure to perform on someone else’s terms -- to work past the point of what’s healthy, to define ourselves by what we achieve instead of who we truly are. That pressure is so common that it can be hard to remember there’s any other possibility. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Many workers have no choice. In the bad old days before labour activism forced basic changes in labour laws -- and in the present day, in much of the world -- workers must risk their health and sometimes their lives in order to keep their jobs. 

Those of us who have the privilege of choice can set the tone for our colleagues, friends, and family. We can set new boundaries for workers by setting them for ourselves. We can put down the phone, walk away from the keyboard. Take a full lunch break. End the workday earlier to spend time with our families, and our selves. Work is part of life, and it can give our lives meaning. But it is not life itself. 

This is as true for sport as it is for any other arena. 

Incidentally, this is also why watching Major League Baseball doesn't mean we support the decisions of the Commissioner or the team owners, why watching World Cup football isn't tacit approval of FIFA. We cheer for the workers, not the bosses.

A New York Times sports columnist sums it up

The Spanish footballers, Coco Grauf, and Simone Biles were on my mind when I read the final "Sports of the Times" column by New York Times writer Kurt Streeter: "How Coco Gauff Embodies the Biggest Story in Sports".

Which brings me back to a subject I considered often here, one embodied by Gauff hitting that backhand passing shot and walking off with a Grand Slam title and a winner’s check for $3 million: the rise of women in sports.

Think of all we have witnessed in this arena over the last three years.

Think of the W.N.B.A., the league’s leading role in the protests of 2020, and its continued strength as an amalgamation of women who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.

Think of the winning fight by the U.S. women’s national soccer team for equal pay, or how female soccer players across the globe and in the N.W.S.L. stood up against harassing, abusive coaches.

Did you see that volleyball game at the University of Nebraska, with 92,000 fans in the stands? Or all those record-breaking, packed-to-the-gills stadiums at the Women’s World Cup, with 75,000 on hand for the recent final in Australia?

Yep, it’s a new era.

Consider March Madness 2023. This was a year when the men’s event sat in the shadow of the women’s side — with its upsets, tension and quality. With the charismatic Angel Reese leading Louisiana State over Iowa for the national title. With Reese, bold and Black, sparking a conversation on race by taunting her white opponent, Caitlin Clark, the sharpshooting player of the year.

Yes, on the court, track, field or wherever they compete, women can be as challenging, ornery, competitive and controversial as men. That needs to be celebrated.

Where will this end? With a few exceptions, tennis being one, it’s hard to imagine women’s sports getting the kind of attention they deserve any time soon.

Who gets the most money, notice and hosannas in youth sports? By and large, boys.

Who runs most teams and controls most media that broadcast and write about the games? By and large, men.

Who runs the companies that provide the sponsorship money? Yeah, primarily men.

Change is coming. But change will take more time. Maybe a few generations more.

The decks remain stacked in favor of guys, but women continue their fight. When it comes to the games we play and love to watch, that’s the biggest story in sports right now.

. . . . 

How perfect that this year’s U.S. Open would frame that story once again. Flushing Meadows was a two-week gala celebration of the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King’s successful push for equal prize money at the event — a landmark in sports that still stands out for its boldness.

And how fitting that on this golden anniversary — with Serena Williams now retired, with Billie Jean front and center during tributes all tournament long — Gauff would win her first Grand Slam event and do it by flashing the kind of poise that marks her as an heir to the throne.

Thank you, Coco and Serena. Thank you, Billie Jean, and all the other female and male athletes who have gone against the status quo, emerged victorious, and are still in the fight.

I thank Streeter for his excellent and anti-sexist coverage of women's sports. I thank him, too, for his coverage of the racist murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the racist reactions to the upwelling of anger and displays of solidarity that followed.


maya'xala: things i heard in the library, an occasional series # 40

In my ongoing efforts to make the Port Hardy Library a safer workplace, and a more comfortable space for customers, I was invited to a elders' luncheon at the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations. 

Addressing the elders, I tried to convey how we have worked hard to make our library a welcoming space to everyone in the community, no matter what their status or condition. But while I was concerned with the elders understanding their community is welcome at our library, the elders told me that our staff was too welcoming, too "soft," and we needed stricter boundaries. They expressed genuine concern for the safety of our staff.

I learned that people cannot access services on the reserve when they are intoxicated or otherwise under the influence. They are not allowed in the administrative offices or health care offices. There are many treatment options available, but there's a zero-tolerance policy on intoxicated people wandering into offices or meeting spaces. 

* * * *

This lovely luncheon experience led to a visit to the library by two local elders. 

They expressed similar concerns that we are too soft. They were concerned for our safety and the safety of all our customers -- as they put it, grandmas with their grandbabies. They advised us to stop people at the door, and if they're intoxicated, tell them to turn around and leave. 

The elders also advised us to pay no attention when intoxicated people accuse us of racism. When we ask an intoxicated and disruptive person to leave the library, we are called racists. The same person, when sober, knows full well that's not why they're being asked to leave. It's just something to say -- a way to get a rise out of us. I'm always reminding staff to let it roll right off them. The affirmation from the elders was extremely useful! 

The elders asked for our permission to pray for us. We held hands in a circle and bent our heads while the more senior person prayed. While this was happening, an intoxicated person interrupted, trying to ask a question. The elder in prayer held up her hand in front of his face and prayed harder. The man apologized and shrank away.

Now, I couldn't tell them that what works for them will not necessarily work for us. We cannot refuse admission to the library based on the appearance of intoxication or our judgement of someone's condition. I can't put staff in a position of assessing customers' fitness for entry. We can only ask customers to leave based on their behaviour. There's a difference. 

In addition, an elder can address community members in a way we cannot. If our staff spoke spoke that way, they would be escalating -- and putting themselves at risk. The person who brought me to the luncheon put it this way: The elders can put a person in their place, because no one's going to punch them. 

* * * *

During this visit, my staff and I received a beautiful affirmation. The elders knew that our library was a welcoming place for members of their Nation, knew that we have created a space of caring and respect. Their concern for our safety meant so much to us. 

The elders gave us a word: a Kwak'wala word to use in the library. Receiving a word is not a simple translation. It's a gift. The elders were saying that we are connected to their community. 

The word is maya'xala. Here is Pewi Alfred of the 'Namgis nation in Alert Bay demonstrating the pronunciation.

The Alfreds are a well-known Alert Bay family who are deeply involved in cultural preservation. I recently learned that someone in our library community is Pewi Alfred's granddaughter, something she revealed to me with great pride.

* * * *

On a personal note, at the luncheon, I tasted t'lina. T'lina (pronounced gleet-na) in oil harvested from eulachon. This oil has great cultural significance, which I have learned about at the U'mista Cultural Centre. The process of rendering oil from these tiny fish takes many weeks and is a painstaking, meticulous process. T'lina is also tremendously healthy, with many healing properties. 

A short film by the late Barb Cranmer, 'Namgis knowledge-keeper and filmmaker who passed away in 2019, is available to National Film Board of Canada subscribers, and on DVD from the U'mista Centre: The Rendering of Wealth. Even if you can't watch the movie, the blurb is worth reading. 

T'lina is the fishiest food I have ever tasted. We were eating a simple halibut soup -- big chunks of halibut, along with potatoes and other vegetables, in broth -- and the cooks came around with a pitcher and ladle, asking if we wanted oil in the soup. Several people laughingly waved them away. The cook asked me if I wanted to try it, and I would never say no. In addition to possibly being insulting, I always say yes to trying new things. Wow! Fishy!

Before the soup, we were served herring roe on pieces of kelp. This was tasty, although rubbery. It would have been great fried (called kazunoko in Japanese cuisine). One of the elders sitting nearby, when offered some, joked, "Get away with that, I don't eat rubber!" I ate a bit of everything, and the cooks insisted I take leftovers with me.

I am always so humbled by the graciousness of First Nations hosts. 

* * * *

This experience was also personally gratifying for me, as it affirmed my connections in the community, and the trust I have earned. 

After a week where we called 911 fifteen times in five days, including five times in one single day, I reached out to the manager of Foundry Port Hardy. They in turned reached out to many other people, including a nurse who works in mental health and addiction services. They in turn reached out to several more people, and invited me to the elders' luncheon. The nurse worked on the reserve for many years, and has deep connections in the community, and I attended as their guest. 

These connections took much longer to form that I thought they would. When I moved to Port Hardy, I imagined a transition period of six or eight months. It took three years

This town is plagued by a lack of continuity. Many professionals move here as a stepping stone in their career, and move on after a year or two. I think, whether consciously or no, people were waiting to see if I proved myself by remaining in the community. Finally, in my fifth year here, I feel I've passed the test.


pacific northwest labor history association conference: the young organizers

Without a doubt, the most engaging talk I attended at the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association Conference was "Young Workers Rising," a panel of young organizers interviewed by another young organizer. I won't try to reproduce it here, as I could never do it justice, but I can share some bits that I found interesting and exciting.

First of all, there is -- and I quote -- "an unprecendented wave" of union organizing going on right now, throughout North America.

Some are campaigns you've likely heard of, like the burgeoning Starbucks Workers Union and Amazon Labor Union. Most of the efforts, however, take place under the radar of the mainstream media. Owners of those outlets would just as soon not expose their poorly-paid and badly-treated staff to successful union organizers! I learn about strikes, lockouts, organizing, and other labour news through a few different mailing lists and websites -- and most of what I see, I only see there. For the rest of you: be assured that organizing is happening everywhere. Workers are demanding more, and they are succeeding.

On the panel in May were: a former stage manager now organizing tech workers; an archivist organizing in the GLAM sector (galleries, archives, libraries, and museums); an organizer with Starbucks Workers United; and someone organizing food service workers in a local cafe chain. 

These folks are doing everything right. 

They are diverse, inclusive, and affirming. Historically, a few unions were way ahead of the curve on inclusion, equality, and diversity. But for most, it took a very long time to break down barriers of racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, Islamophobia. But these kids are on it, right out of the gate.

They are building worker power, organizing internally, steered by leaders who rise organically from the workplace.

They are identifying and training other organizers.

They are fearless.

And they are having fun, approaching their work with determination and joy.

Here are some tidbits from my notes.

* The librarians, archivists and museum workers union drive began with one union librarian sharing the details of her contract. That is a powerful detail. When I was an office worker, the temp agency always said, "Don't discuss your rate." There's a reason for that. The takeaway: always discuss! Information is power, so we should always be sharing.

* One panelist's labour activism "grew out of the liberation struggles of 2020". After marching and demonstrating and attending meetings, they needed to find more meaningful work, and recognized union organizing as both a direct path to improving lives and to helping people find tools to improve their own lives.

* The food-service industry is a segregated workplace, and segregated mostly by class -- middle-class workers front-of-house, and mostly undocumented, poor, immigrant workers in the warehouse, cooking, and catering. The employer, of course, tries to pit them against each other.

And even when that doesn't fly, when there is empathy, the segregation is a huge obstacle. It's difficult to organize people for issues that don't impact them. Front-of-house workers, for the most part, live with their parents; they have health care and they don't pay rent. The warehouse and catering workers have very little, but speaking up is risking deportation.

One of the great successes of our library workers strike in 2016 was that full-time workers walked out mainly for part-time workers. Full-timers had issues, but the strike was mainly on behalf of the part-timers, who had grown over the years from 25% to 65% of our membership -- and who got essentially nothing from the contract. Needless to say, they were utterly disillusioned with full-time bargaining committees who negotiated only for themselves. It was a delicate balancing act, and it worked.

If you're lucky and have good full-time allies and good leadership, you can get away with that -- once. A steady diet of it will not work. As one panelist said, "We can organize along class lines, with an immigrant population, but they can't do it alone. We need men who will fight against sexual harassment. We need white workers who will fight for people of colour. We need comfortable workers to fight to raise others up." This is a challenge!

* Many people don't realize that there are low-paid tech workers without benefits or any job protections. Tech workers who earn salaries of $150K often subcontract much of their repetitive work (such as coding) to people who are paid $16/hour. 

* Mandated return-to-office rules after covid was radicalizing for many tech workers. 

* The Seattle Labor Council was the labor council to boot the police union from the organization. This is a bold move that other labour councils have followed. (More about this: "Local unions defy AFL-CIO in push to oust police unions" from Politico, and It's time to kick police unions out of the labor movement. They aren't allies, opinion piece in The Guardian, both from 2020.)

* The food-service organizer referred to the different marketing and branding of their employer's products -- the same products in different packages, one looking like a supermarket brand, the other branded with organic and sustainability -- "but it's all the same shit".  

* The panelists emphasized the importance of "defining your own wins". They told us about 1,200 casino workers who struck at the Atlantic City Taj Mahal. Billionaire owner Carl Icahn closed the casino rather than negotiate in good faith. The workers held strong. And when the casino re-opened, it was "fully union from day one", and they got most of what they had asked for. "Defining your own wins" is an important life lessons in so many respects.

* The organizers all followed the Jane McAlevey organizing methods, adjusted to their own context. Some high-level critiques have been written about McAlevey's work lately, which is inevitable as ideas spread widely. Nothing is without flaws, and no arena should be exempt from critical thinking. But workers' struggles can't wait for purity and perfection. Let the theorists theorize. Building worker power works

To stay in touch with labour news, I recommend PressProgress' Shift Work newsletter. There are many good sites and email lists. Be aware that "LabourWatch", run by the Canadian LabourWatch Association, is an anti-union website.


pacific northwest labor history association conference: the keynote address

It has been on my mind, and on my to-do list, to write more about the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association Conference*, which I was fortunate to attend in May of this year.

In my post twelve reasons i loved the pacific northwest labor history association conference, I listed:

The keynote: "Reckoning with the Past to Move Forward". The keynote speaker was Moon-Ho Jung, a historian at the University of Washington. His speech was riveting, and set the radical tone for the day.

A stranger in a strange land

Jung led the audience through the path that formed his own worldview, and the lens through which he views history. He talked first about growing up as an Asian-American in the Detroit area in the 1970s and 1980s, and his family's discourse around the US and immigration. 

My family never sat around and talked about history. But there were lots of historical tidbits that got mentioned over and over. I remember my family talking about how brutal Japanese colonialism in Korea had been.

There was one particular story of Japanese colonial officials ripping the fingernails out of Korean Christians that was told often and in graphic detail. I knew very little about the history of Japanese colonialism, but I was taught from an early age that it had been sadistic and inhumane. To this day, whenever Japanese colonialism is mentioned, I think about fingernails.

The United States, on the other hand, received a far better and lighter treatment in our household. It was a Christian country, the land of freedom. It was the United States that had supposedly liberated Korea from Japanese colonialism.

And that image co-existed somehow with our family's daily encounters with white supremacy in the United States. We encountered a lot of overt racism in Michigan in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Growing up in a Reagan Democrat, white working-class neighborhood with the name "Moon-Ho Jung" wasn't exactly easy.

Being called a "chink" or a "Jap" was almost a daily occurrence. One day in elementary school, it got so bad that I came home crying. You know what my mom's advice was: "Tell them you're Korean." Thanks, mom.

Although I blend in better than most people who identify as Asian American or Asian Canadian, I've encountered plenty of anti-Semitism. From a very early age, I was aware that in the scheme of America, Jews are not quite white. Like Jung, I was also raised with gruesome and one-sided associations of certain ethnicities and nationalities.  

Jung addressed the question, the one every person of Asian descent in North America is asked, the one that (in my experience) white people are least likely to understand as offensive and racist: "Where are you from?"

In the most benign terms, the question is a symptom of a dominant mythology that would have us believe that the United States is a "nation of immigrants." The question could be extended to, "Where is your family from?" At some point or another, it seems, we're all supposed to be able to identify a family member or an ancestral figure who dared to "immigrate" to the United States.

In that vein, most Americans, including Asian Americans, generally like to narrate their history along generational lines. The first generation immigrates; the second generation rebels against their immigrant parents to become more "Americanized"; over time, future generations become more and more "American" and fully "assimilated."

I don't play that generational game anymore. When I'm asked where I'm from or what generation I am or some variation thereof, I no longer get defensive. I pivot to offense because I know that we cannot narrate our history along a generational model. "I don't know," I say. "America came to us, called us 'gooks,' and then killed 4 million of us, so you tell me what generation that makes me?" Conversation killer.

Most Americans would probably find my answer offensive because it is that global context of US imperial violence that narratives of US history are supposed to erase.

He linked this perspective back to the right-wing's drive to distort and erase history. 

That is why conservatives have been waging war against the teaching of Ethnic Studies, Critical Race Theory, and critical anything for generations. They believe that history is something to be worshipped and celebrated, mostly to justify and perpetuate the racial and colonial order that their white settler ancestors created.
. . . .
In the version of US history that I learned growing up, Asian Americans were virtually invisible. I cannot recall the textbook we used in AP US History, but I can guess when and where Asian Americans must have appeared first. The Chinese were most likely mentioned in reference to the California Gold Rush or the building of the first transcontinental railroad. 
That aspect of Asian American history can fit so neatly into the epic drama that has supposedly defined and made America: Chinese immigrants, hoping to make it rich in America, crossed the Pacific to live out their American Dream. The United States is indeed the "nation of immigrants."
America as empire; Americanness is whiteness

Jung took the audience through the United States' response to labour imported from Asia and to Asian immigration generally. If you don't know about the Chinese Exclusion Act -- or in Canada, the misnamed Chinese Immigration Act -- you should read up.

Through a critical engagement with the past, I came to see the present, my own identity, in a radically different light. I came to understand that the pitting of Black people and Asian people [against each other] has been pivotal to reproducing white supremacy. I also came to see that the exclusion of Asians from the United States was not an exception to or a betrayal of America’s inclusive traditions.

It was, in fact, fundamental to that notion of the American nation, a racial project that equated whiteness and Americanness.

About the "War on Terror," Jung noted wryly,
That a Korean American, John Yoo, authored the Bush Administration's infamous "Torture Memo" sanctioning brutal tactics against "unlawful combatants" was horribly embarrassing and utterly predictable. Bush liked to appoint persons of color—remember Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Alberto Gonzales?—to do his dirty work. That was multiculturalism at work.

Jung noted, as all Americans should, that "the most insidious aspect of the US history I learned in high school was the absence of the US empire and Indigenous peoples." 

During the height of the Philippine-American War in 1901, for instance, the US Philippine Commission issued the Sedition Act, which made it "unlawful for any person to advocate orally or by writing or printing or like methods, the independence of the Philippine Islands or their separation from the United States whether by peaceable or forcible means."

The US military, full of veterans of Indian wars in North America, waged a genocidal war in the Philippines to secure the US empire. But Filipinos continued to mobilize against the US empire, organizing anticolonial movements that the US state attempted to monitor, criminalize, and repress.

By framing peoples in and from Asia as racialized and radicalized subjects of the US empire, not as immigrants aspiring to become Americans, my recent book suggests the need to frame anti-Asian racism, including racial violence, as quintessentially American, an expression of and a justification for US claims to sovereignty across the Pacific and around the world.

. . . 

Demonized over the last century as "anarchists," "communists," "gooks," and "terrorists," Asians have been cast as "un-American" and "anti-American," those who needed to be killed and contained to protect the racial and colonial order that is the United States of America. 

In that context, insisting on the "Americanness" of Asian Americans can never meaningfully address a deeper history of empire and white supremacy.

In the same building where this speech was being given, there was an exhibit called "Resilience -- a Sansei Sense of Legacy," art created by Japanese American artists, exploring the wounds their families survived after being rounded up and forced into concentration camps, and all their possessions, including homes and stores, stolen.

A framework for history

Underlying Jung's story was the idea that theory matters. The theoretical framework we use to see history informs how we engage with history, how we pass on stories. Is America a land of opportunity, a nation of immigrants? Is it an global empire that has slaughtered and terrorized people around the globe? Answers to these questions inform the stories we tell.

Americans aren't the only myth-makers. Many of the most progressive-minded Canadians subscribe to a brand of Canadian exceptionalism every bit as false as the American mythology. Canada the peaceful nation, the healthy nation, the benign nation of goodwill, diversity, and inclusion. All Canadians need to do is look across the country's southern border to confirm that this is true. 

But, as I'm so fond of saying, "better than the United States" is a very low bar. Yes, Canada has universal health insurance, and was one of the first countries to adopt marriage equality.  We enjoy more reproductive freedom, and the country is more secular than that US. 

Canada also has the tar sands, mining behemoths that pillage land and people around the globe, The Indian Act, and First Nations reserves where residents don't even have clean drinking water. Canada keeps its statistics on infant mortality and health outcomes looking beautiful because these statistics don't include Indigenous people! 

We must view history with the blinders fully off, one that looks at actions, not rhetoric. We must question everything. JFK as the civil-rights president is as ludicrous as Canada the global peacekeeper.

Think collectively

Fittingly for a conference on labour history, Jung's address included something about his employer, a university, and how employers mimic the larger culture. 

The university president gave a speech meant to address local and national racism, sexism, and homophobia, and to rally the community to respond. They listed three steps, three things we can all do, to fight hate. 

One, call out the bigots. Don't ignore them. 

Two, have some multicultural contact in your lives. 

And three, look into your own heart and mind, and combat the biases and prejudices you yourself carry. (They elaborated eloquently on each one.)

These are all fine things to do, and hopefully everyone reading this is doing all three. But, Jung pointed out, these are all individual responses to a systemic problem.

[The] speech, in many ways, captures our current moment: systemic racism is everywhere, but we're told that the solution is for individuals to become educated and color blind.

Rather than addressing the systemic roots of white supremacy and heterosexism, [the speaker] ends up personalizing everything. Getting over "prejudice" was the key to ending our problems.

The inadequacy of individual responses to a systemic problem also speaks to the ongoing project that some of us in Canada are engaged in: decolonizing. I often see decolonizing as futile and hopeless, as colonialism is baked in to the very foundations of every institution. But I also see it as necessary and vital. This is both Beckett -- You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on. -- and Gandhi -- Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.


* I just went back to the older references to the conference and deleted the u in labour.


rip robbie robertson

The news that Robbie Robertson died hit me hard. Although he's not the last surviving member of The Band (Garth Hudson recently turned 86), he was my last surviving deep connection to music that is so close to my heart. 

I rarely feel a famous person's death in a personal way. Usually I think that's sad or what a shame, they were so young or I know they were sick for a long time. Thoughts, not feelings. I could compare this to how I feel when an acquaintance I only know briefly loses a family member. It's sad, and I care, but I'm not affected emotionally. 

Once in a while, I can honestly say that the death of a famous person has brought me grief. This was one of those times. 

It also makes me think of times like this -- which will be much worse, much deeper -- that lie ahead. The deaths of a generation of musicians who had huge cultural impacts has already started. A few whose deaths I will genuinely grieve are on the horizon.

To put down in pixels what Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, The Band, and "The Last Waltz" have meant to me through the years somehow reduces it to cliche. The film, especially, weaves its way through my life, from skipping school to see it at Radio City Music Hall (twice!) in 1978, to introducing Allan to it in the 1980s, when it quickly became a touchstone of a shared love, to first buying the soundtrack on LP and then on DVD. I know every frame of that movie, every moment. I've obsessed on every shot and every note.

I don't even want to attempt to explain this. Anything I could write would be a cheap imitation, a fifth-generation photocopy, a lifeless cliche. It would reduce something profound into mere words. 

I love to read and think about art -- books, film, paintings, architecture, all of it. But at the same time, all my life I've shied away from too much analysis, too much intellectualizing, about the art that means the most to me. I experience the art that I love best in a place that has no words.*

Robbie's music brought great joy to my life, and also meaning. I love that later in life, he openly embraced his Indigenous heritage. He was a great-looking man at every age. And his music, well, it will always be alive for me.

There are some famous people who, even though you've never met them (or if you did, you were a handshake or an autograph among millions), you truly feel they are part of your life. Almost like an extended family, in that their presence feels so real to you. Robbie Robertson was one of those people for me.

* I recently read two books that explore, among other things, how art makes us feel: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.


re-setting expectations: let's all stop apologizing for not being instantly available all the time

Long ago, when emailing first became widely used, I had several long-distance friendships that were conducted entirely by email. I noticed that almost every email began the same way: "Sorry I haven't written in so long..." or "Sorry I've been out of touch..." or something similar. That's when I instituted The Rule.

The Rule states: We write when we can, and we never apologize for how long it's been. Over the years and decades, I've shared The Rule with many friends. I use it still.

We need The Rule now more than ever. But we need to expand it, and tailor it to fit all aspects of our lives -- work, personal, and  everything in between.

I'm not writing this because over-apologizing is a pet peeve (although it is). I'm writing this because immediacy is an issue of health and well-being.

Whatever happened to asynchronicity?

Email is asynchronous. Unlike a phone or video call, where all parties must be present at the same time, you write an email when you're available, and the recipient reads and replies when they're available. That's the beauty of email, and the best reason to use it.

It seems that most people have lost touch with this concept.

Depending on the content of any given email, an appropriate time to reply may be later the same day, or the following day, or several days or even weeks away. If the sender needs an answer immediately, they should call, or perhaps put "urgent" or "reply requested asap" in the subject line. Other than that, there should be no pressure to reply in the moment or the hour.

Yet my work inbox is filled with emails in which the sender apologizes for a "delay" of a day or two, or sometimes hours!

Of course, sometimes an apology is called for. Sometimes we've overlooked a deadline, or lost track of an email, inconveniencing someone or causing confusion, and we want to acknowledge that. So sure, occasionally apologies may be fitting. 

But most of the time, when someone apologizes for a delay, there is no delay. And every time we do this, every time we apologize for replying the following day or a few days later, we imply -- and we perpetuate the notion -- that we should all reply to email immediately.

These apologies create an expectation. They create urgency that usually doesn't exist.

Let's take personal responsibility for being less responsible

Our current world places huge demands on our lives. 

Work, family, friends, social media,  activism or volunteering, news stories that are updated in real time. Many people have more than one job. Many people work in industries where they are expected to be always available. And far too many fields have drifted to the must-be-always-available model when that kind of urgency is actually not necessary. 

And there are so many channels of communication! Sometimes I know I need to respond to someone and can't remember where I saw their message. Work email? Teams chat? Text on work phone? Text on personal phone? Personal email? Facebook message (from someone who doesn't know or remember that I don't use Messenger)? Chat in a Zoom or Teams meeting? Or was that project that's using Slack, or is it Basecamp? I'm guessing I'm not the only person this happens to. 

There are always multiple demands pulling us in multiple directions. And the more we make ourselves always available, the more we feed expectations that we must be always available. Without even being fully aware of it, we may assume that if everyone else is always available, and we're not, we may appear absent, or uncaring -- or left behind. Maybe it will reflect on us poorly at work. Maybe it's FOMO. How many of our friends answer a group email or text an hour later, and apologize for being "late to the party"? 

Many of us struggle with focus and live with a constant nagging feeling of being always "behind". And being always available means we are constantly interrupting ourselves. 

We're working on project A, then we answer a text from person B, an email from projects C and D, then back to A, then more interruptions from projects S, T, and V, back to A, then a text reply from B. Person G sends a video, and we click. We scroll Facebook for a while, thinking we're taking a mental break, when in reality, we're just further fracturing our focus. What happened to project A, where was I? We feel frazzled, harried. We answer emails without fully reading and digesting them. We apologize to everyone. And on it goes. 

At the end of the day, we know we were busy, but wonder if we actually accomplished anything.

Helpful hints

There's no shortage of articles online about this, from empty clickbait to thoughtful books such as Cal Newport's Deep Work. (I wrote about Newport's book Digital Minimalism here.) All the writers analyze the same phenomenon and offer practical advice to slow and ultimately stop this runaway treadmill. But in the end, we are the only ones who can stop it in our own lives.

I have little scripts, prepackaged lines I can use to undermine the expectations of immediacy.

While "no is a complete sentence" can be very useful, in most work environments, we are expected to flesh that out a bit. Here are some responses I employ on a regular basis.

"This interests me, but my plate is full right now. Could I touch base with you in September?"

"What's your timeline for this? I can work on it towards the end of next week. If you need it sooner, I will have to pass."

"I can help you with that. Is it urgent? If not, can we talk tomorrow morning?"

"My plate is completely full right now. If this is a priority, I'll need some direction on what to put aside."

"I'd love to, but I'm afraid I don't have time / mental space / bandwidth right now."

Unless there is actual urgency, I use these replies no sooner than the day after I receive an email.

This doesn't mean I work solidly for hours without interruption! Far from it. A big part of my job is supporting staff, so I am constantly being interrupted. When colleagues call (as opposed to emailing) there is usually a good reason, and I must answer. Those are necessary interruptions, and they are frequent. That's why cutting down on the unnecessary interruptions is so important.

Is it urgent? Pick up the phone. If it's emailed, take some time.

The most important thing we can do in many situations is not respond immediately

Leave the email in your inbox. Let it sit there for a day, or two days, or a week, depending on the context. 

If, realistically, it may be a long time before you can deal with a particular email you can always use something like this.

Thanks for your email. Just wanted to let you know I've received your message, and will reply when I can.

Then continue doing what you were doing. And continue doing that as the next email comes in, and the next, and the next. 

If you can find a way to work without seeing email notifications, that's the best method of all, then you can set a daily time to go through your emails. Or three daily times. Or whatever works for you. But stop answering immediately and stop apologizing when you don't.

Fuck Inbox Zero

"Inbox Zero" -- keeping your inbox empty or almost empty every day -- is (a) a myth, (b) incredibly inefficient, and (c) totally unnecessary. If I answered every email as it arrived, I would spend my entire day answering emails and never get anything else done. Even Merlin Mann, the person credited with coining the expression "inbox zero", admits that it's no longer viable.

The "productivity experts" at Superhuman advise that every email can be dealt with in one of four ways -- delete, delegate, defer, or do. Hey, doesn't defer mean letting it wait? But even that triage takes time, and to what end? Perhaps there's a reason this "advice" (translation: product marketing) comes from something called Superhuman. We are human. We don't have to be super human.

Signature lines may help 

A number of people I know now include expectation re-setting in their signature lines. They have added things like:

I will answer your email in 24-48 hours. If your matter is urgent, please call.

Please note I work part-time and it may take some time to respond. Thank you for your patience.

I've seen people including compassionate responses to other people's self-expectations. These are all about returning to asynchronicity.

If you have received an email from me outside of your normal business hours, please feel no pressure to read or respond until you are working.

I work flexibly and may send emails outside normal working hours. Your immediate response is not expected. Please do not feel any pressure to respond outside of your own work schedule.

Signature blocks may be like signs: no one reads them. But it's worth a try.

I blame texting

I think the shift from email to texting (and other forms of instant messaging) is partly to blame for this perceived urgency. This drift from one technology to another is something I've yielded to out of necessity. But I really, really dislike it.

For one thing, I am a very fast keyboard typist, and using all my ergonomic equipment, I find typing on a keyboard infinitely easier than onscreen typing.

But beyond that, the reason I prefer email is the perceived immediacy of texting. When we receive text messages, we feel compelled to interrupt whatever we're doing to respond. We might decline a phone call and let an email sit, but a text seems to get answered immediately or not at all.

I get it. Email is work-related, news from organizations, customer service replies, and other business-y things. Text is more personal. And for quick questions, brief hellos, and "I'm running late," immediacy is important. But the immediacy of texting has amped up the sense of immediacy for everything else in our lives.

Be the change

We can each do our part in re-setting the expectation of immediacy. Two simple rules could go a long way.

1. Don't reply immediately. Let the email sit in your inbox, at least for one day.

2. When you do reply, don't apologize.