An American Revolt to Preserve Identity and Heritage

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“Bowl” by Maria and Julian Martinez (Native American, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico), San Ildefonso Pueblo via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

 

“Under the Spanish, the Jemez were famed for their black-and-white pottery, and were commissioned to make chalices and other ecclesiastical objects. Perhaps because of this association, Liebmann found virtually no black-and-white pottery at the new sites. Instead, pottery with the double-headed key motif and other ancient designs predominated. The Jemez also began to use a simple red pottery that exploded in popularity among the Pueblo after the Revolt, perhaps signifying the formation of a pan-Pueblo identity that hadn’t existed before.”

. . . “I always wonder how the Pueblo would live today if there had been no Revolt,” says Aguilar. “It’s a scary thought, because if those colonial practices had played out over the course of another century, there’s no telling what the state of my pueblo would be. We are living where we are and we are the people we are thanks in part to the Revolt.”

–“The First American Revolution” on Archaeology.org

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Negative and Positive Freedom

I’m reading James McPherson’s book The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Mattersand it presents interesting context that connects to our explorations of The Federalist Papers.

McPherson notes in the first chapter that the word “liberty” has assumed multiple meanings throughout American history, and that the Civil War marked a paradigm shift from one dominant meaning to another. “The tragic irony of the Civil War is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers.”

To help us understand this divide in the American definition of liberty, McPherson turns to “famous twentieth British philosopher Isiah Berlin in an essay titled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty.'” In this essay, Berlin delineates the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty.

Negative liberty is freedom from. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” McPherson states that “Traditionally in American ideology . . . power was the enemy of liberty. . . ‘There is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty,’ wrote James Madison. . . . Madison also drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights that limited the powers of the national government in the name of liberty. Nearly all of these amendments apply some form of the phrase ‘shall not’ to the federal government.”

This concept of liberty remains alive, even resurgent, today. As McPherson notes, “In recent years, with the rise of small-government or antigovernment movements in our politics, there has been a revival of negative liberty.”

But the Civil War marked a transition from a primarily negative conception of liberty to that of a positive one.

Positive liberty is freedom to. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.”

McPherson notes that “The change from all those ‘shall nots’ in the first ten amendments to the Constitution to the phrase ‘Congress shall have the power to enforce’ this provision in most post-Civil War amendments is indicative of this shift—especially the Thirteenth Amendment, which liberated four million slaves, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which guaranteed them equal civil and political rights.”

McPherson also notes another interesting shift in language and ideology during the Civil War—the transition from a description of the United States as a union to that of a nation. “In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 ‘United States’ was a plural noun . . . Since 1865 ‘United States’ is a singular noun. . . This transformation can be traced in Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses.”

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War was critical to forging the conception of a unitary nation. If the primary goal of the Civil War was to preserve the union, the secondary one became the abolition of slavery, and those two goals symbiotically evolved during the war to become one and the same. McPherson articulates, later in Chapter 8, Lincoln’s critical role in defining this new nation in terms of a positive freedom. He uses James Oakes’s study The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, to compare Lincoln with Frederick Douglass in terms of their impact on our nation’s definition of liberty and freedom.

The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to those principles. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities.

In other words, Lincoln and Douglass both served a critical and complementary purpose in carrying our democracy forward.

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, through McPherson’s retelling, stands up well to the critical eye of history. Though Lincoln was necessarily a man of his time, he also seemed to possess a foresight that enabled him to understand the ultimate purpose of the Civil War, and to strategically steer a divided union through the devastatingly disruptive shifts that it took to forge one nation (did you know that 750,000 soldiers died during this war?!). Lincoln was playing the long game. He told Congress in the winter of 1861 that “this struggle to preserve the Union ‘is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.'”

The tension between a positive and negative conception of liberty continues as a source of faction in our nation today. I think we would do well to remember the Civil War, and heed the lessons learned from the great sacrifice that was made to create a more sophisticated nation in which liberty meant equality for all, rather than the mere autonomy from tyranny that first created our nation.

The Civil War taught us that establishing a meaningful definition of national liberty means sacrificing some individuality for the betterment of a collective good. This is a sacrifice that many of us today seem unwilling to make. And it makes one wonder—what will be the next divisive battle that we will need to fight to transform our democratic republic into a nation that will be worthy of our grandchildren?

This Skein of Brittle Self-Awareness

It’s one of those nights in NYC when it’s too hot to sleep. It’s hard to even breathe. So in the night, I sit down here at my kitchen table to write. The way I used to, when my horizon was so wide open I was drowning in loneliness.

Which is apropos, because today I felt an old lonely feeling, the sense of an inability to relate to people in a way that seems to come naturally to others. Since I’ve been a child, there’s been something withheld about me, something cynical and fearful, a spiteful, sensitive creature that spits at the world.

This is who I am. An imperfect, arrogant, overly self-aware asshole who wants to be loved.

I remember the first time my father took me to a baseball game, and as the people around me cheered and followed crowd protocols and shouted good naturedly at players, I sat, withdrawn, and did not understand. A burly man bantered with my father and informed him that his son was a Vulcan. Though he meant it in friendly jest, it felt to my overly sensitive self like an attack. Something was wrong with me. I seemed unable to exhibit some innate male marker.

Sometimes I wonder if I have some mild inability to comprehend certain social cues, an inkling of autism. Or perhaps some deficiency of testosterone or some other naturally occurring trait that people sniff off each other like dogs determining one another’s character by sniffing each other’s butts.

I’ve never been interested in the things that seem to be normal things to be interested in. My attention is often elsewhere.

As an adult, this has become a strength in my work, in that I’ve discovered that I have an ability to lose myself in an isolated drive to get things done.

But there are some times, like today, when I am reminded of my deficiency. Why can’t I just relax, say an offhand remark that will make a stranger laugh, remove this skein of brittle self-awareness that inhibits me from relating naturally to others?

This is my curse, and perhaps it is my blessing–the fundamental flaw that defines my character. I will never be that burly man at ease with his place in the world, savoring a baseball game in a stadium. I am condemned to be forever hungry, nipping at the heels of an internal wilderness, sitting silently in a stew of conflicting emotions, conveying little, waiting for some distant moment when I can curl my understanding into a word on a page in a stranger’s heart.

In Memory of Claudia

My little bird, Claudia, passed away today. She was a spunky, beautiful, loving parakeet filled with song and vivacity. When let out of her cage, she would swoop and dive bomb about our apartment, a little green hornet.

She had the softest tiny belly. She loved sitting on my shoulder, grooming me.

We got her to provide companionship for my white-fronted Amazon parrot, Vincent, whom I’ve had since I was a little kid in San Diego.

She loved Vinnie as much as we do, and would selflessly groom his forehead and sing to him. She would boss him about and eat the food out of his bowl.

Four years ago, we purchased Claudia from a Pet Co downtown and brought her back all the way home on the A train.

In the middle of the night in one of the first months after we’d gotten her, she somehow got herself skewered–literally–on a toy hanging up in her cage. She was hooked onto it like a fish, flapping around in pain and fear. We managed to disentangle her, and I poured hydrogen peroxide on her wound.

We were terrified over the course of that week that she would die, but she was resilient. She was a tough little one. My NY bird.

Because of this resiliency, when she began getting sick over the past month, we didn’t think much of it. I was worried, of course, but I assumed that she would pull through whatever was ailing her.

And she did seem to get better, for a while. But suddenly today, she took a drastic turn for the worse. She was having difficulty breathing, and eventually moved to the floor of her cage, hiding under her food bowl.

When a bird does that, you know things are bad. Birds are good at hiding when they are really sick.

She passed away before my eyes this evening. It was awful. There was nothing I could do to help her.

Whenever I tell people that I have birds as pets, they seem to think it’s weird. And I’m sure that it must seem silly to you to grieve over a parakeet. But birds are wonderful pets. They have vibrant, unique personalities and are filled with the joy of living.

My wife and I have been sobbing all night, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I loved that little bird. And I am going to miss her terribly.

Reflections on 2011 and Beyond

Reflections on the year entire and milestones reached, and a special goal for the oncoming year shared.

It’s the end of another year, and rather than compile a numbered list of the best of 2011 or make predictions about the year to come, I’d like simply to reflect on what this year has been, and ruminate on what my goals might be for the oncoming year.

My sense of this year–in the traditional sense of a year–is somewhat skewed, since January through June was still “last year” as far as school life is concerned, and that last school year was vastly different than my current school year. So I’ll start there. For that stray, wonderful soul out there that already knows this information, just skim over it.

I am now in my third school year of teaching special education at an elementary school in the Bronx. My first two years, I was in a self-contained setting, which meant that I was the sole teacher with the assistance of a paraprofessional in a classroom of up to 12 kids (I think my first year I had 9, then last year I had 8, so I guess I was fortunate in that sense; though something you quickly learn in special education is not to gauge solely by numbers) some of whom were undergoing acute emotional or psychological stress or dealing with early childhood trauma. So at the beginning of this year, 2011, I was struggling with meeting the needs of my second class of students. Compared to my 1st year, these students were collectively less aggressive and they were generally a pleasure to be with, though we certainly had some rough days. I had two very challenging students in the emotional sense, though they all presented great challenges in the academic and social needs sense. Some refused to do any work at all, and some worked very hard, yet demonstrated little progress.

I obtained my master’s degree in June from The City College of New York. Not really an accomplishment in and of itself, but an accomplishment in the sense that I was taking those classes on top of the already plentifully demanding work as a full time teacher in a high needs school. So that’s my first personal milestone of 2011.

My second personal milestone is that during the summer, I got married to a wonderful broad from New York City who crossed my star out in Lake Tahoe 5 years ago, and who ended up lugging me out here to the East Coast. We were fortunate enough to get the chance (thanks to my parents) to honeymoon in Kauai. Truly a marvelous cap to a challenging 3 years since moving out here to NYC.

Then I commenced my 3rd year teaching. In all respects, it’s been something of a honeymoon there, too. I was shifted from a self-contained setting to an inclusion setting, where I now am a co-teacher in a mixed classroom of 19 special education and general education students. These students might be far behind academically speaking, but they do not have the kind of aggressive behaviors I was dealing with prior. I have not been assaulted, and they only rarely get into verbal tiffs with each other. They are truly sweet, lovely children to be around (though they can’t stop talking), and I know I am lucky this year and I try to cherish it as much as I can while in the thick of things.

Working with another teacher presents its own set of challenges, but it provides a relief from administrative burdens. I’m not good at communicating with parents on the phone, and she’s great at it. She helps plan lessons and grade assignments. I also learn from my co-teacher and appreciate the perspective she brings to our classroom, given that she grew up in the same neighborhood as our students and can tap into that experience to connect with them. We have lunch together and I learn just from listening to her crazy stories. All in all, I get the impression that the South Bronx today–though it certainly isn’t topping any Yahoo lists of best places to live–ain’t nothing like it used to be.

My third personal milestone this year was that I turned 33. Nothing special in particular about that, except that 3 is my lucky number. Hoo-rah!

But now it’s a new year (almost), and I know that I am not the best educator nor person that I can be. I feel like I’ve reached some sort of plateau, in which I am in danger of falling into complacency. If I am not challenging myself, nor being challenged, then I question my purpose, my identity, my integrity.

So I enter the new year with some trepidation, but also with the firm resolve to do better. Better for my wife, better for my students, and better for myself. I’m not going to burden you with a laundry list of my personal or professional goals, which I’ve already done plenty enough of throughout this year, but there is one goal that I would like to share with you:

This year, I am going to write a book. You heard it here first.

Happy New Year to all.

Exploring My Self

I have never been much inclined to write down the things that simply happen to me down in a journal. Such as “Today I went to the park and met up with Jane and played snooker,” and etc. My memory also mimics this disinclination. I completely erase from my memory occurrences or conversations which I feel are only of an overly detailed nature. This of course often gets me into trouble, especially with the girlfriend, who feels quite differently about the things that I have let slide from my mind like silicone through a tube. I am someone who thinks in generalities and integrating linkages. I see the connections in things that make two disparate concepts into a greater whole. I have never been interested in learning detailed specifics—at least not conceptually—because I don’t retain this information. I sometimes wish that I could. For example, when I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, I was especially impressed by Malcolm’s keen ability to retain facts and history, and to string these together in one moment in a penetrating response to any questioner. This made him dangerous, because his mind was a weapon, and he used it to blow apart conventional myths and assumptions. But I can’t retain information like that, even if I (*gasp*) applied myself. After I’ve read something like the People’s History of the United States, I wish that I could just spit up dates and events from it in the midst of debate. But instead, the only thing I retain is the perspective of what I’d read, what the overall meaning of those dates and events were. Once I’ve gleaned this overall meaning, I throw away all the details. I think I do it because I’ve learned that this is the manner in which I think most efficiently. I think best in metaphor and quantum leap. I don’t do well with logic, math, chemistry, or any other specific, sequential avenues of thought.

My writing on this blog truly is my journal. I’ve never kept a diary in which I continuously detail what has daily happened to me (although I do of course do it from time to time). But I’ve always written when something deep down in there starts to stir, reacting to these daily occurrences. The daily occurrence itself usually gets left out—unless it was of such enjoyment that I don’t have anything to add to it—but I don’t think that this is particularly important. What is important, to me, is the change that occurs within me, the transformation of myself as I adapt and respond to the cosmos. What happens within me is what happens within everyone else, and this is how I understand other people: through what I have been through, or through what I have imagined. Even when other people have grown up in completely different circumstances from me, I can still relate to them, because the exterior differences are generally shallow. Even when in different cultures, different countries, I feel like I can relate. Because deep within ourselves, we all go through the same innate processes.

I am watching myself, observing my feelings, my emotions, my loneliness, my happiness, my love, my pettiness. I am taking notes, and these webpages are the result. You can understand me. You can relate to me. You can know me, without knowing nor caring what my daily happenstance life may be. So what is it that you are knowing, really? Is it just me? Or perhaps it is also you? Or is it something that between the two of us is cumulatively greater?

Nostalgia and Adaptation

I have been having these recurring, viscerally painful moments of missing the West Coast lately, especially Tahoe. It’s these intense moments of remembrance of little details, like walking across the street from my apartment to go to Raley’s, or driving my beat up old Subaru (‘Subie’ or ‘Subarita’) down the winding, bumpy one lane mountain road to work, or biking into town on the bike trail to go to the library. And there are other things, like missing my family and missing my nieces and nephews growing up.

What’s even more strange, however, has been that I keep having these visions of New Mexico. I have never lived there and have only passed through, and maybe it’s just that I’m envisioning some idealized fantasy of dry heat as opposed to humid heat (as I sit here immersed in a pool of sweat) but for whatever reason, I am dreaming of terra cotta colors, green chile burritos, mountains, and cacti. And a lifestyle of space, light, and quietude.

I think the meaning of these visions and remembrances is that I am beginning to realize just how out of touch with myself I have become. At least, the parts of myself that I had more clearly defined in other contexts. I have always been a kind of lonely chameleon, adapting in superficial ways to my environment while trying to understand myself outside of that immediate context. But lately, my habits and modes of existence have been so thoroughly alien to the way I’ve lived most of my adult life that I find myself struggling with my identity and where I am. Part of that struggle necessitates nostalgia and fantasizing. I am shedding my past, shedding the parts of me that were defined by other worlds. And so I miss those contexts where I was comfortable, where I had established myself in some way. And I yearn for some immediate context where I can be what I see as myself, wherein I can stretch my wings and be comfortable.

I think that here in this wildly new environment, I have been sitting back and trying to adapt and to survive. I haven’t had time to be myself. I think you can see this reflected in my writing from this period of my life when you compare it to past posts. I am less reflective, a little more superficial, more passive-aggressive, less spiritual. Maybe, I don’t know.

As I come out of that hole of survival mode and begin to feel a little more established, I am taking a look around and then looking down at myself and wondering who the fuck I still am. I have been taking the city in, compromising with it, selling myself to it. And now that I am coming somewhat to terms with it, I am able to take a clearer look at myself and who I am within this new context. But not quite yet. The vision is blurry. I am still tied to my idealizations of my past self.

In any case, here I am, still struggling to adapt to this city. I am slowly branching out, putting down roots, finding my place, but I’ve got a lot of work to do.