Thursday, March 22, 2018

Unfriendly Fire


Having military bases as neighbors is not without its irritations, but last week civilians were forced to evacuate when the Carson Midway Fire swept through their neighborhoods after "going off the reservation" as it were. While I support our troops, the men and women on the ground at home and abroad, I do not always endorse the missions they are sent on, nor the leadership calling the shots. It is my opinion that the Army base of Fort Carson clearly compromised public safety by insisting on using live ammunition for training exercises during red flag warning days of high winds, exacerbated by severe drought. Surely, solutions exist.

The Carson Midway Fire actually represents the fusion of two separate fires. The merger resulted in the burning of 3,300 acres, reaching the El Paso-Pueblo County line, west of Interstate 25 near the Pikes Peak International Speedway. It was that portion of the fire that consumed several structures, including two homes, and resulted in at least 250 evacuations. It also ignited an enormous pile of discarded tires. Those tires are still burning as I write this, and evacuees from the immediate vicinity are not being permitted to return due to the dense smoke and toxic fumes emanating from the burning heap of rubber. According to one spokesperson, there are heavy metals in tires that, when there is "incomplete combustion," liberate toxic chemicals, especially cyanide. Terrific.

Fires in rural areas here also affect livestock, so accommodations have to be provided for evacuated horses, cattle, and other large animals, plus smaller pets. Colonel Fitch may have empathy for evacuees and those who lost their homes or other structures, and remorse or regret for how things went south, but if so it was not on display at the press conference on March 16. Instead, he asserted matter-of-factly that imminent deployments of personnel to Afghanistan and elsewhere necessitated employing live rounds during training. Meanwhile, the El Paso County Sheriff's office is the agency left holding the bag.

This is a fast-moving story, and now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken over the extinguishing the tire fire and subsequent clean-up of the underlying soil contaminants resulting from the fire. Evacuees might be allowed to return today (Thursday, March 22), but no final call has been made.

It remains unclear among the myriad of agencies involved as to which ones will be deemed responsible for compensating for damages, or providing relief in other ways. The Red Cross did set up an evacuation center in Fountain, Colorado, and as usual the state fairgrounds in Pueblo offered shelter for livestock. Two other centers were established to receive smaller animals. What happens next?

An online petition is now circulating calling for the prohibition of live fire rounds on the Fort Carson base during red flag days of high or extreme fire danger. The petition has already secured over 2,000 signatures. The purpose of this petition should not be read as a desire to hamstring our military operations, but instead to insure the safety of both military and civilian personnel, and to limit the impact on precious fire-fighting resources that can be stretched thin given the outbreak of fires off the base.

No matter the jurisdiction, when it comes to fire prevention, everyone should be playing by the same rules. This is simply common sense, and would unite our diverse community instead of dividing it. The Front Range is a unique and complicated amalgamation of urban, rural, military, and wilderness landscapes. Establishing guidelines that respect those diverse interests, public or private, is not without its challenges, as we are learning from this unfortunate event. We need to come to the table and make some tough decisions before the fire next time.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

King of Pain


Movies and television have long given advanced warning of graphic content before showing or broadcasting to audiences. Social media, and the internet in general, are lagging a bit and so less savvy users are occasionally startled by content they were not expecting and that they would deem inappropriate for themselves or younger members of their family. Personally, I count images and videos depicting graphic violence between animals as something I would like to be warned about rather than suddenly confronted with in social media. It does not stop there, though, and people who voice their discomfort are often shamed by others for not being "man enough" to take it. That needs to end.

We could probably debate the true meaning of the song "King of Pain," by The Police from their Synchronicity album, but what I take away from it is that the singer feels intensely the suffering of every other living creature. It is inescapable, much as he longs for relief. I can empathize with that. Indeed, empathy is the whole point of this blog post. My brain, for whatever reason, is acutely sensitive to graphic violence and gore. I sometimes find myself involuntarily recalling horrible images or movie scenes without prompting, just suddenly, randomly, and for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, I have much more difficulty conjuring peaceful, pleasant images. Maybe you are wired differently. I hope you are wired differently. It is not any fun to be a King of Pain.

Professional wildlife photographers should be committed to documenting life with honesty, and predation, territorial battles, and other violent conflicts are a part of life, no question. It is difficult for me to communicate my understanding of that to my camera-toting colleagues while at the same time arguing against what amounts to nature violence pornography. It may come down to intent. Sex sells. If it bleeds it leads. You know the drill. Networks and their executives who pander to a perceived public bloodlust are also failing to be honest, let alone fair and balanced. They may need more diverse focus groups, or simply stop making assumptions, or otherwise take responsibility for their content instead of claiming that a steady diet of violence is what audiences want. This includes Discovery Channel and Nat Geo.

Online, I have finally noticed that the more responsible outlets for natural history content, and/or my friends, are prefacing videos at least with text warnings if the content is of a violent or graphic nature. I appreciate having the choice to click or not. When someone shares a graphic video or image then I will comment that I do not like to see that kind of thing without warning, thank you. Sometimes, if their reply is impolite, I unfollow them.

I have been told that if I don't want to be exposed to certain things then I should get off the internet. I have been told to "man up," implying that if I find certain things distasteful then I am somehow being a baby or too sensitive or some other judgmental epithet. No, I am not a child or some other kind of innocent, but I am vulnerable. Some people are not comfortable with being vulnerable, but we don't shame them for having a hardened heart. I would not advocate that we should. There is no place for shaming anybody except, perhaps, those who perpetrate cruelty, shame, discrimination, and other acts of wanton, needless hostility.

This is another kind of divide in our country, one of conflicting personality traits. It is not necessary that we all think alike, or "feel" alike, either. We need diversity in all aspects of our life: biologically, psychologically, and socially. What we must have in order for that diversity to flourish is respect and acceptance. You want to watch animals killing each other? Fine, but do not admonish me for not desiring the same thing, or objecting to it when you gave me no choice but to see it. Understand the difference between someone standing up for themselves, and someone berating you for whatever excites you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Don't Ax or Ask....


A couple of people I admire recently shared in social media a video that claims that "ax" was once a perfectly acceptable alternative to "ask," until it was co-opted by the (largely White) aristocracy as a way of demeaning the (mostly Black) lower class and elevating the privilege of those in power through an elitist version of our common language. I was surprised that my visceral reaction was one of anger, and a sense of being offended. So, now I struggle to discern the source of that. The following will not be pretty, but it will be honest. Honesty is maybe the last vestige of my voice that is allowed in differentiating myself from other writers.

First of all, I am not opposed to being enlightened on the history of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, the dialect formerly known as "ebonics"). I consider it a travesty that this was not a part of my education back in middle school or high school, akin to the celebration of Christopher Columbus while choosing to overlook his disastrous treatment of indigenous Americans. However, I believe the illumination of AAVE can be achieved with a little more finesse, without implying that the rules of English I grew up with and abide by today are not inherently racist or designed solely for some air of snobbish intellectual prowess.

Please do not confuse my pursuit of literary excellence with a desire for privilege. If grammar, syntax, and spelling do not have a place in informing quality of expression, then what am I left with?

Every heritage deserves a sense of pride, and warrants celebration, not just on holidays. It appears that we have difficulty doing so without taking something away from every other culture, though, or offending in some respect. The backlash then reduces things like Irish immigrant history to leprechauns and shamrocks and green beer, and other demeaning caricatures and stereotypes of St. Patrick's Day. Sigh.

I sense that elucidating AAVE is not without an unspoken desire to take traditional English down a notch, and I think that is unnecessary. There is no way I can write about this dispassionately, without giving the impression that I take these assertions personally because yes, I do feel threatened by them. This is the first time that I have truly felt not just uncomfortable, but under explicit attack by another ethnic group. I am beginning to wonder if certain segments of the activist community will simply not be satisfied until they convince every White person that they are, in fact, racist. No, Eric, not even you can assert that you are above your Caucasian privilege. We will find a way to make it so. We will expose you one way or another. Well, they did it, by coming after my vocabulary.

Maybe Blacks are now projecting their often legitimate fear and hatred of law enforcement officers onto the "grammar police." Maybe they see those who subscribe to traditional English as using words to beat them into submission and irrelevance. I assure you the abuses, if there are any, are unintentional. You want to take language to task? We are on the same side in wanting to banish the n-word and other hateful language, believe me. Were it in my power I would exempt hate speech from protection under the First Amendment. I would also overturn Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission because the truly offensive language of oppression and privilege in this day and age is money.

There is a larger question at play here. Is there any facet of White culture, if there is such a thing, that is acceptable to Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and all other "minorities?" Is all of it contrived to ensure a sense of superiority, elitism, and privilege? We have given you plenty of reasons to hate us, no question, but are we as individuals guilty until proven innocent, or guilty no matter what, just because we are White? Are we guilty by association with the legacy of oppression that has come before us? Where does it stop? Help me out here. Enlighten me more. What are we permitted now? Am I really out of bounds in asking these questions?

Please do not confuse my pursuit of literary excellence with a desire for privilege. If grammar, syntax, and spelling do not have a place in informing quality of expression, then what am I left with? Where does my voice come from if not my own flawed and imperfect education, the dictionary of my own mind, and yes, those rules of language?

Maybe it is, in reality, one of those "just when you thought you had it all down...." moments. Maybe I have a hard time admitting I am out of step, that I haven't kept up. Perhaps it is confronting the fact I am too old to learn any more, or too stubborn, or too lazy. Yeah, that is to. Nope, pretty sure it is the racist thing.