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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

December 23, 2013

Our Christmas as Immigrants

It's 9:40AM on Christmas Eve here in Hamilton. We are seated in the surprisingly spacious waiting room of the Hillcrest Medical Centre. It’s a relatively small operation boasting some eleven doctors and two grumpy receptionists. The room is far from full so Gwyn is feeding Clark a banana.

Despite the inauspicious locale, all is well for our small brood. But with homeward and Christmas thoughts aplenty, I can’t help but recall the fact that the Savior of the world was born as an undocumented alien far from home. Given the special relationship between Jesus and immigrants, it occurs to me that we are doing something today that only a family of immigrants would do.

We are here today waiting to collect my medical records so that we can process our visa application before the Immigration Office closes at Noon for the New Year.

And we haven't much time.

9:42AM

Naturally, the receptionist seemed a bit annoyed when I indicated that we would rather wait for our records than "pop in" later to pick them up. The Kiwi way of doing things, and the social good form, is to let things go for another day. "It'll get done" is the mantra. No rush. But for us niceties aren't an option. Time is of the essence. A late offer letter from my University, coupled with the need to have my passport renewed, have all conspired against us in retrieving the medical records we initiated for processing with this clinic nearly three months ago.

The receptionist, managing a busy office, wasn't terribly interested in our story. Her glare was sufficient to communicate her thoughts on our situation. Which is a bit odd in retrospect since we were instructed by her colleague to follow the present course of action (viz., to drop off our records yesterday and collect them today). Good to see communication struggles occur in every relationship - even among colleagues.

But, as I mentioned, our situation today reminds me somewhat of Christ's birth because the same predicaments that led Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem have led me and Gwyn and Clark to the clinic - inane policies of government they were obliged to follow - no matter how very pregnant Mary was.

In the end, they were as much victims of circumstances as we are today. I suspect they were met with similarly unsympathetic stares when making their pleas for lodging.

"Sorry, not much else I can do," the receptionist says. And so we wait.

10:00AM

I've seen my doctor just now. As luck would have it, inexplicably, he never bothered to complete the forms of my medical exam. Different system here I guess. "Thought you didn't need it completed." And then the dreaded words, "Can't possibly get it done before Noon."

To be fair, his workload is swamped today, but after a bit of cajoling, I manage to secure a commitment to do what he can in light of our timeframe. “No Doctor, we don’t mind the wait." The Doc means well, but it's clear he'd rather not process many more of these immigration exams, doubtless preferring his usual lot of patients.

"Can't promise anything. But I'll try to get it done before lunch." He adds.

It's strange to be in such a position of utter dependence upon the competence (and at this point sheer will) of others. I'm quite nearly inclined to say that we are dependent upon the kindness of others, but I'm not sure that competence qualifies as a kindness for medical professionals. Back home, we might call this simply a duty of care.

The relation of this to Christmas is that Mary and Joseph were in a similar fix - not that we are in any other way comparable to the parents of the Christ. Even so, I can understand, now, the pressure they must have felt. The urgent need to find someone, anyone, willing to accommodate them. And the crushing feeling of being turned away.

10:30AM

Clark has grown fussy so Gwyn is taking him for a walk. The receptionist is taking morning tea back to the doctors. Patients and records be damned. In New Zealand, nothing thwarts morning tea.We have only an hour and a half now to make the trek downtown to the Immigration Office. Unlike "The Hunger Games," the odds do not seem to be in our favor.

I suppose things could be worse. We could be awaiting news of a serious illness or saying good-bye to a loved one. Fortunately, we’re all healthy if not a bit sleep deprived. Still, it's time to begin preparing for a less than ideal outcome.

I like to think of how Mary reached a point of meditation and zen about her own situation which was certainly more dire than ours.

Mary came from limited means. Surely rearing a son would be a challenge under any circumstance for her. This was doubtless made even more complicated given her engagement to Joseph, what with carrying a child that was not his and all. I suppose this might be a bit chauvinistic, but no matter how tremendous the blessing, a man still likes to know that it's his child in his wife's belly.

This makes her response to the Angel's news of her pregnancy all the more striking. Then again, as we are learning today, what can you do when events are out of your control but ponder them? (Luke 2.19).

10:45AM

Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Only moments ago the Doctor came out, tight-lipped, wordlessly handing me a large envelope with the completed paperwork for my visa application. I no more had time to thank him than he turned away, back to the grind. His bedside manner leaves something to be desired. But it's hard to quibble with a guy who delivers.

I don't know that there's a Christmas correlation for this outcome. Seems a bit different than having to birth a child in a manger. Given the two, we’re faring much better today. For my part, I'm just relieved things seem to have turned out alright. Perhaps that's how Mary and Joseph felt, just thankful for a bit of shelter and some privacy.

10:55AM

I called a cab for Gwyn to drive her to the Immigration Office. By God, this just might work. As if on cue, the cab arrived in a matter of minutes. I’m inordinately thankful as I watch her pull away from the curb. Clark's tiny hand does a small wave. We've been teaching him that, which makes me proud. Normally we'd all take the bus. But as the muse says, "ain't nobody got time for that."

11:10AM

Gwyn called just now. Our paperwork was delivered with 50 minutes to spare.

It's a small one. But I'll count it a Christmas miracle all the same.

11:45AM

To celebrate our good fortune, we had a Christmas Eve lunch at the lone Mexican taqueria in Hamilton, New Zealand. It's conveniently located in the food court at the Centre Place Mall.

I had a burrito and a Diet Coke. The salsa was mild. The meat was shredded, and rather good.

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December 18, 2013

Language, Identity and Culture

We had a farewell morning tea for a colleague earlier today. My friend is a lovely woman of British extract who will be moving away to start life anew with her 'partner'. The use of the term partner as a synonym for all manner of couplings is something I've found strange here in New Zealand. I suspect that if I ever called Gwyn my partner rather than my wife, I might see more than a few raised eyebrows back home in the good old U.S. of A.

Language

While stubbornly drinking my morning coffee (all good Patriots know that tea is for redcoats and commies), I had a chat with an acquaintance who forcefully insisted that New Zealand's adoption of the Māori language (te reo Māori) as one of the country's official languages was one of the most 'liberal' and forward-thinking moves NZ had made in recent years.

Before I had time to reply, she then took aim at the United States, arguing that America's refusal to adopt Spanish and the 566 languages of America's Indian tribes was an especially sordid transgression. By the same token, she ignored the fact that America doesn't actually have an official language. Perhaps this was an inconvenient truth as Al Gore might say. Nevertheless, in her view, such a lack of linguistic accommodation reduced the American values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to nothing more than empty falsehoods.(They [Americans] don’t support those [values]. Not really.)

Identity

As one might imagine, I've had several conversations about America with my Kiwi friends. The lone commonality between them is that everyone seems to have an opinion of America. (Do you really own a gun? What’s Walmart like?). Despite the many chats I’ve had, I can’t recall having ever been told, prior to today, that the bedrock values of my Country are a sham. Suffice it to say, this particular conversation did not last long and I excused myself for the comforts of a quiet office.

When my blood pressure reached a plateau, I paused to consider her comments. She was correct in that in so many places, the notion of language is inextricably tied to notions of culture - almost to the point that a language can define one's national identity. This is true, perhaps, in most places - China, France, the UK, Germany and even Mexico all come to mind. Still, I don't think my colleague quite appreciates how things work in America.

Unlike New Zealand which has a total population that is roughly the size of Boston, the United States is a massive, free-wheeling, culturally diverse Nation. In previous posts, I’ve likened the US to a big dysfunctional family that stays together for tax purposes. Like it or not, the left is stuck with the right because, let's face it, the costs associated with revolution and secession would really cramp our style. We’ve already tried a separation, and as the fates would have it, we’re better off together than apart. True love lasts, as the kids say.

As this matter of population diversity relates to identity, perhaps nowhere in the world is identity so loosely linked to language than in the United States. English is spoken by the vast majority of Americans, so this is the de facto language in which we do business. It’s not prescribed by law (although attempts have been made). It’s simply the way things are done. In America, language, then, is not so much a matter of national identity as it is a matter of national convenience in a wildly diverse country.  

Culture

Even so, perhaps my acquaintance’s remarks are more on point as they relate to culture. Perhaps American values are moot points because we do not accommodate a plethora of languages and the cultures they purportedly represent. It’s true that culture is a thorny concept in America. Historically, we don’t do very well with cultures that are not our own. The trail of tears and subsequent expropriation of American Indian lands come to mind. Slavery and Japanese interment camps also ring a bell.

Still, I’d like to think that these are exceptions to the rule of American exceptionalism. Our values aren’t diminished because we fail to meet the standards. Even under our founding documents, the values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are objectively self-evident truths. As such, our standards should rather inform our future actions as opposed to being defined by them.

And I think, in general, this is how it works. This is why Edward Snowden’s revelation of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programme prompted such a strong reaction. Same for Obamacare. Same for drones. Same for Benghazi. Same for the IRS harassment of conservative groups. These issues became big deals because they so starkly cut against the core of what America stands for as a Nation. 

As a country, then, America is not a Nation that finds its identity through the mass conformity to or accommodation of a particular language. America finds its identity through the common acceptance of a shared set of values, no matter how imperfect our policies may be.

Sum

And with that thought, my temper cooled. My pulse no longer raced. In fact, I quite nearly felt a twinge of sympathy for my acquaintance. For unless one is an American and rather accustomed to breathing the sweet air of freedom, I suspect that it is very difficult to apprehend how this all works in practice. Easier to find inconsistencies and write off the whole system of universal human rights than to accept the nuance reflected in the universality of the human condition. 

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December 4, 2013

A Prayer on a Rainy Day


A prayer/poem I wrote while enjoying the rains here in the Waikato. 


Dear God -

Today, I'm thankful for rain. For cool summer showers and lawns that resemble seas of green.

For lunches shared with ducks and for countries where a beer for lunch isn't terribly scandalous.

My heart is also thankful for technology and for the diversity of this life that it allows me to connect with. Even more than that, I am thankful for the complexity of people - else life would be rather boring.

I am thankful for moral autonomy and human agency. I am glad for shades of gray and for the purity of my young son - who, for now, lives only in the white.

I am thankful to be alive at this moment in time despite how similar life is to the rain I am enjoying - falling like a droplet from the heavens, only to disappear into this terrestrial plane.

Amen.
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November 16, 2013

Life: Standard or Fast?

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I mailed a letter to a friend Friend back home the other day.  When I looked at the New Zealand Post mailbox outside our student centre, I reveled in the appropriateness of their signage.

Over the past year, my life has been lived on the ‘fast’ side of life’s mailbox. Looking back over my 31st year of life, I can see that it would really serve me well to downshift to ‘standard.’ I suspect the fare would be cheaper to boot. Beginning with Clark’s birth, extending to our relocation from Tucson, and finally to our re-relocation to Hamilton, New Zealand, looking back over the past year the lone thread that ties it all together is how unexpected the whole lot of it was. And seeing as I entered my 32nd year of life this past week (or turned 31), now seems a fine time to think on such things. Here are three lessons I’ve learned from the past year. 

1. Life’s Uncertainty Is the Norm Not the Exception

If there’s a lesson I’ve learned this year, it’s that life is veritably unpredictable. When 2012 began, I had little thought that I would be a father the following year, and even less thought still that I would be leaving for life in a new country roughly 13 months hence. In fact, had you brought any of these eventualities to my attention, I suspect that my reaction would have been to promptly enter a catatonic state induced by a debilitating panic. My comfort zone was something to be guarded rather than deserted, something to be kept neat and tidy. Kids, by contrast, are messy and international excursions messier still. They have socialized medicine here!

And yet, here we are - with a perfectly healthy son, now one year old, and plans to stay here in New Zealand for roughly 18 months time, returning to America in June 2014. None of this was planned, per se. It just happened. And slowly I’m coming to realize that that’s okay.

2. Embrace New Opportunities by Letting Go of Expectations

The second lesson I’ve learned from life in the fast track has been that expectations are really illusory. While it's wise to plan and anticipate the futures we would like, it’s important to keep in mind that all of this planning we do on a daily basis is with a grain of salt. Planing is always done “Insha’Allah," or 'Lord willing’ as they say in the Muslim world. Following the completion of my SJD, I expected to remain in the U.S. and teach at a tribal college close to home. Had I stubbornly clung to this expectation, I would have missed out on the opportunity to live abroad and gain first-hand insights into the situation of Indigenous governance in a country I had only seen in the Lord of the Rings. Now, I actually live in the Shire. And, more importantly, I would never have met so many of the individuals we now consider dear friends.

Letting go of my expectations was honestly the best outcome that could have happened. 

3. Enjoy the Day

Earlier I mentioned that I’d like to downshift from the fast iteration of life I’ve been living to something more pedestrian. While I’ve come to terms with life’s uncertainty, and the need to be somewhat flexible in my expectations, I still feel like there’s something to be said for living and enjoying a slower life.

The first point to make is that it’s dreadfully easy not to live a slow life. Recently, I read a fascinating essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Michael Ignatieff, former opposition leader of the Canadian Parliament. The biography highlighted the career of Mr. Ignatieff, detailing his swift rise in academia, and his slower, gradual ascent to political power - before ultimately documenting his resounding defeat at the hand of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The theme of the piece was how rapidly a career can peak and plummet. Not exactly inspirational material. 

What I took away from this past year, and the unintentional case study of Mr. Ignatieff, is that the best way to navigate life’s vicissitudes is to simply enjoy the day you have. Our ambitions may fail. Our best laid plans may be upended like a landslide, Canadian electoral loss. So, really the best we can do is focus the madness of existence through the lens of the now, and enjoy the moment of life we have - however fleeting and uncertain it may be.

I don’t know that I’ve shared the details of our son, Clark’s birth before. But toward the end, just prior to his successful delivery (viz., everything turned out alright), his heart rate began to drop. Gwyn had been in labor north of 30 hours and the stress had taken a toll on Mom and Baby alike. When the doctor’s brow furrowed and the medical team began to discuss emergency procedures, my heart sank and fear set in. There was a moment in the delivery room when I would even have given my own life to buy a bit more time for my wife and son. It was a primal, visceral reaction to situation and ultimately completely needless. But it was also telling. Seldom does a day go by that I look at our healthy, happy, and beautiful baby boy and don’t think about how fortunate we are that the moment came to pass so favorably for us all.

Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the now.     

Resurrecting Pax Plena

In sum, I’ve learned much this past year and have more or less put Pax Plena and blogging on hold as a result. My plan, wholly bereft of certainty and expectation, is to begin blogging more frequently. Toward this end, I also plan to teach a course on behalf of the University of Wyoming this spring semester and hope to use the blog here as a way to transmit supplemental information and connect with students, whether through social media or comments on reactions to readings, etc. This means that I’ll be culling some of the old posts and generally trying to whip this nearly 10 year-old project into shape. My hope (as opposed to expectation) is that this will provide a way to reconnect with blogging as a genre of writing and as a means of living life in the slow - a way to remember that in the end, the tortoise wins. 

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September 23, 2013

What's in a Name? The Redskins Mascot Controversy


I've resisted weighing in on the latest round of the Native American/American Indian mascots controversy. When such debates rear their heads, the conversation is rarely constructive. For example,  of late, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has been called both a racist and a bigot - and these were just letters from family.

(I kid. I kid.)

The current controversy actually has its genesis in a bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives this past March, long after the Redskins were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks. In legislation that was all but doomed to fail, Washington, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes (D-DC)  drafted legislation that would effectively void any trademarks containing the term "redskin/s." Naturally, the bill would have a significant impact on the Redskins franchise, its revenues, branding, and merchandise.

Fast forward to this past May, when ten members of Congress sent a letter to  Washington Redskins' owner Dan Snyder demanding that the team change its name. Consider also that the least effective sentence in the english language always begins with the phrase "members of Congress sent a letter." Even so, the brouhaha persisted, apparently undaunted by such realist frivolities. And, now, everyone from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Rush Limbaugh has had their say. Most recently, ESPN's Rick Reilly threw gasoline on the flames by sharing a few thoughts on the controversy in his weekly column. After arguing that the majority of the opposition to Indian mascots comes from "white America" Reilly concludes:
In fact, ESPN and many other media companies cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves without a single searing search of their social conscience.

Doesn't matter. The 81-year-old Washington Redskins name is falling, and everybody better get out of the way. For the majority of Native Americans who don't care, we'll care for them. For the Native Americans who haven't asked for help, we're glad to give it to them.

Trust us. We know what's best. We'll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.

Kind of like a reservation.

[Link]

So, opposing a team's mascot is analogous to putting Indians on reservations? Um, got it...

Cutting through the fog, it's important to remember that such issues turn, as they always have, on the situation of the particular team and its relationship with American Indian tribes. The trouble when advocates claim a broad mandate regarding the sensitivity of a term or phrase is that their mandate is rarely as large as they perceive it to be.  As of today, there are 566 Federally Recognized Tribes in the United States scattered across the whole of the contiguous 48 states. Also as of today, there has been precious little effort to determine what position each tribe takes regarding the Redskins mascot. Any party claiming a mandate or mantle of authority to facilitate change on behalf of American Indians en masse is simply misguided. While some tribes have signaled their opposition, the perspective of a few tribes is hardly representative of the whole of Indian Country.

On the other hand, the conversation being raised by opponents of the mascot is an important one for America to have. As a Nation, we tend to handle race relations about as well as we handle Middle Eastern crises and occupations, not very well. (Here's looking at you Syria.) The fact is, the status of American Indians within the legal framework of the United States has long been a point of internal and Constitutional tension. As a society (and certainly our Government), we Americans don't really know quite what to do with Indian tribes. Whereas the Civil Rights movement was about incorporating disempowered minorities into the American social fabric, what American Indians advocate for in pursuing policies of tribal self-determination and sovereignty is one of measured separatism. In other words, they seek to be left alone so that they can govern their peoples, lands and resources. Naturally, a very real disconnect in the conversation results because matters of racial stereotype are almost perpetually conflated with matters of tribal governance.

For the current debacle, I don't see a tidy resolution to the situation. The Federal Courts have already concluded that the mascot name is not so offensive as to invalidate the Redskins trademark - and even if it is, the matter has lain dormant so long as to make the allegation moot. Short of pursuing abject censorship along the lines of Delegate Holmes, I don't see a legal solution to the quagmire. Ironically, this would suggest that the groups opposed to the mascot are following exactly the proper course, seeking to influence public opinion and persuade the whole of society that the name is offensive and should be scrapped.

Personally, I think tribal advocates are playing small ball by focusing on the mascot issue. There are real enemies to tribalism in the United States and given the pecking order of threats, the name of a mediocre football team just isn't worth the energy being expended. Even if I were a Washington Redskins fan, I can't see the mascot issue being a bigger concern than the Redskins' 0-3 start, and the inability of a much lauded second-year quarterback to deliver.

Of course, as a Dallas Cowboys fan, I don't really give a damn. The team from Washington can be the Redskins or the Lobbyists and all will be right with the world if the Cowboys come away with a win.
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September 12, 2013

Thoughts from the Waitangi Tribunal


 The Aramiro marae located between Hamilton and Raglan, New Zealand is a peaceful place. Surrounded by verdant hills, and craggy terrain, the marae structure itself is unprepossessing. In many ways, the humble building mirrors the selfless values of an ancient people that have long struggled to survive. Accordingly, the world seems very far removed here. The drums of war in Syria and frightful memories of terrorists attacks in a bustling city are all distant points on the horizon in so quiet a vale.


What brought me to this sleepy corner of New Zealand was a hearing of the Waitangi Tribunal. The Tribunal is a novel institution among Nations with significant populations of Indigenous peoples. For New Zealand, the Tribunal is the judicial body tasked with hearing Māori claims alleging governmental violations of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi is the agreement signed between Māori and the British ceding   The following is a brief description from the Waitangi Tribunal website:

The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 by the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975. The Tribunal is a permanent commission of inquiry charged with making recommendations on claims brought by Māori  relating to actions or omissions of the Crown that breach the promises made in the Treaty of Waitangi.

[Link]

For the Māori hapū or subtribes that participate in the process, the route to redress and the resolution of their claims is lengthy. It can take years to get a hearing before the Tribunal and years after the hearing to get an adjudication of a final outcome. The process may seem impractical given that there are quicker routes to recovery, including direct negotiations with the Crown. But the speedy benefits of one do not produce the same meticulous documentary process of the Tribunal proceedings. Whereas Crown negotiations get the money to the iwi faster, it does not necessarily record the painful history behind the dollars or provide closure. The Waitangi Tribunal attempts to do both.


One thing about the Tribunal proceedings that struck me as a Western, legal academic is how relaxed the rule of evidence are. The morning of the hearing, organized chaos ensued behind and scenes. My friends and hosts, the Greensil family, were feverishly putting the final touches on evidentiary briefs and guitar selections alike. The guitar numbers which had lyrics in English and Te Reo (Māori) were brief summaries of their family lore, offering their perspective of the Māori land confiscations that permeated New Zealand from the 1860s through the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal itself in 1975. Decades, even centuries of displacement was finally coming to a head and, to them, a musical expression of the moment seemed a fine way to present testimony of their family's history.


What was remarkable in witnessing the scene, was the faith the participants had in the process. In America, I'm often cynical and skeptical about the ability of our courts to be impartial and to administer justice in a fair manner. But in the Waitangi Tribunal proceedings, claimants presented their interpretation of events before the Court without a hint of cynicism, as if expecting a fair hearing and an impartial outcome from the Judges rather than merely hoping for one. For my friends, the testimony marked the culmination of a life's work for their family matron - an attorney trained right here at Waikato University Law School. This embrace of the process and the knowledge of how long it took the parties to reach this point made the event exceedingly beautiful in its own way.


My friends hail from Whaingaroa, an area of New Zealand containing the town of Raglan, a surfing haven famous for its black sands and iconic surf breaks. The town was featured in the seminal surfing movie The Endless Summer in which famous surfers follow the summer season around the world as the seasons change. Their iwi has long maintained a political separateness from the Tainui Iwi Confederation, a mega-iwi that seems to dominate much of Māori political affairs here on New Zealand's North Island. Their district is said to always have been a separate political entity, giving the hapū in the area a unique, spiritual obligation to tend to the lands in perpetuity. Having been to Raglan a few times now, it is difficult to imagine a more sublime place over which to exercise such stewardship.


After the first few testimonies, the hearing gets a bit tedious, soldiering on through the morning, afternoon and into the early evening. Witness after witness presents the essence of their briefs, which have all been submitted to the Tribunal in advance. The presentations are supposed to be kept within certain time constraints but these are loosely enforced. The Tribunal seems to prefer allowing claimants to tell their story, rather than rigidly enforcing a schedule.


The pitfalls of such loose evidentiary rules and relaxed time constraints are obvious. The quality of testimony presented to the Tribunal varies widely. Some evidence, such as that presented by my friends, is well documented, packaged in quite professional briefs that have all been vetted by a small phalanx of attorneys. By contrast, testimony from others explored the finer points of possum eradication and proper techniques for re-seeding cockles. Where some claimants focus on the big picture of land confiscations, brutalities and oppression, others play small ball.


In all, attending the hearing was a much welcomed opportunity. As a would-be scholar, I try to maintain objectivity to the extent possible. But witnessing a hearing like this reminds me that what I view in abstraction has real world consequences for the people involved. For my friends, this hearing was about their lands, their home place, and their family. It's just as important to them as our acreage in Oklahoma, our farmhouse, and my family is to me.


No matter where you are, history is a painful thing.
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August 27, 2013

When Tribes Fail to Govern: Lessons from the Tribal Payday LendingFiasco


My work here in New Zealand sometimes feels far removed from the context of my tribes and family back in America. But every now and then, stories drift across the Pacific from Indian Country that remind me how similar the challenges facing the World's Indigenous peoples are. In this case, challenges of governance and good governance, in particular, strike me as a stubborn blight that Indigenous peoples are hard-pressed to overcome, both here and at home.

Earlier this week, Indian Country Today featured a column by Jane Daugherty with the headline "New York's Attack on Tribal Lenders is a Threat to All Natives." For those familiar with the debacle, the headline  referenced the State of New York's decision to sue three online payday lenders that are said to be affiliates of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. The rub of the case, as summarized by the Wall Street Journal, is below:
The lawsuit poses a key test for regulators who have begun cracking down on online lenders, including those affiliated with Indian tribes. Government officials say the lenders are violating state interest-rate caps and consumer-protection laws, but tribes say they are immune because they operate as sovereign governments.

[Link]

In her analysis of the matter, Daugherty opined that "New York's action ignores the sovereign immunity of recognized Indian tribes, as repeatedly upheld in the Supreme Court and in numerous states." She then goes on to cite a Colorado State court opinion on tribal payday lending and sovereign immunity as a "highly relevant" corollary to the matter at hand in New York.

A few thoughts.

First, it needs to be mentioned that a Colorado State court opinion is not highly relevant to the New York lawsuit at all. Ms. Daugherty isn't a lawyer so it's understandable that a layperson might confuse the jurisdictional authorities of various courts. But the fact is, while a New York State court might choose to consider the reasoning of a Colorado State court judge, an opinion issued in another state is in no way dispositive of the lawsuit before the court in New York, regardless of how compelling the logic of the Colorado opinion is. This is problematic for Daugherty's piece because of the bulk of it cites excerpts from the Colorado opinion en route to the conclusion that New York will waste taxpayer dollars just like the State of Colorado - presumably because the outcome will be the same. On the contrary, New York could well reach a different conclusion entirely and even see its opinion upheld in Federal Court.

Second, and in her defense, Daugherty correctly notes that the legal doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity is the major, legal oblation on the line in the New York matter. To wit, a gaggle of potentially affected tribes  have already filed a complaint seeking injunctive relief from the Federal District Court in effort to forestall New York's efforts to regulate the tribal payday lending industry. In their complaint, the tribes asserted the defense of tribal sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine which prevents tribal governments from being sued without their consent. Elsewhere in the complaint, the tribes argue that permitting NY to regulate the industry even while the lawsuit proceeds, would be tantamount to inflicting an irreparable harm on the tribes through the disruption of the payday lenders' operations. Indeed, there is some evidence to support this point already.

There's little question as to the profound consequences that such a legal challenge presents. Tribal sovereign immunity has long been viewed with some skepticism by the courts and has at various junctures come perilously close to being extinguished altogether. Naturally, parading an ethically suspect payday lender before the court, one that charges clients north of 355% interest on loans, does not a sympathetic defendant make. Nevertheless, one goes to war with the army one has, not the army one wants - as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was fond of saying.

Still, it stands to reason that the tribes involved could have taken preventative measures to ensure that clients doing business with tribal entities do not get hosed with 355% interests rates. I sometimes see red when I think of the interest rate on my credit card. I might well see black were my statement to include a rate of 355% (!!!). Frivolities aside, the tribes in question should have been proactive about establishing regulatory guidelines of their own, in order to ensure fair dealings and conformity to industry practices. True, tribes are not (in my view) subject to state regulatory regimes in this instance. But this is not to say that some form of regulation to protect consumers has no place in the tribal payday lending industry. What makes the lawsuit unfortunate is that the situation could have been avoided entirely had the tribes in question taken the initiative to govern.

The lesson to learn from the debacle is that effective tribal governments carry on with the business of governing. Whether it is regulating the shady business practices of its own entities through tribal codes, or engaging with other tribal governments to implement, broad industry wide standards, effective tribal governments undertake the decidedly non-glamorous work of governance rather than allowing power vacuums to fester into a full-blown lawsuit.

When viewed through the prism of tribal governance, the lawsuit pending in New York represents a critical, lost opportunity for tribes to demonstrate their competence.
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August 14, 2013

Public and Private Life

My wife, Son and I applied for an extension of our visas today. Coincidentally, today is also the four year anniversary of our marriage.

If you had told me on our wedding day that four years hence we would be living in a foreign land, with an infant son in tow, I would have promptly asked you to leave. Our wedding was dry and, clearly, you would have been drunk.

And yet, sometimes reality is even stranger than the fictions we create. So, here we are, sitting in an outdoor cafe, enjoying blue New Zealand skies, while Clark enjoys a bottle. Not only have we been away from America for six months but we have just applied to remain away longer - and during football season to boot.

If there's a comfort to be had in our absence, it's that the public sector services here in New Zealand are just as dreadful as they are back home. There's no more depressing place in earth than your local DMV. The same can be said for the New Zealand Immigration Office, Hamilton Branch.

I won't get too much into the weeds, except to say that only the government would make paying fees a fiasco and couple this inanity by referring patrons to a call centre rather than addressing questions in person - the presumptive point of having an office in the first place.

Contrast this with my experience at my local (viz., private) bank in the same building only a few floors below. Prompt, courteous service. Happy to answer any questions Dr. Fodder. I'm not even the kind of Doctor that helps people and the staff was still deferential and unfailingly polite.

All the same, it's been a consequential four years to say the least. A good four years. And that's not ever an easy or glib thing for me to say. I am blessed.


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June 16, 2013

Indigenous Governance in the United States and New Zealand

It's been a long while since I've added an update on my work with Indigenous peoples. I had hoped this site would turn into a place where I could share some of the questions that have come about from my work and a place where I could obtain feedback from those interested in similar issues.

Alas, somewhere between finishing my dissertation, welcoming my firstborn Son into the world, and moving to New Zealand, the blog was left to flounder.

My time in New Zealand has been spent with the Māori and Indigenous Governance Centre in the Te Piringa - Faculty of Law at the University of Waikato. Having never lived abroad, it has been somewhat of a transition but the work has been interesting and I couldn't be more please to be working in my field of expertise. And true to form, a lot of questions have come up that I've tried to address in various capacities - most directly in the form of a couple of law review articles that are still in the works.

What I wanted to share, for now, is an article I drafted for the New Zealand Lawyer Magazine that applies some of the work done on Native Nation building in the U.S. to the situation of Māori iwi here in New Zealand. The response has been underwhelming so far but I hold out the naive hope that someone will give it a read and seek out further information - including the resources of our centre.

By way of clarification, the point of the article, of course, was not to imply that America has the cure for every conceivable ill that colonization hath wrought. Rather, the point of the article is to suggest that there are enougH similarities between the challenges of indigenous governance in the U.S. and New Zealand that our countries can share lessons and avoid each other's mistakes.

I conclude the piece with this thought, which more or less summarizes my thoughts on Indigenous governance in general:

Having traversed the desolate plain of trial and error, our tribal nations have experienced federal policies towards Indian governance that have ranged from the outright termination of tribal institutions, to the extant policy promoting tribal self-determination. If Māori can benefit from the troubling lessons of the United States’ past, we should be so fortunate to see something good come from something that was objectively rather grim. [Link]
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May 23, 2013

Book Review: In the City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes - Pete Jordan

If you've followed Pax Plena for any length of time, you probably know that I harbor a long-suffering interest in cycling. In good faith, I can't call myself an avid cyclist having ridden all of 21 miles since I picked up a road bike here in New Zealand. But it is fair to say that I'm a cycling enthusiast. Naturally, when I received word about Pete Jordan's somewhat autobiographical history of cycling in Amsterdam, well, it didn't take long to catch my attention and post a review, once the book had traversed the Pacific.

I usually don't review works of non-fiction, but Jordan's book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: April 16, 2013; Cost: $15.99), was a pleasant exception to the stereotype of the somber historical tome. Jordan ably makes the history of cycling in Amsterdam an entertaining read. As a survivor of high school AP European History, lo, so many years ago, I can personally attest to the fact that making history 'fun' is not an easy task. I'm honestly not really sure why this is the case. In most situations, history/reality are more entertaining than even the best of fiction, as recent debacles involving the Obama Administration indicate.

Even so, Jordan opens the book with a bit of autobiography explaining his love of all things bike and his incipient, young hope of making American cities more cycling friendly. It's all quaint really. Like most urban planning majors, Jordan was without a permanent place of employ upon graduation. And, having recently gotten married, it apparently seemed a swell adventure to fold up shop, under the thin auspices of a university study abroad program, and move to Amsterdam, Cycling Mecca of the World.

Once there, however, Jordan tacitly adopts a mistress as he falls head-over-heels in love with the Venice of the North. The rest of the book follows suit accordingly, mixing an abiding love for Amsterdam with the honestly fascinating history of the city's own love affair with cycling. I realize, having described the work so far, that it would be easy to dismiss Mr. Jordan as an overly libidinous Bill Bryson. This is my fault, not Pete Jordan's. His history of cycling in Amsterdam is actually quite poignant in its own right. Consider this brief excerpt from the book describing the end of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam: 

During their time in Holland, the Nazis had stolen everything that hadn't been nailed down. If it had been nailed down, they got a crowbar, pried it free and stole it - then they stole the crowbar. Factories were picked clean of both finished products and the machinery itself. Hospitals, museums, laboratories, libraries, etc. were looted…and of the 4 million bicycles, only 2 million remained, most of which were - as one observe at the time put it - in "extremely poor condition." p.237 - 238.

Though this excerpt isn't exactly 'fun,' it is quite intriguing to gain such a pithy understanding of the depth and breath of the Nazi occupation of the Dutch and their principle means of transport. As Jordan describes the increasingly desperate situation of the Germans during WWII and the increasingly draconian regulations they placed on the Amsterdam cyclists, it's quite easy to grasp and sympathize with their plight even though the events occurred some four generations ago. By the by, instances of history like this make me eminently thankful for America's much maligned Second Amendment. 

Fortunately, not all of the history is entwined with the atrocities of World War II. Among Pete Jordan's more autobiographical accounts, he explains his wife's choice to cycle to the hospital to deliver their first-born son - who, incidentally, was not wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a bike basket:

Two weeks after the baby's due date, we went to the hospital to have the labor induced. To get to the hospital, we could have taken a bus or a taxi. But since she'd been cycling pretty much every day since the baby's conception - this day seemed no different - Amy Joy rode her bike to the hospital to give birth. Eventually…out came a baby boy. We named him Ferris. p.289.

Aside from the fact that his son enjoys a certifiably awesome name, the conversant style above is typical of the vast majority of the book. Readers not only gain a better understanding of the history of cycling in Amsterdam, but also a fine insight into the author and his family during what was surely a formative time in their lives. It's enough to hope one can cycle down to the local pub and grab an Amstel Light with Jordan, et al. Well, certainly grabbing a brewski with Mr. Jordan at any rate. Amstel Light is crap beer. 

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May 2, 2013

The Lone Star Restaurant, New Zealand Style



Having long grown tired of my much-too-small flat, I decided to brave the wilds of public transport and mosey on down to the Lone Star Cafe & Bar.

As you can see in the photo above, the decor is almost spot on. Wood floors, exposed beams on the ceiling, and above all American country music blaring on the speakers. Granted the music is country music circa 1990, but it's still quite good relative to the rest of New Zealand.

Naturally, while the restaurant excelled in ambiance the food was sorely lacking. The first tell was the sign in the photo above. No self-respecting, Texas-imitation restaurant would ever advertise lamb as their special of the day. That's much too 'high falutin' for Texas. Most Texans can barely spell lamb. Needless to say, when I saw the sign above, alas, I knew I was doomed.

The second tell was the arrival of my burrito meal, which was inexplicably served with what was billed as the New Zealand equivalent of cold slaw.

My "burrito" meal is below.


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Having lived in Arizona and having there enjoyed some of the best Mexican food there is, I'm obviously not an objective critic. But even by frozen-Mexican-food-from-Wal-Mart standards the burrito was subpar.

For starters, the alleged burrito contained BBQ sauce on the inside, a holy accoutrement that should be reserved only for steak and ribs - as all good Texans know. Unless of course one is from Austin, in which case, the bar for knowledge is considerably lower.

The meal did get one thing right, however, and this impressed me greatly. It was served with a small cup of sour cream and salsa, just like God Himself intended. How the Lone Star got this detail right and, nonetheless, put BBQ Sauce on its burrito, is something I'll never understand.

As I alluded to earlier, the frozen Chimichangas at good 'ole Wally World are a better substitute for the burritos at The Lone Star Cafe & Bar in Hamilton, NZ.

But I heard Johnny Cash's Jackson in New Zealand. And, by God, that ain't bad.

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April 24, 2013

Book Review: Yesterday's Sun

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Fate is a funny thing. In general, we tend to operate under the assumption that our decisions are freely made apart from some predetermined end - spare the errant Calvinist among us. But Amanda Brooke's novel Yesterday's Sun (Publisher: HarperCollins; On Sale: Feb. 12, 2013; Cost: $14.99) challenges this convention with an interesting story about human choice amid the reality of insight into a dark fate.

The bulk of the story focuses on Holly and Tom. The two newlyweds have just left the smoggy streets of London for the fresh air of the countryside. Tom dutifully works long hours as an investigative reporter for a local TV station. His assignments take him far and wide while Holly struggles at home as an artist of moderate renown. Naturally, the two never lack for money.

As the couple settle down for a life of country living, Holly finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to fit into a community with which she has no friends, no attachments and no genuine desire to change her situation. The malaise leaves Holly far more interested in settling into the new place than she should be. Eventually, her rummaging unearths a peculiar stone tucked away with a mysterious past and strange properties that give Holly a glance into a nightmarish future.

At this point, I'm a bit concerned at giving away too much of the plot. This is a concern I always have where novels have an element of mystery to contain. But it is sufficient to say that Holly finds a stone that reveals much of her future, providing answers to questions that she could never otherwise know, answers related to future children, her husband's career, and even her own death. The whole revelation is poignantly written and leaves much for readers to consider. The best summary of the novel comes shortly after Holly discovers the stone's prognosticatory properties:

"The choice of path isn't free? What does that mean? Does it mean I have no free choice or does it mean something else? You said there was a price to pay." p.175.

As I read Ms. Brooke's novel three related questions came to mind and remained in my mind throughout. The first question involved whether such knowledge of the future is so powerful as to be altogether maddening. The second question was how such knowledge of the future might impact one’s life in the present. And the third question was how knowledge of another's future might impact ones dealings with others. In sum, three classic questions, really, about the nature and utility of fate and its impacts on one's relationship to the self and one's relationship to others.

First, Holly's discovery of the mystical moon stone provides clues and insights into her own death. This topic by definition is a morbid one; one we humans tend to avoid and when we cannot avoid the matter, it is one we tend to handle awkwardly, as recent diplomatic kerfuffles regarding the death of Lady Thatcher indicate.

But assuming it were possible to know one's expiration date, so to speak, how would this impact life itself? It strikes me that it'd be quite difficult to enjoy much of anything - particularly as life's end neared. Imagine waking up next to a spouse or partner and realizing day by day that the end was rapidly approaching. I suppose this accurately reflects our lot in life but the rub comes in the knowing - the day, time, and perhaps even manner of one's end. This knowledge is at least deeply troubling, and even assuming it is not maddening, then it is certainly troublesome enough to turn one into a bit of a nihilist, which is its own special brand of mad.

Second, I suppose that knowledge of one's mortality would also initiate a number of profound changes within an individual. It's not difficult to imagine one with knowledge of their end who becomes a compulsive planner. For if nothing else, death sets the ultimate deadline of deadlines. Procrastination simply will not do. Knowledge of the day of one's death might also have the effect of making an individual a superb manager. Envision being able to delegate tasks or manage one's obligations with the crystal clear knowledge of whether the issue will matter in the end. Not interested in the afternoon, work social? Don't go. It won't matter when you're dead. More inclined to take the trip than, save for retirement? Take the trip - or for that matter, don't, depending upon the proximity of retirement and one's untimely demise. 

And in many ways that's the attitude Holly takes in the novel. Once she catches a glimpse into her future, she makes decisions based upon what she presumes to be inevitable. The result is that she transforms as a person. From one that is as self-centered as any young spouse without obligations might be, to one of abject selflessness as she considers the future of her husband and child rather than her own. She gains perspective. She reconsiders her priorities. Such is the clarity of mortality.

Finally, inner change is relatively uninteresting unless it is manifested in some external form, and indeed the novel abounds in examples of Holly reconfiguring her priorities in relationships with others. Rather than indulge the artistic whimsy of a wealthy client, Holly stands up to the client and asserts her own artistic expression. This is an important moment in the novel because Holly finally realizes that her inner principle of honesty is more important than any commission she might receive. I suppose this might be a bit Pollyanna-ish but the sentiment is easily mocked because so few of us live in a manner that is true to ourselves. 

The knowledge of her end also transform's Holly's interactions with her family and friends in a number of ways. With her husband, she begins to promptly encourage him to pursue his passions rather than weighing him down with admonitions. It's remarkable, really, to see how their relationship transforms when this occurs, leaving one to wonder whether more marriages might be better off with an ounce of preventative encouragement than with a pound of curative apology. With family and others, Holly becomes much more open. With one friend, in particular, she allows herself to be much more vulnerable in sharing her secrets. The sense is that the burden of knowledge of the future is too much for any one person to bear and so Holly shares it with a person who is non-judgmental enough to listen. This is true of many of life's burdens. The natural question that follows is why we try so hard to keep our problems hidden, rather than seeking the cathartic help we need. And I think these responses closely mirror what many others would do in a similar situation. Relationships with loved ones, friends - these things would all take precedence over a number of competing obligations, including professional ones. We also would probably be more apt to live lives of truth rather than lives that conform to perceived social mores.

When times becomes our most precious commodity, it's amazing how one's priorities can change. 

One of the great benefits of reading a work like Brooke's is that it forces readers to reconsider their priorities. We may not know the day and date of our death, but it is within each of us to live this day as if it were our last. And that's what Brooke's work reminds us of. A moment spent with a friend, watching a baby jump in his bouncer, or having a drink with a spouse or partner, these simplicities make life worthwhile. And Ms. Brooke's eminently readable novel brings that thought to the fore of a reader's mind. 

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April 1, 2013

Postcards and Pints


Today is a University holiday here in Hamilton. With the day off and nothing to do, I popped into a local pub to draft a few postcards to family and friends back home.

The Abbey is a most agreeable establishment. Sponsored in part by Stella Artois, the Belgian brewing company renown for its premium lager, the pub has all the features one might expect of a quaint pub including wood floors and dark paneled walls.

As I sat at my table and began to write, I could not think of a better way to while away a lazy fall afternoon. There's something eminently appropriate about a pint and a pen.

And whilst I wrote to my family, I couldn't help but think of life in America, of life back home. The nostalgic trip down memory lane reminded me of how much has changed in recent months.

Roughly six month ago, my son was born in Tucson, Arizona (10/15/12). At the time, I could not have forecasted that six months later I would be writing postcards in a pub in New Zealand having missed his first Easter.

"Oh the places you'll go," as Dr. Seuss said.

Like most extended separations, the time here is bitter sweet. It has been a tremendous opportunity to be here and serve at the pleasure of the Centre and my colleagues. Yet, it is difficult not to miss home and family and friends. Particularly when things settle down on days like today.

It's interesting that my Māori friends so often inquire as to my family's welfare. Their culture is one that values family, or whanau, above all else. To see a new father, so far from his family is a difficult thing for them to process. I suppose things in America and New Zealand are not that different after all.

And so I'll draft and mail my postcards with fond thoughts of home. I will down a fine pint imbibed in a foreign land to steel my resolve. And I will say a brief, post-Easter prayer with love for their well-being - because when one is so far away, there's not much more one can do.


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March 23, 2013

Book Review: Canada

Canada - Richard Ford

Richard Ford's Canada (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: Jan. 22, 2013; Cost: $10.67) made its way to me upon the release of the paperback version in late January. The press release described the work as a "suspenseful story of misadventure and malevolence that explores large themes of identity, culpability, and the ineluctable bonds that tie us to the past." After a double check of the word ineluctable (viz., unavoidable), I can't say that I entirely agree with the characterization. 

Ford's novel is fundamentally about families and choices. Granted, the family in this particular story is highly dysfunctional, dark and, in many respect, morbid. Then again, so are most families. But actual malevolence factors into the tale only tangentially. 

The story tracks the life of Dell Parsons a high school-age boy with a twin sister named Berner. The two are an eclectic mix of ethnicities for the 1960s, born to a Jewish mother and a "Scotch-Irish, Alabama backwoods," Air Force veteran, father. Ford develops these disparate origins quite well in Dell's telling of his life's story. The mother is described as an intellectual with somewhat romantic dreams of self-betterment, while the father is described as having all charm and no commonsense - in other words, a prime candidate for elected office in today's America. 

But the story occurs in the 1960s and times are hard in Great Falls, Montana. Obviously, the life choices the parents will make set the story on an ineluctable path toward familial disintegration. But what makes the story unique is the perspective of choice it takes as events unfold. The American dream, at least in a libertarian sense, envisions individuals possessing the freedom to make choices in life so that they can further their lot as an individual. One telling of the dream might include a person rising from modest origins, making good decisions that lead him to enter into a successful career of some sort. But what makes Ford's story about choices unique is that he explores, in depth, the ramifications of individuals making poor choices, and how these choices shape the course of events for the next generations - in this case Dell and his sister Berner.  

The dust jacket reveals that Dell's parents will ultimately rob a bank. So, sharing this bit of information will not give away a major part of the plot that a reader would not have otherwise known. But even more interesting than the robbery is the psychology that informs the parents' decision-making. Ultimately, the process is as much tragic as it is comic: two perfectly reasonable people decide that the best way to mitigate their present difficulties is to rob a bank. The conclusion is inexplicable, and one might be tempted to criticize Ford for being overly dramatic - that is until the multitude of stupid decisions that people make on a daily basis are also considered. American prisons are full of people who made bad decisions along the way - and that merely represents the percentage of people who were caught and held accountable for their actions. 

In this way, Ford's book is truly unique. It challenges Americans, in particular, to think about the faith we have in our perceptions of the American dream and whether human nature actually allows us to make the good decisions that the American dream depends on. Of course, the title of the novel is no mistake either. Only a novelist as clever as Ford would use our understated neighbors to the North to critique America's understanding of itself. 

Of course, much more happens after the parents bank robbery, including an incident of incest and the separation of the twins as an indication of the very different life choices they would make. Dell winds up in Canada living with a suspect in a decades old murder back in Michigan, while Berner heads off for the urban temptations of San Francisco. Perhaps demonstrating a bit of wisdom, the story follows Dell and his life in the wilds of Saskatchewan, including his squalid living conditions and the shock of having no one in his life who really cares. 

But in honesty this reads like Ford's attempt to bring some catharsis to the story, rather than an elemental aspect of the novel itself. It's interesting, but not essential. Really, parts two and three read like a different novel entirely. Ford's admittedly minimalist prose remains but the novel loses some of Dell's introspection. The writing alone will be enough to keep readers turning to the end. But the meat of the novel is all in part one.

Ford's novel isn't a beach read. In fact, I wonder whether the novel will generate much of a popular following at all. As a culture we tend not to reward talents which make us confront realities and perceptions we find uncomfortable. Of course, Ford's work causes us to question the very essence of American exceptionalism and opportunity, so it is fair to say the book creates questions that some might find irreverent, if not nationalistically blasphemous. And because of this intrepidity, I suspect Canada will help to further solidify Richard Ford's reputation as a serious, thoughtful novelist - assuming his Pulitzer Prize didn't already have the same effect. 

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March 10, 2013

Book Review: Petroleum Venus

Petroleum Venus - Snegirev

In ye olden days of Mother Russia, Muscovites self-medicated away their nihilism with a bit of vodka and a trusty revolver. According to Alexander Snegirev's latest novel Petroleum Venus (Publisher: Glas Publishing; On Sale: 5 Feb. 2013; Cost: $15.00), this has progressed to relentlessly mocking one's Down syndrome child until feelings of parental fidelity bloom afresh. 

The novel traces the life of Fyodor Ovchinnikov, a high-flying architect who is bound for the beaches of Miami when his life is upended by his parents' untimely demise. Their sudden death leaves Fyodor to care for the teenage son that he abandoned long ago. For anyone curious as to Fyodor's moral dilemma regarding his son Vanya, Fyodor helpfully shares his deepest contradictions quite early on in the novel's pages: 

I was totally confused: torn by love for my son, but hating him because he'd spoiled my life at the very outset. p.24

Seems rather forthright. But for those in search of greater depth to Fyodor's character, Snegirev tends more toward candor than intellectual variances. The statement above sums up the entirety of Fyodor's inner conflict - one that is somehow stretched for another 180+ pages.

To give Russia's Debut Prize winner a bit more credit, Snegirev's forthrightness actually comes across as an attempt at brutal honesty rather than a latent effort to make Fyodor's character seem deliberately like a jerk. But given how predictable the plot is, the theme of honesty is really so overt as to be off-putting. Another example of Snegirev's gratuitous attempt at shock value comes later in the novel where Fyodor's love interest Sonya (could she be named anything else?) has a meeting with a client that is ruined by Vanya when he corrects the client's description of him as a "retard."

When the meeting implodes, Sonya berates Fyodor and Vanya:

"I'm a down!" she mimicked Vanya. "You've really got something to be proud of there!" p.141

SPOILER ALERT: Of course, Fyodor's response to the outburst is to love Vanya all the more. But the emotional and intellectual transition in Fyodor's character from "hating him" [Vanya] to loving him is too abrupt to seem feasible. Yet the schtick is reintroduced time and time again for the better part of the entire book - that is until Snegirev mercifully kills off Vanya's character in the end.

Assuming my premonitions above are unpersuasive, know that on the plus side, the book is a quick read. Where his characters lack depth and his themes lack development, Snegirev's writing eases the pain by taking readers between hither and yon at a swift pace.

Alas, that's still two hours of my life that I'll never get back.   

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March 1, 2013

Capitalism in New Zealand

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This afternoon I ambled about town and visited The Base - a large indoor/outdoor shopping centre rumored to be New Zealand's largest. I'm not sure about the rumors, but I was pleased to happen across something that reminded me of home. 

Whilst on the hunt for a new backpack I spotted one of America's finest exports, a Dunkin Donuts smack in the middle of the mall. I quickly shared my excitement with the manager, much to her surprise. Apparently, most people don't get quite as excited as I do while happening upon a local D&D.

As I bit into my strawberry frosted doughnut, I swear that I tasted the sweet taste of freedom itself. Somewhere in America, a bald eagle soared a little higher.

And when I sipped my hazelnut coffee, made with one cream and two sugars just like God intended, well, it was enough to bring a tear to the eye. I promptly said a silent prayer of thanks and thought twice about singing The Star-Spangled Banner to the crowd.

Instead, I did the next best thing. I read some of Ayn Rand's reflections on capitalism before happily proceeding to apply the lessons I had learned.

On the way home, I thought about the invisible hand of the market, and about the aspiration of free trade. And I smiled contentedly for the first time in many days.

Yes, friends. Capitalism is alive and well here in New Zealand and American exports are still making their way into the global market.

Three cheers for globalisation! And God bless America.

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February 26, 2013

Book Review: The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk

I'm not typically keen on works that push the envelope of fiction. I tend to like my literature the way I like my music. Classic. Major keys. Straight out of the Great American Song Book. But I have to say that Nell Leyshon's latest novella,The Colour of Milk (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: January 2013; Cost: $14.95) is by far one of the more creatively written works I've read in recent months. And to Ms. Leyshon's credit, it's rather difficult to put down.

The novel traces the life of 15 year old Mary who is one of four girls born to a local farmer. Mary has the unfortunate luck of being both sharp-witted and physically disabled, a fact that makes her a liability in the eyes of her father who would rather have had a boy than a girl, and an able-bodied girl than a disabled one. Making matters even more frustrating for readers is the fact that Mary's mother is a complete invertebrate, a passive soul who would rather see her three daughters severely punished than save them from a life of hardship and abuse. 

Mary's elderly, invalid Grandfather is in a similar strait of ignominy amongst the family, spending his time in a cupboard beneath the stairs. Or perhaps that's a different story. At any rate, theirs is the most honest and innocent relationship of the entire novel in that it's not based upon any sort of quid pro quo. The grandfather loves his granddaughter unconditionally and the granddaughter loves her grandfather. Not to mention that she's really the only person in the family to give a damn about the ailing old man.

Before the reader has the opportunity to get extremely upset with Mary's parents, the poor lass is shipped off down the road to the local vicar's house to tend to the minister's dying wife. The arrangement is a hasty one, with the vicar paying Mary's father a sum for her services as a housekeeper, whilst providing her room and board as she learns the trade of managing a household. Naturally, none of this occurs with even the facade of Mary's consent.     

From this point, the story progresses rapidly when Mary begins to learn to read. Accordingly, the entire novel is written in lowercase, giving readers a true sense of Mary's voice and the mental struggles she endures. In fact, it's this theme of endurance that underpins much of the novel. Leyshon's work challenges readers to consider their own limits in a situation of hardship - particularly the price one would be willing to pay for the gift of literacy (a gift that in most Western countries we take for granted). Mary's lot in the story is very much imbued with this conundrum and the resolution of matters isn't an obviously moral one.  

While I won't reveal much more of the plot, I will add a word of caution for those interested. Mary's situation could easily be read from the perspective of a modern, feminist social commentary on female opportunities in the 1830s. But, given that Jane Austen has more or less run the field in this sub-genre, a much better way of understanding Leyshon's work is to appreciate the existential value it provides - think Camus's The Stranger rather than Pride and Prejudice. Leyshon's work requires that readers undertake a moral assessment at nearly every turn, underscoring how so much of life is lived in neither black nor white but in the monochrome of grey.

In all, it's difficult not to recommend a novel that challenges one to question so many assumptions. Not to mention the fact that the work is well written and told from a truly unique perspective. All of the above, of course, is a tribute to this pithy author who manages to say much while writing fairly little.  

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February 19, 2013

My Neighborhood

Silverdale, Hamilton NZ

I don't have many friends here in New Zealand. In fact, aside from my colleagues at the school, I've met hardly anyone. This dilemma is the three-fold product of not having a vehicle, awaiting my first pay stub, and working full-time. But the longer I'm confined to my corner of town, the more I find that belonging to a place is a funny thing. And, in fact, this sense of belonging is not terribly difficult to achieve if one tries. 

Consider my almost daily trip to the carry out place down the street, or as they say here in New Zealand the "take away." By the by, I can't say I understand the nomenclature. But then again, I can't understand why Kiwi drive on the left side of the road and substitute the letter "s" for "z" in ways that make no sense. For example, if New Zealanders had the word in their vocabulary, "privatize" would be spelt "privatise."

I suppose it's not only the nomenclature that makes little sense. They play cricket here too.

God bless America.   

Anyway, back to my take away shop.

It's difficult to chat sometimes with the amiable proprietor given our language barrier. As noted, I speak American whilst they speak English with inflections of Vietnamese. But I come in often, and I feel rather comfortable here. They've also gotten to know me quite well and usually fire up a cheese burger when they spot me crossing the street. 

The place is run by a father, his son, and his wife - who, incidentally, speaks way better English than either bloke. But it's the father who's the chatty sort. He likes to give me a hard time for ordering the cheapest, least healthy thing on the menu. I can't understand him all the time, but those times I can't, I'm pretty sure he's saying in Vietnamese that I'm going to give myself a heart attack. I respond to his shenanigans by reminding him that my consistent patronage keeps him in business. This always gets a good laugh.

Tomorrow, we'll repeat the schtick. Because, after all, we both know I'll be back. 

And that's the funny thing really. My analytical mind knows that this is a transactional relationship. He and I chat because we both want to continue the arrangement: he provides a service and I pay him for providing me with food. But in nearly all ways, it's a perfectly honest, open relationship. Does that make it less of a friendship because its transactional? I don't think so.

The bottom line is that they are keeping me well-fed and I am helping to keep them in business. And when you share a small corner of the globe in a small corner of the country, in a small corner of town, well, that's just what neighbors do.


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February 5, 2013

Happy Waitangi Day

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You can be forgiven if the salutation above means relatively little. If I hadn't the day off, it's quite likely the day would have passed from my radar too. Even so, Waitangi Day is New Zealand's celebration of its founding document the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty marked an 1840 agreement between the Māori peoples and the "Queen of England" that permitted the Brits to establish a civil government in New Zealand in exchange for the recognition of Māori ownership over their lands and other property interests. 

Unsurprisingly, there has been much disagreement on the contents of the treaty - the lot of which makes my job here possible. Of principle importance is what exactly both sides ceded in the original understanding of the treaty. The Māori contend that they did not give up complete sovereignty to the Crown such that their traditional governance entities would be rendered moot. The British Government and, subsequently, New Zealand's constitutional monarchy contends that, in fact, the Māori did just this.

Of course, the the matter isn't quite so black and white. Consider that the New Zealand Government established the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to hear Māori claims of violations of the treaty. To date, some $700 million have been spent by the Government on reparations to the Māori in the form of land and property transfers, and formal apologies for violations of the treaty, all with the consent of the British Monarchy. Such payments, however, have stoked the resentment of some non-Māori New Zealanders who allege that the Māori are simply exploiting the treaty to obtain special privileges from the Government. The Māori claim that such concessions by the Government are simply what is appropriate given the destruction of their culture and governing structures.

As an aside, my work here will focus on the restoration of traditional Māori governance structures and their long-term viability. To wit, concerns about extant Māori governance entities have reached such a pressing level that the University of Waikato's Māori and Indigenous Governance Centre has committed significant resources for examining the best practices of tribal governance from around the world in hopes strengthening Māori governmental institutions at home. All of which is a very long way of saying that my work here will focus on finding ways to help create stable governing entities for Māori peoples. 

Taking a step back, as an American in New Zealand, it's a bit odd celebrating another country's founding. But I tried to get in the spirit by having a lunch of what the locals call fish and chips - or what I routinely call fish and freedom fries much to the confusion of my local restauranteur - who happens to be a Vietnamese immigrant that speaks only limited English. To compensate for my foolishness, I make it a point to leave a tip. Unfortunately, I think this further confuses him since New Zealand isn't a country that tips its service industry workers. Strange, I know. 

In all, it has been a relatively agreeable Waitangi Day. I met a number of colorful characters, including a neighbor named Jared who tells me that he has an aunt who is Sioux. Incidentally, I met Jared when he dropped by and woke me up, around 8am this morning asking to for a spoonful of instant coffee for his coffee mug. I suppose I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead - although sleeping in would have been quite nice today. I was also pleased to make the acquaintance of Syd, a local, Indian entrepreneur who runs the quick-mart only a couple of blocks away. The Simpsons would be proud.

And with such august company, I have to say that the national holiday/day off has been quite nice. From the Southern Hemisphere to you, Happy Waitangi Day.

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February 2, 2013

Public Transportation, The Original New Zealand Excursion

I decided to venture out yesterday. This was not an easy thing for me to do. As my wife would attest, I prefer habit over adventure and tend to stick close to the rivers and the lakes that I'm used to, quoting the immortal TLC.

That said, I am also particularly loathe to use public transportation, especially busses. I'm not sure where this phobia came from but most of my experiences with bus systems have been bad. Some of this stems from a personal incompetence at reading the bus grid, with its complex schedule of fares and timetables, not to mention that no bus in the history of busses has ever run on time. Given that its the middle of summer here and a balmy 78 degrees with 50% humidity, I was also more than a bit frightened at the thought of a crowded bus with poor AC.

Nevertheless, I made the 20 minute walk to my local Walmart equivalent, affectionately called The Warehouse. One can call New Zealanders many things but ostentatious isn't among them. After finding my various necessities, I ambled along toward the local bus stop. Having studied the bus grid before I left, I felt confident that my luck with public transport would turn for the better.

I shouldn't have been surprised when it didn't. Rather than taking me toward my destination, I inadvertently boarded the wrong bus due to New Zealand's affinity for driving on the wrong side of the road. Two hours later, after taking the entire bus loop, I arrived at the stop nearest my residence. My twenty minute trip by foot turned into an afternoon-long tour. As it happened, poor AC and crowded seats were very real, though very negligible, concerns.

In all, I learned a valuable lesson from my excursion. Busses are cursed. Avoid them if at all possible. When taking local public transportation becomes necessary, take the train or a cab. You're welcome.

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February 1, 2013

A Dispatch from New Zealand


The heading above may come as a surprise, but your humble blogger and certifiable Patriot, is presently an expatriate residing in the New Zealand city of Hamilton.

It's about 10:15PM here on February 1st. I am ensconced in The Quadrant, a local watering hole, on the corner of Victoria and Alma Streets in downtown Hamilton. The people are friendly here and the beer is cheap. With my hotel less than a block away, I could certainly find more pressing things to complain about. Folks driving on the wrong side of the road comes to mind. My life has flashed before my eyes no less than twice since I've been here. 

Much like America, New Zealanders love their sport. Perhaps it's a premonition but New Zealand is currently kicking America's ass in rugby. In other news, America has a rugby team!?! Of course, by most accounts, Rugby is a bit like the NFL - minus the fan base, hitting, talent level, and multimillion dollar salaries of the U.S. In all, it's rather endearing to watch really.

For those interested, my travels have brought me to Middle Earth for a purpose - although the past few days have admittedly been filled with leisure. On Monday, I will take up my appointment as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Waikato's Maori And Indigenous Governance Centre. The fellowship will be a tremendous opportunity to use the research in my dissertation regarding the construction of a libertarian framework for indigenous rights, and make real world analyses and applications to the governance mechanisms of the Maori people and other indigenous entities. All of which is a convoluted way of saying that I hope to see if my work in legal theory has any basis in the real world of policy making and whether libertarian perspectives of freedom and human rights add anything to the conversation.

Having neither lived nor worked abroad, I'm not sure what to expect. But the opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime event and the staff at the MIGC have been incredibly supportive and gracious.

I hope to have many more updates as the New Zealand summer wears on. For now, I am pleased to have settled in and to have arrived safely.

More to come.

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January 23, 2013

Book Review: The Cove



A number of books made their way into print during the holiday crunch. None were so beautifully melancholic as Ron Rash's The Cove (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: November 6, 2012; Cost: $14.99). From page one, the work is imbued with a tangible sense of sadness that amplifies the several, dark themes of the novel, ranging from xenophobia and isolation, to the question of unrequited love and the elusiveness of joy. When these elements are coupled with Rash's masterful storytelling, the work is as beautifully tragic as it is beautifully written.

The tale follows the lives of Laurel and Hank Shelton, a recently orphaned set of siblings in their early 20s, trying to eek out an existence in the hollow of a foreboding, granite outlet known as the cove. Set during the waning months of World War I, much of the Mars Hill community has struggled to cope with the rising costs of war, including Hank Shelton, whose left arm remained somewhere in France as a result.

Upon Hank's return, the humdrum of rebuilding the Sheltons' farm is shaken when a mute transient named Walter happens upon the seclusion of the cove. The man proves an able worker, quickly earning the trust of Laurel and eventually Hank, although his past remains a mystery. For Laurel the chance encounter is particularly intriguing, since Walter is both an eligible bachelor and ignorant of the local lore surrounding her family, the cove and a peculiar birthmark on her leg. For Hank, Walter's arrival is a golden opportunity to finish the necessary repairs on the farm and to leave his sister in in the care of a husband who can provide a good life for her.

Despite being cut from the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, love blooms amidst the craggy environs of the cove, perhaps as it inevitably should. Rash paints the relationship between Laurel and Walter as one of awkward innocence, rather than one of heated attraction but the approach works, giving an air of realism and honesty to the coupling. After all, most relationships are awkward at first. Only the best ones progress to being awkward in bed.

Being a tragedy, I am reluctant to divulge much more of the plot for fear of giving away some of the novel's twists and the ending. But one theme that bears some discussion is the relationship between an individual's landscape and their perception of reality. Rash argues that the area in which a person is reared can have tremendous ramifications for how a person perceives their lot in life. Or as he puts it, "landscape is destiny."

On the one hand, the connection between peoples and their lands is nothing new. Cultures on every habitable part of the world have fought and died over this very concept. But Rash takes this idea and localizes it to create one of the most unique motifs in literatures - the suggestions that the landscapes surrounding us can permanently alter, for better or worse, how we perceive life itself.

Naturally, I doubt the application of Rash's theory, but in the novel the fiction works quite well. For the Sheltons, the gloomy depths of the cove mark the beginning of a mournful provenance that runs throughout the novel. As a reader, this creates a perversely compelling dichotomy - over and over again I hoped for the best, while the characters seemed only to hope for not the worst.

Managing such low character expectations in a novel would be difficult were it not for the role of the cove itself in dashing so many hopes for both Laurel and Hank. The granite cliff creating the cove is a constant presence in the novel, lurking behind whatever joy that manages to seep into its shadows, ready to snuff out any mirth like a candle in the winter's air. Yet, the landmark is idle, no more a character in the novel than the Great War. The hope that keeps one turning, page after page is that the characters can make an escape from such a dreary place.

Laurel Shelton describes long suffering as follows:
Waiting for her life to begin. Still waiting a year after her father's death. But now she felt something was about to happen, maybe already had happened, a beginning this stranger might be apart of. p.47
Here, the cove serves the role as a barrier to time for Laurel, placing her life on hold, preventing her from embracing any other reality beside the doldrums of its confines.

Finally, what makes Rash's novel particularly compelling is that he provides glimpses of the happiness that might have been, perhaps in a different place, a different era, under different circumstances. Readers have little doubt that the novel is a tragedy going in, but Rash does a powerful job of lulling readers into meditative sense of security before the bell tolls.

As love finds Walter and Laurel, she steps outside the cabin to reflect:
This was something rarer. Happiness, Laurel thought, that must be what this is. She picked up the kindling and went inside. She and Walter and Hank stayed by the hearth past mid-night, and no one spoke and no one seemed to want to, as if a single utterance might break some benevolent spell that had been cast over the cabin. p.135
For just a moment, it's easy to forget that further tragedy awaits the trio inside the cabin. It's easy to forget the work that went into the farm repairs in the preceding chapters, the circumstances which brought Walter to the cove, and the xenophobia against German-Americans running rampant in the nearby town.

In fiction as in life, it's easy to sit by the hearth and enjoy the warmth. Of course, this happiness cannot last long in either realm. Life is simply too messy, too brutish, and too short, to borrow a bit from Hobbes. In Rash's world, we are reminded how these quiet moments can be an opiate for the cold of the present.

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