White Men Only

Speaking of public schools, my sixteen-year-old dropped out of high school.

No, she didn’t, really. She actually signed up for the state’s dual enrollment program (called Running Start), and elected to become a full-time student at the local community college, with no high school classes on her schedule at all. This is working out beautifully so far. She enjoys her classes and she especially enjoys the absence of stupid high school stuff. She seems unconcerned about social issues and still spends plenty of time with her friends. Tigger’s goal is to finish her two years with both a high school diploma and an AA degree.

It’s a little tricky. She has to carefully choose classes that satisfy both the requirements of the AA degree and the high school graduation requirements.

For example, to graduate from high school she needs a class in American History. Well, that’s cool, it will satisfy a college humanities requirement. But which class to take?

The college offers:

  1. US History I
  2. US History II
  3. US History III
  4. Women in US History
  5. African American History
  6. Native American History

Courses 1 through 3 can be summed up as “white men and their wars.” Courses 4, 5, and 6 could be called “other stuff that happened.” This being my child and all, she would much (+++) prefer courses 4 through 6, any one of them, really.

So she went to her high school counselor, who has to sign off on all of her choices before she registers each quarter, and asked him if she could take one of those classes for her American History requirement.

What do you think he said, friends?

Yes, you’re right. He said no. Only “white men and their wars” counts as real history. To his credit, he didn’t like the school district’s policy and agreed that she should be allowed to take the other courses. It’s not like there’s no overlap. Do you suppose the African American History course includes no discussion of the Civil War? It’s merely a question of perspective, and one perspective is privileged above all others.

That is a lesson my daughter is sure to remember.

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Only Earth and Sky Last Forever

Recently there’s been some hollering in my town about a muddy lot full of tents. It’s not the Occupy movement—haven’t heard much from them lately—it’s a tent city called Nickelsville.

Much like the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, Nickelsville was named after a political leader—former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels—who failed to solve the problem of poverty and homelessness. This seems unfair as it’s a mighty difficult problem to solve, but the name has stuck.

Nickelsville is actually a well-organized and sensible (from the participants’ viewpoint) response to homelessness. There’s even a website: http://www.nickelsville.org/. While Seattle has shelters for homeless people, there are not enough of them and they have some major downsides. Many homeless people consider sleeping in shelters to be more dangerous than sleeping in doorways or under the freeway bridge. Shelters for families are especially hard to come by. Most of all, shelters are not homes. You have to leave the shelter early in the morning and take all of your stuff with you, and there’s no guarantee you will get to stay there again the next night. In contrast, if you pitch a tent in Nickelsville, you have a home, however crude.

The problem, of course, is that the residents of the tents don’t own the land they are using. The city owns it and so far tolerates the tent dwellers. The neighbors are Not. Amused. Even though Nickelsville is located in an industrial urban area, not in the midst of middle class suburbia, the nearby business owners want it gone. Yesterday.

And this is what strikes me. In this country it is actually illegal to exist if you don’t own a piece of land or have the money to rent one. You are trespassing everywhere you go. And that’s pretty weird, if you think about it, that every inch of ground belongs to somebody. It makes me wonder about the initial instance of ownership. Every single acre was stolen, since no one initially had any particular right to claim it as their own.

A few months ago I read The Man Who Quit Money, a true story about Daniel Suelo, who made a philosophical decision to live without money. He sleeps in caves in the Utah desert, which is illegal, but he only gets rousted once in a while. He forages and scavenges for food. He owns very little and freely gives it to others. Suelo, a deeply religious man, has rejected the precepts of our economic system and lives outside of it.

Indeed, the foundational precept—that we live in a world of scarcity—is highly suspect. We live in a world of abundance and we create scarcity through our economic activities. There are more vacant houses than homeless people in this country. Furthermore, the precept that everyone must work at a money-producing job (or enter a dependent relationship with someone who works at a money-producing job) in order to justify their existence is suspect. We create scarcity and we invent busy work to perpetuate our economic system.

I’ve also been reading some books about the Native Americans who lived on the plains. The nomadic tribes pitched their tipis in their own tent cities anywhere they wanted to and lived by hunting and foraging. Land ownership was not a thing they did. And because they owned nothing, they owned everything. In Lakota Woman, written in the late 20th century, Mary Crow Dog describes some of the long-term repercussions of taking people who lived without money, “giving” them some land to own, and expecting them to simply assimilate into a culture and economic milieu so totally foreign to them.

Crow Dog describes her years as a reservation youth. Bands of aimless young people roamed around the Dakotas in beat-up jalopies, stealing food from the over-priced stores and drinking themselves blind. She didn’t draw the connection between her roaming and foraging ancestors, but it seemed like a modern-day version to me.

The Sioux tribes of the 19th century would have understood the tent city in Seattle. They would not have understood that anyone had the right to force those people to move because the land wasn’t theirs. They would not have understood that there is no place—no place—that those people are allowed to live. What could they have done to deserve that kind of shunning?