Friday, May 31, 2013

The Best Thing That I've Done on the Internets This Year (So Far)

Since I’ve moved overseas my online attention has been pretty much consumed, as is evinced by this blog, by China issues. The US’s relationship with it usually runs at the top of that, but I’ve also been drawn into Russian politics, Middle East affairs (from an entirely different perspective than most of my fellow Americans) and Southeast Asian relations. I live in Beijing and it’s only natural that when I friend/follow other folks who live/have lived here that these kinds of topics would be well-discussed.

But over the past few months other things have been creeping in on the edges of my awareness, things like sexual violence and “Native” American* rights. Important issues to be sure, and it’s all been thanks to the Twitter posts of Patricia Stein, AKA @PygmySioux.

Ms. Stein first came to my attention when word of her Indiegogo funding drive for her Arming Sisters project found its way into my feed. I was incredibly moved by her idea (you should totally make a donation if you’ve got some loose change sitting around) and very much drawn to learn more about the perspective of a Sioux woman who had decided to move around the world to find her place. The parallels with my own story are obvious, and my “bumping into” her online is a testament to the connective potential of our modern contrivances.

Here I am, a scion of one of the founding families of the US (and also a direct descendant of a slave), sitting on the opposite side of the planet from where my family has been for at least 150 years, and I can run into a person with an almost diametrically opposed family history from mine who has made a similar choice in her life. And I admire the heck out of her.

How is that not amazing?

I’m not sure if my following her is a rebuke to the idea that the Internet and social media is a big echo chamber for the ideas/opinions that we already have, or if my constant shock at my own ignorance of and -bristling at- some of the issues that are front-and-center to her actually prove it.

I may not be able to relate to her passion for some the issues that are close to her, but I always admire her sincerity and am willing to concede that my hesitance to go completely in the tank for her on everything has a lot to do with my background and perspective. For all of the poverty, crime and violence that I grew up surrounded by, I was at least an ethnic majority (city-wide, if not in my neighborhood), and a politically dominant one at that. Being Irish-Catholic in Boston in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t really prepare me to properly deal with things like genocide, ethnic cleansing and social marginalization.

Those words are powerful, evocative and troubling. One’s instinct is to react against that. When the hell does that happen in America? While many people -myself included- may think that the tragedy of America’s expansion westward was something perpetrated against the “natives” of America by generations that are almost a century dead, people like Patricia have grown up amidst the cultural ruble that they wrought. For them it is a real, tangible legacy that is barely acknowledged by our culture, and when it is -even with the best of intentions- it is often brushed aside as something past that can’t be fixed so it can't or shouldn’t be dwelt upon.

(Man, Joss Whedon really knows how to NOT pull punches. Though it's worth noting that he chose the evil character to say that line in this scene.)

Since my perspective is so different I can’t pretend to relate to hers. Some of my oppressed, occupied ancestors, who were also victims of genocide (or, at the very least, of forced starvation), fled Ireland over 150 years ago but I seem to have moved on. I’m not all up in arms about the British. I know that it’s different for “Native” Americans, but that’s where I come from. I need an education on these things.

Which is the whole point of this post. I’m excited to have met somebody so radically different from me out in the wilds of the Internets. And I’m super psyched that she, as I tweeted the other day, is shoving her perspective in my face from time to time, forcing me to think about things way outside of my experience and challenging me to think about things that I normally don’t.

Thanks, Patty!

*My reasons for using the quotations around “Native” in this post are complex, but are in no way disrespectful. I hope to address them in a future post.