Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Death of John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis died yesterday. In a year that has cost us dearly and hurt terribly, the world has lost a giant, too.

I remember the first time I learned of John Lewis. In the fifth grade for Mrs. Gunter's social studies class, we had to report on the U.S. states. Drawn out of a hat, my state was Alabama. I was a 10-year-old kid who had never left Idaho and had no real sense of where Alabama was. By the end of that year I would know every state, its capital and where it was on the map (the whole Iowa-Indiana-Ohio corridor is still a bit tricky). I remember going home from school that afternoon and telling my grandmother--I lived with them at the time--and asking, had she ever been to Alabama? No. Did she know anyone who was from Alabama? No. Did she know anything about Alabama? Yes. Selma.

Because of our shared love of Kennedy, I knew of a few moments in history that were connected to civil rights. I knew about James Meredith and Ole Miss. I was told about the bravery of the Little Rock Nine. I hadn't ever heard of Selma. What was Selma? I learned other names that day, too: George Wallace, Bull Connor, Orval Faubus, Ross Barnett and other unapologetic racists. I also learned about the Freedom Riders, Jimmie Lee Jackson, A. Philip Evers, Goodman, Chaney & Schwerner, Medger Evers and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.

In my grandparents' home they had a long galley kitchen where on the end furthest from the noise of the living room was their kitchen table. I remember sitting at that table, my grandmothers' lace table covering pulled back to make room for my notebook and the encyclopedia she pulled from their set upstairs, bought specifically for curious grandchildren. That afternoon she told me what happened when John Lewis and a group of non-violent, peaceful protesters came down the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She said, "they cracked his head." It would be years before I knew what that meant, years before I saw photographs of Bloody Sunday.

The way my grandmother spoke of this remarkable young man named John Lewis told me what she thought of him. I had heard her use that tone about only a few men: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Spencer W. Kimball and Bobby Kennedy. I came to think of him with the same respect I heard in her voice that day when I was ten.

In 1995 when I was doing that report on Alabama, I didn't know that Lewis had been elected to Congress, but I have now followed his career for the better part of two decades. I have always been in awe.

His death was not shocking; it was only a matter of time before pancreatic cancer would beat even the strongest of men. His absence over the last many weeks since the murder of George Floyd signaled the end was nearing. If ever there were a time for men of his caliber to stand up in one voice to disavow the hatred and racism that is being unleashed on peaceful protesters, men and boys of color and the mechanisms for voting in this country, now is that time.

I realized how close we were to losing this man when I saw the photographs of him visiting the street in D.C. where the mayor had 'Black Lives Matter' painted on the street. He was in a pair of slacks, a sharp sweater and a mask. Obviously, he had more reason to worry about COVID-19 than most as an 80-year-old man with cancer, but he had to see it for himself. He looked so small. He no longer appeared the bulldog I had always thought him to be. There he stood, not as a warrior in the current fight, but as a man who had survived the battles, lost many friends, seen horrific things and was ready to pass on the struggle to a new era of civil rights activists.

The things I will remember most about him, things I witnessed on television, were the speech he gave at the 2008 Democratic National Convention prior to the nomination of Barack Obama; the first time that Barack and Michelle Obama joined Lewis on his annual march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday; and, the sit-in he led on the floor of the House of Representatives to bring to the floor a vote on gun violence reform. He was in his mid-seventies then, a man whose reputation would never have otherwise had him sitting on the floor among colleagues. However, he led that protest until the Speaker of the House had the cameras and the lights turned out on the members who were bringing attention to the desperate need to do something about gun violence in this country. John Lewis had many friends murdered by guns, most murdered by racists and white supremacists. He never fought a battle without reason and conviction.

The Republicans lost the moral compass of their party with the death of John McCain. The Democrats have lost the conscience of their caucus. However, there are many good men and women in the Senate and the House, not to mention governors and mayors, who stand ready to pick up his torch. He has been carrying that torch since he was first elected to the House.

The world needs moral men, not perfect ones. John Lewis was by no means perfect, but he was genuine, steadfast, moral, strong, respected on both sides of the aisle, revered by generations, kind to his cats, a great dancer, a man whose voice was instantly recognizable, a leader, and a hero of both my grandmother and I.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

My Depression

If you have never truly struggled with your own mental health, it is almost impossible to grasp what it is like for others who are engulfed in their own struggle. Even if you have struggled, it can sometimes be difficult to identify the ongoing mental health battles of those around you. Unfortunately and often tragically, hindsight is 20/20.

I have watched someone close to me spiral into a deep hole that required hospitalization to dig out of, hospitalization that ultimately saved their life. I have watched someone I love struggle through untreated depression and classic signs of PTSD. I have now personally known 5 people who have committed suicide, the latest this month, a dear friend from high school and the first years of college.

There is nothing that can truly prepare you for the news that someone you love is gone unexpectedly. It is made all the more difficult when it is at their own hand. We second guess ourselves despite knowing there was often nothing we could have done, especially with those with whom we've lost touch.

For far too long I have been silent about my own depression. It began when I was in my early teens. Untreated for years, I struggled to understand why me. Why couldn't I pull myself out of it? My family, despite a history of depression and mental illness on my mother's side, never spoke openly about these things. It was a weakness to seek help. Counseling was considered pointless and a financial hurdle. It wasn't until I was in college that I realized how detrimental untreated depression was to my everyday life.

Over the years I have struggled with insomnia, anxiety, avoidance, poor coping mechanisms and motivation. It was not easy to complete my degree or do graduate work. I took a medical withdrawal one semester near the end of my college tenure that was as useful for my mental health as it was for my physical health. Healing after my spine surgery was slower and more difficult because of the depression that prevented me to get the rest my body needed. Chronic pain and depression go hand in hand; I am finally understanding this symbiosis. With the help of an amazing counselor, medication and friends who know the signs when I'm hopelessly falling into a depression that I can't recognize as it is happening to me, I am in control.

What I wish more than anything is that I would have been open about this with so many people I've encountered in my life. My story might have helped them. Each of us learn from our own experiences and it is so important that we share those lessons with those around us, particularly those who need to hear them most. Because I now see this importance, I have spoken recently with someone I care deeply for about depression and how hope is not out of reach. Those words should have come from me sooner. I can speak to depression, PTSD and anxiety in ways that someone who hasn't experienced them cannot. I can speak to the life events that can trigger periods of depression in a way that only those who have experienced chronic depression can. It's time I do that. And I am. 

Britt (1985-2016)
I hate that it has taken losing a dear friend and nearly losing a loved one to recognize the significance of talking about depression openly and honestly.

If you or someone you love struggles with depression, I encourage you to talk about it. Tell your story. Ask for help. Do not be ashamed. Do not blame yourself for something deeply rooted in your life experiences, an illness or even genetics.

What is in this moment is not ours to endure forever. 

Friday, July 8, 2016


Watching a city you love in chaos is a terrible feeling. I can't explain what it feels like.

The Old Red Museum, formerly the Dallas County Courthouse,
and the Criminal Courts building (left) on South Houston.
When 9/11 happened, I hadn't yet been to the places that would become covered in ash, housing those seeking protection as the towers fell. Had I, surely I would have felt a connection to the space itself.

Last night's chaos in Dallas is quite different.

I love Dallas. Part of my heart remains there. Specifically, I love the West End. I have spent a great deal of time there and in Oak Cliff (just on the other side of the I-35). Some of the nicest people I ever met I found there.

The last time I visited Dallas was in December of 2007, mere months before my health would permanently prevent me from traveling. It was, as it always is, charming and relaxed. The people were welcoming and the southern hospitality that you often hear about stuck in my mind. I happened to arrive the day of the Cotton Bowl and the city was bustling. It was a wonderful time to be in Dallas.

Old Red Museum and Texas School Depository (background)
and the Dallas County Civil Court (right) and Military Entrance
Processing Station (left).
When I first heard that shots had been fired into the crowd last night at the peaceful protest of recent police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis-St. Paul, I immediately thought of how hard Dallas has worked to repair a reputation that for decades was tied to the highest profile shooting this country has ever known--the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I also remembered a piece I'd read in the Dallas Morning News not long ago in the wake of another police shooting about the practices the Dallas Police Department had adopted to attempt to prevent something happening like what had happened in Ferguson, New York City, Oakland, Baltimore, North Charleston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland and Minneapolis (at that time the shooting of Jamar Clark). However, I, unlike far too many in the crowd that were interviewed on cable news or those on social media, knew that something like this could happen in Dallas. Dallas is not insusceptible to what we're seeing across the country. And yes, this kind of chaos and violence has happened in Dallas before.

Bank of America tower and John F. Kennedy Memorial (left)
When we learned that one of the five officers killed last night was a DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) cop, I was taken back to a memory in 2004 when I visited Dallas for the very first time. I had walked from the area where this shooting took place, the West End, over the I-35 into East Oak Cliff, a borough of greater Dallas. After seeing a few places, having lunch and getting terribly lost, I found myself in an epic downpour. If you've ever been in Texas in the summer you will understand the kind of downpour I speak of. There I was in Oak Cliff on foot and quite a distance from where I needed to be when a city worker rolled up in his truck and asked me if I needed help. I was young, barely 19, and in a foreign city. He saw me and didn't hesitate to help me out. He delivered me to DART after allowing me to wait out the downpour and made sure I got on the right bus. I'll never forget his kindness when I think of that city.

Last night as I watched the press arrive with their cameras to the West End, I saw many familiar sights. From the ever present Omni Hotel to the Bank of America tower, it's courtyard a lovely place to read a book on a lunch break, from El Centro College to Belo Park, where the protest march began, and to the Greyhound station that I've walked past dozens upon dozens of times, it was the city I love unraveling in chaos.

From within the Kennedy Memorial.
The image that struck me the most was the image of the peaceful rally as it passed the John F. Kennedy Memorial. The irony of the moment could not be escaped. A shooting in Dallas, people running through the streets to get away and one of the structures that could have offered some protection was constructed in the memory of a man shot down in those very streets. Constructed in his memory, but not, as the marker reads, "to the pain and sorrow of death." 

As Dallas and this country go forward I have no idea what the future holds for us. I have no idea how we come together and stop this train we're on. What I hope is this: We must come to a place where we will not be ridiculed for both protesting the loss of innocent life at the hands of bad cops while simultaneously supporting the good men in blue and mourning their lives when they make the ultimate sacrifice to the communities they serve. We must find a way to live together with all our different views, experiences and beliefs.  What I hope for the city of Dallas is that they can rise from this tragedy as they did in 1963 and that it won't take decades for their reputation to be cleansed, removing from it the memory of violence. 

The words of another Kennedy, chiseled in stone at another memorial, come to mind now: "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."

May the city of Dallas, but not just the city of Dallas, also Baton Rouge, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Bristol, find peace in the hours and days ahead.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Thoughts on the Filibuster

It's past 1 a.m. in D.C., Senator Chris Murphy continues to hold the Senate floor and this post already feels like the scene in "The Stackhouse Filibuster" from season 2 of The West Wing.

It's a proud night for Democrats, most of us anyway. Our party is showing real courage tonight in standing up and letting common sense be voiced about gun violence in this country. Unfortunately, not all Democrats (even the faux Democrats) see it this way. One such "Democrat" who spent the entire presidential primary telling us he was better on the issue of guns than Hillary Clinton, is not on the floor of the Senate or even in D.C. He's not out on the trail, the primary is over. He's home in Vermont after having started his day in D.C. I suppose this is why they say there's been a convoluted relationship between Sanders and the NRA over the years.

I've written about guns before. Last time the Senate took up the Manchin-Toomey bill, I wrote a detailed account of how some of the worst mass shootings in recent memory fit in my own personal history. I even shared a piece a friend of mine wrote about guns in the wake of Newtown. Nothing about the past week, unfortunately, has changed how we address gun violence in this country. It is both mind-numbing and infuriating at once.

Does the death of 49 people, LGBT Americans, at the hands of what we are calling a radicalized terrorist change minds about controlling gun violence? If so, why? If anything should change about how terrorists access guns in this country in the wake of Orlando or any other massacre carried out by a terrorist (non-domestic), it will be a net-gain to have the change, but how can we live with ourselves for waiting for an ISIS fighter or al Qaeda sympathizer to get a gun and massacre Americans before we finally acted? 20 children, babies, were slaughtered in their classrooms and we did nothing. But 1 guy who aligns himself with a terrorist organization that we are at war with (declaration of war also being avoided by the cowards in Congress) and it's time to start worrying about who gets weapons of war in this country.

I'm not criticizing the Democrats in the Senate, God knows they're doing everything they possibly can, as much as I am criticizing the system and the country as a whole. The American people should be holding their representatives' feet to the fire while very loudly insisting they disavow the NRA. What we should do and what we do are rarely the same.

It appears at this late hour that the action on the floor of the Senate will now include bringing for a vote 2 measures that would keep guns out of the hands of terrorists. The votes are riddled with pitfalls for Republican senators who are supposed to be hardline conservatives on terror while also foot soldiers for the NRA.

While it seems like progress, we are no closer to answering to the number of assault weapons being used to kill Americans. We are no closer to answering to weapons ending up in the hands of the mentally ill.

We have so much still to accomplish.

Friday, May 20, 2016

TGIF Tunes

I was reminded of this song today in a conversation I was having and returned to it. While the official music video wasn't available for embedding, this was. If you haven't seen the official video, I encourage you to go watch. It's sad, beautiful and empowering all at once.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Of Misogyny and Autonomy

This election has brought out the worst in men. I say men alone for good reason. The GOP frontrunner has more or less given men permission to be misogynists. Of course, the frontrunner has also given another group, also largely men, permission to be racists, but that’s an argument for another day.

 When Donald Trump says that he respects women and that no one loves women as much as he does, it has the same icky sounding truth to it as “I didn’t beat my wife since the last time.” It’s revolting. If Trump has such love and respect for women, why has his campaign crashed and burned with women voters? Recent polls show that 73% of female voters have an unfavorable view of the candidate. Keeping in mind that women make up the largest group of voters in this country, how does one say that they are doing well with women amidst the actual evidence?

 Trump’s unedited, unforced comment in the MSNBC town hall with Chris Matthews about punishing women who have an abortion in a future where abortion is once again illegal in this country shook the campaign and gripped the news cycle. What’s interesting about his comments is that he didn’t appear to have thought it out. Like so many of the things that have ended up troublesome for the candidate, he spoke freely as he was working out an issue in his mind. He shows no evidence that he has actually thought through the big issues. Imagine a candidate for even the U.S. Senate who hasn’t spent a moment either listening to advisors or hell, even interest groups before stating a position on abortion. That a candidate for the highest office in the land hadn’t considered the pitfalls of punishing women for seeking an abortion is unthinkable, yet here we are. His campaign quickly, almost before the entirety of his words were out of his mouth, backtracked and said Trump meant punishing doctors and abortion providers. Let’s be clear, that is not what he said and he was given multiple chances by Matthews to clarify. He stuck to punishing women.

 What Trump’s candid answer about abortion signifies about the candidate himself is how little autonomy he believes women have and should have. Matthews was quick to point out to Trump that men have a role in pregnancies, too. God forbid men take any responsibility in this. The former Trump, long before he was a candidate, spoke about sex on the Howard Stern Show and elsewhere, bragging about conquests and whatnot. There’s no other way to view this than another man who enjoys sex, lots of it, and with multiple partners, without placing any responsibility on possible conception on him. However, a woman should not never choose an abortion to deal with the real consequences of said sex and if she should, may she be shamed for it and ultimately be punished for it under the law.

 Unfortunately, there’s more in to the autonomy issue in this campaign than only Trump’s remark on abortion. Keeping in mind that Ted Cruz and John Kasich also believe that abortion should be illegal and would nominate justices to the Supreme Court that would hopefully one day participate in a ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade, abortion is not the only way in which candidates wish to strip autonomy from women. And it’s not only the male Republican candidates who have a bleak view of women.

 Can we talk for a second about the Clinton administration? For the sake of making sure nobody is in the dark or is too young to remember any of that 8-year period of our recent history, understand that we are speaking of the Bill Clinton administration. Bill, as in the husband of current Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, and not to be confused with some amalgamation of both Bill and Hillary. The First Lady of the United States is a title. It is not a job. It is not a formal advisor. It is not elected. It holds no power over matters of state. When asked by the press, while the First Lady often shows her support for the policies and goals of her husband, she is not expected to take an adversarial role nor would it be advisable to do so. Speaking against a particular policy would, without question, undercut it. Speaking against a policy would also cause the entire beltway press to lose their collective minds. The First Lady does not and, in significant ways, cannot speak out against her husband.

 Take these examples: Imagine if when George W. Bush sought to use his acquired political capital to privatize Social Security, Laura Bush came out and said she believed it to be bargaining with the safety net and opposed it. How would that have played in the press? First of all, the quiet Laura Bush would have been picked apart for making the statement. And when they had chewed her up and spit her out, they would have turned on President Bush. There would be some, inevitably men, who would say that W. couldn’t control his wife. I say this sincerely. Speaking out is still considered by some men something that women shouldn’t do. Never should women speak out against their husbands and certainly not when their husband is Commander-in-Chief. Another example, this one you’ve probably heard, is when Bill Clinton and Congress passed NAFTA. Imagine if Hillary Clinton had gone on the Sunday shows and said that she thought NAFTA was ill conceived and that a decade or two down the road, all manufacturing jobs would be devastated and cities like Detroit and Cleveland would be bankrupt. Oh, the shitstorm that would have ensued. Remember, many a man was bothered when the First Lady led on the issue of healthcare. That was no place for the First Lady. She was the official mouthpiece of the administration in that case. Can you wrap your mind around the outrage that would have occurred if she had publicly ridiculed NAFTA? The First Lady is expected to support her husband, spiritually, emotionally, on the campaign trail and in all matters of policy. She has very little autonomy as it is, but when it comes to whether or not she supports a policy of her husband’s administration, the right to decide is stripped from her. What choice does she have?

 Taking all of this into account, it does not stop her Democratic opponent from railing against her support of NAFTA. It is hung around her neck as if it were her decision and only her decision to make. By the way her opponent uses the phrase “the Clinton administration,” you would think she were running for re-election and had already been president.

 There’s something else troubling about how Hillary is received by Sanders supporters that can’t quite be placed in the same box as autonomy on policy decisions. It happened this week, in fact. At a Clinton rally, protestors began chanting “Monica! Monica!” To be fair, they may not all be Sanders supporters. There could certainly be some pro-Trump voices in that crowd. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to characterize those voices as predominantly male.

 I don’t get it. Of all the things happening with each of the candidates, there are few occurrences that routinely make my jaw drop. I am appalled that some small-minded people exist in this country that think that chanting the name of a woman’s husband’s former mistress is acceptable as an actual protest against a candidate for President of the United States. It sickens me, as it should all women and reasonable men.

Back to the Republicans for a minute…sort of. When Donald Trump tweets an unflattering picture of Ted Cruz’s wife along side his own supermodel wife, it leads the news and causes uproar. The thing is, though, Hillary’s detractors aren’t even attacking her husband. They aren’t making a statement about his infidelity in some way to discredit him, not like attacking Heidi Cruz’s looks. They’re attacking Hillary for her role in his infidelity. They’re using what must have been the darkest point in both her life and her marriage to attack her candidacy. As if she had any control whatsoever of Bill’s behavior. In some ways this goes back to the old argument that when a man cheats it’s because his wife isn’t meeting his needs. If a man cheats, it’s his wife’s fault. If a woman cheats, she’s a slut.

Just yesterday Sanders gave a speech in which he mentioned that his recent successes were or should be making Hillary nervous. He went on to say that Hillary didn't need anything else to add to the nervousness she already is carrying as if she were too weak to handle it. It was a soundbite at best and sexist at worst. Is her character too weak to stand the heat of the race? Hardly. She is a formidable candidate. So why would Bernie say something like this if not to imply in some way that Hillary were a weak person, a weak woman, and couldn't handle being a touch more nervous about the race?

There is so much about this election cycle that I don’t understand. How Trump came to be the frontrunner and how his opponents didn’t attack him from day one on the unending amount of filth he has to his credit over the years, I will never understand. How that same candidate thinks that sending his wife out to make a statement on his behalf and introduce him at a campaign rally to try to win over women voters, I don’t think women nationwide find sensible. What the hell, right? If your numbers are absolutely terrible among the largest block of voters, why not send our your former super model wife to the stage to talk about how fair you are and how great you will be for this country. Fair? Right. So fair you called all Mexicans rapists. So fair you don’t want any Muslims entering this country unless they are athletes or your rich friends. So fair you think a woman’s looks matter more than brains, talent and dedication. So fair you want women punished for seeking an illegal abortion over the even greater punishment they and their child would face if they were forced to give birth in terrible situations that might have included, rape, incest or even plain old poverty. So fair you believe that wages are too high for those who work their asses off for minimum wage in this country while you and your cronies are cashing in big. Fair. Perhaps a dictionary would be useful on that private jet of Trump’s.

 Not all women support Hillary Clinton and for a variety of reasons, some I understand and some I don’t. But you know what? They all make that decision for themselves. They weight what they know about her and decide to vote for her or not. Maybe they vote for a Republican instead. Or maybe they’re of the few female voters in the Bernie camp. They choose. And no matter their decision, I respect that. The difference between women against Hillary and women against Trump is that Mr. Trump gives women a reason to think of him unfavorably and throw their support elsewhere every single day of this campaign. 

Remember when Romney lost and the Republican Party had their so-called autopsy and decided that they had to scale back the crazy to do better with Hispanics, blacks and women? They’re failing miserably and while most of it falls on the frontrunner, let us not that forget that Ted Cruz is the same kind of wingnut who desires very little more than to strip women’s autonomy.

How’s that plan working for you, RNC?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

'Codification of a Slur' Continuation

My Twitter diatribe continuing on yesterday's post about the proposed specialty license plate for Orofino High School:

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Codification of a Slur

Words matter. What we call one another reflects on both ourselves and on those around us.

If I were to use a slur against you right now, how would it be read? First, it would speak to who I am--my values, principles, worldview--and then it would inevitably say something about you--your race, religion, culture. This has always been how we process information that underlies a slur.

Now think about the slurs that we don't allow in our culture, at least to the degree that we do not condone their use and often shame their users. Did the n-word come to mind? Of course it did. There are slurs that most of us think of as so heinous that even uttering them in an explanatory way may cause a visceral reaction. Slurs used against African-Americans, Jews and women tend to fall in this category for many Americans.

If we as a country have come to a place where we largely accept that these types of slurs are not acceptable, even slurs against Hispanics and the LGBT community are now widely denounced, why can't we jointly reach the conclusion that slurs against and in reference to the disabled are equally abhorrent?

I've written about the End the Word campaign here numerous times. The use of the r-word remains a blight on our society. But it's more than that one word. As I will explain, and as Leonard Hitchcock, a dear friend, did here, it's more than being politically correct, that oft-heard phrase in today's politics, it's about respecting every human being as just that--human. And in communities of developmentally disabled and mentally ill people, the r-word is not the only word that is offensive.

The United States, like many industrialized nations, has a dark history with respect to how it has treated the disabled and mentally ill. For generations, disabled and mentally ill people were locked away from the outside world, set up in self-sustaining communities in often remote parts of counties and states, where the fear of those inside would not have to be faced by the population at large.

This brings me to Idaho. Idaho was not immune to this heinous history.

For those not familiar, Idaho has long had state-operated psychiatric hospitals. They once went by names like Northern Idaho Sanitarium and Insane Asylum, Idaho Sanitarium for the Feeble-minded and Epilectic and Idaho State School and Colony. You may now know these hospitals as State Hospital North (Orofino), State Hospital South (Blackfoot) and Idaho State School and Hospital (Nampa).

State Hospital North, a state-run psychiatic hospital is located in Orofino. Built in 1905, the hospital has long been in Orofino, but not always a part of Orofino. Asylums, sanitariums and the like were closed communities. They had their own land to raise their animals for slaughter on, some had their own slaughterhouses, they kept up self-sustaining farms, they had housing for their staff and had burial grounds for their patients, continuing their seclusion even in death. However secluded, the often inhumane treatment of patients at those hospitals occasionally spilled out into the communities around them. In the 1940s, the Idaho governor's office undertook an investigation of the Blackfoot hospital after a series of patients died under mysterious circumstances, some quite violently.

Let's take a moment to discuss what is meant by inhumane treatment: Until pharmaceuticals were invented that could treat mental illness (and even afterward to a degree), medicine as a practice didn't always know how to deal with the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. Electroshock therapy, lobotomies, insulin shock, hydrotherapy and other extremely distressing treatments were used to attempt to cure illnesses, if not manage them. Perhaps the greatest reason that so many ghost hunting shows and horror flicks are set in asylums is because of the fact that for over a century, we treated these patients as if they were animals, nothing resembling human.

Beyond the medical treatments afforded these poor souls was the language in which we referred to them. 'Imbecile', 'retard', 'moron', 'lunatic' and 'maniac' were common both within the medical community and the general population. In fact, it has taken until the last ten to fifteen years for state and federal government to remove these despicable terms from code.

In the 21st century, I believe we as Americans have learned that groups who have historically been disparaged by a slur have the right to reclaim that slur and use it about themselves or others of their demographic. Whether they use it about themselves or not, that gives us no right to use those words about them, in reference to them or indirectly about anyone or anything else. This applies to the n-word as much as it applies to words like faggot, kike or spic.

To my point: The Orofino High School mascot has been the Maniacs for decades.  The mascot is a direct reference to the residents of the hospital, both in name and image. The mascot has hair standing on end and appears to be wearing a hospital gown as it "freaks out" in some way that apparently connotes mania. The issue of whether or not 'maniac' is a slur or not has been coming up in Orofino for at least 25 years. Never is it more at issue than now when, once again, Paul Shepherd (R-Riggins) wants a specialty license plate with the image of the Orofino Maniac proudly displayed on it. The legislation has been "toned down" by removing the term 'maniac' from the plate itself, but the image of the gowned maniac remains.

In response to concerns that using the mascot is offensive to those with mental illness as well as those who work with the mentally ill, the comments have been a bit hard to wrap one's head around. The state hospital in Orofino? They apparently are "proud of their maniacs" and don't have a problem with the plate. A local councilwoman said that it is positive representation of the community. Thankfully, some don't have the same position. For instance, the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities "opposes the legislation because of the stigmatizing effect the word 'maniac' has on people experiencing mental health issues."

The entire reason Orofino High School wants a specialty plate is to raise money for a district that is strapped for funds. Isn't there a better way of doing this than portraying a segment of the population in this way? The answer is yes. I personally believe there is.

A place we can look to for a similar example of people grappling with language and what words we choose to use to refer to an entire race of people has to do with Native Americans. In the last few years, Americans, particularly football fans, have been confronted with the question of whether or not a team in the National Football League should be allowed to use both an image and a slur against American Indians as its mascot. For years, fans of the Cleveland Indians have protested the same thing. My own team, the Atlanta Braves, faces all kinds of scrutiny, rightly so, for the Tomahawk Chop, prior use of the character Chief Noc-A-Homa and a logo featuring a screaming Indian. There are few instances of collegiate or professional teams willingly changing their mascots to suit the world we live in. Florida State, rather than ditch the Seminoles mascot, asked the tribe itself for permission to continue its use. There is a lot of work to be done and it will be years before we see real change.

There is hope for high schools, however. Adidas has offered free design assistance and money for new gear if high schools will phase out their mascots that feature Native American imagery. I took it upon myself to personally reach out to Adidas to ask if they would be willing to expand the parameters of this program to include a mascot like that of Orofino. Not only could Orofino benefit from this in a monetary way, schools like Salmon High School where they are the Savages could also apply. Wouldn't the free design help and money to replace their sports equipment be just as useful to their districts as whatever dollars they could raise from a specialty plate? I realize that the Adidas money, or similar money from an organization with the same intent, is a one-time infusion whereas the plate money would be ongoing, but there has to be a way to continue bringing funds to a school district that needs it in exchange for the kind of goodwill teams would create in the community and the state with a more appropriate mascots.

Why does this matter? Why does a single word matter? Please consider three things:

First, in 2010 the Idaho Legislature and Governor Otter finally removed words like 'mentally retarded', 'idiot', 'feeble-minded', 'lunatic' and 'mentally deficient' from Idaho Code. Even in 2010, there were 73 laws that had outdated and deeply painful words and phrases that represent long-since abandoned thinking about the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. Those references forever inked in Idaho Code went back as far as 1908 when the state hospital system was beginning. Why then in 2016 would we want to insert 'maniac' back into Idaho Code, in word or in reference to this image? Why would we want to go backward when we don't have to?

Secondly, the dark and distressing history of psychiatric hospitals in this state and the words once used to describe the patients there deserve your careful consideration. While I do not doubt that the current community respects and is proud of "their maniacs," that has not always been the case. When we use the term today, without ill will, remember that we are not speaking just of the current patients at the hospital in Orofino, we are speaking of the patients throughout the history of that hospital. We are speaking of those that led secluded, lonely lives, shunned by society and treated horrendously by both family and those that were entrusted with their care. We're speaking of the men and women who were stared at, beaten and abused, treated as animals and left to die in these hospitals. In the beginning, these patients were brought by train to Orofino and housed in tents. At the height of demand, 600 patients would be housed in a building intended for 450. Their illnesses were treated with isolation, extreme temperatures like ice water baths, lobotomies, insulin shock therapy and straight jackets. When the people of the town would drive by the hospital in horror, fear or curiosity, they would point at the patients and call them maniacs. There was nothing loving in the way that word was used.

And finally, ask yourself this: If they were the Orofino Retards or OHS Feeble-minded, would you be okay with having that on a state-sponsored license plate? Of course not and neither should we be okay with the Maniacs.

The legislation introduced by Rep. Shepherd has been approved in the House Transportation Committee and will go to a vote.

Friday, December 4, 2015

'The Last Fight'

Rest in peace, Scott Weiland.