Thursday, March 01, 2018

Sherman Alexie addresses sexual misconduct allegations, some context for their potential significance in light of an interview from last year

Last time I wrote about Sherman Alexie it was with disappointment.

I thought that a poem that he wrote that made the rounds on account of regarding someone as a cave man was, to be blunt, pandering hackwork.  I thought the way he handled the controversial about how he greenlit the publication of a poem written by a white guy who passed himself off as Asian was okay, actually, because he articulated what I consider to be a fair-minded concern that a poetry scene was too dominated by poetry teachers and academics and that the controversial guy in question at least didn't fit that bill.

The newer news about Alexie is ... more disappointing, even if it may turn out nothing has transpired, though it may turn out otherwise.

Prominent Seattle writer Sherman Alexie issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging that he’s hurt people over the years, addressing for the first time anonymous accusations of sexual harassment against him that have swirled on the internet for days. In breaking his silence, however, Alexie said he rejected “the accusations, insinuations, and outright falsehoods” made by another writer who, while not accusing him of sexually harassing her, “has led charges against me,” he said.
The allegations have been confined, at least publicly, to anonymous comments on blog posts and social-media feeds. But the online furor has already resulted in fallout in the literary and Native American communities, with a college renaming a scholarship that had been in his name, references to him being removed from a children’s literature blog and an upcoming book, and a national organization that had just awarded him a prestigious national prize now saying it’s evaluating its next steps.

In his statement, Alexie said: “Over the years, I have done things that have harmed other people, including those I love most deeply. To those whom I have hurt, I genuinely apologize. I am so sorry.”

He also said: “There are women telling the truth about my behavior and I have no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anybody or their careers. That would be completely out of character. I have made poor decisions and I am working hard to become a healthier man who makes healthier decisions.”
The statement ended: “I am genuinely sorry.”

Alexie did not respond to requests for an interview.

He is one of the Pacific Northwest’s best-known authors, winning some of the literary world’s most prestigious national prizes and appearing on best-seller lists. His 26 books often drew on his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Stevens County, and his work spanned many genres: children’s and young-adult literature as well as adult fiction, short stories, poetry and memoir.
Alexie is the latest prominent figure to be swept up in the #MeToo movement, which accelerated last fall after The New York Times and The New Yorker published stories about sexual-misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Since then, dozens of notable figures — including Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. — have been accused of sexual misconduct.

To date, the allegations against Alexie have been more vague.

NPR is reportedly being put in the loop with those who have allegations.  The thing that immediately sprang to mind was an interview with Alexie NPR did last year as he was promoting his recent book.

When you grow up in a warrior culture, an extremely masculine culture, tears can be seen as a sign of weakness. ... Any surrender, any conceding of anything can also be seen as a sign of weakness. I've always been a rather androgynous, emotional person, so my emotional state, my androgyny — I was more androgynous as a youth than now — but I think all of that combined to make me a target.
It wasn't just the influence of tribal cultures, it was the assimilation into fundamentalist Christianity, which is even more warrior culture, even more honor culture, and even more suspicious of difference. So I was getting bombarded not only by the more fundamentalist aspects of my tribe, but the more fundamentalist aspects of our assimilation into Christianity. So that was going on all around us, and, in fact, in second grade we had this ex-nun teacher who put us into stress positions as torture.
On learning that his mother was conceived by rape
She told me that in my teen years as I was going to school off the reservation, as I was preparing for a life off the reservation, as I was preparing to become this person I am now. Looking back, I think it was my mother's highly dysfunctional way to tell me, to warn me, about what a man can be ... hoping that I would become a good man, a man who treated women with respect. A man who honored women and their power, and a man who would not become a criminal. I think it was her highly dysfunctional version of the sex talk.
So there's that.
There are times when I wonder whether or not scapegoating fundamentalist Christian upbringings is too easy a play by liberal and progressive authors.  For instance, to go by how they wrote about people they considered enemies I wasn't so sure that Dan Savage or Mark Driscoll circa 2000-2010 were really all that different from each other.  I know Alexie has complained that the average Native American is more socially conservative than even the most socially conservative white guy, but there's a point at which people of Native American lineage can regard Alexie as talented but ... also ... kind of a whiner.  He can have a sense of humor about it, his real self excoriating a cinematic self in The Business of Fancydancing, but that film was ... eh.
The other trouble with fundamentalist is how vague it is.  You could have a fundamentalist Baptist or a fundamentalist Presbyterian or a fundamentalist Pentecostal and have some fairly drastic differences across those divides.  Plus ... I sort of dimly remember Alexie describing himself as Spokane Indian Catholic decades ago and in conventional nomenclatures regarding American religion fundamentalist Catholic is a bit tricky. 
It's true that Native Americans are Christians, though.  That's not been too hard to establish.  Whether they practice Christianity in ways that white evangelicals and WASPs might approve is an altogether different matter.
Still, in the lights of Seattle secularists I would probably be billed a fundamentalist of some stripe and yet I spent half a decade chronicling what I regarded as dangerously authoritarian cultural dynamics in Mars Hill.  Roger Williams would probably be regarded as a fundamentalist by contemporary standards and he founded Rhode Island. 
Which is to say that sometimes it doesn't pass the smell test when guys scapegoat fundamentalism or Native American warrior culture and then, as time goes by, If he's sorry he hurt people after he has ... whatever he's done in respect to shifting from what he regarded as the warrior cultures of his Native American tribal background or fundamentalist Christianity casting those things off doesn't seem to have precluded him ending up in the situation he's in now.
The irony of the Seattle Times byline is that Kiley and Shapiro both spent some time covering the meltdown at Mars Hill Church..  I would think if there's any would be "lesson" here in the post  _Weinstein cultural moment it's that no one should imagine that "our" team whatever team that may be, is exempt from bad behavior and predatory conduct toward men, women or children just because of ideological litmus tests and shibboleths. 
 It's not like Harvey Weinstein was stumping for the GOP or George H. W. Bush or Bob Dole in the 1990s.  It's not as though Woody Allen didn't have scenes in his films where his character was aghast that a woman would read National Review.  It can sometimes seem as though, regardless of ideological or religious or a-religious commitments, people find it much ,much easier to scapegoat their ideological enemies for being the sole possessors of vices that span the entire human species. 

To have read any number of paragraphs written by authors at The Stranger over the last twenty years was to get a clear sense that loathing and insularity was not just the domain of fundamentalist Christians.  Dan Savage and his fan base and Mark Driscoll and his fan base were not so different in bearing, even if they often frequently differed in vocabulary. 

Whatever Alexie actually did do that he's sorry for, he did it as someone who publicly distanced himself from whatever he regarded as fundamentalist Christianity "warrior culture" and that of his Native American background, too.  Yet whatever it was he did that he's sorry for, he did it anyway.  Now is not the time for any of us to convince ourselves that we're better than "those" people simply because of ideological talking points.  It would seem clear enough that makes no difference at all in practice for those with ears to hear and eyes to see, ,but of course not everyone does. 


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