How do you lose something you never had in the first place? How do you mourn something that never existed?
I have been struggling with this concept for a long time, but especially since November of 2016. My disillusionment with the history and politics of my home country has been a gradual process, but during the general election of 2016 I felt something snap. I had an instinct and a desire to mourn the state of US democracy, but what was I mourning? What had we lost, besides our naiveté? My brain raced after a time when things were better, simpler, more innocent. That train of thought always arrived, devoid of redemptive cargo, at the very inception of this country.
When I think of the United States of America that I love, I need to invent one. I must imagine it, because this country has only ever been lovable if its system of White patriarchy afforded you a seat at the table, and if you were able to ignore or compartmentalize the atrocities that built and perpetuated a republic that has only ever given lip service to its lofty ideals. The US has experienced moments of glory and housed individuals of great character, but the project as a whole has never been great, not even for one moment, because it is built on unreconciled genocide, unapologetic colonization, hungry imperialism and White supremacy.
How could we possibly be surprised at our present crises when we wrote it this way from the very beginning? Our doom was foreshadowed long ago; the trees we planted in blood-filled soil bore poisoned fruit, and somehow we are surprised at the taste.
I’ve realized that a better word for what I’m experiencing is that of anemoia, a nostalgia for a time I’ve never known. It’s like a variant of the German fernweh, except their farsickness is in my case not based on distance but on metaphor. The Welsh have something similar called hiraeth, a longing for a home that might not even exist.
This imaginary country that I am proud of does exist, if only hypothetically. It exists out of necessity, because the hope that we can actually become the thing we claim to be is a survival mechanism. Right now the America that I love is a fantasy, and to get out of bed in the morning I must believe that it might, if we work together, become something real.
The America that I love finally (finally!) acknowledges the subjugation and continued diminishment of Native American peoples and their cultures and their way of life. It admits fully to the horrors of slavery and the institutionalized racism that has taken its place. The America that I love offers reparations for its crimes, and begins finally to support and love and represent the Black and Brown communities to which it owes more than it can ever repay. The America that I love becomes a leader in the efforts against climate change; it preserves the natural world so that we too might be preserved. The country in my head begins a hard global conversation about fundamentally reworking capitalism to move away from GDP-obsessed systems of voracious growth, and begins a period of sustainable degrowth that might finally find a balance between economy and survival.
The America that I love takes care of the health of its people and stops selling it to the highest bidder. It redistributes the wealth of its citizens and starts representing the 99% for a change. It finally admits that the war on drugs was a conflict started in bad faith against its own people, and it starts re-enfranchising its lost generations of Black men. It abolishes its brutal system of global imperialism and leads with diplomacy and soft power and humanitarianism. It actually allows for religious freedoms instead of using such terms to discriminate and spread hate—the place I am dreaming of does not make income or skin color or sexual orientation a barrier to human rights. In that country, queer and trans people are allowed to live the joy-filled lives that are their inalienable right. That country leads in technologies of the future and doesn’t sacrifice its soul for profit. It reforms its education systems and starts paying teachers what they’re worth.
The America that I love welcomes immigrants who strengthen and enrich our culture and economy. This country is Black and Brown and White and everything in between. This hypothetical state believes in science and shared truth. It embraces democratic systems by giving every citizen one equal vote, and it undoes the damage that neoliberal corporatocracy has wreaked on our elections and way of life. The America that I love abolishes its inhumane meat industry and prioritizes the health of its land and its workers and its livestock. It takes care of the veterans who served because they too believed in an imaginary homeland—one that would take care of them and their families when they returned from fighting the wars of the rich.
This is a country that I could love. This might make me finally raise a flag. This would make the Fourth of July something other than a grotesque pantomime. This is what it would take for me to feel pride in the land of my birth, finally and at long last.
We have never been the country we claim to be, but the America that I love is out there—we just need to go get it.
If you are reading this, thank you. Not because you’re reading my blog (that’s nice too) but because it probably means you’re participating in the democratic process and looking for information about Alaska’s upcoming Primary Election on August 21st. It’s not often obvious where to go for good voter information before an election.
This post is an attempt to remedy that. Here I will share what information I have gathered, and point you towards a handful of useful links and resources so you can be prepared for Alaska’s primary. I don’t attempt to cover every candidate in every State House and Senate district, but Ballotpedia’s Ballot Tool (also linked below) will narrow down candidates to your particular district, and provide profiles if available.
Disclaimer: I attempt to present this information in an unbiased manner. I am a left-leaning voter but this is not an opinion piece; this election resource should be useful to people on every part of the political spectrum.
2018 Alaska Primary Guide
So where to start? A good place might be the official Alaska Division of Elections website, which lists all the candidates on the 2018 ballot. However this resource can be a tad overwhelming, and not particularly useful on its own, though it does list contact info and websites for most of the candidates.
A great resource for election information is Ballotpedia. If you follow that link, you can enter your address, select “Primary Election on August 21, 2018,” and you will see a sample ballot, including the candidates for whatever House or Senate district you belong to. You don’t need to research candidates for all 40 House districts, thank goodness. This won’t be the last time I provide a link to Ballotpedia’s election coverage.
The usefulness of this next resource will depend on your political leanings, but The Alaska Center is an organization whose main issues are climate change, salmon conservation, renewable energy and healthy democratic communities. You can find a list of their endorsed candidates here. If I find other resources for endorsed candidates in the near future, I will update this post.
Vote411 Voter Guide features informative Q&As with candidates, though not every candidate has responded.
Governor Bill Walker was elected in 2014 as an Independent with the support of Democrats, but he has faced criticism over high crime rates, a budget deficit impacted by plunging oil prices, and the subsequent capping of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
Now incumbent Gov. Bill Walker faces both Republican and Democratic challengers in the primaries, effectively a three-headed race between Walker, the unopposed Democratic nominee Mark Begich, and Republican frontrunners Mike Dunleavy and Mead Treadwell.
Dunleavy moved to Alaska over 30 years ago, and wants to start Alaska on a “new trajectory.” His platform includes balancing the budget by reducing state spending and driving business investment, while also protecting Alaskans’ PFDs and tackling the state’s troubling crime problem.
Dunleavy’s main Republican challenger Mead Treadwell served as the state’s Lieutenant Governor from 2010-2014; Treadwell is hoping that his political background and business experience will propel him to the Republican nomination. His main issues are not radically different than Dunleavy’s, and his views on gay rights, abortion, and the Affordable Care Act fall well in line with the modern GOP platform.
Democratic candidate Mark Begich has served as U.S. State Senator, as well as Mayor of Anchorage from 2003-2009. Like Dunleavy and Treadwell, he wants to cut state spending while protecting the PFD. This is a consistent theme on both sides of the aisle, despite some polls suggesting that the majority of Alaskans either support the cuts or at least understand why they are necessary. I am no political strategist, but apparently targeting the roughly 43% of people who oppose the cuts is good political strategy in 2018.
There is significant concern on the left that Begich is playing the role of spoiler for Walker, and possibly handing the race to the Republicans. A poll commissioned by the labor organization AFL-CIO suggests that either Begich or Walker could defeat Dunleavy, but with votes split between them this becomes much less likely, with Walker polling at a distant third. AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami has even suggested that he may ask either Walker or Begich to withdraw from the race, depending on how the Republican primary shakes out. This is an interesting story to monitor as we move toward the general election in November.
Dunleavy and Treadwell both support the continuation of the Pebble Mine permitting process, while Walker and Begich oppose it. According to Begich, it’s “the wrong mine in the wrong place.” How you feel about Pebble Mine most likely influences how you feel about these candidates in general.
Here is a televised debate between Begich, Dunleavy, Walker and Hawkins (who has since dropped out of the race), about rural issues like Pebble Mine, tribal management and commercial fishing. Dunleavy, Begich and Hawkins also participated in a public forum debate at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in early June.
The rest of the Republican pack includes Christian conservative Gerald Heikes, the mysterious Darin Colbry, Merica Hlatcu (his name is Merica and he wants to bring an NHL team to Alaska), and Michael Sheldon – his fun fact is that he wants to remove fluoride from Alaska’s water reservoirs.
Lynette Clark is the Party Chair of the fascinating Alaskan Independence Party, and she is running for Governor as an Independent. The AIP contends that the vote for Alaskan statehood in 1958 was invalid, and they would like a chance at a redo, though they claim (not all that convincingly) that they are not a secessionist movement. I could easily write an entire post on the AIP and their provocative founder Joe Vogler, but this isn’t the place.
William “Billy” Toien is running on the Libertarian ticket, and this marks the fourth time he has run for Governor of Alaska.
The Lieutenant Governor of Alaska serves as a second-in-command to Governor, and the primary responsibilities of the position include oversight of state election laws and The Division of Elections, along with supervising Administrative Regulations and use of the State Seal. These are the candidates for Lieutenant Governor in 2018:
When Edgar Blatchford dropped out of the race in early June, Debra Call became the lone Democratic nominee for Lt Governor. Call is an Alaska Native Tribal official who was hand-picked as a running mate by Mark Begich, who joined the race for Governor very near the deadline. Call is Dena’ina Athabascan originally from Knik, AK who now resides in Anchorage. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
Gattis is a former member of the Alaska State House of Representatives, with a BA in Aviation Technology from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her primary objectives as Lt Governor are to update and secure Alaska’s election services, grow the economy while keeping taxes low, and achieving fiscal stability through business investment and sustainable resource development. Here is her voting history while serving in the Alaska State House.
Grunwald doesn’t have previous political experience, but she believes new leadership is needed in Juneau. She spent 30+ years in the Air Force before eventually retiring with the rank of Colonel. The murder of her teenage son in 2016 has pushed criminal reform to the center of her political platform (she’s not the only running politician that has issues with SB 91). She also wants to rework the state budget and “give the people their PFDs back.”
Sharon Jackson served in the United States Army, and worked as a certified Electronic Technician after that. She also worked as Constituent Liaison for Senator Dan Sullivan, and more recently founded and serves as President of Republican Women of Anchorage. Her key issues are overseeing a “fair and honest” and more affordable election process and the reinstatement of full PFDs.
Mayer was born in Nebraska but has lived in Alaska with his wife for over 30 years. He is a former ConocoPhillips senior executive, and his political experience includes time spent on the Anchorage Assembly, the State House of Representatives and the Alaska State Senate. He positions himself as a candidate who is tough on crime, and he also wants to limit state spending and grow the economy while cutting “unnecessary” programs. His voting record can be found here.
Gary Stevens was born in Oregon and got his PhD at the University of Oregon, but has lived in Alaska since 1970. He served in the Alaska State House of Representatives from 2001-2003, and is currently serving in the Alaska State Senate. His Ballotpedia profile can be found here, and you can see his voting history on VoteSmart.
Wright was born on the Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, AK in 1969. He served over 20 years in the U.S. military, and wants to bring his experience to the position of Lt Governor. Wright wants to bring the state budget “back into balance” and limit government overreach, and he supports the development of Pebble Mine and ANWR. You can get a clear idea of his political beliefs via VoteSmart’s “Political Courage Test.”
U.S. House of Representatives
Republican incumbent Don Young is the longest currently serving U.S. House member, having served in Congress for over 130 years now. That second part isn’t true but it feels like it is: the infamous Young is the only member of the House to have served under Nixon, and he’s running for his 24th term as Alaska’s House representative. Here is a record of his sponsored bills, voting record, alleged misconduct and advocacy group scores. A troubling detail: his percentage of missed votes from 1973 to 2018 is 14.5%, well above the median of 2.4%.
Here are the Democratic challengers to Don Young’s House seat:
Dimitri Shein is a Russian immigrant who has lived in Alaska since he was 12 years old. His wife Melissa is an Alaska Native, and they have six children (four adopted). He is running on a progressive campaign of Medicare for All, increased public school funding, and an end to corporate tax handouts and corporate money in politics. His campaign does not accept PAC contributions.
Hafner is running for the U.S. House as a Democrat who doesn’t live in Alaska (and in fact has never been to the state), which I didn’t actually know was possible. Hafner is a former flight attendant and biotechnology industry professional who has pledged not to take campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry. She supports net neutrality, federal legalization of marijuana, better care and support for veterans, investing in Alaska Native communities, and (like Shein) a Medicare for All system.
Independents running for U.S. House on the Democratic Ballot:
Galvin is a mother of four who has worked in the service, healthcare and education industries. For the last five years she has headed Great Alaska Schools, a statewide organization that she helped launch which advocates for strong public education for all Alaskan children. Along with enhancement of K-12 educational services, she supports net neutrality, abortion rights, renewable energy development, oil & gas development (she supports drilling in the ANWR but not Pebble Mine), and strengthening the Alaskan economy through diversification.
Cumings is a Ketchikan resident who is making health care his key issue in a campaign for the nomination. This focus on quality of life is informed by his personal struggle with opioid addiction; he can personally relate to the epidemic which is being felt across the country and he feels that a change is needed. He supports universal health care and an increased focus on mental health care, along with early childhood education and a $15 minimum wage. He is outgunned in campaign fundraising, but hopes that his message will stick with voters.
Here are the two Republican nominees running against Don Young:
John Nelson says he admires Don Young but that it’s time to finally pass the torch. Nelson was born and raised in Alaska, and lives in Wasilla working as a financial advisor. He pledges to stop the “discourse of division” taking place in Washington politics, and to put a stop to federal overreach and wasteful spending. Other promises of his campaign include passing a responsible and balanced budget and finding “responsible solutions” to the problems facing health care and social security.
Whittaker is a longtime staple of Alaskan politics. As part of the Green Party in 1996 he came in second to incumbent Ted Stevens, and then in 2016 tried to run without a party, which is technically possible given the proper amount of signatures (which he fell short of). This year, he is running as a Republican with no online presence and no ads. He calls himself the “Don Quixote” of Alaskan politics, and says frankly that he’s “not going to win” against Don Young. For Whittaker, running seems like more of a democratic imperative, and a way to push forward new ideas. Honestly, more power to him.
Update: This Ballot Measure has been approved by the Alaska Supreme Court and will be on the November General Election Ballot, not on the August Primaries. Still, it can’t hurt to learn about the issue now.
The “Stand for Salmon” ballot initiative centers on an industry that is important to many Alaskans both culturally and economically. Essentially, voting “Yes” means you support changing the way permits are reviewed and issued for any projects that would have an effect on bodies of water important to anadromous fish.
The measure would establish protection standards for fish and wildlife habitats that may be threatened by “adverse” or unrestorable damage brought about by any project, minor or major in scale. Permits could be denied if the proposed project would cause substantial damage to the wildlife habitat, as determined by the Department of Fish and Game.
Voting “No” means you do not support these new standards or permit processes.
The main supporters of the measure are Yes For Salmon and Stand For Salmon, who say that the current protections are vague and limited, and leave salmon habitats vulnerable to “political interference” and irresponsible development. According to the ADF&G, the current laws protect less than 50% of salmon-bearing streams in Alaska. Proponents of the measure also say this would give communities a chance to have a say in projects before permitting goes through.
The list of opponents to the ballot measure is a long one. The opponents are organized under the Stand For Alaska group, who say that the initiative is a misguided solution to a “problem that doesn’t exist.” They cite the already established protection laws, and say that this new system would seriously hamper Alaskan development and lead to lost jobs across the state. These groups have spent big money to get this message to Alaskans, raising over $9 million in contributions compared to Yes For Salmon’s approximately $1.1 million.
A detailed breakdown of the ballot measure can be found on Ballotpedia.
If you can’t make it to the polls on Tuesday, August 21st, you should check out the list of places and hours you can go to vote early, which you can do anytime between now and Election Day. To find your polling place ahead of Election Day, just follow this link.
Yes: this is the second review I’ve written for Annihilation. Yes: I’m aware that this is unnecessary and self-indulgent. Yes: people in my life are getting tired of hearing me talk about this movie. No: I can’t help myself. Warning: spoilers abound in this analysis of Alex Garland’s newest film. For a spoiler-free piece on the film, see my earlier post. If this movie is still somehow playing in a theater near you (and you live in one of the three countries where this is even possible), stop reading and go see it. If you watch it at home, turn the volume up.
There is a tense and quietly symbolic moment in the early scenes of Alex Garland’s expansive sci-fi thriller Annihilation which hints at revelations yet to come in a film which methodically and at times jarringly breaks down our sense of reality as it winds on (and inward) like the river in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Natalie Portman plays the central character in Annihilation; she is a biologist and professor who is at once poised and emotionally traumatized following the disappearance of her husband Kane (played by Oscar Isaac) during a mysterious military deployment over a year ago. When he returns quite suddenly one night her shock and relief fades as she questions him about where he was and how he got back. Her frustration rises as he is able to give her very little back; he seems himself to be in a state of deep confusion. His demeanor is strangely staid, his gaze frighteningly vacant.
In front of him on the kitchen table sits a glass of water.
Portman’s character Lena sits down in front of him and reaches out her hand – as their fingers intertwine the camera focuses closely on the glass of water. We see a closeup of their fingers refracted through the liquid, as her hands plead for a sense of warmth, a sign of human familiarity.
It won’t mean much to viewers at that moment, but this is an important glass of water. Rather, it is an important moment of foreshadowing for some truly strange revelations down the pipeline. Later, Lena will take a drink from a visually identical glass of water as she is being questioned about what the actual hell just happened in The Shimmer. This simple symbolism touches on multiple crucial themes of the film – doubling, fluidity, refraction – and speaks to the punctilious nature of the film’s ambitious script.
Lena’s answer to many of the questions thrown her way may echo the sentiments of many digesting this movie for the first time: “I don’t know.”
The ever-expanding Shimmer which grows outward from a coastal Lighthouse in Florida is represented as a monolithic, undulating rainbow of colors, like an alien soap bubble or ballooning oil slick. The five-person team of female scientists slip through its glistening border without issue, but inside The Shimmer it becomes clear that nothing is quite the same.
Through the thick canopy of dense foliage, light from the afternoon sun glimmers in a rainbow refraction of light waves – a beautiful effect which is repeated endlessly and increasingly as they head ever deeper into the park surrounding the Lighthouse. A giant albino alligator which attacks their group has rows of concentric teeth like that of a shark. A wild outgrowth of endlessly mutating flowers looks like dozens of different species – all growing from the same plant. Time itself seems warped, and weeks pass like days.
It is the physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) who lands first on an explanation for what is happening in The Shimmer. When they come across an overgrown colony peppered with humanoid floral structures, she listens again to the scrambled sounds of the radio and lights upon an epiphany.
“The Shimmer is a prism,” she says in astonishment, “but it refracts everything. Not just light and radio waves: animal DNA, plant DNA, all DNA.”
“She’s talking about our DNA,” says the psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the skeptical and increasingly paranoid paramedic Anya, played by Gina Rodriguez. “She’s talking about us.”
So Annihilation is, on at least one level, about mutation. And in this sense it is undeniably, as many have pointed out, about cancer. The very first scene of the film takes place in Lena’s classroom, as her students watch cervical cancer cells divide and multiply. Later, Lena relates the beautiful but boundless growth in The Shimmer to that of a tumor. Dr. Ventress’ strangely disaffected attitude in the face of unbelievable strangeness turns out to be in fact a response to her own cancer diagnosis. Lena is seen during a flashback reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. It is a nonfiction book about a black woman known to scientists as HeLa: her “immortal” line of cancer cells led to civilization-changing revelations in medicine, all without the knowledge or consent of her family. A multi-million dollar medical industry arose from her cells, while her body lay in an unmarked grave and her children lacked access to health care. It is a true story about science and race, death and immortality. Everything in this movie has intent.
Whatever fell out of the sky onto the Lighthouse acts like a cancer infecting earth itself: close up, even cancer cells are beautiful.
But to say this is a movie about cancer feels limited. It’s kind of like saying 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie about a spaceship. Annihilation concerns itself with nothing less than life itself, at its most basic and brutal.
The way that Annihilation deals with death and life can be explored through the fates of the characters who enter The Shimmer. All five of the scientists that approach the Lighthouse are “damaged goods” – Lena is grappling with the disappearance (and subsequent reappearance) of her husband, now lying in a coma. Anya has struggled with addiction and substance abuse. Josie with depression and self harm. The anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) carries around the death of her daughter and, as she puts it, the person she once was. Dr. Ventress has cancer.
During a quiet moment outside a military complex in The Shimmer, Ventress explains to Lena the common thread found not only in their group, but in all people.
“Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job…or happy marriage.”
Lena looks up at that last bit about the happy marriage, because we’ve seen through dreamlike flashbacks that she was having an affair with a fellow professor during one of her husband’s deployments. Before cutting off the relationship, we see a glimpse of her guilt and self-loathing.
Ventress goes on: “But these aren’t decisions. They’re impulses. And in fact, as a biologist, you’re better placed to explain them than me . . . isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Imprinted into each cell.”
For a movie that gives us so few explanations on the increasingly strange road from “suburbia to psychedelia” (as Alex Garland puts it), this feels like an important waypoint.
Cancer would seem to be merely a subset – the real theme here is destruction in a larger sense, both psychological and physical. If self-destruction is written into our cells, then The Shimmer and its endless refractions serve to hasten the realization of our own doomed genetic prophecy. In a truly strange way, the destructive forces rippling outward from the Lighthouse seem willing to grant the conscious and subconscious wishes of the people that draw near it.
At least, some of the time.
From her first scene in the film, Dr. Ventress exudes a profound apathy. This weariness, we find, comes from the knowledge of the cancer growing in her body. Of all the characters in the film, she is the one that you might say hopes for destruction – or at least has accepted it. If this is the case, her wish is granted at the Lighthouse, in the nerve center of the alien anomaly which is spreading inexorably outward. Her brief, surreal communion with whatever that thing is concludes with her brilliant and shocking annihilation. She goes to it willingly, and whatever it is that actually happened to her, the destruction of her physical self is undeniable.
Lena wants, by her own admission, to be with her husband. Her personal mission in entering The Shimmer is to find a way to get him out of his coma, and perhaps at the same time satisfy her own scientific curiosity as to what actually is happening inside that alien bubble. In a way, she too succeeds in her goal: she confronts the thing in the Lighthouse and apparently even manages to destroy it. But not before it changes her and destroys the Kane that she married. Like a wish granted by the monkey’s paw, she gets what she wanted, just not the way she wanted it.
And then there is Josie, the thoughtful physicist who recognized the scope of the alien refraction. She has a knack for seeing things the way they are. Shortly before her own mysterious fate, she and Lena discuss the way they are all changing as they draw near the source of the refractions.
“Ventress wants to face it,” she says. “You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things.”
Even as she is saying this, we see leaves sprouting out of her skin. In a matter of moments, perhaps even as she realizes what it is she wants, her genome is being rewritten to actualize her desire. This is the most immediate and astounding example of The Shimmer granting the self-destructive wish of a character. As Lena pursues her through some overgrowth, Josie disappears in a field of those humanoid plants which proved the key to her understanding the day before. Here is a character that struggled to “feel alive,” and through genetic refraction perhaps found a way to finally do just that.
The deaths of Cass and Anya are not nearly so gentle, or as satisfyingly symbolic. They are both killed violently by a mutant bear in some of the most nightmarish moments of the entire film. Even if we accept the premise that self-destruction is written into our cells, it is hard to believe that anyone would wish for the kind of ruin that befalls these two women. You could say that Anya died as she lived – impulsively, without much thought for the consequences of her actions. The others survived the bear by not reacting, but Anya’s character didn’t seem capable at any time of achieving that restraint.
Cass’ death seems even more senseless. The bear appears at night, seemingly out of nowhere, and snatches her away so quickly that her companions can’t fire a shot in retaliation. All they are left with are her screams, which come back to haunt them later.
If their deaths seem to fly in the face of the destructive wish-fulfillment theory, that may also be by design. Annihilation is not a simple allegory. Not everything that happens is a symbol meant to indicate something larger and more meaningful. Some things that happen in The Shimmer merely happen, just as they do in nature. That, as Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, is chaos. It is another way in which the film invites interpretation while purposefully eluding it – a bewildering trait which illustrates the sly genius of the film’s script while undoubtedly hurting the film’s overall popularity and box office success. Annihilation leads us into the jungle while carefully picking up the markers we’ve put down to help us find our way out. It is only when we are well and truly lost that the film’s full impact is felt.
With the death of Cass there is at least a symbolic example of the film’s central and cyclical nature. If this is a movie about destruction, it is also necessarily one about creation. The mutated bear which destroys Cass rips out her vocal cords, and possibly more than that. In one of the more disquieting cinematic scenes in recent years, her fateful screams are heard out of the bear’s mouth when it returns to take the life of Anya. Josie even figures that part of Cass’ consciousness may have been absorbed by that ghastly creature.
This seems to border on the supernatural, but it does illustrate how life in The Shimmer (and nature, for that matter) is destroyed and repurposed. When Josie goes through her moment of self-destruction, her human body is ostensibly annihilated, but we understand that she lives on in a new form. Cancer itself destroys the host, but it does so through unchecked creation. In all of these cases, matter is not so much destroyed as it changed into something else.
The law of Conservation of Energy says that matter can be neither “created nor destroyed,” only transformed into new forms. So just as we cannot stop at cancer being the symbolic heart of this movie, neither can we stop at destruction. More accurately, this film is about the transformation that occurs, often beautifully and sometimes violently, in a system experiencing a new astronomical wrinkle.
The Shimmer, or whatever we want to call it, may represent something wholly foreign and even unknowable to humanity, but it would seem that it still obeys the first law of thermodynamics. Like Lena realizes in the aftermath: “It wasn’t destroying. It was changing everything. It was making something new.”
There is another symbolic detail in the film which encapsulates the theme of transformation through destruction. It is a tattoo, and it appears rather inexplicably on the forearms of Lena and Anya only after they have spent time in The Shimmer. It is also seen on the arm of an extremely dead soldier in an empty pool. The tattoo is a combination of two famous symbols: it is both the ouroboros (the snake that eats itself) and the mathematical symbol for eternity.
So in one symbol, both destruction and creation, transformation and infinity. Annihilation without end.
The (unofficial) results are in for Alaska’s first ever vote-by-mail elections, and the main story is one with national implications for transgender rights.
Proposition 1 made national news as the notorious “Bathroom Bill” which would have rescinded the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance that currently allows transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity, as opposed to the sex on their birth certificate. It was narrowly defeated by a vote of 53% against to 47% for, a surprisingly thin margin considering the “No On Prop 1” side had a 13-1 fundraising advantage over the proponents of the bill, namely the Christian policy group Alaska Family Action.
The Fair Anchorage organization called the results a “groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind victory. . . not only for transgender people, but for their allies and everyone who is proud to call Anchorage a welcoming place.”
Alaska Family Action did not comment on the results.
State legislatures in several other states have considered similar “bathroom bills” this year, and LGBTQ rights proponents are encouraged by the example set by Alaska, though the slim margin of victory indicates that Americans are still divided on this issue.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz defeated Republican challenger Rebecca Logan by about 18% of the vote, a relatively easy victory for the incumbent mayor facing his second term in office.
Voters also broadly approved the $1 billion sale of the city-owned electric utility ML&P to Chugach Electric, a merger which will settle the sizable debt of ML&P and theoretically make Anchorage more energy efficient in the process.
All the bond measures passed with little drama.
And the new vote-by-mail system? Election officials are calling it a “spectacular” success. Anchorage set a new record for voter turnout in a municipal election, the unofficial count of 80,000 votes beating the previous record set in 2012. Lowered costs and increased voter turnout were the main goals of voting by mail, and officials hope that Anchorage has laid a blueprint for the rest of the state to follow.
As of 2018, Alaska is switching to a vote-by-mail system, following in the footsteps of states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon. People in those states say that the “vote from home” system has increased voter turnout, a conclusion supported by a Washington Post study. It’s not entirely shocking that giving people the option to vote from home over the span of a couple weeks is a positive step towards improving the functionality of our beleaguered democratic process.
This post is specifically meant for Anchoragites who have questions about their ballot or how the new system works.
Quick note: if you have not received a ballot in the mail, call 907-243-VOTE (8683) or visit one of the Accessible Vote Centers around the city. Click here for a municipality FAQ which should answer many of your questions.
Now let’s get to the ballot itself.
The first section on the ballot gives you the candidates for mayor of Anchorage. There are nine candidates, though it is effectively a two-person race between Democratic incumbent Ethan Berkowitz and Republican Rebecca Logan. Mayor Berkowitz was elected in 2015 and has focused a lot on crime and police presence in a city which has become increasingly dangerous in recent years. Berkowitz’ main challenger is Republican-backed Rebecca Logan, who works as the general manager of The Alaska Support Industry Alliance – an oil, gas and mining association. You can find background information on these and the other candidates here, as well as a light and inconsequential Anchorage Daily News Q&A which asks each candidate what they do for fun in Anchorage (Dustin Darden’s is a doozy).
The next three sections focus on the candidates for school board seats E-G, and this category is the biggest mystery for most voters. There is very little information online about the options, though the League of Women Voters of Anchorage has a ballot review with contact information for most of the candidates. One piece of advice: if you don’t know anything about the options, it is better to leave it blank than to pick a random choice. As of this writing, I have reached out to multiple organizations looking for official endorsements, and will update if I find out more. The candidates do at least have their own websites, and for now that is the best source of information.
There are 12 ballot propositions on the 2018 Anchorage ballot, and Prop. 1 is by far the most controversial. The so-called “Bathroom Bill” would undo Alaska’s current nondiscrimination law by restricting access to bathrooms and locker rooms based on a person’s sex at birth, regardless of their gender identity. For the sake of clarity: voting “Yes” would allow businesses to restrict bathroom access based on sex, while a “No” means keeping the current nondiscrimination protections in place. The proposition is backed largely by Alaska Family Action, a Christian public policy organization which says the bill is a necessary step in protecting the privacy and safety of Alaskan citizens who shouldn’t need to share an intimate setting with someone of the opposite sex.
Opponents to Prop. 1 (Fair Anchorage, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, NAACP) say that the bill is a step backwards into discrimination, an unenforceable bill that would hurt the rights and privacy of transgender people. The Chamber of Commerce worries that the bill would also be bad for business, citing the similar North Carolina bill that is estimated by the Associated Press to cost that state $3.76 billion over the next dozen or so years.
This proposition has thrust Alaska’s voice into the national conversation about equality and LGBTQ rights. The country is listening: let’s think carefully about what we say.
Props. 2-8 are far less sticky. They are all bond measures that would go towards improving city services and infrastructure, from school facilities to roads to police boilers. They are basically seeking funding for basic and necessary municipal upkeep, at a negligible yearly cost to taxpayers. By all means, read the fine print. But for most voters, these should be an easy “Yes” and forget.
Prop. 9 is a direct response to Slush Cup 2017, when the popular event turned Girdwood into a “parking lot.” This measure would allow Anchorage Police Department to delegate parking enforcement to the Whittier Police Department, giving Girdwood residents some relief from the abandoned and improperly parked vehicles that flood their town every year.
A “Yes” to Prop. 10 would allow the Anchorage municipality to sell debt-ridden electric utility company Municipal Light & Power to Chugach Electric. Proponents of this measure say that it would increase efficiency of operations and spread out the effect of ML&P’s debt, leading to lower rates for consumers. They also say it would allow Chugach Electric to more effectively utilize variable renewable energy from sources like Fire Island, all while promising not to layoff any workers at either of the companies.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it might be. An article from Alaska Policy Forum urges caution when it comes to this deal, pointing out that the process and details of the proposed sale have been shrouded in mystery from the beginning, and it appears that the normal competitive bidding process for a sale of this kind was bypassed for a direct “sole source” to Chugach Electric. In other words, it is nearly impossible to know if the municipality (and taxpayers) got the best deal possible.
APF also points out that while the measure promises no increase in “base rates,” this does not mean that your bill won’t necessarily go up from other rate increases. The general lack of transparency and careful wording of the large print has a number of voters concerned about the quality of the deal.
Prop. 11 would save most Anchorage homeowners money on their property taxes each year, though the trade-off would be a tax increase for residents who own commercial or residential property. The proposition would change the state law by raising the property tax exemption from 10% of a property’s value (max. $20,000) up to 20% (max. $50,000).
While this would give some tax relief to homeowners, business owners are not very happy about it, and it is feasible that renters’ rates would go up as a result. Mayor Berkowitz says that Prop. 11 would give tax relief to homeowners and broaden the city’s revenue stream, while critics worry that the “trickle down” effect on business owners and the local economy would cause more economic harm than good, all for a few hundred dollars saved by homeowners come tax day.
This proposition seeks to expand the borders of the Anchorage Fire Service Area to include currently unprotected property in the northeast area of Eagle River (an area including the Eagle River Nature Center). As it stands now, residents without fire services are sent a hefty bill if the AFD responds to their call (not a guarantee), and the size of that bill may go up in the near future. If Prop. 12 passes, the taxable services would begin in 2019. Properties currently within the current fire service would most likely not see their taxes increase in any way, but the newly-covered Eagle River Valley residents would of course see a tax increase in exchange for those city services.
Front-runners in the 2018 Iditarod are closing in on Nome, Alaska, and 60+ mushers and over 850 sled dogs are not far behind on the roughly 1,000 mile course between Willow and Nome. This year’s Iditarod marks the 46th annual running of “The Last Great Race,” a super marathon that tests the resilience and willpower of the mushers and dogs that brave the extreme conditions and intimidating distance in Alaska’s arctic frontier over the course of 8-12 days. Stretches of this route were used by Native Alaskan Athabaskan and Inupiaq people well before Russian fur traders arrived in Alaska, and dog-sledding also played a crucial part in the famous Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century. The most famous dog sledding event happened in 1925 when mushers raced to Nome to deliver a serum for a diphtheria epidemic that threatened to wipe out the entire community. Dick Wilmarth won the first ever Iditarod race in 1973, and since then the race has become a nationally recognized event fueled by hundreds of volunteers and millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship.
The 2018 race kicked off amidst some well-documented turmoil, including a shrinking budget, the loss of a major sponsor, increased criticism from animal rights groups, and a dog-doping scandal involving one of the biggest names in dog mushing. In a way, these mounting blows to the sport are not exactly shocking, considering that recreational and commercial dog sledding feels uniquely out of time – a 19th century phenomenon surviving against all odds into the 21st century. Indeed it is that sense of history and tradition which provides much of its appeal: dog sled races like the Iditarod and Yukon Quest exist not only as modern sporting events, but as nostalgic touchstones for a different time, when humans and their animals proved the power of their extraordinary spirit in the face of nature’s most frightful conditions.
Tradition can be a vital function of culture, especially those cultures trying to stay alive in the midst of assimilation and extinction. But tradition alone should not tip the scales against the weight of injustice: a point proven again and again over the course of human history. In fact we are still trying to learn this lesson; many of humanity’s most unforgivable crimes were (and continue to be) couched in the thick fog of tradition. I am not equating sled dog racing to those worst of human errors, but the criticisms against the industry of sled dog racing do seem worth examining. Nothing good should fear scrutiny or critical analysis, so it seems like a good time to ask, not for the first time: is dog sledding actually good for dogs? Or more precisely, is it bad for them?
If you talk to dog mushers, or even the majority of Alaskans, they will tell you how much sled dogs love to run. These huskies and malamutes are bred for frigid temperatures and lots of exercise. Anyone who has ever kept one of these rugged northern breeds as a pet will know how much exercise they require to be truly content. Often their love of the outdoors outpaces that of their human guardians, something that not enough pet owners consider when adopting. But it is important to note that these sled dogs are not pets: under Alaska law, sled dogs are considered “sport animals,” and the state’s animal cruelty statutes do not apply to them.
Alaska is not the only state where this is the case, and it is important for fairly obvious reasons: without the protection of animal cruelty laws, animals like sled dogs or livestock do not have the same legal standards for humane treatment. This has made it difficult for animal rights groups to hold responsible those owners of commercial or sporting operations who engage in questionable tethering or kenneling practices, or even culling (the act of killing non-useful animals). So this distinction between pets and sporting animals is important for both sides of this debate. Mushers want you to know that these dogs are not the same as your beloved household pets: they are strong and rugged animals, trained and genetically equipped to run great distances in extreme cold. Ironically, there are more problems with dogs overheating than becoming hypothermic. But for animal rights advocates, this legal distinction means that animal abuse can occur with little to no legal recourse. Those groups argue that this leads to an industry which is legally and morally inscrutable; if the state doesn’t give basic protections to sled dogs, how can the public trust that animal welfare is a top priority?
Merely pointing out this legal distinction is not an implication that there is widespread animal abuse happening in the world of sled dog racing. In fact it is clear that most mushers have a deep affection for their dogs, and a bond formed through shared experience on the trail. Alaskan cult hero DeeDee Jonrowe is known for her perseverance in the face of incredible hardship, and her love for the dogs which helped her when she needed it the most.
“The sweetness of the dogs and the bond with the dogs is what it’s all about,” she said in an interview a few years after a car accident that killed her grandmother and left DeeDee hospitalized for two weeks. “It’s a companionship and bond, and emotional give and take, that makes this sport unique. . . dog care is first and foremost the principle of dog racing.” Interviews with other mushers echo this sentiment of respect and devotion to the animals which make the race possible.
Sentiment only goes so far, however, and animal rights advocates worry that the public sees just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dog racing and commercial sled dog tours. Fans and onlookers come out for the beginning and end of the race, as if that was the story. But the real story of dog mushing and the lives of these animals is lived in all that time before and after the run, when dogs are bred and trained and kenneled from birth.
The worst case scenario played itself out in Whistler, Canada in 2010 when an employee of Howling Dog Tours was ordered to kill 100 of the company’s 300 dogs when the business fell on hard times following the Vancouver Winter Olympics. There were too many healthy dogs to find homes for, so they were destroyed by shooting, stabbing and blunt force and dumped in a mass grave. The story came out when the employee who carried out the mass culling filed a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder. Another sled dog tour company in Snowmass, Colorado received national attention when Dan MacEachen of Krabloonik dog tours was charged with eight counts of animal cruelty in 2013, citing malnutrition, poor kennel conditions and insufficient veterinarian attention. He had previously pleaded no contest in 1988 for a charge of animal cruelty for breaking bones in a dog’s face during a “vicious” beating.
It is clear that commercial sled dog operations open up the possibility for mistreatment and abuse of dogs, even if most of the humans involved harbor no ill will towards the animals that provide the lifeblood of their businesses. Many of the owners and employees of such operations say that the public simply doesn’t understand the biology and needs of sled dogs, but it is troubling that so many large kennels have run into trouble over accusations of neglect, malnutrition, poor living conditions and legal culling.
In 2011, the Whistler Sled Dog Co. was established about 20 months after the infamous Whistler dog culling, in an effort to shake up the dog sled industry and prove (or disprove) if commercial dog sled tours could be profitable while maintaining animal welfare as the top priority.
The operation folded after two seasons.
Volunteer Director Sue Eckersley said in the documentary Sled Dogs that “We weren’t providing the level of care and the level of life that we were comfortable with as animal welfare people . . . margins are very small and the season is short. It didn’t make sense on a financial level at all.” After just two years of operation, the dogs were handed over to Whistler Animals Galore (WAG) whose job it has been to find homes for over 80 dogs.
The implications of the “Whistler Sled Dog Experiment” are troubling. For those two seasons, they were the #1 booked sled dog tour operation in Whistler, and they still did not last even three seasons trying to balance animal welfare with financial viability. If this is true, what does it mean for other sled dog operations around the world? The unsettling suggestion is that you can have profitability or animal welfare, but not both. If true, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that following the money led us into a Dagobah-esque cave which brought us face-to-face with our own humanity, and what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of our own goals and profits.
At the same time we should be careful not to conflate commercial sled dog tours with individual mushers, even if they face many similar challenges. Despite what some animal rights groups may try to suggest, dog sledding is not typically a very profitable venture. Maintaining kennels and providing food for dogs is quite expensive, and most mushers will tell you that mushing is not a sport about money, but about passion. Like multiple Iditarod winner Lance Mackey told USA Today during his own financial hardships, “Everyone thinks I’m rich because I won the damn Iditarod. The fact is, the more involved and competitive you become, the more you have to spend to be competitive.”
So let’s get back to the driving question: is dog sledding actually bad for dogs? It would be easy to say that commercial and competitive dog sledding is intrinsically cruel, an industry which sacrifices the lives of its dogs to satisfy the passion (or bottom line) of the humans driving the sleds. And it would also be fairly easy to take the other side, and argue that these dogs are truly doing what they love and what they are trained for – that PETA and organizations like it are filled with hopelessly misguided reactionaries that don’t have the first clue about the realities of mushing. As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
When it comes to the Iditarod and other sled dog races, there is a physical toll. Some of the health risks faced by dogs include issues with dehydration, pneumonia, ulcers and gastric distress. Mushers argue that the number of dog deaths and injuries is commensurate with the sheer number of dogs in the race, and that pets face just as many risks staying home. The line for acceptable health risks in a race this grueling depends on who’s drawing it, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for more stringent practices to protect the health of the dogs, not just during the race but also in that vast majority of time when they are out of the public eye.
Recreational dog sledding is a sport which enriches the lives of animals and humans – a way for both parties to get out in the elements and get the exercise they need for health and enrichment. Any time that humans act as stewards for animals, there will be isolated cases of cruelty – but dog sledding itself is not intrinsically inhumane. It is when the sport becomes motivated by competition or profit that things tend to get complicated. There have been too many charges against inhumane dog kennels to ignore: it doesn’t take a lawyer or a musher to look at the conditions and body language of some kenneled dogs to know that something isn’t right. Short seasons and large kennels are a nasty combination for dogs that often don’t get enough food, exercise or social interaction. Perhaps there is a way to keep sled dog tours in business while treating dogs humanely, but this would require rethinking standards and regulations for kennels, as well as changing the legal protections of these creatures that we profess to love. The legal loophole which denies sled dogs protection under normal animal cruelty laws is a major impediment in the quest for humane practices.
Three-time Iditarod musher Danny Seavey was asked recently by a fan: is the Iditarod inhumane? He then took to Facebook with an honest, thoughtful and no bullshit response to the question. In it he addressed some of the biggest controversies of the race (doping, dog deaths, kennel conditions, veterinary care) and even proposed a few ideas to improve these areas. He poked some holes in the idea of increased mandatory rests, proposing instead a “starting line” system at every checkpoint, which would leave the decision to run up to the dogs. He also acknowledged the bad optics of tethering, while at the same time defending its practice. Altering Alaska’s animal cruelty statutes would require mushers and dog handlers to come up with new strategies for kenneling and tethering, a logistical problem which is “probably where we should be concentrating our efforts,” according to Seavey. The biggest change he would make to the race? “Do away with the prize money. . . if you can’t afford to lose, maybe you shouldn’t be out there.” Perhaps the most important takeaway from the post is the attitude towards open and constructive dialogue. Like Seavey says right off the bat: “If we insist we’re 100% right, and the other guy is 100% wrong, we’re all doomed. Maybe PETA has a point on a few things. Maybe they’ll learn a thing or two from us. You never know until you listen.”
For the future of the Iditarod, changes to the race may have shifted from possible to necessary: a report by The Foraker Group shows the dire financial and cultural realities of the event, as relationships with corporate sponsors fray in the wake of animal rights protests and the mishandled doping scandal. There are signs of life from the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC), as they have vowed to develop a “best care” kennel management program, in addition to shaking up the list of board members to remove long-standing conflicts of interest. Critics say that they have heard this before, and that it will take real action to prove the ITC is sincere in enacting substantive change to protect animals and mushers. The Iditarod and the centuries-old sport it represents is facing the harsh realities of the 21st century, and ignoring those realities would be neither moral or practical. Tradition, as we have learned, can only take you so far.