Columns 2008

Speak truth to power


Today marks my 36th anniversary in Alaska. I first set foot here on Oct. 1, 1972.  I was fresh out of New York City. Until then, my idea of the country was going to a farm in central Jersey. My idea of wilderness was a bird sanctuary in Cape May. My idea of strange food was anything that didn’t have Parmesan cheese on the top.  Becoming an Alaskan would challenge every one of my preconceived notions of life.

I spent exactly one day in Anchorage before shipping off to Barrow.  My memories of that day include a trip to the Army Navy store on Fourth Avenue to get myself winter gear. I was dropped off at the store and told to buy the warmest parka, boots and gloves they had.

I stood outside the store on Fourth Avenue and looked around in bewildered amazement. I’d been told this was the heart of downtown. But if that was true, where were the skyscrapers? Where were the bustling crowds of people scurrying to and fro? And for the love of god, why had I been directed to shop in a store that seemed to specialize in outfits worn by troopers in World War II movies? Where was Bloomie’s?  Macy’s?  Even I, with my reputation as one of the worse dressers on the East Coast, knew that you could be forgiven for dressing badly if the tag on your outfit had the right address.

Now, 36 years later, I pick up my paper and see an article reprinted from the New York Times about a beauty salon in Wasilla. I feel like I’ve fallen through the looking glass and now up is down and good is bad and Wasilla is teaching New Yorkers what to consider chic. Maybe the ends of time are nearer than I thought.

The Alaska I first discovered was one full of individuals who carried not a chip so much as a tree trunk on their shoulder. As Alaskans they were use to being viewed as America’s unwanted red headed stepchild. Our cities were small, our land was big, our natural resources were abundant, and if we had to put up with a few weeks of forty below weather in winter in order to call this place home, so be it.

Here’s the other thing I noticed about Alaskans back then. They were as independent as they were cantankerous and they had no qualms about letting their elected officials know if they thought that said officials had their heads where the sun didn’t shine. In fact, it was almost a requirement for calling yourself a true Alaskan to be willing to trash talk any public official who held beliefs you knew to be pure and sheer hogwash – or, worse yet, city ideas from the lower ’48 being brought here to corrupt us pure Alaskans.

I guess I didn’t realize how far we’d come from that attitude until I started seeing the letters to the editor in the paper calling anyone who disagrees with Sarah Palin and says it out loud a traitor to our state who should just shut up and support her because she’s an Alaskan.  I don’t think you can find an attitude that is much more un-Alaskan than that.

People who spoke truth to power and didn’t care where the chips fell built this state and this country. Whether it was our founding fathers telling King George where to put his tea tax or Wally Hickel telling Richard Nixon what he thought of the Vietnam war, Alaskans hold dear our right to tell people in power exactly what we think of them while reveling in the knowledge that our country protects us from retribution if we do.

So I think that people who speak out for or against any national or local politician or policy are patriots, not traitors. And those who think otherwise should go live in a country where that speech is not allowed and see how comfortable they find it. Because in my Alaska, saying what you think about politicians was a sacred tradition when I arrived and I will do everything in my power to keep it that way till the day I depart – hopefully as ashes scattered over the Arctic.