She’s mad now: getting (politically) engaged with columnist Elise Patkotak

Did you read Elise Patkotak’s column this week in the Anchorage Daily News? She writes, “There was a time when I thought John McCain really was a different kind of politician, one who would put his country above his personal desire for grandeur. I stopped thinking that the day he announced Sarah Palin as his running mate. The sheer hubris that went into that selection simply takes my breath away. … Yeah, I’m mad now. I’m mad because I truly thought McCain would run a campaign that did not cater to our basest instincts and the lowest common denominator but would engage Obama in a real exchange of ideas on the problems America faces.”

Agree? Disagree? Respect her? Resent her? Whatever you care to say, Elise Patkotak has heard it all before. And this week, I wanted to hear from her — about what’s it like to be a columnist during these volatile pre-election days. I wanted to hear more from a transplanted New Yorker who lived for 28 years in rural Barrow and now lives in urban Anchorage; a woman who has been both praised and criticized for publishing her opinions about everything from domestic abuse in Alaska to the politics of Tibet.
And here’s why: For the last few weeks, all of us have been — or at least felt like — public commentators. Even if we’re not writing for a newspaper or blog, which one of us hasn’t written an email, or fielded a phone call from some friend or relative wanting to more about Sarah Palin? I’ve always admired opinion columnists, but this month, I admire them even more. They have to think and write fast, and they have to take a lot of heat.

Andromeda: Do you think you’ve become more pointed and more political (less of a lifestyle humorist, a la Erma Bombeck) lately? Have you felt super-motivated this year or have you always felt motivated to share your views?
Elise: I think as the Current Occupier’s term in office has continued, I’ve felt less and less funny and more and more engaged politically than I’ve been in a long time. It’s like something woke the spirit of the sixties in me as I watched this administration destroy just about everything I ever held sacred and dear about my country and its constitutional guarantees.
I realized I frequently didn’t speak out in the past on political issues because I felt like those were topics for really important people and commentators who spoke on a national level and seemed to exude some air of gravitas that I could never hope to achieve. And then one day, I realized I was just plain mad at the way my country had been hijacked. I figured maybe all those powerful voices really didn’t know any more or less than me so why shouldn’t I jump in and offer a perspective from down here in the trenches where most of us live…you know, the place where you worry about paying the mortgage and the heating bill in the same month and wonder if your son will be the next sent to have his legs blown off in Iraq.

Andromeda: When you did start writing columns?

Elise: I started writing columns in the late 1980s (maybe 1988) for Jackie Lindauer who ran bush newspapers. The one in Barrow was called the Barrow Sun. I was the city recreation direction (recuperating from an extremely stressful stint as the state social worker on the North Slope) and she asked me to send her any material I wanted because she published out of Anchorage and depended on stringers to get news to her. Soon after I started writing for the Sun, the newspaper wars in Anchorage between the Daily News and the Times went into high gear. I sent a piece to Howard Weaver to see if he would be interested and the next thing I knew, I was in the Daily News. There was a period in the early nineties when my column appeared in the Barrow Sun, the Fairbanks Daily News Minor’s Sunday magazine and the Daily News.
Then came the bad times. Jackie died and the paper went under. Another paper, the Arctic Sounder, eventually took its place and I did write for them for a while. The Fairbanks paper “went in another direction” and my column got axed from the Sunday magazine. And the Times folded so the powers that hold the fiscal strings on the Daily News cut back the money they were putting into the paper drastically and suddenly my column barely appeared at all.
On a whim, I cold called Paul Jenkins from the Voice of the Times and asked if they’d be interested in my work. He said he couldn’t promise me a regular publication schedule but that they were interested. In about six months I had a weekly gig with them. When the Voice of the Times ceased hard copy publication, the Daily News asked me to join them and I did.

So, I’ve been doing weekly columns for almost two decades now…ohmygod, that’s the first time I ever actually realized that…I am older than death…and I have no idea how many I’ve written but my skill at math is such that it gives me a headache just to think about a way of trying to figure that out. So let’s just say more than five and less than five million.

Andromeda: Tell me a story. When was the first time you wrote something that felt sharp enough that you worried inside, just a little, about how people would take it? What is the angriest someone ever got at one of your columns?

Elise: This is easy. The first time I wrote about the abuse of Native women at the hands of Native men, my website was positively flamed. I had some of the most virulent hate mail you can ever imagine. So, just because I figured if I was in up to my knees, I might as well wade as far as my chest, I wrote a second column about the fact that killing the messenger doesn’t negate the message. I pointed out that the people flaming me were proving my point as to why abused women in villages felt so vulnerable and helpless about speaking out. If I was treated so badly for just pointing out the problem in a general fashion, imagine what a woman goes through in a small village if she tries to name an abuser who has power in that village. I still hear from women who call me a hateful white woman who doesn’t get how wonderful Native men are and from women who tell me I am very, very right in what I’ve said but they can’t sign their names for fear of retribution.
I knew when I wrote the first column that I was opening a can of worms that most people ran from. But I figured someone had to speak out for the dead Native women here in Anchorage and all over the state. And my thirty years in Barrow, including many, many years in the area of social services, gave me a unique perspective. My writing skills gave me the ability to express this perspective. I figured getting flamed on the Internet doesn’t hurt half as much as being raped and killed.

Andromeda: OK, the Sarah morning. When did you know, and how long did it take you to sit down and start typing your thoughts? ( I think this must be what separates the amateurs from the pros, the ability to organize one’s thinking and get to the task at hand.)

Elise: A friend from the East Coast called and woke me up VERY early to tell me the news. I thought it was a bad joke or a bad dream. Unfortunately, it turned out to be neither.

I started pounding away just as soon as the six birds and two dogs were fed and given their medication and I had enough coffee in me to see the letters on the keyboard. It was one of those times when there is so much going through your mind at once that you just need to write it all down and then worry about actually organizing it later. This is clearly the biggest thing to happen in Alaskan politics since…hmm, I guess what with Ted’s indictment, Don’s investigation, multiple convictions of public officials, this story does have competition for story of the year here. But since it’s national and brought national attention to Alaska, it seems like the biggest one. My ongoing columns about Sarah’s selection are almost all part of the outpouring from that first morning of thoughts.

Andromeda: Some of us MAY have friends and family that we can’t seem to convince about anything, even when we are right and they are wrong, or we live in Alaska and they don’t! (Ha-hem.) Tell us please, HOW TO BE PERSUASIVE. What’s your trick?

Elise: Wow, that’s really an insane thought. Do people really think I have some idea of what I’m doing? If so, let me relieve then of that misconception right now. What I do is write my opinion. My skill as a writer has given me access to a wide audience but doesn’t necessarily mean my opinion is right or better than anyone else’s. It’s just I can express it better and that gets me in print. Of course, I do think I’m right about 100% of the time and if the world would just get a grip and make me queen, I’d take care of everything immediately.
For what it’s worth, having some facts to back up your opinion actually helps a little but not as much as you’d think since most people’s opinions come a place where facts do not necessarily reside. Opinions tend to be gut reactions more than anything else so a very pedantic and boring recitation of facts, while probably very true in all respects, rarely changes someone’s mind. I think that’s how we made the tragic error of re-electing George Bush. The Dems were talking facts about his failures and the Republicans were appealing to the fact he was the kind of guy you’d be able to share a beer with. The fact that drinking beer and running the country were two quite different qualities didn’t really register because people’s opinion of George came from the fact that he looked just like the doofus working in the cubicle three down from you and that guy was pretty ok.
What I’m told most often by people who like my work is that I write from a very basic, common sense level and don’t attempt any pretense of being more in the know than anyone else about politics or world events or Alaskan stuff. I write from a very Everyman’s perspective and relate to people on a level of what just seems to me to be common sense about issues. But honestly, there are some people who will never be convinced that what they believe is wrong no matter what you do or say or what facts you present. That’s why there are still arguments over teaching creationism in school science classes. (See Palin, Sarah, religious scientific beliefs)

Andromeda: Do you believe that people’s ideas change as a result of what they read? I so desperately want to believe this but the last 8 years have made it difficult!Are you talking to people on the fence, or giving strength to those who already agree with you but can’t summon the particulars; or something else entirely?

Elise: I think people tend to read what they already believe in order to bolster their belief. Few people are brave enough to venture into a new area of thought that might challenge their most precious memories or values. But I also think that some writers can walk a middle line and get people to read them because they don’t rant for one side or the other and those writers are able to exert some influence. Unfortunately, in this world of divisive politics and right wing radio rants, it’s harder and harder to be heard if you’re not screaming as loudly and ridiculously as the guy on the next page or channel.

Andromeda: Point me toward some of your favorite columns.

Elise: May 2, 2007 – This is the first column I wrote about abuse of Alaska Native women in their own villages.
May 9, 2007 – This is my response to the hate mail I received about that column
March 13, 2008 – This is my response to finding out Sarah was pregnant but it didn’t show…AT ALL! (Note from Andromeda — this one is actually pro-Sarah, by the way, which shows the mixed feelings that many of us have about our governor.)
March 21, 2007 – Explains why Sarah’s babe factor throws male politicians in Alaska for a loop. (Note from Andromeda — wow, if we only knew how far the babe factor would take her…)

1 thought on “She’s mad now: getting (politically) engaged with columnist Elise Patkotak”

  1. Wonderful interview – and timely. I felt like applauding after I read Elise’s ADN column yesterday. And I relate completely to what she says about feeling highjacked. I used to more or less pride myself on being apolitical. Now I want my state and country back.

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