I spotted this over at John Scalzi’s Whatever and it brought back some memories.
A woman in Ohio has received a felony conviction for deceptively sending her kids to a school in a district where she didn’t live. Her father colluded in this. The article linked doesn’t go into the reasons she did what she did, but I can imagine some of them, and it would have entirely to do with quality of school experience.
Fifty years ago, my schooling experience—and I phrase it that way because I’m talking about much more than just what you learn in the classroom; it’s a total package, going to socialization and self-image and the whole magilla that a lot of people condemning American public education, depending on their political slant, don’t want to think about—was in the process of being thoroughly fucked up. Had I not been an avid reader at an early ago outside of school…
Not knowing the particulars of the Ohio case, I’ll just talk about mine. I’ve detailed some of this before, but it’s worth going over it again as a reminder.
My birthday is in October. Back in the day, my mother dutifully tried to enroll me in school for the school year during which I would have been five. But at the time of enrollment, I was only four. They refused me. “Bring him back next year,” they told my mother, who tried, I imagine, valiantly to explain the problem, which was that I’d end up functionally a year behind. But the district was adamant. Bring him back when he is five.
So I had a whole year of not going to school when many of my friends were. Not to worry, I didn’t give that much of a damn. I was pretty much a loner anyway, even then, because, for whatever reason, I didn’t quite fit with everyone else.
The following September, we’re back at the school, and this time they accepted me. I entered kindergarten.
And six weeks later, when I turned six, they pulled me and five others who had the same calendrical malfunction out of kindergarten and moved us directly across the hall into first grade.
Our first grade teacher—I remember her vividly, a tallish Nordic blonde with a thin face and large, pale blue eyes—made it clear from the beginning that she regarded the six of us as a nuisance. “Get with one of the others and catch up,” she said. “I’m not spending any time making up for you’re not being here at the beginning of the year.”
I could read already and, if I recall correctly, so could Debbie Blake, but the others? Don’t know. I quickly became absorbed into my own problems, which became legion in my young mind. Within a month I could honestly say that I hated school.
Not just the teacher and the sudden load of curricula which the six weeks of kindergarten had not prepared me, but the whole experience. My new classmates made me feel slow and stupid and began a pattern of torment that last the next eight years. My teacher, who apparently recognized that I was probably above average, began a round of parent-teacher meetings designed, I thought, to humiliate me—“he’s a bright child but not performing up to his potential.” I just didn’t understand. And it didn’t improve. I suspect that nine months of kindergarten I should have gotten bore directly on the socialization I was now forced to “catch up” with in a couple of weeks.
My parents moved during my third grade year. It put me in a new school district. I actually had made no real friends to miss, so it was no big deal to me. But.
The district line ran, apparently, down the center of my street, and that put me in the Grant School district instead of the Shenendoah district. Shenendoah was four blocks away. Grant was a mile and a half. Grant—I did not know this at the time, but my parents did—had a bad reputation. (Shenendoah soon would, but not yet.) I was already obviously having trouble at school from bullying and such and my parents were reluctant to send me to a school, so far away, where the problems might be worse.
But also—and I didn’t find this out until much later—my performance disappointed them and my dad, for one, thought I had a discipline problem. Corporal punishment had been outlawed in the public school system. Dad was a believer in the spanking. My poor grades and lack of attention in class, he thought, were directly related to an inability on the part of the teachers to effectively discipline me. So, public school was probably not where I belonged.
I was summarily enrolled in a private school, Emmaus Lutheran, about ten blocks away, and I entered the fray midway through third grade and there I stayed through eighth.
My performance did not improve. Nor was I ever spanked for poor discipline. That, it turned out, was not the problem. (The bullying soon resumed and continued. Enough about that.)
I continued reading on my own and by a curious quirk of circumstance my dad began a long stretch of dinner table dialogues with me that can only be described as philosophical primers—my parents were lapsed Mormons, I was attending a Lutheran school, dad was determined I not swallow the party line whole, and we argued and debated our way through the rest of my grade school, all in an attempt to keep me from being brain washed.
My next school problem came my senior year of high school. High school improved somewhat. Because of the round of different teachers, my performance in one class did not poison it in another, and I could be selective about what I chose to pay attention to. My grades went up because, frankly, I was more interested. The bullying had stopped (although I had more fights my Freshman year than the previous two) and I began to acquire the armor of the loner who will not be messed with.
Roosevelt High School was what could best be described as a blue-collar industrial school. It had been built and its traditions established when the expectation was that most of its graduates would end up driving trucks for Anheuser-Busch or going into some other local industry. It was struggling to come to terms with a changed mission during the Sixties and hadn’t quite succeeded. I became deeply fascinated with photography. They had no course in it. I was already interested in writing, but the Journalism class was one year and only half a credit. In other words, both my fields of interest were pretty much unsupported.
Senior year, I entered a work-study program which gave me a morning of class work and let me off to work part time in the afternoon. My very first job ever, acquired over the summer, didn’t survive past October. I “contrived” to game the system to stay in the program and pretended to have a job. I was also cutting a lot of classes and days that year—sheer, unadulterated boredom (plus I think I had mono that year, but since I never went to the doctor I can’t say for sure, but it was pretty awful). In any event, because I’d taken senior English in summer school (to avoid getting a particular teacher who would undoubtedly have flunked me for personal reasons) and because I had carried a larger course load (somehow) the previous year, I had more than enough credits to graduate that January, getting out early. I plead lethargy for not having done it. I’d finally gotten a situation where I didn’t mind it so much and didn’t have anything else to do.
But. I answered a job ad at the state hospital in February. It was for a photography trainee. Note—this was 1973. The job would have been under the resident photography at the hospital as an apprentice. I would have been trained to do portraits, copy work, photomicrography, color lab work, the whole bit. The guy loved me. Saw my work, the interview went like a dream—and the starting pay was four dollars and hour. Trust me, for an 18-year-old at the time, this was a fortune.
The only hitch was I didn’t have my diploma. I explained the academic situation and begged a grace period so I could get it, since I had fulfilled my qualifications. I went back to school to do that and was told No. I had not taken that option in the fall, I was stuck with completing the school year.
I begged. Both of them. The school wouldn’t yield, the photographer refused to hire me, telling me that I really needed that diploma and that he’d be doing me a disservice by allowing me to quit school without it.
Bureaucracy. I was, basically, fucked.
Who knows where that might have led? A path cauterized. I do not regret it. I’ve had a ball living the life I’ve led. But I still get incensed over schools standing on their petty rules at the expense of a child’s educational experience. It makes their bookkeeping easy and can often result in damaging the child’s future.
Was the photographer right? I have never been required to prove I graduated high school, anywhere, by anyone. They take your word for it. In my field, it was what you could do that mattered more than where you’ve been educated.
So I’m thinking this woman in Ohio was trying her best to meet some impossible requirements. Depressed housing market (let’s assume) and she couldn’t sell her house in order to move, the job she had was where she lived, the school she wanted her children in was in another district…not to put to fine a point on it, but all the opponents of vouchers and charter schools should be aware that this is part of the reason a lot of people are looking at those options as agreeably as they do.
And just as a side note, sort of tangentially, consider that idiot governor in Texas recently pronouncing on what he sees as “frivolous” educational options. To quote Governor Perry:
Well, there is a lot of fat to cut from our public schools, especially those in our biggest urban areas like Houston and Dallas. I am concerned that some the highly diverse Magnet public schools in this city are becoming hotbeds for liberalism. Do we really need free school bus service, Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, ESL, special needs and enrichment programs like music, art or math Olympiad? I think we should get back to the basics of the three Rs, reading writing and arithmetic. I mean when is the last time a 6th grade science fair project yielded a cure for a disease?
It doesn’t work well, so let’s fuck it up some more, shall we? Take all the stuff that’s worthwhile and cut it, so we can educate a bunch of truck drivers, processed food workers, and cheap laborers who can compete with illegal immigrants. (I’m being sarcastic there, please note.)
You know what I would do if I were king? I would change the entire school system to this: fund it at at least half the level of current military spending. All schools would be open 24/7. Kids could go at any time and find classes in session. Kids could go to any school they chose (within reason). I would also make all schools safe havens, staffed with paralegals, nurses, and law enforcement so kids from abusive homes could feel protected if they had to get out. I would pay whatever it took to feed a child’s imagination. I would also extend that to make parents mandatorily involved and provide counseling for those parents who didn’t know what the hell they were doing. The schools would be geared entirely for the benefit of the children, not the parents, not local businesses, and certainly not the bureaucracy. I would put advanced curricula in the primary schools. A lot of kids might not “get it” but there will always be those who will catch on quickly, even kids from backgrounds most people might think unlikely. But I would expose all these kids to meaty material from the get-go instead of waiting till they get to college—if they get to college, which for many of them might be too late. I would bar all recruiters of any kind from the schools and I would bring in a regular round of professionals in as many fields as I could to do workshops.
That’s what I would do if I were king. We’re nickle-and-diming out kids into stupidity and penalizing some parents who try to do the right thing for their children. For every educational worker who pushes the envelope to improve the system, there seem to be a hundred know-nothings bitching about the cost and arguing over what’s being taught. This has got to stop.
Okay, end of rant. I feel marginally better.
I’ve been nattering on about politics and related matters for a while now. It’s crazy-making because no matter how much sense you might make, or think you’re making, there are a lot of people who basically say “I don’t care, I want it my way!” and ignore everything else.
So I thought I’d talk about writing.
I’ve had a hell of a week in that regard. Let me explain.
Many folks already know that I had a major (I thought) computer issue earlier this week. It happened this way. During the really cold months of winter, rather than turn on the space heater I have in my office, I move my writing upstairs, on a laptop. The change of venue often kicks loose some ideas, it’s a bit sunnier, and we save on the electric bill. No real inconvenience, I basically save my work to a floppy (yes, a 3.5 inch floppy, Virginia, they are still made) and carry the floppy back downstairs to transfer the file to my main computer when the story is ready to either print out or submit, at which point I save it to the main hard drive and my handy external hard drive. So a given file, in this scenario, is saved in four places.
Monday morning was a perfect storm, so to speak. I’d been working on a novella for about three weeks, a major rewrite, with someone waiting for it, and I finished it Sunday. Monday morning, early, I made a couple of last-minute grace note touches, saved the final to the floppy, then told the laptop to save it all to its hard drive. I took the floppy downstairs for the transfer.
First problem. Cannot open file. The disc is corrupted. I tried a couple of things, but no go. So I grab a clean floppy, head back upstairs to make a new copy, only to find on arrival that the laptop is dead. Inert. A few pounds of useless plastic.
Now, this is an ancient laptop, as these things go. It was a gift from a friend to begin with and I use it seldom, although I have written most of two whole novels on it. (When our first dog, Kory, was dying, I wrote my one and only Terminator novel on it in the living room, next to her, to keep her company. I know, multiple ironies in that.) It wasn’t new when I got it—it had Windows 95 on it—but it’s had a cushy life and hasn’t given me any trouble. Till now.
Panic, as they say, ensued. After several more attempts to open that damn file, I resorted to profanity and insane rage against a universe that seemed out to get me.
I posted my problem on Facebook and got the first of many bright glimmers. People gave advice (although a lot of it centered around saving my work online, which requires technology I do not have with that particular laptop—it’s not connected or, in any practical sense, connectable), condolences, etc. (Thank you all again, it was very kind and I needed the chin up boost.)
A couple of friends called to offer their services. Suggestions were made to call the Geek Squad.
I called the Geek Squad, but the $300.00 service call fee stymied me. I simply don’t have that kind of money just now to spend on spec, on a story that might not sell in the first place, etc. And we are talking about one story. Everything else was backed up.
One friend offered to unship the hard drive and see about transferring its contents to another P.C. I was set to do this—I would have dropped it off tonight—when another friend called to discuss it and made a simple suggestion. “Did you pull the battery?”
“It’s been plugged into the wall all this time, what difference would that make?”
“Well, most laptops boot from the battery, even if they are hooked to AC. Pull the battery and it might boot directly from AC.”
I pulled the battery. The thing came right back on. Problem solved. (Thanks again to Justin Olson.)
I have two typewriters in the house. I have my original Remington Noiseless and I have an IBM Selectric, which needs minor repair (which I now intend to get). I can go right back to the so-called stone age if I feel I must, even though more and more markets are going to strictly email submissions. But on paper, typed out, I only have to worry about fire or flood to lose the manuscript.
However, I won’t go that far yet.
So yesterday, I went back to the gym for the first time in two weeks (working steadily on that novella, in the groove, skipping all nonessential activity) and came home intending to get ready for the next story, and I get a rejection in the mail. Snail mail, yes, from one of the few magazines still doing it the old fashioned way. I had submitted the problem novella the day before, so I had made my goal of getting it finished and out the door before another rejection came in.
Now I am sitting here procrastinating by writing this. I have a piece of fiction upstairs that has been through three complete drafts already and I am about to gut it totally and do it from a completely different character’s point of view. Why? Because it hasn’t been working. It doesn’t sing, it can’t dance, even though all the parts are there. It is not wonderful.
Two things when a story does this—either you have begun it in the wrong place or you are telling it from the wrong perspective. The first is tactical. The second is psychological.
The most dramatic approach to story includes telling it from the perspective of the one or ones who have the most to lose. The ones who are in the greatest danger, the ones risking the most, the ones who by virtue of just showing up will be in the heart of the conflict because the conflict is theirs. This is hard to do. It’s natural to avoid pain and discomfort and writers are no different, so often we pick a main character who is safe or at least safer than the others. There’s a comfort about this character not getting badly hurt. But it makes for flaccid fiction.
So all week, given the mood I was in, I’ve been thinking about this story as it has been written and trying to find a way to make the main character really hurt. And everything I come up with feels like artifice.
This morning I wrote the first line from the viewpoint of another character. The one who really has the most to lose.
I then came here to write this, because I can already sense the knots I’m about to twist my psyche into writing about this guy. And I’m avoiding—
What? Pain? Not mine. His? Well…
It’s kind of like bungee jumping. You know it’s going to be exhilarating, but bringing yourself to take that first step can be very difficult. Stepping off into nothing, trusting that the way down will bring you what you want—that’s counter intuitive. Hell, that’s scary.
But once you step off…
Time to go back to the edge.
Representative Michelle Bachman is the national voice of The Tea Party. Recently, in speaking to a group of Iowans, she made some claims about American history that would be laughable if they had not come from someone who likes to style herself an authority of Constitutional matters. She claimed that the glory of our country is that color and language didn’t matter, nor did class or parentage, that once people got here, “we were all the same.”
Wishful thinking at best. Certainly that was the idea behind the Declaration of Independence, with its grand opening phrases, but like all such ambitions, it took reality a long, long time to catch up—and it still hasn’t. The fact is, despite our stated political and social goals, immigrants have always had difficulty upon arriving here, some more than others, and those already here have always resented new arrivals. And even for those who were already living here, equality was simply not a reality. African slaves aside, women did not achieve equality until…well, some would say they’re still trying to achieve it, but just for one metric, they didn’t get the vote until 1921. People who owned no property were barred from the vote for a good portion of the 19th Century and other barriers were put up here and there, time and again, such as literacy tests. Anything to keep certain groups from being able to vote against the self-selected “true” Americans.
She went further, though, and suggested that slavery was an unfortunate holdover from colonial times and that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was gone from the United States.” She cited John Quincey Adams, who was a staunch campaigner against slavery. The problem, though, is that he was not a Founder. He was the son of one.
The reality is that slavery was a deal breaker at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Many of the delegates owned slaves and made it quite clear that any attempt to outlaw it would result in a No vote on any constitution. A compromise was struck, putting the issue off for twenty years, and until then no one was allowed to even mention it on the floor of Congress. (Interestingly, the British and others outlawed slavery and the slave trade in 1807, 56 years before we did.) This was violated by a group of Quakers who tried to force the issue in Congress in 1792 to angry denunciations and threats of secession. The Southern delegates were quite clear that slavery could not be eradicated without severely damaging their happiness and well-being. It was openly remarked that slaves were needed for “work that white men simply won’t do.”
All of which flies in the face of Ms. Bachman’s attempted revision of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were southern slaveholders.
We should be clear about these men who established a political system which has had consequences they could hardly imagine. Some were brilliant, all were intelligent, and most incorporated a mix of heady idealism sparked by Enlightenment thinking and the hard practicality of men determined to get something out of life for themselves and their own. It would be easy to portray some of them as opportunistic adventurers. For instance, George Washington and others were all frustrated and hampered by British colonial policy which tried to keep the colonists from crossing the Appalachian Mountains into territory forbidden to them because of treaties the Crown had negotiated with native tribes. Companies were assembled of American entrepreneurs to claim and sell land in the trans-Appalachian territories, the Ohio Valley, Kentucky, and even south of that—quite illegally per British law. These men had money at stake in this and were going ahead to lay claims and make sales in spite of the British. They stood to lose a great deal if they couldn’t proceed with these land deals. So it could be said as easily as anything else that the Revolutionary War was fought by these men to secure future profits.
This is reality. Not all of it, by any means, but not to be dismissed either in some spiritual reimagining of the purity of purpose and overarching genius of the Founders. In fact, it is no shame to say that everyone who fought against British rule here hoped to gain something, and not just the intangibles of liberty—which is not all that intangible in any case. Taxation was the war cry and what is that? Money. Property.
People came to these shores hoping to find land, which they could neither find nor own in Europe. This is a fact. Here, in the so-called “wilderness”, they thought they could do what their forebears had never had a chance to do—own something. This meant independence. This meant freedom.
But today, when the owning of things has a much changed meaning, freedom has a less concrete aspect. It’s all about principles and ideals and airy things with no material substance. We’re used to it here, you see. Freedom isn’t so connected to things for us because things are ours by birthright. Or so it seems.
Many of the Founders were large estate-holders, plantation owners, businessmen. Everything they had was on the line in the Revolution. This is no small thing. They risked tremendously for their dream.
But we should never forget that they were also men of their time and men of the world. Maintaining institutions that put coin in their pockets was part of who they were and it is idiocy to imagine them otherwise. We risk turning them into Apostles and overwriting the reality of our own history to make that time some sort of Avalon. But things aren’t like they were in the good ol’ days…and they never were.
This urge to hagiography on the part of people like Bachman puzzles me. Collectively, they have no problem dealing underhandedly with political opponents, pushing through legislation that will benefit the propertied at the expense of the poor, treating their enemies as harshly as possible, and yet they assert that the Founding Fathers were somehow not like that. They admire the Founders, and somehow manage to juggle the contradictions in their own actions. Maybe seeing the Founders as they were—people— would make their own actions simply ugly and make them accountable on their own, without the defense that they’re trying to reestablish that Golden Age.
This is a real problem. We cannot go forward unless we know where we’ve been, and we can’t go forward honestly unless we’re honest about where we came from. Yes, this is a free country, but what does that mean in practice? It means that we have set of standards we’re trying to attain without adding constraint to personal actions. But unconstrained, personal actions lead not only to explosions of entrepreneurship and leadership and justice and innovation, but also to brutality and open hypocrisy and bigotry and class strife. You can’t have one without the other, because people are not principles.
I think Michelle Bachman and her colleagues understand this perfectly well. If they can convince people that they have fallen from a state of grace, then all the problems are the fault of the fallen, and all we have to do is put things back as they were. As they were included Robber Barons, slaveholders, political misogynists, racists. If they can convince people that this was the state of grace, then they can carry the nation forward into a future of their conception, which will benefit them. It would be their trans-Appalachian enterprise.
I do not believe it is a coincidence that people like Bachman have also been at the center of the gutting of public education. An ignorant public can be controlled.
She asked rhetorically if this was going to be the last free generation of Americans. The torch of liberty has been passed from generation to generation and we may be the one that fails to pass it on. She could be right. If people don’t start filling their minds with knowledge instead of spin, the Michelle Bachmans may well stop that torch being passed.
We all use words sometimes in ways not intended. We don’t, after all, have a dictionary to hand in every conversation and memory plays tricks, not to mention there is always some “drift” in common usage that’s culturally-driven. Often it’s just sloppiness that becomes wired into daily use and when we go back to the dictionary it’s occasionally a surprise to find out that what we thought a word meant isn’t really what it means at all.
Sometimes, though, it’s the right word applied to the wrong circumstance or a label correctly remembered but used for the wrong reason.
Arrogance is one of the biggies. I looked it up this morning in the dictionary—the Websters Compact Desk Dictionary of the American Language, a book I’ve owned since about sixth grade. It says:
“Arrogant—adj. [see ARROGATE], full of or due to unwarranted pride; haughty.”
The telling word there, I think, is “unwarranted.” But that’s not how the word is used usually. Most often, we see it applied in situations where someone feels they have been put down by someone displaying an uncomfortable opinion, superior information, confidence, or making a general statement about things the user feels is intended as a personal judgment against them. Manner is important, and anything short of self-deprecating kind of visible humility can be taken as sure sign of arrogance. What is said is less important than whether it contradicts common prejudice or simply a personal belief, and in this situation the term becomes an ad hominem attack—the information being conveyed is thereby discounted because the person giving it is arrogant and therefore need not be listened to.
Often this is a tactic, a way to discount something disagreeable. If the person talking can be made to appear self-serving or bullying or ignorant, what he or she says can be safely ignored because it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s a defensive posture, accusing someone of being arrogant. It puts the emphasis on establishing something that has nothing to do with whatever debate brought the accusation about, wastes time, distracts, and often says more about the accuser than the accused.
The difficulty of defending one’s self from a charge of arrogance is part of the reason it can be an effective dodge. Now we’re talking character references, examples of past behavior, and an endless definitional conversation about just what that means. Is someone arrogant because they stand on principles, never bowing to counterarguments? Maybe. It depends on the issue and whether or not all that’s being argued is an unsupported principle. If, however, there is weight to the principled position, evidence, experience, associated support…if the principle is something that has been shown to work in action and not just a matter of opinion…
See the problem? It’s been used too often to derail legitimate dialogues about serious issues. Take for instance education. We’re having a national debate among several states on a relatively low level about what to include in science curriculum (yes, I’m talking about evolution). There is a faction opposed to its inclusion, and in order to get their way they have been forced to be devious—assertions that we should “teach the controversy”— which run aground on the fact that there is no controversy in the science, only in the politics. But a tactic used repeatedly in public debate is, when a scientist, someone who knows the subject, states that something like Intelligent Design is not science, at some point a charge of arrogance is made. “You scientists are so arrogant, you think you know everything.” Or some such phrase.
This, for the lay public, can be a huge distraction. Because now the scientist has to defend against a personal attack, which has nothing to do with the merits of the argument. What it is, basically, is an admission that the one making the accusation has run out of anything useful to say.
The fact is, a charge of arrogance is one of those things best left for historians or for private arguments. it’s interpersonal, complex, and irrelevant. Someone can be arrogant as Napoleon and still be demonstrably wrong—or right. More likely, the one making the charge is the one being arrogant, because they have assumed their rightness regardless of the elements of the argument, and have either not bothered to learn the details or have dismissed such details because they contradict a cherished belief. Either way, they elevate their personal belief above all other factors and anyone who stands in the way of making that personal belief paramount must, a priori, be wrong. And if they are wrong and still arguing their point, they must be arrogant. Hmm. Got a mirror?
Ultimately, the charge of arrogance is used by people who feel their own beliefs and opinions are not being given due respect. They are, possibly, being ignored. Or they feel they’ve been identified in a way they reject, even though their position may be as wrongheaded as a Flat Earther.
But, tempting as it is to then label such people themselves as arrogant, it serves no purpose to make the same countercharge. Often, if arrogance is involved, it’s “borrowed” arrogance. It’s not a personal arrogance, but an aspect of the opinion or belief they hold, and as such personal arrogance gets displaced onto the source. Otherwise modest, humble people can come across as arrogant because they are not, by their lights, speaking for themselves, but for this set of ideas.
Which brings us right back to the pointlessness of the charge. Recall the definition:
full of or due to unwarranted pride; haughty
The operative word is “unwarranted” and that leads us right back into the dialogue to determine what is unwarranted. To do that, it’s necessary to concentrate on the topic, not take side trips into personality. We might all do well to bear that in mind. We might get farther and understand more. I believe most people are capable of understanding a lot more than they’re given credit for—even what they believe themselves capable.
Of course, that may be an unwarranted assumption. Is it arrogant of me then to think people can do better?
The message being put forward, especially by the Right, in the aftermath of the shootings in Arizona, is that it is absurd to blame the rhetoric of violence and hatred for the actions of anyone, let alone Jared Lee Loughner. Words don’t matter. The man is a loon, his actions cannot be laid at the feet of anyone else. Taken far enough, by this reasoning he acted in complete isolation from all influences. Maybe so.
But really—words don’t matter?
In 1774, Goethe published his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a seminal work in the so-called Sturm und Drang movement. It was a bestseller. Napoleon himself declared it an important work. It is intensely romantic, in many ways Gothic, and it ends with a suicide. The book had such an impact that it affected fashion, mood, language—and sparked a rash of suicides in imitation. Many young corpses were found with copies of the book on the bodies.
But words don’t matter.
Charles Dickens was so popular that upon arrival in New York for his American visit, throngs gathered on the docks demanding to know the fate of Little Nell. They were so caught up in the narrative that they suffered true anxiety over her fate.
But words don’t matter.
Salman Rushdie lived in hiding for years after publication of his novel The Satanic Verses because of the presumed blasphemy in the book. He was under death threat for writing about something that is, in fact, recorded in history and mentioned in the Koran.
But words don’t matter.
The oratory of Adolph Hitler spurred his country into a manic frenzy of conquest and murder and made many of his countrymen proud. Later, many could recall little of what Hitler actually said, but whatever it was, they knew it was true. He ordered them to burn books that might have presented an alternative argument, as most dictators ban anything written that might offer criticism of their programs. It is vital to silence the opposition, more important sometimes than anything else.
But words don’t matter.
For centuries the Catholic Church maintained an Index of forbidden books, books which they feared might turn people away from the church—which you would think, if they were right about being the only true church, could not happen.
But words don’t matter.
Attempts to ban certain books from libraries are common. Something in “those books” must, according to the arguments, be kept from people because it might do them harm. Now we see an attempt to produce a new edition of a beloved classic with a certain word expurgated, because it is a hurtful word, and some people would like to erase history and pretend that word no longer exists.
But of course, words don’t matter.
Abraham Lincoln, when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, greeted her by saying “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
But words, of course, don’t matter.
People dedicated their lives to the cause of liberation, many after reading the Declaration of Independence, which has come to be almost a national prayer, more important to some than the constitution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man led to the overthrow of a monarch and the subsequent bloodbath that was the French Revolution.
But we all know, words don’t matter.
Daily the Supreme Court hears debate over laws and how they accord with the constitution, arguing constantly over what the words mean and what they intend and how they may be interpreted, and rights rise and fall accordingly.
Yet words don’t matter.
How many times have we heard someone say “That book changed my life!” How often has a book or a poem or a story brought us close to tears? How many characters mean more to some people than the flesh-and-blood people in their lives?
Here’s the uncomfortable truth. When a set of words results in a good thing, no one takes offense, no one dismisses it as meaningless, no one shies away from taking credit if the words were theirs. But when something bad results, suddenly words don’t matter, we can’t lay responsibility on the author or the text. Under certain circumstances, we have laws that address the negative effects of certain words—we call them libel or slander.
The problem is that we’re terrified that if we admit to the real power of words, someone might try to take them away from us, and we’ve all seen how that goes. It’s worse than the problems such actions would redress, because it shuts out the possibilities of dialogue, of wonder, of betterment, of beauty. Which is why the solution to bad words is more good words. Cast a wide net, gather in a multiplicity of words, taste them all.
If, as the Right claims, words don’t matter, attempting to distance themselves from the consequences of something like Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, why do they hasten to label the shooter a liberal? Why bring up what he has in his own library? If words don’t matter, it would be just as telling if he had nothing but a collection of old Archie comics and a set of Oxford Companions. Words don’t matter, so what if he has a copy of The Communist Manifesto?
If words do not matter, then we should be able to say anything and see no effect at all on anyone. No one would get angry. No one would get sad, or hurt, or embarrassed, or baffled.
But no one would be enlightened or delighted or assisted or reassured or inspired, either.
Can’t have it both ways. You can’t take credit for words doing great things and then pretend they can’t do bad things.
But the only way to counter the negative effect of certain words and not destroy ourselves is to listen to other words, better words, words that tell the truth, words that aim to educate. The conversation must go on, but we have to listen. But we also have to own up to our expectations and our understanding and acknowledge that if we seek to influence with our words, sometimes that influence will go awry.
Unless, of course, words really don’t matter. Then, what is it we’re all doing?
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but bear with me. A bit of confessional time.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m an atheist. To put it simply, I basically grew up and got over it. Religion, to me, is historically and psychologically interesting, but does not represent any kind of reality. The world, the universe, what have you, just doesn’t work that way, and for every example you can pull out of your hat of supposed “miracle” I can equal or better it with “shit happens” and just plain human synergy. That anecdotal game can go on and on with neither side really running out of examples, leading no where, but just the fact that most miracles can be explained by mundane models suggests to me that the miracle is actually occurring inside the witnesses skulls. (There’s this new one that is the presumed basis for the rapid beatification of Pope John Paul II concerning a nun with Parkinson’s Disease going into full remission two months after the Pope’s death because she prayed to him. Now, if I remember my Catholic history and so forth, a miracle that qualifies someone for sainthood is supposed to have taken place during the recipient’s lifetime and he or she had to have been in some way directly involved. This is clear evidence that the Catholic Church is undergoing a P.R. crisis and needs some new popular saints to bolster a flagging image. The swift beatification of Mother Theresa is such a case, because anyone who really looked at the way she ran her organization would have to have serious doubts that this woman was “saintly” in any way, shape, or form—but she appears saintly. Anyway. Remission from disease happens all the time, just most of it never gets to the level of being considered a miracle—the human body is a dynamic system and we still have a lot to learn about it.)
The more complex answer is, that the more I learn the less I am able to suspend incredulity that anything like the cosmogony suggested by religions—any of them, and I stress here that I see no valid reason why any one should be given preference over any other—makes any sense given the evidence at hand. Over time I saw religion as a strictly human enterprise, a kind of Swiss Army Knife approach to explaining the inexplicable that relied on fear and the human capacity to be amazed to instantiate a programmatic acceptance of authority-through-divinity. Basically, it’s a business. Not always to make money, you understand, but always to exercise power.
So I walked away. I became a student of history and an amateur appreciator of science and the more I see, read, and discover, the more I am convinced that religious acceptance is a pathology. It has become so deeply wired into human culture, that it appears normal and functions often quite benignly. It only becomes a problem when situations arise and questions are asked which religion is unsuited to deal with.
One of the great and, of late, underappreciated and often derided truly cool things about America is that we—you and I—don’t have to put up with that crap. We can walk away.
Now for most people, this translates into an easy freedom to change our stripes. There are no legal or, often, social barriers to moving from, say, Catholicism to Presbyterianism. Even among those two groups, eyebrows may rise, some tut-tuts may occur, but after an adjustment period, I imagine most folks even keep the same friends and might even go to each other’s church socials. (For some of the more aggressively evangelical religions, this gets a bit tougher, but the law does nothing about it*.)
For some of us, it means we can just stop believing what we regard as nonsense.
This morning I went to the grocery store. At my checkout lane, the cashier and another employee were engaged in what I quickly understood as a religious discussion, but one of those that make even some mainstream believers reflexively wince. The one was explaining how ardently she had been praying, while the cashier—clearly in the higher position of authority in this—was saying “It doesn’t matter how you pray, it’s that the Enemy attacks. You got to be aware that he’s always there, attacking. You can pray but you got to watch for the Enemy.”
I paid and left without saying a word and, I hope, without my face betraying my reaction, which was “Oh, a couple of nuts.”
Here’s a test. Next time any of these situations come up at a party or in casual conversation, see how you react in the first few moments.
“My cousin was abducted by aliens. They ran all kinds of tests on her. I wonder what it is they’re looking for when they do that?”
“Oh, I never use traditional medicine. It’s all poison, you know. I trust homeopathy.”
“There were at least two other shooters, one on the grassy knoll. It was a CIA plot.”
“The world is going to end in 2011, May, in fact.”
“My astrologer said my stars are badly aligned for a move to a new job. I hate where I’m at, but I don’t want to make the same mistake twice.”
Even if, within a minute, you recoup enough to either steer the conversation away from this or form some kind of cat’s cradle response that allows you to see this in some way other than at face value, I would bet you thought, however briefly, “Oh no, one of them.”
Which is interesting, because I realized that over the years my reaction to each and every one of these, plus the score more I didn’t mention, has been identical to my reaction to someone who feels compelled to testify to me. They are indulging a fantasy, basically, possibly one born out of a particular neurosis, and it is important for the maintenance of that fantasy that they co-opt others into supporting it. Either by politely agreeing to the possibilities implicit in each world-view being presented, or by buying into their argument. Either one lends credibility to their delusion, strengthens it, and reassures them that they are not, in fact, nuts.
To be sure, most of them likely aren’t nuts. Not in any clinical sense. Nothing medication will address. They are simply indulging the power of interpretation and organizing the world according to a set of precepts that allow them to navigate. And for many, many people it works just fine. In fact, at least in the case of religion, because these ideas are so entrenched, so much a part of what is generally called Culture, it works better than just fine, it is almost psychologically wholesome.
Except we seem to choose what level of it we’re comfortable with. I imagine even people with a regular religious component to their lives get uncomfortable when approached by some glassy-eyed evangelizer wanting to talk about their personal relationship with Jesus. Because, I suspect, on some level we all know this isn’t quite rational and the irrational troubles us.
Now, what I do—fiction writing—can be readily described as irrational. I find it interesting that some splinter religions deride fiction as sinful. It’s competition, in a sense, an attraction to some other form of exactly the same pathology that doesn’t have the same telos as religious fable. And I will cop to the charge, that making stories up is not, by certain metrics, rational. Humans are not wholly rational. If we were, there likely would be no art of any kind. What we are is aesthetic. We are beings of the senses. And what I do speaks directly to that. As does music and painting and sculpture, and dance.
What are all these depictions of the after life if not confabulations of the ideal sensual experience? (And by sensual I do not mean sexual, although in some religions that is very much a part of the whole Paradisical aesthetic.) It is the perfect embrace of the aesthetic, often without the filtering of the flesh, so to speak, which seems sometimes to transmit the signal incompletely or with unpleasant noise.
What I do in my head, though, when I create characters and world is very much like the whole architecture of a religion. The difference is, I do not then say my characters are Out There walking around. Their existence is in my head. And I do it for a specific and limited reason. I’m trying to share a given experience. The experience is the totality of it, though. (We have run into people, some of us, who have taken it the next step and so personified favorite characters that they really do think they live in the same world. What, may I ask, is the difference between that and the whole acceptance of religious constructs, other than in the former case we see these people as slightly off-beam and in the latter just “normal” folks?)
I will stipulate here that I think, for many people, as individuals, religion provides a quality of experience that is therapeutic. Whatever gets you through the night, as the song says. And as such it is not my place to criticize anyone’s choice of paradigms. It’s even clear that religion serves as a functional component in community activity. What is communal identity but an agreed-upon way of seeing the world? And agreement is the first step toward cooperation. So on and so forth.
But I also suggest that most peoples’ level of acceptance of religious claims is wholly conditional and contextual. We can see this in the negative reaction to claims that, by some quite literal interpretations of religious codes, disasters and tragedies are the direct result of a failure to embrace a given claim. New Orleans was swamped because we bar prayer in public schools. 9/11 happened because we tolerate homosexuality and some deity doesn’t like that. We know this is crazy talk. But it’s based on some of the same fundamental structures as the religion we may claim to believe.
So what does this, ultimately, have to do with the so-called real world? Well, by this point you should pick up on where I’m going, but let me be perfectly blunt: according to some religions, some people are second or third class citizens, not permitted to enjoy the same rights and privileges of the chosen. This is the real world manifestation of a pathology that draws its authority from a delusion. When it gets to that point, it’s no longer harmless. Or therapeutic. As when someone tells you, basically, that there’s nothing you can do, that no matter what your efforts may be, the Enemy is going to get you. Consequently, you live a life constantly constrained by fear.
We only get one life on this planet. It’s a crime to have it wasted being afraid of boogymen and ghosts and feeling like crap because of something that probably never happened. And, in some places, being forced to live your whole life severed from all the wonders of the world simply because of your genital arrangement. This is not wholesome, not therapeutic, and not right. Someone else’s pathology should not limit your life.
I should wrap this up now. If I continue, Vishnu may come down in his spaceship and abduct me and subject me to a severe audit with his E-meter.
*Although, sometimes the boundaries blur.
I am not going to go see the new Green Hornet movie. I knew that long before its release, when I heard Seth Rogen had been cast as the Hornet. I just knew it would be a waste of everyone’s time, money, and sentiment.
I’m sorry. Hollywood has been doing superhero movies now for decades and they’ve gotten a few of them pretty right. Except for a ridiculous semi-musical romantic interlude, the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve was fine. Mostly this was due to Reeve and co-star Gene Hackman (who can save just about any movie), but they treated the material lovingly the whole way. Subsequent versions, not so much. In fact, by the fourth outing as Superman, Reeve must have been a bit embarrassed. Clearly, the problem with sequels is that we’re dealing with material that was born to be a serial, and the best medium for that is television, not big budget cinema. That said, a few of these aren’t so bad. It helps not being immersed in the comic books to begin with (for instance, I was able to enjoy all three of the primary X-Men films without getting all worked up over the liberties taken by the studio that incensed many dedicated fans—except for a Baker’s Dozen back when I was 13 or 14, I did not follow the comics), but I can more or less enjoy many of these outings. Have to admit, though, to date the Marvel franchise has fared much better.
But the Green Hornet is another matter and one of the things that Hollywood so often forgets is that the material must be taken seriously!
These were the guys I grew up with. Brit Reid and Kato as played by Van Williams and Bruce Lee, 1966 to 67. The car especially, Black Beauty, really rocked. Now, I saw these in first-run and haven’t seen them since, so doubtless they have dated and dated badly. But my imagination took the original viewing and went amazing places with it, and that is the problem with a lot of these films.
No doubt the film-makers took a cue from the Iron Man movies. There is a lot of humor in those films, but—the films are not humorous. Tony Stark is funny, but funny within context—and with a lot of credit going to Robert Downey Jr. for just doing a tremendous job in the role—and that’s something film makers fail to grasp time and again.
For instance, the best Three Musketeer films ever made were the Salkind productions in the 70s with Michael York and Oliver Reed. Great films. And funny! But funny as a consequence of the action within context—the characters themselves were not jokes, they were serious. Much later, a third film was made, Return of the Three Musketeers, with the same cast, but something had been lost—they were turned into buffoons in order to artificially inject humor rather than letting it arise from the context, and it is painful to watch.
Long ago now Tim Burton made a Batman movie and cast a comic actor, Michael Keeton. A lot of people probably moaned, fearing the worst. But Burton treated the material seriously and Keeton played it straight. Likewise in the sequel, but when Burton lost control Keeton bailed, and good for him, because the studio starting injecting jokes, much as had been done with the James Bond films, and taking the premise much less seriously, until they produced a truly foul film (one of the few I have been utterly unable to watch more than 15 minutes of).
Keeton, however, had done serious films before. He had a reputation as a comic actor, but more in the line of Jack Lemmon than Seth Rogen, who has gone from one slapstick dumbshit vehicle to another, and apparently the studio opted to play to his strengths in that regard here.
I don’t like movies or television that rely on stupidity to carry the story. That’s why I no longer watch most sitcoms. Stupid is not funny to me. The great comics knew that good comedy was not to make fun of people’s stupidity but to derive the humor from stupid situations. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp was not stupid. Lucille Ball’s character was not stupid, either, she simply never knew enough to follow through effectively on her schemes, and the situation tripped her up.
That said, superhero stories walk a fine line between significance and the absurd. I mean, really, these people are improbable at best. It is all too easy to paint them as ridiculous or such utter fantasies that no real drama could result from their stories. It’s difficult to write sympathetically, not to say powerfully, about people who are so much more than average. And the scenarios!
But that’s what makes them iconic, because they achieved that balance and then some. So you have to be careful when translating them from one medium to another. In this instance, they clearly didn’t get it.
Now back to our regularly scheduled day.
Let’s be clear: no one should advocate censorship.
That said, we need to understand the power of language. Images matter, words matter, what you say has an effect. Every propagandist in history has grasped this essential truth. Without oratory, Hitler and Goebbels would never have turned Germany into a killing machine.
The only antidote, however, is not less but more. Not more propaganda, just more words, more images, more information. More truth.
Ah, but, as the man said, What is truth?
Sarah Palin, or her speech writers, has decided to play with that a bit and compare the criticism against her rather fevered rhetoric to the Blood Libel. Now, she has a perfect right to do this. Metaphor, simile, hyperbole—these are all perfectly acceptable, even respectable, tools of communication. No one—NO ONE—should suggest she has no right to state her case in any manner she chooses.
What is lacking, however, is perspective and a grasp of the truth. Not fact. But truth. Is there any truth in her assertion that the backlash against what is perceived to be an inappropriate degree of aggressive even violent imagery is the equivalent of two millennia of persecution resulting in the near-extinction of an entire human community? Absolutely none. In fact, what she has done is add substance to the perception that she is a callous, insensitive, and rather inept manipulator of public opinion. In other words, a propagandist.
What should follow now is a discourse on the actual Blood Libel and debate on the public airwaves over whether or not this is a valid comparison. Then there should be a review of the statistical links between violent political rhetoric and actual violence. We should have a discussion—not a condemnation, but a discussion, bringing into the conversation more information, more fact, and more than a little truth.
Do I think Sarah Palin is responsible for Loughner’s actions in Tuscon? No. Loughner is, in my opinion, a seriously disturbed young man and would likely have gone off on anyone at any time. However, he chose as his target a politician, one who had been singled out by the party machinery of the Right as a target. I believe Palin when she says her intent was to eliminate Gifford by popular vote. I do. I don’t accept as credible the idea that she would have sanctioned assassination on anyone. She wants to play a part in national politics, she wants to win, and insofar as it may be understood, I think she wants to win within the system. Do I also believe she thinks some of the rules of the system are bad and that she is willing to color outside the lines? Certainly. But that’s not a singular criticism, either.
Do I, however, believe that we have a toxic atmosphere of political discourse which a certain segment of the population may be incapable of parsing as metaphor? Absolutely.
Here’s a smattering of samples from over the years from a variety of sources.
“I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus—living fossils—so we will never forget what these people stood for.”—Rush Limbaugh, Denver Post, 12-29-95
“Get rid of the guy. Impeach him, cen…sure him, assassinate him.”—Rep. James Hansen (R-UT), talking about President Clinton
“We’re going to keep building the party until we’re hunting Democrats with dogs.”—Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX), Mother Jones, 08-95
“My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.”—Ann Coulter, New York Observer, 08-26-02
“We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.”—Ann Coulter, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, 02-26-02
“Chelsea is a Clinton. She bears the taint; and though not prosecutable in law, in custom and nature the taint cannot be ignored. All the great despotisms of the past—I’m not arguing for despotism as a principle, but they sure knew how to deal with potential trouble—recognized that the families of objectionable citizens were a continuing threat. In Stalin’s penal code it was a crime to be the wife or child of an ‘enemy of the people.’ The Nazis used the same principle, which they called Sippenhaft, ‘clan liability.’ In Imperial China, enemies of the state were punished ‘to the ninth degree’: that is, everyone in the offender’s own generation would be killed and everyone related via four generations up, to the great-great-grandparents, and four generations down, to the great-great-grandchildren, would also be killed.”—John Derbyshire, National Review, 02-15-01
“Two things made this country great: White men & Christianity. The degree these two have diminished is in direct proportion to the corruption and fall of the nation. Every problem that has arisen (sic) can be directly traced back to our departure from God’s Law and the disenfranchisement of White men.”—State Rep. Don Davis (R-NC), emailed to every member of the North Carolina House and Senate, reported by the Fayetteville Observer, 08-22-01
“I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out.” —Glenn Beck (on air), May 17, 2005
Do I think Sarah Palin has contributed to that? Yes. Ever since her appearance on the national stage and her absurd squib about pit bulls and hockey moms. A great many people reacted positively to that, but I think a great many more, even if they were inclined to support her, scratched their heads at that and went “Huh?”
Why a pit bull? Why hockey? Pit bulls, of course, are perceived as dangerous animals. And hockey is perceived as a violent sport. (In a completely unscientific and wholly personal anecdotal sample, I have attended two hockey games in my life. One a professional game, the other at a community rink through the Y. Fist fights were a feature of both and at the pro game it was the fist fight that seemed to get the most audience applause. At the Y game, it was between 10 to 12 year olds, who did not fight, but the adults at one point, in a heated exchange over a perceived infraction, did get into an altercation.) Traditionally, it would be soccer moms. Why the substitution? Well, you could say that Alaska is simply not a big soccer state and hockey would be the sport of choice. On the other hand, she was addressing a national audience and her speech writers should have known that the more commonly understood expression would be soccer, so we have to assume it was a deliberate choice. And comparing mothers to a dangerous pet?
I could go on. The fact is, she was challenging her potential constituency to be tough, to be aggressive, to be willing to tear into the opposition, to support the brawl over the debate. It was a very clumsy way to do it, but the phrase has become part of America’s lexicon of aphorisms, so it must have had some cachet with enough people to matter.
The people who were unaffected by this were those who simply had broader experience with hyperbole. If you wish to protect people from the negative influences of certain kinds of speech, you expose them to more and more diverse types of speech, not less. You do not censor. Rather, you widen their scope, show them alternatives, and give them more. The antidote to bad speech is not a ban, but to provide good speech, and allow people to become experienced in how to deal with it. The people who are often the most susceptible to deriving the wrong signals from speech are those who have the least experience with diverse speech.
So when someone decides to compare Obama to a Nazi, the solution is to rehearse what the Nazis were and point out how the comparison is ridiculous. If someone asserts how horrible liberalism has been for the country, the answer should be a catalogue of liberal successes that have now become part of what conservatives are defending. If someone suggests that our countries injuries are because we have extended civil rights to gays or banned prayer from public schools, ask how any of that played into Pearl Harbor, the Lusitania, the Maine, or the Civil War?
The answer to hatemongers is not to tighten controls on speech but to open the floodgates to fact and truth. You don’t expunge what you find disagreeable, you displace it with something of value. Take their audience away.
If we wish to have reasonable discourse, then we must produce reasonable speech and put it out there, unapologetically, and in sufficient quantity that the propagandists lose credibility. We haven’t been doing that. We’ve been, perhaps, assuming too much. We assume people are reasonable. People can be, but many have to be taught how, or at least shown the methods of communicating that reasonableness. We have assumed that the absurdisms of the pundits will fade simply because they are absurd, but maybe that assumption is in error. Confrontation is difficult and often disagreeable, but conceding to misrepresentations, half-truths, and distortions only makes us look stupid and weak and makes us all vulnerable.
So maybe we should opt not to lay blame. Maybe we should just do what we should have done all along—challenge the bullshit.
I’d intended to give this a little more thought, but the events in Arizona have prompted a response now.
In the last post, I opined about the atmosphere in the country generated by overheated rhetoric and the irrationality that has resulted from seemingly intransigent positions. Some of the responses I received to that were of the “well, both sides do it” variety (which is true to an extent, but I think beside the point) and the “you can’t legislate civility or impose censorship” stripe.
As it is developing, the young man who attempted to murder Representative Gifford—and succeeded in killing six others—appears to be not of sound mind. We’re getting a picture of a loner who made no friends and indulged in a distorted worldview tending toward the paranoid. How much of his actions can be laid on politics and how much on his own obsessions is debatable. Many commentators very quickly tried to label him a right-winger, based largely on the political climate in Arizona and that he targeted a moderate, “blue dog” Democrat. This in the context of years of shrill right-wing political rhetoric that fully employs a take-no-prisoner ethic, including comments from some Tea Party candidates about so-called Second Amendment solutions. It’s looking like trying to label this man’s politics will be next to impossible and, as I say, if he is mentally unbalanced, what real difference does that make? (Although to see some people say “Look, he’s a Lefty, one of his favorite books is Mein Kampf ” is in itself bizarre—how does anyone figure Mein Kampf indicates leftist political leanings? Because the Nazis were “National Socialists”? Please.)
Whatever the determination of Mr. Loughner’s motives may turn out to be, his actions have forced the topic of political stupidity and slipshod rhetoric to the forefront, at least until Gabrielle Gifford is out of danger of dying. Regardless of his influences, in this instance he has served as the trigger for a debate we have been needing to have for decades. This time, hopefully, it won’t be shoved aside after a few well-meaning sound-bites from politicians wanting to appear sensitive and concerned, only to have everyone go right back to beating each other bloody with nouns and verbs.
But while it may be fair to say that Mr. Loughner is unbalanced and might have gone off and shot anyone, the fact is he shot a politician, one who had been targeted by the Right. Perhaps the heated rhetoric did not make Mr. Loughner prone to violence, but what about his choice of victims?
There is a dearth of plain speaking across the political spectrum. That is as far as I’m willing to concede the charge that “both sides” indulge the same rhetoric. They do not, at least not in the same degree, and this is one time when the Right has more to answer for than the Left. The rhetorical shortcomings of the Left are of a different kind, but nowhere near as divisive as what we’ve been hearing from the folks who bring us Fox News and the national pundit circus.
“Why don’t we hear congressmen talking about banning Wicca in the military? Or banning the occult in America? This shooter was a stone-cold devil-worshiper! A left-wing pot-smoking lunatic!”—Michael Savage.
That’s helpful. Now we’ve dragged the supernatural into it, something I don’t believe anyone on the Left has done yet. Mr. Savage seems not to have understood the call for “toned-down rhetoric” for what it actually means, but somehow something to be responded to as if it were an attack on his freedom to make outrageous assertions.
The fact is, the majority—the vast majority—of assaults over politically sensitive issues in the past three decades have come from a perspective that can only be characterized as supportive of the Right. It may be that such issues attract the nutwings. It may be that more nutwings find themselves in sympathy with conservative issues. But it is more likely that the apocalyptic messaging coming from the Right has the correct tone and resonance to provide nutwings with proof that their personal paranoias are correct and they are justified in acting upon them.
In his excellent book, Talking Right, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg chronicles the shift in language in our public discourse and shows how the choices made by pundits, think tanks, speech writers, and politicians themselves have pushed the discourse further and further to the Right and making it a battle, for some a war, to stop Liberalism. Increasingly, right-wing rhetoric has adopted a “take no prisoners” intransigence. Even when cooperation occurs, when bipartisanship happens, and compromise is achieved, the Right makes it look like they won over the Left, to the point where the Left appears to be not only ineffectual but a burden, a drag on society, and in some instances a scourge to be expunged.
For the most part this has been carried out by the well-honed machine that is the right-wing media. Republican politicians don’t have to say the truly objectionable things because there is a cadre of talking heads who will do it for them.
It is fair to say, however, fair to ask: why can’t the Left do this?
In a fascinating passage in Nunberg’s book he describes the problem:
“I happened on a striking demonstration of the right’s linguistic consistency back in 1996, when I was playing around with one of those programs that produces an automatic summary of texts by analyzing their word frequency and recurrent syntactic patterns. out of curiosity, I ran it on a collection of all the speeches that had been given over the first two nights of the Republican National Convention in San Diego, and it promptly distilled them into five key sentences…but when I tried the same experiment a month later on the combined texts of the speeches from the first two nights of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the software returned pure word salad. Because Democrats are chronically incapable of staying on message, no single group of phrases rose to the statistical surface.”
The five sentences? Here:
We are the Republican Party—a big, broad, diverse and inclusive party, with a commonsense agenda and a better man for a better America, [insert politician’s name]. We need a leader we can trust. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for being part of this quest in working with us to restore the American dream. The commonsense Republican proposals are the first step in restoring the American dream because Republicans care about America. But there is no greater dream than the dreams parents have for their children to be happy and to share God’s blessings.
(Lundberg traces the current demonization of Liberal to 1988, when in a speech Ronald Reagan—the Great Communicator—said “The masquerade is over. It’s time to…say the dreaded L-word; to say the policies of our opposition are liberal, liberal, liberal.” The Democratic candidate that year, Michael Dukakis, rather than counter the charge, ducked it, and the expression “the L-word” entered the lexicon of public discourse the same way as other unmentionable epithets have—the N-word, the F-word, etc. So Liberal was reduces to a slur, something not said in polite company. We have not recovered since.)
It’s interesting to look at those five sentences and parse what they actually seem to suggest. The word “dream” is in there four times, the word “commonsense” twice, the word “America” three times. The question to ask is, what comprises the dream and what do they mean by commonsense? And do you have commonsense dreams? Dreams by definition are in some way outside the practical, and usually commonsense refers to some species of practical.
But for the moment, let’s look at that American Dream so oft mentioned and so seldom examined.
James Truslow Adams, in his book Epic of America in 1931, first coined the phrase:
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
This more than a year and a half into the Great Depression demands context. The “dreams” of millions of Americans had been thoroughly dashed in the Crash of ’29. People were out of work, losing their homes, with little or no possibility of relief. At that time there were no safety nets. No unemployment insurance, no welfare to speak of, nothing provided in the event that private enterprise failed to absorb the majority of available workers, who depended on wages to maintain themselves and their families.
President Hoover stood resolutely opposed to providing any kind of direct aid, fearing it would sap the will of workers to seek employment. He was, along with most “conservatives” of his time, willing to see millions destituted rather than risk undermining the vaunted “work ethic” that had fueled American industrial and economic ascendence to that point.
This was also the era in which unions were still struggling to make inroads in the struggle to achieve fair labor practices. Unions were opposed by the conservatives of the era because of fears that giving workers power to determine the conditions under which they labored would undermine the entrepreneurial spirit.
What is most striking, however, about Mr. Adams’ words is his downplaying of the material in lieu of a kind of independent self value, a notion that people have a right to be treated equally as worthwhile, and to be free to pursue their own vision of improvement. This kind of appreciation for what might be called a basic right of civilized life has been talked about and worked toward through most of Western history, no less elsewhere that here, but seldom more polarized and equivocated than America.
Self rule via a popularly elected government subject to recall—liberal idea.
Recognition of individual value regardless of station—liberal idea.
Emancipation of bond slaves as a fundamental human right—liberal idea.
Electoral franchise available to all adults, regardless of race or gender—liberal idea.
Recognition that women are individuals unto themselves with all the rights and privileges pertaining to a fully enfranchised person—liberal idea.
Protection of children from exploitation through child labor laws—liberal idea.
Right of workers to be free from arbitrary dismissal without cause from jobs—liberal idea.
Limited work week—liberal idea.
Universal public education—liberal idea.
The list could go on. And by Liberal I mean the notion that progress to achieve social egalitarianism is a positive value.
It also means, implicitly, that people should not judge others according to myths, stereotypes, or prejudices. This is embodied in the old maxim that in this country “anybody can become the president.” The truth of this maxim is debatable, but underlying it is Liberal concept of egalitarian value.
In each of the aforementioned instances, the conservatives of the time opposed—sometimes aggressively, even violently—the changes necessary to make these ideas a reality. And by conservative I mean a philosophy of stasis, the maintenance of status quo, or at the very least the preservation of privilege among the propertied few.
Whether it is true or not in every instance, conservatism has been the ideological partner of the well off. It has stood generally in opposition to change, often for good cause (Speaker Reed of the House of Representatives during the McKinley administration stood in opposition to a change in policy that allowed for America to become an imperial nation by launching a war on Spain. He was a conservative by any definition and in this instance he saw the manipulation of rules of procedure by those eager to go to war as an unsupportable change), but also quite often simply to preserve the privileges of those viewed as successful.
So what is it Liberals have to be ashamed of?
It is this: for being unwilling or unable to define progress in such a way that the general public can support it and to stand up for their support of such progress. Liberals have often been unwilling to take stands. The Left does, but usually it is a Left that is even farther left than Liberal comfort allows. Radicals. Extremists. And by their efforts, everything on the Left has come to be vilified. Liberals ride the wave in to progress and after the achievement claim to support what has been accomplished. Liberals tend to be accommodationist to the point of letting conservatives—or the Right—define them, usually to their detriment.
What is fascinating is how after every period of explosive progressive change, the new order, sometimes quite rapidly, becomes the status quo and defended by conservatism, so that Liberalism almost always loses credit for what it has accomplished.
But that seems now to be just an appearance. The Right has been trying to roll back progress for some time now. Missouri is about to vote on a Right To Work bill—again—which sounds reasonable on its face, but is just one more attempt to break unions. Unions have lost ground since the Seventies and in many instances they have been their own worst enemies. Any long-established entrenched power system becomes corrupt and, yes, conservative, and can become unreasonable. But if anyone thinks getting rid of them will redound to workers’ benefit, they are delusional. Right To Work has in those states where it has been in force for a long time, translated into lowered pay, lowered benefits, lowered standards, and higher abuses—many of which have been countered by Federal laws prohibiting certain practices.
By Mr. Lundberg’s analysis, the Right has taken control of the language and ridden that control into power more often than not since Reagan. And those five key sentences of Republican solidarity seem to attract people, if not to join them outright, at least to demand some kind of compliance to them by their own ideological spokespersons. But just what is it that those five sentences promise?
Nothing. They are an acknowledgment of sentiment, not a program.
What the Right does speaks for itself. Lower taxes, gutting of education, reduction of resources to basic research, and, since 9/11, an increase in domestic paranoia that targets an enemy it cannot clearly define but has resulted in restrictions on all of us. A support of big business (and by that I mean corporations so large as to constitute de facto governements within themselves, many of them functionally stateless), and an opposition to secularism. A promotion of the idea of American Exceptionalism based less on actual achievement than on birth-right (hence the current discussions over revision of the 14th Amendment) at the expense of the very commonsense approach they tout.
Lay on top of all this the superheated rantings on the part of their mouthpieces, you have an atmosphere in which anything that equivocates, that seeks to reflect, that calls for honest debate, that might require rethinking of positions, any compromise is seen by the faithful as treason.
But against what?
I have some thoughts on that. Stay tuned.
We finally have our Kennedy Moment in the current political climate.
Saturday, January 8th, 2011, is likely to go down as exactly that in the “Where were you when?” canon. On that day, Jared Lee Loughner, age 22, went on a shooting rampage at a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and wounding eighteen others before bystanders tackled him. (There may be a second man involved, police are searching for him.)
The rhetoric is already ramping up on both sides over this. Loughner is a young man with, apparently, a history of mental difficulties. What is interesting in all this is the suggestion that Sarah Palin is partly responsible. Note:
Sarah has made a great deal out of her image as a gun-toting Alaskan Libertarianesque “True Amuricin” and she liberally deploys the iconography of Second Amendment fanatics in her publicity. She knows her fan base, she’s playing directly to their self-image as Minutemen-type independents who are ready to pick up arms at the drop of a metaphor and defend…
Here’s where it starts to get questionable. Just what is it this kind of rhetoric is supposed to be in support of? It’s a non-nuclear form of MAD, the suggestion that if people get angry enough they will “take back their government” by armed insurrection. It’s the stuff of B movies and drunken arguments on the Fourth of July. Just words, mostly. Until someone decides it’s time to act.
I have no doubt Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremer, and Leon Czolgosz were deeply troubled individuals, mentally unstable. I would not be surprised if John Wilkes Booth was the same, although he did work in concert with a number of conspirators. But there are degrees of “troubled” and it’s always difficult to predict what anyone will do under the right pressure.
The fact is, we are in a period of the most extreme political ferment we have been in since the Sixties. We’ve had people march on Washington, we have had well-aired and popularized conspiracy theories treated in certain media as fact, we have a cadre of the worst sort of pundits nationally extolling their audiences to extreme positions on—
By early acounts, Mr. Loughner was upset over Representative Giffords’ support of health care reform. Upset enough to consider gunning her down. Upset enough to read Palin’s “metaphors” of “targeting” Democrats as a call to action. About Health Care Reform.
Yes, I know, it isn’t really about health care so much as it is about the role of government in something that has been the bailiwick of private industry for a long, long time. It’s about the idea that the government will somehow keep people from getting health care (all the while overlooking that many people are now barred from affordable health care by the very industry funding the jeremiads against the so-called government “take over”). It’s about the idea of increasing taxes, about “giving” something to people who don’t earn it, about changing our system to a socialist system, about—
All of which is legitimate matter for serious national debate. But this is not a revolution. This is a change of policy and votes were cast. (I find it ironic that all indicators leading up to the final version of what is now derisively labeled “Obamacare” suggested that the majority of Americans not only supported an overhaul but would have approved the one thing the health care industry fought tooth and nail to prevent, namely Single Payer, and now, from the sound of the AM stations and the Limbaugh Brigade you would think no one had supported anything of the sort except a few “liberal” Democrats in Congress. We are allowing ourselves to come under siege over what is, by any metric of popular will, a non-issue. What? The fact that Republicans swept a Democratic majority out of the House in 2010? Two things to remember—that was over the economy, namely unemployment, and that majority won with roughly 23% of the eligible vote. In other words, they didn’t win so much as Democrats stayed home from the polls and lost.)
Multiple ironies—Gifford is a gun rights advocate. She is a self-styled Blue Dog Democrat, a moderate to conservative politician. She beat a Tea Party challenge—barely—because she is more or less mainstream in Arizona. This was not an enemy in anything but party affiliation.
More ironies—Judge John Roll was killed in the shooting. He was chief justice of the U.S. District Court in Arizona. He was a Bush (senior) appointee and by all lights a conservative.
This is not now a liberal-conservative matter. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party crowd are not conservatives. George Will is a conservative. These people are not conservatives. They are reactionaries who have decided to use the conservative base as their vehicle to ride rough-shod over American sentiments. All they understand is “taxes are bad” and “anything that limits my right to make millions is wrong.” Or some combination of the two.
The philosopher Hegel characterized certain people as “clever” rather than intelligent. He noted that there are those who exhibit the symptoms of intelligence, but in fact it is not true intelligence but a kind of animal cleverness masking as intelligence. Shallow people who speak well and can manipulate people and systems, but who seem to, upon examination, have no real understanding of cause and consequence beyond getting for themselves what they want. You might say amoral, but I think that misses the point. They do what they do in order to obtain for themselves and nothing else matters. Sociopaths fit this description. They fail ultimately because they really don’t give a damn about the consequences of their actions—and part of their cleverness is a facility at spinning what they do to free themselves of any responsibility. The current crop of big-mouthed right-wing ideologues fall into this handily. They seem not to understand—or possible care—that when you flash a red cape in front of an angry bull, something is going to break. If the bull is standing in a china shop at the time…
We are perilously close to becoming a closed society. We already do not listen to each other if we have differing opinions. We are becoming so entrenched in our own viewpoints, with the help of a magnificently balkanized media, that we cannot see where we are tripping over general principles in our groping after being right. Growing up, I remember an admonition from my parents that would seem apt in this instance: If you can’t play well with your toys, you don’t deserve them.
I have personally found the rhetoric of the right wing disturbing and sometimes reprehensible since the Eighties. Exemplified by Rush Limbaugh, they have developed a canon of malign vitriol aimed at anything that strikes them as left or liberal or, more recently, in the least conciliatory to differing viewpoints. They have staked their claim and made it clear they will be intolerant of any kind of bipartisanship. The fact that the Republican Party has aligned itself with these people is a tragedy, because it has become a tar baby they are becoming increasingly bound to. But it is not Congresses responsibility to counter them. This is not a question of what our elected officials will do to tone down the venom, but what we will do.
My advice? Stop listening to these assholes.
I can’t put it more civilly than that. The Rush Limbaughs, Glenn Becks, Sea Hannitys, and Bill O’Reillys of our media landscape do not have our best interests at heart. They are demogogues. Insofar as there is any kind of media conspiracy, it is for one purpose only, to increase ratings and therefore marketshare, and this kind of petty, sub-intellectual reductio ad absurdum does that very well. Get people pissed off and they develop a taste for it. They are no different in this regard than the Jerry Springers and all their feuding, pathetic, fame-for-fifteen-minutes-at-any-cost “guests” and as a source of information and erudition in support of a democracy they are worse than useless. Stop feeding the animals. Tune them out.
I know this advice will not matter to those—like Mr. Loughner—who are addicted to the apocalyptic visions generated by that kind of rhetoric. It’s not information to them, it’s the drug for their particular monkey. But for the rest of us? We can do better.
Final irony for this post. Christina Taylor Greene, the nine-year-old who was killed? She was born on 9/11.
Congratulations, Sarah. You have us devouring our own.