The Other Country

Two things prompt me to write this: the first is the number of Trump-aligned members of the GOP who are praising Putin’s incursion into and threat against Ukraine. The second is the verdict in the federal hate crimes trial against the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.

Bear with me.

With the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and the general agreement about what it suggested for the country then newly-formed, a divide opened between Ideals and Aspirations. That divide has widened and diminished over the years, but never gone away completely, and today it is a massive canyon.

The problem is buried in crossed purposes, unanticipated expectations, and simple human nature.

The declarations which accompanied the Founding, the philosophy embedded in the Declaration of Independence and, more importantly, in the Constitution, are of a rarefied idealism, statements of goals and ambitions, promises of intent that here shall be a place where the concepts of liberty and justice would triumph over the pettiness of ordinary daily existence, especially as opposed to what passed for these things in Europe. Here people would be treated equally before the law, would be given opportunity to pursue dreams, would enjoy property protections and permitted the unencumbered expression of their sentiments. We would have no classes, no aristocracy. Merit, expertise, ability would matter instead of birth and provenance.

The idea, emerging from Enlightenment ruminations, was that human nature possesses a natural…”rightness”…and that given opportunity it would emerge, more or less equally in everyone. And that with the proper political framework human beings would somehow coexist peacefully and look to their own abilities and expressions to be happy and productive, free to manage their own lives.

And of course, immediately this proved untenable. Because people have different ideas about what liberty means, what its expression looks like, and what constitutes oppression. The simple overwhelming fact that so many of the newly-minted citizens of a professed “free” nation believed it acceptable to enslave others serves to demonstrate this disconnect. The ideal of equity was an ideal many people simply did not understand.

The Anglo population had a rough sense of the outlines. Britain had been on a path toward a form of populist equality for centuries, although they were far from there at the time. The French Enlightenment thinkers embraced some of this, modified by their apprehension of New World sociopolitical concepts as gleaned from various encounters through the 17th and early 18th Centuries with native Americans, who represented an alternative to the hierarchical structures Europe embodied. But it was in the end framed by Eurocentric considerations born of a long history of social Place. Everyone had a slot in the social structure and as long as they stayed there, content, and tended the responsibilities and duties inherent in these structures, things ought to have been fine. Of course, they weren’t, for many reasons (wars, plagues, migrations, discoveries), but that was the problem with people who refused to accept their Place.

Much of this was in the process of eroding when the American split happened, but not enough that too many people did not still carry these ideas of Place and Position inside them, down in their psychés where the Givens of How Things Ought To Be reside in unexamined stews. So unfolded the piecemeal journey of coming to terms with the difference between what was expected and what was intended over the course of our entire existence as a country, of people step by step coming to be made to accept that Equality really does mean Everyone.

But then we run into the problem of defining Equality. Everyone has some notion about it, what it means, but generally I think it’s imprecise and muzzy, a “sense” of something that, the more we try to concretize it, the more it disintegrates in the attempt to lock it down.

Worse, for some people it seems to be at odds with concepts of liberty.

The westward expansion in this country was fueled as much by rejections of equality as by a desire for liberty. In fact, I would suggest that “liberty” for many people then was at least in part of desire to be apart from those with whom they did not wish to share equality.  Not, I think, in any pernicious sense. Only in the sense of seeking self-fulfillment without owing it to anyone not of their choosing.

This was a newish idea. Groups had embraced something like this over history. But here, then, it became an individual aspiration of people who took the claim of Liberty as personal in a way that had not manifested in quite this way before.

Small proto-countries developed within the boundaries of The Country. Enormous ranches, religious enclaves, company-owned towns and counties, plantations…I call them proto-countries because in many instances they exercised the kind of internal autonomy usually only found in nation-states. (The geographic boundaries of these agglomerations have become less defined, dissolving, so that they more and more overlap the country at large.) Our history is rife with attempts at establishing separatist communities. The one thing they all share is a claim to independence of action and a desire for liberty. Often the liberty of one person, defining the parameters of liberty for everyone following. And that definition, while claiming consanguinity with the claims established in our Founding documents, almost always missed a primary element, namely a guarantee of personal equity across all class, racial, and ideological lines.

The point being that throughout our history there has been a functional disconnect between manifestations of equality and liberty, that the rallying cry of freedom and liberty have more often than not jettisoned embrace of equality at some critical juncture where the achievement of liberty, in the view of those close to self-defined success, was within reach. A realization that genuine equality would threaten that concept of liberty, while unspoken, came into play. Looking at the roster of “heroes” of our republic down the centuries, it seems obvious that Liberty means unrestrained action and freedom from ideological constraint. Obviously unachievable in whole, but that never stopped some from trying. Seldom is there any real acknowledgment of the need to conform to general embodiments of equality. If equality happens, it would be fine as long as it does not impede the personal struggle for liberty. Given the vicissitudes of human nature, this is obviously a conflicted arrangement. Equality and liberty cannot, in this formulation, coexist.

Basically, the people living here, while reveling in the lofty ideals of our stated principles, have rarely had the intention of living up to them if doing so meant abandoning a personal concept of freedom and liberty. And equality, in my opinion, was for most incomprehensible. Even where the concept was understood, it likely could not be understood without feeling that it meant yielding personal liberty. For all of us to be equal, none of us could be more or superior or better. For all of us to be equal, some would have to be granted that which was not earned. For all of us to be equal, all of us would have to have the same access, the same freedom of association, the same regard.

The same property rights.

The various eruptions of separatist sentiment over 250 years of our history is central to an understanding of where we seem to be today. People claiming the status of “true patriots” are attacking our institutions, declaring them illegitimate.  (Without the least apparent sense that if they “won” then they would eventually be faced with the same reaction from a different group, making the same claim.) It would be refreshing to hear them just once explain that what they claim to prize about our Founding has nothing to do with the ideals of liberty, but the opportunity to accrue the power to be separate and beholden to none. Another unachievable goal, but one I believe is aspirational and inspires the sullen anger of those who reject out of hand the concept of equality that was, frankly, never something they had either faith in or inclination to partake of.

The various movements for secession exemplify this, frivolous though most of them are. These are folks who want to live in that Other Country that, for them, is also America. You know, the country where each man is a king and civilization is that state of community where everyone knows their Place? That Other Country that was implicit in the early promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The remarkable fact is, for most of our history, the system cobbled together by the Founders has managed to accommodate these countervailing ambitions without coming apart at the seams. The Constitution is a framework for allowing competing factions to break upon each other and flail until they fade. Only once have we come to serious blows from the strain, and for a brief time we came close to melding the two seemingly antagonistic aspects of our national ideal—liberty and equality.  We’ve inched closer to that in the time since, but now we seem to be pulling apart again, and the struggle centers as much on the misunderstanding of those two concepts as on the outright rejection of their mutuality.

Mutuality. Because there can be no true liberty without equality. Liberty cannot successfully exist in a zero-sum game that requires some to lose in order for others to win. That’s not liberty. Winning is not freedom. And dominance is no basis for peace. If one’s life is always to be engaged in a competition not of one’s choosing, then is to be in thrall to impulses that do not nourish, do not enlighten, do not fulfill, but only distract. Until we stop pursuing the desire to feel superior to others, we will never be free of manipulation and we will never have the liberty we claim to value.

That liberty is only gained by the mutuality of regard that is the basis of equality.

We will not find it in that other country of kings and paupers, of the dominant and the resentful. We have to find it here and we have to find it with each other.

Oh, and Putin and the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery? It has to do with arbitrary power and the disregard of others. Hallmarks of the denizens of that other country. If that’s not apparent by now…

 

 

Life Of Words

My last post dealt with my principled opinions and feelings about book banning/burning. This one will be personal.

I realize it sounds clichéd when someone says reading saved their lives, but it shouldn’t. Our lives are saved by the people around us, those who are with us, relatives and friends and teachers, in an ever-widening circle of familiarity. That network is the reason we are alive and the people we are. I know it’s fashionable to try to claim island status, that we are ourselves by our own hand, but it’s nonsense, and even those most stridently dedicated to that bit of myth know better, unless they are so utterly isolated as to be clinically dysfunctional. That claim is made for a simple reason—certain people don’t wish to be beholden to those of whom they disapprove. 

As a result, at some boundary away from the center, as that circle of support expands, many reach a point where they stop knowing or caring about or accepting the next ring. The connection is too vague, from a place too unfamiliar, about people too unlike us.

Well, that’s where reading comes in. And it is absurd not to understand that books are part of that inner circle for many of us. They are our friends, with us, teaching. They are a refuge and a source of understanding. The moment we begin to read a book, it comes alive and is there. 

As I have written before, I did not have a particularly great time as a child. Not horrible. But I had trouble fitting in. Many of the daily fascinations of my “friends” baffled me. Once I got into school, these bafflements led to embarrassments which led to further disconnects which opened the door to bullying. 

Movies, tv, and books became my safe place. 

I had a small assortment of Golden Books, a couple of Dr. Seuss books, and a bizarre variety of comics. There were no bookstores near me at that time, so I don’t even know where they came from. We occasionally went to a big Drug Store called Katz (we called almost any store that had a pharmacy department a Drug Store, whether that was its primary business or not) and they had a magazine section where some of my comics came from. I got my first library card when I was six and there was the school library.

Unknowingly, my world was expanding.

I discovered “real” books around the age of 10. Real Books were books with no pictures. I admit the transition was difficult—I am primarily a visual person. What developed was a reading method that reached its peak around age 15 or so and has to some extent stayed with me. I loved movies. Upon starting a new novel, I would cast the characters and in my mind I ran a film of what I read, translating the words into scenes. By the end of high school, I was reading close to a 100 books a year (my senior year I read about 200, cutting class regularly to go to the public library for the day and sit reading). This fell off sharply when I got a job, but I have maintained a reading rate of between 50 and 100 books a year since. Although, as I got older I found myself reading more deeply, therefore slower, and so my average is somewhere between 60 and 80.

There may have been a year or two where my reading fell off close to nothing, but for 60 years I have never not read.

I had no idea reading could cause controversy until I was in seventh grade. The year before I had started bringing books to school, mass market paperbacks, most of which fit easily into a back pocket. I tried to find someplace to read during recess. I had little interest in going out to the playground. Eventually I found an unused room behind the stage in the gym where I could read for half an hour. I was smart enough not to disappear completely during recess, lest they try to come find me. I don’t know if that actually worked or if someone figured out what I was doing and decided to leave me alone. 

I did find my popularity with the girls rising. Many if not most of them were also readers. And they would borrow my books when I finished. In retrospect, I did bring some rather “inappropriate” books to school. Emmaus was a parochial school. Last Summer, The Master of Falconhurst, Flowers In The Attic…probably not what the parents of those girls would have considered suitable. And in hindsight, this was the reason they were borrowing my books and not getting their own. They couldn’t.

It didn’t become an issue until the principal, a dour older man named Adolph Oberman, caught me with a copy of Harold Robbins’  The Carpetbaggers. He took it, glowered, said nothing, and called my parents.

The Carpetbaggers is filled with quite explicit sex. For its day, quite explicit. 

The conference Mr. Oberman had with my mother and me was educational. (Yes, I was present. I think he expected a united front in making me ashamed of myself.) He handed the book to my mother and asked if she was aware that I was reading it.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

He was a bit dismayed. “Do you think this is appropriate for him?”

She shrugged. “If he can’t handle it, he’ll stop reading it. Or he’ll ask me about it. Either way, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t censor what my son reads.”

Mr. Oberman was shaken. I was surprised, too, not because I had any sense of the book being a problem, but because I had come to expect that anything I did that resulted in this kind of a conference was automatically A Bad Thing. That my mother was putting the ball back in his court was unexpected. 

“I would prefer he not bring such things to school,” was about all he could manage.

On the way home she asked me where I had gotten it, but that was all. No lectures, not demands to see what else I owned, no impression of disapproval.

My mom is a hero to me.

It was around this time that I got my first bike and found the neighborhood bookstore. When my parents realized that I was spending my allowance on books, my allowance increased. They never questioned what I brought home.

Entering high school in the fall of 1968 was to walk into a maw of a cultural beast in full transformation. Till then I was marginally aware of “hippies” and the War and the Counterculture. Over the next few years I found out what it was all about and had a front row seat at the battle to control information. My favorite history teacher was reprimanded for allowing a debate over Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to take place. I challenged the syllabus for its insipid choices and was finally told flat out that the books selected (for our school, which was traditional blue collar school) were chosen because they were short enough not to challenge our presumed attention spans. I read Fahrenheit 451 and learned about the history of censorship and suppression—

—which baffled me and angered me. These were my friends—the books—how dare anyone burn them?

And this is what nonreaders do not seem to get. Books are alive the moment a reader finds them. They are conversations. They are what remain of lives long gone yet through them still present. They are the Past, they are people, they are the future-maybes, they are the record of civilization, and they are the repository of the whole of human experience. When I could not talk to my peers, when they had nothing they wanted to say to me or know from me, I could open a book and be with people. 

For a long time I didn’t appreciate that aspect, but as I grew older I realized that the relationships on the pages I had attended to were, in their own way, as worthy and rich and supportive as those with flesh and blood on two legs and a whisper in my ear. Sometimes more so, because here these people, many long-dead, were explaining themselves to me, which most of the people around me never did. And because of these silent conversations via the word, eventually I understood the people around me, too.

It did save a lot of time and grief.

Granted, it can put one at odds with the people around you. For a time, as many devoted readers know, you are the odd one, the weirdo, the bookworm, the nerd, the dork. For a people who seem to value Experience, I always found it curious—and unfortunate—that they never realized that reading, close reading, is experience.

But some seem to sense, even understand in a clever and sly way, that it is, and that experience brings change.

I grew up able to read anything I came across. Did I read inappropriate material? First, define that for me. Secondly, I would hope so. You don’t expand your self by playing it safe and staying within arbitrarily defined “appropriate boundaries.” And, really, reading a book is about the most risk-free exposure to inappropriate there is.

Back at Emmaus, another incident occurred which I did not know about at the time, at least not the full story. That stolid, conservative principal, Mr. Oberman, decided, some time between my sixth and seventh grade, to try to bring into the school a sex education program. He found one that had been designed by christians, constructed with a concern about religious sensibilities while still dealing factually and fully with the world of chaos about to fall upon students of our age. There was a presentation at a PTA meeting, which my mother attended. (At the time my dad worked nights, which left mom to deal with this sort of thing.) According to my mother, it was a beautiful course, tasteful, knowledgeable, pitched to just the right level. She thought it would have been terrific. Only one other parent and she voted to approve it. Every other parent there said no. One, according to mom, even said “I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

I get the idea—if you don’t tell them, they won’t know to indulge it. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s as common as hydrogen. Because we were being told about it. Only not properly and not factually and not within any kind of framework that would allow us to understand it as it should be understood. We were getting it from older kids, from magazines that “showed up” and were passed around, from the age-old osmotic passage of “forbidden” knowledge that is the font of superstition, trash history, racism, and conspiracy-driven nonsense that somehow Everyone seems to know and no one bothers to verify. We were learning how french kissing could get a girl pregnant, how masturbation will cause cognitive degradation, how sex would cause hair growth, how a thousand other false “everybody knows” bits were true and a science-based course on human sexuality was a sin. All because parents—most of them in that place and time—could not handle the idea of sex education. 

For myself, by then I had acquired the priceless habit of Looking Things Up. I was made to feel stupid a couple of times about sex by my peers. What did I do? I rode my bike to that bookstore and bought a book about it. Love and Sex in Plain Language by Eric Johnson. A slim book, barely 110 pages, with illustrations. That was another book that got passed around to some of the girls. But it was the first time I ever had proof that what my classmates were telling me was empty nonsense.

But the nonsense was being passed around. That sex education course would have been as much damage control as anything else. 

“I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

Given that, what might they have felt about other topics? Like slavery or religious bigotry or Manifest Destiny or evolution or—? And we want people like that to determine what everyone else’s children can have access to why? Because believe me, they aren’t trying to keep those books out of their children’s hands for the benefit of the kids.

I imagine it’s possible, even likely, that some people consider me untrustworthy. Unreliable. Corrupt. A Bad Influence. Unpatriotic. I read all those books (somewhere close to 4000 by now) and filled my head with all those things nobody needed to know. 

But having read all those books—and living the kind of life such reading helped give me access to—I also know exactly what such opinions are worth.

Banning

To my mind, there are few acts more pernicious than book banning. It goes to a fundamental failure in us that usually manifests in several other ways that sometimes seem unrelated.

Firstly, it is a direct admission that the proponents care little and likely understand nothing about freedom.

All we finally have, all that allows us to be present in the world, known to each other, and recognized as ourselves is our voice. Take that away and you erase us. Any examination of the history of conquest and oppression shows that this is the primary tool of the conquerors and oppressors. Silence the subjugated, muzzle their allies, expunge them from history, ban their voices from being heard. Ever, if possible. It is nothing more than an attempt to declare only one view, one vision, one value. By denying a voice to others, you show the world what you are—a coward, a bully, a parasite. It is admitting that you cannot abide a world in which others matter. Being surrounded by those saying the same things you do is not proof that others matter, but that they would only matter if they said anything contrary to what you perceive as reality, at which point you must suppress them. You only exist by the acclamation of sycophants, whose words mean nothing.

Taking away another’s voice is the ultimate murder.

Parents who insist that others keep books from their children have either forgotten their own childhood or have no interest in actual parenting. Going to libraries and schools and demanding certain books be withdrawn, kept from their children, they admit to a level of fear that is entirely self-involved. Religious leaders who advocate for the banning of certain books reveal an agenda based on faithlessness and a conviction that they have nothing to offer. Politicians who advocate on behalf of censors show themselves to be venal opportunists willing to take advantage of any fecklessness their constituency may exhibit in order to retain office.

The uncertainty of finding yourself without answers to questions prompted by reading can only legitimately be addressed by engaging in the discussion, reading the books yourself, and joining with others to understand the questions posed, Banning the books only means you don’t want to talk about it, which is no solution, only an abrogation of responsibility.

The only thing that makes life worthwhile is sharing it with other people, other minds, other views. There are few places safer and more reliable to find those other perspectives than books.

The impulse to bar someone from reading a book is the essence of denial. It is also laziness. Parents demanding schools do this simply want someone else to do part of the parenting for them. To a point, fair enough—parenting is hard work and it is true that it cannot be done in isolation. But this is beyond seeking assistance, as it affects more than one’s own children—it affects the community. It is an attempt to edit the psychology, the ethics, the awareness of the entire community. It is declaring that certain ideas, certain perspectives—certain voices—should not be considered.

Should not be considered.

Why?

Because some people do not want to be challenged. Not by society, not by their neighbors, and certainly not by their children. They do even want to think about being challenged.

I have never been afraid of the unknown. I have been afraid of what I don’t know. Which motivates me to find out. What parent genuinely concerned with their child’s ability to thrive in the world would handicap them by insisting on ignorance? The truth is, no such concerned parent would. Parents who are more concerned with maintaining their sense of control, their illusions, hiding their own ignorance, avoiding uncomfortable questions, holding any ideology as more important than truth…they would.

But they themselves are victims. Those who are invested in their ignorance for political gain or to accrue power or just to make more money who know there are people terrified of facing realities that contradict their unexamined premises know how to take advantage. The only defense is to be open to…the conversation.

We can debate truth, history, we can question hypotheses and theories, that’s not at issue. The freedom to do all that is basic. But shutting down the conversation, that takes away any choice, any possibility of discovery, of growth, even of survival. And when one group says “We don’t want that book available to our children” that is exactly what they are doing—shutting down the conversation.

“But I have a right to control what my child reads!” That is between you and your child. You do not have a right to control what the entire community reads, especially not other peoples’ children, and if that’s what you’re trying to do, then the issue is not the book, but your insecurity and anger and resentment and ignorance.

The cottage industry in this country of scaring parents and capitalizing on their panic over issues that, with a little perspective would never be issues (the kind of perspective acquired from wide and regular reading) has grown into a major problem. It has joined now with the programmatic rewriting of history and the suppression of  inconvenient facts and is emphatically anti-freedom. The distorted politics and faux moral outrage at the heart of this has little to nothing to do with “protecting” children. The books chosen, the rhetoric involved, all coalesce around the reality that this is simply a wish to avoid responsibility. This is not about the children, this is about you not wanting to be bothered with trying to answer questions you do not want asked. Children are resilient. What they need most is information, knowledge, trail markers for the development of their eventual mature selves, and the ability to deal with a mutable world. The world you may be trying to preserve at the expense of stripping voices out of the zeitgeist will not survive to their adulthood and if you were somehow to succeed in stifling those voices they will be less able to manage those changes, that world.

Of course, you know this. In your bones, you know this is wrong. You want to fix your world in place and not be challenged in your prejudices and assumptions.

Besides, honestly, you know this will have the opposite effect than what you desire. Successfully pulling those books off shelves in schools and public libraries will be the shallowest kind of mollification. Those of you with children inclined to read know they will find these books and even if they were disinclined to read them before, they will read them now. This will be the definition of a pyrrhic victory. All you are doing is feeding a demagogue who wishes only to achieve power. And your world will end no matter what.

To quote Henry Jones, why don’t you try reading books instead of burning them.

Why don’t you find out if you’re being played.