A funny but not ha-ha funny thing happened to me today on the bike trail. I took a ride of about 20 miles, starting on North St, and moving south to the end of the Razorback Greenway, then back north. I must’ve gone just 2-3 miles when the trail came to an abrupt, if temporary, end. Suddenly the asphalt gave out and a patch of white rock began, on the road where workmen had excavated the asphalt and a few feet on either side. A sign proclaimed, “Trail Ends.” As I put on my brakes and came to a halt, I saw a young woman jogger stopping ahead of me. “End of trail!” I called out, as much to myself as to anyone.
She turned to look at me — a slim young woman, 20 or so, I’d suppose — and said, “I can read. You don’t have to read it to me!”
“Whoa!” I countered. “Aren’t we touchy?”
She turned toward me a couple of steps and spat out, “I know your kind!”
“What kind is that?” I inquired.
But she wouldn’t say. Just continued to sputter venom. So I muttered, half under my breath, “Idiot!” — and sped away.
I was hoping that was the last of her, but though I went to the end of the trail, and detoured also 2-3 miles out of the way, I came upon her again, going north, just as I hit North St. I’d just gone by a young jogger, but didn’t think this was the crazy lady. But it was! She ran by me, wearing white jogging pants and a chartreuse top, as I waited at the light to get across the street, and then, when she was 30 feet down the street from me she turned to me and hissed, “Sex offender!”
So that’s the kind I was! A sex offender in her mind!
In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Guyer interviews the exiled Syrian poet Adonis (see “‘Now the Writing Starts’: An Interview with Adonis”). Though I had never heard of him before reading this interview, even though he is a perennial candidate for a Nobel Prize, I was intrigued and fascinated by the wise man’s words. He is in Paris because of the civil war going on in Syria since 2011, when the people began to rise up against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency, we might say, from his dictator father a few years ago. In other words, Assad is the usual bloody tinhorn dictator in the Middle East, the kind that the people began rising up against throughout the Arab world in the “Arab Spring” of 2011, starting in Tunisia.
In a country with no democracy, no freedom of expression, repression is bound to occur. And the people of Syria were sick and tired of putting up and shutting up. They demonstrated, in the spring of 2011, for basic freedoms, and Assad shot them down, literally, with soldiers and crushed them with tanks. Then all hell broke loose, and a variety of revolutionary groups sprang up, some organized around religion and ideology, others not.
Adonis says among other things that poets and novelists belong to no religion and no institution. They are beyond politics and the identities we forge with specific religions and national states. They are wise men, and how many of them do we have? (He is not talking about writers who are out merely to entertain, but those who are thinkers and worth their weight in gold, in sincerity. Most writers are just trash-mongers, he suggests, and he’s not wasting his time with them.)
Adonis recognizes that religion is the problem in the Middle East. Here’s what the sage says:
Nothing has changed. On the contrary, the problems are bigger. How can forty countries ally against ISIS for two years and not be able to do a thing? Nothing will change unless there is a separation between religion and the state. If we do not distinguish between what is religious and what is political, cultural, and social, nothing will change and the decline of the Arabs will worsen. Religion is not the answer to problems anymore. Religion is the cause of problems. [Emphasis mine.] That is why it needs to be separated. Every free human believes in what he wants, and we should respect that. But for religion to be the foundation of society? No.
Imagine that we lived, in the US, in a theocracy, where religion, a state-established religion, was the rule. How free would we be to express our views — that we were atheists? Or agnostics? Or, for that matter, believers of another stripe (say, Catholics or Hindus or Jews)? When we think of our own history of religious utopias, they are just about all transient failures — the Puritans, who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and barged into Indian territory; the Transcendentalists’ Brook Farm in Massachusetts (1841-1846); the Oneida Community in New York (1848-1880), which practiced “Communalism, Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship”; and such flash-and-fizzle religions as Jim Jones’ Jonestown cult, which ended in the murders and suicides of its followers in 1978.
Even the few utopian movements that survive, like Joseph Smith’s Mormons, can’t be said to be other than aberrations. In the 1830s and 1840s, at founding, Smith and his followers encouraged dissension wherever they resided, and were routed to the deserts of Utah in 1847. Since that time, they’ve had to renounce some of the founding practices, including polygamy, in order to make peace with the United States government and be accepted into the Union. But they are hardly a model of tolerance and plurality. Rather the opposite.
We see the threat of religion today in American life especially in the influence of conservative Christians. They seek to impose their own version of sharia (a strict, literal religious law) on the US, and would outlaw abortion, homosexuality, alcohol, you name it. These righteous prigs would have everyone believe and be like them. No thanks. If push came to shove — let’s hope it never does — would we stand up against this tyranny? Would we rise in arms, even as Syrians and Arabs have risen again Bashar al-Assad?
American freedom is founded not on the belief of the Founding Fathers in Christianity but, rather, on the fundamental separate of church and state. The state will not sponsor any religion, nor will it oppose any. Many of the Founders were doubters and skeptics, or theists, who believed in an Enlightenment version of the Universe, run by a benevolent but withdrawn God, who ordered Earth and the planets to move like clockwork.
Adonis despairs of those revolutionaries in Syria who would oust al-Assad but establish, in his place, another institution, religious or bureaucratic.
Look, the revolutionary must protect his country. He fights the regime, but defends institutions. I heard that Aleppo’s markets were totally destroyed. This wealth was like no other, how do they destroy it? The revolutionary does not loot museums. The revolutionary does not kill a human because he is Christian, Alawite, or Druze. The revolutionary does not deport a whole population, like the Yazidis. Is this a revolution? Why does the West support it?
We need our markets, our museums, our way of life. If you’re not interested in the market, don’t shop there. If you have no respect for museums, don’t go. But you have no right to blow these things up because of a religious belief or any other insane ideology.
We’ve been getting the Democrat-Gazette newspaper since we arrived in Arkansas almost five years ago, but have been thinking lately of canceling. My wife, Jen, in fact, rarely reads the paper (she and I get most of our news online), and I most often skim through the front pages. The very conservative political posture of the editors (editorial and opinion pages) pisses me off.
But there is one feature, trivial as it may seem, that entertains and amazes me — that’s the narrow column on the left side of the front page called “In the News.” These are very short summaries, or squibs, of bizarre events, which you might call “What Are People Thinking (if Anything)?”
Today’s column, for example, features these items:
Ted Walters, 49, of Elizabethtown, N.C., was arrested on burglary and assault charges after telling police he wanted to teach his 25-year-old son a lesson by shooting him in the leg after a family member said he was stealing hamburger and bacon from his grandmother’s freezer.
Kim Jones, a police officer in Atlanta, said a patient bolted from a stopped ambulance and ran across five lanes of traffic before being struck and killed by cars, shutting down early-morning traffic for about two hours on one of metro Atlanta’s busiest interstates.
Ah, my, my fellow citizens! Where do we begin? “In the News” seems to be a primer on how not to act, how not to raise your children, how not to stay sane. Take the case of Ted Walters, 49, of Elizabethtown, NC (population 3,583, pictured at left in a Google satellite image) who shoots his son for stealing meat. That will teach the son (of a bitch) a lesson, won’t it? Except poor ole redneck Ted forgot to consider that shooting someone, son or not, may be a crime and that he may be prosecuted for the crime. I bet that son of a bitch, Ted’s son, was shown a mighty fine example of mature adult behavior in his father as he was growing up. When the dad (Ted Walters, 49) got mad, he’d shoot someone or something, or smack his target, hard: this might’ve been his wife, his co-workers, his friends, who knows. At any rate, I’m sure that Ted Walters, 49, was a fine example of restrained and channeled manhood for his son, the 25-year-old hamburger thief.
Or take the patient who bolted from an ambulance during rush hour. Clearly, he was nuts from the start. Probably a psycho case being taken to the hospital for the insane to be restrained, cuffed, manhandled, and taught a lesson in mature, adult living — you know, the kind that Ted Walters, 49, of Elizabethtown, NC has pursued his entire life. If you weren’t nuts to start with, why would you flee across rush hour traffic in Atlanta, one of the nation’s biggest and scariest freeway traffic jams? Of course, as I suggest, the patient might have feared — more than the traffic — the prospect of being restrained, and sanitized, by the state.
“In the News” might suggest that we are all in this same crazy, leaky boat together. We laugh at the idiots pictured “In the News,” but once we have our belly laugh, and sit back with another story, say how dictators, terrorists, and ideologues are killing all over the world, can we be so sure we don’t act the same way as these loonies — or don’t know plenty of people who do or, given the drop of a pin, would?