According to the Atlantic, “In Germany, legislators are attempting to address the spread of hate speech and false information online with a new law that aims to protect ‘human dignity’ on social media.”
Human dignity? They must have forgotten about Herr Freud, in his latter days, cancerous, moribund, stroking his beard, meditating love and hate, Eros and Thanatos as WW II broke out in Europe.
The Atlantic article says, “Article One of Germany’s postwar constitution instructs, ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable.’ This notion means you are not allowed to claim false things about me, because it hurts my dignity,'” one legislator says. OK, so he’s talking about false claims, or lies. But dignity? What makes us dignified? The refusal to tell lies? How about indignant? The telling of lies?
Can we be forced not to tell lies? And if we have to be forced, are we in fact dignified?
Isn’t lying as German as Schweinekotelett, as American as apple pie? Not that lying is good, or right, but it’s inevitable. Not that we want lies told about us, or want to lie about others, but we have the right to tell the truth, and so do they.
I prefer the American approach, with its First Amendment right to freedom of speech, even noxious speech. It’s part and parcel of our idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is not necessarily a happy, or easy, progress.
Oh, you bully, you offended me! Of course, you did! You’re an idiot! Your idiocy speaks for itself. And there are plenty of us, after all, even in the age of Trump and the far-right parties in Germany, who can speak more fluently and powerfully than you and who will meet your hate speech with truth that burns like acetylene. Eventually, even the no-nothings will know this.
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.
Took a hike this last Saturday with my son Gabe, granddaughter Ruby, tutee Aneeka (like Ruby, 8 yrs old), and her lovely mother Rupali. We went to Tanyard Creek up in Bella Vista, a stream that plunges down from the spillway at Lake Windsor and winds among the woods. The hike was only 2 or 2.5 miles, but with the girls darting and playing on the rocks and in the water it took us an hour and a half or so.
What a glorious day it was. Lots of people were hiking, as families. Groups of teens appeared to be camping, at least day camping, by the stream, as they hung out hammocks — and then just hung out. Everybody was smiling.
The girls had a lot of fun — Ruby leading the way, charging on with her hiking stick raised high and Aneeka charging after. Signs along the route warned not to get off the trail, as delicate habitat could be destroyed. But this didn’t hold back the girls, especially Ruby, who is high spirited and not very mindful at times.
Gabe, my son, and I kept calling her back, but she wouldn’t listen. Finally, as we returned to the parking lot, Gabe said, “I admire Ruby’s adventurous spirit.” Which I do too. The problem is when adventure comes to equal heedlessness. Every parent wants his child to be safe and may hold him back for that reason. So there’s a constant tug between safety and security, on the one hand, and adventure and growth, on the other.
At what point does adventure equal danger, heedless danger? That could be different for each of us. There’s extreme sport, after all, and base jumpers, who fly wingsuits among mountains, through crevices, and sometimes, alas, into the mountain faces. May they rest in peace, and we hope the thrill of the flight was worth the instant annihilation of the end.
Most of us are less extreme. I remember that my one-year-younger brother Bob and I would run away from the car and clamber up rocks when our family motored from the Twin Cities to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We might have been 10 and 11, or 11 and 12. Our parents kept calling us back, but we didn’t come. Were those knucklehead boys about to spill their brains on the rocks? Well, we didn’t spill ’em, though we might have.
As we might have, when older, drinking too much and clambering up on roofs. My brother died of alcoholism, in fact, when he was 46: he’d climbed too many roofs, in effect, and fallen plump down on his head. Drunk once, in the 1990s, at a rented cabin on Lake Superior, I climbed the roof one night, which was pretty shallow, to chase off the seagulls. I had no business being up there, drunk as I was, but there was no mom or dad to bring me down. Instead, my wife and friends encouraged me not to spill my brains, which were, they pointed out, all I had, but they could not compel me to get down.
Ah, yes, let’s adventure on, boys and girls. But not too much booze, please. Nor speeding on the highway. Nice and easy does it, it could be. Let’s get down off the roof, off the high, and see what adventures the mind itself can make.
Sleep — our need for it, our longing for it, our discontent.
When we’re young, we need sleep in order to recover from the school day and all its stresses. When we grow into adulthood, it’s the job and family that impose stress. When we’re old, as I am now, alas and alack, and retired, hooray, it would seem you can sleep as long as you like.
But that’s not my case. I’ve always been a nervous, and perhaps reluctant, sleeper. There’s so much going on — especially in the head. How can we just hit the pillow and close our eyes to it? Life whirls on, in the brain, pokes and prods us, stimulates, suggests something we might have done in the past but didn’t, something we might do in the future.
Of course, this kind of restlessness is pretty fruitless. We can’t change the past by tossing and turning, digging it up like a moldy old potato. We can’t control the future by dreaming of it as a glorious and confirming thing.
I envy those who hit the pillow and it’s lights out. Those who sleep easily, soundly, “the sleep of the just.” Maybe this old phrase, or moldy potato, suggests I am not just, or fair, or moral? Something is troubling me? Some vague sin? Some forgetfulness? Some thoughtlessness?
Or that I must keep watch, as my name Gregory suggests? (The Online Etymology dictionary glosses the name so: “from LateLatinGregorius, fromGreekgregorios, aderivativeofgregoros ‘tobewatchful,’fromPIEroot*ger- ‘tobeawake’ [cf.Sanskritjagarti ‘heis awake,’Avestanagarayeiti ‘wakesup,rouses’]. ) Whether neurotically or morally or whatever, I must keep awake in the watches of the night!
Still, I could turn myself in as a sleep study subject. They’d put wires on my head and have me sleep in a dark room. I’d toss and turn, yank out the wires, scream. Help! help! Are you kidding me? killing me? It’s not worth the measly $75 you’re awarding! Take me back home, where I love to toss and turn in my own bed, keeping my wife awake half the night!
Of course, as the Shakespeare says, “our little life is rounded by a sleep,” or as Emily Dickinson puts it, about the longer sleep we fret and worry to the bone:
A long, long sleep, a famous sleep That makes no show for dawn By stretch of limb or stir of lid, — An independent one.
Was ever idleness like this? Within a hut of stone To bask the centuries away Nor once look up for noon?
Have a right-wing friend, let’s say acquaintance, at the gym I attend. We get along fine, laughing and japing, until we get into politics.
I’ve made clear to Tommy, let’s call him, that I abhor the NRA and its bloody gun-promotion at any cost policies, but he counters that statistics prove having a gun at home protects people from intruders. (What did Mark Twain say about “lies, damned lies, and statistics”?)
I suggest that paranoia has intruded into his brain, that his fears are “projections,” much like bullets projected from a gun, which he attributes to others but which come from within. His own fears, that is, represent his fears of the unknown alien or other. (Yes, he makes many racist remarks about Latinos and blacks.)
The other day, we got into it in the locker room, both Tommy and I and a big dumb pal of his, about 6’4″, 300 lbs., a former Razorback basketball player who, at the age of 50, works as a clerk at a liquor store and for pleasure keeps a deer stand on which many guns are mounted. I suggested to Mr Razorback that I would give him a fine book of poetry which he could read in his stand, and he’d forget all about his guns. You will merge and commune with nature, I suggested, and your violent impulses will disappear.
But Tommy, entering the room, heard me inveigh against gun violence and the NRA, and shouted, “I’m an NRA member!”
Bad cess for you, Tommy.
Somehow, the argument escalated, and Tom spit out, When the food shelves run out at Walmart, you damned liberals will have nothing to eat.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! I intoned, for one and all to hear in the sweaty locker room.
You just wait! Tom roared. You’ll starve to death!
Apparently, it’s the “elite” who foist such cultural products as clear, logical, intelligent writing on the masses. Therefor, of course, Tom and Razorbelly will not read such stuff, especially if it comes from political pundits of the center and left. How dare others have gifts and insights that we lack? they seem to suggest. Simply because these elitists have a gift, have studied many years, learned a discipline, including logic. The smug superior bastards!
What kind of Christmas theme is this? The dear dead ones!
But isn’t it precisely this time of year we think of them when we’re gathered around the giving tree and seated at the groaning board?
Oh, we think, just one more chance to see them, hear them, touch them as gifts are exchanged and platters passed around the table. Just to listen, quietly, to what they might say at such a momentous time as this, the time of sharing and forgiving, when past wrongs and slights, real or imagined, are forgotten and forgiven, when the family coheres.
I think of James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” in which the protagonist, Gabriel, presides over a Christmas gathering of family and friends, proud of his oratorical abilities. He makes a sentimental speech to great applause but, once back home, sees his wife, Greta, whom he desires, despondent and apart. Stirred by a song she heard at the party, she is thinking of a young boy she used to love, who died when he was just seventeen. Gabriel tries to be ironic with his wife, but his egotism is deflated. Then this final glorious paragraph:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
A time now, this holiday season, to be unironic in our relations, to look each other in the eye, listen eagerly to what the others say, and offer a toast to the living and the dead. What would they be saying, the dear dead ones, if they could? What would we say? Na zdrowie! my Polish father might say. To your health, brothers and sisters, and ours, as long as this enterprise shall last.
Made my final direct entry in Facebook for a while: “Checking into a Facebook Addiction Clinic for observation and therapy. See you later.”
So I’m checking in to this clinic (in the skies, in my mind) and hanging out there a week or two. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? And do without me for a bit? Thanks for understanding. I have to shake my head clear, that’s all, of the fog of argument and inanity that Facebook has become for me.
Because most of Facebook is inanity — urgent and infantile pleas to “like” my latest dog or baby picture, or agree with a political or cultural position that’s self-evident to the poster and should be to everyone who reads it — I tend to take the opposite tack — and attack what I see as superficial and sentimental positions. As a provocateur, I’ll make statements that even I don’t necessarily believe in or subscribe to. Anything to get people’s goat, really — and they’ll generally let me know where they’re keeping the beast.
In my last issue-oriented post, I poked and prodded and trolled, you might say, for snapping fish, writing simply or not so simply (ha ha):
So I see that “Gun Rights” has become “Gun Pride,” under the aegis of the NRA and its allies. Oh what a laugh. LOL. Laugh silently. Co-opting political slogans like “Gay Rights” doesn’t hide the fact — just the opposite, in fact — that these brave bucks and bravos go out into the woods with their rifles in order to jerk each other off and slaughter Bambis.
And soon I got a response from a friend, not a good friend but a friend, that I might have anticipated but, with my lack of emotional IQ, did not:
Greg you have always been quite an edgy person with your comments but as a hunter myself you have crossed the line with this comment.
I do so enjoy crossing the line! It’s not the same line that George H.W. (Papa) Bush drew for Muammar Gaddafi, I know. Or even the line that Barack Obama drew, with less point and success, for Bashar al-Assad. Comments like my friend’s are not bombs, after all. They don’t take me out for good or behind the shed for a beating. I’m still here, you see, fat and sassy and ready to put up my dukes, aren’t you? For sticks and stones, and bombs and guns, can break our bones, but words will not dispatch us.
We all define lines and edges differently, could be. My friend, if not good friend, has always drawn back from provocative statements I make in person. I see him shrink back, physically, and frown, for he’s a good Methodist boy and bible believer, far as I can see, and would like us, evidently, to stay within the bounds of proper deportment and conversation, as John Wesley and brethren might have defined them.
In fact, I don’t care if he’s a hunter. I certainly knew that Facebook harbors hunters, among others, with or without secret blood and lust for deer, turkey, bobcat, wild boar, you name it. I know that not all Facebook readers have my literary education, and are not trained, or tainted, in rhetoric that’s hyperbolical, in your face, smack up against your gob. I was out for blood, could be, if only literary or literate blood. I wanted to taunt and dare the comfy hunters among us, the gunslingers, to question why they used guns and how they enjoyed them.
(Someone even reported me, for this post, to Facebook as being in violation of its standards — lax and pliable as they may be. In its message to me, Facebook cited a complaint about references to “nudity” but followed up with a second message, shortly afterward, judging me not guilty of inciting prurient interest. After all, I didn’t describe and linger deliciously over sexual organs or a particular sexual act. If I had, how scary would that be in America, land of the free and the home of the NRA? We know what’s right, after all, and what’s too filthy for words!)
No, I don’t literally believe, of course, that hunters are jerking each other off in the woods. But I certainly strongly feel that among male hunters out in the woods, without women and domesticating restraints, with booze and bullets and London Bridge and boundaries falling down, there’s a homoerotic impulse. (As there is in football, or boxing, or just slamming down a few brews at the bar.) And I wonder if this impulse is part of the desire to kill. In other words, if lusting for the blood of an animal and lusting, at whatever level of consciousness, for another male aren’t intertwined.
I’m no psychologist, or psychoanalyst, though I have dabbled in the literature. I have also read scores of sophisticated literary works that take up, and consider, extreme positions on social and cultural problems. If artists don’t do this, who will? Without shooting, I mean? Without enforcing their ideas with lethal weapons? Words are simply words, with no power to kill, or maim, but some power, it could be, to challenge and change.
You’d hope so, anyway, though here and now in America we seem to be convinced of the rightness, and righteousness, and inviolability of our own positions. No one will tell us what to think, or what to do. We know, by god, what we know. So we go to Facebook, among other places, armed with conviction in our position, our a priori rightness. And if someone challenges this cherished position, we lash out, bellow, jump up and down and stomp on the questioners and nay-sayers.
So, friends, Romans, countrymen, I’m checking into the Facebook Addiction Clinic for a while. You won’t hear from me anymore for a bit, boo hoo. You won’t have to “like” or hate my comments. You won’t have to challenge me not to cross your lines or violate your boundaries. I’m outta here for the time being. I’m grabbing a beer, and communing with the better, and worser, angels of my nature; I’m continuing to research, and reflect on, a novel on the problem of mass murderers and the guns they use. And if I can achieve this, devoting myself to the craft, I will have saved both you and me a lot of grief and a lot of wasted time.
Today the Washington Post is running portraits of the victims of the massacre last weekend in Paris. Beside each name, usually matched with a photo, is a stifled litany of these young people’s accomplishments and promise (the big majority of victims were in their 20s and 30s):
Alban Denuit, 32, a French sculptor and Ph.D.
Amine Ibnolmobarak, 32, an architect and teacher of architecture, “the quintessential young Muslim intellectual”
Anna Liefrig, 24, a graphic designer, “a cheerful and brilliant young woman”
Djamila Houd, 41, who worked in the fashion industry
Elodie Breuil, 23, a design student who’d marched in the Charlie Hebdo rallies last January
Fanny Minot, 29, an editor at a TV show who “just loved life”
Kheireddine Sahbi, 29, an Algerian-born “virtuoso violinist … involved in all forms of traditional music”
And the list, like others lists before it, goes on and on.
So many young lives snuffed out, so inexplicably.
Unless we accept as an explanation the fear and hatred of a paranoid religious ideology that can not tolerate any deviance whatsoever.
Deviance from its own deviance, that is.
No love of the things of this earth, its earthly pleasures, its wine (swirled in the bowl), women (uncovered), song (uncensored).
How easy, then, to pick up a gun and fire indiscriminately into a crowd?
An AK-47, say, which is takes how long to learn to play, compared with the violin that Ms Sahbi mastered?
With Mr Denuit’s sculptor’s chisel and hammer?
With the years of study and dedication that the big majority of victims had put into their careers and contributed to society?
Never mind all that, the terrorists would say. You infidels. You dogs. Now you shall die.
If ISIS is in fact looking for an end-time game, an apocalyptic battle in Syria, they may soon have their hands full, as the Western powers gather for a showdown. And if this battle doesn’t materialize, so what? The ignorant and violent will have their day again, shedding blood, which is so much easier to do that learning sculpture, or design, or words, or loving your fellow man despite all differences.
We’ve all been attuned to mass killings in the US lately. The names James Eagan Holmes, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, Dylann Storm Roof, Aaron Alexis, John Zawahri, and Adam Lanza may not exactly roll off the tongue. In fact, we may prefer to entomb them in oblivion and not resurrect them at all. But whether we remember them or not, they are there, in oblivion and latency also.
The mass killings in Paris this weekend only serve to remind us that terror exists on many fronts, geographical, psychological, and ideological.
Terror begins at home, in the minds of each of us individually, and the more we tolerate violence and promote it in our own lives the more we promote it everywhere, consciously or not.
I’ve been researching the mind of the mass murderer and finding all sorts of fascinating things. From Psychology Today to Freudian treatises, students of this problem have tried to descry what makes a mass murderer a mass murderer.
One illuminating article, by James L Knoll IV, MD, suggests that the mass murderer, or “pseudocommando[,] is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback. Some mass murderers take special steps to send a final communication to the public or news media….”
These communications may be among the most interesting phenomena in connection with the commandos, for they reveal their unreal sense of grievance and despair. The world has wronged them — them and their narcissistic egos. And now comes payback time, when they will be revealed in their full glory and true potency.
Isn’t this same thing happening, on a larger, ideological scale in the Middle East? Islamists, who have been told from birth that Islam is the one true religion, the only way of making sense of the world, are assaulted on all sides by signs of the progress of the West. The vaunted West with our material superiority, our secular values, our libidinal and other pleasures on full display in the media. (Our women, our whiskey, our song.)
Adam Gopnik, in a piece in The New Yorker, attributes the attack on Paris especially to radical Islamists’ desire to attack our capital of pleasure. An ISIS communique boasts, “Targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity . . . Paris shook under [the attackers’] feet, and its streets were tight upon them.”
How dare they enjoy themselves, these white young men and women while we sit back in the shadows of our ideology and stew? We don’t exist, in comparison. We are nothing. Nothing if not nihilists. We kill, and only then and therefore, in the potency of destruction, we are.
To return to Dr. Knoll, the mass murderer experiences “revenge fantasies … inflexible and persistent because they provide desperately needed sustenance to his self-esteem. He is able to feel better by gaining a sense of (pseudo) power and control by ruminating on, and finally planning out his vengeance….. fantasies may lead the avenger to ‘experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice.’”
Yes, he who in the face of Western pleasure willy-nilly suffers anhedonia is able to achieve pleasure — indeed, a kind of orgasm of meaning and potency — only in the death of those he kills and, since he too is likely to perish, in his own death.
Individual and ideological mass murderers merge in this portrait. Whether a failure by personal fault or ideology, or both, the murderer is impotent … until, he thinks, he kills.