Category Archives: Violence

Syria and freedom of expression

Adonis, Syrian poet
The Syrian poet Adonis, in a French cafe.

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.

Wingnuts

Yesterday, at the gym, I deliberately avoided 2-3 people I know. The common denominator? They’re all politically conservatives: one of them quite nice and understated (X, the trainer); one of them big and stupid (Y, the sportsman); and one easy to talk to (he talks a lot) except when you talk politics, when he foams at the mouth (Z).

Usually, I mean, I say hello, at least, to everyone I know, but I saw these three gents standing together talking, and I determined to skirt them and remain silent.

X who’s about 40, well built, prematurely balding, is easy to talk to, a really nice guy, smiling and helpful to all, especially the old ladies, whose blood pulse he takes (and raises, no doubt) and with whom he chats; but he has the habits of the average Joe — common sense and not much reflection. We’ve talked once or twice about racial concerns, and he seems set in his ways against expressions of political protest, as for the Black Lives Matter protesters.

Z, retired like me and maybe 65, is garrulous, talks all the time, and I kid him that he spends more time on the “mandible machine” (jawing) than all the others combined. He can talk about anything — what we did on the weekend, hobbies, women, travel — but when it comes to politics, look out, for he’s a raving wingnut (right-winger). He loudly, proudly supports the NRA (National Rifle Association), a collection of hard-core gun defenders and promoters, and gets very upset if I say something, even mild, against them. When I say something wild (like “Fuck the NRA!”), he goes berserk, and then starts frothing about the coming hard times when I, and fellow liberals, will go to Walmart and find the food shelves empty! Ha ha! I respond. Ha ha ha! And then say, circling my ear with my finger, Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Y is another case altogether — a big former U of A basketball player. He’s probably 6’4” or 6’5” and about as dumb as they come. His sole topic of conversation is guns. Though he works, even at his age (mid-40s) as a clerk in a liquor store, he has a piece of property in the country on which he’s erected a tree stand. There he takes up arms, on the weekends, and blasts any animals that come near — deer or whatever. He has multiple guns available, he tells me, so that he doesn’t run out of ammo or miss a kill because of an ill-suited weapon. Aside from this proclivity for guns, and violence, Y is something of a bully. The inevitable refrain I hear when he sees me is, “Hasn’t that deer run over you yet?” For when I told him last summer that I’d bought a new bike and was taking long bike rides, he got it into his dunderhead that it would be funny to see me brought down by a mad deer. (There are videos available online that show bikers being knocked down by deer or antelope.) “Hasn’t that deer twisted you apart yet?”

At a certain point, it’s neither wise nor practical to talk with certain people. If you know, for example, that your ideas are inalienably opposed to theirs, that there’s very little possibility of your talking amicably about things that matter, why bother? Anything that passes between you would be mere time-of-day chitchat.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

trump, lapierre
Trump and Lapierre, the faces of  ignorant bloodthirstiness.

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!

Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

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!

Cuckoo!