I have a bad habit, on the Internet and in real life, of deliberately nudging or testing people, usually when their beliefs and mine are at variance. This, I learned recently, is called “trolling.”
Sometimes the habit is innocent enough. Too many Facebook posts I’d characterize as “pious,” whether of a religious or psychological nature. Cliches, really, or maxims from deservedly obscure self-help gurus (not to be confused with writers like Shakespeare, Goethe, or Ambrose Bierce). If people can’t recognize the difference between a genuinely profound idea, or sentiment, and something superficial or bogus, I’ll be glad to call their attention to the matter, though it wins me no popularity contests.
In real life, as we say, in the quotidian, where we live and exercise and breathe, I will troll my alt-right acquaintances at the gym I attend. These are the dumbbells that love guns, hate minorities, and have no room at all for reading or thinking. So I’ll say stuff like “I sure hope Pres-elect Twatwaffle will put an end to welfare!” And when they rail against the lazy moochers — welfare mothers with many mouths to feed, fathers with multiple baby mamas — I’ll say, “You mean niggers?” And they’ll say, “That’s what I was thinking.” And I’ll say, innocently enough, “Well, let’s call a spade a spade!”
And if they say, anent the latest violence on the news, “They kill students at Ohio State?,” I’ll respond, “Yeah, it’s another crazy Somali. Why don’t they restrict immigration to white Europeans?” And they’ll say, “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Meanwhile, the world whirls on, and if we aren’t getting any smarter in the “first post-literate presidency,” we can at least get sassier.
My wife Jen and I recently saw a University of Arkansas production of Anne Frank, a dramatization of the diary, which prompted us to pick up a copy of the diary itself.
Somehow I’ve not read it, ever, except for excerpts here and there in anthologies, but reading it now I see how enthralling it can be both for historical and literary reasons. Frank records the Nazi persecution of the Jews as it spreads from Germany to Holland, where the family fled in 1933, and she confides in her diary as to a friend, her BFF, in fact, for her motive in writing, she says, is to discover and describe just such a friend.
Fabulous that she would begin such an enterprise and push it forward by and for herself! The diary was not discovered till after the war, after the Franks were hustled off to concentration camps. Anne Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen camp; her diary was saved, back in Amsterdam, by a family friend and employee.
Frank called her diary “Kitty” and confided in it, as you would to the best friend you didn’t have and might never have. It’s charming to overhear these confidences, starting with the friendly address of the diary. “Dear Kitty,” Frank wrote, again and again, telling of her fears and joys and terrors.
I’m reading the diary now and should like to use it as something of a model for the young students I am tutoring, who are writing journals. Frank, after all, deliberately supersedes the idea of recording only “a series of bald facts … like most people do.” She has more important things on her mind — political, psychological, and yes, erotic, things to consider, as any adolescent would have on her mind but few would commit to paper like this. Frank not only writes down her thoughts, she uses writing as a means to transcend the painful and the lonely here and now.
Since I retired and moved to Arkansas five years ago, I’ve been doing a little tutoring. Yes, I tutor kids and adults too in reading, writing, and language.
The word “tutor” comes from the Latinfor protector, so a tutor has a privileged and responsible position vis-a-vis his tutees, a position of trust and confidence. In the case of children, the parents entrust the child to the tutor so he or she can grow in knowledge and critical thinking abilities. He will know how to take on the world on his own.
In ancient Rome, tutelary spirits guarded the household, protecting and defending the inhabitants. They cast a protective shade over the huddle of family. They acted almost like a talisman, or charm, and so too the tutor can provide such magic to ward off the dangers of the world at large.
With kids, it’s great fun to see them develop as readers, thinkers, and writers. They are naturally curious and fidgety, and so our lessons may at first resemble squirrel chases inside a cage. I get them to sit down and read a bit, and they do. But pretty soon they are fidgeting, cracking knuckles or looking at the ceiling. I put a pen in their hand, and they resist its power. Oh, the pain of this business of thinking and translating thoughts into words! They can talk bushels, but writing is a different monster altogether.
What’s most difficult is to convert all the diffuse energies of childish play into something logical, linear, disciplined, of course. It’s a conversion that most adults have not yet made, if we can judge by such phenomena as our recent presidential election. Who needs logic and reason when we can have games and carnival? When creepy clowns beckon in the guise of wise men?
For man doth not live by bread alone. Nor do we protect ourselves, and stand our ground, with guns alone. It’s ideas that protect and transform us. It’s the ability to digest, combine, and reformulate others’ ideas — and to make of them some kind of intellectual and spiritual life of our own. Woodworking and flower arranging are great hobbies and talents. Soulmaking is of another order.
In the wake of the election of President Trump, we have to acknowledge that there was great anger on the part of the electorate and great yearning too.
I think of the Emma Lazarus lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, think ironically of these lines, for today’s wretched, huddled masses, it seems to me, who may be counted by virtue of my education among the moralists and elitists, are the rednecks and other uneducated white working class (WWC) folks who elected Trump.
Our yearnings are theirs too. Who among us doesn’t want freedom, however we define it? Freedom from fear and want? Freedom from oppression by the government or other institutional forces who may despise and/or underestimate us?
The WWC have long disdained the long arm of the law and government that tells them what to think and how to express themselves. They can’t express their doubt or anger in their limited vocabulary (and whose vocabulary is not limited?), so they vote for the anti-PC candidate.
As Andrew Marantz writes in the New Yorker, Mike Cernovich, whom I profiled last month, became a prominent vessel of pro-Trump populism by saying unconscionable things on Twitter. “This election was a contest between P.C. culture and free-speech culture,” he told me the day after Trump’s victory. “Most people know what it’s like for some smug, élite asshole to tell them, ‘You can’t say that, it’s racist, it’s bad.’ Well, a vote for Trump meant, ‘Fuck you, you don’t get to tell me what to say.’ ”
In this yearning for freedom to say what one thinks, whatever one thinks, however “unconscionable,” whatever anyone else thinks of what one thinks, the wretched masses are like artists.
For if the essence of art is the yearning for freedom, so too the votes of the WWC. Now, the WWC may not have the skills or materials to be actual or actualized artists, but they do have human voices and human dignity and are worth listening to. Worth closing our yaps for, just a minute, and listening to. Not to worry, we’ll have our chance to talk again. And we’ll have our chance, again, at the ballot box. Our chance to vote and perhaps to vote for a candidate who’s more to the liking of a greater number of the people as a whole.
Meanwhile, it may be time to learn a little humility and bear up under the weight of what we might think of as our own oppression. For there is art in suffering, too, and learning. We don’t want to end up, after all, like Robert Frost’s runaway boy, in the first poem of his Boy’s Will (1913), who concludes, in perverse, puerile triumph,
They would not find me changed from him they knew —
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
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?
Have had occasion to think, re politics and culture in general, about how we might divide ourselves not into sheep and goats (baa!) but abstract and concrete people.
I don’t mean precisely what the great philosopher Madonna might have had in mind near the start of her career, as she sang “I am a material girl, / And this is a material world.” I’m not talking material vs. spiritual, really. (Many people who profess spirituality, sometimes hysterically, are oddly very material. They are set in the material world and yet profess to be acting and yearning for heaven.)
I mean when we meet and socialize, we tend to talk in concrete terms. Mostly, we tell stories — what we did today, what so and so said, how our best friend is feeling blue. We pile up evidence for the story — data, you might say; concrete and empirical facts; sensory details. For this is the world we live in (thanks, Madonna) — both concrete and material. And what are we ourselves if not material creatures?
Well, many of us begin and end there. We are concrete, set in concrete detail; our feet are set in concrete, like a mobster’s. We talk about the sensory world. We act and work in it, pouring foundations, fixing machines, tuning automobiles, sweeping the floor.
We may rarely if ever make the jump from these concrete details, or data, to abstract conclusions — the kind of thinking, or reasoning, that leaves the physical world and enters the metaphysical or more-than-physical. This is just too big a leap for most of us, who remain moored to our particular time, place, and circumstances.
A good friend from Minnesota, who visited recently, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. He was incensed not with the protests themselves, he said, but with their method, for the protesters blocked traffic on the freeway and prolonged rush hour.
He was fastened to the facts, fascinated by the facts of the case, and they incensed him. He did not, could not, make a leap from the facts, the phenomena, to all the possible causes or consequences of this political act. (He only knew that blocking traffic delayed arrival at work and pissed people off.) He said nothing about the oppression of the black community. The violence of white cops. The terrific fear and hatred of the black man that the mere sight of one must inspire in too many of those who “protect and serve.”
Had my friend ever protested in public? I doubt it. He was part of what used to be called “the great silent majority,” who bitch to each other and complain but don’t make a concerted, organized public effort to change things.
But why change things when you have ’em good? The friend is retired from 3M, has investments and a pension, a very healthy retirement income, no wife or kids to look out for. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or his world anyway.
But thinking about his world would propel us into abstractions, true? A metaphysical, philosophical world where the air is rare and most of us go about gasping. Help, help, help!
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.