Monthly Archives: July 2012
Stephen Metcalf’s article in Slate: Not Here: If we’re truly serious about stopping massacres like Aurora, we need to cure our addiction to evil.
I’m captivated by Stephen Metcalf’s July 27, 2012 piece Not Here: If we’re truly serious about stopping massacres like Aurora, we need to cure our addiction to evil.
Metcalf reminds us that Superman was an imaginative response to fascism in 1939. Evil was just ramping up at the time to a proportion no one could imagine. That Holocaust is still an ultimate example of evil.
In 2012 we are searching for a sense of moral righteousness in a time of alienation (ironically, the solitude of social networks), in a nation where every hero has lost his luster. We are disappointed time and again by the people we want to solve the extremely complex issues that face us (the sordid alcohol, drug and sex lives of politicians and public personalities we don’t really want to even know about, the economy, the environment, the Middle East, the Euro…to name a few). Where is truth?
Metcalf offers a perspective on civil massacre (as contrasted to massacre in war) and the cultural phenomenon Captain Cook brought to us running amok as he described in 1770 the murderous behavior he found on the Malay archipelago. So the Malay came to stop such behavior just as more “civilized” people started. Men with the three identity issues of “narcissism, persecution, resentment” and an arsenal of weapons demonstrate the deadly times we are in.
Meanwhile, one truck crashes and kills an equal number of immigrants, kids are dying every day in urban warfare, and around the globe deadly weapons sales perpetuate violence and civil wars. Where are the superheroes to make those stories grab our imaginations?
Metcalf quotes Hannah Arendt, “Only the good has depth and can be radical.” Arendt found Eichmann to be a small man, an uninspiring man, banal. We want our evil to be magnificent when actually it is so easy with an automatic weapon or a truckload of fertilizer. Heroes are all of us working in our everyday lives to interrupt a racist joke, help kids to talk through emotions, invite a neighbor to dinner. We are the deep community members at the root of this society. We are the radical good.
Economics and politics are are daunting, and so entangled we can’t decipher one without the other. I picked up Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow (2012) hoping for some perspective. Okay, so I got this book because Maddow is so darn smart and, I’ll admit it, wicked handsome.
It took a while; I read To Kill a Mockingbird and Are You My Mother? in between Drift chapters, but I read every word.
I knew it, I just knew it! But I never had the evidence in one place and right in my hands as Maddow offers. We, the American public, allow politicians to slide, slip and slide, right over our rights and responsibilities as citizens. We just don’t know how to stop this tsunami of cheating, lying and disrespect. Mr. Reagan made a war on his own, and since then so has everyone else, defying constitutional structures and protocol. No one seems to know where the plans are for out-dated nuclear devices, no one knows how to keep the fungus off wings of stockpiled bombs. The private army hides the actual costs of wars.
Why have we become a warring nation? What happened to diplomacy and working for peace?
Do we have to wait until the Freedom of Information Act kicks in, too many years from now, to find out why so many trillions have gone out of the taxpayers’ pockets and disappeared into the ether of war so the taxpayer has no job, no health insurance, or emergency fund for disasters?
Maddow offers the research, the names and numbers to answer these questions. She takes the covers off the secrecy of the last thirty plus years of U.S. government and exposes the vast resources (money, faith in government, and our military personnel) we’ve lost to extreme abuses of power.
Maddow writes, “Republicans and Democrats alike have options to vote people into Congress who are determined to stop with the chickenshittery and assert the legislature’s constitutional prerogatives on war and peace. It would make a difference and help reel us back toward balance and normalcy” (p.252, italics mine).
We have to convince everyone to vote for the greatest good rather than individual fear. The other day I overheard a young man of twenty-something saying to his friend, “When the Apocalypse comes, I want to be ready.” Did he mean he’ll be buying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, or preparing his gardens for year-round food for his family and neighbors? I wish I’d eavesdropped a little longer.
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel (2012). You think it is easy to read a comic book? Think carefully. First there is a caption, then the bubbles, then the artwork. It takes longer than you think. Then there is Alison working the layers of her own mind and offering the ideas to you, oh reader. It is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. You have to hold several things at once, especially when reading Bechdel’s work. There are layers in the format and layers in the content. Fun Home: A Tragic Comic (2006) was lusciously literary, lots of lesbian history if you read the spins of the books stacked, and delved into Dad’s dangerous life as a married man, a teacher with a desire for young men. He had a penchant for extremely good taste in interior décor and a wife who endured and persevered in her own right. He died gardening, a possible (probable) suicide by bread truck. Alison finds the tragedy, irony and comedy in this memoir with Father.
In the memoir with Mother there are more strenuous lines to fathom—not the literary etude (a tap on the keyboard to Adrienne Rich) of Fun Home, a far deeper life line, more prescient to the living, resides in Are You My Mother? Bechdel offers the mother a life of her own without the blame and shame of the patriarchs breathing down her neck, the psychiatrists, dream therapists and analysts want the mother to bear the burden of historic and social pathological desires, perceptions skewed since Plato bashed women and threw us under the bus before the wheel was invented. Bechdel searches so minutely, suspends so much of her time in search of her mother’s mothering, that we are allowed to accept our own mothers for who they are. We get to put our mothers in context and allow them to be the survivors with idiosyncrasies and foibles, successes and faults. But whole for once, in their own selves. It is an extremely liberating memoir. For Alison, for mothers everywhere, for each of us who read it wondering—YOU, who are you Mother?
What have you been reading lately?
My daughter had to read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) for class and encouraged me to read it. For months she patiently tried to gauge where the book was on the two-foot high stack by my bed. Was I reading it yet? I know I read it as a kid, a few years after publication, but that was so long ago I had no details in memory.
Finally this summer I got to it again.
It was thrilling to read the suspense the three kids (Scout, her brother and the summer visitor, Dill) created during long summer days in a small town and it was chilling to realize the small town hatred that would live right next door to kindness.
Harper Lee had a lot to say about how people of white skin and people with darker skin got along and kept one another at bay. She gave us both sides of the color line and what it meant to dance in-between. There was the white man who acted drunk so the white folks would think he was too crazy to know what he was doing when all the while he was in love with his wife of color and kids. He was just acting for the white folks, giving them a show to protect his family.
I’d forgotten about Scout interrupting a lynching with her polite appeal to a neighbor who was all set to drag a man from jail. Children cross the color and economic lines so easily. Unless the cruelty of a parent and poverty make them pawns, as was Ewell, the white girl whose false accusations sent Tom Robinson to jail.
Harper Lee kept the suspense going until the very last page. Even if you read it long ago you’ll still remember the mysterious and reclusive neighbor Boo, the mad dog, Atticus, the single father and the neighbors on the street. Lee’s snapshots of The South before the advent of highways and electronics moving faster than the speed of light are all focused by one small precocious tomboy. She was smart, relentlessly curious, and very demanding. You can just imagine that child in your classroom….or maybe you were that child wondering what the heck the grown ups were thinking. Why can’t they just get along and be just?
One thing leads to another, so I after I finished To Kill A Mockingbird I had to reread Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (1961). The early Sixties were a terrific time for writing. The white journalist risked his life to cross the very color line Scout deftly explored, except fiction is smoother than real life. The real life Griffin went from white to black with pigmentation and stain. The transformation was such that he was unrecognizable—even to himself. The contrast in treatment was as extreme as day and night. He was at the back of the bus, on the side streets of cities he had known since childhood.
The most extreme revelation for me was his conversations while hitch-hiking. The white drivers would talk about their sexual exploits with women of color and ask to see his penis. The sexual lines tangled up with the color lines to provoke as much trouble as possible. The sexual lies in To Kill A Mockingbird cost a man his life in Lee’s fiction. “Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit,” as Billy Holiday sang in 1939.
John Griffin wanted to know the experience of people of color. He learned in a few hours what that experience was and he only remained there for a few weeks. His family was forced to move after publication of his book and extensive television interviews. He gave white readers a window into a world they had created for people with a drop of black blood. He wrote with a white gaze looking into a black world with a white world education and expectations. He was brutally surprised at the double standards for people based entirely on skin. Even though he could take off the stain and go home, he left us a tale few have been willing to tell.
What would such an undercover investigation reveal today?