As I get older, sometimes I take to reminiscing about my youth. People around me tend to run away when I do that verbally, in which case I mostly put it up here. When I’m not talking about my own kid-hood, I will chat about all manner of things pertaining to little people.
I remember, I was stringing beads at the kitchen table when Mom and Dad came to get me. They told me not to worry about the beads; just leave them there. We got in the car (an old black Volkswagen hatchback) and drove off.
Hours later, I was still thinking about the half-finished string of beads still sitting on the kitchen table back home. I kept wondering when we would get back to I could finish the string. Several more hours later, as great big snowflakes began to smack up against our windshield, I came to realize I probably wasn’t going to get to finish the string of beads after all. We eventually piled into a strange new house and promptly moved right in before going to bed. Mom said she packed the beads after all, but she wasn’t sure where they were. The next day, my older brother and sister took me out to play in the snow of our great big back yard. We made a snow man, something I’d never seen before, and then my brother took a running charge and tackled it. This small ranch in what seemed like the middle of nowhere was our new home.
I never thought about the beads again.
But I did think a lot about Texas,
Sometime later, I remember sitting around a dinner table eating fondu (it was the seventies, after all). The rest of the family was chatting away with the dinner guests, and their conversation puzzled me. They kept talking about how everyone back home in San Antonio talked in a funny way. I distinctly recall, my sister telling a story about a friend who used the word ‘y’all’ in the conversation, and of course there were the usual comments about how Mom’s speech had already come to match that of everyone else back in Texas. The laughter was all in good fun, but I simply didn’t understand. Almost all of my short life had been spent in San Antonio, Texas, and I hadn’t noticed anyone talking funny.
Eventually, we took a quick trip back to Texas for a couple days. It must have been a good year or so later. Dad sold our small vacation place on LBJ Lake and bought a Ford Pick-up before driving home. While there, I remember seeing one of my old playmates. We talked for a few minutes, but something was different. I remember one thing in particular.
He said; “So y’all goin’ back to Colorada?”
And I suddenly realized that he DID talk funny. So did everyone else! How I hadn’t noticed before would remain a mystery to me for quite some time, but he definitely did talk funny.
Mom always said that Dad’s nose would turn inside out whenever he told a lie. She didn’t mean a terrible lie, the kind you’d feel really bad about; she meant the kind of bullshit people sling around at their loved ones in the course of a regular day. Note quite a white lie, but not a serious deception either. That’s the kind of lie Mom was talking about, and yes, she was right. When Dad did that, you’d swear his nose was trying to turn inside out.
That’s one thing I remember about Dad.
Here is another!
It was often hard to get his attention. If he was watching television, for example, you could chatter away and he didn’t hear a word you said. You could ask him a question, tell him something, even something important, or otherwise make an effort to get his attention, all in vain. Short of shouting at the man, he simply didn’t hear you.
Yes, it could be damned frustrating!
Mom and Dad always said this was on account of Dad’s years as a helicopter pilot in the early air-ambulance operations of the military. He had also experienced plenty of other loud noises in the military, including at least one very loud noise (complements of the North Koreans) that would have killed him had he not tripped and fell flat on his face at just the right moment just a moment before it went off. In any event, Dad had heard a lot of loud noises back in the military, and this had left him with hearing loss, so if he wasn’t focused on you, he just didn’t hear what you had to say.
I grew up knowing this.
It was annoying, being ignored like that, but that was the cost of Dad’s service to his country.
Mostly on account of the helicopters.
In time, I came to experience hearing loss of my own. It set in at around 22 or 23 along with a nasty dose of tinnitus. I don’t think I slept for about 6 months. The ringing in my ears just wouldn’t let me sleep.
The hearing loss itself was all kinds of disorienting. I remember that I could no longer orient toward a sound. If someone called me from the left, I would turn to my right and wonder where the Hell they were? In a crowded room, I could no longer tune other people out to focus on the person I was talking to. (I still find that impossible.) Also, I got a quick lesson in how much I relied on my hearing during day to day activities. Once I began to cross the street and got a honk from an oncoming car behind me. That’s when I realized I was using the silence in place of actually looking to see if the street was clear, which was about as far from smart as it could possibly have been. I didn’t even realize I had been doing this until it was no longer an option.
In the years since, I have come to live with all these problems, all without an aid. Mostly, things re okay now. I keep some noise going at almost all times, but the tinnitus doesn’t bother me so much anymore. I just don’t notice it. I can hear most things that I need to. It’s a problem when my students are shy and don’t speak up; otherwise, my hearing loss doesn’t affect my classroom. My fiancé gets tired of repeating herself, but that’s not the worst of her frustrations with me. (She’ll live!) I reckon, some day I will get the aid, but for now, I am fine,
The story of my hearing loss is nowhere near as interesting as that of my Dad. The truth is, I don’t exactly know what did it. It might be a particular guitar note from Toni Iomi on the Black Sabbath “Born Again” tour (which is incidentally the inspiration for the Stonehenge sequence in Spinal Tap). I always wore ear protection to concerts, but not that evening. I’m not sure why, but I decided to rawdog the sounds that night only to find Iomi’s guitar impossibly loud and high pitched. Still, I was enjoying the show when he hit one particular note that filled me with pain all the way to my toes. That might have done it! Still, that had been a few years before my hearing loss set in. More recently, I had been listening to Jimi Hendrix on earphones. That might have done it. Or perhaps it was all the shooting I did as a kid, all without hearing protection, at least until I joined a gun club, only to begin assaulting my ears once again with heavy metal in my freshman year of high school. I really just don’t know how much any one of these could have contributed to my hearing loss. Any or all of these are good candidates for an explanation.
I also know that my own story of hearing loss doesn’t hold a candle to my Dad’s. My stories are stories of self-indulgence. His are stories of service to his country.
In any event, it was Dad who took me to get my hearing checked. I had aged out of coverage on his own military insurance the year before, but none of us knew it at the time. We thought that was how we would pay for the inevitable hearing aid. At the time, I really couldn’t imagine going forward without some help, so off to the hearing doctors I went.
The technician at the testing center didn’t tell me much, except that I had lost some hearing in my left ear. I was to take this information back to my doctor who would decide where to go from there.
On a lark, my Dad decided to take the test himself. He came back fine. Had the hearing of a young man or so the technician described it.
It wasn’t until hours later, that it finally dawned on me.
“He Dad, didn’t you used to say that your hearing had been damaged from your years as a helicopter pilot? Back when you used to ignore us while watching television? You always said it was because you couldn’t hear us.”
That’s what I was thinking one day, sitting in the back seat as my father drove us about town. I think I was 13 or 14. A couple of teenage girls had cut us off. Apparently, they couldn’t forgive us for being the butt-end of their own butt-hole moment. So, naturally we got a middle finger.
It was shortly after that that I wished I had been raised by someone on the other side of the world.
See, Mom decided to respond in kind. I don’t know if she just didn’t know how it was done or if she just couldn’t bring herself to do it right. Either way, mother proceeded to flip her index finger right at these two.
I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Better yet, I wanted to have never been born in the first place. Oh my God! How on earth can I be expected to endure this?
I could only hope these girls didn’t recognize me. Did we know each other? That would be worse still. I ruled out crawling under the seat as a bit too conspicuous, and anyway, I was still mad at the girls for nearly causing an accident. My anger didn’t outweigh my embarrassment, but the two feelings together were doing battle for control of my soul, leaving me temporarily paralyzed. I could only stare in horror at the scene unfolding in front of me.
…as my mother decided to raise her other index finger at them too.
I think I actually did try to die at that moment. I tried to will myself into oblivion, not that it worked. I just went right on living (dammit anyhow!) and so I had to watch my mother flipping two non-birds at these two teenage girls.
Dad just laughed.
I thought about jumping out of the car.
And that’s when things got really weird!
Somewhere in here Mom became aware of the fact that she was doing something silly. So did she stop? Of course not. Instead she decided to add her feet to the performance. She stuck both of them right up on the dashboard and pushed her fists up over them, each with her index finger still raised at the two impudent little girls. I really didn’t think she was that limber, but she managed!
Dad was beside himself with glee.
Mom began laughing too.
…and somewhere in that moment, I gave up on trying to will myself to die and decided instead to laugh along with them. We kept laughing long after the girls turned off on another road and traveled out of our lives forever. We laughed all the way to my sister’s home, and for some time after explaining it to her.
My old mentor, Willard Rollings, used to begin his history classes by asking students to introduce themselves. He always wanted to know what we called home. He would add that he didn’t mean where we lived. He wanted to know where our home was, and those were often two very different things. I don’t recall anyone who failed to get his point. The question always bothered me a little, probably because home has always been a bit of a problem for me.
I’m something of a military brat. My father retired from the army when I was very young, but he seemed to keep the habit of finding a new job every 4 years or so for quite awhile. I have just a few memories of Dad while he was in the service, but I remember quite distinctly the pattern of moving (along with every military base near each of our homes).
I spent my first four years in San Antonio, Texas. Naturally, my memories of Texas in those days happens to a bit thin. At four years old, my Texas had been the block we lived on. I remember that and maybe a steak-house whose name escapes me along with a small vacation house on LBJ Lake.) I remember fishing at the lake, and I remember all manner of snakes. I remember lots of little bits and pieces from San Antonio, but not much in detail. I also remember learning to string beads from Mom while we still lived in Texas.
I was stringing beads one day when Mom and Dad said it was time to go. I thought we were just going out for dinner or something, but we just kept right on going. I sat in my Dad’s old Volkswagon thinking about my string of half-finished beads sitting in a dish on the dining room table, wondering when I would get back to them. I was still thinking about them as great big white fluffy snow-flakes began diving into our windshield on our way into Beulah, Colorado. I never did get back to those beads. The next day my older brother and sister and I made a snowman in our new back yard. Scott kicked it over karate-style and Colorado became my new home.
We left Colorado in the middle of my third grade, but part of me stayed behind. Four years in Apple Valley California and 3ish years in Rawlins, Wyoming hadn’t changed anything. We finally settled in Boulder City, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas when I was 14 or 15. (The math here doesn’t quite compute, so some part of my memory must be off a click.) I rather liked Boulder City, but was I ready to call it home? Or was home still in Colorado?
We had a rather nice house in Apple Valley
I think I was the only member of my family that connected with Beulah, Colorado. Mom and Dad had nothing but bitter memories of the place. For me, though, it’d been 30 acres of ranch-land. We probably didn’t make very good use of it, and by ‘we’ I mean the family as a whole. We just weren’t ranchers. Me? I had no problem figuring out what to do with the place. It was a battlefield. Several battlefields, actually. Some World War II era, some Vietnam, and some from the old west. It was also a race-track. It was swimming pool and a basement with a pool table. It was a lovely fireplace. It was two streams I would fill with fleets of sticks counting as battleships. (You’ll have to excuse me. As a child I was quite the war-monger.) It was a place to ride horses. It was a place you could shoot a gun (or a bow and arrow) out in the back yard. I loved that ranch, so I loved Colorado. All those years, I had never stopped thinking of it as home. My family had long since shaken the dust from their feet. I hadn’t.
So there I sat in Rollings’ class with a ready answer to his question, except for one thing. I’d been living in Boulder City, NV, for over a decade at that point, and I couldn’t really say that I hated the place. It might just be, I thought as I contemplated my answer, that Boulder City (and the whole Vegas area) was actually home.
Rawlins, Wyoming (the less said, the better)
I learned just how much Vegas had become my home as I spent 3 years studying in Chicago. Whenever people asked me where I was from, I had no trouble answering them with ‘Las Vegas’. Of course I would never have said I was from Las Vegas to anyone who lived in Las Vegas. I was actually from Boulder City. But in Chicago that is a distinction without a difference. So, I would tell people I was from Vegas. Most importantly, I found myself feeling a bit of satisfaction saying that, the kind of satisfaction you get telling people about your home. Sitting there in Chicago, I think I finally let go of Colorado and came to claim the Vegas area as my own. It wasn’t just where I’d been living all those years. It really was home.
I spent three years in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Oddly enough, I lived in a graveyard, a fact I hadn’t noticed when I first moved in. My neighbor let me know about it one day as he told ghost stories and pointed at the stones around the neighborhood, stones which were actually gravestones that had been tipped over. Some of these graves dated back to the era when Fort Defiance really was a Fort and relations between Navajo and whites were a lot more tenuous. I never had the nightmares over those graves that my neighbor did, but I always thought it an odd thing to live in a neighborhood built on a graveyard. It’s a little more odd given Navajo attitudes about the dead. In any event, this was an interesting time and place, but it was also a difficult time. I can’t say that I ever thought of this place as home. I miss it sometimes, but not like I miss my homes.
Boulder City, NV
Three years on, I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, I still worked on the Navajo Nation, commuting to Chinle, Arizona to teach classes for Diné College. That was a hell of a commute! I think I totaled 500-600 miles a week, usually travelling out at the beginning of the work-week and coming back at the end. My brother always wondered why I didn’t travel around the area more; why I didn’t want to go to Phoenix this weekend or Sedona on that one. The truth was, I was tired of traveling by the time I got back to Flagstaff. I loved my weekends, and those few full weeks when I could afford to just stay home. Mostly, I loved my new home.
It didn’t take me long to embrace Flagstaff. Flagstaff was full of bike trails, and I took to them like a fish to, …well actually I was never very good at mountain biking. That didn’t stop me from getting out there and collecting a few scars. I rode almost religiously every other day. Flagstaff was where my cats would mug me whenever I came home and try to get me to play when I was packing up to go. Flagstaff was also a few nice restaurants, a game store (two at one point), an occasional trip to Charlie’s Tavern, and a few other things. Flagstaff was home for a little over ten years. In fact, Flagstaff was the first time I ever thought of the place I actually lived as my home. I still had a foot in Vegas (family) and another on the Navajo Nation. I think it was while I was living in Flagstaff that I developed the habit of leaving my clothes in a suitcase, but with all the local travel, I felt pretty well grounded. I had a home, and it was rarely more than a half days drive away from me at any given time.
So, why did I leave Flagstaff? Well, in a word, ‘money’. When gas hit $4.00 a gallon, I realized I’d have been better off giving up my vehicle and working at McDonald’s than continuing the big commutes. I didn’t want to move out of Flagstaff either, and I didn’t particularly want to move back out onto the reservation So, I quit my job and tried a few different things, none of which worked out. Life in Flagstaff soured. The place was still great, but my experience of it was growing more than a little bitter.
Eventually, I ended up in Houston, Texas, teaching at a private school. I liked Houston. Could have made a go of it, but I didn’t stay long enough to make it home.
I still remember getting a message from Ilisagvik College in Barrow, AK. It had been at least 6 months since I’d applied to work there and now they wanted to interview me. I know why now, but at the time, it was just inconvenient. I think I actually started writing out a ‘thanks-but-no-thanks response. Then I thought “what the Hell!” and wrote something else. Long story short? Barrow is now home. And yes, it’s home in the sense that Rollings used the term. It’s where I belong. It’s where I’m comfortable. It’s where my moral compass points whenever I am somewhere else. I could rattle on about it a bit, but honestly, Barrow is all over this blog. Suffice to say that I now call Barrow home.
…only there is an odd twist to it. I still think of the American Southwest as my home. It’s where I want to go whenever I get a chance to get out. Barrow is pretty isolated. Much as I love the place, I love it a bit more when I come back to it. I think most folks who live there would agree, you have to get out from time to time. Whenever I do, I find myself looking to get back to my old haunts. I’m not too particular about it, really. The whole southwestern region has become a comfort to me. Nevada? Arizona? New Mexico? Get me out there where I can smell sage or see red cliffs and I am happy. Feed me a not-particularly authentic taco and I am even happier. The Southwest feels like home, and that home feels just a bit better knowing that it isn’t entirely an escape from the place I actually live. This isn’t like those years of wishing my family were still back in Colorado while they were so happy to be out of it. When I go back home to Barrow now, I’ll be happier to be there. It makes it just a little easier to enjoy visiting my old turf.
So, what has me traveling down this very self-indulgent road? Nostalgia to be sure, but honestly, I’m not sure that this post is entirely about me. It may seem ironic given the me-ness of what I’ve written so far, but I think what triggered it was my girlfriend, Monica. I have spent the last month with her, here in Los Angeles. (She would say, San Dimas, but to me this is L.A.) Moni has lived in this area pretty much since she was a teenager when her family first came up from Mexico City. It’s definitely her home.
When I go back in August, Moni plans to go with me. In the meantime, she has been visiting old friends and taking me to some of her favorite places. In part, Moni is introducing me to all the people in her life and in part she is telling her friends and family ‘goodbye’. We didn’t get to everyone (dammit!), but I’ve met enough of Moni’s people, and spent enough time with them that for the first time I have a sense of what this move means to her. In the last month I have eaten dinner with Moni’s family, partied with some of her high school friends, traveled a bit with others, eaten at their favorite restaurants, and listened to a good deal of their favorite music. I’m starting to get a sense of the world Moni will be leaving to go up to that icebox I call home. I now have a sense of what she will be missing, and the thought of taking her away from it, away from all these people, is a bit daunting. She wants to go, so she is excited, but she is also leaving a lot of people behind, and so she is also sad. A few paragraphs back, I looked up to find Moni crying. So now I feel bad too. I’m excited to have her coming with me, but I’m also nervous. This is her home, and I am taking her from it. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not something to be taken lightly.
People can live almost anywhere, but some places become home.
I wonder if Barrow will be home for Moni? I expect she is wondering about pretty much the same thing. Hope doesn’t come easily to me. Thankfully, it comes easier to Moni. She is braver than I am. I wonder how she will cope with my cats? How she will like some of the native foods? How she will cope with the cold?
…whether she will find in Barrow something she can call home?
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question from the audience at one of the New England Council’s “Politics and Eggs” breakfasts in Manchester, New Hampshire November 11, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTS6IWM
I think I found the source for Donald Trump’s approach to public speaking. There is a clear precedent for his technique.
It’s Jane Elliot!
Jane Elliot is of course the Ohio grade-school teacher made famous for a classroom exercise in which she taught her students to discriminate against each other on the basis of eye-color. If you watch her in action, you can see the elements of Donald Trump’s rhetoric style unfolding before you.
It’s funny, because I’ve been thinking for some time that I have never seen anyone lie so readily, so easily, and in the face of such clear counter-evidence. Never have I seen anyone whose praise or whose censure was so obviously a function of his own self-interest. It is as if facts have no bearing on his evaluation of anything or anyone, and the only thing that registers significance in his evaluation of the world around him is what he wants to happen. Those who support his goals are terrific, and those who oppose him are failures, sad. I keep thinking, no-one I know of has ever been so obvious about it. But no. The man has a clear role model. If you watch Elliot teaching her students to mistreat each other, it’s all there. She may have meant her exercise to warn people against this sort of thing, but I can’t help wondering of Trump didn’t watch her at some point and say to himself; “Yep! That’s exactly what I want to be.”
Elliot set out to instill prejudice in her third graders in the space of a single day, and then to reverse that prejudice the following day, before debriefing the lot of them and ending the lesson. She didn’t have a lot of time and she wasn’t the least bit subtle about it.She employed all manner of tactics to communicate contempt for the wrong-eyed children in her classroom.
You might think Elliot’s lessons less relevant to real-world politics, because, well third graders, right? But of course, Donald Trump’s own rhetoric has all the features of grade school communication. Far from a detriment, it turns out childish vocabulary and simplistic arguments are actually one of the keys to his success. With his simple words and constant repetition of basic themes, Trump leaves a very clear impression. It is the single-mindedness of Trump’s presentation that seems to resonate with his supporters, and in that respect, his approach is very much like that of Elliot.
But does the nature of the message matter?
You bet it does.
It’s not just any simplistic message that Trump offers supporters; it is a simplistic message about who is a better person; them or someone else? In this respect, his approach mirrors that of Elliot. It isn’t merely that Trump advances a message of hatred; it is that he presents that hatred in terms of a clear pay-off. You are are better than they are! That is what Trump keeps telling people (whoever you are and whoever they might be). It’s an invitation to enter a world with a clear hierarchy of value, and to enter that world on the value-laden side of that hierarchy. You don’t even need to do anything. You are already better than the many scapegoats he offers you (Muslims, Mexicans, the Media, minority activists, etc.) Trump really doesn’t call on supporters to do much more than vote for him. Their role in his his America is to be the real Americans while the rest of us take our lumps. It’s this message that survives all the messy details. It is a message not the least bit undermined by questions of fact, reason, or even the evidence of the senses. In this respect, Trump is very much like Elliot teaching half of her classroom to think of the other half as lesser people.
When I watch Elliot tell a child (at about 5:20) that a blue-eyed parent would never kick his son while using the apparent claim that a brown-eyed parent had done that very thing, I can’t help but think of Trump’s many anecdotal attacks on immigrants. It shouldn’t take much critical thinking to see past the argument, but is that more important than the invitation to be better than someone else?
Apparently not for a lot of people.
When Elliot begins telling the Brown-eyed children they can’t use the drinking fountain (at around 6:10), and when she restricts their playground privileges, she is effectively telling the blue-eyed children they are special. The things they all used to take for granted now belong only to the blue-eyed children (at least for a day). The pay-off is not substantially different from that enjoyed by an audience assure more of their kind of jobs will be created while watching others threatened by cuts, told their own health-care will be taken care of (somehow) by cutting others loose, and of course their citizenship will not be sullied by the presence of certain kinds of people. (And no legality was NEVER the issue in Trump’s new-fangled Know-nothingism) We on the left haggle over the details of these policies as if they matter. To the average Trump supporter, I do not think they do. He may be right about this or wrong about that, but what matters most to those who support them is that he keeps elevating them above someone else. He does it free of charge. They don’t have to understand anything difficult; they don’t have to work harder (at least he doesn’t say they will); they don’t even have to listen very carefully. Being better in Trump’s world is as simple as saying yes to him and his gold gilded message. In scapegoating enemies domestic and foreign, Trump is telling anyone who cares to accept him that they are special. They get to drink at the fountain. Others don’t.
When Elliot tells her children that the brown-eyed people are slow or stupid, she creates the very facts she purports to describe. Elliot noted (at 13:15) how the student performance rose or fell with the changes in their status during the course of her exercise. There is little to distinguish this from the effects of social stigma and/or poverty on groups for whom prejudice is not simply an exercise. When Trump promotes such distinctions, he generates real harm.
(At about 12:10) “Do blue-eyed people know how to sit in a chair? Very sad. Very very sad.” …this one speaks for itself.
One might think that folks would see past such a thinly disguised gambit. Elliot is working with third graders. Surely, adults would know better!
In the end, this may not be a question of what people actually think. It’s a question of what narratives they circulate. We keep hearing that Steve Bannon isn’t really an antisemite or even that Donald Trump isn’t personally against homosexuals, Mexicans, women, etc., but the Trump camp and its supporters keeps producing stories denigrating to these groups and anyone who gets in their way. Like Elliot, they may know better, but like Elliot, they do it anyway.
Except for one thing.
There will be no debriefing at the end of Trump’s Presidency. There will be no great learning moment, no sudden transformation of the whole situation into a great learning lesson. Whatever cynical reasons he and his supporters may have for throwing the rest of humanity under the bus, there is little reason to believe it will stop any time soon. The only credible promise this man ever made is that he would hurt people in their name, and for whatever reason, that was reason enough for a number of people last November. We can only hope that enough people come to their senses, and that if and when they do, something can be done about it.
In the interim, the Trump administration continues its own experiment in social control. The continue teaching us to humor this man’s fantasies, and to think of ourselves as better for doing so.
Let us hope the nation as a whole can respond a little more appropriately than Jane Elliot’s third graders!
Can you imagine a human being, fully formed without also imagining him or her embedded in a network of social relationships? Can you (or anyone) be a person without being among others?
Suffice to say that some people have tried.
This is part of the reason for interest in feral children, and of course we sometimes read of ancient experiments depriving children of exposure to language (or in some cases any human interaction). These experiments wouldn’t get past a human subjects review panel in a modern university, but the stories are certainly interesting. A large part of that interest comes from the prospect of finding a person who became a person without any significant human interaction whatsoever. What kind of person would they be? What kind of language would they have? How would they think? These stories are long on legend and short on data, but it’s not hard to understand why people would want to investigate such things.
…even if only in a story.
The thought experiments of certain social theories are not far off from such stories. So very many people have attempted to imagine the nature of a human isolated from social connections. Chapter XIII in Thomas Hobbes’ book, The Leviathan would be a good example. So, would be the calculations of many rational choice theorists, those attempting to find the self-interest in just about any human interaction. And of course, there are always the masturbatory fantasies of Ayn Rand and her cult of ‘objectivist’ fan-boys. (Honestly, I feel kind of bad mentioning her alongside serious thinkers, even those I disagree with, but with the likes of Paul Ryan and Ran Paul claiming inspiration from Rand, one must admit the woman remains relevant.) What these approaches have in common is a rather atomistic vision of social life. They take an individual human being as a given and problematize questions about how and why that individual human does what he does in relation to others. In effect, they reduce social life to individual psychology; tey reduce social interaction to individual self interest.
The problem in each instance, is that individual psychology is intrinsically social. You can’t be a person without being in relation to someone else, because you can’t become a person without relating to someone else. You wouldn’t survive childhood without someone feeding you, clothing you, keeping you clear of the neighbor’s dog, and giving you the occasional hug. You wouldn’t be who you are if your Mom hadn’t stared into your eyes and smiled at you until you smiled back. You wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere in those early days you didn’t notice that the great-big Mom-face smiled back when you smiled yourself. You figured that out long before you figured out the words for such things, or even the difference between you and the mom-face, or anyone else. And you wouldn’t be who you are if somewhere along the way you hadn’t learned to give a damn about such things.
Even the basic problem of solipsism seems to get this whole thing wrong. We don’t start as an individual and then figure out that others might (or might not) also occupy our world. We don’t figure out how to relate to them long after we’ve decided what we want in life. We don’t decide how to treat other people only after deciding what we want ourselves. We develop our own self-image in relation to those around us, and we base on desires and goals on a sense of the world that is already populated with other human beings, some of which (hopefully) we care about. (Thank you Martin Heidegger!)
All very academic, right? (Well academic, in a loose kinda bloggetty sorta fashion.)
Except, there are moments when theoretical atomism seems to mesh with the more pointed boundaries of compassion and empathy in real life. People don’t lack for reasons not to care about this group or that kinda person. Often as not, people seem to tell us who they do give a damn about in much the same breath as those they don’t. We care about us, but we don’t give a damn about them. What constitutes the difference? Race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, …you get the idea. Any number of categories will do. It’s a pretty familiar dynamic, one with sometimes startling consequences. Those we make our own, so to speak, we may treat with great care, but those we don’t, we may visit great cruelties upon them, often without a second thought.
It doesn’t help when people looking for reasons to reduce their fucks given for others to zero can make ready use of theories breaking all our social connections up into phantom gestures of self-interest. It doesn’t help when the dominant metaphors of government programs (or the lack thereof) come straight of the sociopathic imagination. Whatever the theoretical (de-)merits of atomistic theories, they become far more critical when they become the actual basis of public policy.
I am of course talking about the free market fundamentalists among us, those who consistently reject the case for public welfare wherever they may find it, or at least whenever it might require collective effort, and especially if it means anything resembling taxes. Time and again, libertarians (and often their more conventional conservative allies) will tell us we mustn’t have this or that program because it will violate the individual rights of tax-payers and produce inefficiencies in the market. If someone poor is to receive aid from the government, someone else must pay it, and that payment will be secured by force. Then we have to deal with all the moral hazards of people changing the rational choices on the basis of programs changing the natural inclinations of supply and demand. These are real problems, to be sure, but for some these problems are also damned convenient excuses for denial of social responsibility. If they have their way, progressive taxation is out. The social safety net is a bad idea (goodbye welfare, medicaid, and medicare, among other thigns). Every regulation is suspect, including those that keep poisons out of the air we breathe and the water we drink. And of course everything from schools to the post office would be better if privatized. Why drive on on a federal highway when you could take a toll road? For such folks, it goes without saying; whatever government can do, private business can do it better.
Because private business can be described as the actions of private individuals whereas government is of course a collectivist enterprise. To fall into this mindset, we have to ignore the collectivist nature of modern corporations, but hey, if the Supreme Court says they are people, then corporations are people. So, the actions of these incredibly powerful collective entities count as the actions of private individuals in the narratives of free market fundamentalists. We are supposed to believe that single-payer insurance polices are against the free market, but insurance corporations are not. There is a difference, I know, but that difference doesn’t really support the distinctions made in public policy. One is not individual while the other is collectivist One is not a function of free market policy while the other counts as a socialist scheme.
People vary in their source material, educational background, and rhetorical strategies, but somewhere in the din of all this free market noise, I can’t help but hear the echoes of Hobbes and the others. Hell, I can’t help but hear echoes of the Pharaoh Psamtik. He is the source of one of those legendary experiments I mentioned up above. According to Herodotus, Psamtik had two children raised without any communication in order to see what language they would speak. He was disappointed, according to the legend, to find the children grew up speaking Phrygian, but of course they would actually have come out of that experiment speaking nothing at all, and being hardly human. Such an experiment would be a disaster for the children.
Is it really all that different from the social experiments urged by those seeking to deny essential support to future generations? Time and again, the brave heroes of the free market tell us that individuals must rise above their circumstances, as if poor schools, poor healthcare, and poor infrastructure could be resolved by the platitudes of a motivational speaker or the narrative arc of a Horatio Alger novel.The denial of social responsibilities thus comes with a bundle of narrative solutions, all of which work much better for the narrator than they do for any real life protagonists.
These stories particularly don’t work for children. Often as not, children don’t even make it into the narratives of libertarian rhetoric. We get the stories that deny aid to adults (why should I pay for someone who won’t work and might even be taking drugs?), and then someone else has to point out that aid also goes to children.
In the end, I can’t help thinking the failure to account for childhood is the most critical feature of libertarian approaches to policy, but its not just a theoretical failure. It’s also a very critical failure of practice. Just as atomistic theories of individualism could never account for the way one becomes a fully functioning human being, the practitioners of atomistic policy cannot, and will not, account for the needs of children through public policy. They won’t even account for the needs of adult women who produce these children, not in any realistic manner. The wealthy can of course throw money at the problem, and damn the rest of us to Hell anyway, so it seems is the only real answer we will ever get from the free market fundamentalists. Of course, there are other boundaries beyond which social responsibilities can easily be denied.
If the atomistic mindset is inadequate, the consequences of its inadequacies do not fall upon all of us equally. Some need the help more than others, and the denial of it serves some better than others. Whatever the strengths and weakness of free market fundamentalism, it will always have a little extra appeal for those in power.
Some people are just a little more obvious about this than others.
So my girlfriend and I were talking the other night and she’s asking me about my blog. I told her I should write something about our visit to Monument Valley this December, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to say about it. I mean, I could say the usual stuff about it, …Blah, blah, …John Wayne, …blah blah Roadrunner cartoons – all very done-before. But I tell Moni I don’t have anything inspiring to put in with our pictures. So, I tell her she should write the post for me. Moni says she can’t write. I know she’s lying. So, I keep telling her she’s going to have to write the post for me, because I’m mean like that. Finally she says something like “you know what I think of Monument Valley?”
…and I’m like “got her!”
“What do you think of Monument Valley?”
She tells me it’s too stupid; she doesn’t want to say it.
We repeat this about 3 times.
Finally, she starts talking. I grab a sheet of paper and start scribbling as fast as I can. These aren’t quite her exact words, but they are pretty close:
To me, it was a good deal to go to those places, because that’s what America was to me when I was living in Mexico City. That’s the picture that I saw when I thought about America. It’s been a very long time, but it was still a very big deal for me. It took me back to when I was a kid and I was just thinking about coming to America.
I think Moni needs to write more of my blog posts.
Is it the threat? There always seems to be some threat to Christmas. Someone won’t make it home. Somebody else stole the presents, or maybe someone is going to stop Santa from spreading the presents. Perhaps someone is broke and thinking of taking the short route off a bridge just before the happy holiday. Whether it be a fantasy grinch, a real worldish villain, or simply a natural disaster of some kind, I’d be hard pressed to think of a Christmas story that didn’t feature some threat to Christmas.
Or is it the lesson? Christmas tales always have a lesson. Someone must learn something about the true meaning of Christmas. That true meaning always involves something about giving and/or grasping the value of our loved ones. Not uncommonly, someone in the story learns to shift their attention from material objects (i.e. Christmas gifts) to the other people in their lives (or perhaps the other whos in whoville). It’s a pretty heart-warming lesson.
Makes you want to go ‘awe’!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as likely to go ‘awe’ as anyone if the story is told well, but there is always something a little too pat about these stories. They can be damned formulaic, and damned trite. And when you consider their connection to one of the most overtly commercial rituals of the modern western calendar, it ought to raise all manner of red flags. Somehow, this holiday, which has been driven by commercial interests for the better part of at least a century keeps generating stories about how the stuff we are supposed to buy on account of it isn’t really what the holiday is all about.
Can you say ‘cognitive dissonance’?
I knew that you could.
(Of course I say it myself having just snuck a few presents under a tree.)
So, anyway, hoisting myself on my own petard here, I still can’t help thinking this particular profundity game is a bit more toxic than most of us care to admit. If it weren’t, then perhaps we could all enjoy a story where the main character suddenly realizes the true value of Christmas really is commerce. He could praise the virtues of conspicuous consumption and even acknowledge the often-competitive nature of gift-giving. He could see in the countless gifts nobody wants a kind of sacrifice to the Invisible Hand, telling us these white elephants are the price of keeping mom&pop stores going for another year. If the Market is well pleased with our pointless gifts, He allows the stores to stay in business, but if we fail to pay this tribute many tears will follow. Our fabulous Christmas protagonist could fairly acknowledge all of this in a toast before drinking his eggnog. Money is the reason for this damned season. Surely, there ought to be room for at least one Christmas story with this as its moral.
But no. That kind of theme is always at best an artifact of conflict, a viewpoint to be overcome by the end of the story. However important money may be to this holiday, it seems to be equally important that we find something else more important in the whole thing after all.
And with that, we get our Christmas tragedies. Scrooge loses his edge. The Grinch rejoins civilization. And how many sitcoms end their holiday episode in bad sweaters and milquetoast grins. It’s enough to make a grown man want to groan.
So be it!
Even so, the money story may be a bit more profound than simple materialism would have it. In the end what makes money so central to Christmas isn’t the gifts we hope to get. It isn’t even the ones we hope to give. It’s the lives that continue to function because a good chunk of the yearly profits actually did happen after all. So, business owners get paid, and because they get paid, so do their employees, and so on, and so on. We can sneer at the crass commercialism of it all, but if Christmas doesn’t happen, some people really do suffer (and not because they didn’t get what they wanted under the tree.) Money may be a lot more central to this ritual than our typical Christmas story would have it, but then again money is itself a lot more profound than most of us would care to admit. So, perhaps it’s not so bad to see through that crass commercialism of Christmas to something a bit more humane. It’s almost as if all this smarminess is an attempt to work out the actual significance of what we all do to put food on the table.
Of course that just lands us in a new mess. The celebration of love and togetherness that we are left with in just about every Christmas story is of course idealized in the extreme. The love celebrated in all these Christmas stories always comes across a bit too pure, at least in the final joyous scenes. But how often does this have anything to do with Christmas as we live it? If for no other reason than the threat of politics at the dinner table, we should all be a little wary of the promise these stories hold out. And if the celebration of togetherness and caring ever jumps out of these stories and into our real lives it often brings a bit of a mess with it.
If Hell is other people – and it is – then Christmas (with its themes of love and togetherness) can’t help but bring a little horror into our lives. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Christmas is so rich. It’s full of contradictions, and those give rise to countless real-life Christmas stories every year. Sometimes they end well and sometimes they end badly. Mostly, our Christmas lives are as mixed as our Christmas narratives aren’t.
Ah well, horror too has its place in the grand scheme of things.
How else to explain fruit cake!
I recall as a child, my mother always planned week’s worth of work. She would bake every cookie imaginable. She would buy enormous quantities of gifts which she would wrap in all manner of beautiful ways. We would decorate the whole house in the most elaborate way. We would sing carols. And so on.
…She usually ended up scrambling to do as much as she could in the last day or three. It was never enough, especially not for her, and that meant Christmas Eve was an especially difficult evening. She was angry and depressed, and for me that meant at least a little phase where I would have wished the whole thing away. That moment always vanished by morning, but it was there.
Mom had one brother. He died on Christmas Eve while building the Burma Road during World War II. He had joined the military after getting kicked out of the house over drinking a single beer, so his death left a special kind of rift in her life, and presumably that of her parents. I can’t imagine how hard that holiday must have been to her. As a kid I really couldn’t.
For my mother at least, Christmas would always be a source of mixed feelings.
I once got to play Scrooge in my Jr. High Christmas Production. I rather liked that Christmas. Seriously though, the opening scenes were way more fun than the closing ones.
In recent years, talk of a war on Christmas has me both amused and irritated. If there is anyone out there who genuinely objects to being told ‘Merry Christmas’, he or she is fairly outnumbered by those clearly upset by the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’.
Much like a horse, I reckon one shouldn’t look a well-wisher in the mouth. Those who keep congratulating themselves on saying ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays’ do little but show the insincerity of either wish coming from their own mouths.
When thinking about this one, I am often reminded of the year I spent teaching at an orthodox Jewish private school. The folks at that school said ‘Happy Holidays’, and yes, that was a generous choice of wording on their part.
You never really know when you are the one to be tolerated.
I still remember the year my older sister made up a decoration that said “Pax et bonum” (Peace and Salvation) This was to go at the top of our tree instead of our star. We had a really great star that projected all these cool colors all around the room. I really loved that star.
I was a bit of a shit about the whole thing.
More than a bit actually.
One of my favorite Christmases ever was the one we celebrated on Easter Sunday. My nephew was serving in Iraq that year, and no-one in the family was the least bit interested in celebrating the holidays until he came home. So, we literally gathered around a Christmas tree and unwrapped presents on Easter Sunday.
I’m even a bit more fond of the Christmas we all agreed to forgo presents entirely and went as a group to Molokai instead. I wish every Christmas could be like that. Oh there was plenty of drama that Christmas, but it was drama that played out in Molokai.
Molokai makes everything better.
When I worked at an animal shelter, I recall that we tried to discourage people from getting pets as Christmas presents, at least not without giving the recipient a chance to choose the pet. Too often, pets given sight-unseen on Christmas day ended up back at the shelter not long afterward.
No-one is surprised when a blind date goes badly. Think about that next time you hand someone a puppy and expect them to bond for life.
Speaking of my time at an animal shelter, I once had to dress up as Santa Clause at a Petsmart. The idea here was to pose with people’s pets for pictures. This is a pretty regular thing as I recall, but I always thought it a very bad idea. These animals are already in a strange environment. Now you want them to sit on the lap of a guy with a fake beard and fake hair, gloves, and a wild outfit?
Damned lucky I didn’t come away with scars!
Speaking of the war on Christmas, people sometimes wonder what atheists say instead of Merry Christmas? This one mostly says ‘Merry Christmas’. Some folks think it odd to say ‘Merry Christmas’ when you don’t literally believe in Christ. They oughtta love Thursdays.
My girlfriend tells me there is a benefit to dating a gringo. Her (Mexican) family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve. We typically celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day. This makes it possible to be with both her family and that of her boyfriend when the actual celebrations take place. This doesn’t work so well when her family is in Los Angeles and mine is in Freeport, Texas.
She is an extraordinarily patient woman.
Her boyfriend can be a bit of a shit though.
More than a bit, actually.
Ah well. That’s enough random Christmas stories. Someone recently asked me about my favorite Christmas songs, so I’ve attached a few videos. All that said…
The God of Chick Tracts always struck me as something of an asshole.
I still remember the first time I encountered a Chick tract, but I can’t remember if it was the 4th or the 5th grade. I think I might have been hanging around after school for some reason. I do remember quite clearly that it was one of several that had been left scattered about the boy’s bathroom at my school.
This particular pamphlet contained a pretty generic story of a sinner who died and went to Hell. The pamphlet ended, as always, with a message of hope; we didn’t have to end as the character in the story did. Through Jesus we could be saved. In my charitable moments, I like to think that message of hope is the real point of these pamphlets, but frankly I think that might be giving a little too much benefit of the doubt. On that day it was clearly the message of fear that left its biggest impression on me. I remember the feeling of horror coursing up and down my spine as I read about the suffering of sinners damned to a lake of fire. The mere thought that this could be the world I was born into was enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck and keep it there. The suffering itself and the cruelty of the being who would inflict it stuck with me for days, as did the cruelty of anyone who could say of such a thing that the source of it was good and worthy of praise.
It’s more than a little fitting that my first encounter with a Chick Tract was in a bathroom, because my whole world got a little creepier that day and I don’t think it’s recovered since.
I grew up in a household filled with the ideas of Spiritualism and Theosophy, essentially the forerunners of modern day New Age thinking. I’d heard of people who believed in Satan. I’d heard of people who believed in Hell. In retrospect, I must certainly have known many who believed in the things talked about in that pamphlet, but I hadn’t ever really talked to any of them about it. What I heard of God and Jesus was all love and kindness, and so those who literally believed in Hell were (much like Hell itself) a remote possibility to me. To my family, such people were largely a whipping boy, an image of someone who gets it wrong conjured up mostly for the purpose of telling a story about how more enlightened souls get it right.
The Chick tract was the first time such people became real to me. They became real to me in the most caricatured form imaginable. On that day, the worst things said of organized religion by the adults around me had not come close to the pure malice of the story I held in my hands. Someone had left this with the intent that children would find it and read about it. Whoever that person was believed quite firmly in Hell, and they believed in it strongly enough to want to share that message with others.
It didn’t escape me that the chosen mode of delivery was less than honest. Leaving pamphlets in a children’s bathroom is more than a little underhanded, and this fact was the icky icing on a whole cake of ugly. So, there I sat with this pamphlet, trying to wrap my mind around the twin horrors of this vengeful God and the fact that some people actually do believe in Him, and whats more that they love him. Suffice to say those horrors outweighed the significance of any hope the pamphlet might have had to offer. The vision of Jesus might have been the end of the story, but it’s most memorable moment for me (and I suspect others) had clearly been the lake of fire.
Could the world really be so perverse? Could people really be so morbid as to think this way? Those are the questions I kept asking myself after encountering that first Chick Tract. It’s all I could think of for some time afterwards. Eventually, I managed to put the whole thing behind me, but not entirely. It was a bit like some of the dirty stories my friends were beginning to tell at that age, or images of odd porn that somehow crossed my path. I hoped one day to make sense of all these things, but for the time being I found them simply disturbing and I preferred not to think about them much. To me, that pamphlet had always been a kind of pornography.
It still is.
I understand the author of that pamphlet, Jack Chick, has recently passed away, and it reminded me of that day back in school. I don’t wish to celebrate his death, but I’m also quite aware that his passing will stimulate a surge in public interest regarding the man and his work. I take no pleasure in his passing, but I do think his life’s work is worthy of a comment or two, critical as mine most certainly will be.
The next time I had cause to consider Jack Chick’s particular brand of pornography came in the mid 80s when I and my friends took to playing Dungeons and Dragons. “Dark Dungeons” would be Jack Chick’s main contribution to the Satanic panic of the era. I don’t recall when I first became aware of it, but the story-line always struck me as both laughable and deceitful. I didn’t really become fully aware of Jack Chick himself (or of his operation) until I joined a few discussion boards back in the early 2000s. It was odd to me, a bit like learning the name of a creepy caller. This was the man who had written that story from back in my childhood. He was the author of those morbid images, and he was the source of that sick feeling I had upon seeing them.
Good to know.
…but also a little disconcerting.
I recall only one other Chick tract with any degree of significance to me. It was about Navajo Medicine Men. Chick portrayed them as Skinwalkers, thus conflating healers with monsters, and of course ending the whole matter with a familiar pitch to Jesus. It was no more insightful than the hack job Chick did on D&D.
I’ve encountered a few more of Chick’s pieces over the years, but not many have really stuck in my memory. The formula is simple. Some worldly interest will lead a person down a very dark path toward Satan, death, and Hell itself, but Christians will offer them salvation. In the end, the reader is invited to accept Jesus and be saved. I understand others have been doing the work for sometime now, but the essential formula remains largely unchanged. I always wonder at the choices Chick and his successors make in these stories. Do they really believe the details of their claims? It’s one thing, for example, to believe that Dungeons & Dragons is a bad influence on kids, and quite another to believe that it is literally run by a cult as a means of initiating children into arcane magical rites. This is what fascinates me most about such work today. It isn’t testimony to faith, but rather the myopic interest in sordid stories about actual people real world world institutions. What kind of mind spreads stories like this? And how did they decide to produce them? With or without evidence, I can’t help thinking the bottom line is the same. Someone is getting off on these narratives. Whatever their interest in selling the hope of Jesus, someone is reveling in the vision of sinfulness a little too much.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no particular reason to condemn anyone for pursuing their prurient interests, at least if you can do it without harming anyone. What bothers me in this instance is the bad faith and the lack of self-awareness, the sense that someone could play so happily in the very imagery they seek to condemn in others. Perhaps more to the point, what bothers me about Chick Tracts is the sense that this is a pleasure taken in sordidness of others’ lives, a kind of hope that other people might really be worse than you could possibly know, and of course a hope that they will suffer in the end. This sort of thing is not unique to Chick publications, unfortunately, and one can often find preachers indulging in a kind of proxy porn. I suppose that was Chick’s particular genius. He found a particularly vivid way to present that kind of material. Whether that is to his shame or his credit is of course another question. For me the answer is clear enough.
I wish I could find something better to say about Jack Chick than this. It is of course tempting to follow an age old wisdom and say nothing at all, but Chick’s passing reminds me of that moment all those many years ago in which I first found one of his publications. Don’t get me wrong. Worse things have happened to me than the discovery of that creepy pamphlet. Even still, I can’t help thinking it wasn’t a particularly positive experience. For me, that will always be Jack Chick’s legacy.