Thursday, January 28, 2010

Political behaviour (crazy)

"If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

- Juan Ramon Jimenez, cited by Ray Bradbury at the opening of Fahrenheit 451

"Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy."
- Attributed to Richard Linklater, quoted by REM in the mid-90s and muttered by anyone on their way out the door from something they care about for centuries before that

September, 2001. Post-9/11 by a few days. I worked with a guy who dryly suggested that Afghanistan be bombed with pornography and fried pork rinds as part of a war on culture (Iraq wasn't quite in the picture yet) and another who said that while 6,000 people might have died in the towers (this was the early estimation: the final count was half that and still cold comfort), he believed that 15,000 people had been killed that year by Nike and McDonald's and The Gap and other American interests.

I didn't take either suggestion too seriously. I thought the pork & porn approach was firmly tongue in cheek and the 15,000 dead represented a number pulled out of the air to embellish an ill-timed discussion about globalization. Neither suggestion accomplished much more than letting these guys vent some spleen. A lot of the early responses boiled down to two philosophies: the shock and awe types willing to 'turn sand into glass' and those convinced that none of it would have happened if Chomsky was President (I didn't even think he'd been a candidate) and that Nike/McDonald's/The Gap and assorted others had better be taken to task. The loudest reps from both camps adopted an approach that boiled down to "I want you to listen to me! I want to save the world!" with special emphasis on the first seven words in that phrase. Sufficiently amplified, it was difficult to tell those camps apart but for the company they kept.

Shock and tension doesn't bring out the best in anybody; free-form anger is a Grade A manipulation tactic regardless of where it comes from. You're guaranteed a wide audience when you're loud enough that people won't question your facts or motivations for fear of becoming that guy who's screaming at the guy who wouldn't stop screaming. You can always make a case later by explaining how you might not have chosen the right way to say what you said but your intentions were coming from an honest place. If it helps you sleep at night, so be it. I've used that approach myself. I've even been sure that I meant it.

All this came back to me upon realizing that almost nine years after 9/11, Pat Robertson still hasn't shut up and still creates his own reality. His deal-with-the-Devil comments are pretty famous by now (you can see them at the 30-second mark here), but his ride on the coattails of Jerry Falwell back in 2001 is a bit scarier to me. To be fair, it was Falwell who suggested that the 9/11 attacks could be traced to feminists, abortions, gays & lesbians and the ACLU as a whole. Pat simply agreed with him. And since he could make that leap of logic, it's not that far away from deciding that the Devil flattened Haiti.

Falwell sorta-kinda apologized in 2001 and Robertson said that his agreement had been taken out of context. Pat's Haitian response was a bit more oblique: a spokesperson for CBN pointed out that "Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath," neatly sidestepping the fact that Pat's still claiming to know what the Devil's been up to of late.

Call me old fashioned. Call me a sucker for the reasoned argument. Show me the math. Make a case. When things get nightmarish, keep your powder dry. Blaming an earthquake on a deal with the Devil or framing 9/11 as divine revenge against gays, lesbians and the ACLU stem from the same place of crazy. Disgraceful then, depressing now. Ad nauseum.

I once had somebody ask me Isn't it okay to have a crazy response to a crazy situation? (or words to that effect) and I've never been able to answer it properly. 'Okay' is a broad term in that context. 'Not unexpected' might fit better. And even with that proviso, crazy is still in the eye of the beholder. But that beholder is still bound by their own structure of sanity to decide what crazy looks like. And to realize that, regardless of intent, crazy remains crazy.

Looking at a different place of crazy (or maybe 'irrational' says it better): shortly after Pauline Kael died I received an email that boiled her life down to a few sentences. "It's a shame that Kael didn't use her position to champion women's causes related to film. Just having ovaries isn't enough." I read it, considered how badly I wanted the fifteen seconds it took me to read it returned to me, erased the mail and went about my business. The author of that sentiment (if not that slogan, I thought I'd seen it on a lapel badge or a t-shirt somewhere) didn't need my permission for his opinion. It wasn't my place to change his mind.

But I wasn't able to get past the dismissal of Kael as a woman and a critic simply for not fitting into the political box that he thought she belonged in. That was crazy. I was pretty sure that having ovaries was enough for any number of things and it struck me as patronizing to suggest otherwise. Having ovaries isn't enough to earn you the right to live the life you want? Did Kael really deserve to be labeled as an all-around disappointment to anyone since she had allegedly squandered her ovaries and declined an opportunity to serve as a mouthpiece for their movement? Wasn't she free to spend her time comparing Last Tango in Paris to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring instead?

I think the author considered the email to be a consciousness raising exercise rather than a casual observation and I was probably expected to engage. I was going to reply with a brief essay explaining how my grandmother hadn't fulfilled her potential in assuming a set of wheels and becoming a wagon. Or that Deborah Grey, capable of making u-turns to her advantage, might have been the best spokesperson for Greyhound that the world had ever seen. And Emma Goldman might have put her team-building skills into becoming one hell of a Mary Kay Cosmetics rep. None of these ideas were any less unreasonable than being disappointed in Kael's choice of inspiration, but I was relatively sure they'd receive a less than enthusiastic response.

I looked at the can of worms I'd been presented with and wondered if it might be magically transformed into a life-changing incident for everyone involved after a few dozen emails or a lively evening's discussion at the pub.

The odds looked pretty damn slim.

I ignored the message.

Life went on.

Jan 2010


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