Thursday, February 01, 2007

BRAVE BIG WORLD

Gary Kamiya over at Salon has a piece on the Internet’s mega-expansion of the reader feedback phenomenon and its effects on writers (“The readers strike back”, www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2007/01/30/writing.html).

It’s worth the read, especially since it’s backlit by an insightful writer’s sensibility: on the one hand you like to read what others think about the pieces of handicraft you send forth into the world, yet on the other hand you can’t take too much negativity or even prolixity and you always have to keep a weather eye on those “who threaten to damage the fragile, half-permeable membrane writers use to keep the world from being too much with them”. Bingo. Although for some writers, I think, a crash course in Vauban’s fortifications is closer to what they require, or one of those star-trekky type capabilities of avoiding damage in this dimension by remaining slightly out-of-phase with it. This possibly was what the Gospel writers had in mind when they describe Jesus as passing unruffled and unharmed through the midst of pressing crowds. To a writer, such a capability would certainly intimate an aura of the divine.

Reading the blogospheric feedback gives one “an unprecedented snapshot of America”. Just so. There are times one wonders if The People are an actual fact-on-the-ground or merely an ideal (a ‘kanon’ as the Greeks put it, a ‘canon’ as the Latins did and still do put it in the Catholic Church). Is ‘The People’ a true – so to speak – descriptor, or is it a lie which we must nobly embrace at the outset in full knowledge of the deception and then live strenuously to ‘make true’? Or might we put the revolutionary, Leninist, Theorist ‘suspicion’ aside and simply accept that in this life nothing is ever perfectly and fully ‘realized’ or ‘actualized’ and that the best a pilgrim can do is to press on as smartly or at least as resolutely as may be? Or we might simply accept that the thing is a ‘noble lie’ (emphasis on the ‘lie’) and then figure that since nothing is ‘on the level’ we can and must cut whatever deals we can to ease our paths in life.

Such a question is gall and wormwood to the fundamentalistic mind, a Manichaean, melodramatic sensibility – so Hollywood and script-friendly – that requires a Good guy and a Bad guy and a final, decisive struggle between them in the third reel, and the Good Guy winning. And getting the girl. And Jesus. Quite a two-fer … no wonder the Fundies are so excited.

We are in the glorious days of “disintermediation” when the old mainstream media ‘gatekeepers’ have been outflanked and the power to publicly speak one’s mind on any subject is now available to anyone. It has turned out to be a decidedly mixed blessing: for every ten loudmouth (loud-fingered ..?) baboonish rants there is one worthwhile, substantive comment. But of course, it’s only the Internet and whacking a keyboard, even repeatedly, entails no physical violence to anyone else whomsoever.

To the extent that the Internet ‘liberation’ reflects the assorted liberations effected by the assorted revolutions of the assorted Identities – whatever they might be – this, unhappily, is not the case. Out in the actual world, all sorts of folks have been liberated from the need for maturity, and they make full use of their ‘right’ to flaunt their undeniable
(non-)achievement. And many folks just aren’t ready or willing or able to operate out of the ‘higher end of the human range’. Yet they wish to be heard and who’s to say one might not get a usable idea or a useful insight from their participation?

And if there is one thing that the Internet has done, it is to do its own end-run around the fortified check-points of Political Correctness (that leftish, revolutionary discipline that so un-disciplines the mind and heart and – I’ll say it – soul). Harking back to JFK, the hardy denizens of the Internet opinion-sphere embody the assertion that “(W)e are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

What has happened to us since he spoke those words? We have to ask and We have to answer that question. Nor can We make the revolutionary and simplistic deduction that since JFK himself surely didn’t share “everything” then his statement is totally false and untrue and he himself was utterly nothing more than a sleazy two-face. JFK may have been caught between the Ideal and the Real even within himself: a situation utterly beyond the fundamentalistic mind to comprehend, though the natural operating terrain of them-Kathliks.

What has happened to us? We have, I would say, been ‘revolution-ized’. We are slap-happy from the sustained yet un-nameable assault waged by the revolutions not so much on the content of the ‘American dream’ as on the very processes of the American spirit in its approach to conceiving and sustaining a life and a society and a culture. Unable to speak what we think, unable to speak for ourselves, unable to think for ourselves, unable to imagine ourselves except as victims (and thus so desperately in need of a strong government to preserve us).

In the Founding generation and for quite some time thereafter, it was the ‘strong government’ that they wanted to see caged; they’d take their chances with Life and Death and all the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Now, perversely, even as the Horsemen and even the capital-letter words are considered to be childish fantasies, the ever-dangerous government is being welcomed into the hearth of The Republic by right-thinking citizens who fear the possibilities of life’s experiences even more, now that there is no Life and no Beyond-Life; and in that fear they turn to a government more than willing to purr promises of perfect safety into their ears.

Revolutions have inevitably wound up ensuring that they have mostly followers and only a few acolytes, a small vanguard-elite ordained into the Mysteries. But of course the revolution’s initial great effort is undertaken – blood and all – ‘for the people’. It is only later, too late, that the revolution has second thoughts. Too late for the people who embraced it or at least acquiesced in it, hoping that indeed any tomorrow is better than what they have today. Discovering too late that they were hugely mistaken.

If some writers do indeed need “ivory towers” in order to craft their work, they must still from time to time look out of those towers, long and hard. They must look Out and Down and Around and Up as well as Inward, although we cannot require – as the Sixties did – that they also be able to compose masterworks while sitting in the back of a paddy wagon, warbling some hootenanny ditty to establish ‘solidarity’. Solidity is many-splendored, if indeed it is ‘solid’ at all. Perhaps it is merely energy behaving densely. But then even more so: there are many ways to be ‘solid’, some of them as ponderous and adamantine, some of them almost diaphanous and tensile yet highly charged. So many ‘solidities’.

But bumptious or serene, in your face or reticent, Truth-tellers are always disconcerting. How could they be otherwise, since we each and all need so much untruth to cushion our flawed passage through Time? It’s quite an art-form, learning to balance the mix between Truth and untruth in our lives, individually and societally. Just as most of us all have mornings when we’d rather stay in bed, all of us have moments – or entire months – when we’d rather not have to deal with the Truth: of our lives, of our nation. Fantasies, like ice cream, go down a lot easier than veggies. Broccoli, for example, is like garlic to the elder Bush. And are we reaching the point where garlic might be the best defense against his son? Would that it would be so easy.

What has happened to us? And now whatever it is that has happened to us, is dividing and sub-dividing and the energies thus sub-divided are now colliding with each other. In Framingham, MA a regional medical facility wants to address a community/public-health problem: child obesity. Excellent. It deploys and ad campaign using billboards. Good. The illustration thereon portrayed is a grainy black and white photo of the back of a 10-12 year old boy; he has no shirt on (pants on, not to worry) and he is most obviously overweight. It is painful to look at the rolls of fat hanging down from under his arms and around his waist. Nor is there any ‘enhancement’, such as his being daubed with glossy oils to heighten the effect. It’s a simple photograph that clearly and insistently illustrates a problem that is endangering public health and children.

It has to be taken down. That’s the pressure being put on the facility. A professor at a state college up there sniffs that the ads represent a “fear campaign” (her term). Which will (the article says – ‘Boston Herald’, 1/31/07, ‘Scales Tip Against Obese Boy Billboard’) “only work for people who don’t have a problem”. Huh?

I don’t know which Theory leads her to that learned conclusion, but we have 1) a problem that 2) threatens children and 3) threatens the community and yet it cannot be clearly limned in its effects so as to mobilize awareness.

And we’re not talking publishing photos of aborted fetuses in order to stop abortion here. We’re talking about a photo of the back of a child who is burdened with the effects of the problem that we’re seeking to address. And we see children and adults in this condition (and worse) daily on our streets or even at social or family gatherings.

Predictably and sadly, the paper – having shocked us – doesn’t dare examine the matter further. There is the obligatory pro-con passer-by comment (one pro – “It’s direct and to the point”; one con: “It’s over the edge”) through which the paper can hint at the issue without having to commit itself either to the hard work of reporting or the hard work of thinking or the dangerous work of taking a position on such facts as it has unearthed.

What has happened to us? We are now suffering from advanced-stage Advokitis: there are now so many conflicting demands from the assorted Advocaies that we are now trying to appease the demands of so many Advocacies that we are becoming paralyzed. Once upon a time there was only one and then a few more of these things, and folks were still able to keep track. Now there are many, each with its own insistent PC admonition and demand. Thus in this case here the laudable goals of addressing a credible threat to children and furthering public health has run smack into the self-esteem PC doctrine that obese persons are a victimized minority and must not be in any way even potentially subjected to possible ridicule (and we all know that schoolyard kids are capable of remarkable, often (but not always) thoughtless cruelty). Thus far, then, a stalemate.

But something else is at play, I think. What has happened to us is that we are now unable and/or unwilling to face unpleasant facts, even for the purpose of grasping the threat to ourselves and formulating a common and efficacious method of dealing with that threat. We are afraid to go up on deck and see what’s happened out there with the iceberg. We don’t want to be ‘insensitive’; we fear becoming ‘shrill’; we want to remain ‘optimistic’. Well, a sensitive radar is better than an insensitive one any day of the week; the whole purpose of a siren or an alarm bell is alert us through its shrill insistence; and there is an unsubtle but gravely real distinction between ‘optimism’ and ‘denial’. Thus paralysis and worse – a form almost of collective dementia.

Writers have to be sensitive, their whiskers twitching so that they can discover things about life and living that the more rugged or coarsely-made of us will not or cannot perceive. But unlike the PC of the revolutionaries, the writer seeks what is True, rather than seeking to impose what is Desired by the revolution. Writers must be sensitive, but they cannot be dictated-to because Truth itself will not be dictated-to. Thus they must be sensitive, yet made of a tough, resilient steel. For at the first scent of an approaching Truth, far too many will turn to repel it and its bearer. It’s the way of this world. It’s what humans do, at the lower end of their range.

But at the higher end of their range, humans are capable of remarkable things. And so we must strive for that higher-ness of Self, in season and out of season, in good times and bad, til death do us unite with the fullness of Truth.

Here’s to all writers – and especially to Molly Ivins – who have brought the light of Truth’s fire – in some small way – to this darkling and bloody ground that our world has always been and that it threatens more intensely to become. Let us, as LBJ would have said, continyuh.

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