Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Creative vs Reactive

A good friend of mine, The Beige One (linked to the side here), recently wrote a blog post that stemmed from some conversations that we have had. In essence, he started from a point I had, that the right has a narrative to peddle and the left has mainly reactions, and talked about the need for us, the left, to find and stick to compelling narratives, to have our facts and our stories straight.

I responded to his post, pointing out that what he was talking about was effective framing of and engagement with a debate, which was important, and has been well-written-about by George Lakoff, and that I actually meant something different. The right tells stories, creates a clear narrative of how it views the world, and the left reacts, crafts its narrative space in opposition to the right’s narrative. I was pointing out that the Right has done a much better job at tapping into the power of creation.

I devoted a good six or eight paragraphs of response to his post, and another equal amount to another post he wrote about the disassociative effects of online engagement.

But I haven’t posted here in months. I’m trapped by the same thing I accuse the Left of being trapped in – a reactive, instead of a creative, narrative-creating structure.

So, why? Why me, and why the Left?

I know I’ve been caught lately in a pit of inaction, not so much depressed as terrifically unmotivated. I run into the “why bother” point of any even small writing project incredibly quickly. It isn’t that I have nothing to say, but rather that I can’t see the point in saying it.

And I think this is a condition of audience.

Maybe we stop creating narrative, and fall into the reactive mode, when we lose faith in the possibility that our audience is willing or even able to listen. The Left watched Bush lose three debates, lose an election, then take power anyway, slack his way through 8 months, puff himself up for being the sitting president during our worst terrorist attack, use the generated fear to commit war crimes, run up debt, run down schools, and still friggin’ win again. Does the Left have a vision of America? Sure. Do they really believe anyone will listen if it is articulated. No, seems they’ve lost that.

I think I have, at least for the moment. Even now, I’m thinking more about going back to pick up the loose threads of previous posts instead of creating any new points of departure.

Because, I think, sometimes, right now, who cares? Will it matter if I can combine ideas about the nature of self and not-self, faith, art, and the Fundamental Attribution Theory into a Grand Unified Theory of why people are dicks?

I must find a way to believe it will matter, and the Left must find a way to believe people will listen, because until we do neither will be able to do much to tap into the power of creation. We will remain reactive.

And occasionally overreactive.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

When you don't get it

I just want everyone that reads blogs, that reads anything and belives that reading gives them a right to an expressed opinion, to take a step back and think before they speak, and especially before they join any existing conversation, whether it be between individuals or a larger cultural discussion.

Because, mainly, if you have a position, if you have a story you believe works, then you should just shut the fuck up or listen if you can.

If you have an existing story of the world that you believes works, is pat, takes into account, then you have stopped thinking.

And if you think that story is right, is grounded, is explained, you are a miserable dialogue-destroying idealogue, and it doesn't matter how "good" or "nice" or "inclusive" your ideas are, they are bullshit.

Because any owned story will value its own survival. As a good and unassailable thing. And that will kill the truth on a little, tiny, petty altar of satisfaction.

Some stupid bitch of a waste of education and enlightment cut short a discussion of the way communities deal with racism with her ideas about what former NYers tend to say just this very eve. Which of those two ideas sound interesting and valuable to you?

Goddamn am I pissed off about it, too.

For the love of Pete, have something to say or shut the fuck up - don't share pieces of rhetoric like they are wisdom.

And have the good sense to realize your intellectual elders are talking, and pipe down.

Beige boy, you know what I am talking about, and if your balls are bigger than bb's will send this on to her. Nothing worse than a mind that could be right thinking it is right, and being fucking simple.

Fuck - if you don't want to think, and think deep, just go home.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Judging a man

How do you judge a man?

First off, you would have to ask yourself why you choose to say “man” instead of person or soul, recognizing the patriarchal mode of even your internal questioning.

(If you nodded your head, but did not laugh, at the previous statement, please leave now and never ever come back, because you and me, we’re gonna butt heads.)

Seriously, it’s a serious question. I’m serious. What are the measures and how do you do it? Seems to say as much about us as about them, but even that isn’t particularly helpful because it doesn’t answer the question. If you know part of a judgement is about yourself, how do you make the distinction between judging thing and reflecting self?

The need to ground this discussion has become apparent.

At the garage sale we recently had, in the neighborhood from which we have just fled, we met many neighbors with whom we hadn’t spoken or even exchanged waves in our fifteen months living there.

Bill, from across the street and two houses down, was one such neighbor.

Bill is a mangled man. He walks with a dragging limp, and one shoulder two inches lower than the other. He is old and grizzled, with a face less creased than collapsed, a steel grey buzz cut missing patches of hair, suspenders that explain their name as they support the assemblage of dirty denim and cotton fluttering around his gaunt and wiry frame.

He brought each of his grandkids over, and when he introduced himself and shook my hand, it was a firm and gnarled handshake that disguised whether he had five fingers or four. I followed most of what he said, but his voice was smoke-scarred and his mouth short maybe a dozen teeth.

Bill told me how much he loved kids, and tickled my little girl’s cheek. He said he was sorry to hear we were moving, that we were good neighbors, and that he was always available to babysit.

Maybe a half hour after he brought the last grandkid by, he was back, limping across the road, waving what looked like a picture frame at me.

“I only ever showed these to one other neighbor, guy up that way. I don’t like to show off. I just thought you might like to see ‘em.”

It was a collection of ribbons and medals. The Congressional Medal of Honor was the first. A bronze star, a silver star, airborne ranger, several purple hearts. Most of these I’ve never seen before, not like this, in the presence of the person that earned them.

“The only one I didn’t earn was that one,” he told me, pointing to a Good Conduct medal in the bottom row.

“We would jump behind enemy lines, y’know, and be out there for a couple days. This one time, it was Korea, and we had been behind lines for three, four days and got back into camp past midnight. There was some new kid working the sentry post, and he didn’t know us. The password had changed, and we didn’t know it, but I told him he could see I wasn’t a Communist and kept walking toward him. He brought his gun up to his chest and I just whupt took it away from him and told him to call the CO and to wake up the mess hall, too.”

Bill’s already chuckiling at this point in the story, and I imagine he is remembering the look on the face of the young kid who has just had his weapon taken out of his hands.

“Well, the CO, this Colonel, he ain’t been there but a few days either, and he gets there and asks me why I don’t know the new password, and I told him ‘I been behind lines for four days and the Chinese didn’t tell it to me.’ He looks at me and tells me he doesn’t like the way I said that, and I just crack, y’know, popped him.”

Bill’s slanted shoulders are shimmying now as he laughs his way through the end of the story, and I’m laughing too, not because it is a terribly funny story but because I would want laughter if it was my story and I was telling it.

Bill’s laughter trailed off and he shrugged. “Anyway, thought you might like to see them.” I thanked him, genuinely, and he limped off.

Watching him walk away, the end of the only direct dealings I would ever have wth this man, I started wondering how I judged him, how I understood him. I’ve always told myself that I will judge by what I know, what I see, and not what I hear.

Bill’s a Korean war vet, distinguished, raising a bunch of grandkids in his house, broken but still strong. There is a time, a mindset, a series of experience that informs who he is. And, from everything he showed me that day, a man of pride. He has treated me with nothing but respect.

But, that day is not all I have ever seen of him, and there is what I’ve heard of him that I can’t quite seem to vanquish from my thoughts.

Bill’s house is a source of constant screaming. There are as many as four kids under 7 there, so some is understandable, but the amount is excessive and often heart-rending. Kids cry, but my kid cries, but there is always a child screaming in distress from that house. And there is Bill’s wife, who possesses a broken glass harpy-wail of a voice, and screams at the kids as her primary mode of communication.

How can I share the creepiness of the quantity and quality of the screaming? This exchange does it pretty well:

Bill is standing at his pickup truck when HarpyWife shoves her head out the door. The wailing behind her is like the sorrow of a defeated nation expressed in a child’s voice.

She screams. “I found your cellphone. It was in her diaper.”

Something there just ain’t right.

I’ve seen the two-year-old wearing only a diaper, hauled by one arm, toes off the ground, into the house. I’ve watched the kids cry as a visit from one of the three men addressed as Daddy comes to an end, watched as they hang on the fence sobbing only to be dragged back inside, where somehow, for some rreason, the crying gets louder behind the closed door.

Our next door neighbors, a chubby and incredibly goody couple that views my family with some suspicion (we sometimes play rap music and occasionally smokes cigarettes outside), once told us they called CPS because they saw Bill whack one of the littlest with a stick. I’ve never seen anything quite so openly wrong, and know none of the kids were removed as the report was months ago.

So, how do I judge this man?

Clearly, I’ve no plans to take him up on his babysitting offer, and it is true that my daughter recoiled when he touched her cheek (she’s a generally excellent judge of character, but also generally shy even around boys she knows these days). But, how will I choose to think about this man?

Because there a few important things at stake here. It is easy to make some assumptions based on what I observe. But, that runs toward the Fundamental Attribution Error, that reflects self at least as much as it might brush up on thing.

I can tell a story that fits what I see, and make that the truth of Bill, or I can try to think through what stories might produce the observations I see, which casts the net wider, which gives me multiple avenues of negotiation, and which seems more likely to get at the truth.

Because, really, Bill is probably an easy case. He’s military, he’s of a more conservative time, he’s broken and proud, and he’s taking care of the children of others. The possible stories are clear, there are fewer cultural road blocks thrown in the way.

What do I mean? I mean I want to figure out how one best negotiates the cut of the jib of others, how one tries to understand all of the possible stories that might explain what is observed instead of telling their own story as an explanation.

Because I want to understand how I judge this particularly intriguing angry black bus driver I rode with this morning.

Y’see, I sent the others away back in line three not because I disagree with the patriarchal nature of our society and the language it uses, or the fundamental racism, but because I am looking to go deeper. Not, yes, but…. More like, yes, and….

I’ll try and get to the connections between Bill and the bus driver in the next post.

I know I should be writing about hurricanes and the shameful lack of prep and gutting of funds perped by BushCo, but my thoughts and backlogged and others will do that better anyway.