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Suffering Fools

We've Traded Places Times Before

We’ve Traded Places Times Before painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” James Barrie

My friend John Grimes, the cartoonist, recently sent me an article from the Washington Post about Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump for President of the United States. The writer of the article suggests that since both Palin and Trump are Reality Television stars, this endorsement furthers the frightening trend of American politics becoming little more than a media circus designed to numb the populous while aggrandizing the stand-ins for the despots.

But I think there is something else going on here with Trump and Palin, something much older and deeper than Reality Television, though directly connected to the televisionization of our culture and society, which has made us, more than ever before, the victims of aggressive extroverts who seem to be developmentally arrested somewhere between the ages of four and ten.

When I was in Sixth Grade, a decade or two before the introduction of Ritalin and other pharmaceuticals into mainstream-education class management, there were two kids in our class, Charlie and Amy, who were both so impulsive, loud, and disruptive, our well-meaning teacher was nearly powerless to control them. And even when Charlie and Amy were not acting out, we expected them to explode at any moment, so our classroom experience was about surviving Charlie and Amy, not about learning. Sadly, these two were not smart or creative or interesting. On the contrary, they were infantile and abusive—Trump and Palin.

When Charlie and Amy’s behavior became seriously dangerous, which it did every few weeks—they often erupted in tandem—they would be removed from the class room for a few days or a week, and renaissance would ensue. Kids rigid with fear would relax, discussions would become sophisticated, and real learning would ensue, along with joy and laughter and emotional growth. And then Charlie and Amy would return and so would the Dark Ages.

“My grandfather believed there are two kinds of people—those who know how the world fits together and those who think they know. The former work in hardware stores, the latter in politics.” Josef Anderson

Alas, adult versions of those two abusive children who wrecked school for many of us are plentiful in our society. I’m sure you have experienced the following: You are at a gathering of intelligent thoughtful people, save for one who is not particularly bright or thoughtful or interesting, but he—it is most often a he—holds forth incessantly about nothing of interest to anyone, interrupts anyone who dares speak for more than a moment, and ruins the gathering—the group powerless to overcome this person’s repulsive neurosis.

Why are there so many of these boorish people in America? Christopher Lasch posits in his fascinating books The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, that the breakdown of the extended family within a larger cohesive social fabric, hastened by the invention of auto-centric suburbia combined with the intrusion of television into every home in America, birthed vast numbers of individuals incapable of forming healthy emotional bonds. And those individuals, he suggests, had children who had children who had children, while all the while the social fabric continued to unravel; and we are now several generations along this new evolutionary path to endemic emotional disconnect.

“Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests.” Sir Max Beerbohm

When I taught Creative Writing at a summer school for highly motivated teenagers, I became aware that most of my charges did not know how to have conversations. They could exchange bits of information and make pronouncements, but they didn’t really know how to converse. After lengthy field study, I concluded that my teenagers did not know how to listen, did not know how to ask questions, did not know how to ask follow-up questions, and did not know how to think for a moment before responding to things other people said to them.

So we held conversation workshops in which my faculty demonstrated how to ask questions, how to listen to answers without interrupting, how to ask follow-up questions, and how to keep listening. Then we had our students practice writing out responses to the answers they received to their questions, which gave them practice in thinking about what they heard other people say before responding. And then we had them practice these techniques in groups of two and three and four people on a stage in front of an audience, after which people in the audience gave the performers feedback about which parts of the conversations they especially resonated with.

And though we worked on many aspects of the writing process during those month-long intensives, nothing we did for our students impacted them as profoundly as learning how to have meaningful conversations. For several years after I ceased teaching, I received letters from former students recounting the huge impacts those conversation workshops had on myriad aspects of their lives.

I often think of those workshops when I encounter these emotional black holes who will not allow anyone else to speak. You will notice that such people never ask questions of anyone, for to do so would be to enter into conversation. What, I wonder, do these incessant blabbers fear about other people speaking?

Could it be that the television itself is the primary role model these people have when it comes to relating to others? How does a television behave? It talks incessantly about the same things over and over again, never asks questions of those listening, and continues talking if anyone else tries to speak. Why wouldn’t people entrained by watching television for hours and hours every day from early childhood and throughout their formative years, imitate that “person”? Of course they would.

I don’t watch television, and it is only through what my friend Max Greenstreet informs me is called social osmosis that I know anything about Reality Television. But I would wager that most Reality Television shows feature people who would benefit greatly from conversation workshops.

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Civil War

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2012)

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” Abraham Lincoln

I was on the phone with my old pal John Grimes, a cartoonist with funny and provocative insights about American society, and John said, “It’s 1850 all over again. The nation is as deeply divided as we were right before the Civil War.”

My initial reaction was to agree with John—visions of red states versus blue states dancing in my head—but the more I thought about his idea, the more I disagreed. I don’t think America is divided, except that six people with my last name (no relations) have more money than forty-two per cent of all the people in America.

If we were a nation divided, half the people would vehemently oppose our ongoing foreign wars and the maintenance of hundreds of military bases around the globe that cost us trillions of dollars we might better spend on culture bases here in America. But there is no anti-war movement to speak of today, and the candidates representing the supposedly opposing political parties have identical foreign policies, except that the Democrats traditionally spend a pittance on family planning programs in Africa while the Republicans abhor helping women anywhere plan the size of their families.

If the nation were divided, half the people would oppose Single Payer healthcare, otherwise known as Medicare for all, and half would be in favor of such a marvelous thing. But poll after poll shows a vast majority of Americans in both blue and red states would love to have Single Payer Healthcare, yet for some inexplicable reason we keep electing boobs who won’t give us that boon.

If the nation were divided, half the people would want to increase taxes on the wealthy and half wouldn’t, but poll after poll indicates that the vast majority of Americans would love to increase taxes on the wealthy, yet for some inexplicable reason we keep electing boobs who won’t give us that boon.

No, I think Americans are remarkably undivided, certainly compared to the Italians or Greeks or French or Russians. When was the last time we elected a socialist president or dissolved the government for lack of confidence or marched in the streets to protest unfair austerity measures (let alone to protest elections decided by politically appointed judges)? The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats today is infinitesimal compared to the differences between the top two Greek parties, or the top two parties in any democracy, which we most definitely are not.

Imagine the French putting up with a trillion dollar student loan debt. Wouldn’t happen. Their nation would be shut down in a trice by protests and roadblocks and huge crowds of furious former and current students, and France would stay shut down until the student debt was forgiven. But Americans, blue and red alike, fit ourselves to the yoke of debt to the same bankers who bankrupted our nation and then helped themselves to a few trillion more. In a nation divided, half the people would demand that those crooked bankers forgive the student debt, yet there is no popular support for such a good idea.

The thing is, we Americans are fanatically undivided in our love of cars and computers and television shows and 3-D action movies and comfortable living. Oh, and in the absence of royalty, we worship celebrities. We know more about celebrities than we do about our government. In fact, we know almost nothing about our government. Come to think of it, we know almost nothing about anything except celebrities and television shows and cars and apps (whatever apps are), and our ignorance, to a large degree, is what unites us.

And the rulers of our nation know very well that ignorance unites us, so they make the continuance of our ignorance the focus of their governing and educational policies, while keeping us stuffed with up-to-the-minute information about which celebrity was recently driving drunk or in possession of an illegal substance or cheating on his or her wife or husband with another celebrity, and whether or not his or her cheating will help or hurt the box office numbers of his or her next incredibly violent 3-D action movie or sappy heartfelt romance or bloody police drama.

I tend to think that a celebrity having an affair with another celebrity would, in general, help that celebrity’s box office numbers. Don’t you? I mean, people (at least half the people) will be curious to see if the celebrity seems different now as a result of his or her affair, so I would think our collective curiosity would bring us to the multiplexes in greater numbers than if he or she had not had an affair. No?

Okay, so I’m being cynical, but factual, too. I think the ruling puppeteers use the idea of a great divide to distract us from our cohesiveness and to keep us from discovering how easy it would be for us to overthrow the puppeteers. Indeed, we are an extremely united people, and that’s one of the main reasons we don’t revolt. We feel the solidity of our union and we like the feeling. And though we may think we disagree about Romney and Obama, in our collective heart of hearts we know Romney and Obama and Clinton and Bush and on and on ad infinitum are all superlative representatives of the ruling elite and never deviate from the orders of their overlords. In our ignorance, we do not know who those overlords are because overlords are masters of invisibility, which is one of the prerequisites for becoming an overlord and keeping your job.

Oh, what do I know? I don’t even have a cell phone or an app, whatever an app is. Where and how I get off commenting on American society when I don’t belong to even one social network, I don’t know. Forgive me.

“The people will save their government, if the government itself will allow them.” Abraham Lincoln

Speaking of great divides, I was living in Seattle in 1977 when Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall came out. I was a big Woody Allen fan back then and remained a Woody Allen fan until around the time he married his daughter. I didn’t stop going to his movies because he married his daughter. Woody marrying his daughter just happened to coincide with his movies becoming redundant and annoying and pointless, as far as I was concerned. But I loved Annie Hall, saw it several times, and was vociferous in championing the film. Today I won’t watch Annie Hall for fear I will find the film retroactively pointless and redundant.

So…at the height of my infatuation with Annie Hall I went to a party and fell into conversation with a man who thought Woody Allen movies were stupid, especially Annie Hall, which he had walked out of after twenty minutes. He said he found the movie pointless and shallow and badly acted and horribly written. “Anyone,” said the man, shaking his head, “who likes that movie has a screw loose.”

“I love that movie,” I said, trembling with sudden rage. “Anyone who doesn’t like that movie is a shallow doofus.”

“Touché,” said the man, clutching his heart as if stuck by a rapier. “So does that mean you loathe Monty Python?”

“I love Monty Python,” I said, trying to dislike the man but finding I liked him. “Especially The Cheese Shop.”

“Then we can be friends,” he said, holding out his hand to me. “The truth is, my ex-wife loves Woody Allen and I associate his movies with her, which is probably why I walked out of Annie Hall because I kept thinking about how much she would love the film, so…”

We shook hands and he told me a joke I still have in my repertoire.

So this guy goes to a psychiatrist. At the end of the hour, the psychiatrist says, “I think you’re crazy.”

And the guy says, “Hey, wait a minute. I want a second opinion.”

“Okay,” says the psychiatrist. “You’re ugly, too.”

“These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.” Abraham Lincoln

I am fascinated by how passionate you and I and most Americans are about books or movies or music or celebrities or Youtube videos we love or despise, yet how dispassionate we can be about the ongoing crimes against humanity perpetrated by our government in concert with the fleecing capitalists, the ongoing social inequities, the ongoing environmental degradation of our planet, the ongoing criminality of our healthcare system, ad infinitum. Of course, it is that ad infinitum that renders us dispassionate, for we are overwhelmed and benumbed by all that is wrong with our society even as we participate in that wrongness by using electricity and driving cars and surfing the interweb and buying groceries and widgets and whatnots.

We, the people, are not divided in our culpability or in our desire not to feel culpable, yet we need and desire ways to express our outrage at feeling compelled to be culpable. So we blame rich people and politicians and pretend there are huge and important differences between Obama and Romney; and we passionately defend the only things we feel we have any control over: our taste in books (if we read) and movies and music and celebrities and web sites and apps, whatever apps are.

Or as a big scary drunk guy said to me in a bar in Los Angeles, “Far as I’m concerned, anybody who don’t like Country music might as well be dead.”