Taibbi: The Divide

Matt Taibbi’s new book The Divide is superb. Everyone needs to read it right away. He oscillates from heartbreaking descriptions of people arrested for “blocking pedestrian traffic” (these arrests are purely done to meet police quotas) and enraging explanations of white-collar criminal activity that’s never investigated, let alone punished.

What emerges is a devastating critique of dysfunctional American injustice, especially for those on the top and bottom of our economic system. Toward the end he explains beautifully:

This goes far beyond the oft-quoted liberal cliché about how we now have “two Americas”, one for the rich and one for the poor, with different sets of laws and different levels of punishment (or more to the point, nonpunishment) for each. The rich have always gotten breaks and the poor have always had to swim upstream. The new truth is infinitely darker and more twisted.

The new truth is a sci-fi movie, a dystopia. And in this sci-fi world the issues aren’t justice and injustice, but biology and mortality. We have a giant, meat-grinding bureaucracy that literally alters the physical makeup of its citizens, systematically grinding down the losers in a smaller, meeker, lower race of animal while aggrandizing the winners, making them bigger than life, impervious, super-people.

Again, the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick. And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere.

What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that “second government” — a vast system of increasingly unmangeable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors. These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.

Rock is Cool but the Struggle is Better

In 1999 the Indigo Girls released a song called “Go”, on their album Come On Now Social. It’s got awesome lyrics about fighting for a better world and what we owe to those women and men who fought for us to have so much. Once upon a time I made a video for it, but I never put it on YouTube. If there’s any noise here, maybe I’ll upload it.

Anyway, there’s a line in the song that has always given me pause:

Feed the fire and fan the flame
I know you kids can stand the rain
I know the kids are still upsetters
‘Cause rock is cool but the struggle is better

It’s a good point (and it suits my point made in Creative Writing about building to the fourth line in a quatrain), but I want to pick up on the final concept there. I think one reason why so many kids find their way into rock (and not the struggle) is because it’s easy to find one’s place in rock. Especially today, when the varieties of music — and easy access to them — are at our fingertips, there’s a seductiveness that’s built into our social lives that protest and political activity doesn’t cater to. (This doesn’t even account for the massive industries organized around music, which we’ll take as a given.)

The truth is that taking action for a better world isn’t usually fun, and the vast majority of the population doesn’t take part. As a result, being in the struggle is often a lonely activity, and it can be exhausting. This is unfortunate, because (as Abbie Hoffman once pointed out) we need young people in the front, since they’re impatient and they haven’t grown jaded like so many adults.

As I’ve said elsewhere, however, being part of the struggle can provide a sense of history and purpose like nothing else in our fractured, chaotic world. (And it’s how I met my wife, heh.) More to the point, however: The struggle needs to happen, and there are plenty of people making rock a reality. Who among us is willing to step up and move the struggle forward?

Stages of Life

Today I showed my Creative Writing classes Sarah Kay’s fantastic TED Talk “If I Should Have a Daughter”. (If you’ve never seen it, please take 20 minutes and have a look.)

At one point she mentions how nervous she is and how much trouble she’s having keeping it cool. This got me thinking about how much I love being on stage, and how envious I am of her ability to talk to such a huge crowd. (Then I listened to the 60 Minutes story on the history of TED itself and got even more envious of all the people who have been invited to present there.)

This is all ego, of course. Were I properly humble, I would shun the spotlight and insist that other people get the attention and microphone time. But I’m not, so I don’t.

Bring the Ruckus

One of the best moments of my life — along with marrying Diane and presenting at the Writers’ Institute (which was itself a glorious opportunity for public speaking) — was a training camp held by the Ruckus Society in cooperation with Students for a Free Tibet. This must have been in 2000 or so, in some ashram about which I was woefully ignorant. (My zen-happy 2015 self would be giddy to spend a weekend at such a place.)

I was invited to discuss the lessons I’d learned in my years of activism in solidarity with East Timor. My talk came at the end of a long day of training related to nonviolence (in which I participated, and at one point was asked to pipe down so others could participate), climbing ropes to prepare for hanging huge banners (which I didn’t partake of, since it looked too much like physical activity), and outdoor living. (For some reason I remember vividly the kitchen committee playing ACDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” whenever a meal was ready.)

When the sun set and dinner was done, we all moved to an impromptu stage that had been erected near the campsite. Tiki torches burned hither and yon, giving the area an odd Lord of the Flies vibe. And there, under a beautiful moon, in front of 150 enthusiastic young activists, I gave a speech of incredible passion and power. I got down with my message, sparing no detail about the horrors of the Timor occupation, nor the strength I had drawn from the Timorese people. I remember ending with these words: “The question is not whether Tibet will be free, but when — and how many people must die before it happens.”

The crowd went nuts. I know I can’t trust my memory, but it was electric. I could tell this was a message they needed to hear, and I was euphoric to have the chance to bring it. Being a loudmouth had always been my thing, but in that moment it felt like a force for pure good. I was giving lifeblood to people who were changing the world, and it was simply glorious.

The evening afterward was great, too. I had been on the periphery of the training — clearly I knew about nonviolent protest, but I’d never risked arrest like the people leading the training. I didn’t climb the ropes or learn about tying knots. And I desperately dislike camping out. But after my talk, people were giving me dap and telling me how much they enjoyed what I’d said. It was rare then — and is still kinda rare now — for me to hear such things.

Director, Star, Fascist

This is a huge part of why I love teaching. It’s performance as much as any one-man show or standup gig. The difference is the compulsory nature of the audience; most of them would rather be in a dozen different places, and many of them will never enjoy the show, no matter how much I refine my stage presence or performance skills.

On the plus side, I get to be in (near) total control of the show. When the bell rings, the curtain goes up and I’m on. This can be intimidating, but after fifteen years I pretty much know the stuff and how to do it. I have to bring all my own props, but most of mine are electronic (I showed the students the weird Red Room scene from Twin Peaks, recently, for example) and it’s a smooth process.

The problem is that the teacher’s not supposed to be the star of the classroom, not really. But when I open the floor, I get silence. So if I don’t perform, we all just sit around being bored.

The other reason I work so hard on stage is that I have to get the students to behave and pay attention. The simple truth is that I prefer to use humor and energetic presentations over punishments and repression. Of course at a certain point I can ease off, but by then the patterns of classroom process are established, and besides I love being the center of attention.

I started wondering today about an alternative approach — suppose I started each class in the usual fashion, but then made it clear that over the course of the semester I would recede more and more into the background of the class. Would the students step up more, if I moved away from the limelight? Or would we have more awkward and annoying silences?

The other reason I’m reluctant to take this approach is because many students have let me know how much they enjoy my lively and extroverted performance teaching style. (I once had a student take the exact same class twice, because he enjoyed it so much.) And when I know I’m reaching lots of kids with messages they need to hear (like today, when I discussed some Things I Know To Be True, pursuant to Sarah Kay’s talk), it seems like my duty to keep hold of that microphone.

(I don’t actually use a microphone, by the way, although the school has seen fit to provide me with not one but two audio amplification devices. Let it never be said that our public schools don’t have money for what’s most important.)

Seriously, watch her talk. It’s awesome.

The Vicious Cycle of (Mostly) Involuntary Isolation

This whole thing began in elementary school. Hard as it may be to believe, I wasn’t one of the “cool” kids. I wasn’t athletic, and I read too much, and I didn’t like the music everyone else liked. During recess I would wander the playground clutching a boom box blaring either Run-DMC or Twisted Sister.

This was the earliest incarnation of the cycle — it’s not that I didn’t want to hang out with other kids, but I just wasn’t interested in what they were interested in. Sports bored me, and I didn’t care about Madonna or Prince or the other pop stars. I could have faked it, I suppose, but instead I retreated into the self. I read books and drew weird cartoons and made friends with myself.

As a result, I developed a reputation as the “weird” kid. Actually I was one of several, since our school attracted them. Unfortunately we weirdos were estranged from each other as well; I watched Revenge of the Nerds and fantasized about finding a tribe of my own, but it sure wasn’t happening at school.

Secondary Stuff

Throughout middle school the cycle deepened. People saw me as odd, so they kept their distance. As a result I said “To heck with them” and did my own thing. I found a few people who shared my interest in the comic strips Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, but mostly it was my best friend Koven and me. (My friend Carson was into hip-hop like I was, but that didn’t go very far. I kinda became friends with Megan, who lived down the block, but she was arcing into a different social sphere.)

High school was even worse. Everyone’s hyper-conscious of their status during those years, and there’s all kinds of new drama and social anxiety. I gravitated to the outcasts in the school newspaper and drama club, and found some kindred spirits there. We shared a love of Monty Python and Weird Al Yankovic. Some of them, though, became convinced that I was just a “poser” who pretended to love thrash metal groups like Corrosion of Conformity. Cliques and weird social circles quickly developed within the outcast communities, and I found myself alienated from even them. (I remember throwing a “Python-a-thon” movie party and being devastated when no one showed up.)

New College, New Social Existence

When I made it to New College in 1993, I finally found the lost tribe I had been desperate to reach. The campus was filled with people like me — too intelligent for their own good, a little socially awkward, and magnetically attracted to all manner of weirdness. I somehow landed in a tightly-knit group of friends that really supported and nurtured me, through good times and bad. They remain some of my closest friends.

Unfortunately, the cycles of isolation did not end in college. Various forms of alienation and differentiation persisted, and I continued to feel set apart from most people, even though I had by this time developed some life-saving techniques of solitude and solace.

As a result, I came to feel fine with being alone, although it wasn’t really a conscious choice. I was thrust into a position of isolation, so I made myself comfortable there. Most of the time this is fine, especially because I have been unbelievably blessed to meet, woo, and marry the most incredible woman on the planet. (So I’m not totally alone, as some people are.) But there’s a deep, lingering sense of alienation and loneliness that spikes at certain painful, soul-crushing moments.

Right Here, Right Now

In case you can’t tell, I’m experiencing one of those moments now. For reasons I shan’t dig into, I’m immersed in an episode of shame, regret, and severe self-loathing. Suffice it to say that I might someday learn that not everyone is charmed by my caustic use of irony when pretending to critique the writing of other people.

Like Elizabeth Bennet’s shock and horror at misjudging Mr. Darcy (spoiler alert), I am paralyzed by an acute sense of absurdity caused by the fact that this social catastrophe results from a defect in precisely the area of which I had thought myself so keen and skilled. (In Liza’s case, judging the character of others; in my case, writing.) This is not the first time such a bumbling atrocity has resulted from my writing, and it has crossed my mind that perhaps I could save myself (and other people) a great deal of suffering and pain if I just stopped writing altogether.

I won’t, of course. (Perhaps the most ludicrous consequence of this entire affair has been the outpouring of melodrama from my own mouth, which — trust me — bores and annoys me much more than it does anyone else.) But I am infuriated by my inability — my repeated, excruciating inability — to parse my audience correctly and make myself understood.

The Real Problem?

The failures, though painful, don’t last very long and are eventually swept back under the enormous carpet of my supersized ego. But the final irony is that my self-confidence (especially with regard to my writing) may lie at the heart of the dysfunction in the first place.

Perhaps my bombastic ego makes people nervous. Maybe my pomposity drives people away. Maybe I’m too exhausting to be around, or maybe I’m just not as much fun as I think I am. (I’m obviously doing something wrong, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what.)

The point is that I am severely isolated. I barely speak to my friends from New College, and most of that is in tiny word-splatters on Facebook or Twitter. As sad as it seems to me, two of my closest friends (with whom I record a weekly video game podcast) live on a different continent and I’ve never actually met them in person. (I am reminded of the guy in high school who was even more socially awkward than myself, with whom I had never spent a single minute outside of school, who rose one day in Spanish class to announce that I was his best friend.)

The people I teach with are all lovely people, but we’re acquaintances at best. (cf. The Simpsons episode 3F24, “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)”, in which Homer is told by various patrons of Moe’s Tavern that they are, to him, an “associate”, a “contemporary”, and “a well-wisher, in that I don’t wish you any specific harm”.) Our neighbors are delightful and friendly, but I can’t call them up and ask if they wanna watch a movie. My brother and my mom are fantastic people, and they offer me support when I need it, but family is different. My amazing wife Diane is a friend, because marriage is about spending your life with your best friend, and (again) for that I am eternally grateful.

To make it plain, however: If a friend is someone you spend time with on a regular basis more often than a lazy Christian goes to church, I have exactly one friend in the entire United States of America.

Some people have just moved away and started new lives. Other people are busy with kids, and they (naturally) bond with other people who have kids. Various other obstacles — life, work, chaos, stuff — comes up and I don’t begrudge anyone their own tempests of turmoil that preclude being closer to me. (And, for the record, this is as good a place as any to make clear that I am not looking for pity phone calls or emails — and, in fact, nothing would compound my misery more.)

There’s a chasm of communication between me and all those people I would like to be friends with, and I can’t shake the feeling that it’s largely of my own creation. I’m a good, caring, sensitive, compassionate person — but I keep all that stuff behind a veneer of obnoxiousness, anger, and biting sarcasm. Like Mr. Darcy, I expect people to work through that false front. And I get mad when they don’t. How does that make sense?

On the other hand, we were always told (as we tell kids today): “Be yourself.” Well, this is who I am — I have a right to be angry at the world, what with its genocide in East Timor and its police killings of unarmed black men and its unwillingness to rein in apocalyptic greed on Wall Street. I channel my anger into sly jokes, and I’ve worked hard to develop my vocabulary and wit, so that I can be cutting and snarky. I like making jokes that only a few people get — it makes the humor more satisfying for me and for them. I don’t mind being alienated from 70% of the crowd.

So if this is who I am, and no one wants to be around me, where does that leave me? As Lisa Simpson said in episode 3F22, “Summer of 4 Ft. 2″: “Being myself didn’t work. Being someone else didn’t work. Maybe I just wasn’t meant to have friends.”

Maybe I wasn’t.

I, of the Storm

There are basically two responses to this dilemma. The first, How To Be Alone, urges us to embrace the solitude.

This is a lovely video, demonstrating the beautiful possibilities of singularity: “You’ll find it’s fine to be alone once you’re embracing it.” This neatly reflects the warm, happy place in my head where I live most of the time. Who needs friends, right? I can be my own best friend, and plus Diane, so what’s the problem? I’ve become safe and strong in my own heart, so what does it matter if people don’t return my phone calls? (No one makes phone calls anymore anyway. So who cares if people don’t return my text messages?)

The other response, from Bob Newhart’s glorious cameo on MadTV, is even more direct: Stop It.

“S-T-O-P, new word, I-T.” Easy. Just be more open, less snarky, more pleasant, less bitter.

If only it were that simple. For one thing, at 40 years old, it’s very hard for me to change my ways. For another, my gruff-on-the-outside-warm-fuzzy-on-the-inside persona is one that helps me to connect vibrantly to certain students (who wouldn’t trust a more open-book approach, and who desperately need to find kindred spirits in the world). And for a third — as noted — this jigsaw puzzle identity has been forged from thirty years of conscious activity, mostly designed to protect myself from the heartbreak of rejection.

Which brings us back to the cyclical nature of the problem, and the crushing difficulty of addressing it. I tell my students all the time: Those of you who are more socially adept, be more accepting of weird people. And to the weird people, tone down the weird a little.

And the crazy part is that I have toned down the weird. I’ve grown infinitely more casual, friendly, and open over the years. I work very hard to engage people in conversation, ask questions, show genuine interest, add humor, and support those around me. I reach out to those going through hard times and offer assistance when I can, in my own oddball way. Yet here I am, wallowing in my own isolation yet again.

The Wrong Stuff

Part of the latest round of crisis has to do with my nearly total inability to break into the cutthroat Wisconsin writing establishment. With my book of stories, suggestions for presentations, and assorted nonfiction pieces, I have tried — and failed — to catch the critical attention of the following outlets:

  • The Wisconsin Book Festival
  • To The Best of Our Knowledge (via Wisconsin Public Radio)
  • The Isthmus
  • The Capital Times
  • The Wisconsin State Journal
  • Radio Literature (via WORT-FM)
  • Midwest Prairie Review

I read about people on Twitter getting starred Kirkus reviews, and listen to interviews with famous writers on podcasts, and I think: “I can’t even get the community radio station to give me time of day. What chance do I have of ever getting anywhere with this nonsense?”

I was selected to present at the UW Writers Institute, which was one of the best days of my life — an exciting whirlwind of conversations and interactions. That seems more reflective of my skills as a teacher, but I do recognize it as a valuable affirmation of my writing skills. (I also got a brief mention in the Cap Times about an event I held at A Room of One’s Own, which has been superbly supportive. The Sun Prairie Star also did a very nondescript article promoting my event at the SP library.)

Still, the occasional (minor) success doesn’t disguise the fact that this is a regimented pattern of failure. I know every good writer encounters such frustrations, but then again bad writers also encounter them, and mostly they’re too oblivious to recognize the sign from the universe which, properly translated, reads: “You’re wasting your time. No one cares.”

In other words, there is an inescapable parallelism to my writing woes and my loneliness woes: At what point do I decide that it’s just not worth the trouble, and give up? Well, of course, the answer is “probably never”, but it’s always gnawing at the back of my skull.

Words, Words, Words

The irony that this bellyaching of mine (which I can barely stand to type, much less verbalize to anyone — although Diane insists that I stop apologizing for going through a hard time) will probably never be read by anyone is not lost on me. I can’t remember the last time I got any kind of serious feedback or conversation about something I wrote on this blog. (I think it was about Game of Thrones and that was more an argument than a conversation.)

Writing lately has begun to feel more like a solitary catharsis than a form of reaching other people, sad as that is. Kurt Vonnegut said, in his last novel Timequake, put it like this:

Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

I’ve always looked forward to this sort of “meeting of the minds” (as Stephen King calls it), but the truth is that it’s incredibly rare. (I might adjust the start of the quote to change “Many” to “A tiny group”.) Most people ignore the stuff I write, and those who do read it never discuss it with me. Those who do discuss it only react to surface elements.

Which makes me sound like the bloated, pompous video game developer Jonathan Blow, who whined about how no one really got his 2008 video game Braid, despite the fact that it won every award under the sun and was universally lauded by critics around the world.

I know that I’m lucky to have friends and colleagues and family members support my writing — lots of people don’t even get that. But the truth is that I want more. I want to reach wider audiences, and I want to get some kind of institutional confirmation that my capacity to combine words is somehow relevant.

Whatever Nevermind

As Moe Szyslak says, “Time heals all wounds.” So it is here. This too shall pass, I know. I just need a few days to stew in my misery and then I’ll bounce back, more secure and confident than ever.

In the meantime, however, I will thank Diane for giving me the only truly appropriate response anyone can ever give me while I’m in this blue mood, also from The Simpsons: “If you want to be sad, honey, be sad. We’ll ride it out with you, and when you get finished feeling sad, we’ll still be there.”

And to everyone else willing to ride it out with me: Thank you.

Rules and Reminders for Discussing Incidents where Police Kill Unarmed People

Hear ye! Hear ye! Here are the Official Rules and Reminders for Discussing Incidents where Police Kill Unarmed People:

  1. We are all operating with incomplete information. This is difficult and frustrating, because we’re eager to reach conclusions, but for the most part we have insufficient information for such conclusions.
  2. What a person does at certain moments is not the sum total of who they are. Whether discussing suspects or police officers, we should resist the temptation to demonize, angelify, and oversimplify.
  3. As delineated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every person is “entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”. Every person is also “presumed innocent until proved guilty”.
  4. We all have a responsibility to speak honestly and listen carefully, to respond with more questions than accusations. The last thing we want is for dialogue to freeze under the weight of suspicion and fear.
  5. Everyone has the right to be wrong, provided the person is willing to listen in order to be corrected (and owns the error). Those who are correct shall refrain from imposing guilt trips or ridicule against those who err, once the mistake is clarified.
  6. Individual incidents must be judged on the specifics of their own events, but social patterns shall not be ignored. In his memoir “Jarhead”, Anthony Swafford writes: “Every war is different. Every war is the same.” This is true also about incidents where police officers kill unarmed people. (Elements of social identity like gender, race, class, and sexuality rarely surface in the 21st century through overt, explicit hostility. This makes them especially difficult to discuss.)
  7. Despite the differences in our political perspectives, ideological orientations, personal circumstances, ethnic backgrounds, religious affiliations, and levels of formal education, we are all people whose lives are precious and who deserve respect.
  8. As Radio Raheem says in “Do The Right Thing”: “Hate [is] KO’d by Love.”