Monthly Archives: November 2015

Homeless and Terrifying

Syrian refugee children

Too scary for New Jersey

Last weekend, I spent four days in Washington, DC, and while I was there, I began Friday morning at the kitchen table with a friend telling me over breakfast about a professional article she was reading on empathy. Later that evening, with the same friend and others, I went to see a play about the genocide in Rwanda, when possibly as many as one million people were killed in 100 days. Think about what that would require.

When we have no capacity for empathy, we become worse than wild beasts, who generally kill only for food and protection. Also while I was in Washington, I read news reports about the shocking number of politicians in our country who lack even a minimal capacity for empathy. As bad as that is in any person, these politicians then combine that emotional hole with tremendous cynicism and political cowardice.

Following the attacks in Paris, American politicians decided to show the Islamic State that even without the terrorists coming to our country, they were able to scare us so badly we shit on ourselves in panic and started attacking their victims. Thus we had governors rushing to get in line to declare that Syrian refugees—people trying to escape from the brutal monstrosities of the Islamic State—would not be allowed into American states under any circumstances.

Here in Georgia, where politicians have been humiliating us in front of the planet Earth for the last century, our governor decided to follow that proud tradition and declared that if Syrian refugees do make their way to Georgia, state agencies will be forbidden from providing any assistance. It seems our governor would kick the needy away from himself, just like Jesus would. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in a hysterical display of cowardice, said he would not allow toddler orphans into his state. He actually said that.

Political leaders have loud microphones, and the rhetoric they use helps to create a climate for what can be said in public discourse, and what they say also shapes attitudes. If they consistently call on us to be better people, to at least strive for the ideals we claim to believe, that language has an effect. If instead they use a rhetoric of intolerance, then the general level of intolerance in a country increases. In last Friday’s Washington Post, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said of Syrian refugees, “If there’s a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog…” Carson wasn’t talking about the psychopaths who did the killing in Paris. He was talking about people trying to get away from such psychopaths.

One of the most common techniques of xenophobia is to dehumanize the people who you hate (or who you find it convenient to pretend to hate, say, if you’re a despicable hypocrite running for president). Thus Ben Carson—who proclaims over, and over, and over how Christian he is—compares people fleeing murderers to rabid dogs. With such rhetoric from a presidential candidate, it becomes more acceptable to treat people as less than human.

Since our presidential candidates make it acceptable to degrade refugees, a Texas official, the agriculture commissioner, also compared the Syrian refugees to rattlesnakes. In Europe before World War II, hated people like Jews and Gypsies were referred to as roaches, vermin, rats, and so on. Dehumanization may seem like crude rhetoric (and intellectually, of course, it is crude), but it’s also common and it works. Cold contemptuous politicians can use it to inflame the fear of ignorant people, as we see in the current Republican presidential campaign.

Senator Ted Cruz used a more subtle rhetoric, showing that the Syrian refugees are something “other” than us, not really “our kind” and certainly not something we want in this country. Contrasting all those dangerous refugees to decent Christians, Cruz said that “There is is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” indicating that he has never heard of the Ku Klux Klan or the Irish Republican Army or… But no, I bet he has. I bet he’s just an amazingly cynical asshole who will savagely say anything and hurt anyone, as long as it helps him gain more power.

If you were damaged emotionally as a child, so that you cannot empathize with the suffering of other human beings, and if there are no mass killings like Rwanda—or Syria—going on where you live, then maybe you could run for political office.

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Liberty paintingMaybe I would think like this if I had never gone anywhere. Maybe, but I look back to the time when I first went to study in the Soviet Union, seeing what a dark dictatorship looks like from the inside. In very important ways, I’m sure I didn’t see what it was like, as I knew I could leave, and I was never in prison or afraid. But I think I began to pay more attention to the slow slow steps of humankind to free ourselves. Gradually I came to understand what the heart of that freedom is, when each spirit can joyfully be what it is.

Eventually I came to realize that as long as we carry racism, sexism, homophobia, and more, we do not need to live in a dark dictatorship to be oppressed. When we oppress other people, no matter how much our mouths repeat the word “freedom”, we have a Soviet Union of the mind inside our own heads.

As I celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the legalization of gay marriage in America, I keep watching. There is so much left to watch for.

I wrote the poem here thinking about this. Take this poem and use it where it might be useful.

Then Comes the Day That I Rise Up

Then comes the day that I rise up
to trudge down cobbled streets to squares.
Scowling horsemen sit, hard gleaming.
I stand up tall, eyes wide,
until their slashing swords slay me by the thousands.
As I fall to earth,
the stones wet with my blood say,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up
to walk from captive fields to meet,
disregarding passes and permission,
to walk in fear but boldly,
take up pikes, and lay down chains.
When militiamen with panicked rifles come,
I spend my last moments in the surprise of freedom
before they shoot and hang me by the hundreds.
The grass below my swinging feet whispers,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up,
lay down the needle, the pot on the stove,
to walk, arms linked, down angry streets.
Mobs of agitated men stand by
with eyes like snakes, mouths writing in disgust.
I hold up signs proclaiming equality
until a police baton breaks my hand.
As we are thrown into wagons by the dozens,
faces against the sides,
the cold steel laughs,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up,
and down the apron, down the shovel, put the porter’s cap down.
I walk across bridges
and stride through closed doors,
sit where I choose and stand at my own desire.
I declare my humanity
until their clubs have beaten me down,
before the unleashed dogs that snarl,
“Not yet. Not yet.”

Then comes the day that I rise up,
again the day that I rise up,
and yet again I will rise.
tunisia protest

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Your Ten Minutes Is Up

woman hiding in bed

I’m too busy writing to go to a conference.

I am sure you realize that part of the mission of a writer is to sneak into the Black Steel Fortress on Go-away Mountain and find a literary agent. I was on that mountain last weekend, walking around the fortress, trying all the doors, as I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference.

On a rainy Friday night, after dinner at home, I drove that long stretch down Ponce de Leon Avenue past the Olmstead parks, past Mary Mac’s Tea Room downtown (a restaurant of southern cooking, in spite of the name), to the hotel where the conference was held this year. Driving along that rainy road, I was thinking “What am I doing? Why am I going to this hotel?” But I’ve learned to do necessary things without letting too much thought get in the way. You just kind of move where you need to move.

On Friday night, this conference holds a mixer at which writers can meet the literary agents and editors. This is a chance for us writers to pretend to be normal, to chat with the people who will be judging us the next day, but for us to act like, hey that’s OK, we’re just glad to be here and say hello. Look how friendly and normal I am. This year I signed up to meet with two agents, and I did find each of them for a very brief conversation. The idea, at least as I saw it, is to create a little human contact, to be more than a stranger walking in the next day. For what that’s worth.

Of more benefit to my emotional well-being, I also discovered that several friends from my old writing group were there, and it was a delight to see them. That alone seemed worth the rainy drive, the stupidly expensive hotel parking, and the general effort. Mostly I talked with friends and felt like I wasn’t there alone.

The Atlanta Writers Conference consists of various activities, but the only thing I did was to meet with the literary agents, to make my “pitch” and try to fool them into representing me. The way it works, at least at this conference, is this: You choose who you want from a list several months in advance (someone who might represent the kind of thing you write), and since they only have so many slots, it’s best to get in early. The day of the conference, you go there, pay too much for parking, and when it is nearly your time to meet, you sit in chairs in the hall outside a hotel meeting room, pretending to be cool about the whole thing when other people look at you. You also have a copy of your polished, meticulously crafted query letter. When your time comes, the volunteer who is running that room takes your letter and carries it to the agent, who has two minutes to read it. You are then called to come sit across a small table from the agent, and she (it’s usually a woman) tells you whatever she wants, and you have a conversation for eight more minutes.

There are several possible things the agent might say after this 10-minute episode: (1) I want to represent you and your book (this is theoretically possible, I guess, but I’m sure it never happens at this point). (2) Your book sounds so interesting. Send me a copy so I can read it. (3) Your book sounds like a possibility. Send me 50 pages so I can see how it reads. (4) Yeah, maybe. It’s kind of interesting. Send me a few pages so I can see your style. (5) No, this book isn’t for me. (6) You should be killed so that you never write again (again, theoretically possible).

My own pitches were scheduled for 2:39 and 4:03, with the exactitude of NASA. I can’t think of even one thing in my normal world that operates exactly to the minute, not even my clocks. Before I talked to the first agent, I was thinking that whatever being good at this means, I’m pretty sure I’m not good at it. That can be a problem, obviously, if you want to go sit on the couch in the Black Steel Fortress. Being bad at making pitches doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, but that’s how it goes.

The first agent who I talked to, who seemed like a nice person, actually, spent almost the whole time telling me why my query letter would never make her want to read my book. Umm, OK. I suck. I knew that. Thanks for meeting with me. The second agent, however, liked the idea of the book, seemed somewhat caught up with it, and said that it now depends on whether she likes the style of writing. She gave me response #4, send her a few pages. So I’ve done that.

I had a good bit of time at the conference just waiting, which I partly filled with talking to friends, partly with making notes for the novel I’m currently writing, and partly with going to look for a snack. The writers at the conference seemed generally friendly, and there was a lot of talk about the craft of writing, both looking for agents/publishers (i.e., comparing notes on where the doors to the Black Steel Fortress might not be locked). People also talked about how they write, about techniques and how to make yourself spend time sitting there writing, or gave opinions on how a novel should work.

The most remarkable thing I learned at this conference left me gaping and stunned, which I’m about to pass on to you (unless you live in a stranger world than I do). Most people know there is a genre of writing called “romance”, but here in our frenetic, jaded culture, where no doubt junior high students discuss which porn site is their favorite, it takes more than “romance” for some people.

So there is a category of short stories—and I swear I’m not making this up, you can check it in the next few seconds—about people having sex with, wait for it, dinosaurs. Go to the Amazon website and type in “dinosaur sex”. I don’t really want to talk about it. If your mouth doesn’t fall open in surprise, you must have been hanging out with junior high students.

I’m not going to start writing romance novels.

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Your Mama’s Fat and You’re a Democrat

credibility cartoonYou might think there is no possible connection between Donald Trump and Aristotle, one of them being a brilliant thinker, and the other one being Donald Trump.

If we look at many of Trump’s comments, however, we can see illustrations of one of Aristotle’s basic principles of persuasion, though maybe not like you think. In order to talk about this, let’s have a little rhetorical background, but if you’ll stick with me for a moment, I’ll get back to the big mouth with loud hair.

The ancient Greek philosopher said there are three basic ideas that can be used to persuade, which we can translate as logic, emotion, and credibility (or we can get a cool Greek thing going on here with the original words: logos, pathos, ethos).

Since we’re talking about politics, we can quickly throw that “logic” nonsense out the window. I mean logic? In politics? This is the American people we’re talking about. As to emotion, hell yes, you can back up another dump truck full of that and unload it right here.

But that’s not why I’m here. Mr. Donald Trump has brought me around to a discussion of ethos, or credibility. As Aristotle correctly noted (and I paraphrase him), if people don’t trust you, it doesn’t much matter what you say. It totally doesn’t matter how smart you are, how honest you are, or how much you really do know what you’re talking about, if the audience thinks you’re lying or stupid.

Thus, if you’re able to fuck up someone’s credibility, there’s not much they can say at that point, because now we don’t trust them and aren’t listening. Moving from Greek to Latin, there’s a phrase to describe attacking someone’s credibility: ad hominem. It means attacking the person (trying to damage their credibility), rather than responding to the actual thing they said.

An ad hominem argument (or attack) is both a lazy and cowardly method, since it implies that the speaker doesn’t want to bother—or isn’t able—to respond to what was said, so they just attack the other person instead. Let’s put this back into a political context. Not only is politics 90% emotion, but suppose your opponent unexpectedly makes a serious argument, with real facts, to your disadvantage. What if what someone says about you is true?

That’s where an ad hominem argument is so great! Oh yeah, well you’re mama’s fat! And your brother lived in Sweden! And you used to be a Democrat before you became a Republican, and… and… So we’re back to Donald Trump and others, and I thank you for your patience, which come to think of it, has been magnanimous.

For an illustration here, I’ll use an example from the last Republican “debate” in Las Vegas. Ohio Governor John Kasich said that both Trump and Ben Carson are not qualified to be president, saying, “Folks, we’ve got to wake up. We cannot elect somebody that doesn’t know how to do the job. You’ve got to pick somebody who has experience, somebody that has the know-how, the discipline.”

Trump’s response was not to say anything about why he is indeed qualified. Instead, he said Kasich “was such a nice guy. And he said, ‘Oh, I’m never going to attack.’ But then his poll numbers tanked. He has got—that is why he is on the end” (meaning the end of the stage).

By implying that Kasich only attacked him from desperation to gain attention, Trump completely avoided responding to the issue of qualification. Of course in Trump’s case it’s easy to find ad hominem spewing, something he does so often he’s become famous for it. You can probably cite things he has said, sitting right where you are.

Naturally someone so pathologically insecure as Donald Trump would use the most cowardly form of argument. He isn’t the only one to do this, of course. This technique is amazingly popular in politics. Lazy, cowardly, and common. Don’t you love the smell of democracy?

For the record, by the way, my mama ain’t that fat.


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