Stop Rocking the Boat!
Someone just called me bitter for writing about this country’s failings.
“Why don’t you just move back to your country?!” Has been another knee-in-the-groin. And my favorite: “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat!”
It seems I’ve been rocking it too hard, making some passengers quite uncomfortable.
Truth does seem to hurt. But it chiefly ruffles the feathers of those standing on shaky ground and not firmly on convictions examined over-and-over again with honesty, humility, and the impassive light of intellectual courage. If you lived in a brick house you wouldn’t worry about the wolf’s huffing and puffing.
Certitudes are comforting, but one only learns and grows by doubting and questioning. Otherwise, as Alan Watts warned, you go from having a conviction to being a conviction.
There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. — E.F. Schumacher
I’m not rowing because the boat smells of fish-rot, is full of holes and sinking, many are seasick with paranoia, anxiety, or depression, the rest are yelling at, or fighting one another with righteous anger, and no one seems able to tell me where we are going but insist we must get there with ever greater speed.
In any case, I’m a writer, not a galley slave.
And writers must go on though Rome burns, wrote Somerset Maugham. “Others may despise us because we do not lend a hand with a bucket of water; we cannot help it; we do not know how to handle a bucket. Besides, the conflagration charges our minds with phrases.”
I recently wrote some phrases on the Mueller-Russia-Trump mudsling hoping to steer the focus away from what is common practice among powerful nations (election meddling), to what I believe is more crucial: the failings of our antiquated and ultimately useless primary and secondary public education system, arguing that what was alarming was not that a foreign power tried to influence our electoral process with false propaganda but that many voters were so easily duped. I said it was urgent to develop critical thinking skills in America’s youth to protect the Republic from future attempts to usurp it, both from without and within.
My views had nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with the affairs of the polis or people.
One member of the polis responded that I was just part of:
“Uuuuhhh marxist morons preaching hate and fascism for the last few decades have resulted in armies of self absorbed little morons that tear up cities when they don’t get what the plantation wants. Thats you. Thats your education system dum dum. Good thing we have GEOTUS here to clean up THAT liberal cesspool as well. SJW = Ugly, weak, pathetic, dumbass, brainwashed burnouts.”
In case you did not know, GEOTUS stands for “God Emperor of the United States,” referring to our current President.
SJW stands for “Social Justice Warrior” which I assume was meant as an insult. I’m still trying to decipher what he meant by “plantation.”
Pathetic little moron, indeed.
A few weeks before, spurred by the mass-shooting at Parkland, FLA, I took the time to understand what causes these young men to break and go on a killing spree, hoping to come up with common-sense solutions. I suggested that the problem was not necessarily guns or the failings of background checks but one of shattered illusions and despair.
Within a few hours, my post was flooded with charts and statistics contrasting mass killings in the U.S. with those in other countries, suggesting that on a per-capita basis things here weren’t really that bad. I guess they were telling me to cheer up.
Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable. — Breyten Breytenbach
Writers, by nature, are dissatisfied. We focus on things-as-they-should-be, instead of things-as-they-are. We stretch our imaginations to conjure better worlds, greener, more sustainable worlds, harmonious and more just worlds. We are not comforted by the notion that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
“Without the person of outspoken opinion, without the non-conformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay,” said Ben Shahn. “Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. Nonconformity is the basic precondition of art, as it is the precondition of good thinking, and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present — and tolerated — in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.”
In other words, we need people to slap us on the face now and then to wake us up and keep us sane. Your mother for example. Or think Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Clair Cameron Patterson, and Rachel Carson. Or that ugly, old philosopher who twenty-four hundred years ago was condemned to death for being a royal pain in the ass. The charges brought against this gadfly were impiety and corrupting the youth of his city when all he was trying to do was urge everyone to question their biases and presumptions.
“High on the list of presumptions that Socrates had aimed to unsettle was his fellow citizens’ certainty that their city-state brooked no comparison when it came to outstanding virtue,” wrote Rebecca Goldstein in ‘Making Athens Great Again’. “To be an Athenian, ran a core credo of the polis, was to partake in its aura of moral superiority. Determined to interrogate what being exceptional means, Socrates dedicated his life to challenging a confidence that he felt had become overweening.”
But Athenians were in no mood to be told their shit also stank, so they killed him (actually, he poisoned himself).
Seventy years later, the Athenian Empire collapsed.
Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. — Book of Proverbs 16:18
American exceptionalism began its career, not as a boast, but as a question, said David Frum.
As a young boy my mother used to tell me I was a genius. Never once did I question why that was. I just basked in the Golden Child aura of my unearned, thus unwarranted preeminence.
When I turned thirty, my father tried to shake my haughty spirit with the best piece of advice I never listened to. He warned me that if I did not wake up, I’d be “going straight into the abyss” by age thirty-five.
He missed the mark by only twelve months.
Maybe this is why I rock boats and can’t cheer up.
Two years before his death at age 85, Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in ‘A Man Without a Country’:
“The biggest truth to face now — what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life — is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as member of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.”
Perhaps I am still young and naive enough to remain a little hopeful, and, increasingly, do feel uneasy about the muck and wreck we’re leaving behind to future generations.
I want my grandchildren to regard me with admiration, not contempt, which seems a pretty good reason to keep huffing and puffing and rocking the boat.
PostScript: A few hours after I finished this post, news broke of yet another young man who killed ten of his classmates in Santa Fe, Texas.
I’m not bitter.
I’m sad and outraged. Outraged by our spineless political class, and disgusted with the NRA and those who demonized, terrorized, intimidated, and ultimately silenced the brave students who rocked the boat by speaking out after the massacre at Parkland.
That’s 200 people killed so far this year.
Harry and Meghan are getting married today so I’ll just bake myself some crumpets, brew some tea, and watch the royal event wearing a tiara on my head.
From now on, just keep the flags at half-mast.