Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I Am A Communist

The following essay was written more or less in response to the shootings in Wisconsin and Colorado.  As with most anything that a writer writes, the idea/s have been festering for a long time in my mind.  The Wisconsin shooting pushed me over the edge, though, and finally my pen moved o the subject.  The shootings in Norway, similar but worse than the one in Wisconsin, and the Penn State scandal were also definitely on my mind.  But if you were to read my half-finished manuscript for 27 Million Revolutions you'd know that my conclusion here is basically my response to everything.

I don't like publishing things on-line--I don't even like blogging, actually--before publishing for real, but I have some bits of confidence about this piece and think that people should read it.  Plus, it's timely.  After posting it here it will also adorn the sample-writing page for a short while.  You'll also be able to find it on Goodreads.  Then I will send it around to various publishers to see if anyone will publish it.  Many thanks to Danielle, my darling, for typing out what was originally written by hand.  Even with her noteworthy hard work typing it out, note that I have yet to edit any of this.  Woops.

"I Am a Communist"

I am not a Communist. I just wanted to get your attention. I am, however, an anarchist. Neither Communism nor anarchy are particularly favored here in the west, and for that reason I hope to have doubly garnered your attention. Yet the reason why I am an anarchist and can say that I agree with Marx’s ideas – freeing every individual to do what they please, within reason – though I do not appreciate the collective aspect – is quite compatible with American democracy and ideals, and why I am writing this essay, because I believe we do not give enough thought to the implication of those ideals. (footnote)

Let me begin by telling a few brief stories, at least two of which may convince you that I’m a terrible person.

In ninth grade I had an English teacher named Mr. Lewis. At least I think that’s his name. Mr. Lewis was clearly a little strange: he had a long ponytail of graying hair, weirdly large eyes, rarely did he button his cuffs so his shirt sleeves were always flailing about, and he never quite looked clean. All the same I liked Mr. Lewis. He was funny, gentle, but never took any crap, and if I paid more attention in my early years I could have learned a lot from him. As it is, Common Errors (grammar) A-F will never leave me.

One day Mr. Lewis was teaching on a book that I didn’t like nor do I remember. All that stands out to me in my memory (and I’m pretty sure this is all that I could remember of the book even while reading it) is a character named Phineas and someone falling down stairs. The book isn’t the point. The point is that while talking about something or other that might be helpful for me to know in telling this story, a student raised hand and said “Who cares about this? Some people think stupid stuff, I shouldn’t have to try and understand them or respect them."  The “who cares” is a typical 9th grade sentiment, but apparently Mr. Lewis was bothered by the whole argument. It seemed random to me at the time, probably because of my reaction, but Mr. Lewis responded, “I am a Communist. Does that matter? Does that make me less of a person?” Yes, yes it does, I thought. I had yet to learn what communism meant, being too young to recall the shake-ups of 1991, and not caring much about the news, but somehow I knew that Communists were either silly and stupid or “just plain bad,” in my ninth grade lingo. I was appalled. Never did I respect Mr. Lewis again, though he still made me laugh and was still in control of my grades. For the final couple of months with him as my teacher, I simply could not get it out of my head that I was subjugated to learning from a stinking Communist.

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Looking back on my life, I am not certain when I became friends with Mike Rodriguez. I know that we first met in middle school when we were at some camp together or somewhere that my friends and I were playing volleyball. Mike and his friends walked to the volleyball court to play against us. I later came to be friends with everyone on the sand that day, but at the time I had no idea who any of these people were, which only made their rudeness worse. Unfortunately, they were most rude to Mike, making him the butt of jokes and often saying, “Don’t pull a Mike.” At some point Mike switched to our team but his friends treatment of him only worsened. Without even knowing who Mike was, I felt that I should protect him somehow. We haven’t talked in a long time but I know that Mike would hate me if he ever heard that I felt the need to protect him. That feeling, though, motivated me to play better for and with him. Mike and I had fun, I think, developing some volleyball chemistry together and, though I can’t remember who won, I know he and I and my friends then played well enough to give Mike some bragging rights.

Within a few years Mike and I were good friends. I’m not sure what made us friends, but I’ll venture to guess it was that we both felt respected by the other without effort (and for a while the girl we both like played us off one another). What’s funny and horrible about the friendship that we had is that, as soon as we became friends, he became the butt of my jokes. What’s funny about that is I was not, until then, the type of person to make fun of others – unless I hated them, in which case they weren’t my friends.

Why did I start making fun of Mike who, in a number of ways, was my truest friend? In Spanish class one day, our teacher, who was and is hilarious and friendly, said to Mike genially that he saw Mike and his mother exiting the Jewish temple after a service. I looked at Mike and couldn’t believe it: a real Jew! Our teacher asked how often Mike went to temple and Mike said rarely, clearly flustered and frustrated with the questions. Being the nice guy that he is our teacher took the hint and stopped asking questions – he often wanted his students to know that he was interested in their lives, but Mike was not interested. Clearly Mike was not much into practicing Judaism, though I hate that phrase taken from Catholics being applied to Catholics or Jews, but from then on I had a reason to make fun of Mike: he was a Jew for goodness sakes.

I don’t think that I had yet taken the world religion class, or world history class or whatever it was called, but even if I had, as I said before, I didn’t pay much attention in my early years. Either way, all I knew at that time and until college was that Jews believe in God but not Christ. That didn’t seem reason enough to make fun of Mike. And my parents did the best they could raising me to be understanding, tolerant, and loving rather than a judgmental bigot of any kind. In fact, I don’t think I ever thought about Mike’s being Jewish or what that meant; nor did I realize that I had made fun of him for being Jewish until after I had done so a few times. I simply instinctively knew, somehow from somewhere, that being Jewish was funny. So obviously I should make fun of Mike for it. People often say that we are afraid of what and who is different, and that may have been part of it, but my reaction and action toward Mike’s being a Jew was deeper than simply knowing him to be different. Where I got it from I will never know.

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Where I went to college there is a gas station and convenience store right next door to the dorms. I have always been an early bird -  early to bed and early-ish to rise – but occasionally I found myself up late, meaning after 11p.m. Whenever this happened I’d be hungry, because my eating schedule didn’t plan on it. One evening, then, as I sat around being hungry, I decided to take a walk over to the gas station to buy some goodies. About to stand behind the man checking out at the register ahead of me, I noted a beat-up old car pulling into one of the parking spots in front of the station.
Perhaps because I went to school in northern Vermont where such a sight is rare, but I was shocked to see a young black male step out of the car. Shortly after registering my shock, I observed that the young man wore a bandana and jeans falling down over his boxers. Rough-looking car, bandana, falling jeans, late at night, and worst of all, black male – instinctively I stepped back with the intention of circling around the store and then leaving hurriedly without purchasing my food. Just a couple of steps into my brilliant survival plan I realized I was being stupid. I mean, I had clearly been in line, and if I were to bolt, no matter how subtly, he’d know that I was running away and shoot me. Best if I don’t spark his ire, I thought, and if he already plans to shoot the place up I’m a dead man anyway. I braced myself for death.

It wasn’t until returning to my room and chowing down that I acknowledged how much of a racist I had just been. I wasn’t a racist and never have been, so I have ever since been ashamed of malforming a harmless young man into Satan himself.

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The latter story has often occupied my thoughts because, living in the Northeast, going to school in the Northeast, and then attending seminary in Washington, D.C., I have often heard “How can anyone be a racist?” While at seminary preparing for a trip to South Africa with some colleagues, a professor asked us to go around telling a story or two of how and when we’ve encountered racism in our lives. I told my story of the young man. To a person, though, everyone else told a story of seeing racism in and perpetrated by others that my colleagues then had to handle. For the African American students in the room that makes sense and I’m grateful beyond words for it, but I was astounded to be surrounded by twenty of the holiest and most innocent people on the planet.

Here’s the deal, folks: we spend way too much time and effort projecting the evil of the world onto others. In reality, we are a) not that much different than “those others” that we criticize and object to; b) part of the problem. Instead of asking, “How can anyone be racist/sexist?” or “How can anyone be so full of hate and ignorance that they’d shoot up a Sikh temple or a Muslim kids camp or a school or a Batman movie theater?” or “How could Joe Paterno and Penn State not have done anything?” we should be asking ourselves what parts of our nature and character must share in our disappointment in, and perhaps condemnation of, others and their actions. In so doing we will see that we do, in fact, harbor attitudes that contribute to many of the problems we see in the world around us. May the trials and inquiries occur as they will, but as a people seeking a better way forward, reflection and confession should be our preferred response.

The truth is, after all, as I hope my stories have shown, many of our instincts and thoughts are inherited from who knows where. Apparently, rather than developing a society where each individual has a right to free expression and thought, we live in a collective, albeit a disguised and faint one. Particularly as a Christian, I am not strictly opposed to collective thinking. But I am only not opposed when the prospective individuals were free beforehand.

If we do not want our society, churches, and culture infiltrated or ruled by what we deem perverse thought, then we as individuals must root those thoughts out of ourselves. We must constantly evaluate, reevaluate, reflect and confess because we may possess ideas and instincts not our own imbibed in us by some unknown and unapproved collective – yikes! We must be extremely careful with the jokes that we tell and why, what judgments we are making and why, what our instinctive reactions are and why, etc. By evaluating, reflecting and confessing, we will and must assert our own individuality and personhood.

I don’t intend for this essay to be merely about individuality. My focus on individuality and individual personhood is simply an attempt to make sense of the contrast between our holding many noble principles and beliefs yet never noticing that somehow or another we have been taught, and trained, to act and judge contradictorily to those principles and beliefs, or at least to contribute to contradictory attitudes in unseen ways. By changing our focus from others and blaming and questioning and reproaching, to ourselves in the deepest and most painful forms of reflection confession, I hope that we all can learn how to live better and better moment by moment rather than merely talking a good game. Hopefully, too, we can then embody what it means to live a good life for others to see rather than only offering the model of blame and reproach, which can only lead to varying degrees of fear and hate. Asserting our own individuality and personhood, rather than accepting whatever thoughts we seem to have learned, through evaluation, reflection, and confession will win the day. 

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