A bit of a delay this month for two good reasons: one, I had an editing rush job show up at end-of-month, and paid work comes first; and two, I finally received my second COVID vaccine on May 2. (As a foreigner in Colombia, the process has been more complicated.) Pfizer hit me hard, and I pretty much slept straight through May 2. I also had pins and needles in hands, legs, and feet for day two, which made sitting to do computer work very difficult. But! All recovered now. Which means I was finally able to give this month’s newsletter a last read-through before sending it out to you.
Huzzah! And on to the show:
One of my dear friends (hello you!) is a fellow striver. His email sign-off attests to the fact that we are all at our best when we recognize that we’re lifelong learners of ourselves, as much as of the world around us. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m routinely flabbergasted when I look back on myself, my past, and my many wide-ranging crises: how big they seemed at the time, how distant my fear and stress over them feel now, and how great my sadness is over so much fruitless strife. Did I actually “grow”? Or am I simply shedding skin after skin: each having always fit me to a T while it was mine, and each ceasing to hold the same representative power once left behind?
May still finds me in limbo on many levels, but with a touch more forward momentum, which shapes this month’s focus on better and less effective forms of worldly activism. It’s not as if anything major has budged for me, personally: publishing remains very slow, and returns are minimal from other ventures. But I’ve found my groove to some small extent, and discovering a new social media platform made a world of difference for self-confidence. (More on that below.) Let’s put it this way, then: today I know which paths I have to keep pursuing—even though none has paid out just yet. Even though many of my problems are Herculean, and won’t be solved for years. Even though limbo is my new norm.
And just having a path to walk on, even if the ending is not clear, has helped with a major preoccupation these past few months: the anguish of not knowing where to put the fruits of all my hard-won knowledge. What’s the point of falling down so often, if one never gains the opportunity to help another to stand up? Thankfully, that feeling has subsided a touch this past month. And I hope it continues to in the next.
Now, I’m not usually a “loud” promoter of my Patreon or my ko-fi, but I cannot stress enough how much my patrons are sustaining me through this very murky period. My cost of living here is so small compared to what it would be in Canada. But even then, this phase of transitional freelance would not have been possible without the support of my community. And yet, when I look at the news, and the skyrocketing inflation rates across the West, along with the impending recession, my heart sinks to realize how much more of a relative toll investing in me is every month.
Thank you, as ever and always. I know it’s not easy to know how best to allocate funding in a broken world. I sorely appreciate your ability to help me bear up in turn.
Today I’ll also add, for other readers, that if anything I’ve written has brought you insight or joy, and you have the ability to make a small donation to the ko-fi, it would be very much appreciated. I’m in an awkward waiting period for long-overdue payout from freelance, which makes it difficult to start saving to fix my longterm problem. I’m eating into low reserves instead. Two steps forward, two steps back, etc.
But, again—*gestures the world*! So no matter what, thank you for reading. Thank you for supporting the work in oh so many other ways. And thank you for doing what you can, where you are, to seed a little more justice wherever you are.
May there be kindness and uplift abounding in your necks of the wood as well.
Table of Contents
Three forms of outreach
Conversations with People Who Hate Me (O1)
Call Russia (O2)
Courtesy, and OnlySky (O3)
Three articles of note
“On Language Games,” by Jon Baskin (A1)
“Look on the dark side” by Mara van der Lugt (A2)
“A Defense of Art for Art’s Sake” by Daniel Lelchuk (A3)
The White Knights (F1)
First Reformed (F2)
Three miscellaneous items
A quotation (M1)
A ridiculous date (M2)
A photo (M3)
Three performances of self
CounterSocial, and Twitter (P1)
An interview, and a curation of biography (P2)
The pedant on the page (P3)
Three songs of revolt
“Rage” by The Jerks (S1)
“Prayer of the Refugee” by Rise Against (S2)
“Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas (S3)
M1. A quotation
“One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs.”
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
P1. CounterSocial, and Twitter
I have been a very lonely writer on Twitter (and on Facebook, before that) for the twelve years that I’ve tried to make a go upon it. But I’d accepted that loneliness was to be expected, because I’m definitely an oddball user. Yes, Twitter is where all the writers are “supposed” to be in my field, but… in what form? Saying and doing what?
My sincere attempts at sharing in serious discourse were often a failure to lean into what the medium could and could not be used for. The tweets that thrive involve making snap judgments and issuing broad declaratives; or bandwagoning around or against X user for their opinion of the day; or performing identity as an act of resistance (hoping, all the while, that this act of self-commodification would garner enough notice to make the trade-off worthwhile).
And all the while I kept thinking of a quote misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. Maybe you’ve heard the old line? “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”?
It’s not hers. Historian Henry Thomas Buckle is recorded in the 1901 autobiography of Charles Stewart of having impressed him at a dinner party by saying: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”
But this origin story also contains Stewart’s rebuttal, namely that, “[t]he fact, of course, is that any of one’s friends who was incapable of a little intermingling of these condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs.”
I am a very dull dog. I don’t enjoy talking about people, and events make me restless unless they can be put into their historical context. But on Twitter, I also wasn’t exactly alone in my hunger to talk more about ideas. Indeed, I’d routinely have folks DM to tell me, when they’d seen me posting more nuanced and exploratory comments with open-ended questions attached, that they’d love to talk more openly about X themselves, but it just wasn’t “safe” to do so on this platform. And I completely understood. Twitter has cultivated a great many toxic behaviours among its userbase. One of the worst, though, was the belief that This Is Just How It Is.
When I hopped on to CounterSocial last week, though, I was so stunned by what I found there that I wrote up a one-week retrospective for OnlySky, “CounterSocial isn’t the ‘new Twitter’: It’s something much better”. It explains my thoughts on the site, and its contrast with the sort of community created by corporate social-media products, better than I have any interest in replicating here.
Suffice it to say for the purposes of this newsletter, though… CounterSocial is a place where I feel far less lonely, for the first time in years. I don’t know what kind of better action might be achieved through collaborative practice with other folks there. But it’s been a while since I last felt optimistic enough to entertain the possibility of doing things differently. (And an equally long time since I’ve been surrounded by as many fellow “dull dogs”!) We shall see how well the feeling carries forward, into June.
A1. “On Language Games” by John Baskin
Jon Baskin’s “On Language Games”, written for The Point magazine, begins with one heck of an opener:
For a country so often believed to be anti-intellectual, it is striking how much of American political conversation has come to revolve around seemingly pedantic quarrels about terminology.
And… let’s throw in the opening section’s closer, for good measure:
The terms that become [our political] flash points are not arbitrary; it is significant that they all touch on the most sensitive topics in American democracy: race, gender, capitalism, economic inequality and so forth. Yet this only underscores the importance of the question: Why does the debate over those things keep taking this form? Why, if we are really concerned with education, or racism, or sexism, or economic inequality, do we keep ending up arguing over the definitions of our words?
It’s a great question, but I’m especially tickled by the limitations in the author’s answer. The article moves into an exploration of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “language games” in Philosophical Investigations, and intimates a deep irony that so many from ostensibly intellectual subject-positions fail to recognize the role of these games when engaging in political debate. Although Wittgenstein’s work can seem complex to first-time readers, the concept of language games is pretty straightforward. Plenty of linguists and semioticians have written about the idea of categories of language use—such as questions, affirmations, imperatives, declaratives—but Wittgenstein dwelt upon the fact that language doesn’t actually come to us as a series of categories. It emerges as a human activity, a form of life, that lends distinct context to anything we utter. Language games range from from the earliest back-and-forth that teaches children cultural context for freshly acquired grammar and vocabulary, up to everyday speech as adults, wherein we’re constantly renegotiating and confirming shared contexts as we speak. This means that language is both without fixed meaning and also filled with fixed meanings, each intrinsic to the context in which it emerged.
(I teach a very pared-down version of this in my English classes, to highlight the artificiality of classroom instruction of language through rigid word categories. Language was not created by committee! It’s always performed, and reformed, by its users in a way that shapes meaning on the spot, and often transforms prior usage.)
But here’s where the fun begins—because Baskin’s main target of critique is liberal discourse. Of course it is. In particular, he argues that
the insistence by progressive commentators that everyone adopt their preferred terminology makes them akin to philosophers who believed that there could ever be, as Wittgenstein once put it, “an aura accompanying a word, which it carried with it into every kind of application”—that is, into every context and social setting. That this effort is likely not only to fail but also to reliably incite strong feelings of alienation and resentment—not to mention coordinated campaigns that exploit those feelings for political gain—is connected to what we might call the conservative implication of the Wittgensteinian insight about the social constructedness of language. If language games are rooted in forms of life, then there is a deep disrespect implied when we tell someone from a different language game that they must play not by their own rules, but by ours.
Cute, right? Because even though Baskin acknowledges the existence of terms like “CRT” thrown about by right-wing movements, he still pins the flaw of the language game on the progressive, for trying to argue that the idea of critical race theory has been grossly misapplied. The progressive is instead called upon to focus on “ordinary language”, and to not spend their time arguing with right-wingers by throwing all kinds of historical precedence into the ring. In haggling over the meanings of terms, Baskin argues, progressives only stand to squander the “broad sympathy” they have.
The article doesn’t get into the most recent far-right term thrown into the ring—“groomer”, an incendiary word meant to suggest that any teacher who wants to tell children, say, that gay people exist is as good as “grooming” them as targets of the implied predation of queer people. This term spread like wildfire in right-wing media in the last month or so (just as it did fifteen years back; everything old is new again), because it’s such a good and frightening bit of language to strip any discourse of nuance. Groomers in the classroom! They’re after the children!
By Baskin’s logic, though, the progressive merely performs intellectual showmanship by pushing back on essentially being called a pedophile. The progressive also proves themself to be woefully ignorant of Wittgenstein, by this author’s reckoning, for attempting to impose a more rigid, historical meaning on a term that obviously only gains meaning in its context. If the right-wing says they’re groomers, the expectation is… what, that they simply roll with it? And if a minority group protests being likened to a mosquito? A rat? A pestilence? Are they being mere elitists for pushing back, and calling attention to the historical impact of first calling whole groups these things?
What Baskin overlooks is the two-way street of his aforementioned observation, that “[i]f language games are rooted in forms of life, then there is a deep disrespect implied when we tell someone from a different language game that they must play not by their own rules, but by ours.” Because this “form of life” is played by people all across the spectrum. One group asserts absolutist terms in the political sphere. Another group refutes those terms, and proposes its own absolutist terms instead. And right now, the right-wing is very good at this game, from slapping on specific names to people (e.g., “Sleepy Joe”) to asserting that all of Black history in the US is critical race theory.
This is the language game we’re trapped in—a game much bigger than any given group’s internal vocabulary; a political activity that anticipates the meaning of language ever-changing in accordance with the group then most in power. The deep irony of Baskin’s complaint against progressive uses of language games, then, is that he only reveals how little he understand the form of life in which they operate: a world where the loudest and most confidently asserted language unfortunately triumphs in the realm of political import—and all of us who long for a better democracy lose out.
O1. Conversations with People Who Hate Me
How do we speak across the greatest of divides? This is the question I most often grapple with, as someone who routinely engages with people who vehemently disagree with me. Why bother? Why waste time on folks who don’t already understand the importance of the issues and the values I hold dear?
Well, simply put—because of the issues and the values I hold dear.
Because I am leery of the info silo, and the groupthink that makes it so easy to take for granted that one’s position is self-evidently true. Because I believe in human beings, not monsters, and I try to live in such a way that normalizes putting our shared humanity first. Because the liberal/leftist movement has a wicked small-c conservative (risk-averse) behavioural tendency that needs to be resisted, too.
And so, I am routinely gratified when I come across examples of people who have also gone to great lengths to deepen in compassion if not empathy for fellow human beings. I love to learn from them, just as much as I love the affirmation that I’m not the only one pursuing so foolhardy and time-intensive a course of debate.
Dylan Marron, the creator of the podcast Conversations with People Who Hate Me, is one of my favourite people in this regard. He does the most superb job in curating conversations either with people who have said horrible things about him online, or between two other people who have been similarly embroiled. And even though some of these episodes are difficult to listen to, because of the depth of the hate that sometimes comes out in his guests’ rationalizations, his methodology is top-notch: offering guideposts both directly to his listeners, and through the structure of his conversations, to model how best such work can be done. My favourite choice that he makes is at the start of every call, when he gives both people, including the hostile party, space to define themselves for listeners: To share how they see themselves. The things they love. The identities that matter to them. The stories that shape their journey through life. It’s a beautifully grounding tactic that, again, centers the human in all that we do. And Marron then returns to this work, whenever the conversation grows difficult, by checking in on how both parties are feeling as it unfolds.
(It helps, too, that one of my favourite mantras is Marron’s as well: “Hurt people hurt people.” When we understand this, when we truly understand it, other humans cease to be as fantastically monstrous for all the cruelty they perpetuate. They become tangible, and surmountable. Mythologizing them only lends them greater strength.)
You might not listen to the podcast yourself. Some of the conversations are quite tough, and you might not be in the right headspace for them. So I’ll just highlight one part of the transcript from the second episode of a recent three-parter on two people involved in a conversion-therapy programme: a gay man sent there by his parents, and a man who worked at the center while he was there (ex-gay at the time, then finding his path to a self-loving life as a gay man after leaving the center, too).
Here’s Marron’s warning to listeners, before hearing the second man’s story:
As I mentioned last week, this is an atypical story for this show. I usually host conversations between people who clashed online, but even though this isn't rooted in digital disagreement, the core themes of this project are front and center: shame, grace, and the cyclical nature of harm. Another core theme that you'll hear in this episode is a point I, and this show, have tried to drive home over and over again, that change takes time. As you listen to my conversation with John, I want you to really hear how long his evolution took. I want you to notice the painfully slow process, that unfolded over a series of years and the many different people and events who lit that path of evolution for him.
Now, I want to share two true things with you:
One, conversion therapy, is a harmful practice that has traumatized the many who have survived it, and it has driven others to suicide and suicidal ideation.
Two, the people who ran these conversion therapy centers are human beings who thought they were helping. Both of these truths can, and I think must, exist together simultaneously.
That they are human does not absolve them from the harm they have caused. And the harm that they have caused does not erase their humanity.
A mantra that I created for myself when making this show, and a mantra that I've shared with you before is, empathy is not endorsement. I believe that we can feel for people without co-signing the worst things they've done, that we can hold people accountable while still caring about them. I encourage you to lean on that mantra as often as you want throughout this episode. And also long after this episode is done.
I understand that this work isn’t for everyone. Marron understands this, too.
But I’m glad I’m not the only one who leans into doing it.
And I’m thankful for such excellent mentors in the field.
F1. The White Knights (2015)
In this strange world of ours, so full of desperate needs, you have to choose your mentors carefully, no? Because along with the well-intentioned but wrong, there are also people who think they’re well-intentioned, and are doubly wrong.
Now, I’m not usually a fan of biopics, or films that seek to capture a recent political event. Rare is the work for me that doesn’t resist polishing or rationalizing away the messiness of human life and interactions. I adore the films that instead simply let complexity sit on the screen, unmediated, unsoothed, for viewers to process and accept cannot always be easily resolved.
But my interest had been piqued from the moment I heard of The White Knights, a Belgian-French film by Joachim Lafosse, set in Chad, that fictionalizes the Zoe’s Ark incident in 2007. That was when a French NGO attempted to smuggle 103 children from Chad to France, claiming them as orphans of Darfur, and saw its members locally arrested instead. In this version, the charity is called “Move for Children”, and fewer children are involved in the attempt, but the gist of the crisis remains similar.
I knew I was in for a solid depiction of a fairly matter-of-fact scenario from the start, due to two excellent choices by the director. The first happens when our arriving team moves through streets that haven’t been presented as so abjectly consumed by war that no everyday life can proceed. And that’s going to be key throughout this film—that our director chooses not to foreground any scenes in which these NGO operatives are in danger, after having expressly chosen to ignore standing orders from local military outfits telling them where is safe and where is dangerous to traverse.
This is a rare choice for such cinema—to have us see the shot-at vans after they’ve returned, for instance, to the main site; and to have the NGO operatives have to explain themselves to local militia without first seeing them in danger. But it’s incredibly intelligent, because it bypasses the possibility of forming an outsized sense of character fealty in the heat of those war-time stand-offs. We still get to learn that they were in risky situations! That they could have died! But without gimmicky emotional investment. And without forgetting that they chose to ignore standard operating procedure on the ground, to land themselves in that hot water at all.
The second choice comes early in scripting, when the leader of the NGO team explains to locals that they are here for orphans up to the age of five, no older. The locals are given to believe that this charity is going to take care of these children on-site, providing food, shelter, and an education until the age of 18—which is why they work to help villages give up the orphans in their care, and why they struggle with this confusing cut-off date and the orphan-specific mandate. Why can’t the local children with a parent or two attend? Why can’t they start school later?
But right from the beginning, when we Westerners hear this cut-off, we know what’s up. A cut-off that young is a huge red flag for “adoption scheme”, both because adoptive parents tend to want small children, and because older children can have more difficulty bonding with their new families. And so, we really don’t need the full explanation right away. Just that age cut-off is enough for the movie to set the scene: to say “these people are lying to the locals, and taking their children under false pretenses.” This film doesn’t need to go out of its way to villainize this organization. It simply needs to allow their own words and actions to speak for themselves.
In the process, too, The White Knights also illustrates what could have been done instead. The on-site orphanage and school that could have been built, using local staff and working in conjunction with local village leaders. The financial collaboration with local families that could have happened, without taking any from their homes.
But no. Evacuation and the intended assimilation of the smallest children into France was the best that this organization could think to do. And it just wasn’t good enough.
You raise up a community, or you’ve raised up nothing at all.
S1. “Rage” by The Jerks
It’s hard to be a literary scholar in the everyday world. When I hear a song that makes such excellent use of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gently into that good night”, I still can’t help but think about what an absolute jerk Thomas was. It’s not that he relied on the kindness of others, and especially on the patronage of women in his life—we are all of us buoyed by our systems—but that he was so casually cruel with those women, disparaging and dismissive and negligent of so many familial responsibilities, and that he would use their love and finances to besot himself with drink and dreams of grandeur. (He wasn’t called the “Welsh sponger” without good cause!)
Did Thomas, who only lived to 39, write a poem that has stirred the hearts of the grief-struck facing their own and their loved ones’ mortalities? Absolutely. But good gravy, did that “raging” ever look a lot different for Thomas off the page.
Nevertheless, I’m quite delighted that The Jerks, a Filipino rock band that rose to international prominence with “Rage” in the 1990s, elevated those lines with the focus on global poverty and injustice that this song and its first video contain. Most of their work is much more regionally valued, but this piece gained renewed anthemic status during pandemic with a more recent video, a compilation jam of 35 alt-rock Filipino musicians that blended anti-fascist and pandemic-compassionate imagery for a new generation of activists fighting the old problems in new forms.
But why shouldn’t the old cry become new again? As the lyrics go,
“And the names and faces of the tyrants change. But poverty, pain, and murder remains. And the voices of truth are locked up in chains. Darkness remains, freedom in flames.”
Moreover, the song was first inspired by a painting made by a political detainee, which front man Chickoy Pura received from his sister-in-law. It depicted a “dove flying away into the darkness and it quoted Dylan Thomas”, though Pura regrets that he never asked for the name of the detainee. So even though the first music video absolutely targets the everyday consequences of living in a corrupt state, with widespread social neglect and poverty leading to death, it’s all connected: the political corruption, the state tyranny, all of it.
What made me gravitate to this song again this month was how much I’ve been seeing people gravitate toward a less useful form of pessimism. When I post articles on OnlySky about the horrific state of, say, illegal mining in Venezuela and Colombia, or the ongoing civil war in Tigray and Ethiopia, I’m routinely met by “I don’t think we’re ever going to change” and “this is human nature.”
But as The Jerks’ renewed protest anthem illustrates… “Yes, and?”
Because it may very well be true that these problems will exist in every human era.
But what about that fact justifies the logical leap into thinking they’re any less worth fighting, wherever and whenever they arise?
A2. “Look on the dark side” by Mara van der Lugt
Before I talk about Mara van der Lugt’s “Look on the dark side”, which celebrates the importance of hopeful pessimism in lieu of “crude optimism”, I just want the record to show that I still dislike the use of the word “dark” in the headline’s context. I know I’m not going to win this linguistic battle any time soon, but I far prefer words like “bleak”, “macabre”, “sordid”, and “grim” over the complex semiotics of a word that, as much as possible, I try to use in a neutral or positive light in my prose.
So. I’m going to be using “bleak” and “grim” here instead. (But you do you!)
Semantics aside, van der Lugt’s piece struck an important nerve with me, because a lot of my nonfiction these days is operating in direct tension with a great deal of malaise. Rare is the day when I’ll post to OnlySky about a lesser-known topic, like the inner workings of civil war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, or the difficulty of reaching Amazonian Indigenous groups suffering under illegal mining’s many guerrilla- and state-backed tyrannies, or the wealth of technology we already have to address the world’s water crises, without first and foremost being met with the assertion that we don’t have the political will to fix any of this. Why bother learning about any of this, if it’s never going to change?
I’ve met many a writer who gets upset by commenters like this. I don’t. However, I see the fact of their commenting on these articles at all, even if heavily laden with fatalism, as an articulation of the current limits of their vocabulary. The world is terrible. Nothing ever seems to work. Now what? What’s the point?
And often, these voices are entrenched in their moroseness precisely because others feel threatened by their bleak verdicts about the state of the world. Others tend to treat this sort of grim assertion as dismissive. And then commenters get embroiled in conversations that only entrench them further in their initial doom and gloom.
But does it have to be this way?
Or can we embrace pessimism as a productive vocabulary, too?
That’s what van der Lugt proposes, at least, in a piece that was originally titled “In these times, the virtue we need is hopeful pessimism” (I too suffer from having my original titles swapped out by editors after publication—but you can always see what the author first intended by looking at the URL.)
It’s a piece for Aeon that starts in older arguments about the Christian god and the problem of worldly suffering, but which swiftly universalizes the question between optimists and pessimists writ large, for
[a]fter all, the issue is not just about God: it is about creation and, more specifically, the extent to which creation can be justified, given the ills or ‘evils’ that are in the world.
The question of creation is urgent for us today. Considering the great uncertainties of the climate crisis, is it justified to create new people, not knowing what kind of future lies ahead of them? And if it is justified, is there any point at which it ceases to be? Most people would probably agree that some worlds are imaginable in which creation would be immoral. At what precise point is life too bad, or too uncertain, to pass on?
But beneath [this question], never far removed, lay a deeper question, a question just as ethically and emotionally imbued: how to speak of suffering in a way that offers hope and consolation?
In his answer, van der Lugt refuses the easy binary between Optimist—Good and Pessimist—Bad. Drawing on the work of absurdists and pessimism scholars, he argues that a bleak outlook can be seen as one that voids the holder of all expectation: ceding the ability to know what lies ahead, and thus opening up a greater range of possibilities, for better or for worse. In this reframing, the act of acknowledging that things have fallen apart, that things may not ever be put back together, that the world might just get worse and worse without end… is to bear up to the full spectrum of potential outcomes. It’s to look at the whole range of human futures with a reduced sense of panic. If everything lies within one’s field of vision for a possible endpoint, and if one further accepts the relative smallness of one’s agency in determining that final endpoint… what remains in the vastness of the cosmos to startle or disarm us? How can we possibly be derailed from a path the size of an open field?
Seen through this lens, the optimistic worldview conversely becomes a site of emotional limitation. In excising the awful side of the spectrum of potential outcomes, it creates an added mental border to serve as a sight of strain and anguish. The slightest perceived edging into those worst possible timelines cannot be permitted, so tone policing surges in related activist dialogue. Vigilant self-erasure!
But if we aren’t permitted to let in and sit with the possibility of worst-case scenarios, how can we ever hope to shake off their power over us?
I feel that I became a better pessimist in this past year, as I came to terms with the realization that all my plans well and truly have no defined path to fruition anymore. There is simply nothing definitive that I can say or do that will fix my situation. I’ll either win the literary lottery in time… or I won’t. And until then, I move in limbo, and I try to do the best I can for and by the world around me while I’m here.
My articles for OnlySky, of course, seem far more full of hope—filled with data to inform my readers, and options to clarify courses of action we could take to build a better world. But it’s a hopefulness that comes, for me, on the back of having done immense research into the depth of each problem, and finding it to be truly Herculean—unlikely to be solved in my or even my nephews’ lifetimes in full.
I sit with that grief each time I draft a new, robustly activist bit of journalism.
I let that grief wash over me.
I let myself think about all the people for whom solutions will never come in time.
I dread nothing in the grimmest of comments that rise up in answer to each post.
Because the pessimism of my commenters is more kindred to my own than even they maybe know.
I simply recognize a freedom in mine, that they maybe don’t realize yet in their own.
O2. Call Russia
Some people have set an even greater challenge for themselves than either Dylan Marron (O1) or I have ever known, in trying to reach across the aisle to heal rifts caused by a war in progress. And sure! Perhaps it’s a futile effort. But oh! What an effort, all the same.
Thanks to an excellent episode of This American Life, “Well Someone Had to Do SOMETHING!”, I learned this past month about the Call Russia campaign, and the man behind this most daunting of one-on-one tasks to change the world.
Paulius Senuta is Lithuanian, with a background in advertising, and he lived under the Soviet Union for thirteen years. So when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, he had an acute working knowledge of the kind of propaganda the Russian people were probably receiving from their government, to justify and rally support around this heinous undertaking. And he had a professional understanding of the difference that direct human contact can make in the art of persuasion.
He also knew that Russian phone numbers were publicly listed, so he and a friend decided to do something about this horrific misinformation campaign. They designed a website that anyone could use (I mean, it’s obviously ideal to be a Russian speaker, but you know what I mean) to connect with a randomly selected phone number in Russia, and… try to have a conversation one-on-one with the country’s citizens, about what was really happening in Putin’s war.
Do you see them as victims, or do you see them as complicit?
Oh, it's so difficult to distinguish those two things. It's so difficult to distinguish those two things. I'm trying to put all the sympathy I have into this. Is it coming from the fact that I think that's going to create a bridge, and I'm cynical? Or do I truly have sympathy?
Senuta is not naive. His conversations have almost all involved being shouted at by angry Russians on the other side of the line. Hateful language. Wild threats.
And yes, every now and then, someone sits on the other line in silence and listens. Just listens. But this doesn’t make them the best conversations, for Senuta. Rather—
To me, screaming people are actually the ones that we need to talk to.
What do you mean?
Because these are the supporters of what is going on. And you know, it's pleasing and nice for me to have that nice conversation with the other person that I had with several people. It's so nice to have that conversation with those people, but the goal is not about having a nice conversation, right? It's about some of the people that are persuaded that they're doing a good thing in Ukraine to understand that they're not doing a good thing in Ukraine.
Soon after, the host asks about how all of these screaming Russians affect Senuta personally, and Senuta chokes up into tears—but not because of the vitriol in a phone call. Because the vitriol in a phone call is nothing, nothing at all compared to those suffering and dying in Ukraine. How can he get upset about being called names, when this is all he can do, all he can endure, to try to put an end to a heinous war?
I feel a very small sliver of this attitude when talking with one commenter on OnlySky, a person that many on the site have utterly vilified for his far-right views. (More on this in O3.) He might be insufferable to them, but… I write about literal fascistic leaders on the rise, who’ve already sanctioned the slaughter of thousands. Militias committing sexual war crimes. Guerrillas and cartels torturing and enslaving Indigenous people. Palestinians kettled into oppressive existences without hope of anything but the terror of aerial bombardment and the loss of everyday services.
And when I’ve finished writing those articles? I walk the streets and talk to people out begging for the basic necessities of life. Last Sunday, an extremely frail old man in a wheelchair, one of the rare folks out on a day with so few passersby, caught up my hand and kissed it in thanks (through his mask) while issuing a blessing for the coin I’d given him. And I wish that I hadn’t hurried on as quickly. I wish I’d sat with him a little longer, and not been so startled (COVID-era instinct) by touch. That is what bothers me: how easy it would have been to have shared in a little more kindness; to have moved with just a little bit more grace through our interaction that day.
A man with baitingly dissenting views trying to gotcha my articles? While so much of the world burns and there’s precious little that any of us can really do about it?
Why the heck on Earth would I let that rile me up?
F2. First Reformed (2017)
I had a hankering to rewatch Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) this past Easter, and I think it’s because I was starting to feel itchy with a fear that I was acting like the protagonist, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), in my agitated response to the state of the world. (I have a few films that fill me with dread of ever becoming a character within them, and oh my, is this ever one of them!)
I was a bit muted on First Reformed on my first viewing, because I could see all the ways in which the film was operating in conversation with Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), and the differences here underwhelmed me. Both films have a grieving church leader at their centre. Both have him losing his faith, and rejecting the attempts of a past mistress to be cared for. Both also have him trying to give counsel to a parishioner in a church of waning attendance, only for said parishioner to take his life. And in both cases, the parishioner is heavy with worldly sorrow—one, for China making an atomic bomb; the other, for climate change’s impending devastation—and leaves behind a pregnant wife.
In other words, it’s impossible not to think of Bergman while watching the Schrader.
And yet, the differences are so palpable. It’s not just that Schrader’s version also has a megachurch next door, allowing for sharp comparisons between a humbler Christianity and a shameless prosperity gospel. It’s not just that there’s an added love plot with a highly deluded ending thrown into the mix. And it’s not even how much more self-absorbed Hawke’s reverend-character is than old Pastor Ericsson.
It’s right in the overt messaging around religion in the film. In the Bergman, a critical question is asked about the Passion—for surely, a fellow clergyman wants to know, more painful than all the bodily suffering of Christ, and the denials and betrayals from all around him, was the silence. “Wasn’t God’s silence worse?” And that question blankets the whole of the film: the pointed, post-modern spiritual silence of a humanity having entered into the ongoing threat of nuclear war—with no higher guidance. No words, no divine intervention, no toppling of this new Tower of Babel so horrifically propped up by man’s hands alone.
Conversely, First Reformed has the most self-deluded and narcissistic guiding spiritual complaint possible. After Toller’s parishioner, a radical environmentalist, shoots himself and leaves behind a bomb vest for a planned attack on the funders of climate catastrophe, Toller finds himself spiralling into the same thought process: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
Not “will”. Can. It is the question of an atheist (speaking as one myself) in a theist’s robes. For what theist doubts the ability of an omnipotent creator to do as it wishes?
Can is a word that leaves us to our own devices, just as Bergman’s “silence” hints at the same—but there’s a bizarre power in Schrader’s version, because with that “can” comes the suggestion that humanity actually has the means to so disappoint its creator that it actually strips its creator of agency.
On my second viewing, the narcissism of First Reformed became less a diminishment, though, and more Schrader’s overall point. You can tell this, too, from the claims made by the prosperity megachurch next door: a place just as emptied of theological power; just as built on twisting scripture to serve human ends. In one potent scene, the preacher claims that Christ never struggled, which is absolutely a distortion of gospel. They’re two halves of the same coin, Toller’s church and that of Rev. Joel Jeffers (played splendidly by Cedric the Entertainer), in their vacuum of genuine faith. And between them, there seems to be no hope of something better glinting through.
Thank goodness, then, that in the real world, for secular and religious folk alike, there are always more than those two paths from which to choose.
P2. An interview, and a curation of biography
In a few days, I’ll be sitting down for a live interview with a fellow OnlySky columnist, Jonathan MS Pearce, for his A Tippling Philosopher YouTube channel. It’s going to be an interesting experience, because Pearce is in the older mode of public atheist, having shaped his career around logical and historical arguments against Christianity (and occasionally other Abrahamic faith traditions—but Christianity for sure is the main locus of debate). I’ve listened to a few of his other interviews, and the deconversion stories or analyses of Christianity’s moral failings that shape so many of his conversations with others, based on each guest’s background and expertise-set.
And… well, let’s just say that it’s going to be a fascinating interview, because I’m not sure where the vast majority of our conversation is going to lie yet. Early on in his interviews, after all, he invites his guests to introduce themselves, and, well… there are so many different conversations that could emerge from that starting point, depending on where I set it.
I could talk about the reasons I left Canada—the dissertation on the history of stellar evolution that I had to walk away from in my PhD programme, and what its constituent parts tell us about the complexities of Christian belief and scientific advancement in the 19th century.
I could also talk about one of the main reasons I chose to move to Colombia, with its profoundly different discourse around restorative justice at a time that Canada and the US were growing even more emboldened in their simplistic political binaries and xenophobic rhetoric. I could talk about the way that humanism operates as a much more normalized practice in national politics here, because of the overall reduced stigma toward academics and policy wonks running for top office.
Or I could talk about global humanism more expansively, and why identifying as a secular humanist is far more important to me (as a philosophy that invites the development of common cause with religious humanists) than identifying as an atheist. Why it’s one thing to know how to handily refute all of Augustine’s Five Ways and al-Ghazali’s related cosmological argument, and to explain the origin of social morality in the absence of a conscious creator; but that it’s a completely different, and far more vital thing, to know how to move with dignity in a world where the poor will tell you “God will repay you” because religion is the only consistent site of hope in their terribly hard lives. To allow yourself to be prayed over by a beggar on the street because it’s something that makes the most abjectly suffering feel like they have something to give to the world in turn.
I honestly don’t know which parts of my life story will come to the fore in our conversation. I could very easily see us talking for the full hour about science histories, or Colombian differences in religiosity as compared to North America, or global humanism and the importance of moving past basic atheist/theist debate.
I contain some truly wide-ranging multitudes—so much so, that I hardly know which side of myself is ever leading from one day to the next.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see which one shows up on Thursday, May 5th!
M2. A ridiculous date
Okay, but before that more formal presentation of identity for the camera… here’s a slightly personal, and far messier version of myself in conversation.
I don’t know why I decided to take up a random’s invitation for coffee. I mean, on the surface, I know why: the desire to make an effort to develop a new sense of community, after having lost so much of it last year. But on the other hand, a part of me knows all too well how much a game of Russian Roulette these encounters always are, and shakes its head at the rest of me for gambling all the same.
So what? I told that cynical part of my brain. Worse comes to worst, I’ll at least have a good story out of it, right?
The person I was set to meet seemed nice enough online. Charming, athletic, active. And he was indeed very friendly right from the start. Big familiar hug like we’d known each other for years. Nice lad, too, in that he gave coin to a person who came up and asked for it at an intersection.
And, I mean, yes, there was a slight warning sign when I met him in front of a church where he was praying before our encounter. I do not date religious men (incompatible life goals, by and large), but that was fine. I was just going for coffee with someone. Maybe making a new friend.
Very quickly, though, I noted a behaviour-set that I’m quite familiar with: the fellow who likes to talk, and who’ll control the conversation with rhetorical questions that allow him to hold the floor, showing off his brilliance for a captive audience expected to be credulous of everything he says, acting the merest Glaucon to his Socrates.
I’m a pretty laid-back person once I know what I’m dealing with, though, so I figured, eh. It’s a great opportunity to flex my Spanish listening skills on a wide range of topics. I’ll intervene here and there when something he says gets outlandish, but why not let him enjoy holding the floor with the weird Canadian for an hour or two?
Unfortunately, my need to intervene started earlier than I had hoped it would. One minute, he was talking about the rich history of local Indigenous groups and the mysteries of the mountains of Antioquia—all fine and good. But then the next he was tying the name Antioquia into a global conspiracy theory involving a secret tribe of Jews—oh yes, you can see where this is going—and then went into a deep Biblical read to explain why Jews ran the world. “Have you ever seen a poor Jew?” he asked as his self-assured rhetorical question at one point, when my expression had very quickly turned—to which I intervened to explain that, yes, absolutely, Canada has been home to many Jewish people who’ve had to flee difficult circumstances, and listed many of the places where post-WWII has not at all been kind to Jewish peoples of the world.
This was disappointing to him, of course, because although there really aren’t that many Jews in Colombia, still the idea of a Jewish cabal running the world had some purchase in local mysticism—some tied into his Catholicism; some tied into colonialism’s impact on local landmarks. He wasn’t even against Jewish people, really! There was kind of an… admiration?… to the way he spoke of their secret histories?
But! No matter. He deftly changed topics instead, and went into a broader spiritual theme. This is where I got into hot water, though, because one of his rhetorical questions was a loose gesturing at the assumption that I believed in “God” (he was about to launch into a speech about how my idea of god was of course all wrong), but after the Jewish conspiracy nonsense I didn’t bother to couch my reply, as I often do with locals here. “No, soy atea,” I said simply. “No, I’m atheist.”
This threw him for a loop—a familiar hurt in his face, like the existence of my atheism was a direct attack. So, I quickly leapt into my usual humanist spiel to assure that I absolutely honour the fact that I live in a world of richly ranging religious beliefs, which do so much to nourish so many. He recovered a touch at that, but he was still very off-put by my atheism, and decided to tell me that I was only atheist because I hadn’t “opened [myself] to the possibilities”.
What possibilities, you might ask?
Oh, he was about to tell me!
As it turned out, he believes that he has a special power to know when someone is going to die. He believes this because he once hadn’t seen a friend for a while, and then had a really bad feeling about this friend, so he reached out and found out that, sure enough! The friend had died. A truly tragic thing, to lose a friend. And an even more unsettling thing, as a human being, to be able to draw a throughline from a gut feeling that something was wrong to—voila!—living proof.
“How do you explain that with your materialism?” he challenged me.
And I hesitated, because it’s difficult to know how to be gentle when someone feels they need to defend their exceptionalism. He had truly built up the idea, by this point, that he had a special power, a deeper spiritual connection with the cosmos.
I started by bringing Kant, and the difference between phenomenology and noumenology (the knowable external and the knowable internal, and how we can only know the external for everyone around us, and the internal for ourselves). I tried to get out of the conversation by saying that his experience is an internal truth that I can’t access. It’s his. And it matters because of how impactful it was for him.
Still, he pressed. “You can’t explain it. There’s more to the world than your science!”
And I should probably have left it at that. Instead, I talked about pattern recognition, and how amazing human beings are at seeing patterns everywhere. I gave the example of a pediatrician who, even knowing the robust science of vaccines, realized to her great horror that if her daughter had had an idiopathic anaphylactic reaction the day after receiving a scheduled vaccine, instead of two days before, as actually happened, she would have had a very difficult time not blaming the vaccine for the incident. Even with all her training, this doctor knew that she was as vulnerable as the rest of us to building rigid causalities around anecdotal data.
I then pointed out that while I couldn’t know his specific circumstances, I did know that human beings routinely range through a variety of gut feelings, and dreams, and imagined possibilities—the vast majority of which are forgotten because they don’t then connect with an ensuing event. But when we have one of those feelings and an event seems to follow right after it, we do remember the connection.
And boy howdy, did he seem hurt by my reply.
He then tried a final tactic, of talking about how he had a friend who was a monk, and who had an amazing mystical ability to read people, to know their whole family stories from almost no starting detail. He told me that he could show his monk friend just my photo from online, and that I would be shocked—shocked!—by the things this monk would tell me about my parents’ history, and other secret details about myself.
He was… not pleased when I mentioned that I’d known a few people who worked as fortune-tellers, providing great service to their clients even just over the phone with very few starting details. He insisted that his monk friend wasn’t a fortune-teller, but dropped the—offer? threat?—of passing on my photo very soon after that.
Now, I should mention that none of this was hostile, exactly. But there were definitely moments when I felt very sad for having chosen to spend my afternoon trying to “get out” and “meet people”. There had even been the most wonderful book fair in process, in the city square where we’d met! I could have been wandering the book stalls instead of listening to these strange conspiracy theories, and wounding a fellow’s pride simply by not swallowing his grand ideas and convictions of magical powers wholesale!
But… like I said, it did make for a good chuckle of an anecdote. And I got to practise some rarer slices of my Spanish vocabulary (Kant’s noumenology, for heck’s sake). And I got to hear a little more about the way that mystical lore has been built into the mountain cultures and naming traditions of this dear department of Antioquia.
Also, the coffee was delicious.
He never contacted me again, of course—nor I him.
But I can’t say it wasn’t, at least, a memorable fraction of a day.
S2. “Prayer of the Refugee” by Rise Against
Warm yourself by the fire, son
And the morning will come soon
I'll tell you stories of a better time
In a place that we once knew
Before we packed our bags
And left all this behind us in the dust
We had a place that we could call home
And a life no one could touch
Rise Against first launched “Prayer of the Refugee” in 2006. Like many of the punk and alt-rock songs in its canon, this piece uses familiar, accessible rock rhythms to tell a story of contemporary injustice. Other pieces deal with gentrification’s toll (“People Live Here”), anti-queer bullying in high schools (“Make It Stop: September’s Children”), the horrific response to Hurricane Katrina (“Help Is on the Way”), among other key issues in US and global politics. But “Prayer of the Refugee” is the piece I was drawn back to this month, from a reminder of how Rise Against handles its stage performances when touring with this and similar pieces.
During a 2016 German tour, for instance, the group chose to elevate a local refugee and their story at each of their tour stops. This praxis aligns well with the song itself, because this “Prayer” starts with the grief of displacement, moves through the injustice of economic and political disenfranchisement in a new country, and then… rallies around the idea that immigrants don’t need further saviour complexes, just empowerment. This doesn’t mean that those who have platforms don’t have work to do, but that this work should never just lie in our words, our use of others’ struggles.
There are many ways to raise up people alongside you when writing on the world’s injustices. Rise Against just does it a bit more literally than most, thanks to its exceptional stage presence all the world over. But we can learn from it all the same.
F3. Leviathan (2014)
I sorely meant to watch Leviathan when it first came out, but I’m rather glad to have watched this 2014 Russian film this past month instead, with the uncanny weight of ensuing history informing my viewing experience.
The premise of the film was the futility of human action—so you can definitely see why this would have piqued my interest, no? It’s set around a man who went to great pains in his humble career as a mechanic to build a beautiful home for himself in a prime location on a small town’s bay—a home made all the more beautiful when contrasted with the stark, mouldering, Soviet-era architecture that most people live in, in town. But of course, Russian bureaucracy not having changed much since the Soviet era, if the town’s mayor now wants that location for himself, he can—and easily does—rig every official in his favour, to drive our protagonist off his land by force.
Near the start of the piece, we’re introduced to our protagonist’s old friend, a lawyer from Moscow who still misguidedly believes that the law can be made to work in one’s favour: that all that’s required to overcome completely rushed and one-sided trials and verdicts is a little hinting at connections high up in the Party, and a dossier full of incriminating data to intimidate the mayor. Oh, how wrong our lawyer soon is!
Adding to this mess of futility is a domestic complication: our protagonist is an angry man with an angry son, and a long-suffering step-mother is caught between the pair. When the Moscow lawyer shows her even the littlest bit of basic decency, after she’s been treated so poorly amid our protagonist’s rage at his impending loss of home, the predictable ensues between them. The result of this, too, is tragic. It’s all tragic. No one gets out of this in one piece except the town mayor, and the Orthodox priest who’s been counselling him all along. The film even closes on a church mass in which a sermon on righteous action and the triumph of good, with the mayor’s family front and center in the pews, sits in stark tension with the reality of all that just unfolded.
Every single level of supposed social order, from the lowliest traffic cop, to the courts, to municipal government, to the local church, is both a constant and an utterly empty presence within this local Russian township. Justice is a word without meaning, without context. Ideas of society and civility are sustained by false hope alone.
But, oh, also so grounding in that bleakness. The narrative beats in this film by Andrey Zvyagintsev (script by Anna Mass) aren’t unsurprising; and yet, the familiarity of so many of these breaking points is what makes this beautifully shot film so affecting. We know this sense of futility. We know the relentless artifice of so much we’re asked to trust in, when it comes to our formal institutions. We know that human decency can be spoken out of relevance in a heartbeat. And we know there’s a deeper language game afoot in all the powerplays that truly run (and tyrannize) our world.
Some of the film’s early imagery also depicts half-sunken beached boats and an equally half-sunken, bleached whale corpse—all of which is simply allowed to sit as an affectation of pathetic fallacy that needs no didactic throughline to make its similar point: that all is in a state of decay, in man-made structures as in nature.
To watch this film amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine is to be reminded, too, that for many Russian people the idea that meaning ever existed on the surface of society is and has been absurd for a very long time. We in the West so easily see what’s happening in Ukraine as a breakdown of social order and civility. Russian films like Leviathan hauntingly remind us that so much of what we’ve considered stable social orders in the first place were already probably in the deepest of states of disrepair.
O3. Courtesy, and OnlySky
One other forum where I’ve been a bit of a “dull dog” (P1) is OnlySky, alack—but only because I choose to engage with courtesy a person who has a long and storied history with the site, and with commenters and columnists whose interactions hearken back to their days on Patheos. He’s a far-right leaning US citizen, classic “own the libs” mentality drawn from an unhealthy news diet and a conviction that one cannot both be Catholic and believe in evolution. (Apparently the import of the magisterium, which among other things delineates literary modes in the Bible such that it’s clear for Catholics which parts have to be read as literal and which do not, stops for his evangelical version somewhere around concession to the theory of heliocentrism.)
A lot of columnists gave up on him from the start, and told me he wasn’t worth bothering with. That he was “just a troll” for raising right-wing responses to various articles on the site. But the problem is… the vast majority of the “trolling” that he does is to call attention to the hypocritical inconsistency of our implementation of Community Guidelines. Because we are still working to overcome the heated discursive style from back at Patheos—a style that ever so many of our old-school commenters come to certain comment sections expressly to play out anew. At the crux of OnlySky’s stated goals is a participatory community that’s far more constructive in its discourse than what we often see play out (though not everywhere; the hostility is definitely localized around a few key, if also prominent columnists’ posts). And… that’s still experiencing some growing pains, to say the least.
It’s a bit like coming to a Thanksgiving dinner, really—sitting at the adult’s table for the first time, thoroughly excited to dig in with all the other grown-ups who’ve been there for years, only to find that all one’s older relatives absolutely despise one cranky uncle in the corner. They all tell you right off the bat that he’s an odious sort, and that you should be just as angry at his presence here as they are—and then they leap into actions that 100% break the rules of the Thanksgiving table, hurling blatant personal attacks and mockery at him whenever he pokes the bear even a little (which he certainly does, but never to the same extreme as their reactions). The idea of ignoring him never once seems to come up—or if it does, it’s always joined with passive-aggressive mocking of his presence in conversation amongst themselves.
So here you are, then, freshly arrived at the “adult” Thanksgiving table, and… caught in the middle. You want to honour the fact that these folks are telling you they’ve had awful histories with him, histories that have made them fed up at the slightest provocation on his part. But you also don’t want to do as they do in reaction to him—because you still want to move toward a world where the rules of etiquette ostensibly guiding the Thanksgiving table can be restored. Some suggest just kicking the uncle from the table—but on what distinctly defensible grounds, when everyone is currently breaking the rules? How does that actually fix the immense amount of vitriol that this other group was quick to employ with someone who didn’t share their views?
My solution has been to firmly outline that on my column, everyone is welcome to partake, and if folks don’t like the commenter, they don’t have to interact with him. He’s welcome to interact with me one-on-one, and not to attack others in turn.
And… that’s worked out, more or less, except that we’re still trying to overcome the intensity of rule-breaking elsewhere on the site. And so when this person shows up on my forum and challenges some of what I’ve written, I can usually see where he’s actually responding to the hypocrisy of being flagged elsewhere for asking right-wing questions, while those doing the flagging then go on to break a range of our rules based on “always be de-escalating” and “go after the person, not the ideas” without any repercussions at all. They could have just flagged the offending comment and moved on. But no. Instead, they escalated the hostility—hugely!—and in so doing made it very difficult for mods to do their jobs in a fair and equitable way.
It’s a bit exhausting. No one wants to ban all the old-timers, who are bringing so much traffic to those old-schoolers’ columns. And I don’t want them banned either! I’m very tired of banning being our first impulse in general, on public forums. (Personal accounts are different—ban away to keep your space a happy one!) But if we’re truly going to build something better here, then we absolutely need to act in a way that manifests integrity across the board. Not just with the people we agree with.
So, for now, I’ll keep being a dullard for courtesy and consistency.
And keep hoping that more will join me in this approach to discourse soon enough.
M3. A photo
In M2, I talked about a ridiculous date I had, and I mentioned the book fair I could have been wandering through instead. This is the book fair—or, at least, one line of knick-knack and food vendors that surrounded the main events at the centre of the town square, with all their street-facing temptations.
I wish I’d stopped to take more photos. There was a circle of local Indigenous storytellers! And different kiosks for local classics and contemporary pieces! And an author reading in progress!
But fool that I was, I still went for the coffee—and the nonsense—instead.
Sigh. Never smart enough where it counts, are you, M L?
A3. “A Defense of Art for Art’s Sake” by Daniel Lelchuk
So, I have a curious final article for us this month, because I went into Daniel Lelchuk’s “A Defense of Art for Art’s Sake”, a review for The Bulwark of Jed Perl’s Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts, raring to disagree with yet another appeal to stop seeing everything as political. (My counterpoint being that, darned tootin’, everything is political, whether we realize it or not.)
But I actually found a great deal that I agreed with in the book’s central bid, although the review wasn’t quite as robust. As Perl asserts as an aim of his essay collection,
I want us to release art from the stranglehold of relevance—from the insistence that works of art, whether classical or contemporary, are validated (or invalidated) by the extent to which they line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns. I want to convince a public inclined to look first for relevance that art’s relevance has everything to do with what many regard as its irrelevance.
Now, it’s a subtle difference, but what Perl is arguing is that a question like “What is the point?” of a given work is actually asking “What is its power?” or “Where does its authority lie?” And this is an understandable query in the world of creative expression, because what is art if not a struggle to define or set down something from our surrounding, worldly chaos? We are attempting to will the real world into some sort of representative form—whether as writers or weavers, painters or sculptures.
But while I don’t think Lelchuk’s review goes deep enough into the import of Perl’s argument, the argument itself leapt out loud and clear for me, at least. Namely:
When we frame discourse around art around its point, or its power, or its authority, we are—whether or not we realize it—also reifying the importance of those things in the world. Calling art political is just as political as the choice not to. This is the language game we choose to play, in compelling meaning for a work to resolve around a clearer sense of the authority it may or may not wield—and to what greater end.
Is there another option? Do we have to always talk about the world in relation to power? I’d reframe our options differently: I’d say that we can choose to be aware of how often we prioritize questions of authority whenever we talk about the political relevance of any given work of art. And I’d say that we can also think more deeply about the lesser known ways that we all wrestle with chaos and “create” art in the world around us, simply by setting our attention awhile on the littlest details of sight and sound and human interaction in everyday life. Birdsong as we walk along a rushing highway. The way a dry leaf skitters past cigarette butts in the gutter. The repose of a sickly man asleep under a filthy blanket by a tree where a child is trying to catch at low-hanging fruit. All those quotidian struggles against chaos are also creative practice, also a form of living that shapes meaning for us—even if they’re never hung in a gallery. Even if no one else ever knows that they’ve transpired.
The whole idea of art needs a great deal of contextual broadening, to break down the existing, implicit power structures it contains, and is used to sustain. Jed Perl’s book of essays seems to offer a promising start to that more meditative end.
P3. The pedant on the page
Outside of OnlySky, the vast majority of my nonfiction lies here, on social media, and… in emails to friends. Never as often as I’d like! Always with an immense backlog! But always fairly lengthy and nuanced when I get around to them.
They’re an interesting medium, though, in large part because my precision in correspondence around political or philosophical topics is often misinterpreted as anger, upset, or an imputation of the other person’s moral failing, for having used a term or made a perhaps-too-simple statement about the world. It’s not quite on the level of my causing upset by identifying as an atheist or declining to be immediately wowed by another person’s mystical powers and conspiracy theories (see: M2), but it is an interesting problem for me all the same.
Recently, I was chatting with a friend about one of the reasons that I’ve had to be so careful in my language: the dismissive, gender-based presumption that everything I say and do must be disproportionately informed by emotionalism, because, well, I am a feminized person. (And also, why my many efforts—online and in person—to code switch between precise and more casual issues-based conversation are often so poor.)
This has always been a fascinating language game for me, right up there with Jon Baskin’s complaint, in A1, that progressives need to ease up on disagreeing when conservatives assert a term or a concept in X new way in the public sphere. Because, of course, all human beings are emotional. Men are often incredibly emotional (and deserve to be! what a horrible culture, that would insist otherwise!). But also, because the monopoly on physical force favours testosterone-laden bodies, many are capable of some pretty immediate and dangerous reactions to dissent. As such, even as many masculinized persons like to joke about how important it is to have care around an “upset female”, it’s not like it’s ever been the smartest idea, either, to disagree with a masculinized person’s claim that he is intrinsically the more rational by virtue of genomic/hormonal make-up. Can we just say that we all have the potential to be pretty volatile people, and let go of all the gendered monopolies on emotion?
In any case, my best defense against this gendered nonsense, in the everyday course of conversation, has always been the employment of precision wherever possible—to make sure that my facts are sharp, my argumentation is robust, and my tonal range is strictly tethered to the topic at hand. (Obviously, I’m human, too, so some themes bother me a great deal more than others, but it’s important not to let others weaponize my having feelings at all.) Also, it’s extremely important to me that we define our terms carefully within the context of a given conversation; I need to know that we’re using key words the same way, before I leap into discussion around them.
And yet, even then, there’s a layer of meaning formation that surrounds me, an aura of perceived “femininity”, that chatters at many discursive partners long before they actually look at the words on the page, or process the contents of my speech. In one of my grad classes, it was so bad that I could actually feel the professor and one of the other grad students mentally affixing “As a woman, I believe that…” to the start of my every comment—because that was always the context in which they’d then give my analysis immediate reply. Quite frustrating.
The amusing irony, of course, is that even when engaging in more precise discussion, I am and will always be subject to others’ initial assumptions of me from externalities. Because discussion is never neutral—and dissent, even less so. Presumptions of emotional background noise will always be factored in. The question is simply this: What does one do with that difficult contextual backdrop? If this is just the form of living that my subject-position creates for many of my linguistic interactions, how does one continue to converse with ever-greater integrity and courtesy within it?
I’ve been asking myself this question a great deal in relation to my public-facing nonfiction prose. But in my personal correspondence this past month, too, I’ve come to realize that there is also a great deal of work still to do—to figure out what’s in my control to change, that is; and to figure out what hopes of change I have to let go.
S3. “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas
As I noted in the preamble, sometimes I’m thoroughly struck by all the different phases of my life to date, and feel acutely estranged from all the situations I’ve found myself in before. How trapped I felt in so many of them. How despairing.
Giving over to pessimism, as I noted in A2, has been a gift. But it’s also had some amusing unintended consequences. You might remember the song “Carry On My Wayward Son”, by Kansas (1976). It belongs to an unusual category of pieces that feel like they should be religious, and have certainly been interpreted as such by many listeners, but for various reasons shouldn’t be taken that seriously.
(Another famous one is Norman Greenbaum’s 1969 “Spirit in the Sky”, which isn’t actually a sardonic treatment of Evangelical faith, much as I used to think it was. The Jewish composer wanted to write a Christian piece just because it felt like the right sort of vibe for a song in the hippie era, and then he never heard the end of Christians angry over the line “Never been a sinner, I never sinned”—which he says was just a flub from knowing very little about the faith when composing it.)
“Carry On My Wayward Son” was composed by Kerry Livgren, and even though many people assume the titular line must have a religious origin, along with the song’s promise of “peace when you are done” and mention of heaven, Livgren says that he wrote this piece as counsel to himself, from himself, to get through tough times.
And that’s an idea I’ve resonated with a great deal this month, when thinking about the many skins I’ve shed over the years—and the many perhaps still to be shed, going forward. Living in limbo, with a calm sort of hopelessness that lies ahead, and a pure estrangement that lies behind… what motivating force can one draw upon to fuel action in the present? But, old man as I (lightly) call myself to try to explain to others how tired and world-weary I often feel inside… why not treat myself as figurative father to all of my own future forms? The promise that Livgren’s progenitor-speaker makes, after all, isn’t entirely unrealistic, especially in these lines:
Masquerading as a man with a reason My charade is the event of the season And if I claim to be a wise man, well It surely means that I don't know On a stormy sea of moving emotion Tossed about, I'm like a ship on the ocean I set a course for winds of fortune But I hear the voices say Carry on my wayward son There'll be peace when you are done Lay your weary head to rest Don't you cry no more, no
One way or another, after all, there will be peace when I am done. For me, at least.
And before that end?
Well, who knows?
What fool of a self-proclaimed wise man ever does?
Until June, my lovelies—be kind to yourselves, seek justice where you can, and always choose the book fairs above all else.
Thanks for reading Threedom! M L Clark's Monthly Miscellanies! If you haven’t already, subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.