I don’t think America needs to or wants to hear from another middle aged white guy right now. I don’t know what to say about what’s going on in the streets of almost every city in the country, and I certainly have no ability to plumb the depths to which the current temporary resident of the White House might yet sink. I guess all I can say is that I stand with life, with my fellow humans, who come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities.
No one should be strangled to death in the street for any reason ever.
How is it “controversial” to say that? And how is it possible that it has to be said then defended in the first week of June in the year 2020? I was born in 1964, into a country having precisely this same conversation as the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam, and tremendous progress has been made in the half-century or so since then, but still this?
And it’s not, I don’t think, a coincidence that systemic inequality has once again come to a head in the midst of the ongoing CORVID-19 crisis. In her Paris Review article “How Pandemics Seep Into Literature,” Elizabeth Outka wrote:
The xenophobia woven into a “Chinese virus” or even the “Spanish flu” sets up whole groups for denunciation. Factual medical descriptions of contagion, disease, and contamination morph into poisonous discriminatory metaphors of moral uncleanness and danger. The early-twentieth-century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft channeled into his postwar/postpandemic writing his prejudicial and homophobic beliefs that immigrant hordes and deviants were tainting pure Aryan blood lines. After the influenza pandemic had swept through his home state of Rhode Island, Lovecraft populated his stories with proto-zombie figures rising from the dead in the midst of pandemics or wars, bent on further destruction. Lovecraft transforms a miasmic blend of diseased atmospheres and deep-seated prejudices into monsters that can be seen and killed with impunity, a move that suggests the dangerous ways anthropomorphizing the threat may mask vicious discriminatory impulses.
Confine people; show them terrible things happening, leave them to guess what might happen next; tell them “we just don’t know” when or even if we’ll go back to work, to restaurants and bars, or game night with friends; blame some or all of it on some or all “others;” and how can this not go terribly, terribly wrong? And the coming economic depression hasn’t even started yet. Ultimately, though, when one group is told that those people are all murderers and anarchists and another group is told that that those people are all murderers and fascists and other groups are told to take a side and stay there lest the entire world collapse around us all, well, how can this not go terribly, terribly wrong?
I happened to be flipping through the TV last week, early in the morning, and decided to rewatch the HBO documentary Studs Terkel: Listening to America. Even before what happened in Minnesota, I was moved to write down this quote:
In all my books, this is the premise, this is the postulate: that people are basically decent, people do have an innate intelligence, but day after day you call upon malevolence, day after day you call upon smallness, day after day you call upon trivia, and you make that the headline, something must happen to people.
Studs Terkel was right, and that interview is at least twenty years old now. Something must, and something has happened to people.
So then, as writers, what do we do with all this?
I’ll dip back into the Paris Review and Wayne Kostenbaum’s thoughts on “The Writer’s Obligation” for at least a little help:
Mask and task are two nouns—two behaviors—I love. From Oscar Wilde come masks; from the Marquis de Sade, and from Yahweh, come tasks. After Eden, masks and tasks. In Eden, we had neither. Literature—the respite of the fallen—is the process of making do with mask and task, diverting ourselves with tasks that mask our disenfranchisement.
I don’t know… what can I say?
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