Tuesday, August 12, 2014

You Go, Robin Williams

In light of Robin Williams’ heartbreaking early exit, I’ve been asked to repost a blog I wrote just after Christmas of last year when author Ned Vizzini (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) ended what promised to be a spectacular career with that irreversible decision that leaves the rest of us asking questions we end up answering ourselves.  It’s posted below.

Most of the responses I read to Robin Williams’ death were simply of sorrow, of missing and remembering.  A colossal talent was there, then gone.  Millions of us who never knew him took it personally, I think, because of the zany intimacy of his gift.  The guy could say ANYTHING.  And we’d let him say anything because the genius of his comedy was to show us the edges, and our laughter was of astonished recognition.  We appreciate voices of intimate genius because they help define us.  Now he’s gone and we just miss him.

But then the Todd Bridges begin to show themselves, just as they did after Ned Vizzini’s death.  Suicide is selfish.  It’s the coward’s way out, the EASY way.  Life is tough, suck it up.  Life is sacred.  Turn to God.  Well sorry, Todd, but that’s the EASY answer.  The lazy one.  The one that turns a complex situation simple so we don’t have to think about it any more.

If selfish were all bad, I guess we’d all be bad.  No one but Robin knew the cost of elevating us the way he did, or of elevating himself with our responses; all while trying to manage the roller coaster ride of that enormous talent.  Like all of us, only he knew how deep; only he knew how dark.  The nature of depression is that we can’t see out of it.  Medication helps some.  Anger helps some.  Connection helps some. 

Some finally say, enough.

I don’t know what happens next.  Maybe it’s worms and maybe it’s consciousness moving at the speed of imagination, unencumbered by its former container. 

In MY imagination I see Robin out there smiling, throwing an arm over Ned Vizzini’s shoulder: “So these two nuns decide to off themselves…”

Godspeed Ned Vizzini
(New Years – 2014)
Coming into the new year it’s hard not to think of the recent suicide of the talented and tortured YA author, Ned Vizzini, and the emptiness his loved ones must feel.  Little has been left unsaid by my (and his) gracious and articulate colleagues and I am tempted to bow my head and wish his soul a silent Godspeed as it rockets into the universe.  But some of the public responses to his death compel me to add some thoughts.

The folks who suffer the same crushing depression from which Ned must have suffered, understand, and their responses seem the most eye-opening and revealing.  The responses that bother me are those calling him selfish for leaving a young wife and son without a husband and father, or for committing the act from the roof of his parents’ house or simply for committing the sin of taking an early exit.

My years as a therapist working with abuse and neglect families taught me at least one important lesson for my own life.  Never judge until you can see through the eyes of that person you are judging, and then…never judge.  There but for the grace of chance go any of us.  When I was able to help clients who were experiencing what Ned probably experienced – and there were many times I could not – I could only tether myself to all in my life that was good and leap into the abyss with them– provide a witness – secure in the belief that, whether or not we could find a way to their light, my tether would hold.  It always did.

I was lucky.

There are those who believe life is sacred, that suicide is a sin.  There are those who call it a selfish act that doesn’t take into account the pain of those left behind.

But those responses say far more about the responders than they say about Ned Vizzini.  As much as we’d like to think life is sacred, there’s not a lot of evidence for that.  The universe is maddeningly casual giving and taking it.  Nothing about life is sacred until we make it so.  Each of us.  Our own individual lives.  And sometimes from inside that awful blackness it simply isn’t possible.

Rather than think Ned Vizzini stole from his wife, a husband or from his child, a father, I prefer to consider his bravery.  In the face of that dreadful darkness, he brought love to a woman and life to a child for as long as he could.  He wrote stories that allowed many who shared in that paralyzing experience to find connection, and so feel less alone; stories in which his characters found strength he ultimately could not find.

There are fates worse than death.

I didn’t know Ned.  I don’t know if he could have been saved.  I do feel cheated.  When I read It’s Kind of a Funny Story and when I saw the movie, I knew a powerful, embracing voice had emerged in our profession and I wanted more.

But he stayed as long as he could.

So Godspeed, Ned Vizzini.  Your life has been proven sacred by your works.  We know more now than we did before you put words to paper and some of us will use that knowledge to reach back to ease the pain of those who walk in your shoes.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Biopsy Biography II - The Results

The Results

First let me say, this turns out okay.

I shouldn’t have posted my biopsilogical odyssey before I posted a result.  It wasn’t my intention to leave people hanging, though you have to admit, a good suspense story…

When I called for the results – and I admit, I put it off – the office manager told me I needed to come in…they found “a little bit of cancer.” 

I’m the best guy I know to come onto a grisly auto accident or deal with a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence or have to put an animal down, because I have a delayed reaction to trauma.  I separate almost instantly so I can see what can be done, then fold later.  But I do fold.

There was about a twenty-four hour period between the time I got the information over the phone and the time I sat down with the doctor.  I had played around with the possibilities for almost a week following my biopsy, but for that last twenty four hours I had to sit with the WORD. 

I went to the pool and worked out, feeling maybe as strong as I had in a long time, but carrying the irony that this might be stronger than I would feel, like, ever again.  I did what we all do, I think: promised to use my time better, be more embracing of people who irritate me, remember we’re all in this together and slap the Christian Right harder for being so insensitive as to keep wounded kids from reading their truths in our works because they don’t like the word “fuck”, even though that’s not a biblically barred word.

My urologist, whom I earlier characterized unfairly in my quest for comedy (he didn’t REALLY say I wasn’t a Stotan; it was just too good a line to pass up) showed me two areas of my prostate that contained a small number of cells.  He affirmed some things of which I was already aware: that almost any man who lives long enough will encounter this situation, that about fifty percent need no treatment, and that we often over-treat it because of irrational fear of that WORD.  That said, I’m not off the hook.  I’ll be on an “active surveillance” program that gets me into the doc every three months for a blood draw, and will get me another biopsy within the next year to be sure we’ve got an eye on those malevolent little buggers, and can get a leg up on them should they try anything funny. 

Truth is, I’ve been giving people bad news long enough that I know how to take some, and because of my life as a close observer of human mal- and mis-treatment, feel incredibly fortunate not to have received more of that bad news than I administered.

Some good things - even more than a renewed appreciation of my existence - have come of this.  Your responses on Facebook have told me, 1) either the doc messed up with my anesthetics or my body is extraordinarily resistant to whatever they used, and when I sign up for that second biopsy I’ll make mention of that, and 2) I have a delightful connection with a vastly diverse collection of generous people.  For that I thank you.

In the name of full disclosure I need to say one more thing.  Though I appreciate the number of people praying for me because that is how you show your love and regard – and I DO appreciate it - I don’t receive those prayers because if I believed in, and loved, a God who would hear those prayers and save me, I’d have to hate a God who would turn his back on those who prayed for my sister, who died miserably nearly two years ago of pancreatic cancer, and for my old high school quarterback who died almost exactly a year later of the same.  I would argue that each was a far more graceful and deserving human than I.  Instead, I am enormously grateful to a universe that embraces us enough to let randomness rule.  It makes life exciting and terrifying and unpredictable, and sets a course on which each of us has influence over whether we soar or crash.  It is a universe that embraces the ghastly along with the glorious. 

Nothing exists without its opposite.

Again, I apologize for writing that original piece as a cliff-hanger.

Too late to make a long story short, but bottom line, there’s a pretty good chance that my prostate won’t leave me prostrate. 

Biopsy Biography

Biopsy Biography

I’m often asked by teenage students during Q and A after a presentation if I have any general advice for them.  My normal response is, “Don’t listen to me.  I’m an old guy and I will try to get you to avoid the mistakes I’ve made in my life even though I know you have your own mistakes to make and you won’t learn from lectures, you’ll learn from experience.

Still, there’s likely an upcoming situation I think you should be aware of.  I don’t want you to focus on it now, because it could be a source of great anxiety, should you dwell on it too heavily.  Sometime a long way down the road you will start hearing your doctors using words that end in –oscopy or –opsy.  Likely they will tell you that you need one or the other.  What your doctor will really be saying is, “I want to hurt you.”  He will tell you he’s going where no man, or woman, has gone before to examine organs that don’t get a lot of visitors.  He will be going through a door built to open one way.  And he will be going in the other way.  You will be resistant at first because well, that just doesn’t sound fun, but he will use the C word or one every bit as frightening, and you will acquiesce.

I can’t tell you what your experience will be like because we’re all different, but I can say I’ve had conversations with a significant number of people who have gone through one or the other of these processes and the percentage who have described it as pleasant is, well, none.

My own journey began when I got a call from my general practitioner following my last physical, saying my PSA numbers were a little elevated and she wanted me to see a urologist.  I’m not particularly well versed on what any given medical specialist is good at, but I do know this guy works south of the belt line, and that makes me a little nervous.

I sit down in the examination room as he introduces himself and looks at my paperwork. He has a bit of an accent, which he identifies as Romanian.  His articulation is quite precise.  He says, “We need to do a biopsy.”

Now I haven’t spent a night in the hospital since I had my tonsils out in 1952 so I don’t know a lot of medical terms, but I know that one.  I say, “You need a sample.”

He nods.

I say, “Uh is there, like, a sample floating around down in there, or you gonna have to whack off a piece.”

He smiles.  “Pretty much I have to whack off a piece.”  He says it such that we both understand that’s my terminology.  “Ten pieces, actually.”

I remember another bit of medical terminology I learned about ten years ago when another urologist who didn’t seem to know the terms of the Geneva convention decided he needed an up close look-see at something next to my Adam’s Apple and went up the down staircase in through my penis.  I use that terminology now.  “That sounds like it might cause me a ‘little discomfort.’”

“A little bit,” he says.

He is very matter-of-fact.  I don’t know the relativity of “a little bit.”  I mean, who knows, he might be one of those guys who walks across hot coals on weekends, or sleeps on a bed of nails.

Note to the medical community:  A little discomfort occurs when someone farts in a stalled elevator filled with two more people than “capacity.”  A little discomfort occurs when you’re buried up to your neck in a fire-ant hill.  Or when someone runs a screwdriver through your ear.

To his credit, my urologist only lies to me once, and he can’t know it’s a lie.  “This won’t be as bad as you’ve imagined,” he says.

I don’t get a good look at his tool kit before I lay on my side, pull one knee up so he can get a good look at his point of entry – onto which I should have tattooed “Exit Only” -  but looking back, I assume it consists of  a single-hole paper punch purchased for under five bucks at Office Depot. 

The first and second punches leave me speechless.  It is as if he inserted a pair of rectal hornets.  The third has me desperately probing my meager historical knowledge for information regarding U.S./Romanian relations.  By punch number five I’m asking myself, How bad could dying of cancer be?  After six and seven I ask him that.

            “Very bad,” he says.  “We’re almost there.”

            I’m counting backward now, threatening him with Homeland Security between piercing white-hot snips. In perfect cadence with his final soft tissue ambush, I scream “Stotan!” 
            “There will be a little blood,” he says as his nurse covers me with the oversized Kleenex she gave me to preserve my dignity.  “Call me if it is excessive.”
            Then my doctor says, “We should have the results in 24 –to – 72 hours.  If you haven’t heard by next Monday, you call, okay?”

            “Do you have any questions before I go?”
            “I do.”
            He nods go ahead.
            “When you were a little boy in Romania, like maybe 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
            He smiles. “I assume that question is rhetorical.”

            I smile back.

“And now I have a question for you,” he says.  “A real one.”


            “What is Stotan?”

I start to brag a little and tell him it’s the name of a novel I wrote, but I’m not feeling all that conversational.  “It’s an Australian term,” I tell him.  “a cross between a Stoic and a Spartan.”

“I see,” he says. “A combining of terms.”  He shrugs, “Well you are certainly not that.”


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Philosophy and Humanity

Any argument based on a faulty premise is doomed to a foolish stalemate.  The stalemate occurs when the faulty premise is exposed. “When does life begin?” is such a debate.  Sperms are alive.  Eggs are alive.  All the sub-microscopic shit that goes into their make-up is alive.  If we were to find a sperm or an egg on Mars we’d go batshit crazy saying there is life on Mars, which there would be.  So, the answer to when does life begin?  It’s already begun.  Faulty premise.

The second faulty premise in the life/choice debate concerns the “sanctity” of life, which, if we’re talking from the political/religious right, means human life.  There is no sanctity of life.  Dictionary.com defines sanctity as “a sacred thing; sacred or hallowed in character.  “Sacred” means “entitled to veneration or religious respect  by association with divinity or divine things; holy.”  Life isn’t that; certainly human life isn’t.  And the people who make that argument don’t treat life as if it is.  You can’t call life sacred and then be willing to let whatever happens, happen, the moment that life becomes “viable”.  You can’t call life sacred and be willing to end it by institutional force when a faulty court system deems the owner of that life to have done something particularly heinous.  You can’t consider life sacred, then go drop bombs on it. 

The universe doesn’t treat life as if it’s sacred.  And if the universe is run by a deity, then that deity doesn’t treat life that way.  Life, even human life, comes and goes at the whim of random chance.  Disease, things bumping into things with great force, faulty arteries, poisoned brains, gravity, sneak up behind us and extinguish our lives on a daily basis.  Thousands of times.  No entity stops it and no entity cares.  The universe is loving enough to allow the rules of science and random chance to do their thing. 

A righteous group, political or religious, that claims to believe in sanctity of life, but behaves as if they do not believe in the sanctity of lives, particular lives; lives already being lived, is spiritually empty.   This god-awful war on women, and it is nothing short of that, is being waged by people who recognize no sanctity to the lives of women making the overwhelming choice of whether or not to bring a child into the world for whatever reason.  If you really believe in democracy, then you value choice.  The choice is about whether or not to stop the baby from happening, it is not about killing an innocent life, just as it is a choice to shoot a live sperm into a sock (sorry, flashback) instead of into home base for some egg.  If the people who are so quick to find a way to force women to carry every sperm-egg union that occurs, implanted by whatever source, would be just as quick to help take care of that baby once it found it’s way to the light of day, we could at least see a thread of humanity in their argument.  But that ain’t how they vote.  They vote to extinguish choice, then to extinguish funding for every possible service that might give that child a chance for an empowered life.

When James Brady was President Reagan’s press secretary, he was, by all counts, in lockstep with Reagan’s pro-gun, pro-NRA stance.  Then James Brady got shot in the head, and guess what?.  All of a sudden James Brady wants to make it more difficult to get guns, and particularly certain kinds of guns.  Different story when it hits home.

If you’re a lawmaker and you don’t have the imagination, or the decency, to put yourself into the situation that the law you’re making addresses, you shouldn’t be a lawmaker.  Imagine if Paul Ryan’s daughter Liza were to be brutally raped at say, the age of twelve by a violent schizophrenic or mentally ill psychopath.   Should her twelve-year-old body not “have ways to shut that thing down” as his policy-lock-stepped friend Todd Akin believes it would, Paul and his wife would be in a pickle if the bill he sponsored becomes law.  They would be required not only to force his twelve year old daughter to pile the trauma of carrying that child to term atop the original horrific trauma of the act, but then live in fear of the very real possibility that the donor’s DNA might run down the generational pike into the Ryan gene pool.  If that didn’t change his perception – and his vote - I’d have less respect for him than I have now, which seems mathematically impossible. 

If your philosophy trumps your humanity, you are not fit to be making laws for humanity.

Friday, July 27, 2012

We Are Paterno

It’s not often the Penn State Board of Trustees asks my advice, in fact the next time will be the first.  But had they sought my counsel regarding the Joe Paterno statue, I’d have offered guidance they might not have received elsewhere.  Leave the statue where it is.  Then create a bronze statue for each of the victims who came forward, head down facing away from JoePa and his charging players, and several glass statues – ghosts, if you will - representing Sandusky’s anonymous, uncounted victims. Believe me, they’re out there.

Here’s the problem with taking down the statue: it eradicates the glaring reminder of what happened.  “Let’s put this behind us and look to the future,” is not the most beneficial action here.  If the Penn State situation were an aberration, it might be a good move, but it isn’t.  The uniqueness is the setting and the setting only.  I can guarantee you that any therapist or social worker who works with families that include sexual predators, knew the truth within the first forty-five seconds of Sandusky’s interview with Bob Costas.  Mr. Defensive Coordinator Extraordinaire is a garden variety sexual predator.  The only thing that makes him different is his fancy playground.

The NCAA came through Penn State with a fiery sword the other day and left a rather wide swath.  They may not have issued “the death penalty,” but I’d almost rather be dead than get shot in both knees, one shoulder and the nuts.  Much of the sport and news talk afterward focused on how the football program would survive for now, and how long it would take it to come back.  I’m far more interested in how long it will take the mental health and social work programs of this country to rise to championship status in the first place.

Championship status!  Hell, I’d be happy with a winning season.

The economy goes bad and politicians start making cuts.  On the right, social services and mental health treatment are among the very first targets, and the left is all too willing to leave them on the table as bargaining chips.  What are they bargaining away?

They’re bargaining away hundreds of thousands of kids just like the victims of Jerry Sandusky.

A teacher in a public high school in this country is looking out over a classroom that includes (conservatively) one in four girls and one in seven boys who have been sexually mistreated.  In my early days at the mental health center in Spokane, Washington, the child therapist who worked almost exclusively with sexually abused five-and-unders, worked twelve hours a day four days a week and ten hours the fifth, eating lunch in the minutes between clients, and she had a six month waiting list.  That’s in a county that might have included 350,000 people. 

The two categories of people most often diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in this country are soldiers and sex abuse victims, and from a mental health perspective we treat them both about the same.  They go to war - and believe me, if you’re a victim of that kind of abuse, you’ve been to war – and expect them to deal with the damage with almost no help.  The New York Times reports we’re losing a soldier a day to suicide.  There’s no way to calculate the number we’re losing from that other war.

The reason Joe Paterno and the rest of the top guns at Penn State were able to respond to what they knew in such a shameful way is, they didn’t engage their imaginations.  They didn’t allow themselves to picture those kids, didn’t empathize with them. Because of that, the kids were dismissed and ignored, and Penn State is going to have a crappy football team for a long time. 

But now we are Joe Paterno, and we have a second chance.  We have been reminded once again that it’s time to engage our imaginations, see the kids we are charging past, pick them up and bring them along.  We know they’re everywhere among us, and once we know it we can’t unknow it.  No one gets more naïve.  Just as the “leadership” at Penn State couldn’t protect the Nittany Lion brand by pretending the awful isn’t real, neither can we protect the USA brand that way.

Penn State was fined sixty million dollars by the NCAA, to be distributed to organizations around the country equipped to prevent and treat sexual abuse.  Sixty million.  Given the size of the problem nation-wide that’s like taking a leak in the Pacific Ocean to warm it up. 

If you want to be the greatest country in the world, you can’t just declare it so.  You have to make it so.  You can’t simply harken back to a time when your national political and economic forces aimed to create actual equal opportunity.  You can’t rename greed, capitalism and then rename that democracy.  In the same way putting a magnetic ribbon on your car doesn’t really mean you support the troops, calling Jerry Sandusky a monster may not mean you really want to take care of lost children.  Taking care of lost children calls for funding and action.

Sandusky’s victims – at least some of them – are found now.  They discovered varying degrees of empowerment speaking up, and they’re going to be offered help.  But close your eyes and use your imagination.  The horror those kids went through is all around you.  They are calling for help in language you may not understand, but there are people out here who know that language, and if we create public policy that supports them, trains them, and pays true middle class wages while keeping client loads at reasonable numbers, we can begin snatching those kids out of Sandusky’s shower and walking them to safety. 

Boy Scout "Leadership" Loses Moral Compass

Big surprise that the “leadership” of The Boy Scouts of America spent all that time and energy to arrive at the same conclusion about gays among their ranks as always: that approximately ten percent of the population will continue to be excluded based on the same kind of willful ignorance that kept women and blacks from voting for more of our history than not.  And it baffles me that any adult, gay or straight, would direct their kids toward an organization that, ten or twenty years from now, will likely be viewed, at least as far as their leadership goes, as a hate organization for their bigoted views on a population that is as natural, and numerous, as left-handers. 

If the fear (and understand that you will never hear them articulate their true fear) is that accepting homosexuals as scout masters increases instances of molestation, then they should issue an equally loud outcry toward male coaches of girls’ athletic teams and males who lead church youth groups that include girls.  I know of far more instances of inappropriate and illegal behavior by leaders of those groups. The national BSA “leadership” doesn’t seem to consider that their policy puts scouts more at risk of sexual victimization, because it focuses on a population statistically less likely to offend than the general population, and away from true predators, such as, say, the great football defensive coordinator at Penn State who nobody ever accused of being gay.  Predators are genius at choosing their playgrounds, and sleight of hand is their thing.

If the fear is that gay boy scouts or gay scout leaders will influence straight boy scouts to become gay, well, that’s just dumb.  Stupid.  Ignorant.  All the politically incorrect terms that point to a brain that simply doesn’t operate well and feels no compulsion to gather any real information or make change.

It’s time we started calling things by their real names.  The National Board of the BSA is replete with bigots.  They benefit from being part of a culture (and I blame the conservative/religious right for this because they are masters at calling something its exact opposite) that has somehow made it more heinous to call someone a bigot than to be a bigot.

The big wigs of the BSA will do what they do.  Their “leadership” is filled with hard-wired dogmatists, and their asses are covered by the Supreme Court.  About the only thing Decent America can do is never contribute and don’t join.  The Scouts’ true value is to give us something visible to stand against.  

But Decent America must also require their media to tell the truth when dealing with issues such as this.  The whole truth.  USA Today reported that a “special committee comprised of professional scout executives and adult volunteers, was unanimous in its conclusion…”  While the article names the Scouts’ chief executive – Bob Mazzuca – and two members of the executive board – James Turley and Randall Stephenson, who have “recently indicated they would try to work from within to change the policy,” -  none of the other members of that “special committee” were named.  They are allowed to promote their bigoted policy under a cloud of anonymity.  Tough investigative journalists have exposed the identities of CEO’s and underlings responsible for the recent Wall Street crash.  They ferret out undersecretaries of undersecretaries whose emails have contributed to all manner of governmental excesses.  Hell, a National Enquirer reporter brought down John Edwards.  Certainly there is an investigative reporter out there somewhere willing to track down the names and photos of this “special” subspecies so that twenty years from now we can look back on them with the same contempt that civil rights champions look back on the likes of George Wallace and Orville Faubus. 

I worked as a child and family therapist full time for almost twenty years, still chair my county’s original child protection team.  Before that I was an educator of students k-12 in alternative education.  I have worked with gay teenagers trying to find their way in all venues, many simply staying alive long enough to find respite among intelligent and compassionate humans, accepting enough to let them have control of their own lives in a hateful greater American climate; worked with gay foster parents, gay teachers, gay artists, coaches, business people.  When I hear willfully uninformed people from the so-called right talk about the “gay lifestyle,” I automatically think, Get up, grab breakfast, go to work, try to live a meaningful life…JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE!  There is no gay lifestyle, people.  There is only a forced secretive existence in response to “Christian” conservative bigotryLifestyle has nothing to do with sexual orientation.  Should I be asked to “come out” as a heterosexual?  “Hi.  I’m Chris Crutcher.  I do what is none of your damn business with women.” 

Famed weight-loss expert and failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee revealed his true colors following the Boy Scouts statement, declaring that keeping gays out of scouting will protect boys from abuse.   Huckabee consistently doubles down on his political views by couching them in his religion, and in the process contributes to the shameful name of both.  There is no correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia.  None.  Mike Huckabee willingly allows his philosophy to trump his humanity. 

Morality is about decency, plain and simple.  It’s not about religion and it’s not about sex.  It isn’t an abstract; it’s about action.  I’m not a Christian but I grew up in a Christian church and am hard-wired with many of its teachings, and the Jesus of my imagination would slap Mike Huckabee down like a moneychanger.  Decent America must deny extremists - Huckabee and all his Huckabettes - their basic premises, because if you accept a stupid basic premise, you enter into a stupid conversation.

Based on my conversations with teenagers, and I have had many, I’m guessing that Scouts themselves are far more accepting of their gay peers than is their “leadership.”  A majority of young people with whom I’m in contact don’t get what the gay marriage or gays in the military controversies are even about.  As one high schooler told me only a few weeks ago, “Who gives a shit?”

Well, Scouts, here’s my advice to all of you who want to be on the right side of history, as well as the right side of humanity.  Get new “leadership.”  Better yet, get leadership.  If it comes from the ranks, they can’t deny you.

PHOTO:  What a pussy scout I was [second from the right, age 13].  That was a bunch of scouts from McCall and me headed for the National Jamboree in Colorado Springs in 1960.  

Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Defense of Name-Calling

Yesterday I tweeted this:  “Which one of you pseudo Mensa teabaggers wants to tell Sherman Alexie that you’re going to take your country back?”  Almost immediately I received a response from what sounded like a reasonable woman saying she keeps an open mind, doesn’t think Sherman’s book should be banned, and by the way, Chris, why the name calling?

It sounded like a legitimate question from a legitimately concerned person, that I could not answer in a 47-word tweet.  So I directed her here.

First, a disclaimer.  I didn’t say it because Sherman’s stunningly accomplished novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, gets challenged and banned in “conservative” communities with chilling regularity because of realistic language, a hilarious masturbation scene and a mirthfully scathing indictment of the difficulties of a young outsider finding his way through institutional racism.  I said it because Sherman is a member of the only group in our country who can legitimately lay claim to taking their country back.

I admit using the term pseudo Mensa teabaggers is indeed name-calling. I admit I meant it to be.  I did it because the tea party is better at name-calling than anyone in the business, and they do it without actually using the names.  They carry posters of our president with a Hitler moustache, or looking like a monkey.  (And yes, I know there were plenty of pictures of W looking like a monkey, and those were also inappropriate, but anyone who doesn’t know the racial aspect of doing that to a black man as opposed to doing it to a white man, has been listening to way too much Dr. Laura.)  They have so many code words for folks of different races or (avowed) sexual preferences or political beliefs than their own, they could publish an alternative thesaurus that would end up on the NY Times bestseller list.   

But my name-calling was tongue in cheek; throwaway.  My point was that, whether my Twitter follower considers herself a part of it or not, she is represented by “leaders” who are simply not very smart, in the sense of having information or even wanting information.  Sarah Palin will say anything.  Well, almost anything.  She won’t say anything of substance, backed by fact and she won’t put herself in the position of being challenged by anyone to the left of Fox Entertainment.  Glen Beck is literally too dumb to insult, to paraphrase a line from “The Hangover.”  Those two, along with Jim Demint, Michelle Bachman and Dick Armey are the daily faces of the tea party.  Twitter lady, they represent you. As levelheaded as you might be, if you decide you are a member of that group, that is your identity.   And if you are a Republican in this country, they are the folks dragging you to the right.  They are not you.  They are the folks dragging you to the right.

I’m in Chicago today, hosting the American Library Association’s Great Chicago Readout, kicking off our celebration of Banned Books Week with authors of some of the top ten banned books of 2010.  I look over the list of reasons for the challenges and bannings: religious perspective, homosexual content, sexual content, offensive language, suicide.  Human things.  Things the people who want to “take our country back” don’t want kids to talk about; human things the “conservative right” doesn’t think should be part of human education.  Wow.

If I’m speaking to any tea party members today it will be saying “excuse me” as I politely move through their picket line.  (That’s facetious; it’s a little cloudy and windy in Chicago today, too inclimate for them to come out and stand up for their “Christian” principles.  That’s facetious, too.)

But see, it’s those “Christian” principals I have such an issue with, because those principles are anti-freedom and it ain’t s’posed to be that way.  There will be a lot of Christians in the audience and they don’t need quotation marks around their name because many of them will also be true patriots.  They understand the reason the founders used specific language in the Constitution to separate church and state.  They understand the complexity – and the intimacy – of spiritual belief, and know why it is personal and not to be included in the making of democratic law for all men and women.  They understand equality.

The Glen Becks and Sarah Palins of the world are not Christians; they’re “Christians.”  They hide behind bastardized versions of scripture to make money and get cheap attention and gather a following of people who don’t want to take the time to truly understand the complexity of freedom.  They’re a bad reality show.  My hope – and my belief – is that they’ll have a relatively short shelf life.  It’s fun to be nasty and mean and dismissive toward people who are not like you, but eventually the thrill of that meanness gets old and more and more of your followers discover you aren’t there for them – you’re there for your own celebrity.  Eventually they’ll walk away and you’ll be crying like a third grader who’s best friend just found a new best friend.

Since September 11, 2001 I’ve heard over and over, in reference to our two wars, “Freedom isn’t free.”  That’s not just true about war.  It’s also true about everyday life in a real democracy.  If you don’t have the courage to bring out the tough issues, debate and explore and learn, and invite your free countrymen to do the same, then maybe you don’t have the heart to live in a free country.  You can continue to live here, however, because it is a free country, where you can choose to be lazy and under-informed and hold your discussions in sound bites with your like-minded friends. 

My conservative father went to war to be sure you could do that.  (My conservative father would also have run a nail through his eye before allowing children to be barred from information that would make them understand their world, and he was a school board member from the time my older brother entered the first grade until my younger sister graduated from high school.He also went to war for my right to call you names when I’m feeling tired and lazy and just want the cheap, good feeling one gets doing just that.