On Self-Perception

This post begins with a story of two tweets, one of which I will link and one of which I will not.

Earlier this week, I ran across a tweet from someone who didn’t want to give oxygen to some person’s anti-trans screed, but screenshotted part of it to discuss one particular aspect of it. The highlighted text wasn’t what drew my eye, though. The screed-writer was so outraged by trans people demanding that society validate their self-perception that the phrase was italicized. It was this italicized phrase that caught my eye.

I thought: “Why, yes. Yes, that is exactly what is expected of you, Unknown Screedist. I’m sorry to hear that you find your moral duty so repugnant.”

Everybody has their particular moral lodestone, and this has always been mine: People get to say who they are. Yes, even if you’re 99.44% sure they’re wrong. Yes, even if you would really prefer they name themselves something else. Yes, even if they make you look bad by association.

If nothing else, holding to this principle insulates you from committing the No True Scotsman fallacy of argument. And here is the second tweet, fresh off the internets this morning:

It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. It was “confusing” to be attacked by people who acted not like Jesus Christ, but by the mob who demanded his crucifixion. We are used to thinking of “terrorist” and “Christian” to be mutually exclusive categories of person. But they aren’t. People get to say who they are. If a person committed to a terroristic act says they’re a Christian, I won’t gainsay them. I will note that their idea of worshiping God bears an awfully strong resemblance to the domination system that Jesus Christ came to dismantle, but I can’t force them to internalize that.

And I won’t. Because forcing other people to internalize what you think they are is the core impetus of fascism. It’s what some people find so appealing about our disgraced former president, and some of us others find so chilling: that offhand, pseudo-reasonable tone in which he said things like, Well, what can you do? Democrats are just evil. They’re just bad people. Any act of violence against Bad People is therefore justified, is lifted out of the sad category of terrorism into the shining platform of holy war.

This is the entire purpose of the rule of law: not to separate the Good People from the Bad People, but to uphold or deprecate certain acts according to their vital importance. It’s vitally important to fascists — and to people whose life’s investment has been placed in our social structures — that gender conformity be enforced. It’s vitally important to them not only that they think of themselves as the flower of Christianity, but that the rest of us are forced to acknowledge that we are not Christians at all if we are not like them. Defining people and codifying them is the basis of their ideal state: not the rule of law.

So my advice, for anyone who cares for it, is this: don’t play the game. Let people say who they are. Let the tree be judged by its fruit. Let no stroke or dot of the law be subverted by a crusade to prove to people who they are. That is a game for fools and fascists.

Every person has a right to the proving ground of their own self-perception. And I’ve committed not to invade.

The self-suspicion of the (woman) artist

I’m not sure how or why this 2017 essay by Claire Dederer washed up on my Twitter timeline, but it was an interesting and layered read. Its question was: what does one do with the art of monstrous men? And of course, in that #MeToo moment, it was a question on everyone’s lips. And, since the essay invites its readers to weigh in with their perspective, I’m going to.

Hildegard of Bingen: now there was a woman who could write things in accordance with reality!

Dederer chose to peel these layers using the particular onion of Woody Allen. Which is interesting because I know exactly two things about Woody Allen: his movies are supposed to be towering comedic art, and he’s a child predator. Have I seen said movies? I have not. Have I read in depth the accounts of Allen’s misdeeds? Also no.

This is because I was raised in a strictly evangelical Christian environment. My parents may have watched a Woody Allen movie or two; I don’t know. When I became a fully independent adult, I had a nearly limitless array of modes in which to revolt; “watching Woody Allen movies” just didn’t make it onto the list. Diving into the liturgical church; reading, writing, and watching sci-fi and fantasy; and excusing myself from marriage and motherhood occupied most of those energies.

But. I’m intimately familiar with the self-suspicion Dederer describes. Am I a monster? I was asking myself this while I was still a child. I asked myself this when I was a callow college student. I asked myself this while working as an underemployed adult. I asked myself right up until I was 38, and one morning I contacted again an old memory of fleeting cruelty from a man when I was very small. But for the first time ever, instead of focusing on how furious and helpless it made me feel to remember it, I thought: I was right.

At the time I had said to myself: I must be mistaken. This can’t be sadism. This must be something else. I must be making a mistake.

But I wasn’t. I was simply telling myself a necessary lie, a lie that the powerless have to tell themselves for the time being. My perception is messed up, that’s what the problem is. No, what the problem is, is that lies like that throw out little metastatic filaments and snare the rest of your soul and make you think you’re fundamentally broken. Evil, even.

A monster.

But I’m not a monster. I have a fully functioning human instrument. My perception is just what a human’s perception ought to be: limited, but a miracle of function. My insight is a fine blend of acuity and experience.

It’s interesting to me that Dederer describes the indignation against monstrous men making good art and moves from that toward suspicion of herself as — too selfish? not selfish enough? — a secret monster making good art, or an aspiring monster in order to make good art. Yes, it’s all very sturdily Jungian; do your shadow work.

But this meditation is centered around a movie apparently written as an elaborate apologia for a middle-aged man fucking a 17-year-old girl. A girl who, because Allen is a good writer and has a sense of “balance” in these things, is miraculously free of the neuroticism that the grown women characters display. Listen: show me a girl who is preternaturally mature at 17, and I will show you a girl who secretly suspects she is the real monster in the room.

I believe that the only thing that has kept me perpendicular and sane these last four years is that moment of unbelievable escape beforehand, when every single one of those protective lies unraveled and fell to my soul’s feet. It was easier on me for a time to think of myself as a monster rather than stare my helplessness in the face. It took escaping one to also escape the other.

Perhaps this is why none of these terrible revelations about monstrous men behind closed doors have given me more than a few layers’ worth of pause about their art. Yeah, I felt a little guilty watching Carol — not because it was a film about lesbians, but because it was a Weinstein property. But there’s just not much shadow work to be done there, if I’m honest. No, what I’m thinking about is the parable of the demoniac who got rid of his demon, only to have it come back with seven friends and make things worse. Jeffrey Toobin is back on CNN as a pundit, after how many months in exile? Not many. They filled an empty chair with Toobin because there was an empty chair there.

This is not about selfishness, though arguments about selfishness are the stuff of (women) artists’ lives. This is not even about monstrousness, though the troops of House Depiction Is Endorsement come out to bay across the valley at the giants of predatory cruelty.

This is about insight. To claim insight is the ultimate act of temerity. Dederer lost a male reader because she questioned Allen’s insight in making Manhattan; she was not an obedient audience. She could make bloodthirsty remarks about butchering men in the street, apparently, without giving this man a qualm; and indeed why not? That can be dismissed as derangement. Derangement and neurosis, or demure nubile receptivity: no place for actual insight, in stories or in life, for people who are not white men. If a white man is not sitting in the chair, it’s an empty chair, amirite?

Yes, I say these things because the reality on the ground makes me angry. But it’s a mathematical anger. A logical anger, even. A Zachary-Quinto-saying-Live-long-and-prosper-when-he-really-means-Fuck-you kind of anger. A Stacey-Abrams-writing-a-shedload-of-romance-novels kind of anger.

An insightful anger. An anger that finishes what it starts.

In the summer of 2017, while Dederer was working on this essay (and her book on the subject), I was feverishly finishing the manuscript of Ryswyck. It’s an interesting thing to remember, the galvanizing power of that anger. I wasn’t marching in the streets; I was sweating in front of a computer screen in my apartment. In the same 24 hours, I wrote the last sentence, and John McCain turned his thumb down on ACA repeal. In such acts, visible and invisible, the resistance propounds itself.

We’ve had our fill of monstrousness, and even with the Abuser in Chief gone, there are still plenty of inexplicably cruel people willing to be monsters in public, and occasionally it feels really demoralizing. So it’s good for me to remember that I got free of that debilitating self-suspicion, and when I did I vowed to set free as many other people as I could.

In that sense, the pen isn’t mightier than the sword. It is the sword.

Soul possession

One day, more than a decade ago now, I was on my commute fretting about how a boundary I wanted to establish would make me An Asshole in everyone’s eyes including my own. And as I was driving along, for the first time ever I thought, “Well then, I’ll just be an asshole.” Like Huck Finn saying, “Well, then, I’ll go to hell,” when he committed to help his friend escape slavery, except I didn’t think about that at the time.

I also didn’t expect the curious sensation that followed, as if my soul had been trailing out 10 feet in front of me and was suddenly sucked back in my body. And just as suddenly, I had more power to take care of my daily business, like I’d been trying to do calligraphy with a selfie stick before. The sensation was short-lived; but also, I never forgot it.

Occasionally I’m reminded just how much of the business of living I’ve conducted at this kind of remove from myself. I was reminded again this morning while reading Morning Prayer; on Wednesdays there’s always a section of Psalm 119, and today it was in the morning psalm slot. More often than not I find reading this psalm tedious, though I know it rewards deep study, but this morning I did a thing I often do and read she/her pronouns for the Psalmist. And I read: “How shall a young woman cleanse her way?/ By keeping to your words.”

It gave me a pang on two levels. One was a memory, of cycles and years of weeks in which my friend V and I would pray Psalm 91 at Compline (also on Wednesday, now I think about it) with she/her pronouns for the Psalmist.

“She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ abides under the shadow of the Almighty./ She shall say to the LORD, “You are my refuge and my stronghold,/ my God in whom I put my trust.”…”Because she is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver her;/ I will protect her, because she knows my Name./ She shall call upon me, and I will answer her;/ I am with her in trouble; I will rescue her and bring her to honor.”

I miss Virginia all the more when I remember these things. But the other reason I felt a pang was that I was all the more aware of how much of my worship through the years has been done with my soul trailing out 10 feet in front of me. Like I have to animate a ghost out there who can pretend that any of this is about them. The ghost can feel any feelings required in the moment, can say of male POVs in the Bible, “This is a story of me,” can be included round the fire with Jesus’s disciples, can witness, can tell good news.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from this plague year, it’s that there are things going on back at the ranch. With a few pronouns I reel my soul back in to survey the scene, and there are things going on; there always have been. Not just angry victimy things, but rich things; wondering things; measuring things; delighting things. This is, after all, the place where I write from, where I craft verisimilitude with a loupe and tiny chisel. This is my workshop of making, making life and the image of it.

I can’t say it’s not been useful to me, sending my soul out on regular EVAs to read books that aren’t about me, sing songs that aren’t about me, pray prayers that aren’t about me. The structure of scientific revolutions needs data. Empathy needs data too. Keats dignified this practice and process with the term “negative capability,” which was never a set of words I thought very accurate, but I knew what he meant. I don’t think it’s negative, because when you do it you’re reaching for something, for belonging, for affirmation, for acquaintanceship. And can it be a capability if you have to do it to survive?

Keats came fairly close to having to; he wasn’t rich, he was riddled with tuberculosis, and he was on the wrong side of a few too many mean tweets. He also spoke meditatively in a letter to a friend about the “gordian knot of complications” involved in his own misogyny that he wasn’t sure what to do about. So it just goes to show how useful “negative capability” can be.

(Why the hell am I talking so much about Keats these days? He wasn’t even my favorite Romantic.)

Writers such as Seanan McGuire and N.K. Jemisin have talked more pithily about the backlash that often results when we write from our own POVs, about how truly resentful some people are that they might have to exert some negative capability to read a good book, as if negative capability is a towering virtue and stooping condescension for them and an inherent moral obligation for everyone else. And it’s clear that they perceive the obtrusive POVs of others as such a threat that they are willing to commit sedition, conspiracy, and treason against their own country. I mean, none of this is surprising, though it is shocking and angering. It’s just…really? It’s that hard? It’s that painful? It’s that insulting?

I mean, you’re dealing with people who, if they know anything, know how to project their soul outward to understand things that aren’t about them. If you’d asked for imagination and compassion and fellow-feeling, you’d have got it. But what you want is to be hermetically sealed away from any sign that those other people have souls, like it burns you to know that. And you hope to kill their bodies by not wearing a mask, too. Or by quicker methods, if you’re impatient enough.

It’s an impossible thing for you to have, even if we wanted to give it to you. Which we don’t. You’re an asshole and you haven’t figured out how to choose otherwise.

But negative capability is for everyone. Positive capability is for everyone too.

Here endeth the lesson.

But honestly, uncertainty was worse

Good afternoon!

Gave self another haircut. I’m the Charlize Theron of this joint.

Things to be noted:

  1. Remember when I advised you, dear readers, to BURY THEM in votes? Well, just imagine if we hadn’t!
  2. I have for some reason not added to the 900 words I wrote on TLT last week.
  3. From the people who brought you fifty billion hearings on Benghazi, we are suddenly hearing a newfound devotion to the principle of fireside kum-bah-yah unity.
  4. I have family bunkered down right now with COVID, why? Because when there’s no structural support, it’s impossible for individuals to take enough care to avoid community saturation, even when they do things right.
  5. My world is a 400 sq ft flat at present, so I am dreaming of having a garden.

Things to be done:

  1. That part is done, thankfully. Now to get the abuser out of our house.
  2. I’m gathering so much useful material for TLT right now. But to be honest, I’d rather be using my imagination…
  3. Newsflash, unity is already happening over here. If you’re not in sympathy with cupcake coupsters and well-heeled fascists, get with the program. Otherwise, get stuffed.
  4. If there were something I could do about this, I fucking would.
  5. Something to look into when we get some distance on this pandemic. Meanwhile, am practicing hospitality toward myself by making my morning tea in a cat-shaped pot and cooking breakfast.

And finally: matrifututores delendi sunt.

This ain’t your usual Stadium Rock

According to Mark Polizzotti, when Nikita Khrushchev declared “We will bury you,” his immediate translators did not do the Russian phrase any favors. Rather than issuing a direct threat, Polizzotti says, Khrushchev was saying that they would survive, outlast, be vindicated by the eventual demise of, the West. Not that anyone in the West cared for nuance at the time; believing your enemy to be wholly malevolent is a time-honored tradition in wars both cold and hot.

It’s possible Khrushchev knew this and didn’t feel like he had much to lose no matter how the phrase was translated. If so, I get the sentiment.

This morning I went down to the absentee polling place set up by my local election authority and banked my vote. I don’t usually vote absentee, though if I lived in a state with proper early voting I would certainly do that — but I wanted to get the basics out of the way ASAP. Now to the next thing: getting everyone I know and care about to do the same thing however they may.

Just do it. Just vote, as soon as you can. Why? Because the only possible answer to this revanchist zombie confederacy of misogynists, white supremacists, and white-collar thieves is to bury. them.

Bury them in an avalanche of votes, everywhere. Everywhere. You don’t live in a swing state? I don’t either. I don’t care. Bury them. You didn’t begin with wanting an ideologically unexciting septuagenarian white man at the top of your side of the ticket? I didn’t either. I don’t care. Bury them.

And if you’re already on the same page with me, I have an offer to make.

For at least fifteen years I’ve been following journalist Al Giordano for my electoral politics news. And for the last five years or so I’ve been subscribed to his newsletter, América, which he puts out on a semi-regular basis. He’s the most level-headed, light-hearted source of politics news in this country (and out of it). And when someone comes to him freaking out — and let’s be real, there’s plenty to freak out about — his answer is invariably, What are you doing about it?

Today, this is what I’m doing about it: I’m offering to subscribe an impecunious fellow-traveler to a year’s worth of Al’s América newsletter. The subscription fee is an $80 contribution to the nonprofit Fund for Authentic Journalism, which trains journalists and community organizers for effective work on the ground where they live. Besides the newsletter, subscribers get full access to the Fund’s website, Organize and Win — and thereby to a whole community of ordinary folks across the country and overseas who are doing things, however and wherever they can, to make a difference. This is good value even in a year that is not frickin’ 2020.

It so happens that I have $80 right now, and I want to subscribe someone who doesn’t to a gold mine of good reporting. If you have $80, you should subscribe too. The pandemic has hit everybody in the pocketbook, some harder than others, and the Fund for Authentic Journalism like many nonprofits depends on donations and subscriptions for its bread and butter. So if you would like this subscription and need the scholarship, don’t be shy, drop me a line by email, comment, or social media message, and I will give your preferred email address to Al for the subscription rolls with my donation. You won’t be sorry!

And, in closing: VOTE.

The ground-clearing of nonviolence

After an annoying spate of illness and a negative COVID test, I find myself with a small backlog of ideas for posts. But I think I won’t do an omnibus post for them, so here is the first topic: nonviolence.

The first thing everyone has to do when they raise the topic of nonviolence is clear the ground for discussing it. That is, we’re obliged to give some kind of sop to the idea that nonviolence “doesn’t work,” or “isn’t realistic,” or is somehow the province of the impractical, the unambitious, the servile, the passionless, and the naive.

I’m sure there are more than two ways of clearing this ground, but I want to talk about two: the tactical argument, and the strategic argument. The tactical argument is very familiar to me: nonviolence, it goes, is actually more tactically useful and effective than violence when it comes to leveraging, say, protest for change, or wrongfooting someone who is trying to dehumanize you.

I’d say that’s true. The disabled sit-ins in support of the ACA and Medicaid were far more effective tactically than many a “dirtbag” protest roundup. I’ve already noted how Michelle Obama’s dictum, “When they go low, we go high,” is (among other things) a way of offering generosity as a gift before racists can demand it of her as their rightful due from an inferior. Disrupting the script of oppressive action and reaction is itself a good tactic.

Then there’s the strategy of nonviolence. Nonviolent direct action does not take place in a vacuum: it takes place in a social context, in a nexus of relational connections between individuals and families and affinity groups, “the inescapable web of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it. The one who avoids being reactive is the one who can advance the more convincing insight into reality. Why would you let the oppressor decide what “reality” is and set the terms of the interaction?

So, thus we clear the ground to be able to talk about nonviolence and dispose of all the usual scornful stalking horses that seek to dismiss the topic as not worth examining. As G.K. Chesterton said of Christianity, nonviolence is rarely tried and found wanting; it is found difficult and left untried.

Because it is both concise and entertaining, I link theologian Walter Wink’s interactive lecture Nonviolence for the Violent — a title that acknowledges from the outset that people don’t undertake nonviolence because it is easy. Wink is interested not only in Jesus’s tactics of nonviolence, but in a larger critique of what he calls the “domination system” — a homeostasis of violence that strikes downward in the social order and has resisted eradication even by religious communities founded specifically to destroy it.

And in another vein, I also link Judith Butler’s present-day exploration of the strategy of nonviolence as shaping and being shaped by a more relational reality. (I found this link because of her recent interview pushing back against terfs’ efforts to pass themselves off as the face of mainstream feminism: another present-day instance of reactivity closing down the horizons of reality.)

Now wait a minute, you might say. Didn’t you write a book about war in which the characters celebrate the principle of single combat in an arena spectacle? And you’re talking about the superior tactics and strategy of nonviolence?

Yep.

Because as Judith Butler makes clear, we have refused to frame nonviolence relationally or use it as a tool of vision to reshape social reality, no matter how many times MLK told us that that was the whole point. Individual Ryswyckians may love combat or hate it, but the use of the arena is specifically to frame reality as a place in which people interact with one another in unambiguous mutual equality. The use of the community of Ryswyck is to foster respect for the other, both in body and soul, even if one is obliged to hit them.

The use of institutional violence, on the other hand, is to do mortal harm to the soul, to the human identity, of the other: to insult their existence by using their body as an effigy. Nonviolence isn’t about not-hitting the other, as Butler says. It’s about not using the other’s body as an instrument of insult.

“It’s deadly force that wins wars,” one of my characters says at a turning point in the plot. “But only courtesy can end them.”

So why clear ground for nonviolence now? Because otherwise we will be allowing the horizons of reality to be closed for us. I don’t need to tell you what’s going on outside: we are being treated to a vast spectacle of violence done by people who are so afraid of mortality that they have to pretend that dying is something only bad and stupid people have to do. So they tweet and rage and vandalize and kill and refuse to wear their goddamn masks for the common good. Is this who we want telling us what reality is? Is this who we want setting the tone for our concerted plans and efforts as a (trying to be) civilized society?

With the ground clear, this is my advice: put away any hint of thinking that your opponent’s body is to be used as an instrument of insult. Get with your neighbors in this network of mutuality we’re in, and start making plans now. Don’t wait to react. Start thinking about the reality you want to see acknowledged, and who you need, and who needs you. If you haven’t already, get used to the idea of making common cause with people you don’t agree with.

And stay tuned for one of my other topics on deck, which is: Vote.