I’m reading an interesting book right now called Humankind—pop science, breezy, but well written—that explores the old question, whether man is inherently savage and in need of restraint (Hobbes) or only made so by so-called civilization (Rousseau). The writer draws historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, observers of apes, and novelists into the fray, in search of our core nature.
Does our undeniable penchant for violence, exploitation, etc., stem from a base animal nature that laws and police must hold in check, or have we constructed systems that induce it?
My own unscientific instinct is to disbelieve in original sin—that we are born evil and kept in line only by the whip or by being taught that it’s bad to hit our baby sister. It’s hard to believe that the species would survive without an intrinsic talent for cooperation, or that small killer bands evolved into million-man armies and thus survived by murder and rape. Guys sticking up convenience stores don’t often have long lives, and death tends to hamper reproduction. I can’t prove it: it’s just a hunch.
Nevertheless, there’s an element in the original-sin myth that I feel to be true. They ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge, it says. But what if they were expelled from the Garden not for disobedience but for getting too smart? Specifically, for acquiring a trait at the core of being human: symbolic thinking.
Animals eat when they’re hungry or when there’s food. We eat when it’s time for the meal. Animals have sex when they can. We do as well, but also build movies, ads for lipstick and automobiles, whole industries around it. Animals fight for survival. We fight for anything that symbolizes survival—be it flag, honor, or billions of bucks.
It’s natural, then, that we set up vast systems that require even yet vaster systems to protect them, leading usually to violence. Bullets are concrete.
In high school, in my depressed cynical year, I read a popular book on semantics. It suggested this: whenever you hear a speech, count the number of words or phrases for which there’s no defined referent—exactly what does “liberty” refer to? If you can’t understand it from the context, substitute the word “blah.”
Shortly after, we had a school assembly. I enjoyed assemblies, as a break of routine. Once we had a classical violinist, another time a magician, another time a woman who told the boys how to shave. This one was patriotism, and I counted the “blahs.” I made the mistake of announcing it in my subsequent class, and the teacher was not thrilled.
But I’ve persisted in counting the “blahs.” The downside is that the folks I agree with tend to score as high as the folks whose notions I hate. The upside is only to know that what you value has a solid referent: you want people to have a roof over their heads, to have food, to have a voice, to have respect.
In the long run, which is what we’re talking about, it makes little difference from what we’re evolved. I have many similarities to my dad, but I’ve lived my life in a very different way. The essential question is Who are we now?
What is truth? And why does it matter?
I was a liar for the first 21 years of my life. At the age of 22 (I don’t count my first year, when I wasn’t talking yet) I ran so hard into the massive shit-pile of these lies that it knocked me flat and if I was going to survive, I had to learn another way of being. It took a while to feel and appreciate the lifting of that intolerable weight, to adjust to being free from that rat in the belly, having to weave the next lie to sustain the last one. So it affects me deeply to realize that we have become a country where, for millions of people, truth is an unknown quantity, and admiration is lavished on the most extravagant liars.
I think that what confounds and disturbs me most deeply is that they seem to have fun doing it. While I detest the idea, the game of “owning the libs” looks like any other game, it’s fun to win, and I can hate that but understand the kick. It’s the more elemental and profound lying that makes my gut hurt.
I didn’t have fun lying. When I was a toddler, I didn’t know anything about “lying.” I just did and said whatever I thought would keep me safe. I learned very early what would get approval and what would provoke flame-thrower rage, and I was smart.
I also had a psyche that was primed to interpret anything as criticism, denigration, even if that might not have been the intent. Those things were acid on thin skin, and I did whatever I could to bury them, shove them deep, and avoid running into them again. I dodged and weaved and lied and somehow always came up humiliated, but I kept trying. I lied for survival.
These folk are having what looks like a wonderful time doing this. They’re not lying for survival, they’re lying for power and they’re looking at the applause meter. I hate to say it, but they’re performers.
And I’m a performer. I stand on stage and embody someone who is not me but who lives through me and speaks to the audience. The character works through me to reveal truth, and I hope that those who see it can feel it resonate in their own beings. In the decade that I performed the child-abuse play Dessie, I heard from many who felt that resonance and reclaimed their own lives. That’s not lying.
Performers who seek to create a self-serving world that aggrandizes their own power are another thing, and it is far more seductive than I had thought possible. A cult attracts those who have a sad diminished center, those who need a strong assertive figure to be their leader-figure, to go boldly forth and tell them how to follow. We need to find ways to empower people, to make them comfortable in their own true skins. There is so much built into our own nation’s structure that prepetrates abuse; we need to see it and reject it and counter it.
The hurting people need community. We need to make it happen.
Okay, so here are my political thoughts in one big blurt, whatever the consequence. Be warned: there are NO positions taken on any vital issues.
- Bipartisanship doesn’t meet in the middle. It just means both sides listen, with real ears, to the other’s concerns. That’s near impossible, but sometimes it happens.
- The Left, with whom I identify, doesn’t have any patent on logic: we can be just as crazy as them, and it behooves us to be very critical of our own rhetoric. Critics are seen as enemies. Some are; some are not.
- Finding a new insulting phrase on Facebook isn’t activism, nor is taking to the streets. Activism is only something you try that makes a difference. If the only difference it makes is that it makes you feel active, it’s a tiny piddle.
- A fundamental of strategy is “Know your opponent.” Ascribing horrific behavior to “white supremacy” or “toxic masculinity” is only useful insofar as it results in a strategy. If you can’t see the world from their perspective, you can’t remotely devise a strategy to oppose them.
- Lots of rightwing crazies look to the main chance. Lots of leftwing dedicated souls look to the main chance. The main chance: to attain power within your subgroup, to achieve notice, to get laid. We must always distrust those we would elevate to stardom—not their motives but our own penchant for crowning heroes.
- I hate CANNED CANT, whatever its source.
- We’re right to question the mainstream media. We’re also right to question the alternative media. Major corporations aren’t the only players in the game of “Follow the money.” Distrust the alpha males, but also distrust those who model themselves counter to the alpha males. The Flat-Earth Society doesn’t necessarily gain more credence by being counter to accepted science.
- There has always been a pro-fascist movement in the USA. It was very powerful until the Japanese did us the favor of attacking Pearl Harbor. We shouldn’t be surprised at its existence. And we shouldn’t give D. Trump the honor of producing it.
- The greatness of America isn’t in its history. That’s shot full of holes in every century. It’s in its ideals, the aspirations of many of its people. Jefferson’s words stand beside Jefferson’s status as a slaveholder and mistress-fucker: which are more to honor? Does one discredit the other? How much courage did it take to write those words in the Declaration? Faced with the might of the British Empire, I couldn’t have done it.
- There’s a strong “progressive” urge to discount all progress as being an excuse for laxity. I don’t think it works that way. I think we need, as one of our long-ago characters said, our tiny ecstasies.
I don’t claim any more expertise than other bloviators. And someone who puts in hours with phone banks, writing postcards or daily blogs, should get more brownie points than I. I’ve spent my life writing and producing plays, now novels, that have tried, for the people who saw them or read them, to induce a way of seeing and feeling empathic. EMPATHIC. It’s been only a nudge in a direction, a breath in the biosphere. But I wouldn’t do otherwise.
A weekly view of the world we
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Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
a historical fantasy
AKEDAH: THE BINDING
a novel of promises broken or kept
a novel of blue-collar ghosts
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein