Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—

all to no end save beauty
the eternal—

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—

The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them

This is
the power of their faces

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought

Well, now we know which poets were bullies in high school.

I want to thank the several dozen people who reached out to me, mostly back-channel, to convey their support and to apologize for the behavior of their friends (my friends too, more often than not) over this past weekend. Humanity often seems like a test to see if it is possible to save the planet with such a deeply damaged species and these groupthink mobs are a chance to observe that damage at its worst.

Ironically, I received more Facebook friend requests over the 48 hours after I posted my last message here than I’ve ever received in one weekend. I haven’t been able to accommodate them all because I’m at Facebook’s arbitrary limit of 5,000 “friends.”

Perhaps doubly ironically, this blog received its 4,000,000th visit over on Memorial Day.

Obviously I knew that by exaggerating the scale of my comparisons I would trigger some response and I realize that some people think that scale itself must change the structure of the dynamics. It doesn’t, which was precisely the point I was trying to make.

More crucially, I do realize that some people feel great pain if it appears that somebody outside of their community does not take seriously the violence that has been – and continues to be – done to them, which is a feeling that the question of scale can invoke. That’s a fair criticism, and I hear it.

Did I feel that I was making light of anybody’s pain, or dismissing acts of violence? On the contrary, I felt I was doing just the opposite, pointing out that fighting evil with evil does not make it good. Signing the petition to the AWP – and the subsequent actions of that organization -- seems to me unambiguously evil, and it lines up with every other censorious act in history. Many of which have had horrific consequences.

When the folks at Rolling Stock publically wished Allen Ginsberg “the gift of AIDS,” I felt that it was a despicable thing to do, and said and wrote so at the time. But I did not think then, nor do I now, that it would have been a good idea to attempt to prevent them from participating in any of the normal duties of the profession of a poet. When friends of that journal who sat by in utter silence during those acts of explicit homophobia (and, elsewhere, anti-Asian racism) now tell me that I have “crossed the line,” I have a complicated reaction. Part of me simply thinks that, no, when faced with evil you have always chosen evil and you do so now. I should hope that I’m the other side of that line.

But part of me simply feels sadness. Simply because many of the folks attempting to pile on at the moment are indeed poets and readers I think of as my friends. I should note that I don’t believe either Vanessa Place or Kenny Goldsmith intended their projects to read as racist, but both presented overdetermined content capable of being read and received all sorts of ways. And anyone who has read Citizen: An American Lyric should recognize that just because somebody didn’t intend an action to be read as racist doesn’t necessarily absolve it from racism. What Vanessa Place is being punished for is the crime of polysemy without a license.

But we all should know that race makes everybody in the US pretty crazy. The right’s paranoid obsession with the idea that Obama might have been born in Kenya (he wasn’t) rather than the idea that the current president of the United States grew up on the streets of Jakarta (he did) is a good index of that. Now if only he governed like somebody who learned the lessons of American empire on the streets of Indonesia….

There is a reason I began my note on Friday with the observation that the most important of all human rights is the right to blaspheme. Without that right, every other human right, every other human activity, can be (and eventually will be) curtailed. Human history is littered with the carnage of that. If only Muslims get to determine how Mohammed is portrayed, if only Putin gets to determine what his opponents may say of him, if only the Philadelphia Police Department gets to determine what Mumia Abu Jamal is or is not permitted to say in public, if only rapists aren’t allowed to impugn their accusers, if only the mayor of Iguala gets to determine what is said of his administration, if only the GOP gets to define marriage, or to determine what can be said about climate change – the instances, once begun, quickly become endless and it matters not one whit that some of these could have the best intentions or represent the trauma of history on a given community. The denial of genocide in France, the denial of genocide in Turkey, the denial of genocide in Syria or in Palestine. Everybody, it seems, is willing to ban some speech just so long as “good people” get to decide. The problem is that who gets to decide almost always aligns with power.

One of the first political activities of my youth, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964-5, was not originally about speech. What the local business community was objecting to was people picketing the restaurants of Berkeley and Oakland as diners came to eat dinner. The pickets protested the refusal of these restaurants to hire people of color. Diners might choose to eat elsewhere. At the time, the President of the US Senate was Republican William Knowland, who also happened to own the Oakland Tribune, a newspaper that relied in part on ads from these very same restaurants. It was Knowland who asked the University to halt the use of card tables at the Bancroft Street entrance to the campus to sign up protestors for coming pickets. The speech that was being curtailed was essentially a question, “Would you like to sign up for tonight’s picket? It’s going to be at X restaurant at Y location.”

One can always argue that there is something about the circumstances surrounding any attempt to shut down an activity of speech that makes this case different. It is always different, which is exactly why it is not. This is not to erase historical context but rather to note that you cannot deploy a weapon against one side that will not ultimately be deployed against everyone else. And the history of power in Western Civilization suggests that progressives should be especially careful not to deploy the weapons of censorship that have been far more often used against them.

Over the decades I’ve consistently supported and given money to has been the American Civil Liberties Union, the one organization I know that gets this problem. Often I’ve sent them a contribution after they have taken an action, like supporting the right of Nazis or the Klan to march, that I knew would cost them some of their traditional progressive backing. I’ve realized that if we don’t protect the rights of those we disapprove of – say the Westboro Baptist Church – then we can’t expect to save our own rights either.

What do I think should happen? I would argue for more speech, more interaction, both on the part of those who feel aggrieved and those who may have offended them (yours truly included). Placing topics off limits and punishing people that, however ineptly, may have crossed imagined lines is not a way to generate new or more insights. It is certainly not a mechanism for getting people to listen or come together.

I am reminded during all of this that there have been times and places in US history when Irish, Italian and Jewish Americans have all been categorized as non-white. One still sees the category of “White Hispanic.” That may seem laughable in 2015, but within five miles of my house is the grave of Duffy’s Cut, where in 1832 some 50 Irish railroad workers were slaughtered in order to “curtail” an outbreak of cholera. By the standards of the US census, my grandfather “became white” when he was adopted in 1892 and had his name changed from Ambrose McMahon to Emerald Ambrose Silliman, but even that was only because officials did not recognize his new surname as a contraction of the original Sillimandi. In 1891, the year my grandfather was born, the Klan lynched 11 Italians taken from the jail in New Orleans.

[i] My thanks to the Philadelphia poet who reminded me of this poem.