by Michael DeLang
(for John B.)
(Swans - March 28, 2005) Who am I? It should be an easy question to tackle. After all, who could possibly have access to more of the relevant information regarding this question than myself? Yet, when Gilles asked me to supply a short bio to accompany the article I had written for him, I found myself stumbling over the question, not having given it a thought for nearly thirty years. Which begged a further question; why the extended dearth of self-examination? Had I just fallen into habit, unawares, plodding along in my efforts to provide adequate food and shelter for my family? Was it merely a case of rote behavior pushing the reflection of purpose into a forgotten, inactive comer of my mind? Or had something, somewhere along the way, scared me off the practice of introspection? Alex Cockburn claims that Bruce Anderson's hound, Perro, reads Proust. I've lain awake nights wondering about that. In translation, or the French? Clearly, Bruce must command scant influence under his own roof or the mutt would be reading Lautréamont. Why do I occupy myself with these thoughts? Is it because the subject of canine reading habits holds a particular resonance for me? Hardly. More likely, it's just a defense mechanism tossed out by my psyche, designed to protect me by deflecting the more unsettling questions. Who am I? What are my values and am I really living by them?
It's true that I've witnessed what an excess of unfiltered introspection can do to a man whose soul has been damaged. In the early seventies, the older brother of a high school chum of mine returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam a shattered remnant of the young man who had left us only two years earlier. John's defense mechanisms proved defective or inadequate for the protection he wanted. There was something in his nature that refused to allow him to suppress the demons he had acquired. He had seen events, possibly participated in them, that he just wasn't able to reconcile with his own sense of humanity. He was not without a cadre of supportive friends and family, eager to help him through his darker days. But, in the end, John would not be helped. His demons consumed him, and his friends, hopelessly ill-equipped to ease his pain, stood by him and watched helplessly as he slowly descended into his own personal hell. We were comforted at the time, and admittedly relieved, that there were refuges available for people like our friend, where he could receive the care and shelter he needed as he fought the losing battle with his mind. To my shame, I've lost track of John over the years, as he moved in and out of various institutions. I don't know how he fared through the eighties when the logic of Reaganomics determined that mental health programs were overburdened with unnecessary funding. Adjustments were made in the federal budget, and thousands of "marginal" patients were discharged into the streets to fend for themselves. The vicious parasites currently infesting the halls of our government seem resolved to divert whatever remains of mental health funding to help pay for their dirty little war for oil, so if John is not already encamped beneath a bridge abutment somewhere, feeding out of dumpsters, it is likely he soon will be.
Society, also, employs defense mechanisms as avoidance technique. Some are imposed from without, by design, to divert attention from the machinations of empowered interests; machinations which often contradict the core values by which the citizenry of this nation want to identify themselves. The carefully structured dissemination of information in the guise of journalism is one successful stratagem which, for its effectiveness, must rely on our own intellectual sloth. The information we receive can be totally accurate and still, through process of selection and presentation, be used to divert attention from more relevant, though uncomfortable, issues and events. The News, by deliberate design, shapes and limits the contours of our debate. Did Scott do Lacy? Will Michael moonwalk his way into a prison cell? Will Martha bounce back? Which sluggers juiced up to boost their home run totals and how will that affect the integrity of the record books? The News is delivered daily to our doorstep, or seeps into our homes via fiber optics or satellite signal. The News is dependably convenient and cut up for us into easily digestible pieces. The truth, on the other hand, requires a measure of effort on our part. The truth must be aggressively pursued and, once revealed and understood, often challenges us to act on its behalf. Another phenomenally successful avoidance strategy is our deeply ingrained culture of awards. We hand out Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Pulitzers, and Caldecott Medals. We lash ourselves vicariously to our beloved sporting teams as they chase after Lombardi trophies, Stanley Cups, Davis Cups, and championship rings of all flavors. And there are prizes to be won that fall within everyone's reach. Dean's list, Magna Cum Laude, Teacher of the Year, Employee of the Month, Junior Miss Peach Blossom, bowling trophies, blue ribbons, First Prize! How we love to reward ourselves for a job well done. And if we pause for a moment and try to consider how trivial and insignificant these accomplishments, for which we applaud ourselves, must appear to a woman of no means trying to figure out how to feed her hungry children, or to a man cast onto the street still writhing in self-imposed exile from the protective cocoon of his own humanity, we stand to miss a step, lose our edge, and jeopardize our prospects of winning.
These internalized defense mechanisms, both individual and collective, which wield such enormous influence on our capacities for critical evaluation and, in turn, the quality of our political response, are, by and large, the product of our fears. Those who can instill, cultivate, and control the spectrum of our fears can more easily slip a leash over the nature and extent of our political conduct. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie used to introduce his performance of Amazing Grace in his concerts with a story,
"The man who wrote this song was the captain of a sailing ship. And he used to sail people from Africa over to this country a long time ago. One time, he was comin' back this way with a boat full of people and out in the middle of the ocean, he changed his mind. And he turned his boat around. He took everybody back home and then he sailed back to this country and started writing these songs. You know, that man might have lived a long time ago, but he's a friend of mine today, because anybody who is not afraid to turn around is a friend of mine today. And that's not just individual people, but cities and towns, too, countries, continents, worlds and planets. We can't ever let nothin' make us afraid to do anything that's right."
If, as a society, we can seize control of our fears, face them down, and find them to be hollow; then maybe we will be able to shut down our defense mechanisms long enough to begin asking ourselves some hard questions about this world that we have helped, through our tacit complicity, to create. If, as polls indicate, a nearly unanimous percentage of the citizens of this nation find the practice of torture to be morally reprehensible and unacceptable, why are our leaders keeping busy crafting loopholes to provide them with a legal standing in the event that they are one day called before an international court and charged with crimes against humanity? How do you save a village by destroying it? Is there any correlation between the annual increase in the average size of the American home television screen and the expanding rates of poverty-induced global starvation? What level of global starvation is acceptable? Who's that dirty guy shivering under the bridge? Why does he live like that?
A few Saturdays ago, my son and I got together over a couple of beers to spend an afternoon commiserating with one another on the tragic and abrupt exit of Dr. Thompson from the stage of American political discourse. After a time, the conversation turned to the plight of the growing legions of AWOLs and deserters we had both been recently reading about. We discussed, in hypothetical terms, the feasibility of and possible logistical problems involved in the formation of a network of safe havens, modeled on the Underground Railroad, to accommodate these courageous young men and women who have turned their own boats around and are refusing to play their assigned role in the illegal and immoral war being waged by our government in the Middle East. From there, the talk drifted to a more general discussion concerning the act of choosing whether to work within the institutions of a system, theoretically supported by a democratic tradition, or working outside and against the system when the corruption of its institutions has run amok. By what criteria can we confidently determine that the democratic process informing the relationship between the citizens of a nation and its government has reached a level of corruption at which it can no longer be repaired or salvaged by working within the parameters of that process? At which step of the removal of civil liberties and the trashing of the Constitution must we draw a line and say, "No more!"? At some point, it must become legitimate to reject the authority of the system under which we live. I wondered aloud if a time might soon be approaching when the conscious citizens of our nation may need to begin to organize an underground movement, patterned after the French resistance that operated under the Nazi occupation. And my son answered; my son (ever a beacon of hope penetrating and illuminating the darker reaches of his old man's musings) answered, "Dad, I think that's already begun."
Whenever he told that story about Captain Newton, Arlo would always add a tag line to the effect that the one thing that you have to remember when you find yourself wanting to change the world is that, in order to begin, you must first change yourself. It's clear that the time is on me now to dispense with my ruminations regarding Perro's capacity for appreciating the more subtle nuances of Proust's prose, and begin addressing some more pressing issues. Who am I? What values do I hold sacred, and how much of my day to day safety and security would I be willing to sacrifice in defending these values? How pliant and giving will the outermost boundaries of my comfort zone prove to be? If a knock comes at my door one night, and a stranger asks, "What will you do to help?" how will I answer the call?