Monthly Archives: February 2018

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The “New” S-Word

So I am at a dinner party and one of the guests talks about raising her children. Of course, at this point, three of the single people drift away but a couple stays, as do I, of course. I always find myself interested in what is important to people when they raise children: how to say ‘no.’ sometimes, while other times, ‘yes.’ Tricky business, as I see it, childrearing today.

In any case the conversation was about the “bad words” that should not be used in family situations. Colleen, the mother says something rather startling (in a wonderful way). In her family, the “S-word” is “Shut up!” That’s the word the children are not to say to one another or to their parents, teachers, or grandparents, etc. “How wonderful!“ I blurted out before anyone else could respond. The others who had not drifted off concurred, whether voluntarily or under the duress of my leading the jury, as it were, we shall never know.

After a pause, mother Colleen added, “Well, it seems like nobody allows anyone to talk anymore; no one wants to hear anyone else’s point of view.

To which I blurted out again, “Exactly!” And then I realize I had done it twice now—not allowing the others in the circle to respond before me. Perhaps it is because I was drinking wine, I don’t know, but I think it was, anyhow, only my first glass, so I doubt as much. I think, rather, I was simply too exuberant regarding this particular topic.

Thus I shat up again, allowing the others to respond, which of course they did. “Yes,” the other woman standing there said, “I find it positively distressing when I hear someone say ‘Shut up!’”

“It happens all the time,” said the man who appeared to be her husband. “Terrible.”

This time I waited before I said anything, trying to get my banter-timing a bit better than I had stared out. “You know,” I said, “I read that Don Lemon, a CNN commentator, on his show had actually quashed one or two of his interlocutors who were speaking to him about a topic with which Mr. Lemon rather did not agree. ‘Shut up’ he said, just before putting down any possible word of opposition.”

What he actually said was “…Not the time to talk about guns or whatever? yes it is! Shut up, I don’t want to hear it.” ] Now, ironically, I am probably on the side of Don Lemon on this issue, or at least very sympathetic to what he had to say but I was focusing on the “Shut up!” bit of his remark.[1]

“Yes,” a third person in the conversation added, “I saw that and also saw that a commentator named Laura Ingarham said that LeBron James should keep his political views to himself and ‘Shut up and Dribble.’”[2]

 

A number agreed. And they didn’t like it, especially because one or two were basketball fans.

In the end, as I look back on it, I think that’s why Colleen’s advice, nay rather, rule for her children seemed so timely to me. Because people on the left and the right are just telling those who oppose them to “shut up.” But can that really help. I think when one shuts down dialogue, it only really promotes a nasty kind of overreaction, even rebellion.

Ingrid Bergman once said, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t shut up!”[3] I imagine that is why she was such a great actress. But truth, beauty, and especially freedom always seem to manage to work their way up to the surface. You can’t keep them buried for too long. LeBron’s voice was louder than ever after Mr. Ingharahm’s attempt to repress him. And however right Mr. Lemon may be on the issue of the day, it seems to me that he would be better off letting the opposition speak and oppose it on principled and well-reasoned grounds, than merely shouting it down.

So here’s to Colleen’s good choice, when it comes to her banning the “s-word.” Maybe her children will be at the vanguard of a more civil society. And if you don’t agree with me, well you can just—no not shut up. Rather, just write me an email and tell me that you disagree. Way cooler.

Pax et bonum, et licet loqui.

[1] On “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.” www.cnn.com/

[2] www.foxnews.com/

[3] quotecatalogue.com

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Primary and Secondary Motives

I imagine you’re thinking that this blog has a strange title. It sounds rather serious. “It would be nice to have a funny blog once in a while,” someone said to me in the hallway the other day. “Why don’t you tell a story about Poobar Meyers, your high school teammate, or the time you went into the woman’s restroom, then called the Ladies’ Room, when you were a lecturer visiting Rutgers University?”

Maybe a funny story can help us with both the serious title and serious idea of not imputing motives to people. In fact, I think the second of the two stories mentioned above may just fit the bill nicely. It happened when I was at the beginning of my writing career—I was writing under a different name than my family name, H.R. Jakes, in those days, but I leave that aside, as I won’t bore you with the details and you wouldn’t want to read what I was writing in those days anyway, so early in my career was it.

It was an overcast day, so I was wearing a raincoat, what in the New Jersey area was then called and may still be called a trench coat—like Colombo or Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau—and the university kindly allowed me to use their gym. Accordingly, I had shorts on under the trench coat. En route to the gym, I wanted to stop off in the library to check a reference for my talk later on that day, so in I went, locating the book I needed (in the NDs, I think, an art book). Yet when I entered the library I knew, too, that I needed to visit the men’s room.

“It’s down this way, at the end of the stacks,” said a kind librarian, by no means circumambulating when it came to such practical instructions that provided me relief as I became increasingly desperate to find latrinal liberation. And thus it was that a fool rushed in where an angel would have feared to tread, for I bounded down the hall of stacks passing P and PA, with their suggestive Library of Congress numbers only urging my desire as might the sound of babbling brook. Indeed a man slurping from the water fountain performed that very task.

Before me lay two doors, one ivory-colored, the other horn-colored. From the horn-colored door, on the right, a woman emerged from the clearly marked Ladies’ Room, so I chose the ivory door on the left. Scooching in quickly, I walked into what seemed to be a lounge of some kind, taking a hard right toward the bathroom stalls. Alas, I could find no urinals, but I remembered that the campus I was visiting, Douglass College in New Brunswick, had been a few years earlier an all-women’s school. Indeed, it technically was still so, though now, as a part of Rutgers University main campus, it was merely one of several colleges that made up an essentially co-educational university. All students, male and female, take classes on all campuses. And that is why, I quickly reasoned, there were no urinals.

I went into a stall, kicked up the seat with one foot and took care of my mild emergency, standing and, as I was in a cheery enough mood, whistling a familiar song, “Jimmy Crack Corn …,”,arguably a song of indifference or social justice. (Interpretations of the song abound; I think I was just whistling out of sheer joy at having found a toilet.)[1]

And that’s when it happened: there was a very nervous rumbling of toilet paper coming from the next stall. “Oh,” I thought, “I probably disrupted the fellow’s newspaper reading.” I half thought to apologize, but I decided that it would be too strange for me to say anything. Instead, I re-girded my athletic attire and went out to wash my hands, only to notice to my left what I assumed to be a condom dispenser. “Well,” I figured, “I suppose that’s par for the course these days on a college campus” (it was the 1990s). But upon closer inspection, as I toweled off my wet hands, I saw that it was a feminine napkin dispenser.

“Well that’s weird,” I thought. “You’d think by now they would have removed these from the men’s rooms.” And that is when, of course, it donned on me: this was no vain dream, but the gates of ivory and horn both led to the same place: I had been all along in the woman’s room. The nervous toilet papering person was a woman. My attire—seemingly nothing but socks and sneakers covered by a trench coat—must have seemed quite strange to her as she peered out through the small slit between bathroom stall doors.

So I decided to leave forthwith (of course!). But as I left from the ivory-colored door in came another woman, who looked at me dumbfounded. “Inspecting,” I said as authoritatively as I could, hoping she would not notice my legs bare save socks and shoes.

“Oh,” was all she said, and she then left.

Now my motives were pure—as pure as flowing water. But it must have appeared, of course, rather bad. Woman number one likely thought I was a pervert; woman number two knew I was a liar. Not good!

But the motives, primary and/or secondary? That’s where not judging comes in. Woman number one knew that at least one of my motives was to use the bathroom. But she might have thought that my primary, or at least secondary, motive was to be perverse, to use the woman’s room for whatever reason, probably an opprobrious one. The other woman, if she saw my unclad calves protruding from the bottom of my trench coat, probably figured on about the same thing. I never found out what woman number one looked like, so I don’t know if she came to my lecture that afternoon. Woman number two, I am glad to report, did not.

[1] Cf. John Kroes (2012): http://www.cracked.com/article_20032_5-terrifying-origin-stories-behind-popular-childrens-songs.html.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Chicago Statement

It’s amazing to me that Kathleen Parker’s piece in the Chicago Tribune is now already nearly three years old for it is still highly relevant. It starts with the striking line, “Trigger warning: This column will include discussion of ideas that may conflict with your own.”[1] In it Parker calls attention to the fact that on many college campuses nowadays the mores of group identity trumps, you’ll pardon the triggering expression, freedom of thought, or at least qualifies it (which de facto trumps it).

What I mean by “the mores of group identity” can be redacted actually quite fairly, I think, to a groupthink mentality. I shall never forget, when I, a mere novelist and blogger, happened quite by accident (at the invitation of my philologist friend) to be in attendance at a major research university when a newly elected provost, i.e. chief academic officer, was giving his inaugural address to great applause and raucous approbation. In his speech he called for a more tolerant, more politically correct atmosphere than had occurred under his predecessor, one where there was “more groupthink” (sic!) and thus fewer ideas coming from individuals. He bandied about the word transparency. He used the word new several times, often in front of words like “initiatives,” and then, just for good measure I imagine, added words or phrases like transdisciplinarity or polymorphous vantage points. I wasn’t quite sure about the former term, and was (and remain) completely lost on the latter.

Of course this was many years ago now, and maybe he really used different words than these, but whatever he really said, it was more or less in such a vein, at least as far as I can recall all these years later. I am pretty sure of one thing, though: he advocated, more than just obliquely, for the community standards to usurp any possibly offensive ideas—ideas that did not conform to the community’s notions of what was acceptable. I don’t know for sure what he meant by that, but from the tone of the rest of the meeting, which was really more of a political rally, I imagine that he meant that such an offensive idea might be expected to come from someone on the “far right.”

Now before I go on, let me say that the far right, like the far left, often expresses some ideas that are to my mind unbecoming. If fascists, Nazis and racists represent the far right, then I am as disgusted as the next man (or, rather, as Prime Minister Trudeau would say, the next people[-kind]).[2] And nobody likes hearing Nazis talk, especially when they are running for congress in Illinois in 2018.[3] Wow. But to say they haven’t the right to have their bad opinions or to express them—well, that’s a “wow,” too. In fact, one could cogently make the case that simply removing bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. It could make them worse. Al-Qaeda was more destructive when it was bunkered in caves than when it was out in the open where it could get shot. Simply suppressing bad ideas doesn’t allow you to construct positive alternatives to them, to address their underlying concerns constructively and with a view to the common good.

Where I am I going with all this? To Chicago, I think. Not the Chicago Tribune, with which this piece began, but to the “Chicago Statement,” which seems to me the most sensible statement since that of President Everett Piper of the Oklahoma Wesleyan University who said to a student who was complaining being victimized, “This is not a daycare. It’s a university.”[4]

All coddling aside, here is the Chicago Statement, written by Geoffrey R. Stone, Professor and former Provost, taken directly from the University of Chicago’s website:[5]

Eighty years ago, a student organization at the University of Chicago invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, University President Robert M. Hutchins responded that “our students . . . should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He insisted that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.” On a later occasion, Hutchins added that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.”

This incident captures both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago. Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all students, faculty and staff “to discuss any problem that presents itself,” free of interference.

This is not to say that this freedom is absolute. In narrowly-defined circumstances, the University may properly restrict expression, for example, that violates the law, is threatening, harassing, or defamatory, or invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests. Moreover, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.

Fundamentally, however, the University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.

As a corollary to this commitment, members of the University community must also act in conformity with this principle. Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.

For members of the University community, as for the University itself, the proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression. It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of the University’s greatness.

In these politically correct, trigger-warning-ready, safe-space-provided, coddling times in which we live, the Chicago Statement seems to me to be a good kind of wow.

[1] Kathleen Parker, “The ‘Swaddled Generation’ and the Suppression of Ideas,” 21 May 2015: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-free-speech-college-campuses-trigger-warnings-20150521-story.html

[2] “The questioner ended by asking Trudeau to look at laws surrounding the charitable status of religious organisations, saying: ‘Maternal love is the love that’s going to change the future of mankind.’ To which Trudeau replied ‘We like to say ‘peoplekind’, not necessarily ‘mankind’, because it’s more inclusive.’” Quote taken from the article of 7 February 2018 in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/07/justin-trudeau-apologises-joke-personkind-viral

[3]https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2018/02/08/cnns_alisyn_camerota_vs_holocaust_denier_running_for_congress_in_illinois_youre_a_nazi.html

[4] https://www.okwu.edu/blog/2015/11/this-is-not-a-day-care-its-a-university/

[5] https://freeexpression.uchicago.edu/page/statement-principles-free-expression

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Interest in the Boring

The title of this blog is anything but titillating. I chose it for that reason. It is meant to challenge us to ask a fundamental question: Why would anyone do anything boring? Life is tragically short. Given that fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask why anyone would choose to do something boring.

I have a friend who is a philologist, and you can imagine even from the career description encapsulated in his professional title that he has what most people would deem to be a boring job. Perhaps an aversion to such boring jobs provides the very rationale, to the extent that there is a rationale beyond “ratings” or “advertising dollars,” for “extreme” television shows, or even reality television shows, which seem to me far from real. To take but one example, this week, when I had a bad headache, I turned on the television. We haven’t cable television, but as I occasionally like to watch sporting events, we decided to purchase an antenna that would allow us to get local channels. Now that everything is digital, we actually only sort-of get the local channels, as they often barely come in on time; there are all kinds of data transfer delays so that you often just see blocks of pictures popping up, especially, it seems at critical moments in a sporting event. But no matter—such is the digital age in which we live, like it or not.

But back to the headache. As I convalesced for a few minutes I did what I rarely do—turned on the television for a non-sporting event, only to find a telling example of reality television. Reality? It was a dating program where the same man kissed many women and then got to pick which one he would send home from his harem, presumably because she didn’t kiss well enough. What a message, I thought for young people: for young women, that they need to “compete” to get a boyfriend, in this case a creepy one and, for young men, that they should think of women as commodities, like automobiles, to be test driven and then chosen. Such a sad world we live in now. I’m afraid the show just made my headache worse.

Well, I thought to myself, what is the alternative? Is the alternative to embrace the “boring”? Church, by comparison, must seem very boring. Helping at the local recycling center must seem very boring. Volunteering at a shelter for the poor must seem very boring, too, by comparison with reality televisions shows like that one.

 

But that’s when I thought of why in fact the reality television show is actually the boring thing—indeed I did find it very boring, as I could stomach it only for a few minutes while I sharpened my thoughts in my throbbing head about it. The reality is that going to a shelter to help the poor is anything but boring. You actually meet really interesting people there—real people with real problems—and you get to speak with them about your life, perhaps even what God has done in your life, if you’re volunteering through a religiously based organization. And God is not boring because he is not the God of “and”—for the man had this woman and that woman and then would send one of them home and next week start all over again and choose the next loser and send her home and then refine his harem and then pick another loser and so on. That’s the world of and, and, and. Advertisers thrive on it: you need this thing and this thing, oh, and by the way, that one, too. And then comes the next commercial. And, and, and …

and…and…and

But God is the God of buts. He says your life is a mess, but I am here to help you. You think you need this and this and that, but you really just need me. To the women in that television show, he says the world turns you into a commodity, but I say you are a human being. To the male star of that television show (and perhaps to any man watching it), he says you want woman upon woman but you won’t be satisfied until you let go of your hedonism and listen to the buts of the Ten Commandments and the buts of the whole story of the Bible. Moses was a murderer, but he was called to lead the people of God. Jacob was a trickster, but he would bear the name of Israel. Joseph was in jail, but he came to rule over Pharaoh’s kingdom. His brothers threw him into a pit, but he forgave them. Peter was a fisherman, but he was called to follow. Paul was persecuting Christians, but he became one. Lazarus was in the tomb and there was a bad odor, Mary said, after all the time he was in there, but Christ called him out. Jesus was dead—but he arose.[1]

But all that is boring churchy stuff—religion, hocus pocus in the age of scientific reality. Yet if reality television is any indication of the alternative, of the reality of this psychologically needy and spiritually defunct age, maybe, just maybe the boring might start to look, if not exciting by comparison, at the very least more palatable, for if it claims miracles—a good, highly educated friend of mine only came to believe in miracles when he saw them occur repeatedly in his own life—it still offers something that the stark world of reality doesn’t quite offer: hope. Hope is what we really need because hope says what God says: but. I’m in a mess now, but there’s hope.

Here I will end, I think, my discourse on the boring, as I have invited a friend to church tomorrow not with a promise of anything but that it may seem boring. We will sing, we will pray, we will listen. That sounds, I imagine, pretty boring. Boring, yes, but for a small word—but.

[1] I owe the refining of my thoughts about the word “but” to a sermon by Rev. Philip DeCourcy (“Jonah, Man on the Run,” 4th part in the series) who cites a similar observation by the late Rev. James Montgomery Boyce of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia.