Elemental

My dad, a lifelong firefighter, used to teach Hazardous Materials Response and Safety classes to first responders.  The first informational point he covered at the beginning of the course was how to read the classification marks on transportation tankers—the little diamond-shaped signs, usually mounted on the back of the tank, that announce via numerical code what kinds of chemicals are stored in those transport vehicles, and what levels and types of health risks would be associated with a spill in the case of a wreck.  The first homework assignment he gave was for the firefighters to go home and stand on the main cross street in their neighborhoods and home towns for about an hour, and write down the numbers on every tag they saw pass through that intersection, then go look up the numbers.  Dad said that the next week, when those students came back for class, invariably there’d be two or three groups of firefighters whose faces were white as flour.

***

This is not going to be a very cogent post, I’m afraid.  We’re still in the middle of the mess that got made for us, and there are still a lot of things we don’t know, including when the water is going to be drinkable again.  I’ll try to be as articulate as I can.

Yesterday, Saturday January 11, I drove to Charleston WV, the city where I was born, and where my parents, my sister and her husband, my niece, and many of my family still live.  I’m two hours north now, up in lumber country.  They’re still down south in coal country.  One of the ways we identify regional demarcations in this state is through industry.

I’d been talking to my folks ever since the spill at Freedom Industries on Thursday morning.  Here’s what we know so far: The spill dumped 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River, a mile and a half upstream from the intake pipes for West Virginia-American Water, a company that serves nine counties.  The spill was caused, according to the most reliable reports we’ve been seeing to this point, because of deterioration of Freedom Industries’ storage and transfer materials for chemicals used in coal processing.  We’re talking here about your basic rusted pipes and breached concrete containment walls.  Freedom Industries hadn’t been inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection in over 20 years.  There was, we’re being told, no plan—no plan—on the books for procedure and protocol, should one of those containment tanks happen to be breached.

I drove down to Charleston on Saturday morning with ten cases of bottled water, as my folks, my sister and brother-in-law, and my niece haven’t been able to use tap water since Thursday.  Saturday morning it rained in Buckhannon—rained hard.  It rained off and on all the way to Charleston, a sheeting, high-wind downpour that at times, through the windshield, looked like driving through a car wash.

About ten miles out of Charleston, the rain slacked off.  The temperature was mild, about 60 degrees.  I drove south to the point where I-79 South ends, and you pick up I-64 West to head into the interstate exchanges on the freeway that runs the length of downtown.  And there, about a mile and a half out, I smelled it, smelled the odor of the MCHM coming in through the car vents.

I keep hearing the odor described as “licorice.”  That’s not quite right, at least to me.  But I can see how you’d make that association.  The smell was both sweet and sharp, and strangely light, at least in comparison to the smells I associated with chemical leaks growing up.  But it was there, suddenly, like someone had flipped a switch.  It wasn’t there, and then the next second, there it was.

I-64 West into Charleston, coming from southbound, unrolls in a big left-hand curve just after you come into the city.  I’ve driven this route hundreds, maybe thousands of times.  I grew up here.  I recognize every building from the freeway—the banks, the hospitals, the hotels and apartment complexes, all of it.  In the deepest part of that big left-hand curve, down off the freeway and to my left, there was West Virginia-American Water Company, and the smell suddenly became very, very strong.

On my way in, the rain had let up.  Now there was low-lying fog, white-and-gray tufts and tendrils of vapor rising up from the street level all around the small wood-frame houses and gas stations and grocery stores.  The sky was dark, and the fog was in the streets, and the smell was everywhere.  I looked at the water company, and I smelled the air, and suddenly I was filled—I mean filled—with a rage that was quite sudden, very unexpected, and utterly comprehensive.

We can never predict what moments are going to affect us this way.  I’m no dewy-eyed innocent about chemical leaks.  They were regular occurrences when I was a kid.  On the merits, this doesn’t seem right now to be the worst industrial threat West Virginia has ever endured.  Hell, it isn’t the most immediately threatening one my family has endured personally; that would be the bromine leak in my very own hometown of Malden in the 1980s, the one that forced a complete evacuation of the entire town until the leak could be contained.

But something about this confluence, the way I had to bring potable water to my family from two hours north, the strange look of the landscape wreathed in rain and mist, the stench of a chemical that was housed directly upstream from the water company—something about all of that made me absolutely buoyant in my rage.  This was not the rational anger one encounters in response to a specific wrong, nor even the righteous anger that comes from an articulate reaction to years of systematic mistreatment.  This was blind animal rage, and it filled my body to the limits of my skin.

And this is what I thought:

To hell with you. 

To hell with every greedhead operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you.  To hell with you for offering above-average wages in a place filled with workers who’d never had a decent shot at employment or education, and then treating the people you found here like just another material resource—suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they’d outlived their usefulness.  To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn’t get out of.

To hell with you all for continuing, as coal became chemical, to exploit the lax, poorly-enforced safety regulations here, so that you could do your business in the cheapest manner possible by shortcutting the health and quality of life not only of your workers, but of everybody who lives here.  To hell with every operator who ever referred to West Virginians as “our neighbors.” 

To hell with every single screwjob elected official and politico under whose watch it all went on, who helped write those lax regulations and then turned away when even those weren’t followed.  To hell with you all, who were supposed to be stewards of the public interest, and who sold us out for money, for political power.  To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us.  To hell with you for making us the eggs you had to break in order to make breakfast.

To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated.  To hell with everyone who ever asked me why people don’t just leave, don’t just quit (and go to one of the other thousand jobs I suppose you imagine are widely available here), like it never occurred to us, like if only we dumb hilljacks would listen as you explained the safety hazards, we’d all suddenly recognize something that hadn’t been on our radar until now. 

To hell with the superior attitude one so often encounters in these conversations, and usually from people who have no idea about the complexity and the long history at work in it.  To hell with the person I met during my PhD work who, within ten seconds of finding out I was from West Virginia, congratulated me on being able to read.  (Stranger, wherever you are today, please know this: Standing in that room full of people, three feet away from you while you smiled at your joke, I very nearly lost control over every civil checkpoint in my body.  And though civility was plainly not your native tongue, I did what we have done for generations where I come from, when faced with rude stupidity: I tamped down my first response, and I managed to restrain myself from behaving in a way that would have required a deep cleaning and medical sterilization of the carpet.  I did not do any of the things I wanted to.  But stranger, please know how badly I wanted to do them.)

And, as long as I’m roundhouse damning everyone, and since my own relatives worked in the coal mines and I can therefore play the Family Card, the one that trumps everything around here: To hell with all of my fellow West Virginians who bought so deeply into the idea of avoidable personal risk and constant sacrifice as an honorable condition under which to live, that they turned that condition into a culture of perverted, twisted pride and self-righteousness, to be celebrated and defended against outsiders.  To hell with that insular, xenophobic pathology.  To hell with everyone whose only take-away from every story about every explosion, every leak, every mine collapse, is some vague and idiotic vanity in the continued endurance of West Virginians under adverse, sometimes killing circumstances.  To hell with everyone everywhere who ever mistook suffering for honor, and who ever taught that to their kids.  There’s nothing honorable about suffering.  Nothing.

To hell with you.  This is the one moment in my adult life when I have wished I could still believe in Hell as an actual, physical reality, so that I could imagine you in it.

That was what I thought.  Not in those words—it came to me in a full-body rush—but I think that’s a reliable verbal representation of the feeling.

Like I said, it wasn’t rational or cogent.  I’m not an eco-warrior or a Luddite, and I’m not anti-business or even anti-industry.  But for years, I’ve watched from inside and out while the place I grew up in, the place where many people I love still live, got sold out and scorched and plowed under and poisoned and filled with smoke.

There are sensible, sane ways to do things.  (A mile and a half upstream from a water intake facility, for fuck’s sake.  Upstream.)  It’s essential for state and federal governments to consult with scientists—actual, real scientists, in spite of this area’s long and fierce tradition of anti-intellectualism when it comes to public policy—and provide a regulatory apparatus for maintaining safety standards and making sure things are up to code, and that there’s a protocol in place for when systems fail.  That’s what a society does to protect the people who live in it.  Or the people who live in it will—should, anyway—naturally come to the conclusion that their health and safety mean zero in the calculus of industry and politics.

Over the past couple of decades, the resource manufacturing industries have been leaving the state in a slow trickle—of their own volition, though, and not, as might have been hoped, at the end of a pike—and gradually, the state is going to have to move to a post-coal, post-chemical economy.  That’s a good development, to my mind.  But the history of sellout politicians and cheapjack business interests in this region keeps me on watch for the next plague of locusts.

Having been made to endure fucked up Air, Earth, and Water, we ought to be mindful of that history, and make sure that history goes with us, always, into the voting booth, into the streets, into the home, into the wider world.

Otherwise, to steal a line from the old hymn—and don’t we love our Jesus, our stories of noble suffering around here—we’ll all of us, residents and politicians and operators alike, find ourselves standing in the Fire Next Time.

Eric Waggoner

Posted in Uncategorized | 144 Comments

Fast Food Items That Would Also Work As Poorly Chosen, Vaguely Off-Color Pet Names For Sweethearts

Drawn from the last few weeks’ worth of direct-mail coupons to show up in my mailbox:

  1. Little Thickburger
  2. Tender Crispy
  3. Chicken Basket
  4. Macho Beef
  5. Big Country Breakfast
  6. Vanilla Shake (Large)
  7. Nibblers
  8. Quad Stacker
  9. Sirloin Dip
  10. Triple w/Everything
  11. King Oreo
  12. Superstar with Cheese
  13. Chicken and Biscuit Bowl
  14. Double Meatball Marinara
  15. Caramel Moo-latte
  16. 6″ Meat Lover
  17. Onion Petals
  18. Hand-Dipped Strawberry
  19. Enormous Omelet
  20. Monster Biscuit
  21. Sack Of Fries

I do love me some small-town livin’.  And yes, we’ve been reading McSweeney’s again.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Memo From Jonestown: Whoopee! We’re not dead. Now what?

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one subject, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed on a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of tears, to be reaped by its posterity…. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

–Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852)

I no longer remember where or how I first found Charles Mackay’s fantastic book. I remember someone mentioning it to me in the early 1990s, so probably a fellow grad-school malcontent turned me on to it. Beyond that dim recollection, I can’t recall much about how I came by it. However, I do remember being knocked on my ass from the very first pages, and thereafter recommending it to all of my friends.  It’s that kind of reading experience. Because in this sad, hilarious, sometimes horrifying volume, published first in 1841 and then in a second edition in 1852, Mackay offers an overview–the merest sample, as he points out in his introduction–of human delusion, bizarre behavior, and the thoroughly avoidable suffering that results from mass irrationality, from the Crusades to the Mississippi Scheme of 1720.

Howdy. It’s Monday, May 23rd, 2011–Judgment Day plus 2, as it were–and another End of the World has come and gone. Nice to see everyone back. (Except, sadly, for Macho Man Randy Savage. Godspeed, Macho Man; Pro Rasslin’ Heaven has gained a saint.)

Like most of you, I spent last Saturday idly aware of the ticking of the clock according to Family Radio Worldwide’s Rapture Countdown, a sort of goofball-apocalyptic “ABC’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” with civil engineer and amateur bible numerologist Harold Camping in place of Dick Clark, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse standing in for the Dropping of the Ball in Times Square.

Of course, here in Bucktown we were also celebrating the annual Strawberry Festival, and so I kept myself irrigated on the off-chance that Camping and company were right, since the arrival of Conquest, Slaughter, Famine, and Death would likely be easier to accept, or at least more fun to watch, if I were slightly oiled. (I was also watching the Festival Parade, and unless there’s been a grievous misreading of Revelation and the four horsemen are actually Miss Farm Tool, Shriner Clowns, Classic Cars, and Minor Local Television Celebrity, I missed the end of days entirely.)

But as it turned out: ho-hum. Aside from the parade, at least around my house it was a standard Saturday; I hung out with some friends, I watched a movie, I had a few drinks, and I went to bed. And then, if only to spite a single civil engineer in Oakland, California, I woke up the next morning.

It’s easy to poke fun at doomsayers. It’s easy to poke fun at anyone who’s being 100% deadly earnest about anything, in fact. That goes for proponents of world peace as much as boosters of World of Warcraft. Total commitment to anything makes you an easy target, no matter what trip you happen to be on. But, to this observer anyway, there’s something deeply mean-spirited about the end-is-nigh crowd. And–oh, irony of ironies–they’ve been with us, well-documented and noisy as crickets in a baseboard, since the first millenium.

Difficult as it is, I want to try to talk about this outside the context of religious faith, since I doubt even a statistically significant percentage of global Christendom put much stock in World Radio’s judgment day stopwatch. That apocalyptic countdown was the stated context for Camping’s prediction, but the grim and pessimistic sentiment behind it–the country’s going to hell in a handbag, humankind is circling the drain, we’re all gonna die, everything’s getting worse, the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out, etc.–seems to be infiltrating contemporary public discourse to a degree that’s not just alarming, but damn near stifling.

Also, not that it has much bearing on this particular discussion, but quite contrary to the phrasing used in several mainstream-press news stories about the Great 5/21 Celestial Soul-Hoovering, Harold Camping has precisely the quality of credentials for claiming to be a “Bible scholar” as I have for claiming to be an Admiral in the Queen’s Navy.  I’m a little disgruntled at the cavalier way the word “scholar” has been treated in this context, but for the nonce, let’s put the quasi-religious concerns to one side.

I’ve seen two anecdotes frequently repeated in news stories concerning Camping’s big bustout in this game of divine blackjack.  Last year, Joel and Adrienne Martinez quit their jobs in New York and cancelled plans for Adrienne to attend medical school, budgeting their income and savings to run out on 5/21.  (The couple has one daughter, and another child–actually typing this makes me feel so petty–due next month.  Call me cynical, but timing your pregnancy so that the delivery date occurs after the end of the world is either the most or the least selfish act I’ve ever heard of.)  NYC transit employee Robert Fitzpatrick spent his life savings, approximately $140,000, to advertise Harold Camping’s prediction.  That’s a hundred and forty.  Thousand.  Dollars.  Poof.  Gone.  Just spent.

These, and many others, are sad stories.  Much of the news coverage I’ve seen takes Camping to task, blaming the resulting financial hardship and suffering his advocates are now going to have to endure on his exploitation of human uncertainty and fear, for profit.  (Family Radio Worldwide is financed entirely through private donations.  And you’ll never believe this, but you can STILL make contributions through the organization’s web site.  Ye gods.  The sheer audacity.)

I have to admit, however, that I can’t work up much sympathy for people like Martinez and Fitzpatrick.  I tried.  I didn’t try very hard, but I did try.  And of course, I feel the standard wince at the thought of a fellow human depleting his savings in a way that would have been equally as effective had he soaked the money in gas and lit it on fire.

Still, anyone who balances the end of the world against hope for the future, and incinerates their money and personal security in the process, has something much more badly damaged inside them than can be explained away by simple uncertainty over the future, which it falls to all of us to face and overcome.

It’s not even as if this irrational, irresponsible behavior were locatable only in our own age. This sort of thing has been going on for at least a thousand years, in more or less exactly the same way.  Charles Mackay devotes the fifth chapter of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds to prophecies of the end of the world.  In it, Mackay describes the mass European pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 999.  The number of pilgrims was “so great,” he writes,

that they were compared to a desolating army.  Most of them sold their goods and possessions before they quitted Europe, and lived upon the proceeds in the Holy Land.  Buildings of every sort were suffered to fall into ruins.  It was thought useless to repair them, when the end of the world was so near.  Many noble edifices were deliberately pulled down.  Even churches, usually so well maintained, shared the general neglect. (257)

Not only that; they saw ominous portent in every naturally-occuring weather pattern:

Most of them were smitten with terror as with a plague.  Every phenomenon of nature filled them with alarm.  A thunder-storm sent them all upon their knees in mid-march… Every meteor in the sky seen in Jerusalem brought the whole Christian population into the streets to weep and pray… Fanatic preachers kept up the flame of terror.  Every shooting star furnished occasion for a sermon, in which the sublimity of the approaching judgment was the principal topic.  (257-8)

Well.  The shock of recognition, even when it comes from a book published over 150 years ago, is one of the hardest shocks of all.

I said above that I find something particularly sinister and mean-spirited about doomsday rhetoric. There’s something in apocalyptic language that’s not only dependent upon, but that also in some way fetishizes the very idea of, all the lights going out. That seems not only deeply pessimist, but also deeply misanthropic, in the least valuable way possible. A valuable misanthrope, on the Mark Twain model, might try to point out our faults in order to help us improve ourselves and cut the bullshit, as it were. A useless misanthrope sees no point in going on, and never expects anything but the absolute worst, so why not pull the plug already? All we’re going to lose is this crap world anyway.

This tendency to hysteria, to stridency, to the sort of language that not only keeps us divided but moves us farther apart from each other, is observable not only in the context of apocalyptic faith, but in the strident tone of most of our public conversations in contemporary American life.  Now that we’ve reached the 2012 candidacy-announcement season, the vocabulary of rack and ruin is being trotted out again, and for exactly the same purpose as always: to make us scared, to stifle the exchange of genuine ideas, to thwart calm rationality, and to subvert the intellect.

It happens on the left and the right.  I was especially disheartened to read this statement–one can’t really call it an editorial or an argument–by P.J. O’Rourke, printed in the Weekly Standard.  Reading it depressed me, because I’ve always admired and enjoyed O’Rourke’s writing, and found it eminently reasonable and worth considering carefully, even if my politics didn’t always meet up with his–as if that last consideration mattered a goddamn in a free society anyway.  This piece… of something… instead trades in irrationality and fear-stoking in order to appeal to our inner end-is-near-er.  And no coherent point is raised.  Not a single one.

I hasten to point out that this isn’t a matter of political or party affiliation.  I mention the O’Rourke piece because for me, as a reader who’s admired his work for its levelheadedness in the service of making a political argument, it serves as an emblem for what happens when that rationality gets cast aside in favor of whipping that segment of the populace that already agrees with you into a frenzy.  It’s not a left-or-right phenomenon.  It happens all along the political spectrum.

What can possibly be the point?  Why the hysterical tone in our public discussions?  Who can be moved by such rhetoric except those who are already on our side?  What’s the purpose of all this stoking of the fires of armageddon anyway, even (maybe especially) in the context of debates over politics and differences of public opinion?

I have a theory.  Don’t I always.

Hauling out the rhetoric of demise and destruction–figuratively, metaphorically, or literally–allows for the maximum amount of dramatic window-dressing for any political, ethical, moral, or religious opinion one cares to spout, and it encourages the debate to ride on purely emotive energy instead of pesky elements like logic, evidence, or reason. As opposed to a self-fulfilling prophecy, doomsday is a self-aggrandizing prophecy. It turns every disagreement into a do-or-die last stand, at the end of which anyone who doesn’t agree with us gets thrown over on the “die” side. It divides us all–not to ransack the thesaurus of religious metaphor–into left-hand and right-hand, sheep and goats. It presents us with an either-or proposition: Get on board, or be a part of humanity’s long slide into death and destruction. Also, give me a donation.

We’re better than this.  We’d damn well better be.  Because the responsibility for our accepting of opinions we take whole-cloth from hucksters and con men; every chance we miss to fact-check some claim that someone tries to get us to believe in the service of furthering their own projects; every moment in which we might have used an opportunity to learn something and instead chose to rebroadcast a sound bite we got from someone else, even to the point of using our own life savings to do so… all of that responsibility–all of it–is ours.  Individually.

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

The process of recovering our senses is slow, solitary, difficult, and expensive.  How much better not to lose them in the first place.

Posted in books, faith, politics, random firings | 3 Comments

Perhaps I need a sabbatical.

Sorry, folks.  I’ve been away.  Doing what, you ask?

Doing this right here:

Actual marginal comments I’ve written on student essays/exams over the past month:

“Wha?”

“The ‘Segway’ is the two-wheeled device.  A ‘segue’ is what moves an argument from one point to the next.  We went over this in class a few times.”

“You argue that the U.S. justice system is based on letting the punishment fit the crime, and that death penalty is the ‘only equal fitting punishment’ for murder.  By this logic, what punishment should rapists receive?”

“This isn’t a word.”

“You’ve already said this a few times.”

“I have no idea what this phrase is intended to mean.”

“Oh, lord.”

“No.”

“????”

” ‘it’s’ = ‘it is’ or ‘it has’; ‘its’ = the possessive pronoun or adjective”  (seven times or so)

“Actually, this doesn’t happen in this novel.  I’m not sure what book you’re thinking of.”

“You’ve got to fight the urge to write this way.  You’re going to hurt your readers’ brains.”

“How can you be sure what topics ‘children used to fight about’ one hundred years ago?”

“source?”

“where’s your source?”

“what’s your source for this?”

“where’d you get this?”

“Doesn’t the article argue exactly the opposite of this?”

“I cannot parse this sentence.”

“[frowning emoticon]“

Posted in teaching | 5 Comments

The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.2

[This is part 2 of a two-part entry.  Part 1 appears in the preceding post.]

The two usual arguments one often hears regarding Huckleberry Finn’s language, particularly in the context of school board and reading list debates, run like so.  One side argues that the very appearance in the novel of such racist terms as Huck uses, and certainly the pervasiveness of those words, makes the novel itself a “racist book.”  The other side argues that the novel strives for realism in depicting the way people actually spoke during the mid-1800s (the time during which Huckleberry Finn is set), and for that reason it isn’t a “racist book,” just a realistic one.

Both arguments, I think, miss the mark.  At the heart of this binary either-or proposition is the question of whether or not Huckleberry Finn is something we might call a “racist book.”  I think that’s the wrong question to ask.  The question is, rather, whether Huck himself is racist.  And if so, how are we to understand his actions in the book, considered in the context of the language he uses to tell his own story?  In other words, how does the book encourage us to understand Huck’s racism itself?

That Huck is a racist—that he believes God created whites superior to blacks in intelligence, moral sense, and spiritual value—there can be no question.  He espouses such beliefs throughout the book, he grapples confusedly with the seeming contradiction of such beliefs when he encounters evidence to the contrary, and he never comes to a point where he understands Jim to be his racial equal.  What he does do, however, is something much more significant and powerful.

In the Widow Douglas, in Tom’s Aunt Polly—indeed, in virtually every genteel, middle-class context he encounters in the book—Huck sees white people treat black people as property, with contempt and with a thoroughgoing assumption of the lesser value of black lives when compared to white.  He also sees many of these same characters spout a message of charity, love, hospitality and acceptance—as we might say, the solid virtues of mainstream American society.  These characters give lip service to charity and grace, while treating the black characters in the book with indifference or violence.  They speak nicely, yet they behave foully.

Huck, by contrast, is the only character in the book to interact extensively with a black character—Jim, “Miss Watson’s runaway slave.”  In contrast to the middle-class whites in the novel, Huck speaks foully; despite the protests of readers who would claim that Huckleberry Finn simply represents the “way people talked” in the mid-1800s, “nigger” was not a word used in polite society in Huck’s (or Twain’s) day, and its deployment in public settings, heard by whites who considered themselves upstanding, moral people, would have suggested low manners and poor breeding in the person who used it. 

That’s precisely why Huck’s use of that term—indeed, his pervasive use of it—is so significant; that basic hypocrisy is at the heart of Twain’s choice to have Huck use it on nearly every page.  Huck has picked up on his use of the term from all levels of white society around him, from lower economic strata to the entrenched middle class.  He has heard it used everywhere, behind closed doors, in private settings, by whites of all economic and social backgrounds.  Because he doesn’t care at all about behaving in accordance with social niceties, he uses it thoughtlessly, since every white person he’s ever encountered, well-off or poor, has signaled to him that using it is perfectly natural and acceptable, so long as one doesn’t do so publicly.  The racism of the word doesn’t bother him, since he’s been taught from infancy that whites are superior to blacks.  Because he’s learned the fundamental lesson of racial superiority, it doesn’t bother him that he’s using a word other white people might make a show of disapproving.  He’s seen how black folk are treated.  He understands their true position in American life, whatever verbal niceties others might try to use to obscure it.

In this sense, Huck’s use of the word—his use of a word that, even in Twain’s day, was thought of as low and vulgar—represents the articulation of a racist consciousness fundamental to American life for hundreds of years, one that “polite society” suggests we shouldn’t acknowledge.  Huck speaks what we wish most to deny: The racism that permeated every level of American society, both public and institutional, for centuries, and which (considered on the historical timeline) we have only recently begun, as a culture, to try to dismantle.

Gribben’s and NewSouth’s replacement of that word with “slave” implies that Twain’s book doesn’t make a distinction between the two, that they are interchangeable, and that the replacement therefore doesn’t alter the text in any meaningful way.  In fact, Twain’s book does differentiate between the two.  The word “slave” appears on six occasions in Huckleberry Finn, and in every case, whether voiced by Huck or another character, that word is used in its very specific sense of denoting an “owned person”—that is, to refer to the indentured position foisted upon black folk in American life in Twain’s era.  Twain’s text understands, and consistently demonstrates, the difference between “slave” and “nigger” in Huck’s era.  The former refers to a position within an economic system of human exploitation, while the latter refers to black folk generally.

Huck’s casual use of the latter reveals that, no matter what his personal feelings may be towards Jim, he “understands” on a very basic level that Jim is his racial inferior.  The exceedingly problematic “happy ending” of Huckleberry Finn turns on Jim’s freedom; but the book’s racist vocabulary leaves the question of whether or not Huck still thinks of Jim as “a nigger” by the book’s end arguable.

The famous moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck decides to “go to Hell” rather than turn Jim in is sometimes cited as the moment when Huck conquers his racism.  It is, importantly, no such thing.  Huck decides to try to help Jim escape, but not because he’s overcome racist thought.  He’s decided to do it because he’s decided that he is congenitally incapable of being good, upright, and moral—of being, in effect, a good American, a good white person, and a good Christian.  He believes, in making this decision, that he’s doing the wrong thing.  And Huck believes in Hell as an actual, physical reality.  In refusing to turn Jim in, he believes himself to be rejecting every standard by which a white person might be morally judged, in this world and in the next.  He commits to his immoral, anti-white, anti-Christian decision.  And he doesn’t look back.

This, I think, is a much more radical, subversive, and interesting moment than a simple “healing of a racist mind” might provide.  But it is not comforting.  The comforting book—the one NewSouth appears to want to publish—would be one that permitted us all to agree upon the evil of racist thought, and recognize the equality of black and white, while muting Twain’s depiction of the actual insidiousness and pervasive psychological effects of racism in the white mind.  That would be a “nice book.”  That would be a book that made the consoling argument that racism is an aberration in the American character, as opposed to a deeply embedded part of it.  That would be a book that allowed us to cheer for Huck as a redeemed character, by allowing him to stop using the word “nigger” thereafter.

However—and this is a point that I’ve not seen mentioned very often in discussions of the book—after that moment, Huck doesn’t refer to Jim, in his internal narrative, as “a nigger.”  He will use the word in other contexts, he will use it when referring to Jim in order to trick the Duke and the Dauphin; but he will never, in his own mind, simply refer to Jim by using that word.

It is a small change.  It is one so subtle that is has generally gone unnoticed in discussions of the novel.  Huck does not even, to all appearances, recognize it in himself.  But I find that detail, that change, a much more realistic depiction of how racist thought may begin to be dismantled than any sweeping, more comforting story would be able to afford.  Huck cannot recognize his love and admiration for Jim, and continue to refer to Jim in his own mind by that word.  He will continue to use the word when speaking to others, and when speaking about others.  But from that point forward, Huck cannot, within his own mind, use the words “nigger” and “Jim” as if they were interchangeable.  It is a minor change.  But at the same time, the suggestions it raises are staggering.

Huck has minimal formal education.  He is deeply ignorant.  His vocabulary and method of expression are crude at best.  And he is a racist, having grown up all his life around racists from every socioeconomic level.  And still, this barely literate kid, with no reinforcement or help from any other white folk around him, and with absolutely no vocabulary to understand his own racism—indeed, with no concept of what the word “racism” means or signifies—manages to free one small part of his brain from the assumption that this racist word naturally applies to this man, Jim.

It is a tiny, perhaps an infinitesimal measure of individual progress.  But in it, Twain seems to suggest that nothing—not impoverishment, not lack of education, not religious upbringing, not “family values,” not “the way I was raised”—nothing lets anyone off the hook.  Even without education, without reinforcement, Twain’s novel seems to suggest, one can begin to struggle free of the prejudices foisted upon us all from childhood, like a butterfly beginning the excruciatingly slow and difficult process of cutting itself free from the cocoon. 

Remove “that word” from the text, and that element is completely lost.

Still, it must be acknowledged that black and white readers come to Huckleberry Finn in fundamentally different ways.  No black reader has ever needed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to help him or her understand the specific end results of racist pathology.  Huckleberry Finn can educate white readers much more effectively than black readers, in this regard.  But in its depiction of the obliviously racist mind, the mind that itself does not recognize how deeply the concept of racial superiority has warped and confused it, the book is like nothing else in American literature. 

It is upsetting, it is frustrating, and it does not reassure us that the forward progress of history will alleviate the problem.  It is, in other words, complicated, conflicted, and uneasy.  It is meant to be, because it is meant to place the responsibility for progress on all of us, and it reminds us of that responsibility on every page.  An attempt to render The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn less upsetting robs us of its unique lesson regarding how racist pathology, passed from generation to generation in the home or in the world at large, poisons even the minds of children.  It is a lesson we sorely need, still, nearly 150 years removed from its initial publication.

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The Huckleberry Finn rant, pt.1

[This is part 1 of a two-part entry.  The conclusion appears in the subsequent post.]

NewSouth Books, a Montgomery, Alabama-based publisher, will in mid-February issue a one-volume edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).  The new edition replaces what NewSouth’s web site calls “two hurtful epithets” in those novels with the words “slave” and “half-blood,” in order to “help the works find new readers”—thereby removing the precise textual element that makes Huckleberry Finn, in particular, so essential an American book in the first place.

Huckleberry Finn is one of the most troubling and disconcerting novels in American literature.  It began in Mark Twain’s initial conception as an adventure story, a sequel to the well-reviewed (though not very successful) Tom Sawyer, with which it shares a geographical and historical setting as well as a handful of characters.  Unlike Tom Sawyer, which was written in the third-person voice, Huckleberry Finn was to be told in the first-person voice of a fairly literate, but abysmally ignorant, young boy from the American South.  Tom’s story, that is, is told by an omniscient narrator whose voice provides context, irony, or commentary as needed.  Huck’s story, by contrast, was to be told in Huck’s own voice.

That single difference creates a pervasive conflict, one that the book itself does not resolve in any very reassuring way.  That problem permeates the novel and makes it, I think, one of the very few American books that accurately depict the pathology (and, perhaps optimistically, the barest initial enlightenment) of the racist mind. 

The problem is this.  Huck Finn’s story is to be told in Huck’s own words.  And Huckleberry Finn—the character, not the novel—is a racist. 

Huck has only a minimal formal education, but he is a shrewd observer of the ways in which people act, which are frequently at odds with what they profess to believe.  Through that observation, and from his position as an impoverished white orphan who’s recently been taken in by a middle-class white family, he’s learned a very comprehensive lesson as regards race, a lesson taught to him by the genteel middle-class Widow Douglas as much as by his violent, abusive, low-class father.  Huck has been consistently told, and therefore unquestioningly believes, that whites are superior to blacks, that slavery is in complete accordance with the will of God, and that white superiority is a basic precept of the Christian faith he hears professed all around him. 

Huck begins the book a racist, and, despite those teachers and readers who might wish it otherwise, he ends the book a racist.  Sort of.  But I’ll come to that later.

As a result of letting such a narrator tell the story in his own words, Twain has Huckleberry Finn write or speak the word “nigger” approximately 200  times over the course of the novel.  Dr. Alan Gribben, who teaches in the English and Philosophy departments at Auburn University, edited NewSouth’s upcoming release, which substitutes the word “slave” for that racist term.  In his introduction, Dr. Gribben offers a detailed and, to me, thoroughly convincing account of his own personal challenges as a teacher, throughout many years of discussing both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in group settings:

For nearly forty years [writes Dr. Gribben] I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck.  I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.

I’ve also taught Huckleberry Finn for many years, though not as many as Dr. Gribben, and always in the context of a college classroom.  I can relate to his sense of discomfort, particularly as a white teacher discussing a book that contains the word “nigger” on very nearly every page.

But however much we might wish the word away, however relieved we might be did we not have to deal with its presence in the book, however comforted we might be as teachers and students if we could ignore the fact that Huck Finn uses that word to refer even to the runaway slave Jim, whom he comes to love and who loves him back… the simple fact is that Huckleberry Finn is a book that is absolutely intended to make its readers uncomfortable, and any attempt to make it more palatable does significant damage to what Huckleberry Finn reveals to American readers about our own culture.

As Dr. Gribben points out, both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer frequently end up on “banned” or “unsuitable” lists in public school curricula.  This is, according to his introduction, the primary reason NewSouth is bringing out its new edition: to help bring both books to wider audiences by removing their most controversial elements. 

Tom Sawyer I have always found a harder book to defend in this regard than Huckleberry Finn, as it is primarily a generically formulaic “boy’s adventure” story—a well-plotted adventure story, but not one that raises much in the way of complicated or thought-provoking questions for the reader, on its own merits.  There is a serious tactical mistake, I think, inherent in publishing both books in one volume.  Because these are two very different, in fact radically different books. 

Tom Sawyer is a boy’s adventure—one told using racist language, but at its heart, a novel that follows the conventions of what’s come to be called “young adult literature.”  Huckleberry Finn is, most emphatically, not “young adult literature.”  Huckleberry Finn is a dark, disturbing, relentlessly uncomfortable dissection of a racism endemic though not peculiar to American history, on every page of which we are forced to acknowledge that Huck’s genuine personal respect and admiration for “Miss Watson’s runaway slave Jim” are not, finally, enough to make him fully comprehend how the pathology of cultural and institutional racism has poisoned his mind.  He begins that process, but he does not complete it.

Twain, as Gribben states, did originally intend Huck Finn as a sequel to Tom Sawyer.  But those plans were abandoned midway through the writing process, as Twain discovered that he could not write this story, in this voice, and tell that sort of innocuous, generically coherent story.

To take a small but telling example: When Huck Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer, he is depicted as the sort of kid that every young male child in town envied—he has no parents, no fixed home, runs around in old clothes that are little more than rags, smokes, talks dirty, and essentially does anything he pleases without fear of parental discipline: “In a word,” writes Twain’s omniscient narrator, “everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.” 

Feeling stifled by the solid values and comforts of their homes, churches, and schools, all the young boys in town including Tom Sawyer admire and envy Huck.  But readers understand the irony in the sentence above.  Huck is the very emblem of Poor White Trash, a filthy boy of low-class Irish heritage whose degenerate father is the town drunk.  His life is hard, unpleasant.  Readers understand that.  The kids don’t.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by contrast, is told in Huck’s own voice, and therefore with no opportunity for ironic or blindly romantic distancing of his life’s harshness.  In his own novel, Huck describes surviving by eating garbage, fakes his own death to avoid being killed by his own father (following a harrowing scene in which Huck is locked inside a remote cabin with Pap, who shrieks and raves for hours as he undergoes alcohol withdrawal, and on whom Huck holds a gun for self-protection even after he passes out), and at various points directly witnesses murder (including the murder of a child his own age), robbery, fraud, vicious mob justice, and larceny.  Huck is a hard kid.  But he inhabits a compensatorially vicious world.  And part of that viciousness inheres in the novel’s deployment of racist language.

[continued in next post]

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Bee-yotch? Moi?

This holiday season I rediscovered the Gibson.  Y’know what a Gibson is?  It’s gin.  Just gin.  Taken out of the freezer and poured into a martini glass.  Oh, wait, wait—there’s a cocktail onion in it.  But y’know what’s all around that cocktail onion?  Gin.  Cold gin.

You know that scene in Unbreakable where Bruce Willis is trying to figure out how much he can bench-press, and his kid loads him up with all the weight discs in the basement, and then they start trying to find other things to add, so that by the end of the scene he’s got paint cans and shit hanging from both ends of a fully-loaded weight bar?  That’s how we get all up on top of our potables over here at the Slagheap. 

I’m not talking about drinking copious amounts, mind you, though, well, ah heh-heh, it’s your birthday and all.  Rather, I’m talking about the seriousness with which we make a study and a plan of imbibing.  I’m talking about the science of the process, matching cocktails with moods or movies we’re watching (film noir gets whiskey or bourbon, while screwball comedies rate martinis, The Office or Community gets beer, etc.), laying out the gear and the accoutrements, making sure we have the proper ingredients, and so forth.  We’re not silly about it; we’re very mindful of our tolerance levels, and of the fact that 20+ years of tippling has resulted in the occasional strange behavior, like breaking into the first person plural voice when discussing our drinking habits.  But we digress.

The point I was making is that we drink responsibly.  Like, I’ll be responsible for drinking these here Gibsons, which are as close to Pure Unsullied Classic Cocktail as you can come.  I’ll not be having anything with “Bomb” or “Buttery” in the title, for the same reason I had to get a passport and register with Selective Service: Because I am a Grown Ass Man.

Now, here’s a funny story about drinking, and it also contains romance and compelling human dray-ma, so it’s got a little something for everyone.  Several months ago, two of my former students got be-wedded, and a bunch of folks I hadn’t seen in a while came in from out of town.  After the service and the reception, about a half dozen of us retired to one of Bucktown’s more, um, colorful social establishments, the K-Lounge, which in a previous incarnation was a movie theater.  It’s basically a dive, and it’s beat to hell inside and out, but it’s got, you know, character.  It’s dark, the drinks are cheap, and the clientele usually minds its own business.  (Note that “usually.”  It’ll be important later.)

So we all roll up into the K-Lounge, me and a few other people, including Miss L. and Miss B., who are in from out of town.  Miss L. teaches now, and Miss B. is a graduate student, and both are bright, funny, whip-smart persons, exactly the sort of people you’d like to pass time with down the ol’ pub.

The K-Lounge has two U-shaped bars.  We sit down at the one nearest the front door, at the lower right corner, so we can sort of look each other in the face.  On the long side of the U facing us sit two young-ish gennlemens, maybe mid- to late-twenties.  Let’s call them Ball Cap and Porn ‘Stache, for, like, absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Both Ball Cap and Porn ‘Stache are deep into their cups.  And because they keep calling for more of them, we know what they’re drinking.  Ready?  Tuaca Bombs.

Tuaca is a vanilla-citrus concoction, the kind of sad, cloying, sickly, pointless liqueur that always ends up in shots bought for you by people who learned to drink fifteen minutes ago, and who don’t realize that the whole point of cocktail hour is to lubricate the conversation of damn grownups, not to stand around getting adult-onset diabetes from slugging back Kool-Aid-flavored drinkiepoos that would look more natural sloshing around sippy cups than highball glasses, thereIsaidit.

Ball Cap and Porn ‘Stache are the only other people in the joint.  And as we’re sitting more or less across from them, they start interacting with the women in our group every now and then, in and among ordering more Tuaca Bombs.

(Oh, sorry: A “Tuaca Bomb” is a shot of Tuaca and half a can of Red Bull over ice.  I can’t imagine a more shameful thing for two adult men to be drinking in public.  If that were my preferred tipple, I’d drink those only at home, with the shades pulled, and all the lights out.  In the basement.  Inside the dryer, if I could fit comfortably.)

Both Ball Cap and Porn ‘Stache are visibly drunk.  But Ball Cap has embarked on a state of inebriation for which the word “drunk” is insufficient.  He is oiled.  He is polluted.  He is shnockered, three-sheets, ‘faced, stymied, sideways, bound for glory, pickled, arse-over-teakettle.  He has reached that state of soused wherein the weight of his eyelashes is throwing his balance off and causing his head to wobble when he attempts to look around the room.  He is, in the parlance of the misspelled text message once sent to me by a friend on New Year’s, “DRUMK.”

So naturally, he begins flirting with Miss L.

Ball Cap compliments Miss L. on her hurr, which is all did up for the wedding.  He tries to get her to have a shot with him.  He rises unsteadily, like a wounded bear, from his position on the far side of the bar, lurches ‘round to where we’re sitting, and puts his arm around her.  He tries to buy her a drink again.  He compliments her on the way she smells, which, according to him, is “purdy.”  Again, he tries to get her to take a shot with him.  He tries to get her to dance with him.  He orders her a drink, despite being told by everybody including the bartender that Miss L. doesn’t want one.

Miss L. is taking it all with enormous grace, it must be said, thanking Ball Cap for the various offers, but no, thank you.  However, he is standing between Miss L. and Miss B., bumping into Miss B. on occasion, and Miss B. is having none of it.  (At one point early in this sad process, he lightly knocked Miss B.’s glass with some sort of careless flailing gesture, and she said, “Whoa, take it easy there, Whitesnake,” and maybe you had to be there, but it was kind of hilarious.)

Miss B. asks him nicely to calm his drunk ass down and be careful where he puts his hands.  You will never believe me when I tell you this, but Ball Cap takes her calm reprove as a personal slur. 

So now he’s standing between Miss B. and Miss L., flirting with Miss B. on his right, and occasionally disparaging Miss L. on his left: “Why can’t you be nice?  Your friend’s nice.  you oughta be [hiccup] nice like your [burp] friend.  Your friend’s purdy.”  And much, much more in the same vein.

Pause.  I can be an angry fellow.  Lots of things put me in urge-to-kill-rising state.  Mostly those triggers are related to unsolicited rudeness, intentional cruelty, or that peculiar combination of abysmal ignorance and cocky self-assuredness that afflicts the terminally stupid.  I can get angry about that stuff. 

But I have the sense that I have never felt one-one-billionth of the teeth-clattering whiteout rage I would feel on a semi-weekly basis were I a woman.  If I had to endure the standard-issue anger that results from being an aware person on planet Earth in the 21st century, and on top of that I also had to endure the bullshit foisted upon me by guys like Ball Cap at random intervals, I’d walk around with the urge to karate-chop a motherfucker in the larynx just barely held in check by the social contract.  Maybe I’m wrong.  But if I ever have a daughter, the first words she’s going to learn after “mommy” and “daddy” are “You looking to lose your nuts?”

Ball Cap’s disparaging of Miss B. is getting cruder and cruder, and eventually it culminates in some variation of “You don’t have to be a bitch,” or “Why are you being a bitch?” or “You’re a bitch,” or anyway “bitch” was in there somewhere.

Now, I’m not looking for a fight here.  I just want to get this brain-dead mook off my friend.  So I say, but laughing good-naturedly, “All right, that’s enough of that shit.”

Here’s the other part of the story you will never believe: He takes my statement as an insult to his manhood, and he begins yammering at me over top of Miss B.’s head. 

You can imagine the dialogue yourself: “Why you laughing, what’s so funny, motherfucker, huh, you think yer tough, you wanna come outside, we’ll see how fuckin’ tough you are, you ain’t saying nothin’ now, are ya,” and blip blap blurp, all this delivered at top volume while he’s trying to give me the Thousand Yard Stare, only his vision isn’t quite tracking, so he ends up giving the stink-eye to a point in space three inches up and away from my left shoulder. 

You see what happened, right?  Poor guy.  All he wanted to do was compliment a girl on her purdy hair and smell, and now his balls are on the line.

Strangely, across the bar, Porn ‘Stache is staring blissfully at the television while all this goes on, making no move to calm or support his buddy, which strikes me as a very odd way to pal around with a guy.

I’m not by any means what could be called a nonviolent person, but it’s been years since I threw a punch, and I’m not looking to do so again.  I prefer to handle conflict with mild rapier wit.  But Ball Cap has long since passed the point of receptiveness to my particular variety of dry, Algonquin-Round-Table-style humor.

So I sit there, not engaging, and I meditate upon what I know, from years of being a man and observing men gittin’ all up in each other’s grilles, a-huffin’ and a-puffin’ and on fahr with testosterone poisoning, is about to go down.  And it’s a lesson I share here with all and sundry.  Maybe you’ll never need to know this, but if you ever find yourself the target of drink-riddled macho blowhards, remember these things and you’ll be set.

Sit quietly.  Say nothing.  Do nothing to escalate the proceedings.  If possible, do not make direct eye contact, but watch him out of the corner of your eye and note his body position.  One of three things is going to happen:

1.  He’s going to shout himself out of his worked-up state, and remove himself from your face of his own volition.  This is, frankly, not likely to happen.  He’s made a stand now, and walking away would make him look weak.

2.  His brahs are going to come and grab him and lead him away.  This is the most likely scenario.  This will allow him to save face, and to tell himself and others later that the only reason he didn’t destroy you was because his brahs held him back, and that was lucky, ‘cause he woulda killed you, and you were shakin’ in your boots, etc., etc.

3.  He’s actually going to work himself up into throwing a punch.  This is the worst case scenario, but pay attention now.  Here’s the deal.

If he does throw a punch, he’s going to have to work himself up into doing it, because you sat there emanating Zenlike calm while he pitched a bitch like a rhesus monkey shot full of lab-quality crank.  This is why you take note of his body position.  If you see him change his stance, or pull a shoulder back, or ball up his fist, you get loose, and watch for the swing.

If he swings, you move your head away.  The object is to duck his swing entirely, or to shift your position so the blow doesn’t connect directly, but glances off.

Now, in the seconds following the punch, his center of gravity will be off.  His upper body will be thrown up and forward from the follow-through.

And while he’s off balance, you climb on top of that little monkey and pound him until he hits the floor.  Because when the cops show up, you want everybody in the bar to point at you and say, “He didn’t do anything until that guy [indicating the pile of teeth, hair, and fingernails being swept into the dustpan by the bartender] swung on him.”

Now, back to the story.

Surprise twist ending!: As it turned out, on this occasion I was wrong, and a fourth, unexpected thing happened.  Not Porn ‘Stache, but rather the bartender, a fantastic woman about five feet tall with side-ponytail (holla 1989!) and a mouth like a sailor, came barreling around the bar after about two minutes of this clucking and bluster, and laid into Ball Cap comprehensively, jabbing her finger in his chest to emphasize key words, and backing his ass all the way up to the door:

“YOU’RE being an ASSHOLE, and these people didn’t do ANYTHING to you, and YOU were harassing HER, and HE tried to ask you to STOP, and I want your ass OUT of this bar NOW!!!”

And then came the great payoff: Ball Cap blubbers, “I’m sorry, Sheila, I luhve you!”

And Sheila the bartender yells, “I love you TOO, but you’re bein’ a DICK!  Now GET OUT!”

As Porn ‘Stache came silently around the bar to lead Ball Cap back to wherever he calls home, Ball Cap yelled back at me, “I’ll be waitin’ outside, motherfucker!”  (p.s.: He wasn’t.)

The wedding party stayed the rest of the night, drinking responsibly.  And tipping generously.

Posted in cocktail hour, manly men doin' manly thangs, O Bucktown! | 4 Comments