Personal Experience Effect

No matter the effort to avoid it, personal experience—from the drama of relatives to political shenanigans—creeps into every writer’s work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The Confederate flag hoopla and the fight for and against the rights of people of color, women, and homosexuals are examples of issues that have proved provocative, disruptive, even destructive in interpersonal relationships and a godsend for the political powers who use division as a control device. Buying into the propaganda of political and media organizations, we make extreme decisions that affect our interpersonal relationships for the rest of our lives. When those decisions involve a writer, you can bet the effects will be reflected in the writer’s work.

Politics is naturally contentious, each generation viewing its own political tomfoolery as more contentious than what came before. Since the advent of 24/7 “news” channels, whose primary purpose is not to report news, but to stoke fear, frustration, hatred, and anger, politics has been exploited fully as a tool to divide and punish rather than to find compromise and serve the common good. I’m not so naïve to believe this use of politics is something new, but its in-your-face nature has strengthened exponentially in recent decades, thanks to technology. We’re assaulted relentlessly through our televisions and radios, computers, smartphones, tablets—umbilically connected to designer “news” sites that feed our prejudice and fear to the point we lose grip on reality and rationality and strike out at all who differ in opinion, worldview, gender, sexuality, religion, lifestyle, or race.

I grew up in South Alabama and Northwest Florida during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The region wasn’t then nor has it become one of the most tolerant of diversity. Flaming midnight crosses lit up country pastures. Robed, hooded figures gathered like kids at a mega weenie roast, singing angry, hateful campfire songs about folks born of different race or religion, preaching the end of the world was nigh if lesser races acquired the same rights whites already enjoyed. Oh, save us, Jesus! It’s Armageddon! Color me silly, but I don’t think Jesus the Jew would be welcomed at such an event.

A close relative was then and remains a man of the white robe, flames flickering in his eyes, despite his interaction over the decades with a variety of people of color and cultures, thanks to his public sales business. He has never felt a need or desire to question the region’s prevalent stereotypes and fears of people who’re different, to overcome the hatred, to grow. Why, I don’t know. To my knowledge, he’s never suffered physically, financially, or mentally due to malicious acts by any person of color. And he certainly hasn’t lost his rights to groups or individuals gaining their own. He has, however, been a willing, unquestioning consumer of the Wallace/Thurmond/Trump/Helms/Cruz/Santorum/Fox/et.al. stream of fear and hate mongering, never once seeking objective verification to even the most extraordinary claim, never once attempting to understand any issue through a viewpoint other than his own bigotry.

During a phone conversation four years ago, I voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled, “you like what that communist nigger’s done.” I wasn’t shocked by his response. We’d debated his use of such small-minded epithets on numerous occasions, especially this particular word which he uses not only in reference to anyone black, but also to persons of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and other cultural and racial backgrounds. I suspect he used the word this time simply to anger me as he began a litany of irrational charges against President Obama, that the President had “ruined” the economy, that he’s Muslim, that he’s waging war against Christians, that he’s not even American—all the batty, right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories that even reality can’t counter in the true believer’s mind. Then he asserted that the U.S. should have never pulled out of Iraq, that Obama had secured the destruction of America by doing so.

“We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place,” I said.

He took a breath. “That’s something we agree on,” he said. “We should’ve nuked the hell out of them because them A-rabs ain’t even human.”

That was it.

We were done.

After a lifetime of shared, reluctant tolerance, our relationship had abruptly come to an end.

Earlier this week, my spouse received an email from one of her relatives, an email purporting that the factual histories of the Civil War and Rebel battle flag are instead myth, that the war had little to do with slavery, that the flag is a symbol of only southern heritage, not racism. The sender did not copy me on the mail, perhaps because she understands my view of such bigotry and did not want to risk rebuttal. When my spouse replied to the mail, she copied all to whom the original had been sent, and she copied me as well, addressing the original mail as though her relative had offered it as an example of how gullible people are when something supports their bigoted worldview:

“People will believe anything rather than admitting that it’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and we still have racism. How sad and disappointing. As a nation we have made progress, but we still have far to go.”

A day later, the following landed in my mailbox, thanks to my spouse’s relative who hit “reply to all.” It’s presented unaltered:

“No one living today is a slave or has owned a slave, am I wrong in not liking group of people who have different views of life than I do? I have always been told ‘your rights end when they intruded on mine’ how much longer do we as Americans need to bend over and take it up the as…before these people realize they need to start to take care of themselves? This crap has been going on for years. The American public has, in my opinion done way too much to make amends for what has happened in the past and they still want more, work for it like the rest of us have done and quit asking for a hand out.”

It would have been wise not to reply to the rant, but I’m not a wise man. I thought that, by engaging the writer in a rational, fact-based discussion, he might look beyond the hyperbole of pundits, might change his mind. So I responded, copying all on the list:

“Thanks for your entertaining mail. If you would like to engage in a rational debate on specific issues, backing your points with objective, valid sources (not political organizations such as Fox News or DailyKos), I’d be happy to debate you. However, specifics are required. For example, instead of generalizations such as ‘these people,’ define whether they are black, of Mexican descent like yourself, Jewish, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Asian, etc., since the average southern white lumps all races of color into the same lesser-than category. Another example would be ‘handouts’ and the group to which the so-called handout is provided–social security, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, etc.–and how it affects you and how or why it is right or wrong. Back your argument with objective sources. Another example is ‘your rights end when they intrude on mine.’ Be specific. For example, do you mean you have the right to fly a Nazi flag on your property, but you don’t have the right to demand government or public entities to fly the flag on their buildings or property since that property represents all people? Or I have the right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster but not to force you to say my prayers in school?

“You get the idea.

“If you and the others in this mail exchange do not desire a rational debate but would prefer to vent anger and frustration over issues based on the ‘factual’ nonsense regarding the Confederate flag that began this exchange, I prefer to be left out of the loop.\

“Take care…”

A few moments later: “Fuck you.”

My response: “Okay.”

Then: “Just forget my email address and I don’t ever want to see you or any of your family again. Chris you are a looser.”

“For future reference,” I replied, “it’s ‘loser,’ not ‘looser.’”

When we refuse to engage in rational discussion, when we set our minds so rigidly based on irrational hatred and fear, when we refuse to consider another point of view unless it agrees with our own, when we refuse to grow, all of us are losers.

From fiction to poetry, creative nonfiction to straight reporting, personal experience colors my work in some way. One example of experience influencing my nonfiction work began with intervention in three on-the-street domestic violence incidents in Hawaii in the early1980s, which led to an article for Honolulu Magazine on the state’s problem of domestic violence, what police termed “local love.” The article helped in a small way to push a mandatory arrest bill through the state legislature to become law, requiring police to arrest aggressors when responding to domestic violence calls. In fiction and poetry, the above relatives, as well as others, have provided models for characters in stories such as “Side-Road Shack” and “Luau,” the novel Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, and in many of the poems in White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.

We writers are grateful to the relatives who manufacture drama, the politicians who stir the pot of fear and hatred, the citizens in our communities who fuel suspicion and discontent. By simply being who they are, these people prove an ironic benefit to writers. We thank them for helping us to explore the irrational, the hateful, the destructive through the characters they inspire. If, by chance, our work benefits the reader or society at large in any measure, we owe them that much more gratitude.

Yes, we’re deeply indebted to them.

I wish we weren’t.

Character viewpoint based on “traditional values”

Understanding a particular point of view—experiences, histories, prejudices—well enough to create believable, three-dimensional, real characters is one of the greatest challenges in writing fiction. Problems arise when a character’s worldview drastically differs from or is in opposition to the writer’s. For me, the most challenging viewpoints are those based on “traditional values” that excuse characters from questioning their actions or personal beliefs. The characters, instead, cling to ignorance and prejudice, no matter who they hurt. In the short story “Contrition,” for example, an aging WWII Japanese veteran refuses to renounce the “traditional value” of racial/ethnic superiority that has led him during the war to torture, maim, and murder. In another story called “Responsibility,” an old man resides in a retirement medical facility, unable to die, miserable in senescent seclusion due to “traditional values” that have caused him to disown his gay son, an act that has driven the boy to suicide.

In the early-to-mid-1960s, southern schools were finally forced by law to integrate racially. It was a volatile time, with opposing sides vehemently asserting their points of view, destroying friendships and family ties, with violence always a breath away. Returning home one summer night before mandated integration, my father, mother, and I came upon a rural traffic jam just south of Montgomery, Alabama. My father pulled into the drive of a gas station bordering a field where hundreds of people surrounded a stage, the night ablaze with a giant flaming cross. My parents left me in the car as they joined the crowd in its hateful hysteria, fired by the litany of racial epithets streaming from onstage speakers.

Shortly before I entered fourth grade that fall, my father warned me not to talk to or associate with any African American students. But when I met those students, I began to question the traditional values I was being taught, values that enabled such hatred in the people I knew, values that were supposedly sacred but based only on personal religious beliefs and social prejudices. Other groups, I soon discovered, had their own traditional values. Every country. Every region. Every culture. Every ethnicity. Every race. Every religion. Every denomination within a religion. Traditional. Hallowed. Superior.

A local newspaper recently ran an article with the headline, “County Residents Reaffirm Traditional Values.” The story extolled local support of a corporate CEO’s decision to funnel company funds to anti-homosexual initiatives and organizations. Campaigns to deny rights to various groups is nothing new. Every year, every decade, every century has its societal targets, from Jews to Palestinians to women to Native Americans to African Americans to immigrants to homosexuals, and on and on. And everyone—from company CEOs to performers like Ry Cooder, with his Election Special CD, to average persons concerned enough to pay attention—everyone has the right to support any particular political or social initiative, just as everyone has the right to oppose those initiatives by boycotting the businesses or individuals who support them.

Only recently has it become acceptable and legal in most parts of the country for interracial couples to marry, a move that still irks the preachers of the traditional values I endured as a child. As acceptance of interracial marriage has spread, the values bandwagon has turned toward gay couples. The torchbearers of traditional values who once railed against interracial marriage now rail against same-gender marriage, justifying arguments on selective passages and interpretations of whatever holy book they believe in, as though their religion, their beliefs, their values are superior to all others and should rule everyone.

As a child, I listened to elders discuss “better” times when African Americans “knew their place” in society. They lamented the passing of days when even lynching was justified by the traditional values of good, God fearing folks. Today, that same kind of hatred continues to thrive, targeting various groups, from homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, and different Christian denominations, to immigrants and, increasingly, women. The rants are consistent and vitriolic, filling the airwaves 24/7, inciting action among the lunatic fringe of political pawns, action that results in assassination attempts, buildings bombed, planes flown into IRS offices, treasonous plots among radical military members, and so much more. Those values can even translate into acts of law that prohibit basic rights of targeted groups, from denial of healthcare or marriage to the return of Jim Crow initiatives.

One of the most striking and disappointing aspects of traditional values is the corruption of religious belief—the same technique used to vindicate everything from slavery, genocide, and separation of races, to attacks on members of other faiths such as Muslims by Christians and Christians by Muslims, laws that ban interracial and homosexual marriage, and forced submission of women—to name only a few. Many maintain that if everyone were governed by some supposedly god-ordained list of rules such as the Christian ten commandments or the Muslim religion’s equivalent list, then all would be fine. But do we truly understand exactly what we’re promoting?

The Christian commandments are pretty self-explanatory. Shout at your mother, argue with your father, commit murder, create “graven images” such as an artist’s rendering of Jesus or Yahweh, work on the Sabbath, utter “oh my god,” divorce, wish you had someone else’s car or money or whatever, have an affair, lie, steal—all these acts are strictly forbidden. What most promoters of commandment adherence do not mention is the punishment prescribed for violation—for good reason. It ranges from genocide for violating the graven images commandment to death for goofing on most of the others. (For a more comprehensive list of punishments of specific commandments, please refer to http://www.evilbible.com/ten_commandments.htm.)

Based on our personal values, we believe we can dictate what’s best for everyone else until we’re affected directly by one of those things we’ve previously opposed. For example, Dick Cheney opposed gay marriage until his gay daughter announced her intention to marry her partner. James Brady opposed laws limiting gun use until he was shot during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. But some of us don’t change even when we excuse ourselves from adhering to the same values we’d force others to live by. Author Ayn Rand vehemently opposed programs such as social security, yet reaped their benefits even as she campaigned to outlaw them. Politician Rick Santorum and his wife Karen made the heart-wrenching decision to have a second-trimester abortion to end a pregnancy that threatened Karen’s health. Yet the couple continue to advocate for passage of draconian laws that would deny other women and families the same right they exercised.

Politics is one of the cruelest monsters to cloak itself in traditional values. To vote responsibly and humanely for the common good, it is critical to consult a variety of sources that present not only supporting and opposing viewpoints, but also unbiased accounts, facts unaltered by vested interests. Anyone desiring to be informed cannot rely on accounts from one broadcast network or newspaper to understand events, especially if that paper or network is a political tool, as many of today’s media are. I recently engaged in a political argument with a relative who employs his chosen party’s platform and a strictly personal interpretation of biblical texts to justify a racist, homophobic, misogynistic agenda. Certainly, he is entitled to his opinions, but he is not entitled to exert those opinions on others by forcing them to live as he would have them live. Our debate ended in a shouting match as we failed to respect one another as individuals, damaging the relationship beyond repair.

Because of that argument, however, I realized that my viewpoint is based on certain values that I’ve made “traditional” to myself, affording me better understanding of why characters I create, such as those in “Responsibility” and “Contrition,” choose such disparate paths. In “Responsibility,” the old man finally reassesses his values and their effects on others, and accepts responsibility for the rejection of his son that led to the young man’s suicide. In “Contrition,” on the other hand, the Japanese veteran refuses to abandon his traditional values, clinging blindly to his prejudice, rejecting responsibility for the evil he’s perpetrated, condemning himself to an eternity of suffering in arrogant ignorance.

The good thing about the characters in my stories is that they’re fictional. They usually reap the benefits or punishments of their personal karma. Some even come to understand and adopt the one “golden” value traditional to most religions and cultures: Treat others as you would have them treat you. In other words, live and let live.

Life, however, isn’t fiction. And live and let live is sadly the biggest fantasy of all.

Critically Speaking

Recent heinous acts by extremists, motivated by intense critical rhetoric, have set the media abuzz, with pundits defending and condemning critics for denying responsibility for their words. Critics have come a long way, applying their observations to every facet of private and public life with strident rhetoric that has elevated them to a level of prominence and power never before possessed. American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken warned long ago that “Criticism is prejudice made plausible,” something that every writer with work to come under a critic’s damning gaze had already realized by the time of Mencken’s observation. “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics,” English playwright John Osborne confessed, “is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.”

Plato may be the one responsible for infecting society with criticism as a profession when he condemned poets and poetry in his work The Republic. Aristotle didn’t help matters with his critical counter response in Poetics. He, instead, ensured someone would write a counter-counter-response, which ensured a counter-counter-counter-response, which ensured a—well, you get the idea—until a good number of complainers figured out that, by condemning or praising someone else’s work, they could make a buck. Critics have since gnawed their way through the arts to infiltrate every aspect of life with the blather of critical analysis and condemnation twenty-four/seven.

Lucky us.

Critical analysis, whether the topic is literary, musical, political, social, or whatever, is made through and delivered from a specific person’s worldview of reality, just as this essay is written from my own personal and quite prejudiced viewpoint. The problem arises when the critic expects or, increasingly, demands that the audience accept critical analysis without question or examination, to see and judge the subject of the analysis through only the critic’s narrow viewpoint.

My book Divorced Dads: Real Stories of Facing the Challenge explored how divorced fathers in uncommon and extreme circumstances maintained close and positive relationships with their children, offering pointers and solid, productive advice to fathers in less extreme situations. The point, as detailed in the book’s foreword, was to provide perspective for divorced fathers and examples of fathers who, in uncommon challenging circumstances, maintained healthy relationships with their children, no matter the forces working against them. The intent escaped one critic who called the book the best gift a vindictive divorced woman could present to her ex-husband if she wanted to finish him off emotionally. The critic was certainly entitled to his opinion and to his inability to comprehend the book’s message, even when stated outright, but was he entitled to inflict his views on others, to mislead and prevent some fathers from improving their situation by learning from the fathers detailed in the book? Yes, he was. It wasn’t his responsibility to be honest or fair. It was the reader’s responsibility to think independently.

An extraordinary genre magazine debuted last year, featuring some up-and-coming authors whose stories proved extraordinary. Every critic reviewing the magazine admitted as much, but each felt compelled to point out something “wrong” with the magazine and/or the stories, no matter how far-reaching. While one admitted that the technique of flashback worked extremely well for a particular story, he didn’t like the technique personally and, thus, concluded the story suffered because of that. Another suggested that the premises for most of the stories were thin, sacrificed for the sake of plot and characterization. Perhaps the critic thought the same about classics that employed such thin premises as persons physically transformed into wolves by a full moon, or the presence of gravity on starships zipping through a weightless void, or impressive kabooms when death stars explode in the vacuum of space, or some alien monster uncovered after centuries under arctic ice, able to change its cell structure to match its dinner, or maybe some mad scientist whose potion turns him into Piltdown Man. Thin premises, it appears, result in extraordinarily entertaining stories, critical analyses notwithstanding.

Critics today have surpassed the danger level with their analyses, threatening to lose any ability to provide unbiased or sound guidance about their subject. The majority of today’s critics cheat, fool, berate, and belittle listeners and readers into believing and thinking as they tell us to, suggesting and even convincing us that their views, sound or warped, are our own views. We forget we have choice. We forget we have voice. We forget we are individuals.

Remember the 1976 movie Network? It accurately predicted the demise of journalism, particularly television journalism, into a clown act of entertainment, audacity, and critical extremism. Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beale, the veteran journalist who became the movie’s messiah of broadcast news, upon realization of the social harm being perpetrated by the new “news media,” urges his huge TV audience to go to their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And he tells them to turn off TV, to turn him off, to think for themselves.

It’s time we listened to Howard Beale, even if he is a fictional character. We all benefit by turning off the critic—TV, radio, print, internet. Eliminating the relentless palaver of negativity can decrease the acts inspired by insipid and vitriolic critical rhetoric. By using our own intellect, we can better choose our entertainment, our politicians, our brand of body lotion, our cars, our futures. We can contemplate, comprehend, and decide on our own once again, defining likes and dislikes based on our personal and individual realities and worldviews, not the views of others.

At the same time, we must put the challenge to critics to tone down their rhetoric, to approach subjects calmly, rationally, to take the same advice as Thumper took in the 1942 movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Or, at the very least, be constructive and respectful.

Enough said.