To Hell with Common Sense

On April 27, 2011, Alabama suffered the most severe outbreak of tornadoes in recorded U.S. history. Dozens of tornadoes snapped trees, destroyed homes and businesses, and injured and killed people across the region. By the storm system’s third wave, the electrical infrastructure could take no more, and power winked out across much of north Alabama, including the whole of Madison County which is served solely by the Tennessee Valley Authority. All primary feed-lines had been destroyed, and officials speculated that restoration of electrical service would require several days. Water service continued, but in a reduced capacity because some treatment plants had been knocked off-line.

Authorities urged residents who suffered little or no damage, injury, or death of a loved one to remain calm, to stay home and exercise common sense so emergency services could better serve those severely affected by the storms. On April 28, voyeuristic and frantic — some callers to local radio ominously claiming the arrival of Armageddon — people hit the highways, speeding through major intersections, even though by law light-controlled intersections become all-way stops during power failures. Emergency services were suddenly sidetracked to help those foolishly in auto accidents caused by failure to think.

The national news media arrived on day two to broadcast and publish their standard “place-location/disaster-here” stories with the stereotypical “battlefield” and “war zone” analogies and interviews with individuals thanking God for sparing them while spanking the hell out of everyone else. Not one star reporter asked, “Why did God choose to spare you?” or “Why did God wreak such destruction and take the lives of others in the first place?” Reporting straight, informative news based on interviews with authorities is obviously not as entertaining as pieces choking with the blather of those claiming special connections to God.

By day two, folks had calmed somewhat, and many had begun to heed laws governing such things as intersections. The increased presence of police certainly had bearing on their new attentiveness. As for the police, when they weren’t enforcing traffic laws or the dusk-to-dawn curfew, they were responding to increased domestic disturbance calls because, if many of us enjoy anything, it’s being with our families during long periods of high stress. Perhaps that joy explains the dimwit who decided to fire his weapon twice in this urban neighborhood. Certainly he hadn’t been reduced to hunting squirrels for survival, not with a grocer operating on emergency generators only a half-mile away, but you never know.

Those of us lucky to be uninjured but sustaining damage and downed trees began to clean up. The media, running another of their stock plug-in-name stories, highlighted the “volunteerism” and “cooperative efforts” of those affected most by the storm. And, yes, a minority of good people, for nothing more than the personal satisfaction of helping fellow human beings, did volunteer and are continuing their efforts. It’s the same in every disaster: the media-highlighted minority of selfless volunteers; a second group who offer services for personal benefit, whether money or goods; a third, larger group who take care of themselves, neither asking for nor offering help to others; and finally a second minority who claim need even though they’ve suffered no loss. As my grandfather used to say, “it takes all kinds.”

As the power outage stretched into the fourth day, the number of food poisoning cases rose, causing authorities to advise residents to discard all foods from refrigerators, that it was no longer safe to eat, no matter how long cooked. Meanwhile, local home improvement stores, operating on backup systems, brought in hundreds of portable generators. Sales and use skyrocketed, and so did the number of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, forcing officials during the daily press conferences to plead with residents to exercise a smidgen of common sense when operating the gas-powered generators. Officials implored residents to read all instructions, to operate generators in well-ventilated areas, not inside their homes or garages or under open house windows. Some generators had even exploded because owners had run them continuously, never checking oil which eventually ran dry. Some acts of brilliance simply speak for themselves.

Officials continued to emphasize daily the need to conserve water due to decreased capacity of online water treatment plants. “Don’t wash your car. Don’t water your lawns,” the water department spokesman advised. On the fourth day, one homeowner in this neighborhood washed out his rain gutters. Another guy washed his car. I asked the second fellow whether he’d heard the news conferences. He hadn’t, so I informed him of the request to conserve water. That, he said, didn’t apply to our neighborhood because the offline plants were in the southeast part of the county, and we were in the northwest. His car sparkled.

Sunny, mild weather dominated the first few days following the storms, with highs comfortably in the mid-70sF. As TVA restored power neighborhood by neighborhood, officials requested residents to reduce normal electrical use so the fragile replacement lines wouldn’t buckle under the burden of high demand. The obvious and most easily accomplished point of conservation was air-conditioning. When power returned to our neighborhood on the fifth day, three out of every five air-conditioners hummed. One couple sat on their porch, waving and chirping to passers-by about all the hardships they’d faced without power while the inside of their house cooled down to whatever temperature they normally enjoyed. The next day, rain returned, and the temperature dropped to an unseasonable mid-50sF high. Some who’d been air-conditioning their home the day before conserved now by switching to heating.

By day seven, TVA had restored power to most of the county by rerouting electricity through secondary lines. All water processing plants were back online, inspiring the water department representative to declare that residents no longer needed to conserve, even as TVA officials warned that, without power conservation, outages would lie ahead as primary power routes remain down and power use increases during summer. But who cares? We’ve got water and power now, and that’s all that counts.

Common sense may once have been common, but no longer. It’s one of those myths like “community cooperation” and “God watched over me while letting others die.” It’s something we like to believe in, something we use to convince ourselves that we’re smarter, more charitable, more special, that we really care for one another. But we live in a greedy, narcissistic society, exacerbated by such silliness called social networks and reality TV in which most of our lives are neither social nor real. The pending doom of our planet through human-induced global warming, starvation, natural disaster, war, terrorism, genocide, antibiotic-immune bugs, and more requires little or no thought and certainly no preventative action from us individuals as long as we have what we want. If we don’t have it, we’ll secure it by any method possible, to hell with common sense.

As for our children and their children, friend, they are the future. And the future is their problem as long as we’ve got ours.

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.

“I’ll be Fine”: Empathy through Experience

The cashier’s eyes widen as a faint, embarrassed smile blossoms. Even though she won’t ask the obvious question, she can’t stop looking. Outside, the guy passing us on the sidewalk rubbernecks for a full view. And the two women in the minivan in the lane by the walk are simultaneously so disgusted and relieved, it’s comical. Angered, my teenage daughter threatens to educate these people on the social impoliteness of staring.

In my dark fantasy story, “Eyes of a Child,” a father effectively imprisons his physically deformed daughter to spare her negative public reaction and saccharine sympathy. As a father, I understood during the writing the character’s desire to protect his child, albeit misguided, but I could not genuinely empathize with the daughter because I’d never experienced a “disability” and the public reaction to it. Then, a few days ago, I had a bicycle accident.

I’ve been riding the same bike/pedestrian course for months, day after day. Usually, extraordinary evens are limited to one or two auto drivers who fail to yield for pedestrian/bike crossings. One part of the route descends a shallow hill with a curve at the bottom. I’ve had no problem with it in the past. But heavy rain had fallen overnight, spreading a thin layer of clay mud across the asphalt path, mud that I saw too late. The bicycle slued from under me into grass and mud beside the path, and I hit the asphalt path that took chunks of flesh from my knuckles, arms and elbows, and a wide swath from below my left knee. My head and face hit first. The impact destroyed my helmet, but it protected my skull. My nose, left cheek, and chin didn’t fare as well, slamming into the asphalt and scraping across before I began to roll.

Though aching and bloody, the wounds on my hands, arms, and legs were no worse than any I’d suffered before, only more in number than usual. My face also burned, but I had no way of examining it, so I knocked mud off the bike, mounted, and cycled the four miles home, noting a few stares along the way, chalking them up to my bloody-leg, muddy appearance. Back home, a mirror revealed why my face burned and why people had been staring. The impact had scraped the skin off my left cheek, across my nose, above my upper lip, and off my chin. My left eye was bruised and puffy, and my cheek and chin had begun to swell. I showered, cleaned the wounds, and bandaged those that could be covered, but those on my face could not be bandaged effectively.

Injured or not, I still had work to do. My first stop was to drop a package for shipment. The clerk’s initial look of fear as I came up to the counter nearly made me laugh. “A bike accident,” I said. She nodded eagerly, relief flooding her face. “Oh, I’ve had that happen, too. Just keep it clean, and you’ll be fine.” Yes, I’d be fine, but what about people like the daughter in my story, people with permanent disabilities, people who will never be fine in the public view?

The subject of disabilities is saturated with ignorance and media misrepresentation. In movies and literature, blindness is often equated with stupidity, disability with inability, deformity with evil. A recent Louis Harris poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are embarrassed and uncomfortable around people with disabilities, and almost half are actually afraid of people with disabilities. In “Eyes of a Child,” the father fears public disgust and feigned sympathy so much that he never allows his daughter out of the house. If I were writing the story today, I would better empathize with the girl’s character and more deeply understand the father’s love for his daughter and his fear and loathing of the public.

My injuries will heal and leave only the slightest of scars on my cheek and chin. They have not provided me with complete understanding of the social challenges faced by persons with disabilities, but the reactions of others to my appearance have provided me with a glimpse of the daily battle. In the past couple of days, I’ve considered wearing a cap and keeping my head bowed to spare others the sight of my hamburger patty face, but, more, to spare me of their reactions. But I won’t. We all can learn something important without the cap.

Back at the store, my daughter and I cross the lane to our car, get in. Another car pulls into the space facing us. The guy behind the wheel narrows his eyes at me until he realizes I’m glaring directly back at him. He fumbles with the door, gets out, and hurries into the store. I glance over at my daughter, and we laugh. The guy doesn’t know I’ll be fine.

***

Another perspective…
by Dick Claassen

The owner of this blog, Chris Fuqua, is a good friend of mine. He recently had a bike accident and told me he really bunged up his face. As proof, he sent me a frontal photo of his face a couple of days after the accident so I would get the full impact of the damage. Ouch! Chris could walk onto the set of an action flick and wouldn’t even have to go through makeup!

Chris commented that when he appeared in public with his temporarily wounded face, his appearance drew many stares. So many stares that it made him uncomfortable. He told me he didn’t even want to appear in public until his face was healed. I was amazed by this rude behavior of strangers. I mean, this is 2010, for crying out loud. Aren’t we supposed to be enlightened by now? But as I thought about Chris’s experience, I hearkened back to the experiences of my own life when I was a kid. I’m 69, and when I was five, I contracted Polio. This would be in 1946. (Yeah, I know, loooong time ago.) People were truly ignorant back then. Polio randomly attacks and paralyzes different limbs, and all too often those of us who are hit by it end up with not only weak limbs, but muscles that won’t keep the feet up, giving the Polio survivor a peculiar slapping walk. This was me. So people stared at me when I walked. I hated to move in a group of strangers, because my funky walk was sure to draw stares.

I put up with this ignorant nonsense until I was a young adult, and I’ve gotta tell ya, that can do some serious damage to your self confidence. But then something peculiar happened: Sesame Street. Sesame Street? Yup. That program was all about tolerance. Preaching tolerance was its reason for being. We saw kids of different races as a matter of course on that show. We also saw kids in wheelchairs. And most important, those “different” kids were characters in the show along with all kinds of other “normal” kids. Sesame Street didn’t point out that little Suzie had to be in a wheelchair. Suzie simply was another normal kid on the show, and was treated as such. Now, this change in attitude among the public gawkers didn’t happen all at once, but eventually those who watched Sesame Street long enough, (and that was just about everyone of any age), finally became comfortable with those who were “different.” Without realizing it, the majority of our population, both young and old, helped by the positive influence of Sesame Street, finally saw the light and put people like me into the “normal” category. And as people became more accepting, they no longer stared at me. I seldom get stares anymore, and that’s a very nice feeling. And I give Sesame Street all the credit.

I don’t mind being physically disabled. Okay, I do mind. But not to the point of either distraction or destruction. I’ve had this body for 64 years. If I’m not comfortable with myself by now, there’s no hope. But after experiencing real courtesy from almost everyone I meet these days, I was very disappointed that someone like Chris, who simply had bumps and bruises, (okay, granted, BIG bumps and bruises), was stared at. Apparently this kind of behavior varies from one region to the other. Case in point: I live in Iowa, and never was I more proud of the people in my state than two weeks after 9(11). Emotion was high, and people were scared to death of anyone who even wore a beanie, let alone a hijab. One day in Wal-Mart I was about to walk out when I just happened to look behind me. There was a family of four walking into the store: a mom, dad, little brother, and big sister. They obviously were Muslim because they all wore traditional Muslim clothing. The dad and son wore trousers and shirts of their culture, and the mom and the big sister were in long abayas and hijabs. (The hijab is the veil that frames the face but doesn’t cover the face). Their attire really made them stand out in the crowd. There were many people in the store, all local white bread Protestant Iowans, and they all saw this young family. But not one person stared. Not one. Sure, there were quick and covert glances, the kind of looks one might give to any stranger. But those glances never lingered. They would simply look elsewhere and go about their business. The Muslim family was comfortable, the people around them were polite, and I felt proud to be an Iowan.

Before you conclude that none of this is any big deal, it is. It’s huge. It’s far bigger than we might suppose. The very future of our democracy hangs on tolerance. Intolerance breeds fear, and fear will tear a democracy down faster than anything else. The question is not “Is Obama a Muslim?” That question shouldn’t even be asked. What faith, (or no faith), our leaders embrace is none of our business. It really isn’t. Personal faith or no faith is a private matter. Sesame Street was extremely successful in acclimating us all to those who were “different” from us. That show increased our level of tolerance. We might have to hope for an adult version of Sesame Street that can instill and infuse tolerance into the heads of those who insist on infusing fear and violence into the minds of those who should know better. Let’s all get down on our little knees and pray tonight for the adult version of Sesame Street before it’s too late. Even if you have no personal faith, pray anyway.

–Dick Claassen is a retired math and chemistry teacher, a guitarist, banjoist, professional of the Native American flute, and author of numerous romance novels, textbooks, magazine articles, and several books on Native American flute instruction and technique. Please visit his website at http://playfolkinstruments.com.

A Long Way to Go

A giant Rebel flag—the Stars and Bars battle flag, not the official Confederate flag—has been flying high beside I-65 between Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, since 2005. Although it’s the most recognizable Rebel symbol today, the battle flag was used on the battlefield like other flags that displayed various Confederate states’ regimental colors, never earning official recognition by the Confederate government. Still, according to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that erected the huge version beside the interstate, the battle flag is the perfect symbol to celebrate Southern “heritage” in its stated campaign to insure “that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved,” in part, by asserting that Confederate soldiers “personified the best qualities of America,” that the war was the result of the South’s determination to preserve “liberty and freedom,” underscoring its “belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” despite the fact that Confederate states completely disavowed the U.S. Constitution by seceding from the Union and going to war.

In Texas, the school board recently decided that the state’s history schoolbooks require updating, that the term “slave trade” is outdated and needs to be changed to the “Atlantic triangular trade,” that Thomas Jefferson has no place on the list of great Americans, that Senator Joe McCarthy was an American hero rather than the paranoid, communism-obsessed lunatic whose witch hunts ruined countless lives, that Confederate president and slave-owner Jefferson Davis must be taught favorably alongside Abraham Lincoln. There’s more, but you get the gist.

In several countries including the U.S., some groups assert that Nazi Germany never waged war to exterminate Jews. These groups insist that no gas chambers, no mass executions, no experimentation, no torture, no starvation—that nothing against the Jews was ever perpetrated by the Nazis, that the Holocaust is myth.

For decades in Japan, nationalist groups have portrayed the country as the primary victim of World War II because of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings while maintaining that the country’s invasion of China and involvement in the war were justified reactions to Western imperialism. During his term in office, Japan’s recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe, rejected claims that the Japanese military had forced Korean women into sexual slavery even as legislators denied the six-week massacre conducted by the Japanese military in Nanking, China, in 1937-’38. Observers have long condemned the Japanese government and educational system for not addressing these and other issues in Japanese textbooks.

Of course, historical revision like these examples is nothing new, in part because so many of us are unwilling to question authority even when we know something is wrong. In my short story, “Contrition,”  Eiichi Takada, a WWII Japanese veteran, is struck by a car as he crosses the street to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors as heroes Japanese military men who committed heinous acts during the war, including those in China and Korea. Eiichi is unsurprised that he’s uninjured. He’s grown used to surviving otherwise fatal injuries. Having served in a unit that enslaved and tortured women during the war, Eiichi has since forced himself to forget, succumbing to popular revised accounts of history, but fate refuses to allow him to die until he accepts responsibility and atones for his actions. As he visits the shrine, fate sends him a stark reminder of his crimes, the vengeful ghost of a woman he tortured and killed. Of course, that’s fiction. Fate isn’t so proactive in real life.

After the invention of the cotton gin, the American South moved increasingly toward a one-crop economy, relying heavily on slave labor, solidifying a stratified class system that had little interaction between the classes, while the North progressed into a society in which cultures and classes worked increasingly together. As the federal government asserted more power over states, Southern states promoted the view that state’s rights superseded federal power. With America’s expansion, especially after the Louisiana Purchase, a political battle erupted over whether new states admitted to the Union would be slave or free. Then came the Dred Scott Case, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all fueling the Abolition Movement, and Southern leaders grew increasingly defiant and afraid that the federal government would attempt to outlaw the very thing on which the Southern economy so heavily relied. The election of Abraham Lincoln, whom Southern leaders feared would free the slaves in preference of “northern interests,” spurred seven states to secede from the Union even before he took office, while four others seceded after the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861. Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. More than 600,000 people lost their lives.

Perhaps groups or individuals who fly the battle flag truly believe the Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery. Perhaps some Japanese believe the country never invaded Nanking and never enslaved Korean women. Perhaps Texas politicians believe that rewriting textbooks can change historical fact. Perhaps Joseph Goebbels was right when he said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” echoing Lenin’s more concise declaration, “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”

Perhaps.

Reality isn’t privy to the ghosts of fate found in fiction, but real life conjures up its own ominous specters to remind us of mistakes past. That shrine in Japan, those altered books in Texas, the campaign to deny the Jewish holocaust, and that flag flying beside I-65—no matter their stated or perceived reason or justification—symbols and acts like these serve as stark reminders that authority must always be questioned, that truth must be sought and its lessons learned to avoid the mistakes of the past, that movements and their symbols purported to celebrate heritage instead serve most starkly as testaments of how far we still have to go.