As a 20-year-old with a long commute to college and an AM car radio, I developed an unhealthy attachment to the thinking of Rush Limbaugh. He was funny and confident, and employing his arguments aloud to others made me feel strong. More often than not, I was repeating his talking points without letting myself realize they were his and not mine. But the thought of his voice helped me hold my head a little higher in sociology class. Such were the felt needs of my ego.
I hasten to add that I was not completely hopeless. I also liked Dostoevsky and Public Enemy and R.E.M., and this increased my chances of not estranging myself in the company of thoughtful people. Most blessedly, a sufficient number of my teachers and companions refused to hold my Limbaugh-dependent speech against me and, out of kindness, maximized my more redeemable quirks and forgave me my blind spots. I do not know where I would be without such kindness.
These days, I try to pay this kindness forward by impersonating a teacher for a living. I describe my job this way to avoid shame and embarrassment. In what might be the most insanely presumptuous task undertaken by any member of our species, I actually attempt to help people with their own thinking. I sit in rooms with women and men in prisons and college campuses, and, together, we make assertions, put questions to one another, tell stories, read poems aloud and wonder over our words. My job, as I understand it, is to help people pay deep attention to their deepest selves in relationship with other selves. They write sentences. I write sentences next to their sentences. And we get a conversation going somehow.
For some students, I sometimes have the feeling that this might be the first time someone has calmly and respectfully urged them to think twice. I hope it is not the last.
I write these words on the board: “My rights, my wrongs, I’ll write till I’m right with God.” I’m trying to conjure a sacred space. I ask: Who do you imagine said that? Answers vary: Gandhi? Walt Whitman? Martin Luther King Jr.? To my surprise, even those who profess love for Kendrick Lamar are surprised to hear these words are his. I suppose it is something of a sneak affirmation attack. I want them to know that philosophy—meaning the active love of wisdom—is perhaps closer to their own lives and listening habits than they might initially assume. Poetry—that which makes things new—is, too. Maybe they already love and collect it. Their relationship to both, I want to insist, began long before we appeared before one another in a classroom. Who wants in on the thoughtfulness party? I do. Maybe you do, too.
Critical thinking, we call it. To paraphrase early Wilco, we get to be people who find the time to write our minds the way we want them to read, people who want to be true. Should we accept the mission of becoming philosophers, we will be individuals who want to know what is true more than we want to feel successful or right or powerful. We will desire honesty more than we desire winning. Or as Gift of Gab, one half of the hip-hop duo Blackalicious, instructs us, “domination don’t dignify diction.” But veneration does. Let us venerate one another enough to pursue the possibility of out-loud truthfulness together.
Should we accept the mission of becoming philosophers, we will be individuals who want to know what is true more than we want to feel successful or right or powerful.
I recall for my students Lupe Fiasco’s comments that if he lies in a song and sells a million records, he has told a million lies. Eyes widen. Are we interested in being that conscious of what we are up to? Is finding out what is true and sharing it that much of a commitment? If it is, we will be collectors of lyrics and sounds, stories and jokes, arguments and analogies that enliven our minds instead of deadening them, that illuminate the facts instead of obscuring them. We will be among those who, throughout history, have hungered and thirsted after the righteousness of plain speak. It is a lifelong learning and yearning best undertaken in the company of others.
You Should Check This Out
Urging upon people a love of liberating arts (a liberal arts education) is my full-time song and dance, and I really do think of thoughtfulness as a living community in which I myself am initiated anew whenever someone introduces me to another thoughtful person by way of a link, a reading recommendation or a video. “You should check this out” is my love language. We get to set out the table of intellectual hospitality to one another in countless ways all day long. The survival of the species, I know from my own experience, depends on it.
This past year we considered together Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a novel in which a black woman, Dana, is periodically pulled back in time to the antebellum South to save the life of her white, slave-owning ancestor, Rufus, at various stages of his existence. It is a life-threatening rescue operation. Saving him the first time when he is a child about to drown is easy enough, but as he ages her commitment to save him and to even attempt to educate him against all odds becomes increasingly problematic. “Not all children let themselves be molded into what their parents want them to be,” she hopes aloud at one point. But what chance does anyone have of overcoming the murderous ideas upon which they are raised? How do we bring ourselves (or anyone) to a realization that the world that is isn’t the world that has to be? If we get there at all, even for a moment, how do we remain true to that realization once the moment has passed? As Dana observes, “a lifetime of conditioning could be overcome but not easily.”
How do we bring ourselves (or anyone) to a realization that the world that is isn’t the world that has to be?
“I want to know why you wanted us to read this?” one of my incarcerated students once asked. I stumbled around defensively for a few minutes and eventually landed on a rationale. Like any excellent science fiction, Kindred cankickstart conversations about what we have normalized and why and what it might mean to try to turn things around. We will always have our own ignorance to contend with, but Butler powerfully dramatizes how we cannot even begin to do so without also addressing the infrastructure of bad thinking we are born into and which we often unwittingly fund with our silence. William Blake refers to what we are dealing with as mind-forged manacles. “Don’t believe everything that you breathe,” Beck admonishes. How do we even begin to decolonize our own imaginations?
In an almost comically sad scene, Dana has managed to bring a book on the history of slavery back in time to Rufus as a part of his continuing education. If she can make him see the world to come before it is too late, he might become less likely to torture the people he holds captive and more likely to give his own children their freedom.
“This is the biggest lot of abolitionist trash I ever saw!” he exclaims as he reads about Sojourner Truth.
“No it isn’t,” she says. “That book wasn’t even written until a century after slavery was abolished.”
His reply: “Then why the hell are they still complaining about it?”
When we discuss this exchange in class, the dots appear before us already connected. We have heard it all before. This is a young man for whom lynching and rape are the law and order of the day whining about political correctness. This is a woman trying (and failing) to talk the man out of his own murderous madness. As people will do, Rufus is derisively waving away the living fact of the history he is sitting in and perpetuating. Sound familiar? What is political correctness if not the pressure of realities that call me outside of my own mental comfort zone, my own feverish feed of self-legitimation?
How do we avoid this? By being people of liberating artfulness. By doing daily battle with our own ignorance and, as often as possible, the ignorance of others. As philosopher-poets, we get to practice deep wit, deep skepticism and deep care when it comes to the words we speak and consider, the stories we take in and tell. We get to watch our language. Are you what you would call progressive? Wonderful. Define what you take to be progress and what you are willing to do to see it through. Conservative? That is quite a task to take on. Name some things you wish to conserve. What do we have in mind when we to cling words like these? What do we hope for? What do we fear?
As philosopher-poets, we get to practice deep wit, deep skepticism and deep care when it comes to the words we speak and consider, the stories we take in and tell.
If we are going to use these labels, we will need to be really clear about what we mean and do not mean. In a community of thoughtfulness, our job is to be as real as we can with the language we have. The awareness campaign we undertake together as writers and readers, listeners and thinkers, has long been underway, beckoning us in for centuries. Books are people talking. What we call literature is nothing more nor less than the greatest hits of the human species. The ancient work of recognition is never done, and anyone with an ear to hear or a mind to pick up what has been laid down is invited to join in. Self-examination, I try to assert, is what makes a beautiful life possible.
How Shall We Venerate Now?
Then came the morning of Nov. 9, the day after election day. Other than reading aloud William Stafford’s “A Ritual To Read To Each Other,” I didn’t know where to begin. For many of my students, it was as if the bottom had dropped out of their emotional lives. What good is the life of the mind if your heart is telling you that a wave of chaos is coming your way? One student told me she had to listen to podcasts all day to deal with the fact that her parents were celebrating. Another who is serving a life sentence darkly joked that she feels safer in prison.
What good is the life of the mind if your heart is telling you that a wave of chaos is coming your way?
How shall we venerate now? Can philosophy—that active love of wisdom—still hold? Is it possible to think poetically in the presence of people whose vote differed from you? For almost every student who had communicated support for Donald J. Trump, there were students who let me know they required a day or two to prepare themselves before they would feel comfortable sitting in the same room with them again. And it of course cuts both ways. Down to a person, if they did not look alarmed over the prospect of a Trump presidency, they looked frightened by how frightened their peers were over something that was only beginning to sound like a big deal. Everyone was freaked out.
After I read my Stafford poem and established a few ground rules (No demonizing. No cutting anyone off.), I tried to hang back. We agreed that we did not know for sure what we are in for yet and that we will have to wait to see which of his threats were bluffs, which of his promises were jokes.
As we discussed the amount of trust our system was about to hand over to the president-elect, students began to voice fears for themselves, their families and all the people potentially affected by the new administration. When some tried to dismiss these fears as unfounded, others gently focused the exchange toward a couple of firm resolutions in response: No one gets to explain away another person’s experience. And more importantly: We do not get to feel offended by someone else’s bodily fear. We get to listen to them.
No one gets to explain away another person’s experience. And more importantly: We do not get to feel offended by someone else’s bodily fear.
We demonize people when we feel powerless. We demonize when we do not know what to do with our own despair. But mad, we noted, is ever a form of sad, and our channels for engaging it thoughtfully cannot be controlled by nor are they dependent upon any elected official. We can make our own moments of pause together with others whenever we like. Let’s not let the outbursts of one man dictate our emotional lives or the way we address one another. President Trump’s chaos need not be our own. We can choose what we take in. And as we have to do with anyone who would try to reduce the whole world to the size of their own fear, we can respond with thoughtfulness at every turn. We can make of our own speech, our actions and our thinking a neighborhood expression of care.
In Our Neighborhood
I borrow the phrase “neighborhood expression of care” from video footage of what I take to be an exemplary instance of soft exorcism, a model for the kind of exchange that, though hardly ever publicized, probably overcomes estrangement and de-escalates tensions somehow somewhere thousands of times a day. It is the testimony of that beautiful adult, Fred Rogers, before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications chaired by Senator John Pastore. He is offering a philosophical argument for the funding of public television and his own labor of love, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which Pastore—this is 1969—knows nothing about.
Slowly and steadily, and while maintaining constant eye contact, Mr. Rogers asks permission to go off script. He speaks of trust, his own deep confidence that the senator, like others in the room, shares his concerns for the emotional life of American children. And he wonders if the senator might agree with him as he almost reluctantly characterizes much of the popular programming children are left alone to take in as a form of bombardment. Why not do it differently? From there, he describes his own lifelong effort to speak to human anxiety constructively. For Rogers, it involves puppets, music and listening closely to children—his neighborhood expression of care. His bottom-line? “To make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable,” and to cultivate the good feeling of self-control available to each of us whenever we are confronted with perceived conflict. Needless to say, he is practicing his bottom-line right then and there with every grown child present.
And then, as he nears the end of his testimony, he asks if he might recite a song whose title is the question of the hour (maybe every hour): “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” It is as if he has treated everyone present to a psychic blast of blessedness. Rogers pauses to note that the question was purloined from a child struggling with this very issue aloud. We each have the power to stop, stop, stop, Rogers instructs, as he gently strikes the table, when we have planned something, in word or action, that will go badly for ourselves and others. There is something deep within us—an inner resource, our intuition, our core—that can come to our aid when we need it most. Our feelings, we can access the realization at any moment, are mentionable and manageable. We can become what we are supposed to be.
Needless to say, Mr. Rogers got his (and our) funding. The power he channeled, as paradoxical as it sounds, was the strongest voice in the room. He spoke as one with real authority, the authority of a real and loving person, a good neighbor.
He spoke as one with real authority, the authority of a real and loving person, a good neighbor.
I watched this marvel of a video with most of my classes during the presidential election, and we reached a general consensus that “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” is probably the kind of question we would do well to put to anyone seeking public office. We are also right to put the question to ourselves as often as possible. When we avoid this kind of self-examination, we strengthen, each in our own way, the movement of denialism now trying to seize the levers of ultimate power.
We can differ on our views of what true neighborliness consists of, but we cannot rightly leave the question of neighborliness behind. We are enjoined by the creative labor of those who precede us to find language to match our feelings and fears and to somehow do justice to what is going on. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a neighborhood expression of care. Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into The Wreck” is a neighborhood expression of care. A sit-in is a neighborhood expression of care. There have been so many. They are all around us even now. We get to make more, together with others, in the face of despair. One breath at a time.
Models of Resistance
As we continue to move forward together as a country, we will need to draw on our inner resources and the neighborly expressions of others constantly. The reigning toxicity of denialism is upon us, but we have the resources to bring renewed thoughtfulness to our every exchange, even when our attempts at thoughtfulness are met with more denial.
As I search my own mind, grasping for models of resistance, I draw strength from a scene recounted in Congressman John Lewis’s March Trilogy when more than 500 activists preparing to march to demonstrate for the right to vote were confronted by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. As these heroic Americans prepared themselves for the tear gas and the beatings to come, an exchange occurred.
With state troopers under his command, Major John Cloud gave the order to disperse: “This is an unlawful assembly. Your march is not conclusive to the public safety.”
Standing at the forefront of the marchers, the Rev. Hosea Williams wondered aloud if he might be talked out of the state-sanctioned wickedness he was about to order: “May we have a word with the major?”
The response was definitive, “There is no word to be had.” The decree came at them with the force of an alternative fact.
The violence that followed, by being televised, changed history. There was a word to be had, the next day and the day after that and the decades to come down to our day, our radioactive days. The neighborhood expression of care undertaken in Selma, preceded and followed by countless others, is essential still to the meaning of human history, at the center of our cultural canon wherever beloved community is evoked, where there are always words to be had.
No political party and no presidential administration can prevent such feats of thoughtfulness. There is so much precedent for dealing with human madness, so much righteousness to which we might yet be true in new and surprising ways. So many avenues for dramatically conjuring up, for ourselves and our fellow humans, a vision of what is true and lovely and good.
The adult education afforded us by witnesses like Octavia Butler, Fred Rogers and John Lewis is amplified by words of counsel from the poet Mary Oliver. Fittingly, she is describing the emotional centering a child requires, which is, of course, also the centering needed by grown-ups at the mercy of other grown-ups here, there and everywhere: “The child whose gaze is met learns that the world is real, that the child himself is real, and cherished.” If we are to hold ourselves together, we will have a lot of gazing to do and much cherishing of those who have been made to feel—and expect to go on feeling—decidedly uncherished.
May we each meet one another’s gaze—perhaps especially the gazes of those whose words and actions offend or horrify us—as we try to be as real as we can in the days upon us. As was always the case, we are not only responsible for our own ideas; we are responsible, too, for the ideas we allow others to lift up unchallenged in our presence. We get to engage our collective anxiety constructively, one neighborhood expression of care at a time.
If you aren’t agitated, you aren’t paying attention, but the question remains before us: What do you do with your agitation? It will require strength and courage and determined wit, but there are many words to be had and even more words to be embodied, maybe even for the first time, from here on out.