Thursday, September 18, 2003

Check Yourself, dude!

Author's note: The following comment was sent to me regarding an article I published in May of this year entitled "Poetry and the Politics of Self-Expression" in Butterflies and Wheels. My response immediately follows:

From: Ben Jacobs
Date: 17/09/2003
Comment: Check yourself, dude! Your opinion of the need for self-expression for certain young people of today and their teachers who are valiantly striving to educate them in the various ways they can is overbrimming (sic) with racism. It seems you just don't like what they are writing and what they have to say. While I don't personally share their world, I can respect what it's about. When I was a youngster there was rock and roll, psychadelic (sic) music, civil rights struggle, Viet Nam, and transitions between Baby Boom generation to peace and love to disco to the complacent, money making 80's )almost the period in which I began). We were reading Thomas, Ferlinghetti, Baraka, Ginsburg, among others and they spoke to us and were well written and I'm sure they were students in some teacher's classroom who were encouraged to express themselves as well as study traditional forms.

Your preference of 18th century Irish poets and writers is cool but you presume a young person would have no interest in them. You use one contemporary female writer and believe all of them follow the same line. Shame on you. I'm sure Yeats would think you're full of shit.

We live in a world that is defined by European terms (I realize you don't respect this point of view). Throughout history there has been a need for Europeans (particular the Anglo-Saxons) to conquer and dominate other people and their cultures and redefine their thoughts, religions, etc.
"Why do you people dress that way? Why do you like that music? Blah, blah, blah"

Besides the manifest destiny and need for white man's burden, Europeans made slaves out of everyone they could and raped and pillaged all the natural resources and stole religions.

All right, all right, I'm on my soapbox.
But people like you need to stop defining the world in terms of what they believe and stop trying to impress your rules on everybody else in order to legitimize an oppressive culture.

Your way of thinking was the basis of what brought 6 million Jewish people to extermination by a group who didn't agree with the way they expressed themselves either.

Dear Mr. Jacobs,

It has generally been my policy not to defend my writings in response to individual criticism. My reasons for this are that the work itself either succeeds or fails on its own merits. I don't believe a writer should comment on his or her work once it has been published. It seems a bit disingenuous to my mind to defend, explain, or apologize after the fact. In short, take your lumps or laurels as they come.

However, your comment has made me rethink this position. Not because it was well written or insightful, but rather just the opposite. It may very well have been one of the loopiest comments I have ever received - and this is no mean feat!

Perhaps it is your sense of proportion (or lack thereof) that I find most disturbing. You open your comments open with the line, "Your opinion of the need for self-expression is overbrimming (sic) with racism." Notwithstanding the ugly awkward neologism, I defy you to point out the racism you find in my work. Or, has this become the standard for argument – I disagree what you say therefore you must be a racist! Yes, the old bugaboo. Throw the "R" word in and that settles that – end of discussion!

Well, Ben, I'm not biting.

I find it a bit rich coming from someone who seems to have such a problem with Europeans (and by extension white Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, etc.) and in particular, those nasty Anglo-Saxons! Of course even a cursory read of world history would be in agreement with the idea that "Europeans" have caused a good deal of mischief in the world, but due to my Swiftian view of our species, I think there is more than enough nastiness to go around.

Perhaps you believe the Japanese were merely holidaying in Manchuria and things just got out of hand, or the Hutus felt they had to defend themselves against the Tutsi in Rwanda? Maybe, just maybe, the two million human beings who perished in Pol Pot's Cambodia was just a problem of logistics or that the 20,000 sacrifices a year to the Aztec's gods just hopped up those stairs of their own accord? And, of course, slavery never, ever existed in the Muslim world and those pesky Armenians and Kurds probably had it coming to them!

You might want to familiarize yourself with an excellent article written by Ian Buruma entitled "Wielding The Moral Club", which recently appeared in The Financial Times. In it he cites the philosopher Avishai Margalit;

"[Margalit] calls it moral racism. When Indians kill Muslims, or Africans kill Africans, or Arabs kill Arabs, western pundits pretend not to notice, or find historical explanations, or blame the scars of colonialism. But if white men, whether they are Americans, Europeans, South Africans or Israelis harm people of colour, hell is raised. If one compares western reporting of events in Palestine or Iraq with far more disturbing news in Liberia or Central Africa, there is a disproportion, which suggests that non-western people cannot be held to the same moral standards as us."

When people lecture me constantly on racism or can't seem to get through a conversation without bringing up the subject, I often think to myself; "The lady (or gentleman) doth protest too much, methinks."

As for my "preference" of 18th Century Irish poets, you thoroughly misread my sentence. What I wrote was "…I would have demanded that (fully expecting that my rights would be honored!) my instructors should be well versed in the intricate meters of the 18th century Gaelic poets which best represented my particular cultural context." This, my irony-challenged friend, was a slap at the ridiculous multi-culti notion that children should read only authors of their own ethnicity or race. Yes, I have read a number of the Gaelic poets in translation (as my Irish is very poor) but I don't feel as though I have any particular "claim" on them. Literature, like language is not genetically transmitted. I'll leave that sort of nonsense to the advocates of "Ebonics". However, you might want to read Daibhidh O Bruadair, he had a number of less than flattering things to say about those awful Anglo-Saxons!

I find it interesting that you number among the poets you admire, Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones). Mr. Baraka has gained certain notoriety with his racialist and anti-Semitic views in recent years, although what I find most offensive about him is that he is an extraordinarily bad poet. Perhaps your energies should be spent writing letters to him addressing some of his issues.

But, it is this final statement that shot you to the top of the pops and into the winner's circle that resulted in bringing about this response:

"Your way of thinking was the basis of what brought 6 million Jewish people to extermination by a group who didn't agree with the way they expressed themselves either."

You cannot seriously mean to imply that my disliking poorly crafted poetry qualifies me as some sort of wannabe death camp commandant? Or do you? I'm not sure quite how to respond to that one. "It beggars the imagination" was only a cliché until I read that! One could only conclude that while you were a "youngster" listening to "rock and roll,[and] psychadelic (sic) music" you might have ingested a little too much of whatever controlled substance that was available to you.

So in conclusion, I deliver this in the same bonhomie with which it was delivered to me: "Check yourself, dude. Put down the pipe!"


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