Page Two: Slippery Slopes

Insights on the way to a point, a peek at future topics, and an argument against reductionism

Page Two
Driving to the office this morning, I entertained several ideas for "Page Two." I decided that, regardless of which idea I ended up writing about, I would begin by again reiterating the frustrations of writing this column, due to the very imprecision inherent in expressing oneself in just this way. I imagine this is an issue for almost any columnist, exacerbated in my case by the fact that I am such an awkward writer; expressing subtlety isn't really an option for me. A stubborn, way-too-linear thinker, I write sideways far more often than I move forward, completely surrounding an idea with details and clarifications rather than confronting it head-on. Some portion of what I write ends up being cut most weeks, more often than not because it detours down country lanes with leafy green trees lining the sides. The smell is sweet, the air invites breath, the scene is beautiful – but it has little to do with the main road of thought.

If it were reasonable, I would qualify the hell out of most of what I write with "I think," "what if," "let's just consider," and the like. Obviously, this column represents my thoughts, so reiterating that is redundant and awful writing. Still, I am so tempted because it often reads as though I'm asserting concrete truths and encyclopedic facts, when much of what I write would be better characterized as a collection of proposals I'm entertaining.

Most issues and situations are not nearly so simple and accessible as they are so often presented. Their very complexity rarely permits obvious analysis. This column does not offer a collection of truths but rather suggestions. Even when it makes a case that opposes widely accepted assumptions, it is usually not denouncing their integrity as much as arguing that further consideration will provide additional insight.

In this context, "Page Two" consistently tries to anticipate core and obvious objections to a position.

Acknowledging complexity by obsessively detailing every surface and angle is usually a self-defeating strategy, especially given my often-muddy, attention-deprived thinking and the technical clumsiness of my writing. Unfortunately, almost no idea has ever been so completely simple as to emerge here in a form that even vaguely hints at concise clarity. Instead, my attempts at such too often prove to further obscure, rather than in any way illuminate, the overly explained density and texture of the trees – to hide, rather than reveal, the forest.

This morning, I was thinking about this problem in particular, as I wanted to broach several topics this week but understood the futility of attempting brevity, even as I planned such. In the same way the uncoordinated and physically awkward of us imagine dancing with Fred Astaire skill and Gene Kelly charm, I aggressively ignored reality, unashamedly indulging fantasy. This beginning was to be a brief clarification of the difficulties of this column.

Once I arrived at the office, I read several readers' comments assailing last week's column for unsubstantiated generalities. I thought that these were great, especially as they would serve as convenient examples of exactly the sort of compositional problems I wanted to write about. I figured it would be relatively easy to point out that generalities are just that: more vague, inclusive categorizing than any kind of explicit pinpointing. Fully cataloging exceptions, while also clarifying the numerous inherent limitations, would serve primarily to drench any and all points.

Then, just in trying to write my way to the most simplistic starting point, I concocted the above sandstorm, which obliterates any cohesiveness with a swamping, stunning exposition of too many minor points, each stinging independently rather than integrating together into a coherent argument.

So, no rave here for Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro's stunning new film – both breathtaking and heartbreaking, one that settles into your flesh and absorbs into your memory, a truly astonishing vision that instantly addicts in a way that seeing it again is more obsession than desire. No appreciation for Vince Martin's unfortunately neglected musical masterpiece, If the Jasmine Don't Get You ... the Bay Breeze Will, or his performance in Once Upon a Coffee House (aka Hootenanny a Go-Go).

It will be fun when I get to suggest that the ongoing demonizing of Wal-Mart is not just excessive but also brutally unfair and probably counterproductive (though without offering any thoughts on locations or the specifics of the current controversy). During a number of different periods, I lived in very small, mostly rural towns before the advent of Wal-Mart. Choices were extremely limited, and any substantial purchase involved travel, either to a faraway city or a county or two over, to the Sears outlet. There you looked through the catalog, ordered, paid top dollar, and returned some days later to pick it up. Any problem with the order, whether Sears' or your own fault, meant the same process repeated. This involved an investment of traveling time and miles, as well as any number of days waiting. Sam Walton's vision was not based on greed or exploitation, but on a very real vision of people's needs. When I lived in rural South Carolina, for example, in one of the towns nearby, Saturdays were traditionally the days that blacks came to town to shop, with whites for the most part staying away. But don't work yourselves up just yet; wait until I get a chance to expand on that more than just a bit.

I stick by my assertion, made in the last week's issue, "We live in a time of cheap and lazy fanaticism, when complexity is derided as obfuscation, and any deviation from the party line (whatever the party, whatever the line) is demonic." I'm not endorsing this take, condemning all fanaticism, being unduly pessimistic, acquiescing to hopelessness, or declaring the Constitution dead. The last six years of the Bush administration aside, I'm aggressively optimistic and believe the world is actually getting better rather than worse. Most non-Bush-centric, apocalyptic thought is based not on simple historic revisionism but on massive, beyond-plastic-surgery transformation of belief in an ahistorical, rationally neutered, factually denied, and completely invented and otherworldly, fantastic past.

My take on the current situation is based not just on my (admittedly unhealthy) interest in right-wing hate radio. One can simply consider that all too many people insist that there is not only one inarguable "truth," but also that it is defined by exactly what they believe. This leads to the unquestioning endorsement and/or rejection of information by camp-followers, depending on their personal beliefs. Books by either right- or left-wing authors that boast completely one-sided, polemical screeds are thus hailed or denounced based on preconceptions rather than the weight of arguments. Media outlets are either derided as biased (when they present information one dislikes) or celebrated as fair and accurate (when they present information that reflects one's point of view). Though frequently denounced, polarized and polarizing political rhetoric continues to yield positive electoral results. There is a championing of those who stick to their principles and intellectually refuse to yield or negotiate, regardless of circumstance, over those who cooperate and compromise in order to achieve progress and serve the greater good. The purity and potency of the Constitution is declared, especially by those who custom-tailor its very meaning to fit their monotheistic, specific convictions and ignore its core insistence on dialogue, disagreement, and respect for the opinions of all citizens.

There is the distressing need of conspiracy theorists to reduce history to its most simplistic, and thus tidiest, meaning – it's mostly about bad guys doing bad things, countered by the determination to expose them by the theorists, who are, of course, bathed in the pure white light of truth. The rhetoric of minority candidates' supporters is usually about the self-righteous nobility of privileging their own personal morality rather than a consideration of such campaigns' real-world consequences on underserved, disenfranchised, and often actually suffering minorities. (And let's not forget most fundamentalist religious intolerance and lifestyle biases.) Finally, all too often political and policy disagreements involve the struggle of pure good (your side) against conscious, overt evil (those who advocate other positions) rather than any kind of sense of carefully considered, principled, and honest disagreement.

By the way, Texas Liberty Radio, or whatever it's called, not only continues to offer unbridled, undiluted, vicious anti-Semitism and Christian-based patriotism, but in the past week, I've heard several overt Hitler apologists, as well. Although profoundly scary, for us extreme political rhetoric junkies, the absolute conviction of righteousness unmitigated by reason, accuracy, constitutionally based convictions, or even a hint of common democratic decency is strangely entertaining. end story

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Page Two, Postmarks, talk radio, U.S. Constitution, Guillermo del Toro, Vince Martin

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