Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Persist in conversation, with those who will converse"

"Polaris Star Trails and Ocotillos," photo by Joe Orman, taken 20-21 March 2004
A six hour exposure taken in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The author of the opinion piece published below is a friend, once was a friend.  He is a philosophy professor at the University of Maine (Farmington) and a fine human being, son, brother, husband, and father.  He's likely an excellent uncle and cousin, perhaps a superb nephew and God father, too.  There are probably few better neighbors or professors, jurists or poker players. The thing about Matthew is this: he's a fine human being no matter, and often, I'd wager, in spite of, the societal role in which he's cast.  If I remember correctly, the labels chafe his neck, causing an unsightly rash relieved only by cortisone cream.

He's something of a slob and he tends to adhere to principles even when doing so causes other people the most intense and personal pain.  He mumbles.  He's too tall.  There, I think I've presented him in an even-handed fashion.

No, wait!  He can be overly compassionate, he can care too much -- and become obsequious. But then -- The Trickster! -- the oily fawning is diluted, thinned, an astringent is applied, as lemon -- no, more like fennel, paper thin, cold, iced, and how it treats a fatty fish.

I'm hungry.

My fondness for Matthew was cemented the evening he led an invasion into enemy territory, the goal of which was to assist a battered wife who wanted to leave her abuser but had few resources.  Not that we had any resources of our own, nor a clue, but at least our world would not terrorize her, make her bleed or be dead.  She needed the basics:  encouragement, help packing, a ride out of her tiny town, a shelter.

It didn't work out, due to the unexpected machinations of her mother-in-law, who had someone watching the house, and who alerted her husband, who promptly careened and screeched up to the house in a taxi (why a taxi?) and cornered us all in the sad, sad living room.

I was ridiculous, and mostly sputtered, inflamed by having just found out which belt buckle was his favorite for branding his wife's back.  She had almost fondled the collection of buckles, their edges, her edges.  As I sat and mostly watched her try to pack way too many things, wasting way too much of our limited, precious time, she had given a practicum on the use of common items of clothing as weaponry.  Scarves and belts, things that wrap, things that bend and fly through the air, slapping, wrapping.  The best are those that leave no mark;  The best are those that leave a mark. It all depends.

She showed me a gun, but the gun impressed neither one of us.  Not like those buckles.

She knew, of course, that she was not leaving that night.  Her children were with her mother-in-law, though I cannot recall the pretext.  She said she was okay leaving the kids behind for the time being, that there had never been any abuse directed at them, that there were too many people looking out for their welfare for him to suddenly beat them silly with, say, a wire coat hanger.

I remember now.  They had both a son and a daughter.  He often used coat hangers when torturing the woman, his wife.  He also used a hot iron.  That left a mark but was passed off as a domestic mishap.  She had that beautiful long hair so common to people in fundamental persuasions, conservatism, and tiny burgs, with bangs.  That hair could cover a multitude of scarring, bruising, and burning, a multitude of sins.

How is it that I can see the children? Thin, runny noses, the girl in pink polyester pull-on pants with aggravated cording, about three or four, the boy older, but not by much, in a yellow shirt.

Oh, yes.  That's right.  I had forgotten.

We went back.  The second time, the kids were home.

The first trip ended pretty much in that sad, sad living room, an ugly beige room strapped together with duct tape, shiny ceramic knickknackery, and religious bric-a-brac.  Jesus, framed. There were primary colors in toys. All the toys were piled into a playpen.  None of them were broken.  Many had been mended.

Her angry husband, called home by his triumphant mother, blocked the only entrance and exit, as the kitchen door to the backyard was padlocked.  She ended up telling us to leave, and we did. Matthew calmly and thoroughly threatened the man, hoping to prevent a beating.  I sputtered. The man drawled at Matthew and ignored me.  He leaned.  He never stood straight, unassisted, he spent the whole time leaning against the walls, against door frames.

There was no thought of cop;  There was no hope of cop, but I cannot remember why.  Familial infiltration is my best guess.

The second trip, she made it to the car, and almost out of town.  I remember a straight shot of a two-lane highway doubling as Main Street, and as we passed fast food joints and bank drive-thrus, she voiced fears about money, and regrets about her children.  She asked us to take her back home.

We did not know her.  She did not know us.  We all thought that would make it easier but it made no difference at all. We had stylized ourselves in hopes of being a dependable, safe tool for her to use.  Knowing her, pretending to know her, would only have strengthened our resolve to serve, impersonally. Would only have been another claim upon her person.

Not knowing, either, the outcome of that chapter of her life, I am tempted to write it as a wondrous success, as an escape from abuse and privation for her and her children, and for subsequent generations.  But I just don't know.

All I wanted to say was that Matthew could be like the North Star.

He wrote the following as part of a campus dialogue following the attacks on September 11, 2001, and it was published as a conversation within the "Faculty Forum."  There is, of course, no logical connection between the brief tale told above, and the piece you are about to read -- except for Matthew.

The Search for Just Arab Grievances Does Not Mean Moral Relativism 
By Matthew Freytag - Mellon Lecturing Fellow

Five days after the crashes I found myself talking to 12 Quaker kids: solid citizens all, more hard-working, serious, and responsible than 13-to-16-year-olds ought to be. But pacifists, mostly, and to a person they were worried, even scared. Bush had not yet delivered his "either with us or against us" speech, I think, but the message was abroad: school friends and others had given the teens to understand pretty clearly that criticism of the U.S. amounted to support for the terrorists. To their credit, few of the teens actually had kept silent, but they were closer to being intimidated than I would have imagined this formidable group of kids could be. Having aligned themselves with evil in their school's eyes, they felt that they could not speak safely.

But something odd is going on when national political leaders and people on the street respond to the September 11 attacks by repeating "They're wrong and we're right," and "This is no time for moral relativism - they are evil and we represent good." Did FDR, for example, need to point out that in opposing the Pearl Harbor attack we were right? Did Lincoln need to spell out his opposition to moral relativism? If not why are Bush, Giuliani et al. making such points so determinedly now? Is some broad U.S. public constituency arguing that the terrorists were right, or morally good? I've kept my ears open, and I have not heard one participant in the U.S. debate make that claim - not one. So who are the we're-right-they're-wrong-ers talking to? Well, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they're addressing folks who make the following sort of argument: "We have to ask why the terrorists did this. And when we ask that question we come up with a list of U.S. policies, from the deadly embargo on shipments to Iraq to our alliance with an Israeli state that has kept Palestinians homeless. Whatever response we make to the terrorist attacks should include a revision of those policies."

Why on earth does this look like the claim that the terrorists were right? Well, because it looks like the claim that we're wrong, about something. Apparently the inference is this: "If our policies were wrong, then the terrorists were right, and their acts were justified." Note the ironic convergence: none of the critics of U.S. policy make this inference, only (1) the new patriotic absolutists and (2) the terrorists themselves.

Why does the critic of U.S. policy look like a moral relativist? That's harder to explain, but I think the reasoning must be roughly this: "Some critics are trying to get us to understand the terrorists, to see things from their point of view. But to do this would be to acknowledge that they're right from their point of view, just as we are from ours." Note that this doesn't in fact amount to moral relativism: you can maintain that someone's right in their own eyes without granting that they actually are right about anything whatsoever - certainly without granting that they're right to crash airplanes full of helpless people into occupied buildings. But to acknowledge that the terrorists and their sympathizers were right from their own point of view might suggest that we should try to make sense of and imaginatively occupy it. And that would suggest in turn that we should forego the pleasure of crying "evil" and shooting, and instead persist in conversation - if not with al-Qaida, then with their broad base. We should listen and talk: find out their concerns, consider which seem reasonable, accommodate those, and with respect to the rest: persist in conversation, with those who will converse. Use force to protect ourselves, but never to avoid this sort of conversation - not with foreign critics and certainly not with domestic.

But I do want to close with my own attempt at flag- and fist-waving moral declamation, on a different issue. I am fed up with lamentations that the violence threatens America's spirit. The U.S. is a nation of risk-takers and free thinkers. The late sodden, burping suburban comfort never represented America, not the America I came to love as a patriotic elementary schooler. If the attacks reawaken us to the bracing fragility of our endeavors, they will have "awakened the spirit of America" in a way those recommending patriotic credit card spending do not imagine.

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