May 18, 2003
You buttered my toast on the wrong side.
my son, aged four, 1969
From the Middle Ages onward Western literature contains occasional references to curious objects called `rat-kings.' Considered edifying natural wonders like two-headed calves, they were displayed at fairs, and people deemed it worth the penny spent and disgust endured to see one. They were not, as one might expect, princely rats, but rather filthy rings or `crowns' of half-rotted desiccated rat carcasses stuck together by their entangled tails. Accounts exist of rat-kings with survivors still trying to cannibalize the remaining flesh of the corpses.
Although it is generally agreed that rats in these clusters died of starvation as a result of their tails being intertwined and glued with blood and feces, no-one is quite sure how they accomplish this. The received opinion is that it is through sheer rattishness, seen -- anthropomorphically -- as greed, shortsightedness, foolhardiness, selfishness, cowardice, treachery, uncleanliness, and a general lack of civility.
We, the rats' rich relatives, have similar tendencies. Like rats we gather in safe places, jostling for advantage and wounding one another, heedless of the way our tails are tangling. Humans can make larger and more deadly snarls because we have traits unavailable to rats: pride, envy, vanity, notions of profit, power, property, vengeance, religion, and nationalism -- to say nothing of language, storytelling, technology, and the virtual realities of mass media and the World Wide Web. We now even have concepts of 'information management' and "marketing."
"From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. in September 2002, in reference to the Bush administration's plan to "market" a war on Iraq to the American people.
I find something truly, chillingly, immoral about marketing desired outcomes -- like wars -- by cunning management of the tales told to a public that is presumed to be ignorant and irrational.
Are we indeed ignorant and irrational? Have we been hopelessly entangled by the tales concocted by an unelected administration, relayed by a hired media, and ratified by an elite commentariat of writers?
We are told that popularity is goodness, conformity is loyalty, and money is value; we are expected to see violence as power and power as rightness, we are encouraged to conflate plausibility with reality, and repeated soundbites with truth; we have reality framed for us as drama -- as in Made-for-TV "reality shows", staged statue-toppling and aircraft-carrier landings, and news programs retitled "Showdown with Saddam". The world now has more or less permanent rat-kings involving Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, AIDS, global warming, nuclear arms, oil and drugs.
I used to quote Isaac Bashevis Singer: "Writers can't change the world -- they can't even make it worse." I don't believe that any more. Writers can be quite rattish in their tale-making, and create harmful tangles that do, in fact, make the world worse.
But writers are not the major offenders in a world where more people get information from television than from printed pages, and where the public discourse consists primarily of retelling the tales enacted on TV the evening before.
I think what's missing today is ordinary civil conversations in which we pick apart and reassemble our tales about the way the world is, generating a constant movement of ideas that prevents us from getting glued in place and unable to free ourselves.
We are not rats, but we are frail creatures, not irrational but distractable, not ignorant but credulous: tell us something three times and we believe it. We fabricate useful things with our hands and minds, but while we are quick to discard a bucket that leaks, we often let fanciful tales that don't hold water drive decisions that threaten our livelihoods. Neither our faiths nor our philosophies have tempered our primal fear of strangers, and we continue to devise devilish schemes to hurt those we fear. We are surely too smart for our own good, but probably not nearly smart enough to manage, individually or globally, either the realities given by Creation, nor those we create for ourselves.
We have qualities unavailable to rats -- ideals of love and peace, family and community; concepts of mutual respect and trust, justice, forgiveness, and the common good. Americans have privileges like freedom of press, religion and association that allow us to participate in decisions about our lives. Most of all we have the power of talk -- conversation and argument with one another -- that enables us to negotiate tales that do not harm, trap or immobilize us.
Toast buttered on the wrong side? Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? Global warming from greenhouse gases? Let's talk about it.... at the kitchen table, in the checkout line, at the post office and hairdressers, with high school kids, co-workers, relatives, in our churches, clubs and political parties.
Not in front of the TV set, and not reciting the fictions of faith, politics or economics -- because that's not civil discourse and doesn't produce good outcomes. We can try to understand and manage together the challenges we face. Or we can continue to entangle ourselves like rats, in our tales and blood and waste.
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