Monday, March 12, 2012

I am the coin

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As usual, I have taken a quick look at the news sites this morning. I skipped like some flat rock thrown from a 10-year-old's hand out across the flat lake ... skip, skip, skip ... with occasional brief stops in the water before rising again and moving on and then finally, invariably, sinking out of sight.

Some of the news lingers, but instead of today's news, it is yesterday's short video sent along by a friend that catches my attention, that lingers, that has meaning and resonance. Yes, today there is the slaughter in Syria. Yes, today there is some dumb-and-dumber story about the Republican race for the presidential nomination. Yes, today there is follow-up to the American soldier who slaughtered 16 or 17 innocent Afghans. But what sticks with me is the voices collected on the small clip ... voices out of Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation ... voices that claim to love God, hate Obama, and revere families that seem to lack access to adequate dentistry. They are assured voices, the the kind of voices that assured, much-cosseted liberals love to despair of. Really, these voices are deeply uninformed ... and yet deeply assured.

Anyone can be assured. It is reassuring to be assured. Smart, dumb, wise, ignorant, tall, short, man, woman, black, white, rich, poor ... anyone can be assured and that assurance is reassuring. But what is it that needs reassurance, that seems to demand it? Perhaps it is the DNA-deep longing to be an accepted and perhaps beloved member of a group. But mostly, I suspect, I would like to reassure myself that I am who I claim to be ... hey! I've got a name and an address and a collection of beliefs and a profession and a family and a car and ... well, you know ... I belong and I know and I can prove it ... over and over and over and over again. I can prove it.

But if you could prove it, why would anyone need to keep proving it? Doesn't this ongoing insistence on adducing examples that underscore who I am prove that somehow the matter is not quite settled ... ever?

As a freshman in college, I was delighted to take my first course in philosophy. For all my teen-aged smarts, I hadn't realized that there was a whole discipline devoted to thinking about the stuff that I had previously thought only I thought about. I was like a pig at the trough.

One of our first assignments was to prepare for a debate. Half the class was assigned to take one side of the argument (I can't remember the topic) and the other half would buttress the opposing view. I studied for several hours, marshaling the arguments I would use if called upon. But just as I was about to conclude my arguments, just as I was pretty much satisfied with what I had gathered, a needle of doubt inserted itself and refused to withdraw: In order to know what the fuck I was talking about and in order to make it credible, wouldn't I have to know with a similar loving certainty what my opponent was going to say? There was no avoiding it, however cranky it made me.

Grudgingly, I went back to square one and concocted all the arguments for the other side. Another couple of hours down the drain. As I studied, I learned to love the other side of the coin as much as I loved my own. Really, there were some salient points -- laudable, credible, solid. And by the time I finished and began to mix and match my side with the other side ... suddenly I realized that two sides didn't make much sense. Yes, the mind could choose to say there were two sides and then argue the hell out of it, but that didn't make the construct true-to-life. It might be elevating or comforting to go to war, but elevation and comfort did not square up with life. In the early-morning hours as I ran out of study-steam, I realized I was going to make a choice and choices were OK ... but that didn't make them true in any abiding sense.

In the movie 1970 movie "Patton", the famed American tank commander of World War II (George S. Patton) was depicted at one of his great victories at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa. Patton's forces faced off against Afrika Corps troops shaped by the famed German tank commander, Erwin Rommel. The battle in 1943 was one of the first in which greenhorn and ineffective American troops finally got their feet under them. And in the movie, actor George C. Scott, playing Patton, is shown exulting to no one in particular after the victory: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!" Maybe Patton actually said that ... I don't know. But it was a great line.

Patton read Rommel's book. I studied up on my classmates' counter-arguments. It is intellectually sane to get some sense of opinions and judgments that are not your own. But learning the other side of the coin is never quite enough: No matter how many sides of the coin anyone might become familiar with, no matter how many aspects are intellectually ingested, still there is another side of the coin. Recognizing this is enough to make anyone want to move to Mississippi. So most of us choose our beliefs and conclusions and, roughly, say "fuck it!" As long as I can find people who agree with me, I will not be lonely and I can be more or less comforted and assured and reassured.

But "more or less," besides being lazy, is also never quite as peaceful as finding that which is fershur... some 100% answer that is not a pretext for reassurance. More or less is only more or less, which is a sure recipe for endless, fruitless seeking. The rabbit hole of intellectual refinement goes deeper and deeper and deeper ... and never finds bottom. Knowing two sides or ten sides or one hundred sides to the coin may qualify someone as a genius in the eyes of others, but is what others say ever enough?

Agreement and disagreement can provide wonderful condiments in an otherwise bland day. Finding the other side of the coin is useful and intellectually sensible. No point in being any dumber than you have to be.

But the really important part is some recognition and acceptance of the fact that, however much I may wish to win an acceptable place in a wider community, it is not agreeing with others that assures peace. It is agreeing with myself. And this is not some intellectual or emotional agreement ... any nitwit or Ph.D. can do that.

It may be hard to learn such responsibilities, but what other choice is there?

I am the coin.
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