On Evil, Or Bullies Do Not Know What They Are.

A couple weeks ago, I used a somewhat risky pedagogical tool to get my students thinking about political rhetoric and assignations of “good” and “evil” identities.

They were reading an essay by Edward Said that criticized another essay written in the wake of September 11 that divided the world into two spheres: “The West” and “Islam.” Islam, the essayist wrote, was a war-mongering culture of extremists whose sole purpose in life was to destroy Western ideals of free enterprise, democracy, and blah blah blah. The West, it stood to reason, was a kind of Utopian ideal in which everyone was always happy and nobody was oppressed or harmed. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

On the board, we made two lists: “The West” and “Islam.” I asked the students to define qualities of The West–where it is, who it is, what kind of government it has, what kind of economy it has, and what its primary ideals were. Then I had them brainstorm the same ideas about Islam. Which they couldn’t do, of course, because Islam is not a place; it is everywhere. It is American. It is elsewhere. It is us and not us. It is democratic and restrictive; it is oppressive and freeing. It cannot be limited to one facet of its being, just as the idea of “The West” really can’t either.

At the end, I asked them to determine which was good and which was evil.

“The West is good,” they said. “Islam is evil.”

I was struck by how easily they a) participated in my false binary and b) decided an entire religion was evil. We talked about why Islam was considered evil by The West.

I explained to them how my colleague Jaime once shared an acting tenet with me that I’ve never forgotten. She said no character is truly evil, that all characters’ actions are borne out of justification. I was reminded of a quote on a friend’s Facebook page: “We judge others by actions and ourselves by intent.”

It is easy to characterize actions as evil and we would like to believe that people who commit those acts are also evil. But it just isn’t the case. No one–aside from, perhaps, a few psychotics, seek to commit evil. They commit acts of good–their justifications for their actions are never evil. Even Jack the Ripper was certain he was furthering the evolution of society by murdering prostitutes.

I said to the class, “So we can all agree that killing is always evil, right?” Yes, they said. Except one student who shook his head. “It’s not evil when you’re protecting yourself or your family,” he said.

“When you’ve justified it,” I said.

“Yes, but it’s not evil then,” he said.

And he was right. The act of protection is not evil, even if the act of killing is. Yet it is so difficult for us to assign this binary to the real world. Our enemies are always evil; our allies are always good. Even when our allies charge into countries and kill unarmed civilians, the act is not evil because the intent is not evil.

We are talking a lot about bullies these days, people whose actions are inspiring children to commit suicide out of fear and self-loathing. We understand the result of the bullying is something evil. We also insist that the bullying is not an act of good but an act of evil.

I doubt we have a generation of children running around finding joy in committing acts of evil, though. Don’t they believe they are simply reinforcing the “good” in our society by bullying children who don’t conform or fit in? Isn’t this essentially a mechanism we would otherwise call “peer pressure” that encourages peers to just shut up and fit in?

When we call bullying evil, we aren’t solving the problem. Bullies don’t self-identify as such because they don’t consider themselves to be doing anything wrong. It is very, very difficult for the human animal to subvert all its years of social conditioning, moral education, and legal understanding to commit an act of evil because it is evil.

We cannot address bullies as bullies. They do not know who they are.

They believe we are speaking to someone else.

And so, the bullying continues.

It is true that if we took a long, hard look at ourselves, we would all recognize the bully in us. We are all responsible for someone else’s misery. We have all inflicted pain, misery, and shame on other people–usually without intending to do so, or without intending to do so much harm. We are simply reinforcing the order to which we ourselves conform. And one thing we truly do not value is difference.

We cannot stop bullying by decrying the bullies. We must change our relationship to the value of difference. We must teach our children to be self-reflective, but also to love themselves first.

We must teach all of our children.

Artistic Temperance

If you’ve stopped by this blog frequently enough, or perhaps even just once, you’ll know that I have what I consider to be a healthy and lively obsession with Project Runway. This is somewhat odd because while I am a homosexual and therefore innately/magically sartorially gifted, I am also colorblind, pattern-averse, difficult to fit off the rack, and, above all else, cheap. However, none of these personal failings detract from my enjoyment of the weekly competition, and I look forward to its annual launch as eagerly as some men regard football or basketball season. I even have my own fantasy team! I am also so in tune with the judges’ values that I’m able to predict, 95% of the time, who will be eliminated based solely on their critiques. (Their issues are, in order of decreasing seriousness, poor construction, lack of taste, misguided styling.)

I’m thinking a lot right now, both in my life and in regard to the show, about artistic temperaments. I’m looking at Gretchen with some intensity right now because this week Heidi chided her for her reluctance to accept criticism–a trait previously seen in some memorable finalists, including Kenley Collins, Santino Rice, Christian Siriano, and Jeffrey Sebelia.

It’s not a ticket to Bryant Park/Lincoln Center, but it does seem to serve the contestants, that wall they have up. If you remember, Kenley flat out argued with Heidi and Michael Kors during her critiques, especially when it came to the yellow feathered wedding dress she brought to Fashion Week. Later, she threw a cat at her boyfriend. I don’t think anyone was shocked. Except perhaps the boyfriend. And I guess that says a lot about him.

Each of those contestants was wrapped up tightly in a cocoon of self-importance, bordering on self-righteousness. In the competitive atmosphere of the show, that cocoon buffered them from the aspirations and competing interests of the other designers. It protected them from the fracturing feedback of the judges, which can reduce some designers to confused/unfocused blobs of fashion roadkill (Valerie, Christopher, Ivy). The feedback can, along with the sour grapes of other designers, cause the “weaker” contestants to second guess themselves, thereby diluting their artistic output.

I’ll work this over to poetry in a minute. Just stay with me. The only person I know for sure is still reading is Suzanne Frischkorn.

The Kenelys, Santinos, and Gretchens are fortunate because their artistic vision is so resilient it cannot be diluted. They are, at the end of the day, cursed with their own selfhood. They cannot escape their point of view, and, in the two former cases, it’s both what got them to Fashion Week and ascertained their loss. (Am I the only one who thought Santino’s “Auf Wiedersehen” panties were waaaay off base?)

Several of the winners–exclusive of Jay, Irina, Christian and Jeffrey, who I’d categorize with those above–also have a commonality. Many of them were working for something external of the artform itself. Chloe, for example, owned a clothing store already and was a successful businessperson, but needed the win to take her business and her clientele to the next level. Leanne, otherwise mousy and quiet but extensively brilliant, was working both with fashion as an object and fashion as a theory–nearly every one of her outfits was based in a kind of object theory or object lesson. And Seth Aaron had his family, his commitment to them, pulling him through.

Chloe, Leanne, and Seth Aaron were all grounded artists, tethered back to a reality outside of fashion, while my earlier examples were all riddled with a bizarre selfishness and self-importance that allowed them to live fully, absolutely, inside their art. They had no context for fashion because they were only fashion.

The only true commonality, though, is that all of these designers are immensely talented. Just, some of them are less palatable people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetry world in the last few months, partly spurred by my departure from my job, and partly due to interactions I’ve “witnessed” (or “overheard”?) on Facebook and blogs and the like. The poetry world no longer exists somewhere else, like at an AWP conference or on a campus. It comes into my living room as often as I allow it and, oftentimes, makes me feel sad.

I had a colleague who used to tell me, when I was bummed out about interpersonal drama in the workplace, to “zip into [my] thick skin.” This always used to irk me to no end. But I’m an artist, I thought. Wearing my thick skin will take away the part of me that creates art. To some extent, I still believe this is true, but I also believe that I am the kind of person who, for whatever reason, will never really fit into a thick skin. I can pretend to wear it, and that I’ve done exceptionally well my entire life. But I will never really wear it. That is, it will never become a part of me.

I remind myself now, with the poetry world just a click away, how essential it is to ground myself in another world.

During grad school, my “other world” was the gay community. I was fortunate enough to have beautiful friends outside of my program to whom I could turn and not be a poet. They are still close to my heart, as are many of the writers I met during that time. But I was never fully dependent on either. I had a foot in either world, and this kept me grounded on either side.

I wonder now where my other place is. Certainly Beau keeps me grounded. Just this year alone, he’s earned a sash full of merit badges for all the poetry events he’s sat through. He may be able to recite most of my book from memory now. And my new teaching gigs are outside of that world, working with people who, in varying ways, are outside poetry looking in. That viewpoint is refreshing, revitalizing. It’s a reminder that, away from the politicking and backbiting and simple mean-spiritedness, people still love this art. People still believe in this art. People still do this because they want to be closer to art. Not because they care about prizes or fellowships or residencies or reviews. Because poetry matters.

Maybe now the connection to the fashion industry isn’t so oblique. If you want to know how catty fashionistas are, just ask Tim Gunn about Isaac Mizrahi. Or spend a while listening to Andre Leon Talley on America’s Next Top Model. Or pop in The Devil Wears Prada.

I’m grateful, now and always, to the kind and supportive poets who keep my faith.

To the rest? All I can say is, in poetry, you’re in one day and out the next.

It’s only a matter of time.

The real James Ellroy

James Ellroy appeared at The Writer’s Center on Saturday night, in conjunction with George Mason University’s Fall for the Book Festival.

It was probably one of the most fun literary events I’ve been to in a long time.

Ellroy is certainly bigger than life, a factor made even more prominent by the fact that he is actually a big tall person. His presence literally fills the room. And when he talks, he has a loud, booming voice that modulates and riffs through the words like singing, like a sermon.

He believes, at his core, that he is doing God’s work. And who are we to argue? It’s that level of conviction that makes him such a compelling literary figure. If you know his backstory–his mother was murdered when he was a child and the murder has never been (“will never be,” in his own words) solved–it’s easy to understand his fascination both with the macabre underbelly of shiny Americana and with an unflinching ability to expose it to the harsh light of day.

And he has a charisma about him that is really difficult to ignore. The audience who came to see him were huge fans, voracious readers of his work, and knew his books inside and out. During the Q&A session that followed, Ellroy expounded on everything from the innerworkings and motivations of characters in LA Confidential to which Anne Sexton quotes are his favorite (confidential to DB: he started his talk out with “I was born doing reference work in sin;” could not help but think of you).

Although he has a big personality and a big sense of his legacy, he is also utterly approachable and a man of the people. He enjoyed “bullshitting” with the folks who came to get their books signed and, I felt, sincerely wanted to know what they thought of the event, of his new book, etc.

He also shared a fifteen minute diatribe on his loathing for the “internet invaders” who are threatening the supremacy of the printed word.

I wonder if America’s growing fascination with all things tabloid and scandalous is connected to Ellroy’s growing fame–did one feed the other? Or is this symptomatic of something else changing in American culture?

Ellroy claims that the murder of his mother exposed him to the reality that there are “two Americas.” The surface one, the one we live in, and a second, shadow America, where powerbrokers, politicians, and money circulate and determine the long-term path we’re on.

Tagline Brainstorm

Twitter: Because everything you think is genius.

Twitter: Chat for the schizophrenic. RT @myself Chat for the schizophrenic!

Twitter: Impulse control? So 20th Century.

Twitter: Need more quilt inside your sexy warm typewriter?

Twitter: Sucking your life away one Tweet at a time.

Twitter: If the President does it, it isn’t a crime!

Twitter: Like a foreign language for parents.

Twitter: 140 characters never felt so good.

Twitter: Confusing you with odd typso!

Twitter: And then what happened? And then what happened?

Twitter: Keeping track of when you’re not home.

Twitter: Broadcasting your really annoying personality traits since 2008.

Twitter: Keeping Ashton Kutcher from making more films!

Twitter: Shortening your attention span for–OOH! SHINY!

Twitter: Talk is cheap. Twitter’s free!

Twitter: Not just for twits and nitwits! (But mostly.)

America and the Culture of Surveillance

After writing my post yesterday, I got to thinking about how unremarkable the idea at the heart of Gossip Girl really is these days. Why we aren’t shocked or surprised by the concept, why we say it couldn’t happen (or even why it shouldn’t happen), or more importantly, why we don’t look away.

We live in a world where we are routinely privy to the private and intimate conversations of those around us, particularly the cyborgs roaming the grocery stores and airports with their unnerving Bluetooth earpieces. We are encouraged to join social networking websites and share detailed and organized information about ourselves, our relationships, our friends, our jobs. We build websites that promote our writing, as we must, but they reveal who we are in ways that are accessible by everyone with an internet connection 24 hours a day.

We are a paparazzi culture where knowing a celebrity’s underwear size and preference seems like data we can justify pursuing. We know the sex lives of our presidents now. We can’t always prove it, but we’re pretty sure who’s gay, who’s stealing scarves from Sak’s and exactly how Angelina wrestled Brad away from Jen. More than that, we know what Angelina was thinking and feeling when she did it.

Although I engage and participate in the boundaryless culture, I don’t necessarily support it. I am a private person at heart–although you read this blog, consider how much you know of my aspirations, my dreams, my fears–even my boyfriend–as opposed to what TV shows I watch and which political movements I support. Because I know you’re watching me. And listening. And don’t ever think for a moment that you’re surveilling my thoughts. I’m handing them to you, carefully selected, pre-approved.

Where am I going and where have I been?

I fell into a Gossip Girl whole and spent my entire Saturday eating waffles and watching all the season 2 episodes so far.

It made me feel like this:

Then, I spent subsequent days catching up on all the episodes of Privileged and 90210 too. They’re not as good as GG–in fact, 90210 is as reeky as the original, unfortunately, but I like Privileged despite its moral-of-the-story-afterschool-special episode-ending summaries. The lead actress is really good.

Now I have to get caught up on Fringe and Ugly Betty.

And then, I can, you know, go back to being a writer and stuff.