Deal Making/Deal Breaking: Of Hitler and Incommensurability

Today, during a Master's thesis prospectus meeting, Hitler made his rounds. In discussing how an M.A. candidate might frame the rhetoric of militant Hindi fundamentalism, the committee discussed Hitler's use of rhetorical violence during the Third Reich (Burke, the rhetorician of choice, studied Hitler's rhetoric, so it was a fair invocation). Still, I notice the usefulness of inserting Hitler in academic and cultural discussions to clarify otherwise unclarifiable discussions. Hitler helps clear the air for people with strong agendas. We can all agree that Hitler was bad, so we can't be that far apart (or something like that). Although it doesn't always take this kind of Armageddon-like common ground to get academics to agree on things, it often helps.

One-on-one, I almost never need to rush to some sort of cultural extreme (like celebrity bad behavior) or historical extreme (like Hitler) to gain common ground with people. I usually can see and acknowledge a wide range of perspectives as part of my nature. I perceive things in their context, and I usually find common ground unless I see imminent danger. I accept. As a pre-teen, I was nicknamed "peacemaker" by my parents because of my role in mediating between between brothers and between the sibling/parent divide. My perspective helped me translate what was often mutually excluding frames of seeing the universe. For quite a long time, this role was a way to gaining prestige and getting the love and respect I craved from my family and friends. I could identify with others and give them both a nonjudgemental, and sometimes idealized, version of themselves. In Enneagram terms, I'm a nine (with a one wing, for those who are Enneagram geeks). Although some people were/are suspicious of this (I've been called smarmy more than once), it is a totally sincere perspective. To quote one of my favorite poems: "I know many lives worth living."

Although being a mediator may seem like a pretty comfortable place to live, it often presents with unsolvable puzzles. When I am positioned between two incommensurable people or positions, my translations can become conduits to rage and inflexibility. I discovered this as a teenager when my older brother slowly inducted me into his fundamentalist Christian Bible study. I gave my best effort to syncretically integrate my old habits/hobbies/perspectives (reading, love of a wide range of music, fantasy gaming) with the perspective of a new creation (or at least the late-20th Century American version of it). Eventually, I was forced to choose between the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Top-40 music, between loving Jesus and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Eventually, I decided to chuck my past into the garbage can (quite literally, in the case of my fantasy gaming books--Dungeon Master no more). Underneath my embrace of Christian fundamentalism, I still held a rich imaginative and intellectual life, but I did so in secretive and what felt like duplicitous ways. It took me four years, and an immersion in Southern California's much more eclectic music sub-culture to face up to my mistake. It took a lot of hurt feelings and sadness (even yelling) to remove myself from what I felt was an overly-rigid perspective,. I don't believe in Christian fundamentalism, despite my ability to understand those who embrace it. Nevertheless, I try to steer clear of strong expressions of it because I know that my understanding, and even fondness for some of its adherents, will be mistaken for a willingness to embrace it.

The problem for me was one of finding myself in-between two totally different perspectives and lacking the ability to persuade one of reconciling the other. I can hold two truths in my head, but I can't live in two worlds. My peacemaking blessing can be a curse when I get between two inflexible and incommensurable people or institutions.

Why does this matter? Well, in my new role as director of Upper-Division Writing, my job is to act as a gatekeeper between students who want nothing more than to get through their education and an institution designed to throw up challenges. My job is to become an apologist for one side (the student's) while serving the will of the other (the University). How does one deal with this? I have to look outside myself, step away from my peacemaking role and lean into my life choice. I chose to be a director, and that means some people are just going to be pissed off. There are no comfortable cultural examples to point to when I stand between a two forces and their colliding goals. There is no Hitlerian high ground, so sometimes I just have to, in the words of LBJ, take it like "a jackass in a hailstorm."



by Mary Oliver

There is, all around us
this country
of original fire.

You know what I mean.

The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.

Off Stellwagen
off the Cape,
the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage
of barnacles and joy
they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
like children
at play.

They sing too.
And not for any reason
you can't imagine.

Three of them
rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
then dive
deeply, their huge scarred flukes
tipped to the air.

We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky-
like nothing you've ever imagined-
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then
they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire, you
know what I mean

I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, tossing
the slippery lengths of it into the air.

I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever
she can, and nudge it gently along the bow
with her long flipper.

I know several lives worth living.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like he dreams of your body,

its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittery fire

where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs in song.


Election Hangover

Today, a lot of my friends are feeling pretty blue about yesterday's election. While I sit pretty firmly on the progressive side of things, I have to say that I'm not nearly as down about what happened. Despite my militant (and often annoying) optimism, I actually think that keeping the Senate gives us a lot to be hopeful about. Things did not go as I had wished; however, I'm pretty sure that we can turn things around if we get involved.

How can I be so sure? Well, nothing is sure, but this reminds me of my despair 4 years ago when I saw George W. Bush get re-elected by my state (Ohio), despite what felt like a mountain of energy expended on fundraising, canvassing, and even election monitoring. That election, while standing in the rain as a monitor, I was repeatedly and randomly ordered by a 19-year-old police officer to cross the street. I saw developmentally-disabled people escorted into a voting booth one-at-a-time by a single Republican Party muckity-muck. I saw live newsfeeds of Ken Blackwell (George W. Bush's campaign crony and eventual Governor candidate) counting votes behind closed doors while stonewalling press access. My partner and I felt generally despondent after my country re-elected an incompetent President and my state turned out in great numbers to marginalize my LGBT friends and fellow countryfolk. We were so devastated that the first thing we did was drive to a blue state (Michigan) and buy a blue couch.

That despondency didn't last, however. When the dust settled, sport and I just doubled down and worked that much harder. We joined a local group and started talking politics with our friends in coffee-shops and offices. Every week. It was really nothing crazy, but it wasn't easy either (I still have hate mail from people who didn't like professors writing letters to the editor--the horror!). We just started caring and putting our time and money where our hearts were. We articulated a vision and worked towards it. Unsurprisingly, we found that a lot of people either agreed, or were just looking for somebody else to care. We changed minds. Long story short? By the time we left for North Dakota two years later, Ohio had elected President Obama, voted in a Democratic governor (and several new Democrats) and cleaned out much of the corruption that we saw rip apart our faith in American democracy.

Don't lose sight of the fact that we make our own hope, and that we can only win if we share that hope. Every. Day.

Chin up. We've still got a chance to change the world for the better. Let's get working!