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Do the Right Thing!
If you can figure out what it is, that is....
The other day I stopped at a big box sporting goods/huntin' and fishin' store I haven't been in for at least a couple years. It is not a convenient place to get to as it's in a part of town I only occasionally pass through on my way to points south of Missoula. Mostly though I don't go to this particular place because I hate everything about it. Still, I was in the area on something of a wild goose chase and had to use a restroom. So there I was, overheated and mildly irritated, pulling into their oversized lot.
As I was climbing out of my car there was a youngish guy slow-walking across the parking lot toward me, on the way to the entrance to the same store. Tall and lean, he wore battered jeans and work boots. A pistol was holstered at his hip. He wore a black t-shirt displaying a Confederate flag over his entire torso; he pulled up a bandana to use as a mask that also featured an identical flag pattern. Finally, he wore a cap with a camo pattern across the back, and in block letters across the front it read, "TRUMP 2020."
I paused as he walked by. I get it. There are still people who are going to vote for Trump even though I can't fathom how anyone in their right mind doesn't see that the guy is a deranged imbecile. It was the flag on this guy's chest that took me aback. It means nothing but hate. There is a certain archetype of person, overwhelmingly white and generally male (though there is, perhaps more sadly, a female version too) that somehow fails to understand that not only is the flag the symbol of an “enemy” of the United States, but also one that really doesn't make the person displaying it look like anything more than a moron. It is ignorant, racist, and a throbbing indicator of willful stupidity.
I surged with rage that spiked white hot and immediate. The flag is a message more visceral than if the guy walked straight up to me and told me to fuck off. This one says he doesn't value the lives of the vast majority of people I care about. Queer people. BIPOC people. Women, for that matter. I almost got right back in my car and left, but I figured to hell with it. I followed him. At the door he held it open for another patron on their way in, then held it for me. I thanked him because that is what reasonable people do. I tried to catch his eyes with mine, but he wasn't looking. I didn't intend to say or do anything, but I also didn't intend to let him think I was in any way cowed by the statement he was making with his Nazi costume and his weapon, or that I hadn't noticed. That concluded our interaction.
I wonder what this man is thinking when he chooses the clothes he puts on, when he straps on that sidearm. How has he been damaged so that he makes the choices he does? Am I wrong to assume he is damaged just because his world view is apparently so antithetical to mine? That he makes choices I imagine most reasonable people would not make, even people I would disagree with on many other things? I've been known to address the world via a slogan on a t-shirt from time to time myself. The difference, at least to my mind, is the message: just let people be who they are. At least that's what they mean to me. Even a Black Lives Matter t-shirt is essentially making that statement. Do what you want, just don't be a racist jerk and treat everyone fairly and with compassion. Isn't that what it boils down to?
In recent weeks I've had a couple conversations about whether or not people, when shown various options, will generally do the right thing. Just yesterday I encountered this quote from the Zen Catholic writer/contemplative/hermit Thomas Merton. In an excerpt from his book, No Man is an Island, he writes:
"We do not have to create a conscience for ourselves. We are born with one, and no matter how much we may ignore it, we cannot silence its insistent demand that we do good and avoid evil. No matter how much we may deny our freedom and our moral responsibility, our intellectual soul cries out for a morality and a spiritual freedom without which it knows it cannot be happy."
But who decides what is good? For example, I think capitalism is straight up evil and the root of a huge majority of our problems because of its relationship to power, and power-over. Meanwhile I'm sure there are some of you reading this right now that would agree with me on so many other things thinking, "Whoa, now, La Tray, don't get ahead of yourself there.... "
I think about this stuff all the time. How our day-to-day activities and inability, even unwillingness, to find common ground for the good of all fuel the certainty that the current nightmare will continue for some time. Think of the folks in Montana and elsewhere who are shrugging off the need for masks. As bad as the rising number of COVID cases are here, it is still just an abstraction to most people because they haven't been impacted, they don't live with it every day. All they see are masks and inconvenient restrictions and it is easy for them to believe it's a hoax. It is easier for them to believe the loudmouths in certain areas of media telling them it's a hoax because those words fit their reality. It is a curious circumstance. These aren't universally bad people. They're just ... ignorant? Ill-informed? Stubborn?
In terms of evolutionary time, it was only five minutes ago that people were creating myths to explain mysteries extant in the world we couldn't understand. Not to mention the bizarre ideas about biology and genetics and all the horrible ideas science of the day—and no doubt we are living with some rock solid science today that will be proven wrong sooner or later—had about other people just because they looked differently, or spoke differently. And yes, government is corrupt, and there are conspiracies, and people in power do horrible things, and lie, and make promises they never intend to keep. So many of the ideas folks have that we think are deranged or stupid are rooted in things that are based on truth, that come from the same sources that ideas the rest of us have come from. They're just way out there on the fringe so far they can't see back even to the center, let alone to vantages farther beyond where others among us live.
Are we putting too high a value on the human ability to cope and to adapt and think critically, especially if that critical thinking critiques a deeply-held personal conviction? I think so. Some folks are just never going to "get it," whatever the rest of us are selling, not because they don't want to, but maybe are simply incapable of it.
This is just wild speculation on my part, cobbled together mostly from spending a lot of time outside of my idealogical bubble. I've had to learn to get along and interact with people who hold what are often abhorrent—to me—ideas. One learns from this. And gets cynical. But I don't want to be. I want to get along with my odd neighbor who is always friendly to me, loves his dogs and they love him, would watch over my house when I'm gone whether I ask him to or not, yet for whatever reason has a Trump sticker in the back window of his car. I don't want to hate people, or hate businesses just because I don't like the type of people they attract as a customer base.
But it sure is hard sometimes.
I apologize for this Friday newsletter coming on Monday. That’s just how things are going to go around here sometimes.
Other stuff going on. Last week I recorded myself reading five poems here in my Irritable Command Center™. They will be broadcast on Spokane Public Radio and Montana Public Radio in a couple weeks as part of their Poetry Moment program. One poem each day will be broadcast for a week. It was fun to do. I hope I sound like I know what I’m doing. At least I have the face for it.
Speaking of which: this evening I am participating in a Poetry Symposium on behalf of the Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. It was originally supposed to be a live event last spring, was rescheduled due to COVID, and now has been taken online. It is being pre-recorded for broadcast later. I’ll announce when. I’m with three other poets, all of whom either were, or are, Montana Poet Laureates. I’m guessing I’m the token rube. I’ll do my best to hold my own for all of us rubes everywhere!
As always, thanks for reading. Be good to each other.