“Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly–they’ll go through anything.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.
I’m a writer (or at least I flatter myself that I am), so words are kind of my thing. Every once in a while, I’ll run across something that seriously changes my outlook, or how I think, or even my world. A few days ago, I was reading Huxley’s Brave New World, and I came across the line that starts this post. I read that, and my brain just kind of melted.
Over the years, I’ve had thoughts similar to that, but Huxley actually articulated what I’ve always thought, far better than I ever did, and actually put my ambition into words: I want to write X-rays. I want to write words in a way that cuts through to the heart of the matter, whatever the matter happens to be. Words that illuminate the hidden problems and that help to solve them. Words that make people think. Words that make people think, “That’s what I’ve been thinking!” Words that make people think, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Ever since I was a kid, certain phrases or sayings have stuck with me that either changed my life or formed the way I thought. Phrases like “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” which I always thought was said by Patrick Henry, but was apparently originally written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her book The Friends of Voltaire, published in 1906. That saying, to my young mind, represented the entire idea of Free Speech, and much of what it meant to be an American. I remember a time when Americans were proud to quote that phrase.
Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty, or give me death!” is another phrase that formed the way I saw the world. To this day, I resent anything I see as an intrusion of my liberty. Of course, I’ve come to understand that there is no such thing as absolute liberty. In any society, there are necessarily going to be limits to what members of that society are at liberty to do. I think the closest we can get to absolute liberty is a society where every member is actually treated equally, regardless of sex, race, religion, or financial status.
It’s funny how so much of my identity as a person is tied to my identity as an American. I really believe the words “All men are created equal” but it troubles me that, as a country, we still have trouble accepting it. I don’t think that any objective observer looking at our country would really believe that it is, or ever has been, a central tenet of our national consciousness. That bothers me, both as a person, and as an American. In our defense, I will say that we are closer than we were at the beginning, and I do think that we’re continually making progress in that direction, but clearly, we’ve got a long way to go.
Perhaps all the kerfuffle over Columbus Day has brought another phrase that has haunted me, and informed how I see the world, to the forefront of my mind. I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was 10 or 11 years old. In his forward to The Lord of the Rings, Peter S. Beagle wrote, “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers–thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses.”
Even though I was too young to understand what he meant, I knew that what he was saying was important, and more importantly, right. As I got older and began to study history, and especially as I began to study history outside of history class, I came to see how right he was. Columbus’ “discovery” of America began centuries of genocide and exploitation so vile that it makes the Nazis look like pikers. Much of it was carried out under the guise of Christian Evangelism and Manifest Destiny, and, in a thousand little ways, in a thousand little places out of the way enough that we don’t notice, it continues to this day, but under the guise of economic pragmatism.
Don’t believe me? Just go to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in S. Dakota, or the Navajo or Apache reservations in Arizona, or the inner city of, well, pretty much any city in America, or the coal country of Appalachia, or the factory towns of the rust belt. The machine doesn’t care about your race, or your color; it just cares about being fed and moving on.
Another saying that really puzzled me as a kid was “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Samuel Johnson said that back in 1775. As a kid in love with the America I learned about in school and by watching John Wayne defeat not only the Indians, but the Japanese, and thrilling to the hyper-patriotic fervor of the Bicentennial, it just didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense, but it just wouldn’t let me go, either. Once again, as I grew, and studied, I came to see what he meant, and to realize that he was right. Or almost right. Patriotism isn’t the “last refuge” any more (if it ever was).
It isn’t the scoundrel’s Alamo, where they make their last stand; these days it’s their launching pad, from which the flag-pin wearing bastards use the flag-draped caskets of dead soldiers to justify stripping away our rights, to brand those who protest injustice as unAmerican, to present themselves as the only ones who can save us from all of the “evils” that they have worked so hard to make us afraid of.
I want to write words like that. Words and phrases that cut through the constant 24-7 barrage of bullshit that we’re all dealing with. Of course, if you’ve read to this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well, you’re not there yet,” and you’re right, my writing (and my thinking) is still a work in progress. Hopefully though, I’m getting there. Hopefully, at this point, I’m at least making you think.