Monday, January 21, 2013

Musings on Ed Abbey, Social Networking and Traveling

I'm sitting here listening to New Model Army after having spent the afternoon reading and working on my novel. Now that I'm done with MA comps (my fate still uncertain) and in preparation to start a creative writing MFA program in a few months, I've been catching up on my reading. In particular, I'm re-reading Ed Abbey's The Fool's Progress.

This book was a favorite of mine back in the early nineties, when I was busy locking myself to bulldozers and bopping around various national forests out west. There are so many great lines, so many great scenes, that shaped my thinking: "Anxiety got you down? Try fear." "Home is where when you have to go there, you probably shouldn't" and so forth. The book really enabled me to tap into my own hyper-awareness of urban sensory overload long before I ever learned enough about personality type to identify myself as an introvert. The sense of aimlessness really resonated with me, as did the prioritizing of exploration over ambition and the philosophical outlook on life.

At the same time, Ed Abbey is always a bit disconcerting: with his womanizing, often vulgar in description, with his vivid racial characterizations and his rather questionable views on immigration, I can't help but flinch. The central character (based, though not entirely, on Ed Abbey's own life) comes under fire for this quite a bit and is often portrayed as being perceived as a bit of a loser, even, at times, by those close to him. We get into his head and can feel a bit sorry for him, even while wincing at behavior that, were it to exist in someone we actually knew, would make us avoid that person. This is what literature does, though. It takes us into the psyche of someone whose background, way of thinking and behavioral choices might not otherwise be sympathetic and makes us really see them as people.

That's something that's sorely lacking these days. There is a general tendency for people to demonize those whose values differ from their own and a tendency to not recognize that they're engaging with someone that has the same basic, albeit differing, orientation towards the good. These days, perhaps depersonalized by an overload of information, we often don't recognize those with ideas we dislike as worthy of basic respect. It's a dangerous attitude, it lends itself to an unresolvable acrimony. How can we effectively communicate with people when we condemn them as stupid sociopaths out to destroy the other's way of life? (And both sides do this equally.) That the hatred shifts daily, focused on whatever the media has determined as the issue du jour, only adds to the disturbing trend. These aren't front line activists, a bit too zealous over a cause. No, it's as superficial as it is aggressive, behavior more appropriate to a sporting event than the expression of beliefs.

Perhaps I've thought about this due to an all-too familiar Wild West picture painted by Ed Abbey coinciding with my Facebook feed being nearly taken over by (most recently) very heated gun debates. I've tried to largely avoid it, but I haven't been able to avoid the memories. Passages such as this one remind me of what Arizona was like when I was there, especially rural Arizona:

He says, "I hope you're not headed east without arms." I reassure him, mention the revolver, the shotgun etc., the two-shot Derringer in the ashtray. "Good," he says; "hard to feel sympathy for any man goes around without a weapon these days."

I, of course, hitchhiked all across that beautiful stretch of the country not only without a gun, but without so much as pepper spray. I hitchhiked from Albuquerque to Flagstaff one time. When living in Flagstaff, I hitchhiked constantly, whenever I wanted to get out of town, mostly to Prescott and Sedona. I never carried a gun, only a lot of restless energy and genuine curiosity about other people and the stories they would tell me.

Still, it was in Flagstaff when I met, for the first time, a bona fide gun nut. It was Sasha, the Paranoid Pacifist (tm). Sasha had the largest collection of AK-47s I'd ever seen (which isn't saying much, since I actually had never met anyone with an AK-47 before that, but believe me, he had a lot). Sasha was a twenty-something punk rock kid, a self-declared environmentalist and pacifist. On one occasion I sat there (with no small amount of anxiety) as he poured back booze and cleaned his weapons. Why would a pacifist have so many guns? As he put it, "I don't believe in a society where the police can have guns and the citizens can't." In his mind, fascism could happen at any time, and when it did (not if, when) the first thing that would happen is they would take his guns away. Obvious contradiction to his self-declared pacifism aside, he wanted to be prepared for revolution at a moment's notice. He would have nightmares about storm troopers finding his secret stash and seizing it. Sasha was a little bit unhinged, a nice but erratic guy. We weren't close. We only hung out a handful of times. Still, I developed an empathy for his fear even if I didn't agree with his theories or ever want to so much as hold in my hand a dissembled part from his stash.

I never met anyone else as severe as Sasha, but I do remember buying candy bars at the combined liquor/ammo shop that I'd pass on my way home sometimes. I remember the gun racks in the back of pick-ups and trying to explain to a short-lived long distance boyfriend from New York why that was. I think having moved so much, having travelled so much really helped me to tap in and recognize others' experiences and perspectives as valid and genuine for them. That's the problem these days. It's so easy to espouse a view and condemn the contrary view without really engaging with the people that hold that view. There's one fundamental principle that, if you have a desire for change, you must always keep in the forefront of your mind: Most people are as passionate and good intentioned about what they believe in as you are. Issues of moral rightness or wrongness aside, if you can't recognize that someone on the opposite side of the fence believes as authentically in the rightness of their viewpoint as you do, and that you need to find a way to address that in a respectful manner, you're never going to exert much influence

With so much of this country in a divide that is as geographic as it is political, I think other people would be well served by traveling as much as possible. I don't mean for a few days. I mean for a few years. When you have to live with different viewpoints, you learn how to engage them. If you remain entrenched in your viewpoints it will, at best, be self-congratulatory preaching to the converted. At worse it will be a battle of who can shout the loudest, which is often little more than intellectual white noise.