What do Bill Maher and I have in common? We have tiny little razor blades all over our tongues. (You know, metaphorically.) But when Maher’s 2003 stand-up show, Victory Begins At Home, was on TV the other night, I only watched for as long as my jaw could stand being perpetually dropped. Maher’s political views are excruciating, but they’re also pretty astute. So his remarks about Guantanamo detainees, hijackers, and the president may border on getting him arrested, but then again, he’s a libertarian. (There has to be a better word for it than that.)
No one gives a damn about political correctness anymore, but Bill Maher is the only proof of that. OK, not the only proof, but in a population of hundreds of millions, it certainly seems that way.
As a Kinder, I spent summers in Nova Scotia watching Bill Maher’s talk show, Politically Incorrect, on a tiny television in a cabin built by my grandfather. Nature and nurture aligned at about two in the morning after I had drunk beer mixed with tequila with a longtime family friend and vaguely homophobic “boy next door.” Maher was subtler back then, or else his contextual lodging in Canada gave that impression to Anglophiles like myself. I was accustomed to hearing States-bashing from the other side of the pond from such disparate voices as a drunk girl in a pub to Members of Parliament.
I was that drunk girl in the pub. Having to tell people I went to an American school nearly brought tears to my eyes. Tears of embarrassment. (“Where’s your accent?”) I was a fraud. A displaced refugee who just happened to live in a million-dollar duplex in St. John’s Wood.
Imagine my astonishment when Bush was elected president. It gave me and millions of other closet “radicals” the chance to be outspoken. Radicalism (read: democracy) became commonplace, a colloquial expression of political thought, the norm. The Internet gave rise to even more of it: blogorrhea was born. Outspokenness and political incorrectness were acceptable because our president did it all the time — still does, of course.
And even before Bush’s reign got ugly, imagine my astonishment when I realized that Wesleyan University, my father’s would-be alma mater (he instead ended up “majoring in” some Scottish lass, which required “studying abroad” in Edinburgh,) was a haven for politically-minded, confused, cynical people with rich parents and tight pants. So there existed a place inside America where Americans could talk openly about how they hated their fellow countrymen while under the guise of being politically correct and tolerant of everybody else. A kind of self-deprecating modesty, if you will. Could that mean it was possible for them to, if provoked, speak openly about how they hated other countrymen? If we were so liberal, surely we had the balls to criticize humans, not just Americans. What was the difference between ‘having political balls’ and getting chastised? There was only one way to find out.
I had a column during my senior year at Wesleyan in the bi-weekly paper, the Wesleyan Argus. It ran the course of one semester, and it endured even after a piece in which I barraged Jonathan Safran Foer for his angelic, politically immune book topics (for those of you who don’t know, Foer’s first book was about the Holocaust, and his second, September 11th.) Was Foer, I asked, consciously plotting to discuss topics he knew people would enjoy? And, by enjoy, I mean relish the opportunity to talk mournfully about it until the cows (soldiers in Iraq) came home? OK, if it wasn’t conscious, could it have been subconscious?
As it turns out, Foer is a sweetheart who doesn’t eat meat, is modest and shy, and loves his grandmother. It took a live reading at Barnes and Noble for me to realize that. I still refuse to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Up Close, the less popular 9/11-themed follow-up to Everything Is Illuminated, which I did read. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect it, you know, the way I respect my ex-boyfriend’s current squeeze. Hey, good for you for moving on, but I don’t want to hear anything about your “follow-up,” especially how politically correct it is.
As it turned out, there were people attuned to Foer’s good-natured, do-gooder, goody-two-shoes persona(lity) long before I was. Correction: there was one person. A girl who could not speak English very well wrote a “Wespeak” (read: liberal rant) in the paper in response to my column, telling me how “extremely amazing and incredibly good” Jonathan Safran Foer’s books were. Needless to say, I was not convinced. She seemed to be protesting too much. And what I got the most of after that brief fallout was applause. People in computer labs at three in the morning would lean over in their swivel chairs and whisper, “I loved your piece about the Jews.”
But I did realize, after asking for and receiving my professor’s chastisement, that it was completely inappropriate to critique something I had not read.
So how about something I have? I just read the story in this week’s New Yorker about a couple who gave birth to a stillborn after a hopeful eight-month pregnancy following a previous miscarriage. It was a deeply affecting story, told by the husband, Daniel Raeburn, in a tone that was alternately melodramatic and gratingly scientific. Lugubrious, overwrought metaphors were followed by analytical, unemotional lists of facts — near rejections of everything that had come in the first category, and vice versa. Was the message that nothing about grieving is systematic or linear, that, after the fact, the writer of such misery can gain no superior or solid position on the topic? This was the thesis I garnered, and it was an arduous process to get there.
I found myself — more guiltily now, because of how much the article affected me — asking whether this piece had been accepted into the pages of the magazine precisely because of its content regardless of the flawed writing (there were subtle, arguable grammatical errors, which in my meanest moments, I decided were there to lend the work “artistic meaning.”) Was the author a writer full time? Did it matter? Well, yes. From the contents I deduced that Daniel Raeburn “is writing a book about literary comic books entitled The Imp of the Perverse, to be published next year. He lives in Chicago.”
And his daughter was stillborn. Raeburn included in his article an anecdote about Hemingway, in which the esteemed king of brevity was challenged to compose a six-sentence novel and came up with, “Baby shoes for sale; never worn.” I appreciated the inclusion, but I, (and perhaps Raeburn) have an inkling that Hemingway is always going to do it better even though he is dead and you (Raeburn, one) are still alive and have forty-odd years to try to surpass him.
Personal experience is the most valuable commodity in literature these days; it is also the most controversial and the most plentiful. It stirs up all kinds of political turmoil, as in the case of Oprah and Frey. It stirs up all kinds of revenue, as in the case of the memoir in general and James Frey in specific.
And it pisses a lot of people off. How many times do we need to hear about your abusive, drug-ridden childhood? How many times to we need to hear about what a stillbirth did to your marriage? We have Jhumpa Lahiri’s short-story about the miscarriage to do that. We have Hemingway’s novel. And anyway, did this even happen to you? Or is it truthiness that got you the million-dollar advance?
Raeburn alternately whispers and yells the following adage: the truth matters. But it’s a case-by-case issue. Sometimes, truthiness and lies are more evocative, more informative, and more important. But sometimes, truth reigns supreme. I’m not shrinking away from Bill Maher’s worthy platform when I say that Raeburn may have gotten it right — this time. What I learn from Maher is not to feel sorry for people just because you think you’re supposed to. Those people may not deserve it. Question political correctness because it’s a blanket term, and when you’re under the blanket, it’s awfully hard to see.
But what harm is going to come from feeling sorry for Daniel Raeburn and his wife? Cynics, myself included, will answer that we are already such a sentimental nation, consumed by nostalgia. But how sentimental can we really be if more than fifty percent of us agreed to go to war with Iraq? So we can preserve our cheesy memories? So no one can take them away from us? They’ve already tried to.
The compulsion to share one’s tragedy has undoubtedly been within us all for centuries; it’s only that the compulsion has become more accessible, more lucrative, and thus more dastardly, in recent years. Raeburn’s vapid details in some of the article may be an effort to quell the sentimental stigma associated with his plight, which he indulged elsewhere. But why get the story out there? To tell the well-educated, mostly white readers of the New Yorker who may have lost their children that they’re not alone? To confront the grotesque mystery of the human body head-on?
I don’t feel sorry for Daniel Raeburn. I feel sorry for myself for having the incapacity to understand his experience, even after having it so thoroughly excavated upon the pages of a magazine that reaches none of the people who really “matter.” Everybody matters, but “everybody”‘s off reading The Da Vinci Code, or A Million Little Pieces, and the rest of them are watching Bill O’Reilly. Those of us who want to preserve the sentimentality of this nation from the “unforgiving” radicals of Arab nations are going to church, praying for the soldiers in Iraq, and watching United 93.
In other words, we’re not doing anything helpful. It’s only those who have experienced tragedy first hand who are doing something more worthwhile than living vicariously through the tragedy for its shock-and-awe entertainment value. But all those first-handers are doing is indulging everyone else’s vicarious curiosity. What are the readers of the New Yorker and watchers of Bill Maher doing besides blogging, I’d like to know? I’m just as guilty of lassitude as the next La-Z-Boy. So we Americans have more in common with each other than we thought. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Privilege doesn’t have to be a handicap.