February 23, 2004

The Old Man and the Flame

The inner flamer. It’s such a temptation to let it loose. I feel like Black Bolt of the Inhumans: if I but speak, half the city could be destroyed.

In my salad days, I could crack off a mighty flame. Ah! In the Usenet days of alt.society.generation-x, when the resident objectivist could drive me to the dark side of the Force with a single post. Or rec.arts.startrek.current, when all it took to set me off was the resident feminist “Voyager” fan praising Captain Janeway and telling all the critics that they were misogynists for hating the show. Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you.

These days, there’s only one moment where I feel completely and gloriously justified in letting Mr. Hyde off his leash, and that’s in conversations dealing with Ralph Nader and his defenders. Not at Nader himself, really, because it’s obvious what his problem is. It’s the people who still defend him and proudly announce they voted for him in 2000 and they’ll do it again who drive me out of my tree. They’re a miniscule number of people overall, and not really that influential—but I suppose they could be just influential enough, which is very bad. As I said over at Chun the Unavoidable’s, the incoherent mish-mash of justifications for voting Nader, as well as the complete shamelessness of those offering them, just brings out the worst in me.

I sometimes wonder why I can’t flame more often, or when exactly it was that I developed a helpless compulsion to fairness. Maybe there’s something to this notion that the older you get, if you get more and more comfortable and attached to responsibilities, the higher the cost of acting up, the more you become a kept creature of the system. Maybe I’ve just become The Man.

Maybe. I’d like to think it’s something more, that it is about taking the ethical responsibilities of my profession seriously—something that I feel the usual Punch-and-Judy responses of both right and left inside and outside of academia don’t do, no matter how strenuously they claim to. More pressingly, it’s about efficacy, about how you make your convictions meaningful and powerful in the world.

The flamer really has only a few roads to efficacy and influence. There's one in which he or she forces everyone to accept his or her view through command over institutional power (in which case the flame itself is no more than a calling card for other kinds of compulsion). There's another in which achieving results in the world doesn’t matter, in which only the unsullied narcissistic purity of expression is the issue. I agree that the latter view sometimes produces beautiful prose—a brilliantly written flame, curse or diatribe is a pleasure to read. So thank god for the occasional narcissist, but only if they also happen to be brilliantly bilious stylists.

I suppose sometimes the flamer might hope to change the behavior or views of others through shame, and that’s the one time I still think it’s worth it to let the beast out (as I do against Nader voters): when only outrage and defiance has a hope of breaking through a wall of denial and stupidity. That's my only defense in that case: Nader voters appear so unpersuadable by any other means--in fact to be proud of their near-total invulnerability to any persuasion--that there's nothing left besides flinging feces at them. There are others on the American political landscape similarly cursed with mule-headedness, but I don't flame them because either I don't understand or know them well enough to be sure of their unpersuadability (whereas I feel like I understand Nader voters very well) or because, frankly, they're powerful enough numerically or culturally that it's important to keep trying to push the boulder up the hill no matter how Sisyphean the task.

That's one other thing a flame can do: when your cause is lost and hopeless and yet you are still certain that you are right, a flame can be the last thing you do before defeat, a refusal to go gentle into that good night. In that case, a flame is an admission of fatal weakness and should be read as such. Perhaps that's me and Nader voters: I know nothing can stop them so why the hell not scream at them, just to get my own catharsis.

Finally, the flamer can be a blackmailer who demands he or she be given what he or she wants or or he or she will lay waste to any possibility of a reasonable exchange between equals. That’s the Ann Coulter approach to the public sphere: I am become Flamer, Destroyer of Worlds.

Being addicted to mediation and fairness, to exploration of complexity, is actually pretty exhausting. You get a lot of shit from everyone in all directions, and very little thanks for it. Some days I’d rather be an anarchic free spirit, rather go back to dancing in private glee after dropping the bomb on the weakest link, the most suspect argument, the most clueless fool, rather go back to being the hairy eyebrowed bombthrower hurling discord from the back of the room. This other guy who usually comes out to play here and elsewhere in my professional life, well, he’s not the guy I imagined I’d become. He’s dour and perpetually disappointed in the weaknesses of himself and even more of other people. In one virtual community I have participated in, a departing member who took the time to spew venom on his way out said that I was a person who wanted to be superior to other people and liked by them because of it. I remember that because there’s something to it. I suppose it’s actually confirmation of its accuracy that I don’t think it’s all that terrible a thing to be. I also admit that a commitment to reasonable persuasiveness and unvarnished if polite truth-telling can often be a quite satisfyingly contrarian, dissenting, provocative thing in its own right.

Still, flaming seems a more glorious, free thing to be and do. It would be liberating to stop bothering to instruct, cajole, plead, work with, mediate and persuade, to worry about nothing but one’s own blazing righteousness and care little for the consequences or the results. That’s rather like voting for Nader. Which reminds me of why I really stopped doing it, because I saw again and again that when even a few people flame, the whole discursive house burns down.