February 23, 2004
The Old Man
and the Flame
The inner flamer.
Its 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, theres
only one moment where I feel completely and gloriously justified in letting
Mr. Hyde off his leash, and thats in conversations dealing with Ralph
Nader and his defenders. Not at Nader himself, really, because its obvious
what his problem is. Its the people who still defend him and proudly announce
they voted for him in 2000 and theyll do it again who drive me out of
my tree. Theyre a miniscule number of people overall, and not really that
influentialbut I suppose they could be just influential enough, which
is very bad. As I said over at Chun
the Unavoidables, 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 cant flame more often, or when exactly it was that I developed a
helpless compulsion to fairness. Maybe theres 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 Ive just become The Man.
like to think its something more, that it is about taking the ethical
responsibilities of my profession seriouslysomething that I feel the usual
Punch-and-Judy responses of both right and left inside and outside of academia
dont do, no matter how strenuously they claim to. More pressingly, its
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
doesnt matter, in which only the unsullied narcissistic purity of expression
is the issue. I agree that the latter view sometimes produces beautiful prosea
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
I suppose sometimes the flamer might hope to change the behavior or views of others through shame, and thats the one time I still think its 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. Thats the Ann Coulter approach to the public sphere: I am become
Flamer, Destroyer of Worlds.
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 Id 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, hes not the guy I imagined Id become. Hes 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 theres something to it. I suppose its actually confirmation
of its accuracy that I dont think its 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 ones own blazing righteousness and care little for the consequences or the results. Thats 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.