Contrarianism in the Age of Cancel Culture

In his excellent book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote: 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. A noble sentiment, and a good thrust at the Gradgrinds and utilitarians. Bear in mind, however, that Utopia itself was a tyranny and that much of the talk about the analgesic and conflict-free ideal is likewise more menacing than it may appear. These Ultimates and Absolutes are attempts at Perfection, which is—so to speak—a latently Absolutist idea. (You should scan Brian Victoria’s excellent book Zen at War, which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.)”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Apple Books.

If you want to cancel someone (a harrowing parlance) all you have to do is say he she or they is not up to the ideal of perfection. The Fascist or Stalinist doesn’t rest until the world is cleaned of imperfect people.

I’ve always been a problem because I trouble the public nerve of ableism—which for me means the industry of harming all marginalized people for the disabled are black, brown, Asian, Latino, white, old, queer, and owing to normative formations, (utilitarianism) wishes to eliminate all who are physically different.

Not liking what someone says is not sufficient reason to eliminate them though I may wish you’d shut up. I don’t believe in the language of cancel.

Nor do I believe academics should be fired for holding loathsome opinions. If the ideas are bad they’ll not stand the test of time. 

Hitchens again:

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

It’s hard to be a dissenter because you’ll not be much applauded. 

I’m a fan of Kwame Appiah’s book “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture” which troubles the incorporation of singular cultural positions. Identity is built around insider vs. outsider negotiations or worse, willful erasures.

Identities matter to people. They offer spiritual and juridical power and create the basis for critical solidarity and progress. As Appiah points out, identity gives us reasons to do things. They also give others reasons to do things “to you” and all human rights activists know it.

Appiah writes:

“In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you. Finally, all these dimensions of identity are contestable, always up for dispute: who’s in, what they’re like, how they should behave and be treated.”

Its the contestability of prefiguration I’m interested in. You shouldn’t subborn blackness or disability or gender to abstract, privileged philosophical thinking. But identity also creates hollow perfectionism as Hitchens knew.  I’ve seen blind people ridicule other blind people because they chose to walk with guide dogs as opposed to white canes. Cultural call out is aimed at canceling the contestable. It leads to public shaming and trolling. 

I’m also a big fan of the writer Roxanne Gay who writes about resisting the racialized and patriarchal oppression aimed at the diminishment of black women’s bodies.  No one should be able to diminish bodies. We defend our identities for excellent reasons. 

We have many things to do out there as Appiah says. Turning away from the humanitarian power of identity is not a good idea. Contesting the traps of identity rhetoric is important however. I have white privilege. I also can’t get into restaurants and taxi cabs because I have a service dog. I live in multiple identity traps. Appiah ends his book with a famous Latin quote:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

Lying on the Frozen Lawn in Syracuse

Open the door. Newspaper in the grass. Big headline about local basketball team. I decide to lie in the grass.

Don’t be sentimental.

Be sentimental.

When the frost hits my shoulder blades I get up, go into the house. Start a fire with the newspaper.

**

I like Paul. After the road to Damascus he understood folly. Christ risen is the most glorious and improbable thing. You can’t make good sense out of it. And that’s god.

(A thought while lying on the lawn….)

**

As for me….I’m folly too. And I make so many mistakes. But it’s the spiritual ones that matter. Poetry like god is improbable.

**

When I was an undergrad I found a couplet by one of my teachers, the poet James Crenner: “Life is like a game of chess /death is like two games of chess.”

I loved the wit of this and still do. For instance: If you checkmate death (a la Bergman) are you reborn or do you sit throughout all eternity waiting for another opponent? Does death always win? Does Jesus play chess? What about the effects of analogy, to borrow Wallace Stevens’ phrase, that is, since life and death are not like chess what do we gain or lose by saying so?

**

I really was lying on the lawn in the bright frost.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Church: Or, Freshman Year

I couldn’t help it. I was just a child who thought the crows were far more interesting than the Sunday school lesson. Moses was in his basket. Shit. I was only five and I thought: “good for him.” Later I’d see something of myself in Huck Finn and much later I’d admire a series of ruinous literary boys but not just then. The crows were fighting over something dead. How could the bullrushes compete? I wondered if Moses heard crows as he floated. This was one of my first lessons in art as I saw early there was no one I could ask.

**

Sometimes I think that if I’d been a sighted person I’d have avoided attending college, been like Orwell and gone off to Burma. But I couldn’t see and had no training in independence and with no idea about how to live or what to do I attended the University of New Hampshire in the Fall of 1973. I was too blind to pursue higher education without serious accommodations. My parents were certain that I’d just go on living my life of half successful “pretend sight” and really, in truth, they couldn’t care less what happened to me. Too blind to read more than an hour a day and heavily reliant on marijuana I stumbled around Durham, New Hampshire in a depressive fog. My dormitory was less than a mile from the church where I’d admired the crows just thirteen years prior. One cold morning I went there alone and sat under the crow tree.

**

The war in Viet Nam was raging. Even the largely square UNH students were against it. Some were innocent by which I mean they went streaking for 1973 was the heyday of throwing off clothing and running wildly across campus. I joked with a friend, said, “they’re doing this because the food is terrible.”

**

A boy across the hall from me called me “blindo” almost every day. I found out where he parked his car and pissed in his gas tank.

**

My year at the University of New Hampshire went poorly. I smoked pot daily and earned “C’s” in the few classes I bothered to attend. I couldn’t see shit. There were no reliable adults in my life.

I took to sitting under my church tree at least once a week.

**

The crows got to know me. I was convinced of this. Even when they were mobbing and spatting they knew me and some would take food from my hands. Some sat in the branches and talked. The thing is, I had no one to tell.

I understood my fierce loneliness as being other than a happenstance thing.

**

When you’re blind as I am you can still see tiny motes of light appearing and disappearing.

Evening Hymn

The windows of boyhood, blue as a midsummer’s night,
The wishing, fantasy, organ tones from our Philco.

Blind at the screen, softness of air—
These I give back Lord. I sing them here.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Easter Wings

My father died on this day 19 years ago. Though he was nearly 80 he was in good health and his sudden passing was therefore unexpected. In the subjective I’ve never been able to celebrate Easter since by which I mean the easy, fanciful, chocolate bunny American Easter. Because my dad died on this day I’ve been compelled to confront the resurrection of Christ in its ur-ontologies—if we’re stricken here, with death inevitable, what does the promise of life everlasting through Jesus mean?

Augustine wrote:

“And he departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there. For he left us, and behold, he is here.”

Note the demarcation of sight and heart—the old Christian insistence that we see as through a glass darkly or in turn we do not really see at all. Faith is sight according to the church and that sight is inward, unlimited, joyous.

Strictly speaking everything you can no longer see is in your heart. Your poor heart. It must stand for memory, soul, eternity, and be the church itself.

The Christian heart is a big thing.

Sight and heart and memory and faith become one with the resurrection of Christ.

You might say it’s easier to believe in the chocolate bunny. Augustine:

“Consider seriously, how much we should love eternal life, when this miserable life, that’s got to end anyhow some time, is loved so dearly … So you love this life, do you, in which you struggle, and run around, and bustle about and gasp for breath; and you can scarcely count the things that have to be done in this wretched life: sowing, plowing, planting, sailing, grinding, cooking, weaving. And after all this, your life has got to end anyhow … So learn, brothers and sisters, to seek eternal life, where you will not have to endure these things, but will reign with God forever.”

Now Dear Saint Augustine, seeking eternal life is so much harder than getting ahold of some chocolate eggs.

The striving for optimism—an ontology of meanings, good meanings, affirmations beyond just this one life—this is what striving and the heart are for.

This much I know.

And here is my favorite Easter poem….Easter Wings by George Herbert:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Goodbye, Bird That Shat On Me

My mother was an alcoholic and not a functional one. Her life was marked by drawn curtains, broken fingers, phantom pains and prescription drugs which, mixed with scotch tended to make her psychotic. When I was a college freshman and no longer living at home she stalked my younger sister around the house clutching a knife. My sister took refuge in a locked bathroom and waited it out. By dawn our mother was asleep on the living room floor in a tangle of shoes and bottles. This story is in no way singular—my sister and I are just tiny dots in the ocean of abused children. The story of my adult life has been the relentless pursuit of self-acceptance, forgiveness, emotional intelligence, and compassion. I think forgiveness and compassion are different as forgiveness can be merely political and compassion is more concerned with lovingkindness.

I work with people who don’t necessarily like me. Chances are good you do too. You may be tougher than I. You might not care about the ghosting malevolence of the workplace, the soiled superegos of competitively unhappy souls who turn up in every meeting, warehouse, classroom—or for that matter even in leisure spaces. Me? I tend to care too much about the opinions of others. This is because the long emotional after effects of my upbringing make me prone to a knee jerk impulse to fix things. If people are ugly I think it’s my job to improve them.

That’s of course its own addiction. I’ll solve your problem. Get you another drink so you won’t hit me. Disguise the damage to the best of my ability. I’ll make excuses for you. I’ll imagine your unhappiness is my fault.

Until one day I don’t. One day after attending Al Anon and undergoing some excellent therapy I decided my mother was on her own.

Nowadays I attend to my own esteem though not without set backs. There’s a senior professor at the university where I work who went out of his way to sabotage me behind my back—an ableist, smug, privileged “shyte” as the Irish would say. I don’t think I can forgive him and I certainly can’t imagine offering lovingkindness.

I know this is what I should do.

I’m a lefty Episcopalian.

Then it dawns on me: I can let him go like a pigeon one has restored to health. Out the window he goes with a spark of feathers. He soars through tangled clothes lines. I shut the window. Turn up Mozart on the radio.

Lovingkindness can in fact be letting the bird who once shat on you find his own way.

About Yesterday or What Teachers Must Teach…

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about the perils of single issue politics and the erosion of critical thinking especially as these things pertain to teaching. Here are the things I suspect I’ll be accused of saying which I absolutely did not say: that racism doesn’t exist; that white people don’t have inordinate privileges; that minority opinions are fanatical; that the only way forward in the civic square is to become some kind of moderate.

I do not believe any of those things.

What I do think is that the common good has been demoted to fantasy. Listening to others is considered a waste of time. Any position that’s front loaded with rage is good.

Because these things are largely the case teaching is more important now than ever. From pre-school to grad school teachers have the opportunity to promote what Paolo Freire described as entering into reality:

“The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Notice Freire’s fascinating disavowal of the egoistic considerations that accompany the impulse toward dogmatism.

Here’s another Freire quote I find useful:

“Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation.”

**

I fervently believe love—a true experience of love—is abstaining from seeing the self only through singular positions. Liberation is knowing that disability, blackness, queerness, gender are bio political rhetorics of social constraint. Every. Last. One. Is an impoverishing tale.

Rage from a narrow ledge but you will be bitter and exploited.

**

My friend, the poet Preston Hood, who, among other things is a wounded war veteran writes about piercing through the illusions that separate us in a poem entitled “The Vocabulary Between Us:—

There is a thin covering
Between us & the world.

Sometimes it is the inward blue
Of our souls learning what to become.

Other times I hold you before me
Able to love all of what I have now.

**

Succumbing to individualized or identity rage is what the oppressors want of you.
This is what teachers must teach.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger