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Published in Nonfiction/Politics
eBook Kindle Edition
There probably isn’t a single statement in this book that won’t have you thinking, ‘My god, that’s the product of a simple mind.’ That’s how this book works. Read what I’ve said on any matter, and you’ll recognize immediately how dreadfully, laughably, infuriatingly wrong I am. Almost as immediately you’ll see, in blinding clarity and the starkest possible contrast, how undeniably correct your view is on that very same matter. But, unless you find no entertainment whatsoever in such stuff, that shouldn’t stop you from reading the damned thing. It didn’t stop me from writing it.
This book is in large part a response to the overly serious, politically driven,
somewhat hyper young zealot who told me one evening that anyone who isn’t
busily trying to change the world is wasting his life. He used a catchier, more
erudite phrase than perpetual political agitation, which I cannot recall, but that is
what he was stumping for. He honestly, passionately believed that a bunch of
people stomping around in the streets, carrying signs and shouting catch
phrases—in those hours when they aren’t out begging for signatures on petitions—
has real effect on things political. Putting the foolishness of that belief aside for the
moment, I countered by asking what he thought of musicians whose life-long
commitment to their craft didn’t afford them time for the leisurely pursuit of protest.
I anticipated fireworks concerning my phrase the leisurely pursuit of protest, but
got only a flippant response damning all musicians, all writers, all artists
(cartoonists too, I’d guess) who weren’t using their craft to demand social change.
Art for Art’s sake, I was told (as if I might not have ever heard it before), is a crime.
This from a kid with a Maori pattern tattooed around his wrist.
With my wobbly old chin firmly tucked, my wiry eyebrows raised at full staff in mock
indignation, I began offering the names of musicians whose work I truly love, only
to be informed, one by one, that they had all lead useless lives.
Scott Joplin: life wasted. Stan Getz: the young revolutionary had never even heard
of him, so surely that was a wasted life. According to the kid (he’ll be known as
the kid from here on out), even the great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich—who was
banned from his beloved homeland for his unwavering stance against the Soviet
regime—hadn’t done enough. He told me this straight-faced. When I looked at him
more carefully to see if he was serious, I discovered that he was. At that point, I
knew with a certainty that the young man didn’t know what he was talking about.
Not that such insight gave me any leverage, because, though in complete
disagreement with him, I didn’t know what I was talking about either.
The difference was that I admitted it.
I don’t know a damned thing about politics, never have. More peculiar perhaps, I
don’t wish to know a damned thing about politics. For me, that day spent without
any incoming information whatsoever concerning politics, is a happy day. (Well,
has a better chance at any rate.) My indifference, which I stated to him clearly (or
at least as clearly as I have stated it here, just now, to you) seemed to rattle the
kid more than what he had first perceived to be my opposition to his sacredly-held
The difference here was I wasn’t trying to sell him on my point of view. (And you
can relax, because I’m not trying to sell you either.) I don’t care enough about
politics to argue about it, and that doesn’t bother me. It did bother the kid however.
To him, politics is a serious matter and unless you’re arguing about it, you’re not
taking it seriously enough. So, you can imagine his response when I told him, “I
don’t know enough about politics to even talk about it.”
The kid had no doubt whatsoever that he knew enough about politics to educate
me, if I was willing to shut up, listen, and learn.
I am always willing to shut up and listen, but almost never willing to learn, and I told
him as much, but that didn’t stop him. He was not only convinced that what he
knew about politics was right—which is the disease in its advanced form as far as I
can tell—he was also convinced that it was his sacred task to force his wisdom
down my somewhat unreceptive saggy old throat. As far as I could tell, he believed
it was not only for my own good, but for the good of all humanity that I understand,
accept and prepare myself to cooperate with his vision—such was the wisdom he
wished to impart. But, instead of falling to my knees, trembling in gratefulness
before him, I remained standing, grinning like an old idiot, foolish belligerence
bubbling within me.
I regret to say that at some point at the very beginning of his lecture I may have
laughed. He immediately fixed me with a cold and unforgiving eye.
“You don’t get it, do you?” he asked with equal parts accusation, frustration, anger
“I guess not,” I said without resistance.
I’d learned a very long time ago that when someone in the heat of politically driven
passion says, “You don’t get it, do you?” it’s just quicker, cleaner, neater and more
efficient to admit it. If you have any acting ability, you might want to hang your
head in shame, when you first recognize this unforgivable fault within yourself.
Actually though, I did get it. Or, I thought I got the gist of it anyway: he had wisdom
to dispense and it was vital to me, whether I recognized it or not, to receive this
wisdom. What he didn’t seem to get was the very simple fact that I wasn’t
interested in politics; that I thought there might be other things of value in Life. He
saw my indifference to politics as criminal. I saw his indifference to Stan Getz as a
very great shame. But, I wasn’t about to sit him down and slap on a disc while
coaxing, “Listen—just listen—this is beautiful.” I’ve made that mistake enough
times in my life to know the results going in. I also know that those times when
anyone has done that to me—sat me down to listen to something they thought
wonderful—the music they’ve wanted me to listen to and admire has usually been
just some god-awful useless crap which, but for a courteous upbringing, I’d have
walked away from hoping never to have to hear again.
I tried to tell the kid that I did get it; that I understood what he was saying; that I just
didn’t share his beliefs concerning either the weight or the urgency of most political
matters. In fact, the people involved most deeply in the damned stuff seem to
agree with me in the matter of urgency. It takes Congress a thousand years to
decide if they are going to establish a panel to determine whether a particular
matter should be considered for a study to determine if it should be introduced as
an appropriate matter for consideration by an already established committee, or a
new committee should be formed to study it further. And, if it ever does come
before them, it’s very likely to be tabled for later consideration. This is why very
few Firemen ever run for political office.
Out of kindness I reiterated what I thought I’d heard him say: that unless you were
out in the streets, with a reddened face and veins popping out all over your neck
and forehead, shouting demands with your fist in the air, you were part of the
problem. I then told him what I thought: that if you were out in the streets you might
as well be out there strolling around with someone eminently huggable and well
worth flirting with clinging to your arm, or out there with no greater purpose than to
enjoy the day. Out of that same kindness I stopped short of telling him that sitting
in a park, on a bench, under a nice tree, pretending to read a large book with an
impressive looking title, while lost in utter mindlessness, probably has the same
political impact as whatever it was he would have us all doing instead.
Here’s the crux of it:
Unfortunately—and I mean that in the most sincere way— my complete
indifference to politics doesn’t prevent me from holding a political opinion. It does
not prevent me from thinking that opinion—whether solidly based on fragmentary
misinformation or utterly baseless—is right. It does not keep me from defending
that opinion when necessary with any amount of vehemence I feel might be called
for, or from attempting to sell it to others.
Nor does it prevent me from voting.
That’s the very essence of this book.
(I may say it a hundred different ways, but that’s pretty much all I have to say.)
But, let’s go back a step.
When I told the kid anyone would have to be an idiot to deny Rostropovich’s
influence both in music and politics,he snorted derisively. His view—which was
merely ideologically driven lunacy—would not allow him to consider even the
simplest, most undeniable fact which did not conform to that view note for note.
As I was looking at him I found myself wondering why so many kids who have
surrendered their ability to think for themselves, and have taken up the (frequently
bloody) banner of mindless ideology, look so much like Leon Trotsky. (There’s a
simple undeniable fact for you.) I began wondering if this rah-rah attitude about
changing the world through politics might be detected in the genes. If it can, I’m
sure it’s closely tied to a gene that doesn’t allow them to see their own privileged
position clearly…or perhaps a gene that forces them to resent it.
The kid didn’t appear to have any appreciation whatsoever for the freedom that
allowed him to choose his own personal blindness—a freedom which at once also
stoutly defends his right to go around spouting his philosophy in the presence of
old men who stupidly do not care to hear it.
While leading his wasted life, Rostropovich was forced to flee his homeland, for
(amongst other things) refusing to lie about how wonderful things supposedly were
in that awful place. Years later, when the great cellist was invited back to play in
Red Square, in the midst of a coup, and later still at the Berlin Wall, while the
crowd brought the thing down chunk by graffiti-covered chunk, the kid was
probably still laying around, swaddled in red diapers, screaming red-faced,
rejecting the very bottle that fed him the pap he was now regurgitating in
undigested chunks in my presence.
Maybe Rostropovich could have done more. Maybe he could have stopped
playing the cello long enough to tear down that wall himself single-handedly. Of all
the people gathered there he may have had the greatest right to do that, as well
as the deepest understanding of that event’s significance. But, he chose to play
the cello instead.
Does that tell you anything?
It speaks volumes to me.
Meanwhile…the kid was still busy trying to convince me—an old man who clearly
didn’t give a damn—that we can influence politics, and thereby the world, and all
for the good. It was with great difficulty that I reined in my urge to tell him, “My god,
you’re a tenacious, arrogant and stupid little bastard.” That was my unspoken
“Actually,” I began to tell him, but stopped before completing the thought.
What I had been about to say was that I thought the world would be better off with
more people studying the cello and fewer people out there marching around,
chanting lame-brained slogans off-key and out of sync, in the streets. I’m not sure
that’s entirely true—which is why I stopped—but that was my thinking for that very
I stopped to give the matter some thought. (Yes, we’re still allowed to do that, even
in the midst of political discourse.) I was befuddled because, in a very real way, I
admired this young man. I was observing him fairly closely, and I really enjoyed his
passion. In a very real way (again) I think that is the level at which we should live
out our lives. I’m fairly sure his strictly focused devotion to changing the world (for
what he himself deemed to be the better) is the very same stuff that allows
someone to become a great cellist; it may well be the prime essential. I respect
passion, and I admire commitment and I have never said a bad thing about
determination (all things I do not myself possess), but I’m not so sure that such
passion, commitment and determination applied to changing the world through
politics is not a dangerous thing… not to the world of course—I’m pretty sure, the
world will take care of itself—but to the kid. The world, I’m beginning to believe has
pretty much had its fill of us and our politics, but the kid still has a great deal of life
ahead of him.
If I had thought it was my job to save this kid (and I didn’t) I’d also have to assume
that my bold/awkward attempt would only be rejected; most likely met with nothing
more than a sneer. And so, Good luck to you, young man! Good luck and fat
chance. Those were my parting thoughts on the subject. Though unexpressed,
they were probably clear enough. (The kid and I seemed to be pretty well tuned
into each other at that point.)
Good luck and fat chance is not a convincing argument of course, and for him to
tell me that I was leading a useless life—a fact of which I am already very well
aware—is only kicking a useless old man when he’s down. So, we had both offered
unconvincing arguments, and neither of us walked away a new convert to a
I thought the kid was a young idiot.
He thought I was an old fool.
The fact is we were both right.
The entire history of mankind, at every level, is the story of one person trying to
impose the tyranny of his opinion upon others. The extent to which violence, force
and coercion of every sort has played in persuading them to accept that opinion,
says something about how strongly we each cherish our own. But, it says nothing
about the real value of our opinions. And, so, let’s do that here.
We all have our opinions, none of them mean a thing.
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Thirty-some years ago I wrote seven full-length plays and, even after all these years, I strongly believe that any one of those plays, properly folded, might still make an excellent doorstop.