Thursday, July 14, 2011

Broken Action Figures

So here I come to the conclusion of Mike the Broken GI Joe.  There is just one last part of him I have yet to fully account for, and it's not only the most important, it ties the rest of his arc together.  Mike is in many ways a reflection of people I see every day, and things that we all experience but could never fully understand.  It has to do with empathy and compassion, the conditions we place on both, and even the lack thereof.  Because compassion was the puzzle piece missing from Mike.  Whether he once had it and lost it or never knew it to begin with, I don't know.  But he was as sick as our society for want of it, and if there is one thing that can cure the problems that we face, it's that.

In one of the last conversations I ever had with Mike, he explained to me the reasoning behind his complete and utter lack of empathy towards anyone who was not either exactly like him or a direct relation.  The world had been ruined by others, he had been wronged by others, he could never go back to the way things were when he was younger and more innocent, and he bore utterly no responsibility for any of it.  I had thought it was purely and simply hate, but hate has never been an emotion that ever existed by itself.  Hate requires something to precede it--more often than not anger or fear.  What every self-proclaimed liberal or Democrat I talked to since Obama was elected failed to grasp was that it was the fear of those not like oneself that powered the Tea Party.  Fear of Muslims, fear of gays, fear of liberals, fear of Latinos, hipsters, atheists, China, whatever else you want to throw at it.  It was class resentment, from people like Mike who came from working class backgrounds and never got a fair chance in life, who were conditioned from birth never to ask for help, and to look down on those who do, and because of this have concluded that it's every man for themselves.  Mike's way out of poverty was the Marines, which took a violent, vicious, brutal man and by way of ending his innocence hammered him into a productive member of the economy, if not society.  All Mike ever knew was pain, misery, fear, and insecurity.  I can't hate him.  I pity him.  He was scared of his own shadow, and not necessarily without good reason.

What Mike feared most of all, however, was change.  Change for Mike almost always meant change for the worse.  Think about what that does to a person over the course of 30-40 years.  From promise to disappointment to bitterness to just struggling to survive.  Mike never found love, he hardly ever dated, and sex meant whatever he could get taking someone home from a club.  He was, for all intents and purposes, all alone in the world.  Whether or not that was his own damn fault is irrelevant to the point.  The effect of all this on a person is what matters, and over the ten years I knew him, I watched it devastate him.

If there has been any one theme in postwar America, it has been the urge to run away.  Run away first from poverty, crime, and dirtiness, and when that failed run away from responsibility.  It's hard to blame us: when you have access to wealth and means to rid yourself of unsightliness largely free of consequence, you'll take it every time no matter however you justify it.  Please try to understand that I am not faulting suburbs and malls here.  They are a product of circumstances, an efficient solution to a complex problem of transportation and economics, and have produced a great deal of wealth.  But rushing off to the suburban dream comes with unintended consequences, and it is largely those consequences that we are dealing with now, for a very specific reason.  I am talking about fear, and specifically the fear of those unlike yourself.  I have heard this called Blogger Syndrome, groupthink, and many other names, but for the purposes of this post, let's define it.  Whenever you are surrounded by people with whom you agree, you will become very resentful of those who do not.  That's one component.  The other--functional illiteracy--I have already talked about copiously in previous Mike the Broken GI Joe posts.  Combined, they are a recipe for disaster.  The truth of the matter is, affluent middle class liberals and Democrats have hardly ever met working-class conservatives, and when they do, it is often in the form of the latter performing a service for the former.  The only people willing to talk to these people and listen to them are wealthy conservatives, who arrive with an agenda and have discovered they can gain a lot of power by manipulating and misinforming them and playing to their fear and resentment.  What else was Glenn Beck but the ultimate huckster of fear?  That is the dilemma.

I have until now listed a lot of problems with society at large that I felt Mike embodied.  These are not simple issues, and these posts have a been a welcome meditation on them.  There is a solution, but I don't know how practical or likely it is, and there's always a problem of scaling.  I don't hate Mike.  I regret that I had to cut ties with him, because in the end, he's taught me so much.  I'm not going to sit here and pretend that we never had these problems at some point in the past, and that things used to be better.  Things are, as bleak as they seem right now, better than they've ever been.  I truly believe that.  Many accuse me of being naive when I say this, but I also truly believe in the innate goodness of mankind.  We live in a time when those who scream the loudest are awarded the power.  The internet has given us a wealth of knowledge and conveniences, but also a wealth of misinformation and competing realities.  Television in this day and age is much the same.  We're not listening to each other.  We're all just shouting over one another.  We have no interest in the people who fix our cars, check us out at the grocery store, and clean our homes.  The people who do these things fear and resent us for it.  But it doesn't have to be this way.

My fiancee's parents' downstairs bathroom is wallpapered in a repeating set of catch phrases and cliches.  Most of them I find I can agree with, but there is one I simply cannot abide.  It reads: "Don't tell others about your indigestion.  'How are you?' is a greeting, not a question."  I think the phrase "How are you?" can and must be a question.  It's the only way we'll ever be able to find any empathy for strangers, people who may or may not be like us.  We pass strangers on the street and in the supermarket and the drug store and the bank, the mall, the movie theater, our waiter in a restaurant, the girl who serves us coffee and we never give them a second thought.  They are functionally objects to us.  But each one of those myriad faces you see, judge, and subsequently forget about day in and day out is a person just like you, with their own hopes, dreams, crushing disappointments, anger, fear, and hope.  Mike was broken because he either could not or would not see it that way.  Because his reaction to that was so extreme, he is a useful example of what can go wrong when we give up on humanity.  Luckily, the solution is not hard.  I have won over fans of my work and friends alike simply by wanting to know something more about the person who waits on me or the clerk who checks me out buying groceries or medicine or both.  More importantly, it makes doing these things fun.  It literally takes so little effort, and it brightens both their day and yours.

I'm not asking that we give up our basic human nature.  In fact, I would say that I've argued just the opposite.  But if we're stuck with it, we may as well understand it and use it to help ourselves--and others.  It would be a terrible waste to ignore it, or worse, use it to destructive ends.  We lost when we turned away from each other.  I have much more to say on this, but this post is already long enough, so I'll leave it at this for now.  This is the core of what I've come to realize over my struggles in the past two years, and I want to return to it again and again.  Mike to me is a tragedy that's everybody's fault.  I have done all these things that Mike did myself, and so has everyone else.  No one asks us to deny ourselves these feelings, but we should at least be aware of them and act accordingly.  Doing so is so simple, it's often overlooked in favor of far more arduous and complicated alternatives.  But doing so also forces us to acknowledge who we are, good and bad, and that is very difficult.  I don't count myself lucky or consider myself special that I've been able to come as far as I had this way.  That's just how things have worked out.  If any part of the process changed, the outcome would have been different.  Mike was another way it could have ended.

I don't know what happened to Mike.  I wonder what he'll do with himself a year from now, two, ten.  Things weren't looking good the last I heard from him.  I hope that he finds some kind of peace and release from his fear, but the truth is I just don't know.  Part of me doesn't want to know, either.  If that's the way it is, so be it.  I'm at peace with it.  He was a good friend and a troubled man, whose influence over me was seldom eclipsed.  He's neither good nor bad, he's just Mike, a broken GI Joe of a man.

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