Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Plant Story

I have a memory of a relief teacher when I was twelve. He was around only one term. He disappeared when my English teacher came back from maternity leave. I think I saw him again one time, later that same year. I thought - from the corner of my eye - I might almost whirl upon him, see him, remember him. I hesitated. Then I looked back and never knew if it was. He was gone.
And in this one term there was no homework to do, and no notes to take in class, and no tests. All he ever did was talk the local politics of the day unbridled, unloading his gripes and angry tempests into the classroom. None of my classmates liked him much. They wondered aloud if he would begin something constructive, something enriching, something that would allow them to paint their eyes with glowing-flying-colours to report home about. He used to ignore them, even when they started to rant at him to stop. He paid them no heed, regularly coming to class to unfold his monologue about the way-things-were, and how-they-should-be, his critique spiralling out of control until the bell rang and it was time for him to go.
My classmates were resourceful by mid-term, securing information about him, hoping to use it against him, to unleash some deep dark secret to sew his mouth shut, and to break him down. I wondered what it would look like, this middle-aged man, skinny and plainly but formally dressed, with the very severely parted hair, and the simple plastic framed spectacles, with the chopping motions of his hands and his uncomfortable grimace-snarl whenever he railed about the government. It was always a new topic, but always an old theme. The day that my classmates planned to crack him open, he started on a new topic, predictably, something about constituency boundaries and elections and the fairness of representative government. I remembered that I needed to write down all these, suddenly fastidious about it, like I was recording something significant and important - an event. And it was an event, it was to be the destruction of this man, not yet near the end of his life, but surely far enough from its beginning to have made some deal of his existence; it was to be the destruction of a man wrought by children.
One classmate stands up to begin a chant, and I realise immediately that I am not part of the conspiracy. I do not know the mantra. Someone didn't tell it to me. This is the tip of the iceberg. More and more of my classmates stand up and begin the mantra, they are all honed and ready for this moment. They seem to have practiced it no end. We don't need no education, no thought control. The voices are a mixed bag of voices that have broken, and those that haven't, still high-pitched, like girls. It is a chorus: "We know you were a plant! We know you were a plant! We know you were a plant!"
It makes absolutely no sense at all, but it is a wall of sound and it marches up to the relief teacher and breaks him in half. He doesn't weep, nor tear, but his face is ashen, and his voice cuts off midsentence. I don't know what it means, and I am casting about the faces of my classmates, virtually all on their feet (though it is clear that some, like me, were left out of the loop and the circle of trust, and the junior pyramid of powers and elite knowledge), chanting away, and no one gives me any clue about what this is about, or why the relief teacher is starting to crumple into less than a human. He seems to shrivel, like despair is a cancer growing too fast, rapidly consuming his whole person - he seems bent and out of shape, all jutting angles and crashed haphazardly into a nest of shattered-ness.
My classmates have won, I think to myself. They have unearthed some magick to annihilate the relief teacher. Their insensible and arcane words have done him in. I do not expect it when the relief teacher shouts them down: "How dare you?" It is so loud that my classmates are stunned. Some fall backwards and trip over their chairs behind them. Another cowers. Another squeals like a stuck pig. And another and another and another. And I look between the faces of the once confident and chanting boys, and I see their animals in their eyes, noses, twisted mouths and craggy teeth.
"How dare you?" he shouts again, and my classmates are squating behind their tables, hands to heads to stop them from being blown apart.
"You do not know what it means! You do not understand what it means!" the relief teacher storms around the room. He is hunched, perspiring, withering and dying every second, yet belting out all his words, casting them like stones at all the cowardice that shiver-quivers in corners, hoping to remain out of sight-mind.
"When they first asked me to run against the Great Leader, it seemed like a joke. I was nobody. I was a lowly English teacher in a middle-range, mixed-ability school. I had an ordinary academic career, and nothing to crow about in my curriculum viTAE!" he shouted the last, spittle flying. "I thought they were joking. I thought they were the Opposition, desperate and pathetic, pleading for anyone with nothing to lose, to just run against the Great Leader in the election. Run against him and give him all you've got..." he paused, wiping his brow, gritting his teeth, fixing me in his gaze it seemed, and then never looking away from then on, boring into me, drilling home, screaming-etching his story into my life. "They said what I expected they would. They said 'go ahead and do your best! We're willing to back you! We've looked high and low for a person like you. The Great Leader is one of those elegant-eloquents. He is too much for us, with our awkward punctuation, faltering grammar, sad-sorry-vocabulary, and unclever soundbites. We knew we needed an English teacher. We found you!' I said to them that there was some mistake. I had nothing to offer. I was ordinary, mediocre. A simple man, with simple ambitions and nothing more. I only wanted to teach. I sought only to do my lessons in peace, and come the close of the school session, to retire with the remains of my day into some gentle oblivion. But they stole me from my facile comforts! They taunted me with designs of boldness and greatness! I was seduced by my possibilities, the whispered maybes and perhapses... oh I was so enamoured of the opportunities! I said 'Yes' with little resistance. I lost my mediocrity that day. I traded it for infamy. I traded it for this person I am now. I traded it for nothing.
"So the election came trundling along into our world, in sepia tones I remember it so well. I worked my speeches hard. I did my research. I was going to run as an independent against the Great Leader. Those who'd invited me to run against him; they said: 'Better that we cover our tracks in this one. The greater your effort! The more David-Goliath-like your campaign! The more epic is your fight! You run as an independent, and when we all meet in parliament, we will make our coalition, create a bloc, a united front, a sea-change, a different face to this government!' I was inspired, I tell you. You don't know what that means. You have every single outside chance in the universe, and it means nothing and everything all at once. And you think the hand of heaven is on your shoulder. You think you have your place in the sun. And you think that fortune has held the world still for a moment, and in this still point in the turning earth, you are going to be the man-of-the-hour.
"So I remember that rally speech, the first and last of my career. The constituency was a large one, and before the walkabouts and the hand-shaking, I was to make an introductory speech of myself to the constituents. I heard such buzz in the media about me. People were interested in finding out who I was. There were going to be people there! Listening to me! Imagine my nervousness and my fear! Imagine my hope and my desire for it to be upon me!
"And I took to the rostrum, and I looked into the sea of faces, and the lights were blinding in that evening, and the photographers were blasting at me, and the world was all hushed, and I was so sure I could read every single face watching-listening for me. I looked to my speech. I looked out to the crowd. And I saw those men who had invited me to run against the Great Leader. And I saw them in the colours of the Great Leader's party. I saw them hold aloft flags of the Great Leader's party. I saw them punch the air when they saw me, and they gave me a knowing grin, a pact with my own devil, in my own soul, blackened with grained spots, rank with its own stupid ambition, taken by its own suggestions. I was a plant. That is what they had wanted me to be. They had put me up for this. They wanted me to do some clownish dumb-show, mime my way to oblivion in public, collapse, die, and send the message clearly. No one in their right mind would oppose the Great Leader, only a Fool. A technical foil for the protagonist. Discarded before the final act. Not worth being present at the denouement.
"I died that day. I was a plant. I died. And true to my mediocrity, I abandoned my speech. I embraced what they had fashioned for me. I became their fiction, inhabited it, consumed it and was consumed by it. I rambled senselessly on stage for some minutes. I said the incomprehensible. I did not topple into a rant. I disintegrated for them all to see, and my heart told me this was right. I was not meant to be there, and I should have accepted my fate. And so there, in the night, in the lights, I was the plant. And the Great Leader strode clear over me in the election, thundering home to a clanging sound of my emptiness-the sound of his victory.
"And you know... not a day goes by that I don't wish I had done it all different... changed my life! And... yet every evening wrapping around the earth makes me wish I had truly perished that night, and not lived to watch myself lasting in this world, on and on and on, to remember, to know, to understand in my heart of hearts, that truly I was the plant they wished me to be - that I possessed that potential after all, and they found me, with true sight, true accuracy, and I became their true lie, such a bright and shining lie, so glaring it pierces my eyes and blinds me, and yet into that darkness it still steals in, washing my world with its white, searing pain. It is worse than blindness, it is a stain in my heart that will not wash away. It is just a spot you know, just a spot that will not go away - it will not go away - it will not go away, and from its endlessness come scorpions to my mind, and I cannot sleep with these memories hounding me, and yet I still live! Yet I cannot rest, and I don't sleep. Oh, I have murdered sleep! I have murdered myself! And yet, I still... live."

It was only midterm, and already our order was torn to shreds. There was no more speaking when the relief teacher came to class for the weeks still left. He would enter, and then stand to one side, or sometimes sit at the teacher's table, or perhaps stare out the window, silently. He never tried to catch my eye again, and never spoke to us as a class or shared any further petty grouse with the government. And we, twelve, would do nothing, no more chanting-taunting, no more listening to stories, no extension of welcome to him, nothing. We waited each time for the bell to ring, and for him to exit the classroom. Yet still, there were so many weeks left to end of term, so many that it sometimes seemed everlasting.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sister Dissident

My parents are afraid for my sister. They are afraid of my sister. They cannot argue a word into her world, edge in their platitudes or advice. They cannot convince-coerce her into the paralysis I drown in. She will not be drawn in, resists vigorously and shouts them down. She refuses to be inscribed with their insecurities and annoyance and paranoia, insists she will be her own person. So, predictably, when unable to speak to one child,they whisper instead to me their uncertainties and made-up memories of this-person-that-one-they-once-knew, how he/she was 'disappeared' altogether, ripped out of the world. They knew he/she must have been detained by the system, the invisible-palpable big brother (some gruff beefy number, manhandling and all grappling, gnarled hands, dragging, tearing you away), absorbed into those walls (with the eyes and silences) that came alive, lurched forwards, engulfing and ingesting the angry voice.
They can't tell her to stop her ways, so they ask me to plead with her (I am a conduit). They think she will listen to me, and that I am more the reasonable one, the sensible head fitted (screwed) on right, with feet (cold) on the ground, and eyes always on the level (and closed to everyone and everything, embarrassed by the apathy that's slowly swarming me).
Yesterday oh yesterday (parents are circling-gesticulating) She was at that Speaking Corner. She fraternised (did you hear that, son? She was fraternizing) with some members of the Opposition. (that poor woeful tearfully sad Opposition) She told us that many of them are educated people (lucid, she said, lucid and clever and their ideas well-thought-through) but their rebellions are quite makeshift (half-baked, non-strategic, bound for failure) We tried to explain that she mustn't be there (mustn't be seen there - mustn't be seen - the walls have eyes - ears - they can sense you have stepped away from the straight and narrow) She frowned at us and stopped talking (she stopped listening) stormed off, went away, we've lost her (she's in her room a lot, bashing out some speech on the computer) we've lost her. You need to speak to her (you need to bring her back to us) She's in her room (please advise her, she'll listen to you) She won't listen to us. If they catch her. If they listen to what she's saying. We had a friend there (I have a friend in the Police force, and he told me they are keeping an eye on her). She is our only daughter. You need to speak to her before it's too late (she is our only daughter). Circulate-gesticulate, and it almost drives me mad.
I will try, I say. (there is no try - why do I feel like you're going to be the death of me?)

So I take her aside one morning. The exams are at last over for her, and she's thinking of what next to do, whether to head for some of the discussions with opinion-makers and mover-shakers of ideas-dissent-analytical-criticals. She's planning for some trips to the Speaking Corner, and she's made a series of separate speeches already. I can see how much effort she has put in. The bold parts, the highlighter (red, yellow, blue fluorescent in streaks). She is ready, my sister the dissident. She is ready to take on the world - talk about speech, about being able to voice one's heart without fear of repercussion, and about the oft-time lack of consultation that our government roils and spoils in, spilling over its mandate into the everyday, explaining it away with their monopoly of swaying, unspecific rhetoric. She will critique all these things. I see that in the pages of her speeches, and the articles she hopes will be published by our seemingly adventurous and easily-censured newspapers. On her desk are also invitations to be at public forms, as a panellist, to make her voice heard. She notices I am looking over her war-plan, and smiles, hoping I will be proud of her. I keep finding this all-too-familiar, and can't shake the sudden pain in my mind. I want to say something (no words), but can't. She's still smiling and starting to point at things to draw my attention to them: a newspaper cutting about how her blog entries have gained so much attention that the bigwigs in the universe of the senior administration have grown agitated and responded, an interview in a magazine where the senior editor has explored the undead youthful voice of idealism and its greenhorn (green. sick. youth) boiling towards dialogue/discussion, unafraid and enthusiastic, bruising for a fight, challenging the status quo. She wants me to be proud of her (I'm silent, attentive, and I wish I had something to say). She begins to explain that I should not be afraid. She says I shouldn't be troubled, and that she is old enough to know what to do, and how to handle the pressure. She says that I should trust her. She elaborates that she sees (the fear in the eyes that tears the heart) the awkwardness of the Opposition members who've approached her, hoping to consume her abilities and her energy, and those who are desperate and weak and devoid of resources want to plug her into their massive network of doomed, sinking ships. She can see that, she says. She is not blind. She wishes my parents could understand. She doesn't want them to be frightened anymore (we cannot be afraid. we cannot be afraid. if we are, then they win. if we have better ideas, then we have to say them, we have to do them justice. if we have the better ideas, then people need to hear them, people need to know something is better, that somewhere there is a chance that there is more to life, that there is more than just the narrative of only the one-party, that there is a different definition of honour, a different meaning of a citizen, a purpose to dissent, a hope and a purpose and a heart behind what we say - and if our heart speaks, and we have the better ideas - oh my brother - if we have the better ideas, then... we... win. we win.).
I'm nodding absent-mindedly, reeling from her. (she is dangerous, and she is too strong, and she is too ferociously independent, too violently convinced, dangerous and threatening and too difficult to subsume, adopt, usurp and co-opt)
When I open my mouth to speak, it is with words that come from another world, the kind that I never expected, the type that I didn't think I cared for, and each one ripping a part of me out, and killing me in her eyes (sister, oh my dearest sister, this is all pretty words and big ideas that in the end mean nothing - your idealism is today, but apathy is forever... if you are apathetic you will survive, and if you stay out of the battle (choosing some, or really choosing none) you will live, and if you don't speak up you won't be noticed, and if you stay anonymous they won't accuse you of anything because you're slippery like a wraith- unknowable, unfathomable, non-existent and ... (don't say that don't say that, I can't believe you're saying that) nowhere to be found - sister, there is no (please stop! please!) use being pinned to an opinion (I don't want to hear this! After all you've seen, after all you know about me) - there is no use being filled with all this youthful idealism when in the end, you know that older and wiser, years from now, you will look back on all of this and laugh (damn you! damn you!), mock your assumptions about the brittle ripple you are making in the big pond that is society - but it isn't a pond, sister, it is an ocean, and you are a bleeding-heart-pointlessly-vociferous teardrop in that ocean. (I thought that you -) Stop now. Idealism is Today, Apathy is Forever.)
I think she will cry, and at first it seems certain. But she never does. There will be no tears to end this. She smiles wanly, as if her youth is twisting away and she can feel it. (I know you are one of them. I know now. But I'm different from you, my brother. I'm different from you. I won't be made to lie down-let myself die.
I won't. I'm better than you.
I will be better.
And you'll see.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Be the Change You Want to See in the World

Uncle always has something to say at family gatherings. He says it very loudly and is repetitive, over a beer can and through a red face and a nose that looks like it is swollen with alcohol. He drops phrases about keeping the flag flying, never letting the system get us down, and the all-our-hopes-are-with-you-young-man, for he has seen-in-my-eyes-something-special, and believes I will make all things right (o cursed spite).
The time is always out of joint when Uncle speaks, and one day he takes me aside at the family gathering, as mahjong crackles and words clang around the living space. Out to the balcony, he urges me to listen:"You must join them!" he almost shouts, and the neighbours enjoying a night out of doors on their own balcony turn round and round, shocked.
"What on earth can you mean, uncle? You lack lucidity, and your drink drains you of all sense. We should go back into the noise of the family, back to their distractions and their every-which-way suggestions about my future, so that I can stave off decisions longer, keep possibilities at bay - don't confront, don't face, don't encounter the future - here, spoilt by choice in our age, we the children of plenty really don't want to decide, if you know what I mean, dear Uncle?"
"Of course I know what you mean! Of course - which of us is never in doubt? Which of us is never still in a constant, restless state of indecisive-decision? We are always choosing not to choose! We are always deferring, preferring this transition-like state, lost in translation, waiting for the waiting to end! But how can you stand it? How can you be so patient?"
"Oh Uncle! I cannot take this anymore - I am torn - Mother says this-and-that. Father is on about something else entirely. I don't know where to turn. I can't tell if I should lift my eyes up to the skies, hope for the best, do my utmost in all idealism, or crouch-hide myself away into self-repression, disappearing so that I am not hurt or detectable-perceptible, disappearing as if I never existed? Which must it be, Uncle? Which? I hope you can tell me!"
Uncle smiles gently, and he squeezes my shoulder reassuringly: "All must face this crossroad, and those of us who are worthy will know what I mean - you must join them! You must join their ranks, toe their lines, follow their guidance and eat your fill of their rhetoric-rationale, learn their ways so that they will be lulled into comfort and ease with you in their presence. Join them because if you do not, you will end up like some of us, crazies crying our hearts out on a metaphorical sidewalk or open street, forever shut out, waiting to be shut down, where no one hears you except the powerless and the ears of your own mind. You don't want to be one of those, trapped by their freedom to criticize. They're like orphans really, growing ugly and old and tired and never adopted... and to so many, they are a joke, an enterprise that is sinking with every clever word undermined by a stupid political move. They are all their own endless disaster movie. And why? It is because they are outside. They refused to join them. So join them!"
"But uncle," I quip, "will I be giving up all my ideals, and all my hopes and dreams of changing the system for the better? Will I be selling out if I toe the line the way you have said it? Will I fade away into their woodwork, to be invoked whenever they need another mouthpiece for their ways/means of control? Will I no longer - "
"You must stop this talk!" he cuts me off, "You infect yourself with cynicism and fear. You must tell yourself that you are stronger than this! You are the self-aware! You are different! You can join them and still remain true to yourself! And when you are in a position at last to make a difference, then you can be the change you want to see in the world! Bide your time, mind-scribble your thoughts into your heart, cherish them and wait patiently for the day that you may unearth them, and let them sparkle and shine! You can do it! If anyone can, you can do it!"
"Uncle - oh I wish I shared your faith in me. I think always of the million conversations that others like me must have had, as they tiptoed on the threshold of this moment, thinking-voicing their doubts, believing all of a sudden that they have-had what it takes to be that change, that different key element that transforms all. They enter the gates with thanksgiving in their hearts, relishing the opportunity, the blessing that they have been chosen, knowing in their soul that in time, in some short and quick time, it will be their chance to change everything - they say to themselves little prayers of your words - when it is my time, when I am in a position to make all things better, and till then, wait wait wait, till then wait means never, till then I will toe the line till it tows me, under-under into its lair, into its promises and compromises, into its many-splendoured comfort zones of wait-wait-wait till the time is ripe. And in the end, there is no such time. There is no such time because we waited, we hoped but sold out, we dreamed but gave up, we eat our fill of their rhetoric-rationale and they left us no space for ourselves. In the end I am gone, disappeared into their darkness and I will have failed, like so many before me. I will have failed. What makes me so special, uncle? So many have become them, speaking their tongues. So many! Why would I be any different?"
My uncle seems to have tears in his eyes, but I can't see even though my whole city is lighted at night, filled with burning lamps, chasing away dark and black and void. But even then, the brightness doesn't pierce the veil in this universe, as my uncle quietly looks away, into some far off new construction site, as we build homes into the sky, into air and wind and glass and stone. My uncle doesn't seem to have anything left to say, but then he mumbles: "Wait means never. Wait means never..." and trails off into another drunken stumble, back into the house, into the noises of mahjong again, into the distractions and the deferrals and the disappointment that I have advanced too far into apathy, too far into the lands of indifference and inaction.
I try to reach out to him but he's too fargone, and soon I wonder if his words were just the drink, talking out of turn, spluttering some last, hidden, idealistic spurt of hopeless-hope?
Today I got the letter from the powers-that-be, asking me to come-see-the-paradise and consider-the-career-in-service-of-the-people. I did not realise Uncle would say anything so coincidentally in tune with my state of mind. I did not know what my decision was going to be. And all I could do, while watching the family gathering trundle to its close, was wait for my mind to make itself up, wait for my heart to speak about ideals and pragmatism, about meritocratic- maybes and perhaps-es to form formless in my head. What would I do? Wait.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

You Belong Not To Yourself

Father tells me I should not write anything anywhere anymore. He explains that co-opting is dangerous, especially for someone who is young, clueless, and so out of touch with the bends and curves of the chambers of power. I cannot understand this at first - he notices the puzzle wrenching my face - he explains at length and I know what he means:
"My son, once you write something resembling an opinion, they will think you suddenly a rare and precious jewel in the haystack of everydays. That is not the problem - that is the root of the problem. Immediately the wolves will be up and running, smelling the fresh meat that has revealed itself. They will find you quickly, and all will offer co-opting, membership, a pride of place, a privileged position, a right-hand-seat in their niche club.
"The establishment will extend an arm to you, for you are not-yet- a-threat-but-may-yet-be, and they must speedily turn you into one of them, absorb you into their numbers, teach you their double-speak and parabolic vagueness, and then you will be theirs, a mouthpiece adopted-adapted and changed. You belong not to yourself then.
"OR, maybe the anti-establishment will seize upon you with verve - they will try to outcompete the establishment's easier lifestyle seductions with ideals and causes and belief systems (for they have not the money or resources), and they will appeal to your sensitivity for rebellion, inviting you to join-them, fight-for-freedom, champion-liberty, and so on the struggle into infinity. They want you, and they want you desperately because the opinionated-who-speak-up are so hard to come by. They will think-you-and-make-you the chosen one, and you will walk with them, side by side, along corridors as the future of all Opposition in this country - the young-blood-chance-in-4million. You belong not to yourself then.
"OR, maybe out of the political circle, they will write about you in the press, print articles about you, blog about you, discuss you in forums. Then, they will invoke your name as if they know you - but don't forget they will have narrowed you down to a simple set of values - and it will be the values they have imposed on you, determining-overdetermining you into what they will. You will be an icon-catch-phrase-throwaway-line in no time, you will be a casual reference or maybe a cautionary tale. They will praise you and curse you. They will tell stories about you that are fabrications. They will claim they have met you - and who cares if it is even true. Some will say they were your classmate, or sat next to you on a train. Some will mutter that you were always that way, even from when you were young, and before even 10 years old, and already this way or that way according to their liberally evolving memories of you. Adults will nod-despairingly-understandingly, suggesting they always knew you would turn out like this. Who will you be by that time, my son? Who are you, really? Are you the person I speak to, whom I raised and taught and fought for? Are you the boy who I tried to impart my values and beliefs to? Are you your own person, convinced of what you care about? OR, are you whatever they make you to be, a shadow of yourself, appropriated and abducted? You're just a name in the imaginaries of everyone. You're just a name and a tag-along of THEIR agendas. You belong not to yourself.
"OR, perhaps even sadder, and not even straightforward, there are the ones who want you as their mascot, and they want you for what they can tailor you to represent - a youthful idealism that has grown its own voice - and so, wherever they put you, in a photo, in a conference, in a panel discussion and in their scholarship list, or in their club, or team, or school, or anything - wherever they put you, it is to serve them. Your being there for them just says every one of the myriad things they want you to say, social-political-economic-religious-military (and you haven't yet even opened your mouth to speak) - You say ANYTHING THEY WANT you to SAY (and you haven't even opened your mouth to speak). And in that moment, invited forward to attend their little meeting, photographed and identified, seen-and-not-heard (and perhaps you will have finally said something, but no one is really listening), you will be silently (regardless whatever words you speak, whatever you write, whatever you truly think) saying their message for them. The listeners are all hearing through the filter of someone else's agenda - everything you say flows through the biases that screen your ideas into the shapes of their minds and their ideals. There is no real you. You will be lost. My son, in that moment, you belong not to yourself."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Co-Opting

Calling me early in the morning, my mother is excited, enthused and troubled all at the same time. She vocalises a half dozen idioms about striking while the iron is hot, having a bird in hand, making a stitch in time and the hay while the sun shines. She cries something about the amazing turn of events that have swept the talking points of the tiny nation.
"Quickly," is her urging, "Quickly you must write some politically-minded material! Post it all over your blog! The time is ripe, it is oh so ripe! Post something that attacks this-that policy! Say something about the non-democratic nature of the government! You study this political science stuff, you'll think of something! Write! Write away! Write like the wind my son!"
She rambles loud and long and keeps telling me to write something political, and it will only be when she takes a breath that I can edge a word in: "Why this turnabout, oh mother of mine? Wherefore comes this change of heart/mind and worldview? You once discouraged every single political idea of mine, and now you encourage? Why?"
"My son my son," she speedily counters, "do you not read the newspapers? Do you not see that the Gayle-girl has become an overnight celebrity? There are rumours abroad that soon she will be taken up into the whirlwind of the establishment, to a high-paying job and a scholarship or somesuch great reward! She has challenged the establishment and the establishment has gallantly come back with a co-opting! Imagine, my son, a co-opting! A chance to join the establishment by espousing anti-establishment views! Fate would not be so kind! Oh opportunity of opportunities! Oh chance of all second-chances! Now you can upgrade yourself to superscales beyond the known alphabet! Now you can pay for that home that I can live in with you and your wife and your dog and yet there will be privacy and peace! Now you can pay for a real car, and not some weekend dalliance that restricts your every move! A promotion, oh sweet promotion! Write my son, write! Write in hope that they will see your criticism and smile upon you, sending the chariot of fire in your direction and catching you up in the wind of the heavens!"
"But mother," say I, "all my adult life [cueing a single bold tear down one cheek] I thought you had wanted my silence, my inaction, my apathy! And this transformation - this smacks of nothing but cold and calculative opportunism! I will come across as believing in absolutely nothing! I will come across as the shameful fair-weathered thinker, picking-choosing the opinions that suit the winds, playing to them for profit! There is no pleasure in that! There is no honour, oh mother! No honour at all!"
Silence on the end of the phone - she is thinking to herself about my sudden objection to her value system. A gulf between generations. A strange and unexpected think-for-himself moment. What would she say?
"My son my son, you decide what you want - whether you want to cling on to some silly thing called consistency in eyes of man and wider society or not. But you just remember that at heart you are still constant: you care for your family and that has never changed! Because you care for your family, you WILL do THIS to get a call up to a higher level of the establishment! Do so, my son! Do it, and you know that it is LOVE! Do it NOW and we will know that you love us all even more! Do it, and you shall be my one true son!"

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Idealism is Today, Apathy is Forever

My momma always said that if we were meant to think for ourselves, a government wouldn't exist to do the thinking for us.
She also said that if we were supposed to speak our mind, there wouldn't be so many different language and so many ridiculous slangs and accents and peculiar cultural expressions that made no sense to others from different cultures. She always said that if you didn't understand each other so often, then maybe we weren't meant to say anything in the first place. I asked my teacher about it one time and he said it sounded like Socratic silence. I checked what that meant with my momma and she said that if we were supposed to be learning from school, then why were we leaving it after taking an exam? After all, if it was that good, shouldn't we stay in school our whole life?
I asked my teacher about staying in school forever, and he said that was something called lifelong learning. When I told momma about it, she said lifelong learning sounded like some cheap attempt at earning money from people who thought they still needed to be in school (and momma said they didn't, obviously), and making them pay for things they wouldn't use and didn't need.
But my teacher said that we were all in school to make the world a better place, to learn and grow and contribute. He kept using the word 'contribute' the whole year long, and momma said it sounded like a seedy fund-raising attempt, for some new building for some bourgeois purpose like fine art or classical music or smarty-arty dramas which only rich people had the luxury to appreciate and blather on about.
So I took my teacher up on the whole 'make the world a better place' thing and I realised that it was about being idealistic - that it meant we hoped for (and worked really really hard for) a nicer, kinder, brighter society, one more civilized and more open to alternative points of view; one more embracing of different people, and one more discussive, consultative, and so on. I tended these ideas in my head and the swirled like shining objects, pieces of heaven, and the good life that would be if we fought for them.
I wrote letters and emails to my political leaders, urging them to change some of their policies - to be kinder to the aged, to implement something approaching welfarism (because we should be able to afford it), to allow freedom of speech during elections and not to censure blogging for any political discussion, to remember local talent and not let the foreign talent eat us alive, to remember the streaming system in the education ministry and how it fossilized strata in society and divided rather than united people, to never forget that an opposition voice was important and shouldn't be ignored, and to look carefully at offering people the upgrading of their homes as a carrot for re-electing the government. I put my heart and soul into all these things and spoke up all the time and did my best to rage rage against the system.
In the final analysis, all momma said was "my son my son, this is all pretty prose and big ideas that in the end mean nothing - your idealism is today, but apathy is forever... if you are apathetic you will survive, and if you stay out of the battle (choosing some, or really choosing none) you will live, and if you don't speak up you won't be noticed, and if you stay anonymous they won't accuse you of anything because you're slippery like a wraith- unknowable, unfathomable, non-existent and nowhere to be found - my son my son, this is the way that you will make it through this life - there is no use being pinned to an opinion that you will want to die for - there is no use being filled with all this youthful idealism when in the end, you know that older and wiser, years from now, you will look back on all of this and laugh at your silliness, mock your assumptions about the brittle ripple you are making in the big pond that is society - but it isn't a pond, my son, it is an ocean, and you are a bleeding-heart-pointlessly-vociferous teardrop in that ocean. Stop now. Idealism is Today, Apathy is Forever."

Saddened, I trudged to my room to survey all my hopes/dreams and blog entries about what I wanted to make happen. And I knew she was right.

And thusly I created this blog, a paean to apathy and not speaking your mind, and how it is a virtue to be nurtured and writ large across the fabric of the nation. I will keep writing, I will never stop, until all tongues are silenced, and all minds have quietened their inquiring, and all idealism has turned itself over to its impermanence and its inconsistencies, and died with the passing sickness of youth.

Apathy is forever.