Search for an Onscreen Utopia
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John was tall but straight-limbed thin, and his baggy Catholic school uniform – blue slacks, white shirt, tie – hid no Darwinian strategy in or appetite for the survival of the fittest. The mob surrounding John moved according to an ancient choreography, as does a murmuration of starlings, but ugly. The other boys had never been trained in fighting, either. They were small-town, bottom-of-the-barrel, poor students in a school with no music, no art, no gym, no air conditioning. Just elaborately costumed nuns wielding long rulers on fifty-five baby boomers per room. But the attackers’ genes skilled them in skinning a fellow human. Smaller boys skipped up ahead to cut off John’s escape – just as wolves corner deer. Others, lackadaisical, languidly brought up the rear. With the same movements, they could have been the tail end of a church procession or a walk to the corner for cigarettes. A more definable scrum of first-stringers ringed John tightly. He’d never escape, even if he tried, but he wasn’t even trying. The alpha delivered direct blows. Over and over. Short, sharp punches, shot out erratically, timed by sadism’s metronome. Blows to John’s arm, his temple, his neck, his cheek. Beta males, not allowed the privilege of striking blows, squealed the worst words at John. Spat on him. With their thumbs and forefingers, pecked at the edges of his clothing. Distracting John, confusing him. Bash: another punch landed.
John, feebly, weirdly, laughed. John was miming, “Please like me. Please allow me to be just one of the guys.”
The playground was a square of macadam surrounded by a chain link fence. Through the fence we could see the gardens, clotheslines, and swing sets of our neighbors. Over the school roof rose the church spire.
I just attempted to google John. I want to know that he recovered and prospered and triumphed over what these monsters did to him. I couldn’t find him. His name really was “John” and his last name was almost as common.
God, people suck.
But there is a world where people are noble, attractive, rational, and kind. An onscreen world. To reach it, all I had to do was walk home from school and switch on our family’s one black-and-white TV. Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, John Ford, Preston Sturges, Victor Fleming, Sam Goldwyn, and other filmmakers concocted wit, repartee, romance, and adventure.
We all have to come to terms with the dark side in human nature. Me? I have felt best alone. I’m just not equipped. I don’t have the moves, the appetites, or the instincts to be a wolf in a pack. And so I watch a lot of movies. And I struggle with loneliness.
And along came the internet. Alleluia. I need never be lonely again.
I thought that the internet would mean, to human relations, what the industrial revolution meant to labor. I thought that much suffering had been caused by misunderstandings. The internet’s means of interaction, typed words on a screen, eliminated that problem. How could we misunderstand each other if our words were right there? Struggle for resources caused problems between people: “Get off my lawn.” But there were no material resources on the internet. Anyone could type in whatever anyone wanted. Finally, we were all equal. Differences in physical appearance aroused hatred and discrimination. Ugly women, black people, white people, people wearing expensive clothing or rags: all these tension-causing differences disappeared. Finally, we connected soul to soul.
I was so naïve.
Over twenty years ago I was part of a pioneering internet discussion group. Finally I could write and actually be read. Finally my ugliness and poverty didn’t matter. I could connect with nerds like myself living hundreds or thousands of miles away. Charlie in LA loved films and literature as much as I. We went on for weeks about Brief Encounter.
Humans find the snake under the apple tree no matter what Eden they inhabit.
One day, Larry called Anne fat. Anne asked her allies to denounce Larry. Within a day, there were thousands of posts attacking Larry. This was a virtual feeding frenzy, a lynch mob, a show trial. Bystanders drafted alliances as ironclad as those dominoes that fell into the shape of the First World War – “You are with the Hapsburgs and I am with the Romanovs, so I must burn your fields!” Posts meant to be about movies or politics or opera contained hidden references only combatants could decipher that settled this or that score.
I wanted to talk about opera. I wanted to talk about film. I wanted to talk about the history of the Albigensian Crusade. That users hijacked these conversations to settle scores was an abomination to me. A frequently repeated truism never made more sense: Great conversations focus on ideas. Average conversations focus on events. Small conversations focus on people.
There were other problems in paradise. I realized that the internet, with its distance communication, was inviting me to commit a great sin: to dehumanize others.
I recognized that I had to practice discipline: I had to constantly remind myself that there was a human at the receiving end of my words. I made it my practice to call people by name, to look at their headshot. To consider how the person would feel if I said this or that to them in person.
The internet grabbed my hand and lured me into the cave of narcissism. I had to stop my ears with wax and smack the siren’s hand away. I committed to focusing on other people’s posts, not just my own.
I looked at photographs of other people’s kids. I care less about few things than photographs of other people’s kids. I don’t have kids and feel some sadness about that (and some relief). It’s not easy for me to look at other people’s kids, especially the adult children of people I went to high school with. Not having had kids, I experience passing time differently. I feel that I am the adult, in the prime of life. Other people’s kids tell me I am not, that I am on my way out, and I have let life pass me by.
Looking at photos of other people’s kids is painful but I do it because I want to give back. I do it not because these kids are important to me; they are not. The person posting the photo is important to me. I do it for that person.
But the internet seemed to tear us further away from each other, in inscrutable ways we could not anticipate, name, or penetrate. The intimacy we experienced when typing into and reading content from those little boxes rarely extended beyond those little boxes.
I know Belle better than I know most of my relatives. Belle’s posts are short-story length; she has produced them without pause for over a decade. Her output rivals Charles Dickens. Her topic: her own life. She gave us virtual walking tours of her childhood home. We learned that she was not pretty, overweight, and nerdy. She married an abusive drunk. Divorced him. Yearned for a child. Later in life – and nothing is as rewarding to the reader as late-arriving joy – Belle, through the internet, found Mr. Right, a man as nerdy as she. Marriage. Pregnancy. We clapped our hands! Miscarriage. A devastating medical diagnosis. Abandonment. Belle alone again. We wept.
The strange thing is, after years of reading and responding, with all of my heart, to Belle, I met her. And she treated me as if I were a stranger. Further, when I took a break from our shared internet environment, she and I had no contact at all. No phone calls. Nothing. But when I showed up again on Belle’s internet stage, her presence was a like firehose: “Here I am! Receive me!” She, again, responded to my posts, as if we were best friends forever. She, weirdly, would type things like, “I wish I could see you.” Thing is, she had seen me. And when we were in the same room, she was distant.
That’s not intimacy. I’m not really sure what it is. I don’t think we have yet developed the word for that internet-dependent phenomenon.
I couldn’t take the politics in this internet environment. I feared that something unhealthy and invasive was distorting my spirit. I left. Wary, I didn’t join any other internet groups till Facebook, a few years ago.
Being a writer is like being the girl with big boobs. Men want access to the boobs. Many don’t care about the woman behind the boobs.
Sometimes people read something I have written and they feel that my words express what they themselves feel but cannot articulate. They confuse that sense of appreciating a piece of writing with love. They send me a message saying that they love me, but if they had more self-awareness what they would say is, “I love what you wrote.”
I do receive “I love what you wrote” notes from sophisticated readers. These folks address me as “Dr. Goska” and voice their recognition that we don’t know each other and never will. They request no further contact.
The people who say, “I love you” in response to my writing make unspoken demands on me. They want me to continue to voice their unarticulated thoughts. If they read, and liked, something by me that reflects a conservative point of view, they want me to continue to voice, exclusively, a conservative point of view. If I say something that they interpret as liberal, they feel betrayed and they send me hate mail, excoriating me as a “crazy bitch.” Always those words, spelled out or insinuated. I am a woman. I speak. I said something they don’t like. I am crazy. I am a bitch. This has happened to me more times than I can count.
No matter how many times a woman is used for her boobs, she gets hurt. No matter how many times a reader says he or she “loves” me because they appreciated something I wrote, and then turns on me because I am not what they wanted me to be – their puppet and mouthpiece – it reaffirms for me my long-held conclusion that people suck, and that I don’t have the skills to triumph at that game, and that which is good in people is as hard to access as any pearl of great price.
Which brings me to Dusty, Kristie, Lott, Don, Marty, Zale, Bill, and Edna – some of the dozens of Facebook friends who unfriended me because I said critical things about Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Kristie is an upper-middle-class professional. Like me, she tended to post early in the morning, so I always saw her posts first. I valued her posts because in them I encountered white supremacy such as I had never seen in real life – in fact I didn’t know it existed to that degree in real life. Kristie’s friends, upper-middle-class professionals like herself, posted images of black people as monkeys; they threw around the n-word as if it were the canned olives in their tossed salad. My anthropological curiosity inspired me to read all of Kristie’s posts.
I made my first anti-Trump comments over a year ago. After I did so, Kristie, without informing me, unfriended me. Given the abundance, the shock value, and the early hour of her posts, I noticed the unfriending immediately. My reaction: “Well, I have one Facebook friend who gives every sign of being a white supremacist and she supports Donald Trump so much that she feels compelled to unfriend someone she never talks to and who never talks to her.”
Zale’s departure was harder to take. The long, slow bleed of former Trump critics crossing over to supporting Trump has been unnerving. Even Senator Ted Cruz took this walk of shame. During the Republican primaries, when they were rivals, Trump insinuated that Cruz’s father played a role in the JFK assassination. Trump called Cruz’s wife “ugly” and called Cruz “lying Ted.” In a breathtaking move, Cruz stood up to Trump at the July, 2016, Republican National Convention. And then, in September, Cruz caved and endorsed Trump.
Watching former Trump critics succumb to Trump reminded me of a superbly orchestrated scene from the 1956, Cold-War era science fiction classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Those who have surrendered to the selfhood-erasing space pods try to convince two holdouts to give up their individuality and join the collective.
Facebook friend Zale had been right there with me on the frontlines, trying to convince Republican primary voters that Trump was, as Zale passionately argued, the menace the Founding Fathers envisioned as the potential destroyer of the Republic. In more recent days, Zale has been zealously pronouncing his own vote for Trump and the unspeakable possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Zale, without telling me, unfriended me.
I had done a significant favor for Bill. I advanced his career and put money in his pocket. After I made clear that I would never vote Trump, Bill unfriended me.
Dusty and I had exchanged thousands of public and private messages. There was laughing, crying, hugging, spatting, over everything from Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to comparisons of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. I am phone-phobic but when Dusty dialed my little-used number, I picked up, and did my best to entertain.
I feel I know Dusty’s father, who, like my dad, had spent time in a Catholic institution as a boy. I knew of his war-bride mother, and his brother who, like my brothers, had died young and tragically. I did not read these posts because Dusty’s family members were important to me – they are not. I read them because Dusty was important to me.
One night I logged on and found several lengthy posts by Dusty raging against me for my anti-Trump stance. He kept saying things like, “You are supposed to be an ‘intelligent’ woman,” with “intelligent” in scare quotes. He called me a liar. When I tried to reply, I found that he had not only unfriended me, he had blocked me.
Lott, Edna, Marty, and Don had used the “L” word with me. I saved those posts: “I love you Danusha.” Lott called me his mentor – I had helped with his writing. My anti-Trump stance earned this from Lott immediately before he unfriended and blocked me: “You eat shit as if it were chocolate pudding.” Several Trump supporters, before unfriending me, insisted that I deserved to be alone because I am a crazy bitch who doesn’t know when to STFU. Always those words: crazy, bitch.
Edna sent me multiple private messages telling me to leave Facebook altogether, pray for guidance, and stop “bashing Trump.” If I did not, she promised me a lifetime of loneliness.
They had all praised my verbal skills when I was expressing thoughts that reflected their own. When I said something that they disagreed with – that I would not vote for Trump – my verbal skills became the very thing they hated most about me.
You are alone in a room behind the keyboard. You are anonymous behind a pseudonym. You will never encounter those at whom your words are directed. You conclude that you have entered a world beyond morality, because it is beyond any consequence you will ever feel.
So you bully a teenager till she kills herself. Or you immerse yourself in porn. Or you post death threats.
The nuns used to tell us that we should leave room for the Holy Spirit between ourselves and our partners when we danced. I’m never alone in a room.
I want to use old-fashioned words to talk about Dusty and Marty, Edna, Don and Lott. Words that carried great weight a century ago, before rapid transportation could remove you from the consequences of your actions. This is what you are: insincere, inconstant, disloyal, fickle, traitors. These are the kind of expired crimes our ancestors fought duels over.
You said you “loved” me. You lied. You have no idea who I am. You think a writer is a Trump. Someone who calculates how to flatter the gullible and market to fear. In fact a writer is someone so hungry for truth she will risk everything to get at it, and to express it. That, you could not love. That, you labeled “crazy” and “bitch.”
Oh, and Edna. The older, Midwestern woman who had previously seemed so maternal. You condemned me to a lifetime of loneliness for speaking my mind about Trump. Edna, I’m not lonely because Trump supporters like you are no longer in my life. I’m lonely because so many people are like you. I’m lonely for a different kind of person – someone who values truth.
Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon, and The Fortune Cookie let light into my rough childhood. Wilder’s Polish-Jewish mother, stepfather and grandmother were all murdered during the Holocaust. Wilder penned the script for the frothy 1941 romantic comedy Ball of Fire the same year that Nazi Hans Frank said, “I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear.”
Frank Capra, director of It Happened One Night and Mr Deeds Goes to Town, struggled with depression. Watch his films often enough and you can’t help but notice how many characters attempt suicide.
The movies that gave me hope also taught me, even if only through osmosis, that life, as Louis Adamic said, is a process of “licking honey off a thorn.”
Honey: I have two Facebook friends, Sandy and Susan, with whom I agree on nothing. I am a devout Catholic; Sandy mocks my faith. Susan – I forget the word for her religion but it involves nature and folklore. We fight like cats and dogs. They have never unfriended me.
I had hoped that words, visible onscreen, would eliminate misunderstanding, that the screen itself would break down barriers. I just took a break from writing this essay and saw a Facebook message. Lyle had posted something on my wall and I had not yet responded. He was convinced that his post angered me. I have yet to read it. I had said nothing and that nothing was misunderstood.
I scroll past posts alleging that anyone who votes for Hillary Clinton – as I plan to do – is an anti-American slug.
I could unfriend. I could unfollow. I could erase people I once accepted as friends. I don’t. My reasons for not doing so are rooted in my Christianity and the Middle Ages.
Benedictine monks and nuns vow to stability. In addition to being cloistered in Spartan conditions, they inhabit the same space with the same humans for their entire careers. How else to learn the Christian skills of forgiveness, patience, and real love, except from each other’s foibles and failings? Not by erasing. Not by running. But by being next to someone who pisses the hell out of you.
If the Trump supporters posting misogynist hate-Hillary memes and inflammatory conspiracy theories have a moment of awareness, I want to be there when it happens.
As I hope they will be there for me.
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