Friday, January 31, 2014

Man Bites Back

Wasting a bit of time researching trademarks, I read up on old man Harlan Ellison, science fiction's most notorious luminary, and ran across the brouhaha made about him grasping the left breast of Connie Willis. (I think it's important, for some reason, to make that distinction; I do not know why.)

Here is the event:

Harlan Grabs Boob

Personally, I think that after he'd placed a public microphone entirely in his mouth, his attempt at humor (I think that's what it was) in fondling Connie's breast is decidedly a secondary offense. But that's another consideration, and I do not want to evade the main point.

Yes, Harlan crossed a line. No, it wasn't a form of deliberate violence on Ms. Willis' person any more than her placing her arm around Harlan and asking him if he would be good, in so doing casting Harlan as a childish wayward miscreant.

Here's the deal: we lionize an author, actor, public figure, for crossing the line. One of Harlan's best-known and well-loved works, A Boy & His Dog, has the main protagonist kill, cook, and feed a woman to his dog. In the circumstances of the story, he was both justified and wise, or so the story implies and so I feel.

The story also typecasts the young woman as a superficially heartless wench, a version of femme fatale. But then, the protagonist is typecast as a horny teenage rapist (albeit in a world where rape is so common and cannibalism is probably not especially rare), so neither gender gets a positive stereotype, and that is good, I think, because stereotype tend to be more negative than not: they either diminish the status of the thing typified (woman as subordinates; men as monstrous horndogs), or exalt it in a way that diminishes it by placing undue pressure on the thing to live up to its hype (the pristine 'pedestalization of women; the noble self-sacrificing bravery of men).

Harlan has made a name for himself as a man who breaks rules if they stand in the way of truth, and also likely to break noses if he felt his interests were being violated. He once advised someone thusly (paraphrase alert but I think my memory is verbatim in this instance): "If they try to change your words, hit 'em."

He has had many adventures -- by choice -- that most of us would not undertake, including me, and I have had more adventures and taken more physical risks than most.

Crossing the line is, simply, what Harlan does. As a veteran line-crosser myself, I can testify that doing so changes one's perception of and approach to acceptable norms and behavior. People will cheer you for crossing that line and painting a mustache on Mao's image (or whitewashing Hitler's 'stache); but they expect you to return to their side of the line unchanged. It doesn't work that way, as any soldier who's seen battle action can testify. Shell shock; combat fatigue; PTSD: they're all the result of crossing the line. Crossing the line changes you.

So I say, let us consider this in the light of the following maxim of tolerance that Xtians use when dispensing their (often harsh) judgment via their interpretation of Biblical law: 'Hate the sin, not the sinner.'

I honestly think that Harlan meant no wrong with his grope. I honestly think few if any appreciate that a lifetime line-crosser sometimes literally "can't help himself". By this, I am not excusing Harlan of not knowing that grabbing a woman's tit without permission is a no-no, especially in public and most especially on stage (unless it's a scripted event, which this definitely wasn't).

By this, I mean two things: 

1) Harlan, as a lifetime foe of hypocrisy and unchallenged dogma, was naturally aware, (perhaps even excruciatingly so, if I may project my feelings onto Harlan) of the many hypocritical conventions that stage and podium and conference and spotlight converged upon him at that moment, and as a lifetime freelance contrarian, he naturally chafed at this, in an almost allergic reaction: he (like I would)  felt compelled to *do something* to push back the seemingly endless tide of herd behavior group-think. He has made a career of doing so.

2) Given the above, that impulse to *do something*, especially after a lifetime's cultivation of employing that impulse to great financial reward and public acclaim, can produce sudden spontaneous behavior that gets a fella in trouble.

Harlan both apologized for the act but also denounced the denunciation of his action and tried to make people see it in broader context, and so is alleged to be even worse than a titty-groper but also, a hypocritical retractor of apology. A kiss ass who won't stay bought, something The Public loves to despise. Being Harlan, alas, much anger ensued, because Harlan is that way. He is harshly protective of both himself and his perceived interests and whatever moral or philosophical concept he feels is being trampled by applause or boos. It is not, I think, the best response to such things, but it is not hypocritical nor petty: it is the opposite: a man who strongly believes certain things and sticks his neck out time and again in support of those things.

What I perceive Harlan objecting to in his rather confusing quasi-apologies/quasi-denunciations, is how the bulk of responding voices mostly chose the safe bandwagon of popular opinion and turned what was merely, for Harlan, a regrettable faux pas into a deliberate act of cruel insensitivity and de facto assertion of male chauvinism. (Harlan may well be a male chauvinist; I don't know. I DO know that he is a FIERCE advocate of individual liberty and freedom of expression, so whatever personal gender bias he might have is overshadowed by his support of basic civil liberty. He marched in the famous Selma/Montgomery Bloody Sunday March in 1965. He has been an outspoken supporter of women's rights for pert near ever.)

Here is, for me, the money quote by Harlan on this specific event:
"So. What now, folks? It’s not as if I haven’t been a politically incorrect creature in the past. But apparently," (I've deleted the name) ", my 72 years of indefensible, gauche (yet for the most part classy), horrifying, jaw-dropping, sophomoric, sometimes imbecile behavior hasn’t–till now–reached your level of outrage."

Some might object to "(yet for the most part classy)", but that is a highly subjective concept in today's world. Point is, Harlan long ago made it clear that he is a loose cannon on any deck, that he is as likely to denounce his cheerleaders as praise those who disapprove him, doing so on the basis of his rather stringent personal moral value system, which is highly humanistic and deeply compassionate although willing to fight in self-defense at a moment's notice and willing to go to the wall to do so: he has physically assaulted people, and (allegedly) bragged about it.

He is by no means perfectly congruent with his value system. Like almost every human being I've known including both of my dear parents, he can be an asshole, sometimes at the oddest and least expected moments. With his back to the wall, Harlan is a caged animal who'll succumb to a kind of bloodlust (and I mean that literally). This is my impression of the man, and if he objects to this impression: tough. It is meant as a compliment not an insult: he is, like me, like you, a fragile vulnerable creature and he knows it, and knows it seemingly more so than most considering his pessimistic view (which I mostly share) of the state of humanity in our time.

(Sample evidence of Ellisonian pessimism:

"One of your books, The Glass Teat, had on its back cover the words "AMERICA: CHANGE IT...OR LOSE IT! Do you think we're losing it?"

"We lost it long ago. Look at our country, for Chrissake. We're nothing but purchasing machines for giant conglomerates. We're ruled by the tyranny of the stupid."
from an interview in Details magazine available Harlan Ellison interview in Details magazine )

Sadly, I tend to agree with him. Sadly, I often feel so terrified by the hypocritical stupidity not just of the ignoramii but of people who are associated with advanced and enlightened perspective that I find myself doing the craziest dang things. At 58 years old, I still must constantly remind myself that I 'Do Not Think Like Other People'. I can relate to doing something wild and crazy like groping the breast of a woman I've known as a friend for decades to prove the point she makes steadily in that video: he is a wild and crazy guy. I don't think like most people. I am not safe for public spectacle.

But I'd be among the first to cross that line in your behalf. Really. I've proved it too many times to doubt it. And so has Harlan.

So yes, Harlan once again did an outrageous and sophomoric thing. Yes, it superficially lessened the public stature of a woman in public, and yes, he should apologize for doing so... but not on anyone's terms but his own. He should not apologize for being some kind of woman-debasing male supremacist unless he believes he is, which he apparently doesn't (nor do I). He should not have to endure narrow-minded, short-sighted, and often hypocritical insults made by people who probably possess less than half of Harlan's courage, intellect, erudition, and most of all, experience.

The shamefest he endured was basically an example of the same mob behavior that, in more extreme circumstances, has innocent men lynched and is also, I'll point out, the key ingredient in group rape. When you find yourself nodding your head in assent with the group, you're probably nodding to things you would not believe were right if they were applied to you. Harlan has always spoken out for the innocents trampled in our various, publicly-approved, politically correct crusades which tend to crush one moral in support of another. (Remember, please, that hating Jews was politically correct in Germany 80 years ago, and more than half of Americans thought that bombing and invading Iraq was politically correct just ten years ago.)

Sometimes line-crossers like Harlan and me are saved by quick thinking. As a much younger man, I was at a party at my boss's house. Alcohol was served, and I drink too much when I drink. I was at the peak of my inebriation, full of myself, a fully-deployed raconteur. I had several people around me listening to my trademarked Adventures of Robin that I often recited back then to allay my sense of insecurity and general inferiority: look at the cool&crazy things I've done!

The story was poised, literally, to kick the punchline over the field goal when I realized that in such mixed company one shouldn't say "in the nuts" nor even "testicles", but the kick was already in motion. We all have moments of inspired genius. The eudaemonic spirit put its arm over my shoulder, whispered in my ear, and I turned tragedy into triumph by saying, "kicked him right smack dab in the euphemisms!"

Sometimes you can cross that fine line in public and be a hero. The group around me not only laughed but deferred to me, for I had slung a turd across their prow disguised as a rose, and it was an admirable feat.

But other times, you reach out and grab an old friend's titty at the worst possible moment, as in Harlan's case, trying to graphically prove that you are indeed as troublesome a public persona as she has introduced you as being. To you, it's a natural and honest thing to do, and is justified by the circumstances. Afterward, it hits you yet again: I Don't Think Like Other People.

All that said, I'll show my street cred and state that the Harlan Ellison I've read has two modes: spot on and perfect, or grossly and indulgently overwrought. (Not unlike this opinion piece.) But in the former mode: A Boy & His Dog made an aesthetic and moral impression on me at 14 years old that has stayed with me since: difficult choices have to be made, and they have to be made according to what YOU think is right.

No comments: