Monday, July 25, 2016

Martin, Whitey, and the Manifestation of Ignorance

When I was in the 4th grade, I had an enigmatic and menacing nemesis named Martin. He was tall, hulking, and hunched, with straight red hair and buck teeth, and I can recall him wearing an overcoat and heavy shoes and having a backpack hung from his sloping shoulders. He was strong and hateful and I knew he could hurt me if he ever laid hands on me, but he was also pretty slow, and as long as I stayed alert I could keep out of his reach. 

Somehow Martin and I ended up in a special reading class together for a short time — I remember being told after maybe two or three sessions that I should not come back to it — and it was at these that he revealed a strange new dimension to me. When Martin would read, I was amazed to discover that he could see in the text things that I could not. Even as I followed along in my copy of the book we were reading from, he would utter words that I simply could not see, different from and in addition to those visible to me. That made this monster both mysterious and an object of envy to me and I wished that I was able to see the things that he could. 

Eventually, I realized that Martin was not a magical ogre and that he was simply stupid. If my ability to read a page of text, understand the words on it, sound out those I didn't know, and generally comprehend it could be envisioned as a connect-the-dots image with a hundred points, then his might have had, for example, 70. So, when he had to connect that diminished number of dots, his lines were coarser and less nuanced, sometimes they went to incorrect points, it was unclear how to incorporate some of them, and the final picture he created would inevitably be warped and incomplete. 

When the mass shooting in Munich, Germany, occurred on July 22, I was even more moved by it than I was by other recent but similar incidents, as my family had lived there for seven years, including those when I was in high school. I am still friends with many people I knew there, along with a handful that still live in Munich, and so I started looking at their Facebook pages to see how they were reacting, make sure everyone was alright, etc. While I was doing that I came across a comment from someone I had known some 30 years ago from the old neighborhood, who for a couple of reasons I will dub "Whitey" for purposes of this discussion. I remembered him as being a good-natured kid and as not having any weird issues, and so before turning in I sent him a Facebook friend request. 

Next time I got online, I had a notification on Facebook that Whitey had accepted my friend request six hours earlier and that he had sent me a message about an hour after that. The first thing that struck me upon reading his brief message was that he had used a racist epithet to describe one of my friends, and then asked if I thought that person would be offended by posts on his Facebook page. On the face of if that is a nonsensical question and kind of confused me, because he and I being friends would not cause my non-mutual friends to become aware of his page. It was also disquieting that his first words to me in three decades needed to include racist insults.

Things got stranger still when I went to his Facebook page and, near the top of it, saw that he had shared a post I had made more than four months ago about a book I had written about the folklore and mythology of Ethiopia. This book covers timeless themes and tales of things like dragons, architectural wonders created by mysterious ancient peoples, hippopotamuses the size of islands, men that can turn into hyenas, and the like. He appended one comment to his re-posting of the item: "The government and corruption in Ethiopia is noteworthy." There nothing pertinent to modern politics in my book, which draws upon folklore going back hundreds or thousands of years, rather than ephemeral things like the current governmental regime, so this was a really baffling and irrelevant comment. I then began to scroll through the rest of his posts and, to my disgust, discovered the same sort of racist, xenophobic, hatemongering posts that have become all too familiar to me anymore. 

But how had Whitey drawn a connection between a book about folklore and the government that happens to be in power in a particular country today? And then I remembered Martin who, as a particularly stupid child, had filled in the blank spots in the things he could not decipher with random words and concepts from his limited experience, and I understood what Whitey had done. Not particularly smart to start with, unhinged by the same 15 years of war and terror that the rest of us have also had to deal with, Whitey had connected the limited number of dots in his mind according to what he had nurtured and allowed to grow there. And, while the pictures young Martin drew were merely incorrect, middle-aged Whitey's are grotesque, misshapen, and malignant, connected not just by lines of ignorance but also ones of hate, bigotry, and violence spawned from decades of fear, confusion, disappointment, and growing mental illness. 

And then the rest of what had happened became strikingly and appallingly clear to me. Six hours before I got online, Whitey had received my friend request and accepted it. He had then spent a full hour exploring my Facebook profile and scrolling back through at least four months of posts on my timeline. As he did all this, he became increasingly agitated by evidence of my love for other cultures, the many races and nations represented among my friends, my African-American children. He then reacted by sending me a message laced with racist insults and, right after that, unfriended me. 

And, among all the unhappy elements associated with this unpleasant tale, that last is the one I actually feel good about.