Grow up within the confluence of coastal Canadians, folk music fans, and people who make their living on the water, and you might well run into the music of Stan Rogers. I did. With my odds tripled up like that, it was practically inevitable. For those of you unfamiliar, The Mary Ellen Carter is a good introduction.
It isn’t the only good song, and I’d struggle to tell you the best song. White Squall is excellent in its folksy wrenching, Giant is goddamn fun, and I’m legitimately not tired of hearing people at Renaissance fairs yell Barrett’s Privateers. Keep on. I’ll yell along with you, and so will the Stormtroopers in kilts. I don’t share this particular song because it’s the best, or even because it’s my favorite.
I share it because it’s this luminous secular hymn, because it’s art that’s saved a life. In the Rogers documentary One Warm Line, Robert Cusick recounts his story:
I was on a ship that,– we were carrying coal from Norfolk Virginia to a place near Fall River, Massachusetts [Somerset], and we got caught in a very bad storm. It was an old ship, and we didn’t have very much warning — about two o’clock in the morning we saw the ship was starting to get into trouble and go down by the head. And we called the Coast Guard and they were on their way out as quick as they could. And the ship cracked up and rolled over at four fifteen a.m.
The water was very cold, it was thirty-nine degrees. I had heard enough stories about a vortex and whirlpools sucking people down when a ship sunk, so I started trying to swim away as fast as I could. So it was prob’ly the best part of an hour that I’d been doing this, that I ran across a swamped life boat, and I managed to get into it. As the night wore on, and the seas kept smashing down on top of me, and I fin’lly got the feeling that I just couldn’t make it any more. And I was just about ready to give up, when all of a sudden the words came into my mind, “Rise again, rise again. No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend, like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.”
And I just kept saying that over, and the water cleared away, and I’d shout it out, and sing it out. Then another sea would come down on top of me. And I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for that happening to me, I just was in a position where I couldn’t have come through. And that song made the difference, and me living through that night. There isn’t any question in my mind whatsoever about it.
We like to talk about the preservative powers of art in clinical, detached terms. “Ah, yes,” we say. “Art, by which one can find a time-washed mirror of oneself and feel, at last, a flicker of recognition in this ignorant world.” We nod in pitying recognition at the concept of inspiration, at best. We are intelligent people, after all, and they are only stories. Their voice, their ability to reflect our inner workings, those are the value. It’s foolish, it’s deluded, to take them as inspirational or, you poor creature, aspirational. We’re cautious about that, real cautious. As Thinking People, as we fancy ourselves, we bristle at the ignorant impulse to wrap stories around ourselves.
In doing so, we deny our human impulse toward meaning making. And we hand away a powerful weapon.
Believe what you will about the media and who controls it, but know this: The regressive Right control our stories. Leftists may create, their works may do well, but regressives have the means and the mind to control and use narrative. They are not self conscious about it. They embrace symbol, gesture, narrative, and emotion the way that religious people do. The way that leftists, perhaps because of the historical religious connection, so dutifully avoid. It’s… it’s just uncool, and the Left has for some time been terrified of uncoolness, of not being liked. The Left is a bullied fat kid trying to make it through school in that we take two general routes to our dream of mainstream acceptance:
-We mistake people’s emotional investment in things for ignorance to facts and become religious spouters of statistics and historical recordings, which we speak with a regal tone that does nothing to mitigate people’s impulse to pop us in the mouth.
-We duck down and play along and mock ourselves and present a palatable middle ground personality, which does nothing to inspire solidarity among our ranks or respect outside them.
We like to believe ourselves smarter and better than regressives because we can parade out facts and lean on what we consider to be cool rationality, but on an emotional and social level we’re practically stupid on purpose. So desperate are we to distance ourselves from Lesser ideologies that we pretend away our vulnerable humanity.
We’re self conscious, which means we obsess utterly over clean and acceptable appearances. We must be unassailable, we must be correct, we must be Better, we must be acceptable and fair and not too noisy or different from regressives. We must hang our heads and apologize when we go even half as far as regressives do in their efforts to stamp out our interests, we must police whoever among us ranks lower in privilege before they get too loud or deviate too far from center. Don’t retaliate, brown people, that’s not a good look for us. Okay, ‘ladies,’ you can be around but not too close and not too loud.
And for the love of Pete, young women and queers and all you other Lessers, don’t make us look uncool. The stories that floated you through your terrible middle and high school experiences in the wake of 9/11? Those are stupid now. That rap musical we were all so stoked about that tickets became a comical black market commodity? Now that the minority voices it elevated and lionized are in even more serious danger, that’s also stupid. Rap in general, I guess, is fine, but we will conveniently forget its history as subversive art created and consumed and embraced under crushing circumstances. If you could stick to historical accounts that inform stories instead of the stories themselves, that would be ideal.
After all, we can’t look too emotionally invested. We can’t get all tent revival about this. That’s just not cool, it’s too… noisy, it’s not clean, it doesn’t provide the data points that still aren’t winning us arguments for some reason. Of course, we don’t know why it’s not winning us arguments. We are, as previously stated, purposely ignorant on that point.
We discount art and stories, downplaying and denying their ability to control such sprawling structures as our economy itself.
Am I comparing 20-somethings turning to books beloved in their childhood to rile themselves against fascism to economic theories? Maybe I am. Maybe the things that keep you alive and strong and noisy individually aren’t less important than the stories the status quo tells us to keep us quiet.
When I was young and my mother went through a fundamentalist phase, I made a lot of WWJD bracelets. Under instruction, not of my own choice. “What would Jesus do?” The bracelets had a purpose, in theory, in the lives of the young faithful. When you hurt, when you doubt, when life is hard, your reminder is with you. Look at it, feel its weight, just know that it’s there and ask yourself. Ask yourself and act accordingly.
I was too old going into it, too gay and too aware and too raw and hurt, for it to work for me. “Jesus would be disappointed in you people,” I would think to myself. It could never be as important to me as it was to those kids who’d been raised in that environment, for whom fundamentalism was normalized in the stories wrapped around their entire lives. That their loving Christ might drive them out with a whip didn’t occur to them, that his virtuous actions contributed to the contempt that killed him didn’t deter them. Many, I’m sure, saw the virtue alone. The story was in them on an individual level, even if their introduction to it was structural.
The story that’s in you, the song you sing to keep above the freezing water, doesn’t need to be true. It needs no supporting data, though a core of truth helps. It doesn’t need to be cool. In fact, it can’t be cool. Cool is detached, cool is a post-modern privilege. It insulates, but it can’t inspire.
If you’re reading this queer, justice-leaning blog, it’s likely that this week has been hard on you. You may be discovering something like faith, your own secular hymns rising in your throats in moments you wake in the dark or at the irregular and priceless peaks of hope and resilience.
I won’t shame you for it. I know enough about culture, about our positively physiological need to make meaning, about personally needing models and mythic promises, to know there’s nothing constructive in such arrogance. It might make me feel better, by which I mean it would make me feel superior and thus safer than you. That’s about all.
At my work, I find myself in a weird position. I do hard physical work, my co-workers are uniformly white men with the exception of fewer than five white women. The management is solidly middle class, the rest as disadvantaged financially as I am. These white men celebrate what’s happened this week, unless they’re white male liberals who downplay the consequences already unfolding.
I am a white man signing the same white man kind of name as everybody else on the meeting attendance sheet. The others shout their celebration to each other, to no one, and they sweep their eyes around for the matching smiles. They find no smile on me because I know what they are, and no smile on the Boss’s face because to laugh along or specifically chastise them is professionally unacceptable.
And I could be satisfied with that. That could be my victory condition, to be quiet and unbothered but still Right for the next However Many Years. With effort, I could be satisfied with that.
Instead, after watching the events that unfolded at work only hours after Clinton conceded, I came in the next day to tie up ten minutes of Boss’s day explaining that he has a responsibility to believe people who come to him and tell him they’re afraid. That less than 18 hours in, things for anyone Not Him were already terrible. That the bad elements at his facility would be emboldened, that he would have work to do. Because he didn’t understand the gravity of this, he insisted we do it on the facility floor as morning meeting dispersed instead of in an office. I could have not done it. I could have made up something, anything else to talk about. I could have asked for time off or more time on. Instead, I did what I’d set out to do and found fewer men willing to answer me when I spoke to them that day.
The next day, a previously jovial white man tied the morning meeting up with a screed about how political correctness is a cancer and voicing offense should be a prosecuted crime. It took Boss a couple tries to gently shut it down, to tamp it out with the limp insistence that everyone is testy right now and everyone has opinions.
And I could have been satisfied that he stopped. I could have been annoyed but quiet.
I didn’t even reserve Boss’s time that time. I caught him on the way somewhere and we did the thing again, out on the floor in front of God and everybody. I brought him my pain in my hands and I handed it to him and I told him what he’s saying when he tries to make a hateful opinion as valuable as a compassionate one. I told him that his impartiality doesn’t help me when someone his soft take on fascism emboldens has already harmed me. That his statements embolden these men and ensure that hate spreads unchecked because people at risk don’t feel heard. That to declare the policies that guarantee me the right to work a cancer on society is to commit verbal abuse.
Fewer men will talk to me. We move shipments by hand, and more items freed from behind turned backs strike me than before all this started.
I’m sick every time I do this, and I know that doing it has bound me in a way to keeping it up indefinitely. I’ve committed myself to this sickness, to chasing the shake out of my voice, to being the only one a white guy with authority will recognize as One Of Us and hear and accepting every white man under that authority turning his back on me.
And I’m still queer, and plenty of them already know. Which, being as we all work the same shifts and chat the morning away in small shifting teams, means everyone knows. I was already uncomfortable here because I know places and people like this, having come up in and among them. I was already grateful it’s well-lit and there’s cameras everywhere and a metal detector at the door.
Let me be clear: I could not do this with data points supporting me. Because they don’t. Data points know that at-will employment exists and nullifies equal opportunity. Data points suggest I could face worse, that my gratitude for the cameras isn’t misplaced. Data points say, “Individually, you are set up to accomplish nothing at best and get brained at worst.”
I could not do this without my secular hymns to sing, without my hyperbolic narratives of triumph in the face of despair. As leftists, we like to laugh at faithful sentimentality. We forget that for many, for most, life is crushing. Reality is crushing. Data, data made of human lives mulched under reality, is crushing. We forget the human need for something outside the self that nurtures and encourages, that directs. For a respected standard to meet.
We can’t keep doing that. Structurally, if we are to survive, we have to embrace the tools we’ve abandoned out of a false sense of superiority. Individually, if it keeps us going, it’s not wrong to embrace and draw strength from art.
Yes, even art you disdain.
Yes, even art your MFA professors would sneer at.
I could not have survived to go to college without art, without my hymns with no Almighty in sight. I couldn’t look even my own moderate amount of risk in the face and resist this without art, without models that got deep into me before I was too young to feel embarrassed about it.
I could not.
Lots of people couldn’t, can’t. That’s not wrong, that’s human.
Whatever’s keeping you angry and noisy, or even alive, keep singing.