I live in that odd part of the United States designated upstate New York. I have for more than thirty years. It’s got history, diversity, beauty, and even, when politicians aren’t getting things completely effed up, opportunity for creative, enterprising, imaginative human beings to chase a dream or two and even catch them.
I came to New York in the 1980s to go to grad school and study medieval English literature at the University of Rochester. When it became clear that the program I dreamed of being part of had no place for me and my delight in the old, the odd, the noble, and the gentle, I gladly left the program and began building a real life among real, hardworking, no-nonsense, working-class people.
In medieval-lit type parlance, I went from being part of an elite fellowship of scholars and dreamers to being part of οἱ πολλοί or “the people.” Vocabulary.com says, “The hoi polloi is a way of referring to common people, and it is an elitist term usually used by people who consider themselves to be above the masses.
“Snobs rarely like the hoi polloi — that is, the masses, a.k.a. ‘the great unwashed.’ The term comes from the Greek for ‘the many.’ Perhaps because of the similar sounding term hoity-toity to mean someone with fancy airs the phrase is sometimes mistaken for its exact opposite — the elite or upper class. Don’t be fooled.”
There were aspects of grad school I was completely in love with–sitting at lunch and talking non-stop with fellow classmates, wandering around in the basement of the library by myself, sitting in the sun on the quad, learning to read the poem Beowulf in Old English.
The price I had to pay for these simple joys was sitting in lectures where I was told repeatedly that the literature that gave me delight was so meaningless, and the authors that gave me delight were so manipulative, and the cultures they came out of were so corrupt, and I was so conditioned and brainwashed by my own culture . . . that it wasn’t wise or safe for me or anyone else to try and read or respond to the written word without the keen critical and protective interference of the administration and their subordinates.
Because I was intellectually and socially and politically naive and unimpressed with the intellectual shallowness of the academic heroes on pedestals in the 1980s, I tried hard to understand what it was that I could not understand and was too simple-minded to be able to question.
I could not keep my mouth shut; I could not NOT ask questions; I was told I was being too frivolous and that I could not hope to have my work as an academic taken seriously and supported unless I buckled down and stopped being difficult.
Later, when personal problems made it difficult for me to study for my comprehensive exams, and I barely passed and was told that maybe I was not cut out for a rigorous academic life and should find another program where I fit better, I accepted the wisdom of the people in control of my life and left convinced that I was stupid, difficult, deficient, incapable, lazy, and totally unfit to be part of the fellowship I aspired to be part of.
For years after that, for a good thirty-plus years, I allowed my value as a human being to be defined by the memory of people who had not been not interested in me as a person, only as potential proof that their academic agenda was good and right and beneficial.
It took me thirty-plus years to find the courage to examine the shame and struggle of my experience and to believe in my own mind and my ability to decide for myself how to live a meaningful life.
I find it fascinating that my increasing confidence in my own intellect has begun to unfold in the midst of a renaissance of what I might, in a very un-medieval way, describe as the church of “don’t thinky, be happy.” (Can anybody who gets that cultural reference do a decent cover of Bobby McFerron?)
New York politicians now struggling to do damage control related to failed coronavirus policies and procedures are certainly bending the knee in the Church of Don’t Thinky.
They are showing how much they want to fix the problems they ineptly created by denying, reframing, and shaming . . . getting rid of a problem by suppressing any narrative that points out significant governmental ineptitude, ignorance, aversion to risk-taking, systemic parsimony, and indifference to real, human, dependent, struggling lives.
So residents of New York, both upstate and down, are welcome to peacefully demonstrate about anything and everything except their grief, their losses, their destroyed businesses and families. And they can seek whatever solace works for them except spiritual traditions that demand personal accountability and sorrow for selfish, ego-driven, callous indifference to human life.
One traditional way of expressing outrage at this kind of behavior on the part of powerful people is to say, “I can’t believe this; I’m speechless!”
I deeply wish that circumstances were such that I would not have or need words to express my astonishment at people governing without reference to the real public needs of the governed.
But I’m sorry. I’m not, as they say, stupid, lazy, or crazy. And I grew up in a family where we were allowed to talk, argue and be dissatisfied with BS served up as truth.
So, I am not speechless. Not by a long shot (so to speak).