21 September 2008


Years ago, say when I was in my mid-twenties, a good long-time friend sat across from me at breakfast acting particularly melancholy. We were camping east of San Diego, lots of good friends were there, and I couldn’t make out his mood. I asked him what was wrong, and he asked me if I’d ever been disappointed by someone I look up to. Not just a little, but profoundly and suddenly made aware of just how human our hero’s are. “Not really,” I told him. He had come to realize that a man he looked up to, a man who in many good ways replaced his father, was kind of a dunce. I think he told me there are two general issues here. One is that our expectations for those we esteem may be unreasonable, and we have control over this. The other issue is that we’d like to think that because we admire someone, that person is actually worthy of our esteem. Bestowal of esteem signifies that we have good judgment, and that another person is worthy of our good opinion. So, when a person lets us down it’s doubly crushing because it reflects an error in our judgment. To say the least.

Depending on your perspective I was either sheltered enough, or lucky enough that I didn’t really understand why my friend pushed his breakfast around the plate instead of eating it that morning until I was 32 years old. And when that finally did happen it was shocking, for it was a person I least expected. I learned that a person I’ve liked and whose company I have always found enjoyable, and whose intellectual accomplishments and wit I’ve always looked up to deserved much less of my esteem for the latter capability when he sent me an idiotic and patronizing email filled with emotional pleas and befuddled reasoning that was quite directed at trying to take me down a notch or ten. I felt foolish as I read it the first of two times because I really did think it was a joke. When at the end of the email he invoked the recent death of a close family friend as proof that I’m an asshole I realized it was not in humor at all. I reread the screed and found myself aghast that I’d ever considered him intellectually formidable, and then I did feel like an asshole for thinking that. I never expected anything like that from him, and it really shook me up. I was living in Jordan then, and this person sent an article about Islam that I took issue with. I went through the arguments bit by bit and dismantled them quite in the style that he does with regularity. When he responded to my screed about political Islam by invoking a recently killed friend in Iraq, I felt myself drifting out into a space I’ve never been in before. Now more than a year later I still think back to his response and wonder, what the fuck was that all about? The obvious answer is that he was in no mood to read something from a smug graduate student about the war which I directly argued is without justification just days after learning of A’s death. But, then, I wonder, why invite speculation on the causes of Middle East conflict in the first place? Why ask a question you’re not prepared to have answered? My argument was based on facts, history, precedent, and fieldwork. His response was based on emotion, and it was a tantrum. We have not communicated directly since then, though we are family. When several of us got together a few weeks ago for a vacation, he said little to me, not even asking me how my fieldwork went, or how my dissertation is. That’s ok. I don’t need anyone to be my cheerleader. The only thing he said to my husband was: “Hi K, still full of shit?” And that’s it. How did I get to be the asshole here?

Having had plenty of time to analyze that incident, I was still unprepared for the next installment from his younger brother. Let me describe what happened. We watched Fox News (why?). I complained about having to be exposed to O’Rilley when my shots are not up to date, and he told me to get a grip because this is the conservative opinion, and when O’Rilley is over we will have the liberal side. In no way do I consider “Take a look at this video of an SUV crashing into a 7/11 in Denton Texas,” to be news. Then, Giuliani started his speech, and my relative was sitting near us. I expressed fatigue at the bullshit, and he accused K and I of being too partisan and indirectly accused us of being naïve because “They all do this.” Having listened to his pronouncements on politics for years, I figured all of us in this family yell at the TV, and that’s just how we roll. Then that idiot Giuliani began to justify the term “Islamic Terrorism,” and by this time my uncle had moved away from K and I. I said, “This is so offensive, it’s Ramadan!” at which point my uncle stood up and said, “Oh come on! Those people came over here and killed 3500 Americans, so fuck your politics and fuck you!” Within that sentence he stood up, pointed his finger at us, and slammed the door behind himself, leaving his wife to say hasty good-byes and run after her ride home.

Now is the moment where I believe I take a different bus than my female relatives. Now having had two conservative uncles direct completely inappropriate tantrums at me, my aunts quickly began to engage in all sorts of verbal calculus thus making the incident either “no big deal,” or, “something expected, after all we were all drinking.” Here is what his different aunts told me:
“Well, we’d all had too much to drink, and I wasn’t exactly proud of my behavior…”
“We do that… Politics and beer don’t mix, we just have to remember that.”
“No politics tonight! [said the next night]”
“We should call them tomorrow and make peace.”
“You can’t get mad at everyone for everything. Where would we be if we didn’t forgive people? We’d have no friends.”
I am really at a loss here. When this happened in 2006, I was too far from the others to be exposed to the ways in which the women accommodate this behavior. But this time I saw it, and I like that less than being told to fuck off. Again, at the moment he pointed his finger at us, I thought he was joking, and then “…Fuck You!” and a slamming door. The next night I sat at a different table for dinner, and did not say good-bye at the end of our time together.

I need to return to my friend from the beginning of this. I learned from him that our perceptions of others are in large part our own responsibility. Like it or not, if I look up to a jerk that’s not a good plan, and that is my fault. A different long-term friend, who no longer is, taught me a valuable lesson at a terrible time in my life. Living in Jordan, and in no need of grief from home, she served up a boatload of torment to me at a time when I least needed it. What I realized, and I do thank her for this lesson, is that being friends with a jack-ass is stupid. Let me be more subtle in my analysis. She often asked of me things she should not have. Not smart enough to be friends with people who would never ask for so much at such a difficult time, I paid a price for my own lack of judgment. The lesson? Payback for being friends with a person who is too needy, or too selfish, or who is reliably ungrateful, or snotty, or whatever is obvious! I got what I deserved because I failed to responsibly pick people to be around me. Learning this lesson at that time in my life turned out to be really good for me, because my time in Jordan also pushed me to be both firm in my beliefs, and to derive my value from myself. Like I said, I need no one to be my cheerleader. I came back from Jordan with a conviction in myself, and a conviction in my intellect. Now months away from my PhD, I actually do know a lot about the Middle East, and about politics, and about humans in general. I know my history, I’ve read the critical social theory, I read a dozen news sources in English and Arabic every single day, then I go and read the Jordanian blogs to find out what’s really happening, I lived there, I’m a published author; I am not merely a passive political speculator.

Now add my education and the concomitant hubris to my area of specialization (the Middle East!), and I have something to say about political Islam and about the War. And, my opinions are based on good research and experience. I can defend Salafi Islam until the end of time, and yet I’m an atheist and really, fundamentally don’t get the religious experience. I think this culminates in a person who is really knowledgeable and yet emotionally detached. I can go on and on, and I am right, and yet my ego isn’t anchored to this stuff. I love my dissertation, and I love what I do in school, but this is not all of who I am.

And so when I sit with dear family members who unknowingly (or directly) patronize me by trying to explain something about the M.E. to me, I sit and take it because I’m a nice person. But since my fieldwork experience, this is very hard, and perhaps well-meaning people don’t fully understand that I am doing them a favor by not bursting out and asking them if they are a fucking idiot or what. I am nice enough that when people ask me if I have a real job yet, or why I want to avoid life by hiding in school, or grossly underestimate (misunderestimate?) how much my fieldwork took out of me, I smile and give an answer that moves the conversation along instead of telling them what I want to. And this pushed me closer to that dilemma I understand so keenly about surrounding myself with people who deserve my company, and avoiding people who suck life out of me. I know very well that we must pick our fights, but I also know that we must pick well or be trampled, but I sometimes don’t know when is which. For example, regarding often-made statements about my fieldwork:
“[bold statement not even touched by knowledge]”
Me: “Oh yeah, just like 'summer camp,' everyone sits around making SMOREs.”
Most of the time, it’s not worth potentially embarrassing the person I’m speaking with to correct them. Do I speak up every time? Never? When I can’t take it anymore? Now I’m older, and more educated, and I’m in this weird social place in which I know, dare I say, a lot more than many people I look up to. The thing is, they seem to only know that I look up to them, and they didn’t get the memo about how I’m almost done with school and all that stuff. So when Giuliani makes inflammatory statements that I know are worthy of ridicule, I will say so when among family. But this turned out to be too much, and I ended up at the business end of an F-bomb.

That’s easy for me to process, having had practice with his brother a year earlier. There is no excuse for talking to me like that. Man-up and address me with facts and an actual argument, or STFU. Don’t act like a jerk, and then never bring it up again.

Here is the really sticky part for me: what the heck is going on with the women in this family? Their diligent work to provide a continual open space for the men to act like bullies is stunning to me. Who decided that we are not accountable for our behavior? I certainly know I am! Perhaps that’s another good thing about being in graduate school. I am responsible not only for every single thing I do, as a teacher, as a student, as a writer, but I am responsible for everything I think. I am surrounded by people who make a living asking me to justify what I think. They continually amaze me by pushing me further and further, well beyond what I’d imagined possible. So it seems odd to me when people are permitted to talk with out backing up anything they say. I currently don’t live in that world and have not for several years. I’d also like to think that I’m improving my skills at deconstructing arguments too. And that comes at a cost that I am willing to pay, I just should not be asked to pay it.