Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The god of small minds

View from our window by Pants

I am very lucky. Seat of Pants has a spectacular outlook. I can't imagine ever living in a house with no outlook. At the moment, I'm more reliant than ever on confirmation that the world is, in fact, a very big and diverse place. Having an ocean to look out upon helps a lot. An ocean is proof that your insular, myopic country has a boundary. Beyond this point there may be dragons but also, quite possibly, intelligent life. Sadly, for me, the nearest landmass is Tasmania. It's a version of Australia as envisaged by Quentin Tarantino. But never mind.

Soon there will be whales. They can't arrive soon enough. Whales come from elsewhere, bringing all the promise that elsewhere exists. I think of how desperately I wanted to leave Australia when I was young and how I miraculously did and how brilliant that was except that I came back and it had regressed, so hideously and unimaginably. I left in the early 1980s and returned three decades later in the early 1950s. My only consolation is that being an American repatriate is probably much worse.

Timothy Egan in The New York Times writes about the escalating ignorance of Americans. An increasing number believe that President Barack Obama is (1) not an American citizen (2) not a Christian, despite the official reproduction of his birth certificate and evidence of his religious practice appearing with pointless regularity in every possible media crevice.

Of course it's worrying that Americans are still cloaking racism in cultural convention, but hardly surprising. What's really shocking is their flagrant willingness to suspend the distinction between factual and conjectural information. Did anyone ever question that Dr Martin Luther King was (1) an American citizen (2) a practising Christian person? There is nothing quite like an inability to distinguish verifiable fact from unknowable conjecture as a gauge for rank stupidity.

I have had a related experience this week. Occasionally, I make a bid to offer my usefulness to society as a volunteer. I regret to say these efforts have yielded uniformly negative results to date. Perhaps some of that is my fault. I've had a lot of experience of evaluating community and voluntary organisations in receipt of government money. Suffice to say, my eyes are significantly less bright and my tail pitifully less bushy than they might otherwise have been as a result of this direct witness. It's a sad thing when the only evidence of an organisation's creativity is in its gift for subterfuge.

I had it in mind to contribute to literacy. There exists, apparently, a national literacy programme. After a longer internet trawl than should have been necessary, I managed to track down a contact info@ address. A week or so later, I received a 'don't really know much about this but you could try...' response. In my experience, this sort of reply is routine when you try to follow up on an 'initiative' with blanket TV advertising and a call centre number. I didn't phone the call centre because I knew the 'person' I would end up 'speaking' to would be programmed to collect 'data' and would not be remotely capable of dealing with my inquiry.

So I did try phoning the contact number given by the vague 'you could try...' person. It connected to Larrikin's End Community College. I am reasonably sure it's the place Joseph K is taken in The Trial, so I approached with some hesitancy. A woman with extreme salon hair and scary talons sat me on a broken typist's chair and explained to me authoritatively that literacy is 'not about reading and writing'. When I cautiously raised an eyebrow, she sternly informed me that 'students don't respond to a classroom environment'. Oh, so that would explain why my own education was such an unmitigated disaster then. I felt like the meat in a Derrida sandwich about to be demolished by Foucault.

The 'literacy' programme at Larrikin's End Community College comprises a cooking class and a gardening class. The gardening class is taken by someone whose own English is, shall we say, in development. Can't be too careful with these things. Wouldn't want to confront our learners with intimidating expertise now would we? Wouldn't that do desperate things to their self esteem to realise that there are people in the world who have transmittable knowledge from which someone might benefit? God, I'd be suicidal too if I had to face the possibility that there was someone in the world with a more advanced understanding than I have, about anything.

I know it's pointless to argue with an automaton so I don't. There are ethical issues, to be sure, but if you think an automaton has more hope of grasping these than it has of telling fact from conjecture, then you need to check your pulse. I was handed a form to fill in. Naturally, it was designed to solicit as much demographic information as it is possible to collect without appearing voyeuristic. I put down my name, address, email and mobile number and backed out of the room very, very slowly.

I did not complete the copious questions about my interests, skills, abilities and the inevitable one that asks 'how did you find out about us?' You'd need to set a month aside to tackle that one. It's like a Cluedo question. Clearly, they make it as difficult as possible to 'find out about us'. They appear only to want you to discover them and then plot your trail for posterity. They have no interest at all in engaging you further. It seems like a motiveless crime.

To deal with the modern world, you need a strong bunker. But the bunker needs a window. Sea is great but nothing quite beats sky. Many of our metaphors for mood come from sky. Blue skies, grey skies, dark skies, bright skies. The moon in all its psychological phases. Clouds convey storms, glooms and obfuscations. And the sun. It rises and it also sets. A neon reminder that there will be a tomorrow. I have them all. I need them all because I can only think outside the metaphorical box by being able to see beyond my particular home box in a way that isn't filtered or censored or reinterpreted. It's just me looking.

Thank you Seat of Pants for all your spectacular picture windows and skylights because you never let me forget that there is a universe out there and that it is my responsibility to see it.