Yesterday, a person who claimed to represent the “hacktivist” group Anonymous posted information to the data-dump site Pastebin that outed various public figures, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, as members of the Ku Klux Klan. There are a lot of reasons to believe that data is not real, and no good evidence to suggest that Cornyn or any of the other figures named in the documents are involved with the Klan. I totally fell for it yesterday, partly because “Senate majority whip is a Klansman” is such a good story—too good, in retrospect, to be true. But in my defense, Anonymous has been planning to out Klan members with a document dump on November 5.
Yesterday, we learned that Michael Derrick Hudson has a poem in Best American Poetry 2015 he submitted under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Ben al-Fowlkes sent me Sherman Alexie’s explanation of how that happened, which I like as much as anything he’s written in years. Alexie wisely begins from his own perspective as a writer, which is the familiar mix of high ideals, envy, and conspiracy theory. I find contest judges are unfairly biased in favor of writers who aren’t me. Alexie feels about the same way, albeit for better reasons than I do, and when he becomes guest editor of BAP 2015 he resolves to judge fairly. He also resolves to uphold Rule #5:
Rule #5: I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. [snip]
Enter Yi-Fen Chou. Alexie read his poem carefully and thought it was great. After he picked it for the anthology and Michael Derrick Hudson unmasked himself, Alexie was enraged. Then he read the poem again and liked it just as much, so it stayed in.
I apologize for the lateness of the hour; my plan was to hold today’s post until I could link to a pleasant surprise, but that surprise is not happening until tomorrow. In the meantime, look what Michael Derrick Hudson did. Hudson is a white person and poet who occasionally submits poems under the pen name Yi-Fen Chou. Here he is explaining his method:
After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it.
The “poem in question” here is “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” which Sherman Alexie selected for the 2015 edition of Best American Poetry. Surely it means something that readers rejected one of the best American poems of 2015 when Hudson submitted it and liked it when Chou did. But what?
Last night, a select few observed my birthday at The Hub Family Entertainment Center, where we played laser tag and drove go-karts. It was entertaining, and they let us in even without families. Even though I love it, I am terrible at laser tag and came in second to last, probably thanks to one of those five-year-olds who is operatively a stand for eyeglasses. But in my defense, one reason I got lit up so much was that a little girl followed me around the maze at a distance of about two feet, constantly pulling the trigger, not caring if I shot her and simply waiting until her gun reactivated to shoot me again. It turns out that’s a great strategy, in terms of maximizing points. But we didn’t come to laser tag to maximize points, to walk single-file and smile meekly at the person in front of us, even after he told us to go away, even after he tried to run off on his strong adult legs. So the big, important question:
- Is this little girl a dickbag, deserving of our censure? or
- Is this a structural problem of laser tag?
The bold statement in today’s headline comes from Gary Saul Morson’s essay Why Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature. You should read the whole thing, but I was particularly struck by his interpretation of Chekhov’s “Enemies.” Quoted at length:
“Enemies” describes a doctor named Kirillov, whose son has just died, comforting his grieving wife as his face displays “that subtle, almost elusive beauty of human sorrow.” We empathize with him, not only for his grief over his son, but also because of his empathy for his wife. It’s a chain of empathy, and we are its last link.
Then the wealthy Abogin arrives to beg the doctor to visit his dying wife, and the doctor, with extreme reluctance, at last recognizes he has no choice. When they finally arrive, it turns out Abogin’s wife has only feigned illness to get rid of her husband long enough to escape with her lover. As Abogin cries and opens his heart to the doctor “with perfect sincerity,” Kirillov notices the luxurious surroundings, the violoncello case that bespeaks higher cultural status, and reacts wrathfully. He shouts that he is the victim who deserves sympathy because the sacred moment of his own mourning has been ruined for nothing.
Nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood. Self-conscious victimhood leads to cruelty that calls itself righteousness and thereby generates more victims. Students who encounter this idea experience a thrill of recognition. Kirillov experiences “that profound and somewhat cynical, ugly contempt only to be found in the eyes of sorrow and indigence” when confronted with “well-nourished comfort,” and he surrenders to righteous rage.
Our ability to appreciate other people’s suffering is inversely proportional to our understanding of our own—not how much we have suffered, but how conscious we are of it. Self-pity might be the opposite of empathy.