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Conversation Theory

Hello, Michiganders. It’s been almost four years now since I last checked in, though I’ve often wondered how you’re doing. I do come back for visits, once in a blue moon, but that’s no excuse for not calling or writing. Given everything that’s happened this year, and with the election just days away, I suspect that most of you aren’t sleeping all that well. I know I’m not. The way I see it, it could still go either way, and I’m not talking about the election. I’m thinking about the country.

So, here’s my two cents. There are some things we can do, and other things we should remember, if we don’t want a total meltdown. First off, can we just stop all this talk about conspiracy theories? It’s not helping. It just makes shit worse. The word “conspire,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes a Latin root “conspīrāre, literally ‘to breathe together’, whence, to accord, harmonize, agree, combine or unite in a purpose, plot mischief together secretly.” Now I’m not going to say that such things never happen, but I will say that, as a description, explanation, or dismissal of any beliefs held by any large part of any country’s population (say, the purported 25% of USians who, according to the Pew Center, believe that COVID-19 was planned), it just isn’t helpful. By definition, anyone who maintains a belief in something that you might think of as a conspiracy theory actually believes it. And how often have you met people who see their own ideas as wacko? To me, figuring out how they got there, and how you might get them back, is what matters.

Rather than talk about conspiracies, could we instead have a conversation? The OED also reminds us that the word “conversation” comes from Latin: “conversārī, literally, to turn oneself about, to move to and fro, pass one's life, dwell, abide, live somewhere, keep company with” and that it’s related to “convertĕre, to turn about.” In the end, isn’t that what we all want? To live somewhere, keep company with others, pass our lives in peace, while moving to and for, and maybe, from time to time, turning ourselves around?

And don’t forget, those others—despite what our social media feeds would have us believe—are neighbors. If you look around the peninsula a bit, you’ll find all kinds. I’ve heard that the President, as he did four years ago, plans to have his final campaign rally in Grand Rapids, the city where I was born. (As a student of narrative, I actually like stories that come full circle, where the end is a partial repetition of the beginning.) You have to wonder who will come out to see him. In recent weeks, as you know, Michigan has again made world news in the worst way. Not since Terry Nichols was teaching Timothy McVeigh to play with explosives did Michiganders shame their state to such a degree. Of course, right-wing and racist extremism didn’t begin then either. Malcolm X’s dad was likely murdered by a KKK splinter group in Lansing, the town I grew up in. Blood in the Face, a 1991 film about white supremacist groups in the U.S., was mostly filmed in Livingston County, not far from where this new group of self-styled patriots was apparently plotting the murder of Governor Whitmer. What goes around comes around.

Of course, violence and extremism aren’t all that grows in Michigan soil. The youngest of Malcolm X’s siblings, Robert Langdon Little, grew up as a foster child, then turned to social work himself. For a time, he was Chief Administrator in Youth Services for Michigan’s Department of Social Services, taking care of our state’s kids. He was also my dad’s boss. By the mid-seventies, when our country at last ended the horrors we were inflicting on Vietnam, Gerald Ford was President. Like Malcolm, Ford was born in Omaha, Nebraska, then raised in Michigan. Though problematic in both conception and execution, President Ford’s Operation Babylift, which brought close to two thousand Vietnamese orphans to the U.S., was an early attempt to mitigate some of the damage we’d caused. By that time, my father was head of an association of private family agencies, and he helped to find homes for the children on one of the first transport flights. During the ‘80s, Howard Wolpe, a seven-term U.S. Representative from Kalamazoo and chair of the House Africa Subcommittee, was instrumental in getting sanctions passed against the apartheid regime in South Africa, despite a veto from President Reagan.

For some, the history I’ve rehearsed will seem both selective and partisan, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. My main point shouldn’t be hard to grasp. Where I come from, during the early days of November, there will definitely be people armed for bear, either planning violence or planning to be ready for it—a difference no wider than a matchstick. But there will also be people—many more of them—who have spent their entire lives doing everything they can to prevent violence, and to repair the lives of those who have been harmed.

Writing on a no less urgent topic, the conflict between freedom of expression and the sanctity of religious symbols, the poet, novelist, and critic Tabish Khair reminds us that people do harm or kill others to attack or defend differing ideas, yet the ideas themselves do not die. As he comments,

Their conflict does not die. They have no body that can be beheaded or shot. They cannot be threatened, imprisoned, abused, tortured, killed. All this can only happen to the bodies that espouse either, and more, of the ideas. It does not matter whether the ideas are good or bad, or, as is often the case, both good and bad. What matters is that ideas do not have a body.

In France today, there are surely people on both sides of this ideological divide that see the others as fanatics; they probably imagine those others conspiring together, breathing in some thick and poisonous air, plotting evil deeds. In our country, on the other hand, from all across the country we’re getting reports of people voting early in record numbers—such a dramatic increase that, in some states, more people have voted already than in 2016. Election day will surely be more of the same: record numbers, with a higher final percentage of the population casting their ballot than any year ever, at least in my lifetime.

In a very real sense, no matter who all these voters turn out for, this election will be a landslide. Perhaps it already is. Every vote cast is a vote for democracy, every vote is an act of expression. For conversation, however heated, not conspiracy theories. No doubt it will be messy. In some corners, some fanatics may well turn out, and violence may occur.

But if the numbers we’re hearing are true, there’s no stopping it. We’ll keep this Republic democratic after all.

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.


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