Thursday, April 8, 2010

Words Are My Only Weapon

The first professional writing I did was as a columnist for the Kenosha Midweek Bulletin. Every week I would comb the internet for inspiration and then spew 800-word satirical diatribes against the Bush administration. Once I wrote about him being replaced by a digital version of himself like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings. Another column was about the invasion of Iraq as a remake of an old television series that I vaguely remembered as a kid like they're doing with V now.

I was not a very good journalist. I always went for the most extreme opinion that I could and I used incendiary, disrespectful language. Luckily there was a forum in the Bulletin, called Sound Off!, where anyone who liked could call up and leave a 30-second message that would then be printed in the paper (provided it passed standards and practices of the Kenosha News Organization) and my detractors had ample opportunity to dismantle my arguments.

There were lots of angry calls. Almost every week someone would demand my immediate deportation to France, or call me a snot-nosed punk. I think my favorite was the one where someone told everyone else to relax because Gabe wasn't real, he's clearly that Jared guy from the Subway commercials. You can see below that I actually do look like him in the picture that ran beside my column every week.

The point is. I never inspired anyone to make any intellectual comments. I never started a dialogue. For three years I wrote for that paper, and I think the only person my column ever made any difference to was me and my Grandma who clipped every single column for a scrapbook.

In Act 4 of Henry VI Part 2, Jack Cade and his lower-class companions lead a rebellion against the young king. Cade claims to be the rightful heir to the English throne. While rousing his followers, he proclaims the miraculous math that will rule his kingdom:

There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny. The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer. (4:2)

After a few hurrahs, Dick the Butcher, one of his followers and friends lets loose this famous Shakespearean quote:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. (4:2)

Soon after this, an accountant is brought before them, and when it is discovered that he can read and add and sign his name. Cade determines his fate:

O, monstrous!

Hang him with his pen and inkhorn about his neck. (4:2)

Literacy can be a weapon of inequality. Education and book-learning are methods of oppression that elevate some and leave others behind.

Jack Cade’s rebellion against Henry VI is also against education and the tools high-fallutin' lords and ladies use to control the common. It's a bloody, inhumane rebellion that unsettles the monarchy so that York can march on the King and make his legitimate (and also bloody) claim to the throne. But despite Cade's ignorance, there’s something that makes his soldiers (the butchers, tailors, blacksmiths and laborers of Cade’s army) sympathetic.

It's knowing that in the conquest of France (see Henry V), they were the ones who perished on the battlefield, and that in Medieval England they were utterly disenfranchised and the nobility, who played at governance, did not care for them except as a political tool.

Cade and his rebels are terrible people who are terribly oppressed. Oppression drives some to desperate methods and foolish rationalization.

In the American politic we have seen public discourse disintegrate since the signing of the constitution. Two years ago we had Sarah Palin thrust upon us. The poster-child for ignorant populism. Now the Tea Party, in all it’s glorious ridiculousness, threatens to drag the Republican Party further and further from it’s illustrious past. Toward a base element. A kindling.

In all the popular clamor against my radical columns, I was sometimes lumped together with other liberal journalists, such as Molly Ivins. It seems strange to me in retrospect that people would ever associate my satirical bombast for actual journalism. I was just a smartass punk with a laptop.

But I couldn’t help it. I never felt more powerless than I did the night Al Gore lost Florida. I wanted to take arms against what I perceived as outrageous injustice. I wanted to fight and rebel. But luckily I’m a writer and words are my only weapon. So my thoughts could not be bloody. I sought only character defamation and the extraction of my enemies’ argumentative teeth. Parliamentary dentistry.

The saddest part is that Cade’s rebellion, was initiated by the Duke of York. Who wanted him to assault the King’s claim to the throne, and weaken it. Cade succeeded in seeding the doubt in people’s mind that Henry’s monarchy is tenuous, inherited from a traitorous murder (York’s great grand uncle or something was King and was murdered by Henry IV).

Cade was tricked. Manipulated by a nobleman and a politician. York layed out his plan in soliloquy:

And for a minister of my intent,

I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,

John Cade of Ashford,

To make commotion, as full well he can,

I know no pain they can inflict upon him

Will make him say I moved him to those arms.

Say that he thrive, as ‘tis great like he will,

Why then from Ireland come I with my strength

And reap the harvest which that rascal sowed. (3:2)

That’s the way of it for we, the low players. It is our small movements that loosen the lids on jars of political jam across history. But the preserves, the power, the control, the sweet spread inside, is reserved for the lords. Men of a better ilk. Men who can read and write their names and perform complex calculations of character manipulation.

Cade gets his in the end. He is slain by a gentleman named Alexander Iden who brings his decapitated head to Henry, and earns himself knighthood. Violence begets violence. Slander begets slander.

My column-writing career is long-over. I just hope I made a few people laugh. Somewhere in the rhetoric and fury a good point or two was lost. I’m sure I didn’t change anyone’s mind. I felt weak at the time, and I wanted to pick a fight. I think that’s okay, because conflict forces us to grow. And I was the one with the most growing up to do.

Fat Gabe in his Barcelona jersey.
Photo taken circa August 2001.

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