Quotes & Commentary #53: Goethe

Quotes & Commentary #53: Goethe

Not all that’s foreign can be banned

For what is far is often fine.

A Frenchman is a thing no German man can stand,

And yet we like to drink their wine.

—Goethe, Faust

So long as humans have divided themselves into groups, xenophobia has existed. Like many phobias—such as of spiders, snakes, and heights—fear of foreigners has an evolutionary logic. In a time before laws, city walls, and police, when small migratory bands of hunter-gatherers roamed the world, strangers were an acute threat. Violence within one’s own group could be reduced through interdependence and social pressure; but there was comparatively little to deter violence between groups. As such, it made sense to be fearful of strangers, just as it made sense to fear poisonous critters and deadly falls.

But the human environment changes faster than the human mind can evolve. Our fears are often maladjusted to the modern world. We panic when we see rats, bats, cockroaches, and we feel queasy on tall buildings. Yet how many people have phobias of cars or guns, two far more deadly facets of the modern world? Not many, and that’s the point: our brains are attuned to different threats than now exist. The same logic applies to foreigners. The old fear of strangers, once useful and life-preserving, has in our day of nation-states transformed into useless a fear of foreigners. And as everybody in the United States knows, this fear has recently experienced a resurgence.

Xenophobia is nothing new in America. We were never so accepting of immigrants as our national mythology would have us believe. There have been periods of backlash against many different ethnic groups: Germans, Irish, Chinese, and now immigrants from Latin America and from predominately Muslim countries. That this xenophobia is based on provably irrational fears—rampant crime, “job stealing,” or terrorism—hardly affects the deep-rooted emotional response to foreigners. And whipping up sentiment against outsiders, after all, is the easiest thing in the world, since outsiders have no social bonds to the community.

Yet however deeply rooted the fear is in our psychology, it is not ineradicable. A fear of insects is another of our predisposed phobias, since poisonous insects were daily perils for our ancestors. But when I was in Kenya, constantly exposed to legions of flying, crawling, stinging, biting bugs, I soon lost my fear and felt perfectly at home. I ceased to be afraid once I realized that my fear was irrational: the bugs were safe, so long as I didn’t do anything stupid. Similarly, living in an international city like New York reduces xenophobia through daily contact. An irrational fear quickly dissipates when prolonged experience exposes the fear’s lack of basis in reality.

I do not mean to be overly simplistic. Obviously other factors than our primitive wiring affect xenophobia. In the case of Germany and France, for example, those two states competed for resources and power, leading them into conflict and stirring up hatred. And this hatred, combined with political and language barriers, was—despite living in close proximity—sufficient to motivate the populations of those two countries to kill one another in huge numbers, just for their sake of identity. Obviously, proximity by itself is not enough to overcome xenophobic hatred. Both groups must see each other, not as competitors, but as collaborators, with something positive to contribute to one another.

As Goethe points out, I think that cuisine has played a surprisingly central role in promoting inter-group harmony. It is said that music is an international language, but I think food and alcohol better deserve that title. Ingredients, dishes, delicacies, gourmet products, and culinary techniques have traveled far and wide. When it comes to fear of foreigners, perhaps our stomach bypasses our brains. Even the most virulent American nationalist, I suspect, enjoys the occasional Chinese take-out. Food is universal; and sharing food, breaking bread together, is a universal sign of peace.

In the heady days of Trump’s campaign, one of his supporters, Marco Gutierez, warned that, if the Mexicans weren’t pushed out, there would be “a taco truck on every corner.” Perhaps this is exactly what we need, as attacks on immigrants’ rights increase daily.

Review: The History of England

Review: The History of England

The History of EnglandThe History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A traveler must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills.

Sir Thomas James Babington Macaulay, Baron of Rothley—more commonly known as Lord Macaulay—is yet another of those creatures of former ages who could fill volume after volume with excellent prose, seemingly without effort. He wrote reams: this work itself, in the original, runs to five volumes. And everything he wrote—from poems to essays, from speeches to history—was both instantly successful in his day and still remains a model of force and clarity. The power of his style is why Macaulay is most frequently cited nowadays. He is the only English historian (except perhaps David Hume) whose writing can be mentioned in the same breath as Edward Gibbon; indeed the two of them are grouped together as models of elegance, in much the same way as were Demosthenes and Cicero.

Brilliant stylists they both were; but quite different in their brilliance. Gibbon is stately, while Macaulay is luminescent. To borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, Gibbon tried to see history from God’s point of view: as a pure spectator, a neutral observer, emotionally unmoved but intellectually engaged. Macaulay imitated the more dramatic styles of Thucydides and Tacitus, narrating history as an enormous spectacle with heroes and villains. Here he is describing the fate of the Scottish colony of Caledonia during the failed Darien scheme:

The alacrity which is the effect of hope, the strength which is the effect of union, were alike wanting to the little community. From the councilors down to the humblest settlers all was despondency and discontent. The stock of provisions was scanty. The stewards embezzled a great part of it. The rations were small; and soon there was a cry that they were unfairly distributed. Factions were formed. Plots were laid. One ringleader of the malcontents was hanged.

Macaulay’s punchy, declarative sentences have an overwhelming effect when piled atop one another in cumulative description. Indeed, Macaulay never simply describes: he dramatizes. He pays at least as much attention to the emotional effect of his words as their literal accuracy. Granted, Macaulay is seldom as quotable or as graceful as Gibbon; but he is leaps and bounds more exciting to read.

This difference in style, as often happens, mirrors a difference in attitude. Gibbon had his fair share of prejudices, but he was not partisan. Macaulay is partisanship incarnate. He is largely responsible for popularizing what is commonly called Whig History. This is the thesis that sees English history as “the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement” caused by political reform. This thesis became historical orthodoxy for a time, until, like all orthodoxies, it bred a heresy that became the new orthodoxy.

Nowadays the idea that history is a grand progress from barbarism to civilization will strike many as terribly simplistic, mostly wrong, and nauseatingly complacent. After two world wars and the atom bomb, we are apt to view any suggestions of progress with skepticism. Nevertheless, to condemn Macaulay’s perspective for being old-fashioned would be to forget, what Hugh Trevor-Roper reminds us in the introduction, that the “severest critics themselves are generally unaware of the extent to which they depend on the achievement of their victim.”

The terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ appear with great frequency both within the book and in discussions of Macaulay; and yet these political positions can be bewildering for a non-British reader. This is in keeping with the general Britishness of this book. Macaulay’s history is a national history; it is a book written for Brits. For any British reader, I suspect this book will excite some strong emotions, positive or negative. For me it appealed mainly to my anthropological curiosity.

In fairness, Macaulay’s conception of Great Britain is wide enough to include Scotland and Ireland. And although this book is full of shocking insults against the Scots and the Irish (as a prophet of progress, Macaulay sees Scotland and Ireland during this time as hopelessly backward), Macaulay’s history was nevertheless important—or so says Hugh Trevor-Roper in the introduction—for treating those two realms as of integral importance to British history.

As Trevor-Roper also points out, Macaulay’s partisanship expresses itself most damagingly in his dealings with individuals. Macaulay is not an acute psychologist. He occasionally breaks off the narrative to engage in a lengthy description of some figure—such as his unforgettable portrait of George Jeffreys—but these descriptions are inevitably either philippics or eulogies. There are no memorable personalities in these pages; only flat heroes and villains. This tendency to choose good guys and bad guys often led Macaulay into errors or even chicanery. He deliberately misrepresents the evidence to blacken William Penn’s name, while going so far as to assert that “extirpate” is commonly understood to mean “disarm” rather than “eliminate” in order to clear William of the Glencoe Massacre.

Purists may have some misgivings about reading this abridgement. For me, I see abridgements like this as an ideal place to begin reading: it gives you a decent overview of the whole work, and allows you to decide if you’d like to commit to five volumes. Trevor-Roper did an excellent job with this edition, giving a satisfying overview of the narrative arc, providing the necessary connections between the missing parts, as well as enlivening the experience with his own cutting commentary. As a writer, Trevor-Roper is fully within the Macaulay school: sharp, direct, and unmerciful. The book is full of footnotes pointing out where Macaulay is erring or being underhanded. The introduction, too, is unsparing: “[Macaulay’s] descriptions of art, architecture, music are of a frigid, conventional pomposity if they are not positively absurd.”

To my surprise, I found this period of time to be relevant to contemporary American politics. James II—a bumbling, petty, egotistical monarch in league with a foreign ruler—couldn’t help but remind me of Trump’s Russia affair. The way that James would fill government posts with cronies, or would try to circumvent long-held traditions by browbeating his subjects in personal interviews, was eerily similar to what James Comey describes in his statement. Macaulay’s sections on the National Debt and the partisan squabbles between Tories and Whigs were also astoundingly applicable. This is curious, if not exactly meaningful.

Hopefully one day I will have the time and inclination to read the unabridged version of this masterpiece. Until then, I can say that Macaulay’s reputation is well deserved: as a stylist, and as a partisan.

View all my reviews

The Illogic of Discrimination

The Illogic of Discrimination

Discrimination is a problem. It is a blight on society and a blemish on personal conduct. During the last one hundred or so years, the fight against discrimination has played an increasingly important role in political discourse, particularly on the left: against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and white privilege. Nowadays this discourse has its own name: identity politics. We both recognize and repudiate more kinds of discrimination than ever before.

This is as it should be. Undeniably many forms of discrimination exist; and discrimination—depriving people of rights and privileges without legitimate reason—is the enemy of equality and justice. If we are to create a more fair and open society, we must fight to reduce prejudice and privilege as much as we can. Many people are already doing this, of course; and identity politics is rightly here to stay.

And yet, admirable as the goals of identity politics are, I am often dissatisfied with its discourse. Specifically, I think we are often not clear about why certain statements or ideas are discriminatory. Often we treat certain statements as prejudiced because they offend people. I have frequently heard arguments of this form: “As a member of group X, I am offended by Y; therefore Y is discriminatory to group X.”

This argument—the Argument from Offended Feelings, as I’ll call it—is unsatisfactory. First, it is fallacious because it generalizes improperly. It is the same error someone commits when they conclude, from eating bad sushi once, that all sushi is bad: the argument takes one case and applies it to a whole class of things.

Even if many people, all belonging to the same group, find a certain remark offensive, it still is invalid to conclude that the remark is intrinsically discriminatory: this only shows that many people think it is. Even the majority may be wrong—such as the many people who believe that the word “niggardly” comes from the racial slur and is thus racist, while in reality the word has no etymological or historical connection with the racial slur (it comes from Middle English).

Subjective emotional responses should not be given an authoritative place in the question of prejudice. Emotions are not windows into the truth. They are of no epistemological value. Even if everybody in the world felt afraid of me, it would not make me dangerous. Likewise, emotional reactions are not enough to show that a remark is discriminatory. To do that, it must be shown how the remark incorrectly assumes, asserts, or implies something about a certain group.

In other words, we must keep constantly in mind the difference between a statement being discriminatory or merely offensive. Discrimination is wrong because it leads to unjust actions; offending people, on the other hand, is not intrinsically wrong. Brave activists, fighting for a good cause, often offend many.

Thus it is desirable to have logical tests, rather than just emotional responses, for distinguishing discriminatory responses. I hope to provide a few tools in this direction. But before that, here are some practical reasons for preferring logical to emotional criteria.

Placing emotions, especially shared emotions, at the center of any moral judgment makes a community prone to fits of mob justice. If the shared feelings of outrage, horror, or disgust of a group is sufficient to condemn somebody, then we have the judicial equivalent of a witch-hunt: the evidence for the accusation is not properly examined, and the criteria that separate good evidence from bad are ignored.

Another practical disadvantage of giving emotional reactions a privileged place in judgments of discrimination is that it can easily backfire. If enough people say that they are not offended, or if emotional reactions vary from outrage to humor to ambivalence, then the community cannot come to a consensus about whether any remark or action is discriminatory. Insofar as collective action requires consensus, this is an obvious limitation.

What is more, accusations of discrimination are extremely easy to deny if emotional reactions are the ultimate test. The offended parties can simply be dismissed as “over-sensitive” (a “snowflake,” more recently), which is a common rhetorical strategy among the right (and is sometimes used on the left, too). The wisest response to this rhetorical strategy, I believe, is not to re-affirm the validity of emotions in making judgments of discrimination—this leads you into the same trap—but to choose more objective criteria. Some set of non-emotional, objective criteria for determining whether an action is discriminatory is highly desirable, I think, since there is no possibility of a lasting consensus without it.

So if these emotional tests can backfire, what less slippery test can we use?

To me, discriminatory ideas—and the actions predicated on these ideas—are discriminatory precisely because they are based on a false picture of reality: they presuppose differences that do not exist, and mischaracterize or misunderstand the differences that do exist. This is important, because morally effective action of any kind requires a basic knowledge of the facts. A politician cannot provide for his constituents’ needs of she does not know what they are. A lifeguard cannot save a drowning boy if he was not paying attention to the water. Likewise, social policies and individual actions, if they are based on a false picture of human difference, will be discriminatory, even with the best intentions in the world.

I am not arguing that discrimination is wrong purely because of this factual deficiency. Indeed, if I falsely think that all Hungarians love bowties, although this idea is incorrect and therefore discriminatory, this will likely not make me do anything immoral. Thus it is possible, in theory at least, to hold discriminatory views and yet be a perfectly ethical person. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between whether a statement is offensive (it upsets people), discriminatory (it is factually wrong about a group of people), and immoral (it harms people and causes injustice). The three categories do not necessary overlap, in theory or in practice.

It is obvious that, in our society, discrimination is usually far more nefarious than believing that Hungarians love bowties. Discrimination harms people, sometimes kills people; and discrimination causes systematic injustice. My argument is that to prove any policy or idea is intrinsically discriminatory requires proving that it asserts something empirically false.

Examples are depressingly numerous. Legal segregation in the United States was based on the premise that there existed a fundamental difference between blacks and whites, a difference that justified different treatment and physical separation. Similarly, Aristotle argued that slavery was legitimate because some people were born slaves: they were intrinsically slavish. Now, both of these ideas are empirically false. They assert things about reality that are either meaningless, untestable, or contrary to the evidence; and so any actions predicated on these ideas will be discriminatory—and, as it turned out, horrific.

These are not special cases. European antisemitism has always incorporated myths and lies about the Jewish people: tales of Jewish murders of Christian children, of widespread Jewish conspiracies, and so on. Laws barring women from voting and rules preventing women from attending universities were based on absurd notions about women’s intelligence and emotional stability. Name any group which has faced discrimination, and you can find a corresponding myth that attempts to justify the prejudice. Name any group which has dominated, and you can find an untruth to justify their “superiority.”

In our quest to determine whether a remark is discriminatory, it is worth taking a look, first of all, at the social categories themselves. Even superficial investigation will reveal that many of our social categories are close to useless, scientifically speaking. Our understanding of race in the United States, for example, gives an entirely warped picture of human difference. Specifically, the terms “white” and “black” have shifted in meaning and extent over time, and in any case were never based on empirical investigation.

Historically speaking, our notion of what it means to be “white” used to be far more exclusive than it is now, previously excluding Jews and Eastern Europeans. Likewise, as biological anthropologists never tire of telling us, there is more genetic variation in the continent of Africa than the rest of the world combined. Our notions of “white” and “black” simply fail to do justice to the extent of genetic variation and intermixture that exists in the United States. We categorize people into a useless binary using crude notions of skin color. Any policy based on supposed innate, universal differences between “black” and “white” will therefore be based on a myth. Similar criticisms can be made of our common notions of gender and sexual orientation

Putting aside the sloppy categories, discrimination may be based on bad statistics and bad logic. Here are the three errors I think are most common in discriminatory remarks.

The first is to generalize improperly: to erroneously attribute a characteristic to a group. This type of error is exemplified by Randy Newman’s song “Short People,” when he says short people “go around tellin’ great big lies.” I strongly suspect that it is untrue that short people tell, on average, more lies than taller people, which makes this an improper generalization.

This is a silly example, of course. And it is worth pointing out that some generalizations about group differences are perfectly legitimate. It is true, for example, that Spanish people eat more paella than Japanese people. When done properly, generalizations about people are useful and often necessary. The problem is that we are often poor generalizers. We jump to conclusions—using the small sample of our experience to justify sweeping pronouncements—and we are apt to give disproportionate weight to conspicuous examples, thus skewing our judgments.

Our poor generalizations are, all too often, mixed up with more nefarious prejudices. Trump exemplified this when he tweeted a table of statistics of crime rates back in November of 2015. The statistics are ludicrously wrong in every respect. Notably, they claim that more whites are killed by blacks than by other whites, when in reality more whites are killed by other whites. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, since most murders take place within the same community; and since people of the same race tend to live in the same community, most murders are intra-racial.)

The second type of error involved in prejudice is to make conclusions about an individual based on their group. This is a mistake even when the generalizations about the group are accurate. Even if it were statistically true, for example, that short people lied more often than tall people, it would still be invalid to assume that any particular short person is a liar.

The logical mistake is obvious: even if a group has certain characteristics on average, that does not mean that every individual will have these characteristics. On average, Spaniards are shorter than me; but that does not mean that I can safely assume any Spaniard will be shorter than I am. On average, most drivers are looking out for pedestrians; but that doesn’t make I can safely run into the road.

Of course, almost nobody, if they had a half-second to reflect, would make the mistake of believing every single member of a given group had whatever quality. More often, people are just wildly mistaken about how likely a certain person is to have any given quality—most often, we greatly overestimate.

It is statistically true, for example, that Asian Americans tend to do well on standardized math and science exams. But this generalization, which is valid, does not mean you can safely ask any Asian American friend for help on your science homework. Even though Asian Americans do well in these subjects as a group, you should still expect to see many individuals who are average or below average. This is basic statistics—and yet this error accounts for a huge amount of racist and sexist remarks.

Aside from falsely assuming that every member of a group will be characterized by a generalization, the second error also results from forgetting intersectionality: the fact that any individual is inevitably a member of many, intersecting demographic groups. Race, gender, income bracket, sexual orientation, education, religion, and a host of other categories will apply to any single individual. Predicting how the generalizations associated with these categories—which may often make contradictory predictions—will play out in any individual case, is close to impossible.

This is not even to mention all of the manifold influences on behavior that are not included in these demographic categories. Indeed, it is these irreducibly unique experiences, and our unique genetic makeup, that make us individuals in the first place. Humans are not just members of a group, nor even members of many different, overlapping groups: each person is sui generis.

In sum, humans are complicated—the most complicated things in the universe, so far as we know—and making predictions about individual people using statistical generalizations of broad, sometimes hazily defined categories, is hazardous at best, and often foolish. Moving from the specific to the general is fairly unproblematic; we can collect statistics and use averages and medians to analyze sets of data. But moving from the general to the specific is far more troublesome.

The third error is to assert a causal relationship where we only have evidence for correlation. Even if a generalization is valid, and even if an individual fits into this generalization, it is still not valid to conclude that an individual has a certain quality because they belong to a certain group.

Let me be more concrete. As we have seen, it is a valid generalization to say that Asian Americans do well on math and science exams. Now imagine that your friend John is Asian American, and also an excellent student in these subjects. Even in this case, to say that John is good at math “because he’s Asian” would still be illogical (and therefore racist). Correlation does not show causation.

First of all, it may not be known why Asian Americans tend to do better. And even if a general explanation is found—for example, that academic achievement is culturally prized and thus families put pressure on children to succeed—this explanation may not apply in your friend John’s case. Maybe John’s family does not pressure him to study and he just has a knack for science.

Further, even if this general explanation did apply in your friend John’s case (his family pressures him to study for cultural reasons), the correct explanation for him being a good student still wouldn’t be “because he’s Asian,” but would be something more like “because academic achievement is culturally prized in many Asian communities.” In other words, the cause would be ultimately cultural, and not racial. (I mean that this causation would apply equally to somebody of European heritage being raised in an Asian culture, a person who would be considered “white” in the United States. The distinction between cultural and biological explanations is extremely important, since one posits only temporary, environmental differences while the other posits permanent, innate differences.)

In practice, these three errors are often run together. An excellent example of this is from Donald Trump’s notorious campaign announcement: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic.]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Putting aside the silly notion of Mexico “sending” its people (they come of their own accord), the statement is discriminatory because it generalizes falsely. Trump’s words give the impression that a huge portion, maybe even the majority, of Mexican immigrants are criminals of some kind—and this isn’t true. (In reality, the statistics for undocumented immigrants can put native citizens to shame, as demonstrated here.)

Trump then falls into the third error by treating people as inherently criminal—the immigrants simply “are” criminals, as if they were born that way. Even if it were proven that Mexican immigrants had significantly higher crime rates, it would still be an open question why this was so. The explanation might have nothing to do with their cultural background or any previous history of criminality. It might be found, for example, that poverty and police harassment significantly increased criminality; and in this case the government would share some of the responsibility.

Donald Trump committed the second error in his infamous comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was overseeing a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump attributed the Curiel’s (perceived) hostility to his Mexican heritage. Trump committed a simple error of fact when he called Curiel “Mexican” (Curiel was born in Indiana), and then committed a logical fallacy when he concluded that the judge’s actions and attitudes were due to his being of Mexican heritage. Even if it were true (as I suspect it is), that Mexican-Americans, on the whole, don’t like Trump, it still doesn’t follow that any given individual Mexican-American doesn’t like him (2nd error); and even if Curiel did dislike Trump, it wouldn’t follow that it was because of his heritage (3rd error).

These errors and mistakes are just my attempt at an outline of how discrimination can be criticized on logical, empirical grounds. Certainly there is much more to be said in this direction. What I hoped to show in this piece was that this strategy is viable, and ultimately more desirable than using emotional reactions as a test for prejudice.

Discourse, agreement, and cooperation are impossible when people are guided by emotional reactions. We tend to react emotionally along the lines of factions—indeed, our emotional reactions are conditioned by our social circumstances—so privileging emotional reactions will only exacerbate disagreements, not help to bridge them. In any case, besides the practical disadvantages—which are debatable—I think emotional reactions are not reliable windows into the truth. Basing reactions, judgments, and criticisms on sound reasoning and dependable information is always a better long-term strategy.

For one, this view of discrimination provides an additional explanation for why prejudice is so widespread and difficult to eradicate. We humans have inherited brains that are constantly trying to understand our world in order to navigate it more efficiently. Sometimes our brains make mistakes because we generalize too eagerly from limited information (1st error), or because we hope to fit everything into the same familiar pattern (2nd error), or because we are searching for causes of the way things work (3rd error).

So the universality of prejudice can be partially explained, I think, by the need to explain the social world. And once certain ideas become ingrained in somebody’s worldview, it can be difficult to change their mind without undermining their sense of reality or even their sense of identity. This is one reason why prejudices can be so durable (not to mention that certain prejudices justify convenient, if morally questionable, behaviors, as well as signal a person’s allegiance to a certain group).

I should say that I do not think that discrimination is simply the result of observational or logical error. We absorb prejudices from our cultural environment; and these prejudices are often associated with divisive hatreds and social tension. But even these prejudices absorbed by the environment—that group x is lazy, that group y is violent, that group z is unreliable—always inevitably incorporate some misconception of the social world. Discrimination is not just a behavior. Mistaken beliefs are involved—sometimes obliquely, to be sure—with any prejudice.

This view of prejudice—as caused, at least in part, by an incorrect picture of the world, rather than pure moral depravity—may also allow us to combat it more effectively. It is easy to imagine a person with an essentially sound sense of morality who nevertheless perpetrates harmful discrimination because of prejudices absorbed from her community. Treating such a person as a monster will likely produce no change of perspective; people are not liable to listen when they’re being condemned. Focusing on somebody’s misconceptions may allow for a less adversarial, and perhaps more effective, way of combating prejudice. And this is not to mention the obvious fact that somebody cannot be morally condemned for something they cannot help; and we cannot help if we’re born into a community that instructs its members in discrimination.

Even if this view does not adequately explain discrimination, and even if it does not provide a more effective tool in eliminating it, this view does at least orient our gaze towards the substance rather than the symptoms of discrimination.

Because of their visibility, we tend to focus on the trappings of prejudice—racial slurs, the whitewashed casts of movies, the use of pronouns, and so on—instead of the real meat of it: the systematic discrimination—economic, political, judicial, and social—that is founded on an incorrect picture of the world. Signs and symptoms of prejudice are undeniably important; but eliminating them will not fix the essential problem: that we see differences that aren’t really there, we assume differences without having evidence to justify these assumptions, and we misunderstand the nature and extent of the differences that really do exist.

Don Bigote: Chapter 2

Don Bigote: Chapter 2

(Continued from Chapter 1.)

Don and Dan Take a Flight

Next Monday, as usual, I walk in Bigote’s front door. Also as usual, I’m hungover. I’m wearing sunglasses and everything is still too bright, it’s a quiet morning but the birds chirping nearby are deafening. My stomach feels like it’s full of acidic foam, and I have a crappy taste in my mouth that won’t go away no matter how much water I drink or how many times I spit, and every once in a while something shifts uncomfortably in my intestines. And do I regret a thing?

Bigote’s place is even messier than usual. A book is splayed open on the floor, right in front of the door, so I accidentally kick it as I walked in.

“Fuck!” I say, bending down over my stubbed toe. “Fuck, shit, bitch!”

I was wearing flip flops, and the book was one of those big hard-cover tombstone books that nobody reads, so my toe hurt. A lot.

“Fucking shit,” I say, as I flip the offending book to see its title. It’s called The Decline of the West. Of course.

“Dan, is that you?” comes a voice from the kitchen.

“Yes, it’s fucking me. Why don’t you clean up your damn house when you know people are coming over?”

“Sorry, Dan, I can’t quite hear you from out there. Would you mind coming over here? I have something cooking, and the crackling oil is causing quite a ruckus.”

I come into the kitchen. Don Bigote is stooped over a frying pan, spectacles down on his nose, a grease-stained cookbook by his side, surrounded by dirty measuring cups, a ripped open bag of sugar, an empty carton of milk, and of course his mustache thoughtfully standing guard over the whole scene.

“I thought that I would prepare some breakfast for you, in thanks for getting me out of that perilous situation last Friday.”

“Uh, oh yeah, cool.”

“It’s just finished!” he says, and begins scrapping the contents of the frying pan onto some plates nearby. He walks over and puts one in front of me. It’s full of bacon burnt to a crisp and a rubbery fried egg.

“You needed a cookbook for this?” I say.

“Pardon?”

“Oh, forget it,” I say, and take a big bite of the carbon meat.

“Is this in reference to the plan of building a shelter? Because, if so, I quite agree.”

“Huh?”

“You’re quite right, Dan. My original idea was seriously flawed. For one, building a shelter in the United States leaves us too open to detection and attack. We need to distance ourselves some more from the center of the conspiracy. Besides, how could I hope to preserve the treasures of Western culture from here? What a blockhead I am! Clearly, we need to go to Europe—to the motherland, so to speak—if we earnestly wish to gather the fruits of European cultural achievement.”

“Huh? Go to Europe?”

“Yes, Dan, it’s a far better plan. We can simultaneously isolate ourselves (to some extent) from the grasping reaches of our enemies, while putting ourselves in direct contact with the civilization we hope to preserve. It’s perfect!”

“You’re talking about ‘us’ again.”

“Well, of course, you must come with me. As you demonstrated in Home Depot, you are invaluable to me. Without you, I would have succumbed to my own foolish impulses.”

“You’re saying you’re gonna take me to Europe?”

“That is an adequate summary of my proposal.”

“Woah, dude. Where in Europe?”

“Excellent question, my dear Dan Chopin. I have considered all the political entities, both large states and small, and there is one clear best option: Spain. Spain is geopolitically unimportant enough to make it a safe hiding place. It has a great deal of historic depth, possessing some fine Roman ruins, to name just one example. It is the birthplace of some of the most excellent architects, artists, musicians, and writers who have ever lived and breathed. And, most importantly, the Spanish already have experience in fighting the Muslims and the Mexicans.”

“Uh yeah?” I say, as I struggle to chew the fried egg, which has the approximate texture of a car tire.

“Yes, indeed. For seven whole centuries, Muslims lived in their country—a long, dark night of oppression!—until the brave Spanish Christians rose up and pushed them out. And of course the Spaniards are responsible for toppling the ancient Mexican empires in the Americas.”

“So, wait,” I say, having finally finished swallowing the egg. “Let me get all this straight. You are offering to pay for me to go with you to Spain?”

“Yes.”

“So we can, like, learn about Europe and all that?”

“That’s it.”

“Hell yeah!” I say. “Let’s get our asses out of Alabama!”

* * *

Four days later, we’re in the car on the way to the airport.

I’m driving—I don’t trust that whack job behind the wheel—and Don Bigote is sitting in the passenger seat, the window rolled down, his mustache fluttering in the wind. Through the ventilators I can smell the burning chemical odor of the old truck’s worn-out transmission. Several cars have honked at us because of the trail of impenetrable black smoke we are leaving behind us. Well, they can go to hell.

I’m feeling a little weird about the whole thing. Bigote is one strange dude, no joke, and I think his relationship with reality is worse than my relationship with my ex-girlfriend, Sharona, who once threw my phone in a public toilet. Is this really a good idea? What if he does something equally crazy as he did in Home Depot and gets us thrown into Spanish jail? Well, Spanish jail doesn’t sound so bad. I read online somewhere that they’re co-ed.

My dad was totally against the idea.

“What?! Go to Europe with the Colonel? That’s totally insane!”

“But, dear,” mom said. “It’s just for a few months, and maybe it can be really good for him.”

“I’m getting paid,” I said.

“Yeah, but have you seen that guy? He’s a crank, a loony, a crackpot. What’s he going to do in a foreign country? Does he even speak Spanish?”

“There’s Google translate, dad.”

“Oh, honey,” mom said to dad. “I think this is a great opportunity! Danny can travel, get some work experience. And, after all, Bigote isn’t all that bad. He’s a bit of a hippie, sure, and eccentric, but I don’t think he’s at all dangerous.”

“I don’t feel good about this at all,” dad said. “Danny, listen. If anything goes wrong, just get on a plane and fly home. Don’t worry about the money.”

That’s roughly how the conversation went. So yeah, I suppose I have an escape option if worse comes to worse.

I see the sign for the airport, and take the exit.

“Where should I park?” I say.

“Oh, just over there.”

“But the sign says 72 Hours Maximum. Isn’t there a long-term parking or something?”

“Oh, Dan. What’s it matter? I’m never coming back!”

“What?!”

“Well, maybe some day, far in the future, after the great Cataclysm.”

“I don’t remember you telling me this.”

“No need to worry, Dan, we can just leave this old thing anywhere.”

“You’re the boss,” I say, and pull into a spot.

We get out and begin getting our bags. It isn’t much. I have a duffle bag and a backpack, and Bigote a brown leather briefcase and one of those rolling suitecases. We shut the doors and lock the car.

“Goodbye, old friend,” says Bigot, tenderly touching his shitty pickup truck. “You’ve been good to me.”

And we turn and walk through the parking lot towards the terminal.

“You know, Dan,” Don says, “apart from being a necessary means of transportation, this voyage also provides us an excellent opportunity to investigate air travel, one of the West’s most triumphant achievements.”

“Ever flown before?” I say.

“Actually, no. This will be my first aerial experience, and I must say that I am tremendously excited. The only thing which prevents me from being positively jubilant on this occasion is the unfortunate, but inescapable, global conspiracy.”

“Well, we’ll get away from that soon enough,” I say.

“Ah, don’t be so sure, Dan, don’t be so sure. The conspiracy reaches everywhere. Even this whole business of tickets, passports, visas, security—all this tyrannical nonsense!—it’s just a way for the conspiracy to control our movements, and by doing so, our minds.”

“I thought it was because of 9/11 and stuff like that?”

“Dan, sometimes your ignorance pains me. 9/11 is connected to this, yes, but of course you must realize it was a false-flag operation.”

“A what flag?”

“You see, it is true that the Muslims were behind it, as everyone already believes. But what is not true is that it was the work of a relatively small band of Muslims, without the government’s notice. You see, the Muslims are the government now. They tricked some poor fools into hijacking those planes, in order to distract the populace, to scare us, allowing the executive branch to expand its power, and the security state to extend its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. Just like we find here!”

Bigote gestures grandly at the airport.

“So, you’re saying that Muslims, who own the government, destroyed the Twin Towers in order to expand the power of the government, and then blamed Muslims?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, I just hope they don’t do it to our flight,” I say. “Alright, let’s double check. Do you have your passport?”

“Right here,” Bigote says, taking out a blue booklet and handing it to me.

“Good.”

“Well done, isn’t it?” Bigote says, winking at me.

“Huh?”

“Pretty convincing, eh?”

“Convincing?” I say, blinking in disbelief. “Don, is this a fake?”

“Why, of course it is. I am traveling under a fake name, so I can’t use a real passport.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

“Don’t worry, Dan, I followed an instructional video. They said it’s guaranteed.”

I flipped through the pages, and immediately noticed that the edges were coming apart, like the whole thing was held together by Elmer’s glue.

“You better not get us arrested,” I say.

“Dan, have some faith in me. We only need this to get into Spain. Once there, I’ll make another one.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, because I’m going to need to forge a visa, of course.”

“Forge a visa?”

“And you too.”

“Why?!”

“Dan, I feel like I have to spell everything out for you. On a tourist visa, you can only stay for 90 days, which is of course not nearly enough time. And I can’t exactly obtain a working visa or a residency visa—for the aforementioned problem that I am traveling under an assumed name. Satisfied?”

“Oh, God, I’m going to jail, I’m going to Guantanamo Bay!”

“That’s another false flag, I’m afraid,” says Bigote.

* * *

We check in successfully—the woman at the front desk looks a little too long at Bigote’s passport, but finally lets us go—and now we’re on the line to security.

I am sweating like a pig already. Fuck, I am such an idiot! Dad was right, I should never have tried to take a trip with this nut. Look at him: bobbing his head up and down like he’s brain-dead, walking like he’s got a stick up his ass, with those stupid thin glasses on the tip of his nose—does he even need glasses?—and that ridiculous mustache. Oh God, why doesn’t he trim that thing? His mustache makes him look even more suspicious!

I look ahead to the security guards. Oh no, they’re ethnic! Bigote is going to think they’re Muslims or Mexicans or something. Fuck my life!

“All liquids must be put into a sealed plastic bag,” says one of the guards in a mechanical monotone, “and separated from your luggage. Please take your laptops out of your bags and out of their cases, and put them into a separate tray. All cell phones, keys, jackets, belts, shoes, and metal objects need to go into a bin and through the machine.”

The people ahead of us are all doing that awkward scramble where they unpack half their luggage and get half-undressed, only to be waved through the machine to the other side, where half of them are stopped anyways to have their bags searched or their bodies waved with the metal wand, or something.

“Okay, so, just like we practiced, okay?” I whisper to Bigote.

“Of course, Dan. No need to worry. I have done thorough research.”

“Ok, well, just stay quiet.”

We get to the conveyor belt thing and begin doing the undressing dance. I put my little duffle bag on the conveyor belt. Soon I’m being waved through the metal detector, which thankfully doesn’t beep. I look behind me, and see that Bigote is fumbling with his belt, which is really difficult to take off because wearing a giant brass belt-buckle shaped like the state of Texas. Jesus…

I turn back and look for my bag. Some bald security guard, wearing white latex gloves, is standing over it.

“Sir, is this your bag?” he says.

“Yep.”

“Okay, I’m just going to do a quick chemical test.”

“A what?”

“Wait right here, sir.”

He pulls out a little white cloth thing and begins whipping it all over my bag. He goes over to a machine and puts the cloth inside. He looks down at it, and frowns.

“Sir, would you mind if I searched your bag?”

“Um, kinda.”

“Sir, the machine gave me a positive reading for marijuana, so I have to perform a search in order to let you through.”

“You can detect weed? No way!”

He quickly unzips the bag and begins ruffling through my stuff. Shit, shit, shit. Try not to look nervous. Ah, but it’s too late! I’m fucked! My weed is in an old pencil case in one of the side-pockets…

SIR, STOP WHERE YOU ARE NOW AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”

Someone behind me shouts this at the top of his voice. There is a confusion of screams and shouts, as people around me start running away in all directions. The cop searching my luggage immediately drops what he’s doing, jumps over the conveyor belt, and pulls out his gun.

I look and see Don Bigote standing in the metal detector, his hands on his head, which makes it easy to see his old revolver strapped to his hip. Of course.

He’s surrounded by about five security guards, all of them with their pistols pointed at him. One is radioing for backup.

“Sir, I need you to lie down on the floor, slowly, without moving your hands. Alright?”

“But I have an open carry license!” Bigote says.

“Sir, lie down now or we will have to shoot.”

“It’s my constitutional right!”

SIR, GET DOWN ON THE GROUND!”

“Get the fuck down, Bigote!” I yell at him. “Get your mustachioed ass down!”

Several tense moments pass. Bigote appears torn. A part of him seems to be considering having a shootout. But finally, deciding that he’s outgunned, he follows the cop’s instructions and lays down on the floor. One of the guards approaches carefully and takes the revolver out of his holster. The gun removed, all the guards close in, pinning him on the floor while they put him in handcuffs.

While they’re all busy, I decide that it’s the best time to skedaddle. But just as I’m about to walk off, I hear Bigote say:

“Dan, don’t wait for me!”

The idiot!

“Hey, are you with this guy?” one of the guards says, as he grabs my shoulder and spins me around.

“Uh, him? No…”

“I’m afraid you have to come with us, sir.”

“Oh no!” Bigote shouts, as he’s being dragged off. “Dan, not you too! The monsters!”

Next thing I know, I’m in handcuffs, too, being led off to God knows where. Great.

* * *

This is a nightmare. Wake up, wake up, wake up. Oh man, I should have went to the bathroom before this. Beer and burritos was a terrible idea for breakfast.

I’m sitting in one of those sterile interrogation rooms, like you see on television, except it’s real. The walls are plain white, and there’s a mirror on one side. And I just know a bunch of cops are on the other side, watching us through the glass, probably making fun of Bigote’s mustache. Better not be saying anything about me.

Bigote is right next to me. We’re both seated in these awful metal chairs, our hands handcuffed behind our backs, with an equally metallic table in front of us. Really, it’s just like TV, except on TV they usually separate the terrorist suspects. Also, on TV the terrorists usually don’t need to take a big, probably smelly dump while they’re being interrogated.

“Dan, I’m so—”

NO TALKING!” cracks a voice on the loudspeakers, interrupting Bigote.

Silence resumes. All I can hear is a ventilator and Bigote’s breathing, which sounds like another ventilator.

Right on cue, a detective enters. He looks the part: big masculine jaw with five o’clock shadow, big buff shoulders underneath a black suit, and all the rest. He closes the door behind him, walks over to the empty seat across from us, and sits down.

“My name is Detective Murky,” he says, his voice all gruff-like, “and I’m here to find out what the hell you were doing with that gun.”

“We’ll never talk!” Bigote shouts, his voice choked with enthusiasm. “Never!”

“Can’t we like, get a lawyer or something?” I say.

“Terrorists don’t get lawyers!” says Murky.

“A lawyer, ha!” Bigote says. “They’re some of the most heinous conspirators!”

“Jesus Christ, Bigote,” I say. “Will you shut the fuck up?”

“Enough playing around!” Murky says, slamming his fist on the table. “Who are you? Muslims extremists?”

“Oh, please,” Bigote says. “Is this your plan? Frame us as Muslims conspirators? We’re not even circumcised!”

“Speak for yourself dude,” I say.

“Dan, let me handle this.”

“Not circumcised?” Murky says. “Who are you, then?”

I hear Bigote inhale slowly.

“I suppose at this point,” Bigote says, “there’s no use in trying to keep a secret.”

“That’s damn right.”

“You see,” Bigote says, “we’re on a mission, a mission to save civilization.”

“Save civilization from what? American tyranny?”

“Don’t be a fool!” Bigote says. “From the international Muslim-Mexican-homosexual-feminist-Marxist-scientific conspiracy!”

Murky’s eyes widen, and he sits up even straighter in his chair.

“Explain,” he says.

“Well, there is no time for details. But suffice to say the conspirators have already penetrated every layer of government, and are now very near their goal: the total collapse of Western civilization. I wouldn’t be surprised if you yourself were an agent.”

“Okay…” says Murky, his eyes narrowing. “What’s your mission, then?”

“You see,” Bigote says. “If my calculations are correct, it’s far too late to prevent the conspiracy from succeeding. But there is still some time—a few years, maybe—to prepare for the inevitable. That’s why I’m trying to go to Spain, to gather up the fruits of Western civilization and preserve them for the scattered bands of survivors who will survive the collapse.”

Murky sits for a few seconds, saying nothing, rubbing his temples with one hand. Meanwhile, the pressure in my intestines is becoming uncontainable. The inevitable happens. A fart begins to escape my insides, seeping out slowly at first, making a whirring whistling sound, but quickly accelerating into a roaring flapping explosion that fills the entire room with its rumbling.

A few seconds of dreadful silence pass—the interval between the explosion’s report and the explosion’s effects—as the sound disappears into an echo, and then into a dreadful memory shared by everyone present. And then, finally, the smell hits.

I detect it first—it’s even worse than usual, a mixture of rotten eggs, vinegar, and old ham that’s gone bad—and then Bigote catches a whiff (I can tell because he starts coughing), and finally it reaches Murky, whose only reaction is to blanch paper white.

“Excuse me,” he says, and quickly leaves the room.

“Dan, that was brilliant,” Bigote says, between coughs. “Excellent diversionary tactic. Now, help me figure out how to slip out of these metallic restaints.”

“You know they can hear and see everything we’re doing, right?”

“That’s just what they want you to think, Dan. Now hurry! There’s not much time.”

Suddenly, the lights go out. Someone has pulled the alarm! The sprinkler’s start drenching us with water, a siren is whirring, a bell is ringing, and red lights are flashing. As if my headache wasn’t bad enough already.

Murky bursts in the door.

“Quick!” he says “Come with me!”

With his left hand he jerks me to my feet, and with his right hand he takes Bigote. Soon we are being pushed into the hallway, around a corner, through a corridor, as people all around us are running left and right, carrying folders, bundles of paper, laptops, and crying babies, trying to protect what they can from the sprinklers.

“Is there a fire?” Bigote says.

“Just shut up and move!” Murky answers.

After what seems like a long time, Murky slams us both against a wall.

“Wait,” he says, as if we have a choice. He gets out a big bunch of keys like janitors always carry, fumbles a bit, finds the right one, and then opens a nearby door.

“Come on!” he says, and grabs us again.

Now we’re outside, somewhere in the airport. He puts us both in the back of one of those little golf cart things that security guards use, and begins to drive.

“What on earth is going on?” Bigote screams.

“Sorry about the alarm,” Murky yells back as he’s driving. “There wasn’t anyway else to get you guys out of there.”

“What? You pulled it?” I say.

“Not only that, but I disconnected the security footage so they wouldn’t see us escape.”

“This must mean that my worst fears are confirmed,” Bigote says. “He’s an agent of the conspiracy, Danny. We’re being taken to one of their brainwashing facilities where we’re going to be forced to watch gay porn and global warming documentaries until we lose touch with reality.”

“You don’t understand,” Murky says. “I’m helping you escape.”

“Sweet!” I say. “Thanks! Hey, did you also manage to get my weed?”

“Why would you help us?” Bigote says.

“Listen,” Murky says. “I got this job because I wanted to keep my country safe from foreigners. But the more I see what’s going on in the world, the more I think that our own government is on their side! First that scumbag Obama was elected, a secret Muslims who was born in Kenya—that birth-certificate was an obvious forgery!—and then all these Syrian refugees? The whole world has gone crazy!”

“Exactly!” Bigote cries.

“So when you told me what you what you were doing, I thought, ‘Well, here’s a man I got to help’.”

“Oh, rejoice, rejoice!” Bigote says. “Thank heavens for the few remnants of decency in this godforsaken world!”

We arrive in the parking lot, and Murky takes off our handcuffs and lets us go.

“Now get in your car and drive off quick.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” Bigote says, clasping Murky’s hand.

“Don’t mention it,” Murky says. “Now go, fast!”

Bigote and I jump in the pickup truck, drive straight through the parking gate (no time for the fee), and onto the highway, leaving a cloud of black smoke trailing behind us as we speed away towards our next misadventure.

(Continued in Chapter 3.)

Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don and Dan Build a Shelter

In a little town in Alabama—where exactly I won’t tell you, since my dad says the internet is full of creeps—there lives a man who wears a grey smoking jacket on hot summer days, who has a loaded antique revolver on his hip at all times, and who keeps an arthritic greyhound out back. This guy is my neighbor, Don Bigote, who everyone calls “Colonel.”

Despite his nickname, I doubt he ever was in the army. I think he got it from his habit of wearing a gun all the time (though God knows he isn’t the only person to do that around here). Or maybe it’s the stiff, sort of soldierly way he walks and moves around, like he’s a windup doll made of wood. In any case, it’s clear that the guy was never a soldier, since he’s so skinny and light—basically a skeleton with some skin stretched over it—that a bumblebee’s sigh could sweep him away.

This gauntness, combined with his enormous height, makes him look like a human streetlamp.

But I forgot to mention Don Bigote’s most striking feature: his enormous white mustache. I don’t know how he maintains that thing, since his hair is thin, and the top of his head is totally bald; but the mustache sits proudly and nobly, completely covering his mouth, sneaking up towards his ears, shivering in the wind, perfectly brushed, trimmed, and sculpted. It is a work of art.

Don Bigote isn’t working now. Nobody’s quite sure what he did before he retired. My dad thinks he was a schoolteacher, since “All teachers are useless hippies! And besides how else could he have such a good pension? The good-for-nothing, stealing from the government!”

Most people agree that Bigote’s a bit off. He doesn’t seem to have any friends or family. His social life is confined to his greyhound. The two of them make quite a pair during their walks through the neighborhood. The poor whelp is almost as stiff, skinny, boney, and haggard as Don Bigote himself. The old girl walks slowly, limping slightly, with her head bent down, not pausing to sniff at anything, while Bigote marches forward to an invisible drumbeat.

You get the picture. Well, Don Bigote has been our neighbor for a long time now; and aside from a few neighborly interactions, and aside from the usual commonplace hellos and all that, and aside from the occasional jokes about his weirdness, we haven’t had much to do with him. Not yet, anyway.

Lately I’ve had much more important things to worry about.

I just graduated high school, which is a big deal. That’s something you only do once. You can graduate college multiple times, and you can get married to many different people—consecutively or simultaneously (depending on where you live)—and you can have as many kids are your sexual potency permits and your wife’s (or wive’s) fertility allows, and you can exclude as many of those kids from your will as your heart desires, and you can even die over and over again if someone is kind enough to bring you back to life with a defibrillator—but graduating high school is a one-off thing. So I’m savoring the experience.

To get particular, this savoring involves a lot of drinking and as many girls as I can convince to be a part of the celebrations. I have carefully budgeted, planned, and I have convened counsels, secret and solemn, with friends and acquaintances, and I have run careful reconnaissance missions, sent invitations, bought supplies—beer and condoms, mostly—to ensure that this savoring goes on without any interruption for as long as possible. So far so good.

Last night was no exception. I won’t go into details, but I had a proper debauch. I’ll just say that this morning I woke up on Jimmy’s couch next to someone, needing badly to pee and vomit (not in that order), with a terrible headache and a slight burning sensation in my loins that I hope is just from friction. After taking care of business, I do what I always do: throw on my clothes and sneak out, leaving everything for Jimmy to clean up.

Well, as I’m walking home, bleary-eyed, head pounding, body aching, blinking in the bright day, pausing occasionally to spit up a little into the bushes, this infamous Don Bigote—who, I should make clear now before I forget, is the entire subject of this story, and the entire reason I’m writing in the first place, so pay attention—this infamous Don Bigote, as I was saying, with his mustache twinkling in the sunlight (he must’ve drank something recently, since it looks moist), walks over from his front porch to his fence and starts talking to me.

“Hello, good sir,” he says.

“Ugh,” I reply.

“Fine day, is it not?”

“Yug.”

“Yes, there is a northerly breeze, and the sun’s rays are dripping full down like a waterfall from heaven.”

“Gargle.”

He opens the gate of his fence and approaches closer. I can hardly keep my eyes open, and judging from the sounds my stomach is making, I don’t have long to get to a bathroom (we ate spicy burritos before the party).

“May I ask, sir,” he says, “if I have the honor of talking to the first-born son of Mr. and Mrs. Chopin?”

“Yurgle,” I answer.

“And is this first-born son bestowed with the appellation, ‘Daniel’?”

“That’s me,” I say. “Dan Chopin.” Stomach clock still ticking.

“Ah, what a pleasure,” he says, and stretches out his hand. I do likewise and he very formally and firmly shakes my appendage until he’s good and satisfied.

“And am I correct in the knowledge, recently acquired, that this very same son, Dan Chopin, is recently graduated from high school?”

“Mmmm.” Stomach can’t take much more of this.

“And is this same aforementioned son, the honorable Dan Chopin, currently in want of gainful employment?”

“Uuhhhhhuuuhh!” I scream. “Dude, just send me a letter!” And I run into the house and make it just in time (well, close enough).

I shower, nap, get up, shave, apply deodorant under my armpits and my legpit, and then I go again to the bathroom just to make sure my system is totally vacant, and then—cleaned up, spruced up, and emptied out—I go downstairs to enjoy the good and wholesome cooking of my wonderful mother, who is already busy in the kitchen, as my acute nose informs me.

“You got a letter,” she says as I walk in. “It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What’s for dinner.”

“Chicken. You got a letter. It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What kind of chicken?”

“Roast, with rosemary. The letter is there on the table.”

“And what’s on the side?”

“Potatoes and greenbeans. The letter’s right there on the table.”

“Oh yummy, potatoes and greenbeans!” I say, as I sit down at the table and absently open the letter, thinking it’s just the usual bullshit about college. But then I pause. It’s written in script, and the writing is all squiggly and fancy-like. I need to squint to read it, since who writes in script? It goes like this:

My dear Daniel, 

I hope this letter finds you in good health and fine spirits. I am sorry to have caught you at an inopportune moment earlier today, my sincere apologies.

I am writing you today to introduce a certain proposal into your hands. Recently I have been doing a great deal in my house, and it struck me that I badly require assistance, seeing as I am old and increasingly in need of haste due to events beyond my control.

My proposal is this. I wish to contract your services, for a few hours each week, to help me around the house. For your services, I will give you a suitable monetary reward, the exact amount being negotiable but certainly substantial.

If you wish to accept this offer, or if you are merely intrigued and wish to learn more, please come over any time tomorrow and we will discuss it further. If, however, you cannot or do not wish to accept this offer, be assured that I understand and respect your decision, and no further action need be taken on your part.

 Yours faithfully,

 Don Bigote

What a wackjob. Who writes like this? Well, what should I do? I’ve got so many parties coming up, I don’t think I have any spare time…. tonight at Jimmy’s again, then Thursday I’m with Jessica, then Friday we’re going to the old factory… But then again, if I work during the day, maybe it won’t be a problem. And some extra money could really help with the debauching…

“Hey mom,” I say.

“Not for another five minutes,” she says, stirring something.

“No, it’s not about dinner. But thanks for letter me know.”

“What, then?”

“This letter, it’s from the Colonel. He wants me to work for him.”

“That’s nice, dear.”

“Says he’ll pay.”

“Very nice.”

“What do you think?”

“Well, it sounds terribly nice.”

“Should I do it?”

“I think it would be a nice thing, Danny.”

* * *

Next day at noon, I knock on his door.

In three seconds Don Bigote opens it. He’s dressed the usual way: pistol on hip, grey smoking jacket, mustache looking as sharp as a razor blade.

“My dear Chopin, come in,” he says, gesturing stiffly.

“Yo,” I say. “What’s up?”

“I am so pleased you came.”

We walk to his kitchen. On the way I get a glimpse of his house. It’s a total mess. Magazines, books, and papers are strewn everywhere. It’s a weird assortment of stuff, too—the National Review, ¡Adios America! by Ann Coulter, a book of Latin grammar, a history of the Spanish Reconquista, and several books with the Twin Towers on the cover. Equally random are the pictures on the walls—Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, the Confederate flag, a map of Europe, a glossy photograph of a castle, and an old oil portrait of someone with a big chin who looks historical and important. And the whole place smells like cigars and sawdust.

When we get to his kitchen—chipped plates, dirty dishes, and greasy glasses in the sink, and pots and pans and cutlery strewn everywhere—a radio is playing:

“Nowadays, you can’t say you’re against immigration or the media immediately calls you a racist. Like, am I a racist if I don’t like Mexicans? It’s a conspiracy! The left is trying to open the floodgates, my fellow Americans, and they’re already in control of all the television, all the…”

Don Bigote turns off the radio. Then he pulls out a chair for me at the kitchen table, and walks over to the cabinet to get something. In front of me is a Bible (in the King James translation), and a book called Vaccines and Autism: Behind the Liberal Conspiracy to Poison our Kids.

“I understand,” he says, as he rummages through his shelves, “that nowadays it is illegal for people of your age to partake of alcoholic drinks. Government tyranny!” He pulls down a bottle of bourbon from the shelves. “Those ungodly communists!” He pours me a drink, and pours himself one.

“To freedom!” he says, and we clink glasses. The bourbon burns.

“Onward to business, then,” he says, crossing one leg over the other, sitting straight up as if someone stuck a stick up his ass. “Chopin, before I begin, I need your most solemn promise of confidentiality. What I am about to tell you is very sensitive information, and if you were to tell anybody, maybe even your parents, then things could get very bad for me.”

“No worries, dude. I’m no snitch.”

“Excellent. Well, to begin, surely you are aware, Chopin (not to put too fine a point on it), that the world is in crisis. This much is clear to everybody. Immigrants are pouring in and turning the streets into chaos, Muslim terrorist are sneaking into countries and killing untold numbers of innocents, and the media and the government are doing nothing to stop it.”

“You sound like my dad.”

“Yes, all this is generally known and rightly complained of. But it has lately come to my attention—how exactly, I can’t tell you, just know that it was the process of many years of painstaking research on the internet, searching through countless forums and chatrooms, as well as a huge effort of radio listening and book reading—it has come to my attention that the trouble goes far, far, far deeper than you think.”

“Oh yeah?” I say, and polish off the bourbon.

“You see, all of these events are connected. The Muslims, the Mexican immigrants, the Media, the Government—they aren’t separate phenomena, but are working in a close alliance. And they have been for a long time, Chopin. Now, I don’t want to scare you, but what if I told you that everything from the Twin Towers attack, to global warming, to vaccinations, to multiculturalism, to abortion, to evolution, to feminism—all of these, Chopin, are part of a carefully planned and perfectly executed conspiracy.”

“Is it alright with you if I have another glass?” I say, as I walk over to the bourbon bottle.

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“So, like, why?”

“Why?”

“Yeah, what’s the point of this conspiracy, then?”

“Chopin, don’t be naïve!” he says. “The purpose is as clear as crystal: to end Western Civilization as we know it.”

“Mmmhmm,” I say, mid gulp, mulling it over. “Are you sure about this, dude? Sounds pretty crazy to me. Like, isn’t the government busy killing the terrorists over there? And, like, why would feminists want to blow up the World Trade Center?”

“I know it may seem hard to believe,” he says. “But that’s just the brilliance of it—that’s why nobody but me has figured out the truth.”

“Well, alright. Then shouldn’t we stop it? Or like tell the police?”

“Chopin, Chopin, I wish we could. But I’m afraid the conspiracy goes far too deep. I mean, look at this.”

He pulls out a twenty dollar bill from his pocket.

“Just watch.”

He starts folding it very carefully, like its origami or something. When he’s finished the bottom is triangular and its been folded lengthwise in half.

“See?” he says, handing it to me.

I can see two parts of the White House with trees on the end.

“Can you believe it?”

“Well, I’ve honestly seen better. My friend can make a swan.”

“The Twin Towers!” he says.

I look again. I guess it does sort of look like two buildings on fire, if you squint.

“The twenty dollar bill has had this design since 1928. You know what that means? They have been planning this since before the World Trade Center existed! And at the highest levels of government!”

His eyes were wide with terror, and his mustache seems to be squirming around on his upper lip like a small animal.

“Wow, that’s pretty crazy,” I say. “Some real illuminati shit. So, like, when’s the last time you went to a doctor?”

“You can’t trust doctors either, Chopin. I’m afraid they are some of the most fiendish conspirators of all.”

“I see, I see. Wow, dude, seems pretty hopeless. So what do you want me to do?”

“At this point, Chopin, I think that there is no hope of preventing their success. Civilization will collapse entirely, in about five years if my calculations are correct. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to begin storing up knowledge for the dark times to come. If I cannot prevent this disaster, at least I can make it easier for future generations to rebuild civilization and regain what was lost. This is what I need you for.”

“Yeah, go on.”

“You see, I am building a shelter beneath this house, a shelter deep underground, where I will store up all of the knowledge, the literature, music, architecture, painting, poetry, all of the science and philosophy, and of course all of our theology and religion, where it will be safe, I hope, when society begins to fall apart. I can’t build it alone, so that’s why I wanted to hire you, as an assistant.”

“So, like, how much are we talking here?”

“Is this a monetary question?”

“Yeah. Cashwise, how much?”

“Well, since I expect money will lose its value in a few years, I am willing to be very generous. How about $50 an hour?”

“I’LL DO IT!” I say. “Let’s start right away!”

* * *

“Okay,” he says, “let me see here. How long did you say the basement is?”

“25 feet and 3 inches.”

“And tell me the width once more?”

“20 feet 8 inches and a quarter.”

“Hmmm. This means, according to my calculations, that we need about sixteen hundred cinderblocks, eight bags of cement (I have the mixer machine already out back), at least half a ton of gravel, and several hundred feet of plastic tubing.”

“Why tubes?”

“My dear Chopin,” Bigote says. “The atmosphere on the surface will be unbreathable. We need to install an atmosphere purification system, to remove toxins and radiation, so we can survive long enough for the earth’s ecosystem to re-balance itself. Trust me, I’ve read several blogs about this.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Why, do you think I’d be so heartless as to leave you to fend for yourself during this cataclysm? The thought of it!”

“And my parents?”

“Well, uh, you see Chopin, space is very limited.”

“Ok, I hope you’re a good cook, then, if I won’t have my mom with me.”

“Have no fear about that. I have been practicing the ancient and noble arts of French and Italian cooking, so that I can teach the survivors how to make poulet cordon bleu and spaghetti—two vital elements of Western culture.”

“Alright, well then, just don’t light the place on fire.”

“No more time for small talk, Chopin. We must attend to business. Let us away to the pick up truck, to purchase these supplies and start construction.”

“Ok, but I’m driving.”

Bigote’s truck is a true piece of shit and leaves a trail of black fumes behind it as it coughs its way to the department store. The whole interior smells like gasoline and burning brake fluid, which pours in through the ventilators, and the seats aren’t even comfortable.

“I bought it used,” he explains. “No paperwork, paid in cash. For the past seventeen years, you see, I have been doing my best to live off the grid. No bank account, no government records, no paperwork, no signatures, nothing. I live invisibly.”

“But isn’t your name on your mailbox?”

“An alias, my good Chopin, an alias. My true name is not Don Bigote.”

“What is it, then?”

“Here we are!” he says, as the Home Depot pops into view.

We jump out, and I pick up one of those big metal trolleys for serious home improvement shopping. Bigote leads the way, his giant legs crawling like a giant spider over the flat parking lot, his mustache fluttering heroically in the wind. He looks ridiculous and I feel embarrassed, but money is money.

We walk through the sliding automatic doors and into the big, spacey interior, that always reminds me of an airport hanger.

“First, I suppose we should get the concrete,” Bigote says, staring down at his list through wire-framed glasses.

“Welcome to Home Depot,” someone says. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, do you—”

Don Bigote looks up at the assistant and freezes. I look at the assistant, too, and recognize him immediately. He’s my classmate Juan López, from Venezuela, a short, dark-haired boy with a nose piercing. Quite good at lacrosse.

“No, sorry, I’m not in need of anything, just browsing, thank you very much…”

Don Bigote turns and bolts down the nearest aisle.

“Yo Juan, you coming tonight?” I say.

“Dunno yet dude.”

“Ok, well see ya around.”

I follow Bigote.

When I find him, he’s leaning against the tires, pale and panting.

“Dude, what’s wrong?”

“Don’t you see!” he sputters. “They’re here! The Mexicans!”

“Who, Juan? He’s not Mexican, dude.”

“That’s what they want you to believe!”

“Who? His parents?”

“Oh, this is bad, Chopin, very bad. If they see what materials I’m buying, they will get suspicious and investigate, and my scheme will be ruined. No, it’s too risky, too risky.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s fine, dude. Juan’s cool, mostly. He did hit a guy in gym class in April. Got suspended.”

“Damn them to hell!” he says, pounding his fist into his palm. “Clever bastards! I will not be defeated so easily!”

And with this, he pulls his revolver out of his holster and starts dashing towards the front door.

What the fuck are you doing?!” I scream, and run after him.

He gets to the end of the aisle, stops, and aims straight at Juan.

“See you in Hell, communists!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” I yell, and tackle him from behind just as the shot rings out.

The bullet goes wild and hits the roof. Meanwhile the two of us slam into a shelf full of electric drills, which comes tumbling down. And then, like in all the movies, the domino effect: one shelf hits another shelf hits another, until the entire store is collapsing. Babies are crying, men and women are running for the exits, the alarm is sounding, red lights and a siren, the sprinkler too, everything is going totally nuts, and the string quartet is still bravely playing.

Finally the last shelf tumbles down, and the place is deathly still. The two of us slowly get to our feet.

What do we do? What do we do? Shit, shit, shit, Bigote will get arrested, and then who will pay me? And what if they arrest me to? Think, think, think.

Wait!

“Freeeee stuff!” I yell. “Get it quick, get it now! Before the cops come!”

The store explodes again, as every customer begins frantically looting, ripping open the cash machines, filling up their arms with everything they can carry, running this way and that, in every direction, and still the string quartet doesn’t stop.

“Now’s our chance! We’ve got to go!” I say to Bigote, and yank him towards the exit.

“But the shelter!”

“No time, dumbass! Let’s get our asses in drive, and skedaddle!”

And we run out into the parking lot, jump into the car, and zoom into the sunset.

(Continued in Chapter 2.)

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

Review: How to Live, a Life of Montaigne

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerHow to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It had the perfect commercial combination: startling originality and easy classification.

With the state of the world—especially of the United States—growing more unsettling and absurd by the day, I felt a need to return to Montaigne, the sanest man in history. Luckily, I had Bakewell’s book tucked away in the event of any crisis of this kind; and I’m happy to report it did take the edge off.

How to Live is a beguiling mixture. While purportedly a biography of Montaigne, it is also, as many reviewers have noted, a biography of Montaigne’s Essays, tracking how they have been reread and reinterpreted in the centuries since their publication. This double-biography is structured as a series of answers to the question: How to live? In the hands of a less able writer, this organizational principle could easily have become a cheap, tacky gimmick; but Bakewell’s skill and taste allow the book to transcend biography into philosophy—or, at the very least, into self-help.

Bakewell herself is hardly a Montaignesque writer. Her prose is disciplined and controlled; and though she must weave philosophy, history, literary criticism, and biography into a coherent narrative, she keeps her material on a tight rein. While Montaigne serves as the “massive gravitational core” of his own essays, holding all the disparate topics together by the force of his personality, Bakewell herself is mostly absent from these pages. Instead, she gives us a loving portrait of Montaigne—the man, his times, and his book. And this was especially interesting for me, since Montaigne, despite writing reams about himself, never manages to give his readers a coherent picture of his life or his society. Bakewell’s book is thus most recommended as a compliment to Montaigne’s Essays, providing a background for Montaigne’s rambles.

Montaigne himself was interesting enough. Best-selling author; modern-day sage; dissatisfied lawyer; literary executor for his deceased friend, Étienne de la Boétie; translator of the obscure theologian, Raymond Sebond; and the reluctant mayor of Bordeaux: Montaigne wore many hats, and most of them well. He even played an important role in the negotiations and maneuverings that took place after the death of Henri III over the question of succession. Today, however, Montaigne is remembered more for his painful descriptions of his kidney stones than his political accomplishments.

The career of Montaigne’s reception was, for me, even more interesting than the story of his life. At first, he was interpreted as a later-day Stoic sage, a Seneca for the sixteenth century. In the next generation, both Pascal and Descartes didn’t like him, the former because Montaigne was too cheerful, the latter because he was too comfortable with uncertainty. The philosophes were fond of Montaigne’s secularism, though they had a very different conception of good prose. Rousseau and the romantics liked Montaigne for his praise of naturalness, his fondness for exotic customs, and his exploration of his own personality. Later, more puritanical generations chided Montaigne for his open attitude towards sex and his detached attitude toward society. Nowadays Montaigne is seen as a prophet of the postmodern, with his emphasis on shifting perspectives and the subjectivism of truth.

As far as Montaigne’s pieces of advice go, I’m happy to report that I was already putting most of them into practice. I don’t worry too much about death (no. 1), I like to travel (no. 14), and, to the best of my knowledge, I have been born (no. 3). I am particularly adept at number 4, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted,” though I’m still working on number 13, “Do something no one has done before.” Well, as much as I’d like to be original, I’m happy following in Montaigne’s footsteps; indeed, I agree with Bakewell in thinking that Montaigne’s example is more useful now than ever. I will let her have the final word:

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.

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