Duplicitous agreements

At Lewis News is an article by columnist, Greg Szymanksi, Mom, Who Lost Son In Iraq, Talks About ‘Disgusting’ White House Private Meeting With Bush. The mom is Cindy Sheehan, who testified June 16th at the Downing Street Memo Hearing called by John Conyers. Ms Sheehan also spoke about the same meeting with Bush with Amy Goodman.

Ms. Sheehan experienced Bush as uncompassionate, arrogant, cold, hostile. She looked in his eyes and saw, “This is a human being totally disconnected from humanity and reality. His eyes were empty, hollow shells and he was acting like I should be proud to just be in his presence when it was my son who died for his illegal war! It was one of the most disgusting experiences I ever had and it took me almost a year to even talk about it.”

In her interview with Ms. Goodman, Ms. Sheehan said, “I was on CNN…with Larry King talking about this, and there was another mother who had met with him, and she said that she supports the war and the President, and she said he was so warm and everything and gentle and kind, and when my family and I met with him, I met a man who had no compassion in him.”

Now, I have no doubt that Bush would be arrogant, unfeeling and hostile, as that has been my experience of his voice and manner on television and everything for which he stands is toxic to the popular good, the environment and future generations.

But it’s interesting how he can be perceived so differently by two different families. To one he appeared to be gentle, warm and kind, and to the other he was arrogant and hostile, not even bothering to know the name of Ms. Sheehan’s son who was supposedly being honored.

Are there two Bushes? Or was he displaying to Ms. Sheehan the same manner as he had exhibited with the other family, and her experience of it was different. Don’t point me in the direction of a psychology magazine and study of facial expressions and what they may or may not mean. I’m more interested that you can have a manner that is perceived by half the population as genuine and by the other half as false and yet we trust actors to reliably portray expressions, and good actors seem to do so with uniform response.

The response evoked in me by Reagan’s demeanor was the opposite from many, including, for instance, my in-laws. I saw Reagan as insincere, playing the smiling, paternal father figure, neon broadcasting, “I’m such a friendly dude, you can trust me!” My in-laws saw and heard a leader they desired who was honest, sympathetic, strong.

What makes the difference? And why such a radical split in perception?

I’ve had some plays produced and they tended to evoke a response of either “I hate it” or “I love it, we need more like this.”

Some people were said to flee in a panic.

A complaint I heard often enough, which surprised me, was, people expressing that characters were so distasteful that they were entirely unsympathetic. And I mean the kind of lack of sympathy where someone would ask why should they care if they didn’t “like” a character.

What, my characters were going to have to win personality contests?

I had never had to like a character to like a story, a movie, a play, a book.

I like “Shakes the Clown” and if you look up the few online reviews there are of Shakes, one complaint you’ll read is that the character is so distasteful there is again no sympathy had by the viewer.

Anyway, this complaint surprised me, as a young writer, because I could feel complete sympathy with characters without liking them. “Oh, but of course you would,” you may be thinking. in relation to my own plays, but those who liked the plays also saw the characters as complex and honestly portrayed. They didn’t complain about not being able to feel sympathetic. They intuited and understood sympathy where a number of other people couldn’t find it as they were put off by not being able to like a character. Those who didn’t find that sympathy seemed, at least to me, to want a character who at some point, as far as I concerned, would abandon their nature and become instead a theatrical convention.

My characters received criticism also because they weren’t saved. One play was found offensive by many because the female protagonist, instead of rallying and becoming a strong survivor, sank straight to the bottom. People wanted her to turn around and win. I could understand their wanting her to do that, but it wasn’t the character. It wasn’t what the play was about.

I did at one point write a play about a character with whom the audience could be sympathetic. Based on a friend of mine with borderline personality disorder who died of AIDs. We ended up not having much to do with each other toward the end, and it tormented me, but he had an emotionally abusive side and during the last year couple years it accentuated and I was unable to finally talk to him anymore. And it was as if he was demanding it happen, that it end that way. In some ways the play was dishonest. I wrote a lot of how it had been, but then gave it a good ending where love and understanding wills out, instead of the friendship being hacked apart by some really ugly scenes and finally irreparable. At year’s end the play was written up as one of the best two new plays performed that year. A play where I’d written how I’d wished something had been, instead of the way it had actually been.

I’m not saying my writing was without flaw at all. Indeed, though the people who loved the plays tended to be passionate about them (just as those who hated them were passionate in their hatred of them), I later saw every one of them as lacking and to my husband’s dismay chucked them all.

Still, I’m talking about that split in reception. Some of us look at the faces of Reagan and Bush and feel trust and warmth, while others of us see a facade intended to curry a positive response. Those who perceive Bush as displeasing and toxic as his policies think how can anyone not see what we see, hear what we hear? This can’t be explained away as our not liking his policies and that dislike of his politics influencing our perception, because there are perfectly charming crooks.

I mentioned the other day the accepted nature of two-facedness in American society, despite its saying otherwise. And it has been a historical complaint of some cultures in their confrontation with the Euro-American, the saying one thing and doing another. I read that Americans are supposedly more honest with their facial expressions than other societies and I have to wonder at the studies because of this history. I think of what people want out of theater, movies, stories, and wonder at the accepting of what one wishes instead of what is, and what role that plays culturally in our perceptions of physical expression.

6 Replies to “Duplicitous agreements”

  1. Delusions of the order of magnitude required to perceive the dauphin Bush as warm, gentlle, and kind are clearly symptoms of mental disorder. It’s why I persistently write about the public health model of engagement. America is plagued with throngs of deluded misanthropes who constantly infect others with spiteful ideas. Treating this as anything but a mental health pandemic will only have dire consequences.

  2. I’ve wondered this very same thing, of how perceptions can be so different when two (or more) people encounter the same person. One thought is that sometimes it takes a long time for the truth of who a person was to be seen clearly. When there is a division among people about whether a person is good or bad, likeable or unlikeable, sometimes eventually it becomes clear that one group or an individual really was seeing the reality and the other was not.

    I think some people are better at picking up on cues than others.

    I suppose another part of it is that most people are a mix of things and that a person may in many or most instances have behaved poorly with others but may have done one or two good things in his or her life. I guess what I’m trying to say is that a person who is arrogant, cold, lacking in compassion, probably can’t sustain that forever and may have moments of decency just as someone who is primarily warm and loving may have moments or incidents in which they are insensitive and uncaring.

    When the story about Jeffrey Dahmer came out years back, I found myself thinking of how monstrous all of that seemed. I guess I didn’t like the idea that someone could be so grotesquely sick and at large in the world. So maybe what I’m about to say only says more about me than anything. But I found myself wondering if somewhere in Dahmer’s life, maybe, just maybe, he was decent and kind once or twice to someone, to some creature. And if he was, then the recipient of that decency might have said, accurately, that such a person had been warm because maybe he was on one particular occasion.

    As for your experience with people reading your writing and finding they didn’t like the characters, that made me think of an author, Lionel Shriver (a slight aside, she was in LRY, her name then being Margaret Shriver. Lionel Shriver is her pen name. I don’t know if you recall her but she was in LRY at about the same time as we were). Anyway, I suppose I’ve read her books in part because she was someone I knew as a teenager. I’ve enjoyed reading the several books of hers that I’ve read. When I say “enjoyed” I found them engaging, they held my attention. And yet, what struck me was that for the most part, I didn’t like the characters very much. I found it interesting, this idea that I could like the books but not like the characters she created. I haven’t read her latest book but I suspect I might feel the same way about it. It’s about a woman who has raised a child who goes on to do a Columbine-type shooting.

    Just some thoughts.

  3. Nina, I was reading on a blog the other day about Lionel Shriver’s book. Didn’t realize that was her. I don’t recollect her from LRY.

    “Creek Running North” wrote some posts on a man brought into his family by his mother, a long while ago, who later turned out to be a killer. Lived with them. Described the time he was on a ladder and froze and the guy talked him through it. If you go over and do a search for ladder you might come up with it.


    Jay, I don’t recollect now if I’ve mentioned this before but Alice Miller, probing how Hitler happened, wrote some books on generational transmission of mental illness in society and in families environmentally. “Thou shalt not be aware” was one.

  4. During Bush’s first presidential campaign, I recall being aghast that so many people attending his stump speeches were outright infatuated with him. What disturbed me was how they could never articulate his appeal.

    The Propaganda Machine, I realized, was finally hitting on all cylinders. His fawning fans, including a vast segment of Big Media, were ready for what they perceived to be a Strong Leader and they were going to have one no matter what. The conventional narrative – what I call The Script – made absolutely no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me now (I’m releived to say). It was – and is – mass delusion. Pandemic, indeed.

    As scary and disheatening as it was – and is – to witness, the single most infuriating aspect was watching the illusion harden into a through the looking glass reality in large part because the political leaders who should have been pointing out the obvious were too cowardly to do so. Bush’s pathos was on full display, yet they turned their backs on us and yielded to collective madness, and, for that, I will never, ever forgive them. Unfortunately, a lot of people either did forgive them or never recognized the civic breach, because those same craven little weasels are still helping him destroy everything to which we once aspired. We need to be rid of them no less than we need to be rid of the Bush Machine, and this is something The Left, which still operates under the illusion of shared power, obstinately refuses to recognize.

  5. I have read that when Bush is at ease with the right kind of people, he displays his authentic persona, a kind of fraternity boy bonhomie. Any female college student who has ever walked past a frat house on Saturday night has experienced this type of good nature first hand. A closed society, derisive and aggressive towards those not in the club. This is where Bush is at home, I think. He seems very uncomfortable in his skin most of the time, playing his official role. The cruel nicknames, the mockery of Karla Fay Tucker the night before her execution, stuff like that is the real Bush, and he knows (or at least Rove has told him) that the real Bush would not be a popular president at all, which puts him under a considerable personal strain, I imagine. I think he hates his job, except for the play God part.

    Of course, I am not an expert. I only saw him in person once, at a death penalty protest when some Buddhists would sit on a sidewalk, meditating, across from the governor’s mansion the night before an execution. He drove through the gates in his big black car, got out with his aides, glanced at us, and laughed. Obviously I was not meditating like I was supposed to be.

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