“A man writes either for his neighbours or for God. I decided to write for God with a view to saving my neighbours.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
My dad likes to preface his stories and spiels by warning, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, but….” He jokes that it gives him license to say anything he wants; I respond that it gives me license to ignore anything he says.
Perhaps I should have begun every column this year with my dad’s caveat. Of course, it would have been mostly true.
Jean-Paul Sartre divided his autobiography, The Words, into two sections, from which I culled the epigraph for this, my last column of the year. The first section of Sartre’s book is “Reading,” and describes his extraordinary childhood, during which he learned to read by the age of three and not long thereafter immersed himself in mathematics and classical music. The second part, “Writing,” describes his later life, and how the self can only be realized through the act of creation.
Sartre’s dichotomy has resonated with me ever since I attempted in vain to read The Words in high school. The two acts seem entirely incompatible. Must you read everything before you can write anything? If yes, then who the hell do I think I am, writing about as issues as weighty as those I have been, and only in my first year of university?
Being responsible for 600-700 words of opinion every week for eight months is a stressful experience, not so much because I sometimes had nothing to say, but because I sometimes wavered during those little moments of epistemological incertitude that made me hesitate to claim the right to have the opinion.
I think the only farewell-type advice I’ll leave you with is that anger is okay. Well-channelled anger can be productive, rejuvenating, healthy even. I would recommend that everyone begin each day with a glass of orange juice and a single serving of fresh, justified, palpable anger.
The journalist Alexander Cockburn relates an interesting anecdote in his introduction for Noam Chomsky’s Chronicles of Dissent: “Chomsky went to the dentist, who made his inspection and observed that the patient was grinding his teeth. Consultation with Mrs. Chomsky disclosed that teeth-grinding was not taking place during the hours of sleep. When else? They narrowed it down quickly enough to the period each morning when Chomsky was reading the New York Times, unconsciously gnashing his molars at every page.”
Similarly, Christopher Hitchens checks every morning to see whether the New York Times’s famous front page slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” still strikes him as “smug, pompous, idiotic…obviously complacent and conceited and censorious.” If it does, he knows he’s still alive.
As I reported in my article on the November massacre in Mumbai, there is a Times article hanging over my desk in which it is written: “The police in Kandahar Province arrested 10 Taliban militants they said were involved in an attack this month on a group of Afghan schoolgirls whose faces were doused with acid…. A high-ranking member of the Taliban had paid the militants 100,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,275) for each girl they managed to burn. The girls were assaulted by two men on a motorcycle, apparently because the girls had been attending high school. The men drove up beside them and splashed their faces with what appeared to be battery acid.”
Every time I reread that article, I am immediately jolted out of my Sartre-induced inferiority complex, and I recommit myself to fighting for what I unapologetically believe in. You should have some kind of device like that, too, although it need not necessarily involve the New York Times.
I also think of that article whenever I’m in a course conference and someone argues something like, “Those are just our Western values, you know, like, we can’t go imposing our values on other people,” or, “Yeah, there’s free speech, but you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre, you know?” or, “Who are we to tell other countries what to do?” Every time I hear these things, I pledge to myself that I will do everything in my power for the rest of my life to keep these people and those like them from possessing any serious responsibility for anything.
That has been the aim of this column, which I hope to bring back next year if The Daily will have me. If not, cheers, and thank you for reading.
Well folks, that’s all he wrote. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.