04 March 2008


sometimes i read in barnes & noble. if luck is with me, i find a big cushy armchair and settle in for a few hours of reading. my view from those chairs looks like this:i like looking up and perusing book titles on occasion. it's interesting to see what people write about. how they represent that work to readers. how the title and the cover art work together.

lately i seem to find my cushy chairs in the current affairs section. and i've been struck by some of the titles. a few examples:
  • by ann coulter how to talk to a liberal (if you must): the world according to ann coulter and if democrats had any brains, they'd be republicans. on the covers of which coulter does her best to look sexy.
  • another conservative commentary: conservative comebacks to liberal lies. touted as a 'national best seller.'
  • a liberal approach of the same stripe: the GOP-hater's handbook: 378 reasons never to vote for the party of reagan, nixon & bush again. with a picture of an elephant's backside with a target on it.
these are all relatively amusing when seen for what they are--trash. they're less amusing when you realize that people might actually believe what's written in them.

the one that caught my eye the most--and the reason i'm writing this--is i don't believe in atheists, by chris hedges. take a look at the cover:

this book, like the others, aims to shut down conversation rather than open up opportunities to learn and understand. the title reminds me of a scene in kushner's angels in america. harper--the agoraphobic, valium-popping wife of kushner's gay mormon--encounters prior--the AIDS patient who sees visions of angels--in a hallucination or a dream or some alternate reality. she tells him that in her church, they don't believe in homosexuals. now, i've been raised mormon and i don't think i'd ever come up with that statement on my own--mormons don't believe in homosexuals. but i understand how someone could make that statement. and it bothers me. because to dismiss someone else by saying you don't believe in one of the groups they belong to--you don't believe in their professed identity (whether sexual or spiritual or whatever version of identity)--well, it's a neat way to avoid any real engagement. and it's an assertion that you understand the other person's reality and experience better than they do.

i was also struck by hedges' title because of its graphic design. the white words 'i' and 'in' easily disappear against the gold background, especially when the book sits on a shelf under bright lights. and when they disappear, an imperative remains: 'don't believe atheists.' with the picture of god's enormous hand pressing down against puny man. opinion becomes dictate--and one with divine sanction.

the imperative and the image made me think of how easily religious believers attempt to dismiss atheists as immoral, anchorless, lost human beings who may deserve our pity, but who certainly don't deserve our respect. of course, this response isn't reserved for atheists. i know believers who respond similarly to those of other faith traditions--especially traditions that do not resemble their own. i've also encountered a few atheists who react this way towards believers.

i don't like the reaction no matter where i encounter it. it's too self-assured. too convinced that i am right and they are wrong, end of story. i don't like it because when argumentative amelia emerges, she's willful and adamant and articulate and passionate but she's usually not listening. i don't like that when i'm convinced i'm right and 'they' (whoever they are) are wrong, i stop making the effort to understand. to think in new ways. to recognize the realities of someone else's life.

i'm not always good at keeping argumentative amelia on a leash. but i've been trying. if she's reared her ugly head in your direction, do accept my apologies. and know that i'm more interested in understanding than in being right. so give me another chance. because i don't want people to walk away from me feeling like the title across my forehead reads 'i don't believe in X' or 'don't believe x.'

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with this post. I overheard a conversation that kind of goes in line with the theme of the post at the Smithsonian Native American Museum cafeteria this weekend that has bothered me since then, and you nailed it. The reason I was bothered about it is that one person in the conversation was so sure of their position that they were ready to dismiss anyone who disagreed. Although I agreed with that person, I was really bothered by their absolutist position. That's unnerving, even if I agree.