Thursday, April 18, 2013

UOJ - "Don't be taken in. Never explain. Never retract. Get it done and let them howl!"

One of my all-time favorites from a good friend - The UOJ Classics!

Dear UOJ:

"......With reference to your recent correspondent: beware the well-meaning critic who "only " wants you to curb your language. Language is the key to humanity itself, so show me a censor and I'll show you a prison guard -- however well-intentioned. I do not advocate -- I do not practice -- indiscriminate brutality in language any more than in deed. In fact, I see plenty of writing on blogs that makes me worry for the future of civilized discourse. But NOT because of the language involved, nor because it attacks a sacred cow here, an overrated human icon there. Talk radio is infinitely worse than blogs; have the rabbis banned THAT? Au contraire: brutality aimed at "liberals" is still groovy.

Avigdor Miller could be as coarse in scorning his opponents as anything I've read on Jewish newsgroups -- has anyone lately pointed this out? There's the Jewish Observer, which indulged personal attacks against the author of Holy Days (who deserved better) and lately ran an obscene rant that condemned as sinners all people who write unpleasant truths about powerful rabbis, a piece so destructive of logic and decency that the author apparently never noticed the irony of condemning slander while committing it himself -- wholesale. Has this been condemned?

We are all fallible, and in controversy we inevitably irritate or disappoint at least some of our readers. Sometimes with reason. But it is a great mistake to be guided by a wish not to offend. Let the "gentle" critic who "only" wants you to tone down your rhetoric, or your graphic allusions, or your offensive imagery, or your subject matter, or your this or your that, assert in no uncertain terms -- if he dares -- that something he objects to in your work is, in fact, wrong, bad, untrue. If he can make that claim, and convince you of its correctness, well and good.

Otherwise: he is a temptation to be politely but firmly set aside. The man who wants to tell the truth but not offend the respectable is like someone who wants to scale a wall without using his hands. You can't do it. You want to do serious work -- well, some people aren't going to like it. They tell you they like your buildings but find the shadows they cast a little excessive? "Sorry, lady, but the shadow comes with the building. I'm sure you can find a spot without either one, if that's your choice." You can't write anything without tripping over somebody's sensitivities. So why worry about it?

Once you're offending -- OFFEND.

I don't mean blowharding. But OFFEND. If you're not offending someone, you're saying nothing... which of course is why so many rabbis, idolized by the "civil" crowd, are rising through the ranks by repeating the same sermons again and again, telling us nothing -- but giving no offense.

As for the claim -- the civilians are never without it -- that the same goals can be accomplished with different language -- well, if that's really so, why haven't they done it? I say the objection to the tools used is only valid true when the tools are truly the wrong ones... in which case, you won't be getting any results. Otherwise the methods are inseparable from the goals. Which is why Mozart had to use so many notes (in spite of fashion), Beethoven had to use bold dissonances, Ibsen had to refer to adultery and venereal disease. Even Lenny Bruce was told once that he could be a great comic without the "filth" (whatever that meant)... have you ever tried paraphrasing one of his great routines on sexual frailties -- minus the four-letter words? Having tried it once, would you ever want to again?

I do not believe the straitjacketing of language in Orthodox communities is a coincidence. I think it is a matter of deliberate strategy.

As Orwell pointed out, curbing language curbs thought: if there is no vocabulary to explain why Big Brother is evil, then the idea itself becomes impossible to hold. In our communities things are much the same. "Elchanan Wasserman was a religious tyrant who sacrificed thousands of people to his rigid piety" is no easier for the average Orthodox Jew to articulate than "Big Brother is ungood" would have been in Oceania. Breaking this barrier is not incidental to the kind of cause you're engaged in -- on the contrary, it is a fundamental part of it.

The Agudah crowd instinctively knows that the moment people can say "Reb Moshe sometimes misrepresented Talmudic sources to advance a personal ideology" or "Avigdor Miller emotionally manipulated ba'alei t'shuvah," etc., etc., they will begin to think for themselves and will never again be under Agudah's control. So, of course, they condemn such "language" as coarseness, as gossip, as slander, as slights to sages, whatever... rather than addressing themselves to the ONLY thing that matters, the truth or falsity of the statements in question.

Isn't it a commonplace that we can never learn from anyone's greatness until we can separate it from his frailties? Is Abraham Lincoln less inspiring a figure when we know about the messes in his personal life and his rough-and-tumble political background? Human beings emulate other human beings -- if you want to know what happens when people, instead of learning from fallible models, become the apes of God, look at R. Elchanan. I think he would have been a greater man if he had seen HIS heroes as human. He didn't: and just look at the results.

I may misquote him here, but Thomas Hardy, frequently under attack for his subject matter in his lifetime -- now accepted without question as one of the great novelists and poets of the early modern period -- had the right idea when he wrote in his journal: "Never explain. Never retract. Get it done and let them howl." It's taken me, a shy, diffident type, a long time to learn this, but no approach but Hardy's EVER works.

The moment you start trying to appease one critic, another pipes up; take something back, everything starts to collapse; cast around for consensus -- none will appear. If you want to be loved, don't write, or at least don't write honestly; there were vastly more popular writers than Hardy back in the 1890s. They wrote what the public liked and turned out bestsellers. Not one of them is ever mentioned today.

Don't be fooled by the number of hits on your blog -- most are curiosity seekers; the really popular speakers are the Frands, the Krohns, the Salomons, the Kotlers, etc., who never tell their audiences a word they don't want to hear. Our community will embalm them, and 75 years from now they will be exactly what they are now -- just as they are already the inarticulate corpses they will be then.

If a few words from your blogs survive, you at least will have a chance to live forever... not because of your "language," nor in spite of it, but because you wrote a few words that were true, right, clear, pure and necessary . . . and good Lord, what else can any of us hope for? It's a rare enough accomplishment as it is, while using every sensibility God gave us and every word he lent us for the purpose. Start censoring yourself, even for "good" reasons, and you don't have a chance.

Don't be taken in. Never explain. Never retract. Get it done and let them howl."