When I was 7, we had the strangest holiday. It was called Christmas. It was January 1958. I so clearly remember returning from Christmas vacation, hunched over a wooden desk. Laboriously, I doodled, for the first time — “1958.” The roundest of the last three numbers and their sci-fi feel so fascinated me.
I was in Hollywood a few weeks back, having dinner with friends. I had just climbed into my car. Down the street, four people were saying goodbyes. They hugged. Even the men. You wouldn’t see men hug in 1958. Right. Wrong. Scale at zero. It just wasn’t done. Today, we live in contrary times. We hug. We hate.
Hatred certainly isn’t a new invention. Would it be bittersweet theater to be at that very first moment when hate was invented? I’m guessing hate has many on its family tree. First came surprise and anger, flight and fright.
Hate? It’s different. I’m not even sure hatred is solely human, although a study out of the American Natural History Museum postulated that it had an evolutionary benefit. Hate allowed us to justify our behavior for stealing or killing humans outside our tribe for survival of the tribal group.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 1,020 hate groups in America. Of course, the S.P.L.C., housed in the glass office building, is notorious for plastering everyone from Baptists to Boy Scouts on their enemies list. Curiously, there’s not one mention of Oakland Raiders fans. Late in life, I realized I couldn’t be in a hate group. During an assembly, I’d rise and scream: “I HATE YOU FOR MAKING ME GO TO MEETINGS!!”
Certainly 1958 wasn’t without its edges, its taboos, its cultural stupidities. There were fights, riots and profound ugliness smeared across our national soul. But we were a work in progress. We got better. My mother was an adept racist, but, to her credit, she pretty much hated everybody, down to dogs, cats and ugly babies.
My dad didn’t make it easy on her. His best friend, Luther, hung around the house in 1958 and sat at our table. Luther had a great laugh. I got such a kick out of that. He happened to be black.
Another friend was Jose, a cheery fellow.
Lawrence? Liked him immensely but didn’t want to grow up to be him. He had three kids and a fourth on the way. Lawrence was 22. Later that summer, I would work full-time at the machine shop with these guys and make about a quarter an hour less than Lawrence. A black, or Negro then. A Mexican. A white rockabilly. Dad who was Polish. The five of us would work in the evenings, putting a new engine in Dad’s Studebaker President. Darn car was just two years old, too.
I marvel how ugly the culture has become. I see pretty young women, throwing out F-bombs in public, loudly describing the intimate details of their sex lives. Our own newspaper’s website is often filled with nasty, self-righteous diatribes.
Are some of them mine?
We’ve spent recent decades, lowering our ethical bar, contorting our faces while name-calling, sucking on bile lozenges and gathering spit for the next offering of our noble opinions.
Seventy years ago, George Orwell, a socialist of all things, wrote one of literature’s most profound books — “1984.”
The book foretells of a totalitarian society where the citizens are required to join in group sessions called the “Two Minutes Hate.” In an auditorium, an enemy of the party gives a speech on a flickering screen, favoring freedom and critical of Big Government tyranny and Group Think.
What was originally a pleasant gathering turns into ugly mob hysteria. Even the book’s hero, Winston Smith, cannot stop himself from joining the group’s reaction. Orwell described Two Minutes Hate with frightening detail:
“… a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”
Besides the mandatory writing on checks and forms, I’ve been doodling the number “2019” lately. It’s an iffy date. I’m a humorist by profession, one designed to invent happy endings. I can’t quite see one yet. With our news, usually from one camp or the other, with our social media, our tribes, we are already at war with ourselves. “Vulgar” was nine train stops back. There is that better, higher part to us.
Far too often, we ignore it.
Hugging hasn’t seemed to help.
We so easily swoon into the lust of self-righteousness, the Siren’s delicious, primordial call for destruction of others, of our divine, better Self.
What did George Orwell call it?
“… a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness…”?
John Boston is a local writer.