The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 21, 2015

The Texan Tale of Ahmed Mohammed and Who Southerners Think is a Bad Guy

Last week, America looked at a situation in a high school that worked like an ink blot on our culture, and our divergent perceptions reveal the central problem of American culture today.

We’ve all heard the story of Ahmed Mohammed, the fourteen year-old who was perhaps a bit nerdy and excited about building a clock, which he took to school.  I think none of us would have been surprised if any nerd had brought a clock to school, showed it to everyone, and then ended up getting beat up by the junior varsity football squad in the parking lot after lunch for being a massive nerd.  We would have been able to sympathize that the student in question had underestimated the social consequences of proud nerdiness among the Spartan youth that gets favored in American high schools, perhaps particularly in Texas, over the people who might have ended up working at Texas Instruments back in the 1970s. Such a story could have happened to any American nerd, and we would not have been so engaged with that narrative as a nation.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

Instead, it wasn’t the footballers that beat up Ahmed. The administration and faculty of the high school, the very people ostensibly in charge of encouraging him to pursue his nerdiness for the good of humanity despite football squad pressures to conform, who crushed his spirit.  We need people like Ahmed to become inventors.  I am rooting for today’s Ahmeds to become the future inventors of at-home liposuction kits, high heels that don’t hurt your feet, and automatic dog-walkers for snowy days.  Instead, if our President had not Tweeted as he did, we might not have seen Ahmed inventing anything after last week.  Why would he ever want to express his gifts if they get him arrested?  I have confidence that Ahmed Mohammed will explore his abilities to the fullest now, and he must rest assured that the majority of us are not inclined to discourage his success.

But here’s where I think we have a huge problem.  It’s worse than I thought it was.  Nobody who accused Ahmed feels inclined to apologize to him, and members of the Right are actually fabricating bizarre and apocryphal versions of the well-documented incidents of Mac Arthur High School’s day of infamy.

First, the Principal of the school sent out a completely offensive letter to parents congratulating himself for having taken appropriate measures to protect the school from danger.  He wrote this after he knew full well that Ahmed’s clock was not a bomb.  He then condescendingly told parents they ought to speak to their kids about bringing suspicious objects to school.  Are clocks suspicious objects?  Would they have been suspicious in the hands of a blond nerd named Tyler?

Then the mayor of Irving, Texas said she stood by the principal. She had made local news earlier this year by complaining about non-existent problems of Sharia law in her town.  Then, Sarah Palin, who hates a lot of people for a professed Christian, including the entire Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, whom she claimed when running for VP was not really American, said about Ahmed’s clock that if it was indeed a clock, she was the queen of England.  As a real Queen of England is supposed to have said, We are not amused. There is nothing amusing about calling someone guilty who is clearly, with a Texan law enforcement thumbs-up, entirely innocent of all wrong-doing.

Then, after Ms. Palin’s — let’s call them cultural contributions — a barrage of conspiracy theories hit the lunatic Right-wing Internet and were instantly believed by the already-converted, including:

  • The clock was ticking backwards like a bomb clock when the English teacher spotted it.  It wasn’t.
  • The little white packet pictured by the clock was plastic explosives. I shake my head.
  • That Ahmed didn’t invent a new clock, he just used parts he got from other devices, and this is cheating.  It’s not cheating.  There was no assignment to cheat on, and it’s really not in dispute.  Of course at age fourteen he didn’t invent his own digital interface! He participated in the time-honored tradition of American nerds of going to junk shops and Radio Shack for tools with which to create one’s first works.  There is nothing cheating in this.  And his work was mighty impressive for a fourteen year-old.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated this false arrest himself to cover up a real conspiracy to blow things up.  I ask if this idea is a product of a meth-addicted paranoia.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated with his family his false arrest so that he could sue the city of Irving.  They are suing now, and since they have received no apology for an outrageous error of judgment, I hope they walk away with the deed to City Hall, because the officials should be ashamed of themselves but aren’t.

It has gotten to the point where a certain portion of white people in this country look at an incident like this where, I repeat, there WAS NO BOMB and see a bomb, and a terrorist,  and a conspiracy.  If the facts don’t support them, it’s only because all of us — the President, the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, the MIT professors, and the supportive members of the intelligentsia are lying to the good folks of the American heartland.  We must be in favor of bombs in schools.  We must want Sharia law since we hate Christianity so much, all of us — except we don’t.  We embrace empirical evidence as a source of information about world events.  Where a boy’s clock is investigated by a bomb squad and found just to be a clock, just like he said it was over and over again, we believe the boy and the clock.  The clock is ticking forward.  It’s the increasingly ugly racist Right that wants it to tick backward to prove that their views are not backward.

The rest of us, when we look at Ahmed Mohammed, see a smart nerd and a science project. It’s like we can barely discuss events in front of us because one smaller group sees a world of dangerous, swarthy hordes with Paladins defending a narrow front line, and the rest of us see a relatively harmonious multicultural coexistence disturbed by a few fascists.  When we see videos of white cops hurting people of color, we don’t assume we have just missed a segment where the ghost of Nat Turner swooped in and killed a cop after the African-American police brutality victims summoned him.  We don’t blame the victims of government violence and institutional racism.  We don’t understand how those RIght-Wingers don’t see what we see.

How do we get past this? I want America to value American values again, including diversity, tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, and for Ahmed’s sake — I want us to embrace invention instead of treating it like a threat.  We used to do that very well.  How do we get the clock to move forward on that once more?

March 29, 2011

Going Medieval on You?

That's me on the right.

Writers read much differently than literature professors do.

A writer, you see, is like a bad house guest at a crowded party at a wealthy mansion.

First, she stands in the corner, observes critically, “I don’t like the wall paper in this room.  What was she thinking?”

However, when the other guests are all distracted by somebody showing vacation photos or a cute baby whose nap has just ended, the writer inches close to the credenza, backing into it right where the Faberge egg is displayed, and while everyone is making baby talk in the other part of the room, the writer gently tips the treasure egg into her purse.

Later, when she publishes, the egg has made a reappearance, only this time, it’s in a different setting altogether, stolen and repurposed.

Literature professors are the good house guests.  They remark how the addition of the new wall paper clearly indicates a new trend in the style of the hostess, and he or she writes a lovely explanation for the shift.  The Faberge egg is admired at a distance and cataloged in memory.  When the literature professor attends a cocktail gathering at the kleptomaniac writer’s house, rather than shout “thief!” accusingly, he or she remarks how similar the tastes of this hostess are to the tastes of the other hostess, and the robbery is called a form of homage or pastiche, not a burglary.

I’ve always been a writer when I read, not a lit professor, even though I can write well critically and am able to understand pastiches and homages along with the polite house guests.  I just steal the good stuff so I can use it my own way later.

Just like a cat burglar (think Robie the Cat from Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief), I try to get invited to (to read, that is) every swanky affair I can, to pull of as many heists as I can of stylistic accomplishments. This makes my creative written work originally eclectic.

However, I am admonished here at the University of Mississippi to specialize.  I understand of course — I can’t just keep stealing creatively.  I have to become an expert of analysis in one area.  I have to write a dissertation that is grounded in a period of time and to specialize in that period of time for a good decade or so before even considering branching off in other critical areas.

The only problem is that I honestly love works from different eras and have read with a hungry-girl-at-a-good-smorgasbord voraciousness from every time and place.  To narrow my specialization makes me, well, confused.

I have narrowed it down thus far — I will be an expert in English (with some French) literature, not American literature.  That said, I will continue to read interesting writers from everywhere.

Or is that me holding the teacup? What do you think?

Further, I have narrowed it down to a coin flip between periods — either I will focus on the Victorians and all their various repressions, or I will go Medieval.

Medievalists in the English departments are considered the weirdest of the weirdos, the nerdiest of the nerds.  Medievalists are a little bit crazy.  They believe, often enough, that the world is in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, including over who ought to fill the copy machine with toner and paper.  They can’t quite relate to the debate in the faculty meeting because no one has claimed divine right.  There are twice as many job openings for Medievalists and half as many qualified applicants.  Weird is not the only minimum job requirement — see below for the others — but it helps.

I am certainly weird enough, by a voice vote of all who have met me, to be a Medievalist.

However, it is not just a costume change that is involved.  Going Medieval is serious business.  It is important not only to speak English (which of course I do) and another modern language (fluent French and a smattering of Italian, in my case) but to speak what are called Middle dialects of these languages (I can read Middle English and Middle French, provided they are typeset).  I also ought to learn Latin and Old English, which has a different alphabet than our English and sounds like Vikings snorting when spoken aloud.

It’s like this — there are the Trekkies who go to the conventions — they would be the ones who would be akin to the Victorianists, nerdy enough to impress others with their nerdiness, but still kind of loosely nerdy, possibly capable of socializing at a non-nerdy party.  Then, there are the Trekkies who learn Klingon.  In order to be a Medievalist, I really have to learn the equivalent of Klingon.

Once you go Medieval, there’s no going back.  Other nerds are slightly in awe, because (for instance) I am working on a paper that discusses the allegorical trope of New Jerusalem in a Middle French writer’s works, and I had to spend the week figuring out if the Vulgate Latin translation of the psalms, despite Saint Jerome‘s misogyny, feminized the depiction of Heavenly Jerusalem in any way.  It does, and this is central to my argument regarding Christine de Pizan‘s Le Livre de la Cite des Dames.

With the Victorians, for instance, I’m presenting a paper that looks at The Mikado in light of Oscar Wilde’s declarations regarding Japanese nick-nacks and the blue china/japonaiserie craze of the late 1800s.  Is this most people’s idea of a weekend leisure?  No, but it’s fluffy compared to the work of the Medievalist.  One involves the repressed anxieties of a high-collar society that holds itself back from its true intentions at every turn and requires the mechanics of interjections of literary theory of unlimited pretensions where apt.  The other is buck-wild — think liturgical papers about what a parish should do when a werewolf gets loose in the farmlands — but requires a working knowledge of a defunct whole world’s insanity, and it is almost impossible to say anything with absolute conclusiveness because nobody really knows what it was like to walk around in the days of King Arthur, if in fact  he ever really existed.

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I will always read like a writer.  I’ll be stealing and re-appropriating all the good stuff for my own creative work.  However, regarding this critical work, because I just love books, all kinds of books, bottom line — I’m having trouble deciding between the prim but approachable ladies in the photo or the lovely but ultimately unknowable allegorical women in the illuminated manuscript.

So what do you think I should do?  I am seriously taking a poll here and would welcome all opinions accompanied with reasons why.  Which of these two areas should I pick and why?  Should I go Medieval?  Tell me what you think so that I make the right decision, or as Chaucer would say, so that “I coude wel chesen alderbest.”

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.