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PROVERBSby Miles Mathis
George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia begins with a quote from Proverbs (xxvi. 5-6):
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.
Like much of the King James version, this is difficult to make sense of. Most readers have passed it off as either typical Biblical contradiction or as esoteric teaching. That is, it is either dismissed completely as bunkum or treated as a type of Zen koan, purposely paradoxical. Orwell did not bother to re-translate it for us, so it equally difficult to tell what he himself made of it. Did he see clear meaning in it, or was he impressed by its apparent esoteric nature? No one knows, but I suspect the latter. There is no real reason for it to be in this form, since this form is unnecessarily confusing. Anyone who saw clear sense in it would re-translate it for his reader, like I am about to do for you.
The problem is that this teacher (Solomon) recommends you do A and not do A. You cannot do both at the same time. The solution is that the word that means “according to” in Hebrew has (at least) two different meanings. Most words, even today, have more than one meaning. Originally, Solomon's recommendation, written in this way, was clever because it played on the two meanings of the word. But since the play on words was lost either in the Greek or English translation, the proverb no longer makes sense. The phrase “according to” in English does not have a clear dual meaning, one that we can apply to this set of sentences. The translation should be something like this:
Answer not a fool with his (own) folly, lest thou be like unto him. But do answer a fool in his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.
You see, it took almost nothing to turn a Zen koan into a simple declarative teaching. We turned one word a quarter-turn, and rewrote history.
Now, I am not a Biblical scholar, and don't claim to be. I am not even a Christian or Jew. I simply like problem solving. I have not shared with you some analysis I read somewhere: I did this one on my own. You will have to accept or reject it on its own merits, not on authority or someone's degree in theology. I don't know what the word for “according to” is in Hebrew, and don't care. I saw intuitively what the problem was here, and made the tweek directly, finding an explanation for it after the fact. I did this because I was interested in the recommendation. I was interested in it as a sensible teaching, not as a Zen koan. I am not a Buddhist or a Zen master, and have no interest in paradoxes—except an interest in avoiding them.
In my opinion, this teaching has a great deal of merit, and that is why I am on this page today, casting words out into the wind of the world. Solomon did not get to be king, or a wise man of any kind, by letting fools jabber on unanswered. And yet, his teaching is the opposite of the modern teaching and of the New Testament teaching. In the contemporary world, where everyone has a right to his or her opinion, it is considered old-fashioned, intemperate, and even egotistical to reply to fools. Better to turn the other cheek, or to ignore them and hope they go away.
This interests me personally, of course, since I hear a lot of recommendations of this sort. Both my websites and a large part of my life is devoted to answering fools, so I get a lot of email from people accusing me of being egotistical, opinionated, tyrannical, undemocratic, sour, jealous, and so on. In their modest opinions, all the words I write can only come from ego and bitterness. Even when they have to admit some truth in my writings, they say I would be better off silent, since I am only answering a fool, and looking foolish in doing so.
Well, I now have Solomon on my side. These meek who have inherited the Earth, in Biblical deed, must admit that the Bible does not always recommend meekness. Either by my new translation, or by the old, Solomon tells us to answer fools, lest they think they are wise in their own conceit. Take note of that last word! It is the fools that are conceited, not the ones who answer them. Putting a fool in his place is neither conceited nor egotistical, it is wisdom. In fact, it is so wise it has been a Biblical proverb for thousands of years.
My critics will say, “But it is the way you do it, with so much unnecessary flair and gusto, as if you are enjoying it. No one who did not think much of himself would be caught looking that way in public!” That is the sour grapes itself, not anything I say or do. If we get rigorous about what “sour grapes” means, we find it does not mean “answering fools.” It also does not mean, “answering fools who are richer than you.” No, it means bitterness or resentment due to another person's achievements or belongings, which is very near “criticizing a person for doing things with flair, because you yourself of incapable of flair.” Flair is not allowed in the modern world, I realize, but the modern world is a mouse. I am not concerned with what the modern world allows or does not allow. To answer anybody takes a great deal of confidence, but that does not make the confidence the same as conceit. When Solomon answers his fools, does he not do it with flair, must he not have confidence? He has belittled another man, yes, but it was a man who deserved and required belittling. By the modern argument, every possible winner in debate, every possible wise man, is an egomaniac.
I will even go further. I will admit to having an ego, and not a smallish one. But again, I say, so what? The Buddha would never have bothered to answer his disciples, except that he found he had something to say. To keep his head above water, yea, to open his mouth more than a morsel, a man has always needed to think highly of himself. People who don't respect and like themselves don't answer anybody. They stay at home and watch TV. They go to work and take orders without question. They come home and take orders without question. They vote without question. They think within narrow lines. The modern recommendation of “modesty” has always seemed to me to be a recommendation of complacency and weakness. A wise humility is an understanding of who you really are, a recognition of your human limits and of your place in the natural hierarchy, where you are but another hairy creature with legs.
But this humility is not a requirement that you remain shackled and silenced, head bowed and eyes averted. Nor is it a requirement that you accept the decisions of the marketplace without question.
That is perhaps the nut of the argument. Those who find me insufferable will answer, “Still, there is not a great deal of difference between answering fools who are richer than you and sour grapes. You are on a razor's edge, as usual. You are rationalizing to suit your own agenda.” You are free to find me insufferable (after you meet me), but not because I respond to the world, not because I defend myself, and not because I do it with flair. Notice that Solomon did not say it was wisdom to answer poorer fools, but bitterness to answer richer fools. In fact, poorer fools are in less need of answer, since they have less influence. It is the rich fools who are in most need of answer.
And if you are going to answer these rich fools, you best do it with all the flair you can muster. David did not attack Goliath with modesty. He did not aim for the elbow or the ankle, to allow Goliath to leave the field with his self-respect intact. He aimed right between the eyes, with the heaviest rock he could fit in his sling.
But that is the difference between then and now. Then, David walked off the field of battle to cheers. He was an immediate and permanent hero, loved for his flair. Now he would walk off the field to a lawsuit. He would be jailed for excessive force, for vigilantism, for cyberbullying or assault with a deadly weapon. He would be accused of luck and false bravado, mocked for thinking he could prevail where larger men had fallen. He would be hated for his youthful figure and his curly hair, his insolent assuredness and his trust in the fates. If he prevailed in court, he would be sent to Hollywood, the only place pretty boys are allowed to prosper. After age 30, he would be offered a part on Big Brother, where the nation could watch his public deflation with undisguised glee. The IRS would audit him yearly, as payback for his fame, and take his sling for back taxes. At age 50, he would appear on Oprah, fat and bald and broken, and ask forgiveness for his impetuosity and elan. Democratized at last, he would get a nose job and a face lift and a subscription to TIME magazine, where his obituary would appear just beneath that of Gary Coleman.
All this is not beside the point on an art site, or on an art site that defends realism against the avant garde. I fled to Taos, New Mexico, two years ago, only to find that Taos was being taken over by the avant garde. I arrived just in time to find the Harwood Museum being finally engulfed by “pluralism” (a euphemism for nihilism), after decades of teetering on the brink. Although Taos has been famous for almost a century for its brightly colored landscapes and paintings of the Pueblos (both the buildings and the people), the media is now dominated by the propaganda of Modernism. Dennis Hopper and Dave Hickey are the fools of the moment, wallowing in vast pits of muddy conceit. The whole of 2009 and half the ink of the Taos News has been devoted to their greater glory, all of it completely unanalyzed and unchallenged (except for my small contribution). Even here, where most of the past and present is represented by realism, we have the town museum now guarded by one of Bill Barrett's awful aluminum Manhattan totem's.
This is sort of like erecting a statue of Hitler at the gates of the Holocaust Museum. In my dreams, that sculpture is standing at the gates of hell, a totem of the machine mind of Moloch. Taos, as an art retreat, was founded by people fleeing the phoniness and propaganda of Manhattan, of the machine mind, and the last thing we want here is a Manhattan totem. Couse, Berninghaus, Blumenschein, Fechin, and all the rest would see Barrett's sculpture as the sign it was meant to be: a bold flag of conquering by the avant garde, a demoralizing reminder that there is no place left to hide. Hickey said it himself while he was here this summer: Taos is a refuge of “provincials” and “incredibly stupid” realists, and we need to be wiped out like the natives before us. We need our town museum and newspaper to be stolen with great piles of big-city money. We need to be forcibly brought into the 21st century, sort of like the natives camping about the Washita river in 1868 were brought into the 19th century. Of course this wiping out will be done by the market, making it humanitarian and almost invisible, but the result is the same. We will be extinct.
Modernism thought it had achieved this extinction of realism in the 60's, but pockets of resistance held on in places such as Taos, and in the late 90's this resistance began to grow, even infiltrating New York City itself. Which is why we see a renewed effort to keep us quietly underground. It is no accident that Taos was chosen for the current campaign. The avant garde is a master of only one thing: PR. It knows where to send its battalions, it knows where to spend its money. No resistance will be tolerated, no retreats will be overlooked. Every cave will be bombed and strafed, every thatch hut will be napalmed and burned to the ground in the name of progress.
After I spoke out about Hopper and Hickey and the Harwood, the Taos News made it clear that they were not interested in profiling me in any way, although I had bought ads. Just like everywhere else, the media here is controlled by the Chamber of Commerce, and the CoC has decided to put its money behind Modernism. This despite the fact that most of the tourists are here to see realist paintings (supposing they are here to see art at all). The monied interests of the avant garde have convinced the locals that the future belongs to Manhattan totems and heavily promoted shows for Hollywood types and 200-page catalogs written by darlings of academia. I doubt the fact that their “Summer of Love” and Hopper shows were a complete bust will disabuse them of this notion. The small towns of the world are no longer satisfied being small or being retro or being quaint or being counter-culture. Taos realism really was a sort of counterculture, since culture is dominated by Modernism. But the invading phonies have turned that logic on its head, convincing the local powers that Modernism is still counterculture and that realism is regressive. Modernism hasn't been “counter” for a century, but what are facts when money is involved? The facts have been inverted once again by salesmen, but the small-town businessmen cannot see the inversion.
There is no real appreciation of counterculture anymore: no protection for it and no mandate for its continuance. Multiculturalism is sold to us as counterculture, but multiculturalism, as it truly exists in the real world, is just a quick dilution of the past into the present, a dressing of crass commerce in a thousand costumes. It is the allowance of a thousand different shallow facades over the same social emptiness. You can bring the robes of Africa into the mall, but do not bring any real African ideas. You can bring the colorful dragon from China, but do not let it roar. You can import the poses of Swatmarama to help us stretch out in the morning, but do not import Lord Shiva with him. We can use the frippery of other cultures to sell soda pop and sneakers, but we do not want the philosophy beneath the dry goods.
The crass "Summer of Love" here in Taos is the perfect example: a sales pitch to appeal to tourists and increase revenues. But Taos leaders did nothing but harass hippies in the 60's and 70's, and they still don't want non-rich whites here, busking or creating any sort of real counterculture. Like Santa Fe, they want the center of town clean and gentrified, as much like Soho as possible. They would rather have empty shopfronts than have the shops filled with real artisans. They are hostile to bicyclists, widening the streets only for ever more and ever larger cars. Just as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service continue to harass the Rainbow Gatherings (which were here in Northern New Mexico this summer), the various "arts" towns of the US continue to marginalize and excise any real counterculture, in the name of cleanliness and order. They don't want a counterculture or a multiculture, they want a fake and shallow "rainbow" of people of various skintones all spending money at the same pre-fab places.
Every conglomeration of more than a hundred people, no matter their color or heritage, now aspires to be a smaller, more exclusive version of Manhattan, with a string of malls and franchises and a write-up in The New Yorker. Santa Fe fell to this mindset 20 years ago, and SITE Sante Fe was the final death knell of anything real in the capitol. Taos wants to be a smaller version of Santa Fe, which is now a smaller version of Austin or Seattle or Denver, which are smaller versions of Los Angeles or New York City. The counterculture in Austin or Santa Fe now consists of hanging out at Whole Foods or getting tattoos. In other words, the counterculture is now defined by drinking four-dollar organic coffee sold to you by a “progressive” who busts unions and quotes Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises. Yoga is the only thing that differentiates these people from Republicans.
What does this have to do with the first part of my paper, you ask? Well, one reason we have arrived at this cultural abyss is that the meek realists were always too modest to answer the rising fools of the avant garde. The 20th century was a one-way battle, fought unilaterally by fakes and phonies dressed up as progressives. Here in Taos, the realists still won't answer. They still have nothing to say, even as Hickey and Hopper waltz into the town museum and take over the town paper, calling them morons to their face. If there were any real progressives here, they might be expected to point out that Hopper is a Republican, in favor of the various wars and Patriot Acts and Military Tribunals and Departments of Homeland Security. If there were any real artists here, they might be expected to point out that Hopper can't paint or sculpt to save his life. They might be expected to point out that Hickey is a self-appointed expert with no artistic credentials. Owning a gallery is not an artistic credential, since anyone can own a gallery. Owning a gallery is not a talent or an achievement. But the silence is its own sonic boom.
The whole town looks at me sideways, as some sort of denier of everyone's right to be an artist. If I will attack Hopper, I might attack them next. The entire art world looks at me sideways, as a closet fascist, because I will not grant respect to every worst fool and his most foolish creation. I want the hierarchy back, I want quality back, and I want standards back, and whether I want them back for good or bad reasons is not the question. I am a danger to every fool, and the majority is now a fool, and knows it. For these, I am no liberator, I am the unwelcome judgment. Hickey can ask for value judgments, to pad out his airy articles, but he cannot really desire them. A logical ranking, by any real standards, would put Hickey below the worst high-school painter. A reinstated Renaissance-style ranking would purge the avant garde of all its artists and writers. Not one soul would be left. The great deluge did not create such a depopulation as this ranking would.
But we have seen nothing like this, and won't. The sensible and meek people of the 20th century preferred not to answer the fools, and those fools have have now codified the wisdom of their conceit. They have entrenched themselves in all the seats of power, in art and out of it. They have quite literally taken over the world. They have multiplied. They have begetted and begetted. In art they have buried the sensible people under a mile-high pile of shoddy and crumbling artifacts, tarting up every street corner and blackening every monument and vulgarizing every square and prostituting every plaza and profaning every holy place. And still the meek will not speak. The 21st century is even quieter than the 20th. They cannot find tongue to reply to the toothed Leviathan, since he is a Biblical monster too big to take on. Leave him to the Lord. They can only find the courage to write to me, complaining of my ego in holding Leviathan at the point of my single sword.
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