By Brett Warnke / OB Rag
“I talk. I mean, I speak … but she doesn’t hear me,” a tall man in Newbreak told his bearded friend, who was writing something to himself and didn’t look up.
For a moment there was a breathless silence. The espresso popped, the door creaked and the drawer jingled coins. The bearded friend, feeling he should respond finally spoke.
“Look, she’s going through some problems…”
His voice trailed into nothing.
“But she thinks I do things. I tell her that it’s all in her head. But she doesn’t listen. She doesn’t listen.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have listened either. I felt I’d intruded, so I stood and left.
But the sadness in the tall man’s voice sat on me like an alp as I walked down Abbott Street through the cool morning.
I checked my phone. My friend, local activist Shane Parmley, tagged me in a post that she’d received a bullhorn for her birthday. I’ve stood beside her at many a protest with borrowed bullhorns, her fierce voice echoing against the hard walls of union halls protesting teacher layoffs or the besieged Labor Council President Mickey Kasparian. Now she possessed her own horn. But why would a middle school teacher and mother—a bright tireless local filled with fire need a bullhorn unless no one was listening?
As I considered this, a passerby tapped me on the shoulder, rotating his finger. I needed to turn.
“Sir, I’m sorry,” a boy said, catching up. “I was calling you for a minute or so. You left your wallet in the cafe. I thought you’d never turn around!”
Apparently, I had not been listening.
The “OB Pause” is when the roar of the airplanes smother a discussion. Talkers wait, forced to linger. They pull at their beer, kick a stone, or scratch an irksome itch.
In the future, as you walk and talk in our beloved streets consider those strollers who, despite the planes and parrots, remain talking. The deafening sound has no competition but still they will speak, almost as if their words are as indistinct and unaccounted for as the morning mist that burns away.
Evelyn Waugh noticed this and wrote his cynical 1948 novel “The Loved One”. To sink his teeth into Hollywood culture, he had an incisive comment on California. An Englishman, Sir Francis Hinsley, spoke of his contentment living in the Golden State.
“The climate suits me,” he says to his friends. “They are a very decent, generous lot of people out here and they don’t expect you to listen. Always remember that, dear boy. It’s the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard.”
Southern California is, in its sprawling way in and before Waugh’s description, a place where communication even among city dwellers is hindered by geography.
Now, in our liquid era, much of San Diego is a collision of neighbors instead of an organization of communities. The “car culture” and “crazy traffic” we hear about are simply newer euphemisms for a “Wild West” urban landscape set up in the postwar world to support the individual—generally of the white middle-class and suburban variety.
The culture that grew from the sprawl is even more diffuse in the deafening chatter of Trump’s Twitterized America as our communication, media and interactions are filled by an overwhelming din, as if by the sound of falling and silencing snow. But what do we hear anymore?
Great speaking requires an attentive ear just as our infrequent silences demand earnest reflection. There’s value and trust in this introspection, the listening to one’s self about another. In Chapter XX, in one of his essays the philosopher Montaigne writes of someone –
“If he had listened and laid his ear close to himself and he did so no doubt—would have heard some jarring note of human mixture, but faint and only perceptible to himself.”
But it is one of his letters where he wrote about listening to someone speak for two to three hours and chided himself.
“I lacked the courage to listen to what he, so great a sufferer, had the courage to deliver.”
Montaigne’s point is important, there is courage in the listening, a trust from the bonds that evaporate instead of deepen even more in our age of instant communications. Do we lack the courage to listen or to speak something worth the hearing? The costs of this technological landscape, the “bidirectional media digitization” the writer Will Self has described, have yet to be fully realized.
Perhaps, California has long understood that the noise and bother of the rest of the continent were useless to her—rich and populated as she is today. Look at Monday’s exchange at the White House press conference in Washington. A pool reporter asked spokesman Sean Spicer a question about a direct quote.
“The president said, ‘I don’t stand by anything.’ How is the American public supposed to digest that, supposed to trust what the president says when he himself says, of his own comments, I don’t stand by anything,” the reporter said.
“I think the point is, he clearly stands by that,” Spicer said. “That’s something that’s made very clear if you look at the entire back and forth exchange.”
We all heard it, taped and recorded as it was.
But the powers that be say that we did not hear what we did.
Tomorrow it will be forgotten as last year’s snow, as will the thousand other embarrassments and humiliations of the current administration. When the President did not want to answer a question he’d just heard, he waved his hand. The interview was over. The conversation ended. All listening had stopped.
The liberal Rachel Maddow interestingly noted that she and her MSNBC staff never report on what the administration says anymore, only what they do. The words and utterances of the Trump administration simply don’t matter. Policy matters.
But is it only the President who behaves in a manner unwilling to listen?
In heated exchanges, who hasn’t deleted a contact? Hung up the phone?
Just last week, a disagreement with two right-wing relatives (ones who I had pointed out earn their living on public dollars) concluded by deleting and blocking me. What they didn’t want to hear, they didn’t have to listen to.
An indifferent world is as old as humans. Shakespeare, too, troubled “deaf heaven”with “bootless cries” in Sonnet 29. And even in the Bible’s beautiful Psalm 116 there is a desperation for a confession, an all powerful fatherly invigilation:
“I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;/he heard my cry for mercy./Because he turned his ear to me,/I will call on him as long as I live.”
And in the increasingly undemocratic America in which we live, most people have never known workplace democracy or even basic measures of cooperation with management.
In San Diego, over 170,000 undocumented people live but cannot participate in the election process while Shakeel Syed, leader of executive director of Orange County Communities Organizing for Responsible Development (OCCORD), recently called Anaheim, a city run like a colony over its population, a “hub of hatred.”
No wonder people feel unheard when the structures governing us no longer fit the populace. California and its more liberal cities, after all, were the ones who sent a huge number of the 3 million more ballots to be certified for a losing—but more popular candidate. If the years of legalized bribery endure there will inevitably be more of the populism of the “listening campaign.”
Last week, in East County, at the Democratic Club in El Cajon an impressive Congressional candidate, Pierre Beauregard, told a packed hall of his past activism and that he intended to travel the county to “listen more than talk.” Its an important gesture when so many people are unheard.
Still, there are those bold “shouters” like Shane, ones Nixon berated in his tenure who demand their faint and ignored voices are heard even if by bullhorn while the vast ocean of citizens still sit out on the political process, feeling no one hears them and that the sound of cash registers, roller coasters, and junk culture will be enough to fill the silence. Politicians “hear us” even if the drifting electorate screams their disgust at the leadership’s deafness at corporate corruption.
In one of those rare moments of earnestness in his own political tragedy, George W. Bush passionately shouted “I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down are going to hear all of us soon.” But Bush of course did not hear other voices. He spent his years ignoring my homeless students in New Orleans who pleaded for water, policymakers with plans for rebuilding Iraq, those who warned of bubbles in real estate, and the Californians being swindled by the President’s own money-grubbing paymasters at Enron.
A better, safer, cleaner, cooler world than the one in which we now dwell will need more than loud and articulate individual voices, it will need attentive ears for an adequate response we will soon have to utter.