I have a problem with authority. I’m secretly alot like nine-year-old South Park kid Eric Cartman: subversive, irreverent, dirty, selfish, opinionated, bullying. (“Respect my authori-tie!”) Except unlike Eric, my problem is not just with other people in authority… I even have problems taking it on myself. Except now I’m a parent. And an elementary school teacher. And a little league umpire. How the hell did this happen? Who put the maniac in charge of the asylum?
As one who flouts authority, I’m overstating my case, of course. Those who know me will vouch for the fact that I’m mostly a pretty tame guy. For instance, although I own a pair of goth/grunge thrift-shop black combat boots, I seldom wear them because the damned things have no arch support and make my feet hurt. (Makes me think of those old war movies, where the draftees were rejected by the army because of “flat feet”, whatever that means.) I have been known to get drunk or do drugs, but drug-wise, it’s been years, and they were never my own, and I do have my regrets about those days. I’ve spent a grand total of two hours in jail, at age 20, for climbing on the roof of my old junior high school. As trespassers go, I haven’t done much to be forgiven…
And as an authority figure, I’ve never had much power, either. I’ve been a business manager on a couple of occasions in the television/multi-media industry, but mostly my authority was over myself and a few filing cabinets full of grant proposals. So mostly I look and act like a regular joe, a poser, a wanna-be hippie (or hot new film director) in a polo shirt and a mildly whimsical goatee.
I’ve considered such radical choices as non-payment of income taxes during the Iraq war– in which abuses of authority abound. But I have not gone through with it. For one thing, my wife is not the firebrand radical in a pair of Dockers that I am, and she’s the main breadwinner of the family. For another thing, I have a kid now. I can’t go to jail, even in good conscience, if it takes away half of my son’s support system. (At least not yet I can’t.) Sure, Jesus told his followers, “Leave your mother and brothers and follow me.” But I think he meant us to do that in spirit, not literally, like we’re supposed to make a radical, counter-cultural break with the old, unjust or half-hearted conventions of our parents, not that we should abandon all personal responsibility or community relationships for the sake of ideology. Radical love should not lead to violence or broken families and communities, it should lead to more love and healed communities.
So I can’t go to jail just to “Question Authority”, as those ubiquitous bumper stickers suggest, even though I agree with them. Plus, I very much want to hold my son accountable to both the basic household rules (nothing more annoying than a computer keyboard with milk spilled on it) and to a higher moral code (second most annoying thing: elitists, rednecks, demagogues and bullies –both here and abroad– with no concern for the needs of their fellow humans). But I still have to find some way to flaut the rules, to let my inner radical out, to “let my freak flag fly”, as David Crosby of CSNY once sang. So how am I gonna do that?
Wait. That’s it! I can still rock, can’t I? I can turn it up to Eleven! (…that’s “one louder”, you know…) I can blast the anti-establishment message of stuff like Neil Young’s Living With War album through the speakers of my car with the windows open, even though Neil himself freely admits the music is intentionally blunt, ugly, and raggedly inferior to his best work. Because it’s the message that matters most.
Better still, I can teach my students in Fine and Performing Arts –as I did this week–that it’s important to celebrate the role that artists in popular music (or visual arts, or literature, or other areas we’ve studied this year) have played in protesting or redefining our culture’s priorities. From raunchy Delta blues and Woody Guthrie’s populist anthems, through Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and the Temptations’ Ball of Confusion, through The Clash and other punks with more balls than I’ve got, and on into intelligent rap groups like The Roots, or neo-hippie political popsters like Ben Folds, or seriously heavy rockers like Pearl Jam, System of a Down, and Rage Against the Machine, I can teach the next generation how to make a statement about something that really matters. Or I can at least teach them to appreciate it when they hear or see such statements. And I can wear my black combat boots in the classroom, too.
Then once the kids are good and riled up, I’ll tell them to sit down and shut up. Because they’re still kids. And they’re still human, and therefore prone to be selfish, and make mistakes, and cross the line. Chaos and anarchy are not a values I hold dear, because eventually someone’s bound to get hurt. A line still needs to be drawn, and the umpire’s job is to help everyone know who’s safe and who’s out, what’s fair and what’s foul (like this ridiculous Alberto Gonzales business).
To put it in religious terms: we’re all sinners–beautiful, intelligent, creative, loving, endlessly intriguing self-involved pigs and part-time morons. So I while I may not like submitting to authority, and while I may feel uncomfortable wielding it (insecure, undisciplined nine-year-old that I am…), it still needs to be done on occasion. When I wield it, I’ll try to do it fairly, honestly, and even with a slightly generous call now and then for the short, fat kid who can’t make it up the first base line very fast but still needs and deserves a hit. After all, he/she may be the next Tony Gwynn, or a scrappy Cub like Ryan Theriot –or else the next talented blue-eyed folkie like Aimee Mann, or the next Spike Lee, or South Park co-creator Matt Stone, or character actor like John Turturro or Rosanna Arquette— any of those unconventional or funny-looking outsiders who could really use the encouragement. We can’t all be stars, but we can all say or do something that matters.
So from here on out, you can call me The Umpire. And to paraphrase Martin Luther King: “None of us is safe until we’re ALL safe.” Yes, question authority, …but be safe out there, my friends. Make it a safe world for my son.
–Oh yeah, also go see Michael Moore’s new movie Sicko, when it arrives in theaters June 29th. He’s a fellow chubby umpire, an important artist, and a risk-taker/rule-breaker, motivated by concern and humor instead of bile and anger. He may not get all the calls right, but we’d do well to at least pay attention. Iraq won’t be a hot spot forever, but we are going to keep getting sick, while some hospital, stockholder or politician profits from that misfortune. (This one’s for Cybill Martin of Weston, MA… a friend of our family being buried today, apparently dead as a result of medical mismanagement. Rest in peace, Cybill. We’re praying for your family, suddenly left in a lurch.)