Three White Men: a tragedy in one act

On Friday afternoon a scene played out in Portland, Oregon that was so dramatic, so heavy with symbolism, that it would be hard to believe if two real human beings weren’t now dead. Even as it is, I suspect there are thousands of conspiracy theorists/internet trolls spreading the word that the whole thing was liberal terrorist street theater.

First, consider the setting. Trains are frequently used in drama to establish the theme of change and instability. As the scene opens, the train is arriving at a station named “Hollywood,” a reference to the entertainment industry and the role it plays in influencing American life.

The time of the scene is also laden with meaning. It is Friday: the beginning of the patriotic Memorial Day holiday weekend, a time for reflection and for considering civic principles. It is also the beginning of Ramadan, an indicator that an important message is about to be revealed, so the audience must be alert. Also at this same time, the tassels are being turned at colleges and universities across the country, pointing to a theme of education and enlightenment.

But more than anything, it is the characters themselves that flesh out the symbolism of the Portland play. First, there are two unnamed, non-speaking females that serve as a critical plot device. Their gender, age, religion, and race are hinted at by their costumes, but their departure from the scene is silent, swift, almost ghostly, like a wisp of stage fog. They do not drive the action; they are the eye of the hurricane around which the larger dramatic elements swirl.

Although the stage is crowded with actors, only one has a speaking part—at least as far as we can tell from the earliest reports—and his lines are a garbled cacophony of hatred, threat and bigotry. This character is motivated by a desire for chaos. He is given the ironic name “Christian.” This villain is also given the play’s only prop: a deadly sharp blade.

Although they have no lines, the heroes who respond to Christian’s tornado of hate speech and fury do so with a balletic intensity and artistry that clearly reveals their own characters.

One is a middle-aged army vet, a civil servant, a devoted husband and father. He is given a name, Ricky John Best, that seems to allude both to the two-first-names custom of the American south and heartland and, through his surname, to the superlative honor he displays. He represents the American values of service and stability, but to the villain he also represents the establishment.

The other hero is a bearded backpacker with a goofy grin. A recent graduate of one of the most liberal of liberal arts colleges, a college best known for its “Honor Principle,” his field of study was the mysterious and often distrusted field of economics. This character’s name is the same as that of a quintessentially progressive and innovative American landmark: Taliesin. To Christian, he represents the intellectual elite.

Both heroes are also, like the villain, white males. This is important.

Some audiences might have preferred that this scene develop in a very different way. It would have been more immediately satisfying and cathartic to watch the unnamed, non-speaking females rise to their own defense. Or what if either hero or villain had been cast as black, Hispanic, or transgender? That would have provided some interesting complication.

But this is one play about race whose message is best revealed through homogeneity. By casting the heroes as white men resisting another white man, the Playwright/Director forces the audience to witness the illogic of bigotry in action. Christian attacks the heroes not because they are Muslim, or women or people with a skin tone different from his own, but because they are righteous. In his violent, angry, deeply crazed “defense” of his race, one evil white man kills two good ones.

Whether or not the overall volume of white honor in the universe is diminished by the loss of Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best is now up to the audience.

New Tricks

When I began my one-and-only professional job 23 years ago, I was charged with the task of helping senior adults adapt to new technology. Even though I was at that point relatively young, I was good at that job not because I was knowledgeable about technology but because I could sympathize with their situation.

Here they were, many of them people who had completed careers, raised families, managed finances and insurance and medical care of others, enjoyed culture, studied history and science. They were intelligent human beings who were expected to adapt to technology that was not of their choosing, that was supposed to fill a gap they had never felt. If they did not learn the technology, they risked losing the pleasure of something that they had previously enjoyed. But by the early 1990s, they had already witnessed the rise and fall of other technologies, and so they knew that any knowledge they might gain could soon be obsolete.

I saw different approaches to dealing with this. Sometimes they were quietly determined, accepting that since they couldn’t stop the advance of technology, they must set aside the time from their preferred intellectual pursuits and try to learn new skills, in the hope that they would master them and eventually enjoy the new technology’s promised benefits. Occasionally, I saw this determination pay off. One of the adults would get the hang of the new way of doing things and get on with their lives, content until the next wave of technology came along.

Other learners adopted a self-deprecating front. They would laugh about their ignorance. Their preschool-age grandchildren, they said, could program their VCRs better than they could. When the new technology was introduced, they’d roll their eyes and heave a sigh. Not this again. They tended to be the same people who blamed the computer for deleting their files, and the photocopier for messing up their copies. The technology to these people was some alien force, outside anyone’s control, never to be understood or trusted.

But the people I felt the most sympathy for were those who, when confronted with a new technology that had come along without their ever having wanted or needed it, weighed the costs and benefits and found the costs had greater mass. Rather than endure the humiliation of admitting ignorance, the frustration, the drain on their time, they would choose instead to forego any pleasure they might receive from the new technology, as well as the pleasure they had once derived from the activity that was supposedly enhanced by these new advances. They would be left behind.

Among the technologically adept, true sympathy toward any of these groups was rare. Although they might acknowledge the tenacity of Group A, they would also be baffled by their slowness on the uptake. They would see a spark of understanding, and either respond in a manner that was condescending or that immediately established their own superior knowledge.

If Group B rolled their eyes at the new gadgets, then the adept rolled their eyes at Group B. They might offer some assistance, but more often, they would just take the problem out of Group B’s hands, through a mutual agreement that silly old Group B just couldn’t understand these things. By demeaning themselves in this way, Group B might get what they wanted—they might view the movie, file their taxes, add their contacts to their phone—but there would be a cost.

Only a few of the technologically adept actively despised Group C any more than they did the others. They merely dismissed them. If these people couldn’t keep up with the times, then that was too bad. Evolution. Survival of the fittest. Group C had nothing to contribute, and they were forgotten.

At some point or another, I think I have been a member of each of these groups, including the adept. But more and more, I feel myself falling into Group C. Technology is introduced that adds nothing whatsoever to my life; it only takes away. But unless I spend the time to learn this new technology, I will become less and less self-sufficient. Moreover, I will gradually lose sources of pleasure I once enjoyed. If you can’t keep up with the times, that’s what you get.

When I was a teenager and I would visit my grandmother, I was horrified by the way she spent her days: in a silent, dark room, with a television and a stereo that she never turned on. I always told myself that I would never let this happen to me. As I aged, I would make sure I stayed interested in the new, not merely cling futilely to the slippery old.

Recently, I have begun to consider that I completely misunderstood my grandmother. While I suspected her of stubbornness or laziness or bitterness, now I begin to wonder whether, in fact, it was none of these faults that prevented her from fiddling with her machines. It is possible that she was motivated by much less selfish feelings.

It is possible that what came off as defeatism was, instead, a heartfelt sorrow for a world that can never be satisfied. Perhaps perpetual dissatisfaction is what sets us apart from the less intellectually advanced primates over whom our species holds so much dominion. We are the apes who, probing the bees’ nest with the straw, fail to taste the sweetness of the honey but merely seek a thicker stick.