By Matt Gordon
They used to lay dormant in our fields, in our minds. These watchers of the fields would scare birds and do little else. We’d dress them up and even march them out from time to time, when we lazily were seeking an easy opponent to disabuse. But other than that the straw men were affixed in their places and in their fictions—they were not living, breathing entities and could be seen from miles across the flat farm fields.
Now is different. The Straw People walk about—they are among us. They no longer have beady eyes on pumpkin heads, with floppy, bendy arms and legs. No, now they have flesh and are clothed in vogue. Now they reside in our neighborhoods, teach at our institutions, run for and win elected office. You’ll see them out walking their dogs or read their posts—hordes of them—on social media. Scariest yet—no one is safe from becoming a Straw Person.
We all think we are right, and that is the first step toward having flesh grow scratchy, strawy. I grow to love my rightness about politics and race and religion and trash pick-up and viruses and refugees and sexuality and roundabouts and economics and football teams and language and comma, splices and on and on. I pet my rightness, value my rightness, feed my rightness. And then I protect my rightness—to the death. I get other people who have the same breed of rightness and we all get together at the rightness park and let our rightnesses off the leashes. We laugh as they play, watching with eyes ablaze as they pretend-fight with one another, eager at the strength they are developing. When we leave, we abandon the leashes behind in the dirt.
At home we go about reading. Not whole articles, mind you, a busy person like me? No, a headline will need to do. We unfollow the worst forms of wrongness that challenge our perspectives, and we are propelled by those bits of idiocy to expand our own fringe opinions further and further afield. Usually we do this in the following ways: fervent doubling-down on the rhetoric of absolutes, straining out any semblance of nuance and grace from our cemented thinking, and collecting the downfall of our cognitive opponents like an old maid collects Precious Moments figurines. We rejoice in dated comments from the past that undermine our enemy and revel in bent soundbites or edited data or any old character flaw dragged to light. The blaze we set to any flawed messenger only serves to illuminate the upstanding nature of our own pristine line of thinking. We grow large in all we know; it is glorious indeed.
But only if others know of the glory. We must make converts to our new dogmas. It is crucial, at this state of our transformation to straw, to get loud. We must gain a fluency in stridency. Dislike a thing? Not nearly drastic enough—hate must be ratcheted up. What good is moderation? It is akin to taking a horse-and-buggy to work; while reliable, it has become a tired, slow practice that needs be forgotten. Reliability and diligence have become a poor match for desperate speed and spite. At all points, we must be sharpest, snidest, and ultimate in our feelings. We have to hate the most, as well as love the most; there is no room to nurture sentiment along or for anything resembling nuance or temperance. Every differing opinion must become a Nazi-making slippery slope. Our homes must be under attack! Our churches—ring the bells, vandals are on the way! Our schools unsafe and violent in their verbal methods! Hyperbole is our constant companion. We cannot cry foul when “abuse” and “catastrophe” are in our arsenal. War is a great helper in this straw-making stage, for we can put battle terms on everything as we FIGHT for peace and BATTLE for truth and create ALLIANCES against any old thing, cogent or not. Everything becomes life and dry kindling death when you are made of straw, so one must be careful to always be on the overblown fire-bombing offense.
And together we shake off our skin; our humanity goes too— becoming tribes over here and over there, the distances between growing with our loping strides away from one another. As we have changed, so too have our ideas: hurried opinions are now truths we hold self-evident. Racist dogma, sociopolitical screeds, obsessive divisiveness, unrelenting fear tactics, uncommon sense or common nonsense—these are our pledge and creed. In the past, these misguided notions were dismissed as rhetorical ploys, but now they’ve sprung up into pitiful human-like realities, a blurry horde of gracelessness. We are a people becoming straw, dry kindling amusing ourselves to death with the fire we juggle.