Why I Don’t Care About the Manufactured Outrage du Jour
My mother abandoned her family, leaving my broken and broken-hearted father to try his best to care for three young children while working full time. I was nine, my sister was seven and my brother was three. Whatever security and stability I had in my life was gone, all because the woman who bore me decided that she wanted to hitchhike to Texas and to see Tom Petty in concert instead of giving me the parental care I needed. I’ve always felt a smidgen of additional guilt. I was my parents’ first child. Until the day I was born, my father was a free man with a brilliant mind and good humor and great potential. Once I fell into the world, he was trapped with a woman who simply didn’t have it in her to care about anyone but herself.
Few massive changes are instantaneous; my mother’s defection was no different. I’m at the point in my life when my few friends and many acquaintances are getting married and having or caring for children. These mothers and fathers are braiding hair and helping to build snow forts and doing what they can to bring enough money into the home. My mother, on the other hand, did as little as possible to contribute to the home. My father punched out of his factory job at 3 p.m., so that’s when my mother woke up. She’d stretch and yawn and think about doing some work around the house. Some days, of course, were easier than others. I have been told that I once reached into my own diaper and smeared my own feces on the wall because that’s what happens when you leave a little kid in a crib all day while you’re sleeping and listening to Stevie Nicks records.
My mother began spending far more time with her unpleasant friends who lived on a street by the river whose name looked like a phone number. She passed most nights swaying to mid-eighties adult contemporary while the rest of us slept. She was gliding, I assume, on chemical wings. The family home didn’t have any aerators in the faucets because my mother had nicked them for use in her marijuana pipe. The family home didn’t have any flatware sharper than a butter knife because my father was scared one of the pieces would end up in his belly or his throat one day. The family home was a dark place, haunted by tangible fear-when’s the next time she’s going to lose it? Is she going to scream or cry tonight? Both? These are the childhood thoughts I contemplated as I spent hours sawing through my meat with a butter knife.
The statistics vary wildly, but infidelity is certainly a common occurrence. I suppose that sleeping around isn’t an indication of bad parenting by necessity. I do think it’s fair to say that having sex with some dude on the living room sofa while the children are sleeping and your husband’s sitting on the marital bed wondering what the hell he’s going to do is a source of harm to the family. Particularly to the oldest, a boy who, fueled by dozens of Encyclopedia Brown stories, fancied himself a detective. I didn’t know what she and Boomer or Tick-Tock or Grillface or whatever his name was were doing on the sofa, but I did know it was wrong. Wrong enough that I crawled back from the living room and put my arm around my father’s shoulders and told him it would be okay.
The dude who had rolled up on the bike and stayed the night might have been a phase. After my father bought her a Dodge Colt, my mother started a relationship with some man who was incarcerated in a prison far enough away that she put tens of thousands of miles on the car in less than a year. If memory serves, the affair ended when she crashed the car just off John Glenn Boulevard. I remember going with my father to see the totaled car, only a couple minutes away from Angie’s Bullpen, the baseball card store where he and I had bonded years earlier.
My mother’s process of extracting herself from the family took so long that the effects on my mood must have been obvious. My third-grade teacher recommended I speak with the school counselor. We spoke about baseball for a couple minutes before he shut the door on what I needed at that time-literally. The school parade was filing by his door and he shut me away from the friends I wanted, needed to make. I had hoped to find that companionship in Boy Scouts, but my mother pulled me out of that organization because the boys were older. I was as much in love with baseball then as I am now, but I had to stop playing because my father didn’t have the energy to register me for Little League, even though I rode my bike to all of the practices.
After some cutting of the family pictures and some more sobbing and, I imagine, more infidelity, my mother finally left. I finally understood what she was the first time I read The Glass Menagerie with Miss Rowe in 11th grade. My mother was the picture of Tom and Laura Wingfield’s father on the mantle, the focal figure who drives the story and establishes the tone, but never appears. The difference between Mr. Wingfield and my mother is that she never really left. The honorable thing to do would have been to cut all ties with us and to let us heal. Instead, the first year or so of her freedom was marked by drunken midnight calls in which she wept and told me she didn’t abandon us. I remember not being convinced, but I still said, “I know, Mom. I know.” I must have been a good kid; I didn’t want her to feel the massive guilt of what she was: a failure at everything she attempted and a massive source of pain for everyone who depended on her and to whom she had made sacred promises. It seems perfectly logical, therefore, that I’m in my thirties and remain unmarried and childless. While I have done plenty of wrong in my life and committed sins I wish I could take back, I can honestly say that I’ve never been a bad father or husband. I’ve never done the kind of lasting damage that should, but doesn’t, keep her up at night.
Instead of making a clean break, she made her departure as frayed as possible. She moved back into town. Any time my father was reaching some stability and starting to feel okay again, she would show up and she and her boyfriend would take my brother and sister fishing or whatever they did. I was onto her. I was old enough to realize that a person who makes triannual visits isn’t a parent. A woman who gives her kids no money or time is not a mother. She’s a selfless child who only cares about maintaining her personal vital lie. She gets to wake up believing that she is a mother and that she did all she could for her babies.
The last time I was in the same building at the same time as my mother was when I was about sixteen. My father told me the news: my mother had been arrested. A drunk and disorderly? And she needed to be bailed out. After telling my father he had no obligation to the woman who found triannual visits too much of a trial, he asked me to come with him to post bail. I must have been a fairly decent teenager; I still don’t understand women or the intricacies of the human heart, but I did and do understand that my father was looking for someone to support him. So I did.
My mother did damage to my father, my siblings and to me that is at once tangible and incalculable. While I take the bulk of the responsibility for what has largely been a wasted and lonely life, it’s also fair to say that my mother’s many offenses against decency is a substantial contributing factor to the person I am today.
My mother, it seems, is also the reason I don’t care about the manufactured controversy du jour. A comedian made a joke six years ago that you find offensive? I don’t care. No one got hurt. No joke has ever done to any human being what my mother did to my family. A rapper used a word of which you disapprove? I don’t care. No rap song has ever put a single person in the hospital.
We are all offended by words on occasion; that’s perfectly natural. I love John Oliver, but one of his recent Last Week Tonight bits offended me. That’s okay. He and I are in 99% agreement with respect to life. The Duck Dynasty guy recently made some odd and offensive comments about atheists. If I had had a real mother, she would have told me that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
Being offended is another way of saying that you don’t feel like engaging with a real issue that does tangible, incalculable harm to real human beings. The manufactured outrage culture is symptomatic of cowardice and apathy. It’s very easy for “news” sources to make a brave stance against a naughty word. It’s far more difficult and costly to cover real stories that are actually a problem.
I think I’ve always felt this way. Like everyone else on the planet, I endured some “bullying” as a kid. Both the traditional kind and the redefined version that includes causing any person any discomfort whatsoever. But I’ve never wasted any time or thought thinking that taking offense means that I’m entitled to something. The quality of my work may not reflect the time I’ve put into writing, but I’ve been scribbling stories and poems since before puberty set in. Those who sit at a keyboard or uncap a fountain pen deserve our respect. Unlike those who manufacture outrage, they are trying to add to our culture. Those who write 100-word articles criticizing Trevor Noah, a comedian, for making jokes are manufacturing outrage. Trevor Noah, on the other hand, stands on a stage, all alone but the microphone, and tries to make people laugh. Society needs comedians and truth-tellers, even if they say things that we don’t like on occasion. We do not need manufactured outrage. Whoever combed through Mr. Noah’s 8,000 tweets mining for gold needs to devote that time to meaningful pursuits.
America has serious problems. Families are suffering due to the collapse of the middle class. Gay people still can’t get married in a few states. A maddening minority of police officers are using excessive force and planting drugs on innocent men. Guantanamo Bay is still open. Let’s focus on the people doing tangible harm instead of the people who say things we don’t like, even though it’s far easier to retweet our anger than to seriously address a real source of suffering.
At some point after my mother was no longer in the house whose deed still bears her name, she visited on a Sunday night and was very cross with my father. Married…With Children was on Fox 68. We got a pretty good picture with our rabbit-eared television. My mother folded her arms and told my father, “I don’t want the kids watching that show.”
My father asked why.
“Because,” my mother said. “That show gives the wrong idea about women. The wife is depicted as lazy and is a bad mother. Don’t let them watch it.”
I’ve already introduced you to my mother, so you must see the irony inherent in her objection to the program. No, women are not inherently lazy and most mothers are beautiful and loving people. But she wasn’t. And she was taking the easy way out, criticizing a comedy show for the potential harm that it could do to me instead of confronting the real pain and lasting hurt that she was doing to me. To all of us.
Years from now, Trevor Noah will be a few years into his stint on The Daily Show. He’ll likely be successful and the transition from Jon Stewart will be a dim memory. Still, he’ll check his Twitter mentions and see that someone took seven seconds out of their day to call him a sexist or an anti-Semite.
Every second Sunday in May, people who don’t know her wish the woman who bore me a happy Mother’s Day. Those who see her do the demographic math and assume she’s given birth and lend her some of the reflected glory earned by men and women who are real parents. No one is going to tweet her to remind her of what she did to the people who loved her the most. There will be no protesters outside her place of work imploring her boss to replace her with someone else. People like my mother get away with hurting people because, in part, it’s much easier for all of us to train our flaccid righteous indignation on easy targets. We get social brownie points from our friends for clicking “Like” on a “shared” “article” criticizing a comedian for making jokes. Three seconds of effort earns us a shot of dopamine.
Our problem is simple. We’d rather go after Peg Bundy than those who visit true misery upon us.