Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thoughts about Rexville

When I was a teenager, my dad would frequent an intellectual cafe in Damascus several times a week, where he would meet friends, discuss issues of the day, and share tidbits about personal life. He never knew who would be coming or what the topic would be, but he was always sure that someone would show up and that the discussion would be lively. He came back full of news and would sometimes replay the happenings in vivid detail. I secretly envied him that experience, and when I moved to the US, found it disappointing that these fora were not common here. I never found such a place, in fact, until I started frequenting the Rex Parker blog. While the NYTimes crossword puzzle is the starting point every day, the discussion can range far and wide under our host's watchful eye. From this exchange, has emerged a real community that I came to think of as Rexville, and it's clearly a part of my daily life.

But, sadly, there is trouble in Rexville ...

Earlier this week (Tuesday), a past member of this community, Evil Doug (ED), posted explaining why he had chosen to stay away from the blog following a public conflict with Rex. Most of us of course knew the history, but ED's reappearance created a stir and revealed some underlying tensions. That night, I was taking the red eye from SF to NY and found myself thinking about this forum all the way across country. For me, the contrast was particularly striking — negative emotions were swirling on the blog. Yet, the night before, I had finally met, in the flesh, my first Rexville denizen ---Andrea Carla Michaels no less! It was an amazing experience and I felt incredibly grateful to Rex for it. When I was finally able to post on Wednesday, I chose to focus on this more positive experience and not to comment on the ED situation, hoping that we could get past it.

But we don’t seem to be able to… I’m sure there are a lot of individuals reasons—those who feel that ED was wrongly accused by Rex of being a racist; those who disagree with Rex’s style of showing displeasure; those who have themselves been rebuffed by Rex, or those who fear they might be some day and are steeling themselves against it. I myself stayed away for a while after the conflict happened-- I needed to evaluate how I really felt about Rexville. I came to realize that my main reason for being unhappy was a sense of disappointment-- in a perfect world, Rexville should be a community that tolerates dissent and handles it with respect and civility. Implicit in that expectation is that our founder, Rex, would set that tone.

But then I realized that I was projecting something onto this place, and onto Rex, that was of my own making. Indeed, what I was asking from him may be close to impossible. The secret ingredient that turned us into a real community is that Rex is truthful about what he thinks and what he FEELS. We’re not only seeing his intellectual side. This is what invites the greater engagement on our part, the sharing of knowledge but also the broader sharing of our own feelings and emotions. And as a real person, Rex has emotions-- “the troublemakers” as the Dalai Lama calls them. Showing emotions in public is a risky business, which is why so many ancient cultures put a lot of energy into controlling their expression. Emotions are contagious—while positive ones are fun to witness, negative emotions are highly unpleasant to watch, and there is an evolutionary adaptive value in these social reactions. Yet, we really don’t know each other as humans until we witness each other’s emotional reactions, and incorporate that information into the fabric of our relationships. Rex, in choosing to be truthful about both his ideas and his gut reactions, has simultaneously achieved both ends-- created the remarkable, vibrant and authentic world which we inhabit, and left himself exposed. That takes more courage, more faith in people's ability to understand and accept, more inner strength than I think I could muster.

As I found myself missing everyone and yearning to return, I needed to remind myself of a couple of points. First, that conflicts are dyadic. In the case of the interaction with Evil Doug, there was a long history between him and Rex. I would guess that each side feels the other guy started it. But in the end, there are cases where people simply don’t get along. As important to me is that I’ve seen both ED and Rex try to make things work for a while, and I respected them a great deal for it. But the situation was always, to use a scientific term, metastable --“a state of equilibrium susceptible to fall into lower-energy states with only slight interaction”—as it did when the final conflict emerged.

Second, and this echoes the opinion expressed by Orange: this is a truly unusual circumstance. Humans know one good way to deal with insurmountable differences—they stay away from each other if at all possible. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the opportunity for conflict diminishes and emotions fade. But what is the protocol here? The truth is, Rexville represents the kind of hybrid that only the internet can generate, one never before encountered by humans-- simultaneously personal territory and public forum…

As is the case with all human emotions, the answers are not easy because emotional perspective is, by definition, personal and constricted. But this mini journey clarified something for me: This forum is unique and its very essence is defined by Rex-- his thoughts and his feelings. If, for some reason, I am unable to deal with that totality, I should simply walk away. Rex of course can choose to take the feedback he is hearing and do with it as he wishes. As for me, I am here with more realistic expectations, coupled with a greater appreciation of what what Rex does to make this happen and keep it alive.

Never for a moment do I underestimate how much heart Rex puts into creating this place for himself and for all of us-- and therefore how much integrity and courage it takes to let the discussion about it, and him, play out. If ever I saw evidence of a principled belief in free speech, this would be it. And in this way, Rexville even surpasses the ideal intellectual cafe of my youth.