BILL HICKS AND FRANZ KAFKA ON WHY WE READ

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The 26th of February 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of William Melvin Hicks. More commonly known as Bill Hicks, he was an American comedian who is by far my favourite stand up of all time. The Texas born comic died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the obscene age of just 32. Among comedy aficionados he is considered to be one of the greatest of all time. Fellow comics Jamali Maddix and W Kamau Bell say Hicks is their favourite too, as does the always controversial Frankie Boyle, who said of Hicks “He was my favourite comedian. He’s probably the reason I’m in comedy. He’s still probably my favourite comedian.”

High praise indeed. One of Hicks more famous comedy routines comes from his 1991 show Relentless, recorded at the Centaur Theater during the annual Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, Canada. The routine involves Hicks ranting about anti-intellectaulism, which he believed was highly prevalent all over America, reaching some what epidemic proportions. Bear in mind this was well before the internet overtook all of our lives, so God only knows what he would make of the state of anti-intellectualism in the world today, with all these social media platforms and a reality TV star in the White House:

Get this! Another true story, this is going to frighten you because it’s absolutely true. I’m down in that town Fyffe [in Alabama]. After the show I go to a waffle house. I’m not proud of it, I’m hungry. I’m eating, I’m alone, and I’m reading a book. Waitress walks over to me. “Hey! What you reading for?” Is that like the weirdest question ever? I have never, ever been asked that. Not “WHAT are you reading?” but “WHAT ARE YOU READING FOR?” “Shit, you stumped me. Why do I read? Hm, I don’t know. I guess I read for a lot of reasons. One of them is so that I don’t end up being a fucking waffle waitress, alright?” Then, this trucker at the next booth gets up, stands over me and goes “Well, looks like we’ve got ourselves a reader” What the fuck’s going on here? It’s like I walked into a Klan rally in a Boy George outfit or something. It’s a fucking book, I read, there, I said it. Waitress goes “Why read when you can just flip on the tube?” “Because it’s not the same. What do you think I’m reading, Hee Haw: The Book?” She said “Huh?” – Bill Hicks

The following YouTube comment provides the perfect analysis to what this routine means:

So love this. The perfect example of inverted intellectual snobbery. The scourge of every school playground. It’s like “Why do you wanna learn? You fink you’re better than me or what?!” Classic lazy arse bully using the bright kid in class as a scapegoat for their own insecurities. And the bully’s probably being raised to put material gain ahead of ever learning anything. Never trust a man whose TV is bigger than his bookcase. Never trust a man who doesn’t even possess a bookcase. Too cool for school eh? Not so cool when living on welfare thinking the world owes you a living. – Judi O’Regan

There is even a t-shirt that you can buy to show how much you agree with Bill:

Bill Hicks T Shirt

The reason why I mention this nearly 30 year old routine is because it came to mind when I recently read a quote by Franz Kafka. In a letter dated November 1903 the then 20-year-old German novelist wrote to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak, describing the type of books Kafka thought were worthy of reading. So perhaps Hicks (whose situation in that waffle house can be ironically described as somewhat Kafkaesque) would have been better placed to answer why he reads if he himself had come across a translation of this letter, for in it Kafka pronounced that:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us, that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading does not shake us awake with a blow to the head, then what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you put it? Good Lord, we would be just as happy precisely if we had no books at all, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves if we had to. But what we need are the kind of books that affect us like a disaster, that hit us like a most painful misfortune, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished into forests far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe. – Franz Kafka

Combining the wisdom of both Hicks and Kafka, we read books in order to shake us awake by grieving us deeply, we read to smash the frozen sea ice within us. We read words that stab us, and if not stab then at the very least poke us, prod us, enough to get just a few neurons and synapses to fire, to reawaken, to overcome the slumber and numbness brought on by modern living, with its fast food, day time TV, reality shows, and ever demanding smart phones. I am hoping that the following selectively chosen words can do something to combat the anti-intellectualism that we are surrounded, by breaking into the frozen sea in all of us. They cover a wide range of topics, from Trump to Islam to American optimism to Muslim fundamentalism. Let that literary axe fall where it may. Enjoy!


Let’s cut to the chase, folks. We. Need. Wall. Okay? We have a tremendous amount of drugs flowing into this country from the southern border, or ‘the brown line’ as many people have asked me not to call it. That’s why we need wall, because wall works, wall makes safe. You don’t have to be smart to understand that, and in fact it’s even easier to understand if you’re not that smart. – President Trump, 16 Feb 2019, as played by Alec Baldwin on the TV show Saturday Night Live

I’m so tired of telling Trump jokes. We’ve been making fun of this dude and his dumb ass wall for so long, I gotta be honest, now I kind of want to see the wall. I’ve never seen anybody so confident of such a bad idea. It’s almost charming. I’m not saying we should let him build the wall, but what if we just let him do a Power Point presentation or a dramatic reenactment? I just want to see exactly what Trump thinks is gonna happen when a Mexican cartel sees a wall. What do you think, they’re just gonna shake their fists and walk home? Do you know how motivated you got to be to sell drugs? I know a guy that swallowed a bag of dope, pooped it out, washed it off, and then still sold it. You can’t build a wall to stop that kind of behaviour…This wall is clearly racist. It’s just a way for middle America to blame brown people on their new heroin habit. Why didn’t they build a wall for us black people in the 1980s when we needed it? But the problem isn’t that drugs are coming in, the problem is people really want to get high. Address THAT part. If your wife is cheating on you, she is not going to stop because you built a wall around the house. You’ve gotta get to the root of the actual problem, otherwise you’re just going to come home and find strange men running around in them slats. – Michael Che, 16 Feb 2019, on the TV show Saturday Night Live

Trump has been hoisted high by his vision of the presidency as the world’s highest-rated reality-TV drama. His instinct to escape every previous episode’s failure by creating a new drama for the next episode has served him well to date. But reality TV is ultimately not reality. Government is very real, and hedged by realities. Reality is now exacting its retribution upon the Trump presidency. Ahead looms the fate that the reality-TV star must most dread: the cancellation of the whole crazy series. – David Frum, Feb 2019, from the theatlantic.com article A State Of Unreality

America was “discovered” by white European Christians, who, armed with a papal document called the “Doctrine of Discovery,” authorized them to possess “the new world.” They conquered and colonized the Americas on the bones of indigenous peoples and the backs of enslaved black persons. The European settlers believed that Providence led them to America and was calling them to fulfil their “manifest destiny” of sweeping across and conquering the continent. The killing, conquering, uprooting, walling in — and conversion — of the “heathen” Indians were part of the Divine design. Similarly, the oppression of black persons: from slavery to Jim Crow Laws to segregation to continuing discriminatory economic and physical walls maintained by a white-controlled status quo. A Divine design straight out of the Bible: the white Christians settler fathers and mothers believed that America was Biblically ordained to be ”the light of the world – like a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14) – Reverend William E Alberts, Feb 2019

Fascism is not an ideology; it’s a process for taking and holding power. A fascist is somebody who identifies with one group — usually an aggrieved majority — in opposition to a smaller group. It’s about majority rule without any minority rights. Which is why fascists tend to single out the smaller group as being responsible for or the cause of their grievances. The important thing is that fascists aren’t actually trying to solve problems; they’re invested in exacerbating problems and deepening the divisions that result from them…Violence is a crucial element of fascism. Whatever else it is, fascism involves the endorsement and use of violence to achieve political goals and stay in power. It’s a bully with an army, really…Fascism is always, in the end, about stirring people up and giving them someone to hate…America is not an example of a good democracy right now, and that’s a problem. We’re not the leader I think we used to be. – Madeleine Albright, Feb 2019

For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something…American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others…American exceptionalism had declared my country unique in the world, the one truly free and modern country, and instead of ever considering that that exceptionalism was no different from any other country’s nationalistic propaganda, I had internalised this belief. Wasn’t that indeed what successful propaganda was supposed to do? – Suzy Hansen, Aug 2017

The years since the second world war have brought the US military to country after country. The big wars are well-known: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. But there has also been a constant stream of smaller engagements. Since 1945, US armed forces have been deployed abroad for conflicts or potential conflicts 211 times in 67 countries. Call it peacekeeping if you want, or call it imperialism. But clearly this is not a country that has kept its hands to itself…Today, the US continues to hold overseas territory. Besides Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and a handful of minor outlying islands, the US maintains roughly 800 overseas military bases around the world…None of this, however – not the large colonies, small islands, or military bases – has made much of a dent on the mainland mind. One of the truly distinctive features of the US’s empire is how persistently ignored it has been. This is, it is worth emphasising, unique. The British weren’t confused as to whether there was a British empire. They had a holiday, Empire Day, to celebrate it. France didn’t forget that Algeria was French. It is only the US that has suffered from chronic confusion about its own borders. The reason is not hard to guess. The country perceives itself to be a republic, not an empire. It was born in an anti-imperialist revolt and has fought empires ever since, from Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich and the Japanese empire to the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. It even fights empires in its dreams. Star Wars, a saga that started with a rebellion against the Galactic Empire, is one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time. – Daniel Immerwahr, Feb 2019

One of America’s defining characteristics used to be optimism…America’s national identity is built on the dream of individual aspiration and self-improvement, but for a long time this has existed more as a kind of mental state than a real feature of American society. Actual social mobility in the US is low and declining and inequality is increasing. For all the national myth-making, it’s better to be born poor in Denmark, or any other Nordic country, than to be born poor in the US…These days, one of the few things uniting the right and left in American politics might be the belief that America is on the brink of disaster…American presidents are usually optimists…Trump is different…Trump does not know how to harness emotions such as hope or optimism. – Sophie Mcbain, Feb 2019

Many Westerners mistakenly believe that all observant Muslims are fundamentalists, because they all fulfill the “pillars of Islam,” which include daily prayer, fasting during Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. Most Christians think one day a week is enough to pray, and Muslims pray five times a day. They must be fundamentalists! And when Christians hear that Muslims don’t even drink water during Ramadan, they think that’s terrible — a violation of human rights! And when they hear about the animals killed for feasts during the pilgrimage to Mecca, they think that’s an “orgy of blood.” In short, Americans and Europeans are accustomed to seeing religion practiced a certain way, and when they see something else, they call it “fundamentalism.” – Ebrahim Moosa

Americans live in a culture of immediacy that has created new forms of social and historical ignorance and erasure…Time no longer has a long durée; it has to be instantaneous, pulsating with information that barely adds up to a sustained idea. Time is now connected to short-term investments and quick financial gains, defined by the nonstop and frenetic perpetuation of an impoverished culture of global exchange. Time is no longer connected to long-term investment in community, the development of social well-being, and goals that benefit young people and the common good. Time has become a burden more than a condition for contemplation. The flow of money now replaces the flow of thoughtfulness, critical dialogue and informed judgment. This is exacerbated in a culture of immediacy in which instant gratification rules and thoughtful contemplation becomes a thing of the past. Long-term investments have given way to short-term investments, and in doing so, have erased any long-term commitments to valued relationships, young people, intimacy, justice and compassion. Barbarism presents itself in acts, experiences and forms of suffering that vanish from the mainstream media as quickly as they appear. – Henry A Giroux, Feb 2019

“One attack away,” for Muslims in America means many things. It is a reminder that life can radically change in a split second. An ever-looming fear that the state can, again, strip one’s constitutional rights with tenuous or nonexistence evidence. An existential state-of-being that, in three words, perhaps defines what it means to be Muslim in [the US] best: that all the rights the Constitution theoretically extends — from the freedom to practice your faith freely to the freedom of speech — can be chilled or set aside after an attack by a Muslim, or even a non-Muslim. As a result, the collective Muslim American psyche is in a constant state of fear of what may come after an attack. – Khaled A Beydoun, Apr 2018

America has enormous interests in that region. In the past 30 years, we’ve spent more money, sold more weapons, sent more troops, fought more wars, lost more lives, had more economic and political interests at stake and expended more diplomatic capital in the broader Middle East than anywhere else on the globe. And yet recent polling shows that two-thirds of all Americans can’t point to Iraq on a map, just as many don’t know the year that Israel declared its independence; the same number don’t realize that Iran and Pakistan aren’t Arab countries, and about one-half share prejudicial and stereotypical views of Arabs as angry, backward violent fanatics…How did we get into a situation in which we knew so little about a world where we had so much at stake? It all begins with education – or the lack of it…Education, or the lack of it, isn’t the only culprit. Our political culture also contributes to misunderstanding…Our popular culture is at fault as well, as Hollywood grinds out movies and television programs that have negatively stereotyped Arabs and Muslims for almost a half century. – James J Zogby, Oct 2010

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