01 September, 2011

My Beef with Actor Peter Coyote

Ordinarily, when my writing is published in a periodical, I won't mention it here. This month's issue of The Sun, however, begs that I break the precedent. In June, the magazine featured an interview with Peter Coyote, in which he spoke his mind on such broad-ranging subjects as drug addiction, communal living, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Coyote's opinions differ significantly from my own, I chose to write a letter quibbling with a minor point. The letter appears in the September issue:
I found your interview with actor and activist Peter Coyote to be one of the better ones of the past year. Just one thing troubled me. Coyote says, "All the kids I have met who look like punks have been, without exception, sweet people, but they are not hopeful. I think they are trying to keep a part of themselves sacrosanct from the culture by violating norms of fashion and behavior, making music that is so angry and unbeautiful." 

As one of those pierced and unconventionally dressed punks, I have a problem with his implication that anger and hope are mutually exclusive. I have many proudly iconoclastic friends whose anger about the state of the world only fuels their work for a better tomorrow. To quote old-school punk John Lydon, "Anger is an energy." I challenge Coyote to show us a revolution that wasn't based on people's frustration boiling over.
Coyote's response followed:
Byron Case is right in parsing what I wrote, but I didn't express myself very well. I don't think that anger and hope are mutually exclusive. I have found, however, that expressing anger rarely solves anything. It makes us feel powerful but also draws lines between people, subtly reinforcing one's own "correctness" at the expense of others. If we look deeply, we'll see that we possess the same noxious qualities and practices (expressed differently perhaps) that we target in others. By placing them outside ourselves, we make ourselves feel purer. My model is the Dalai Lama and not John Lydon. Hatred is an energy, too, but....
Without getting into my thoughts on Coyote's fuzzy-wuzzy "we are one" ideology too deeply, his original point about punks (a label I adopted as shorthand for someone who "violates" their culture's homogeneity; although, I do get a kick out of almost everything by the Dead Kennedys) seems to fly in the face of his printed rebuttal. In the former he denounces unpopular fashion, behavior, and music; in the latter he decries the practice of "drawing lines" between ourselves and others in order to feel superior. It's possible this apparent hypocrisy is simply a matter of not thinking his argument through, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But is he so credulous as to believe in a universal beauty? The only way in which all people are identical is that each of us is unique — everyone outside of one another. Unity is all about accepting each other's differences.

Our disagreement about anger seems to reside principally in matter of scope. Coyote referred to the microcosm that is interpersonal relationships — two players scuffling during a basketball game, a scorned lover slashing his ex's tires — whereas my opinion focused on more of a macrocosmic and constructively channeled anger — a voter referendum, the overthrow of a tyrannical dictator (viz., the recent rebellion in Libya). Because my model is neither the Dalai Lama nor John Lydon but George Carlin, I believe that context is key. Few would argue that barroom brawls and crimes of passion are the results of anger improperly expressed, which society would be better off without. My point was not that anger was some sort of universal good, merely that it was frequently a crucial ingredient in meaningful societal paradigm shifts.

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