Conflicts of Interest: Going viral

City Paper

On Friday evening, it was glorious  to be back out in the world, at musician Wendel Patrick’s house with a dozen or so other people as we settled in to listen to “Out of the Blocks 2,” his collaboration with my good buddy Aaron Henkin, of WYPR.

I had been living a weird sort of digitally convalescent monasticism.  The poet William Carlos Williams used to say “No ideas but in things,” but I say no ideas but in people, and people, in all their complexity, are usually far more interesting than ideas. But because I was down with the flu last week, I ended up spending far more of my time thinking about ideas than is usually healthy. 

Whenever I am sick, I think about viruses. We’ve now discovered that at least one kind of cancer is caused by a virus—cervical cancer has been conclusively linked to human papillomavirus—and some scientists believe that heart disease and other ailments are also viral. 

A couple of years ago, largely due to long conversations with my friend Chris Farmer, who is actually a farmer, and the book “Microcosmos,” by Lynn Margulis, I started to wonder if, when we talk about god, we aren’t really talking about bacteria. For most of earth’s history, anaerobic bacteria was the primary form of life. But the by-product, or waste, of this bacteria was oxygen and they—or “it,” if it was actually a single organism, as I suspect all bacteria are—oxygenated our world to such an extent that they died and aerobic bacteria took over. Margulis argues that all multicelled organisms are, in a sense, the collaboration of two bacterial cells—one, which becomes the nucleus, to control genetic material, and the other to take care of everything else. But even if all of our cells aren’t bacterial collaborations, we still each have more bacterial cells than human cells in our body so that, to a certain extent, we are vehicles of bacteria and since bacteria can evolve horizontally—that is, within a single generation—there are good arguments claiming that all bacteria are indeed a single organism. Meaning we’re all a single organism. All is one, all is god, etc. 

Are you there bacteria? it's me, Baynard.

I was in the midst of thinking about this shit when I woke up late on Wednesday to discover that two fanatical gunmen had raided the offices of the French satirical magazineCharlie Hebdoand massacred 12 people. Before the principles of free speech or radical Islam or anything else, I thought “these are my people” and I imagined what it would be like if someone busted into our office with machine guns and killed me and the people I work with and care about—or even worse, just those I care about because I happened to be home sick on the couch. 

But it wasn’t the people I know and argue and sweat and curse and drink with who died. It was other individuals, with whom others did those things. But I got a sense of the way cops feel, circling in, when a cop gets shot. Because when it is your profession, you see how it could be you.

Except, of course, here, as former CP cartoonist Tim Kreider pointed out in the New York Times in regard to the comic he used to write for us, we just starve our artists by not paying them. 

I spent the next several days reading and thinking and arguing about what happened. One night, I argued for some hours on Twitter with our editor Evan Serpick and our music and film editor Brandon Soderberg. We all learned something from this conversation that we had, in public, where we were working out our thoughts. It wasn’t planned like “hey, let’s talk about this on Twitter.” Instead, we were all legitimately trying to figure shit out because it’s complicated as fuck and that kind of arguing felt really good and right. It was the only thing to do. 

It seems like everybody was  arguing like that—at least until football took over Twitter on Saturday followed by the Golden Globes on Sunday—and everybody has a take which they will passionately fight for. And I applaud the passion, but I would also hope for a little less certainty all around. In reality, all people are wrong 99 percent of the time. We’re probably actually wrong about everything all the time, but one percent of the time our errors happen to coincide with the truth by means of some bizarre accident. 

That’s the weird thing about liberalism (in the classical sense) and the American and French democratic experiments: The ancient state determined what The Good is, as did the communist state, the Islamic state, and the capitalist state. But the liberal state (to the extent it can be separated, theoretically at least from the capitalist state) has only a negative good—freedom is freedom from interference to pursue happiness. But the content of that happiness is left empty by the state. That is what we mean by freedom—the freedom to fuck up, the freedom to be different. 

I thought a lot about this after Soderberg said, in our Twitter argument, that journalists seem largely like tools of the state. I understand all of the failures of the U.S. press as we were going into Iraq and I don’t even consider cable-news people journalists, but I thought this was ridiculous. Except that, because liberalism is a doctrine empty of content, any act of free speech was, in fact, some kind of propaganda for the kind of state that has free speech. This is the tragic greatness of political liberalism. It was its failure in the ’30s in Weimar Germany and it may be its failure now, probably more from the neoliberal deification of the corporation than the Salafist theocrats (It is telling that on 9/11 the stateless al-Qaida attacked the center of multinational capital first—the wars that followed were probably the gasping last breaths of the already dead notion of the nation state).

You see what happens when I dwell on ideas? Ugh. So I was glad on Friday night to get out of the house and listen to Wendel and Aaron’s hourlong radio segment. 

Aaron and I play in a band together and I used to do segments for his show, The Signal. He called me up back in 2010 to ask if I’d come on the show one day—his voice on the phone was the equivalent of a movie star walking in the room—and of course I was psyched to go on. But I was also having a music party or jam or something at my house the day before he wanted me to come into the studio and I asked him to come by. “No, no I probably can’t, but . . .” 

The day of the jam, I got a call. “Are you still playing?” he asked. 

“Yeah.”

“I just bought a drum kit. I’m on my way,” Henkin said. That was the beginning of the Barnyard Sharks. And a great reporting trick—because the next day, I was way more natural on the air. After recording the segment,  we went for a drink and  he offered me his recording equipment to do a story about “The Block,” the red-light district on Baltimore Street.

It’s hard to overstate how much working with Aaron helped me and what a good friend he has been. Or how good his work is. 

For his “Out of the Blocks” series, he spends months on a single block in Baltimore, talking to everyone he can, building their trust, and ultimately recording their stories. “One hour of radio, one city block, everybody’s story” is the tagline. 

After editing the dozens and dozens of hours of audio he gives that to Patrick, who writes a score of original music for it. The first installment, on 3300 Greenmount, aired a couple years ago now, and we’d been waiting a long time to hear this one about the 400 block of E. Patapsco Avenue in Brooklyn (where my wife also does research). 

A dozen or so people showed up at Wendel’s gorgeous apartment with its baby grand piano and crazy producing/ DJ equipment and we sat and listened and I thought about how much power the music added to the stories, and I wondered what the equivalent was for print (clearly, except in this column, which most often intentionally uses bad photos, it is the collaboration with J.M. Giordano and his photos, and Athena Towery and Charlie Herrick for design) and trying to feel the way the music helped the story infect my head. 

And then there was this moment. You’ve got to listen to it (go to wypr.org). A woman tells Henkin that the man she was dating ran off and she accidentally took some of his medicine and got really sick. She went to the doctor and found out it was HIV medicine. He had never told her he was infected. It was devastating to hear. She said he must have had it so long that it had eaten his brain. And then she talked about how she had to find him. How she hoped he would come back so he didn’t have to die alone. 

If there is religion, that is it. When you shoot people because they make fun of your religion or your culture, you are like the guys all over this country who kill someone to protect their pride, because they were called a “bitch” or something. The kind of irrational Dostoyevskian kindness that the women in the radio segment showed—unlike the flu, HIV, and the bad ideas of dumb fundamentalists—is not passed along virally. And it should not be. It is, rather, some kind of awful miracle, pure and tragic grace, with no agenda, no cause, and no future.  That is religion. And bacteria is god.

As for the rest of us, we should cultivate our own uncertainty and try to be less sure, less strident, less knowing. We should know we know nothing.   

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