“Take what you have gathered from coincidence,” Bob Dylan sang. Sometimes I’m not sure what to take, and what to leave behind.
Two mathematically improbable coincidences haunted me this Saturday, both related to current events and to this website, Literary Kicks. First, I woke up early Saturday morning and spent a calm hour sipping coffee, eating blueberry Special K and browsing through my complete Plato, intent on finding a kick-ass philosophical quote to put up as the day’s blog post. I finally picked a choice snatch of dialogue from the Meno, an old favorite.
Just as this blog post was going up, a brainy, deluded and possibly schizophrenic 22-year-old creep from Tuscon, Arizona named Jared Lee Loughner was shooting six people in a shopping center. Later that day an online list of Loughner’s favorite books was revealed. I was shocked to see on the list, along with titles like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, an excellent novel by Ken Kesey and two by Plato: the Republic and … you guessed it, the Meno.
This is particularly strange because the Meno is not one of Plato’s better-known dialogues. The Republic is more well known, and so is the Apology, Crito, Phaedo and The Symposium. The Meno is a specialist’s favorite, indicating (along with two similar dialogues, Protagoras and Gorgias) an interest in morality and ethics. How a person who is interested in morality and ethics can shoot a 9-year-old child is more than I’ll ever be able to understand.
It bothers me that somebody might think I posted this Litkicks piece after hearing of Loughner’s reading list, or might surmise that I was trying to suggest some kind of literary or philosophical agreement with Loughner’s act of violence. If I had known of the connotation, I would never have posted this piece. This weird coincidence also strikes a chord because, as I recently wrote, Plato has something of a bad name among modern critics of philosophy for a perceived advocacy of rigid, theocratic social theories. I think this is a bad misjudgement. I am sure that Plato was not a closet totalitarian, and I think his idealistic but humane beliefs hold a place alongside those of Jesus, Buddha, Thoreau and Gandhi.
But it doesn’t help my case one bit when a rabid assassin commits a horrific act of violence while citing him as an influence. Not the Meno’s best hour.
Meanwhile, earlier that same morning I was puzzling over a different odd coincidence. I read several heated articles about a protest by an Icelandic woman named Birgitta Jonsdottir, an associate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who had been notified by Twitter that USA investigators were requesting access to her private communications in order to build a case against Assange. Jonsdottir took to the airwaves to protest this violation of her privacy — a deft move, I think — and I hope the case ends well for her and other similarly targeted individuals.
But I also have a different angle on this story, because even though I don’t know many people from Iceland, I do know exactly one person from Iceland, and that person is Birgitta Jonsdottir. In 1999 I put on a big literary event called the Literary Kicks Summer Poetry Happening at the Bitter End in New York City. One of my guests was the esteemed Kentucky poet Ron Whitehead, and when Ron told me he was travelling with another intrepid poet from Iceland, a close friend of his named Birgitta Jonsdottir, I was happy to put her on the bill with him. She showed up in an antique wide skirt (see photo above) and read several charming poems along with Ron.
This 1999 event was an insane circus (I wrote about the evening here) and I barely got a chance to talk to Birgitta, but she appeared to be a very decent person, and I believe she has a sensitive ear for poetry (along with some obvious skills in geopolitical journalism). Literary Kicks wishes Birgitta Jonsdottir the best of luck in her legal battles to come.