Saturday, 26 December 2015

Jeff Seiler: Dave Sim & Me

Eleven years ago, when Cerebus ended, Dave Sim decided to answer all of his back mail. A month or so later, he had his "Jeff Seiler Day" in which he answered multiple letters I had written over the previous year. After I received that letter, I decided to keep writing, and he kept his promise to answer every letter he received. Now, I have a foot-high stack of letters written and received over 10 years or so. I'll be running interesting excerpts from those letters each week.

Today's entry is a letter from Dave to me, dated 17 September, 2004:

Dear Jeff:

Thank you for your letter of August 31. I was just coming to the end of a three-page letter to you when the computer went on the fritz and I lost it, along with two or three others. I really don’t have time to reconstruct it the first part, so here are the highlights:

1. I think Keith’s [Ed: Keith’s Comics, in Dallas, across the highway from SMU] is a Sandman and not a Cerebus kind of store, so at this point I’m done with my own efforts. If you want to monitor their supplies, you’re welcome to do so, but I suspect they will always just have another excuse as to why they don’t have Cerebus on the shelves.

2. I don’t think you’re right that I’m viewed favourably by City Council [Ed: Dave was going weekly in 2004-2005 to City Council meetings to observe the proceedings.]. I think they suspect my motives as the only person in the room who isn’t getting paid to be there.

3. I don’t expect to get a reply to my latest letter to Mr. Jeffrey at Hillsdale [Ed: He did; it will be posted here on next week.], nor do I consider what I got from him to be a reply in any meaningful sense of the term, but I’ll be happy to send you [a copy of] any further response from him, in the unlikely event that they arrive.

4. I quite agree with you that [John] Kerry is way off-base in pushing for a larger global role in U.S. decision-making. As you point out, “haven’t they already shown us what they have to say?” Too true.

5. My comment on yours and Billy [Beach’s] Phariseeism was far more about just ignoring the obvious in front of you and resorting to dictionary definitions and sophistry to try to evade what is obviously implied by “two men in a bed, two women grinding together” than anything having to do with whatever spiritual shortcomings either of you might have. I don’t know either of you at all as people and spiritual shortcomings are much deeper than that. I was reacting to your observations, not to you as people or to your spirits. I can only know the first and can’t possibly know the second two.

6. I don’t consider either you or Billy to be supporters of mine. I mean, in the sense that you’ve bought Cerebus comic and books, certainly. And I’m very appreciative as I am with everyone who contributes to my livelihood in that way. You have your own viewpoints which are diametrically opposed to my own--and to each other--as are (so far as I know) all other viewpoints in the world. The notion of “being ganged up on” went by the board years ago, implying as it does that I would think myself a victim in some way. I’m not a victim. I think my viewpoints are grounded in hard thinking coupled with common sense. I have no hesitation in defending them, as you may have noticed. I’m always willing to entertain contrary viewpoints, but I don’t share them for what is, in my view, good reason. But I certainly never expect anyone under any circumstances to be “on my side” or a “supporter” in any meaningful sense of the term.

7. Please don’t send me any more gifts. I don’t like to sound ungracious, but, as you say, my own views don’t encompass those of people who pray “for” things. If I had seen this book [Ed: Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of prayers] in a bookstore, for instance, I would’ve walked right past it for these reasons: I have my prayer which I consider to be my covenant with God: here is what I firmly believe and renew five times a day so there can be no question or doubt of my sincerity. If I couldn’t say all of the things I say in my prayer with sincerity, I wouldn’t say them. Most of the prayers in this book appear to be directed toward the “Lord” and I know nothing about Stevenson, except that I have read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So this just becomes another chore and another source of conflict in my life. Do I keep the book or throw it away? Evidently, Stevenson chose to live the remainder of his like in Samoa and die in a pagan context. Or was the context pagan? Was Stevenson a believer in God or just another person in thrall to YHWH and Rousseau’s “noble savage”? If he was an actual believer in God it would be hazardous, I think, to throw the book away. If he was just another pagan, joining gods with God, then it is hazardous for me to keep the book. People give me things for a variety of reasons and then I have to determine for myself what it is that they have given me, not knowing them and not knowing their innermost motivations or the extent to which they are controlled by outside agencies and what the possible price is that I will have pay for accepting their gift if I’m guessing wrong. I’ve already spent the better part of two hours writing and rewriting this point seven, going out to eat so I could mull it over further, thereby consuming most of a Friday when I could be doing any number of things which need doing. As I said to Billy in my last letter, I’ll be happy to address viewpoints that you want to advance towards me and give you my opinion of them--newspaper clippings or excerpts from books (Billy sent me a Watchtower which I just threw away. I’m certainly not going to get in the habit of rebutting thirty some-odd pages of Jehovah’s Witness Central every month) but that does not extend to accepting gifts and all of the attendant problems which result. There is just no way for me to win out of this. I will be held accountable for being ungracious or I will be held accountable for accepting something I shouldn’t have accepted or I will be held accountable for throwing away something I shouldn’t have thrown away or I will be held accountable for not accepting something I should have accepted. Again, I’m sorry to sound ungracious, but it just irritates me because it isn’t my doing in an area where I try to be extremely careful and I’m the one who has to pay the multi-layered price. I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but please don’t send me any more gifts.

8. On the subject of Mr. Kristof’s column on the possibility of an Islamic Reformation, I quite agree that it is in the offing and long overdue. Because I only know the Koran, I have often been perplexed by what passes for received wisdom among many--if not most--Muslims that seems to bear no relationship to the Koran that I have read and do read. One of the reasons that I’m so enthusiastic about the United States’ flexing its muscle in the Middle East is that it brings so many valuable qualities to Islamic countries, foremost among them the idea that debate is, in and of itself, a good thing, particularly as regards Scriptural interpretation. Islam is still in its infancy with the infallibility of the imams, the inviolability of the Koran and the carved-in-stone quality of conventional interpretations being societal givens. Imams can’t be wrong. The Koran can’t be wrong. The universal interpretations can’t be wrong. Well, obviously they can be, or otherwise why are there so many different forms of Islam? Why the fundamental split between Shiite and Sunni? Somebody has to be wrong. Where I think this leads us (where I hope this leads us) is to the recurrent motif in the Koran of “You to your religion and me to mine.” When I was staying with Billy on the Sunday (July 4) and we read scripture together, at my suggestion, I read Numbers 22-24 and then suggested that he read one. Well he wanted to discuss what I had read, so fine, I have no problem with that. Here’s what it meant to me. Then he read Matthew 24-25 and explained what it meant to him. The key element to me--and something he touched on in his most recent letter--is that he and I would at least agree that reading Scripture is more efficacious than our debates about it. YES! Quite so. THis is the point that I hope to see our civilization come to: there is a right interpretation of Scripture, but none of us has any idea of what it is. As it says in the Koran, on the Day of Judgment, God will tell us of those things in which we differed. It is a pleasant pastime, to me, to interpret Scripture--better than going to a movie, but well below praying five times a day, paying the zakat, fasting in Ramadan and acknowledging God’s sovereignty. The cornerstones of Islam are, to me, the right choices. There’s the reason, to me, that “interpreting Scripture” isn’t one of the cornerstones. It would imply that it’s our job to know God’s secrets, to know the things hidden or to devote most of our energies to ferreting them out. And that, to me, is a combination of silly and blasphemous: not just “joining gods with God,” that’s promoting yourself to the level of God. “Here are the things that only God and I know.” Even Muhammad was most emphatic that he didn’t know the things hidden, that he did not have secret powers, that he was a man like any other man who wore clothes and shopped for food and ate it. He was just a conduit for the Koran to come through. The most exalted level of any man, Prophethood, was still on the entirely human level. The Prophet doesn’t create a prophecy. The prophecy is God’s. Our three-way debate about Luke 17:35 is a good example of the difference between Christendom and Islam. I think I’m right. You think you’re right. But we have at least (I hope) moved past the point where we would think that the way to get a definitive answer would be to go and find a priest or a minister and have him tell us. All he can do is to give us his opinion, as a man. He could be right or he could be wrong. For me, that even extends to “getting into heaven”. I just don’t see that as part of the equation, personally, what I am here for. The only thing I see as relevant in this world and in this life is deciding for yourself what you are going to do relative to your relationship with God because your soul is at stake, so your decisions are very serious in that area. To me, that’s a given. I may be wrong. But that’s what I’m staking my OWN soul on. These are my decisions, win lose, or draw--this is what I think is most pleasing to God. I’m always happy to listen to what someone else thinks is most pleasing to God, but I’m not apt to change my mind, because it’s my soul at stake and I think I’ve thought it through pretty thoroughly. I just don’t think in terms of heaven. For all I know, there may be a dozen tests after I die before I get into heaven, either through reincarnation or various levels that need to be traversed in the next world. I’ve seen too many top-ranked hockey teams get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs (the Kitchener Rangers, Memorial Cup Champs last year, first-round elimination victims this year, leap to mind) because they were thinking two round up ahead and taking their present competition for granted. The last time I was down visiting Chet [ED: Chester Brown], he asked, “You don’t believe in reincarnation?” And what I said to him was, I try not to. I don’t think believing in reincarnation is helpful. If I really thought I had a nearly infinite number of lives to “get where I’m going” why would I expend any effort in this life? If I believed in reincarnation, I’d be going with Chet to the Internet cafe to look up hookers and diving in face first. If it’s a major sin, oh well, I’ll try and get it right next time. I tend to see our lives as being like the Olympics: years of training and one chance to get it right. I think I put forth a better effort if I stay fixed on this being my one chance. If I get another fifty chances, well, hey, bonus! But that’s not an area where belief enters into it, for me. I make the choice and the decision that is going to put the most pressure on me to make my life count at a near-absolute level because, to me, that’s the only thing that’s going to give me a fighting chance. Believing or disbelieving in reincarnation is just too far away from the playing field, like daydreaming about where you’re going for a beer after the game instead of executing the basics on this play, here and now. But these ideas are all very far from modern Islam, which so far as I can see is still at the same point that Christianity was five-hundred years ago in seeing intermediaries between God and man. It would be unthinkable for a Muslim not to consult his local imam about anything he or she was going to do or think or believe. And, speaking as someone who has read the Koran pretty extensively, it is very much like the Torah in that the number of topics it covers are very few in number and the way the topics are expressed is very much open to interpretation any number of ways. The black-eyed virgins just don’t make that many appearances in the Koran to make giving them a moment’s thought anything but pure masturbatory wish fulfillment. If they’re the “aye blooming youths” then they are more on the order of waitresses. They make sure your glass is full with blissful nectar which doesn’t make you drunk. If they’re the “wives of stainless purity” then presumably they aren’t there for sex, otherwise they wouldn’t be stainless or pure for very long. The criteria for getting there is always “those who have done those things which are right”. In my view, knowing right from wrong is inbuilt. To me, it comes down to: today’s women are structurally messy. Virtually everything about them makes distinctions between right and wrong problematic, in my experience. It seems to me a given that if you want to do what is right, the easiest way to be consistent is to avoid today’s women. If you associate with today’s women in whatever way, you will find yourself doing things that you think are wrong or contemplating irresolvable questions and having to make an educated guess. This, to me, is where Mr. Kristoff’s thesis falls down. “Islamic feminists are emerging to argue for religious interpretations leading to greater gender equality,” he writes. Well, this is lunacy, to me. The genders aren’t equal and the Koran says so specifically, that God favoured men above women. We have only to look around our society to see what happens when you move toward “greater gender equality”. I’m more and more certain that this is the direction we’re going: worldwide feminist lunacy. That’s the nightmare scenario we have to go through to get to wherever it is that we’re going. But, I figure we just have to go there. We will have universal temptation, all vices legalized and readily available, an exponential increase in soul-degrading choices. It’s the hard option, I think, but the West is so far along in it that it’s hard to picture Islam slamming on the brakes, even if Muslims were inclined to do so. But, I do think that the Internet and blogosphere and the number of Muslims who are functioning therein are going to bring about a revolution comparable to what Protestantism accomplished against Catholicism, with the vital difference that I think there’ll be a lot more bloodshed. There is no “Meeker Than Thou” dichotomy in Islam. “Who can turn the most cheeks?”, which is what kept everyone’s feet on the ground in the Christian Reformation. The biggest victim is the biggest winner. Picture Salem, MA, only the entire non-Muslim world is considered to be witches. That’s the level of bloodshed that I see as being imminent. The question, to me, will be “Where does Islam break and how big a piece goes which way?” There’s no question that the critical Western mind, which doubts everything including whether the sky is blue, is having an effect on the intellectual side of Islam. It’s inescapable that virtually every conflict in the world today, big or small, is between Islam and non-Islam or between two Islamic peoples. They’re the only people on the face of the earth who still see beheading as a valid political statement. That’s a very tough “sell” for Muslims who like to think of themselves as civilized and intellectual. Try defending holding a thousand schoolchildren hostage and blowing up and shooting 300 of them. Where would you start? The only defense is that anything a good Muslim does is right because he or she is a good Muslim. The United States will be invaluable, since it has raised hair-splitting Talmudic-scholar-style sophistry to a foremost national trait and that constituency has only begun to debunk a lot of Islamic self-mythologizing. If I have a part to play, it is way, way, way down the line, as far as I can see, hinging on my certainty that only the Koran is Scripture in Islam. The Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet are just Muhammed the man’s thoughts on various subjects. Most Islamic anti-Semitism and xenophobia, from what I infer, stems from Muhammed as an individual and an Arab. Muhammad, God’s messenger, is very good. Muhammad the Muslim is very good. Muhammad the Arab is very bad. I infer this because I don’t see anti-Semitism or xenophobia in the Koran in any meaningful amount. Mostly there are generalized and very blunt observations on how most of the Jews of Mecca and Medina in the seventh century were no good, either. Virtually everyone in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century were no good. This, again--in my construct--is dealing with irrelevancies and, at this point in history, I’m one of the few people to see them as irrelevant. What is pertinent, to me, is praying five times a day, fasting in Ramadan, paying the zakat and acknowledging God’s sovereignty. All other viewpoints, including lunatic fanaticism have to be protected. Everyone needs to be able to go to heaven or to hell by his or her own choice, given that it will usually be an accident. No one knowingly does wrong to make sure that they go to hell. So far as I know I’m in the minority of Muslims who have worked through the debate to that point. In any debate with Muslims, all I could do would be to discuss these things for fifteen minutes at a time and then shout, “YOU TO YOUR RELIGION AND ME TO MINE” and force everyone to give me an “Allahu Akhbar” on it every time out because it’s a direct quote from the Prophet from the Koran. That’s the real Ground Zero for the 21st century as far as I can see. Mr. Nikolas’ assertion “only when people are able to debate issues freely--when religious taboos fade--can intellectual inquiry lead to scientific discovery, economic revolution and powerful new civilizations” is a fine atheistic sentiment (which is a nice way of saying “intrinsically stupid”), but completely irrelevant to Islam. Scientific discovery like birth control and abortion, to cite two examples, just aren’t going to fly in Islamic countries as progress. Remember, these people don’t drink, so it’s very difficult to sneak something by them like birth control or abortion that seem’s like the duck’s nuts in an alcohol-soaked secular society. That’s just seduction to a Muslim, away from the Path of God (which I would agree with). Likewise economic revolution. Islamic countries don’t look at Resident Evil 2 and think, “Wow. Why do we not have these great cultural leaps forward?” The Islamic vantage-point on The Exorcist or Resident Evil 2 or all the rest of it is that the West has already chosen to go to hell and they are so far along on their journey that they can’t even see the signposts anymore. We’re like a junkie sitting there trying to convince them that all their troubles will go away if they’ll just, you know shoot up with us. It’s pointless to say to a junkie, “Are you kidding? Look at yourself. All you’re doing is making your problems WORSE.” The junkie is just going to scratch and nod for a while and go, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. It really does make your troubles go away. Here, let me stick this in your arm.” From the standpoint of Orthodox Islam, we are past the discussion stage years ago, we are beyond reasoning with. We are junkies looking for newer and more potent junk to distract ourselves from the hopelessness of the situation. So, when Mr. Nikolas says, “The world has a huge stake in seeing the Islamic world get on its feet again,” he betrays his junkie-eye view of the situation. The Islamic world isn’t on its feet. It’s on its knees and prostrate on its face before God, five times a day. “On your feet” is not an improvement on that. That’s where the debate is right now: the West saying to Islam, “On your feet,” and Islam saying to the West, “No, on your knees and prostrate before God.” As I said, my part of the debate is decades, if not centuries away: Scripture. Agree on the efficacy of scripture and prayer and agree to disagree on all interpretations. “YOU TO YOUR RELIGION AND ME TO MINE!” God is the Only One who knows who is right and who is wrong and all verdicts are in His hand alone. Stop trying to climb into the Judgment Seat with Him. Bow before Him and do the things that are right AS YOU SEE THEM TO BE and realize that your soul is at stake. As I say, I see that as being much, much, MUCH later in the debate than where we are now. So that, apart from reading these things into the record for future generations, there’s really not much point in my attempting to enter the discussing anywhere, with anyone.

Glad to hear that you’re making more of an effort to actually get out of bed and put in a full school year so you don’t have to worry about temporary employment through the summer. I would imagine that that’s all God wanted you to figure out. Now you can move on to more difficult and important (and, uh, less pointless) challenges.

Thanks for the “Christians shouldn’t vote” letter to the editor. You might have a more interesting discussion sending it to Billy since, so far as I know, this is the viewpoint of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Don’t share it myself, but couldn’t rule out that it might be the One True Path and that my own political interests and participation are just foolish and self-destructive. “You to your religion and me to mine.”

Sorry I didn’t answer your question about Weisshaupt. No, he wasn’t based on Robert Walpole. You can usually take it as a given that if I don’t answer a question in a letter that my answer is no. As in: “No, that has absolutely no application.” Like your question about whether I had bought the books at Now & Then Books because of the stamp on the backing board. No, that’s the way Now & Then sells their backing boards, with the stamp on them.

Thank you, by the way, for sending the American flag card that you got at your church. There was a bit of a wave of American flags sprouting up three years ago up here, which I thought was a little overstated. Like those fathers who tell you, “I love my kids,” in a tone of voice that makes it sound like they’re the only ones who actually do. Of course, I had no idea that it was mostly Canadian hypocrisy (comparable to the Paris newspaper that declared “We’re All Americans Now!” in its headline September 12th, just before France turned on the United States at the U.N.). So, now that this country is awash in anti-Americanism, I am glad to have your card to tape up in the front window. They’ll have to pass a law and actually send a cop to get me to take it down.



Tony Dunlop said...

There's a lot here to which one could respond…but for now I'll just give my standard response to the Nick Kristofs of the pundit class (so many of whom seem to write for the New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, or other bastions of the East Coast echo chamber). Whenever they speak of "needed reforms" in a religion, political party, governmental agency, et cetera, it's always "It is imperative that they change their outlook and/or behavior in such a way that it matches what I, Nick Kristof, and the enlightened readership of the New York Times, already believe about the world." From that perspective, there's really no point in responding, or indeed paying any attention, to them.

Dave Kopperman said...

I have to admit, at this point, I'd be interested in reading a straight-up memoir by Jeff from that period. The little bits and pieces of his quotidian life that peek through are fascinating.

Jim Sheridan said...

Tony, isn't what you accuse those liberal pundits of pretty much true of ANY pundit or political commentator or Op-Ed writer? Many commentators write opinion / persuasive pieces, and their point of view is rarely "All opinions are valid." They write because they have an opinion, and thdy try to persuade you to see the logic of their point of view.

It's what makes Dave remarkable: when people try to be on his side, as shown in the letter above, he shoots them down!

Anonymous said...

Jim, it is very important to Dave that he be in an extreme minority if he can't be unique, so shooting down wannabe supporters (even complete Simcophants like Jeff) is not surprising. It's just Dave and God in this corner!

-- Damian

Tony again said...

But what Kristof, Friedman, et al. do, in the situation Dave is addressing above, isn't just spouting a viewpoint; it's telling other groups, to which they themselves do not belong, and (I'm pretty sure) have no intentionof belonging, the lines along which they simply must "reform" if they are to "remain relevant." Personally, if Tom Friedman ever considered me "relevant," I'd have to undergo a thorough moral inventory...

Jeff Seiler said...

Dave, thanks for the chuckle. ;) And, yeah, I've had an interesting life. I hope you all can see that I am not leaving anything out of these letters.

Damian, I may be a supporter of Dave Sim, but I am hardly a "complete Simcophant". Wait 'til we get to the 25-page, handwritten letter I wrote him that excoriated him for his misinterpreting something I wrote and falsely accusing me. (But that's a ways off--'07, I think.)

Barry Deutsch said...

For those who are curious, the Kristof column in question can be read here.