The two women who showed up early for my book signing at a small bookstore in Houston, TX, never even bothered to open my book. Wearing knowing smiles, they engaged me in a bizarre discussion that wound up leaping all around the known and unknown universe. They hadn’t the slightest curiosity about my ideas as an ex-Soviet immigrant in America, or what I had to say about my experience working inside the two ideologically opposed systems. As it turned out, they had spotted my flyer in the store window the day before, and the book’s title — Shakedown Socialism — had enraged them so much that they decided to return the following day and give me a piece of their collective mind.
Their act almost made me feel as if I were back in the USSR, where the harassment of people with my opinions was the norm. The shorter, pudgier woman was the soloist bully, while her skinnier, older comrade provided backup vocals and noise effects. The duo’s repertoire was an eclectic collection of unoriginal talking points, each branded with an almost legible label: NPR, Air America, MSNBC, and so on. Not only were those mental fragments mismatched in key and rhythm; the very existence of harmony seemed an unfamiliar concept to them. But compared to the hard-core screaming I used to hear from card-carrying Soviet bullies, this was almost elevator music. If I had survived the original cast, I could certainly handle a watered-down remake.
Framed on their terms, the debate zigzagged from the evils of unbridled capitalism to global warming to Bush’s wars for oil to Sarah Palin’s stupidity. Since my opponents wouldn’t give me a chance to respond, I soon became bored and tried to entertain myself by redirecting the flow of mental detritus against itself in a way that would cause its own annihilation. I did that by asking questions.
I remembered an old trick invented in the fifth century B.C. by Socrates. Instead of telling people what he thought was true, Socrates asked seemingly simple questions that put his opponents on the path of finding the truth for themselves. Seeking genuine knowledge rather than mere victory in an argument, Socrates used his questions to cross-examine the hypotheses, assumptions, and axioms that subconsciously shaped the opinions of his opponents, drawing out the contradictions and inconsistencies they relied on.
As the two women faced my questions, their knowing smiles turned to scowls. Sometimes they would backtrack and correct their previous statements; sometimes, they would angrily storm out of the room in the manner of Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg on The View with Bill O’Reilly. After a while they would return with more talking points, and then they had to answer another logical question. My friends who witnessed the scene told me later they saw the shorter bully beginning to foam at the mouth.
Some heads contain an enormous number of facts that never bind with one another to form a fertile soil from which original ideas will grow. Each piece of information exists independently from the others, all of them continuously shifting and rolling around like grains of sand, forming ephemeral dunes in the lifeless deserts of their minds. The “open-minded” owners of such heads like to open their minds in the company of peers and admire each other’s fanciful sandy mindscapes. Every new whiff of wind or shaking of the head tosses the sand in more quirky patterns, forming new whimsical outlines. As previously covered facts are exposed and facts once exposed are concealed, a semblance of new ideas will emerge without any true change in content.