My aunt was an army nurse in London and Rheims during WWII and sometimes sent us picture books. One of them is quite beloved in English minds: “Parlicoot,” the little creature that was unlike any other and trotted through the countryside searching for his “playmate.” He didn’t even have a name at first, but when the little animals took him to the Owl for advice, that sage bird came up with “Parlicoot.” It was not until adulthood that I realized it was a French name: “parle ecoute!” Speak and listen.
“Parlicoot” is a benign and earnest little beast in the Disney and Beatrice Potter traditions and he has a lesson for all of us: that those who are unique can also be beloved. He plays with the squirrels and helps the bunnies and REALLY helps the frogs by moving a boulder that had shut off the water supply to the pond. They all love him and and beg him to stay with them, but he longs and yearns for someone just like himself, so he always moves on.
Finally he is going up a steep hill in a terrible storm when he sees a cozy looking cave and takes refuge inside. It is the home of Bill the Badger who cries out joyfully, “You’ve come back!” Parlicoot is confused, since he has never met this badger! When it is all sorted, Parlicoot and Bill figure out that someone just like him -- except for being female -- has been staying with Bill but has resumed her own search for someone just like herself. So Parlicoot rushes out, struggles to the hilltop and there, with a rainbow curving overhead, finds his Playmate. They marry with wreaths on their heads and all the animals in attendance and settle down in a grassy nest, happy ever after.
There’s a Australian version of this story in which a little swamp monster turns out not to be various reptilian creatures. Aussies are not so sentimental as the English and so their version might be a bit closer to the truth, which is that uniqueness is more likely to get a person demonized than admired. Of course, Parlicoot’s good character helps him make friends and fit in, more or less, even though he’s different. Usually, in human contexts, it’s not so simple, as Anne of Green Gables could tell you. Humans have a nasty tendency to solidify the group by excluding, punishing and even destroying anyone different. If there are enough excluded people who find stigmatized playmates like themselves, they’ll start a new group. Gays, feminists, artists, frontiersmen, blacks, Indians...
These “long-tail” groups (to use a literary reference) might be described as the thin and therefore “cutting edge,” where people are out on the perimeter of society, looking into the wilderness for new clues and alternatives, and finding the tools for renewal. This is so recognized now that there are universities where one can study “transgressive” and “alternative” artists, like Oscar Wilde wittily mentioning the unmentionable or Basquiat elevating street graffiti into formal paintings. Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Francis Bacon, Caravaggio -- make your own list.
Once discovered by wealthy patrons, which offers a bit of protection, these people can flower and become prized contributors to the culture as a whole -- filtering down from the top, so to speak, until someone like Barney Frank is a respected leader and Shirley Chisholm is a valued trail-breaker. But for those living with insecure, fearful, limited people, being different can result in a death sentence, either through a jury system contaminated by prejudice or by street profiling or because even a high school kid is seen as “fair game” if he or she seems unable to protect his or her self. In these sexualized times, such isolates are often repeatedly raped.
Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen it. Authorities look the other way. They say victims invite abuse, “ask for it.”
In little towns on the prairie, families are supposed to protect their own, and at the very least the fathers are meant to do that -- just like the TV show. But in recent times fathers have been more vulnerable than mothers used to be in the days when they were so often lost when giving birth. Anyway, damaged families often choose one family member and blame that person for all their troubles, heaping accusations on them and deserting them when they need help.
Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen it.
This is the business of the larger society because this demonizing shuts down experiments, freezes the growing edge, destroys the people who supply renewal. A recent newspaper article suggests that part of the reason we’re plunging over economic buffalo jumps is that all the energy has gone to manipulation, deception and closed-door deals instead of straightforward visions of the future. Journalists invent stories instead of going out to take a firsthand look, make snarky comments instead of checking themselves for bias, and completely ignore whole categories of people except to demonize them. Instead of financing real inquiries into the causes of the diabetes II plague (which may very well be caused by food additives and enviromental contamination), pharm companies invent minor variations on old drugs -- variations that can be life-threatening -- and discourage simple reform of diet. Even doctors will demonize peers who raise questions and objections.
What is the cure? Speak and listen. Parle y ecoute! Testify, tell the story, supply the evidence, and listen to the others who do. Over and over people who have joined their interests through the Internet have acquired enough power and compiled enough evidence to make a difference. Of course, they can be demonic as well, so consider carefully what you believe, what the results will be. We do not want to duplicate fascistic demonizing of the poor or "others," and yet I hear just that in the rhetoric of the current US elections.
In a week we’ll either have a clean start or we may have to go back to living off moose meat, the way my dad’s family had to in the Depression, way out there on the thin edge of Manitoba prairie survival where the banks felt free to impound the season’s potato crop without either legal or moral justification.