An Apology: Yes, Virginia, There is a Sanity Clause
By John Bonnell - Aug 15, 2018
Editors Note: The following text was brought to my attention by Tyrant contributor and former student of John Bonnell (1940-2014), Sean Kilpatrick, who found it on a geocities site. After many attempts to write an introduction, all of which felt like too much or too little, I’ve decided to just link the case in question–which you can read about if you want–here. (The geocities link also has an abundance of information about and surrounding the case.) The basics are that John Bonnell, professor of English at Macomb Community College, was suspended for three days after a student filed a complaint regarding his use of profane language in the classroom, during which time he distributed the following ‘apology’ to the complainant to his students and the media. He was consequently suspended for four months.
An Apology: Yes, Virginia, there is a sanity clause.
by John Bonnell
Young lady, before identifying the clause in the title, and as a preface to the apology you desire, let me review the two articles of impeachment which you have preferred against me. First, there is the one count of buttfucking; second, there are the three counts of blow-job. The first charge all by itself, I must confess, would inspire squeals of protest even from the most asinine, the most cheeky. The second charge, on the face of it, is more than your average mouthful. I marvel at your courage in bringing notice of these alleged outrages to the proper authority, and I am amazed by the modest remedy you require. In short order, I was summoned before the college’s highest tribunal where the grand inquisitor himself, with the support of sundry assistants, subjected me to rigorous cross-examination. I was not informed beforehand as to the specifics of this interrogation, apparently because the examiners were after the truth of the matter and probably felt that the element of surprise would tend more profitably to that end. Professors are rather like politicians: give them ample time to consider any question, they are apt to expatiate ad nauseam. I did know, because of your “formal complaint,” what the fundamental charge might be: sexual harassment. But, as that might be anything from gang rape by a branch of Hell’s Angels to an indiscreet plucking at one’s own wedgie, I couldn’t imagine what witches’ spew might be brewing.
Consider, Virginia, the second article of impeachment first. Had you voiced your exception to blow-job in class, two things would have occurred. First, you would have been given credit for class participation, according to our academic contract; second, I would have reminded you of the orientation I announced on day one. To wit, however idiosyncratic it may seem, I take all of the English language as my medium or as an opportunity for scrutiny–I do not make “political” or “moral” or “social” distinctions between one word, one phrase, and another. (I will make note that others do, when such notation is instructive.) The only distinctions worthy of critical attention pertain to sense, or meaning, and thus to communication. (On rare occasions, where three or more students have expressed common discomfort, I have acceded to such a significant minority. The intent, after all, is to teach–not to posture or to proselytize.) I leave the subjective categories of “obscene” or “profane” or “vulgar” to Goody Twoshoes and to the bizarrely schizoid courts. The latter understand that flag-burning is legitimate symbolic expression, and that neo-Nazis and racial supremacists must be allowed to voice their hatred. Violence is as homespun as Oklahoma City and Waco; we know how, and have a will, to protect our own. Try making allusions to sexual or other body flinctions? Let’s hear how you sound, buddy, with your tongue torn out.
Furthermore, I probably would have pointed out that “blow-job” is a euphemism, and an absurd one at that. There have been blow-jobs galore executed on campus nearly every day of this unseasonably mild autumn. Young men, with gasoline-fueled engines strapped to their backs, have repeatedly disrupted my daytime classes via the cacophonous blow-jobs they administer to the reverberating quadrangle. (Those who maladministrate this college apparently deem a tidy milieu more critical than intramural discussion or lecture. Perhaps we should indict those responsible: for “environmental harassment,” for perpetrating an aerial and auditory pollution far more egregious than any of my dynamic ejaculations. But there is little justice, Virginia, on this campus or in this world–only officious straining at gnats whilst camels hump through.)
Speaking of worldly injustice, I understand that my blow-jobs were peculiarly reprehensible, mayhap even criminal, because they were allusions to the spectacular entanglements of a William Jefferson Clinton and one Monica Lewinsky. What, the grand inquisitor wanted to know, could I possibly adduce to justify the discussion of political science in an English class? (I have subsequently been informed by students that at least two of our math professors also entertained this topic during class time. Mirabile dictu. Yet, I must concede, proliferation of crime does not absolve any isolated criminal.) It says, after all, in the cover letter to the college’s “Revised sexual harassment policy” (July 30, 1997) that “Regular use of profane, vulgar, or obscene speech in the classroom which is not germane to course content (and thus educational purpose) as measured by professional standards will lead to the imposition of discipline.”
But you see, Virginia, this sort of legalese is variantly known in the grown-up, adventitiously sane, world as bullshit. Profanity, vulgarity (I’m especially fond of this one, since it ensnares virtually everyone in its aristo-anal-cratic web; look it up, and you’ll see what I mean. You will think: sump’n’ ain’t right here,” and you’ll be right, and wrong, altogether.), and obscenity (this one’s a doozy, too. “Inciting lustful feelings; lewd,” is the 2 second definition. The other applications are reminiscent of “vulgar.” The only persons in my classes who are stirred, in any antisocial sense, by my diction are either the very unfortunately “wired,” on the one hand, or the very young, Virginia, on the other.)–all these are in the eye of the beholder. That’s why even so august a body as the U. S. Supreme Court has continually tied itself into comical knots trying to sort out the sordid, parse the putrid, and teet the totter. That which is “germane to course content” is best left to the professional (more on “academic freedom” later), while “imposition of discipline” is reserved for the amusement of inquisitors.
Nevertheless, I was somewhat taken aback by this “germanity,” and possibly failed to make the fullest explanation. That is, while the preponderance of my classroom time focuses on the “analysis of the function of particular words, phrases, or images” that appear in our texts, I don’t want my students mistakenly presuming that such analytical skill is germane only to literature. You may recall that we also examined statements offered in the “media” or in other printed sources. For example, apropos the President and the Intern, I probably commented on a CNN reporter’s language early in September when she said: “The president was involved in another prickly face-off vis-a’-vis the press this morning.” I may well have pointed out that the cunning linguist who wrote this script failed to trip up the straight-faced journalist who had to deliver so slyly veiled an allusion to fellatio. James Joyce, who flourished in an era almost as neurotic as our own, and who was a consummate word-smith enamored of pun and innuendo, would have loved this broadcast moment.
By the bye, Virginia, you may be pleased to learn that fellatio is the preferred articulation of the grand inquisitor. He used this variant at least twice during cross-examination of my person. Fellatio, being Latin, is deader than Cleopatra’s asp. When dragged into English dialogue, it constitutes a euphemism which does for communication what blurring does for lenses, what “snow” does for TV, what static does for radio. As such, it reminds one of William Faulkner’s character Snopes, who’d step on the gas pedal and the brake pedal at the same time, generating considerable noise but scant motion. I can recall my own mother posing ambiguities when she yelled at me: “Don’t touch that! That’s ca-ca!!” I couldn’t tell if she was referring to the dog turd on my right or the attractive, E-coli-free-but-used condom on my left. (Giving the latter a blow job, I was thrilled at how rapidly and easily it filled . . . . Years later, when she lay dying of colon cancer, I would irrigate her stoma betimes with my bare finger; it definitely was shit, but it wasn’t ca-ca.) Wherever the grand inquisitor’s pettifogging fellatio may have drified or tended, he might have been talking about sucking cock anyway. Hard to say.
I am sorry, Virginia, that you find your own language, the English language, so painful.
What about the other charge, that I committed one buttfucking? I was invited to reconstruct the context for that one, that snappy trap, since it apparently didn’t dovetail with the political “digression.” I’m depressed to admit I stumbled here, too; I was more fascinated by the collective inquisitors’ scribbling in reaction to my affirmative, my admission; and, though I labored, I only vaguely remembered the circumstance. Now, however, I seem to recall that we–the class–were discussing the Greek word philia, and its multiple manifestations in modern English. I believe we covered “philosophy,” love of wisdom; and “Philadelphia,” love of the adelphoi, the brothers; and “pedophile,” love (“love?!”–how absolutely absurd, we agreed) of children; and, finally, after several others, we wandered toward “necrophilia,” love of death or, erotically, of the dead. Then, because I assume I am among adults who are students of life as well as of language, we talked about a notorious instance in Detroit some fifteen years ago wherein an Indian Village gardener murdered his girlfriend, buried her body on the estate grounds, then dug it up two weeks later and fucked the corpse–because he was certain “she” must have gotten lonely. To lighten things, after the gasps (no one regurgitated his or her supper on the floor, so I presumed some of the gaspers were emulating one of my traits: reveling in the histrionic), I used a Sam Kinison skit for comic relief. You know, the one where he imagines he’s a corpse lying face down in a mortuary cooler, chilling out, congratulating himself for having fought the good fight, noting the looming presence of, what, the mortician? Why is he pulling Sam’s fantoid’s pants down?! What’s he-Oh no!! NO!! I miss Sam, the ex rev(erend). Life can be such a pain in the ass. It takes comic genius to conjure: is death also? I am sorry if you didn’t appreciate my Samitation (don’t look that up; it’s a neologism, same as “fantoid” before it. We’re not supposed to indulge creative urges such as this unless we’re famous. But, hell, I’m pushing sixty, and legitimate license is eluding my grasp.) You know, Virginia, my very caring, very percipient wife, speculates that this is what flipped you out, that perhaps someone important to you had died not long before. Is that true?
Literature and language, then, are my main concern, but analysis of same is not all I teach. Analysis is very important–but so is synthesis, the harmonizing of everything one is learning in formal situations such as the classroom with everything else that one has discovered–with everything that one is Becoming. As I often say (do you remember?), the characters that you meet in novels and stories and dramas and poems are not specimens on a Petri dish, remote, dissociated, unutterably alien. They are your kin; they are your reflection; they are you. The best artists are awesome gifts to us; Shakespeare, some say, is the finest psychologist who ever lived. Just so. And if you’re not seeing your face in these mirrors, at least one of two things is true: you are not reading the literature very well, or, and this is far worse, you are not reading your own life very well. And there goes the Socratic challenge, his quintessential invitation: “to lead the unexamined life is not fit for a human being.”
That Socratic test prods us to make every effort to raise to the fullness of consciousness all the forces and influences that have formed us, whether in the narrow confines of family or the broader world of friends and fellow citizens. Everything (including linguistic prejudices) we have learned, have found imprinted on our souls, is subject to review, regardless of source. Not the parent or the peer, not the preacher or the pedagogue, who has altered us is above scrutiny. Test all things, and only then hold fast to what seems true. We all start out as figments of others’ imaginations, stuck with a cluster–usually contradictory–of derivative beliefs, values, opinions, biases, and “knee jerk” behavior. The more ancient a personal modifier, the more suspect it is: “I have believed thus-and-so all my life!” exposes not some noble constancy but, rather, the squawk of the parrot. Having, being, merely such a borrowed persona, the Self is always vulnerable: every alien idea, every weird or wild word, shakes such selves to the prefabricated core.
When we discuss, then, these masters’ literary opera (that’s a more charming plural–don’t you agree?–than “opuses,” which sounds like a disease, a suppurating sore; even dead Latin can sometimes afford us, the living, a chance to sing, a chance to play), you have observed that I often include personal anecdotes, illustrations from my own life of Walter Mittyesque incompetence, of “Open Window”-like coups laid upon stuffy adults, of Little Chandler- or Bob Doran-like sexual fear and sexual fumbling. (For some reason you only cited my “sexual escapades;” weren’t my nonsexual escapades interesting or memorable? I must try harder.)
When I recount such anecdotes, I, as is true of most fine teachers, am offering a species of “modeling,” practicing what I preach. See, student, this fictional jerk, buffoon, hypocrite, craven, etc., etc–that was, hopefully no longer is, your teacher. I essay to make it safe for you to see your face, too. And many do. I can summon in fond memory those who’ve said: “This is more like a class in psychology!” or “a class in philosophy!” or “a class in history!” or “a class in comparative religion!” or “a class in . . science” is what I wish someone someday will say. No one has, and the silence is eloquent. Because I don’t deserve better. But, you know–well, only a very few could guess–this is my darkest, deepest passion, to be a scientist. I expound on Shakespeare and Joyce, but I dream about Galileo and Einstein. Go figure (I never could, math being my vanquishing dragon). Consider the most intriguing “definition” of humanity that I have ever heard: we are the process of the sun becoming conscious of itself. There, fellow Milky Wayf’er, is stuff enough to dream on for a googolplex of lifetimes.
I am so very sorry, Virginia, that you find my language, the English language, so painful.
I am also sorry that you grossly misrepresented an important aspect of our classroom experience: you allege that I “used [my] teacher position as a platform for authority to intimidate [my] students not to complain about [me]. Mr. Bonnell repeatedly made fun of students who had expressed offense or disgust and he also laughed at them. This is one of the reasons why I did not come forward sooner.” This reminds me of what David Schippers said to the other witch-hunters in congress today (Dec.10, 1998) about Clinton, that his lies were worse than mere lies “because they were half-truths.” You make it seem that there were actual students that you witnessed actually being mocked or ridiculed by me. Paradoxically, this one of your allegations is the most obnoxious (to me, not to the majority of administrators, who babble rhetoric about “student needs” and yet give neither fig nor rat’s derriere for real students’ interests except for the few who come sidling over with fashionable complaints), because it is the one so alien to my nature, to my habits of respect and nurturance for the people I know I am privileged to meet.
It is true–this is your half of a truth–that I talked about previous hassles with the college administration over some students “lining up” (an obvious exaggeration for comic effect) at some dean’s office to complain about the “bad man” with the “potty mouth.” And, yes, a semester or more after the fact, I probably dismissed such folks (especially the cowards, the ones who never broach their disaffection in class or at any time to my face) with a gibe, a jeer, a hiss of derision. I tend to get a tad defensive when people don’t just disagree with me, my values, my behavior, but who would also campaign for and delight in my utter destruction. Disagreement is fine; I welcome it and always remember to reward it. The clash of ideas and values is usually both exciting and illuminating. But I have never “dressed down,” attacked, insulted, or ridiculed any actual student in any actual class. And you know that; you know there can be no corroboration for your arrant lie. (Shame on you, Virginia–so very young and yet so devious.)
Much is made, at least by the grand inquisitor and his ilk, about the power a teacher has, the power to grade, the power to humiliate. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I know this to be a grave distortion where I am concerned. Those few students who poise a knife at my back are, indeed, afraid of something, but it isn’t I. What they fear is the wrath of their peers, their classmates–other human beings put at risk, betrayed, by the craven treachery of one or, rarely, two. All their cowering behind the inquisitor’s hooded robe cannot conceal this truth. But, irony of ironies, because of the contract I made with you at the commencement of the term, and because you’d earned sufficient credit before demanding my head on a platter, I am morally obliged to record on your account a passing grade. It is as much my integrity, and none of your terrorist’s tactics, which prospers you.
Again, have actual students ever gotten uncomfortable in my classes? Certainly. I am not a “post-modernist,” a flaky “relativist” who thinks any idea is just as wonderful as any other. I definitely do not respect lots of folks’ beliefs, values, ideas, notions, prejudices, customs–but, curiously enough, I do respect the people. As Pope John XXIII put it back in 1958: “error has no rights, but those who subscribe to the errors do.” A horde of Catholics weren’t happy, back then, with such a mealy-mouthed sentiment; they hankered for the consignment of all “them comm’ nist bastards and hair- ticks” to eternal flames, at least. They would have gleefully done to their enemies, Virginia, what you would do to me now. The only defense people such as I have against people such as you is in your hands: my words.
My language, my words. While broadly distinguishing between what I call “the discourse of reason” and “the discourse of passion,” I take all language as my world, since the gradations between the antipodes are often so subtle. (This very apologia, you will perhaps notice, has a bit of reason amid the rush of passion. C’est moi.) Sometimes, in a classroom, I become so enthused (en theos, the god within: beware, beware; his flashing eyes, his dancing hair!), so animated, so caught up in an exigent flow, the stream of words pours forth like molten gold that hopefully heats and informs as it dazzles–or, at other times, tumbles and cools like a high waterfall. (I’m also very modest.) If I had to check this flow, constantly monitor its force or direction, I would be, I would have to become, a radically different, a wholly diffident, teacher. Sure, I can be, and often am, the calm pedagogue, precisely measuring out the cadences appropriate to pure reason. But if I had to be that always, a very important part of me would die. (The only way the inquisitors of the world can ever ensure “germaneness,” good Germaneness, is when all the classes are on-line. There’ll be no messy spontaneity then, in their dreary Dystopia.)
It’s to avoid such death, to withhold “the chilling effect” of self- censorship, that our culture has evolved the practice of “academic freedom.” This is not some bonus, some perk designed to comfort teachers. And its bestowal does not depend upon the pleasure of administrators or colleagues. It exists, rather, for the benefit of students, your colleagues, your peers. They require authentic, truthful guides, mentors, sources–to question, to push against, to grow with. And one day, hopefully, to rise far above. This can’t happen with robots, with company men, with even the very best of good Germans.
So, then to conclude this my apologia. I am sorry, almost ineffably sorry, that you find our language, the English language, so painful. You will never have the power, of course, to restrict it, or to kill part of it as you wish. Nor am I possessed of the tongue of men and of angels, so as to protect it from you or all the tribe of its detractors. It will continue to wend its way and may even find complete vindication, one day, from its shaky jurisprudential custodians. I will probably not see that day, as it lies somewhere beyond the frenetic millennial epoch. But you may. Hopefully, by then, you will have learned to appreciate it. Maybe, then, you will understand that life without the fullness of your language’s energy would be like that life Khalil Gibran says languishes without love: life where you may still laugh, but not all of your laughter; where you may still cry, but not all of your tears.
Oh!–the sanity clause! Virginia, I almost forgot! Here it is: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .” This has driven the thought police, the language censors, and all deputy inquisitors beyond despair, into madness. If I had access to your Christmas stocking, I would stuff it there. When, at length, you grow up, you will cherish it above every other gift, save love itself.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DETROIT NEWS