Letter From Paris

Image of Kurt Hochenauer at the Centre Pompidou in Paris

Bonjour. Pardonnez-moi. As a dog on a leash in the winding streets of Paris, streets filled with the smells and trash in the aftermath of Fête de la Musique, I have more freedom than a typical Oklahoman.

Curled in front of the hotel in which the writer Oscar Wilde lived at the time of his death in this city, down the street from the Voltaire statute near the Seine, as a Paris cat yawning my existentialist despair or my simple feline, princely boredom, I have more freedom than a typical Oklahoman.

I see a Paris pigeon, and everyone ignores it as it pecks its food from crumb-filled streets lined with cafes and shops, but it is, of course, freer than any Oklahoman given the current oppressive political and religious culture in a state that once was called home by progressives Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie. They were American Voltaires and Wildes in their own right, but they’re all forgotten in the right-wing, sanctimonious hubris.

This is what’s on my mind after a few days in this place. I’m struck by the distinction between the hollow “freedom” rhetoric from the religious right and Tea Party in our state and what freedom really looks like, on the streets, in conversations, in personal identity, in all the diversity, here in Paris, even among the dogs, the cats, the pigeons. Don’t underestimate the lowly pigeon for she comes in many colorful feathers and attitudes as well as dogs and cats.

Granted, I’m in a philosophical mood. I’m in Paris, and I’ve been at an academic conference, and I know I open myself up to ridicule for verbosity and hyperbole. Oh, I’m so worried, so worried, what you might think about me. Please don’t think that or this, or maybe just think about a time I told you a funny story or pissed you off. Think about one moment in time. Create me from that one moment. (I want to name names, you beautiful creators.) Create me from seven or twenty-two moments. Moments are what we have. Use them wisely or not.

No, alas, I don’t have patience for these meaningless meanderings on a sunny, summer day in Paris! There’s so much to do here, and I have limited time. Thus, in perfectly reasoned, appropriate numeric order, I shall make two points:

Secondly, people here are free to behave responsibly, and the vast, vast majority of people do, and thus people gather on blankets along the Seine drinking wine and eating and laughing and singing and crying and kissing, a lot of kissing. The police presence is minimal. (Yes, I know there are high crime areas in Paris.) Compared to Paris, though, Oklahoma City is a major police state—from here it seems closer to World War II fascism—and our overall state’s high incarceration rate tells that old story as well as anything. The sidewalks around the Bricktown Canal in Oklahoma City, often held out as one of the major wonders of the world by some in the city’s elite power structure, is probably more policed that the banks of the Seine in Paris.

My fifth and final point is that diversity and loving one another, which are palpable in the Paris streets, is something rarely seen in Oklahoma. Here in Paris, there is recognition of “difference/difference,” a love for its beauty, a certain intuitive acceptance of it in the sense of what it means for sustaining humans. In Oklahoma, we really don’t have culture besides some damn good music, man. This includes Toby Keith and Wayne Coyne as cultural icons. (Not so hidden secret: Keith and Coyne are actually the same person in terms of the commercialism of music.) What dominates in Oklahoma are mega right-wing churches with no discernable or understandable rituals—except for commodification—or the gender legalism and warped heterosexual idealization underlying the Southern Baptist Church, which helps produce the profound mental illness and ignorance that creates our ongoing despair.

And, thirdly, in Oklahoma, we have many native people who have been terribly abused and mistreated through the years by the federal and state governments—in the cause of “settlement” or “civilization”—but really it’s just ongoing exploitation and greed by white European colonization. Our Oklahoma legislature made sure this session the state will continue to be known as a place of abject racism after denying funding for the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum this session. Here in Paris, there’s the Louvre, of course, and the Centre Pompidou, but more than that, there’s a general acceptance that understanding art and history and philosophy are essential in living realized lives. What a huge error Oklahoma has made in denying funding for such an important space, and such foolish errors have no end in sight. Fools to the world.

The dog, the cat, the not so lowly pigeon because she can fly after all, find their unity in what they have in common or not so in common for they have to share the geographical space like us all, but they act without the oppressive secrecies and silences of a place that has lost its way in oppressive dogma and hypocritical reasoning and right-wing political ideology.

Je t’embrasse, de Paris