An item posted on various networks on the world-wide-web shocked many people this week; Kenneth Dunlap had died.
The internet has changed – and goes on changing – our lives; creating realities unimaginable for our grandparents. One of the most enriching changes it has made for me is the boundless possibilities it offers for making contact and developing friendships with all kinds of fascinating people worldwide. In my case, this has had an emphasis on people interested in meeting for the purpose of presenting, developing, discussing and exchanging ideas; people engaged in what might best be called “the life of the mind.” It has been, and continues to be a rich and fascinating adventure – one in which I have made many contacts, more than a few of which have developed into genuine friendships.
Given my interests, it is therefore not surprising that – long before things like Facebook and Google+ – one of the first places I started to make real contacts was on a Google Group known as Minds Eye. A couple of years ago, a new contributor exploded into the group, posting extensively and intensely on all sorts of subjects, someone with an online/group identity known as Fiddler.
Minds Eye has always been a group of very diverse free spirits, with different views about everything under the sun, views which are staunchly presented and defended and, as such, achieving a consensus among those active there has always made the challenge of herding cats look like a piece of cake. But – unusually among the thousands of forums which evolved out of the old talk-rooms and Usenet groups – Minds Eye was characterised by an predominant atmosphere of … civility, coupled with an exceptionally high standard of erudition and discussion on all sorts of subjects; philosophical, theological, anthropological, political, cultural, etc.
Fiddler irritated, irritated massively. He had very definitive opinions on all the subjects about which he posted and he did not suffer fools gladly – and his definition of a fool would have encompassed anyone who took up an opinion contrary to his own. His passion for the positions he held often made it difficult for him to distinguish between the ideas of those he saw as his opponents and their persons, so that his argumentation often became seriously personal and ad hominem. It was on Minds Eye that I first encountered one of his favourite words for describing someone with whom he did not agree and whom he consequently regarded as being seriously deficient in reason; “fucktard.”
Some of those involved in the group regarded him simply as a troll and a few even suggested banning him. But many more of us sensed that there was real sincerity here, combined with intelligence and education, but also with anger and a tendency to flame. I, for one, tried to engage with Fiddler, attempting to point out that, for example, there were many sane, intelligent, rational people who sincerely believed in God and who could not all be simply dismissed as “fucktards.” Moreover, there were more (and usually better) ways to win a debate than to try to bludgeon your opponents into submission, using your arguments as a cudgel.
In the course of that discussion, Fiddler – or Ken, for that was his real name – revealed something more of himself; he had Asperger Syndrome. It explained a lot, particularly about his difficulties in relating “normally” with other people. He was well aware of this, though not particularly apologetic about it – in common with many other “Aspies,” he did not regard his condition as an affliction or illness, but rather as a different way of being; one which made his social relationships more complicated but which also had compensations in other areas. He described being able to “taste” numbers, for example, something which made mathematics a real source of joy for him.
In the end, Fiddler/Ken quit Minds Eye. It was a reaction he made, I believe, in something of a huff, as he had received some sharp rebukes for the way in which he had been addressing others and there had been renewed calls for his banning. But we soon met again, at various other online hangouts, like Gravity (which kind of went and died) and obnoxi.us (which is sadly also currently moribund) and we hooked up on Facebook and Google+. Ken joined that increasing network of virtual friends my burgeoning on-line life was producing, friends with whom you (just like in “real” life) sometimes have more, sometimes less interaction, but with whom you always keep up some kind of loose contact.
In the course of the last couple of years I learned quite a bit about him. He had lived, and continued to live, a chequered life, full of drama, conflicts and discontinuities. He grew up in an abusive family and had a sister who was murdered as a teenager. He had six children, from two different marriages. He had spent much of his youth in a religious fundamentalist setting but had abjured this in favour of a pretty muscular type of atheism. He had struggled with poverty for most of his life, but never let this stop him doing anything. He was a student, and passionate about learning – though his major area of study was geology, he was interested in almost everything.
For somebody with such innate difficulties in social relationships, there was something about him which seemed to fascinate people. I can only imagine how it must have been in real life, but over three and a half thousand people had him in their circles on Google+, a social network which he (inevitably) much preferred to Facebook. It was perhaps easier to be a friend to him on-line than it was in real life, for I have no doubt that Ken could be very strenuous. Even on-line he could be strenuous, but a computer you can always switch off.
I suspect that it was very hard to switch Ken off in real life. He was one of those people whose transmissions have one gear, full steam ahead, and whose brakes only work intermittently. But all that power, that energy, that rage which drove him, he channelled into a struggle for the rights of others, for the weak, the oppressed, any group or minority he perceived as being put down or persecuted by the forces of illiberality, intolerance, ignorance or small-mindedness. It got him practically involved in actions to free women in the Middle East who suffered under misogynistic forms of Islamic practice. And it frequently put him at loggerheads with the practices and values of Middle America.
Ken had a vision of what a free, pluralistic, caring and tolerant society could be like and it made him furiously, relentlessly rant against the present complex of hypocritical religious fundamentalism, heartless, profit-driven, corporate capitalism and anti-intellectual, petit-bourgouis jingoism he described – with his typical, savage wit – as Teathuglicanism. Though he was disappointed in Obama, he regarded the prospect of a President Romney with genuine horror, and his ascerbic, cutting commentary will be sadly missed in the coming months.
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum [Speak of the dead naught but good], they say, but Fiddler would have been contemptuous of this, also in respect of himself. De mortuis nihil nisi veritas [truth], I am certain, would have been much more to his liking. Truth, in that scientific, open, testing, questioning sense, was for him synonymous with the good and it was the lodestone of his life.
I can only speak of those truths about Ken which I know; his engagement for tolerance and liberalism (in its best, original sense), his championing of the rights of the weaker and those discriminated against, his campaigning for more social justice and a more caring society. The many other truths of his life – those which I sense or suspect, like the centrality of his love for his children in his whole being, are for others to tell, perhaps even today (July 22) when a service in celebration of his life will be held in Ferndale, Washington State.
Ken’s death was a shock to everyone. He had been seriously unwell in the past months and had found it hard to get adequate medical treatment, an indictment of the current American health system and something which is very difficult for a West European like myself, with our unquestioned systems of socialised medicine, to understand. But he also seemed down recently, feeling the weight of the seemingly constant struggle which was his life. Of course he carried his own, not insignificant share of responsibility for the many misfortunes to which he was prone, but he was also – at least in part – a victim of the callous, unfeeling harshness of the society in which he lived and, I feel, he deserved to live in that better world, the establishment of which he spent so much of his fury and energy for.
For those of us who knew him – if only in the attenuated virtual world – he was a figure somehow larger than life, his struggles heroic, his difficulties epic. Thinking of him in the past few days, since hearing of his death, it strikes me that his character and story offers the stuff for a marvellous film, with Sean Penn, at best (for they share many characteristics), in the title role. But, for now, Fiddler is finally at peace. I will miss him, him and his outraged, idealistic fury. But I also feel honoured and lucky to have known him, even if only from a digital distance. Goodbye, my friend. Rage on.
The photos in this post are all from Ken's Google+ profile page