New Writer Welcome: Erick Sierra

a 1.5 minute read

Please join the COA family in welcoming our newest writer, Erick Sierra! Erick’s bio is available on our ‘Our Roots‘ authors page.

In what part of New York City did you grow up?
I grew up in the fascinating Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. As I will explore in a piece on COA, the neighborhood transformed from a multi-ethnic working class haven into the global polestar of hipster cool. It was fascinating to experience the whole transition and to feel myself transforming along with the neighborhood. In many ways, I feel like some sort of embodied version of Willy-B, as it now teems with hipsters yet is still dotted throughout with Puerto Ricans—undying pulses of a former life.

Were you a nerd, jock, smoking-in-the-boys-room, or N/A in high school; and followup,
which would you have been in hindsight?
It’s interesting how this question connects to the first question. I was in high school in Williamsburg as the neighborhood was transforming. But I was also hanging out a lot with my homeboys in Greenwich Village (shout to Galex!), where I worked throughout my sophomore year at a Ben & Jerry’s on 6th Avenue. The Village was black, Puerto Rican, white; gay, straight, bi; sartorially and artistically explosive; a place where writers from the 60s (now much older) sat side-by-side Warhol at the café. This exhilarating eclecticism left its mark on me and my friends.

What inspired you to share your stories on the COA blog?
One thing the artist does is observe, and one thing we go to art for is observation—to observe the world through another’s eyes and, in the best of instances, to discover it there anew. As I explored the blog, it seemed to me a place filled with fascinating observations. I love to travel—in a very real way, I live to travel—and the blog seemed a wunderkammer of objects and places from across the US. My notebook is filled with such kinds of observations, and I wanted a place to share them.

Deep dish or thin crust? Be honest…
Deep dish and thin crust came together to make a baby: the Sicilian. Now that’s what
I’m talking about.

Erick Sierra. Click for author page.

Erick Sierra, seen here on the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“You’re Irrational, I’m Irrational, So Let’s Talk”: How to Argue Ideas in a Country Divided by Ideas

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

Mattoon, IL, an in-transition, archetype community in the author’s journey to understand the ideas of “the other half.”

Ditch everything you’ve heard or believed about being a “rational” person

Happy memories of my years at the University of Virginia were recently accosted by the combustion of violence at alt-right protests and counter-protests just off campus in Charlottesville, VA.  What ever happened to the idea of two sides actually talking about things like rational beings?

This question becomes all the more pressing for me given that, at the University, we were weaned on that famous quote of its founder Thomas Jefferson: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”  We were taught that undergirding Jefferson’s “marketplace of ideas” was a belief that we humans have an immense potentiality within us that, if properly unleashed, would work through the mess of ideas to distill them into an elegant Truth by which to order the self and world.  Reason: whose only sword is cool, rational logic. Oh the exhilaration of learning about this as a late teenager—that I had within me this almost godlike power of intellect that, if only carefully honed, could perfect the world!

But I don’t know, Jefferson.  After the spectacle of last month’s mayhem right at the doorstep of  your University—your great temple to Reason—I just don’t know anymore….

If we do have some rational power to bring order to the world, somehow something much deeper within us keeps bubbling up, bubbling up and out in fury to actually wreak havoc upon the world.

“You’re irrational, it’s okay, get over it”

The current science (that is, if you buy its “reasoning”) seems to be suggesting as much.  A spate of recent books on the subject suggests that argumentative reason evolved not to help us solve abstract intellectual problems concerning the betterment of the world for all, but, rather, as a defense mechanism to protect from the imposing power of others. As Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes in a review of these books, “The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.”  Recent MRI brain studies show that when one’s viewpoint is challenged, with counter-arguments however well reasoned, one’s brain enters into a defensive mode triggering chemicals influencing “deep emotional thoughts” rooted in “personal identity,” not sound logic.

And it doesn’t help that social media enables us to enclose ourselves within ideological bubbles of the like-minded, “gorg[ing] on information that confirms our ideas and shun[ning] what does not.” We’ve lost the ability to hear sound counter-arguments, and when we do come across them, they seem to have only the eerie effect of inflaming our most primitive fight-or-flight instincts, entrenching us anew in pre-established beliefs.  No wonder we’ve entered into what Farhad Manjoo calls a “post-fact society,” where anything, even the most logical science or reporting, can be written off as fake.

This underlying irrationality about ourselves is both terrifying and liberating. Terrifying in that it means that our world-construct may not be entirely based in reality—whatever that is—but liberating in that it means that there’s a whole wide world out there waiting to be discovered in wondrous new ways!

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

Your call cannot be completed as dialed

Release ideas, embrace people

I was admittedly angry at the demographic that voted for Donald Trump, and felt an overwhelming urge to demonize them as the worst people in the world. But I forced myself to research where they were coming from and why, and as I “got to know” some of them better, was able to empathize with them. I read how “Middle-Aged White Americans Are Dying of Despair,” as well as “The lonely poverty of America’s white working class.” These are folks who’ve been left behind in the global order of the past decades, whose small towns have fallen into disrepair and depression—a demographic gripped with fears of demise and extinction.  Not exactly the stereotype of “the evil Trump voter” I’d conjured for myself.

Whatever instincts I had to yell and throw chairs at this demographic melted in light of these revelations. I may not be white, I may not be from small-town America, I may not have voted for Donald Trump, but maybe all of us are not that different from one another after all.

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

Free HBO!

Beyond my ideas of these groups of people, who were they, actually?

NPR did a fascinating interview on Daryl Davis, an African-American blues musician.  After one performance decades ago, a white member of the audience came up to him and said that “this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”  Davis, surprised by the comment, prodded a little bit further, gently steering the conversation toward the roots of blues and rock. The two got caught up in a conversation over a common passion, and, if only for a moment, felt a stir of commonality.  As it happens, this gentleman had never had a conversation with a black man before, and was a member of the KKK.  But here, for the first time in his life he’d looked a black man in the eye and felt a glimmer of respect.

Mr. Davis realized that he may have actually altered this man’s views, and that it hadn’t happened by using rational arguments or sound evidence “proving” the equality of blacks—the KKK has long summarily rejected these forms of reasoning.  Much less did Davis try to use force.  Across the following 30 years, he’d go on to seek out relationships with countless other KKK members for the purpose of simply bringing them, and himself, face to face, eye to eye.  This is who I am.  Hi.  Who are you?  As it turns out, many of these KKK members have, through Davis, found a way to penetrate through the veil of demonizing “ideas” enough to see the actual face of the man sitting before them.

Cult of Americana presents how to argue ideas Mattoon, Southern Illinois, in Transition

God is everywhere

On bringing the only Christian poster to the Chicago Women’s March

A friend’s photos from the 2017 March for Life revealed a kaleidoscope of Christian imagery. Marchers holding posters with Bible verses of how “I knew you in the womb.” Close-up shots of rosaries dangling from wrists.  Representatives of specific church entities—from individual congregations to entire denominations—made themselves present by name, proclaiming their pro-life stance as emanating out of their religious worldview.

But when, just a week after this year’s presidential inauguration, my wife and I showed up at the Chicago Women’s March, across the vast sea of pink hats and posters I found not a single suggestion of Christian imagery, language, or iconography. Continue reading