The Universal Notebook: Just for the sake of argument

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The most frequent comment I get in person from readers (and this happens about once a day) is, “I don’t always agree with you, but I always look forward to reading your columns.”

My most frequent reply is, “I don’t always agree with me either.”

Of course, I’m being somewhat facetious (a terminal condition in my case), but I readily confess that all of my life I have said and written things in part just to see what kind of reaction I’ll get. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t believe what I say or write, but sometimes I don’t know what I think until I write it and I find I learn a great deal about people by being deliberately provocative.

Years ago, for instance, I traveled to Northampton, Mass., to interview the famously intimidating artist Leonard Baskin. Before I left I asked a couple of people who knew the great man what I should know about him.

“He’s going to try to intimidate you with his intellect,” a mutual friend told me. “Stand up to him and he’ll respect you for it.”

Sure enough, when I arrived at his farm, Baskin didn’t even speak to me when I was first ushered into his august presence. He watched me from across the table as he finished his lunch, wiped his mouth, and then said, “So what do you know about me?”

“I know you’re an arrogant SOB who thinks he’s far more important than he actually is,” I replied.

Baskin laughed out loud, and we got along famously after that.

We live in divisive, contentious times. Fortunately, I enjoy a good argument. I never presume, however, that I am going to change anyone’s mind and I am always amazed when someone thinks he’s going to change mine. These days, people seem to believe whatever they want to believe despite any evidence to the contrary. I write these columns with three main objectives in mind: to provoke readers to think about things I believe are important, to articulate my own point of view, and to tick off people who disagree with me.

My congenital willingness to say exactly what I think in person and print has often gotten me in trouble, as my dear mother always told me it would. I like to think of it as speaking truth to power, but sometimes it’s just a matter of being mouthy.

I once, for example, talked myself into several traffic tickets by arguing with a police officer who had pulled me over for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign. When I pointed out that the stop sign was oddly placed and that I suspected the officer sat there shooting fish in a barrel because hardly anyone saw the sign, he said, “Son, I don’t like your attitude.”

“I don’t like yours either, sir,” I shot back, “but I don’t think there’s a law against having a bad attitude.”

In high school, I was asked to defend a fraternity I no longer belonged to because the officers of the club were afraid to appear before the school committee. I did manage to talk the committee out of banning fraternities, but my spirited defense of the right of assembly may have cost me a college education.

The year after the fraternity controversy, I asked the chairman of the school committee, the father of a close friend, to write a letter of recommendation for me. I got into the college, but I did not get the scholarship I had been counting on and could not afford to attend.

I wondered at the time why the professor who interviewed me for the scholarship seemed so openly hostile from the get-go, but I forgot it until decades later when, after his father died, my old friend told me that his father never believed I had been accepted by the college. It seems he had written a letter of “recommendation” in which he told the college I was an arrogant young man, an instigator and a troublemaker.

Me and my big mouth. Haven’t changed a bit though I’m afraid. And given the sometimes outlandish views I have expressed over the years, it’s a good thing I have no political aspirations.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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