Tarago Diaries #16 – Kindness Is Everything

Mark reflects on virtue, values and poverty while travelling in the USA.

Author:  Mark Seymour.

Date: 25 September 2019.

Original URL: https://www.facebook.com/MarkSeymourOfficial/posts/2165566186883042?__tn__=K-R


Article Text

Last shot from Utah.

The heat was like a weight. Move slowly or die, down pristine avenues to Temple Square where elegant teenagers gathered outside the cathedral entrance. Smiling and helpful.

Children of the Handcart pioneers.

A girl stood at the pulpit in a pink dress, the great pipes of the Tabernacle organ dwarfing her from behind. She beamed with pride, arms spread, beckoning us forward. Come one, come all.

People took pictures.

This was it. The summit. To come all this way across the whithering land. On foot. Too poor for horses.

To build the glittering citadel.

They don’t muck around out here. And never have. How the hell did they do it? Just getting here, hounded from one town to the next. Hated, purged. Driven to settle on a small patch of green at the edge of a creek, towering rocks on one side and the devastating salt plain on the other, stretching to the next rim of mountains, shimmering in the heat.

There’s something strangely biblical about the place, like some Hollywood set piece from the old testament. The spectacular whiteness of it. Clean of sin.

There was nothing to do out here but stay focussed, work or die. Saints huddled together, surrounded by waterless death.

They set their commandments in stone on the walls of the church:

“It is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land..”

“Let no man break the laws of the land. For he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land.”

Virtue was everywhere.

“Though shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and with all thy mind. Though shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Hmm. The neighbourly bit. I always liked that particular godly edict. A bit of kindness creeping in, in the midst of all the obedience or death stuff.

Not far away, in the boutique suburbs at the edge of the city, on front laws tendered with recycled water, signs listed grievances still to be fixed.

‘No matter your faith or ability,


There were flags too. Lots of rainbows. Queerness here? In the heart of Utah?

Now there’s a message.

Levers shifting. The blossoming of difference. It was always there. It had to be. But right now?

Somewhere over the rainbow. In Mormon country.

Me, standing in the heat.. trapped in thought. Jo said, ‘Come on. Those signs are everywhere.’

She was right. Yanks love their platforms of virtue. Stickers, badges, caps, Twitter, FB, even garden brandage. They’re all over Chicago, New York, and of course San Francisco. But here? Where once the need to bunker down and obey ruled all other needs, in the face of nature’s brutal force?

Saints dreamed of safety out here, beyond the reach of their enemies. So why not all the persecuted? As the Tabernacle girl said. “Come one, come all”..

Black, female, gay, lesbian, trans. Refugees. Even the earth. That too.

One hell of a list on the mother of all signs.

One thing’s for sure. Kindness, Christian or otherwise, can have unintended consequences.

And the Saints themselves? Wide eyed and welcoming. Like the girl in the tabernacle. Some might call it a put-on thing. But ‘if it’s zeal it’s real’ as they say. Who can explain belief?

As of September 1st this year, there have been 283 mass shootings in the U.S.

How does kindness deal with that?

Still, in Salt Lake things appear to be going well, just lookin’ ‘round, given the cool understated efficiency.

But is how it looks, well, how it really is?

Billboards hang over the city telling people to stay off drugs.

‘Heroin Pills.. It all kills,’ which is, you know, a fair thing to put on a big fuck-off sign you can’t miss as you sweep in off the freeway, like they’re actually telling you that drug addiction is here and it’s bad. Fairly direct you’d think.

Still, there were no signs directing us to the camps hidden out in the salt bush along the Jordan river. We only came across them because we ride bikes and have a habit of getting lost.

So what about kindness? Or collective goodness? Or whatever you might want to call it..

Can it change history? Many believe so. Just a slight shift in focus they say. Just you know,

‘Be nice and people will be nice back. Simple enough you’d think.

Thing is though, people get really worked up about it.

They sneer at virtue.

‘Are you kidding me? You’re just being nice to me for the hell of it? How does that even work? I’ve got kids to feed. My shopping trolley’s bogged in the creek with all my shit in it. You want me to be nice? Give me a car to live in or piss off.’

The Samaritans will tell you the American Civil War was fought to end slavery. That’s the wiki version. Marx said it was all about tariffs. Guess where all the cheap black labour went after the guns fell silent? North and west.

You don’t get political change without money. Which is why when people say, this or that issue is beyond ‘politics as usual’, well, unfortunately, it isn’t. All change must be won. It is never granted.

People vote. They did back then as they do now and the guy with the bogged shopping trolley is thinking of himself. So how are you going to win his heart?

Still, the sign says there are wars worth fighting in a nice way, that don’t involve death drones, or targeted assassination. Obviously somebody’s up for it.

At the very least, just being allowed to say awkward things in public without fear of having your windows blown in by a rocket launcher, or getting crushed by a tank, or being crucified for that matter…that’s pretty good isn’t it?

Living in hope’s not bad. After all, most of us do it. You never know. Someone might just step off the belt-way and offer to help you drag your shopping trolley out of the Jordan River.

A small gesture just to make a difference to the generally shitful state of things.

“Keep Moving” she said.

That night I posted my borrowed kindness sign on the Undertow Instagram page.

Just, ‘cos I thought it’d be nice, you know?

Someone reacted:

“Plenty of decent people funding violence.”

Ahh, sorry. What does that even mean?

Was it an acolyte or an enemy? Hard to tell. There are so many shades of virtue these days and someone’s always just a bit further to the left than you are. Know what I mean?

“Ahh.. Mate. Haven’t you heard? It’s the long story. The invisible hand right? Moving invisibly. Here. Read this.”

I’m fairly sure there have been songs written about this dilemma.

Not very good ones either.

Another uber driver was ready to talk as we hurtled towards the airport looking for a hire car that never materialised. Hipster vest, blue denim shirt, cowboy hat, with a flower in it. A Latterday Saint, ready to grapple with the deeper questions.

Spoke slowly, with a kind of sleepy drawl, grew up somewhere out in the mountains. He too, was deeply convinced that kindness was a really good idea.

Yes. We were from Australia. He would’ve loved to go there on his mission but the government refused to grant him a passport. Why? Because he’d been home-schooled.

Apparently if you’ve never been to school in the U.S., the federal government doesn’t recognise you as a citizen.

We discussed suicide then moved on to forgiveness and how to love your neighbour.

Jesus! I thought. Back to that.

This was incredible. Far from the callow world of ROCK!

But seriously though. Are kindness and democracy two sides of the same coin? Inclusive government? Fair Law? Rights and freedoms? Kindness is a natural impulse you’d think. But Democracy certainly isn’t. It’s a constructed thing. By masses of human beings, governments, armies.

There’s a common belief among people who’ve grown up in a democracy, that their version is what it’s supposed to look like which is a fallacy of course because there are many versions. And why wouldn’t there be? Constitutions are written to reflect the politics of the time they are conceived in, usually out of a battle for power or the consolidation of it. Which often involves the letting of blood. Even ours, though we’d like to pretend it wasn’t.

In the U.S., where random public bloodshed is arguably a direct consequence of something written in the constitution, they also have this other notion codified, which is intended to guarantee personal freedom.. (apart from the side arms).

the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ it’s called.

which really is flawed when you think about it. I mean, how can I pursue happiness when my shopping cart’s bogged in the Jordan River and it’s got everything I own in it?

The whole concept is so hopelessly misty-eyed, spawned in the afterglow of the Enlightenment, when for a short time they really thought humanity was perfectable, after a century of war, just to get the idea over the line.

Still, it was the ‘pursuit of happiness’ that drove us to the border of the next state in our rented Toyota. And there, a different version of freedom erupted.

Nevada was a whole other can of worms. Right on the border the casinos roared skywards, right next to the fracking plants and the Bonneville speedway where they set land speed records in gas-powered cars.

The whole notion of grace, dignity and Christian goodwill was right out the goddamned window thank you very much.

We crawled up the street, looking for food, followed by a cop car. You could script it but it wouldn’t be original. Not by a long shot.

In this nameless town, poverty is smeared on every surface. Single men trudge, heads down, casino grease everywhere. Hair clothes, pavement litter. Toilets are filthy. The very air is howling for credit. You can’t buy your petrol in advance. You’ve got to go to the man in the bullet-proof window and pre-purchase. The place just sits there, deserted apart from the monster cowboy who glows at twilight alongside the neon bucket and the great rainbow..

Temples of despair lined up in the heat.

A town with no moral excuse.

We landed in Queensland at 4 am. Standing room on the transit bus, surrounded by well-groomed Australians. Sharp. Full of confidence. Fresh out of Los Angeles.

El Paso had just happened, the third mass shooting in five days..

There was chat. Ridicule set the tone.

‘Ha! Land of the free. Home of the brave. Who are they kidding? America is f…d..’

Rightio then. Back to judgement.

Kindness is a funny thing though. If you think about how bad things are for long enough, you keep coming back to it.

It’s an option after all.