Bluster’s Last Stand?

November 9, 2016

Waking after the long election night… What, is the world still here? There are people who still dare to go out on the street? They’re, like, heading to work or something? Really?

So I manage to walk the dog, make breakfast and pick up the paper. There I find a column by Helen Ubiñas headlined “Stunned at the Victory of Self-Destruction.” (An updated version of the printed column is here.) Her take on the election corresponds to what I wrote on June 3 about a national death wish. She talks about “the xenophobia and sexism and hatred and racism Americans either embrace or are willing to overlook to send a message. And that message,” she adds,

is one of self-destruction, because although Hillary Clinton has her flaws, her many, many flaws, the message we are sending by being so willing to make a carrot-colored caricature the president of the United States is that we are willing to throw our country under the bus, that we are willing to be the world’s punchline, that we are willing to make a man with zero political experience and less global respect the 45th president of the United States.

Yeah, that says it. My image was a flaming explosion, an Armageddon, but the bus metaphor is good too. I am feeling rather squashed right now, and some of my friends seem to be having trouble breathing.

Wasn’t it ironic to hear that this election was about “change”? When it simply reversed the previous change? How many more times will voters be able to feel like conservatives simply by choosing the candidate who’s sane and competent?

By IProspectIE (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

photo by IProspectIE, via Wikimedia Commons

Dreading the possibility of a morning like this, I’ve been toying with the idea of moving back to the land of my ancestors (some of them), and living quietly in a stone cottage, enjoying the fruits of the land (see picture) around a wee turf fire. I won’t really do that, of course, but it’s a consolation to have a refuge in mind.

More consoling is the fact that a large majority of those who are not white males voted for Hillary. So did a huge percentage of voters 18–29, and a smaller but clear majority of those 30–44.

These people are the dominant electorate of the future, folks. And they showed their disgust for the vile orange pussy-grabbing dictator-worshiping sexist racist fascist charlatan. (Oops, I was trying to be less polemical than Ms. Ubiñas.)

Trump voters in the near future

So what I’m saying is: there’s a good chance this is Bluster’s Last Stand.

Another, less direct comfort comes from nearly a century ago, in a passage by the English writer Ford Madox Ford. In his novel Some Do Not…, the first of the Parade’s End trilogy, set in the years surrounding World War I, protagonist Christopher Tietjens is accused of hating his own country because he detests virtually everyone in charge. His accuser is the young woman he cares for more than anyone else, so he replies honestly:

Don’t say it! Don’t believe it! Don’t even for a moment think it! I love every inch of its fields and every plant in the hedgerows: comfrey, mullein, paigles, long red purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name … and all the rest of the rubbish … and we have always been boodlers and robbers and reivers and pirates and cattle thieves, and so we’ve built up the great tradition that we love … But, for the moment, it’s painful. Our present crowd is not more corrupt than Walpole’s. But one’s too near them.

Maybe it’s the same now. Are we just too near the current boodlers to see things in perspective? Maybe Donald Trump is no worse than George Wallace (who wasn’t, however, nominated by a major party) or Huey Long (who got shot before he could be nominated). Maybe Sean Hannity is no crazier than Father Coughlin. Maybe the Alt-Right media are no more scurrilous than Marcus Pomeroy, who wrote of Abraham Lincoln in 1864: “The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer.… And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good” (quoted in Don E. Fehrenbacher, “The Anti-Lincoln Tradition”).

I hope those maybes are true. I hope.

Generally Pissed Off

May 18, 2015

I thought people had given up noticing my novel The Shame of What We Are, but it’s found one new reader: Ken Dowell, who blogs at OffTheLeash.net. Dowell seems to think the portrait of the 1950s authentic: “Art Dennison and I did experience a lot of the same things,” he writes, “beginning with a patch on the right eye to keep the weaker left eye from losing interest.”

That patch may have been a metaphor in the novel—I don’t remember. In our current era, however good your eyesight, I think it’s best to squint. Or cover both eyes, which I’ll be doing tomorrow during my city’s primary elections.

Interestingly, of the several passages Dowell quotes from the book, one is about the political outlook of Art Dennison’s father: “People who liked [Adlai] Stevenson were Communists at heart, he said, or else fools, ‘the type that can’t find their own rear end when they are sitting on it.’” And Dowell comments, “His dad’s political views would have produced a knowing nod from my father.” Dowell also notes that the father is “generally pissed off” throughout the book.

I feel like the novel just got a knowing nod from someone who knows what to nod at. Guess I’ll have to stop being generally pissed off for a while.

There’s a forthcoming novel I’m genuinely excited about.

(Stark revelation: People in the literary trades often pretend to be excited when they’re not. Imagine that! But in the above sentence I genuinely mean the word genuinely.)

I happened on the first chapter of this book almost two years ago, on the author’s website. I gave it the first-sentence test:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong.

Hmm: Good premise, and the tone seems right. Serious, humorous and ironic at the same time. On, then, to the first few paragraphs:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.

“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.

“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”

So it’s historical, including major political events and social conflicts. But it’s mainly personal, about human beings who “flail” and look ridiculous at times and have to interpret their misadventures for their children. Okay, I was hooked.

Waveland TitleNow that novel, Waveland by Simone Zelitch, has found its publisher, The Head and the Hand Press, and I’ve read the whole thing in galleys. It’s about a young white woman’s experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and about her life afterward—working with the Movement, raising a biracial child conceived during that time, enduring the tragedies, breakups and breakdowns. It’s a complicated journey with many ups and downs and sideways slides.

As soon as Beth Fine arrives in Mississippi, she finds out how dull Freedom work can be: she’s assigned to shelve books and clean the floors. Eventually, though, she gets more involved in the field work, finds love and conflict in equal measure, and has her brushes with violence. When a gun under the bed is mentioned early in the book, you can be sure it will be fired at some point.

The novel jumps around in time, and scattered chapters give us three other points of view, widening our perspective on Freedom Summer, the Democratic convention of that year and the tensions pervading the Movement. Yet the book remains primarily Beth’s story. As it turns out, that phrase she uses to characterize herself, “the girl who did everything wrong,” is more than a joke about her social clumsiness and problems in judgment. She’s a person who can’t be dissuaded from doing what she feels must be done. She has a private sense—of justice, duty, love, whatever you want to call it—that impels her, and at key moments she can’t resist its demands even when her brain knows she’s courting disaster. At one point she quotes from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” She’s stubborn, headstrong and often infuriating to the other characters. If we as readers fully engage with her, she should sometimes infuriate us too. Damn it, Beth, we want to yell, make the sensible choice! No such luck; she’s not going to listen, and that’s her virtue and her fault.

Simone Zelitch, as I discovered by reading her previous works, has a habit of writing provocative historical novels: The Confession of Jack Straw, about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381; Louisa, about two women who roughly reenact the biblical story of Ruth in post-Holocaust Europe and Israel; Moses in Sinai, about—well, the title explains it. Except for Louisa, released by Berkley, these were small-press books, as is the new one. They deserve a big-press readership.

In her next book after Waveland, an already completed novel called Judenstaat, Zelitch tackles an imaginary past—what might have happened after World War II if the Jewish state had been carved out of Germany rather than Palestine. This novel won her an NEA fellowship, and it has recently been signed by Tor/Forge, the Macmillan imprint known mostly for sci-fi and fantasy. It’ll be back to the big presses for this persistent, thought-stirring, hard-to-classify writer.

In the meantime, check out the girl who can’t do anything right. She’ll agitate and charm you in equal measure. If you want to order a copy before the official release date in May, The Head and the Hand Press is offering a prepublication deal.

Howard Zinn speaking in 2009

I’ve been reading a book my daughter lent me, Howard Zinn’s The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, which consists of the latter parts of his well-known A People’s History of the United States with additional chapters extending the story into the 1990s.

Because the People’s History has been on my reading list ever since it first came out—a mere 34 years, so I can be excused for not getting to it yet—I’ve been eager to open this more condensed version, and thus it’s sat on my dresser for half a decade at most. It’s not, in fact, what I expected—not an overall history from a populist point of view but essentially a summary of protest and resistance movements over the ages. That’s interesting enough in itself, but Zinn’s bias annoys me at times. For instance, there’s a running implication that, when piecemeal reforms were implemented, the business and political classes, including liberals and progressives, saw these primarily not as extensions of human rights, justice and compassion but as ways of easing the pressure for more radical change.

Throughout the book, there’s a tendency to refer to “the government” or “the system” as a unified entity that acts in a concerted and deliberate way to preserve class privilege. Here are some passages (with boldface added by me) from Chapter 6, which focuses on what liberals call the civil rights movement and Zinn calls “the black revolt of the 1950s and 1960s”:

[re the shooting of Black Panther leaders by Chicago police] “Was the government turning to murder and terror because concessions—the legislation, the speeches, the intonation of the civil rights hymn “We Shall Overcome” by President Lyndon Johnson—were not working?” [This use of a question to propose a radical conclusion without quite advocating it is another characteristic of the book.]

The system was working hard, by the late sixties and early seventies, to contain the frightening explosiveness of the black upsurge.”

“The use of busing to integrate schools—sponsored by the government and the courts in response to the black movement—was an ingenious concession to protest. It had the effect of pushing poor whites and poor blacks into competition for the miserable inadequate schools which the system provided for all the poor.”

If “the government” and “the system” were really so cohesive and purposeful, we might have fixed them by now—or at least our protests would be a hell of a lot more focused.

Zinn is highly selective, too, in the facts he chooses to present. Here’s an early passage about expansionist nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century, featuring Teddy Roosevelt:

“Roosevelt was contemptuous of races and nations he considered inferior. When a mob in New Orleans lynched a number of Italian immigrants, Roosevelt thought the United States should offer the Italian government some remuneration, but privately he wrote his sister that he thought the lynching was ‘rather a good thing’ and told her he had said as much at dinner with ‘various dago diplomats … all wrought up by the lynching.’” (Chap. 1)

I wouldn’t defend the bully Roosevelt or his offensive speech, but to understand his reaction, the reader should be told that the New Orleans affair began with the assassination of the city’s police chief in 1890, and the perpetrators were assumed to be members of a well-known Italian criminal gang. This was the era when the word “Mafia” surged into public consciousness, and the jurors who acquitted the accused were popularly thought to have been bribed with Mafia money. None of this background excuses the lynching, of course, or Roosevelt’s ethnic disdain, but when we take the context into account, he becomes less of a caricature. Maybe he believed that all eleven men lynched were hardened criminals; I don’t know, but I wish Zinn had taken the time to fill in some gray shadings on his black-and-white sketch.

In spite of these reservations, I’ve been enjoying the book a lot, and learning from it. We tend to forget how persistently, throughout American history, citizens have resisted the governing elite, even in times we imagine as quiescent. “The memory of oppressed people,” Zinn writes, “is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface” (Chap. 6).

Some of the historical descriptions sound like they could have been written about the past few years:

“There was a deepening economic insecurity for much of the population, along with environmental deterioration, and a growing culture of violence and family disarray. Clearly, such fundamental problems could not be solved without bold changes in the social and economic structure. But no major party candidates proposed such changes. The political tradition’ held fast.” (Chap. 10)

That passage describes the period right after the Vietnam War, 40 years ago now. Here’s another timeless passage, characterizing the “double line of defense of the American Establishment”:

“The first defense is to deny the truth. If exposed, the second defense is to investigate, but not too much; the press will publicize, but they will not get to the heart of the matter.” (Chap. 10)

All too true—though not, I think, uniquely American.

Again and again Zinn makes his essential point that “endless ‘reforms’ [have] changed little” (Chap. 8). And some of his passages hit home with a visceral punch:

“given the nature of modern warfare, the victims, by a ratio of 10:1, have been civilians. To put it another way, war in our time is always a war against children.” (Chapter 12)

Defenders of our clumsy foreign wars might dispute the ratio, but the point is inescapable.

Those are the depressing aspects of the book. The positive? Zinn’s conviction, expressed in the final chapter, that more substantial change may be on the horizon:

“With the Establishment’s inability either to solve severe economic problems at home or to manufacture abroad a safety valve for domestic discontent, Americans might be ready to demand not just more tinkering, more reform laws, another reshuffling of the same deck, another New Deal, but radical change.”

That passage was written in the 1990s, and it rings even truer today. Yet my pessimism argues that we’ll never progress beyond the “might be ready” stage.

It’s difficult, as a contemporary American, to have faith in either “the system” or “the people”—and most of us belong to both. Or as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The author, metaphorically (photo by Jjron, from Wikipedia)

During the periods when I’m working too hard, which occur far more often than they should—a form of self-flagellation because, as my wife points out, no one required me to accept so many large jobs—a “last straw” feeling often overtakes me, the sense that, like the proverbial camel, I can’t manage one single additional task, no matter how tiny, or I’ll snap. Can I figure out why the copier insists it’s jammed when there’s nothing visible stuck in it? No, I can’t, not another chore, there’s just too much, it’s impossible, ask me next month or next year, or trash the damn thing, I don’t care, but I can’t spend five minutes on it, I can’t possibly do one more thing…

Of course I know this is nuts, a result of overstress, a psychological imbalance, and when the work eases a bit, I recover my good humor and willingness to delve inside the copier in search of a stray paper clip.

Yet the more I look around at our culture, the less unusual my fits of stress seem to me. Not only do we have crazies who have gone well beyond the snapping point—the ones who shoot up malls or schools—but we sprout flaming lunatics on the radio and in Congress, nasty snipers on the Internet, road rage on the freeways… So many of us seem just two or three straws from the breaking point.

Lately I’ve been sampling advance proofs for a forthcoming book from Temple University Press, American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, a volume that attempts to sum up the ways current historians view major eras and themes in the nation’s history. The main audience, I assume, is scholars from other fields who want a brief overview of what the historians have been up to lately. A chapter by Kim Phillips-Fein of NYU takes on the near-impossible challenge of summarizing recent scholarship on the era defined as “1973 to the Present.” The post-1973 years, she writes,

have been viewed as a time of economic uncertainty and widening inequality as compared to steady growth; as an epoch of ambivalence, skepticism, and even hostility toward politics, in contrast to the idealism and optimism of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s; and perhaps most of all, as an age of conservatism that rejected the liberalism of the postwar years.

Of course, economic uncertainty, inequality, and even skepticism are hardly unique to our era; these are recurring themes throughout the country’s history, dating to before the Revolution. What’s different now, I think, is that we’ve become terribly anxious and insecure—more so, for instance, than in the 1950s when we had Joe McCarthy, nuclear bomb scares and sheriffs clubbing civil rights leaders; or in the 1960s, when we killed two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of our own soldiers. Is it 9/11 and terrorism that have made us so jittery, brought us so close to the edge?

I think it goes deeper than that. The “economic uncertainty” that Phillips-Fein points to probably plays a role. We got accustomed to being prosperous, and now that we seem to be running faster and faster merely to stay in the same place—those of us who still have jobs, that is—we lack the emotional resilience to handle the situation. Then there are the many social changes we’ve absorbed in a few short decades. It’s great, for instance, that we can define a “family” in more ways than before, so that two adults of the same sex with three adopted children from various countries are as much a family as any other; yet all of our families, old-fashioned and new-, have become fragile, with divorce rates approaching 50 percent for first marriages and soaring far above that for second and third marriages. (Luckily, by the time you have a sixth wedding like my father, your life will probably end before your marriage.) The best way we’ve found to reduce the divorce rate is for couples not to marry in the first place, a solution that doesn’t do much for psychic stability and calm.

It’s a truism that, after all the gains made by women and minorities in the past decades, we have plenty of stick-in-the-muds uncomfortable with such change, or worse, severely ticked off about it. Yet I also wonder if our recent social advances make the gainers themselves feel more secure. If you’re a minority person in a corporate position previously closed to those of your ethnicity/gender, does your triumph bring peace of mind, or does it give you one more thing to worry about?

It’s my theory that such economic and social conditions have produced a long-running, low-level anxiety that is always with us, magnifying our personal and public stresses and bringing us closer to the snapping point. You might test this idea next time you’re in a traffic jam. Doesn’t one part of your psyche wish you could whip out an assault rifle and start shooting?

Being untrained in psychology, social science, history and just about every other subject matter, I’m totally unqualified to form such opinions. But this too is a prevailing American characteristic, the having of strong, unfounded convictions. There’s a reason bigoted talk-show hosts are popular.

… Oh hell, dammit, the smoke alarm over the stairwell started beeping again. I changed the battery two weeks ago! Now I’ll have to search for another new battery, fetch a ladder from the basement, climb up there and perch precariously while I try to fix the thing with clumsy fingers—or else drive to the hardware store and buy a new alarm, maybe the whole thing is defective—but that store sold me this cheap junk in the first place—no, it’s too much, dammit, I can’t take this anymore! Gimme a broom, I’m gonna knock that stupid piece of crap off the ceiling, take it out on the porch and jump up and down on it till it’s a thousand plastic splinters…

There! Whew! Now I feel better. I’m leaving the shards on the porch to teach all goddamn smoke alarms a lesson.

What was I saying?