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Armageddon, Anyone?

June 3, 2016

Armageddon“You, reader, I, writer,” said Mrs. Gaskell, “have each our great sorrow bearing down upon us.”* A telling and poetic sentiment. True, there’s a certain aura of First World comfort about it—the sorrow is singular, and it hasn’t arrived yet, unlike the multiple present agonies of so many around the globe—but it’s a good reminder that none of us is ultimately secure.

Reading Mrs. Gaskell the other day (more evidence of First Worldism: having the leisure to enjoy a 19th-century novelist), I wondered how her insight would apply to the specter of Donald Trump—because in the United States right now, it seems everything has to be measured in DTs.

Is it the lost sense of security that drives so many white working-class Americans toward The Donald’s blustering fraudulence? That’s what the standard analysis suggests.

Or, I wonder, is it just that so many don’t give a shit anymore? They don’t care if he tosses insults like a fifth grader, offends allies or even starts a new war. It’s time for revenge on the elites, folks—meaning those people who’ve been running things while the rest of us watch sit-coms and football. The elites deserve whatever mockery the Donald can dish out, the more vulgar the better.

And if this means a great sorrow is bearing down on us all, so what? We’ll go down in a blaze of glory—that is, a flaming spew of intolerance, ignorance and spite. It’ll be fun! Like Armageddon. Like The Hunger Games. Time to die, everyone!

Is it possible to have a national death wish?

I think it is.

 

*The quote is from Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, A Dark Night’s Work (1863), Chap. 4.

Nostalgia and Survival

February 18, 2016

Watching the Black Panthers documentary on PBS the other night (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution by Stanley Nelson) made me predictably nostalgic, but I was also confused. What exactly had I thought of the Panthers, and their now-mythic confrontations with the cops, back in the day? In some cases I was just a few miles away when the events went down, but I don’t remember my attitude. Was I mostly on the Panthers’ side, somewhat on the cops’ side, or in my usual utterly muddled middle?

Jed Garoover, as immortalized in the Library of Congress

Jed Garoover, as immortalized in the Library of Congress

The documentary also brought up fond memories of San Francisco Chronicle columns by the late Art Hoppe, who turned political figures into comic characters such as Elbie Jay and Billy Boomer, Boy President. Parts of the documentary featured Washington’s arch-villain, the head of the FBI, and I was trying to recall: Did Hoppe invent the name Jed Garoover for that multi-chinned Mephistopheles? It seems to me he did, though I can’t now confirm that.

Most important, the documentary got me thinking about my faith in America—its culture, its political system, its fundamental being. Despite all the polarization and hatred in the Panther days, I didn’t feel, as I do now, the same overpowering sense that the American Soul was at stake. Maybe my youth made me optimistic. Maybe I believed that truth would win in the long run (hah!). Maybe I trusted in the innate sense of the common people who supposedly have the final say in a democracy.

Now I know that we commoners are marginalized by power brokers and fixers, and many of us don’t give a shit anyway. A friend with relatives in Jerusalem tells me that many young Jewish Israelis have given up on politics, neither believing in the long-assumed “two-state solution” nor searching for an alternative. Instead, she says, they live for the moment; they go to cafes and dance on the beach. Is that what we’ve come to now in America?

My new home? (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Though we survived the empty-pated Reagan and the crook Nixon, not to mention earlier embarrassments like Harding and Grant, can we survive the new Republican, Dred Crumpio? (For a sketch of Crumpio, see my previous post.) In the event that the White House, as well as Congress, becomes the fiefdom of demagogic frauds, I’m at least half-seriously considering a move to Canada. I’ve already picked out a neighborhood with a large dog park (green area on the map), though I haven’t yet researched the regulations for exporting dog and family.

So: Would I be wrong to give up on the US of A? Would that be (a) cowardly, (b) a sign of clinical depression, or (c) sane?

The Composite Candidate

February 5, 2016

Crumpio

Dred Crumpio

Now that the presidential campaign season is truly underway, the composite candidates have begun to emerge.

Back in 2012, the composite Republican contender, whom I named Mick Somnorich, was kind of feckless, hard to take seriously. He was, in fact, boring, and everyone’s already forgotten him.

This year’s version is truculent and malevolent, much more exciting to watch in the present and likely more memorable in the long term. For those who haven’t tuned in yet, here is his message in a poetic nutshell:

Ready for a New American Century?
Calling the enemy by its name,
I’m the conservative who Democrats
fear most. I won’t let them take away
our giveaway to the corporate patrons.
They’re rapists on the lookout!
It is our job to kill terrorists. Weakness is
provocative. I would bomb the shit out of them.
And believe me, my temperament is very good,
very calm, I’m proud to have an “A” rating
from the American Rifle Association.
We stop bad guys by using our guns!
If I become president, Americans can work
together to revive Merry Christmas
and infringe on the rights of good, law-abiding
citizens. The whole world is on fire!
Look at that face! Pathological,
there’s no cure for that.

This composite’s name is Dred Crumpio, and he believes everything he says, even if he knows it’s a lie. Because talk is just talk, after all. It’s another thing entirely to whomp the bad guys, and believe you me, Americans don’t care about the actual score as long as we can pretend we’re winning.

The Resilience of Evil

December 7, 2015

Whac-A-MoleIn the wake of the most recent mass killings on U.S. soil, and the various posturings and evasions of our politicians, it’s time for another political column. However, in contrast to my usual rant, I’ll endeavor to make this post well-reasoned and scholarly. In the style of a philosophical treatise, the separate arguments will be enumerated, and footnotes will document the sources.

I. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”1

I.a. Syed Farook, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.b. Dylann Roof, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.c. Adam Lanza, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.d. James Holmes, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.e. Eric Harris, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.f. Dylan Klebold, a U.S. citizen, born and raised here.

I.g.–I.z. Et al., et al., et al.

II. Evil cannot be eliminated from the world.

II.a. Evil has been with us since the first human beings.2

II.b. Evil will not succumb to bombs, ground troops, atomic weapons or—except in fantasy movies—magic light sabers.

II.c. Indeed, the resilient, slippery and protean nature of evil—its ability to pop up in new forms in new places—suggests a popular game whose name now connotes a repetitive and impossible task.3

II.d. As point I above indicates, evil lives in all of us, not in any particular place.

II.d.1. Hence there is no one place to attack it.

III. Nor can the enticement of evil be eliminated.

III.a. Some types of evil will always look prettier or sound more convincing than good.4

III.b. In the basic sense, each person is tempted not by outsiders, but by his or her own desire.5

So, if we can’t get rid of evil, what might we do as a society? No easy solution exists. But we could try to make the good—that is, sane, peaceful, life-respecting behavior—more attractive. For instance, we could work to reduce poverty and the huge gap between the privileged and underprivileged. By doing so, we would boost the sense that everyone has something to live for rather than commit murder-mayhem-suicide for. Instead of empty patriotism, we Americans could then speak with a justified pride in our country, as one wild-eyed Revolutionary-era radical suggested:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am the friend of its happiness: when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.6

Notes
  1. Pogo the Possum, 1971; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip).
  2. Genesis, 300 B.C.E. or earlier.
  3. Whac-A-Mole; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whac-A-Mole.
  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667.
  5. James 1:14, c. 100 C.E.
  6. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791.

Guns and Cheesesteaks

November 22, 2015

s[r]headlineI have a new guest post on the “s [r] blog” from Superstition Review. Here’s the link.

The post is titled “Guns and Cheesesteaks,” and it’s probably not quite as silly as the title suggests. In fact, I believe it’s as meaningful as any recent utterances by Donald Trump.

VotingStickerWe had an election this week in Philadelphia. A special election to fill three vacancies in the state House, two of which arose because the incumbents quit after pleading guilty to corruption.

This event produced a grand Y-A-W-N in the city. The media ignored it, and the outcome was predetermined. (Local Democrats, with a huge registration advantage, automatically win any vote with such little publicity.) Besides, most of us don’t even know our representatives in the state House, and as far as we can tell, their only function is to send us a boastful newsletter just before the next election. As for corrupt officials, they’re as common here as in Iraq, and perhaps cheaper, and we don’t expect new ones to be any less venal.

Nevertheless, stifling my Y-A-W-N, I wandered over to my polling place about 11:30 in the morning. It was deserted. They told me I was the 19th person to come in since the polls opened. Explained one attendant who was eating a pastry, “We don’t even call this light turnout. It’s dim turnout.”

For the 30 seconds I spent in the booth, I received the sticker shown above—a more than adequate reward. I chose the Spanish version because I’m trying to learn the language. Combining this with the sign I encounter frequently, “NO TIRE BASURA,” I’m up to six words total. It’s a start.

But I was upset about being number 19. That’s worse than dim turnout, it’s like Milton’s description of Hell: “No light, but rather darkness visible.”

For an election pitting Luigi’s Pizza against Pete’s Famous Pizza, my neighborhood would have several hundred voters by late morning. Everybody knows Luigi’s would win—it’s predetermined by the crust—but people would show up at the polls anyway.

So I went into my typical funk about the trashing of American democracy. In my view, we can survive Donald Trump and Fox News (which treated the recent Republican debate like a game show), but what we can’t survive is indifference.

Okay, you’re heard that before. Everybody complains about the apathy of the American public. And the counterargument seems like a good one: If the choices are Tweedledum and Tweedledee—or, say, Trumpledump and Christiedweeb—indifference is a rational response, isn’t it?

I disagree, and here’s my reasoning.

Imagine your typical city neighborhood, which averages 60% turnout during presidential elections, 40% in midterms, 20–27% in mayoral elections, and way, way less in off-off-season polls like the one we just had here. On average, then, a lot more than half of the people don’t vote. Now suppose that, in the next election, the neighborhood’s turnout jumps a modest 15% for no obvious reason (no candidate from the dominant ethnic group, no hot-button issue on the ballot). What will happen?

The local politicians will suddenly get very interested in that neighborhood. They’ll start to ask what’s going on there. They’ll stop by and talk to people. They’ll want to know what issues the community cares about.

This imaginary scenario leads to my slogan, with apologies to Field of Dreamers:

VOTE AND THEY WILL COME!

It doesn’t matter if, at the moment, you can’t tell a Fiorina from a Cannoli. Vote in reasonable numbers and they will be forced to address your issues. Vote especially when the slick pols and the talking heads don’t expect you to.

After all, we citizens have just two things politicians care about: (a) votes and (b) money. For those of us with little cash to spare, votes are the only weapon, and if we don’t use that weapon to defend ourselves, we’re choosing to bend over and take it up the … wherever (to use a famous Trumpism).

Sure, I understand all the points about the influence of big money, the rise of the oligarchy or plutocracy or whatever you want to call it. I also sympathize with the rage that leads people into the streets to scream and throw rocks at the cops. But when we throw rocks, we’re not hitting the moneymen and asshole politicians who run the system. As soon as we go home, those bigwigs will go back to ignoring us unless they think they’re losing money or votes.

Thus, no matter how oppressed or depressed the community, I get upset with locals who complain but don’t bother to vote. Despite Republican efforts to suppress turnout, most people wouldn’t have any trouble voting if they made an effort.

It’s the one defense we have left. Nobody’s forcing us to be helpless.

According to Google Translate, the slogan is even simpler in Spanish:

VOTA Y ELLOS VENDRÁN!

Plus, you get a nice sticker. Feel free to print this one and glue it to your shirt. Do correct my Spanish if I got it wrong.

Web

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.”

A Very Tender Topic

October 5, 2012

Nobody HomeHaving ignored the political conventions this year, I felt a tiny obligation to subject my ears to the first presidential debate. To build motivation, I set up a project: jot down phrases from the candidates and use them to make a sort of “found” poem, like a sculpture of found objects. Of course I’m not a poet, but incompetence never stopped any writer worth his pint of lager.

As I arranged the phrases yesterday, drawing more or less equally from Obama and Romney, a couple of things surprised me. Almost by chance, the poem came out with each stanza one line longer than the previous—kind of like the way politicians grow windier as they ramble on. (Is there a name for that poetic structure?) More important, some nonsensical sense seemed to emerge from the jabberwocky, and maybe—dare I say it?—an element of hope.

I’m curious to know what anyone else makes of it. Here it is:

A Very Tender Topic

A very tender topic, it’s on the brink of collapse,
and the reason is, is because
there’s a reason that indicates the degree
to which there may not be as much of
a focus on the fact that the path
we’re on has been unsuccessful.

See, there is no better way of dealing with
a fight we needed to have
and this is an example of where
those people who are less fortunate
can make a difference because
to promote and protect those principles
occasionally you gotta say no.

The proof of that is that
you can look at the record,
people are really hurting today,
and what ends up happening
is some people end up not,
and if the determination of the American people
has not displayed that willingness to say no,
that’s how we’re gonna wind down.

The question here tonight is not
where we’ve been but where we’re going.
So let’s get all the doctors together at once,
because we’ve seen progress even when
we were fighting about whether or not
to create frameworks where
we care for those that have difficulties,
at a time when it’s vitally important
to pursue their dreams.

Math, common sense, and our history,
we all know that that doesn’t get the job done.
What’s happening is, America
may not be the place to clear up
the record, where everybody’s playing
by the same rules. Let’s grade them,
I propose we grade the creativity and innovation
that exists in the American people, picking
winners and losers, the vitality we can
step in and see, a whole different way of life.

Thank you for tuning in, I have no idea
what you’re talking about, but there’s
still a problem as Abraham Lincoln
understood, endowed by our Creator.
Let me give you an example: Gas in the U.S.
is up under any circumstances, the biggest kiss
that’s been given to a baby out of work
since May. Can you help us? At the mercy
of your policies, it’s simply not moral—
the course of America, the great experience,
the burden paid, the bottom line.

Extravaganzas

September 6, 2012

Gold Medal Speaker

Gold Medal Speaker

My fellow Americans (and others who find Americans amusing),

I hear there have been political conventions in the past couple of weeks. Unlike my family and friends, I haven’t been watching or listening, and before that I similarly ignored the Olympics, to the point of avoiding any room with a tuned-in television.

Yet I like sports and care deeply about American politics. Why such deliberate dodging of the media blitz?

  • Empty spectacle offends me with its soullessness, especially high-tech razzle-dazzle created for TV. Probably the Olympics are worse in this respect than the conventions—those increasingly absurd closing ceremonies! As for political candidates, what does it matter whether the stage set behind them offers Greek columns, American flags, Mount Rushmore or naked belly dancers? Why do we need to be dazzled? Isn’t anyone else suspicious of the trend to make everything a glitzy extravaganza?
  • I hate sappy stories. How such and such an athlete trained so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. How such and such a small businessperson/immigrant labored so hard for so many years, overcoming adversity, setting his or her heart on the one big goal. Bleaaah!

And since I work with words daily, there’s the extra pain of hearing the language mangled by sports announcers and politicians. Now, for a few favorite sports, such as baseball, I’ve developed a trained indifference to subject-verb disagreement, mismatched tenses, standardized platitudes and modifiers so dangling that their referent inhabits a different zip code. For some reason, though, I’ve never reached that level of tolerance for political jargon; maybe because it’s more important, it’s more deeply offensive?

It’s not that politicians are clumsy and ungrammatical, though they certainly can be. What I find so painful is the knowledge that every phrase was crafted, reviewed, tweaked, vetted to touch a particular nerve in a certain set of voters. I wish I had Jay Heinrichs’ appreciation for the way politicians use the tricks and tropes of rhetoric (see his Figures of Speech blog for his humorous insights). Instead, political verbiage has the same effect on me as a whiff of rancid tuna. Even Barack Obama, one of the finest political speakers in recent memory, appalls me with stock phrases and applause lines. I’ll vote for him but I won’t listen.

Perhaps there’s some depression at work, too, in my political reactions. For my whole adult life, politicians have managed to trick huge numbers of Americans into voting against their own interests—or convinced them that a trip to the polls isn’t worth the effort. If our citizens are so profoundly stupid or indifferent, is the country worth saving?

I will admit, though, that when a bit of news or imagery sneaks past my media blockade, it can be fascinating. The dress Michelle Obama wore for her speech—I saw it on Facebook—so cooooool! Can we imagine Barbara Bush dressed that way?