America

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
—Bryan Stevenson

Prologue: What Are You Angry About?
One fall when I was living in China, years ago, I had an upper respiratory infection that never quite cleared up. My asthma inhalers stopped working, even after I tried doubling my usual dose. The Singaporean doctor at the Western medical clinic finally threw his hands up. “I don’t have anything else I can do for you.” So with little to lose I went to the Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital, and after less than a week of drinking the herbal medicine prescribed by Dr. Zhou, I stopped using my inhalers altogether.

Needless to say, I became a regular patient. One day, as he felt my pulse, Dr. Zhou turned to me and said, “You’re angry.”

“Am I?”

“Yes,” he said. “What are you angry about?”

I thought for a moment. “Injustice.”

Dr. Zhou laughed. “There’s a lot of that,” he said.

* * *

My political education began when Jack Kennedy was assassinated. I was eleven years old. Up until that point my understanding of American history came from the textbooks we read in the public schools. The Pilgrims sitting down for a convivial Thanksgiving feast with local Indians. The brave settlers clearing forests and creating rich farmland out of the wilderness. Brilliant self-taught inventors producing the machines that powered the Industrial Revolution and the growing wealth of the nation. Wise and noble leaders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Of course there were villains and evil deeds in the story, but they were invariably defeated by the forces of justice. Slavery, that terrible mistake, was overturned in the Civil War. Corrupt politicians and businessmen were inevitably found out and punished. Abraham Lincoln followed in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers, and was followed in turn by FDR, who not only saved the nation from the Great Depression but led the fight in World War II that defeated Hitler and turned the United States into the world’s superpower. Think of it: the first modern democracy leading the world toward a future of progress, education, justice, and prosperity for all.

Then Kennedy was killed. The accused shooter was murdered while in police custody, and the official explanations made no sense. The government was almost certainly lying to us. Soon after, the Vietnam War expanded, and the lies accumulated. The U.S., it turned out, had been involved in assassinating the president of South Vietnam. Other assassinations or attempted assassinations of foreign leaders came to light, along with the complicity between the CIA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in manipulating small nations all over Latin America, Asia, and Africa for the profit of American corporations. At the same time the Civil Rights movement revealed to clueless whites like me the sordid facts about racial segregation in the South and the long history of discrimination, injustice, lynchings, and mob violence suffered by African-Americans since the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and, especially in the 20th century, in urban centers from New York to Los Angeles. As racial tensions increased and the antiwar movement grew, I was in high school and college, discovering the dark side of American history and culture. Discovering that I had been lied to, repeatedly. I felt betrayed. I was angry about the crimes committed by slaveowners, by exploitative capitalists, by the racist white majority, by the politicians and police departments and banks that perpetrated injustice at home and abroad. Langston Hughes’s searing description of the feelings of African-Americans toward the Southern homeland that so many of them had left in search of a better life resonated with my own bitter feelings of betrayal:

The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
Beast-strong,
Idiot-brained.
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
Cotton and the moon,
Warmth, earth, warmth,
The sky, the sun, the stars,
The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
Passionate, cruel,
Honey-lipped, syphilitic–
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
So now I seek the North–
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.

—“The South,” by Langston Hughes

I had not suffered personally. I had not been an indigenous American, an African-American, an immigrant, a sharecropper. I had not been unemployed, or lived in a tenement house, or been drafted into the military and sent overseas to kill brown-skinned people for the Chamber of Commerce. But I deeply empathized with those who had, and I deeply resented their persecutors.

“You’re angry,” Dr. Zhou said.
“Am I?”
“Yes,” he said. “What are you angry about?”
I thought for a moment. “Injustice.”
Dr. Zhou laughed. “There’s a lot of that,” he said.

More than half a century has passed since they murdered Jack Kennedy and got away with it. I am still angry. Sometimes I wonder, “Why in the world am I still angry, half a century later?” Most of the time, though, I wonder why everyone isn’t as angry as I am. Because, of course, the murder of Jack Kennedy was just one spectacular moment in a long, long series of crimes. Do nations have souls? Are they haunted by their sins, especially the ones they try to cover up and deny? It’s dishonesty, above all, that corrupts the soul. Redemption is possible, but not without repentance and confession. Since those first English freebooters arrived in Virginia hoping to find gold, America has been pretending that it has nothing to be ashamed of.

The Elephant in the Room

the elephant in the room: an obvious major problem or issue that people avoid discussing or acknowledging
—Merriam-Webster.com

Donald Trump was elected by a wave of racist reaction against eight years of America’s first African-American president; by racist fears of immigrants; by racist resentment of the decline of the white working class, especially in rural America and the Midwestern rust belt, where globalization left previously prosperous communities devastated; by racist resentment of urban centers that are invariably more multi-cultural and more inclined to vote Democratic; and by racist resentment of poor people of color, who are simultaneously blamed for taking jobs from whites and for running up the costs of social welfare programs because they are unemployed—not to mention their supposed propensities for crime and drug-taking.

Trump’s election was assisted by Russia’s stealth disinformation campaign, exploiting social media and turning the internet into history’s greatest propaganda tool. But it was made possible only by the anti-democratic Electoral College, an invention of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. My high school history books described the Electoral College as part of a compromise between “small states” and “large states” that was designed to ensure a balance of power between rural and urban communities. But it was also a compromise between the slave-holding southern states and the non-slave northern states, pushed by southerners’ fears that they would soon be outvoted by the more populous North. (The infamous Second Amendment, the sacred text underlying the nation’s unrelenting gun violence, was similarly pushed by slaveowners like Patrick Henry, who were terrified that the federal government would not come to their aid if the slaves rebelled.)

Since being elected, Trump and the Republicans have controlled the government thanks to the U.S. Senate, another anti-democratic creation of the Constitutional Convention that has kept power in the hands of—or at least within reach of—the (formerly) slaveholding states. Trump continues to play the race card whenever it suits his purposes, against immigrants from Latin America, against dark-skinned people from “shithole countries,” against brown-skinned Muslims invariably smeared as religious fanatics and terrorists, and most recently against the Chinese, convenient whipping-boys for Trump’s colossal mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.

White resentment of the brown-skinned urban poor has been reinforced throughout America’s history by its success mythology, which holds that in America, anyone who is honest and hardworking can succeed. The obvious corollary of this deeply-engrained national myth is that poor people are poor because they are lazy and worthless. Racists have always viewed higher poverty rates among people of color as confirmation of the “white race’s” superiority. Racism has also conveniently divided poor whites from poor blacks, preventing them from uniting against the moneyed interests who have always taken a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth and income. Trump has masterfully exploited these racist fears, resentments, and prejudices with the help of Fox News and right-wing talk-radio provocateurs whose toxic propaganda pervades rural America. As a result, Trump can lie repeatedly without losing support among his base, that 40-45% of mostly white, mostly rural, mostly working class voters who believe fervently that he is standing up for them against brown-skinned people, foreign and domestic, who are trying to take America away from the brave, honest, hardworking white people who made it “the greatest nation on earth.”

And so now, Donald Trump—the most corrupt and incompetent President in history—is in charge while the nation faces its greatest public health crisis in at least a century. The ringing, idealistic phrases of the Declaration of Independence and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln seem little more than a thin coat of paint on a house that has been rotting from within for centuries. Slavery and the century-and-a-half of racism that has followed its abolition are not an aberration or anomaly. They are not an unfortunate and somewhat embarrassing side-note to an otherwise proud story of liberty and democracy in the New World. Rather, slavery and the decades of racism that have followed its abolition are at the core of America’s story. The same Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was a slaveowner who, after his wife died, slept with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and fathered several children by her—children he never acknowledged as his. Racism remains at the core of America’s politics. It explains why, at a moment of crisis, the nation is being led by an ignorant con-man.

In 1675 the Wampanoags rose up against the Puritan colonizers who had first arrived in “New England” a generation earlier. The settlers called the three-year conflict that followed “King Philip’s War” because they could not pronounce the name of the Wampanoag chief, Metacom, and called him King Philip instead. Rather than recognize that indigenous Americans were justly outraged at being colonized by foreigners from across the sea, the settlers concluded that God was using the Indians to punish them for their private sins. Before organizing themselves to exterminate the Indians, the settlers went to church to pray, fast, and beg God to forgive them. They interpreted their eventual victory as a sign that their prayers had been heard. In my darkest moments, that story represents American history in miniature: ignorant, self-righteous white people committing crime after crime while believing all the while that God is on their side.

It is hard to imagine how anything less than a second American Revolution could put an end to the Electoral College, the anti-democratic Senate, the racist gerrymandering of congressional districts, the de facto segregation baked into American communities, and all the other consequences of racism that are dragging the nation toward a dismal demise. It is even harder to imagine a second American Revolution.

* * *

Of course the full story is more complicated and more nuanced. The concerns of small states were real in 1787, and those small states included non-slave states like Rhode Island. The United States has never been a nation in the French sense of the word; it is rather a federation of states, and each of those states, north and south, has always had a strong sense of independence from, and presumptive opposition to, anything coming from the central government in Washington. As for the nation’s gun-mania, the western frontier was a dominant feature of American life from the earliest settlements of the 1600s right up until almost the end of the 1800s, and remained central to the American imagination far beyond that time. The country’s continued obsession with individual gun rights certainly has a lot to do with that history. And so on. The story can be told that way.

So much depends on how the story is told.

For most of my life, the story has been told in a way that has minimized and marginalized slavery and, to an even greater extent, racism. Incidents of white violence against blacks were often simply omitted from the narrative. The story of the economic impact of slavery and the 19th-century cotton trade was minimized. The nationwide institutionalized racism of police departments and banking policies like red-lining were not included. Incidents of racial discrimination or violence were always presented as deplorable but exceptional cases. Even the story of the Civil War itself was told in such a way that black people were almost totally absent. The truth is, white supremacists of the northern states—including Abraham Lincoln—did not fight to free the slaves, but to preserve the Union. (Yes, Lincoln was a white supremacist. As kind and considerate as he was, personally, he believed the only permanent solution to America’s race problem was to send the slaves and their descendants back to Africa.) Meanwhile the white supremacists of the South lost the war, but after a decade of Reconstruction they regained their footing and won the peace. And their version of events has dominated the national narrative ever since, despite the hagiography of Abe Lincoln. Northern whites turned a blind eye to Jim Crow segregation and lynchings in the South for most of a century after the Civil War because what they cared about was preserving the Union, and one way to do that was to construct a narrative of national unity that minimized racial divisions.

If, however, one looks at American history with slavery and racism in the foreground instead of putting them in the background and off to the side, the continuities become obvious and the short version of the story becomes something like what I have written above. Has there been progress when it comes to “race relations” in the United States? Of course. But the racist sentiments among white Americans, and the racist institutions of American politics like the Electoral College, the Senate, and gerrymandered Congressional districts continue. Put together, they have led to the election of Donald Trump and the dominance of a Republican Party stripped of any principle beyond holding onto power by whatever despicable means are available. Can the minority of Americans who embrace a progressive vision of social and economic justice in a multicultural nation prevail against the stubborn legacy of racism in America’s culture and political institutions? I very much doubt it.

* * *

Despite this sordid history of slavery and racism, of lynchings and riots and mob violence, of chronic discrimination against minorities by police, by employers, by landlords, by nobodies for no particular reason—despite this, most Americans of all races and incomes and social classes remain optimistic and patriotic to a degree that is almost childlike. A friend once asked me, “Considering all the people you have met from different cultures and nations all over the world, who do African-Americans most resemble?” I thought for a few moments, then gave up. My friend smiled. “White Americans!” And I realized immediately how right he was. Presidential candidates as different as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama find ways to appeal to the deep vein of optimism that runs through the entire nation. It’s “Morning in America!” “Hope and change!” “Yes, we can!” Optimism and sentimentality make the sale in America, every time. Critics are a downer. They’re so negative. They turn people off. Most Americans don’t want to hear about all the defects and problems and injustices. So when someone even says the word racism, the negative response follows immediately. Talking to many white Americans about racism is like talking to men in a gentleman’s club about feminism. No one wants to hear it. “If you don’t like this country, go find a better one, if you can. But you can’t, and you know it, so just shut up.” That’s basically the response.

It is dishonesty, above all, that corrupts the soul.

If the optimism were honest and clear-sighted, I could accept it, even embrace it. But because it is blind and dishonest, it provokes me. If someone mentions the Pilgrims and their “city on a hill,” I remind them of the genocide of indigenous Americans that rendered the hill largely depopulated and open for English colonizers. If they mention the can-do American spirit that created the richest nation on earth, I begin dourly to point out that millions of African slaves created most of the nation’s wealth. I make myself disagreeable. I want to push their noses in it, to wake them up.

They don’t want to wake up because they are in love with the idea of America, the Platonic ideal of America, the dream of America. The American dream. Winners and losers, rich and poor, white black brown yellow green and purple, they all dream America. Americans are dreamers.

* * *

And there is something so powerful about that dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., could see clearly, but still preached about the dream. Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful.” And the taxi driver I once met, who was interested in history, exemplified American optimism. I spoke about the sins of Thomas Jefferson, but he was unpersuaded. “Maybe none of that is really important,” the taxi driver said. “Maybe all that matters is those beautiful words, that beautiful idea.”

Maybe.

I agree with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative when he says that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Thomas Jefferson was much more than a slave-owning hypocrite. But he was, also, a slave-owning hypocrite, and the nation he helped to found has never resolved the contradictions that he embodied. America has never resolved the contradiction of being a nation whose pre-eminent value is freedom, and whose wealth was founded on slavery. History, as they say, is long, while life is short, and perhaps it is only my deficient perspective, limited by a mere human lifetime, that makes me pessimistic about America.

As one of America’s great authors once wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

4+

The Black Death in Italy, 1348

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) begins his masterwork, The Decameron, with a vivid first-hand description of the bubonic plague’s arrival in Florence, Italy, in 1348. By the time it was all over, historians estimate that roughly one third of the population of Europe was dead. Boccaccio describes the disease itself—

. . . it began with swellings in the groin and armpit, in both men and women, some of which were as big as apples and some of which were shaped like eggs, some were small and others were large; the common people called these swellings gavoccioli. From these two parts of the body, the fatal gavaccioli would begin to spread and within a short while would appear over the entire body in various spots; the disease at this point began to take on the qualities of a deadly sickness, and the body would be covered with dark and livid spots, which would appear in great numbers on the arms, the thighs, and other parts of the body; some were large and widely spaced while some were small and bunched together. And just like the gavaciolli earlier, these were certain indications of coming death. . . .

. . . the rags of a poor man who had just died from the disease were thrown into the public street and were noticed by two pigs, who, following their custom, pressed their snouts into the rags, and afterwards picked them up with their teeth, and shook them against their cheeks: and within a short time, they both began to convulse, and they both, the two of them, fell dead on the ground next to the evil rags.

—and the human responses to incomprehensible suffering:

Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health. Others were of the opinion that they should live moderately and guard against all excess; by this means they would avoid infection. Having withdrawn, living separate from everybody else, they settled down and locked themselves in, where no sick person or any other living person could come, they ate small amounts of food and drank the most delicate wines and avoided all luxury, refraining from speech with outsiders, refusing news of the dead or the sick or anything else, and diverting themselves with music or whatever else was pleasant. Others, who disagreed with this, affirmed that drinking beer, enjoying oneself, and going around singing and ruckus-raising and satisfying all one’s appetites whenever possible and laughing at the whole bloody thing was the best medicine; and these people put into practice what they heartily advised to others: day and night, going from tavern to tavern, drinking without moderation or measure, and many times going from house to house drinking up a storm and only listening to and talking about pleasing things. These parties were easy to find because everyone behaved as if they were going to die soon, so they cared nothing about themselves nor their belongings; as a result, most houses became common property, and any stranger passing by could enter and use the house as if he were its master. But for all their bestial living, these people always ran away from the sick. With so much affliction and misery, all reverence for the laws, both of God and of man, fell apart and dissolved, because the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or ill like everyone else, or were left with so few officials that they were unable to do their duties; as a result, everyone was free to do whatever they pleased. Many other people steered a middle course between these two extremes, neither restricting their diet like the first group, nor indulging so liberally in drinking and other forms of dissolution like the second group, but simply not going beyond their needs or satisfying their appetite beyond the necessary, and, instead of locking themselves away, these people walked about freely, holding in their hands a posy of flowers, or fragrant herbs, or diverse exotic spices, which sometimes they pressed to their nostrils, believing it would comfort the brain with smells of that sort because the stink of corpses, sick bodies, and medicines polluted the air all about the city.

—Translated from the Italian by Richard Hooker (1993)

The entire text, in an older translation, can be found online here: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/boccacio2.asp. If your eyes are like mine, you will want to enlarge your screen’s display resolution to read it.

0

Three greats in one great photo

Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Barney Bigard.

From Wikipedia: New Orleans is a 1947 American musical romance film featuring Billie Holiday as a singing maid and Louis Armstrong as a bandleader; supporting players Holiday and Armstrong perform together and portray a couple becoming romantically involved. During one song, Armstrong’s character introduces the members of his band, a virtual Who’s Who of classic jazz greats, including trombonist Kid Ory, drummer Zutty Singleton, clarinetist Barney Bigard, guitar player Bud Scott, bassist George “Red” Callender, pianist Charlie Beal, and pianist Meade Lux Lewis. Also performing in the film is cornetist Mutt Carey and bandleader Woody Herman.

0

On the Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests: An open letter to BC Premier John Horgan

Dear Premier Horgan,

Difficult as it might be, I hope you will call for a pause on construction of the natural gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en land—a pause during which all parties will seek a consensus.

The government has won in the courts, but there is no consensus among the Wet’suwet’en, and opposition to the pipeline remains fierce.

In the tradition of Western democracy, a majority vote and a court decision are enough to go forward. In First Nations cultures, however, the community needs consensus before going forward.

Reaching consensus will be a long, difficult process. It may not even be possible, in the end. But in such a worse-case scenario, would abandoning the pipeline project really be more costly than the damage that will be done to relations among Canadians by going forward without consensus?

With my best wishes,

0

Sugar addiction: no longer a metaphor

Most people hear the phrase “sugar addiction” as a metaphor. A new study from Denmark indicates that sugar addiction is literal. Dr. Michael Winterdahl, one of the scientists who led the study, wanted to refute the idea that sugar was physically addictive. The evidence changed his mind:

“After just 12 days of sugar intake, we could see major changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems. In fact, the opioid system, which is that part of the brain’s chemistry that is associated with well-being and pleasure, was already activated after the very first intake,” says Winterdahl.

The study from Aarhus University is explained in layman’s terms in this article from MedicalXpress.com. The technical English-language summary on the Aarhus University site is here.

For more about sugar, see my post on the Good Habits blog, “Kick the sugar habit—or it will surely kick you.”

0

Robert Frank, “The Americans”

Bar, Gallup, New Mexico
Bar, Gallup, New Mexico
With brilliant insight and economy, Frank revealed a country that many knew existed but few had acknowledged. He showed a culture deeply riddled by racism, alienation, and isolation, one with little civility and much violence. He depicted a society numbed by a seemingly endless array of consumer goods that promised many choices but offered no real satisfaction, and he revealed a people emasculated by politicians who were fatuous and distant at best, messianic at worst.
—Introduction to Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans”
by Susan Greenough, Senior Curator of Photographs
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
0

The center of serenity

The love of Heaven and Earth is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the myriad things.
The love of the sages is impartial,
and they demand nothing from the people.
The cooperation between Heaven and Earth
is much like how a bellows works!
Within the emptiness there is limitless potential;
in moving, it keeps producing without end.
Complaining too much only leads to misfortune.
It is better to stay in the center of serenity.

—Laozi, Dao De Jing, Chapter 5, translated by Yuhui Liang

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Laozi

0

Malcolm X on education

Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights. It is the means to help our children and our people rediscover their identity and thereby increase their self respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.

—Malcolm X, Speech at Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (28 June 1964), as quoted in By Any Means Necessary (1970)

0

Voltaire: I am silent, I have too much to say

My dear brother, my heart is withered, I am crushed. . . . I am tempted to go and die in some foreign land where men are less unjust. I am silent, I have too much to say.

—From a letter written 7 July 1766, on hearing of the torture and execution of the chevalier de La Barre. La Barre’s body was burned along with a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.

0

Why Democracy Is Breaking

Here’s the problem.

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry: people who read, people who are educated about how law and government work, people who are well informed.

As democracy made slow progress in Europe and later in what became the United States, political power—most obviously, the right to vote and to hold political office—was restricted to property-owning men. The merchant class, who had wrested these rights from the nobles (after the nobles had wrested them from the kings) fiercely resisted expanding them to larger groups. 

On the one hand, this sort of limited democracy ensured a relatively well-educated, well-informed cohort of voters and office holders by severely limiting the power of the poor and working classes. In the U.K., only gentlemen could become Members of Parliament, and only men could vote them into office. In the U.S., the House of Representatives was more broadly democratic, but the Senators were elected by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment changed that provision of the Constitution in 1913). 

These arrangements (and others like the U.S. Electoral College) did ensure a relatively well-educated electorate. On the other hand, they were clearly undemocratic attempts by an elite ruling class—white men of property—to hold on to their power. Such men, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading thinkers of the early United States, argued that a pure or complete democracy was nothing less than an invitation to mob rule. Give every ignorant, unwashed working man a vote? Unthinkable. The new nation, they insisted, would be a republic, not a democracy, and the republic would be controlled by men of education and property. Or at least, men of property.

Since then, political power has slowly, grudgingly, and imperfectly been given to previously excluded groups—first to all white males, then to women, then to people of colour. But this expansion of political power has not been accompanied by an expansion of political education. It reminds me of the reform campaigns against the horrific mental institutions of fifty years ago, which were sometimes little more than medieval prisons for the mentally ill. Public sentiment against these institutions grew until, during the Reagan years in the U.S., they were largely abolished. The poor souls previously confined so cruelly were set free. Freedom! But freedom alone meant that most of these people ended up homeless, living on the streets, with little or no care at all.

The expansion of political power without an expansion of education and social justice has had a similar result: millions of voters or potential voters who do not read, do not understand how law and government work, and who are woefully uninformed or misinformed about the facts. Such an electorate is laughably vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. 

But it’s worse than that.

The propertied middle classes, who live in decent neighbourhoods and send their kids to decent schools, are turning into the same kind of ignorant, uninformed, easily manipulated voters that the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke feared when they warned about mob rule. 

Years ago I read an essay by the Canadian-American novelist, Saul Bellow, in which he warned that the U.S. was turning into an “amusement culture.” The phrase stuck with me, and I kept noticing ways in which it seemed true. In older cultures people defined themselves by what they made or did. In the culture I saw around me, people defined themselves by what they bought. And what they bought, overwhelmingly, was entertainment. Amusement. Stimulation. Relief from boredom. I noticed, too, how closely this quest for entertainment resembled drug addiction: the dose that initially produced quite a strong effect gradually lost its power, and so had to be increased—a process whose logical end is overdose and death. 

Saul Bellow’s description has now been superseded. We no longer merely live in an “amusement culture.” We now live in an addiction culture.

TV, sugar, junk food, shopping, pro sports, pop music, Hollywood movies—practically all of the major features of popular culture function as addictions. People even say “I need a fix” to explain why they must watch a TV program or eat a donut. Meanwhile, the literal addictions to alcohol and other drugs continue apace and have been multiplied geometrically in recent years by the opioid crisis. 

But it’s worse than that.

The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster. Someone should write a 21st-century version of Shelley’s novel and title it Zuckerberg, or The Modern Frankenstein. The internet has not only added to our list of popular addictions such things as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also created a propaganda organ of instant, almost worldwide scope. No longer do demagogues need to print pamphlets or travel from town to town making speeches. A “tweet storm” or a series of inflammatory Facebook posts can do the work infinitely faster and better, as all of us have seen in the Age of Trump. 

There are, of course, pockets of resistance. Some people do read books, exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid popular culture, play musical instruments or paint or write, go on long walks, etc. They are a small minority, vastly outnumbered by the millions of avid participants in the Addiction Culture. And since the Addiction Culture is not only self-perpetuating but self-multiplying and almost completely empowered, there’s no end in sight. No way to turn this ship around. 

Which is why democracy is breaking. 

If history is any guide, nothing short of a violent crisis can change the trends, and if such a violent crisis comes, it is as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. And if after all of this pessimism you think the world is worth saving and want to give it a try, I suggest that you become a teacher and inspire your students to read, think, and become well-informed.

Coda: If becoming a teacher is out of your reach, or not enough, try working on one or both of these essential problems: 1) Ensure that access to large sums of money gives zero advantage to a candidate for political office. 2) Establish an independent, publicly-funded news service that does not need to compete with commercial media.

0

Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy

I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:

Page 134: 

‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be. 

Page 143: 

Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible; 

Page 207: 

Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war. 

Page 229: 

Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice. 

This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.

0

Poetry vs. Horses and Dogs

Found in John Merriman, Modern Europe: Volume One, From the Renaissance to the Age of Napoleon (1st edition, 1996):

Literature flourishes in Italy and princes there are not ashamed to listen to, and themselves to know, poetry. But in Germany princes pay more attention to horses and dogs than to poets—and thus neglecting the arts they die unremembered like their own beasts.

—Pope Pius II (1405 – 1464)

After reading Miranda Carter’s wonderful George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I, it is difficult not to connect Pius’s remark to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a.k.a. the House of Windsor, Britain’s royals, whose country houses were—are?—filled with dogs and hunting parties. Kaiser Wilhelm II was also an avid hunter. Carter describes Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for hunting, and that of his royal British cousin, the future King George V:

Wilhelm . . . kept a list of everything he’d ever killed: by 1897 it totalled 33,967 animals, beginning with “two aurochs, 7 elks” and ending with “694 herons and cormorants and 581 unspecified beasts.” George could bring down 1,000 pheasants in one day. At [the Windsors’ country estate] Sandringham the quantities of game shot were positively obscene.

Positively.

And in case you think this is all in the past, do an image search for “British royals with dogs and horses.”

0

Too crazy to fight

From Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of BeBop:

Howard McGhee told the army psychiatrist, “Man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody out there. . . . I wouldn’t know the difference. . . . If he’s white, I’m going to shoot him. Whether he’s a Frenchman, a German, or whatever, how the fuck would I know the difference?” McGhee was informed, “We can’t use you.” Later, he reflected: “I wasn’t ready to dodge no bullets for nobody. And I like America. But I didn’t like it that much. I mean, it’s all right to be a second-class citizen, but shit, to be shot at, that’s another damn story.” Dizzy Gillespie (who drew the attention of the psychiatrist by carrying his trumpet in a paper bag) had a similar reaction:
They started asking me my views about fighting. “Well, look, at this time, in this stage of my life here in the United States, whose foot has been in my ass? The white man’s foot has been in my ass hole buried up to his knee . . . ! Now, you’re speaking of the enemy. You’re telling me the German is the enemy. At this point, I can never even remember having met a German. So if you put me out there with a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot at the enemy, I’m liable to create a case of ‘mistaken identity. . . .’”
They finally classified me 4F because I was crazy enough not to want to fight, in anybody’s army.
0

Why Does the American Right Love Russia? Let Mr. Solzhenitsyn Explain

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a constant irritant to the communist leaders of the Soviet Union until he was expelled from the country. After a brief stay in Switzerland he moved his family to Vermont in 1974, where he avoided publicity and worked on The Red Wheel, a series of historical novels tracing the end of imperial Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union. In 1978 he emerged from his rural retreat to deliver a commencement address at Harvard University.

I remember reading press accounts of the speech and thinking that Solzhenitsyn was a man stuck in the past. Like his predecessor, Leo Tolstoy, he seemed mired in a Christianity that was largely irrelevant in the modern world. Re-reading the speech today, I find passages that support those earlier impressions. He bemoans, for example, the West’s moral decadence:

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil. 

He also condemns, not just communism, but any form of socialism:

Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death. 

And in remarks on the Vietnam War, which had finally drawn to a close in 1975 after thirty years, he expresses a view that would have been welcomed by the most right-wing generals in the Pentagon.

Your short-sighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing spell; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam was a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small, Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future? 

Such views seemed retrograde and wrong-headed to me in 1978, and still seem so to me now, even though his condemnations of the moral decadence so obvious in American culture, and of the amoral materialism of capitalism, resonate undeniably. Other portions of the speech, however, read today almost like a guide to understanding the initially puzzling sympathy for Russia that Donald Trump’s supporters express. 

Distrust of Journalists

Trump has consistently trashed the media, calling every news report that puts him in a bad light “fake news” and even calling the press “enemies” of America. Here is what Solzhenitsyn says about journalism in the West:

What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If he has misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it hardly ever happens, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance. . . .

The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists made heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan “everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information. . . .

Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives? 

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend. 

Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life. 

It is easy to find these themes being echoed today by Trump and his followers.

Christian Nostalgia

It is easy, too, to see the appeal of Solzhenitsyn’s views for conservative Christians:

However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred, or even fifty, years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer. 

Solzhenitsyn closes his speech by imagining a future that revives the best features of the Middle Ages without repeating the mistakes of that era:

It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more important, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the modern era. 

Instead of this utopian spiritual revival, however, current events suggest a good old-fashioned upsurge of authoritarianism, tribalism, and nationalism. And so far, at least, Christian conservatives have distinguished themselves only by their craven support of a blatantly immoral leader, not least at his most racist, white-supremacist moments. “Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism,” Solzhenitsyn said in 1978. Forty years later, his dream seems even more naive while his distrust of liberal democracy is echoed far and wide—even in the Oval Office itself.

0

4 Reasons the U.S. Is Doomed

  1. The success myth, which tells us that anyone willing to work hard can succeed in America. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Check the flip side: if anyone willing to work can succeed, then it follows that anyone who has not succeeded has only himself to blame. As a result, most Americans either downplay or simply ignore all the other causes of poverty, refuse to pay taxes that might go to address those causes, and thus condemn themselves to living in a society with a huge, chronic gap between rich and poor, and a middle class who can’t figure out why they are having so much trouble making ends meet. (Oh yeah, it’s the illegal immigrants, the brown people, the foreigners ripping us off, etc.)
  2. Anti-intellectualism, deep-baked into the culture from the very beginning. Distrust education, distrust “worldliness,” just read the Bible and pray. Today, even where the religion has worn away, the anti-intellectualism persists. Book-reading is effeminate; real men don’t read books. Professors are suspicious by definition. And who needs a college education anyway? Meanwhile the cost of a college education keeps rising further and further out of reach for middle-class, much less poor, students, helping to reinforce the wealth gap (see #1). And who needs to study history? or economics? Who needs actual knowledge and understanding to vote? Any ignoramus can do it.
  3. The religious worship of Freedom! above all other values, leading to such absurdities as people insisting that they would rather suffer an obscene rate of gun violence than give up their freedom to own weapons of war; or that they would rather risk being bankrupted by the next illness or injury rather than give up their freedom to be ripped off by private insurance companies. Freedom to live on the streets. Freedom from the humiliation of accepting government handouts. Etc. Free! The possibility that freedom is just one ideal among many others like communitysafetyhealthsecuritycompassion, etc., barely enters the conversation. The delusions about Freedom! lie so deep in that view of the world that millions of Americans actually believe, and will repeat without the slightest doubt, that “the terrorists hate us because we are free.”
  4. The military-industrial complex. In those irrelevant history books we can read of many a king, prince, or emperor who was infatuated with war. War they must have, but how to pay for it? Tax the peasants? They were already one bad harvest from starvation. Tax the incredibly rich nobles? They would rather overthrow the monarch than pay for his wars. And so, the only alternative (because peace was not an option!) was to borrow the needed funds. Eventually, of course, the country goes bankrupt, the ruler is overthrown, and we start over. Today the U.S. is deeply in debt and headed for bankruptcy because of its ridiculously oversized military budget. The military budget can never be cut, because that is not an option! You see where this is going.

Notice that the racist ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that permeates U.S. history, does not appear on my list except marginally (see #1). That’s because I actually think that, given demographic change (more brown people!) and generational change (“What is all this racist shit about?!?) white supremacy could suddenly flip, in the same way that opposition to gay marriage suddenly flipped. Here’s the problem: even if that happened, all four items on my list would still pertain. Because the success myth, anti-intellectualism, the worship of Freedom!, and the sacred military budget cross all classes, races, genders, and sexual preferences in American society. Those values and beliefs are not going to flip, and sooner or later they are going to bring down the empire.

0

Chris Hedges: “The Coming Collapse”

I wish Hedges could write without hyperventilating, because his inflated rhetoric undercuts his message.

I share his pessimism about the future of America, but I think the reasons for pessimism go deeper than the surface-level events he lists.

  • The success myth, which tells us that anyone willing to work hard can succeed in America. The flip side: anyone who has not been successful has only himself to blame, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to give such lazy sods any of my hard-earned dollars.
  • Anti-intellectualism, deep-baked into the culture from the very beginning. Distrust education, distrust “worldliness,” just read the Bible and pray. Even where the religion has worn away, the anti-intellectualism persists.
  • The religious worship of Freedom above all other values, leading to such absurdities as people insisting that they would rather suffer an obscene rate of gun violence than give up their freedom to own weapons of war; or that they would rather risk being bankrupted by the next illness or injury rather than give up their freedom to be ripped off by private insurance companies. Etc.

I can imagine even white supremacy finally being overturned, just as homophobia has been. But I can’t imagine the success myth, anti-intellectualism, or the religious worship of Freedom disappearing from American culture, and it seems to me that these values, deep-baked into the culture, produce most of the ills that Hedges writes about.

Read Hedges’ article here: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-coming-collapse/.

0

“All cleverness was in itself suspicious.”

George Eliot on the suspicions of country folk:

In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother? To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their untravelled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. All cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in itself suspicious: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner, were mostly not overwise or clever—at least, not beyond such a matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring.

—From Silas Marner, Chapter 1

0

Ed Pavlic: “Baldwin’s Lonely Country”

This is a great article about James Baldwin!

For Baldwin, the whole mythic racial nightmare was based upon “economic arrangements of the Western world [which] are obsolete.” People’s identities as Americans are built on fraudulent terms, terms founded upon criminal economic arrangements. Of the latter, Baldwin told Jamal, “Either the West will revise them or the West will perish.” This was especially acute for white folks gripped in “European hangovers” who fantasized that they had more in common with villagers in Scotland or Ireland than they did with black folks who had been their neighbors (and closer than that!) for generations. Economics and race were mutually reinforcing false witnesses.

Link: http://bostonreview.net/race/ed-pavlic/baldwins-lonely-country

0

“Barbara Ehrenreich on the Cult of Wellness”

Another great interview by the invaluable Christopher Lydon on his Radio Open Source podcast. The “cult of wellness” is actually the inevitable result of making healthcare a capitalistic enterprise. It’s why the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on healthcare, with indifferent results.

Link: http://radioopensource.org/barbara-ehrenreich-on-the-cult-of-wellness/

0

Things fall apart

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

—from “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats

Bridges. Airplanes. Political systems. Things fall apart.

0

Taibbi: “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?”

“The social media giant has swallowed up the free press, become an unstoppable private spying operation and undermined democracy. Is it too late to stop it?”

facebook menace zuckerberg

“We shouldn’t be asking Facebook to fix the problem. We should be fixing Facebook. It’s our collective misfortune that this perhaps silliest-in-history supercorporation – a tossed-off hookup site turned international cat-video vault turned Orwellian surveillance megavillain – has dragged us all to the very cliff edge of modern technological capitalism.”

Link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/taibbi-facebook-can-we-be-saved-social-media-giant-w518655

0

Making sense of 2016

From December 2016:

When my mother died in 1978, after a long illness, it was not a surprise. It was a blessed relief for her, and for her sons. Thus I was totally unprepared for the tsunami of grief that hit me. Slowly I realized that I was not grieving the death of my mother, but the loss of my childhood. I would never “go home” again; I would never be a kid again.

All of us want unconditional love, and for most of us that means mom, and childhood. If you cut through the mishmash of conflicting political impulses behind Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again!” boils down to this: “Let’s re-wind to when I was a kid and I didn’t have all these problems and uncertainties.” Unconvinced? Try asking someone bemoaning the terrible state of the world today, “What era, exactly, would be a better age to live in than this one?” There isn’t one.

Similarly, the howls of outraged grief that follow the death of a pop star from our youth has its roots in the same nostalgia for childhood. Most of us never met these people, and had no personal relationship with them. They function as pieces of furniture decorating our younger, happier days. We are mourning the loss of our youth, not the loss of those people we never knew.

And so as 2016 winds mercifully to a close, we can perhaps find some solace in recognizing that the grieving fans of Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, etc., have more in common than they might imagine with the angry, desperate people who voted for a man who promised to make everything better again.

0

1932: Louis Armstrong plays the Palladium; London critics reveal their prejudices vs. blacks, Jews, the Irish, and modern art

His actual presence gave me, in a sense, a shock, and I much regret to have to admit to finding something of the barbaric in his violent stage mannerisms.

The young Jewish element at the back was enthusiastic.

As for Armstrong himself, he was

the ugliest man I have seen on the music-hall stage. He looks, and behaves, like an untrained gorilla.

This savage growling is as far removed from English as we speak or sing it—and as modern—as James Joyce.

Pops, by Terry Teachout, pp. 186-87

0

“Thumbprints in Seal Oil”

“This documentary tells the story of a 250-year-old choral tradition from the coast of Labrador. When German Moravian missionaries sailed into Inuit communities with freshly written musical scores by Bach, Handel and others, they couldn’t have forseen the longlasting impact that music would have on the identity of the Inuit of Nunatsiavut. Musicologists now know that many hymns made their North American debut in the wooden churches of Makkovik, Nain, Okak and Hopedale and that some of the music credited to Germans was in fact written by Inuit composers. The first half of the documentary takes place in the small Inuit community of Hopedale where a choir camp has gathered the new generation of singers. The second half takes place in St. John’s where two choirs, an Inuk soprano and 25 symphony players are preparing for a massive concert celebrating this music. Angela Antle is a member of one of the choirs and tells part of this story as a singer, learning the Inuktitut text and discovering that the Inuit left much more than seal oil thumbprints on the corners of the scores, they used the music to help define their identity.”

Link:
http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/atlantic-voice/episode/15532542

0