The Skeleton ventures a final word

“Thinking about the last couple of chats, where you bring up self-hatred versus self-love, you speak about it a little glibly, I think, no?” said the skeleton of my father.  “We humans love simplicity, that’s why the black and white worldview is so seductive to us — we can be 100% right and the people who don’t agree with us are evil fucks we can feel virtuous taking flying shits on.” 

I grant you all that.  Obviously, it took me many years, many of them fairly painful, to come to the point of view about our relationship that I have come to now.   

“Granted, but, look, Elie, it goes beyond that.  We are talking about the nature of certainty, what we know, what we think we know.  You’re living in a time when the basic nature of knowledge itself is under attack.  It’s like one of those jokes that killed vaudeville:  the guy’s wife finds him in bed with a bimbo and he says ‘it’s not what it looks like!  Who are you going to believe, darling, me or your lying eyes?’   It’s like your war criminal buddy Rumsfeld said, ‘we have the things we know, and the things we know we don’t know, and the things we don’t know we don’t know, and I know you are but what am I?'”

“It’s like the nature of history, what version of the past we accept is based on a belief system that will determine what facts you accept as facts.  If you think it’s evil that one man can own a hundred others, have them whipped, rape them, etc. you will have one view of The Peculiar Institution.  If you believe that Africans kidnapped and brought over on ships to serve as slaves were better off on a Christian plantation than in the state of sin they lived in back in Africa, you will have another view. 

“If your very rich Planter father was ruined by the end of slavery, and your brother was killed standing up for your family’s right to own people, you will, in your old age, find yourself, with other white southern former debutantes, determined to support the writing of history that makes both men look like idealistic martyrs for a glorious lost cause.  You get William Archibald Dunning and the fucking Dunning School of history at my alma mater, The Birth of A Nation and the rest of that Klan coddling history.   Take a look at this footnote, Elie, and tell me who has the better analysis of what happened after the Civil War? [1]” 

“Of course, that analysis will be agreeable or disagreeable to you depending on your interests, and the beliefs shaped by those interests.  Not to say there are not many facts that are beyond dispute, there certainly are such facts.  They are increasingly slippery in the age you live in.  You have an alienated populace, powerless and lazy, who increasingly watch zero sum reality TV game shows where the entire draw is believing that watching an artificial, loosely scripted TV show gives them a voyeur’s view of someone else’s ‘reality’.  So it’s fascinating to them, you know, getting to tune in to ‘reality’ and watch people vie for meaningless things and watch every one of them lose and one of them win it all.”   

“You will have a young genius harness technology to tap into alienated people’s need to feel connected to each other.  A hermit can suddenly have 1,000 virtual friends, a virtual farm with virtual animals and crops, a virtual conversation with ten million like-minded people.   The young genius will be challenged to monetize this great platform he’s built and will come through brilliantly.  The guy’s thirty-three, his ubiquitous platform, and the algorithms that drive it, were instrumental in deciding the last presidential election, and he was worth $74,000,000,000 last time you checked, making the octogenarian Koch boys and their combined lifetime $100,000,000,000 look like a pair of pikers.”

“So we have winners and losers, which is exactly what your frenemy Mr. Hitler was always selling to his beloved countrymen.   You have Aryans, pure blooded supermen like the club-footed runt Goebbels, and you have enemy polluters of the Aryan race, Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, Freemasons, Christian Scientists, immigrants, socialists, what have you.   See, very simple.  Today you have millions of Americans who suspect foreign thieving rapists are trying to sneak in by the millions to steal our wealth and rape our purebred Christian women.  It’s the same shit over and over, Elie, that’s the tragedy of history.  You think this fuck you have by the nuclear button has ever read a history book, outside of a few of the speeches of Adolf Hitler that he supposedly kept on a gold table next to his bed?”   

“There is no end to the examples, as you are well aware.  It shocked you to find out that until I was twelve, if the economy had been better, I could have been legally rented out to work in any factory around, for as many hours as my parents wanted to rent me out for.  There was no child labor law, no minimum wage, no maximum hours of work, until FDR.  Think about that for a second.   And it’s not like FDR waved a wand, there were thousands of labor strikes when he was in office.  An ocean of blood had been spilled for decades, by desperate workers organizing and putting their asses on the line against hired thugs, before they were finally able to force a sympathetic president to do the right thing.   In this area, FDR did what he had to do to keep the lid from blowing off our exceptional capitalist nation, and only because the historical moment demanded it.  The Koch boys, of course, through decades of determined spending, were able to roll back many of those hard won workers’ rights with the help of freaks like Scott Walker that their money got elected and kept in office, but that’s the pendulum of history for you.” 

“Back to what I was saying before, though.   I appreciate that this long process of talking to what you imagine I’d have become, if I’d kept the realizations I had as I was dying, was your way of working out some important unfinished business.   I’m glad it has given you a feeling of greater understanding and even a bit of serenity.  I just question whether you can really say you always felt loved, respected, esteemed by me, in spite of the poison gas, the relentless propaganda, the nightly strafing, bombing, etc.”

You have every right to question.   

“Mighty white of you, Elie, particularly toward a man who, when you had a pressing question, often gave you silence by way of an answer,” said the skeleton.   

It just underscores my point, dad.  When somebody hates himself on a fundamental level, that’s what they fucking do when their child comes to them in need, asking for something the self-hater never got in his life.   I get the dynamic, I don’t see the confusion on your part. 

“It’s not confusion, I just think you’re oversimplifying, or rewriting history, if you prefer.” 

Yo, it’s like some jazz great, usually Satchmo in the legend, told a square who asked him to define jazz…

“Yeah, ‘if you got to ask, daddy, you ain’t never gonna know.’  OK, I respect your position.  And, anyway, you’re only at the end of draft one now.  You will presumably refine the whole stinking 1,200 pages into something that smells like a fresh, winning 400 page memoir of your troubled and troubling old man, the large family that was all but wiped out with no trace but what you have learned, the tumultuous history that swirled around all of us, personal and out in the world, the shit that continues to swirl.  I get it, I really do.” 

“I guess I have one last thing to add.  You have high hopes, I think you’d admit, about transmitting some of what you have learned about history and this life to the younger generations. You want to leave a little more light in the world than there was when you came in.   I admire that ambition and like to feel I contributed to it, in some small way.”   

I’m standing on your shoulders, dad. 

“Here’s the thing, though.  It’s easy to oversimplify.  That’s all I’m saying.  You know, everyone has their way of dealing with their fear of death, their fears of the past, of opening wounds.  You were not a brave kid, you were cautious, you had many fears, and nightmares.  I think you are a lot braver now, as a man on the cusp of dotage.  It takes more bravery to be uncertain, I have come to realize, than to wrap yourself in certainty.  Any idiot can be certain, most of them are.”

The skeleton looked around him with shadow eyes that could not see.  He appeared to be following the flight of two vultures, turning lazy circles in the sky above the bucolic country cemetery where his bones were interred.

 “Turkey vultures, Elie,” he said.  “I know you feel that difficult truth that is hidden is inevitably fertilizer for unresolvable future trouble.  I think you may be right about that too, but you cannot underestimate the power of shame in human affairs.   I understand why one relationship that would shed the most light on me as a person, on my M.O., had to be left out of the story of my life.  You are right to leave it out. 

“You are left with a tiny family, and if you did not leave that particular story out, fascinating, interesting, tangled, perplexing, illuminating as it undoubtedly is, important as it also is, you would have Sekhnet and your handful of friends, and no family at all.  So let it be, Elie.  I’ve done the math, there is no way it comes out well.  Write the rest of the book, there is plenty else there to tell.”

A turkey vulture landed on either side of the skeleton, who put an arm around each, and with what could have been a wink, bid me, and all of you readers, a fond farewell.

 

[1]    Historian Eric Foner writes that the Dunning School “offered scholarly legitimacy to the disenfranchisement of southern blacks and to the Jim Crow system that was becoming entrenched as they were writing,” and that “the alleged horrors of Reconstruction helped freeze the mind of the white South in bitter opposition to any change in the region’s racial system.” Foner adds that “the fundamental flaw in the Dunning School was the authors’ deep racism,” and that “racism shaped not only their interpretations of history but their research methods and use of historical evidence.”[4][14]:x–xi

For example, Dunning referred to the freedmen as “barbarous” and defended the racist black codes as “a conscientious and straightforward attempt to bring some sort of order” out of the aftermath of war and emancipation. Dunning wrote that the freedmen were not “on the same social, moral and intellectual plane with the whites” and that “restrictions in respect to bearing arms, testifying in court, and keeping labor contracts were justified by the well-established traits and habits of the negroes[.]” [15]

In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), Du Bois characterized Dunning’s Reconstruction, Political and Economic as a “standard, anti-Negro” text. Du Bois noted, “Dunning admits that “The legislation of the reorganized governments, under cover of police regulations and vagrancy laws, had enacted severe discrimination against the freedmen in all the common civil rights.” [16]

Dunning’s followers generally rejected Du Bois and his Marxist interpretation of the history of Reconstruction. Publishing in the midst of the Great Depression, DuBois believed that the poor, both black and white, had common cause against the rich. Part of his analysis of Reconstruction was an assessment of how the classes were aligned, and how the white elite struggled to keep power, withholding it from blacks and poor whites both.[17]

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