Hereditary Trait — war between siblings?

Years ago I had a terrible fight with my sister.   A few days later I was visiting my father’s first cousin Eli, a rough character as capable of tenderness as he was of socking somebody with one of his hard fists.  The old man thoughtfully listened to my description of the fight.  He paused to take it all in, then gave me his advice.

“Look, she’s your sister, I hear what you’re saying about the fight but don’t let the bad feelings linger.   You have to swallow your pride, tell her you’re sorry you two fought, you don’t have to apologize for starting the fight or not starting it, you’re just sorry about the whole thing.   Tell her you want to make up, put it behind you, tell her you love her and you feel terrible and you want it to be over.  Don’t let your pride stand in the way of making up with her.  Do it sooner rather than later when it might be too late.”

I told him it was good advice, and that I appreciated it, but that I was still too hurt and angry to make that move, and then, taking a page from my mother’s book, I told Eli it was a little ironic coming from him, a man who hadn’t spoken to his own sister in over thirty years.   This got the same reaction my mother’s challenging comments always got from Eli.  His face immediately turned magenta and he leaned forward menacingly, ready to attack.

“My sister is a completely different story!   There is no comparison between my sister and your sister!   My sister is a complete bitch!” he yelled in a cry of pain and anger, as acutely stung by the painful falling out they’d had decades earlier as if the unforgivable offense had just happened.

Fast forward three decades.  I get a call from Eli’s daughter.  She and her sister are visiting the cemetery where their parents and mine are buried.  She asked if I’d like to meet them, it’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.   I took the train up to Peekskill and we drove over to the cemetery.   It is a Jewish tradition to take a small stone and place it on the gravestone of the dead person we are visiting.     We gathered our stones and walked among the graves.

At their parents’ grave we put our stones on Eli’s side of the large headstone and then, as I put a stone on their mother Helen’s side, I said “she was a sweet lady.” That was my memory of her — long-suffering, hospitable, kind smile.  I was a boy when Helen died young, but I remember her pretty well.  Neither of her daughters said anything when I said their mother had been a sweet lady.

Afterwards, over lunch, they told a couple of stories involving their mother, as though to set the record straight, letting me know that their mother, in her way, had been as problematic as their emotional, sometimes violently opinionated father.

If your father is tyrannical, as the beloved Eli also was, and your mother always goes along with the tyranny… well, an ally of your enemy is also your enemy.  I know this well from my own childhood.  Helen always seemed sweet to me, she’d smile warmly and bring us good things to eat.   She was quiet and kept herself busy being the perfect hostess during our visits, she laughed easily.  She died of cancer when I was about 11 or 12.   Why wouldn’t a boy remember her as a sweet person?   Particularly if his own parents often attacked him, sometimes quite savagely.

We can think of these childhood observations without attaching value judgments to them, somehow, but it’s not easy, or even always a great idea, I think.   Value judgments are our assessment of what’s the right way to act and what not to do.   Even the doltish Nazi Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant book on his trial in Israel, was able to accurately summarize Immanuel Kant’s view on this, the Categorical Imperative.   When pressed by the judges at his trial he defined it: to act in such a way that you could will your actions to be universal principles.   Would the world be better or worse if everyone acted like I am acting now?

I think of this as another statement of Hillel’s famous summary of morality: what is hateful to you, don’t do to somebody else.   Loving your neighbor as yourself is a difficult golden rule to follow.   Phrasing it the way Hillel did cuts through difficult theory to practical practice.   It’s a simple matter to know what you hate, you hate it instantly, always, it’s like a chemical reaction.  

You can do something hateful to you to somebody else, if you don’t expect that person to treat you any differently in return, but what kind of world would it be?  If everyone treated everyone in this hateful manner we’d have a state of constant war, each against all.  If we all stopped ourselves from doing things to others that we hate done to us, that would be a huge step toward solving problems before the oceans rise to drown all of us not turned into desperate climate refugee/cannibals determined to not to die by water.

But back to my original thought about whether we inherit certain idiosyncrasies regarding siblings (begging, of course, the equally valid question of whether we learn them as children).   Eli didn’t talk to his sister for the last 30 or 40 years of their long lives. He lived to be almost 90, his sister to 103.  I believe their final dispute was related to sharing their father’s modest inheritance, more than 40 years before Eli’s death.    Eli’s daughters have a younger brother I haven’t seen or heard from in years.  When I asked his sisters about him they said he was fine.  I got the feeling that they haven’t talked to him for a long time.

Although I often ascribe this family harshness to the brutal pruning of our family tree back in 1942 and 1943, and the centuries-long culture of persecution my surviving family comes from, I suspect these estrangements between siblings happen in many cultures.  I just read a book about sibling strife by psychologist Jeanne Safer,  Cain’s Legacy.  She states her credo at the start of the book:   “Cain’s Legacy reflects my passionate conviction that it is essential not to gloss over the dark side of life.”   She states my credo as well.  

I have to peer into the darkness until I can see the fucking thing, I can’t stop myself, nor do I want to.   I need to understand what is there.  If it can be fixed, let’s fix it.  If it provides a lesson, let’s take the lesson from it.  If it is too monstrous to survive in the light, we’re better off leaving it there in the dark and both walking away from it.  To pretend it’s not there does not seem to be a life-affirming option.

The common peace-seeking instinct is to move toward the anodyne, the inoffensive, compromise version of conflict that blames nobody.  An explanation that lets everybody off the hook, you dig.  This is the purportedly non-controversial version of sometimes unbearable things we often hear from those who urge us that both sides always have an equal right to their opinion and that we should not judge.  We always judge, it’s part of our nature.  It’s how we survived as a species, as individuals.   It’s what we’ve learned to do from the experience of our lives, to the extent we ever really learn anything.

My father’s brother was younger, sickly as a boy and mom’s favorite.  Where my father was literally whipped in the face by mom, from the time he could stand, his brother was coddled.   Neither one emerged from their childhood without deep emotional scars, although my father’s problems are easier for me to understand now than my uncle’s.  My uncle, to his credit, spent years in psychoanalysis.  His son, my first cousin, would scoff to read the reference to his father’s long exercise in denial, dressed in a suit, lying on a shrink’s couch week after week, gaining so little insight. What did he learn?  When the mood struck, he remained tyrannical in his rage until the end. My father, for his part, had a lifelong scorn for people so weak they needed to whine to a shrink about the demons all of us must battle in our lives.

My uncle, much smaller than my father, often cringed around his brother, like a younger brother who’d often been sucker punched by his older, bigger, stronger antagonist.  One of the few stories my father ever told us about his brutal childhood of grinding poverty was the time he stuffed his little brother’s mouth full of raw chopped meat.   He told us the story more than once, chuckling each time he did.   The brothers had a strained relationship throughout their lives.  One time my father stayed at his brother’s overnight and I asked him over the phone how my uncle was doing.  I wrote his immortal reply on the page I was doodling on:  “let’s just say he remains unchanged.”

Yet, check this out– when my father was dying, he kept asking for his brother.   I picked my uncle up at the airport and the two brothers clung to each other morning to night for the last couple of days of my father’s life.   It was incredibly poignant to my sister and me.  After my father died his brother sat with his dead body (along with my brother-in-law) until members of the Chevre Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) claimed the body to watch over it and prepare it for the funeral.

My paternal grandmother, a savage little woman who died before I was born, used to yell at her sons when she saw them at each other’s throats.   “Seenas Cheenum!” she would shout — baseless enmity!   No reason on earth for these boys, growing up in extreme poverty, one beaten, the other coddled,  to be at each other like that!  I can imagine my grandmother grabbing my father roughly, pulling him away from her beloved younger son.   This kind of thing is detailed in the Old Testament where sibling treachery abetted by mothers and deadly fights between brothers are reported multiple times.  

This tendency for eternal ruthless war between siblings appears to wind up in the blood.  A combination of nature and nurture,  I suppose.  It is seemingly replicated down the generations.   Without insight into it, we remain prisoners of strong feelings we cannot understand or get past.  We pick up a rock and slay, sometimes.  

This unreasoning, murderous side of us lurks in our wounded hearts– there are circumstances that will bring out this rage.  The challenge is never to pick up a rock and slay, or maybe, to learn, without a doubt, that the wisest thing to do is to remove yourself from a situation so emotionally fraught that, under pressure, it will inevitably yield to the impulse to pick up the rock.   

Question of Fact

I find myself thinking of the good advice to juries and judges, given by Brett “Boof” Kavanaugh’s mother, who went to law school during Boof’s childhood and became a lawyer and then a judge herself.  “Use your common sense — what smells right and what smells like a steaming pile of shit?”  ( I paraphrase).

We’re living in a sound byte and “Social Media” driven, 51-49 SUCK IT, LOSER culture where fact finders are not expected to use common sense after smelling various claims to determine which come closest to making sense.   

Remarks are often taken out of context, edited, framed a certain way, weaponized and offered as doctored proof of the unreliability of things we used to call “facts”, back in the days when we naively believed that what actually happens is more important than the self-serving reframing of reality by highly paid spin doctors.   We are told everything today is strictly tribal, EVERYTHING, and what you believe depends 100% on whether you are a member of the tribe of loyal winners or the tribe of despicable fucking losers.   

As a member of a lost tribe, I find myself recalling times in my own life when I was expected to accept, for the sake of somebody else’s strong, immovable feelings, an absurd or incoherent story.    An innocent remark of mine was sharpened and used to vicious effect in a marriage counseling session as proof that my oldest friend, the husband, was a fucking liar.  His occasional lying never bothered me, nor did I ever agree with the wife that he is a compulsive liar.  Yet, there it is: that he’s an unbearable fucking liar proved by his oldest friend’s candid, strategically quoted remark!   

My old friend confronted me, as he was challenged to do by his wife and couples therapist and, eyelid twitching, put it to me bluntly: “Did you intentionally and viciously try to destroy my marriage or was it just stupidity driven by unconscious hostility?”   I suggested a third choice, which I explained in detail, but, also — what the fucking fuck?!

Granted, to a larger and more open extent than ever before, we are living in a 51-49 SUCK IT, LOSER! culture.   The stories and rationales will keep shifting, polls will be taken, retaken, new stories and rationales will emerge about the same thing explained differently the day before.   Denials will be followed by insistence that nothing was ever denied, admissions, same deal, they can be made and denied in back to back breaths because: SUPPORT OUR TROOPS!   

As long as the insula is kept glowing red, there is no need to go beyond the immediate cause of anger (which makes the insula glow).  In fact, when we are angry we are physically and psychologically unable to see the other side of anything, we literally cannot process the explanations that would otherwise pacify us.  The beauty of righteous rage: it makes us feel totally righteous and adrenalized to fight injustice.

If you hate, you will be inclined to easily believe the worst rumors about the person/people you hate.   Hillary Clinton, an internet meme insisted, was running a pedophile emporium in the basement of a popular DC pizza joint.  Child sex slaves, locked up in the basement for pervert Hillary supporters to do with as they pleased.  An outraged citizen arrived at the pizza place with a gun to liberate the poor children in the basement.   The pizza place had no basement.  They arrested the guy with the loaded gun and, thankfully, nobody was harmed.   The claim turned out to be a piece of random propaganda against a political candidate who was either the first or second most hated politician in America at the time (Trump and Hillary were said to be one/two most hated presidential candidates ever, I don’t recall the order).

During that same ugly 2016 campaign I got a call from a friend who told me about a video tape of Sheldon Adelson (piece of shit extraordinaire) and Donald Trump (his record reeks for itself) that allegedly showed them gang-banging a 13 year-old girl.  As much as I dislike both of these creatures, I immediately knew the story was a crock.  Use your common sense: assume either of them actually had sex with a 13 year-old — in what universe would they do it together, sharing the girl — and the possibility of a very long prison term?   It’s not in either of their characters to share. 

Beyond that, how would these two wealthy men, skilled in covering up dark things they feel need to be kept secret, have allowed a video to reach the public?   The videographer would be either well-paid off and sworn to secrecy in an ironclad NDA or discreetly removed from the world, along with the “evidence” of the sensational gang rape of a minor.  The corporate media would be abuzz about it, if such a tape had surfaced or there had been the slightest whiff of truth about its existence.

Believe what you like, it’s certainly your prerogative, like the choice to remain unpersuadable.  For me, I prefer to have as much solid information as I can get before I formulate and state my position.   It’s like being a juror in a criminal trial, you want to hear from what they used to call “fact witnesses”, as many people who were actually at the crime scene as you can get, and see as much other evidence as there is, before you make up your mind about what happened and what didn’t happen and who did what and so on.  Dismiss that principle as “tribal” if you like, I’ll stick with it, prejudiced member of a loser tribe that I am.

 

Opaqueness vs. transparency

Life is complicated.  People stay in horrible situations until they are destroyed, even when they know they are being destroyed.  Solid information is often available to help them make better choices, but … it’s complicated.   Some facts are just plain painful, and who wants that?  No reason to obsess over the image of frogs in steadily warming water, realizing too late that they are already partially parboiled.   

“How long do we have to get out of this before it’s too late?” asks a dying frog of another profusely sweating frog who is holding a thermometer and wearing a watch. 

“How the fuck should I know?” says the other doomed frog.  “I’m fucking dying here and you want to ask me stupid, hypothetical questions?  Asshole!”

One thought, if realized before they were goners, would be to check the temperature on the thermometer and use the watch to find out how fast the heat is rising.   190 degrees Fahrenheit is dangerously close to the 212 needed to make frog soup.   It’s 194 now, boys.   195.  There are certain objective facts here, fellows, verifiable information we can… oh, shit, 197.

Seldom, of course, is anything this simple, if simple any of this is. 

I think of the mother who told me her children had no idea how angry she was at the children’s father.   She had many good reasons to be angry as hell at the lying, thieving, death-threatening, fraud-committing, bullying bastard.  So angry, in fact, that she slept in her young son’s bed for several years after a particularly brutal betrayal by her husband.   

I urged her not to let her children stay in the dark about the many perfectly understandable reasons for her anger.  I told her the lack of reason would harm her children in ways she couldn’t imagine.  I offered to mediate an honest family discussion where these things could be placed on the table, a teachable moment for the kids about taking responsibility for one’s actions and the feelings.of those you love.   She declined, telling me that everything was fine, assuring me that the kids were none the wiser.   I told her not to delude herself, that the kids knew very well that she was furious at their father, though they had no clue why.

A couple of years before her young son finally kicked her out of his bed, saying “mom, this is weird…”, she told me I’d been right.   

“They know,” she told me finally, and recounted the conversation she overheard as she washed dishes and her children talked to another kid under the kitchen window.

“Our dad loves our mom, but our mom hates our dad,” she heard one of her observant young children say to their little neighbor.

My thought remained the same.   The kids have to know why you are angry at dad or else you are just an irrationally angry, grudge-holding person who finds it impossible to forgive things nobody has any idea even happened.   What effect does this untruthfulness have on your children’s forming understanding of the world, of intimate relationships?   Dad just shrugs, hugs and kisses the kids, pets them gently, says “hopefully one day your mom will realize how much I love her and love me back again and everything will be fine.  What can I do?  You want another ice cream cone?”

The kids will eat their ice cream with dad, laugh at his carefree shenanigans, thankful that they have at least one parent who is not a tense, joyless, implacably angry person.

I grew up in a home where certain things could never be discussed.  This included a variety of vexing things verified for me by my father on the last night of his life, after decades of his angry denial.   I know very well the effect this long zero sum battle against obstruction had on me.   To this day it sets me grimly against anyone who would be right at any price– these often escalate into battles to the death.    It cost me the ability to shrug philosophically when I am unfairly accused of something, in a conclusory way.   It haunted my working life, I can tell you for sure, my inability not to eventually tell an overbearing asshole boss to fuck the hell off.

There are things that actually happen in the world.  A bankruptcy, a death threat, an insurmountable gambling debt, unpaid loans, marital infidelity, provable fraud — these are things that either happened or didn’t happen.  There is little ambiguity about these kinds of events, some are even matters of public record (even if otherwise hidden).    If they happened, shameful though they may be to the party involved, they need to be discussed with the people directly affected by them.   Otherwise, life is a trial based on guesswork, without witnesses, evidence, any process of truth finding that allows the jurors to decide based on anything but prejudice.

In the name of love you will cripple those you love by making them live a lie they have no idea is anything but the truth, the whole truth and nothing but that arguably better than lying thing.

 

In God We Trust — YOU pay cash

The title above was one of my father’s throwaway lines, possibly taken from Lenny Bruce (and seen, in variations, on signs in stores with puckish proprietors).  I am thinking about trust today, don’t ask me why.    Trust is largely gone from public life in our ever-suspicious, tribal “fuck you”/ “NO, FUCK YOU!” culture.  Our public servants, for the most part, are untruthful or equivocating whenever they need to be, to protect their brand for integrity.   As a nation we’ve gone to war, more than once, based on outright lies that were known to be lies when the liars were repeatedly lying about why we needed to go to war.  Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s known knowns, if you know what I mean.   How do we trust people who lie whenever they feel the need to?  An interesting challenge.

I knew a woman married to a charming man who was a reflexive liar.   He would lie convincingly whenever he felt himself to be in a corner, and as a lifelong secret gambler who regularly lost big bets he needed to cover up, he found himself in a corner frequently.   As things got tighter for him, and his need to cover up some shameful excess grew, his lying became increasingly impassioned.  He would appear, at such times, achingly sincere, even admitting embarrassing things during these untruthful confessions.  

He was an excellent actor who was adept at gaining sympathy with a convincing, though false, story. The relief of getting out of very tight spots with these lies is probably what got him hooked on lying.  He was eventually caught in a few big lies involving undeniable credit card fraud, deliberate deception over large sums of “borrowed” money, outright embezzlement and so forth.  

He had some increasingly serious physical problems and, out of politeness, I once asked his wife how he was doing.   His wife said “how would I know?”  I never asked how he was doing after that.

It’s a mystery to me how you can stay close to someone you can’t trust.   We may sometimes hear things we don’t like from our nearest and dearest, be annoyed once in a while by the tics of our closest friends, but what we don’t doubt is the sincerity of these friends.  When the truth is needed, we will have some version of it from those who care about us the most.  Importantly, they will try to provide hard truth with sympathy.   This is my assumption and it seems to be confirmed by my experience.   On the other hand, I’ve been disappointed in this belief too, and relationships end over a revealed lack of trust.  Regular lying is not the only deal-breaker in close relationships, but it can be a big one.

A deliberate lie, of course, is in a separate category from the more common unintentional falsehoods that stem from self-delusion, a deep belief in dubious shit.   One person’s fucking lie is another person’s honest self-deception, and much of self-delusion is easy to understand and fairly innocuous.  Until it feels under attack.   Self-delusion can become aggressive when it must defend itself against all objective argument, marshaling a stubborn determination to see only one side of the situation.   This is the category, I think, that much of the untruth we are regularly presented with falls into.    Not deliberate lies as much as strong opinion based on one-sided  information, prejudice, the easy reflex to fall back on what feels right, inconvenient facts aside.

Is someone lying or misguided when they dismiss the climate disruption warned of by climate scientists as communist bullshit?   In most cases, they are probably not lying.  They sincerely believe, in spite of ever more common killer storms, droughts, floods, wildfires and other observable evidence,  the alternative explanation they have been given by very smart public relations people working for the cynical leaders of the lucrative, if problematic, fossil fuel industry.   Is everyone who believes that cutting taxes on the richest corporations and families actually helps everyone in society lying?   Probably not, there are many reasons to believe a given proposition.   Is a politician knowingly lying to convince people to support a position always acting like a psychopath?   You can argue that it’s not.

I don’t want to veer into politics here in 2020.  I’ve spent too much time on the vexing details in the last few nightmarishly turbulent years.  We are regularly lied to by various leaders, it is a given in our commercial culture today.  I’m going to give one example of a lie told to me, directly, by Barack Obama, secret Muslim, illegitimate presidential candidate unqualified for the Ivy League schools he went to, a man I voted for twice.  While he was pushing Obamacare, at a time when I very much liked my doctor, I was reassured to hear him say that under his plan “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”   Not necessarily.  In my case Obama scored a zero for truthfulness since I could not keep my doctor, his corporation did not participate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).

On balance the ACA was a step forward for a nation that had, before the law was passed, an even larger segment of its population dying unnecessarily after too-late diagnoses in emergency rooms, dying in the final stages of curable diseases for lack of health insurance.  Millions more Americans are now covered, at affordable rates, and that’s a net gain for everybody previously unable to afford health care.   It’s a problematic program with a lot of fucked up aspects to it, the insane complexities of its billing system high among them (as well as the millions still uncovered by the ACA), but the program was an undeniable step forward from what existed before.  

Even people who hated Obama don’t want to see Obamacare abolished.  Nobody but health insurance executives and wealthy psychopaths not affected by the program are in favor of reinstating the brutal “pre-existing condition” loophole that served only to further enrich health insurance companies.  Personally, I now save thousands of dollars a year over the cost of my former privately purchased health insurance, and I’ve found good doctors who participate in the plan,  That said, the motherfucker did look me directly in the face and lie to me, with great sincerity.   A small lie in the service of a much greater good, I suppose.  No need to go into some of his more deadly lies and omissions that really fucking irked me.

There are, of course, different categories of lying.  Some are harmless enough, a need to constantly brag, to exaggerate one’s importance, for example.  This kind of lying is used to push away the torments of low self-esteem, and, you know– what the fuck?  You can take this sort of lying, what lawyers call “puffery”,  with a grain of salt most of the time.   Some lies are quite destructive, as we all have experienced.   Why do people believe the habitual tellers of these kind of self-serving, damaging untruths?   Love.

If you love the person telling the lie, not being upset by the lie goes down much easier.  The lie is much easier to see as understandable, justifiable.  He HAD to tell it that way, you see, looking at it from his point of view– he was sincerely ashamed about what actually happened, you can’t blame him.   Or, it doesn’t matter, the guy is so good to me about everything else that his occasional lies, even things like the rare but undeniably shocking surprise bankruptcy days before the closing on our new home, for example, are acceptable.

The downside I can’t find a way to overlook is the necessary complicity of those who accept the liar’s need to lie.  This requires supporting the liar’s right to lie without consequences, to lie yourself to cover the lies of the loved one.  It includes the forced complicity of everyone who knows the secret stories that must never be revealed. 

The lie of the loved one needs to stand, and so does the need to talk around it, to dance, to contort the conversation in such a way that the lie is no longer central to what you are talking about.   In a pinch, just get angry as hell when someone keeps harping on some relatively harmless untruth they are so relentless about exposing.  Smash-mouth offense is the best defense in such situations, especially when people keep bringing up ancient history.

For me, the challenge is to be truthful and fair, to the extent any of us can be, without being combative about it.   It is a challenge I am wrestling with in the clear, stinging light of 2020.

 

Never Wrong

We all know people who have never been wrong.   The Pope, for example, has long been considered infallible, at least by the faithful.   That includes centuries of Popes who said, infallibly (before the Church revised its infallible dogma in recent times [1]), that the Jews collectively were eternally responsible for deicide, the murder of the Son of God, and should be eternally despised for having the blood of the Lamb on their murderous Jewish hands.   

Leave aside Popes, godly men who are so close to the Lord that their every opinion is beyond any possible reproach (if you are faithful to the one true faith).  We all know people in our lives who have never made a mistake.  To those of us who have made various mistakes, felt regrets and tried to make amends, these people may be hard to understand.  I will offer the example of some of the folks I know who have shown this sturdy belief in their own infallibility, sometimes in the face of impressive evidence to the contrary and at significant personal cost to themselves.

Famously, in my life, perhaps the single most unhappy person I’ve ever known was also the most certain in his eternal moral correctness.   An exemplar par excellence of the Repetition Compulsion, he was compelled to live the identical, miserable three act play over and over.  Act one: great excitement at having finally encountered an amazing person or thing.  Act two: ominous cracks appear in this idealized facade.  Act three: betrayal.

The salient thing about this little play, repeated over and over with countless new cast members, was that it illustrated the most important thing in this fellow’s life: that he was right, and always acting in good faith, and that the world was unjustly ready to kick him hard in the balls.  Always being the unfairly betrayed victim allowed him to always feel justified.  It didn’t really make him happy, and it left him without a single friend, but it made him feel righteous, I suppose.

I had a good friend from childhood, a very good musician, who wound up in a decades-long nightmare marriage.   I understand they finally separated, but a lot of severe damage was done to their children, and to their other relationships, over the course of the long, brutal war that was their marriage.   My friend commented once about certain innate abilities I had in music that he felt he lacked.  I noted a kind of envy sometimes as we played.   I suppose his feeling that he lacked the innate abilities I took for granted ate at him more and more over the years, that he felt himself to be in some kind of unfair competition with me as a guitarist [2].   He could not refrain, for this and other reasons, from provoking me, as his life got worse and worse.   

In fairness to him, he knew that no matter how much he provoked me I’d never slug him.   Neither of us is that kind of guy.   I asked him many times to back off when he was provoking me, as I was becoming aggravated by his superior tone and refusal to yield on any point.   He always denied he was provoking me, always insisted that the problem was mine alone, I was just an angry asshole easily provoked by totally innocent behaviors.  I tried for a long time to save a doomed, zombie friendship that dated back to fourth grade.  In the end he could not admit to ever having done anything that could have made me angry, claiming sullenly that his apologies, for whatever it was I thought he’d done to me, were never enough for me.  His wife, irrationally, insanely angry at him for no reason whatsoever, another case in point.

Is it that hard to admit having done something insensitive, dumb, wrong. something that irks the shit out of somebody else?  To some it appears to be impossible.   As close as we get to an acknowledgement from this type is the if-pology (tip of the yarmulke to landsman Harry Shearer):  IF I did something wrong, I apologize.  IF you are so oversensitive that you feel hurt and need an apology for something I didn’t even do, I apologize.  IF you can’t move on, pussy that you are, without my saying I’m sorry, well, if that’s the case, I’m truly sorry.  Asshole.

When you wrong somebody you love, in a moment of anger, say by threatening to murder their parents, their children and them, the proper, humane thing to do afterwards is to humbly apologize.   Without a show of repentance and the reassurance a sincere apology can provide, the threat stands: justified by the extraordinary circumstances that forced me to threaten you.  Preserving the option to do the unregretted thing next time and the time after that.   I always see the stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing, no matter what, as the cardinal mark of the pathetically insecure asshole.

The people we allow to stay in our intimate lives are those we trust not to behave hurtfully toward us.   We hurt each other sometimes, in thoughtless moments, it happens often enough in life.   We trust each other to consider hurtful actions and make amends when needed.  When we are aggrieved, a sincere apology can make a big difference in how we feel.  The same people, it seems, who can never be wrong often find it impossible to accept an apology once they’ve been hurt.   Go figure that one out.

We can argue about whether strapping someone to a board, gagging them and pouring water down their throat until seconds before they drown is barbaric torture or legally justifiable “enhanced interrogation”.   We can debate the difference between a political assassination and “targeted killing” and which is legal and which is not.   The only thing to remember is that those who would use any means to dominate others don’t care about the niceties of these “debates.”   They care about being right, winning.  And if I’m wrong?   FUCK YOU — you asked for war — Havoc! motherfucker, and let slip the fucking dogs of fucking war, asshole!

 

 

[1]  Wikipedia:

In the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI repudiated belief in collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus.[4] It declared that the accusation could not be made “against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today”.

[2]   This is a well-known syndrome among many guitar players, sadly.  There is something of a gunslinger mentality at jam sessions sometimes, a sorry macho holdover from a more brutal age.   Or maybe this age is simply as brutal as any other.  I’ve seen this competitive shit with guitar players over the years and it seems to miss the entire point of why we play music. Go fucking figure.

Psychological vs. Physical torture

I had a friend, a tortured soul, who’d routinely describe any mildly unpleasant experience as “pure torture”.   Never once, that I recall, was this torture physical.  It was that psychological torture most of us are familiar with, the kind we must endure from time to time in a life that sometimes contains insoluble frustrations.   Psychological torture  can become unbearable, no question about it.   Sometimes the answer to unbearable frustration, from the point of view of people in power, is to torture those who would torture us.   Torture and full-scale infrastructure demolishing military invasions, instead of smart, targeted law enforcement–  indictment, capture, trial– you know, the marks of a civilized response to intolerable crimes against humanity.   The impulse to torture is some sick, primitive, lizard-brained shit, if you think about it.  Once resurrected and tolerated it becomes a feature, rather than a disgusting bug to extinguish once and forever.

After the brilliantly executed terrorist masterpiece of 9/11 the world suddenly seemed a terrifying place.   You’re sitting in your office and a giant plane smashes through the window, turning the building into a crematorium.   On the internet you watch the filmed beheadings of people innocent of anything but being hated by these same terrorists.  These maniacs, many at the time believed, will come to your house and slit your throat in your bed.  In those extraordinarily terrifying days, extraordinary measures were called for.  Cue the cynical public servants and their ambitious, ass-licking lawyers.    I’ll let Amy Goodman and her brother David take it for a moment, from their 2006 book Static [1]:

When the eulogy for American democracy is written, this will stand out as a signal achievement:  how an American president and vice president championed torture, how Congress acquiesced, how the courts provided legal cover for the sadists, all the while sage media pundits politely debated our descent into barbarism.

[2]

These are the last words of their chapter on the Bush/Cheney torture regime.  About psychological torture specifically, they write, quoting historian Alfred McCoy’s interview with Amy:

“The second major breakthrough that the CIA had came in New York City at Cornell University Medical Center, where two eminent neurologists under contract from the CIA studied Soviet KGB torture techniques.  They found that the most effective KGB technique was self-inflicted pain.  You simply make somebody stand for a day or two.  As they stand — you’re not beating them, they have no resentment — you tell them, ‘You’re doing this to yourself.  Cooperate with us and you can sit down.’  As they stand, what happens is the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they separate hallucinations start, the kidneys shut down.”

Through a process of trial and error, the CIA refined its methods by experimenting with a variety of torture techniques, from beating, to secretly giving American soldiers hallucinogenic drugs.  “LSD certainly didn’t work — you scramble the brain.  You got unreliable information,” said McCoy.  “But what did work was the combination of these two boring, rather mundane behavioral techniques: sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain.”

The CIA codified its findings in 1963 in the KUBARK Counter-intelligence Manual (which can be found online).  McCoy noted that KUBARK presented a “distinctly American form of torture, the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in centuries — psychological torture… it’s proved to be a very resilient, quite adaptable and an enormously destructive paradigm.”

It is a mistake to consider psychological torture — sometimes referred to as “torture lite” — to be the lesser of evils.  “People who are involved in treatment tell us [that psychological torture] is far more destructive, does far more lasting damage to the human psyche, than does physical torture,” insisted McCoy.  Even Senator John McCain stated when he was advocating his torture prohibition in 2005 that he would rather be beaten than psychologically tortured.     [3]

My sister and I were raised by a father who (I learned toward the end of his life) had been brutally tortured as an infant and child.   The regular torture he was subjected to was both physical and psychological.   He was able to exert himself as a father not to inflict physical torture on my sister and me, something I applaud him for posthumously.   The psychological torture he was generally unable to refrain from inflicting.   So I write on this subject with some personal experience and strong feelings about it.  Torture leaves lifelong wounds — even the relatively mild forms of torture I experienced.   My sister still blames herself for the damage that was done to her.  One of the devilries of psychological torture is how it undermines your trust in your own perceptions.

You can shrug off torture done in our names, to strangers who may or may not be terrorists, as you can shrug off many terrible things you can do nothing about.   Why am I starting the new year writing about fucking torture?  A lesson from history, I suppose [4].  2006 is history now, although largely forgotten in our frenzied and fearfully competitive commercial culture, and Amy and David Goodman’s reporting was a first draft of history, and a chilling one.  The efforts undertaken in our name, on the Dark Side, as the personification of righteous evil Dick Cheney famously scowled it on national TV, casts a dark shadow across our culture today.  Ignore it at all of our perils, boys and girls.

After the slaughter of innocents on 9/11, DOJ lawyers John Yoo (tenured professor of Constitutional Law — of all things– at UC-Berkeley) and  Jay Bybee (lifetime tenured federal judge), got busy writing the now infamous (and generally forgotten) Torture Memo, the legal arguments for why America was entitled to use torture against its enemies.  Yoo had the brilliant insight to redefine pain, using a definition he found somewhere, and then to redefine torture as only that which causes the severe and unbearable pain that immediately precedes death.  

The definitions are key, in the law.   A prisoner of war may not be tortured, under international law, but what about an “enemy combatant” or a “detainee”?   Not exactly covered by those pesky Geneva Conventions.  Plus, since the treatment didn’t rise to the level of pain accompanying organ failure, it wasn’t torture, it was now “enhanced interrogation.”   See?  Let “bleeding heart” journalists and other lawyers find our secret memo and fight it out in court.  Fuck ’em.  

Like the neurologists the CIA hired in the early 1960s to create a manual of effective psychological torture (effective, we should note, in breaking the captive’s spirit, not in gaining actual intelligence) Cheney, Addington, Bush and co., soon after 9/11/01, hired two psychologists to create a new “enhanced interrogation techniques” program.   The EIT was based on the theory of learned helplessness.  You teach your captive that he or she is helpless.  You do this by creating debility, dependence and despair.  

There are many techniques.  You can deprive them of sleep for long periods, make them almost freeze, or almost parboil, chain them in stressful positions, lock them in coffins, slam them against walls, gag them on a board, turn them upside down and pour water into their mouths to simulate their drowning.  None of this is torture, by the way, if go by the legalistic Torture Memo and you are an insane fucking sadist on a mission from God. 

The creators of the EIT program, two psychologists, Jessen and Mitchell, were paid $80,000,000 to reverse engineer the SERE Manual (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) used to train Navy SEALS to resist giving up information under actual torture by savage enemies without the foresight and legal chops to set up an EIT program.   $80,000,000 tax payer dollars, boys and girls, for an American torture program that never worked.  Of course, its defenders say it saved countless innocent lives, but they are torturers and their words must be considered as such, however clever their lawyers’ reframing of torture may have been.

There was a study conducted and a massive report written on the extensive EIT program.  The report was compiled over several years, throughout the Obama administration.  The details of the inhuman things Americans and our allies did to “detainees” are sickening, the conclusion that torture does not work in terms of gaining useful information was unequivocal.   The highly redacted report on the most recent CIA torture program was classified, of course, never released to the public.  The summary of the report, which was reported on, was also heavily redacted. It was all very controversial, made America look very bad in hindsight.  Obama didn’t want it released, after all, he was “looking forward not backwards” and had already candidly stated, without any attempt to prettify it, that we “tortured some folks.”  That mea culpa was not enough?   Some very good people, with the best of intentions, did some bad things and some folks got “tortured.”   What more is there to say?  It’s like the banning of the n-word.   Stop people from saying the word in public and “bingo!” no more fucking racism.

Debility, dependence and despair.  It has been achieved on a massive scale, both here and abroad.   The number of American deaths of despair continues to rise.   The world is catching on fire, flooding, cracking open, the oceans are rising, swallowing coastlines.  Globalism has removed any trace of restraint from the corporations that run the planet, many of them hastening the end of the natural world by their heedless pursuit of the “bottom line”.  We are helpless against these forces, as we learn every day.  We depend on the massive international system that delivers our food, our water, our clothing and so forth.  Our only hope, we are told, is consuming things, while we can still get ’em.

Do not despair.  There are far better things to learn than helplessness.   The first task, it seems to me, is to see things as clearly as possible.  Facts exist, honest, they do.  The pain accompanying the shut down of a major organ is not the mark of what is fucking torture and what is not torture.   We live under the whims of a constantly enraged two-year old at the moment, here in the greatest and most exceptional nation God and or history ever created (among others who make the same claim), he serves the small group who already has it all, giving them more, taking from the least of us, but we must not despair.   There is much work to be done.   Time to get busy.

A friend said, when this insane, unfunny clown was elected president, fair and square by 78,000 surgically targeted votes that gave him the Electoral College, that we must remain vigilant.  These motherfuckers have made it extremely hard to remain vigilant, their cynical shit-flinging and “cult of personality” ass-licking is painful to watch.   But vigilant we must remain.

Do not despair.  There is much work to be done.  Time to get busy.  Here’s to a happy 2020, everybody.

 

[1]  Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back, Amy Goodman and David Goodman (c) 2006

[2] page 167

[3] pp. 161-2

[4]  I’ve also been intending to transcribe these passages from Static for a while now.  No time like the new year.

Ramming it Through

To those with no sense of sportsmanship (eh, sportspersonship…), there is only one object to the game– winning.  The point is not to play a game of skill, where the more skillful player has a chance to win even against great odds.  The point for “winners’ is winning.  Only winning, which is even better if the enemy is humiliated in the loss. 

To those who believe the point of every game is to beat an opponent in a zero sum war for dominance (a pretty sorry and vicious breed, if you think about it), the game itself is a distraction and any means may be used to dispose of it.  Fuck playing, fuck finesse, fuck the fun that makes it a game, fuck the rules, fuck you, loser.

Years ago I got to a certain level of skill in paddleball.   Paddleball is played on handball courts all over New York City.   The ball is a hard rubber “hand ball” that guys pound with their palms, and the paddle is made of wood, saving a lot of wear and tear on the hand.   I was a good player, never a great one.  I had many excellent games over the years, some against much more skillful players who nonetheless made it a game with me as they beat me handily.   

I appreciated the sportsmanship of these players, they were sympathetic to my fate, to a small extent, and pushed me to the limits of my game at the same time, which was very sporting, since they could have easily disposed of me without letting me touch the ball.  The thrill of paddleball is the volley, the quick twitch back and forth, the strategy, the sound of the ball sucking against the wall, the dash, the lunge, the return, the backhand.  Or as I learned one day from a much better opponent who took a moment to point it out to me, switching hands extends your reach by a good margin, allows you to return shots you couldn’t reach with a backhand.   Excellent advice.

Some play a game for love of the game, others use it as a means to prevail, to dominate someone and feel superior.   I once played a guy who had a fast, precise, killer serve.  In my experience with the serve, about nine or ten tries, it was unhittable.  His first serve was that one, his next, identical, 2-0.  I didn’t come close to hitting the third.  The fourth flew past my reach and reflexes again.   He continued serving his unreturnable, killer serve and took a 5-0 lead.   I may have had a a few poinst during my serve, but when he got the serve back it was that same killer serve.   

After his eighth or ninth unreturnable serve I said to him, with clear bitterness “obviously I can’t return this serve.  Do you want to show me your fancy fucking serve all day or do you want to have a game?”  He responded mockingly, telling me he’d give me an easier one since “you can’t handle this one.”   I told him to serve the ball, and I was very motivated to beat his ass good.   

Without his trick serve, I pulled even with him — he did not have much skill volleying, that serve was pretty much his whole game.   As I said, volleying is the whole point of this marvelous game.  It was soon clear to both of us  that if he hadn’t spotted himself a nine point early lead, I’d have beaten him easily.   

When he got the serve back it was those killers all the way and he won the game.  Afterwards I learned that he was in law school.  This was decades before I found myself in law school.   I said to him “that explains it, then, they’re instilling the idea that winning is the only thing and that the actual game is for suckers.”  He had some smarmy remark I don’t recall and it is also worth noting that he begged off of our rematch.

Bullying behavior is often this way, motivated by fear of a fair game.  Play the game, let’s see how it turns out.