A few words about liberation

I will practice saying this in an anodyne way, in a manner designed to avoid controversy, to provoke no political knee jerks or piss anybody off.  [1]

Tonight we Jews celebrate our people’s emergence from slavery to freedom, from bondage to liberty.  It is literally a celebration of liberation that requires each of us to imagine herself as a slave and to consider and commit ourselves to the duties of free people towards those who are oppressed.   We are commanded to identify with the slave, the oppressed, the victimized.  It is very, very hard to imagine the pain of slavery if you have never experienced it.

Frederick Douglass wrote about how agonizing it was to take leave of his loved ones forever when he escaped from a slave state to a free state and became, for the first time, a free human being like any other.   He commented that had it not been for these bonds of love, and the heart-crushing thought of never seeing, or even hearing from, any of your loved ones again in this world, thousands more slaves would have escaped.

We cannot dream of what we cannot imagine. The idea of something better comes first.  The vision, born in discontent, is what spurs us to action when we seek to change our condition, change the world.  At one time many ideas we all accept today were unthinkable: abolition of American slavery, the end of unlimited child labor, gay marriage, to name just three that spring to mind.  

Each of these common injustices were accepted by most people for centuries as just part of the legal and moral landscape, however unfair some may have privately agreed these things were.  The Constitution protected slavery, after all, there was no law that said children couldn’t be worked as virtual slaves without no limitation on hours or working conditions, homosexuals were long considered deviants to be punished for their sexual preference.  Today we see these things much differently, and laws were made to ensure these changes were enforced, only because, after a long, determined, principled struggle in each case, a more just idea took root in our society.

A vision of a better way always comes first.  What we can’t imagine, or name, is impossible to work towards.  The firm idea of how intolerable an injustice is must take root before any change can begin.  Before we can take steps to end oppression we need to name it, analyze it, understand it, form effective strategies to defeat it.  We also need to imagine and describe the end goal we have in mind.  

The slave dreaming of escaping, getting rich and buying slaves of his own is no dream at all, it is just more of the same.    

I’m not the only person thinking this way, that we need to dream actively of what we want to become.   Check out this beautiful vision of a better world, by several women I already admired greatly (and a couple of guys too, apparently).

 

[1] Tomorrow I’ll go back to business as usual, fuck this anodyne shit.  I  will thoroughly dissect pathetic porcine puppet Bill Barr’s sickeningly misleading, ass-kissing, partisan spin on Mueller’s report, the executive summary of which ends:

The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.

CONCLUSION

Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

 

(from Mueller’s excellent, clear, short summary of Volume II on obstruction which I urge you to read in its entirety here)

Understanding Anti-Semitism and other irrational hatreds

If you start with a slight prejudice, and have it confirmed a few times by your own experience, you will often come away with the firm belief that you were right to dislike the suspect fucks all along.

I am Jewish, from a once-large family ruthlessly pruned by European anta-semits almost eighty years ago.  As one of the few left from a family wiped from the world, strictly on the basis of our religion and social status, I am aware of the murderous power of rage channeled into an ignorantly opinionated and violent belief system. It is the same anywhere, where one group kills another simply because they hate and feel righteous doing so.

Jews were hand in hand with blacks catching hell down south during the Civil Rights movement.   Both of my parents were reviled as “Nigger Lovers”, which was the common phrase for their type back then.  Now, more often than not, Jews and blacks find ourselves on opposite sides of a divide that benefits only powerful haters.   The way of this imperfect world, I suppose, to randomly divide and control groups of people, and a subject for another time. [1]

Yesterday I had a graphic illustration of how this hatred of groups works.   I waited on a long line in a health food store in Queens to buy some vegetarian burgers we like.   At the cash register I was surprised when the bill was $1.20 more than I expected to pay for the two items.  

 Before you say I’m conforming to the stereotype of the cheap, penny-pinching Jew who only thinks about the price of everything and is always looking for the best deal, consider me as an aware consumer who knows how much the thing he buys regularly is supposed to cost.    The price ranges from $4.99 to $5.49, everywhere.   This store charged $6.09.

The line had been long, it was raining out, a 60 cent surcharge for each item was not hard to pay. Nonetheless, I was a little disgusted at the greed of the store owner, a store doing a brisk and lucrative business, as I went back out into the rain.

On the way home I stopped in another store to pick up something else.  The price was a little higher for this item than at other places, but I was happy to find it so I bought it.

  The cashier rang it up and charged me almost a dollar more than the price on the item.  I paid and left, then looked at the price again and thought “what the fuck?”

I went back in, the manager was called over and I was subjected to a convoluted rationale for why the store was legally required, contrary to the actual law, to charge tax for this tax-free item.  I have never paid tax for this item in any of the dozen stores I bought it in.  That’s because it is illegal in New York City to charge tax for this kind of ready-to-eat item.  I looked at the young Korean manager, who stood firm on store policy, said nothing, left the store, later ate the food.   Now, for the insight.  

Both stores were run by Koreans, no doubt future crazy rich Asians.   I called an old friend and told her I’d had a graphic insight into the workings of antisemitism.   I was disgusted by the practices of both greedy store owners, both of whom happened to belong to a certain ethnic group, and that, therefore, it felt quite natural to draw a conclusion about the group personality of these “Jews of east Asia”.  

Much to my surprise, my friend immediately jumped, with surprising vehemence, into an animated and detailed discourse on the sometimes shady practices of Korean store owners.

“Koreans are famously greedy bastards,” she said, adding a few of her direct experiences with greedy Korean store owners, reminding me how brazen they’d been at the laundry after losing articles of our clothes more than once. This happened because they combined the washes of customers, to be a little more efficiently profitable.

She gave them some credit for having invented the salad bar, though, of course, it was also a way to charge inflated prices for rotting food that they cut the bad parts off of.    

“Some of them are greedy bastards, no doubt, but we can agree that not all Koreans are like that,”  I said, but the point was made.   She was really disgusted by greedy fucking Korean store owners in New York City.   It was a pet peeve of her’s, being ripped off by the snippy, greedy, entitled fucks.

We all swim in a sea of outrage.  Our fellow swimmers are constantly kicking and clawing us.  It is good to remember, somehow, that succumbing to hatred of everyone else, while easy to do, is important to resist.   Every one of us is an individual with a soul of infinite worth.  Even greedy fucking bastards.

Oh, yeah, here’s yet another example of Korean entrepreneurship in a disappointing context.  This occurred between my trips to the two Korean-owned grocery stores and, even though completely innocent  on the part of the school operators, would have sealed the deal, if I was the sort to make that kind of deal.  

I went to pick up a couple of whole wheat everything bagels at the bagel place on Horace Harding yesterday.   The place has been there since I was a kid, open 24 hours a day, selling hot bagels (boiled and baked in the back) for easily fifty years.    I was in there about a month ago, the place smelled great, the bagels were delicious.    

Yesterday the bagel place was a storefront school where local immigrant parents send their children so they will all get into medical and law school.  

How many more examples do you need?

20190414_173627.jpg

 

 

[1]   Though it was hard to ignore the spectacle of Jews of various political orientations coming together to denounce an elected official, a black woman, a Muslim, who’d bluntly stated that Israel is immune from criticism in America, no matter how extremely it behaves, because it has a powerful, well-funded political action network here in our pay-to-play democracy.   Imagine that, a fucking Muslim woman complaining about a group of Jews using their wealth to influence American foreign policy!   How dare she?!!!  (Even if it is true).   Fucking anti-Semite!  

The case for her anti-Semitism strikes me as thin, particularly in light of what she said afterwards, the content of her apology for insensitivity, what she said in the actual remarks from which the indictment of her was drawn.   She made the point that you cannot criticize Israel’s actions without being called an anti-Semite.  The almost universal reaction to her selected remarks showed that this point was true.   She also said that we dehumanize humans who are being brutalized, in order to remove their brutalization from the discussion of right and wrong.   I agree.  

Did any Iraqi civilian child have anything to do with the tyrannical reign of Saddam Hussein?  No, but many were killed, a fact made much easier to bear if they can be made “other”…   This is an ancient technique.  You are justified in killing a terrorist, always.  If you kill freedom fighters, on the other hand, you are evil.   Now just tell me which one is which.

The clip of her uttering the offensive phrase “dual loyalty” (of American Jews to Israel) was played over and over, and referring to hundred dollar bills, called “Benjamins” by rappers, (after notorious Jew Benjamin Franklin)  to make the irrefutable case that this African Muslim bitch is out of line.  

Personally, I believe what she’s said, both in the remarks she was condemned for and her interviews and statements since the “sensational” story, which blew up big time because attacking the power of AIPAC is as politically stupid as denouncing the NRA or Big Pharma, or the Oil Industry.    

A black woman, a Muslim, criticizing the decisive role of  money coming through the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) in determining American foreign policy– well, the only explanation is that she’s an anti-Semite, and possibly, also, a supporter of terrorism.  That or a freedom fighter, but fighting for the wrong freedom…

 

Imagining Liberation

I had an email from the thoughtful son of old friends, a young man who was already becoming a mensch when he was a boy.    He asks for contemporary liberation stories for the upcoming seder.   The seder is the Passover meal where we discuss (at the best of the seders) the concept of liberation from all forms of slavery. I’ve been thinking about contemporary liberation stories since I read his note earlier today.

My first thought was the inspiring message delivered by historian Howard Zinn toward the end of his life  when he was honored in France for his great A People’s History of the United States. [1]    Zinn viewed his project as writing a creative history to anticipate a possible future, a fairer, more desirable world, and to disclose those fleeting, often “hidden episodes of the past” when the good in us, our compassion, rose up in a wave to triumph over every one of humanity’s worst impulses.

My second thought was that what we cannot imagine we can never help bring into existence.   This works as well for great, life-saving ideas as well for awful world destroying ones.  Hateful ideas, sadly, seem to have a consistent power all their own to rouse people.   I am imagining a future better, more just, more peaceful than our present.   We have many examples of the world being one way for centuries until a big idea took shape, was afoot in the land, began to influence the beliefs of millions of people.

It was unimaginable to most Americans, in 1795, in 1820, 1850, that slavery, “the Peculiar Institution,” a powerful engine of the American economy that created vast wealth, would ever be outlawed.   Slavery was explicitly protected in the U.S. Constitution, after all.   Abolitionism took many years to rise into a commonly understood cause and later an unstoppable movement.  The pressure to crack the country in two was the result of the clash of the idea that slavery is legal, and good, and that slavery is an intolerable evil in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  An ocean of American blood was spilled to settle the question, and today even the crudest demagogue would hold himself back from publicly advocating slavery.

In 1890 it was unthinkable to Americans that 48 years later child labor would be subject to the limitations of federal law.  Prior to the 1938 law, children could be employed seven days a week, for limitless hours a day, starting as early as dawn, working well into the night, in a mill, a factory, mucking out chimney lines, bringing supplies down into mines, working on assembly lines.   The New Deal legislation that put reasonable restrictions to protect children from childhoods as slave laborers was many decades in the making, after centuries of ordinary, common brutality everybody just thought was the way the world is.  You’re born, they work you all day, every day, you die.  Before that law was written and passed the idea that children needed protection from ruthless employers had to take root, after decades of massive child suffering and millions of hobbled lives.

In 2004, after a disastrous first term, Bush and Cheney were reelected for a second term, carried to victory by millions of “values voters”– people who hated homosexuality more than they loved their own gay kids and were fired up to go to the polls and defeat those godless liberals who advocated some kind of equality for sodomites.   Only 15 years later that wave of aging bigots has no choice but to grimly accept the unthinkable, that gay marriage, and full civil rights for homosexuals, is the law of the land.

My point is that the first step to liberation is a vision of freedom, a picture of the better alternative to the status quo we all accept, an imagining of a better society.   If we don’t have words and images for it, it may be hard to imagine, but imagine it we must, even if the words for it must be diligently sought or even coined. [2]   The driver of this imagining is discontent, it is the precondition for thinking our way out of what is unbearable to us.  What oppresses us the most is also the key to our dream of liberation.   

Not to recognize this leaves us to hide our heads from the most vexing and grotesque aspects of “business as usual.”  I have many friends who no longer watch the news, for fear that Trump’s latest projectile turd will hit them in the face and finally drive them over the deep end.    POTUS is a charlatan, a blowhard, a greedily materialistic compulsive liar whose only “belief” is in “winning” (which does not appear to make the humorless liar happy, in any case).   He is obnoxious, angry, mocking, a hypocrite, a petulant, foolish, combative child with the power to  literally destroy the world. 

I understand why my friends avoid the news.  I try not to judge them for their ostrich poses, though I don’t always succeed.   I keep thinking of that old saw “all evil needs to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”    The first condition for imagining a better world, it seems to me, is looking at this world squarely and carefully.   It is imperative to hear the rhymes of history, to know as exactly as possible what we are up against, in all its devilish detail.   The unforeseen is not unforeseeable.   Outcomes can be predicted, we can watch sad fate of our mistreated earth in the regular climate catastrophe that has now become merely part of the news cycle.  The idea that this is bullshit, that one should be a “climate change skeptic” was created in a public relations lab, funded by the fossil fuel industry, the main beneficiaries of this particular extractive mode of making billions.

We need to be vigilant, to watch, to discuss, to find the right actions to take.  It is not hard to dream of a system better than this, where we are subjected to ever more crude cartoon characters making our laws.  We are strong enough to do it, and we have to be, to dream of a better world than this one, run by the worst of us.   And to make that idea a rallying cry.

 

 

[1]    Howard Zinn (hear him deliver his short speech, cued up here):

“I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a consciousness in my readers, of class conflict, of racial injustice, of sexual inequality and of national arrogance, and I also wanted to bring into light the hidden resistance of the People against the power of the establishment.   

I thought that to omit these acts of resistance, to omit these victories, however limited, by the people of the United States, was to create the idea that power rests only with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth.  I wanted to point out that people who seem to have no power — working people, people of color, women– once they organize and protest and create national movements, they have a power that no government can suppress.

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.  And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

more about context to gained from reading good history

 

[2]  The terms extractive vs. regenerative, for example, can be applied to economic systems, with illuminating results.  An extractive model requires great pollution and eventually exhausts the resource being extracted (think extracting petrol from tar sand).  A regenerative model is based on sustainability and not harming the earth (renewable power and so on).  Which model would you prefer, if you were the Decider?

Pop loved “shooting pictures”

My grandfather was a mild-mannered man.  He had big, powerful hands he used for years professionally in the delicate art of egg candling. He held an egg in front of a bright light, (a candle at one point, one supposes) and inspected it to see if the yolk had the shadow of a spot in it.  If so, this spot of blood indicated it had been fertilized and wasn’t fit to eat.  I don’t know if this was under Jewish law or American health law, but he sat with cases of eggs, in the basement of his friend Al’s  (who my grandmother once said smelled like a camel), grocery store, or Julie’s appetizing shop, picking them up in his large hands one by one, gently turning them in front of the light and looking through their shells to see if they could be sold.

The year I was born, Pop, at one time a prodigious cigarette smoker (Camels, if memory serves), underwent late stage lung cancer surgery.   They removed one of his lungs.  I was a few months old at the time and remember only what I was later told about it.   We have the snake plant that was delivered to Pop in the hospital as he recuperated from the surgery.  The plant is almost 63 years old and doing well.   Pop had an excellent recovery from the surgery and lived twenty-two years with only lung in his powerful body.  

One of his doctors recommended that he add bacon to his diet, for health reasons.  There was some kind of bullshit rationale involved, which my grandfather explained to me at one point.   So in addition to his usual kasha, boiled flanken, boiled chicken, soup and several slices of whole wheat, pumpernickel or rye bread Pop ate a few strips of bacon from time to time, at his doctor’s recommendation.

Pop was a well-built, trim man who weighed 168 pounds for his entire adult life.  One year at his physical he weighed in at 169 or 170.   He and the doctor were both surprised.   The doctor asked pop how many slices of bread he ate a day.   My grandfather counted and told the doctor seven.   The doctor said, “eat six”.   Pop did.  At his next physical he was 168 pounds.  

The lived philosophy of that, food merely fuel for the optimum running of your body, still fills me with wonder and admiration.  Pop would eat a Danish from a bakery from time to time with his coffee, but couldn’t care less if he did or he didn’t.  He always handed my sister and me each a candy bar (it was Chunkies for a long time, a chocolate chunk filled with peanuts and raisins, then mainly Nestle’s Crunch Bars with the occasional Mr. Goodbar thrown in) as soon as he saw us.  For himself, he never ate anything just for the taste of it.

Pop was retired for most of the time I knew him. His favorite pastime in those years was watching a good shooting picture on TV.   He’d scan the TV Guide, a small booklet that came out every week and told you what was coming up on each of the seven or eight stations available in the media mega-market of New York City and later Miami Beach. When he spotted a good shooting picture, also known as a Western, he’d tune in and watch the good guys triumph over the bad guys.

“Sit down,” he’d say, if I asked him who was who on the screen, “watch and you’ll know.”  In most of the shooting pictures Pop watched, Hollywood movies the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, it didn’t take long to figure out who was wearing the white hat and who was the evil, sadistic, murdering bastard who needed killing, the one glaring provocatively from under the black hat.   Simpler times.

Pop loved Bonanza, and Gun smoke, two shows he caught every week, my parents and I loved those shows too, my sister would also watch them.  Outside of those, he’d catch every western on Million Dollar Movie, a show where they played the same black and white movie several times in a given week.  Pop would watch pretty much any movie where good guys and bad guys dressed like cowboys, (or Indians, for that matter), chased each other around in the dust of their horses and shot it out at the end.

Pop’s hammer

This is the “European hammer” that belonged to my grandfather.   I will have more to say about the old fellow and his life in the coming days, but, for the moment, here is the hammer itself:

20180830_185256.jpg

You can see how ready it is to get to work, banging in a thin nail or doing some serious peening (whatever the hell that is).   Here is another view of the business end of my grandfather’s ball-peen hammer:

20180830_185645.jpg

I never saw my grandfather use this hammer, that I can recall.   The hammer, I must say, reflects his style.  My grandfather had a certain graceful delicacy about him.  He was surprisingly light on his feet.   My sister once witnessed him, at close to eighty, doing a mocking dance move behind his overbearing wife’s back.   It was during a dispute over the fate of some cash my grandfather was planning to deposit in the bank.

“Don’t put that money in the bank! I’m taking Abby out for lunch and then we’re going shopping, I need the money,” my grandmother said, in the tone of one used to being the boss.  

My sister then had the miraculous luck to witness a little dance that my grandfather must have done countless times over his long life with Yetta.   As his wife went into the other room, he did a kind of shrug and with fluid grace lifted one leg, bent the other knee and threw his arms to the side in a comically ironic manner.  

“She don’t want to put the money in the bank,” he said quietly, moving his head from side to side as he danced his mocking dance.   “She don’t want to put the money in the bank!”

Decades later I found a great clip somebody put together of Paolo Conte’s [1] wonderful “It’s Wonderful” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.   A beautiful job.  Take a moment to enjoy it, and enjoy it you certainly will.   I sent it to my sister with the caption “Pop” and she instantly agreed.

 

[1]  dig  what Conte plays behind the sax solo, (I’ve cued it up for you), great stuff!

Empathy is the first casualty of stress

Flipping through some channels yesterday I heard an observation from a scientist Sanjay Gupta was interviewing about the crisis facing humanity these days.   Constant stress, the guy pointed out, robs us of our ability to empathize.

One of the first casualties of being constantly stressed out is the loss of humane feeling for the suffering of our fellow human beings.    It makes intuitive sense, if your ass is literally on fire your brother’s heartburn, no matter how severe, will not register.  Perspective 101.

I thought back to my old friends’ marriage from hell.   They are in a constant war, locked in a mutual inchoate rage almost impossible to comprehend.   Each one is a basically kind person, has a good sense of humor, is very smart, and so on.    Together they are highly toxic, as they have long been to each other.  

In recent years my friend could not seem to resist provoking me every time we met. When he provoked me, and my temper began to rise, told him his line of conversation was irritating me, asked him to back off, talk about something else. His response was always to double down, tell me it was my problem, that I have a problem with anger.  I do.  Anger is a problem.  I don’t seek it, want it or need it.   But there it is, waiting, in any situation where we are treated badly, unfairly.   

Why couldn’t he stop provoking me?   On one level he probably wants someone to kick his ass, make the screaming in his head stop, if only for a minute.  That’s my best guess.   This seems to be the case in the endless neurotic cycle of violent fights with his wife.  

What I realize now is that the stress he is constantly flailing against in his painful marriage is a huge factor in his inability to stop when he is provoking his oldest friend.  Compared to the hell he lives in every moment of every day, what problem could a lucky fellow like me possibly have?  How dare I pretend that he’s provoking me?!!

All I’ve got is “addition by subtraction.”   You need to stay away from people who are incapable of empathy, you really do.  

Our current president’s lack of empathy is perhaps the most destructive thing about him.  Everything is a transaction he is attempting to win, so that he feels like a “winner”.   He has no friends, only people who are useful to him, until they are not.  He constantly provokes and attacks, ratcheting up the anger and stress, disabling anyone from discussing anything empathetically, intelligently, with nuance.  

If I could speak to his followers I’d tell them that I completely understand how screwed they feel, how desperate they are for fundamental change, more fairness, being able to meaningfully participating in our democracy, how right they are to feel this way.    Fellow citizens, we have been fucked for a long time here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  We’ve been fed many kinds of poison, very lucrative for the sellers, very bad for us.  

If I could convince them that we are in the same leaky boat, I’d ask them, quietly, how many of the alternative fact president’s promises for their lives has he actually kept.

They may point to an army of lifetime federal judges who will ban abortion and favor corporations over humans.   They may mention the huge huge tax breaks he gave to the wealthiest Americans, or his no-nonsense get tough policy on children fleeing horrible conditions south of our border.   He took us out of the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Deal, increased the military budget, just as he promised he would.  There are many campaign promises he made that he has kept, like nullifying virtually everything his Kenyan Muslim predecessor did by Executive Order.

One important question: how do any of these things actually benefit you or the people you love?

Do you have health care that is cheaper and better than Obamacare?   He promised us that.   Do you have a great job in a coal mine?    Do you feel optimistic that the people of the earth, working together, can solve the most pressing problems we face or are you still constantly angry at how cruelly you’ve been fucked?    

If it’s anger, and you’re looking for someone to blame, I’m your man, the eternal Jew, friend of the enslaved, who created this mess.   It’s good to have someone to blame for your rage.   A glance at any history book will illuminate the fine uses of this principle for you.

Addition by subtraction, it’s really the best I’ve come up with for mercilessly self-absorbed people in my life.    Better to have a couple of comfortable friends you don’t have to keep your guard up with than many friends you have to dance a careful dance with to avoid serious problems.  My take, anyway.