The hidden effects of trauma

My father, a survivor of brutal abuse during his childhood (merciless physical and psychological beatings which started in infancy), was not one to examine his own pain, beyond an occasional reference to the personal demons we all must fight. He took positions I now see were predictable for someone holding in so much pain from the unspeakable trauma he’d endured. People can’t change, shrinks are the craziest people in society, therapy is a waste of time, since people can’t really change, and since we can’t change, talking about it is a big waste of time and energy.

“Look at my brother,” he would say, by way of resting his case about the futility of therapy. His brother, who had been in psychoanalysis for years, was arguably even crazier than he was. My father would never concede that he needed help, because people couldn’t be helped, goddamn it! You take people as you find them, with their faults, warts, tics as well as their good points — we are all in each other’s lives on a take it or leave it basis. I am what I am, I’m not going to change, if you have a problem with that, I’m sorry you have a problem.

It was useless to point out that we make accommodations to people we are care about all the time, important changes if you will. I love my dog and you’re terrified of dogs, I don’t let my dog happily greet you by leaping to lick your face when you come to visit. You find yourself trapped in a situation you don’t want to talk about, no matter what — we don’t need to talk about it. You are offended by coarse language, I don’t need to argue that you are being a needlessly squeamish fuck — “exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated” (in my favorite dictionary phrase of all-time). There are countless examples of things we adjust in ourselves to get along with people.

But that we can all sometimes exert ourselves to get along with others is not really the point. We are traumatized in various ways, and the trauma we’ve experienced colors our world, influences how we see things and how we react. If the trauma is experienced early in life, and repeated consistently, it exerts ongoing influence on our personalities, our choices in life. It is painful to address and difficult to try to resolve.

Trauma is a subtle thing sometimes — it can be something as deniably neutral as remaining stoically silent when someone is pouring their heart out to us. No matter how you try to move me, I will simply not be moved, waiting for you to make the next move, doing nothing you can really blame me for, unless you’re just trying to blame me for your own pathetic problems. The consistent withholding of sympathy is a great way to traumatize a young person and it has the additional advantage of making it seem like the little bastard’s own fault, it will cause the kid to question everything about herself.

I can see the sometimes crippling effects of my father’s often abusive behavior on others in the family more easily than I can see them in myself. Still, I realize that I’ve had to overcome senseless pain that more fortunate people, people whose parents weren’t themselves traumatized, did not have to experience. I think of that great lyric from Albert King “I can’t read, I can hardly write, my whole life’s been one long fight.” I spent decades fighting, for reasons I could barely understand. I understand those reasons much better now, though the reactions I had to struggle against cost me virtually every job I’ve ever had. There came a time when a boss would tell me “this is not a discussion, you do not get a say” and I’d be compelled to be witty.

“Not even ‘fuck you’, sir?”

You can take every mass shooter, like the several in recent days, any police officer who shoots a seventh grader with his hands up, complying with his orders, Derek Chauvin, hands in pockets as he slowly chokes a man to death, or the now indicted officer who trained other officers in the use of force who yelled “taser! taser!” as she shot a man to death after they found out he had an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor arrest. Take any of these folks and examine their life, and I’d pretty much guarantee they were survivors of some kind of life-altering trauma. It doesn’t excuse their depraved indifference to human life, of course, but it explains how they could act so callously toward others.

I’ve spent time in therapy at various points in my life. I believe it helped me more than it helped my uncle (though, of course, it could hardly have helped less). One breakthrough I had was letting go of much of my anger toward my father when I understood he had done the best he could, based on how he was shaped by his own trauma.

I was far from being able to forgive him, of course, for being such a relentlessly destructive dick, but I came to an emotional understanding that was very important to my belated growth as a person. Once I realized it hadn’t strictly been his choice to be such an abusive parent, once I learned of his abuse and grasped how the whippings he’d taken as a two year-old had warped his world, I was able to let go of a certain amount of anger. If he’d apologized, I could actually have forgiven him, but his position remained as un-nuanced as it always had been — take it or leave it, I am what I am, you got a problem with that it’s your problem.

When I got the sudden news that he was dying, of end-stage liver cancer that had not been diagnosed until he had six days to live, I got on a plane and went to his Florida hospital room. I was in a position that nobody else in the family was in — I’d had important understandings about my father’s life and how it affected my own. I was present in a way nobody else there could be. My father told me, moments after I arrived, “you’re the only one who knows what’s going on.”

I understood that this was about my father’s rapidly approaching death, not about my fear of losing my father, settling a score with him or anything else. He was the one who was dying, not me. I don’t know that I’d have grasped this so clearly if I’d still held so much anger against him, if I hadn’t achieved a level of empathy for the abuse he’d survived.

It is easy enough to scoff at what I’m going to tell next, and, of course, you’re free to. Because I was not standing in judgment of my difficult father, or in denial about his rapidly approaching death (his brother buttonholed his doctor in the hall and asked about a liver transplant for his 80 year-old older brother), or still trying to prosecute my grievances, my father and I were finally able to have a real conversation. I mostly listened.

When I arrived at his deathbed at one a.m. on what turned out to be the last night of his life, he was waiting for me, his thoughts all in order, as he’d promised they would be. He began by alluding to the demon he’d been avoiding his whole life, the childhood abuse he’d suffered at the hands of his violent little mother. “Everything Eli told you about my childhood was true,” he said, referring to the many discussions I’d had with his seventeen years older first cousin, “but he probably spared you the worst of it.”

This was a striking way to begin, it got my attention and summarized hours of discussion into a few words. He’d always insisted that Eli was full of shit, an unreliable historian who distorted everything to his own crazy ends. Now, in a few words, Eli had been truthful, and thoughtful too, in not painting the horrific picture as brutally as it had actually occurred. It got my attention, and required no response from me.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” my father said.

Again, this was something I knew to be the case. I’d often thought of him as emotionally trapped as a two year-old. Though he was brilliant in many areas, his emotional reactions, within the family, particularly his wildly uncontrolled temper, were those of a two-year old. There was no reason to say anything about this either.

He went on to acknowledge how wrong he’d been to place obstacles in front of my sister and me, life being hard enough without a father making it harder still by being a “horse’s ass”. I’d never heard him use this phrase, but he described himself as a horse’s ass at least twice in the course of apologizing for having behaved badly, in a misguided attempt to feel “in control” that placed gratuitous burdens on my sister and me. It was the only time I can ever remember my father apologizing for anything. I had only one comment, as he berated himself.

“You can’t kick yourself now, you did the best you could do, at the time.” I believed this was true, I understood why he’d acted the way he did, recognized that he could also have done worse — nothing but some kind of innate restraint kept him from beating me and my sister as he’d been beaten.

The point of this little piece is how brutally the hidden effects of unaddressed trauma can act upon us, as individuals and as a society. The 87,000 desperate American souls who killed themselves with drug overdoses last year, every single one of them, was wrestling with traumas that they felt they could only deal with by numbing themselves to death. As a society we ignore trauma — we are not an empathetic society, we spend a million times more on state violence than on addressing the causes of violence. As a culture we extoll the mythical rugged individual, the largely imaginary hero who, without any help or advantage, overcomes all adversity and defeats every challenge to “win.” In a falsely black and white world of winners and losers, it is not necessary to address the pressing problems of “losers.”

Our society is an over-boiling caldron of trauma. Is the constant danger of death from an invisible air-borne virus not traumatic? Is the very real prospect of irreversible destruction of our biosphere not traumatic? Are the fears of millions, probably billions worldwide, that cause masses to cling to insane, often violent, beliefs not born in trauma? People react as they must.

When Robert Evans called Naziism “at its heart a conspiracist theology” he was putting his finger on something very deep and horrifying.

You can look at a conspiracist religion as a predictable reaction to trauma, terror, humiliation. What are the tenets of this kind of religion? You are hurt, and absolutely right to feel hurt, you’re a victim, and the people who hurt you are going to fucking suffer and die.

Here’s what you have to do — sign up to this theory, this theology. Now you can join us in painting the world in good and evil, ascribe all good to your fight for revenge against the evil ones, and all evil to … duh! The evil ones! The godless inner-city thugs who want to rape your wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, grandmothers. Etc. And best of all, no personal pain need be felt when you externalize it onto a hated enemy who is completely to blame while you are totally innocent.

A religion of conspiracy, a faith that explains everything you cannot understand and provides a simple, clear answer, to the burning question of why you feel so traumatized, why you are in so much pain. If you subscribe to our muscular, proactive theology, and march with the rest of us, you will soon be joyously trampling the evil enemies who brought all this hurt on you. And we will love you for it, and all live happily ever after, amen.

The End.

A Good Conversation (2)

Thinking more about a good conversation, the kind of talk we remember years later, it is the mutual readiness to listen, to really hear the other person, that makes these exchanges so memorable. In a world that famously doesn’t care about your feelings or ideas, it is a great comfort to experience tender care for those things from the person you are talking to.

“Your business is very important to us, please continue to hold…” the mantra of the modern industrialized world, reinforces our essential aloneness in an often hostile universe. Let’s face it, in a transactional culture based on material gain at any cost, we are just customers, manipulated with ever greater sophistication, who most often take what we can get, are allowed to have, if we can wrest it from others with more power. This eternal vying for advantage is the opposite of a good conversation.

In a good talk there is always mutuality. Something you raise reminds me of something I experienced. We compare and contrast, the things on one level very much the same, on another quite different. There is great nuance in our infinitely gradated world, we feel this when we are in a good conversation with someone we trust.

A bad conversation, on the other hand, is marked by caution, by obscuring certain things that would be necessary for an open exchange, by deliberately avoiding subjects, limiting the topics that can be talked about openly. These talks are exhausting. Because much is hidden, and both parties are trying their best simply to survive an uncomfortable exchange intact, there is little possibility for a beneficial exchange of ideas. At best, we “agree to disagree,” in that most odious phrase, since, in a conversation held in darkness, with light forbidden, that is often the only alternative to open hostility.

A good conversation is the opposite of a zero sum talk. In a zero sum world everything is measured by who wins and who loses, there is no middle ground. Life may not really be this way, but seeing it as zero sum makes it so. A clever construction, the zero sum machine.

If I concede to you that I was in the wrong, that diminishes me and gives you an advantage I can easily deny you by merely conceding nothing. Long friendships can be quickly killed if one friend reduces a conflict to a zero sum game. In the end, “I will prevail and you will lose, loser,” is a recipe for estrangement or consent to continue in a kind of living hell.

My aunt was a difficult woman. What I learned about her life explained a bit of why she was that way. When she became demented, toward the end of her life, she went through a Terrible Two kind of period when she was reflexively contrary. I visited her when my cousin was there, to prevent him from killing her as they organized the house to get it ready to sell.

One morning, entering the kitchen where breakfast was in progress, my cousin and my aunt silently eating, I said “good morning, Aunt Barbara”.

“No,” she said, her jaw set firmly.

My cousin and I later had laughs about this. Not good? Not morning? Not my aunt?

“No,” my aunt insisted.

Fortunately this Terrible Two phase eventually passed. As her dementia progressed my aunt became more and more docile. Sekhnet and I remember the last time we saw my aunt and her son together. He had his arm around her as they waved goodbye and turned to walk back into the nursing home where my aunt was now living. It was a tenderness we could not have imagined while my aunt was in control of her faculties.

It was a tenderness I’d experienced myself with my troubled aunt, decades earlier. Staying over at my parents’ place after some holiday meal, everyone else upstairs in bed, my aunt and I had one remarkably candid conversation in the late night living room of my parents’ house. The tenderness I felt for her during that talk, and for long after that talk, I cannot really describe.

A good conversation

My aunt, an often contrary woman my mother dreaded having to spend time with, a mother hated by the son she adored (she doted on him when he was a baby, anyway), was, to put it kindly, something of a pain in the ass. Growing up in a very small family, she was my only aunt. Her husband, my father’s brother, (the only sibling of either of my parents) was my one uncle. We saw them at holidays every year, and the gatherings were always electric with uncomfortable, crudely buried emotions.

My uncle, a smallish, slight man who looked like Stephen Colbert, often flinched around his much larger older brother. He’d laugh nervously after each flinch, remembering that they were both adults now, I suppose, but you could see his discomfort whenever my father moved or spoke in a certain way. My uncle had a corny sense of humor, a surprisingly effective disguise for a temper he kept hidden from me, somehow, until I was close to forty.

I’ll never forget his tour-de-force of raving tyranny one year when my sister and I went to visit him and our aunt. It was like watching a cute small dog suddenly lunge, teeth bared, at another dog’s throat, then another, persisting wildly until all the other dogs were bloody heaps. My mother and my first cousin, long wary of my uncle, were shocked that it took me so long to see this angry, dictatorial side of the mild-mannered fellow, but, as I said, he never showed any sign of it to me, until he did.

I am thinking of a good conversation, the remarkable meeting of the minds and hearts we don’t have very often. It is an exchange of honest reactions, where both parties are sometimes vulnerable and both are interested and open to learning something new from the other, if only how they truly feel. We always learn something in these kind of talks, if only that somebody else understands something we have only just started to be able to express. I had a couple of interesting chats with my uncle over the years, mainly about politics (we were pretty much in sync on our political views) but nothing I’d classify as a memorably good conversation. It was partly my uncle’s aversion to the personal, I suppose.

One night, in the living room of my parents house in Queens, everybody else had gone up to bed, and my aunt and I were in the living room. I was probably around thirty at the time. I’ve always been a night owl, my aunt and uncle were generally in their pajamas before ten. In fact, it was my uncle’s demand that we all get ready for bed at 10 pm, when my sister and I visited him years later as adults, that served as his first shot across the bow, the opening salvo of what the next day would erupt into full blown crazy autocratic rage.

In the living room of my parents’ house, on that quiet tree-lined street, my aunt and I had a remarkable conversation. I recall nothing specific about our long ago talk, other than the closeness I felt to my aunt as we revealed ourselves to each other. Knowing that she had the capacity for this kind of openness made me feel differently about her.

My cousin, when I mentioned this chat to him, always scoffed. To him his mother was a devious master-manipulator, certainly she’d picked up on and played off some vulnerability I’d shown her. Seeing the emotional opening, she’d sympathetically slipped in to ingratiate herself, to cunningly arm and situate herself for future harm she was already planning.

People do this kind of thing, pretend to care with their eye on some other prize, though I remain unconvinced that my aunt was doing that the night of that striking conversation we had. What I recall was how personal our talk was. My aunt told me personal details of her life as I shared details of my own inner life. We were on the same page, as they say (and for good reason).

I have an amusing, short anecdote about my demanding aunt, but it will have to wait. I am focusing on those rare, therefore precious, conversations we have with others that actually exert some change on our lives. They can be illusions, as the one with my aunt may have been (being a one-off, for one thing), but these conversations serve as reminders of what we can be, if we are honest, and open, and truly curious about another person’s inner life.

Seeking the essence of this kind of exchange, this emerging shared knowledge of something deeper, beyond the surface, every day world, is one big reason we read. It is also a gigantic reason many of us write.

Incoherence is no problem

The obvious problem with an incoherent position — one that relies on nothing but the right to take any position you want– is that, as long as the incoherence persists, there is no hope of solving any disagreement. We can only persuade each other if we reach a basic agreement about the facts in front of us. An incoherent argument doesn’t depend on facts, agreement or anything else– it’s an illogical position that closes the mind to persuasion.

I’ll give you one example, the argument over the filibuster, to stand in for the rest, as we navigate this “alternative fact” world we are living in post-Trump.

A lie, which can be shown to be a lie, can now be openly cited to prove that the policy you favor is necessary. That it is a demonstrable lie is no longer a problem, for purposes of partisan position-taking. You can call the well-publicized lie a “widely believed allegation”, which makes it sound much more reasonable. The same goes for any glittering generality pulled out of one’s nether sphincter — it’s good enough to support an otherwise incoherent argument.

Most Americans get their news from partisan sources. On the right people say that PBS, MSNBC and CNN are just as distorted, prejudiced and untruthful as FOX, Newsmax and OANN. It’s a flimsy claim, unsupported by actual evidence. Media on the right frequently highlights conspiratorial claims as though they are mainstream beliefs — when pressed on airing false claims they call the promotion of fringe ideas “entertainment” rather than factual “news” which has a much higher standard of “truth”.

Even the wildest ideas quickly become mainstream beliefs, like the widespread belief among conservatives that the 2020 presidential election may well have been stolen by massive fraud. A large percentage of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump and that the January 6th riot at the Capitol was understandable, peaceful, non-threatening and perfectly legal [1].

Here’s one example of circular incoherence in public debate about restricting or getting rid of the peculiar institution known as the filibuster.

The problem is that a party with a razor thin Senate majority needs to find ten votes, in a disciplined opposition party that votes as a block, in order to pass almost any law. This is because the burden, in a filibuster, is on the majority party to reach 60 votes to end debate (even if there is no actual debate) and vote on a bill becoming a law.

Why is the burden not on the minority party filibustering to kill a proposed law? Why are 41 filibustering members not required to be present to maintain a filibuster rather than the majority party having to find ten votes among the filibustering party to stop this form of obstruction? There is no coherent explanation offered. It’s just the way it is.

Why is nobody in the minority party now required to stand and talk non-stop to keep a filibuster going? No coherent explanation is offered — outside of the small change in the rules that makes announcing the intent to filibuster good enough to infinitely block debate on any bill.

Those who advocate neither changing filibuster rules nor abolishing the parliamentary practice outright claim this obstruction technique encourages bipartisanship by making people more willing to compromise.

We don’t need to change anything about the filibuster, say conservatives like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, what we need is more bipartisanship, more compromise, more trust between political parties that have become armed camps. We need more faith in the integrity of American elections that tens of millions now have lost faith in. We need this faith because our confidence in the fairness of our own democracy has been, rightly or wrongly. so badly undermined — and it’s a bipartisan problem.

That the argument is incoherent, in a nation where one party is committed to a lie about widespread voting fraud (and cast not a single vote to relieve the suffering of millions of Americans during a pandemic), is not a problem. Listen to Manchin being interviewed, read his op-ed in the Washington Post. Nobody will press him on the essential incoherence of his position, which he states as calmly and reasonably as can be, and which amounts to: the answer to racism is for people to stop being so damned racist.

The role of incoherence in human, particularly American, life is hard to overstate. Why do racists hate the people they hate? Ask ’em, they’ll tell you. It’s not all of ’em, you see, there are good ones, even among them. It’s really mostly the bad ones we hate, the angry ones, the ones who are violent, the ones who don’t denounce the violent ones, the quiet ones nobody can tell which side they’re actually on. Am I making sense? If not, maybe you need to think harder. We got this sturdy rope here, and the mob is pretty worked up, so think hard before you answer that you understand what I’m saying, since there’s none of them around to string up right this minute and people’s blood is getting hot, been getting hot, I can tell you for sure.

I keep thinking of a very neurotic guy I was friends with since grade school, his eyelid twitching as he nervously accused me of trying to deliberately destroy his troubled marriage. When he was done explaining his insane claim I was able to straighten things out a bit, but, you know, seriously– what the fuck?

Incoherence is particularly attractive when you’re very, very angry. Takes nothing particularly persuasive to convince oneself of the righteousness of one’s own rage. Anger can always justify itself, as long as you stay mad.

[1]

There is no PROOF that the people chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” were NOT actually skillfully disguised antifa provocateurs, rather than Trump supporters, nor that the policeman killed, or the one who lost an eye, were not attacked by these same BLM activists, disguised as Confederate flag waving insurrectionists. Listen to this:

Two cool clips (15 seconds total) from Sekhnet the perfectionist

With thanks to my girl, holding the camera phone rock steady in one hand while flipping the cookies perfectly with her other hand to her partner, the talented three year-old feral Little Girl, check this out (that’s Little Girl’s sister, Whiteback, working on a pile of her own cat cookies, in the foreground):

And here’s another take, even better, by the intrepid Sekhnet:

Here is my version, from a few days back:

Little Girl, the cat who was closest to her mother Mama Kitten (the two of them hung out in the driveway, shaking us down for treats whenever we appeared there, hence “the driveway bitches”), appeared for a few weeks to be succumbing to the same thing that killed her mother a few months ago. She was increasingly withdrawn, weak, unsteady on her legs, didn’t have much of an appetite and very little energy. I wrote about the poor devil’s struggle to survive on March 10.

Since then, starting a couple of weeks ago, she seems to have had a complete recovery. Here she is in the back of the garden, up to one of her old tricks:

Our talented feral friend seems fully recovered

Little Girl, the cat who was closest to her mother Mama Kitten (the two of them hung out in the driveway, shaking us down for treats whenever we appeared there, hence “the driveway bitches”), appeared for a few weeks to be succumbing to the same thing that killed her mother a few months ago. She was increasingly withdrawn, weak, unsteady on her legs, didn’t have much of an appetite and very little energy. I wrote about the poor devil’s struggle to survive on March 10.

Since then, starting a couple of weeks ago, she seems to have had a complete recovery. Here she is in the back of the garden, up to one of her old tricks:

Angry Punishment for Anger

This one hits me deep in my childhood — a furious reaction to anger. What do we learn from this lesson? The larger, more powerful party has the right to anger– you fucking don’t.

I’d never seen this maddeningly cruel dynamic set out more forcefully, or with more clarity and restraint, than Robin Givhan did in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Who has the right to be angry?

Anyone who has been hurt by someone they trusted has a right to be angry. The party who hurt them might be able to reassure them afterwards, placate them, apologize, make things right, but that is not the usual course of things — in my experience. An angry reaction seems to cause defensiveness and even more anger in most cases. Then it is a pure, adrenalized struggle for who will prevail in their right to be angry. This struggle is generally “won” by the more violent party, as when peaceful, shouting protesters against police violence are met with the overwhelming force of militarized anti-riot police violently dispersing them. Anger is explosive, your anger can ignite the adrenalized rage of someone who can bludgeon or even kill you to carry out their oath to protect the peace. You got a problem with that?

The defense in the Derek Chauvin murder trial has a very hard job. They need to convince somebody on the jury that Chauvin acted correctly when he kept his knee on the neck and back of a handcuffed man long enough for the prone man to lose consciousness, after the man pleaded for his life for seven agonizing minutes, and who kept the pressure up once the man stopped moving, then didn’t allow the dying man to receive medical attention. On the other hand, the defense only needs to convince one juror.

How do you do show that Chauvin acted correctly, according to his police training, when his actions seemingly killed a subdued misdemeanor suspect? By showing it wasn’t his fault, that things got out of hand, as well as by establishing arguably reasonable expert witness introduced doubt about whether Chauvin’s seemingly depraved actions contributed substantially to his victim’s death.

To show George Floyd’s death was not Chauvin’s fault, the defense needs to pin the blame on somebody else. In this case, a crowd of random bystanders, who were angry and abusive, and threatening, yeah, they were menacing, they refused to disperse when they were told the slow, torture death of yet another unarmed Black man was NOTHING TO SEE. Chauvin’s colleagues, who will be tried separately for their roles in killing a handcuffed civilian, prevented anyone in the crowd from intervening, prevented CPR on the seemingly lifeless man who was probably already dead on the street. The story their lawyers need need to sell is that the police feared for their lives, feared violence from an angry mob that gathered and surrounded them, and because of that reasonable fear, may have made innocent mistakes.

Leave aside the obvious fact that the police had the guns, the police had the ability to arrest people, call in reinforcements, helicopters and every manner of militarized support. But the angry crowd had them so rattled, you understand, that they didn’t realize they were actually killing the big handcuffed guy who had stopped breathing after they kneeled on him long enough. And as for the victim, he died of other causes unrelated to having the air supply to his heart and brain constricted for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. All you have to do, if you’re the defense, is establish a little doubt in the mind of a couple of jurors, even one.

If anyone had the right to be angry, the defense could argue, it’s Chauvin and his colleagues who were being disrespected by this irrationally angry, abusive crowd as they merely performed their duties the way they’d been taught to in the academy.

It reminds me of that bagpiping piece of shit Bill Barr’s smugness in continually blaming, and provoking, victims and protesters for their anger over regular “justified” police killings of unarmed citizens. It reminds me of anyone who provokes, out of their own rage, and blames the victim for being so fucking angry.

It reminds me of my own dear mother, shaking me by the shoulders when I was small, snarling “what did anybody ever do to you to make you so fucking angry?!” If I’d had the presence of mind as a kid, I’d have said “I don’t know, mom, maybe it’s my mother angrily shaking the shit out of me and demanding to know what I was so angry about?”

“She never laid a hand on you, you lying prick,” says the skeleton of my father. And as the doors open, I hop off this train, it’s become a bit stuffy in this car.

We were slaves

In a couple of hours Sekhnet and I will join a Zoom seder for passover. Passover is the holiday when we remember that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, about three thousand years ago, and vow to be vigilant in fighting slavery and injustice everywhere. It is called Passover because, the night before Pharaoh finally let his Jewish slaves flee, all-merciful God Himself, and not the Angel of Death who usually does such things, entered every Egyptian home and executed the first born male child, even if it was a baby; He passed over each Jewish (in those days Hebrew) home and spared Jewish babies — hence “Passover”.

God knew which homes were Jewish homes not by His innate, all-knowing genius or the poverty of the slave quarters (apparently Hebrew slaves in Egypt did not live in glaring, barnyard poverty like our chattel slaves here in the US did) but by the mark over the doorway, painted in lamb’s blood, that told the Holy One that this was a house where the babies should not be murdered.

I have more than one problem with this story. Not the part about identifying with the oppressed, it would be a far better world if everyone cared about and worked to protect the powerless, the weak, the despised. It’s the rest of the story, it’s religion, it’s the maddening righteous double-talk and suspension of critical thought often needed to sustain faith in the infinite mercy of powerful forces we cannot understand. It’s the quiet bigotry that is almost impossible to resist when you believe God loves you more than he loves people with different beliefs. And, of course, there’s God “Himself”, the all-merciful Creator who shows his infinite kindness by killing babies to convince a stubborn king to change his mind, when it comes right down to it.

For purposes of discussing religion and ethics I always yield on the point of God, if it is raised. Sure, there’s a God, fine with me. It doesn’t really change the discussion much, from my point of view. The only way to defend a God who allows continual brutal suffering, atrocity and mass-murder is to devise a Rube Goldberg device that blames humans, we who abuse the free will generously bestowed by the infinitely loving God, to do bad things, things that break God’s heart. A pogrom? Lynching? Insistence that a violent riot to overturn democracy that injured hundreds and killed several was a totally “harmless” love-fest? Nothing to do with God. No, God clearly hates that kind of thing. It’s humans, filthy, sinful, stupid, vain, angry, blaming others, trying to blame God!

I may feel the same way about many humans. Surely a group who breaks down the door of a jail and drags a man out to torture him and kill him– fuck them. Pour out thy wrath upon them, O Lord, as we ceremonially ask God to do, at one point during the seder (the telling of the Passover story and the meal). But no wrath is poured out on them, it’s poured out on the guy whose burnt body is swinging from a tree and on the people who loved him.

We were slaves, subject to hard labor for the eternal glory of rulers who fancied themselves gods in human form. In later generations we were dragged out of our hiding places, tortured, burnt, anti-semites loved doing this on Passover, when groups of Jews singing were easy to find. Hard to remember and identify with these painful things, in your soul, when you live in comfort and safety.

I’m not sure that reminding ourselves every Passover of our duty to see ourselves as though we personally were liberated from bondage really does the trick of changing our behavior very much. It is certainly a good practice to always remember that it is only a roll of the cosmic dice that decides whether we sit in comfortable homes celebrating together or run for our lives to a crowded, disease-ridden refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh.

I know this — it is much easier to not have to flee for your life, or go to bed hungry every night, without shelter. It is a better life when you do not have to face the harsh realities that billions on the planet are up against. We should be grateful to live in comfort, free from hunger, violence and random acts of viciousness, the things that break all-merciful God’s heart.

These terrible things should also break our hearts, but our hearts are not big enough to be continually broken by these things, we could not live with the despair it would produce. We’d never stop crying, looking around at the way things are for so many here in the richest country in human history, in other places were billions suffer such unimaginably awful fates.

So, understandably, we take comfort in our comfort, our ability to look away from all this human pain we never have to directly encounter. It’s understandable, after all, God Himself is able to look away, always has, always will. It’s not His fault, it’s ours. There is no God but the God in each of us. But it is a lot to expect that God to be more godly than the God we praise, over and over and over, in the face of all this human weakness and misery.

Happy Passover, y’all.

Elegant schematic

I’ve been wrestling to put the mechanism of abuse into the fewest possible words. Abuse comes in many forms, and every one of them involves (among other things) the violent suppression of someone else’s rightful feelings. There is a common element to all abuse: whatever you think happened to you, whatever you can show me actually did happen to you — fuck you!

It may be helpful to see it set out this way, as I did toward the end the final draft of my letter to my former lifelong friend Paul:

I have to say, though, the schematic of your method is quite elegant. One friend sets out to prove to the other that people are deeply flawed brutes who cannot change in any fundamental way, salutes his friend for his years of efforts to be less brutish, thanks him for his mildness in the face of an angry confrontation, keeps professing ignorance of what his friend’s actual issues are, no matter how clearly stated — eventually provokes an angry response from his ahimsa-deluded old pal. Game and match! Elegant, man, you win. It must feel great.

It doesn’t feel great, obviously, and I am just being a sarcastic dick to say so to this poor, eternally besieged, black and white seeing, zero-sum calculating fucker. However, raising the bar on what constitutes “fundamental change” from becoming much more difficult to rile up (a difficult but attainable goal) to becoming impossible to provoke (a virtually impossible one, given enough time and perverse persistence) is damned clever, it’s what enables the abuser to insist he is right — and to prevail — no matter what the facts of the case show otherwise.

It’s the same as the game run by racists, the segregationists, those afraid and angry at Black Lives Matter for their cruel insistence that our society is ravaged by racism just because cops are continually killing unarmed Blacks with no consequences. Segregationists blame the victims, it’s all they’ve got.

“We don’t have slavery anymore, haven’t for more than 150 years, and these savage thugs are so ungrateful! What did we do? What did our generation do? A few of them get killed when they disobey cops, it happens to everybody, it happens way more to whites than to them [1]. Yet THEY angrily demand a special right to be treated like their lives matter so much more than anybody else’s. That’s why we hate them!”

That evil kid who decided his uncontrollable sexual urges made it necessary to murder seven women and a man? Police spokesman told every potential juror in the country that the poor little mass-murderer had had a “bad day”, and he wasn’t going to go into whether the slimy mass-murderer had expressed remorse, though he pointed out solemnly that the killer was aware of the “gravity” of what he’d done.

In the mind of the abuse/murder justifiers: Asians who are upset about this recent mass killing of Asian women? Here we go again with the “identity politics” and the “politics of victimization.” We don’t even know if this kid was motivated by specific ethnic or racial hatred when he sprayed these Asian women with bullets. Sheesh.

It’s like McConnell, using political power with unprecedented cynicism and a maddening double standard, threatening to release the Kraken and leave only “scorched earth” if Democrats vote to make minority obstruction more difficult for the obstructionist minority. How dare radical Democrats threaten to break the thing I spent a decade smashing with a sledge hammer!!!

Jesus, it must feel good to be that kind of winner, mustn’t it?

Assholes will be assholes, I suppose. The best we can do is the work of trying to making ourselves better, gentler, more attuned.

[1]

This is what the treacherous Bill Barr kept insisting, as they tried to turn the nationwide, predominantly peaceful, protests against the continual murder of unarmed Blacks, by police, into a sinister, violent anarchist conspiracy to riot against Law and Order, one that justified deploying massive military force to put it down, counter-insurgency style. Barr insisted many more whites than Blacks were killed by cops every year (note: Blacks are 13.4% of the population, so just statistically, that better be true) and you don’t hear whites whining about it — only Blacks. He pulled a number out of his ass, a small handful of unarmed Blacks killed by police each year, and claimed irrationally enraged Blacks were using this tiny number of people like Breonna Taylor, tragically killed, as a pretext to start a violent revolution. Like that large crowd of protesters by the White House that had to be cleared with chemical irritants, horseback charge, batons, riot forces, when they balked at their First Amendment right to peacefully protest being threatened with chemical irritants, horseback charge, batons, riot forces.

“Pepper spray is NOT a chemical irritant, (you irritating bitch!)” snarled Trump’s always pompous, often unapologetically irrational, bagpiping, culture warrior Attorney General, William Pelham Barr, on national TV.