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.

Listen to your pain if you want to heal

If you try to fight your way through bodily pain by working out harder, particularly as you age, you will likely injure yourself. There is a difference between overcoming discomfort, a sign that you’re pushing beyond your boundaries and getting stronger, and fighting pain, a sign that you are hurting your own body.

A few years ago I overdid my last-minute training for the 40 mile Bike NY ride and wound up semi-crippled. I spent weeks in physical therapy, unable to stand without pulling myself up by my arms. I’d ignored my tiredness after a long ride to do an even more rigorous ride the next day, at one point even competing against two young boxers as they did road work on a long, steep incline — and paid a price — barely being able to move the next day– that lasted for months of pain and disability before I could stand from a chair normally. I also seemed to have aggravated the arthritis I never knew I had before. It was a great lesson in the idiocy of not listening to your body when it tells you to rest.

The same goes for the pain that comes out as hurt, anger, an unshakeable feeling you’ve been screwed. It is just as important to listen to this kind of psychic pain, particularly if it is persistent or recurrent. It seems to me that listening to your hurt is the only way out of the sometimes subtle trap that holds you. Learning exactly what hurt you is the only way to avoid it in the future, to do better the next time you encounter the same challenge.

I couldn’t articulate, a few days ago, why I was suddenly still angry at my former friend Paul, a guy I considered a good friend for almost 50 years. He’d insisted, for months, that he had no idea why I’d been so hurt by his silence, bursts of anger and his insistence that I was overreacting to whatever he might have accidentally done to me. I’d told him to go fuck himself, in the end, but it still left me feeling stuck with unfinished business, though I couldn’t explain to Sekhnet what it was. She urged me to forget about it, particularly since Paul and I weren’t friends any more and I’d never hear from him again. For some reason I couldn’t let it go, something was bugging me.

I write every day, for better or for worse, and it gives me an opportunity to process things. I hear some shit-dumb racist representative from Texas (Cow Chip Roy) make a bland comment about what they say in Texas about a long rope and a tall oak tree, how they’ve always used Texas justice to take care of their troublemakers down there — in the context of a hearing about the sudden rise in anti-Asian violence in the wake of Trump’s “Chy-na Virus,” the day after a racist Georgia police captain made the mass-killer’s case that he felt he’d taken grave actions to help others and that the killer had had “a very bad day” (presumably worse than his victims and their loved ones) and, after I unball my fists, that might set me to writing. Sometimes it is something much more subtle, and personal, eating at me and I find that thinking and writing it out as clearly as I can helps me process it sometimes.

Why was I suddenly so intent on smashing my former friend, who turned 65 the other day, in the face? I began by writing him a note, primarily to hurt him. I figured it was the least I could do for the smug, disappointing fellow who claimed to love me like the brother he never had. This desire to inflict pain seemed beneath me, I try to aim higher, but I followed the need to hit back, since my anger seemed legitimate to me (it always does, doesn’t it? Persuasive little fucker, anger). My note had only one line that one would expect of such a letter — it accused him of gaslighting and being a long-time pettifogging bully.

Writing the short note, though momentarily satisfying, made no difference in my mood. Something still irked me. It took seeing what had been missing from the letter to turn on the light in my soul. The reason I was angry is because, in taking an old friend at his word and continually extending him the benefit of the doubt, I had unwittingly collaborated with this experienced litigator/manipulator in the dismissal of my legitimate feelings and the erasure of my clear expression of the reasons for those feelings. How about that for a damned good, specific reason to be pissed off (and to never want to feel that particular anger again)?!

So I wrote the piece I posted yesterday, after reworking the letter to highlight the precise thing Paul kept denying he’d done — the complete dismissal of easily understandable human emotions. It felt like I’d worked something through that will help me (and hopefully others) in the future, add to my clarity the next time someone insists they are incapable of behaving any differently, as Paul consistently did. As many a Black grandmother has told her grandchild: when somebody tells you who they are, believe them.

People are not how we might wish they are, how they could and should be, how they might portray themselves to be. We are all as we consistently act. I wish Paul, with his great intelligence and dark sense of humor, was capable of pausing in his eternal arguments to see things from my point of view — he isn’t. I know that with the right insight he could become this way, I also know he has insisted on his grim view of the inarguable, unalterable darkness in the human heart since childhood. He is an eternal pessimist, which is its own reward, since he will always have this pessimism confirmed by the disappointing world of fatally flawed humans he holds in such dim regard. To allow that I’ve made useful changes in my life would mean his pessimism was more a tic of weakness than a desirable feature of his clear-sighted strength. My own struggles to be less hurtful to others, to my self, if in any way successful, constitute an unanswerable challenge to his assertion that we are all doomed to whatever misfortune we find ourselves suffering and that to believe otherwise is pathetic self-delusion.

I also know that we can only change ourselves, and those changes are always the result of hard, sometimes painful, work that most people shrink from. Paul portrays himself as someone who relies on facts, intellectual rigor and a constant, honest search for truth, though he uses argument to constantly insulate himself from any reckoning with his own pain and to make other people feel culpable for oversensitivity and emotional incoherence when he “inadvertently” hurts them.

How’s that for an asshole personality type?

Why did I remain friends with him since he first jokingly bullied me in Junior High School [1]? How did I not see that gleefully sadistic side of him when I was called back into the typing room (my class had been in the room before Paul’s class arrived) and accused, by the typing teacher, of vandalizing my own typewriter by pulling keys off it? Aside from the obvious reply “Mrs. Landau, if I did want to vandalize the typewriters, which I don’t, why would I have done it to my own typewriter, which would point a finger directly at me?” what could I really say, since I hadn’t pulled any keys off the typewriter?

She might have yielded to this reasonable point, but I never got the chance to make it. Paul, sitting a few seats from where I stood, called out “Look at him! He’s guilty, look at his face, he has nothing to say!!!” Which was true, the mirthful cruelty of this confident-looking class clown motherfucker I’d never seen before had rendered me momentarily speechless. Some of his classmates laughed as I stood there on the spot, at a loss for what to say. I wasn’t laughing though, and if I smiled, it wasn’t out of happiness.

Fifty years to see that this clever lad remained unchanged? Hmmmm. Lesson learned, though.

[1]

I’ve written a lot about the surrogates we tend to draft, people we are unconsciously drawn to because they have salient characteristics of those close to us with whom we have long, complicated conflicts. We try to work things out with them that we can’t work out with the actual sadistic father, or narcissistic mother, or crazy grandfather who did the original damage to us when we were most vulnerable. Paul was a version of my asshole father, in his great intelligence, his occasional wit, his assurances of undying affection and his implacable insistence that he was right, no matter how badly he’d acted. Paul was the last of these relentless motherfuckers that I am going to have to deal with, from the looks of it, and I’ll drink to that.

Moral Clarity

The other day I took a swing at hurting an old friend who’d wounded me by taking extended advantage of my vow to remain mild, to the extent I can. I couldn’t get over how he’d abused my good will, how much it still hurt and how ready I was to hit him back hard, if metaphorically.

I understood that I needed to do more serious thinking about this final estrangement from a childhood friend, his ultimate betrayal and smug sense of righteousness were hard for me to take, I was still angry. He no doubt felt the same about me, that I’d betrayed his long friendship, which caused him to lash out at me. I wrote what I thought was a decently coherent kiss-off the other day, in one short sitting, and contented myself that he deserved no better, was glad to expend no more effort for a damaged former friend I’m done with.

Something nagged at me though. I recognized even as I wrote it that I was writing for myself, to clarify my understanding, and for whatever value it might have to a stranger who finds herself up against the same kind of abuse. My friend’s abusive “hard truth” style is quite common, and it can be subtle, always couched as highly rational, with your best interests in mind, merely sticking to the detailed facts of the case, being thorough, respectful and challenging, in a super honest way. This style casts the other person as the emotional basket case, constantly off balance in the face of multiple intellectual challenges, while, actually, the hyper-intellectual pose is a grotesque mask for a raging emotional incapacity. My father had this feature, (much to his eventual regret), I was forced to counter it every day growing up, I know it well.

Today I realized that my dashed off note the other day, the quick swing of a 38 ounce baseball bat, had failed to reach the essential part of the exercise — the moment of moral clarity that can only come from understanding and describing the action of the hurtful mechanism precisely, in a way that it cannot be misconstrued. This deliberate digestion of the causes of our own pain strikes me as the key to the process of learning and growing. When it comes to setting it out clearly, sometimes a ball peen hammer turns out to be the proper tool, impossible to see when you find yourself tightly gripping a Babe Ruth sized baseball bat.

So here is the thing that was finally so hateful to me. I’ll phrase the rest addressing Paul, who is the ultimate recipient of this elucidation, which I actually write for all of our use, though probably not for poor Paul’s. I belatedly take him at his word that he’s truly incapable of understanding another person’s mind, that he will never reach the level of basic empathy, and vulnerability, required to grasp this most important bit about friendship and intimacy. None of those things, of course, give him the right to act abusively toward others, but that’s another conversation. Here we go:

In the end I kick myself for my many attempts to “explain” myself to someone so limited in emotional generosity and so determined to be right at all costs. I should have seen the whole picture much earlier on, when you angrily challenged me to tell you to go fuck yourself when you called to confront me about an email you called “snide and inaccurate” (which, in the end, you conceded had not actually been inaccurate).

I am not naive about the wars between people, I have been in many, hold my own, survive. I’ve seen the identical song and dance at the end of a childhood friendship now at least twice, so I recognize its features. I remind myself that I shouldn’t have taken you at your word that our friendship was important to you and that you’d do anything to fix it. That was my fault, I repressed the knowledge, based on long experience, that you were emotionally incapable of dropping the argumentative persona long enough to empathize with a friend in an objectively aggravating situation.

You thanked me, at first, for my mildness in setting out some of the early ugliness between us and asked me again and again to show good will by re-explaining, if I’d be so kind, what I’d already set out clearly. All of the things I raised you left eternally unaddressed. You were intent, I suppose, on prevailing in the ultimate contest: to show that my life, my attempt to become a better person, was bullshit, that you were right — we can’t change, or remain connected to people we love for life. You’d prove, by the ugly end of things, that change is bullshit and so is weak, wishful faith in the better angels of mankind.

Finally you wrote to me hurt, felt I’d said very hurtful things to you. So be it. I was disappointed and very hurt myself, as I let you know the reasons for clearly, over and over, before saying those things that hurt you. In hindsight, I’d have done better simply telling you to fucking fuck off the first time you challenged me to.

The thing that sticks in my craw, and causes me to write today, is your final, madly negating closing argument, the diabolical doubling down — that you supposedly read everything I’d written, reviewed everything I’d said, and found “no clue” about how I’d felt, what I thought, what your possible fault could have been or why I was so cruelly unforgiving.

Let me be precise about why this “no clue” assertion was so toxic to me, after I’d given every clue, hint, anecdote and comment I had in several long, carefully edited no-frills iterations. Each time I yielded to your assurance that you were sincerely struggling to understand an emotional position I’d already explained as clearly as anyone could, I became complicit. Each time I tried yet again to clarify self-evident things, I was acknowledging that perhaps I had somehow not been clear. I’d been clear, and taken hours to be as clear as I was each time. Every time I struggled to further simplify and recast the same points yet again, I was participating in a vicious negation of my ability to be clear.

My father used to run this play all the time, making me state the same obvious concern five or ten different ways, insisting each time that I’d explained nothing while trying to distract me by angrily refocusing on my “rage”. In the end, one Yom Kippur when I was close to forty, I was finally able to patiently defuse this asshole gambit. He had to back down and admit he understood what I’d explained to him several different ways, over the course of a few hours. He agreed to tone down the hostility, though years later he triumphantly told me he’d only pretended to tone it down, proving his perennial point that people can’t change on any fundamental level. He “won” by effectively ending his relationship with the son he loved. A small price to pay, I suppose, for those terrible regrets he had on his deathbed.

With a brutal father, there can be a pay off, if you work hard enough, gain enough understanding and skill, and are able not to get sucked into the ugliness of a fight. With a contemporary surrogate for that brutal, implacable father, as we have obviously cast each other for decades (I see you as a bully, you likely see me the same way– a very self-righteous bully in my case) it is unlikely to work things out, the chances of any meaningful emotional epiphany are minimal. Peer competition comes in, back to our sporting days as adolescents, an unwillingness (or inability) to make ourselves vulnerable, etc.

In the interest of reconciliation, taking you at your word, I put my aggravation in a nutshell for you, more than once: there is nothing more frustrating to me than making a point, particularly in a contentious situation, and having only silence by way of reply.

Your reply was determined silence on every point I raised, you relied on an absolute right not to respond to anything you didn’t want to respond to. You kept resting on your right to engage no point I raised, yielded not a millimeter, except to allow that you still somehow didn’t understand why I was incapable of accepting your belated apology for whatever it was I’d felt you’d done.

And in the end, hurt, you provocatively claim I hadn’t given you a single clue, in all the thousands of words I sent after hours and days of careful thinking, writing and editing. It was a pure negation of my thoughts and feelings, my ability to make them clear, an extremely abusive act. Surely you’re already in a kind of hell for it, since you are clearly willing to pay the price my poor bastard of a father did to be “right”.

I pity you, in a way, but more importantly, I’m writing to process the lesson – it is self-destructive to keep showing good faith to someone you understand to be incapable of returning it. It turns out that even after doing a lot of work on the issue, one can be bullied and, thinking he is on some kind of high road, wind up unintentionally consenting to it. I do not consent to it and I recommend the same approach to everyone I know when someone tries to dominate them.

Unlike you, I believe in the potential of the people I love, our ability to grow and change. I’ve seen close friends evolve in inspiring ways, I’ve seen changes in myself that have kept me from the worst of things. I get better at not hurting [Sekhnet], for example. I’ve also seen my share of Noams, and Friedmans, quietly, implacably enraged people intent on, I don’t know what — prevailing, I guess, for lack of a better word. There are plenty of assholes to contend with on this planet of assholes, but there are also souls worth holding on to, and it is worth the ongoing work to learn how to live this way.

For what it’s worth, I do feel the bitter sadness of your worldview, you poor bastard.

38 ounce baseball bat to your face, Paul

As promised the other day, my long-delayed clubbing of a long-time bully whose bullying I tolerated in the name of our better angels. Here is what I wrote to my former friend of fifty years:

Paul:

I have no illusion about bringing you any insight, or any real desire to help you at this point (even if I could), but here’s a short bit of perspective, written mostly for myself.

You blame me for hurting you in the end in a way that ended our friendship, fair enough. You blame me for being unforgiving, though you told me you never understood why I seemed to demand your abject surrender for something you claimed you couldn’t grasp: what had been so hurtful about your eternal devil’s advocacy, sporadic snarls of impatience and unrepentant flashes of rage. So be it.

I recognize your limited emotional bandwidth, which is not hard to see. You avoid the expression of your personal feelings, preferring the back and forth of spirited argument by way of friendly conversation. Your parents were far from ideal, your father a hectoring bully with only a passing sense of humor, your mother a narcissist eternally loyal to your father’s autocracy. You probably never received the kind of emotional support we all need. You have an understandably grim worldview, people can never truly know each other, people cannot change in any meaningful way. You’ve endured an ugly divorce, the bitter death of another longterm romantic relationship and now the ugly end of your longest, closest friendship – proving your case, I suppose.

You claimed to love me like a brother, regard me as your dearest friend. You were unable to show this love except by eternally arguing that perhaps I was wrong to feel as I did — about everything, from politics, to the end of my long acquaintanceship with Noam, to my anger at having my health insurance illegally terminated, to the frustration of finding no provision of the violated law I could make available to help others similarly screwed. You truly couldn’t relate to any pain I expressed since, as you say, how could you ever know what another person truly feels? Except, of course, to become angry and challenging when you felt that other person was being unhealthily angry, because you cared about them so much.

In the end I kick myself for my many attempts to “explain” myself to someone so clearly determined to be right at all costs. I should have seen the whole picture much earlier on, when you angrily barked at me to tell you to go fuck yourself when you called to confront me about an email you called “snide and inaccurate” (which, in the end, you conceded had not actually been inaccurate).

I should not have taken you at your word that our friendship was important to you and that you’d do anything to fix it. That was my fault, I repressed the knowledge, based on long experience, that you were emotionally incapable of doing what needed to be done, namely, dropping the argumentative facade for long enough to empathize with a friend in an objectively aggravating situation.

In the end, after thanking me for my mildness in setting out some of the early ugliness between us and asking me again and again to show good will by re-explaining what I’d already set out clearly, things you left eternally unaddressed, you wrote that you felt I’d said very hurtful things to you. So be it. I was disappointed and very hurt myself, as I let you know quite clearly, time and again, before saying those things that hurt you.

The thing that sticks in my craw, and causes me to write today, is your final, incoherent closing argument, the diabolical doubling down — that you supposedly read everything I’d written and found “no clue” as to what your fault had been or why I was so unforgiving. The words of a gaslighting bully, unbecoming of anything but a desperate, born-pettifogger.

I pity you, in a way, but more importantly, I’m trying to instruct myself not to show repeated good faith to someone I understand to be incapable of returning it. It turns out that even after doing a lot of work on the issue, one can be bullied and, thinking he is on some kind of high road, wind up unintentionally consenting to it. I do not consent to it and I recommend the same approach to everyone I know when someone tries to unreasonably dominate them.

Have a blessed day, you poor bastard.

The often subtle nature of abuse

If you get punched in the face, although the puncher can claim it was an accident, you know without a doubt that you’ve been punched in the face. The same goes for a beating with a belt, or a stick. The damage done by physical beatings is something I can only imagine, not having experienced them more than a couple of times over my long life. The abuse I’m more familiar with is the emotional variety. This kind of expression of rage can be very subtle, and practitioners of this form of abuse are often very good at justifying themselves, making their mercilessness appear to be entirely your fault.

In recent years we have learned the word “gaslighting” — from a 1939 film in which a husband convinces his wife she’s going crazy by, among other things, turning down the gas light in their home over the course of time and pretending the light is the same as it ever was. It is a smooth variation on reframing, a technique by which whatever you’re upset about is recast from another perspective that makes you unreasonable. You say you’re upset about this, well, actually, THIS is why you’re really upset and that makes you a dishonest, confused idiot simply lashing out irrationally because you’re a jerk.

The damage done is the nagging feeling of self-doubt it creates about your right to your feelings, which can be crippling. You honestly don’t even see you are being abused until very far into the game, if ever. It is easy, many times, to doubt your own lying eyes and ears, when the pressure is kept constant by someone intent on keeping you off balance at any cost.

Many people don’t ever fully recover from this kind of abuse, tending to blame themselves throughout their lives for pain they didn’t cause and mistreatment they did little or nothing to deserve. Lately, during this lockdown I’ve had too much time to brood as I work through an interesting book about evil, which concludes that evil consists, in its essence, of a damaging lie told without contrition. Being less and less able to go for my customary long walks due to the arthritis in my left knee, I keep coming back to my own inability to see bad things for what they are sometimes. Sekhnet tried to reassure me by chalking it up to my good character, my desire to see the best in people, to extend the benefit of the doubt, my attempt to first cause no harm, but it doesn’t feel like a satisfying explanation to me.

There is a masochistic aspect to my unwillingness to let go of people who have shown themselves to be, at best, callous about other people’s feelings and determined to be right at all costs. I keep coming up short when I consider why I didn’t finally cut a very neurotic old friend loose once he, face fully a’twitch, blamed me for deliberately trying to destroy his hellish marriage. Or why I kept trying to explain myself to a very smart old friend who continued to plead ignorance to what exactly he’d done by expressing rage at my anger, precisely how this had hurt me so much, no matter how clearly I explained it to him. It’s this second guy I feel like throwing against the wall a bit now, though our long friendship was shit-canned months back. Though both were adamant in their denial of my right to feel the way I did, or their role in the escalating tension between us, the first guy is already in hell, to a more obvious extent than the second, who remained smugly superior throughout.

I saw a concise little presentation on gaslighting the other day (see below) and as I watched I saw each of this very smart old friend’s responses, set out one after the other. A textbook case of bullying by trying to make me doubt even my own ability to express myself clearly. The point was not whether or not I’d made myself clear (I had) the point was, no matter what I said or wrote, he had a ready reply that dismissed or ignored it outright and he kept falling back on his inability to understand, asking me to please, if I’d be willing, explain it to him again, a little clearer this time. In the end, in telling me how cruelly I’d hurt him (by eventually making clear what a desperate, irredeemable asshole he was?), he insisted none of the thousands of words I’d written him gave him any “clue” why I had felt it necessary, in the end, to be so hurtful to him. Now, because I had been so patient with this guy, acting in good faith with someone who was hellbent on being right, no matter what the facts, I am left with a desire to simply hurt the perennial bully.

The ten examples of gaslighting from the video below are a good starting point, I suppose, for a tart little final fuck you, since he employed every one of these lines over the months I took him at his word that he honestly wanted to repair our friendship. I should be able to get over this anger I am still feeling, but since I am not able to, inflicting a little last bit of hurt may be the best I can do to finish processing it. Let’s run through the list as I mentally prepare my fuck you to this unfunny clown:

“What did I do to you?” This is a good one, my mother used to use this one all the time. I have an image of her, sitting next to me at the kitchen table when I was a kid, screaming in a weird cadence (which makes me think she may have been shaking me to this rhythm) “what… did… anyone… ever… do… to …. you… to make you… so… fucking angry?!”

“Everyone around you isn’t the problem, the problem is you.” In the case of someone who lies at your expense, the problem isn’t that they lied, the problem is that you are such a self-righteous and judgmental prick. This is a newly familiar one to me, and a very hard one to swallow.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is a great one, sometimes expressed in the conditional “if-pology” form “if you felt bad, if I hurt you, I’m sorry.” Neatly dismissive of your right to feel the way you do, leaving open the possibility that nothing bad happened, and beautifully evasive of any role in causing the feelings you are conditionally apologizing for the other person having, if they actually even had such feelings. A classic.

“I don’t remember saying that, I think you made that up.”

“It’s your anxiety that made me do it.” A variation on the theme that you deserve what you get, because it’s all you’re fault, none of it mine, and if you have a problem, you caused it, because you are the asshole, not me!

“You need help.”

“It’s your fault.”

“You’re too emotional” (sorry if you feel that way, asshole)

“It’s not a big deal.”

“Why are you so defensive all the time? You keep attacking me.” This is the last refuge of a gaslighting bully, to make themselves the victim of you. It is this last one, more than another other single reason, that makes me feel like delivering one hard, unequivocal punch to this smart, eternally argumentative fellow’s smug, combative face. I’m not proud of this feeling, but I understand it. There is a certain value, I have to think, to providing this motherfucker with the unambiguous clue he pretended not to have.