A thought about my father’s talent for empathy

I was thinking about the mild, kind, nurturing side of my complicated father recently.   It was not his default setting, he was usually guarded and ready to attack if he felt in any way threatened, but his talent for comforting was a memorable side of him that needs to be brought out in describing him to you.  He was capable of great sensitivity and supportiveness, in the right emotionally threatening situation.   Anybody who ever found themselves in a tough spot, and was calmed by the way my father’s used great intelligence, warm humanism and a hint of humor to relieve worry, will remember him gratefully.

It was his ability to be conciliatory, reassuring and merciful while, at any given moment, also capable of merciless verbal violence, that made being his child so tricky, so disorienting, made it so hard to get a handle on what was real and what was ridiculous.   Ultimately, I think it was this highly rational man’s irrational need to unconditionally vilify, coming from someone equally capable of great empathy, that proved so damaging to his offspring.

My sister, who identifies with our father as much as I do, noted that our father was always playful and tender with young children (as well as small animals, he took a particular delight in lifting small dogs by the armpits and rocking them, rigid legged, in front of his face).  She concluded this was because they posed no threat to him.   I think she was right.  He was a different person when he wasn’t worried about being attacked, as any of us are.  Little kids of a certain age are cute, playful and trusting as puppies.  They can be fun to play with — plus they pose no harm and are very happy for attention.  He was at his best goofing around with them, sounding them out about things, going with the flow, making them laugh.

My father was also at his best in times of crisis, when you were very upset in the midst of an emergency.  He would quietly lay out his understanding of your worries and then calmly walk you through all the reasons you shouldn’t be so upset.   He had a great ability to reassure. 

The mechanism of this, I realize now, was similar to his unguarded playfulness with children.   When my sister or I were most vulnerable, our father was least concerned with being attacked by us.  This freed him to express his better nature.   The memory of his consistent kindness in these tough situations also served to make my sister and me often blame ourselves when he was enraged at us.

It was an emotionally confusing situation to grow up in, being raised by someone so reflexively critical and angry who was also capable of such soothing compassion.   One of the hallmarks of my father’s fighting style was the insistence that you were wrong to feel what you were feeling.  “You’re wrong,” he’d say flatly, in the face of your upswelling emotion, and then reframe things to tell you what you should actually be feeling, if you weren’t so fucked up, and why you’d be much better off simply feeling the opposite of how you felt.   

I’ve since learned that this refusal to acknowledge another person’s hurt is perhaps the most provocative thing a person can do in response to someone else’s vulnerability — tell them they have absolutely no right to feel what they are feeling. 

There was rarely an attempt to de-escalate anything in our home, this was not in either of our parents’ emotional repertoires.   They had both suffered greatly at the hands of strong-willed, violent mothers.   They were ill equipped to deal with their frustrations, our own frustrations were maddening to them.    

There would be angry confrontations at the dinner table, virtually every night.  Accusations would fly, authoritative pronouncements by my father delivered in the style of a prosecutor’s closing remarks to the jury.  What you were doing now, in this moment of anger, was what you always do because you are an irredeemably angry person, a bad seed, a hater.   In my sister’s case, she was portrayed to the imaginary jury as not angry, so much, but reflexively dishonest, scheming, vain, empty-headed.   This reduction of each of us to the sum of some purported faults or weaknesses did a great deal of harm, as you can imagine.

When my sister and I discuss our childhood there’s a phrase we bat around that often gets a chuckle out of us “twisted and contorted with hate”.   My father must have directed the phrase to me more than once, since we both recall it so clearly.  He would snarl this at me whenever I’d sit across from him, my face twisted and contorted with hate.    Hate, mind you, is a very strong word.

My grandmother, whose six brothers and sisters were marched to a ravine and shot in the back of their heads by local townspeople who hated them, always reacted with disgust when I’d report that I hated my teacher.  She tried to teach me what a strong word hate is.   “You HATE her?  Be quiet! You don’t HATE her… you don’t know what hate means, hate means you’d kill her,” she’d say, correctly.   I’d stick to my guns, as my grandmother waved her large hands dismissively.

“Yeah, grandma, I’d kill her…” I’d insist, as righteous children often do. 

“Please…” she’d say turning away with incomparable dismissiveness.

 

                                                                                    ii

In thinking about my father now, and the deeper values he imbued in me, and what he tried to teach me to never tolerate,  I grasp something impressive.   At the same time that he often acted tyrannically, he also instilled in me a profound resistance to tyranny– not only by an instinct to refuse his overbearing assaultive behavior toward me but also by his philosophical example, the courageous people he admired.  

He truly hated tyranny, an irrational assertion of unchallengeable, often brutal, will, and I digested this hatred, which on some level he supported, even as he reflexively acted like a despot and fought me without restraint.  I could see that on some level he respected me for fighting back against his attempts to tyrannize me.  Tyranny, he taught me on a cellular level, is evil — straight up.   I would come to lose many jobs, even my chosen profession, animated by this high-minded belief in higher justice and by a visceral inability to yield to a bully — or to seeing others bullied.

My father told me, the last night of his life, that his life was basically over by the time he was two.  I’d learned the reason for this a few years earlier from my father’s closest cousin, Eli, a first generation American tough guy 16 years older than my father.  I spent many a Saturday up at Eli’s retirement bungalow during the last few years of the old man’s life, talking about everything.   My father would vehemently dismiss any insight I believed I’d taken from my talks with Eli.  Eli’s accounts were bullshit, he’d insist, portraying Eli as a hopelessly muddled and unreliable historical revisionist and pointing to his estrangement from his own children as the proof that Eli was full of shit.   

When, at 1 a.m., I entered the room my father would die in nineteen hours later, one of the first things he said was “those stories Eli told you… everything he said was true, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it.”  The worst I’d heard from Eli was bad enough.   Eli’s mother died when he was a year-old.    He instantly bonded with his Aunt Chava, his father’s youngest sister, a red-haired beauty who arrived by boat when Eli was six.  Eli and his father were at the dock in lower Manhattan to greet her.

“It was love at first sight,” Eli told me happily and recounted all the ways his beloved Tante Chava doted on him throughout his life.  There was no mistaking the painful ambivalence in Eli as he prepared to tell me a horrible detail I needed to know about his beloved Tante Chavah, my father’s mother, in order to help me make sense of our tangled, violent family history.  To give me a painful insight into my father’s most painful secret.

Eli had seen it more than once.  I picture him standing in the doorway to the kitchen of Chava’s home as his one year-old cousin stood in front of his chair, eyes downcast in terror, as his mother, Eli’s beloved Aunt, reached angrily into the drawer behind her chair for the rough, heavy cord of her iron, and whipped him across the face with it.

Across the face?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Eli with infinite sorrow.

“How old was he?” I asked.   

“However old you are when you can stand on your own two feet, I don’t know, one, one and a few months, I guess… a baby…”

After a while, of course, all Chava had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the rigid, burlap-wrapped cord and my infant father would stand rigidly, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, shuddering in terror.  A terror and humiliation that never left him, vicious pain inflicted for no reason by the mother who called him “Sonny”.   From the time he could stand.

It is impossible to reckon the damage this betrayal by your own mother would do to a person.  My father was often very mean to my sister and me, and the damage of that is hard to reckon.   I can only imagine the soul destruction my father experienced was ten times worse, maybe a hundred times worse.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” said the dying man as I stood beside his deathbed, the tiny digital recorder propped on his chest.   Many mysteries remain, all these years later.   One is how he managed to limit his abuse of my sister and me to harsh words.  Another is how he retained the ability, when things were darkest and scariest for us during our childhood. to empathize and calm us.   There are deep lessons in my father’s life for me and I will continue to delve until I have some answers worth sharing.

 

We never study this part of our history

Americans are famously unconcerned with history.   Even recent history is quickly forgotten, dismissed as “been there, done that.”   The president’s controversial acts are forgotten almost as quickly as he commits them.  All that skullduggery detailed in the Mueller Report?   Old news!   We heard about it already, the president openly and innocently admitted it, the partisan witch hunt completely and totally exonerated the poor guy!  We look forward here in America, not back, like Obama so high-mindedly did with state-sanctioned American torture that was rebranded as “enhanced interrogation” for purposes of immunizing American torturers.   “We tortured some folks,” admitted the president, citing the best of intentions with which good Americans unfortunately did these admittedly wrong things, and we moved on.   America, land of opportunity.

I heard this report, of the hundredth anniversary of a racial slaughter in rural Arkansas, one among many in our bloody history of racial violence, a racist slaughter I’d never heard of.  I’m an American who takes history seriously, and I’ve read a good bit of it over the years, but I’d never heard of this particular massacre. Oddly, like the racist bloodbath in Colfax, Louisiana on Easter Sunday eight years after the end of the Civil War, it didn’t appear in any of the books I read in school [1].   

The Elaine Massacre took place during the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, at a time when some very fine people (including progressive president Woodrow Wilson) were recasting the history of the Confederacy’s bloody rebellion against the federal government as a glorious lost cause for the highest of ideals.   The Civil War, American history students were taught for decades, had not been fought over the constitutionally protected right of the wealthy to own slaves (as every Confederate state’s articles of secession stated) but for “States’ Rights” — local sovereignty, something everyone wants and is sympathetic to.   MAGA, baby. [2]  

I only know about the Elaine massacre because Amy Goodman reported, on October 1:

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine massacre, when white vigilantes in Arkansas massacred hundreds of African Americans in one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history. The massacre began after black sharecroppers attempted to organize with the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to demand higher pay for cotton. A new memorial to the victims of the massacre was recently unveiled in the county seat of Helena, Arkansas.

source  

Sure, you can look it up now, in the age of instant information, and find the story documented somewhere (but only, of course, if you learn about it in the first place, somehow):

The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.

source

(you will have to overlook the unintended irony of the article’s anodyne title: The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System — yah, mon, they curbed that shit back in 1923…)

You can also learn things more troubling still, from the same article:

Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

And as to the fate of the twelve black men convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged murders of the whites who died in the pogrom (the African-American men were the only ones prosecuted in relation to the Elaine massacre in which virtually all of the victims were African-American), this interesting footnote, from the same article (which leads to the title referred to above):

In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.

Tulsa, Oklahoma .  We’ve got a couple of years until the centennial of that massive anti-black rampage.

I think about my concern with this American denial of our history and wonder if maybe I’m just oversensitive because of my peculiar family history.   My father’s side of the family back in Belarus (then known as White Russia) was wiped out by the Nazis with no trace of what happened to them.   My mother’s side lived in a Ukrainian town where local Jews from neighboring areas were assembled in a makeshift ghetto and finally led to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town where several thousand were executed one August night by bullet to the back of the skull.   One searches the internet in vain for any listing of this massacre among the many Nazi massacres of World War Two.  Go figure.

The family of everybody slaughtered during the Elaine pogrom, the Colfax pogrom, the Tulsa pogrom, surely remembers the people they lost a few generations back, murdered by violent strangers who acted with no fear of legal repercussions.   You tend not to forget that kind of thing, if it happens to you.

Forget history at your own peril, my friends.

 

[1]  There was a footnote in the Constitutional law casebook I had in law school to a case called U.S. v. Cruikshank.  A single line, citing it as a precedent for a more famous case, the aptly named Slaughterhouse cases.   Cruikshank arose out of the organized slaughter of black men, women and children in a rural town in Louisiana. (you will get no sense of the horrific underlying events reading the Supreme Court’s dry, legalistic whitewash that signaled the judicial end of the Ku Klux Klan Act which became unenforceable in light of the Cruikshank decision).

Armed black Civil War veterans were defending ballot boxes in the county seat of rural Grant Parish after the 1872 election (one of the last with wide scale black voting in the former Confederacy until after passage of the Voting Rights Act almost a century later) which was angrily disputed by local whites.  Local whites (led by Cruikshank, et al) arrived in droves, an armed militia, with at least one cannon, and committed atrocities including the murder of prisoners who had surrendered.  

There was clearly no chance for a fair trial in the state court, so the families of the victims, and civil rights advocates,  sued in federal court, under the Ku Klux Klan Act, and things went no better for them there.  Cruikshank and the other killers walked, the Supreme Court found the federal charges against the local whites had been inartfully drafted.  The little remembered Cruikshank decision set an unshakeable precedent, was instrumental in instituting a century of “states’ rights”, giving local authorities the final say in how to deal with violence against its local troublemaking Negroes and those carpetbagging scoundrels from up north. Here’s the Smithsonian’s account of the Colfax Massacre. 

And racist monument makers get the last word, in 1951:

colfax_riot_sign_img_2401.jpeg

[

2] “Make America Great Again” was one of Ronald Reagan’s several campaign slogans during his first successful presidential run.   A young Roger Stone, who has a life-sized image of Nixon’s head tattooed on his back, was part of Reagan’s campaign and profited handsomely afterwards as a pioneering lobbyist with direct access to the highest elected officials he’d help put into office.  Stone later became one of Trump’s closest advisers and is, you might recall, awaiting trial for a string of shady dealings on the president’s behalf.  Not much has been heard from the provocative loudmouth lately, now that I think of it.   Stone’s idol Nixon, incidentally, was the first to refer to an impeachment as a “partisan witch hunt.”

“Paul, Paul…” (note for the Book of Irv)

Had a vivid memory yesterday, probably dredged up by Mark’s older brother’s memory of how his little brother hid candy bars from his two older brothers and how quickly he ate his meals at restaurants, lest somebody else get a morsel off his plate.

My father was over six feet tall and carried up to forty or fifty pounds of excess weight most of the time I knew him.   His younger brother Paul was quite a bit smaller, and fairly trim.   My father, at least once, told my sister and me the story of taking as much of his little brother’s food as he could get.   He told the story with a chuckle.

I didn’t stop to think, a middle class kid when I heard the story, that my father and my uncle were probably frequently hungry growing up in “grinding poverty” (the phrase my father always used to describe it, the family’s desperation corroborated by his cousin Gene) during the Depression.   My father would finish his food, turn to his brother, who ate more slowly, and ask him for another bite.  

” ‘Paul, Paul…’ I’d say and hold out my hand to him and he’d very reluctantly break off a tiny crumb of food and hand it over.    He didn’t want to, you know, but he always gave me something.”

As I told this to Sekhnet last night I remembered something else, the walk back from Carvel with my younger sister.  

Our parents would give us some change to go buy ice cream at the Carvel two short blocks and one long one from our house.   Carvel had soft serve machines and we’d generally each get a cone, sometimes plain sometimes with sprinkles (my sister was partial to the multicolored ones) and sometimes dipped in molten chocolate that would instantly become a lovely, slightly soft, thin chocolate shell (the “Brown Bonnet”).  

We’d lap up the delicious ice cream as we walked that first long block.    As we turned the first corner the swirl of ice cream in mine would be flattened down to the cone, a few bites and I was finished.   My sister ate more slowly, turning the cone methodically to lick away the drips, savoring her ice cream.   I’d always ask her for a slurp of her cone.   When she resisted I mocked her as a “saver”.  She’d reluctantly hand over the cone, protesting the unfairness (and she had a point) and I’d take a slurp.

“Paul, Paul…”

 

 

Family is the most important thing

Although most mass murders happen within families,  as a ten second scan of the internet will show [1], fratricide, parricide and filicide are not the most common forms of murder, thankfully.    (Although 100% of all incest happens in families, by definition.)    In many families lifelong grudges stand in for murder.   My family, for example, has generally practiced this humane alternative to actual killing (those few outliers who survived the actual mass killings of 1943, that is).    Even within devastated, crazy, dysfunctional families, the common refrain is that there is nothing more important than family– except possibly keeping your insane fucking aunt as far from us as possible.

Sekhnet’s mother’s best friend for many years (they had a terrible falling out years later) was the sister of a woman married to a dynamic first generation Italian man named Uncle Tony.   Uncle Tony and his wife had no children of their own, but exerted a great influence on so far three generations of their nieces and nephews.   They hosted them every summer at their summer place near the beach, put them to work and instilled their values deep within these kids.   The youngest of these kids are now in their seventies, having passed the values on to their children and grandchildren.

The third weekend in August every year, for the last 65, is the Italian Picnic.   Family and friends would arrive on Long Island by the dozens, pitch tents, sleep in cars, in curtain-divided cubicles in the original cabin with Uncle Tony and his wife, in the “overflow”, a handmade structure in the back that housed an additional ten or so in various compartments.  Behind the overflow was the outdoor shower.   The sign over the toilet read “in these isles of sun and fun, we never flush for number one.”

Sekhnet attended the first Italian Picnic “in utero” as she likes to say.   She went that first time as a four month-old fetus (perhaps she was still an embryo, I’d have to look it up) and has missed only one or two in the following six and a half decades. I’ve been going every year since 2001, when I drove Sekhnet and her aged parents to the picnic when Sekhnet had a medical problem that prevented her from driving the 80 miles or so.    

I was welcomed warmly and instantly by this large, gregarious family.   It was beautiful to be in a gathering where everyone seemed to genuinely love, or at least like, each other.   The food was great, the controlled chaos of the festivities was cool, and there were several colorful characters that made these picnics a lot of fun.

Over the years I got to know a unique character named Louie, a truly larger than life nephew of Uncle Tony’s.   He was a jovial, powerfully built former cop with flowing white hair, impressive facial hair, an even more impressive belly and a great talent for storytelling.

Some years he’d drink everyone under the table (the table was in a thatched tiki bar across the dirt yard from the main house) while telling an endless series of detailed and often very funny stories.   Some years he didn’t drink at all, like the year he fasted, passing up the dozens of trays of delicious Italian delicacies, all that pasta, and seafood, and lasagna, and all the rest, including the table of homemade desserts.  He explained that he was doing this for his self-discipline and also as part of a purifying detox he’d been doing for a few days.   Early the next morning he broke his purifying fast with an enormous bacon sandwich he devoured standing over the outdoor breakfast griddle, cooking breakfast.  

One year early in my tenure, during a year when Louie was drinking, I first heard his stories,  They continued late into the night as one inebriated younger person after another staggered off to turn in.  He was in charge of the blender at the tiki bar and he induced me to drink perhaps ten delicious frozen drinks of some kind.   He drank at least that many himself, as one by one every other drinker mumbled good night, shuffled off, fell over.

I was the second to last man standing that night, kind of, I tottered off to sleep after slurring a goodnight to Louie. To my amazement, I saw (while up briefly to pee) that Louie was the first guy up in the morning, putting the coffee on, (in the big, dented aluminum drip urn), before anybody else was up, cheerfully at work out at the makeshift workstation near the tiki bar, breaking eggs, mixing pancake batter, firing up the grill to get breakfast started for everybody.

Over the years there were tragedies.  Louie’s younger brother, Frankie (they were two of four brothers), another beloved guy, a former NYC detective, had a terrible string of them a few years ago.   Frankie’s playful wife was diagnosed, too late, with the cancer that killed her a very short time later, right before the picnic one year. A few months later Louie came down with a sore throat he couldn’t shake.  The sore throat turned out to be esophageal cancer.   Louie’s funeral was on a brutally frigid day a month or two later.   Frankie underwent a heart procedure that had a very remote, less than one percent, chance of paralysis.   Frankie hit that jackpot too. Somehow, his faith sustains him.  He seems in most ways to be pretty close to how he always was, except that he’s in a wheelchair and attended by two caretakers at all times.

I’m thinking about this family today because we came back from that third weekend in August picnic last night.   When Uncle Tony’s widow died about fifteen years ago the picnic was in jeopardy.   It was unclear, as Sekhnet edited her beautiful movie chronicling the history of the picnic, if there’d be another one.  That was a big motivation to make the documentary, to capture this unique tradition.  In the end the property was purchased by a grand-nephew who rebuilt the place into a modern family compound.  

I first saw this guy as a young man in Sekhnet’s masterpiece. The young Anthony looks into her camera and says “it was just a weekend but it seemed to us like the whole summer, we couldn’t wait to go and we used to cry when we had to leave.”  In the end he and his wife bought the place and they continue to host the family tradition the third weekend every August.

Anthony runs the picnic much the way Uncle Tony used to do it when Anthony was a kid.  No elaborate planning of the menu is done, people bring whatever they bring, and it is always plenty, and delicious.  Lunch is at one, laid out on long tables.  People take a walk down to the nearby beach.    The traditional games are played as the assembled adults cheer and heckle: a line of kids trying to whistle with a mouth full of crackers, blow the largest bubble gum bubble, eat a round slice of watermelon by thrusting the face into the middle of it, three-legged sack races, tug of war with a gigantic rope.  Prizes go to everybody after each game.  

Gone is the candy tree of Sekhnet’s youth, a tree with candy on every branch where the kids found their prizes under the leaves and picked them right off the tree. Gone are the buzz cuts for the boys that Uncle Tony used to administer, but the traditions of the picnic are clearly prized and ongoing, as is the love and closeness of everyone there.   The children of Uncle Tony’s grandnieces and grandnephews are now becoming teenagers, young adults.    I knew all these kids as babies, then as toddlers.  If we live long enough, we’ll see their babies and toddlers, hard as that is to believe.  Sekhnet and I are among the older generation now.

Somebody took out a packet of photos yesterday after dinner.   They were passed around and cackled over.  Here is so and so (sitting across from me) at thirteen, forty years ago.  “Oh, my God, look at… is that so and so?!!”  Amid much hooting Sekhnet was examining a photo with a human shaped cut-out in the middle.  “I like the invisible man,” I said, pointing to the blue table cloth showing through the open space the shape of a person literally cut out of the picture.   The cut out person was not identified or commented on and I didn’t follow up.    

Over the years a few people have disappeared from the gatherings.  Not only because of death, but other things too.  This happens in families.   We don’t talk about that, beyond a mention and a shrug, sometimes a short summary of the sad tale.   Why talk about it?   Family, and being with those you love, is the most important thing.  Am I wrong?

 

[1]  Although familicides are relatively rare, they are the most common form of mass killing.    source    

 

Losing the Propaganda War

Back in the day, in ancient Egypt, when a new dynasty came into power they’d send goons into the tombs of the rulers of the past.   These goons would scrape the images of the dead off the tomb walls, making sure to remove the faces wherever they were depicted.   It was a way of messing them up good in the after-life — try living forever in glory with no face.   It was a way of effacing their image, and memory, from history.    The same technique has been used a million times since.  Who are you going to believe — me or this asshole who literally has no fucking face?

It’s now common to call this process something like controlling the narrative.  In propaganda terms, you take a complex issue and reduce it to a phrase that will make people angry.  “Moscow Mitch” pops to mind, a great recent example of this technique (and, by the way, Moscow Mitch is fuming about this vicious, if not completely unfair, nickname).   Mitch McConnell, the long serving lady-killer from Kentucky, has used his position as leader of the Senate to block votes on all legislation, and every appointment, he doesn’t like.  He simply refuses to allow a debate or vote, that’s how you guarantee your enemies lose every time.   Losers.

Included on this list, most recently, is his ungentlemanly, anti-democratic refusal to bring two House bills about election security to a vote on the floor of the Senate.   These bills are to ensure that our electronic elections are protected from the massive foreign manipulation we can expect in 2020, in light of what the Mueller Report documented as “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in 2016. [1]   Also in light of a recent government report that showed attempts to hack voting machines in all 50 states in 2016.  Moscow Mitch sees no problem with any of this, as long as his party, whose presidential candidate was openly favored by Moscow in 2016, and happily invited their help, stays in power.

So, instead of needing to say all that simply say:  Moscow Mitch.  The phrase stands in perfectly for a candidate apparently more loyal to Putin’s right to a favorable say in the election than any Democrat’s right to cast a secure ballot.   Hopefully the cool new nickname will help cost the obdurate, unprincipled, partisan obstructionist his job in the next election.

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This sort of thing is common in politics, of course.   “Lock her up!” was used to great effect by a demagogue and his cronies in a recent election.  It was simply a way of channelling hatred for Hillary Clinton and all she stood for.   “Build the Wall!” was as feel good a chant as “Block that Kick!” at a football game.   Makes people feel part of something virile and powerful, to fullthroatedly yell in unison like that, standing and rhythmically pumping their fists.  Winners.  

Odd to say, the same simplifying principle is routinely employed by most of us in our personal lives.  From time to time we judge something another person did as crossing a line, beyond the pale (whatever that cliche actually means — [2]) and based on that transgression we write the final unflattering chapter of our history with that person.   Everything was fine until this person I was friends with for thirty years refused to take “I said ‘no’ and I don’t have to say why” as a final answer, the infuriatingly overbearing fuck!

Bringing people to one side or the other in these wars is largely a public relations battle, fought on the miniature battlefield of interpersonal relations.   It is routinely fought in families — who is to blame for what, who is the black sheep, who brought honor or dishonor to our family name, who is on whose side against whom.   It is fought everywhere people are angry about anything, which is to say, everywhere.  I give you the following highly hypothetical illustration which resembles nothing in anyone’s personal life, I assure you.

[illustration REDACTED]

A focus on the truth of what actually happened is often seen as misguided in our Moscow Mitch world, or, to be more accurate: irrelevant.   A simple, easy to embrace belief is better, in the all-important public relations/marketing/branding arena, than a well-researched, compellingly written thousand pages nobody will ever read, particularly if you burn the fucking book and the godless witch who wrote it. 

Mueller [3] was a godless witch, by the way, just ask Moscow Mitch.

 

[1]    “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller wrote in the 448-page document, which lays out new details about a Kremlin-backed plot that compromised Democrats’ computer networks and targeted state and local election offices.

source     note that this article is from April 19, 2019!   

[2]  Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 3.47.27 PM.png

[3] Bobby Three Sticks

A Tricky Story to Tell

“You had only two uncles, me and your father’s brother,” he said.   

“Our father had a brother?” said the niece. 

“Yes, a few years older.   We only met him once, he was kind of estranged from your father and his father.   He was funny, and personable, and seemed like a very nice guy.   He was as big as your father, and had dark hair.   We sat on the back porch playing cards, at your grandparents’ house in Queens.”   

“How come we never heard of him?”   

“You’d have to ask your parents.   I have no idea.   Maybe it was the fact that they were estranged, had virtually no contact once the brothers were adults.   I  don’t know.   Maybe it has to do with his mental illness,” the sole uncle said.   

“Mental illness?” said the nephew.   

“Look, I know virtually nothing about the man, except for a pleasant afternoon we spent with him.   And that he was taking some psycho-pharmaceutical and his psychiatrist apparently had told him to have nothing further to do with the family, that it would only aggravate his condition.   And like I said, we only met him that one time, never heard about him after that.”   

“Whoa, his ‘psychiatrist’?”  said the niece.

“You know, in most families you have your pick of aunts, uncles, cousins.  You will have the ones you feel closest to, a real kinship, and many others will leave you cool, or even cold.  In our family, since the family tree was so ruthlessly pruned back in 1942, you get only one or two uncles — in your case one.   Your other uncle probably died before you were born, another reason you never heard of him, I guess.”   

“How did he die?” said the nephew.   

“That’s just speculation, we really have no idea.  He could still be alive, he’d be in his early seventies now”   

“Jesus,” said the niece, glancing at her phone.

“I can tell you what happened two generations ago, on your mother’s side, when the German army ran across the area we’re from, on their way to invade the heart of the Soviet Union.   Between the winter of 1941 and the winter of 1942 everyone in our family was murdered, except for the handful of people who arrived here between 1904 and 1923.    The areas they came from were, as they say, cleansed of Jews by the SS and willing local anti-Semites.   We know a few of their names, we know what happened to their towns, the muddy little hamlets they came from.   Everyone was executed, end of story.”   

“That would make you a little paranoid, I guess,” said the nephew. 

Claro que si, sobrino,” said the uncle.

“I can only say a little bit more, because to some people, well, this is ticklish to say… some people believe that anything that causes pain or anguish should be avoided.  The passive voice and all that.   You don’t touch a nerve that’s raw.  If it’s bad, or makes you feel bad, especially if it evokes shame or anger, don’t talk about it.  Talking about it is very dangerous,” he turned to his niece.   

“You know, when you were a baby and first learned to sit on the potty to do your business, your mother asked you once why you have no hesitation to sit there and pee but the other thing, the shitting business, you weren’t ready to do that in the potty.   She asked why.  You said, with great seriousness and conviction, and you couldn’t have been more than two:  it’s very dangerous!   

“Ha, I forgot about that,” the niece said.   

“What I hear you saying between the lines, Uncle, is that you are very dangerous,” said the nephew.   

“Yes, nephew, if you believe in making sure every source of shame and anger is completely repressed at all times, someone like me is very dangerous.   I’m as dangerous as pooping in a potty, more dangerous, actually,” said the uncle. 

 “Some people believe it’s better to lie than to expose and talk about regrettable, shameful or terrible things.   We have a president like that.  Never made a mistake, never been wrong, never had any reason to reflect or do anything differently, nothing to apologize about, anything bad that ever happened in his life was somebody else’s fault.   You know, a lot of people live that way.   I try not to judge those motherfuckers, but I can’t live like that.  If I know I hurt you, and I care about you, I’m going to try to make it right, starting with an apology.  Unfortunately, not everybody does that.”   

“This is getting a little awkward,” said the niece. 

“I agree,” said the uncle, “where are we going for lunch?”

Asking Unanswerable questions

I’ve long had the intrusive habit of asking of what often seem to be unanswerable questions.   They’re not unanswerable because there is no explanation, no cause and effect that can be laid out, no illuminating reasons that can be produced to get closer to the truth of what’s actually going on. 

They’re unanswerable because they are fucking hard questions, the true reasons are ugly reasons, and great forces are arrayed to make sure they are answered only in self-serving, inadequate ways, like Mr. Trump’s (no reply submitted) reply to Mueller’s last long, compromising written question about the actions of his disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.   

The real answer will often cause more trouble than its worth — to those who have something to lose by it.  The anodyne answer (like the ones the New York Times specializes in) is always preferable, though it’s usually only a partial answer that, while accepting the status quo as the way it should pretty much be, makes no trouble.   Except that it also provides no real clue about anything but how important it is not to make trouble if you want everything to continue pretty much as it is.

I get that I seem to be acting as though humans are mostly rational creatures, animals who use sophisticated tools and logical means to enjoy the many wonders of nature and live in harmony with our miraculous world.  A clever person could say it’s illogical to proceed as if logic ruled the world.   Indeed, the world, we can see at a glance, is clearly not ruled by Reason.   That doesn’t invalidate thoughtfulness as the best we can do in a world often ruled by selfish, enraged brutes.    Understanding is always a net gain, it seems to me, as is honest connection to others.

I also understand that my clinging to “understanding” is an emotional thing, stemming from my childhood need to feel heard and addressed.   Not to say some explanations are not far better than others, only that in seeking them feathers will often be ruffled and emotions raised to the boiling point.   I grew up in a home where that happened regularly.   Some of my parents’ outbursts were understandable to me, I’d touched a raw nerve I had reason to know would be raw — but some were just rage doing what rage does — raging.    What the hell is up with rage?

After our father died, my sister used a great phrase to describe a force that decisively shaped his life (and to a large extent our mother’s as well).  “Shame-based” she said, and it’s a phrase that explains a lot.   The main characteristic about shame is that it compels the sufferer to hide that painful emotion, to rationalize, defend, develop plausible sounding explanations for actions that are not always easy to justify, and often, to lash out violently at others.

Shame is a powerful force in world history.   Adolf Hitler spoke directly to the shame and thwarted national pride of his audience.  He spoke magic words to larger and larger crowds of desperate, angry Germans after Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War One and its submission to a harsh and destructive treaty.  According to the self-taught Mr. Hitler, the German army had never lost the war, not at all; Germany had the greatest military in the world, but it been savagely betrayed, you see, it was stabbed in the back.   No reason to feel national humiliation, the punitive Versailles diktat was heaped on a great and victorious nation by vicious, scheming, inhuman traitors, you understand.   Inferior traitors who continue laughing at Germany, traitors whose laughter will turn to whimpers and screams when we turn the tables!!!

Shame is the source of much rage and violence.    The need to hide shame and act out to keep it hidden is behind many of the terrible stories of savagery we see, many tragedies that unfold before us.  Shame leads directly to abuse, in its many forms. 

 A few years back I heard a great interview on this subject with a psychiatrist named James Gilligan who’d spent many years in prisons working with violent offenders.   He put his finger on shame as the common denominator for violent acts of domination, horrible things done out of a sense of being “disrespected”.    You can read his article on the subject here.    Every sadist was once humiliated, and the reaction to that humiliation is often expressed in a desire to humiliate others.   The vicious cycle (literally) is turned harder by the fact that we tend to blame ourselves for our shame, and for the sometimes shameful things we sometimes do to avoid further shame, which makes everything ten times worse.    

There is a great scene in the movie Goodwill Hunting that vividly illustrates the first step on path away from shame  — addressing the pain and forgiving the self for feeling it.    The psychiatrist, played by Robin Williams, finally get’s through Will’s (Matt Damon) resistance to gaining real insight.   The young man is clearly in pain, and his nerves are painfully exposed after he lays out the violence of his childhood, the terrible punishment inflicted on him by a brutal parent for no reason.    Williams tells him “it’s not your fault”.   The statement is undeniably true — the kid is not responsible for the uncontrollable violence of his angry drunk father.   Will tries to nonchalantly acknowledge this, but he is only retreating back to his tough guy pose.   The shrink, not going to miss the opening, tells the kid again “it’s not your fault.”   He keeps repeating this statement, in the face of his patient’s rising emotions.    In the end the young man breaks down in the older man’s arms and it’s a moment of great progress in his treatment.

Of course, it’s a Hollywood movie.  We know all about successful Hollywood movies — they are pretty much mostly bullshit.   Every time a couple has sex on screen — they come together.   Every time a victim gets a gun, she shoots her sadistic victimizer dead in the final scene.   The poorest characters live in beautiful homes.   Violence is cathartic, makes everything better.   Plus, for good measure, showing a naked woman or man is much more offensive, for purposes of ratings, than showing people being shot, blown up, smashed in the head with baseball bats.    Still, the essence of that scene between Robin Williams and Matt Damon crystalizes something deep and true.

We tend to blame ourselves, which increases our sense of being worth less than others who, aggravatingly,  do not seem to blame themselves.   Except in rare cases, nobody shows us how not to blame ourselves when we feel guilt, or regret, or shame — or rage, for that matter.   It’s our fault we are (slug in your pet fear here).   The poor, generation after generation of these hard-pressed fuckers, have only themselves to blame for their poverty.   After all, hard work and determined ambition is always rewarded in a free nation like ours — just look at all the successful people who worked their asses off to become celebrities!    Surely the poor can grab ahold of their own bootstraps and perform the physics-defying feat of lifting themselves off the ground by their own heels.   Even the metaphor is absurd — but no worries, the image is good enough for our purposes.  Our purpose, to sum it up, is “fuck you.  It’s not me, not us, not the way we do things here, it’s you, asshole.”

So it is down the line with superficial, stupid answers to troubling questions.   Husband, finding himself in a tight spot, as a result of unsuccessful embezzling and numerous lying attempts to cover up his crimes, about to declare bankruptcy he’s kept secret from everybody, suddenly threatens mass murder– stabbing, beheading and killing by fire — of his entire family.   What the fuck?  “He was under unbearable pressure!”  Decades later, the wife who never left, dismisses the homicidal raging as an isolated thing that only happened once.   Her children, two of the intended victims, must never know about the shameful, terrifying episode.   She can’t understand why she still has tremendous anxiety, even though her life is objectively pretty much stress-free, though, admittedly, she does blame herself for the low self-esteem that prevented her from leaving her volatile, serially untruthful husband.

A woman tells you, after a few glasses of wine, that she has always hated everybody.   Present company excluded, she adds with a wan smile, realizing how bad that categorical statement must have sounded.   We all laugh about it, admit that we hate most people too.   Then, over time, it emerges that this woman does hate EVERYBODY– present company now included.  Doesn’t talk to her brother or sister, rages at her children, is in a constantly escalating war with her husband, etc.  She hates everybody because, when it comes down to it, her life is shit and she hates that too– and, most unbearable of all,  it’s all her own fault.

A guy praises and thanks his old friend, offering to do him a favor he then, without explanation, decides not to do.   When questioned about this change of heart the guy explodes — “this is the last straw, you demanding fuck, I don’t owe you shit, I don’t owe you an explanation, you pushy fucking fuck!    I love you, man, but we have a gigantic personality conflict here, so maybe better if you just fuck off and die.”   The guy, on some level, must know he’s overreacting and trashing a long friendship over what seems to be a pretext, but, for whatever reason, it feels good for him to rage at this guy.   Certainly better than feeling whatever shame is behind his emotional outburst.

In any of these cases, the facts don’t speak for themselves.   The true causes are murky and, most likely, shame-based, as my sister said of our father’s frequent outbursts.   The wife whose husband threatened to kill everyone would need, at minimum, a sincere apology from her murder-threatening husband before they could move on together in their lives.    The woman who says she hates everyone is reaching out, clearly in pain, feeling isolated, no matter how justified her feelings of hatred may otherwise seem to her.  The guy who loves his friend would, it seems, extend a tiny benefit of the doubt rather than attacking, but, who’s to say?

You probe these kinds of shame-based scenarios at your own peril.  As we have seen over and over, many people would rather punch you in the face than look squarely at something that causes them shame, or even discomfort.   Turn on the news and you will hear the latest “social media” attack by a powerful man whose overbearing, inhumanly demanding, brutish father (and loveless, materialistic mother) instilled in him a lust to blame others as loudly as possible as the better alternative to dealing with the lifelong terror of shame and a deep sense of his “inadequacy”.   Better to put three, four and five year old enemies in prisons, let them stink and catch all the diseases unsanitary confinement produces, then brazenly lie about their conditions of captivity, than realize your entire life is based on unbearable desperation not to feel the shame inflicted on you by relentless sadists, no?