To Muse or Not to Muse

Thinking something over because it perplexes you is not everybody’s path to happiness or a better life, I understand.  Contemplating a troubling mystery is not for everyone, you have to be pushed toward it,  it takes a certain turn of mind, and a bit of luck, even.   In my own life, because of the things I suffered when I was young (and the ongoing sufferings we all must sometimes endure) I find myself looking for patterns, clues, examples from the past that point to a better way, less friction with others and  more peace with myself.  The lessons of the past, as they are called, food for thought.  I’d like to think that as I’ve aged I’ve somehow become wiser and more merciful than I was as a confused, angry teenager.   Any improvement I’ve made has been the result of wrestling with things that trouble me.

My feeling is that if you get no insight into the things and situations that cause you pain you will always be in pain for the same reasons you always were.   Your reactions will remain unchanged and those reactions will fuel the behavior of others toward you.   The philosopher Moms Mabely is sometimes credited with the pithiest statement of this:  “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”  

The only way, it seems to me, to avoid getting what you always got is if you learn to do things differently than you’ve always done.  In other words, doing that difficult thing: learning what you need to do better from the experiences of the past.   Hard fucking work, no doubt, and, though I try not to judge, I often have a hard time respecting people who don’t even make the attempt to learn from their mistakes. Such people are never wrong, no matter what.   If you look back with even a small amount of honesty it’s not that hard to see when you’ve impulsively done something that hurt someone or made things worse, justified by a shaky rationale conceived in anger or something like it.    

I had a close friend for many years who was extremely bright and also very angry. Because he was so angry, on such a fundamental level, almost everyone he ever knew eventually became a rival, an adversary and finally a hated enemy.   Not long ago, when his mother died, his older brother asked me to reach out to him after informing me that I was his brother’s only friend.  

I took this news philosophically, as I hadn’t spoken to the guy in more than a decade, after finally realizing there was little I could do to remain friends with someone as implacably angry as he was.  Our few emails back and forth after his mother’s death illustrated quickly that nothing had changed in his world– he was still and always the victim, and angry and defensive about it.  Because he is a smart and articulate person he also made a brilliantly baroque case that the world, including me, was wrong and he alone was right.   Zero sum game, black or white, no nuance or possibility that anything could be any other way — you dig?

Because of the damage done to him as a child, however it had happened, he constantly relived variations on the trauma in every relationship he had.  He lived the ‘repetition compulsion’, casting others in the roles of people he blamed for his persecution, a series of putzes he at first thought were very cool, and then playing out the identical  senseless drama of betrayal time after time.  Each of these future putzes, every one of whom he put great hopes in, came to reveal the same awful thing — that they were complete and unredeemed fucking assholes.  

I found this fascinating, and also, very, very disturbing and ultimately defeating.  His resistance to any kind of insight into his behavior was fierce.  He was convinced, in each case, that he had been viciously wronged, had been completely blameless and absolutely justified in acting exactly as he had, at every step.   Each one of his stories was predictably the same — initial admiration, disillusion, betrayal (often violent)–  and yet he was compelled to repeat the same aggravating three act drama every time.   If you pointed out the similarities between the new story and every other one, or ventured the opinion that any of it had anything to do with his unattainable expectations of others and his own behaviors justified by his unexpressed anger, he’d become furious, since he was the least angry person he’d ever met.

We like to think that we’ll always have our favorite people in our lives.   Sometimes we keep old friends, and some people manage to keep all of their friends, but other times things like resentment, anger, envy, competitiveness and irrational things that bubble up and are hard to put a finger on wind up prying people apart. 

Anger is among  the hardest things we all have to deal with.   Do we have a right to be angry? Quite often we do.   We all live in an aggravating world, in a misguided and often vicious and violent culture.   In my own life, both of my parents were quick to anger.  There was a lot of yelling in the little house my sister and I grew up in.   I don’t hold this against my parents anymore.   I don’t say that lightly, it took me many years to truly understand that if they had learned to deal with their feelings of disappointment, frustration and helplessness, they would not have treated my sister and me the way they did.   They did the best they could, but neither ever obtained much insight into how damaging uncontrolled anger is. 

As a child, if you can’t learn something like how to deal with frustration and anger from your parents, you are up against a hard game.  You have to find teachers, make many, many mistakes, accept insights wherever you find them, become your own teacher in how to do better dealing with difficult emotions, difficult people.  

I’ll end with the only simple, useful thing I’ve learned for sure.   There are certain people who, once they become angry at you, will never stop being mad at you, no matter what you do.  An apology won’t work, whatever you’ve done is unforgivable and characteristic of the kind of bad person you are.  Conversation will not lead anywhere better, there is nothing you can say or do that will lead toward mutual understanding or forgiveness.   When you find every attempt to make peace thrown back on you, the only thing to do with this type is to walk away.  

I’ve learned this painful lesson only after understanding that the only other choice is a bad one– to make a kind of false peace by accepting that you are an offensive asshole unworthy of being treated any better than the way this angry person is prepared to treat you.  If you are ready, in the interest of “peace”,  to accept a view of you distorted by someone’s anger as some kind of truth, you’re setting an inevitable trap for the future.   A trap you must continue to live in, harshly judged, awaiting whatever you “deserve”.   This kind of bogus peace will almost always come back to bite you sooner or later, and in the meantime, you must accept the unacceptable as the best you can get.   The only choice, once mutual peace is off the table, is leaving the room, closing the door.

On one level, you could call what I am advocating the same thing my unhappy, angry friend who lived in a world of discarded putzes did, but I will try to explain how it’s different.   We both justify our actions as the only thing to be done, yes.  My friend’s drama was always the same — he’d acted in good faith, thought the other person was too, there were warning signs, he tried to correct course, he was viciously betrayed.  You can see this as similar to what I have laid out, but there is a real difference.   Unlike me, he was never at fault, in any way, ever.  Kind of like our current president and many badly damaged people one encounters.

I have many times realized that I’ve said or done something hurtful to somebody I care about.   It is natural to do this from time to time, no matter how hard we try to be perfect, particularly if we were raised by people who often spoke out of anger before they gave themselves time to consider the better thing to say.   People who are angry enough to rage at somebody don’t always have the ability to admit they were wrong, even later.  When there can be no acknowledgment of a hurtful mistake the cycle of ill will is complete, if you remain in the radius of  harm.

When I become aware I’ve hurt somebody I’ve learned to move quickly to reassure them of my friendship, apologize, seek forgiveness.  I’ve found that people who value you in their lives are quite ready to forgive.   I extend this forgiveness to anyone who shows the humility to express genuine sorrow for some hurtful thing they’ve done. It is not easy for people to make themselves vulnerable to somebody else, particularly in our kind of win/lose culture, I appreciate the difficulty and respect those who can.  [1]

Look, this attitude about seeking and extending forgiveness does not make me Jesus Christ.  When someone slights me a few times, then refuses to acknowledge any role in a conflict, and escalates things aggravatingly every time I try to make amends, I have the same initial response that virtually any toxic male in our violent culture has.  My first feeling is violence, punch my antagonist hard in the mouth to make him shut up.  Just stop the fucking noise.  If you are only capable of making things worse with your righteous, enraged bullshit and whining, for the love of Christ, just shut up.

I don’t chide myself for this feeling.  The feeling is understandable and the reflex was planted deep, long before I was old enough to have any say about it.   I have not hit anyone in anger in many years.  I’ve made some progress in controlling what my anger at first compels me to do.  And yet, the feeling can’t be denied, I can’t pretend I’m not provoked to feel that way, once I am provoked.   Each of us has our breaking point.  

The only thing we can do when a feeling like this is choking us is to make a better decision than smashing somebody’s face.   I’m not going to hit this infuriating person in the mouth to make his maddening sounds stop, no matter how strongly I feel the desire to.  I’ve learned to take a breath, as many breaths as I need, walk away, think (perseverate, if you like), recover as much of my better nature as I can.   If there is no way to peace with someone who is acting unreasonably, provocatively, secure in his right to rage, at a certain point you have to accept it and keep away from that person.

Once I come to this unfortunate acceptance, after exhausting my efforts to defuse things and make peace, there is only one more thing I have to do.   I don’t necessarily advocate it or defend it, but it is the best I can do in these situations, considering the angry environment I come from.

I reach deep into my well-worn tool kit.   I set out in words the precise thoughts that will do the most direct harm to the person who can’t stop attacking.  I write these thoughts out in detail, politely and firmly but without mercy or any hope of reconciliation (since there is none, as already seen).  I employ that maddeningly superior tone that unchallengeable masters of the universe always use when addressing drones.   In each paragraph I cooly remove another arm, a leg, set them side by side on the table.  My last lines sever the head, which I leave beside the limbs.   Now it is finally quiet.

In the end the violence is about the same as punching someone hard enough to make them shut up, but the beautiful quiet afterwards is nice.   It is not exactly peace, and a terrible loss is still there, along with the sadness that comes with a great loss, but the knowledge that this kind of pugnacious anger will no longer come at you from this particular person– in my mind, better than giving in and socking somebody.   No matter how much they might actually deserve it.

 

[1]  The kind of apology that does not help is what Harry Shearer calls the if-pology. “If I did something wrong, then I’m sorry.”   Think of Joe Biden’s decades-belated variation on the classic if-pology, delivered to Anita Hill recently — I feel sorry for what they did to you, and for whatever part you may think I may have played in what they did to you.   An apology Anita Hill was right to dismiss.

An apology, to be meaningful, must acknowledge the hurtfulness of the specific thing that one is sorry about and contain some sort of promise to try not to do it again.

Compare that to the kind of apology I was given right before an old friend I finally had to behead told me he loved me and that I, therefore, had to be his friend.

“I already apologized to you, so I don’t know what you want from me.  You think I did something to you, which I didn’t, and so no matter how many times I fucking apologize, you are too much of a rigid, angry and unloving fucking asshole — who can never admit to being wrong, I might add  —  to even hear it”

And then, as though proving his point, I could not find it in my heart to accept his apology.

The Poison is Always the Same

There are certain people, tormented by painful needs they have no insight into, who lash out at others as a way of trying to feel better about their own gnawing sense of inadequacy.  This terrible sense of worthlessness was instilled in them when they were children by equally damaged people.   It is possible to largely recover from this kind of mistreatment, but it takes a lot of work.  The only time many damaged souls feel equal to a world they believe is otherwise crushing them is when they are fighting to dominate others.   Injecting poison into others is as close as they come to mastering situations they feel are beyond their control, confrontations they feel at a fatal disadvantage in.

The poison is always the same.   The need to deliver the toxic bite always comes from the righteous feeling of being a victim.   Only defending themselves, you dig, from stronger, more vicious predators.  They have no choice, you understand, because they believe they’re always under attack, and at an unfair disadvantage, and are only doing what is right, what anyone in their position would do.

This toxic cycle is sadly common in human affairs.   The toxic type has only one response to everything: injecting more poison.   We’ve become familiar recently with the term “doubling down” in our partisan politics.   It is a gambling term with wide application in human affairs — it means, according to the first google hit,  “to strengthen one’s commitment to a particular strategy or course of action, typically one that is potentially risky.”   If you seem to be wrong, if anyone questions you, double down — come at them twice as hard.  A strong, angry denial is a much better plan of attack than allowing the possibility that you might have made a mistake, done something wrong, share some blame for the ugly situation you find yourself in.

People with very low self-esteem often feel called upon to fight, to never relent or admit the possibility of even partial fault, to never see another person’s point of view, to constantly double down on the poison.  We can intellectually understand the factors that may have made them this way, a scalding feeling of inferiority, self-hatred, being unloved, but that understanding is little protection against the pain of their bite.   The poison is always the same.

My best advice, whenever possible, avoid this type like you’d shun a whiff of anthrax or the AIDS virus smeared on an open cut.   The poison is always the same. There is really no antidote other than expelling the noxious shit.   It takes time and work to get it all out of your system, I can tell you from experience.   Given the choice, once you recognize this type at work, move away as expeditiously as possible.   These poor motherfuckers simply cannot help themselves.

If one of them, God forbid, becomes the most powerful person in the world, be resolute and strong in removing them from power.

A few thoughts on thinking

The most satisfying and memorable kind of conversation is like a great catch.  The thought you throw to the other person is held for a moment and tossed back, with an interesting additional idea, and it comes directly into your hand, for a moment of consideration, before you toss it back.  There is a rhythm to this kind of chat, and no rush to talk.

What you just said reminds me of something eerily similar that happened to me years ago.  I mention it.  You raise your eyebrows, nod, yes, it’s very similar, but there is one big difference.  You elaborate.  I hadn’t thought about that, but, sure, that’s a very big difference, all the difference in the world, really.  

You can learn something important when a distinction is illuminated like that.  This kind of conversation is a way of thinking back and forth, of collaboratively considering things and shedding light on some of the mysteries of this mysterious life.    

Most talks between us are not so much this way, they are quick, many unrelated things come and go, threads pop up and disappear, shorthand is substituted for consideration, we move on, time is fleeting, we gossip, we vent, we don’t linger to converse in the more thoughtful mode every day.

We can all remember specific conversations that were on a deeper level, that moved us, changed us even.   I recall one, during a bike ride with an old friend, when she told me something obvious and profound that I’d never thought of.  She put it succinctly, in a phrase, and it changed the way I saw things.  I had one, and only one, wonderfully deep, personal conversation with my otherwise fussy, distracted Aunt Barbara.  In the living room of my parents house, after everyone else had gone to sleep, the moments with her I value the most.

The desire for this kind of conversation is a big reason people love to read.   We have a dialogue, of a sort, with another mind, a mind who was driven to set things on paper, after combing them into the readable form we have in front of us.   I am reading a book like that now, a novel.   Full of what Zora Neale Hurston called “that oldest human longing”, the desire to reveal ourselves to another, to speak our deepest personal truths and be seen and heard as we really are.   Speaking is great, writing is a more refined version of speech.

This dialogue with the author is a big reason we read.  I knew nothing about Shoshana Zuboff except that she recently gave a few very interesting interviews about her mind-blowing book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.   I didn’t pick up the book because I wanted a dialogue with her specifically, the subject she wrote about was compelling to me.  It turns out she is not only a very perceptive and extremely well-read woman, she’s fucking brilliant, creative and extremely engaging.  

She reminded me of Hannah Arendt in the way her book was loaded with thought-provoking insights seemingly peripheral to her central idea. Of course, no insight is peripheral to anything, in the hands of a creative thinker and skilled writer.

Take this seemingly random peripheral insight from her book.   We in the West have long valued the idea of our own autonomy.   The principle that we alone, as individual moral actors, have the final say in what we think and do.   This idea, Shoshana Zuboff points out, is under great pressure now, in an age when systematically modifying our behavior, our choices, how we think and interact, is increasingly monetized by people who become billionaires by tracking our every impulse, particularly things like the desire to be accepted by others,  and directing these impulses toward personally targeted commerce.  

The ideal consumer is one who is not autonomous, driven by deeply held beliefs and a strong internal need to feel independent, but heteronomous.

Heteronomous?   What the fuck?

Shoshana Zuboff provides this great term as the opposite of autonomous.   Heteronomy is the external force, based on an overarching concept, that drives mass conformity.   This indispensable word is apparently a coinage of Immanuel Kant’s [1].  

Note: the digital technology that allows us to instantly search for and pull up information, opinion and historical (and ahistorical) details is a sharp double-edged sword, of course.  We are all very smart, in our information age, and capable, if we wish, of effortlessly fact-checking and quoting very accurately, when we have instant access to the world’s collected information.  We are not nearly as impressive when we have no cell reception and only memory and wit to rely on.   In this age anyone can tap in a quick search and come up with:

Heteronomy refers to action that is influenced by a force outside the individual, in other words the state or condition of being ruled, governed, or under the sway of another, as in a military occupation.

Immanuel Kant, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau,[1] considered such an action nonmoral.[2][3]

It is the counter/opposite of autonomy.

Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis contrasted heteronomy with autonomy by noting that while all societies create their own institutions (laws, traditions and behaviors), autonomous societies are those in which their members are aware of this fact, and explicitly self-institute (αυτο-νομούνται). In contrast, the members of heteronomous societies (hetero = others) attribute their imaginaries to some extra-social authority (e.g., God, the state, ancestors, historical necessity, etc.).[4]

source

 

The actions of a heteronomous person are driven not by an internal imperative to act based on a personal, individualized belief system, but by an external force.  The masters of the force that moves masses can make themselves all-powerful and wealthy beyond the dreams of the most wanton slaveholder who ever enjoyed the involuntary company of an endless parade of beautiful servant girls.

You get a notification and look into your cellphone screen to read a come on that a third party has sent to you.  Your smartphone, of course, has a camera with a sharp lens and you have, by clicking “accept” when downloading the app, already given permission for the app and any associated third parties to have access to that camera.   As you look at the come on, the camera captures your reactions.   A few revealing micro-expressions are taken and filtered through algorithms that tell the third party exactly what you are receptive to receiving as a follow-up.  Disgusted by the ad?   We are too!    We’ll send you the antidote!

In our surveillance age, privacy is sacrificed to “security” and convenience.   The genius of the world’s smartest man, Jeff Bezos, was implementing a system to exploit his keen understanding that by monetizing the laziness and poor impulse control of the average American consumer he could become the richest individual in human history.  

Shop, in the privacy of your home, in your underwear, for the specific things that will make you elegant, popular, the envy of your friends and enemies alike.  Pay an annual fee and become a preferred customer, you can receive this great stuff almost instantly.   They’re working on a way to have robots and drones get this stuff to you in virtual real time.   What a world!

As we enjoy the convenience of this cyber world we give up certain crucial thing.   Human interaction has been changed by the always-on social media machine that converts the world into a data-driven high school popularity contest. The need for face-to-face play, improvisation just for fun, one of the great joys of human life, has been largely replaced by virtual human contact. Virtual human contact that allows third parties to monetize and profit from our need to connect.

Just as the female calf on the industrial diary farm never experiences the play that all young mammals have always enjoy as they master a host of social skills, including the flirting that will lead to reproduction (these industrially raised young cows don’t need to learn anything, they’ll be artificially inseminated and give more milk than any naturally raised cow) [2] today’s teenagers are growing up in a less playful, far more precarious, world few of us could have imagined.   Except perhaps on our worst day in junior high school.

A world where everyone has a camera on them at all times, for better or worse.  Where, on a dare, or being flirtatious, at an age when people are searching for the acceptance of their peers, racy nude photos are taken, exchanged, live forever on servers in virtual clouds.   At the worst possible time in the life of a fifteen year-old girl a formerly trusted best friend reveals a vicious side, posts that photo of you with the dick against your dumbly grinning face.   Of all the things that goad adolescent suicide, a good public humiliation is high up there.  Another person’s shame can now be uploaded, instantly, on to the internet everybody carries in their pocket.  This is a new, devastating weapon everyone is aware of.

Shoshana Zuboff discusses the wariness that must be imparted to children in this world of eternal invasive, largely commercial, surveillance.  Be paranoid, they are collecting every private insight that can be gleaned, in order to “serve you more efficiently”.  They are modifying your behavior in real time, and the reach of their prying apps, in continually more refined ways.  You are a sucker if you trust anyone.  Do not make eye contact, hit “like” and LOL.

I saw an ad for what seems to be a wonderful project.  A search engine that spends its profits planting trees, they’ve already planted millions of trees in formerly denuded, lifeless landscapes. We can read all the devilish details of what amoral motherfuckers Google’s executives are. They also built the greatest internet mousetrap in history, you have to give them credit.  The proof of Google’s value, as they say, is in the pudding, they are richer than fuck, among the most successful companies in history.   That’s really all you need to know.  Hate success?  You hate freedom!  (talk about heteronomous logic)

The alternative search engine I saw the ad for, Ecosia, has a series of wonderful ads.  They plant trees to restore destroyed rain forests, reclaim arid new deserts, provide habitat to preserve some of the thousand of species that are becoming extinct every day.   You can download their free app.   Sounds like a total win-win.  Fuck google.  Let me support a company that is doing something proactive to save our planet from the rapacious extractionists who are, to put it crudely, raping our biosphere to death.  

Then I think:  this is exactly what they want, isn’t it?  Talk about building the ultimate mousetrap.

Download the free app, along with every other idealist in the radius of Ecosia’s advertising,  and they are on your computer, on your phone, in your home, in your head.   They now have your name, and your every preference, on a worldwide list of everybody who fancies herself an idealist, everyone who wants a better world.  Who do they have to wipe out first, if they are to finally have everything just before the earth breathes its last?   Me and you, baby, the people who are determined to fight the grim, determined, heteronomous armies of death.  

Another bracing thing Shoshana Zuboff details is how this justified paranoia has decreased human to human trust among Americans.   We also have less and less trust for institutions, norms, the fairness of justice.  We are right to be paranoid, as we are screwed left and right, in the name of abstract principles that serve only the monetizers at the top of the societal food chain.   Distrust has become a kind of default setting as we learn more and more about the details of how we are being systematically fucked and lied to about the nature of this nonconsensual arrangement.

One final thought about thinking.  We tend to think in words (feelings come in many tastes, smells, sounds, colors, etc.)  and so a word like anodyne, or heteronomy, is essential in forming certain thoughts.  Without the word neatly expressing and encompassing the larger concept, we’d have nothing to chew on, at least not in a way we can express.  Something to masticate.

 

 

[1] Kant, a world-changing philosopher, is reputed never to have traveled more that a short distance from where he was born.  Forty miles is the distance I recall hearing from a chatty professor in a philosophy class at City College around 40 years ago.   I did a search for what that distance actually was, using the newfangled internet.  That he never travelled more than 16 km. (9.9 miles) from his birthplace is apparently a crock:  

A common myth is that Kant never traveled more than 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Königsberg his whole life.[45] In fact, between 1750 and 1754 he worked as a tutor (Hauslehrer) in Judtschen[46] (now Veselovka, Russia, approximately 20 km) and in Groß-Arnsdorf[47] (now Jarnołtowo near Morąg (German: Mohrungen), Poland, approximately 145 km).   source

Ninety miles, bitches.  Don’t believe the hype.

 [2]  Thank you, Yuval Noah Harari, for the description of this animal right to play and socialize, unsentimentally sacrificed without a second thought by the industry that brings Americans their dairy and meat.

Explanation for P___

I saw old friends this weekend.   One of them, P______, told me  that V____ had given her a link to my blahg and that she’d read some of my posts.   This puts her in an elite sliver of humanity, since I scorn “social media” as a destructive shit-show and, in consequence of being an on-line hermit, get very few visitors here.   I was pleased to hear she was reading it.   I must have raised my eyebrows questioningly because she volunteered that she found some of it extreme.

I immediately tried, without waiting for her to elaborate (she didn’t seem about to in any case), to explain why these posts might seem extreme.  I sit down, often burned by some specific, irksome detail (like the seeming fact that many Americans appear to believe Bill Barr’s version of the Mueller report– nothing to see here, total exoneration of “POTUS”– in spite of Mueller’s own take, that Barr is sewing confusion about Mueller’s findings and conclusions) and I have to process it somehow, to make the burning and the fucking irking stop.  

It often helps, I explained, to think an issue through by setting it out in front of me, trying to see it as clearly as possible, writing it out as lucidly as I can.    I saw, as I was saying this, that P’s expression wasn’t changing.

It turned out that the politics didn’t bother her (probably because she holds largely related views).   It emerged that the extreme aspect was the personal writing, the laying out of hidden, monstrous details of people close to me, like my father.  My father had been director of the camp P and I went to as teenagers.  It turns out P thought my old man was a really great guy, smart, funny, hip.    Yes, he was all of those things, but he was also, how to put this delicately … a fucking monster.    

This is the kind of highly opinionated thing P was referring to when she said “extreme”.   Crossing a boundary of privacy and good taste, I guess.   I told her that it may have been a mistake to put the first draft of the book about my father on-line. as I was wrestling the material into form.  

I neglected to tell her that making my words “public” exerts a good effect on the words, forcing me to commit to each sentence in a way I don’t have to if I’m not putting them on-line.  It has become my practice, writing and editing my words for others to read, for a couple of hours, as close to daily as I can — and “publishing” them.    

I told her that if I had it to do over again, I would have written the sprawling first draft differently, now that I’ve written more than a thousand pages.   The first few hundred pages of the best version of the book about my father would conjure a man capable of great personal warmth, wit and charm.  An idealistic man imbued with humor and sophistication, a man unlike most fathers we knew in that he clearly loved subversives like Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, Malcolm X.   He could tell you, in very few words, when you passed him in the grove by the office, why you should check out Lenny, why Malcolm was an inspirational character who needed to be vilified by the Man.   He could talk about virtually anything with insight and wit.   He could be playful.   Yes, I told P, I completely get why you found my old man cool.   He was, objectively, an original.

Only once you liked him, as a reader, would the crafty writer begin to show the fissures, the cracks you could look through to see the world of demons inside that made him act, in the privacy of his nuclear family, like the coldly insane bastard he often was to my sister and me.   A much more interesting story, once you like and admire the guy, to find the very dark side, the bottomless pit of personal torments that drove him.

I am fascinated by the feat of holding two strongly opposed sides of a person or thing in mind at once.    It is a feat we must often perform with the people we love, their faults balanced by qualities we do not want to live without.   That balancing act was the genius of Jane Leavy’s masterful portrait of my childhood hero Mickey Mantle.  On every page, sometimes in the same paragraph, you get strong evidence of the cool, generous, funny, playful, powerful, beloved  Mick and an equally compelling case for the sullen, angry, self-loathing, despicable asshole Mick.  

You can make the personal case both ways, at the same time, as Leavy does, without diminishing or idealizing the person.   If you do it well– fascinating shit.   We are all complex this way, capable of great kindness and sometimes unspeakably bad actions.  Leavy’s biography did not make me like or admire Mantle any less, it gave me a lot more nuance, and a much more realistic picture of the person, than most biographies do.

I also meant to tell P of my lifelong project, not to react with the helplessly raging anger I was taught.   It was the lingua franca of the little house I grew up in — lash out violently at those you know won’t punch you in the face.   A foolish way to be, and something that must be thoroughly understood if you hope to escape it.

My very brief conversation with P gave me an idea.   From time to time I write things here that are anodyne, in the best sense of the word.  These pieces are (unconsciously) calculated to cause no harm.  They are written not to grind any ax, expose troubling difficulties or to wrestle with my own nimble, endlessly engaging demons.  Oddly, these pieces express no bitterness, ambiguity or criticism at all.   I sometimes (not often, admittedly) write something just to tell a story of someone or something I love.    Take these pieces, for example.  

My brief chat with P convinced me that I should put up an Anodyne category on this blahg.  A link I could send you where you would read only pieces that put the things written about in the best light.    The affectionate vignettes about my grandfather, for example, do not hint at the savagely powerful demons that haunted the gentle old man in his deepest places.  Demons with every claim to fucking haunt him, I might add.   He grew up in the Ukraine among anti-Semites who, from time to time, drunkenly invaded the Jewish part of town and held an old fashioned pogrom.

Seriously, you ask, a fucking pogrom?  

Yes, a cohort of the worst of the good Christian Ukrainians he lived among, the folks he sold his father’s grain and other groceries to, went nuts periodically, and animated by the passionate belief that my grandfather and his filthy ilk had deliberately murdered God’s only son (another long story) , ran amok among the Jews.  They’d smash shop windows, plunder, loot, beat people up, kill a few Jews, if the feeling (and the vodka, one imagines) was on them strong enough, and, of course, rape any Jewish women and girls who were not hidden behind sturdy, heavily bolted doors.

My grandfather was physically strong, but an individual, no matter how strong, is no match for an enraged lynch mob.   He grew up with legitimate terror.  Being the object of a mob of hate-filled drunks is no joke.   Twenty years after he left the town, following his more courageous fiance to America during the reign of Calvin Coolidge (she’d arrived while Harding was president), those same Christian neighbors marched every Jew to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town and executed all of them, under Nazi supervision.   Fragments of their bones still stir on windy days, the bones of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s many brothers and sisters, and their children.  I read this disquieting detail in an article in the New York Times magazine, by someone who visited the town not long ago.

In the Anodyne section there would be no reference to this kind of horrific shit.   You could safely read, in a protected harbor I’d carve out for you, gentle reader, only things that make you wonder and imagine.  Only the lapping of the waters on the shores would be heard, the rustle of the leaves and the songs of birds and primates.  I will attempt to put this section together in the coming days, for my old friend P_____ and anyone else who might want to hang out in the cool shadows of a leafy glade as the greediest of the world casually burn everyone who is not them.

 

Note to Jeremy Scahill (third or fourth attempt)

Jeremy:

I have long been impressed with your integrity, your writing and your ability to place the matters you report on in historical context.   Dirty Wars was a book that, in a more rational world, should have shaped a large public discussion about American foreign policy.  (I have a question about the extra-judicial shredding of Anwar al-Awlaki that I have put in a separate note).

Of course, sadly, the influence of even the most profound book is limited and the audience for a given volume is often already on board to receive what is laid out in the book.   I think of Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and Dark Money,  Jon Krakauer’s book on the Pat Tillman hoax, Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains and many others that should have, in a reasonable and literate world, wielded a huge influence on beliefs and outcomes.  Instead they are considered of equal weight, in the public mind (for lack of a better noun), with any one of President Shitbird’s incoherent twitterings.

I’m writing to suggest that The Intercept offer readers links to the succinct historical context of stories relating to things like Bill Barr’s shameful, shameless conduct, the Supreme Court’s equation of money and speech, the sickening history of the 14th amendment’s 90 year judicially-induced coma and so on.   It would be helpful, I think, to have an archive of historical context, links to which could be dropped into reporting to provide a full historical backstory for interested readers.   This archive could include short abstracts of the books mentioned above and others that shed light where there is only darkness.

I read this just now, in Amy and David Goodman’s 2006 Static:

There is a war on, but it’s not just in Iraq.   The Bush administration has launched a full-scale assault on independent journalism.  This regime has bribed journalists, manufactured news, blocked reporters’ access to battlefronts and disasters, punished reporters who ask uncomfortable questions, helped ever bigger corporations consolidate control over the airwaves, and have been complicit in the killings of more reporters in Iraq than have died in any other U.S. conflict.           (p.100)

The war, as always when homo sapiens engage in political struggles,  is for hearts and minds, the visceral emotions that are being stimulated, harvested, processed and exploited by surveillance capitalists (another deep and horrifying book, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism).   (Eerily, as I wrote the previous sentence, Google Chrome, as if mortally offended by one of my micro expressions, or perhaps it was the mere mention of Ms. Zuboff, locked up and shut down.)

Anyway, Jeremy, this is about the fourth iteration of this letter over the last year or so.   It’s all hands on deck at this moment when science’s best guess is that we have about a decade before the climate catastrophe-driven zombie apocalypse begins in earnest.   I am offering my services as an old student with a lifelong fascination with history.   (I attach Howard Zinn’s beautiful remarks, for inspiration)

 The project of imagining and portraying a future worth fighting for (and hats off to the great Naomi Klein and her creative partners in the recent post card from the future narrated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wonderful!) starts with ideas that connect people to each other.  Humanity, if we are  to survive with some form of communal empathy and personal autonomy, must mobilize against ruthless forces that would control and own everything, no matter what the cost.

We saw the monstrousness of these forces in action in 2016 with the craftily engineered, surgically targeted 78,000 vote  Electoral College victory of President Fuckface (I say that will all due respect to the Orange Turd).   Shoshana Zuboff uses the image of the Taino reception for the Conquistadors as a parallel of how ill-prepared we are to imagine the relentless, completely unregulated data-driven control machines we are up against, a regime that comes offering us a new (and illusory) kind of freedom.  

Fight we must.  My sleeves are rolled up and I’d like to do my part.   Listen to Howard Zinn’s short remarks (which I’m sure you’ve heard, but listen again), look over my question about al-Awlaki’s execution, and let me know what I can do, if anything,  to advance the history project I mentioned above (assuming the project is of interest to you).

Here’s Howard:

(hear him deliver his short speech, cued up here):

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

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

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

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

Nothing is Obscene– if this isn’t

If your lowest paid worker has to work for 68 years, or a total of 591,412 hours, to make what you earn in one hour, motherfucker, that is obscene.  

If you already have more money than you and your spawn could spend in 1,000 years, (even if you all wipe your asses with hundred dollar bills every day and light $100 cigars with burning $100 bills), and you defend your absolute right to have more than that, that is obscene.  

If you live in the richest country in the world, paying a lower tax rate than your secretary,  and that country has a rate of infant and maternal mortality as high as many “shithole” countries, that, motherfucker, is obscene.  

I could go on, but you get the point.  I am just one irrationally angry, judgmental, ill-born loser bastard venting into the cold wind of Cyberia.

Abigail Disney, (inheritor of around a half a billion from the Disney estate), is a brilliant and accomplished woman, a social activist and a respected documentary filmmaker.  Who knew?   I hadn’t heard of her until the other day, when she got some press for writing an op-ed in the Washington Post, following a series of tweets that apparently blew up social media.   It was a good op-ed, you can read it here.  [1]

She writes, in part:

I had to speak out about the naked indecency of chief executive Robert Iger’s pay. According to Equilar, Iger took home more than $65 million in 2018. That’s 1,424 times the median pay of a Disney worker. To put that gap in context, in 1978, the average CEO made about 30 times a typical worker’s salary. Since 1978, CEO pay has grown by 937 percent, while the pay of an average worker grew just 11.2 percent.

This growth in inequality has affected every corner of American life. We are increasingly a lopsided, barbell nation, where the middle class is shrinking, a very few, very affluent people own a great deal and the majority have relatively little. What is more, as their wealth has grown, the super-rich have invested heavily in politicians, policies and social messaging to pad their already grotesque advantages.

She excoriates Disney corporation (in her personal capacity as a human, only) for paying its CEO $65,000,000 last year while giving each of its regular employees a generous $1,000 bonus for the bounteously profitable year they all had over at Disney.

Once again, Ms. Disney points out that in 1978 average CEO pay was 30X the median income of the worker in the corporation.   That has since exploded, to something like 500X (you’ll have to read her op-ed for the exact number, I ain’t turning off ad blocker for Mr. Bezos or anyone else).  Again, the typical American CEO has seen their compensation increase by 937% since 1978, workers 11.2%.  Fair is fair.  

The CEO/worker income disparity is much less grotesque in Japan and most other places, Ms. Disney points out. America, land of the free and home of the insatiably greedy (and entitled to be as obscenely greedy as they wanna be).  

Abby Disney set off a shit storm when she stated, in a tweet she wrote prior to her op-ed, “there is nobody on Earth [who is] worth 500 times his median workers’ pay.”[24]    It’s hard to disagree with that statement.

Although, one realizes after looking around just a bit, that 500 times is, by current American standards, a modest differential.   The CEO of Disney that Abby Disney complains of made almost three times 500 times more.

Of course, there’s also the absurd touch of Abby Disney’s crie de coeur of an op-ed being published in a prestigious newspaper owned by a man who makes more than 500,000 times what his lowest paid workers do.

I have been shocked at the lack of shock with which the hideous tidbit about Bezos making $191,000 a minute while paying workers $15 an hour has been greeted by everyone I know.   They yawn, resigned, horrified that I am once again bringing it up.  Yeah, it sucks, they eventually agree (to get me talking about something else) but what can you do?  

“But he makes 591,412 times what his lowest paid worker makes,” I say.  They nod, yes, it’s fucking terrible, awful, where do you want to go for dinner Saturday?

Personally, I haven’t been able to get over the computations made by those rabid communist America-haters over at Business Insider about the income of Amazon genius (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos. Jeff’s  income, broken down by the hour, comes to a shade under $9,000,000 — $8,961,187 an hour.   That comes out to $191,000 per minute for a man who does not allow his workers to unionize but voluntarily pays them the proposed federal minimum wage of $15 an hour.  It is more than half a million times what his warehouse worker makes, 597,412 times.   [2]

My friends, my enemies, if this situation is not obscene, the endless, bottomless greed that is currently raping the earth itself to death, and the moralistic defenders of the smug entitlement of these obscenely greedy, tax-dodging “job creating” parasites, what is obscene?

If the right to have 100,000 times more than you need, with no obligations to the society that made you so rich, (while neighbors are hungry and widespread despair drives an ever increasing number of American suicides,) is not an obscene thing to insist on, what is obscene?

Can you tell me that?  Thanks, and have a nice day!

[1] I can’t presently read it myself, to quote from it directly, as I’d intended, because it is blocked by this message from the good bots at Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post who point out that it is unfair of me to freeload by both not paying for my twice a month visits to their site and also, selfishly blocking ads that are the very lifeblood of any profitable business.  

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The impulse to monetize EVERYTHING is the strongest impulse in our current unipolar, unapologetically capitalist world, apparently.   The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (read Shoshana Zuboff’s amazing book) we are living in is a new, ruthless, superficially benign, regime of a kind of all-encompassing inhuman commercial fascism.   Hold on to your fucking hats, kids.

[2]  This average salary is an interesting question.   If you take the average of Jeff’s $8,961,187 hourly wage and an average line worker’s $15 an hour, the two workers average $4,480,601 hourly compensation.  Nice money if you can get it.

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Understanding Anti-Semitism and other irrational hatreds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many more examples do you need?

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

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

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

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

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

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