Change and Terror of Change

The story of life is change, a reality that can be hard to embrace sometimes. Cycles of change, and life’s adaptation to change, are the animating force of nature, and the story of human history. The only constant in life, we learn, is constant change — and, as we also learn, constant resistance to change. Most human conflict has its origins in change and resistance to change.

I recall a racist teacher at my elementary school, snarling at some of the Black students who’d been bused into PS178 starting when I was in third grade. This nasty woman was a fifth grade teacher I would later butt heads with when I was in her class, but I barely knew her as I sat in the lunchroom that day. I had a front row seat, on the long lunch table bench, to her shameful performance shortly after the first Black students arrived in our quiet little public school on a hill.

She was on lunch duty, tasked with keeping order in the lunchroom. As a teacher years later I’d learn how odious this rotating duty was. It was a thankless job trying to keep a lid on childish energy during their lunch break, a work assignment, during what was usually your own lunch hour, requiring patience and humor — neither of which this woman had that day.

I vividly remember my disgust, as a boy, watching her mistreatment of a Black kid named Adrian, who was probably ten years old. For some reason, she was telling him over and over that he’d be on Welfare in a few years. I remember his face as he shot back that she’d be on Welfare, and her face. I didn’t know, at the time, that this snobbish woman was a racist, I barely understood what that was, but I know it very well now.

She was upset about a big change, I realize decades later, and being on the losing side of what she felt was a righteous war, and she was acting out like angry people often do. Her side had lost the long battle to keep PS178 segregated. There were two armed camps in the PTA, one stridently opposed to busing kids from other neighborhoods in to integrate the school as the Supreme Court had ordered a decade earlier (this group sometimes derided the other side as “Commies”), the other faction, the “Nigger-lovers,” (in the colorful phrase used in liberal NYC in the mid-sixties) put on a Brotherhood play called the Lonely Abelonian, shortly after the school was finally de-segregated when I was in third grade.

We went to school one evening to watch the play put on by our mothers in the school auditorium. They were dressed as various animals, in pairs (my mother hopped around in a tan kangaroo outfit with her fellow kangaroo, their big ears flapping, their long, sturdy tails slapping the stage, my classmate Rani’s mother crawled on her stomach in a snake outfit alongside her snake friend played by my mother’s best friend Arlene). When the solitary Abelonian tried to join, she was shunned by the other animals. I recall my mother and the other kangaroo, turning tail and hopping indignantly away when the Abelonian asked “will you be my friend?” In the end, of course, everyone discovered the Abelonian was a lot like them, and remembered how painful it is to be lonely, and they were all playful friends as the curtain fell.

The white kids in school, as far as I recall, didn’t need the lesson of this idealistic play. I don’t remember any tension between neighborhood kids and the new students who arrived on the E, F and G buses (though, it could be, as is my prerogative as someone not the object of racism, that I didn’t see it because it wasn’t directed at me). The presence of Black kids, and their parents, was only a major problem to people like that racist teacher.

They no doubt felt that their perfect little school (it had the highest test scores in Queens, NY, possibly all of New York City, at the time) was being ruined by the forced admission of Black kids from other, less desirable, neighborhoods (with worse schools, kind of proving the whole point of de-segregation…), with all that goes with being forced to associate with people you didn’t want to associate with.

We can go down the catalogue of change in human history, and there is always this tension between those welcoming, or at least adapting to, a given change and those dreading it and resisting it by any means necessary. There are changes large and small, eternally taking place and the challenge we humans always face is adapting to our constantly changing world.

Sekhnet and I are both assailed by sometimes severe joint pain when the humidity is on the rise. When I grimace and grunt walking up or down the stairs the night before thunderstorms, she reminds me “you’re old.” I am old, and while most aspects of aging are fine, some changes are unwelcome. I don’t like having to acknowledge the wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut’s “be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.” I am also no fan of nocturia, or hematuria, for that matter.

I am constantly angry, for example, when confronted with corporate practices, routinized indignities, that are now ubiquitous in our Free Market. The people I complain to about having to wade through long recordings before you can elect to talk to a representative, the long waiting times on the phone, the constant advertising and blaring loops of muzak while you’re on hold, the endless reminders of how important my call is, and that I can get faster service on-line, and so forth … correctly regard me as a griping, cranky old bastard.

These people, I have to remind myself, never lived in a different world, have no concept that banks once paid interest to depositors, didn’t charge you a monthly fee to have an account, or every private business you deal with requiring your social security number (essential for collecting a debt against you), and an ironclad legal agreement not to sue them, no matter what, before you can do business with them.

Change is inevitable, as is resistance to change, which emerges from terror about change and/or anger about changes for the worse. Look at what’s happened to the Republican Party, as it was steadily taken over by fabulously wealthy right-wing liberty lovers like Charles Koch and associates and turned into the extremist John Birch Society.

What was the premise of the John Birch Society? It was a group of wealthy right-wing freedom lovers fighting a vast conspiracy of godless Commies who were using the imagined grievances of American Blacks, and other disgruntled Americans, to drive a stake into the heart of American society and our cherished liberties. You can visit their website today, the John Birch Society (founded by Koch’s dad a few years after the scandalous Supreme Court decision that ruled segregated schools were inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional), they are peddling the same pile of reeking scats right now, in our giddy age of Alternative Fact.

What is the current premise of the modern Republican Party, its hope for regaining power? That an election their candidate lost by a substantial margin was stolen by fraud, somehow rigged in a way that avoided detection, left no evidence, fooled election officials of both parties, and defrauded the American public of the one-party state we actually want, need and deserve. 70% of Republicans believe this wild conspiracy theory about a massive, vicious betrayal of democracy, no so-called “proof” needed. Alternative facts, that’s all. Let’s agree to disagree, you cheating, thieving fucks.

I heard the term Limpieza de Sangre, purity of blood, for the first time today. It came into use during the dawn of propaganda, when the Pope was using the printing press, and outfits like the Jesuits, Defenders of the Faith, to propagate the One True Faith, against the mounting Protestant incursion into Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition had made it a capital offense not to believe in the teachings of the Son of God and many of the tortures we know today were developed to torture the truth out of godless people trying to save their lives by pretending to worship and adore Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, while secretly rejecting His love.

The doctrine of Limpieza de Sangre was designed to separate Catholics of pure blood, born into a long line of devoted believers, from those who had converted from Muslim or Jewish backgrounds, simply to escape torture and death. You understand, the blood itself must be pure for your faith to be pure, as Jesus never taught.

Change is eternal, but the techniques of reaction have certain constant features. Every regime that has ever set armies to murder enemies has first had to reduce those enemies, whether civilian or another army, into hated, dangerous insects, deadly, inhuman infecters of the life blood of the rest of us. So we have the long line of insane ideas like Purity of Blood, used to justify the spilling of impure or polluted blood.

In the former slave states, during the “Jim Crow” era, the amount of Negro blood in a person’s lineage determined his or her status under law. Never mind that almost every drop of the “white” blood in a “mixed race” person was the result of rape of the darker person owned by the lighter one. You know, if you teach a disgusting thing like that to children you should be ashamed of yourself– and fired from your job!

OK, OK, calm down…

You have Homer Plessy, a light-skinned, blond-haired octoroon (one of his eight great-grandparents was Black), on an interstate train down south, sitting in a car reserved for Whites Only. His blood, you understand, made him, according to the laws of Louisiana, where his offense took place, a Negro. Looked as white as Ronald Reagan, boys and girls, but the law’s the law.

Plessy was a Negro, somebody blew the whistle on him as he sat in the Whites Only car and he had to be ejected from that car and put into the less plush Coloreds Only car. Plessy made a small fuss, I believe, and was arrested. He’d been planted there, in 1892, by civil rights activists, as was the person who outed him to the authorities, to challenge segregation under federal law (hence the interstate train, one of the few 14th Amendment rights recognized by the Supreme Court was the right to travel freely from state to state, and there was, possibly, also the Commerce Clause– federal oversight of interstate commerce).

The federal case got up to the Supreme Court where segregation was upheld, in Plessy v. Ferguson, under the famous slogan of “Separate But Equal”. Check out the photographs of the segregated south, the water fountains and bathrooms of the respective races.

Segregated Water Fountains in North Carolina, 1950 ~ Vintage Everyday

Also, consider: the southern racial blood laws were even stricter than the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws the Nazis promulgated decades later after studying the race laws of the states of the former Confederacy. Teach that in an American public school and you’re asking to be lynched, just sayin’…

Makes you think.

I think about the rash of police violence that has resulted in the killing of dozens of unarmed, mostly Black and brown, people just since the recently concluded trial of the murderer of George Floyd started. A long parade of victims, one as young as thirteen, shot dead or otherwise killed by police, leading to a series of scrupulously nonviolent protests in just about every case. Leading, in turn, to renewed urgency to pass a series of identical laws to redefine the term “riot”, making it harder for people to organize and participate in First Amendment protests without risking 15 years in prison for a newly created felony. Because, while the right to protest may be protected by the First Amendment, the “right to riot” may be forcefully prevented, and vigorously prosecuted under the criminal laws of the state.

It is, of course, no accident that these dozens of proposed anti-protest laws, like the 361 laws making it more difficult to vote, now being debated in 47 states, are more or less identical. They are drafted by the same highly partisan weasels, distributed to individual state legislators through outfits like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. “Stand Your Ground” laws, for example, a law that allows citizens to shoot other citizens in the street if they are truly afraid for their lives, were drafted by ALEC.

The influential outfit, formerly known as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators, was founded in 1973 to “counter the Environmental Protection Agencywage, and price controls, and to respond to the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election [1]. ” You know, to organize and fight progressive policies of any and all kinds in the interest of preventing meaningful change of the status quo.

I know most Americans don’t care much for history, or a nuanced debate over every little damned thing. We are organized into tribes now, embracing the big picture emotion of our tribe and reflexively believing what the rest of our tribe believes. This tribalism has been wildly accelerated by “social media” which constantly and instantly buzzes updated, self-confirming opinion into our phones, and ads:

I get all this, it just makes me crazy, being constantly forced to hear idiotic arguments over fact-based things like which Big Lie is actually THE Big Lie — the one about the 2020 fake election results that has been supposedly proved in the courts, challenged, confirmed by recounts, by bipartisan certification, all faked — or the one the always truthful leader of the loyal 39% says is a Big Lie — that an election without “integrity” was free of widespread fraud, a lie peddled by the dangerous, radical, corrupt liars who are trying to destroy our great, unified nation by violence in the streets by claiming the stolen election was NOT stolen by these evil maniacs. You know, Communists like Mitt Romney.

[1]

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and share model legislation for distribution among state governments in the United States.[2][3][4]

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Hope v. Despair

If you believe that you can help make change for the better, you have reason for hope. Starting therapy, which is based on the idea that understanding leads to personal growth, change and less pain in life, is an expression of hope. Marching in protests is an expression of hope. Supporting friends who have made even small changes for the better, an affirmation of hope. Hope is a precondition for creative action of all kinds. Despair, a firm belief that no positive fundamental change can ever be accomplished, that we are as we were born, the world is what it is and nobody can change any of that, results in a hardened certainty about the grimness of life that nobody can influence.

Raised by two frustrated, anger-prone parents, broken by their own strong-willed mothers, I was never taught that it’s possible (and smart) to take a breath, remain silent for a moment, think a bit more, consider the effect of my reaction. You could say I was trained to have a handicap — when something aggravates you, get mad and vent loudly. The reflex to get angry is still strong in me, when a computer has its way with me I can be heard to snarl and yell like I’m in a barehanded fight to the death with a young, energetic Mr. Hitler, armed with a Bowie knife. Seeing the terrible impact getting angry all the time had on my life, I set out to become milder in my reactions. Over many years, I’ve made some progress.

My father snarled when I brought this progress up twenty years ago or so. No, he insisted, you changed only your superficial reactions, not your reflex to fly into a rage. I pointed out that changing my reactions meant I am more often able to control my reflex to fly into a rage.

“I’ve seen big a change in you,” my mother said, as she passed through the room, on her way to the bedroom to read a murder mystery. It is hard to express how much her passing comment moved me, fortified my efforts to change even more. Particularly since it was spoken early into my attempt to become a less angry person.

That change may not fix everything that’s broken is often cited, by Positive Change Skeptics, as proof that real, fundamental change is impossible. To me, if I get angry 40% less than I used to, am more consistently able to not hurt those around me by taking anger out on them, I consider that change very valuable. To those who insist we are what we are, and foolish hope of change is a game for chumps, a paltry 40% less anger is the same as telling everybody to fuck themselves. I hope I will not infuriate anyone by admitting I have no idea by what percentage I’ve lessened my angry reactions, I pull the 40% stat out of my ass by way of random illustration.

Without hope, without faith in our power to choose more wisely than we did when we were children, the only alternative is a pessimistic acceptance of every bit of negativity we encounter as the natural order. Remove hope and you have only a grim acceptance of a bitter world, run by evil people, a brutish place where you get as much as you can before some other syphilitic rat bastard tries to steal it from you.

We are living in a moment of mass despair, millions worldwide taking desperate action out of their sense of hopelessness. There are many reasons for despair. Humans are destroying the planet we live on, quickly, irrevocably, much faster than even the most pessimistic climate scientists predicted. The economic system that prevails on our dying planet is unashamedly extractive, not sustainable and it exploits most people who work for it.

The powerful could give a shit what happens after they’re gone, if piping toxic tar sand thousands of miles to toxically extract more gasoline from it will increase their vast wealth, fuck “water protecters” and “tree huggers” and “climate alarmists” and “climate scientists” and everyone else who has a concern about unsustainable, deadly levels of toxins released into our air and water. You fund influential “think tanks”, hire lobbyists, judges, goons to beat protesters up, sic dogs on ’em, strip search ’em. Have legislatures pass laws labeling every demonstrator an eco-terrorist, put ’em all in jail. People can’t change, we are an irredeemably evil bunch, fuck it — set it all on fire, let God sort through the ashes.

Deaths of despair in this country last year, all other forms of suicides excluded, included a U.S. record 87,000 drug overdose deaths, an average of 238 a day. Nothing can change, China stole all the jobs, the radical left stole the rigged election from the only man who can protect us from a cabal of powerful Satanist cannibal pedophiles, what is the point, what is the fucking point? Doctor, I need more Oxycontin!

Despair is understandable. It’s also deadly. If the news is too depressing to watch (which it is, by design), if it fills you with despair that there is not a moment when hope can simply be allowed to breathe, you learn to tune it out. This exhausted disengagement works to the advantage of despair and grievance mongers.

When the Georgia run-off resulted in a narrow Senate majority for new president Biden, the forces of reaction immediately sent an angry lynch mob to storm the Capitol, their violence erasing all celebrations of a resurgence of democracy in Georgia. Almost at the moment Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd (after a short trial during which there were dozens more police killings across the country), a sheriff in North Carolina refused to release videos of someone killed by police. It fills you with a sense of dread, of despair for even the hope of anything getting better.

Watch the affable Joe Manchin insist, with every appearance of measured reasonableness, that the only way out of this viciously deadlocked and divisive partisan political hellscape is by working together, reaching across the aisle to those who support the unfounded claim that Biden stole a rigged election from their party leader, and compromising on changes to proposals that are already compromises. What’s wrong with $11 an hour minimum wage, y’all? Not as much as what generous Amazon pays, but, heck, a lot better than the $7.25 the Fair Labor Standards Act requires all American employers to pay certain workers not exempt from the law because they make tip money as well [1]. Hard not to feel a bit of the old despair, a flash of the old anger.

That’s when it is important to remember things like this. Manchin takes this conservative position because he represents one of the poorest, Reddest states in the nation. Created in 1863, West Virginian’s primary industry has long been coal mining. Trump promised to send West Virginians back to work in the coal mines, and they apparently loved him for it. West Virginia voted for Trump in 2020 by an 40% margin. Now– tell me, if Biden crafted a law to spend billions in recovered corporate tax dollars to revitalize the devastated economy of places like West Virginia, investing money for massive job retraining, new sustainable industries, health care for all, funding internal infrastructure projects hiring thousands, giving West Virginians new hope for the future, would Manchin still not be able to take a reasonable position on weakening or eliminating the filibuster? Would it not give someone like Manchin political cover to insist that the minority filibustering should at least be required to hold the floor and actually argue the merits of why they are blocking debate on the bill they’re obstructing?

It is easy and natural to give in to despair, particularly when every reasonable hope you can muster is continually and deliberately pissed on by unscrupulous powerful people who do not care about justice in any form, except to hoard more of its prerogative to selectively withhold justice for themselves.

The words of Trump’s new internet sensation Frederick Douglass are worth considering here:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

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Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Given the choice between hope and despair, I’ll choose hope every time. It’s not really that much of a contest.

[1]

Manchin’s state already has a more generous $8.75 hourly minimum wage (a state could hardly be less generous than the $7.25 minimum wage 19 U.S. states still have). Ironically, DC is the only US jurisdiction that currently has a $15 minimum wage, $3.25 more than surrounding state Maryland. Kyrsten Sinema’s (of the parody of McCain’s famous thumbs down on Trump’s attempt to abolish the Affordable Care Act, in opposing a $15 national minimum wage) state of Arizona already has an $11 minimum wage, so, you know, enough is enough…

The hidden effects of trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even ‘fuck you’, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

Ninety second pandemic drill

No time now for anything but a cursory post, and I’m rattled, a little pressed for time.

Just a few words for today — this too shall pass. That goes for the pandemic, hopefully, if we can reach herd immunity through the vaccine, rather than the “herd mentality” promised by the former president. Though it looks like a toss-up at the moment, with every reasonable health precaution weaponized by murderous imbeciles, we are heading toward immunity, if unthinking “mentality” doesn’t win the race.

I’m thinking of this race against time in the context of my own unsettled mood, as I watch democracy here, there and everywhere teetering on the brink. Democracy is the worst system of government ever tried, except for every other system, as some wit once cracked (Churchill?). Still, there’s a lot of opportunity in this crisis moment for unscrupulous, I’ll be blunt and just say Nazi-types, to advance their authoritarian agendas. Bolsonaro in Brazil, who got elected in Brazil by literally locking up his opponent (who was expected to easily win) during the election, is destroying the Amazon rain forest, the lungs of the planet, at a record clip, and his fascist buddies elsewhere have been tireless in their infernal efforts too.

Every so often the news reports on how widespread our fear, malaise and hopelessness actually are. A few months back there was a big story about the epidemic of despair in the youth worldwide. Today the NY Times runs a story informing us, surprise, that drug overdose deaths have surged in the USA, 87,000 succumbed to deaths of despair during this disorienting pandemic, desperate people trying to numb pain and terror in a way that led to their last breath.

Despair is not the answer. Productive action is the answer, though how to take it at this unsettling moment is often hard to put your finger on. There are more good people than bad people, I’m with Anne Frank on that one. Of course, Anne’s optimism about human nature was not rewarded very well. Ours will hopefully lead us to a better fate.

Whoops, time to start jumping…

We were slaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Passover, y’all.

Politics is personal

Politics is about power, who has it, who gets to hide behind it, who gets to use it for good, who gets to use it to punish people they hate. We have been living through an increasingly naked form of smash-mouth politics the last few decades, worldwide. Its foremost practitioner here threatens to “scorch the earth” he has already burned, salted and sprayed with poison, if the right of the minority to obstruct all legislation favored by the majority is threatened.

I came across an interesting, disturbing idea the other day, from the transcript of a Hidden Brain interview a friend sent me:

00:24:41]
When you refuse to apologize it actually makes you feel more empowered. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.

[00:24:50]
And in some ways, this sounds to the inner dictator, when we apologize, in some ways we are disarming ourselves. And when we refuse to apologize, in some ways we are mounting a form of emotional self-defense.

source

Some sick shit, sure, this zero sum unapologetic win/lose worldview, but it does explain a lot about how political power works. You can start a war to preserve the right of your richest citizens to have slaves, a war you will eventually lose militarily, a loss you will then transform into a glorious Lost Cause, one that never had a thing to do with slavery, only rights, a moral position that allows you to loudly assert the very thing you went to war to defend: the right to treat our own precious n-words however way we goddamned please, thank you!

You lose an election decisively, but you do not accept the loss, you refuse to bow to the bipartisan consensus of every expert that you lost a fair election. It feels good, and empowering, never to apologize or admit you could ever be wrong, or, God forbid, lose. The Jews stole it from us, or millions of Mexican rapists, or Muslims, aided by powerful pedophiles, the Blacks, the Browns, the Yellows! The demonstrably false story about massive voting fraud that you keep telling, a story thrown out of countless courts for lack of evidence, is good enough to enrage your followers. More than good enough, after a $50,000,000 ad campaign and many incendiary speeches and tweets, some are willing to get violent to defend “their country” against the threat of hoards of lying, fraudulent, ignorant, smelly, disgusting, immoral people who are nothing like us.

Politics is always personal when it comes to reflexive reactions towards certain kinds of murderers. You have a young maniac the press calls “very religious” get a gun in Georgia the other day. To get the gun in Georgia all he had to do was show ID and say “kill… those whores make me want to f-f-f-f … have sex with ’em… Second Amendment!” and the gun was in his hands. A few hours later he made the rounds of a few massage parlors and shot eight people to death, a ninth person he shot escaped death by luck. Most of the people he murdered were Asian women. The authorities are still trying to “figure out” if this murder spree was a “hate crime” directed at the women because they were Asian. America wants to know, and the jury is still out — what was the intent of this enraged, “religious” white man in killing the women? What was actually in his twisted mind as he was spraying the bullets at these women will make a difference, for some reason, at his trial.

We argue over hate crimes, the definition of “hate” of “crime” of what actually makes a crime a hate crime, partisans focusing it within one frame or another. Can we really say that a police officer just doing his job, who handcuffs a suspect and kneels on his windpipe until the suspect is unable to keep pleading for his life “killed” the suspect? Kill implies an intent that the officer, well…

Let’s take a much simpler one: how about those brave Capitol Police officers who stood up to a violent, armed crowd that outnumbered them ten to one (injuring 134 of them)? The House voted almost unanimously yesterday to give them Congressional medals for their courage. Who were the twelve who voted against it? Trumpist all-stars like Louie Gohmert and Matt Gaetz, new Q-Anon it-girl Marjorie Taylor Green, provocative extremists only electable because they ran in partisan gerrymandered districts where their extremist views, supported by “dark money,” could not be challenged in a fair election. These twelve were apparently indignant that the bill to honor the cops with medals infuriatingly referred to the peaceful January 6 protest by white Christian patriots inside the Capitol, to gently but firmly disrupt the final certification of the stolen election by the traitor Mike Pence, as an “insurrection.” Making partisan sport with a tragedy, trying to score political points on the back of a dead police officer, as the goddamned divisive, racist n-word Democrats always do!

Not one Republican senator (or House member, for that matter), not the moderate Mitt Romney, not the despised Liz Cheney, not a single one of them, voted last week to give relief to struggling Americans in a nation devastated by a deadly, super-infectious pandemic, a hands-off federal response and the economic tsunami it caused. Not a single vote, for aid to hungry children, for mental health care, for medical care, for food, for vaccines, by the party whose base, and several of its rising stars in Congress, insist that powerful Democrats are child-molesting cannibals.

I say politics is personal and I will try to illustrate that idea with a personal example. My former friend Paul, is a very bright guy, a proficient maker of compelling legal arguments in federal court, a well-read man with a subtle mind. His oldest friend tells him that he has been hurt by him. Paul goes to work. Now watch the actual work, it is exactly how Republican/right-wing politics works today, particularly the irrefutable, indignant, absurd closing position that clinches the deal.

Did any of this really happen the way you said? What did I specifically do, I still don’t understand? I was trying to help, are you faulting me for that, for trying to help? I appreciate that you took hours to try to explain yourself, and I thank you for not attacking me, it was generous of you, but, if you wouldn’t mind, and I’m not going to go into any of what you said now, or ever, but can you explain it again, please, since I still don’t get exactly what I did that hurt you. I know I may seem obtuse, and perhaps shrieking like an angry schoolgirl, hanging up the phone and texting that I’m done being reamed by you may be something you’d expect an apology for, particularly from a grown man and old friend — but why? Is my waiting weeks to make any apology at all part of the reason you might be clinging to your anger so petulantly? Isn’t it possible that your anger is distorting your view of what actually happened? Who can ever really know what is in another person’s mind, even someone you’ve known for decades? We are all mysteries, even to ourselves… etc.

This is all standard stuff for a certain type trying to defend itself. But here is where the shit turns personal/political — how you stick the landing. When I finally reduce our conflict to one issue: you asked me what was wrong, I told you, you kept saying you didn’t understand, I explained again, when I directed your attention to how intolerable it is to me to have no response to things I directly raise in reply to your own questions, not only don’t you respond, you dispose of the entire controversy and perfectly stick the landing by saying “I’ve read and considered everything you said, searching in vain for a single clue what the fuck you are so fucking upset about.”

Anyone who has read even one of these posts knows what a provocatively insulting statement the assertion that I give no clue is. And, like the provocative Republican insistence that racism is non-existent, except in the minds of enraged, irrational, radical, violent, thuggish n-words, there can be only one reason to make this kind of reductive, zero sum statement — to win.

I don’t care about your supposed good will, the strength of the facts you put together, appeals to our better natures, our long friendship, your generosity in not making me feel like the ruthlessly bitter asshole I’ve arguably been, your constant attempts at reconciliation — you lose and I WIN. That’s how this story ends, asshole. You could not provide a single clue, not even a clue, about why you harbor this irrational rage toward me.

Paul’s pessimistic belief is that people cannot change, they obey their darker natures in the end. To believe otherwise makes you pathetically deluded. By finally getting me to step back from my vow of mildness to tell him to go fuck himself, he proves his point. I try to be mild, but at bottom, I am the same vicious fuck I always was. People cannot change, or learn to be less of an asshole. Game and match. Zero sum, I win.

For contrast to this style of point-scoring and power plays, and a look at the best of political persuasion, watch Senator Raphael Warnock’s magnificent speech in support of HR 1, the For the People Act, a bill that would make voting easier, more universal and less corruptible in our great experiment in democracy. The GOP has already announced they will filibuster it, try to prevent floor debate on the bill, as the 6-3 rightwing Supreme Court seems poised to uphold Arizona’s voter suppression laws that were twice found illegally discriminatory by the lower federal courts. I can only picture the response of the outraged patriots, it will be very similar, in its essential enraged incoherence, to my buddy Paul’s provocative conclusion that I can’t put a few thoughts together coherently.

Watch Warnock’s powerful moving, speech and see if you can find a single flaw in it:

Suggested talking points for Tucker and the outraged right:

It is not that we are racists, or that America has ever been racist, in any way, it’s just that if we don’t stop [n-words] and their ilk from voting in huge numbers, like they did recently in Georgia to steal the Senate, we would find ourselves out of power, living in a country where a majority, not our own, decides what rights and privileges WE have. If the shoe was on the other foot, if we got real political power after centuries of being as murderously fucked by you as you claim to have been by us, we’d be vindictive as hell, as you would have every right to be, if we’d done anything at all bad to you. We’d put our knees on your necks so hard you’d never even be able to say, “I can’t breathe.”

Listen to your pain if you want to heal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s that for an asshole personality type?

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

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

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

[1]

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

Moral Clarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

38 ounce baseball bat to your face, Paul

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

Paul:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a blessed day, you poor bastard.

The often subtle nature of abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You need help.”

“It’s your fault.”

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

“It’s not a big deal.”

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