Letter to the editor, NY Times

To the Editor:

I have to question why an article that concludes “(t)urnout for the vote was low, at only about half of all eligible workers, suggesting that neither Amazon nor the union had overwhelming support” was headlined  Why Amazon Workers Sided With the Company Over a Union.  If the article was PR written by Jeff Bezos himself, it could not have been more faithful to his point of view or desired outcome.  Fittingly, it ends with Mr. Bezos promising shareholders he’ll do even better to make his lowest paid employees even happier.

The authors observe that if the estimated 25% of the workforce that “turned over” during the three month organizing/voting period had stayed, unionization likely would have prevailed.

Among crucial issues unaddressed by the article, if Amazon workers side with Amazon, why does Amazon have such massive worker turnover, even during a pandemic and economic hard times in one of the poorest states in the US?

The reader is left to piece together, from the “wish” expressed by Amazon supporters that they could have more than a 30 minute break during their ten hour shifts, that working conditions might be less than ideal at the Bessemer, Alabama Amazon fulfillment center.

The reader is left completely uninformed about the “aggressive” (and multi-million dollar) measures Amazon took to defeat the union and dissuade half of its workforce from voting at all.

We get only the gentlest hint of the famously oppressive conditions at the Amazon warehouses that cause so many to quit their jobs, even during an international health emergency. As though the right to urinate when it’s urgent is irrelevant compared to a generous minimum wage and company provided health insurance.

Draft of a letter to the Grey Lady

I find myself so churned up these days, as truth and outrageous fiction have become interchangeable in politics, and even reasonable medical advice is weaponized for “political” ends in our 40% John Birch Society America. 

The news is an ongoing nightmare to me, as things that should not be in controversy at all are continually fought to the death — you say reality, I say Q!

Since the Chauvin trial for killing the handcuffed George Floyd began on March 29th, only 64 civilians, a mere three a day, have lost their lives during encounters with police, (50% of them have been white) [1]. The question everyone on the right is asking — why are Blacks and liberals claiming there’s a problem with police violence, or the disproportionately racist application of police violence?

Now we have new headlines informing us that Republicans are starting to unite in their opposition to a commission to study if prominent Republicans organized, funded and fomented the January 6 riot at the Capitol (and let it rage for hours, unchecked).  Of course they are united in opposing it. You would be too!

So, in the absence of something more concrete to do about anything today, I’m taking Sekhnet’s advice and drafting a letter to the NY Times about their recent “puff piece” for Jeff Bezos.

 

To the Editor:

I have to question why an article that concludes “Turnout for the vote was low, at only about half of all eligible workers, suggesting that neither Amazon nor the union had overwhelming support” was headlined Why Amazon Workers​ ​Sided With the Company Over a Union​. If the article had been PR written by Jeff Bezos himself, it could not have been more faithful to his point of view or desired outcome.Fittingly, it ends with Mr. Bezos promising shareholders he’ll do even better to make his lowest paid employees even happier.  

The authors observe that if the estimated 25% of the workforce that “turned over” during the three month organizing/voting period had stayed, the union likely would have prevailed.

Among crucial issues unaddressed by the article, if Amazon workers in fact sided with their employer over the union, and love their well-paying $15/hr. jobs and health insurance from day one, why does Amazon have such massive worker turnover, even during a pandemic and economic hard times in one of the poorest states in the US?

The reader is left to piece together, from the “wish” expressed by Amazon supporters that they could have more than a 30 minute break during their ten hour shifts, that working conditions might be less than ideal at the Bessemer, Alabama Amazon fulfillment center.

The reader is left completely uninformed about the “aggressive” (and multi-million dollar) measures Amazon took to defeat the union and dissuade half of its workforce from voting at all.

We get only the gentlest hint of the famously oppressive conditions at the Amazon warehouses that cause so many to quit their jobs, even in one of the poorest states in America, during an international health emergency. As though the right to urinate when it’s urgent is irrelevant compared to a generous minimum wage and company provided health insurance.

Eliot Widaen, New York, NY

Mr. Widaen is a wild-eyed hothead who is often angered by the status quo-defending distortions regularly published by the Journal of Record.

[1]

Grrr… grrrrr!!!

The NY Times has got me by the throat lately, I just read this beautifully crafted, non-judgmental paragraph, in the article cited above, about the 64 civilians who died in encounters with police since the Chauvin trial began three weeks ago, that is making me foam at the mouth slightly:

And their [police killings] fallout has been wrenchingly familiar, from the graphic videos that so often emerge to the protests that so often descend into scuffles between law enforcement and demonstrators on streets filled with tear gas. Just as one community confronts one killing, another happens.

source

Reasonable, constitutionally protected protests that are typically met by police clad in anti-riot gear, deploying crowd dispersal methods designed for use against violent insurgents “so often descend into scuffles” on streets “filled with tear gas” (probably terrorist tear gas, no?, beautiful thing, that passive voice — who released the tear gas that filled the streets “filled with tear gas”?) 


Makes me wanna holler.

The hidden effects of trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even ‘fuck you’, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

A Good Conversation (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she said, her jaw set firmly.

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

“No,” my aunt insisted.

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

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

Well-done, Frank Bruni

My mother always loved Frank Bruni’s writing. A fan of clear prose, attuned to wry touches, a savorer of wit, my opinionated mother loved the opinionated Bruni’s craft. I don’t know why I remember this so clearly, and my mother died more than ten years ago, but I remember her telling me she’d started reading him when he was a restaurant critic and had always liked his style. Maybe she’d given me an op-ed of his to read, and I’d agreed it was very good. I remember her smile, glad that I appreciated the same kind of writing she did.

In today’s New York Times Frank Bruni puts his finger on the cruelty of current GOP politics. A party increasingly desperate to suppress the vote, and drive maddening wedges between voters, the unprincipled extremists now openly in charge of the party have found a nasty new culture war issue: making laws to prevent parents of transsexual kids from legally consenting to their adolescent children having medical treatments recommended by their doctors.

That no hypocrisy phases the GOP is a reality too obvious to need further demonstration, just think of anything McConnell or Graham have said in the last year or so, but this extreme right version of the party of the wealthy is the party of Individual Liberty and freedom from all government “coercion”, starving government of taxes to shrink it small enough to drown in a bathtub, passing laws that force people who have wrestled with the difficult decision of letting a trans child transition to another gender, to simply give up that liberty and freedom from government coercion. Because, you know, their children, that miniscule fraction of all children, are hateful monsters that our most passionately bigoted voters love to fucking hate.

A few years ago, when Cheney and Dubya won a second term in 2004, the inflammatory wedge issue that drove their victory was homosexual marriage. It was going to destroy the nation, millions of religious people were very worked up about it. The idea of two gay people, people of the same sex (the same sex!), having a sexual and civic union sanctioned by the government drove millions of homophobes to the polls. It was probably the single issue most responsible for bringing a second term to those deserving funsters Cheney and Bush.

Today relatively few people get that worked up about whether gay people can get married or not. Gay marriage has no bad effect on anyone, except perhaps unhappily married gay people and their social circle. The president finally embraced gay marriage as a civil rights issue, the Supreme Court OK’d it. Allowing homosexuals to marry, and have all the rights of other married couples, became the law of the land. People soon forgot their rage against homosexuals being allowed to marry, went on to be mad about other things. The GOP is always looking for the next thing to make millions of people enraged enough to vote for an extremist party that promises to wipe that thing they hate OUT.

Let’s let Frank Bruni tell it, he once again does a beautiful job. His op-ed is called Republicans Have Found Their Cruel New Culture War.

Straight people have often asked me what I, a gay man, have in common with someone who’s trans. Gay people have often put that question to themselves. There are many answers. Here’s one: I know what it’s like to have my identity, my dignity — my very hold on happiness — pressed into partisan battle and fashioned into a political weapon.

I know what it’s like to be used.

And right now, trans people are being used, cruelly.

You probably heard about what happened in Arkansas. On Tuesday, state lawmakers there voted overwhelmingly, by a three-to-one ratio, to override a veto from the Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, and effectively ban gender-affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy, for trans youth under the age of 18.

It doesn’t matter if those youth are pleading for this kind of help or have already begun receiving it and found it to be lifesaving. It doesn’t matter if their parents, having wrestled hard with the situation and done extensive research, believe that therapy is crucial. It doesn’t matter if physicians have concluded it’s in the youths’ best interest. Politicians know best.

And they’re expert at identifying vulnerable, marginalized populations and demonizing them in the interest of political gain. That’s what Republicans in Arkansas, in Alabama and in dozens of other states are doing with scores of active bills, many of which focus on denying trans youth gender-affirming treatments and dictating how they may or may not participate in sports.

They’re inventing a problem to whip up a culture war that they’re convinced will redound to their benefit. Worried that their party can’t retain or wrest power with its positions on the economy and prescriptions (or lack thereof) for health care, they’re fighting on other turf, with no pause to contemplate the need for their offensives and no thought for the casualties.

Back in the early aughts, they put gays and lesbians in their sights, railing against nascent progress toward marriage equality and deciding that for the good of the republic — for its very survival! — it was necessary to outright outlaw same-sex marriage via ballot referendums and amendments to state constitutions. This was all the Republican rage in 2004, which just happened to coincide with President George W. Bush’s re-election effort.

The legally recognized weddings of two men or two women had no negative practical effect on the straight people around them, who might be offended by the idea but were hardly so much as inconvenienced by the reality. It wasn’t as if the gay or lesbian couples were going to stop being gay and lesbian couples if they couldn’t put their names on marriage licenses. And their vows were as much an affirmation of traditional values, such as commitment and monogamy, as they were a repudiation of them.

But many Republicans — aided, to be fair, by many Democrats’ support in 1996 for the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which President Bill Clinton signed — cast those vows as cultural death knells. Many Republicans portrayed me and my kind as leches, even child molesters, laundering perversion into propriety. It’s a hell of a thing: to hear words from civic “leaders” that openly or tacitly encourage people to hate you, maybe even to strike out at you. It puts fear in your heart and rage in your brain.

And it’s happening to trans people. Republicans’ response to their party’s political failures at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020 is to find an issue that they believe paints Democrats as convention-smashing libertines and themselves as the defenders of innocent children and a moral order. It’s to name monsters out there and take up torches against them. The issue is trans equality. The monsters are trans people.

Not by accident, they made an uncharacteristically prominent appearance in Donald Trump’s first big speech after his exile from the White House, when he and other disappointed Republicans were regrouping and trying to figure out the path forward.

“Joe Biden and the Democrats are even pushing policies that would destroy women’s sports,” he told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in late February. An overnight feminist, he added that young girls and women “are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males.”

Leaving aside his loaded language and reductive description, he was suggesting that a relatively rare scenario was pervasive. That’s a classic wedge-issue strategy. Similarly, Republican lawmakers in the many red states pushing measures like Arkansas’ raise the specter of irreparably damaged, even abused children — the Arkansas law is the Save Adolescents From Experimentation Act — without much if any proof of that.

“There’s no evidence being presented, no evidence being pretended,” Mara Keisling, the founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told me. That’s a big clue that this is about political theater more than public welfare.

Other clues: The rapid metastasizing of often like-worded laws around the country and the sudden urgency of lawmakers intoning the same dark warnings. That smacks of coordination from some misanthropic mother ship.

When Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, grandstands in a Senate hearing by comparing surgery elected by trans people to the “genital mutilation” — a phrase he used repeatedly — of girls in cultures that seek to subjugate women by stamping out their sexual pleasure, that’s not an honest policy debate. That’s just a storm of nasty words distracting voters from the governmental and societal failures really standing between them and the American dream. Trans people aren’t the impediment.

The arrogance of Republican lawmakers at the state level is stunning. They’re overriding parents’ considered decisions regarding their own children, whom they surely care and fret about more than any stranger does. If you read or listen to interviews with them, what’s most striking is how much research and reflection they’ve done, how thoroughly they’ve considered what their children confront and what their children need.

Lawmakers are getting between physicians and patients. They’re staging a medical intervention, on the grounds that one group of people (doctors, parents) must be controlled for the protection of another (children). If that’s OK in this case, why not when Covid-blasé Americans reject masks or refuse vaccines, putting other Americans at risk? Some of the same Republicans who claim that they’re coming to the rescue of children receiving testosterone are just fine letting the rest of us marinate in the coronavirus.

They’re opportunists. They’re extremists. Don’t take my word for it. Take Hutchinson’s. The governor of Arkansas is hardly anyone’s idea of a moderate Republican. He recently signed legislation allowing Arkansas physicians to cite religious objections in refusing to provide treatment. He also signed into law a bill barring trans women and girls from competing against other women and girls in sports.

But he has said repeatedly over the past week that the bill regarding medical care for trans youth was reckless and uncompassionate. In an interview with The Times’s Lisa Lerer, he conceded that as part of “the cultural wars that we’re engaged in,” Republicans were often “acting out of fear of what could happen, or what our imagination says might happen, versus something that’s real and tangible.”

He finally, in this instance, drew a line and took a stand. My own fear is that it will be a lonely one, and that a great many people will suffer because of that.

source

A good conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Givhan deserves another Pulitzer Prize for this one

from yesterday’s Washington Post

The witness would not be described as angry

By Robin Givhan

Senior critic-at-large March 30, 2021 at 7:14 p.m.

The witness Donald Williams was trained in mixed martial arts. He had experience working in security — and alongside police officers — and handling potentially unruly crowds. He also described himself as an entrepreneur and a father. But during his hours of testimony over two days in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is charged in the death of George Floyd, there is one thing that Williams made clear he was not: an angry Black man.

That he could not afford to be. He was not allowed to be. He could cry for Floyd. He could despair for him. But he was not supposed to be angry, even if that was what Floyd’s death demanded.

Defense attorney Eric Nelson has made anger central to his argument for Chauvin’s acquittal. In his version of events, the anger of the growing crowd on the street that May afternoon distracted Chauvin from the man he had pinned under his knee. Floyd, who had been accused of circulating a counterfeit $20 bill, was in Chauvin’s custody, which meant that he was also in his care. But the crowd — that dangerous, unruly mob, according to Nelson — had distracted Chauvin so that he could not attend to Floyd’s well-being. He could only concern himself with his detainment.

To that end, according to several witnesses, including Williams, the White police officer adjusted his knee to apply more pressure, to ensure that Floyd’s Black body remained immobile — until his immobility turned into unconsciousness.

The defense’s narrative makes use of one of the culture’s most damaging and enduring stereotypes about Black men — and women, too. These people ooze anger, and Black anger is inherently menacing. It isn’t justified or understandable or controlled, even when it is all of those things. It most certainly is not righteous. And when it rises, it must be tamped down, defused and crushed.

Nelson, bespectacled and bearded, and with an affinity for florid neckwear, worked hard to have the jury see Williams as enraged — as a man who was yelling at Chauvin and threatening fellow officers. Nelson detailed the many expletives and insults that Williams directed at Chauvin. He portrayed Williams as a man who was advancing toward the police with his chest thrust forward and spoiling for a fight

“It’s fair to say you grew angrier and angrier?” Nelson asked.

“I grew professional and professional. I stayed in my body,” Williams replied. “You can’t paint me out to be angry.”

Williams said he was speaking loudly so that he could be heard, so that he wouldn’t be ignored. He was imploring Chauvin to relent. He was calling Chauvin a bum and lacing his speech with expletives because the situation was too dire for polite conversation. Derek Chauvin’s defense team said on March 30 that Donald Williams, a witness, grew so angry at police that he wanted to fight them.

What Williams saw was, on its face, enraging. He had happened upon the sight of Floyd facedown on the ground with Chauvin on top of him for more than nine minutes. He heard Floyd cry for help and cry out for air. A young bystander saw him turn “purple” and described him as looking “really limp.” Kids saw this horror. Children. The gathered crowd all watched as their pleas to render aid to Floyd went ignored.

Anger is surely the natural human reaction, along with alarm and concern, but Nelson has characterized that as a wholly unnatural response to Floyd’s dire circumstances, as if he was not worthy of any of those emotions. Should the crowd simply have stood silent?

History would probably have excused their anger. So many other people of color — unarmed and stopped for minor offenses or for nothing at all — have died during encounters with police officers. They have been deprived of air, riddled with bullets; they’ve been killed without consequences because their death was deemed reasonable. When does fury become moral and decent if not in the face of all that?

Williams seemed to understand the perilousness of leading with anger. He refused to let it be his abiding message on Tuesday afternoon in a Minneapolis courtroom as Nelson tested him. No, his words weren’t getting angrier that awful day in May, he said, “they grew more and more pleading — for life.”

Williams was so alarmed by what was unfolding before him that he even called 911. He called the police on the police because he had not given up on law enforcement. He still had faith that they had the capacity to protect and to serve. He trusted in their outrage even if society demands that he deny his own.

The phrase resonated. “I stayed in my body.” Williams remained in control. He maintained focus. He was attuned to his movements and gestures. He didn’t let emotions take hold. He didn’t relinquish his soul.

As he spoke from the witness stand, Williams’s deep voice rumbled from a body that was both solid and still. On his second day of testimony, he wore an open-collared dress shirt in a sea-foam green. His hair was cut close. He didn’t fidget or appear nervous. He didn’t look imposing, but he often looked perplexed.

When Nelson questioned his emotions, pressed him about the expletives he’d used and took a sharp tone, Williams cocked his head sideways and furrowed his brow. Then a slight smile flashed across his face.

Williams did not display a hint of fury. Outrage can be a burden, but it can also be a source of power. If Williams had any anger, he was keeping it in reserve.

source

Headshot of Robin Givhan

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.Follow

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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.

The power of honest history

The power of accurate, clearly written history writing is not the same kind of power as that threatening blunderbuss-style of power wielded by an unaccountable maniac with a childish view of life and a sadist’s keen delight in the suffering of others, but it is powerful. It cannot literally take food out of the mouths of hungry children, or a week’s pay away from their parents, as can randomly flexed presidential power when POTUS pouts and golfs while protesting the unfairness of things like the proposed name changes of military bases now honoring traitorous Confederate generals, not that it would want to. A president so inclined can mandate a national curriculum of denial of history, a historian with a conscience writes serving the opposite inclination.

A detailed, honestly told history is a powerful force in the world. Here is a prime example of it, written last night by Heather Cox Richardson, who ends with this inspiring observation:

One of the curses of history is that we cannot go back and change the course leading to disasters, no matter how much we might wish to. The past has its own terrible inevitability.

But it is never too late to change the future.

Read the rest of her powerful piece here.

A friend sent me the recent NY Times business piece about the historian’s amazing and well-earned viral internet success and her sudden wealth. The reason so many subscribe to her nightly newsletter is that she has emerged as a clear, mostly calm voice, giving the perspective of history to shed light on this horrific moment in time. Forwarding this piece to my friend last night all I could add was “WOW”. All he needed to write was “Agree”. A short read, well worth your time, particularly if you think history is a bunch of boring and irrelevant busy-work with no relevance to our current predicaments and no clues to offer about a way to a better future.